Living in a loving home with a caring family is meant to make people feel protected and secure, particularly those who are grappling with the effects of a traumatizing experience. But that ordeal can become frightening when that safe environment begins to feel sinister and threatening. The growing impression of claustrophobia is captivatingly highlighted between the protagonist and her teenage stepson in the new thriller, ‘Shut In,’ which was directed by Farren Blackburn. Audiences can now witness the growing suspense of how a mother and son can become emotionally and physically isolated and manipulated, as the drama was released in theaters nationwide this weekend by EuropaCorp USA.
‘Shut In,’ which was written by Christina Hodson, follows child psychologist Mary Portman (Naomi Watts), whose husband died in a head-on car crash as he was driving his troubled teenage son, Stephen (Charlie Heaton), to boarding school. The married couple no longer knows how to care for Stephen, who’s constantly angry at everyone around him and was expelled from his former high school. Mary feels guilty about her inability to use her professional skills to help her stepson contend with his emotions.
After Stephen is severely injured in the accident that killed his father, Mary decides to care for him in their remote New England country home, where she also works in her office in an adjacent outbuilding. Besides from working, much of Mary’s time is spent caring for her stepson, who was left brain-damaged and in a somewhat vegetative state following the accident. Besides tending to Stephen, Mary also becomes concerned for one of her patients, Tom (Jacob Tremblay). The young boy, who is deaf, is having trouble trusting his doctor and the rest of the adults in his life. The psychologist becomes increasingly concerned about Tom when he mysteriously goes missing during a harsh winter storm.
The community soon begins to fear that Tom died in the snow storm, leaving Mary’s guilt over not being able to adequately care for the people in her life to grow even deeper. Stricken with increasing remorse, the doctor begins to have troubling dreams about Tom’s disappearance. Experiencing the nightmares leads her to believe that the strange sounds she hears during the night can be attributed to his ghost haunting her and Stephen.
Between her disconcerting dreams and the pressure of being her stepson’s sole caregiver, Mary begins to confide in her friend and mentor, Dr. Wilson (Oliver Platt). The protagonist’s fellow psychologist tries to convince her that she’s just imagining the sounds that are plaguing her, and tries to guide her back to stability. As she realizes that she’s losing control over her emotions and sense of reality, she accepts her friend’s help to work on finding, and ultimately stopping, the forces that are overtaking her life.
Heaton generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview at New York City’s Ritz Carlton Hotel Battery Park to talk about playing Stephen in the thriller. Among other things, the actor discussed how he was immediately intrigued by the character during the first time he read the script for the drama, and was honored Blackburn cast him in the vital part, which marks his first big feature film role. Heaton also mentioned created the physicality for the character before he began shooting his scenes with Watts, whose work as an actress he expressed respect for, which he felt helped build their bond on screen.
ShockYa (SY): You play Stephen Portman in the new drama, ‘Shut In.’ What initially interested you in both the character of Stephen and the overall story, and how did you become involved in the film?
Charlie Heaton (CH): This was my first big feature film. So at the time, I hadn’t really done any acting, and I was auditioning for a lot of movies. Then this one came in, and they said, “We’re looking for an actor to fill the role, and we’re almost closing.” I actually ended up getting it about two weeks before we went into production.
So this was just a case where I read the script, and I was fascinated by it. I thought it was a real page turner. When I was reading it, it had a ‘The Shining’-type of feeling. It also felt like a Hitchcock movie that’s based on the characters. Obviously, since I was playing a character who’s in a vegetative state, we couldn’t physicalize him. So it was almost like playing nothing, which was very intriguing to me.
SY: Speaking of the character’s physicality, Stephen becomes hurt in the accident that killed his father, and becomes dependent on his stepmother to subsequently care for him. What was the process of creating the movements for the role?
CH: When we go into the story, Stephen has had a traumatic brain injury from a car accident, which leaves him that that vegetative state. So to help form the physicality, I researched what his movements would be like. I tried to find as much source material as I could. I watched a lot of videos, as well as movies that go over that subject.
