People often feel the need to glamorize themselves online so that they can convince not only everyone they are connected with, but also themselves, that their lives are better than they actually are. They wrongfully don’t think about the consequences of their actions as they try to showcase the most attractive aspects of their lives in the process. But everyone, especially those vulnerable teens who feel as they need constant validation to feel worthy and appreciated, needs to realize that it’s not smart to compare themselves to anyone else, particularly online. That important message of the significance of being, and appreciating, your true self, and realizing that no one’s life is always elegant and exciting, is powerfully showcased in the horror film, ‘Unfriended.’ Actress Renee Olstead helped emphasize that important message in the intriguing thriller, which was directed by Levan Gabriadze, and is now available On Digital HD, and will be available on Blu-Ray, DVD and On Demand on Tuesday.
The events of ‘Unfriended’ unfold entirely on the laptop screen of high school student Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig), on the one-year anniversary of the suicide of her childhood friend and classmate, Laura Barnes (Heather Sossaman). Laura was driven to end her life after she became the victim of malicious cyberbullying, following the anonymous posting of an embarrassing video, which shows her drunk and passed out at a party she attended with her peers. Blaire begins talking to her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), on a private video chat before their friends, including Adam (Will Peltz), Jess (Olstead), Val (Courtney Halverson) and Ken (Jacob Wysocki), join their conversation. The group soon realizes that their Skype chat has been infiltrated by an uninvited guest. Despite trying to hang up on their intruder and call each other back several times, the mystery person continues to impose on their conversation. The teens also begin to get mysterious messages, including ones sent from Laura’s Facebook page.
As the friends frantically try to do whatever’s necessary to rid themselves of the person they initially believe is impersonating Laura, they soon realize that a supernatural force is using her account and controlling their laptops. The spirit, who the group comes to suspect belongs to Laura, threatens to kill each of the friends if they hang up on the video chat. As Blaire and her classmates try to rid the spirit from their computers, the spirit reveals secrets the friends are trying to hide from each other, as it searches for the identity of the anonymous video poster that drove her to commit suicide. As the teens are subsequently torn apart by disloyalty, they try to do whatever it takes to stop the spirit from harming them all.
Olstead generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘Unfriended’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the actress discussed how she was drawn to play Jess in the horror thriller, because not only was it shot in an unconventional way, as the entire plot unfolded on a computer screen, but how the story also represents the fact that people are becoming increasing more dependent on technology to communicate with other people; how she would love if people would watch the film’s Blu-ray and DVD, as well as its Digital HD copy, on their computers and other mobile devices, so that they can fully understand what Jess and her friends were experiencing as the cyberbullying against them was increasing; and how she thinks people are always trying to show their best selves online, but that’s a misrepresentation of who they truly are, so they should embrace their true selves on social media.
ShockYa (SY): You play Jess Felton in the horror thriller, ‘Unfriended.’ What was it about the character, as well as the script overall, that convinced you to take on the role?
Renee Olstead (RO): I really connected with this project because it’s so unconventional. It was originally called ‘Offline,’ before its name was changed to ‘Cybernatural,’ and now it’s ‘Unfriended’ for its official release. So there were a lot of different titles since the movie first began its development. (laughs) But all along, I have been shocked about how innovative it is, and I was dying to be in it. I was also dying in it. (laughs)
But it was different in the fact that we shot it more like theater; we shot the film like an 80-minute long take. There aren’t conventional scene breaks that you see in traditional movies. There aren’t camera turnarounds, or all of the other things that you’re used to experiencing as you’re filming. We shot big, long takes for ‘Unfriended,’ so there was a lot to think about in that sense, in terms of framing. That aspect was very different, but also a lot of fun.
We tried to make sure that when we were at a certain line in the script, we were showing a different shot of our bedrooms behind us, to show that we were constantly moving. So the other actors and I were working on the camera blocking, and serving as our own cinematographers. We all had laptops with a GoPro (camera) attached to them, as well as a lighting rig and cables, which I kept tripping over while we were filming. But it was a lot of fun, and a really different experience.
SY: How did the fact that Jess and her friends only being shown on screen via their Skype calls influence your acting, particularly the physical aspects, including the way you interacted with the camera? What was the process of readjusting to such a different type of filming throughout the shoot?
RO: Well, I feel like our generation is used to staring at computer screens all the time. A lot of the shots feature our reactions to what we were talking about, and what was happening around us. So we weren’t having normal human interaction; we were just looking at the screen and typing, and taking in everything that happens while you’re on the computer.
It was cool to interact with the rest of the cast in that way. We all formed really fast connections, and genuinely reacting to what we were all seeing on our screens. We were all filming in the same location, but we were in different rooms. So it was cool to act by ourselves, in a way, since we were all alone in our rooms for the entirety of the shot. But it was a fun process.
