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Radha Mitchell – In Every Dreamkatcher a Nightmare

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Radha Mitchell

In Every Dreamkatcher a Nightmare

By Jay S. Jacobs

There is a whole world out there which we barely remember and hardly understand. Dreams and nightmares are a place where our imagination goes wild, where normal logic or real-world conventions hold no sway.

It is a world that fascinates actress Radha Mitchell – who was born in Australia but has been based out of the US since the mid-1980s. She has put together a diverse and impressive body of work, from arty films like her breakthrough role in High Art, Finding Neverland and Melinda & Melinda to a series of horror and sci-fi genre films like Pitch Black, Surrogates, Silent Hill and the Has Fallen series – London Has Fallen, Olympus Has Fallen, Angel Has Fallen.

Mitchell has done a lot of genre films, though those are not necessarily the kind of films she watches just for pleasure.

“I’m sort of compelled to them, in terms of making them, because they are such an opportunity for extreme emotions, and often innovation is storytelling. But I’m a bit repelled by them, in terms of viewership,” Mitchell laughed. “For me, life is intense enough. I don’t need to amp it up.”

However, even if she doesn’t always seek them out, they often resonate with her.

“The movies that stay in my consciousness have often come out of the genre of horror or a thriller,” Mitchell continued. “There is a movie – Cat People (a 1982 film starring David Bowie and Nastassia Kinski) – years ago, which is probably the first movie I really remember. It left an indelible impression, because it was so creepy at the time when I saw it. Especially from the perspective of a young person. They are so impactful, these movies. They are often attuned to things we need to think about in culture. They have resonant significance. Approach with caution…”

That kind of cautious approach to the frights of life is what attracted her to her latest film, Dreamkatcher, about the strength and palpable horror of nightmares – with a little demonic possession and evil spirits thrown in. Like everyone, she has had certain nightmares which have stuck with her over the years, so she was intrigued by the hold they have over people and their subconscious.

“When I was a child, [I had] this nightmare when I was six,” Mitchell explained. “There was this back lane at the back of my house that was always dark and unlit and kind of mysterious. And inviting, in a way. I always wanted to go explore the back lane. In this dream, I get held at gunpoint in the back lane.”

Mitchell laughed at the memory. “I plead for my life. I remember waking up from that dream thinking, ‘Wow.’ I never understood ‘please.’ It was always like a polite word, but in this dream, I’m begging using the word. ‘Please don’t kill me!’ There are some dreams that you have where you have these intense emotional experiences. I don’t know what they mean, but sometimes they are like passageways to the next level of your growth, or it seems like that. There are a few dreams that I’ve had that I remember. One had a dolphin.” She laughed again.

And just on a basic level, does she believe in ghosts or spirits?

“I don’t not believe in anything, but I haven’t had an experience with a ghost, and I’d rather not,” Mitchell said. “You won’t find me at a séance.”

The new film revolves around a fictional conceit created for the film – dreamkatchers with a “K” – which are sort of like the evil twin of the traditional dreamcatcher. Where the normal dreamcatchers are supposed to protect you from evil spirits, these evil dreamkatchers perform the exact opposite purpose. They allow these ghosts and demons a connection to the human world, granting them access to the poor owner, who doesn’t realize that this burnt and blackened loom is a bad sign or a hex. Besides…

“You really know it’s evil because the K is backwards,” Mitchell laughed. “That means it’s evil!”

Mitchell loved the opportunity to be a part of the creation of a new form of supernatural malevolence.

“That was intriguing,” Mitchell explained, “the mythology of a dream ‘K’ catcher. What’s the back story going to be? The logic of that was something that needed a bit of refinement, even when we were shooting. It was like, ‘What are we talking about here? This is so out there.’ That was fun for the challenge, being a part of that. What’s the narrative of a dreamkatcher?”

The specific narrative is about Gail – played by Mitchell – a child psychologist who is visiting the odd country vacation home (what’s with all those random windows?) of her new boyfriend. Luke (played by former child star Henry Thomas, who played Elliott in ET: The Extraterrestrial) is trying to help her get to know his troubled young son Josh (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong). It is the first time that Luke and Josh had been back to the cabin since the mysterious death Luke’s wife and Josh’s mother at the cabin years earlier.

However, from the very start, things turn spooky. Josh is having unsettling dreams about his dead mother. And when he finds what he thinks is a dreamcatcher – but it is really a dreamkatcher – the nightmares only become more vivid.

“This idea of a dream invasion is kind of creepy and fascinating,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell was also intrigued by the relationships, particularly between Gail and Josh, because Luke is called back to the city for work for a long portion of Dreamkatcher and the two are basically left alone together in the wilderness. Josh was acting out even before the supernatural raised its head – he was a typical pre-teen resisting the woman he sees as trying to replace his mother.

