By Nora Unkel A nightmare awakens focuses her Mary Shelley story on how a 19-year-old girl gave birth to the iconic sci-fi / horror novel, Frankenstein, in the midst of irreconcilable pain. During a love affair with Percy Shelley – which ended up driving her out of society – and after several miscarriages and living in poverty, Shelley created a work of art that was beyond the romanticism of her time.
Actress Alix Wilton Regan spoke to CBR about what it was like to fill the role of Mary Shelley in Unkel’s goth drama and what she hopes fans will take away from Shelley’s life.
CBR: The first thing I think about is how there is a lot of horror and body horror in this movie as a way of discussing difficult topics, like thinking about miscarriages or women’s rights issues at the time. I feel like that’s the most important thing to me. But I am very curious, how do other people see these issues or not?
Alix Wilton Regan: I think the men have been a bit shocked. Like, men have been like, is it like, post? What do they call that? Postpartum depression? One man said, “So she wants a baby for years and then she has one and then she doesn’t love the baby?” And I say, “Because she was literally raped.” I was like, “Yeah, guys.” It’s just … Really interesting.
The scene that stands out to me the most is the opening scene of the miscarriage. It is so visceral and painful. What preparation did you do for that moment?
It was very hard. Definitely. And I was very hard on myself if I didn’t feel like I had captured it. I think the first thing was the shock, you know? You would be very surprised if this was happening. And then the disbelief, and then a kind of horror when it settles into her body, that she is losing her baby, which is obviously horrendous for any woman who wants that child very much. And then what was really sad about that particular miscarriage scene, but I think it might be alluding, that if you watch the movie, you can see that Mary is visibly pregnant. And at the time, it was because of that particular miscarriage that Nora took from Mary’s real life and put in the movie. I think Mary was six months pregnant. That’s too far, you know?
So she had to do it, certainly back then, she had to give birth to this child because she was aborting this child, which is why there is a line in the movie where Mary turns to Percy and says, “She left me, Percy, she left me. It was. “And it’s because he would have known he had just lost the girl. I think it’s very important that people understand that reason why you can see Mary’s pregnant belly. It is not inaccurate. Actually, that’s completely accurate about that particular miscarriage Nora was referring to. She was pregnant. And he lost the child very late, which is tragic and terrible. I wanted to connect with the truth of that and the numbness that follows. Really, you know, it was difficult. There were restrictions on the wardrobe and the number of takes we could do, etc. But, it felt good what we accomplished.
Do you think it was the hardest scene to play as Mary Shelley? Or does another stand out for you?
I think the rape scene was very complicated. I mean, they did a great job. The team around us did a great job of being very quiet, very respectful to me and Julian, the day we were doing the rape scene. I think it was also the last scene of the week in that particular week so we could all go home and decompress. I remember we did it three times. And they were very different. I remember being tuned in to Nora and I was like, “Why did you do it for that take?” It was for the second take. And she said, “Look at your hands everywhere.” And then when I came back and saw it, I thought, “Yes, the hands. The hands tell their own story.” And, you know, it was a mostly female crew. So of course there were sexual assault and rape survivors in the crew because that’s just the reality of being a woman, unfortunately. So the scene had a lot of weight and atmosphere.
And then I also remember, not necessarily the hardest, but a difficult day was the beginning of the newborn baby, Mackenzie, who was super cute, but also super young, like she was three weeks old. It was like, “Nobody touch her!” It was very difficult, but in a different and charming way.
Nora does a great job of alluding to the things that actually happened to Mary, and then she is also very careful about the details that are accurate. What kind of research did you do for Mary Shelley?
So, there is a fantastic book, written by a woman named Charlotte Gordon, and she wrote a book called Romantic outlaws. It’s basically a chapter from the life of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who was a pioneering feminist author in her own right, followed by a chapter on Mary Shelley and it comes and goes. And the book, you know, is a considerable book. And, I just delved into that book, because it was so fascinating. First of all, it’s a great book in its own right. Second, the content is fascinating. Third, it was incredibly relevant because I was playing Mary Shelley at the time, of course. So I relied on that a lot, trying to understand where Mary was in her life and her experiences.
The other thing I did was that Nora had put these poetry passages, literal poetry written by Percy Shelley, or Mary Shelley, in the script. And I remember that at that moment what I did was that I went and found those poems in their entirety to be able to read them, to be able to understand better, like, where was their mental space? When was he saying this? What was your mental space when you said this? By having the full breadth of poetry, you give them a much broader context, I would say. And it was really helpful to build on his actual writing.
What is one thing that you thought was really important for the audience to know about Mary Shelley and Percy’s relationship that you learned through that research or just by playing Mary?
It’s a great question. She was infinitely more obsessed with him than he was with her, I would say, in a rather tragic way. She was completely devoted to him, you know, even after his death. She was still pushing her work and getting it out to publishers and keeping her name alive in literary newspapers much longer than hers. And I think yes, I was completely obsessed with this man, but he was also genuinely a genius. Like he invented a whole genre of science fiction, you know? So, she was a genius, as far as I’m concerned.
Speaking of his work, he was very curious about the use of ink in the film. I love that it duplicates like the blood in the movie, which is really beautiful. But, from an actor’s perspective, what was that like? Was all that ink on set or was it edited later?
There was ink everywhere. And I remember at times I said, “Someone, I need to pee. Help!” There was definitely a lot of ink. And he went everywhere. I learned to write with a real pen, which by the way, is difficult [Laughs]. Okay, that’s not easy! That was the hardest part of making the movie. Anyone who asked me what the hardest part is, I’ve completely forgotten about it until now. It was difficult learning to write with a pen. Thank goodness the woman who taught me was also in the art department. Charming, wonderful, Deidre [Catero]. She was my double hands. And thank goodness he revised a lot of my writing to make it look elegant. But yeah, there was ink everywhere and I loved it. And I have both pens upstairs, which is very nice, in my box of tricks, and I still have no hope of writing with a pen.
Last question! What is something you want the public to take away from Mary Shelley, something new that you learned or something you want them to investigate on their own?
I’d say, watch the movie. And then I’ll probably go and read something like a bio, like the one I mentioned, Romantic outlaws Charlotte Gordon, because her life was fascinating, as was her mother’s. And then you will realize how much of what is referenced in the movie is actually true, to a greater or lesser extent. For example, the fact that Mary, you know, gave birth to four children, and of those four children, only one survived. Well, isn’t it so interesting that he later ended up writing an incredibly famous novel about bringing something dead back to life, you know?
So all of these things, you know, are in the movie, as I, for example, didn’t know before filming that Mary Shelley started her life as Percy Shelley’s lover. Actually, it was Mary Godwin at the beginning of the movie. Just that, we call her Mary Shelley. That’s a lot its Name. But in reality, she was the mistress for much of the time at the beginning of their relationship. That’s pretty interesting what it does to someone’s psyche, you know?
Yes! Especially since we know her as Mary Shelley, for better or for worse. I forgot his last name all the time …
Yes, exactly. And things like, you know, there are things in the movie that are completely true. For example, the movie begins with a woman drowning in the lake. That’s true. Percy Shelley’s first wife, his wife at the time, drowned herself and their unborn child while pregnant. At The Serpentine, which is a lake here in London. Think about it, that is incredibly horrible, heartbreaking and terrible. And I did not know. But now that I know, and I see it in the context of how Nora wrote the movie, it gives a lot more meaning to the text, you know, as a whole.
Written and directed by Nora Unkel, starring A Nightmare Wakes Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Gioiello, Claire Glassford, Philippe Bowgen, and Lee Garrett. The movie is currently available to stream exclusively on Shudder.
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