Exclusive Interview: Mason Thames And Madeleine McGraw, The Young Stars Of THE BLACK PHONE

The phones (black, rotary, or otherwise) will be ringing off the hook for Mason and Madeleine when THE BLACK PHONE hits theaters this weekend.

By Michael Gingold · June 21, 2022, 4:00 PM PDT
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THE BLACK PHONE (2021)

Ethan Hawke gets top billing in The Black Phone's marketing for his shuddery turn as the villainous Grabber, but the success of the movie (opening Friday from Universal and Blumhouse) truly rests on the smaller shoulders of young actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw. Even before Thames' Finney Shaw becomes the latest imprisoned victim of the serial kidnapper/killer, and his sister Gwen (McGraw) attempts to find him using clues from her frightening dreams, the two create indelible portraits of late-1970s kids dealing with bullies, an abusive dad (Jeremy Davies), etc., and a sibling bond that hooks the audience into their story before the Grabber strikes.

Thames in particular, holds the screen (including numerous scenes where he's the only one on it) in his first feature-film role after a handful of TV appearances. "I was super nervous going into it," he remembers, "but once I found the character of Finney, it was definitely easier from there. I've always loved horror, so for this to be my first movie was incredible, especially working with Ethan and Scott and Maddie and everybody else. It was a great opportunity."

McGraw, conversely, has amassed numerous credits both on camera (in Pacific Rim: Uprising and Ant-Man and the Wasp, among others) and in animation voice work, and has three siblings who are also actors, including younger sister Violet, who has appeared in Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Hill House and Separation. Despite this experience, she recalls her excitement upon learning she'd landed the Gwen role: "When I found out that I booked it, I was kind of in shock; it didn't really hit me until I got off the call. I was like, 'Did he…just say…that I booked it?' Then I started screaming; I was like, 'Yay, oh my God!' This part was so special because I could relate to Gwen in a lot of ways, like her relationship with her brother. I have that relationship with all my siblings and my parents. Gwen would do anything to protect her family, and I would do the same. And she's super-tough, and I'm super-tough on the soccer field!"

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On the other hand, McGraw does not have the foul mouth that Gwen demonstrates a few times over the course of The Black Phone, particularly in her confrontation with a couple of disbelieving detectives. That scene was one she auditioned with, and she recalls that during this reading, "I didn't cuss, because I was like, 'I don't really feel comfortable saying these words, because I've never said them before. I'm not allowed to.' But then when we were going through the table read, Scott [Derrickson, the director] was like, 'Maddie, do you want to say the cuss words? It's fine, you don't have to.' But I said, 'I feel like it brings so much more to Gwen as a character,' because she hides her vulnerability by cussing and acting tough."

Meanwhile, Thames has numerous Black Phone scenes in which Finney communicates with spectral presences over the titular device, trapped in the Grabber's basement. When it came to shooting those moments, he says, "I was kind of nervous that I'd just be talking to myself, or to a PA. But luckily, they had this really cool setup where, on the other side of the set, the actual actor playing the ghost would talk to me on the phone, which helped a lot. Every scene where I'm on the phone was super-technical, so that was definitely a challenge, but it was a lot of fun by the end of it."

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The same went for performing opposite Hawke, even as the script called for the latter to threaten and terrorize him while wearing an assortment of creepy masks created by horror great Tom Savini and Jason Baker. Thames recalls getting a sneak peek at these disguises: "They were in a briefcase, and they opened it for me for a little bit, and I got to see them for the first time, which was really special. They're probably the scariest masks I've ever seen, so working in front of them, it was hard not to smile during the scene because I knew how cool they were. And watching Ethan Hawke work in person was such a great thing to experience. The way he's the nicest person ever, and then he snapped into the Grabber, was quite scary."

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McGraw has equally positive recollections about Davies, who has a few scenes with her that are almost as extreme in their emotions as those with Hawke and Thames. "I like learning from actors who have been doing this for way longer than I have," she says, "so it was very cool seeing how, even after Scott would say cut, he would still keep it together and stay in his character. I feel like I learned a lot from him." Derrickson himself, she adds, "was so amazing, because he let both of us put our own twists on Gwen and Finney. I had this one really intense scene, and he said, 'Do whatever you think Gwen would do for the first take, and if it works, it works.' And it did. I felt like we had a lot of freedom, and he treated us like adults."

Given that both actors were born in the late aughts, The Black Phone's 1978 setting also held a great deal of appeal to them. "It almost felt like a time machine," Thames says, and McGraw reveals, "That was one of my dreams; I was always like, 'Oh, I hope I get to do a '60s or '70s or '80s piece.' It was really fun getting to be in the '70s, even though I didn't know how a lot of things worked." That included the foreign (to them) communications objects, like the one that gives the film its title. "I had so much trouble with that; Scott had to explain to me how to work it," she admits. "I didn't know how to pronounce it at first, and I still have trouble; I think it's called a rotary phone?"

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No doubt the phones will be ringing a lot for Thames and McGraw once The Black Phone comes out, and they each have another genre piece waiting in the wings. Thames has a key role in Boys of Summer, a supernatural tale set on Martha's Vineyard also starring Mel Gibson and Lorraine Bracco. "It's not so much horror, it's more a film you can see with your whole family," he says. "It's a great story about this young kid trying to figure out a mystery." And McGraw will be seen soon in a "spooky" thriller called The Harbinger, "about how far a parent will go to save their kid, even if it means going face to face with the devil. I filmed that so long ago, when I was nine, and it was delayed because of COVID, but it's finally coming out this year, and I'm so excited to see it in a theater."

Particularly because "I'm not allowed to watch a lot of horror films," she says, "so I was so happy that I did The Black Phone, because I knew that my mom would have to let me see it! When my sister Violet was in Doctor Sleep, she wasn't allowed to watch it. As soon as the red carpet was over, she couldn't go into the theater. She's only seen her part; she'll probably be allowed to see the whole movie when she's sixteen. I'm not even allowed to see that one [laughs]!"