SY: You were joined on Jess’ Skype call with her friends by several of your co-stars, including Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki and Courtney Halverson. What was the process of collaborating with the rest of the cast solely through the characters’ computers? Did you have a chance to speak with them before you began filming to discuss how you all wanted to approach acting through the computer screens?
RO: I think that process did help make it realistic. If we were all in the same room, but were sitting in different corners, we would have been more focused on looking at each other than at our screens. By filming in different rooms, we had to watch our screens to follow along with what was happening with everyone else.
It’s cool because the film’s out now on Digital HD and streaming over digital downloads. So people are finally able to experience the film the way they were supposed to, within the world that the movie takes place. So now audiences can watch the film on their computers in the same way the other actors and I were watching each other as we were filming.
SY: Speaking of the fact that the film is now available on Digital HD, it’s also set to be released on Blu-ray and DVD (on Tuesday). What kind of response did you receive from viewers who saw the movie during its theatrical release? With the story’s premise, do you feel that it’s home release is a great way for viewers to watch the film, particularly on their computers and mobile devices?
RO: Absolutely-I think this type of home release is extremely beneficial. We had a really great reaction when the film was released in theaters, and people were tweeting us, and saying how they had seen it five times. But I think it’s awesome that people who didn’t have the chance to see the movie in theaters can now have the opportunity to watch it within the world it takes place. I really recommend that people watch the film on their computers. If people want to download the movie onto their TVs, I totally get that, but if they can watch it on their laptops, it makes it that much scarier.
SY: ‘Unfriend’ premiered at last year’s Fantasia Festival, and also played at this year’s SXSW. Where you able to attend the movie’s screenings on the festival circuit, and if so, what was your experience like overall?
RO: It was an interesting experience. I did go to a screening, but I didn’t know what exactly was going to happen. We had done reshoots, particularly alternate deaths for all of the characters. So the deaths were a surprise to me, because I didn’t know who was going to die in what order, and how they were going to die. So it was definitely a scary viewing experience for me, because I didn’t know what was going to happen next.
SY: Since ‘Unfriended’ is driven by the heightened emotions Jess and her friends experience as they’re being targeted online, as well as the stunts and action sequences once they begin to become physically attacked, do you enjoy balancing the emotional and physical sides of you characters?
RO: I think this movie has a really good balance, because when it starts, it feels more like a comedy. You really get to experience the way that kids actually talk online.
One aspect that was funny was that the film’s director (Gabriadze) was trying to explain something to us the fight between Courtney Halverson, who plays Val, and me. He was trying to get us amped up, saying this is the way kids talk to each other online, but we thought, who really fights like that in a web chat?
So he started showing us all of these archived videos of people who recorded their web chats with their friends. It was crazy how these people started going after each other. We couldn’t believe that all of that was real. We watched a lot of those videos, and brought ideas from the videos of these people fighting online to our exchange. I think that process helped us a lot.
So it’s a different world now. Sometimes it’s difficult for people who aren’t teenagers, like myself, to understand how someone can be so brutal. But the truth is, that’s what’s happening online.
SY: The thriller emphasizes that the impact of peer pressure, particularly between adolescents, isn’t just confined to school anymore; it’s now also taking place online through cyberbully. Why do you think it’s important for the media, especially in horror films, which is such a beloved genre, to highlight the negative impact of bullying, especially with social media’s ever-increasing popularity?
RO: I absolutely do think that’s an important aspect of the film. We received a lot of comments online from people who thought we put a good message in the movie, particularly that the way you behave online does affect other people. But your actions ultimately may not come back to bite you like the ghost of Laura Barns. (laughs)
But the film does make an impact, in showing that what you say online does hurt people. I think the idea of sharing other people’s secrets, especially online, and ultimately hurting them isn’t something people always think about, as they can hide behind their keyboards. They think that if they say something to someone they’ve never met, that doesn’t count as bullying. But I think that shows how people really are.
SY: With the rise of popularity of social media in the past decade, people have often felt the need to make their lives seem better than they actually are when they post highlights of what they do online. Why do you feel that the film’s message that people’s lives aren’t always as glamorous as they seem is also an important one to explore?
RO: I think the biggest threat we need to understand about the internet is that it’s human nature to always show your best side. I don’t think people are going to post a photo of themselves crying and looking terrible online. So you don’t get to see the whole spectrum of what that person’s really like. They’re going to post photos of themselves when they’re with their friends, or wearing something cute. But nine times out of 10, I’m wearing sweatpants with dog hair from my puppy on them. (laughs)
Life includes a lot of stuff that isn’t glamorous, but people are just going to post their best moments. People are always comparing themselves to what they see online. People think, I’m wearing sweatpants, and this person is wearing something great. But the truth is, everyone’s human, and can’t be glamorous and beautiful every moment of the day. I think people are always trying to show their best selves, but that’s a misrepresentation.
