A horror maven's muse: Kate Siegel looks back on a decade of scares with Midnight Mass creator Mike Flanagan
It feels like Kate Siegel has been traveling nonstop as of late. The actress has been splitting her time between New York, where she filmed a part in the HBO series adaptation of The Time Traveler's Wife, and Vancouver, where her family has been based for months while Mike Flanagan, her filmmaker husband, was finishing up work on his latest Netflix series, The Midnight Club. Now the pair are in Los Angeles for one helluva night. Halloween Horror Nights, to be exact.
They were invited to experience the new haunted maze inspired by The Haunting of Hill House, the 2018 Netflix sleeper hit created by Flanagan and starring Siegel that became an overnight sensation.
"I can't wait! It's going to be bizarre, like time traveling, I bet," Siegel says over the phone.
Siegel and Flanagan have worked together consistently for the past nine years, since they first filmed the movie Oculus in 2012. Fans will spot a connecting thread through all of their collaborations, whether it's the indie film Hush, Gerald's Game (based on the Stephen King novel), or Hill House: They love to scare the bejeezus out of people.
As Siegel notes, their children, most of whom are 5 years old and younger, "have no idea that Mommy and Daddy go to work and just murder everyone you love."
In light of their latest collaboration, the upcoming Netflix series Midnight Mass, which continues this tradition, Siegel looks back on nearly a decade of working with the man she considers a horror "genius."
The first time Siegel met Flanagan was during an audition for one of his movies that ended up not happening. "It was quite the audition," she recalls of the nine pages' worth of material she studied for it. But, as things tend to go in Hollywood, the rights to the project reverted back to its previous owner and "another production company" got involved, so that was that... or so she thought.
Some time had passed before Flanagan called Siegel to fill a small, admittedly "thankless" role in a haunted mirror movie he was directing called Oculus. The actress he hired to play the role of Marisol Chavez, one of the mirror's many victims who comes back from the grave as a terrifying illusion, had injured herself. Says Siegel, "He was like, 'It's a huge part of the movie, and I really want to work with you. I'll keep you in mind for other things if you're willing to come hang out with us in Alabama for eight weeks.' I was like, 'Sure!'" It's a promise he kept.
The actress remembers her big moment in Oculus as "snakey arms," a reference to producers describing how Marisol wraps her spindly limbs around her victim. "There's a lot of physicality to Marisol because there's very little to no dialogue," Siegel explains. "If you notice her arms, we turned her hands out the opposite way so it looked like a mirror reflection. When I was talking about what I wanted to do at the end there, I was referencing the curlicues of the mirror. I said, 'I guess I want my arm to be like snaking around him.' And they were like, 'Snakey arm!' I guess it just stuck."
In the years after Oculus, Flanagan and Siegel started dating. He would help her prepare for auditions. She would read through his scripts. During one particular dinner, Siegel brought up a play she'd seen recently, while Flanagan got on the topic of sound design. From that conversation emerged the idea for Hush, about Maddie, a deaf author writing in a cabin in the woods who's suddenly terrorized by a murderous home invader. Flanagan called up his producing partner, Trevor Macy, who worked with him before on Oculus, to pitch the idea. (Macy would later be the officiant at Siegel and Flanagan's wedding.)
Not only did Siegel end up starring in this scrappy indie movie that wound up becoming a horror hit, she co-wrote the screenplay with Flanagan. "I was really working through a time in my life where I felt like I couldn't be heard," she says. "I wasn't being taken seriously in my life and just felt like I'd lost my voice. Coming to that project, I tried to do a lot of turning my insecurities and my weaknesses into strengths."
From Hush, Siegel learned to adopt a zen state when acting. She remembers one scene where her costar, John Gallagher Jr., smashes a sliding glass door. But Siegel, portraying a deaf woman, could not react to that. "With indie filmmaking on that [production] budget level, we only had one door. If I flinched in that shot, the whole day [would be] ruined," she explains. "That kind of meditative focus was something I hadn't worked with in my career."
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
For Siegel, blondes do have more fun.
While her role in Ouija: Origin of Evil is a relative blip, she opens the film as the skeptical daughter of Mr. Browning (Sam Anderson) who gets a scare when she's revealed to be after her father's money.
"I'd never been a blonde before. It was the first time I'd ever dyed my hair for a role," Siegel says. "I think that movie is a joy, but the thing I remember the most is how much fun I had being a blonde."
Gerald's Game (2017)
Flanagan's adaptation of Gerald's Game starred Carla Gugino as Jessie, a woman who goes up to a lake house to spice up her marriage but winds up handcuffed to her bedpost with her husband (Bruce Greenwood) lying dead on the floor after an apparent heart attack. Siegel appears in Jessie's hallucinations and memories as her mother, Sally.
Siegel was nine months pregnant at the time and was "very uncomfortable" from nausea while shooting. "I remember saying early on to Mike, 'Don't glam me up. I want the frizzy hair. I want to be glowing and sweating. I don't want any of this pretend-glorifying-of-motherhood B.S.' Then I'm watching the movie and going, 'What was I thinking?!'"
