Among the excellent cast of The Artifice Girl (now in theatrical and VOD/digital release from XYZ Films), the most impressive performance of all is given by young Tatum Matthews in the title role. She plays Cherry, who is at first believed by agents Deena Helms (Sinda Nichols) and Amos McCullough (David Girard) to be an innocent girl targeted by online predators. Then it is revealed that she is actually an AI creation designed to lure and entrap such criminals—though as the movie continues, she demonstrates more human qualities, and the movie becomes both an absorbing drama and a fascinating exploration of the relationship between humanity and its technology.
Written and directed by Franklin Ritch, who talks about the movie here, The Artifice Girl is a breakout showcase for Matthews. Though she is seen largely on screens, the actress (who interacted in real-time with her co-stars from a separate room via a video feed) invests a great amount of feeling into Cherry, making her a fully dimensional character and revealing a talent beyond her years. FANGORIA spoke to Matthews, appropriately enough, via Zoom as the film (which won awards at the Fantasia and Trieste Festivals) began its release.
When Ritch first gave you this script, how did you respond to the story and your role?
It's a very different character for me, since she is an AI, and I was really excited to take on the new challenges she would bring because I've never done anything quite like it. And it's a little bit of a heavier subject matter, but I had a lot of trust in Franklin and the whole creative team, so that made it a lot easier.
What were the challenges of playing an AI character?
I just tried to approach her as a real girl, because even though she's not, she's able to bring that spontaneity that AIs will never be able to, so I wanted to make sure that came across. But I also had to figure out where to add those little touches where you can kind of tell that something is off, because they are really, really good at seeming natural, and Cherry was designed to fool people, these online predators. I wanted to be sure that was believable, but at the same time, you get a little bit of a sense that she's not real.
Cherry starts out very programmed in her behavior, and becomes more "human" as the movie goes on, so how did you approach that evolution?
I actually worked a lot with Alexa [Amazon's virtual assistant technology], surprisingly. She helped me a lot with the voice and how to get that unnatural sound. She has this app that's like text to voice, so I put in my lines, and you can tell her what speed you want it to play back at. It was a very helpful tool. I focused on the fact that AI's are blank a lot; I had to research that, since the timing had to be right there, and also her posture, because she had to be very upright, and her diction because there are a lot of big words.
You handle all that technological talk really well; did you read up on AI and related science to prepare for that?
Not a ton. What helped a lot was Franklin and I had meetings where we would talk about those big technical words, how to pronounce them, and some of what they meant. Alexa obviously pronounced them perfectly, so working with her through the app helped make sure I said everything correctly.
You also show a great level of concentration in the scenes where Cherry is onscreen saying nothing, just looking on while the other characters discuss her. How did you achieve that?
I guess I just kind of put myself in her shoes and focused on having her be almost straight-faced, but also finding those moments where I could, like, tilt my head a little bit, that felt natural. The blinking was the main thing; when I didn't have lines, I was definitely focusing on that.
Did you get to rehearse with the other actors before doing those scenes where you're interacting through the screen?
We rehearsed a lot on Zoom, but we also rehearsed our scenes in person. I think I knew the whole cast, basically, before even filming it, so we were familiar with how each other acted, and that was very helpful going into it. They were so great; even though I couldn't see them, from their voices and the emotions they portrayed, I was able to picture what being in that room was like, and what their expressions would be.
Ritch told me that you'd collaborated on shorter projects with him before Artifice Girl, so how did he take to directing his first feature?
He was great! Personally, I love directors who give me feedback after takes because I'm very open to it. He's also open to cast feedback and from the crew, but he was really good about being like, "OK, this really worked," or "Maybe we've gotta work on that a little bit." The adjustments he gave me were so good, and it wouldn't have been the same film if it wasn't for him.
You share scenes with the great Lance Henriksen; were you aware of his work before making The Artifice Girl?
I haven't seen many of his films, but I have seen clips from his iconic movies, and he is such a legend and definitely deserves that title. He was incredible to work with, just a very down-to-earth and grounded person. He's really wise and gave me a lot of helpful information about the industry.
The movie obviously deals with troubling subject matter; how much of that were you aware of or shielded from during the preparation and making of the film?
I feel like I was pretty aware of most of it, just so I could have an understanding of the character, and the trust I had in the cast and crew also came in, because if I didn't know them so well, it would have been a lot harder to take on such a heavy project.
What has the festival experience been like for you?
Well, I was at Fantasia in Montreal, and then I recently went to Austin for SXSW, which was a really cool experience because it's such a big festival; there were a lot of people. We were also just at the Florida Film Festival, and I love reuniting with the cast at every one I get to go to. It's incredible that so many people have enjoyed this film so far. I'm happy that it has been finding its audience, and people have been touched by it, saying it's really intriguing and has made them think. That's a lot of the goal of this movie.
While I was preparing for this interview, it occurred to me that it makes sense that we would be communicating via screens, and that while I grew up without this kind of communication, your generation has never known a world without it. Do you have any feelings about communicating via screens vs. face-to-face interaction?
It feels pretty normal to me now, especially being in the industry, because we're having all of these Zoom auditions, and I take acting classes online as well. So I'm pretty used to it, though I do really enjoy being at in-person auditions as well and having that experience. When it comes to my friends, I do go to a brick-and-mortar school in person, so I'm able to see them there during the day, which is great, but I think there definitely is not as much hanging out outside of school and in person. FaceTiming with my friends does feel pretty normal to me, but for example, one friend and I were just talking about going to the beach this summer. I love being outside, so that's a really important thing to do.
Are there any actors or directors you'd especially like to work with in the future?
Definitely, I have a few role models in acting. Amanda Seyfried and Meryl Streep are two big ones of mine; I think they're amazing. I love Mamma Mia! and movie musicals in general; they're just so entertaining to watch. They were a great mother-daughter pair, and they're two people I really look up to. Directors is a good one; I'd have to think about that a little, but I would love to be in any kind of genre I haven't done or anything that will allow me to be more diverse in what I do. I want to be different in every film I make, so I'm just excited and hoping someone will see this and be inspired.
The Artifice Girl is now in theaters and streaming On Demand.