Discovering the true emotional motivations of captivating characters, and how they relate to the other anti-heroes and troubled protagonists in a story, can be an exciting and captivating experience for actors to explore. Versatile and enchanting actress Julie McNiven powerfully explores the passionate depths of her characters’ complex relationships, which she previously began to do in the horror genre her recurring role as fallen angel, Anna Milton, in 2008 on the hit series, ‘Supernatural.’ The performer also naturally embraced how her character related to the troubled characters around her in her new independent found footage horror movie, ‘The Possession of Michael King,’ the first feature film from writer-director David Jung. While the film’s title character is shooting a documentary from his point of view, McNiven creatively infused her character with a disbelief over what Michael was filming, and naturally allowed their relationship to overfold throughout the story.
‘The Possession of Michael King,’ which is now playing in select theaters and is also available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD and iTunes, follows the emotionally tortured title character (Shane Johnson), who initially doesn’t believe in religion, God or The Devil. Following the sudden death of his wife, Samantha (Cara Pifko), who is involved in an accident after taking advice from a psychic she visited, the Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker decides to make his next film about the search for the existence of the supernatural.
While Michael is now the sole parent for his young daughter, Ellie (Ella Anderson), he decides to forgo the safety of himself and child to become the center of what he believes to be as a brilliant experiment. Against the advice and better judgment of his sister, Beth (McNiven), who has moved in with him to help care for Ellie, Michael posts an online ad about his documentary, and he receives an overwhelming response about the different subsets of occult. .
Michael begins to study various forms of the supernatural, including Satanism, Voodoo, necromancy and astral travel. He also allows demonologists, necromancers, and various practitioners of the occult to try the deepest and darkest spells and rituals on him. The title hopes that when they fail, he’ll finally be able to prove that religion, spiritualism and the paranormal aren’t real. But he soon begins to question if his wife was right about her thoughts on psychics and the supernatural, as an evil and horrifying force has begun to possess him.
McNiven generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘The Possession of Michael King’ over the phone. Among other things, the actress discussed how she felt telling the story of the film’s title character in the found footage style was beneficial, as it allows viewers to truly focus on Micheal’s emotional descent, which began with his obession of finding the true explanation behind his wife’s death; how she genuinely connected with Johnson and Anderson on the set, even though she only filmed her role over the course of a week, as a natural bond forms between co-stars who play family members; and how she also finds starring on television, including her notable stint as Anna on ‘Supernatural,’ to be exciting, as she gets to go along with the journey of what the writer’s are creating as they’re penning each episode’s script.
ShockYa (SY): You play Beth, the sister of the title character in the new horror film, ‘The Possession of Michael King.’ What was it about the character and the script that convinced you to take on the role?
Julie McNiven (JM): Well, when I first read the script, it actually scared me. (laughs) That’s kind of rare, because there are found footage films being released all the time. But this one felt different, and like it had some really big scares in it. So that was exciting to get on board with something that I thought I would get scare of, and I don’t scare easily. So that was the main thing that drew me to the project.
SY: Speaking of the fact that the movie was shot in the found footage style, which has become a popular subgenre of horror in recent year, do you feel the technique is pertinent in helping to tell Michael’s journey?
JM: Yes-I think the documentary style really supported his story. The other characters are players in his story, but the audience doesn’t know how I feel about what’s happening. You don’t see what happens when I take his daughter and we leave the house to go on an adventure. When he starts to get a little crazy, I take her away for a little while, but you don’t see where we’re going. The movie stays with him, which provides the audience with his story.
I know David, the director, talked about this a couple times in interviews. He didn’t want to show the other characters’ reactions to what’s happening to the possessed person; it’s just focused on the actions of the possessed person.
SY: Speaking of the fact that the film mainly focus on Michael’s reactions, did that influence the way you portrayed Beth?
JM: The script was something we pretty much followed. But then they would let us play around, especially once we said the lines that were in the script. We could find our own way to make the scenes come to an end. We were able to play a little bit, which was fun. Shane is fun to improv with, so that was super fun.
SY: Speaking of Shane, who played Michael, you mainly star alongside him and Ella Anderson, who portrayed Michael’s daughter, Ellie, in the movie. What were your working relationships like with the both of them like on the set?
JM: Something natural just happens (between the actors) when you get cast as a family member. Even thought I only shot (my role) for maybe six or seven days, I immediately felt like Shane and I were brother and sister. I think we naturally fell into that feeling. I also absolutely adored Ella; she’s amazing. She kept up with the adults when we were improvising.
We had long days on the set, so we spent a lot of time getting to know each other, and getting comfortable. Especially with Shane, it was important to me that I felt really sisterly with him. But that wasn’t hard, because he’s really fun. (laughs)
SY: While Michael is persistent in making his documentary, Beth is wearier of his desire to disprove the evidence of the supernatural. Did you create a backstory to explain why she isn’t as supportive of his documentary as he hopes she would be, and also develop it through your improvisation together?
JM: I didn’t discuss that with Shane. Beth has watched Michael’s grieving process after the abrupt death of his wife. I think for her, and her protection of Ellie, the daughter, she wants him to move on. It’s not in a mean way, but she doesn’t want Ellie to be a part of this long, drawn-out process of trying to figure out where his life really is.
So I think her not being totally supportive of this documentary was due to the fact that she thinks it’s not the best thing to do, especially when you have a kid. It’s like, let’s see if the Devil will come possess me. (laughs) So naturally, she was a little protective, and stepped in when she needed to, and took the child from the house.
SY: Do you think Beth is the voice of reason in the movie, as she questioned his decisions from the beginning of the story, and became the parent figure to Ellie?
