At close quarters

Sierra McCormick on pandemic filmmaking and We Need To Do Something

by Jennie Kermode

Sierra McCormick in We Need To Do Something
Sierra McCormick in We Need To Do Something

There aren’t usually many genre films in the Outfest LA line-up, so Sean King O’Grady’s We Need To Do Something, which Max Booth III adapted from his own novel, really stood out this year. It’s the story of four people – husband and wife Robert (Pat Healy) and Diane (Vinessa Shaw), their teenage daughter Melissa (Sierra McCormick) and their younger son, Bobby (John James Cronin) – who bunker down in a bathroom for the duration of a storm only to find themselves trapped. Not only does nobody seem to be coming to the rescue, but Melissa is deeply worried about her girlfriend Amy (Lisette Alexis), and concerned that the two of them may be in some way responsible for what has happened.

Shortly after the festival, I met up with Sierra McCormick to discuss her attraction to the film and the challenges of shooting during the pandemic.

“When I was sent the script it was during the height of the initial pandemic, the 2020 lockdown, so I was pretty antsy to work to say the least,” she says. “I'm someone that needs to be moving or working or I get all antsy and stressed. So I was definitely itching for something to do. And when this came my way, I was reading the script and I was like, ‘This is almost like a play.’ It’s in a single location, very performance and character driven, a piece that's about the horrors of whatever's going on outside of this bathroom where the family is, but also the horrors of dysfunctional family life.

“So I was just struck by the nature of the script itself, and how fun it would be to work with the other actors, most notably Pat and Vinessa. They're amazing and I got to learn so much just by working with them and watching them work. I was just really, really thrilled to find something that was interesting and kind of meaty, for me to do.”

Does working with older actors provide a chance to learn things which she wouldn’t have otherwise?

“Yeah, definitely. And personally, just throughout my life, I've always gotten along better with people that are older than me. Even when I was a little kid, I got along better with middle or high school kids when I was in elementary school. So working with adults has been deal essentially my whole career. Being a child actor, I was the only kid on set a lot of the time, not all the time, but a lot of the time. And so I felt very at home kind of in that environment.

“This one was actually like a fun balance between those two things. I got to hang out and watch Pat and Vinessa work and be around them, but also, I got to hang out with John James, who plays her little brother, and Lisette, who plays Amy in the movie. We got to talk about things related to our sort of age or our moment in time, but also get to talk and hang out with Vinessa and Pat and learn things from them and listen to all the amazing stories that they told.”

It was all shot into COVID conditions, so did that mean there were a lot of restrictions on set?

“Yeah, definitely. It was a very small crew and even smaller cast. So it was a situation where we essentially just moved into this hotel that was across the street from the soundstage that we were shooting in so we all were able to trauma bond, almost, over the strange circumstances of Covid restrictions and stuff. It definitely gave us some challenges and stuff that we had to work around, but I think for the most part it actually felt pretty normal. The nature of the script kind of helps with a lot of that, and I'm kind of glad I got my taste of working that way on such a small set before I worked on bigger things during Covid.”

It’s interesting to be working on a film about a catastrophe during Covid, but did she have any personal experience of storms to inform her work?

She shakes her head. “No, actually, I was navigating something new. I never grew up in any area where there was tornadoes or anything like that. I grew up in California so there were earthquakes, but earthquakes you don't really foresee them happening, they just kind of happen, and then you scramble around to get into as safe a spot as possible, and then it's over pretty quickly. So that was the only sort of thing that I could kind of attach it to, maybe like an earthquake. But my boyfriend actually is from the Midwest and so he's had a lot of experience with tornadoes and big storm warnings and stuff like that. So I got to talk to him about what it’s like when you're having to hide in your house and you think there's a tornado coming and you're with your family. And it's very unique. It's a very strange, unique sort of circumstance to find yourself in. So I got to pick his brain about that a little bit. But I think focusing on the dysfunctional aspect of the family is what helped me navigate those things.”

For a lot of the running time, she’s not speaking herself but is in the background reacting to what the others are doing. How did she approach that kind of acting?

“That's the easiest thing, for me at least. You know, being present and not having to remember lines or be stressed about blocking and stuff. I just got to watch Pat and Vinessa be amazing and do their thing. So I was really just reacting genuinely for the most part. The only time that was kind of difficult was, there's a scene towards the end of the movie where Pat turns around, he yells at us to ‘Stop acting hysterical!’ And Vinessa and I are supposed to be afraid of him in that moment. But it was actually kind of hard because we just couldn't stop laughing. It was pure comedy, but we had to act like we were scared.”

That's another kind of background process going on for Melissa as well, because she's carrying so much guilt over what she might have done. Seeing the film in the context of Outfest. I wondered about that in relation to the guilt that a lot of young queer people carry, and that sense of sort of internalised homophobia. Is that something that Sierra saw in the character?

