Midnight Mass Star Crystal Balint On The Danger And Power Of Faith [Interview]

"Midnight Mass" shows all walks of life in the Catholic community. There are believers who use religion as a guise for cruelty, those seeking peace and community, and individuals who simply believe in something bigger than themselves. And then there's the Dolly and Wade Scarborough. Those two are true believers, but in the end, become familiar sinners.

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions" is one of the many themes of "Midnight Mass."

Dolly, played by Crystal Balint, is kind-hearted and driven by good intentions. She not only wants what's best for her daughter, Leeza, but for her neighbors. When the world has been cruel to her and her family, her faith only increased, not diminished. There's beauty and power in that, but in the end, that power is dangerous.

After "Midnight Mass," Balint is now officially a part of the Mike Flanagan family. The actress, who's done a variety of theater and television in Vancouver, will next star in Flanagan's "Midnight Club." Recently, Balint told us about her experiences playing Dolly, in her first of hopefully many collaborations with Mike Flanagan. 

'She needs a miracle and a miracle happens'

Dolly's faith asks the question, where is the line between faith and blindness? For yourself, where was that line?

I had to try and find where that line is and where is that line for her? I think the problem that we encounter for Dolly early on is that what she wants more than anything in the world is for her family to be okay. She wants her daughter to walk again. There's this immense amount of weight upon Dolly when we meet her where she feels hopeless and her faith has brought her through that. I think if she didn't have her faith, she probably would've collapsed. She probably would've imploded upon herself with the emotions and the weight of it all, this awful thing that's happened to her family.

When we meet her, she needs a miracle and a miracle happens. I think you take someone who has a tremendous amount of faith — and a lot of people do, and it's a positive thing that saves them — but then you inject this extra thing into it and suddenly, I will follow, right?

She very early on gets sort of sucked into this thing that I don't think she could see the negative side of it if she tried, because there are too many positives that align closely with the goals that she set and it all sort of pays dividends for her. Her daughter walks again, she and her husband feel better, she walks a little straighter, her community comes alive. All these things that Dolly wants she gets.

It's really only in those final moments of episode 7 or maybe in episode 6, where she starts to go, "Wait a minute, something is wrong," that everything shatters. It's sad that it takes as long as it does for the blinders to be removed, but I had to find a way to let her trust in everything that was happening and trust Father Paul, and trust Wade, and trust the journey that we were all going on as a group. It was an adventure for me as an actor to just go, "Okay, Dolly's just a hundred percent in."

Even towards the end, it's almost hard to feel anger towards her because of those reasons you listed. It's conflicting.

Yeah. I mean, some of the people in the town are immediately identified as "the villains," like Bev Keane — beautifully played by Sam Sloyan, who is an incredible human being. It's ironic that she's playing this master villain. We've become quite close friends.

The Bev Keanes of the community are clearly marked out as those are the people who you need to be afraid of to some extent, but Dolly is this person who's your everyday faithful, loving community member who just wants good things. It is difficult to blame Dolly, even though Dolly takes quite a pivotal role later on in the episodes as things start to unravel.

My partner when we watched it, because I didn't tell him anything about the show, he was shocked when he saw me take the role I played in it. I'm handing out the cups and he had to pause and go, "Wait a minute. You're involved?" And I'm like, "Yeah, because she believes." It's that cult mentality. It's that thing that you said that earlier, where is the line? Where does the faith go too far? That's what's so great about the script is because it isn't really a monster story. It's got nothing to do with that. It's all about where are our moral compasses, and where are the lines and what lines are we willing to cross and who is to say what's too far?

'Right to the bitter end'

Like you said, it's that cult mentality. The ending, of course, makes you think of Jonestown. How much research did you do into people, like Dolly, who've gone down similar paths?

I did a little bit of digging. I didn't spend a tremendous amount of time looking at specific examples of that in historical references, but I did do a little bit of looking into the Jonestown situation, which very early on was brought to my attention by Mike as something to look at for Dolly. If you spent any time reading about Jonestown or listening to any of the frightening audio from that final night, there are these people, and a lot of them are women actually, who devoutly believe in what it is that they're doing there.

