Hannah Gross on The Mountain and Mindhunter at Venice Film Festival 2018
Having played the girlfriend of an FBI psychologist in the David Fincher series Mindhunter, actress Sarah Gross has now crossed to the other side to become a psychiatric patient in Rick Alverson’s latest feature The Mountain. The film is set in the 50s and follows the young and unassuming Andy (Tye Sheridan) as he meets the physician who institutionalised his mother (Jeff Goldblum) and embarks on a tour of asylums. As Andy begins to empathise with the inmates he falls for one of them (Gross) and the lines between sane and insane become unstable.
We spoke to the Canadian actress about her role in the movie and what it was like to work under Alverston, as well as alongside three very different actors: Goldblum, Sheridan and Denis Lavant.
When your character meets this boy it’s a way out of their mutual problems. Love could have been an escape for them. Is this the way you interpret it?
I think what’s interesting is that Rick takes the stereotypical idea of there being an answer and an escape and turns it completely on its heads because of course, it’s not. I think it’s purposeful to take a scenario we’ve seen over and over again and completely eviscerate it.
So you think it’s just an illusion that love can save you from your demons?
Yeah. At least romantic love, I think it’s an illusion, and a purposeful one. I think the other movie I’ve seen with a similar take is First Reformed by Paul Shrader.
When you read the script, how did you react? How did you approach it and did you bring anything to the film that wasn’t there in the character?
I loved it immediately. I have a difficult time reading scripts sometimes, they’re not always enjoyable. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination but when I read some action my mind goes directly to the worst-case scenario of what it would look like, but that didn’t happen and there are so many layers to the movie, the script is so tight and I didn’t realise until reading it, only seeing it, how brilliant the structure and form of it is.
What do you think people are going to take away from watching this film?
I don’t know. I had a surprising experience watching this movie and getting to the ending. I was sitting there thinking, oh this is surprisingly light, Rick’s made a light film, and then about 30 seconds later I felt like I just had a hysterectomy, I was completely devastated, so I don’t know if that’s what I want everyone to experience, but it’s certainly thought-provoking because it is so seemingly simple, shots are simple and you’re not overwhelmed by the aesthetic or the form or the dialogue, so to be that makes the experience more powerful, because you’re not being slammed with information. You are able to engage with it in a way that’s not really asked of audiences in cinema most of the time.
How does Rick compare to the other directors you’ve worked with so far?
He’s so blindingly intelligent so that’s very exciting to work with, and I think I’m starting to piece together what I like in directors and what, to me, makes sense for a really brilliant director, specifically in terms of working with actors, is like this sort of ineffable, innate feeling that you are being watched and taken care of in an appreciative way, sort of like a benevolent parent. This makes for the best director and this was what Rick was like to work with.
When did you see the final version of the film?
Visually it’s incredible, the cinematography is amazing.
Yes, Lorenzo is a genius.
And what did you notice about the kind of work you were doing and did you realise how good it was going to look?
Yeah, because the production design was phenomenal and the wardrobe was completely brilliant. Elizabeth Warren is just an incredibly brilliant person and designer and these clothes she found, it felt like I was actually stepping into other people’s identity, that’s how sensitive it was and every aspect, every crew member approached it with such sensitivity and care that it generally felt throughout the whole production that it was a very special set.
And you work with three incredibly good, but very different actors. Can you tell me about your relationship with them on set?
They’re the loveliest people. I had this moment when I was a kid there was the parable of the devil who gives this guy the chance to live for eternity if he picks one moment to live in, and ever since then I’m always checking to see if that moment would be good for eternity, and that was definitely on set, I was like yeah, I could do this forever. Denis Lavant is like my all-time favourite actor, he’s so brilliant and exactly what you’d expect him to be, like he’s just buzzing with energy and life and had, like, six musical instruments that he would carry around and pull out, like interchanging them, and Jeff Goldblum is just incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more sensual person.
He looks like a true gentleman.
Yeah, he’s so lovely and so warm and genuine and very calm, and genuinely one of the most curious people I’ve ever met. It’s impressive, it’s what you aspire to be like, you aspire to go through the world with the same curiosity as Jeff Goldblum. And Tye, I was just so impressed by his presence as well… it’s so effortless and unassuming but strong at the same time. And he’s also a true Texan Gentleman.
Tye is quite a deadpan performer. How was it for him on set, would he all of a sudden turn into one of those guys who doesn’t react to anything?
Yeah, he’s one of those insane robots who can do that!
Do you any situations in particular?
I think it was the first day I was on set when we were shooting in the hospital and it’s the scene where he breaks the chair, and I wasn’t even watching, I was sitting in the gymnasium when they held us and I could just see him. And even without having any visuals, my heart just sank, it was incredibly affecting and so when I was watching it, it made me cry. It’s really remarkable because his performance mirrors the structure of the film itself in this way where it’s this sustained taut stillness for the first three quarters of the film, and then everything erupts, and that’s exactly what his performance does.
What’s your best overall memory from the set?
Probably getting to watch Denis Lavant dance. He’s a true performer in that complete generosity in that he did the scene where he’s guiding the spiritual seance. And so they did however many takes of that and then they were like, Demi, you can go, you’re finished and he was like “I have to dance for them, do you want me to dance for you?” And I was like, yes?
So the best part of the dance, we haven’t seen it?
Yeah, for my eyes only.
You’ve been in dark places with your TV series Mindhunter. How was it for you to be in these dark places?
My role is essentially to supply levity. I think there’s definitely a dedication to the content but there’s also a lightness that comes in reaction to how dark the material is, on sets and everything it can get a little goofy and the knowledge that it’s all for play is certainly present.
What attracted you to your character in Mindhunter?
It was nice to have something that was of the era of these 70s films, the kind of back-and-forth banter dialogue, and I love Debbie. It’s really fun to play a character who’s not self-serious, especially when she’s playing alongside a character whose self-importance is off the charts, but for me I loved the experience of working with Dabid and then Jonathon, and it was one of the first things I was involved in where I didn’t wear my own wardrobe so it was a huge leap for me. The prospect of working with the crew was most exciting for me, and then came Debbie, who was also very cool.
What did you learn as an actress?
I went to theatre school but I concentrated more on making my own work towards the end of university. And then, getting into film was more of a process of working from intuition again as I had completely forgotten every technical skill I learnt from school, and so then working with Fincher, I had to reactivate that and get some muscle memory working again because he is obviously so technical and so precise. Because of the generosity to be able to do those many takes, which is rare, and especially in film and television when there’s next to no such thing as a rehearsal and it sort of feels like a superficial read, with Fincher you are constantly unpacking layers of what the scene means, what’s happening, your idea of it is constantly changing and your idea of yourself within it is constantly changing as you ride through waves of crippling self-doubt and then you’re feeling like maybe we’re working with something here that’s good, and it was the first time I’de ever acted in anything were I felt like it was work, which was great. It’s a really good feeling.
Do you remember your audition for David Fincher?
It was a process of about three months. I went in about five or six times. Each time I had no expectations whatsoever of getting it.
Who told you, David Fincher or a casting director?
I was through my agent but when I actually got to meet David and he was talking about Pittsburgh and I was like, “is this real, or are you just telling me what Pittsburgh is like?”
And what did you do to celebrate?
I was actually already at a bar…
What are you going to work on next?
I’m just finishing a shoot called Colewell by Tom Quinn and I’m going to Toronto for another film, and then probably, indefinite vacation.
The Mountain does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Venice Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Venice Film Festival website here.