STACK caught up director M. Night Shyamalan and Aussie star Abbey Lee to discuss the high-concept thriller, Old.
In a youth-obsessed society, few actresses would willingly volunteer to look older than they are – especially on the big screen where such images might haunt them forever.
But there’s always exceptions, and Old director M. Night Shyamalan was thrilled when Melbourne’s own Abbey Lee rose to the challenge.
Unlike most of the director’s previous films – The Sixth Sense, Glass or The Village – typically filmed in locales close to his Pennsylvania home, Shyamalan’s Old is set in a tropical resort where we quickly learn that something is wrong in paradise; guests at a secluded beach discovering it is somehow causing them to age rapidly … reducing their entire lives into a single day.
“Abbey was incredibly game to do anything and never complained once. She was stunning,” the director says of the former supermodel who bowed out of the runway in 2012, choosing to focus on her acting career and making her major feature debut in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
Certainly audiences will be surprised by Lee’s total lack of vanity in Old, portraying Chrystal, the vacuous wife of Rufus Sewell’s surgeon, Charles.
“As you know, she was a Victoria’s Secret model and studied acting and went through this movement of her life. I was very taken with her ability to be committed, professional, nuanced and risk-taking. She would do these incredible takes and just be completely abandoned without any protection at all,” says Shyamalan, whose psychological thriller also features Gael Garcia Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), Embeth Davidtz (Army of Darkness), Alex Wolff (Hereditary) and Aaron Pierre (Underground Railroad).
“Abbey certainly wasn’t trying to make herself look beautiful,” he adds. “We had amazing actresses that auditioned for that part and she won it by being so specific and amazing. I’m stunned by her performance and I really wish her the best.”
If Chrystal is described in great detail as “the sort of woman who turns heads when she walks into a room – she knows she’s beautiful and she takes great pains to maintain her flawless figure. For someone whose self-worth is so inextricably bound up with her appearance, the passage of time can become a powerful enemy,” then the role certainly wasn’t a stretch for Lee, who has since reinvented herself as an in-demand actress, appearing in Office Christmas Party, The Neon Demon and Emmy-nominated HBO series Lovecraft Country.
“I think what I liked most about the script is that it’s a dissertation on the collapse of time,” says Lee. “There’s a really beautiful balance of panic and reflection.”
Although Chrystal is only 33 when Old opens, “Already, she’s got this little devil on her shoulder, that beast of ageing, saying, ‘You’re not 20 anymore,’” says Lee. “I understand what that is, and I can feel her so deeply in me. This happens to so many women around the world.”
Determined to attract attention, Chrystal dons a brilliant marigold bikini to sunbathe during her day on the beach, preoccupied with taking selfies – until peculiar forces begin to transform her body into something very far removed from youthful beauty. As wrinkles fan out like spider webs across her face, she vainly attempts to conceal the changes with makeup, but her efforts are for naught. Terrified by what’s happening to her, she struggles to maintain a grip on her sanity.
“She believes, or has been told, that all she has is the way that she looks. As she starts to lose that, she’s frightened and in pain,” explains Lee. “ What’s happening to her is happening at such a rapid pace, she doesn’t have the tools to deal with it. She just can’t figure out how to cope.”
Lee’s experience in the highly scrutinised world of high fashion gave her unique insight into her character’s psyche.
“Because of my past and my present, I have a strong relationship to the way that I look and how I move through the world and what that has done to me and for me,” she says. “It’s a complicated relationship. Chrystal has just reinforced that. She should make me feel terrified, but I have so much empathy for her. I care for her so much.”
Filmed on location in the Dominican Republic last year during the pandemic, Old also features Australian actress Eliza Scanlen (Babyteeth) and New Zealand’s Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), all handpicked by the director.
Based on Pierre-Oscar Levy’s graphic novel, Sandcastle, Shyamalan hopes his big screen adaptation is more thought-provoking than it is alarming.
“There’s a beauty to our definitions of life, like ‘this happened to me’ or ‘this thing defined me’, and when time is moving so fast, everything that was amazing or tragic or horrible that happened to you, it doesn’t really define the movement of your whole life.”
While many of the director’s previous films are based on original ideas, he had help sourcing Levy’s book, which was, in fact, an unusual Father’s Day gift from his daughters.
“They’re pretty great at curating stuff for me. They point out poetry or novels or graphic novels that they think I might like. They’re very aware of the dissonant things or the philosophical things that interest me, so this graphic novel was totally on point,” he says.
• Old is in cinemas on July 22