From director Stacie Passon and adapted from the book of the same name by Shirley Jackson, the indie drama We Have Always Lived in the Castle tells the story of two sisters, Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) and Constance (Alexandra Daddario), who have isolated themselves after a family tragedy, in their large manor with their Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). When Cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) unexpectedly arrives, he disrupts their idyllic existence and threatens their family legacy.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Taissa Farmiga talked about why she wanted to tell the story of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, what made Merricat such an interesting character, playing someone who internalizes so much, the sister dynamic, and shooting the family scenes. She also talked about her episode of the CBS All Access series The Twilight Zone, called “Not All Men,” what attracts her to a project, and how excited she is to have a wide-open future.
Collider: This is such an interesting character, in such an interesting story. What was it like to explore someone like her?
TAISSA FARMIGA: I got the offer, I read the script, and I loved the tone of the script. That was the first thing that I fell in love with. It has this weird unease and tension, coded in a fairy tale glaze. I liked the contradiction. And then, with Merricat, at moments, there was a contradiction where she feels like she’s almost childlike and fragile, and then a moment later, she seems infinitely wise and an old soul. I loved that. My favorite part of it was getting to play someone who’s just so much of everything.
Even with her clothes and her hair.
FARMIGA: For sure. I feel like she’s very much aware. She’s so internal, and yet she wears who she is on her sleeve. With the tight braids and everything pulled back, and the darker colors in the clothes, it shows here closed off-ness and that tension that she has inside her. But it’s so different from who she is when she’s with Constance. It’s interesting.
Had you just read the script when you got this? Had you read the book, or did you go into this cold?
FARMIGA: When I read the script, I had not read the book, so this was the first I had any contact with the story. So, I read the script, and then I immediately had a Skype session with the director (Stacie Passon), four hours later. Because it was moving quick, I didn’t have a chance to read the book before I talked to the director, but Stacie and I had a great conversation, and we really connected over Merricat. I immediately went to the store, bought the book, and read it, three or four times before we started filming. There’s just so much more insight in the book, being able to have that inner dialogue and monologue that Merricat has with herself. I really got to understand her better. I felt so privileged and so lucky to be able to have such a cool story, and to be able to have a little cheat sheet into who Merricat is because Shirley Jackson already did all of the work, in expressing her and figuring her out.
Because this does seem like a character that would be pretty hard to figure out otherwise, what did you learn about Merricat from the book?
FARMIGA: It’s interesting because she’s an 18-year-old girl, but it’s like she was emotionally stunted at 12. She’s uncomfortable in her body. Really, what I took to heart from the book was reading her thoughts about Uncle Julian, reading her thoughts about Constance, and reading the way she talks about different people. The only person that she ever really talks positively about, or in a lighthearted way, at all, is Constance. It just really verified the depth of the relationship, and how Merricat doesn’t really love very many things in life. She’s doesn’t really care about very many things, except for Constance, her cat Jonas, and her magic spells and incantations.
What did you grow to appreciate about Merricat, by the time you got to the end of the shoot? Were there things that you hadn’t realized about her, until you got to the end of the experience?
FARMIGA: That’s interesting. I’m sure there were. It’s hard because we filmed this almost three years ago, and I’ve been six different people, since I played Merricat. One thing that I thought was really interesting was that, over the course of the movie, even though she’s so internal and keeps everything inside, you can see her resentment for Charles. You see all of her feelings, but I feel like her actual, true feelings are something that she keeps so locked deep inside. When I had to do the EPK interview for the behind the scenes for the movie while we were filming, I kept pushing it. I wanted to do it towards the end of the film, and when I sat down to talk about Merricat, I couldn’t talk about her because I was her, and she didn’t open up. She didn’t communicate. She didn’t tell people about her. She didn’t show herself like that. I was like, “What the hell is wrong with me?! I know how to talk about this character. I know this character. Why can’t I talk about her?” It’s because Merricat didn’t want me to talk about Merricat. It was wild. Now that’s it been some years in between and I’ve had some distance from the project, I’m able to see her in a different light. She made sense. She clicked. Stacie and I had such a shorthand about the character. I don’t think I’ve ever connected with the director so intensely, on a specific character before. Stacie would just give me a look, and I knew exactly what she wanted, or she’d say keywords and I’d be like, “Okay, right. You want this version of Merricat.” We just meshed, and it was what it was, for those six weeks.
Do you think that, if she were a different kind of person who could figure out to verbalize what she’s going through, that she would have just blown up at Charles, at some point along the way?
FARMIGA: You know, probably. It’s hard because, if you look at both characters – and I’m talking about the sisters, Constance and Merricat – they both have a very skewed perspective on the world. In Constance’s case, she tries to see everything from the positive side. Everything is, “We can handle it. Everything’s fine.” And then, there’s Merricat, who’s the exact opposite. If you think about it, these two sisters are in a very intimate relationship. It’s sisterly, but there’s still an intimacy that not very many siblings have. They don’t have anybody else, in the entire world. So, Merricat goes to that darker place. She’s trying to find balance. Maybe if she was able to vocalize her thoughts a bit more, things could have turned out differently, but because they had to rely on each other, they really relied on non-verbal communication. That’s why things go awry, the way they do.