“[I liked] the unusual dynamics between [the dad’s girlfriend] and the boy,” Mitchell explained. “The brave kid and just that stepmother evil fantasy was very interesting. Almost an un-PC subject, which was of interest to me.”

Strangely enough, over the course of Dreamkatcher Josh seems to be warming up to his potential stepmom, other than the occasional violent outbursts due to demonic possession.

“There is a longing in both characters – her to have this maternal role and him to have a mother. Yet, the circumstances are going to get right in the middle of that,” Mitchell laughed.

And what circumstances they are. Josh continues to dream of his dead mother, and she does not appear to be pleased with the idea of being replaced.

“The idea of going from the rational world into the irrational world; at what point is this character going to acquiesce?” Mitchell laughed. “That was of interest to me because I feel like there is a Gail in all of us – a side of us that wants to create a sense of logic and control over things. Ultimately, I think there is a kind of life that is beyond our control.”

Mitchell, who started acting as a teenager in her native Australia, was impressed by the boy who was her co-star. After all, for long stretches of the film there are only the two of them together carrying the storyline. That is difficult work for any actor, but it could potentially be extra challenging for an actor who is so young. However, even at his young age Wojtak-Hissong has had a good deal of experience in film, starring last year in Lone Scherfig’s The Comfort of Strangers and playing the lead role in the horror reboot of The Banana Splits.

“I’ve worked with some amazing actors in my time,” Mitchell said. “Meeting him on set, there is something very charismatic about him. I was actually very excited to work with him. As young as he was, there was really something interesting about the chemistry of the two characters, which I hadn’t seen a lot in cinema. I felt like he was perfectly cast because he’s such a self-possessed little guy. So independent and highly intelligent and a bit of a know-it-all. It was great. It was self-contained. He very much knew what he was doing and in his own space. That was kind of exciting. He was an exciting actor to work with.”

As a former child actress – though Mitchell did start in her teens, later than he did – did Mitchell give him any pointers?

“He was more interested in Henry Thomas, I guess, who was also a child star – he was the kid in ET at one point,” Mitchell admitted. “I guess from his perspective, that was pretty fascinating. He took a real shining to Henry Thomas as a mentor on set – when [Thomas] was on set. The time off there was an interesting distance. It was interesting, a really interesting chemistry. Not immediately super-fluffy, if that makes sense.”

Other than Thomas, the main supporting actress in the film was horror veteran Lin Shaye (The Insidious series, 2001 Maniacs, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels). Mitchell enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with Shaye in their scenes together, with Shaye as a local shopkeeper who specialized in dreamcatchers and knew more about the mysterious local goings on than Luke let out.

“She’s amazing,” Mitchell said. “She’s made a lot of these movies and is a real expert on script analysis as well. I was really inspired by her, actually. Just her passion for the craft. She’s very emotionally authentic in the moment. In any moment, even in her own her own life. If something moves her, she’ll just be crying when she tells you about it. She’s super-present and real honest and she is totally up for whatever the story requires. Super energized. I was just really inspired by her talent, to be honest. It was great working with her.”

Shaye’s presence on set also added directly to the horror of the film.

“Her friend, Joe Bishara, she invited him to the project” Mitchell explained. “He played the evil character incarnate, and he also did the soundtrack. So, he’s a real artist and someone very special to have on the set. There was a great team of people on the film project.”

Some great people, also some great places. As mentioned earlier, much of the action takes place in a huge, secluded cabin in the middle of nowhere. A rustic and oddly designed place – the front is festooned with a series of differently shaped and randomly placed windows that give the home a sense of no privacy – it is charmingly pastoral and disarmingly creepy at the same time. In fact, Mitchell admitted, the entire area was a bit disorienting, a small hamlet of the past in the modern world.

“We shot it in Bovina, upstate New York,” Mitchell said. “We were like three hours’ drive from New York [City]. We had no cell phone reception. That house was very remote, where it was. There was Wi-Fi in the house, but if you walked too far away there was no reception. On the road between [the] house and [the] mini-hotel and whatever, there was no cell phone reception. We were very isolated in our experience.”

However, perhaps that isolation helped to get her into the mood for the role she was playing. Still, it may even have been even a bit too method.

“They put me in this charming little cottage for like the first couple of days, by myself, with no cell phone and no car,” Mitchell laughed. “I was like, ‘Thanks, guys. Get me out of here.’”

So, they got her out of there. Then things shifted into a more communal atmosphere.

“I moved to this creepy big mansion that they had, with a bunch of different people, including the director and some of the producers and a couple of crew members – all living as kind of roommates, which was sort of an alternative,” she laughed again. “There were really no hotels to stay in in the area, so we got to know each other very well. We were either shooting the movie or talking about the movie back at the house.”

