Smile Star Kyle Gallner Knew Exactly What Kind Of Horror Movie He Was In [Exclusive Interview]

"Smile" is the little horror movie that could, an original concept that became one of 2022's biggest hits. In a year with a new "Halloween" film, a new "Scream" sequel, a new Jordan Peele movie, and the latest Scott Derrickson chiller, Parker Finn's pitch-dark nightmare outgrossed them all. It bodes well for original horror in the years ahead, and we're almost certainly on the verge of a sequel announcement from Paramount, who originally produced the film for streaming only to pivot to theaters when test audiences raved about it. 

Kyle Gallner, who stars in the film as Joel, a police detective who helps his ex-girlfriend (Sosie Bacon) try to get to the bottom of a demonic force that causes its victims to die by suicide, seems as surprised as anyone that this little horror movie became a juggernaut. And when we spoke over Zoom in conjunction with "Smile" making its streaming debut on Paramount+ this week, he also seemed surprised that there hasn't been a sequel announcement yet. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have thoughts about what could happen next, and where his character could go.

In our conversation, we talk about the film's surprising box office success, the key backstory that was devised entirely offscreen, and the pressure that came with that chilling final sequence. 

'It's fun to be scared'

I saw the movie twice, at Fantastic Fest and then theaters, and both times it killed. And then it became one of the biggest hits of the year. I don't think anybody saw that coming, right?

No. I mean, this movie wasn't even supposed to go to theaters, so it was surprising for everybody. I mean, we made this thing for Paramount+ just to be on TV. So when they told us it was going to theaters, that was a surprise. And then when it did as well as it did, I think we were all pretty ... you don't want to say shocked, because of course you want your movie to do well, you believe in your film. But nowadays the way films are ... you never know what's going to take off. You never know what's going to hit.

Watching it at Fantastic Fest, which is a film festival for horror aficionados, made sense. It's twisted and dark, and it's playing for that crowd. Then watching it with a regular audience and having it play just as well and seeing people go back again and again, watching it become part of the zeitgeist–


Can you talk about why you think audiences are responding to a film that, at first glance, could have been seemingly too intense or too dark for a mainstream reaction?

I think it surprised me as well. Not I think, I mean, it surprised me as well because I would say it's definitely on the darker side that I think a more casual viewer, I didn't think would be super into it. But it seems to really be hitting all the right notes for everybody. For more hardcore horror fans and then people who may not be so into the genre, they've just all shown up and for whatever reason, they're really digging it. Not whatever reason. I think it's a good movie. I think it's fun. I think it's well shot. I think it's well-acted. And I have to say, I do think the marketing campaign really helped with that. I think that brought people in and then good word of mouth kept people coming. And I also think it just reminded people of why they like to go to the movies.

It's fun. It's fun to be scared. It's fun to be in an audience full of people and enjoy a film together. It's fun to be scared, and jump at the same time, and really just feel the energy of being in the theater. And I think one of the biggest challenges these days is getting people to actually show up. And I think the marketing campaign got people curious enough on top of the trailer, but I think it all got people curious enough to show up that they were like, oh, this is fun. I love this. This is what this is all about. And that's because everybody just wants to watch s*** on their phone. It's maddening.

Parker Finn's direction is very intense, very visual. It plays to the screen. How does he function as an actor's director? I'm curious about how he worked in the more intimate spaces with you folks.

That's a good question actually because you get guys who are very good visually and then not as good when it comes to people or face-to-face stuff. You get guys who are really good at talking to actors but maybe don't have as much of a vision. You get all sorts of things. Parker's an interesting combination of ... he really knew what he wanted. He knew how he wanted it shot. The score was already being worked on before even a single frame had been shot. He knew what he wanted.

And then when he came to you with a note, he was very smart. His notes were smart, they were quick to the point, and as soon as he said it, it was just one of those things where you're like, "Oh yeah. Yeah, no, that makes sense." He speaks a very simple kind of understandable language. And for me and the way I operate, me and him got along really well. There was a good kind of communication in that way. He operates in a way that I understand. So me and him worked well together. I enjoyed working with Parker and he did a nice job. He knew what he wanted behind the camera. He knew what he wanted from the camera department. He knew what he wanted in front of the camera with his actors. And I think he delivered.

'That to me was my main challenge for Joel'

One of my favorite pieces of horror casting of all time is in the original "The Omen" from the '70s where they cast Gregory Peck as the lead in a horror movie about the antichrist. And that could be a ridiculous concept. But you see him and you go, "Oh no, that's Gregory Peck. He's here, which means I've got to pay attention. I've got to take this seriously."


Which lends the movie a huge weight. "Smile" has actors who are taking it very seriously. You folks lend huge stakes to what could have been a silly concept. Can you talk about finding the balance as an actor?