Even as things are divulging into this massacre, you hear these voices, aside from Jim Jones' voice, you hear these voices of these women who are yelling "Believe," and "He's with us." You can hear people dying in the background while these women and these people all still, right to the bitter end, believe that the goal is being met, that they are following the good word, that they're doing the work that they were there to do.

And so, I spent some time listening to what they call the death tapes and that informed a little bit of where Dolly comes from, which is if you get what you need out of it, there is no bridge too far. And unfortunately, that's where you have these incidents where people go right over the moral edge of what society needs to be kind of the norm.

Was there much discussion on set about, what do these speeches and passages mean to either the characters or even actors?

If those conversations were being had, I certainly wasn't privy to them. I don't remember ever having any kind of deep conversations about the particular scenes or dialogue, or speeches, or anything like that amongst the people that I spent a fair bit of time with. But they may have been happening in closer quarters, like for example, between people who had some of those heavy monologue scenes. Kate and Zach have these remarkable scenes where they just unpack all their character's beliefs. It's possible they had those conversations.

I never really considered it because, well, I think probably early on, we were all on the same page coming into the project. Those early table reads that we did and some of the early discussions I had with a couple of the other cast members before the lockdown, and then once we came back, I never got the sense that there was anyone in the cast that felt awkward about the material or had questions about what we were doing.

It's such a beautifully written show. There's so much of it that is examined from so many different perspectives that I think it is hard to find holes, to be honest. There are so many perspectives represented. So you may not, as the actor, have the perspective that represents where you stand as a person in the character that you're playing, but you might find it in Sarah Gunning or you might find it in Aaron Green or I don't know, maybe you find it in Bev Keane. It's so well written that I think everyone just went, "I think we're covering all the bases."

'Mike is still this enigma'

Since it is such a thought-provoking show, what conversations have you been having with people lately about it?

I've been having a lot of conversations about the show, both with people who I've been speaking with in the media, but also amongst friends and family who have seen the show. Now I think that first of all, the number one question that I'm being asked right now is, what was it like working with Mike? Because I think people are curious about his process. Since it was such a personal project, now we know much more about Mike, but Mike is still this enigma, because we want to know more now. We've seen this very personal side of him. A lot of the conversations I'm having, people are really moved by it. A couple of my friends who have seen it have said they are still unpacking it.

I read something interesting someone posted on Twitter that said that a couple of the speeches had done more for them in those short moments than several years of therapy, in terms of helping them come to terms with certain concepts. So that's a huge compliment to the writing, and to the performances, and to the work we did on the show.

There was a point when we were shooting that I thought, "Oh, this is going to upset a lot of people," but overwhelmingly the response I've been finding from people who are practising Christians or, they practice Catholicism, or whatever their religions are, they're moved. They're curious about it as opposed to too offended by it, which is such a breath of fresh air.

'Hold onto your socks'

What did you learn from the table read experience? All episodes were read in one day, right?

It's funny now looking back on it, right? Because it was so unusual to sit around and do that. And now, you don't really get a chance to do that. You do, but for a while there, it was challenging. What I love about any table read is it's an opportunity to hear it, the actors' voices and be able to get a flow in a sense. It's not unusual to have a table read where you're missing a handful of actors, just because of travel or bookings or people are working on other things, but we were fortunate that we had the entire cast in that room for the entire eight hour day where we were reading the scripts.

And so, two things were lovely about that. One is that we all got to interact with each other and get to meet each other and put names to faces and characters to faces and just engage.. What was fantastic was that we got to hear those lovely words off the page. And again, there are many monologues, which I know is a topic of conversation, and you can read them and they're beautiful on the page, but until you have heard them come out of people's mouths, there's like a light bulb that went off for all of us about how special this was.

Hamish [Linklater], for example, even in those early stages that was in March and then we shut down and we didn't come back until August with several more months, but even in those early stages, listening to him, reading the homilies, he'd clearly done some work already on them. There were a number of times through that where I had goosebumps, or I laughed hard, or I cried. There were moments where we were all crying, listening to people just read them.

I remember going home and saying to my partner, "Hamish is going to blow this out of the water." I was like, just hold onto your socks. At the table read, he was already knocking it out of the park. Tack on five more months of prep, and then coming back, he's getting into character more. There's no surprise to me that he is as fantastic as he is. Everyone just got richer and deeper and sculpted it out. So that initial table read was, for me, it served to knock me into gear and go, "Oh my God, this is the real deal. I'm working with some serious heavy hitters here. I got to pull up my socks and get to work."

