Directed by Craig William Macneill and written by Mary Laws (who is also the show creator), the episode of the Hulu anthology series Monsterland entitled “New Orleans, Louisiana” follows a socialite named Annie (Nicole Beharie) who is forced to face her past. Upon discovering a terrible secret about her husband (Hamish Linklater), she realizes that her seemingly idyllic family is actually quite far from it.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Nicole Beharie talked about why this project appealed to her, the timely subject matter of the anthology, working in a big spooky house, and the challenging family dynamic. She also talked about the type of material she gravitates towards, what she learned from her experience on Sleepy Hollow, whether she would ever want to do another long-term TV series again, and which TV shows she’d love to do a guest spot on.
Collider: You gave such a great performance in this episode. I found it very moving and emotionally very effective.
NICOLE BEHARIE: Oh, wow. Thank you.
This was such an interesting episode and not at all what I expected from a horror anthology.
BEHARIE: That’s Mary Laws, our creator. She’s very smart and super empathic. One of the reasons why I wanted to do the project was that it just seemed like a different take on what is terrifying, and also what is beautiful and very human.
When this came your way, did you know what it would be? Did they tell you anything before you read it?
BEHARIE: I just read the script and loved the material. Just like you said, I was affected by it. I was like, “Who are these people? I was really interested in this woman and where she was from. And also, I have a particular love affair with two aspects of this piece. I love new Orleans. I’ve only been a few times but it just has a soul and a feeling. It’s actually one of the perfect places, I think, to do a horror film because you can feel the oldness. It’s one of the oldest cities in the U.S. You can feel the remnants of things lingering, so it made sense to shoot something like that there. And I also love like jazz music. We have this eerie score and this music coming from this horn player. So, I was like, “These are some of my favorite things, and I get to play this juicy character. Let’s do it.” We actually shot it in New York but you do get to feel it and we tried to bring as much in as we could, with the old home and the whole vibe, to make as authentic as possible.
How does shooting in a house like that also affect what you’re doing? Did being alone in there feel very lonely?
BEHARIE: Don’t we all know what that feels like right now? It’s so funny. We did this a year ago and I feel like some of the things that the entire anthology is taking a look at feel timely. The ways that we dilute ourselves, and isolation and secrets, and all of the things that we’ve been having to think about collectively are in this genre fantasy thing, so that was interesting. But the house was just stunning. Honestly, the house was beautiful. It made you feel small. It made me feel like my little apartment in Brooklyn is nothing. It definitely helped to support what we were doing with the piece. And then, getting the crew and everyone in there on the cold autumn nights in New York, it was a really beautiful but spooky place to work.
This is such an interesting project because you don’t have the length of a movie and you don’t have the ongoing hours of a TV series. You really have less than an hour to tell a full character story. What was that like to do, as an actor?
BEHARIE: It felt like doing our own truncated movie. I love. As an audience member, I love change and knowing that there’s a theme and a throughline, but with every episode, I’m gonna get something different. I’m a fan of anthology series and I did another one on Netflix. I love that you get to take journeys with different characters, and I’m a fan of so many of the other castmates in my actual episode. Marquis Rodriguez plays George, my son, and Hamish Linklater, who’s tremendous, plays Joe. And now that we’re at home and streaming things, what’s better than to think you know what you’re gonna get but you get a surprise and you get new faces.
This is such a challenging family dynamic. What was it like to establish that dynamic with each other and figure out what the family was going to be like?
BEHARIE: I’m just really glad that I had Marquis there to work with. He’s so open. Because it was so challenging and complicated, you really have to be working with someone that can also carry that. You can’t carry that alone. How did we find the dynamic? I think it’s just that the material was good. I don’t know. Some of that is just magic and trusting each other and being like, “Okay, we’re gonna take this journey. We’re gonna do this. Let’s do it. Buckle up.”
Do you enjoy playing the emotion of something like that moment of truth that you and Marquis Rodriguez share in this, or are those the days that are challenging?
BEHARIE: On one level, the whole make believe and playing thing is fun. Rolling around and screaming on the ground, “Something’s chasing me,” it’s like you’re seven again. There are just people supporting you, with lights and fake blood and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, you’re make-believing like were in your backyard. The heavier emotional stuff can be a little bit taxing but I feel like the complexity of the character and what we’re talking about here was worth it. I wouldn’t do it for everything, if that makes sense.