I think that's just all about knowing what kind of film you're in. I think you get some stuff, like a "Drag Me to Hell," that's like it's tongue-in-cheek, supposed to be fun, a little more outlandish and things like that. And then you get movies like this that are dealing with very heavy themes, and they're grounded in their own form of reality. For all intents and purposes, you're dealing with mental illness, you're dealing with trauma, and that automatically lends a weight to the film.

And after talking to Parker, and understanding the type of movie he's making, and the type of script we have, this was a film that– it's supposed to be taken very seriously. You're supposed to play the stakes up here. You're supposed to play it as real as possible, and bring this thing to life in a way that if you were dealing with this in your mind, you go, oh, that's how that would go down. And that's scary. There's nothing scarier than your own mind. You'll always create the scariest scenario in your own head.

And when it's something like this, where literally the monster, the demon, is essentially in your own mind and it's inescapable. That adds a whole other layer of fear to things. So it was really, like I said, just knowing the movie that we were in, playing the stakes where they needed to be, keeping everything heightened into a place where it needed to be, and playing the reality of the situations even though you're in this sort of not realistic scenario.

There's a lot left unsaid between your character and Sosie Bacon's character. Your backstory is very much vague, but the audience fills in the gaps pretty easily.


Did you two build a backstory? Did it help inform your characters or was it all offscreen?

Me and Sosie, actually, that was one of the most important things. When I went into this, that to me was my main challenge for Joel. How do you step into a situation where you have a relationship with this character without showing any relationship, any backstory? There's no monologuing, there's no flashback, there's no nothing. But you have to clearly have a past, and probably a past that isn't like, oh, we dated for six months. These guys were probably together for quite a while and really knew each other for a long time and went through a lot of growing pains and it ultimately just didn't work. But they're two people that love each other very much, who know everything about each other, and because of that, they can drive each other completely f****** insane. And that was sort of the place we came from because we also thought that would potentially add a little bit of levity to such a heavy situation.

Because when people ... real life is sometimes when it's the most f***** up, that's when you have to laugh, or that's when you have to take things in another direction. So we really wanted to play with that and create a very different tone than her and her fiancé. So we did, we rehearsed and we built that relationship kind of from the ground up. And the two of them together, the whole thing is, Joel may not totally believe her, he may believe her halfway, but whatever it is, it doesn't matter. He's going to be there for her because that's what matters. And to her, if it's real, then to him it's real and he's going to help her figure it out any way he can. So Sosie was really, really gracious with her time and we actually had a lot of fun building it. As hectic and crazy as that shoot was, especially for Sosie, because the film was so heavy. Me and her actually had a lot of fun with those scenes. We were laughing a lot and goofing around and it was a really good time working with Sosie.

'How was that for a non-answer?'

The entire movie ends with you. That the last shot of the movie is all you, and it's a pivotal plot moment, a pivotal character moment.


Can you talk about the pressure of that shot, of that scene, realizing that if you don't nail the look required, this ending doesn't work?

Oh, f***. I'm glad we didn't talk before that because I honestly didn't even think about it. I was just like, okay, this is the job. No, you're right. I mean, you're absolutely right. It does. It all ends right there and you have to sell it. But I mean, I don't think it's super hard to sell when you've got the fire going, and everything's going, and reflection in the eye and everything there. But it is, it's a pretty, like you said, pivotal moment, important moment that I guess we'll see where it goes if there is anywhere for it to go. I don't know.

That's the question though. I'm kind of surprised we haven't heard "Smile 2" announced yet.

I don't know. Nobody's talked to me. I know nothing about it. It's one of those things, if I was a betting man with how much money it's made and how well it did, I have to imagine people are talking. What that means, if that means Joel's in it or not, I have no idea.

So let's play the fan game here. What would you want to see in a sequel starring Joel that picks up right after the first one?

What I think is really interesting about that ... I think there is something interesting to picking up a film like that almost immediately after. Because usually, it's something where it's like, you see the curse, it happens, and then it cuts, and it's a whole new group of people. And it does the same thing again. It's kind of cool because there're already rules established with these characters that already know certain things. So it's not like they have to go back and try to relearn all of these things all over again. So I think the fact that it could pick up from a new spot where these people have a little bit of a leg up, I don't know, I think you can take that in a whole lot of different directions, but you still have the ticking clock.

So I don't know, man, I think it would be just about pushing it further and exploring further. I mean, you have the whole potential murder thing that breaks the curse. Maybe something goes on with that. Maybe Joel f****** ices somebody and then decides he's going to try to help that person and figure out the curse. I don't know. There's a bunch of different ways it can go. That's why I'm not writing it, because I don't have that skill set to continue this on. But I do think, I don't know, I think it could be fun to play with. And if they want me back as Joel to jump into that sandbox, I'm more than happy to come in and play. How was that for a non-answer?