Never mind Maleficent; the fairy-tale villainess we can’t wait to see come to life in a live-action feature is Holda, the wicked witch of Osgood Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel. Especially since she’s played by Alice Krige, who has essayed such memorably malevolent characters as the specter in Ghost Story, Mary Brady in Sleepwalkers, the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact and Christabella in Silent Hill. Yet it’s her first time playing this particular kind of iconic role—one that has haunted the sleep of children for generations.
“It’s an awful but fascinating story,” Krige says of the centuries-old German story of Hansel and Gretel, popularized by the Brothers Grimm. “Just these two kids being abandoned by their parents, getting lost in the forest, and finding this house that they start to eat—because it was a gingerbread house in the version of the story that I read. It’s gruesome, sort of horrifying and macabre, with Hansel being put in a cage, but also an entrancing story—I suppose because the children win in the end. The movie is slightly different from the original fairy tale, though if you start to research it, there are many, many versions of it. Every culture has its own version of this story.”
As the movie’s title indicates, this particular version gives Gretel more prominence, making her a teenager (played by It’s Sophia Lillis) protecting her little brother (Sammy Leakey)—though even in the Grimm telling, it is Gretel who plays the heroic role. One of scripter Rob Hayes’ most significant expansions is to flesh out the cannibalistic crone who threatens the siblings. “What the writer of the script did, and I understand Osgood worked with him on rewrites, was look behind the story,” Krige says. “That’s what absolutely fascinated me. The story obviously has all these reverberations and echoes of one’s imagination from childhood, but then to explore what makes a child-eating witch a child-eating witch—how she got to that stage—was so intriguing. No one had ever talked about that, and I loved that exploration.”
While she doesn’t want to give away the details of that backstory, she does hint, “What you learn is that she was brought to this place; she didn’t seek it out. She’s taken there, and that sends her down the road that ends with her being the witch in the forest who eats children. It was that journey that I really responded to, and the film unpacks it in a very elliptical, not in-your-face, on-the-nose way. It’s all by suggestion and intimation, and you only understand it at the very end.”
This being a fairy tale for grown-ups, Gretel & Hansel gets into some pretty adult themes when it comes to Holda, including that of addiction. “Ultimately, she despises what she does, but she can’t stop herself,” Krige explains. “She is actually caring and maternal, but also voracious in her appetite. She reaches a moment where she can’t control that appetite and it takes over, and it obliterates the mother in her. And what’s very, very interesting to me is that Holda takes Gretel down the path, on a certain level, that she herself was taken down. Holda got lost on that path, and the question is whether Gretel will. It’s the coming of age of a young woman who discovers her own power, and at the moment of discovering it, she’s faced with a choice: Do you use it for the dark or the light?”
To Krige, though, there’s no question that Lillis was a bright light on the Gretel & Hansel shoot. “She is a very unique talent, and a delightful human being. She’s one of those actors who, when the camera turns on her, you’re just transfixed by her presence. She has no ego; she’s just a regular, lovely young woman who has something magical in front of the camera.”
She adds that she didn’t put a distance between herself and Lillis during filming, to reinforce the dichotomy between their characters. Some actors playing villains separate themselves from those they’re antagonizing on camera, but Krige, in general, feels no need to get that Method. “I didn’t have to do that to inhabit Holda,” she states. “Off the set is not that very particular space that happens while you’re shooting. It’s like you go into a slightly different dimension when the camera rolls and you’re working in the space of the characters, and I don’t necessarily have to carry that through to when I’m being me. The creative space you work in when you’re playing your role is distinct from what happens when a scene is over. I didn’t need to carry that into the other dimension of me and Sophia.”
More useful to Krige, she notes, were the costumes overseen by Leonie Prendergast and the makeup designed by Liz Byrne, the latter of which required the actress to undergo up to four hours of application. “Those were two powerful, enormously fruitful tools. The costume was wonderful, and helped me to find Holda’s physicality, and the makeup was complex and immensely useful. Holda’s partially blind, and the artists who created the lenses did a fabulous job. I also had a set of false teeth that fit over my own, and they were very helpful as well. And the prosthetics—every piece was like a facet of a cut stone, and it all sort of refracted me into the space that became Holda.”
Then there was the witch’s home, conceived by Perkins and production designer Jeremy Reed to look modernist rather than old-world. Dominated by a large A-frame structure, the house was inspired by deconstructivist architects such as Philip Johnson and Peter Eisenman. “It’s rather beautiful but very disturbing, because the proportions are quite extreme,” Krige says. It’s lovely to look at at first, and then it makes you worried and anxious and uncomfortable, and that sort of dissonance is a very powerful dynamic.”
