(Warning: This post contains spoilers through the finale of Netflix’s “Midnight Mass.”)
“Midnight Mass” star Kate Siegel had the privilege of knowing that “bait-and-switch” twist that leads her character, Erin Greene, to become the Netflix limited series’ reluctant heroine very early on in the production process. Credit her close relationship with the show’s creator, Mike Flanagan, who has been working on this project for 10 years and is also her husband.
But that didn’t make the shocking reveal any less epic to her when it came to acting it out — especially because the death of the show’s first protagonist, Erin’s friend Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), was the first scene shot. And, as viewers who have finished “Midnight Mass” know, the screams that Siegel’s Erin lets out all through the credits of that episode in reaction to her now-vampire friend (thanks to Hamish Linklater’s Father Paul and his Angel, played by Quinton Boisclair) bursting into flames as the the sun comes up on their tiny boat off Crockett Island were pretty bone-curdling to hear, and just as haunting to act out.
“That was my first day of work. Everything in the row boat was on Day 1,” Siegel told TheWrap. “So as you know, we shot this during the peak of the first wave [of COVID-19]. We went back to work right as everything was really intense, we were one of the first productions back up. And what they realized very early on is that with the green screen boat stuff, it was two actors. It was just me and Zach. And we are far away from everybody else. And there’s not a lot of blocking and there’s not a lot of interaction. So they’re like, ‘Let’s start there.’ And we’re like, ‘Great! Great! Let’s start there and do it.’ And for those people who can’t read tone — that was sarcastic.”
Still, Siegel said that she had spent the weeks before production preparing for the scene with Gilford, Flanagan, executive producer Trevor Macy and cinematographer Michael Fimognari. “We all discussed how long it would take to burn a human body, which, you know, shout-out to my profession for great dinner conversation,” she said. “But it takes the human body a very long time to burn. And without getting too graphic, like, the smell of it, and the fact that it’s on her, she’s breathing it in. It’s a very, almost medieval, religious ceremony. Like, she is receiving the smoke of his essence. And I wanted that to be horrific, almost in a biblical sense, horrific. Because it took forever. And Mike, in his genius as the editor, he kind of let that play by letting the screaming go over the credits and by letting you know how long it’s taking.”
And that’s nothing compared to the onscreen horror Siegel faced in Erin’s finale battle with The Angel who has been performing the “miracle” of turning almost everyone on Crockett Island into vampires. In the scene, Erin is dying and spends her final moments slicing up the wings of The Angel (Quinton Boisclair) in an attempt to keep it from flying off Crockett Island before the sun comes up and possibly turning other communities into vampires as well.
“First of all, I could not be more grateful to have worked with Quinton,” Siegel said. “That man sat in makeup for four hours to get into that suit. Everything except the wings is practical. And it was on his body and it was a full suit, fully airbrushed, fingers that extended out, the whole thing. And so when I looked at him, it was terrifying. When he leaned down to pounce on me, it was terrifying.”
The actual shooting of the scene where Angel lands on Erin, which took place outside Vancouver at night, was not much more comfortable. “It was cold and we were on the ground. And I’m sure we were all grouchy,” Siegel recalled. “As an actor, I planned out what I wanted to do. I’d seen some iconic monster movies and I wanted to do some kind of an homage to ‘Psycho’ and the shout, just this certain type of screaming. And I’ll tell you, when they said action and he jumped on me, all of that went out the window, and I was just trying to get this man off of me. It was pure reactive terror. As a person, I’m going to need a little therapy. As an actor, I’m very, very grateful.”
Read more from TheWrap’s interview with Siegel below, including her thoughts on Erin’s “I Am That I Am” death monologue.
What was your reaction to the twist that Erin is the true protagonist here, following Riley’s death halfway through “Midnight Mass”?
What I love about that — and we all knew this, because when the project started, everyone had all seven scripts, as well — is we knew this show starts with white man versus white man. It’s Zach versus Hamish. It’s Father Paul versus Riley. And everyone thinks they know where the story is going. We know these two guys and good will triumph over evil. And then all of a sudden, one of them self-immolates and the other one gets shot in the head and you are left with your heroes being older women and the Muslim sheriff and the mixed-race daughter of the mayor.
And it’s this amazing switch, this kind of bait-and-switch, where you think the show is one thing and ends up being represented by an entirely different group of heroes. And there’s something I love about knowing that, knowing that I was going to end up maybe holding that hero mantle at the end of the day, that allowed me to create this character who is sort of a reluctant hero. At some point, after what happens in the boat, I believe Erin has resigned herself to the fact that she’s going to die saving these people.
