Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on May 17, 2016, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
In The Witch, a 17th-century Puritan family confronts supernatural evil after the religious convictions of patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) get them banished from their community. Ineson’s conflicted characterization is a highlight of The Witch, a film that also put the actor in conflict with members of the animal world.
Written and directed by Robert Eggers, The Witch follows William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), adolescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and three younger kids to a makeshift homestead on the edge of forbidding woods. There, horrific events begin to plague them, and suspicion of sorcery falls upon Thomasin as the family begins to fall apart. The British-born Ineson, whose résumé includes dozens of UK TV series (among them the original incarnation of The Office) and three of the Harry Potter films, brings deep conviction and a deeper voice to Eggers’ much-praised breakout chiller.
How did you first become aware of The Witch, and what was it about the script that appealed to you?
I got sent the script and a look book, which is quite unusual; it was full of visual ideas Rob had for the movie, which helped me get an idea of what it was going to look like, because obviously with a period thing like this, it doesn’t immediately spring to mind. The script itself…I’ve never had quite a reaction to a screenplay like it. I was absolutely devouring it, but I had to put it down and leave it for an hour before going back to read the last 20 pages, because it was just too intense. I’ve been doing this a long time, and read a lot of scripts, and very rarely do I get a physical reaction the way you would from watching a movie in the cinema. I actually felt, “This is too much, I’m going to give it a bit of a break,” and I thought that if it could affect me like that just reading the screenplay, I was onto something very special.
Had you done many period films before?
I’ve done some, but most of my work has been modern. I’ve done more of this kind of thing on stage, I suppose, than on screen. It’s a bit of a departure, and it was nice to have the time to prepare for the role, which generally doesn’t happen. This one was a bit different; I got cast earlier on in the process than normal, so I had a full two and half or three months to prepare, to lose a lot of weight, to grow the beard, to get to grips with the character and the project in a way where I don’t usually get that luxury. It’s usually much more in and out, in and out.
Eggers has said that he wrote the part of William with you in mind. Did you get that sense when you read it?
Well, I didn’t know Robert, of course, when I was sent the script, but I think that’s partly why I had such a reaction to the role and the screenplay. It felt so right from the start. As soon as I read it, I thought, “This is me, this is something I’d love to do.” It felt curiously modern, the character and his concerns and what he has to deal with, even though it’s 1630 and he’s talking Jacobean English. It’s the worries and the stresses of being a father, taking responsibility for the safety and well-being of your family and the decisions you make affecting all that. It really resonated with me; I’ve got children of a similar age, and being self-employed as an actor, it sometimes feels like a bit of a leap of faith, in a similar way to William and his family.
How about the religious side? Was there anything there that resonated with you?
I’m not a person of faith, and neither were my parents. I came across a lot of Church and religious stuff at school, but it felt more of the period, really, rather than it being something that particularly resonated with me.
William does a lot of bad things, but he’s not really a villain; he’s very troubled, and devoted to his religion at the expense of his family. How did you find that balance, where he commits these awful acts but has the right motivations?
Exactly; from his point of view, there’s nothing negative about what he’s doing. He’s doing all these things for the right reasons, through his own prideful view of the world. He’s desperately trying to save his family, and to be the best father and Puritan he can be, but he makes bad decisions and compounds those by doubling up on the lies. But they all come from a good place. He’s a very fire-and-brimstone kind of guy, but he loves his children and his wife dearly. Kate and I were very clear that you should feel William and Katherine had a great life back in England. By the time you see them in this film, it’s all starting to fall apart, but it was important that there was a very loving relationship in their past.
Did the experience of filming in the Canadian wilderness add to your performance?
Yes, and that was necessary for the film; to capture the darkness we got, and to have the family bond before breaking apart, it was crucial to go out into the woods and be cut off from any cell-phone service, any Wi-Fi, out in the middle of nowhere. We were all staying in this tiny seven-bedroom hotel, and we lived there like a family. We ate together every night, and we had a week of rehearsals before we started shooting, which was invaluable. Just living together, many miles from home, we bonded incredibly as a cast. I’ve never known a cast to get on as well as we did, me and Anya especially; we became good friends, and see each other a lot whenever she’s in London. That was necessary to get what you see on screen.
On the other hand, Eggers has said you had some problems with Charlie the goat, who plays “Black Phillip.”
Oof [laughs]. Yeah, they say never work with children or animals, but from my experience in 21 years of working with children, they very rarely are any kind of problem. Usually, the adults you work with are the problem [laughs]. But I love to work with kids; I used to be a drama teacher before I started acting. And most of the animals were great; Lady the horse was beautiful, the hare was great, the raven was great. But Charlie the goat was a pain in the ass. He had two modes: sleeping or attacking me. We just didn’t get along; as soon as he saw me, you could just see it in his eyes. He was like, “Yeah, come on, let’s go.”
Virtually every other day of the shoot, it seemed there was a situation where I’d have to fight him or maneuver him or do something with him, and he just wouldn’t do it. You can’t train a goat; they’re satanic animals, they do exactly what they want when they want. He was big, he weighed more than me because I’d had to lose all the weight, and to try and move something that weighs a lot more than you, and is standing on four legs when you’re only on two, in single-shank 1630 Puritan shoes, wasn’t easy. He put me in the ER three times; he dislocated a tendon from my rib at one point. We had a real war going, but when you see it on screen, it looks great.
It definitely works for the film in the end…
Yeah, and a lot of the restrictions the rib injury gave me, and the pain I was in, helped my performance as well. Now that I look back on it—I didn’t think so at the time, I just wanted to have Charlie stewed for my dinner [laughs]—I really believe it worked. By the end of that shoot, we were so tired, and that comes across when you watch the film; I was truly quite close to death at that point.
Were there any other specific scenes that were especially challenging?
When we started off shooting, it was very, very cold, but those woolen costumes were fantastic and kept us warm, so that wasn’t a problem. But by the end of the shoot, spring was coming in and the black flies came down where we were. There was this one scene where the family all kneel down and pray that we had to shoot right at the end, and the black flies were eating us alive, and we were hot and sweaty and the heavy-duty costumes were horrible. And obviously, the kids didn’t want to be eaten alive by insects; they didn’t care that it was a film, they didn’t care that we needed to get this shot. They were 6 years old, or they looked 6 years old. So it was like, “Please, if you could just stay still for two minutes whilst we get the shot.” I remember that being a particularly hard day.
Was it difficult getting the younger kids, and also Harvey Scrimshaw, into the right frame of mind for their more anguished, painful moments?
No, I don’t think so. Kate and I did a lot of work with Harvey on his big scene you’re talking about, the possession scene. Because of my background in drama teaching, and the fact that Kate and I are both parents of kids of the right age, Robert wanted us to help out with Harvey on that. It was a tricky thing: How do you get a boy who has just gone through puberty to feign an orgasm on camera in front of a room full of crew and cast? We had to think a lot about how to approach that scene, and had a lot of preparation back at the hotel with Harvey. We never brought any kind of sexuality into the rehearsal. It was very much a physical thing, where we addressed it like he was hot and dying of thirst and there was water dripping from the ceiling, and that’s why his tongue was out. When you see it, it looks incredibly sexual and creepy and weird, but in Harvey’s head, he was wrapped up in a hot duvet, trying to get it off of him and to get the water dripping from the ceiling. It was a matter of finding ways that worked for the kids, and it was often just about using our imaginations.