Both interiors and exteriors for Gretel & Hansel were lensed in the picturesque town of Bray, outside Dublin on the east coast of Ireland. Sets were constructed at Ardmore Studios there, and Krige says that the surrounding woods offered a great deal of atmosphere. “We shot from the last week of October, I believe, to the first week of December, and as I remember, we managed to get most of the exteriors before the winter really set in. It was a glorious autumn; there were all these very dark forests, but lit up by extraordinary golden, copper, orange leaves turning on the trees. Inside the house, it was very moody and shadowy, lit by candlelight, so you don’t quite know what you’re seeing. It’s almost as if you get lost within it, because it keeps on revealing spaces you didn’t know were there, and you can’t quite understand what it is you’re experiencing, because it keeps changing.”
Change, as noted above, is key to this interpretation of the fabled witch. Scenes involving the younger Holda, played by Jessica De Gouw (from TV’s Underground and Dracula), reveal the circumstances that set her down the path of darkness, and Krige says their content helped her form her own take on the character—and also affected her emotionally. “It was very upsetting for me, as old Holda, to know what I’d been through as young Holda—what brought me to the place where I am, which I can’t walk away from but that I also loathe and despise. To know who I was, and how that plays into who I am now, was very, very helpful.”
Nonetheless, she points out that she didn’t collaborate with De Gouw to find a common interpretation of the role. “We worked together to arrive at more or less the same sound, the accent,” Krige recalls, “but we didn’t agree on a particular strategy for playing her, because where old Holda is is a very different place from where young Holda is. They are almost like day and night, so we didn’t really feel the need to talk about it.”
Krige was somewhat reticent to take on the part of Holda in the early going, not necessarily wanting to shoulder another dark and scary role. Although she’s portrayed characters of all kinds since breaking out in 1981 with both Ghost Story and the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, it is her more threatening turns that have garnered her particular attention and a fan base among genre devotees. She admits that she’s not especially attracted to these parts, “but people seem to offer them to me a lot [laughs]. What does happen to me, when I’m offered the darker roles, is that I can’t help but look for the light within them. I always feel enormous empathy for these characters who seem lost or irretrievably bad. My heart kind of aches for them, and perhaps that’s why I’m offered them, because I feel for them, and I feel I don’t have the right to judge them. It’s a challenge, because I have to go there, I have to be inside their heads. I am offered regular characters as well; I don’t play exclusively to the dark, though I’m about to play another one in Scotland.”
The film she was about to begin shooting at the time of this interview was She Will, the feature directorial debut of celebrated multimedia artist Charlotte Colbert. “The genre is so-called ‘mild horror,’ though I don’t think it’s mild horror at all. It’s a deep psychological exploration of a woman who’s been very wounded, and who rises like a phoenix from the ashes. I think it will be as visually compelling as Gretel & Hansel. Wish me luck!”
We do, and we can’t wait to immerse ourselves in the world of Gretel & Hansel, and rediscover the spooky magic the original fairy tale worked on us when we were little. Though the film’s take is decidedly grown-up, Krige believes that older kids will be able to handle it. “Well, the fairy tale is certainly targeted at children. I grew up with my mother reading to us at bedtime, and we were read everything—scary stories, heartbreaking stories, funny stories, everything. Fairy tales are a way of looking at the realities of the world though a parable. I don’t know how young of a child I’d want to see this film, but I would think it’s probably aimed at about age 8 or 9 onward—certainly at adults, and a very wide spectrum of people in general.
“I think some children would find it terrifying,” she continues, “but then I’ve been horrified to have people come up to me and say they saw a picture like Ghost Story when they were 10, and they’d never quite recovered from it [laughs]. I feel as if I’ve got a kind of karmic load on my shoulders of children I’ve warped forever, though quite unintentionally. In the end, I think it’s up to the mums and the dads to decide whether their kids can cope with an exploration of this kind.”
Michael Gingold has been part of the FANGORIA family since 1988, when he began writing for the magazine. He became associate editor in 1990, quickly moved up to managing editor and eventually became editor-in-chief, and was an editor and writer for the previous FANGORIA.com website. He also contributes to Rue Morgue, BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., MovieMaker and Scream, both in print and online, and has written liner notes, directed bonus features and taken part in audio commentaries for Blu-rays and DVDs from Arrow Video, Vinegar Syndrome, Synapse Films, Blue Underground, Garagehouse Pictures and others. He is the author of 1984 Publishing’s Ad Nauseam: Newsprint Nightmares from the 1980s, Ad Nauseam II: Newsprint Nightmares from the 1990s & 2000s and Ad Astra: 20 Years of Newspaper Ads for Sci-Fi & Fantasy Films, FAB Press’ FrightFest Guide to Monster Movies and Rue Morgue’s Shark Movie Mania.