Still, the area added to the sense of loneliness and being cut off from society at large, which did make things more atmospheric for the filming.

“In between these spaces there was just emptiness,” Mitchell continued. “Without the cell phone reception, it was really interesting, just feeling that isolation, because it really was the experience of the characters in the story.”

Gail was a child psychologist. Was it difficult for Mitchell to get into that mindset? Did she talk to any doctors or research the study?

“The director was really interested in cognitive behavioral therapy.” Mitchell said. “He had given me some material to read and I got into that headspace in the research. Then, just tangentially, I got excited about dreams, and dream psychology. We still don’t really understand what our dreams mean. There are ideas about them, but there are no definitive explanations about them. It’s mysterious and interesting. This idea of a dream invasion is even more exciting.”

Taking risks and adventures is nothing new to the actress, who uprooted her life to come to the States as a teenager, with just a TV series role and a film part on her resume in her native Australia. However, she made a splash not long after moving, getting one of the lead roles in the acclaimed indie film High Art with Ally Sheedy.

“At the time I had just signed with an agent in the US,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to sign with the biggest agency, and then I got this smaller agent. I said to them when I started, I just want to do independent film. That’s all I want to do. Which wasn’t exactly the most bankable kind of pitch.”

However, the agent stood behind her and looked for the perfect project for her.

“They sent me the script. At the time, people had to audition, you had to meet with the casting director. I had to put this little video together. I videoed the scene with a friend of mine and sent it off into New York City from LA. Somebody responded to it and they offered me the part. That was amazing.”

A little too amazing, perhaps. Life doesn’t go that simply. There will always be bumps in the road.

“They rang back and said, ‘No, we need to meet you. Sorry, we thought about it, in reflection. You need to see us before we’re going to give you the part.’ I remember talking to the director and crying because I thought I had my big opportunity to make my first American film. Anyway, it all turned out for the good. I ended up there and auditioning and getting the part. It did mean a lot. What’s the context of it, you never know when you’re entering something how it’s going to resonate in the future.”

Still, in those early years, it was still a bit of a stretch for an Australian actress to get a role in Hollywood. She got a coach to help her with her accent, and she just tried to fit in.

“Today, pretty much most of the actors you watch are Australian, which is some strange coincidence. But at the time, I had to pretend I was American,” Mitchell laughed. “People weren’t used to the idea that you could [play an] American if you weren’t American. Just the believability of it. I pretended I was American even for Pitch Black. I think they thought I was American until they cast me. That was a challenge. These days I think people are really open to the idea that actors can transmute their personas.”

Showing a different face for the camera than one shows in real life, that is something which comes naturally to a private woman like Mitchell.

“I try not to let anybody know anything about me,” Mitchell said good naturedly.

Of course, Mitchell has been in the game long enough to realize that misconceptions and strange stories come with the territory. For example, there is a much-quoted article online that suggests that she is extremely shy.

“That was a misinterpretation,” she explained dismissively. “Trying to make some drama out of a comment.”

Or there is the Wikipedia note that she is currently working on a project called The Homewrecker. “I don’t know,” Mitchell laughed. “I’ll have to check it out because I don’t know [anything about it].”

Still, that kind of thing is not out of the question.

“I remember once I read somewhere that I was going to make a movie called The Waiting City,” Mitchell explained. “What is The Waiting City? I’d never heard of The Waiting City. I rang my agent in Australia, and they were like, there was a script called The Waiting City, but it hadn’t been offered to me at that point. It was subsequently. Someone in India had said something to the press or something and something was let out before it was actually happening. So, maybe I am working on a movie called The Homewrecker, but I don’t know about it.”

Still, the fact that the Wikipedia post says that The Homewrecker is based on an experience from Mitchell’s own life, makes it seem rather unlikely that she would not have heard of it.

However, for now, like the rest of the world, Mitchell is in the middle of a forced vacation, sheltering in place during the Coronavirus epidemic. As horrible as the situation is for the world, Mitchell is trying to make the best of the situation.

“I am currently getting into gardening,” she said. “I am a papaya farmer in my west side house here. I just picked two papayas off this tree yesterday. They are amazing. Now I’m a proponent of urban gardening. I think people should get into growing their own food.”

Otherwise, she is just dealing with the new normal and hoping for the best until the world can get back to the usual routine.

“I was a bit freaked out about [sheltering at home] initially, [but] now I’m enjoying it,” Mitchell said. “Slow down for a minute. It’s quite nice.”

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: April 28, 2020.

Photos ©2020. Courtesy of Lionsgate. All rights reserved.

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