'A Quiet Place' Star Millicent Simmonds On Activism For Deaf Actors And Her Favorite Horror Movies [Interview]

Utah native and rising young actor Millicent Simmonds first garnered a tremendous amount of attention last year, starring as the young deaf girl Rose in Todd Haynes' delicate and melancholy Wonderstruck. The film was a big-screen debut for Simmonds, who is deaf in real life and had been acting on stage for many years prior in Utah.

But it's her follow-up role as Regan Abbott in director/co-writer/star John Krasinki's A Quiet Place earlier this year that got her noticed and praised by the world at large for her portrayal of a character who blames her own affliction for the death of a family member in a world where sound-triggered alien monsters attack with lightning speed. The film is especially interesting because the rest of Regan's family — played by Krasinski, Emily Blunt and Noah Jupe — must adapt in many way to the world of a deaf person in order to be quiet. American Sign Language is the preferred method of communication and colored warning lights are used to warn other family members of impending danger back at the homestead.

The relationship between Krasinski's father character, Lee, and Regan is strained, and the anxiety, guilt, and shame is expertly expressed by Simmonds, herself a dedicated advocate and activist for the deaf community, especially in the arts. /Film sat down with the 15-year-old actress in Chicago last week to discuss (through a Sign Language interpreter) the nuances of the role of Regan and her hopes for the types of roles she's offered moving forward in her career. A Quiet Place will be released on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD, and on various streaming services on Tuesday, July 10.

When you get this script and you see that it's part horror movie, part action film, family drama—basically everything Wonderstruck wasn't—was there anything about taking on this role that made you nervous or excited? What was your reaction?

So when I first read the script, I already knew that the story was really unique and special because it had a story to tell, there was a great storyline. When I auditioned for this part, I did feel a little bit nervous because...well, it's kind of hard to put into words, but I think I was nervous because this movie required a lot more emotion and fear to be evoked, and there was this creature that would be chasing me, and that's not something I've experienced in my life. I needed to work on that part. But when I auditioned, I tried my best, and throughout the filming, John and everyone else helped out, so I was really glad for that.

Were you a horror film fan before making this? If so, what were some of your favorite horror films?

I think if I had to pick my favorite one, it would be Signs. I really liked that. The scenario felt very similar to A Quiet Place. It was set on a farm, and they used the radio to signal back and forth with this aliens, so it was a unique parallel.

Was there anything about the physicality of your role that intrigued you or made you nervous, because the physical and the emotion are closely tied?

I was definitely interested in that aspect of it. It's great exercise, obviously. I had the help of a lot of people, and we were constantly running and experiencing fear. With the scene with the truck bouncing all around, that was really physical as well. But I felt like I really related to the character, which helped me as well.

What did it mean to you to realize that this family basically had to live a life that your character was very familiar with—a world of quiet where Sign Language was the primary means of communication and the way they used lights as a warning device? Was that cool that in a lot of ways, the film is built around the way your characters lives?

Yeah, it was really cool. In a lot of deaf people's homes, if you right on the doorbell, it's connected to a light and it flashes, so it felt very similar. In the movie, it was a red light for danger, and that would help people know what was happening. And Sign Language was a really unique part of it as well because you didn't have to yell or make any noise because you could communicate using Sign Language, which was a great advantage.

With John and Emily being a married couple in real life, did that make the entire family dynamic of these characters feel more real to you?

During rehearsals, we talked a lot about how we would feel about different characters, and they actually invited us over to their house for barbecues, and we got to learn a little bit more about John and Emily, and they got to learn more about us. So we felt like we were really involved in their lives personally and we felt more connected, and then we were able to learn more about each other on an intimate level, which was really smart on their part, because that connection was really authentic. John and I would constantly be communicating during filming; I felt like I could talk to him anytime I needed to, especially if we were trying to play out scenes before we filmed them.

When the film first came out, I know a lot of people asked you if you would be interested in doing a sequel or prequel. I'm actually wondering if John described to you at all the family's backstory and what they were like before this invasion.

He talked a little bit about how, as a child, I liked to paint and liked art, and I was interested in a lot of mechanical things because of my father—for instance, the Cochlear implant and how that operated. I don't know about other roles, family history, or that much more about their backstory besides what we learn from the film itself.

As a new actor, what did you learn about the craft of acting from just watching your co-stars, especially Emily?

Honestly, Emily makes it look so easy. There was one scene, I think she had to cry in it, and I could feel that that was the most terrifying moment of her life. Her children are in danger, she could die at any moment, and you felt it. You could sense the urgency of her wanting to protect her family at any cost and her willingness to sacrifice her life. I couldn't even imagine doing that, and she made it look so easy. When we were off set, we were drinking water, having something to eat, chit-chatting, and then as soon as they yell "Action," she's on. It's truly amazing. John was great as well. I was able to learn so much from both of them and how they act just by watching and how they emoted things. It was all really inspiring to me.

One of things you do so well in this film is express guilt. Your character feels responsible over a family member's death, and she sometimes feel that her deafness is somehow responsible for it or is a burden to the family. Where does that emotion come from in you? Where did you draw from to get there?

I think I felt like I really connected with the character because I could imagine how she felt. She didn't want to be deaf; being deaf was her weakness, and she didn't know how to handle it. At any minutes, she could knock something over and cause the monsters to come, or not be able to warn someone. Or even if the monsters were hunting her, she wouldn't know. And I resonated with her because as a child, I wanted to feel like I could hear and be involved with family and joke with people and not have to have it be a struggle. I wanted it to be easier for me. So for different reasons, I can relate to her, and we also have very similar goals of wanting to hear. But the character used this weakness as a strength and she was extremely brave; she had so much power, and it changed her life and her family's life, which was really inspiring to me as a person. I think through this character, I want to be a better person and be able to help people.

Even when John's character was distancing himself from yours because of this family tragedy, he still wants her to be as resourceful as he is and trains her as such.

John's character pushed me aside at times, and our characters didn't know how to connect after the incident happened. Before all of this, we were really close and our relationship as father and daughter were good. But after the incident, things became really awkward and he couldn't communicate with me or tell me that he loved me. And that's why dinner time, the mom would always encourage me to go get dad, and I never wanted to because I didn't want to see him. I thought his character hated my character, and that guilt caused that sense of awkwardness between our characters.

I've read that you're an activist for deaf people everywhere. What form does that take? What are some of the specific things that you're involved with?

I would like to encourage more people in the disability community, not just deaf people, to be more involved in the arts, and I'm also a huge supporter of other deaf actors, like Nyle DiMarco, Shoshannah Stern, Josh Feldman, Lauren Ridloff—she just got nominated for a Tony Award [for the revival of Children of a Lesser God], which is truly incredible. What I want to do is encourage more of that, more deaf presence in TV, movies, acting, modeling—that's really what I want to work toward.

Wonderstruck and A Quiet Place are about as different as two films could be. What were the biggest differences between the directing styles of Todd Haynes and John Krazinski?

That's a great question. Todd is a little bit older, a little more experienced, very wise, and I think he knows what he wants to do before he does it. He's five steps ahead of everyone else. He trusted me and gave me flexibility to discover things as I played the character, figure out what my character liked to do, and develop that character. He was helpful but more hands off in terms of giving advice. John took me on more as a mentee, he worked with me, advised me, he knew what he wanted the scene to look like and everything was detail oriented, but we were also filming quickly. Before every scene, we would sit down and talk about what that scene might look like. He was so open to all the ideas that I shared with him. Both of them were extremely wise and wonderful people, so open, and I was really fortunate to have both of them as my directors.

Have you gotten to the point as an actor where you know the different between playing a character and becoming the character?

It's really interesting, and I like to read a lot of books about acting. I'm interested in the process and what it looks like, and those resources have helped me really resonate with the characters I've played. A lot of the characters I'm reading about are people my age, and this character didn't like the fact that she was deaf, so I could kind of understand and take advantage of that so that I could be the character versus playing the character. In Wonderstruck, she ran off to New York to be by herself. That's a very brave, confident, empowering thing to do. She knew what she wanted to do. In A Quiet Place, she uses her weakness as a weapon, and she changes that and there's a paradigm shift. I think that was a really interesting part of her as well.

I'm really excited to see what you do next. Do you have any ideas at this point of any types of films you'd like to try out next? Or do you know what's next for you?

I actually am not sure what's coming up next, but I do hope that I'll continue with this path. I'd like to meet more people and gain more experiences and travel. I would love to try to play a villain in the next film or maybe a spy. I love those double-agent type of roles. I'm not as savvy and knowledgable about all of the directors that are out there, but as a person, I'm really open-minded and love meeting new people and watching the way directors film and their perspectives and following their lead. I'm really looking forward to all of those experiences.

You mentioned representation being important in all of the arts, and in recent years there have been a couple of films with a deaf character at the center but not played by deaf actors, including the film that just won the Best Picture Academy Award, The Shape of Water. Where do you stand on that practice.

Admittedly, I haven't seen The Shape of Water, so I can't give a specific opinion about that. But I think that there are a lot of deaf actors—I mentioned Josh and Shoshannah, who are in a TV series called "This Close" [on Sundance Now]—and I think there are a lot of other opportunities for deaf actors as well. I think it's really important that we have diversity—whether it's different languages, cultures—be involved in film and in the arts. Also, we should have people in the arts to help develop those characters and work closely with those characters to make sure they're being portrayed correctly.

From a practical standpoint on A Quiet Place, what did you see on set to represent the monsters?

They actually did show us designs of what the monsters were going to look like, so we did have that. Then they provided some cardboard cutouts and different sticks with the cardboard on it, just to help us know where to look. Then they had someone in a green suit that they would edit out later. In fact, John actually acted as the monster in the green suit one time, and it was pretty funny to see him in that role and I couldn't stop laughing. He was really dramatic trying to play the monsters, very specific. He took it really seriously. The monster actually looked different in the movie than what I had expected, so that was surprising to me.

Of course being in the movie, I knew what was going to happen, but with the editing and other effects, it was actually scary to see some of the scenes. But it was also interesting to see from other people's perspectives what scenes were like that I wasn't involved with and then also to see audience members' reactions, people who didn't know the storyline. It was amazing. They had no idea what was happening, so they had to be even more terrified than I was. I kind of felt bad for them. It was interesting to see the monsters in the film, because they were different than I'd imagined. We were seeing the monsters from John's perspective and in his world, his imagination. So it was neat seeing them come to life.

Thank you so much. It was wonderful to meet you.

Likewise. Thank you so much.