JM: Yes, I think so. If it was shot more traditionally, as an audience member, you would see a little more of that. But since the documentary is in the found-footage style, not everyone is going to catch that, and that’s okay. That’s not what the story’s about, so it’s okay if it’s something only certain people notice.
SY: ‘The Possession of Michael King’ is different from many other supernatural horror films in the fact that Michael is the character who becomes possessed, as opposed to a woman or child, like Beth or Ellie. Do you think the fact that he was the one who was possessed, instead of Beth or even Ellie, is important to the telling of this story?
JM: I definitely do. I think found footage films have been popular, but also over-done, for the past 15 years, since ‘(The) Blair Witch (Project).’ I think if you’re going to make a project in this style that’s not like the other films that have been made in this genre, you have to switch it up.
Having the little girl being possessed is creepy, but it’s been done over and over again. That aspect’s not part of this story-this is Michael’s story. He’s so determined to test the boundaries, maybe because his emotions are so bare and raw after losing the love of his life. Maybe before his death, he never would have done something like this. But after having his love torn from him, he’s found this desperation of needing to know. I think that’s where the story begins. That aspect is different from most other possession movies, and that’s definitely a good thing.
SY: While Shane preformed many of the film’s stunts, do you enjoy taking part in the stunts of the projects you’re involved in?
JM: Yes, absolutely. When I get to have a stunt day, it’s the best day ever. (laughs) I love doing fight scenes. I got to do one stunt in this film, but I had a stunt double to do the really hard part. But that’s probably good, because she was really hard-core, and I don’t think I would have been as good as she was in the part she had to do.
But doing stunts are so fun for me. I grew up doing gymnastics and dancing, so getting to be physical and staging these choreographed fights for scenes that involve stunts is so fun.
SY: David Jung, who you mentioned earlier, both wrote and directed the film. What was the process of working with him as both the scribe and helmer, especially since this was the first movie he made?
JM: I never would have known that it was his first film. He was very collaborative with his actors. He seemed really natural int he directing chair. But he wasn’t in the chair much, because he was always talking to us, and walking back and forth. He was very creative and let us pitch ideas. So he was fantastic to work with.
SY: ‘The Possession of Michael King’ is currently playing in theaters, as well as on VOD and iTunes. Are you a fan of watching movies On Demand, and why do you think the platform is beneficial for smaller films like this one?
JM: I personally do think that VOD is a good platform for this film. But to be honest, after seeing the movie, I feel like it could have done well in a bigger theatrical release, because it’s really scary. People who like horror films want to have that theater experience, and be scared. But having a few days in the theater is fantastic.
I also think people can take out their good quality speakers at home and gather some friends. I definitely do think VOD is a good platform for smaller films.
SY: There have been screenings of the film across the country, including in New York, LA, Chicago and Austin. Where you able to attend any of the screenings, and if so, what was the experience like? How did audiences react to the movie?
JM: I was only able to attend the L.A. screening. It was really fun to see and hear people get really verbal and responsive. It was really exciting to see other people’s reactions, because I knew things were coming, but I still got scared. That was cool, because I had already seen the film, and it still scared me the second time. I wish I could have gone to other screenings.
SY: Speaking of audiences passionately reacting to the film, are there any horror movies that you enjoyed growing up that peaked your interest in the genre?
JM: Well, I’ve always known that I wanted to make at least one horror film, but I think I need to do at least one more. (laughs) I don’t think I’m done with acting in horror films. But I’m not particularly crazy about gory horror films, but I enjoy the thriller horror films.
Growing up, when I was home sick, I don’t know how my parents put up with me! I’d be like, “Go get ‘The Exorcist,’ please!” (laughs) They would bring home ‘The Exorcist,’ and they would say, “Okay, but you saw this the last time you were sick.” But I was fascinated with any sort of paranormal storyline in films. I have this memory of being in late elementary school, or maybe in junior high, and watching ‘The Exorcist’ when I had the flu.
SY: You’ve previously had experience in the supernatural genre when you played fallen angel Anna Milton on The CW’s ‘Supernatural.’ What is it about this genre that you enjoy acting in so much? What did you find appealing in playing a fallen angel over the course of a couple seasons?
JM: That was so much fun. It’s still one of my favorite roles and experiences overall with a show. I did six episodes, and my character went from one extreme to another, which is so fun to do. I had such a meaty character arc. I died a few times, but like they say, you’re never truly dead on ‘Supernatural!’ (laughs) So we’re crossing our fingers for a return at some point. It was such a great family to work with. I can’t say enough good things about the ‘Supernatural’ crew and cast.
SY: Besides ‘Supernatural,’ you have also had recurring roles on such television series as ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Stargate Universe.’ Why do you enjoy acting on television so much, and what are the similarities and differences between starring on a show and in a film?
JM: Well, with TV, you never really know where your story’s going. So when I was first cast as Anna (on ‘Supernatural’), I had no idea she was going to return. I knew she was going to turn into an angel, but I didn’t know she was going to be so different in that turn, as she was discovering who she truly is.
So that’s one of the exciting things about doing TV-you get to go along with this journey of what the writer’s are dreaming up. You don’t know where it’s going to go. But when you do a film, you have the whole script. So you know the whole arc of the character, as well as the story, all at once..So it’s a different approach. With TV, it can be exciting, and you wonder, what am I going to do this week? (laughs)
SY: Besides ‘The Possession of Michael King,’ do you have any other projects lined up that you can discuss?
JM: I (recently shot) a guest-starring role on a series, but I can’t say which one yet. I’m also in pre-production for a film, which is an adventure-comedy, which will be shooting (next month). I’m excited about both of those things.
Written by: Karen Benardello