Walking into a pristine hotel suite in Beverly Hills to interview a celebrity has become as normal to me as breathing air. For me, it’s work, and the talent I talk to are just people, ones I need to get to know piece by piece. Yet, walking into this particular suite in late October, seeing Rebecca Ferguson casually sipping sparkling water and then turning her gaze towards me with a playful but knowing smile, makes me feel both at ease and also like I’m about to enter a lair where I’m the main sacrifice.
Perhaps it’s this entrancing aura about her that made Doctor Sleep writer-director Mike Flanagan cast Ferguson as one of Stephen King’s most intoxicating villains, Rose the Hat, in his new film. Rose is a character unlike any other. She’s the leader of the True Knot, a group of nomads who feast on the essence, the “steam,” of children who possess special psychic abilities. Rose is alluring, sensual, tough, and feminine all at once, maternal enough to be like the Pied Piper to children possessing the same “shine” as The Shining’s Danny Torrance (played in Doctor Sleep by Ewan McGregor). Rose is a character who needs to be able to win a child’s trust with a smile, yet, in a moment’s notice, can order and perform a long, torturous execution of a trusting boy who begs for his life wearing his little league uniform.
Back in Beverly Hills, I confess to Ferguson that I’ve been a fan of hers since she starred in Starz’s The White Queen back in 2013. She squeals and exclaims, “You can stay forever.” And so, I stayed as long as she let me, and found out exactly why Ferguson was such a perfect Rose the Hat. Note: there are spoilers ahead, so don't say we didn't warn you!
GQ: Rose the Hat is not the type of character that women get to play very often. She's complex, layered, and complicated. You, however, have played many complex women. Can you talk about the changing landscape of roles for women, and specifically getting the chance to play someone like Rose?
Rebecca Ferguson: Well, I need to simplify it a little bit. I think when it comes to the overall representation of women on screen, we're coming to a change, right? It's going slowly but my God, people are standing on barricades working for it. I feel that I get, and have been given the possibility, to taste the arch of that equality. I've been so lucky and fortunate with Mission Impossible, which is a lot of men—I mean, let's call a spade a spade—but these guys have been so purposeful of making Ilsa interesting and intriguing because if they build up a character who is equal to Ethan Hunt, it makes the challenge on the film more interesting. If you create a damsel in distress, you only walk right over to him, and there is no challenge in it.
For me, every time I do a role, I really, really want to find the opposite emotion to what the story tells. So if it's a heroine, I want to know what her addictions and secrets are because we're not just good and we're not just evil. I mean, you and I sit here and we're kind of nice and probably you have things you battle and I have things I battle. And this is what makes a human human, and relatable, even for someone like Rose.
I’ve have spoken to a few actors who have played villains, and they usually say they don’t see them as villains, but heroes of their own stories. Did you see Rose that way?
Oh, she’s an absolute villain. She is the antagonist in this story. She's an iconic, cool villain. I would never take that away from what she is. But then the question is, how do you make her that? What is it that makes her such a brutal, hardcore, cool rock star villain? It is her passion. I feel that she's 100% dedicated to everything she does. She's a lover. She's a carer. She feeds, she hunts. She does everything that you and I do to protect the people we love. It's just that the outcome and the consequences of what she does are a little bit darker.
Rose is very sexual, she's complicated, and she's even competitive. Men have been allowed to play these sorts of characters forever. It's refreshing to see a woman come in and take over and slay this role. How did you bring to life a character that is such a force?
I love that you see the comparison to what men have done and what they have had the possibility to do, because that was definitely there when creating her. And at the same time, Stephen King is the man that wrote her, and if you read the book, it's all there. There's nothing I have created with her. I've put life and I've breathed or activated her. What I was quite astonished by is how incredibly detailed Stephen gets on who Rose is. In the book, he says that she is sexual, that she has everything, and that she's alluring and beautiful and she's needy and she's all of these emotions. I think for me it was just playing one emotion at the time to its absolute fullest.