Some of the most exciting moments to watch in this were the ones when you’re all in a scene together and you’re talking about different things, at the same time. What were those scenes like to shoot?
FARMIGA: It was a lot of fun, especially for me, because Merricat doesn’t respect anybody but Constance, so whenever I’m talking, I don’t really ever even acknowledge Uncle Julian. I’ll talk about him, but I never acknowledge him to his face. And whenever I’m talking to Cousin Charles, I didn’t look at him or even really make eye contact. She doesn’t really give them the time of day. That was hard, but it was also fun to just ignore people. The fun part is filming that in the wide because everyone can talk. The worst part is when you’re just in coverage and you’re not allowed to talk over other people lines. You have to sit there and just mouth what you’re doing.
What was that dynamic like, as actors? Did you guys just have a lot of fun with each other?
FARMIGA: Absolutely! I feel like everybody was down to play. Everyone wanted to stick as close to the authenticity of the original story as possible. For the sake of the character, you can’t fully do that in a movie because you have to put a little bit more pizzazz, and you want the audience to feel something, at the end of those two hours, so you really have to hit it home, whereas in the book, it can simmer a little more. When we were all in the room, we had so much fun. It scared me because we were playing four very distinct and different people, and when you put those four people in a room, you don’t know what the chemistry will be like, but I had a blast. It’s nice when everybody’s game and everyone is down to do what has to be done to make this wacky movie.
You’ve said previously that this is the character that’s the furthest from you that you have played. Which character has been the closest to who you are?
FARMIGA: Interesting. I just filmed Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone, and the character that I play in that is the one that’s been closest to my age. It’s so hard to say because it’s probably different at different times and moments in my life. I feel like, at this age, probably that character, Annie, from The Twilight Zone is pretty close to who I am, but in the past, I don’t know. It’s hard because I’ve changed so much, in the last year. I’ve gone through some personal stuff and some health stuff, and I’ve grown so much. When I watch the movies and TV shows, I see myself as those people, in a way, so looking back, I feel like I’m close to all of them. But in the moment, some of them felt like such a giant leap.
I absolutely love what has been done with this version of The Twilight Zone. I’ve been having such a great time watching it.
FARMIGA: Oh, amazing!
How did you come to the show, and how did you find the experience of working on that?
FARMIGA: For me, it was just a straight offer. They sent the script over and it said The Twilight Zone, and Jordan Peele’s name was the next thing that I saw. I was very excited to read it because it was mixing Jordan Peele with The Twilight Zone, which are two entities that take such a stance on social issues and start conversations. I read 15 pages and was like, “Oh, shit, I’m down!” And then, two days later, I was in Vancouver and we were starting to do prep. And then, two days after that, we started filming. I didn’t have very much time to think about it. I was just excited that they picked me. I don’t know how they picked me, but I was excited that they did.
What did you most respond to, with your episode and character?
FARMIGA: I liked the content. I liked the story. I liked the conversation that it will spark about gender norms and society. Maybe this episode focuses a little more on men, but society has such a clear distinct idea for what a woman’s role is and what a man’s role is, the way we’re supposed to act, and how we, as humans, give people permission to act indecently. We can’t just let something go by. You have to speak up and say, “This is not right.” Sometimes you have to stop your own actions, and sometimes you have to stop someone else’s actions, and I thought that was an important conversation. I also really loved the character and the story. There’s another sister relationship in there that I really liked, that I played with my co-star, Rhea Seehorn.
At this point in your life and career, what gets you interested in a project? The more scripts that you read, does it get easier to figure out what you connect to and what could work for you?
FARMIGA: Honestly, I don’t know if it’s gotten easier. When I read something and feel like, “Oh, god, I need to be a part of this,” then I want to do it. I’ve worked with so many incredible people. The names, like Jordan Peele, are important, but that’s the icing on top. That makes it extra special. What I really love is the story and the character. I want to completely get the character and be like, “Oh, my gosh, I can have fun with this.” In the case of Merricat, I was like, “I don’t fully understand her just yet, but I feel like I could, and I really want to.”
Do you know then what you are going to do next?
FARMIGA: Well, I’m super excited bout The Twilight Zone episode. And then, [We Have Always Lived in the Castle] comes out on the 17th of May. Other than that, everything that I’ve done, in the last year, has come out. I have a wide-open future, and I’m really excited. I just know that I wanna keep growing. I’m almost 25, and every character that I’ve played has helped me define parts of my personality. I feel like I’ve been really lucky to be able to have acting as an outlet to discover myself. I feel very comfortable with who I am, and being 24, almost 25, it’s nice to be able say that. So, I just hope that I get to keep playing characters that selfishly help me discover who I am, and continue to grow.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is in theaters and on VOD on May 17th.