Q&A: “CONTRACTED” Star Najarra Townsend
Debuting on VOD and in select theaters tomorrow from IFC Films, CONTRACTED follows a young woman whose momentary sexual indiscretion leads to consequences more vile and terrifying than she could ever imagine. As with all body horror, the concept is only as valuable as the cast; luckily for CONTRACTED, the affliction is suffered by actress Najarra Townsend, who handles her character Samantha’s personal drama just as well as the horror festering inside her.
It’s an emotionally raw and physically demanding performance, with the source of Samantha’s plight evoking dread more inescapable than any monster or bogeyman. Directed by MADISON COUNTY’s Eric England, CONTRACTED continues the relationship of IFC’s Midnight line with the body-horror subgenre after the HUMAN CENTIPEDE franchise and last year’s ANTIVIRAL. FANGORIA had the opportunity to speak to Townsend about losing herself within CONTRACTED…
FANGORIA: What was it about CONTRACTED that specifically attracted you to the project?
NAJARRA TOWNSEND: Well, when I read the script, I instantly knew I wanted to play that role. It was just really appealing to me, in some weird way. I got queasy and felt squeamish, so I felt that if I was getting that reaction from reading it, CONTRACTED could make a fun, good film when it was on screen. The script instantly got me interested the project.
FANG: It is rather funny that despite how gross and dire the film gets as your character breaks down—quite literally—there’s an element of fun to the proceedings. Did you find it attractive to take on a horror role that had such engrossing external drama beyond the physical horror Samantha endures?
TOWNSEND: Yeah, of course. The film was such a fun rollercoaster ride to put myself on. I enjoyed every aspect of [the role]. It was a fantastic experience.
FANG: Knowing the disgusting journey your character was going to go on, how did you prepare yourself for your excursion through the makeup process?
TOWNSEND: Honestly, I didn’t give it too much thought, because if I thought about what I had to do in front of people, I might turn myself off to [the process]. But we had two makeup tests with the special effects artists, so I prepared that way. We did a once-over “day one to day three” transformation to see how long it would take once we got into shooting. So I was aware of the makeup process and what that would be like, but I was so excited to work with special effects like this that I didn’t think so much about the challenges that would come with that.
FANG: Was there any moment when you actually reveled in the disgusting reveals and body horror?
TOWNSEND: I kind of felt like that with all of it. Every time I was in full makeup, I loved it. All I wanted to do was say hi to people and take pictures, which is weird. The whole experience was just so fun and so cool. The bald spot and losing my hair was an intense process, but that was really fun. Even the nail falling off; I don’t have one favorite thing.
FANG: Samantha goes through many different stages of desperation as her condition worsens, which helps reveal her as a multifaceted character. Was there anything that you brought to the character that maybe wasn’t in the script?
TOWNSEND: Samantha was on the page, but it felt very superficial, in a way, so I attempted to bring truthfulness to her. I tried to ground her in real stuff. I have a bit of a nervous way about me, and I kind of brought that to her. There are so many things going on in her head, and she’s so closed off and in denial of everything. That was fun to play with.
FANG: Eric England really proves himself as a director to be watched with CONTRACTED. How was it working with him on this film? As you’re both young up-and-comers, did either of you feel like you had anything to prove?
TOWNSEND: I don’t know if I had anything to prove. Eric England was so amazing to work with, as he is an actors’ director. We would have conversations about Sam and the script, and if I had any reservations about anything, he was very patient with me and we had great communication. Making this film with him was so relaxing; I felt very comfortable with everything. He’s very intelligent and talented, and I think you can see that in his work and you can hear that when you speak to him. He’s just a great guy.
FANG: Speaking of having reservations, was there ever a specific moment during the shoot that you found to be especially daunting as an actress?
TOWNSEND: For the most part, I was down, because I thought it was exciting and I like the gross-out stuff. But I had my first sex scene in this film, and it’s a pretty disgusting one at that. So I was a little nervous about it, but Eric made it comfortable, and I already knew Matt Mercer, who played Riley in the film, so that definitely made it much easier. The weird thing about intimate scenes is that they’re not intimate when you’re filming them, because they’re so technical. So when we got to that day [of filming], I decided not to worry about that, because it was so ridiculous.
