Women in horror are “either the victim or the psychopath”

Ginger Snaps and Freddy Vs Jason star Katharine Isabelle talks American Mary and women in horror.

American Mary horror film

Shown bright and early on Monday morning, American Mary turned out to be one of the most interesting films of this year’s FrightFest. The titular Mary is a medical student who finds herself being drawn into an underground world of extreme surgery and body modifications – it’s an imaginative, daring, and very, very weird movie. We sat down with star Katharine Isabelle, best known for 2001’s cult werewolf movie Ginger Snaps, faceless killer face-off Freddy Vs Jason and Christopher Nolan‘s harrowing thriller Insomnia, to talk about American Mary and what makes the role so atypical…

What attracted you to the role?

The twins [writer/director duo the Soska Sisters] sent the script to me hoping that I would like it and would do it with them. I was at a friend’s house and I only had my Blackberry, and I was like ‘Yeah, I’ll just read the beginning’ and I ended up reading the entire 180 pages on my Blackberry. And then I looked up from it, rubbed my eyes – because I was blind! – and said, ‘what the fuck did I just read?’

I loved the character. When I read a script, I just read it as you’d read a book or as you’d see it in the movie, and because I just read the whole thing right through I knew that I liked it and the character was so interesting, so multi-dimensional and so complex. I rarely – well, any female really – rarely gets to play such an interesting, complex character as that, so I immediately wanted to do it.

And then I met them, and we became insta-friends. We went out for sushi and ended up staying out till 4am. They were just so cool, and I knew it would be awesome if everything came together and worked out, and it did!

Mary is such an interesting, complicated character. How did you approach that performance?

I was so passionately in love with Mary. I really wanted to make her very human. You could very easily have done that role and been very one-note; you know, the sexy mean chick, and I thought that would have been a disservice to Mary. It needed humour to it, it needed a sort of levity, and when you watch a character go through all of these bizarre and horrifying experiences, especially when she’s doing things that aren’t so sweet, I think the audience really needs to relate to her. For her to just be serious and sexy, it would’ve been awful. You needed to see her going through being a cute, normal, innocent, awkward, and mildly strange chick and then evolving into this… creature.

I felt like I had to approach it in a way that she was likeable. Because the character on paper isn’t all that likeable; any time she smiles or is nice to someone, it’s usually fake. So we had to ride this fine line of keeping some humanity and likeability through everything that she does, and all the fakeness she puts on, so that people would still root for her.

Most horror fans will remember you from Ginger Snaps, which is kind of a similar role in some ways, isn’t it?

Yeah, there’s this normal – quote unquote – girl who is a victim of something and then sort of transforms and becomes something else. It’s very different, obviously, but yeah, in some ways it’s the same. And I am very privileged and grateful to be able to play those roles.

They’re not your typical horror movie girl roles; when you think of women in horror movies you tend to imagine a girl screaming and running away from a man with a knife…

Yeah, you’re either the victim or you’re a rampaging psychopath. I don’t think American Mary even is a horror movie, I think it’s… I don’t even know what it is! A psychological thriller, a character study, a tragedy that’s kind of funny. In movies in general women are often portrayed as one-note; you know, there’s that line in Ginger Snaps about how girls are only ever the bitch, the slut or the good girl next door, so to find this character, Mary, is amazing.

Mary gets drawn into this extreme world of body modification, and there are a lot of characters who’ve deliberately made themselves look a certain way through plastic surgery. Is that a comment on how image-obsessed our culture is? How do you feel about that?

I think there’s so many different aspects to it. The film goes into the body modification sub-culture and, oddly enough, they’re the most normal, happy, well-adjusted people in the film, while the doctors and surgeons are the absolute monsters. The obsession with beauty is so convoluted, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with body modification. I think people nowadays are so obsessed with beauty and celebrity and image, and it’s nice to see a film where that’s kind of stripped away. There are so many different ideas in there; it really has all these different levels of subtle observation of human society, and character, and how that can all get a bit messed up. I think it’s a movie people can watch many times and pick up different things the more they watch it.

American Mary is due in cinemas 2013. Ginger Snaps is available on DVD for £8.49 from Amazon.co.uk.