By the time Erin rows back to that island, she has made that martyrdom decision in her head. “I’m going to save these people. I’m going to save the children I teach at school, even if it means I die.” And so it allows her to look around every once in a while and to be that kind of shocked, still character. Because Erin’s great at making choices, but she has made the choice of her life, that she will save these people, even if it means giving up her own life. And she’s looking around and going, “Well, I guess it’s me. I don’t know who else it’s going to be. I thought it might be Mildred. And then she got taken away by The Angel. I thought it might be Annie, but Annie just slashed her throat.” At every turn, Erin’s like, “Somebody else? No? No? OK, I guess it’s me. All I really know how to do is act out my childhood trauma of having to clip the wings. So I guess that’s what I do now!” And I love that about her. There isn’t a whiff of Ripley. There isn’t a whiff of “final girl” badass-ery. It’s just Erin, like most of us, finds herself in an unbearable situation and does the best she can.
What do you think is the meaning of Erin’s decision to not turn away from her faith, and instead pray to God and lean more into her beliefs, when she loses her baby in unusual circumstances, which she does not find out until later is due to consuming the blood of The Angel?
I think what that illuminates, hopefully, for the audience is the idea that these quick fixes, these miracles — I mean, Sheriff Hassan says it as well, that’s not God. God doesn’t come down in a golden chariot and touch you on the nose and cure your cancer. In my opinion, as speaking for Erin, I think she comes to her fullest realization of God and faith in her final monologue before she dies, where she talks about, “It’s all one. I am everything. I am the ground beneath me. I am my little girl. I am my mother. I am Father Paul and this miracle. We are all of the same thing.” And so it would make no sense to curse God in a moment like that, because that would be like cursing your own body for digesting food. We are all of the same thing. That metaphor is a little strange, but it is when Erin, I think, had that realization in her heart and in her soul.
Because she was taught as a child to label that as God or to label it as Catholicism or faith or mass — because she was not a religious child. She was, as Erin and Riley talk about, he was the altar boy and she was the heathen. And then when she came back to the island, after she ran away from her husband, she found safety and compassion in the church. And I think in times of misery, having clear, concise answers can really help a person get through trauma. And that was very helpful for Erin. And she turned to that again. And I don’t ever think Erin thinks she had a miscarriage. She thinks something happened to her. She does not know, because there was some backstory that — I don’t know if this is of any interest, but we talked about where I believe that Erin has had an actual miscarriage before. She and her husband.
There’s a deleted scene where Erin monologues a bit about how she ended up on the island, about running away. And in it, she talks about her abusive husband. And one of the things Mike (Flanagan) and I agreed upon was that he at one point beat her so bad she lost another baby. And so when she was going through this and people are saying the word miscarriage to her, she is like, “No, no, no, I didn’t have a miscarriage.” Because she knows the difference. And I think that’s key. It’s tiny, but it’s the key to the way she responds. She wants God to tell her what happened because she doesn’t know what happened to the baby. Where is my baby?
What about the monologue she gives in her mind at the end as she’s dying, when she reveals to Riley — in her imagination — what she thinks happens to her when she dies?
So we shot it all in the same day. We shot it all on, as we lovingly referred to it, “Monologue Day.” And we just started at the top. And Zach has a monologue and I have a monologue. And so back and forth, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. And by the time we were all cried out, both Zach and I, there’s a feeling you get with another actor when the cord is thick. The energy is thick between you.
And so we did the “What Happens When I Die” monologue last, because it, in its own way, is completely fabricated in her mind. It’s like him seeing Tara-Beth reaching her hand out in the boat. And so we wanted it to have a feel of sort of emptiness, of like, “I’ve done everything. I’ve done all the crying. I’ve done all of the railing against God. I’ve done all the fighting. I’ve done what I’ve come to do, which is sacrifice myself.” And really just the honesty is distilled to what Erin actually believes in an honest moment. And so it was the last thing we did over Monologue Day.
And I’ll tell you, that was harder than anything else I did on set. I just had such a hard time getting there to be that empty. I mean, I don’t know about other actors reading this, or friends and family of actors, when you look down on a page and you see that you have to say the phrase, “I am that I am” — like, I mean, that’s a little intimidating. So it took me a second to believe that I could get to a place of belief that I could understandably say “I am that I am.” That’s a big old phrase right there.