Tuesday, July 23, 2024

‘The catharsis was profound, but I’ll never watch it’: Alicia Witt on facing her demons on film

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So many uncanny things happened on the set of Longlegs – and not just Nicolas Cage in full serial killer makeup staying in character between takes – that surely it seeped into the deeply unsettling feel of the film. “Like clusters of birds, eagles, showing up in unexpected ways,” says Alicia Witt. “I’m getting shivers just talking about it. A truck would go by with the name of one of the characters.”

When she and Osgood Perkins, the film’s writer and director, were having an early conversation on the phone about her role as Ruth, the mother of a young FBI agent, he asked her about working with David Lynch. (Witt made her debut aged seven filming Lynch’s Dune, and also featured in Twin Peaks.) “I started answering and he said, ‘I just have to interrupt you for a second because two school buses just went by and they both had ‘Lynch’ on them.’ Making Longlegs,” she says, “felt like a very spiritual experience.”

I was going to ask Witt if she felt able to get on board with the film’s supernatural elements, but of course she did. Agent Lee Harker (played by Maika Monroe), Witt’s character’s daughter, is a kind of half-psychic Clarice Starling, having some sort of connection to the serial killer she hunts, known as Longlegs. There are – without giving too much away – terrifying dolls, occult elements and some murderous mind control, and the songs of T Rex will forevermore be tainted with darkness. The film is stylish and weighted with dread – but so frightening I had my eyes shut for most of it.

Witt, who is radiant over Zoom and has a soothingly slow way of speaking, laughs. “I know that whatever I do for the rest of my career, Longlegs will be one of my favourite experiences,” she says. Cage will draw the attention with his typically unhinged acting style, but Witt gives a devastatingly quiet and contained performance as Ruth, a traumatised woman whose relationship with her daughter is heartbreakingly distant.

Witt’s acting career – she is also a musician – has swung towards comedy and quirky drama, as well as an unusual number of Hallmark Christmas TV movies. (Nine!) There has been darker stuff, such as small roles in the TV series The Exorcist and The Walking Dead, but nothing like Longlegs.

The role came after Witt’s life had imploded. In late 2021, her parents were found dead of suspected cold exposure in their run-down Massachusetts home. In a Facebook post, Witt wrote that they were “beautifully original souls”, who had refused to let her help them; she hadn’t been allowed inside their home for a decade. A few months later, Witt revealed she had also been dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis, and treatment that involved chemotherapy and a mastectomy.

When Longlegs was filmed the following year, she says, “it felt as though something within me that needed to be released was released, and shall forevermore remain within these frames.” She doesn’t intend to watch it. She doesn’t love watching herself on film anyway. “But this one, it’s like a spiritual reason.” What does she fear might happen if she did? “It’s not fear, just a choice, a conviction. I have a certainty that it’s meant for others to view. I’m very proud of whatever got channelled,” she says. “It felt that intense and that personal for me: the catharsis of getting to play Ruth was profound.”

How had she coped? “There is a Shawn Colvin song that has the line: ‘If there were no music, then I would not get through,’” says Witt. “And music was a salvation during that time.” Witt has made music since childhood and has released several albums. A phrase – “Will you be my witness?” – came to her during her raw grief and ongoing treatment: “It appeared to me like a mantra. I knew that was a song that was going to be born, but I wasn’t writing at that moment. But it helped me. And it’s the people, the people, the people.”

Those around her supported her. “I can count on one hand the people who were my touchstones, my late-night, talk till three in the morning people. They were with me every step of the way. Only they know the extent of it, and they are for ever now my witnesses.” Last year, Witt released an EP, Witness. “What was beautiful about the experience, amid all the rest of it, was that the relationships with these soul companions becomes so much deeper on the other end.” And, she adds, “In a way, I truly believe you’re not given anything you can’t handle.”

There is something fairytale and wonderfully eccentric about Witt’s childhood, shared with her younger brother. Their parents were both teachers and their mother, Diane, grew her hair to a Rapunzel-esque three metres, gaining the world record. Witt was described in local newspaper stories at the time as a child genius. She would read everything from college textbooks to tax forms, had a gift for music and taught herself how to grow prize-winning roses. She was homeschooled, and appeared on a TV talent show reciting Shakespeare when she was five, which is where a casting director spotted her. Two years later, she was working on Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi film Dune.

A child genius … in David Lynch’s Dune in 1984. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

“I’ve been fortunate beyond any measure that what I believe I came into this world to do is what I get to make a living at,” says Witt. It was fate, she says, that she found her calling early – and not by “having an agent or parents that were, like, ‘We’re going to take you to Hollywood and make you an actor.’ From the moment I set foot on stage, I had an absolute sense in the core of me that said I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

When Witt was 16 she moved to Los Angeles – her mother came for a while too – and supported herself while auditioning by playing piano at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. She must have seen big movie stars coming in and out – did she feel like the outsider? “Yeah,” she says. “It was odd because on a daily basis, people would approach me and assume my aspiration was to be a musician. I would say, ‘Oh no, I’m an actor,’ and they’d be like, ‘You don’t want to be an actor there’s lots of actors in this town.’ I had to build up the inner fortitude to think, yeah I’m a good musician but I’m a good actor.”

Another “twist of destiny”, as Witt describes it: the director Rafal Zielinski, at the hotel for a meeting, saw her playing the piano. “Not knowing I’d ever acted, he had a vision that I might be right for one of the leads in his movie. And that movie changed my life.” She starred in the 1994 film Fun, playing a teenage girl who murders an older woman, and won an award at Sundance for it. More films followed, then at 18, the role of sardonic daughter Zoey in the sitcom Cybill.

‘Music was a salvation’ … Witt performing in Nashville earlier this year. Photograph: Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

How did Witt, a sheltered and naive child, survive in LA at 16? “I was a strange combination of incredibly young for my age and incredibly mature,” she says. “I didn’t have a drink till I was 23. I was not there to party, I was there to be an actor, and I had a strong sense of conviction that LA was where I belonged.” What was difficult, having been homeschooled, she says, “was that I didn’t know how to relate to people my own age. Fortunately, I found my way. Again through angels and God, I think, I connected with some incredible people who I befriended and are still some of my closest friends today.”

Now Witt lives in Nashville, where she has just finished a new album. She’s also on tour, and will play a London date in September. “I feel like I’m getting to do all things on my own terms. I get to make movies, I get to make music and I get to live here in real life, not surrounded by movie life or anything like that.”

If not for her sense of loneliness as a child, Witt might not have pursued acting. On film sets she loved the sense of community. “It’s always been about the connection with the people, as well as with the character I’m channelling,” she says. In Longlegs, she found a place to purge some of the darkness that had overshadowed her life, while working with people she loved to be around. “It’s odd, but true, that by making a film that explores the dark, somehow I see the light in creating something like this.” It served as a reminder, too, for her own life. “I think that only by being tapped into the light can you eliminate the dark.”

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