Does it make your job easier, too? When you're in church, listening to him, it's hard not to be entranced like Dolly is supposed to be, right?

When we were shooting those church scenes, there were a number of times where I was like, "Oh right, I have to be acting right now." I have to respond as Dolly, not as Crystal, because it was like watching an artist paint an incredible painting. It was beautiful.

'Little light bleeds'

You've done quite a bit of television in Vancouver. You're accustomed to the speed of those productions. "Midnight Mass" is very cinematic, so was the production speed more like a movie than a regular TV production?

You're absolutely right because it does move very fast. I worked on a fair bit of TV and there is this constant drive to just keep it going, move along, especially if you're coming in as a guest star. They want to cut to the leads. With Mike, Mike is very detail oriented. Because he spent so much time with this project, he knew exactly what he wanted. He had everything laid out for us. We had all seven episodes right out of the gate, so that was a blessing because it gave us all time to carve out our arcs.

When we all showed up to set, we were as prepared as possible. I don't want to say that the lockdown was a blessing, but in some ways, it was because it cleared our schedules and we all knew we were coming back to this show. We had four or five extra months to hone it in.

More importantly, Mike created an environment of trust just by being so prepared and knowing what he wanted, so that we felt safe to play. And by play, I mean, we never felt rushed. If we needed another take, we could ask for another take, which is a rarity. You don't get to do that very often, but he also wouldn't be afraid to tell you if he got what he needed. You just started to trust him. Your ego went out of it and you went, "Okay, I know that this guy knows what he needs. I trust his talents and I trust his intuition. If he's saying that he got what he needed from me, I'm just going to leave it alone."

What was a moment for you on set where his attention-to-detail couldn't have been clearer?

I do remember there were little things about set design you would never think about. I'll give you an example, like if a door doesn't fit properly on a set, then you get these little light bleeds. I've seen big shows with light bleeds, but I never noticed it until I worked with Mike. He was finding them in our set sometimes. And again, sometimes sets settle differently or whatever, and he'd be like, "We got to go again, I see there's a bleed." Now, I see them all the time in shows. I'm like, "Look at that."

I think that he knows how to pick the right actors too. It was rare that I ever saw him come in and have to give multiple notes to an actor. It was tiny tweaks because he knows how to cast, he knows who is right for those roles. I mean, that's half the work. He just has to go like, "Here's the material. Do your worst." It's why he has the Flana-fam. It's why people keep coming back to work with him and why he keeps inviting actors back. He just knows what he wants and he brings good people in who do tight work and that saves him from having to probably come in and give a bunch of notes.

'He's creating something unique'

How's it feel to now be a part of that creative family?

It's lovely because he did invite me back and I feel very grateful and very fortunate to have been invited back, to come play on the "Midnight Club," which should be out next year. I've said this to him, "Listen, if you need me to come and open a door for somebody on set, I will do that." A lot of other actors are in the same boat. He's creating something unique with his work and with the people he keeps around him. I'm not just talking about actors; I'm talking about crew too. The crews that he keeps continuously bringing on that we've worked with now in Vancouver a couple of times, and probably beyond, are good at what they do, and he knows it.

With film, television, and theater, how is the creative community in Vancouver?

Well, the theater and the film and TV industry sort of are intertwined in Vancouver. It's not like some of the bigger cities where you're a theater actor and you stick to theater, and if you're a film and TV actor, you stick to film and TV. There is a theater community here. Obviously it's suffering like many theater communities currently, but it's starting to come back now, but it's been a hard 18 months. I would say the film community, the arts community in Vancouver is tight. I think we try to take care of our own. We've had some lean years, so that's also helped to find the community in terms of supporting each other and supporting local projects.

I think the last four or five years have been booming here in Vancouver, especially during the pandemic because we were able to keep numbers down pretty low as far as COVID was concerned. Our productions went up and up and up and up. It's a supportive community here. I'll speak for myself and say, I know I get excited when I see any Vancouver actor in a show that I'm watching that I love, or in a film that I'm watching that I love. I'm grateful to be a part of a community that is supportive of us succeeding and moving further, and wider, and broader territory as far as the arts are concerned.

"Midnight Mass" is available now on Netflix.