And then there were little things here and there where I’d go, “Oh, gosh. What is this going to look like on screen? Are people going to be like, ‘What is she doing?’ ” But at the end of the day, you have to trust your director and the people around you, so I did. I’m happy with how it turned out; I just hope other people are.
FANG: You’re featured in almost every single scene in CONTRACTED. What was your experience like as a lead in this kind of genre film, as opposed to your previous acting experiences?
TOWNSEND: I knew when I accepted the role that this would be the most challenging role I’d had in my career, and not just because the film rests so much on my shoulders. I mean, I guess I am in pretty much every scene. Plus there was the physical and emotional business of it, so I knew that was going to be rough, but I was so excited to take it on. You don’t get opportunities to do roles like this that often, if ever, so it was pure excitement for me.
FANG: The film also features TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2’s Caroline Williams as your mother; she has been on somewhat of a comeback trail as of late. How was it to work with her on CONTRACTED? Were you familiar with her previous films?
TOWNSEND: I actually wasn’t familiar with her when I initially heard that she had signed on to the film, but of course, I then watched TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 and familiarized myself with her. She has such a huge fan base and she’s so amazing, so I couldn’t believe I didn’t know her beforehand. She also has such a vibrant, amazing personality. She’s awesome, and working with her was amazing. She’s also the only other actress I rehearsed with. It really was a pleasure to collaborate with her, as she’s such an amazing lady.
FANG: Not too venture too far into spoiler territory, but there’s an established mystery as to what exactly the sickness is, and what its root is. As an actress trying to develop a character, did you find it difficult to not have that information to work off of, or do you think it complimented your character’s unawareness?
TOWNSEND: Well, for the part, that worked. As for my curiosity, that’s another story. When it comes to the actual character, she doesn’t have any idea what’s going on with her and she wants to know what’s happening, so that worked to my benefit.
FANG: Samantha has such a complicated, unconventional backstory for a horror-film protagonist, involving addiction, problems with authority figures and a rocky lesbian romance. Do you believe having that layered history was beneficial to you as an actress, or was it difficult to convey so much in a horror-centric story?
TOWNSEND: I liked that part of [the role]. I believe that if you see where she came from, maybe you’ll understand why she deals with things the way she does. She doesn’t handle things well. She lives in this world of denial and she has it all balled up, and it shows in her past choices. She’s maybe not the best decision-maker. She avoids responsibility and all of that, so I think that backstory is beneficial to the character and for the audience, really.
FANG: Did you ever find yourself wary of going too far out of reality with your performance, since the film often relies on seeing you in such horrifying circumstances?
TOWNSEND: You know, I don’t think I did. I wanted to be as truthful as possible. The only thing that could relate to that [point] is that while I was in makeup, I almost didn’t realize what I looked like all of the time. Eric would have to consistently remind me, “Hey, you need to hide yourself more. You look horrible. You don’t want anyone to see what you actually look like.” So I’d be having conversations and not be scared to show people what I look like, and that wasn’t how I should be acting whatsoever. Sam should be hiding herself totally, so that was a little bit of a challenge, but Eric helped me through that one.
FANG: The buzz on CONTRACTED, and your performance in particular, has been high. Do you want to pursue more horror roles in the future?
TOWNSEND: Well, I love horror movies. Who doesn’t like them? They’re universally awesome. I’ve done a few, and the first feature I ever did, when I was 10, was a horror film [2001’s MENACE], so I think I have a base there. I feel like I’ll keep doing horror movies, and I’ll always want to be a part of the genre because it’s just so much fun.
FANG: Do you have any other films awaiting release or that you’re working on?
TOWNSEND: Yeah! I just wrapped a feature called THE TOY SOLDIERS. It’s a drama that takes place in the ’80s, so it was super-fun. It was definitely different from CONTRACTED, and it’ll probably come out next year. We’re in postproduction right now, so you’ll be hearing about it soon.