She remembers the film as the moment Gugino was brought into the fold. Flanagan tends to continue to work with the same actors, and Gugino would return for The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor alongside Siegel. "She taught me more about professionalism over the course of that movie than I've learned in the 30 years of my life leading up to that," Siegel says. "Her attitude being chained to a bed for 12-16 hours a day and still maintaining a professional, kind, never-complaining, on-time-if-not-early attitude? It was just the work ethic. And the talent was through the roof."
The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Everything changed for Flanagan, Siegel, and Macy with The Haunting of Hill House. The show became a sleeper hit for Netflix and led to Flanagan and Macy's multiyear deal with the streamer, but it felt like any other project Siegel had worked on in some ways.
A good example were the gloves she wore as Theo Crain, the daughter of the Crain family with a psychic affinity that activates through touch. "The reality of shooting a full day wearing gloves became very clear," Siegel recalls. "Gloves get ruined really quickly by the moisture of your hands, the oils of your skin. It was hard to open drawers. Things like that. So, we quickly changed to these more cottony, less fancy gloves. I think that's a really good metaphor for what I thought being an actress was like. I thought it would be this beautiful, fancy, exquisite, rare experience to be a series regular on a TV show. I had been working towards that my entire adult life. Then, when you get there, the same way you were on set for the non-paying, non-union short is the way you will be on the major TV show."
Siegel loves Theo with all of her heart, so much that she ended up naming one of her children after the character. But she didn't know other people would like her until the promotional press tour for Hill House. She was paired with actor Henry Thomas, who played Siegel's onscreen husband in Gerald's Game and the younger version of Theo's father in Hill House. They were fielding questions from reporters, who seemed like genuine fans of the show. "I remember looking at Henry and both of us being like, 'Here we go! They like it.'"
The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)
The success of Hill House led Flanagan and Macy to turn the concept into an anthology series, with each new season being a modern adaptation of a classic piece of literature. After season 1, which was inspired by Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, season 2 would be influenced by Henry James' entire oeuvre.
The Haunting of Bly Manor took cues from The Turn of the Screw, but the penultimate episode, which starred Siegel in the origin story for the show's faceless woman, was adapted from James' The Romance of Certain Old Clothes.
Flanagan largely directed the projects he worked on with Siegel, but Bly Manor brought in different filmmakers. In that sense, Siegel says she had felt "sheltered" and enjoyed the process of collaborating with other talents. Axelle Carolyn directed Siegel in the season's eighth episode and had come with "a full look book of iconic horror images."
Siegel recalls, "When we were going through all of these [scenes] — 'She would wake. She would walk. She would sleep.' — [Axelle] would say, 'In this one, I want it to be like this.' And she would pull up an image of Dracula from long ago. Having that kind of visual representation of what she was trying to get was so inspiring to me. It made me want to collaborate more with her."
Midnight Mass (2021)
The first thing Siegel thinks of when she considers Midnight Mass, her latest collaboration with Flanagan and Macy, is sunlight. It may come as a surprise because, even though the story for the show (premiering on Netflix Sep. 24) is a puzzling mystery box, it's clear the subject matter is pretty dark.
"Those beautiful shots that [cinematographer] Michael Fimognari would get where it was just natural light, none of that stuff is made after the fact in postproduction," Siegel notes. "Those sunrises and the rays through the clouds and the island looked like that. The quality of light to me, that's what Midnight Mass will always be about."
Siegel stars as Erin Green, a woman living on the isolated Crockett Island. She's an old friend and love of Riley (Zach Gilford), who returns home after spending time in prison for killing someone in a drunk-driving crash. His arrival coincides with that of a mysterious priest (Hamish Linklater), whose presence seems to bring about unexplainable events that ignite a newfound religious fervor in the community.
It's a story Siegel knows well because Flanagan has been trying to make it for years. In Hush, Siegel's character writes a best-selling book called Midnight Mass. As it happens, Samantha Sloyan and Michael Trucco, who appeared in Hush, also have major roles in Midnight Mass. "There will always be the Flanagan fam," Siegel says. "We like to work together." Viewers will also notice the same Midnight Mass book pops up as an Easter egg in Gerald's Game.
"It's come in so many different forms," Siegel says. "It was a movie, it was a novel, it was a series. So, yeah, I knew the story, but that was before it went through the [show's] writer's room." Netflix first announced Midnight Mass at the start of 2020. "The writers added so much to this story," Siegel continues. "They took what was a wonderful idea and turned it into an exquisite masterpiece."
Looking back on her past roles, Siegel remarks how she tends to play "a lot of sharp women," women who "tend to be sarcastic or prickly." With Erin, "there was a sense that she was soft, light. Like sunlight. Erin goes through some really messed-up stuff, but it doesn't make her mean and cruel. To me, that [shows] more strength than Theo, even though I think people might say Theo Crain was the stronger character. I think actually Erin Green has the most inner strength of any of my characters."