The Cellar Star Elisha Cuthbert Doesn't Hold Back In Horror Movies [Interview]

Elisha Cuthbert's horror movies are well-known among horror fans. Now, she's got a distinct trio of horror titles on her resume with "Captivity," "House of Wax," and now, "The Cellar." All different styles of horror movies, all different performances. However, those three movies share one key similarity for Cuthbert: "You can't hold back when you're doing horror."

Brendan Muldowney's "The Cellar" is more subdued, as the actress put it, but there's still notes of fear, regret, and paranoia to play in the old-school haunted house story. Even though Cuthbert doesn't make a lot of horror movies, when she does, she wants to give it her all. Recently, she told us how she did just that in "The Cellar" and reminisced about her days on "House of Wax" and one of the finest half-hour comedies in recent memory, "Happy Endings." 

"We were really in the Irish countryside in these tunnels"

When Brendan told you about his vision for the story, how did you think you wanted to help him fulfill it?

When it comes to Brendan, working with directors who have written the script is totally different because they know every nuance, every aspect of the script. It was easy for me to come to him with questions about backstory and concept. Just going to him and going, "How does this equation work mathematically?" And he's like, "Here, I have the diagram." In relation to the symbols over the doors. When we were getting into the nitty gritty of that, he was so versed in it all, because it does get mythical and mathematical.

We also had great conversations about how, tonally, it was going to be. That sort of subdued, atmospheric vibe was going to be front and center. I started to realize very quickly that the house itself was becoming a character, moreso than I imagined it was going to be. So yeah, I think it can only help when you have a director who knows every facet of the script, the way he did. It was great.

Did you both talk a lot about "The Haunting" and "The Innocents?"

Yeah, we were talking about those. We were talking about tone, mood. I could already tell, too, when we got to set, how shots were being set up by him. He's patient. We have so many nice, slow, beautiful shots that lead up to this really intense ending. So it starts down here, and it just builds and builds and builds and builds and builds. So to know prior to going in that it was going to be a slow build was great for me to track, script-wise, where I was going to be physically and emotionally.

Plus, it was all there, right? I mean, that set with all the people in the third act is very impressive.

I think anytime you don't have to really put your imagination to it as far as green screen goes, it was so much easier to actually have the Leviathan guy there. There's one scene that's not in the film anymore, but when I'm under the table, there was one shot through the doorway that the hooves of the Leviathan creature cross the screen. I was under the table, seeing this visually for the first time and then obviously jumping and all that. There were so many things that were actually happening in these catacombs and going down these tunnels. We were really in the Irish countryside in these tunnels.

You talked about getting a sense of Brendan's pacing for the story, the scares. Acting to that pace, is it similar to performing comedy for you?

You could definitely make a correlation between comedic timing and jump scare timing, for sure. What all movies, TV have in common with actors and the camera: There's always a dance, right? Even if we're doing the simplest of scenes, there has to be sort of a focus to the actor and the actor has to know when that's going to play. I think timing comes up in so many different ways, and it is all about timing, always, always.

[For tone] "Happy Endings," for example, when you're doing comedy or even "The Ranch," when you're doing a sitcom, your demeanor and your tone is so much higher. And then when I come into a movie like "The Cellar” and you get into the Keira Woods vibe [Editor's note: Keira Woods is the name of Cuthbert's character], everything has to be a little bit more focused, a little bit more thoughtful and smoother.

You can't come into a movie acting like I would on "The Ranch." So it's good. It's nice to go from understanding how to act in front of a live audience and then coming back down into a feature and having to kind of come more into yourself.

I'm now imagining Alex [from "Happy Endings"] in this sort of horror movie scenario, though.

She'd probably like the guy, the beast. She'd be like, "Wait a minute!"

"That film was, for lack of a better word, rockstar times"

By the way, on the subject of "Happy Endings," I enjoyed telling the Russo Brothers after the success of "The Avengers" how that show is still their greatest accomplishment.

[Laughs] Yes! What did they say? What did they say?

They said they hear that a lot, actually.