People need to realize that it’s not smart to compare themselves to anyone else online, or anyone at all. It’s about being yourself, and realizing that everyone gets sad sometimes.
SY: ‘Unfriended’s story uniquely unfolds through a screen shot chat between Jess and her friends online, on such websites as Skype and Facebook. With the story reflecting on the effects of social media on people’s relationships and feelings of self-esteem, why do you feel it was important to tell the film’s story solely through the friends’ interactions online, in such a different type of found-footage style?
RO: Yes, I think showing the profiles and other aspects of social media makes the story relatable. Everyone has an Instagram and Facebook page, so that lends a starting off point for viewers to relate to the characters.
SY: What was your collaboration process also like with ‘Unfriended’s director, Levan Gabriadze, particularly in developing the characters’ relationships and the story?
RO: The direction I received was incredibly helpful. Like I mentioned before, the fight Jess had with Val was something I didn’t have in my wheelhouse, as we had never personally experienced something like that before. So it was difficult for us to know how to create that scene.
It was a great experience overall, as we had a really innovative team that was open to trying new things. I’d be able to say, “Let’s try this scene this way, and my character wouldn’t say this, while this person says that. Then my character will react in this way.” So everyone was open to trying new things, and not being word specific to the script all the time. We had this fluid flow, and the film was grounded in overall reality, which I think people really connected with.
SY: What was the experience also of working with Jason Blum, who served as one of the film’s producers, and whose production company, Blumhouse Productions, which has produced so many popular and acclaimed films in the horror genre?
RO: Well, I didn’t meet Jason until after we shot the movie. I met him at WonderCon, where we did a panel. It was so awesome-he told us how proud of the movie he was, and how interested he was in the concept. He really made this film possible; without him, this movie probably would have never made it to theaters. It’s really great to have someone like him on your team, who really believes in your project.
SY: With ‘Unfriended’ being a horror thriller, are you personally a fan of the genre-do you watch horror films, particularly like this one?
RO: I’m not great with horror movies; I get really scared easily. I like ‘The Exorcist,’ but overall, I do better with movies where I know what’s going to happen. If I’m watching a movie and don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s really terrifying to me. (laughs) I’m usually the girl who’s screaming in the theater.
SY: With ‘Unfriended 2’ currently in development, would you be interested in returning to the series and reprising your role of Jess, particularly in a prequel that explores the events that led to Laura’s death?
RO: I would absolutely love to take part in the second film. I would probably be the most excited to revisit this story and filmmaking experience. I’d be interested in seeing where they go. I don’t know if they’re going to continue filming within this same world, or take it into a more traditional sense of filming.
I’d definitely be interested in playing Jess again-I don’t think she’s as terrible as everyone thinks she is. (laughs) She’s more of a bandwagon type of girl, and maybe a little insecure. But I think people’s insecurities make them act terribly online a lot of times. They’re so concerned about people not thinking they’re as cool as they think that they are, which makes them act out.
SY: Were there any personality traits that Jess has that you found relatable while you were playing her, and helped you better connect with her?
RO: I think that Jess is relatable because she doesn’t have it all. For instance, she really likes Adam, but he’s never really thought much about her, as he’s always gone after Shelley’s character. So she may compensate for those insecurities sexually and by bullying people. She’s also doing those things because the guy she likes, and her friend who she thinks is cooler than her, is doing them. So I think bringing all of those aspect to Jess was important, so she wasn’t just the mean girl from high school. I wanted to create a backstory to explain why she was acting the way she did.
SY: Besides films, you have also starred on several television shows throughout your career, including ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager’ and ‘Still Standing.’ What is it about television that you also enjoy working on? How does the process of filming a TV series compare and contrast to acting in a film, particularly an independent one like ‘Unfriended?’
RO: Well, one thing I love about TV is that it’s like a family. You get to see the same people everyday, and in the case of ‘The Secret Life,’ we were together for five years. That was a lot of fun, because I got to work with my real-life best friend, who’s been one of my closest friends since we were about 10.
There are different aspects you enjoy when you’re making different projects. ‘Unfriended’ was completely different than anything else I’ve ever done before, just because it was shot so differently. I think that’s why it was so exciting for me as an actress, and why it’s so innovative and interesting to audiences.
But when I was on a sitcom (‘Still Standing’), I got to play to a live studio audience, we were playing for laughs from the audience. That’s completely different from films, in which you aren’t playing to an audience. The shoots for television dramas are also typically longer, because you’re only filming with one camera, instead of with four cameras, like you do on other projects. The two mediums are completely different, but I’ve been completely fortunate in the fact that I’ve been able to try them both in my journey so far.
Written by: Karen Benardello