Though they both boast impressive filmographies at a young age, neither Maria Bakalova or Amandla Stenberg had appeared in a horror film before. That all changes with the Aug. 5 release of “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a smart and funny slasher film from A24 in which a group of frienemies find themselves dropping one by one while trapped in a remote mansion during a storm. An Agatha Christie-style murder mystery set amongst Gen Z, the characters in Halina Reijn’s American directorial debut have to try and look up from their phones long enough to figure out who’s doing the killing.
Bakalova and Stenberg star as Bee and Sophie, a fairly new couple with a notable class divide – working class Bee doesn’t quite fit in with Sophie’s spoiled and entitled crowd. Variety spoke to the actors about taking on the horror medium, scary films as “exposure therapy” and working with a cast that includes Pete Davidson.
This is the first horror movie for each of you. Is it a genre you like?
Maria Bakalova: I like the A24 genre because they’re so beautiful visually. It’s not just [screaming sounds] and knives and blood. You get a beautiful picture of something happening in a weird place.
Amandla Stenberg: Similarly, I’m a big fan of the horror films that A24 released because I feel like they are deeply psychological and dramatic and layered and meaningful. When I saw that this was A24, I was so excited. I also love when the medium is used to make commentary, especially in a satirical way. And that’s what Sarah DeLappe’s script had — she’s just so brilliant and smart and she made something really emotionally deep that was also hilarious and realistic and contemporary.
What are some of your favorite horror films?
Bakalova: “It Follows,” “Hereditary,” “Midsommar.” I’m going to stick with those three.
Stenberg: “Hereditary” is my favorite contemporary horror film. I’ve been a longtime fan of “The Shining” and “Carrie.” I also love “Rosemary’s Baby.” And I recently watched a Mexican film that came out of the Tribeca Film Festival called “Huesera,” which was one of my favorite horror movies ever.
Why do you think we love horror movies and being scared?
Stenberg: I feel like being scared within a controlled environment almost absolves us of the fear that we have when we are not within a controlled environment. Some of the deepest feelings we can feel as human beings are love and passion and fear. Oftentimes, we reach the deepest parts of ourselves in our own psyches when we expose ourselves to those feelings. I feel like horror films can almost be like exposure therapy.
Bakalova: I love the challenge — if you will stare at the screen and are you going to close your eyes or not. It’s like: do I dare to see what’s going to happen? Can I guess what’s going to happen?
I love horror movies but I am not the kind of person who ever wants to encounter these things in real life. Would you spend the night in a haunted house or go to a seance? Are either of you interested in that?
Stenberg: I’m super into it. (Laughs) No, there are things that I don’t want to mess with like seances. Certain energetic fields I don’t want to tap into or invite into my life. But I think it’s hilarious and beautiful that human beings make art in the first place and it’s important for us to expose ourselves to fear. It’s kind of endearing about us as a species that we feel like we have to engage with these scary or bad feelings in order to balance our experience.
Bakalova: I’m pretty much the same. I get scared easily, I have lots of fears. But if I have a chance to try something, I think I’m going to try it! I’ll regret it later. But I will try it.
I only recently learned that your “Bodies Bodies Bodies” director Halina Reijn is an actor, as well. What’s it like working with a filmmaker who has a strong acting background?
Stenberg: What was really special about Halina’s directing style is she comes from a theater background. And so the way that she approached making the film with us was like staging a play. So blocking was really important, the environment within which we were working [was] super important. And she always made sure that we felt like we had a safe space within which we could move and play and react. Oftentimes, the camera was roaming and we were just existing in that space. And our amazing DP Jasper Wolf on the camera was kind of like another character who was also engaging in that blocking with us.
Bakalova: She’s coming from a theatrical world and I’m coming from a theatrical world. So we were able to physically block the stage and do table readings and prepare. So Halina can do their magic and they can let us do something new, something unexpected. We can try something that we just feel in the moment.
You’re being put through a lot but you’re working with this amazing cast in a remote location – was it fun?
Stenberg: It was definitely fun. It was as twisted and fun as the tone of the movie. In some ways, it was deeply traumatizing. And it was also a riot. Because these characters are so hilarious. And we definitely all trauma bonded. We were put in these very unique circumstances together.
It is very funny – particularly Pete Davidson’s character. Was it ever hard not to laugh during takes?
Stenberg: I think we did a pretty good job of not breaking because we approached it as thinking if we wanted to laugh, our characters want to laugh. The point of our characters is that they do not deal with the circumstances. Or they deal with it through humor, through sarcasm, through a deflection. Pete didn’t break ever. I was kind of amazed by how unafraid he was to portray this absolute asshole. Comedians are fantastic because they don’t have fear around being seen in a bad light or leaning into like the darkest and therefore funniest part of themselves. And so I feel like we all kind of took a note from him in terms of like him having no fear around and turning the character into someone who was absolutely terrifying in in how horrible they were.
Bakalova: Yeah, he transformed immediately. He’s one of the nicest people that I’ve met personally and seeing him being that person, it’s like, “How are you even doing it?” He was super disciplined, which made me appreciate him as an actor and artist.
The film takes a couple of shots at people who are obsessed with social media; did it change your relationship with it at all?
Stenberg: I don’t know if it’s changed it. I’ve always had kind of a contentious relationship with social media and how much space it takes up in our lives. That’s why I was really drawn to the script, because I felt like it very articulately approached how large of a role social media has in our interpersonal lives, our relationships, our social lives now. So I don’t know, I think probably the funniest part of making this film was when we weren’t rolling, half the time, we were probably on our phones.
Bakalova: Unfortunately, I don’t think the movie changed my relationship with social media. I’m not glued to my phone, but it is the first thing that I’m looking at when I open my eyes. And it’s the last thing that I’m looking at before I fall asleep. That’s the reality we live in, unfortunately. And as long as you realize that, I think you’re not gonna get in trouble as much as our characters.