Effortlessly drawing viewers into the dark world of addiction, while also making them care about the self-destructive main characters, can often be a humbling challenge for filmmakers. That’s certainly the case for actress Imogen Poots and her new drama, ‘Castle in the Ground,’ for which the cast and crew built a compelling intimacy that’s set against the backdrop of the modern opioid crisis in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
The powerful grief film was written and directed by Canadian filmmaker, Joey Klein, who easily connected with his cast, as he’s also an actor himself. The feature opened this weekend On Demand, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures, after it premiered at last summer’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
‘Castle in the Ground’ follows 19-year-old Henry Fine (Alex Wolff) as he decides to defer starting college until his ailing single mother, Rebecca (Neve Campbell), has overcome her life-threatening cancer, despite her objections. While the teen acts as his mother’s caregiver, she initially hides the fact that she has relapsed from him. Henry doesn’t take the news that his mother’s chances of recovery have diminished well, which makes him decide to end his relationship with his girlfriend, Rachel (Star Slade), as she prepares to leave for college.
To deal with his pain, Henry complies with Rebecca’s instance that she combine her medications to help ease her pain, despite her pharmacist’s warning not to take them together. The fatal result of the combination makes the teen blame himself for her death, which leads him to pursue Ana (Poots), his neighbor across the hall from him in his apartment building. After officially meeting at the pharmacy, they begin to spend time together, and she reveals to him that she’s staying in a relative’s apartment while she’s in a recovery program for opioid addiction.
However, after struggling to refill her methadone prescription, Ana turns to her dealer, Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist), to take the edge off. After Henry witnesses a masked intruder who steals Polo Boy’s supply of Oxy. Henry becomes even more enthralled in Ana’s life when she descents back into the world of illegal drugs, partially due to her friends Jimmy (Tom Cullen) and Stevie’s (Kiowa Gordon) involvement in the pill theft. Along with Henry’s growing reliance on the remainder of his mother’s prescriptions to deal with the pain of her death, he and Ana become increasingly dependent on each other in their respective fights for survival.
Poots generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘Castle in the Ground’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the performer discussed that she was drawn to play Ana in part because of the real-life inspiration that Klein infused into the script, due to his father being a doctor who’s involved in treating the opioid crisis. She also shared that she worked with the filmmaker and her co-stars, particularly Wolff, on developing the characters before they began filming. But their overall performances ultimately varied from what they initially prepared, due to the emotions they felt everyday on set.
The conversation with Poots began with the actress discussing what drew her to play Ana in the drama. “I read the script, and then had a conversation with the director, Joey Klein. His father is a doctor who’s involved in this specific crisis, so I felt Joey had a real-life take on the film’s subject matter,” she explained. “The characters on the page were really interesting. Ana was a very vibrant and complicated in the way she was written. So I was very intrigued by what the story we were going to tell would be like.”
Poots then delved into what kind of preparation and research she did before production began on ‘Castle in the Ground,’ in order to better connect with Ana’s motivations and emotions. “Joey and I looked into the treatments that patients go through for this type of drug addiction. So we spoke to patients who were undergoing these treatments. That was extremely helpful, and it was quite extraordinary how generous people were with their stories and experiences. That helped me tell Ana’s story.
“What really struck me was how normal this addiction is; it’s very commonplace and pervasive, especially in Sudbury, which is where we shot the movie,” the performer further shared. “It really struck me how normal and extremely common this is there.”
One of the most striking factors of the arc of Ana is that she appears to want to successfully complete her treatment in certain instances, while at other times, she fall back into relying on opioids in order to make it through the day. Poots discussed how she balanced making her character equally sympathetic and insensitive throughout the film.
“The thing that’s really upsetting about Ana’s story is that she may never get out on the other side. I think her life is very tiring, which is something I learned from some of the folks I spoke to,” the actress disclosed. “There was a hustle between each fix, and they couldn’t relax until the next opportunity they could get high. It was very important to me to remember that. There’s a mania to Ana that reflected that sense of unease,” which leads to the selflessness that Ana also exhibits throughout the drama, while she reverted back to her underlying sense of empathy while she watched Henry struggle.
With Klein writing and directing the movie, Poots cherished her working relationship with the filmmaker, and explained what their collaboration process was like as they developed the performer’s character of Ana. “It was great working with Joey. He was an actor before he started directing, and he still acts occasionally now, so there was an efficiency to his work with this cast. He works well with actors, and understands what they need,” she shared. “Joey is someone who’s extremely passionate, and you could see that everyday on the set.”
The actress then shared that Klein encouraged his cast to bring their own ideas into building their characters. “Joey was extremely open to our ideas. He wrote the script, but he also wanted us to bring what we had,” she noted. “On the page, the characters were very vivid, and as a cast, we could access them quite easily. We did our work developing the characters prior to filming, but what existed between them on the days we filmed did vary from what we prepared.”
With ‘Castle in the Ground’ co-starring a diverse cast that includes Wolff and Cullen, Poots enjoyed the process of working with them. “Working with everyone was super. Tom Cullen was also tremendous to work with, and he and Joey worked together on his previous movie (the 2017 romantic drama, ‘The Other Half‘). Tom also wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film, ‘Pink Wall,’ which was fantastic. So it was glorious working with everyone,” the performer declared.
“We also made the movie independently for a limited number of weeks. So we were in close quarters together, which can have advantages in creating the characters’ journeys together on set,” Poots added.
With the drama being set and filmed in Sudbury, the actress also appreciated the process of shooting on location. “We shot in Sudbury, in Canada. and it was nice to film there. We all stayed int the same part of this small town,” she said.
“Like I said earlier, in regards to the research, there were times while we were there in Canada that Joey and I would go to meth clinics. We would talk to folks who went through the opioid crisis, and that was extremely helpful. It was nice to tell someone’s story. The impression that we got from the people we spoke to was that they were happy that their story is being told,” Poots divulged. “It seems like their story is swept under the rug a bit. I think people are understandably angry about that, because it’s not commonly recognized how common this addiction is,” she added.
As Henry befriends Ana, he becomes engulfed in a world of addiction and violence, as the opioid epidemic takes hold of their small town. Poots then delved into what the process of creating the physicality for her character was like as the duo fights the drug cartel to protect themselves.
“The physicality easily came along with playing the role of Ana. I liked the idea of showing her fatigue. I think her mania came with from her literal lack of sleep, as well as her endless need to get her next fix,” the performer revealed. “That’s a position that she’s been put in by the doctors and drug companies that have given her this addiction, and then left her with it.”
Throughout the film, Ana interchangeably acts as though she either truly likes Henry as a friend, or that he’s just a way to help her secure her next dosage of opioids. So Poots pondered whether or not her character truly appreciated Henry’s new presence in her life. “I think that’s really for the audience to decide, as it’s quite ambiguous. It’s hard to tell, as she’s impenetrable in that sense,” she admitted.
“Henry is certainly the perfect victim for her to use to her advantage. But she does have compassion, and I think there is a genuine human connection that arises out of their friendship. So I can’t say one side is stronger,” the actress continued. “The state she’s been left in by the doctors and drug companies has left her unable to lead a normal, reliable life, and make responsible choices and real connections.”
With ‘Castle in the Ground’ now being available On Demand, Poots reflected on her time promoting the drama at TIFF last summer. “The Toronto Film Festival is always great. It was super fun, and great to share the movie with everyone there,” the performer divulged.