Amanda Seyfried and James Norton on the ghosts, gaslighting, and challenges of Things Heard & Seen
In the wild supernatural-thriller-cum-marriage drama Things Heard and Seen, James Norton (Little Women) and Amanda Seyfried (Mank) play George and Catherine Clare, a young couple who move to upstate New York and discover that their marriage harbors a sinister darkness not unlike the history of their new home. The actors, both 35, gathered to discuss the allure —and unique challenge — of working on the trippy '80s-set film, which hits Netflix on Thursday.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What about this project really pulled you in?
JAMES NORTON: To me, the draw was the relationship. They're a progressive couple in a sense, for the time, in that they both have jobs. And George, there's a certain sort of struggle where being the weak man that he is, he feels like his wife's strength disempowers him. And that's not the case, as we know. So there's something inherently interesting there. For me, the relationship between the two of them — it wasn't an out-and-out horror, as much as a psychological thriller with this incredibly nuanced and rich relationship at the center of it. And that was very exciting to explore with a really, really extraordinary actress — because it was a total joy to work with Amanda, and [writer-directors] Bob [Pulcini] and Shari [Springer Berman], who obviously their work speaks for itself. So there were a lot of reasons to jump aboard.
AMANDA SEYFRIED: I mean, that's the thing. It's so hard to categorize this movie in any one genre, because, yes, there's supernatural elements. Yes, it sometimes feels like a horror movie, but there's a depth to it that exists in the marriage, and it's something I could relate to and something I feel audiences can relate to. But that's besides the point when you're actually looking to be a part of a production like this, or a story like this. It's more about what's the experience going to be like, what attracted me to this role specifically, and do I want to tell the same story as the directors do? And it was the marriage, completely the marriage. Of course, we're not playing ourselves, really, but there's versions of ourselves in these characters, and it taking place in the time that it does, it really does feel like we are a quote-unquote progressive couple, but you see all the same tropes. You see all the same marriage dynamics that are unhealthy, and exploring that, and reading the script and having everything kind of uncovered piece by piece and getting to explore that as an actor, it was just super-fun. And then of course, James signs on, and thank God.
Amanda, were you aware that Elizabeth Brundage, the author of the book on which the film is based, All Things Cease to Appear, actually had you in mind when she wrote the book? Was that intimidating at all?
SEYFRIED: It didn't intimidate me, actually. Most things do, that didn't for some reason. [Laughs] I didn't know whether or not to take that as a compliment. "Oh, she sees me as a Catherine." I am hoping she thought of me because she could see me fitting into that world, which is always nice. But I didn't know that until after pen was put to paper. It supports why I did it and came on board, and it made me feel like I was in the right place.
Speaking of the right place, the Hudson River Valley is like a character itself in the film. What was it like filming there?
NORTON: The atmosphere of the film and the shooting of it, that was really, really memorable. Amanda knows that area well, that kind of upstate New York, I didn't It's such an important part of the world for someone like me, who doesn't know it, and particularly seeing it through the eyes of those Hudson River school painters and allowing that kind of texture to define the look of the film. I have really very vivid memories of those few months, and Amanda and I became really close and we spent a lot of time just hanging out and going on hikes and enjoying the area. The atmosphere of the film was really, really powerful off camera as well as on.
SEYFRIED: It's its own character. It adds so much dimension. Somebody asked me what shooting up there was like, and I was just like, why would you want to shoot something like this anywhere else in the world? Maybe Transylvania. [Laughs] But no, Mother Nature up there… I mean, it's amazing everywhere, and it definitely had quite the impact on our shooting.
Was it difficult to balance the tone between domestic drama and thriller?
NORTON: All of that [horror] stuff did feel sort of secondary. Whenever we had any conversation which was specifically ghost-related, it was always in relation to how it was kind of pushing these characters to more extreme versions of themselves. And that's what good horror does; it's not just the jump for its own sake.
SEYFRIED: I've got to say, it's much harder as I get older. I hope it's not me losing my instincts as an actor, but when you're feeling you're in a safe place, and you have no one else on set with you, you feel so safe. It's much harder to imagine that there's an entity in the room that makes you unsafe. That was really hard. And in watching those scenes back, I'm like, Oh, God, special effects have come so, so far, but I know what's coming. And so playing the ghost and metaphysical aspects of each scene was just so much harder than I thought it was going to be. I still don't enjoy watching the scenes of me doing that because I'm like, Oh, man, why couldn't I have been a child there? There's one scene with F. Murray [Abraham], where we were doing a séance, and the special effects team had rigged the most incredible rig I've ever seen for something to have that kind of effect. I was shaken to my core the first time we tried it, that is an authentic reaction. Then you kind of get used to the whole experience and it's just hard. It's f---ing hard.
NORTON: I had less of that. I think I was more of the sort of symptom.
SEYFRIED: What's scarier, the real person or the apparition? The real person is always going to be scarier, right? Humans are so much scarier than anything.
NORTON: Yeah, although the house we were shooting in was also kind of scary. One of the nights, I think it was the first [assistant director] —
SEYFRIED: Yeah, it was Tim [Bird], he stayed there because his water wasn't working.
NORTON: And the house they found was perfect for the shoot. It was this kind of weird upstate kind of old rickety, echoey place which did feel really… I'm not a massive one for the old seance-ouija board thing at all. But this house had definite energies. Didn't it? It was pretty intense.
SEYFRIED: Oh yeah. Yeah, I wouldn't stay there alone.
What do you hope the audience takes away from the film?
SEYFRIED: The experience of second-guessing your instincts and being gaslit. I want us to feel like the marriage is the first terrifying element and the heart of the terror. But also, with dynamics between people in your life, you can so easily feel like you can't find solid ground. People like George make you second-guess your instincts. For me, the takeaway as an audience member is to, when in doubt, always trust your instincts. You're born with them, and they're there for a reason. [Do] not allow anybody else to take your power and control away.
NORTON: There is a real provocative angle to this about power dynamics in relationships, both now and then, and particularly when it comes to a woman in that relationship taking her space and the man reacting very, very badly. That's a conversation I hope people will have afterwards. But I also hope they enjoy it because it's fun. It's a great thing to watch late at night with your partner. You can get jumpy.
SEYFRIED: And ideally people will be like, "What the f--- just happened?"