I find it interesting that very often it’s men who are allowed to write complex women, but women aren't given the same opportunity. Here you worked with Mike Flanagan and you just worked with Denis Villeneuve on Dune, but you're currently working with Lisa Joy on Reminiscence...
Which, by the way, actually goes hand in hand with where you're going. This character that I'm playing [in Reminiscence], Mae, is a figment of imagination, and seeing her through the eyes of men... we see different [sides] of this one person, but through other people's eyes, and I believe that it is all through the eyes of men. So I play the Madonna, I play the whore, the drug addict, either as the support or the lover. I get to play all these roles on the whole idea of, who is she? Who is she at her core?
Obviously I don't want to single any of directors you’ve worked with out, but I do wonder if there is something to be said about women writing for women.
That’s a hard one for me to answer. Most of the men I've worked with have been very supportive of women and they would probably call themselves feminists, I would think. But I haven't worked with enough women to make a generalization that women are better or more sensitive to being a woman. We end up on a slippery slope because I've read scripts by women and they've been shit. I'm not going to do it just because it’s by a woman. I'm a speaker for the human race and I don't care if you have a vagina or if you have a penis, but we need to push women so much farther to people to reach some resemblance of equality, which we aren't even close to. But here I am working with Lisa, who is one of the fiercest, intelligent, and most well-spoken women on earth.
I guess I was just wondering because of your upcoming role in Dune. When Denis did Blade Runner 2049, lots of women critics didn’t agree with how he wrote Joi.
Do you know what he's done for this one though? The book Dune was written by Frank Herbert, but it was written so many years ago that women weren't really seen as equal to men. Now I play Jessica, who's a concubine and she's a lover and mistress. She's also a bodyguard and she has all of the qualities of a heroine that are heightened in this film. Every time there's a scene with her, we would sit down and analyze it, to not take it away from what the story is, but to make her equally as relevant as Paul in the film.
Does Lady Jessica have her own arc, then?
Definitely. But you can't take away from the fact that this is Paul’s journey, not Jessica's. That's the difference. [But] she is mighty powerful and if you take her away from the film, it wouldn't work.
You’ve said that you hate jump scares and you don't like children in horror films. Yet there’s jump scares and Rose interacts with children quite a bit in Doctor Sleep. How did you overcome that fear to work on this film?
I don't want to take away from the beauty of the film and how incredible it is and I want people to watch it and feel excited, but in the end, it's not real, you know? I'm not cutting anyone up or anything. We're on set and we eat pizza and we have music and all of a sudden we have to get into a mode. The scene with Jacob Tremblay was probably one of the most emotional scenes I've ever done.
I remember reading that in the book and thinking, “How are they going to put this on screen?” The book’s description is so brutal.
I know! And you know what? Mike said the other day that we used about 5% of what we filmed in that scene. I was originally really pissed off when I saw a cut of the film because I know what I did and I know some of the sequences that were so brutal, that I was so excited to see, but it would have been too much for the audience to take. There was a moment where I was cradling my baby daughter, shushing and being a mom before shooting, and in that scene I wanted to go far before really flipping. So it's that relation to how much can an audience take and how much do I and my selfish need to want to expose what I did.
Has your experience on Doctor Sleep changed how you feel about horror?
Completely. I'm actually excited to see new scary movies, but I now know to be very aware of what type of scary movie I’m watching. Before this, when I did the research, I watched anything, I just sucked in all kinds of horror films, and some of them are just so dated, it's ridiculous. You just laugh. But the good ones carry that element of suspense. It's the tension between the jumps. The Babadook does it beautifully. I think that's such a good, scary movie. I couldn't sleep for a couple of nights after watching it. Then It came out and I was like, I'm going, that's a clown and a baby...
You hate clowns, too!
Oh, I do. But I don't know if that is what Bill Skarsgård actually is in It. But he was brilliant, and I do like to support my fellow actors. I love seeing what they do, and I root for him as well.
And now you're a villain in the Stephen King universe along with Bill.
Now I am an ultra villain in a horror film.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The master of horror has a bunch of stuff in the pipeline. Here's what's coming up.
Originally Appeared on GQ