Wow. That's amazing. We had such a good time with them on the pilot. They're great. They're so great. I think it was tough. That was at the very start of the show, so we had to figure out our chemistry and who we are. I don't even think Alex from the show, my character, I don't even think I understood her at that point. So it was like a real build to season 2, where I really started warming up and figuring out her voice. TV lets you do that, though. TV gives you the leeway, the time to develop. Where a film, you kind of got to know what you're doing right from day one.

But has all your television experience accustomed you to moving fast and under pressure, like when you're shooting an indie like "The Cellar" during the pandemic in Ireland?

Oh yeah. My style is now a hybrid of both. If you get on a big budget film, the pacing for me is really, really slow. It's actually harder and a mental challenge to keep myself in it, because we're doing it so much over and over again 'cause we have more time. Whereas with TV, they're moving on with or without you. So the performance that you want to convey and what you want to do really has to happen within the first or second, third take, otherwise it's time to go. So, now I'm kind of in the middle, I guess. I don't love a ton of rehearsal time or a ton of takes. I mean, unless that's what the director wants, but I tend to want to get my stuff out pretty quick.

How'd you approach horror movies like "House of Wax" or "Captivity" differently than you did "The Cellar?"

Maybe there's just maturity there. I think you can't help but hide your experience. And so for me, there's maybe what I thought was good and would go with it. Sometimes now I have a confidence where I just know, "Oh, that's how that's going to work." I've seen myself enough on camera and I've seen myself enough on TV and what works and what doesn't work to feel confident in some of the choices I make, and to also learn and be like, "Oh, I don't want to do that again."

"House of Wax," that film was, for lack of a better word, rockstar times because that budget was crazy. That movie was epic...

Amazing sets.

The sets were just out of control, right? Hollywood at its finest, moviemaking-wise. That was an amazing time. But again, that character is in her teens and young and there's a different energy to it. And in this film, "The Cellar," I get to sort of tackle that motherly instinct and get to draw on the fact that I have my own children in real life. This is an experience that I didn't have before, right? So it brings flavor to the characters whether I choose to draw on it or not.

"You can't hold back when you're doing horror"

So based on that life experience you mentioned, what read true to you on the page for "The Cellar?"

When you do horror films or you watch horror films, or in my case, if you're reading them, you're seeing these scenes sort of unfold where you're like, "Why is that character going down the rabbit hole?" Or, "Why is that character going through the door that you clearly know is going to be bad and dark on the other side?"

For this film, I brought that motherly instinct. I know for a fact that you would go into any sort of dangerous situation to save your children if you knew you could. That rang true to me. I thought, "Well, that gives this character the leeway and the right to go down the steps, to go down into the cellar and to face her fears to save her children."

You deliberately don't make multiple horror movies in a row, right? Why is that?

I think you really have to give a lot of yourself and just be completely uninhibited and just go for it when you do these types of films, because you can't hold back when you're doing horror. You have to physically, mentally, emotionally put yourself there. For me, I need to space those out. It doesn't feel real or ring true to me to just do them back to back to back to back.

It takes something out of me. I just need to be ready to just go full out. Plus, it just sort of happened that as the scripts came, they organically came spread out the way they did. I was drawn to those particular movies, like "House Wax," then "Captivity," and now this, "The Cellar." I guess for me physically, and then also finding scripts that I felt like in the genre were great to work on.

I do want to ask about one of your comedies. Are you aware of how much hockey fans love the "Goon" movies?

No, I don't really know. I mean, is it like "Slapshot" now?

Hockey fans love them, myself included.

That's so cool. You know what? For me, I felt like I wanted to kind of come full circle with Jay [Baruchel]. When he asked me to be a part of "Goon 2," I was so happy because working together as kids on "Popular Mechanics for Kids” and then coming back and him directing and it just was such a beautiful thing to get to do with him. I told him, "Give me a character that's totally crazy. I want the batsh*t crazy sister, and let's just go for it."

I know how much it meant to me on a personal level, but I love to hear that it's striking a chord with all the sports fans. I actually think I have — my character has like a hockey card somewhere.

Oh yeah?

Yeah. I think there's like a hockey card floating around with her on it, which is hilarious. I'm like, "Yes, I got my own hockey card!"

"The Cellar" is now in limited release in theaters and is available to stream on Shudder.