Uncovering the unwavering strength needed to escape a difficult situation can be a challenging process for anyone, no matter what emotional and physical obstacles they have already endured. That’s certainly the case for actresses Sabrina Kern and Carolyn Hennesy’s distinctly different protagonist and antagonist in the new horror movie, ‘St. Agatha.’ The drama, which is the latest intriguing entry in the nunsploitation subgenre, explores how two completely different women can have such diverse interactions with their religion, which leads them to transform into such distinct people. While they have both endured heartbreakingly painful circumstances, the varying levels of courage they both possess, as a result of their faith, lead them down drastically various paths.
‘St. Agatha’ was directed by acclaimed horror filmmaker, Darren Lynn Bousman, who has also helmed such classics as the second, third and fourth installments of the ‘Saw’ series, as well as ‘Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival.’ His latest contribution to the genre is being released today in theaters and On Demand and Digital HD by Uncork’d Entertainment.
The events of ‘St. Agatha’ switch between Mary’s (Kern) present day in 1957 in rural Georgia and the past year, during which time she becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, petty criminal-musician, Jimmy (Justin Miles). Having to go out on the road to make money, Jimmy is reluctantly forced to leave Mary behind in their small town after she tells him that she doesn’t want to travel while she’s pregnant.
In desperation to protect and held their unborn child, Mary then accepts the help of a nun she meets at a soup kitchen, and heads to the isolated Sisters of Divinity convent. When she arrives at the battered home, Marry’s taken in by the officious Mother Superior (Hennesy) and the nuns who work for her. After arriving at the convent, Mary almost immediately realizes that it’s not at all what she expected.
Mary initially presumes that the convent would be a safe haven for her until Jimmy returns home and they can start their family life together. But she quickly discovers that she and and the other young expectant mothers who were taken in are actually being held against their will, and the convent acts as a prison that thrives on Mother Superior and her nuns emotionally and physically torturing the other young women. While she doesn’t have anywhere else to go until Jimmy returns home for her, as her abusive father (Jayson Warner Smith) still blames her for the accidental death of her young brother, William (Maximus Murrah), Mary remains determined to stop Mother Superior once and for all, and leave the convent to raise her child.
Kern and Hennesy generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘St. Agatha’ during individual exclusive [hone interviews. Among other things, the actresses discussed that they were drawn to play their respective characters in the drama in part because of Bousman’s powerful directorial style in the horror genre. The performers also explained how they both appreciated having the chance to explore the emotions and motivations of such strong, but opposite, characters, and how their quickly deteriorating relationship influences them to take whatever means necessary to get what they want.
Kern began her conversation by explaining why she was drawn to play Mary in ‘St. Agatha.’ She shared that when she “was working with Darren on ‘The Tension Experience,’ he said he was reading a script, and told me a little about the story. He also said that he was reading it with me in the lead in his mind, and I just kind of laughed it off,” she admitted. “Then two weeks later, I ended up putting myself on tape for the role, but I still hadn’t read the script. I then got the script, and a few weeks later, I was on the set.”
The actress also revealed that “The first time I read the script, I wish someone would have filmed me reacting to it. I really liked that Mary is so totally independent and strong-minded.”
Hennesy also began her conversation by disclosing why she was also drawn to star in the movie. “I was introduced to Darren, who said, ‘Let’s meet for coffee,’ and we did. Within about 20 minutes, he decided that I was going to be his Mother Superior, and I decided that he was right!,” she said with a laugh.
“Darren told me about the character, including what she does and comes from, and who she interacts with, and I was thrilled. She’s unlike anyone I have ever played before. Plus, the idea that I was going to be directed by the man who helmed ‘Saw II, III and IV,’ ‘Abattoir‘ and ‘Repo! (The Genetic Opera),’ was exciting. So I said, ‘Sure, of course I’m on board, because I’m in good hands.’ So both of those elements went into” the performer’s decision to portray Mother Superior in Bousman’s latest project.
The actress then admitted that like Kern, she also hadn’t read the script when she was first asked to star in the drama, but “I decided to take a leap of faith. Although I knew I wasn’t leaping off of a tremendously high ledge,” she added with a laugh.
Further speaking of collaborating with Bousman, Kern described her working relationship with the filmmaker as “great. I love working with Darren, because he’s very much an actor’s director, and understands the process of an actor. At the beginning of the production, he sat all of us actors down and told us, ‘I see this as a collaboration. These are your characters, and I want you to bring as much as you can to them. Bring any ideas that you think are right, and we’ll look at it.’ So in that regard, it’s so awesome to work with him, and find the Mary that we ultimately put into the movie.”
Hennesy also expressed her appreciation of Bousman’s helming style on the set of ‘St. Agatha.’ “His vision for the film was very specific and broad. His vision for Mother Superior was directly in line with mine. I think we shot a couple of scenes on the first day, and then he left me alone. He directed me, of course, but gave me very little in the direction of course correction, because we were absolutely on the same page about her,” she revealed. “He liked what I was doing, so it was incredibly easy to work with him.
“So Darren was instead able to focus on other areas of the shoot, including the camera angles. He’s this incredibly visual filmmaker; he really knows gore. But he would also listen to suggestions about gore, and what we could do in each scene. Anyone could propose things, and his ego was taken out” of the way he approached making the horror movie, the performer explained. “He was only interested in getting the best end result. But he’s also the master and commander of the set. So collaborating with him was wonderful, and we had a tremendous working relationship.”
Kern also delved into what her experience of also working with the rest of the cast, in addition to Bousman . “I was actually living in Atlanta with Courtney Halverson (who plays Catherine) when we started making the movie. Since we were living together, we were definitely the ones who were talking about our characters the most. She was such a supporting, amazing role in my life at that time,” she shared.