“Maybe,” she says, thinking for a moment. “Actually, when I first read the script when we were shooting, I was kind of noticing that it's not stated explicitly in the script, or in the film, but neither of Melissa's parents really seem to understand or be aware of the sort of relationship that she has with Amy or how deep that relationship is, or the nature of it. And so I surmised that that's something that Melissa has to hide about herself, especially around her dad, just given the characterisation that Pat gave him. The fact that he's a very volatile, tyrannical presence in the family and him and Melissa have some specific sort of contention with each other, I thought that that's probably one of the aspects that drives her into Amy's arms, essentially, as she's not getting any sort of validation at home.

“She's having to hide parts of herself in her home life and so she's desperate and searching for some aspect of her life to give her that validation and that feeling of being seen and heard. And Amy is that for her, and that's kind of what acts as the catalyst for the events in the movie, the fact that she feels so strongly about her and Amy's relationship that she actually loses sight of the major catastrophes.

“Not only does she have the guilt of feeling responsible for the events that are happening outside of the door of the bathroom, but also, those events are tied to this relationship that I don't think her parents really fully know about either. You know, her dad kind of almost ridicules her concern for Amy, and so I don't think he realises just how deep that relationship actually is for Melissa, and I thought about that a lot. And what Melissa’s home life outside of this kind of horrible circumstance must be like. It's very stressful to have to live in a home where you're having to hide parts of yourself and you can't truly exist as you are. That adds a lot of pressure. Tension, I would imagine, with your family members, So I tried to incorporate that into some of Melissa's interactions, especially with Pat.”

So with all that going on, was it an emotionally tough role to handle? Or did the friendly atmosphere on set help with that?

“We definitely did try to keep it light in between scenes. We had to because the subject matter is so dark and sad and heavy. But then also, I definitely had to find ways to decompress once I was finished. I just needed to shake off all of the negative familial energy that I was tapping into. So it was definitely an emotionally draining shoot, but I felt it was very rewarding at the end. I felt really good about it once we were done”

She’s had quite a few gruelling roles over the years, and quite a few genre roles like that as well, such as her work in Some Kind Of Hate, The Vast Of Night and VFW. Is it something that she’s particularly interested in doing with her work, or is she trying to expand more generally?

“I actually don't use whether it's like genre or not as a criterion for choosing roles. I really focus on the character and the characterisation. If I were to assign some sort of ideology to how I choose work, I would say that variety is actually what I've been drawn to most – the opportunity to get to do something completely different or something I haven't done before, like an opportunity to get to alter my appearance drastically in some way or have to work on developing a certain skill for a character. I think genre has just happened to be a space where I've gotten to do all those things lately. But it's not something that I go into being like, ‘Oh, I want to do genre specifically.’ It's more, that's where all the cool, awesome female characters happen to be right now. So it just kind of works out that way. But I've been a lifelong horror fan, it's definitely something that I've been interested in from a very young age.”

She seems to have done a good job of avoiding love interest roles, I note.

“Well, yeah. I mean, I'm not saying I would never do something like that, depending on the script and the circumstances, but to me, those rules are not the fun ones. They're kind of generic on purpose. Playing something that's generic on purpose is not as fun for an actor. I feel like you don't get to develop a lot of interesting quirks or character qualities.

“For The Vast Of Night, for example, I love that in addition to learning how to do all this period dialogue and look into the way people spoke back then [in the 1950s], I got to learn all of these incredible analogue skills that are completely useless now, but I got to learn how to operate a switchboard and learn about how to use reel to reel tapes and stuff like that. Having the opportunity to dig into stuff like that is always really appealing to me. And you know, love interest roles just don't seem to have any of that.”

So what has she got coming up next?

“Well, I just finished filming – and I think it already came out – the series finale of American Horror Stories. So I've been pretty busy doing that lately. And now I'm actually filming another movie that I did choose because it wasn't horror related. It's a very grounded, sweet coming of age movie and part of me was like, ‘You know what? There's no screaming, there's no crying, there's no blood. I think I need a break and that seems like the right way to do it right now.’”

And finally, how does she feel about the film being at Outfest?

“It was awesome,” she says. “That was definitely an aspect of the script that drew me to it as well, was the relationship between Melissa and Amy and how it feels. It's still very important to the script but it didn't feel titillating or like they're just there to be there. They don't die horrifically...” She pauses as I raise my eyebrows. We’re both wary of spoilers and of the ambiguities in the film, and she continues “...together. You know the tropes of what bad things have happened to lesbian relationships in media, so it didn't have any of those things. And so that's what made me excited.

“Also, you know, I feel like that's something that horror hasn't really had a lot of until more recently. There wasn’t a lot of representation for queer people in horror and, you know, as someone that didn't ever really a lot of aspects of myself represented in movies growing up, the opportunity to do that for other people, younger people – that was very appealing and very exciting. And I thought that that's something that I would be very honoured to be a part of, sort of this shift in the horror genre towards being a more inclusive space for all kinds of people to see themselves represented in. That genre that doesn't have the best history with women, minorities and LGBTQ people, you know. Horror has a very complicated history with those kinds of characters. So it was very appealing to do something positive.”

We Need To Do Something opens in US cinemas, on Digital and on VOD from Friday, 3 September.

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