How does it contrast then to do the monster moments, where you have this metaphorical monster that you’re fighting?
BEHARIE: Our director, Craig Macneill, and Mary [Laws] were just so smart, how it’s woven together and how it’s revealed. I hope people enjoy it and get something out of it, as well, especially in these times. One of the things I did learn was that it made me wonder, “Do I have closet stuff?” What’s the stuff that’s right out of my eye line that I like to keep out of my eye line, that I don’t like to look at, or that I’ve written a story about. So many of us are facing that right now, having to slow down and look at that.
You’ve taken on some very complex characters. What is it that you look for in a character? What are you looking to explore with the characters that you play?
BEHARIE: What are we doing here, on this ball? I’m trying to figure that out for real, so there’s that. And then, there’s also working with great people that are trying to shift the narrative and play genre, or relationships and nuance, and people who value what you’re doing enough that they trust you to do your thing. That’s some of what I’m looking for. I wanna do great material. A lot of what I’ve gravitated towards is asking particular questions. I don’t feel like the things that I’ve gotten and that I’ve had the privilege of working on have been the same, in any way. There’s definitely a depth to all of them. I think I’m probably searching for something, or I’m available to ask the questions that the directors or writers are tussling with, with each piece.
Does that type of material feel challenging and hard to find?
BEHARIE: It can be. It’s gotten better. I feel like it’s gotten a lot better, just with the awareness and the conversations that we’ve been having around more intricate storytelling for people of color and for women. We have COVID and obviously productions have shut down and they’re picking back up again but I did Miss Juneteenth last year, I did Monsterland, and I did Little Fires Everywhere, and all of the projects I did were helmed by women and had diverse casts and interesting, poignant themes and were unafraid. I’m really proud of that. I’m looking for elements of those things but I also wanna bust out of that too. I had never played a New Orleans socialite. I’m just looking for different characters, as well.
I became aware of you with the TV series Sleepy Hollow and, without question, you were done dirty there. What did you learn from that experience and how did you use that to make you stronger now?
BEHARIE: Oh, I learned so much. We had crazy night shoots. Actually, this episode of Monsterland was probably easier to do for me than most people because I’m accustomed to doing night shoots and working all night and running around in the cold. So, I learned a great deal. You just have to love yourself, love what you’re doing, respect everyone’s boundaries, and your health is important. Those are some of the things that I learned. It’s important to support filmmakers, writers, directors, producers, and actors that are trying to push the needle, like Mary [Laws] and Channing Godfrey Peoples. I just wanna keep trying to work with great people.
Would you ever want to do another long-term TV series again, or is that something that you shy away from doing now?
BEHARIE: No, I’m definitely not shying away from anything like that. We’ve got things cookin’. It’s a blessing. It’s really a privilege to get in that room with the crew and all of the actors and creatives. It takes so much. The audience just gets to see the credits and then our faces but there are so many people. We’re realizing now just how connected we are, as we’re all trying to avoid this virus and get ourselves back to a particular place. We’re all so connected. It’s like a circus, being on a film crew. We’re all there together, in it and trying to get the same thing done with the same intention. I personally love that collaboration and seeing what it ends up being. I only get to do one tiny little part of it, really. It’s what people see but then there’s the sound mixer and the wardrobe, and people that have been talking about it for ages, and the writing of it, and doing edits. You come in and do your thing, and then you see what someone else does from there. It’s a huge collaboration. I love that and want more of it. I’m glad that there’s so much content.
Is there a current TV show that you watch that you’d love to do a guest spot on?
BEHARIE: Don’t ask me that! Oh, man. This is awful but to be completely honest, my favorite show is Chopped. I love competition cooking shows. I love gardening and cooking, and stuff like that. I wanna be on The Voice. I’m obsessed with I May Destroy You. I love what Michaela Coel is doing. There’s actually a lot of really good stuff out there. I loved Unorthodox but there’s no part for me in that. I just love that we get to go to all of these different worlds. There actually is so much interesting content out there. I don’t know about guest-spotting. I had a dream, once upon a time, where I wanted to be on Peaky Blinders. There are so many shows, so forgive me if I did not mention your show. There are so many great shows that I would like to guest on.
Monsterland is available to stream at Hulu.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.