“The whole cast got along so well, and we’re all still friends. We would always help each other out, and have discussions about what life was like in the 1950s, and what it was like to be a woman at that time,” the performer then stated. “We also all learned a lot by watching Carolyn Hennesy; she’s a dream, and a wonderful person.”
Hennesy called her castmates dreams to collaborate with on the set, as well. She also noted that ‘St. Agatha’ “was Sabrina’s first major role, and as far as I’m concerned, you would never know it from the way she behaved on the set, from her interactions with the cast and crew. Courtney, Lindsay (Seim), Hannah (Fierman) and Trin (Miller) were also all professionals. They were all also fun, funny, smart and living their characters out 100 percent. I love them all, and would do anything with any of them again, anytime!”
Having the opportunity to shoot ‘St. Agatha’ in Madison, Georgia, which is a smaller city in the Atlanta area, was also something that Kern also cherished. She noted that “This is my first feature film, so everything was new. I’m originally from Switzerland, but I really enjoyed living in, and working near, Atlanta!”
Hennesy also cherished the opportunity to film the drama in Madison. “Location shooting is always the best, because it’s a slight vacation. Also, working in a home that has so much history was great. It was built in 1839, so it was falling down around us, as we were filming,” the actress revealed with a laugh.
“Pieces of plaster and wallpaper were falling off the walls, which was an asset to the overall film, and especially Mother Superior. My character is crumbling inside, so of course, her exterior is going to be crumbling, as well. The church has turned its back on her, so there isn’t any money for repairs, but that doesn’t dissuade her from doing God’s work. So her work just happens to be in this dilapidated building,” the performer divulged.
Overall, Hennesy thought “Madison was stunning, and the people were warm and welcoming. Georgia is so fantastic, I’d film in Atlanta any day of the week! Overall, I love filming on location almost more than I do on a soundstage,” she admitted. “There’s a more of an authenticity that comes with” shooting on location.
Creating the physicality for her character of Mary was also a situation that Kern embraced. “I had to do a lot of preparation in that respect, since Mary’s pregnant. I had to learn how to walk around with that big belly, because I’ve never been pregnant before myself. So I really wanted to know what that experience is like,” she shared.
“In terms of the stunts, I had a lovely stunt double, Sarah (Reagin Clemmensen). She helped me whenever I had to do my own stunts; she was always right there by my side. She would say things like, ‘This is how I would do it,'” the actress graciously divulged. “Our stunt coordinator, Nick (DeKay), was also great. I really liked that aspect, and was always excited about those scenes that I could do something a little crazier. Those were some of my favorite scenes to delve into throughout the shoot.”
Like Hennesy previously mentioned about the camera angles that Bousman and the film’s Director of Photography, Joseph White, decided to use throughout the shoot, the performer was able to establish her own physicality. “Once I understood where the camera angles were going to be, I was really able to work with that. But overall, Mother Superior was going to act the way she wanted, and should, at all times, and the cameras were going to capture that,” she noted.
The performer added that her antagonist would act however she wanted, and the way she was captured on camera “was in Darren and Joe White’s hands. Mother Superior was just doing her thing! That’s how I think not only Mother Superior, but any authentic character should be on screen. If the audience can tell that a character’s aware of the camera, then something’s wrong!,” she noted with a laugh.
Kern also revealed why she thinks that religious-driven stories, especially and nunsploitation tales, are so prevalent in the horror genre right now. “I think the aspect of religion always brings a certain amount of mystery to a horror story. While religion is great, if it’s taken to an extreme, it can make things scarier. So I think the level of religion, and the mystery that it brings, in horror stories really helps create the scares,” she explained.
“There are so many twists about Mother Superior and the whole religion aspect in our story. But I can’t say too much about it, because I’ll give away the twist!,” the actress also admitted with a laugh.
Also delving into the emotional arc of her character, and how Mary’s stay at the Sisters of Divinity convent changes her, Kern noted that “The main thing that was so difficult for everyone who was staying at the convent, including Mary, was that they had to stay quiet. That’s what postulant nuns have to do. So I think that silence aspect was difficult for Mary, because she’s so used to speaking up throughout her past; she’s not one to be quiet, at all,” she explained.
“She’s this strong, independent woman who’s suddenly being told not to speak up. But I don’t think that changed her, although I do think that she wanted to change that aspect of the convent. She didn’t understand why women, particularly nuns, weren’t allowed to speak up about what’s going on around them. She’s the biggest rebel in the convent,” the actress revealed.
Hennesy also mentioned that she cherishes the process of exploring how characters change throughout a story. During that journey, “you get to go on a very dark, long, lonely and cold weave. It’s like you have a thread that you have to drop behind you, in order to find your way out again.” She pointed out that she had to go to dark places with Mother Superior, “so I had to have something to hoist myself out again. That was the thrill of this job, and it was fun! It was frighteningly easy, and I don’t know what that says about me!,” she added with a laugh.
After production on ‘St. Agatha’ was complete, Kern, along with many of her castmates and the crew member,s attended screenings of the drama on the film festival circuit. She described that experience as being “a lot of fun. We went to the Overlook Film Festival, and that was exciting. I also went to London for FrightFest, and that was so great, because it’s closer to my hometown in Switzerland. So my family was able to go to London, and watch the film there.”
With ‘St. Agatha’ now playing in American theaters and On Demand and Digital HD, following its film festival run, Kern also expressed her appreciation that audiences are able to watch the drama nationwide, at their convenience. “Seeing a film in the theater is always so magical, so I always encourage people to see as many movies in the theater as possible. But I also enjoy watching movies On Demand on my laptop, because I missed them in the theater, or they go straight to Digital. I just enjoy watching movies, especially ones like ‘St. Agatha,’ anyway I can!”