Then it was all about physicalizing it for me. I spent a lot of time looking at my face in the mirror, and seeing how my eyes moved. That helped me learn how to be vacant behind the eyes. Since I created that physicality before we began shooting, once we arrived on the set, I could just focus on filming. When Farren would direct me, he would just say, “Do less.” But then I would worry, because it was like I was doing nothing.
SY: Speaking of working with Farren, who directed the thriller, what was your experience of collaborating with him on developing the character of Stephen for the film?
CH: It was wonderful. I was amazed with Farren, because he took the risk of casting me in this movie. At the time, I hadn’t done any other acting jobs. I did spend a good year-and-half taping (auditions). When you get a script, you’re told to tape scenes for your audition. I had done about 100 auditions prior to getting this film. Everyone would say, “We liked you, but we’re going to go for a name (actor).”
So for Farren to have picked me, when I previously hadn’t done anything, was great. We’re both British, so we have that connection. I have a lot of trust in him as a director, which made me feel comfortable, and gave me a confident place to work.
The crew was also great, and I remember how happy they were. Everyone was saying how special this set was. I think on movie sets, everything starts with the director, and it trickles down. Farren had a very relaxed vibe, and didn’t take himself so seriously, which was great.
Since we were making such a dark project, we didn’t want the set to be like that; it would be exhausting if things were consonantly tense. So we would be shooting some very tense scenes, but when Farren called cut, everyone would be laughing and having a good time. I think that happened because of Farren, and how he let people work.
SY: Do you think it’s important to balance humor with darker elements, both while you’re filming, and in the actual story, of a genre film like ‘Shut In?’
CH: I definitely do think it’s important. I think in any kind of working environment, if you don’t enjoy being there, or if it’s stifling and stressful, it’s very hard to do your job. I think when anyone’s put under an immense amount of pressure, they can’t do their job. That doesn’t just go for actors; that’s true for everyone. So having an environment that’s so relaxed enables you to be confident.
On film, you bond with these people who you never would have met in the normal world. So you instantly learn on day one to be a unit, and that’s very important. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate. Every crew on every film I’ve been in since this one also had that family vibe, so it’s been such a wonderful world to work in.
SY: What was your collaboration process also like with Naomi Watts, who portrays Stephen’s stepmom, Mary? Did you have the chance to work with her on developing your characters’ mother-son relationship?
CH: Naomi’s work speaks for itself! She has played so many types of characters throughout her career. So to have been able to work with her is such an honor. She’s so normal, grounded and charming. She’s one of those people you can truly learn from. I’m not trained as an actor, so she could have been terrified, and thought, who’s this kid? But she wasn’t; she was so supportive and helpful. She was such a laugh to be around, and was always cracking jokes.
SY: Once you and Naomi were both cast as in the movie, were you able to have any rehearsal time together, in order to build Stephen and Mary’s relationship and backstories?
CH: Yes, we did rehearse at first. I think what was important for this film to work was to have the audience care about the relationship between Stephen and Mary. Since Stephen’s in a vegetative state, we discussed how we could show their relationship. But Naomi has maternal instincts, and you can say she mothered me, in a way, on this movie. (laughs)
SY: Since ‘Shut In’ mainly takes place in and around the Portmans’ remote New England home during the winter, what was the process of shooting the drama on location?
CH: We filmed the first part of the film in Sutton, which is a town that’s outside of Montreal. We shot in March, and at the time, it was about negative 30 degrees. That’s where we shot the exterior locations. Working with the weather was hard-we were shooting with a whole crew outside in the negative 30 temperature. We were trying to get people to do things in the freezing snow.
So we had all of these difficulties, and that was where the main house was, which we actually designed. Then we went to Vancouver, where we shot all of the interior scenes in a real house. It was amazing to go from the house we built to the actual one. It was like, we’re in the same house, but we’re on different sides of the country! So that really set the tone.
The set design in everything I’ve done amazes me. It’s the same feeling you get when you read the script and put on the costumes. But when you walk onto the sets and they’re so beautifully done, it makes everything feel so authentic.
Watch the official trailer for ‘Shut In’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello