Kaya Scodelario On Dipping Her Toes Into Horror In 'Crawl' [Interview]

For Kaya Scodelario's first horror movie, it was swim or sink — literally. "I'm one of those swimmers that dips in the pool to cool off, then goes back to sunbathing," the Maze Runner actress joked at the press junket for CrawlTo prepare for the role of the competitive swimmer who gets caught in the crawl space of her house with her dad (Barry Pepper) and a very hungry alligator in the middle of a Florida hurricane, Scodelario had to go through seven weeks of intensive training with a swimming coach in London. "I started in the kiddie pool with the floaty stuff, and I'd have like 6-year-olds passing me. But slowly worked up to quite a good speed and quite good stamina," she said.

Scodelario has done intimate character dramas and she's done action-packed popcorn flicks, but she would have to draw from her experience on all three to star in Crawl, the creature feature opening this weekend from The Hills Have Eyes director Alexandre Aja. The experience was "absolutely grueling" she said, describing eight weeks of shooting in 6 feet of water every day on a set in Serbia. "This was insane. It truly, truly was," she said.

/Film joined a group of journalists at the Long Island Aquarium to speak to Scodelario about her horror movie debut, filming with a dummy alligator, and her adorable dog co-star.

The experience of working on Crawl was new for Scodelario in many ways. Not only had she never had a role where she was submerged in water for half of the movie ("with a wetsuit cut to shape," Scodelario added), but she hadn't had many encounters with real-life alligators. "I'm a Londoner, so it's not anything I ever thought I'd have to prepare myself for in daily life, but my in-laws are from Georgia and they spent a lot of time in Florida, so they told me a lot of stories," Scodelario said. "They've known someone who has had an alligator in his living room, whatever. Those kind of stories that you hear." Director Alexandre Aja showed her some pre-vis images and they acted with a dummy version that looked like an "art project version of an alligator" (and sometimes, just a "Serbian guy in a leotard"), but Scodelario was mainly forced to rely on her imagined vision of "the scariest fucking thing I can."

Scodelario plays Haley, a college student who ignores evacuation orders in the face of a fierce Category 5 hurricane to search for her missing father, who she discovers unconscious in the crawlspace of their old family home. She quickly finds out that the reason for his bloodied state is a bloodthirsty alligator lying in wait in the shadows, whose attack forces Haley and her dad to take cover in the depths of the crawlspace. But their attempts to escape are hindered when they discover that the alligator is not alone. The film is a tight 87 minutes set in a claustrophobic location and packed with twists and breathless thrills, which is part of what drew Scodelario, who has worked primarily in sprawling blockbusters for the past five years with the Maze Runner films, to the role:

"I really like that you are just on this journey, and that's all you get to see, and you're here for this experience and this thrill ride, and it doesn't let up, it doesn't stop until the credits roll. So I was quite psyched about that. After I saw it, I kind of needed 20 minutes to calm down after it, because I felt exhausted, and I think that's the pace [director Alexandre Aja] wanted to keep."

Crawl was was one of the most physically demanding roles that Scodelario has taken, despite action-heavy roles in films like Maze Runner and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell no Tales. "Everything you see in the movie, we were going through that," Scodelario said. To get into the set of the crawlspace, which even the camera and cable crews had to crawl into, was a struggle. They called it "the hole," Scodelario described. "You could smell it on the clothes you wear, you'd be like 'Oh shit, it's the smell of the crawl space. Here we go again.'"

"But you know, we were all in it together, Alex was in the water with us everyday which was quite impressive. I know a few directors who wouldn't have done that," she added.

But despite being a horror film first, Crawl's central focus is the complicated father-daughter dynamic between Haley and her estranged dad Dave, who is reeling from the disintegration of his marriage. Scodelario and Pepper, who had worked together before on the Maze Runner films, are the only people onscreen for the majority of the film, stuck in the claustrophobic crawlspace of the house. It allowed them to bounce off and work with each other in an environment that was almost akin to a stage play rather than a creature feature. "It's something that we worked on, me and Barry, quite a lot, finding that dynamic and finding what would work," Scodelario said. "But we did have to get to know each other as the film progressed."

Scodelario and Pepper drew from their own personal experiences to flesh out the strained relationship between Haley and Dave. ""[Barry] has a teenage daughter, so he really tapped into that. I had a complicated relationship with my father so I was able to use that as well, and we slowly let [our onscreen relationship] build as naturally as possible," Scodelario said. That led to some improvisation and long, intense dialogue scenes that ultimately made it to the cutting room floor. Because in the end, they're still being chased by alligators. "I didn't ever want it to feel as though, 'God these two are having a fucking heart-to-heart for two hours and there's fucking alligators everywhere. What's wrong with them?'" Scodelario joked.

The dynamic of the deadbeat dad and Scodelario's insecure competitive swimmer allowed the duo to reverse the roles that you typically see in a disaster film, Scodelario said. "What I think is great about the film is that, we've taken the typical leading guy in a disaster movie who falls in love with a pretty young thing and wants to save her so her can ravish her, and we've turned it into a family situation. She's fighting for her dad the entire time, that's her motivation to survive, and to make him see he needs to survive."

That rich father-daughter relationship at the center of Crawl is the main reason why Scodelario is dipping her toes in horror for the first time. "I always wanted to go back to indie filmmaking," the actress said. "I've had amazing experiences with Maze Runner and Pirates, and I'm eternally grateful, but there's something about having such a huge budget with so many people around that you lose part of the story, part of the heart. That's what I've been searching to go back to." With Crawl she got that, and even became a "part of the creative process," she said, adding:

"I never pick a movie based on the genre, I pick it based on the material and the character, and if it's going to empower me or teach me or test me. And reading the script, I knew all those things would happen and I had to come to terms with the fact that it is a horror film. And when I looked into who was behind it I knew it was the best of the best and I think that's the most important thing in filmmaking, and not what genre you're doing. If you get the right people together who know what they're doing and are good at it and have proven time and time again, then it's going to be a great piece of art, it's still going to be great storytelling, which is what we all want to do."

The adorable dog helped too. Scodelario's co-star, played by three dogs but mainly by an adorable rescue named Jojo, is the scene-stealer of the film, and one whose well-being even Scodelario was concerned over.

"I love the bit where the dog's swimming, you can see the legs," Scodelario said. "Even then I was like, 'Wait, did the dog die?' I think there was a lot of discussion over whether or not the dog would live or not. It wasn't always straight-forward." And the dog had even more adorable scenes that ended up being cut, much to Scodelario's chagrin. "She's a queen," the actress gushed.

Crawl swims into theaters on July 12, 2019.