Aussie Actress Ashleigh Cummings on playing the empowered victim in Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love, a genre-bending powerhouse thriller from Australian director Ben Young, has been wowing critics across the globe since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2016. And earlier this month it had its North American premiere at SXSW.

Featuring a cast of familiar and new faces, the film tackles deep issues of trauma and love and showcases brilliant performances from the kidnappers – Emma Booth and Stephen Curry – and the kidnapped Ashleigh Cummings. Equal parts disturbing and moving, the film paints a deep picture of humanity in its darkest and purest forms. Earlier this month, we sat down with the wonderfully talented Ashleigh Cummings, who plays 17-year-old Vicki Maloney, to talk about the film.

I think it’s probably an obvious question that everyone has on their mind. I finished watching the movie in the morning, and it’s a hard thing to wake up to. But when you’re dealing with something that’s this heavy, from a mental perspective, when you’re trying to get in character for it, how do you prepare yourself for a role like that? Also how do you come down in between scenes and still stay in that mental state? You’ve got to flip on and off.

Great question. Firstly, preparing for it was definitely about going inside the psychology of it and drawing from real events because I wanted to honour all the victims that have been, and will come. I read a lot of books of true accounts of Jaycee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch, and watched documentaries about the initial, acute first days of kidnapping. Then I looked at some other kind of creative things like The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Room with Brie Larson, although it’s a little bit different because it’s over a longer period of time. That was how I got into the head space of the character. There was also this table I crafted of where I was, emotionally, at any given point, and I had different stimuli to trigger that, like images and music.

On set, often times I would have to stay in that emotional space because we were shooting for long hours, but it would always be in the shot. The way that Ben shot it was really incredible, long panning shots that covered much of the house and so on. But everyone was extraordinarily respectful and gave me the space that I needed, and then we’d break for lunch and Stephen Curry, who plays John, is the funniest guy, and the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, so he’d crack a joke and you’d have an hour respite from the pain, and then you go back into it.

In terms of separating from it afterwards, it is very challenging, because it happens to real people. Often times you can go “This is a fictional story. It’s okay, it’s okay.” And though these characters and this story is fictional, it’s very much rooted in the realities that some people face. Just the notion of the pains that people have to go through is heartbreaking and I would often … I’d sit on the beach. I’d walk to the beach every day. I’d sit there or I’d go for a swim and reflect on it. I remember doing a long day of shooting and going to the beach and sitting there and feeling so pained by what some people have to go through, and the experiences and the horrors they face, to know that we live in a world that is saturated with so many awful situations.

I was like “How do I live my up? How can I continue creating films when I want to directly impact or change people?” I want to go with my hands and save people from these situations. I want to be there with them emotionally, to honour them, so they know that they’re not alone. But I realised that that would be furthering the destruction and the pain, and that the only thing we can do is create in spite of it. That was a very conscious thing for me to know that I have to build. It won’t rectify the situation, the pain will always be there, it doesn’t remedy it, but that’s the only way I can make the world better.

It’s very powerful because you’re dealing with real life things, but when you’re watching it it’s even more effective I think.

Yeah. Sorry that was a very long answer.

There’s a fine balance between playing the victim and being an empowered character which I thought you did very well.

Thank you.

How much of that character was written on paper as that? How much do you feel that you lent to that role and the people around you as well, like Stephen Curry, who was kind of forcing you into these situations? How much of that was shaped on set and how much of that was shaped on paper?

I think when I initially read the script, her emotions came into play in various shapes and sizes throughout her journey, and she was very strong. She always fought. She was always calculating and assessing the situation. Then when we got on set, an interesting thing happened where after… I don’t know how much I can give away, but after a significant event, everything is lost for her. Ben and I decided that she was allowed to be a human, and she was allowed to give up. And that’s okay. Because, I think so often, we see heroes in films and we admire them because they’re so strong all the way through, and that is amazing, but we’re also humans and this depression and desperation is part of the human condition and experience. That very much happened on set.

There’s a scene where I ended up just attaching the chains to my own wrist, which wasn’t written initially. So that created an interesting topography for us to play with and then come back at the end with her strength.

I saw this film as having a lot of visual resonances with a 1971 Nicolas Roeg film Walkabout. A lot of the compositions and the design and those slow motion shots, which was just beautiful slow motion shots.

I love everything in slow motion.

It’s like frozen moments. The pregnant pause as the predator watches the prey.

The pregnant pause as the … What an incredible sentence.

This film walks a thin line and purposefully, I think, between respectful treatment of the subject and almost exploitation of it. I’m wondering, it’s not an exploitation film but it’s sort of getting close to trafficking in some of it. Did you discuss with the director ways to walk that line both in your performance and in the design of the film?

Very early on. One of my first questions in the audition was in what way he was going to execute these scenes. One of the reasons I signed on – I was so convinced by him – was because he said, “I’m not interested in the violence. I’m not interested in the gratuitous elements of horror that we often do see.” He’s like, “This story is very grounded in reality, and what I want to explore is the psychology behind these people.” That was his focus.

We do see elements, or the horror of the violence is implied, and in someways, it’s worse because you can imagine it, and it puts you in a very strange head space. It was something we discussed a lot and again, it was just about coming at it from the psychology and being as true to the characters as possible. He was very adamant that it wasn’t a horror film, it’s a psychological thriller. He didn’t subscribe to any genres as such, and that’s what I think makes it so original and unique. He was just trying to tell a story to the best of his ability and I think he did a pretty magical job with it. I saw it for the first time yesterday and I knew he was a genius but I didn’t understand what kind of genius he was until yesterday.

It was such an intense story. You were with Emma and Stephen a lot, just the two of you and there’s very interesting relationships between the three of you. How was that balanced on set? I’m assuming you guys got close because you were saying that he cracked jokes. Was that a benefit or was that a hindrance for having that kind of relationship? Did it allow you, because you were so close, to go somewhere that you may not have been comfortable with other actors?

Well, I think both Stephen and Emma are very aware people and they were able to exist in the set and bring to it what it needed at that given moment and that’s something I admire very much in them. They knew when it was time to focus and to be in the head space of what was going on and they knew when to respect that but then they knew when we needed a laugh. That was kind of the way I got through it, through our friendships, and that extends to the whole cast and crew. It wasn’t just Emma and Steve, it was Ben, it was the cinematographers, it was the make-up team, everyone.

It was like a trust that was built.

It was there from the very beginning. One of the things when I went in to audition with Ben, I was asking him about the film and I said “Who’s working on it and everything and how did you choose them”? He said, “My first priority is that they’re good humans, and then I look at their skill sets.”And I was like “Sign me up!” Because I just love that philosophy. It created this trust on set that was very important to the subject manner in the story that we’re telling, and we had very conscious conversations at the beginning. Everyone said “Tell me your boundaries,” and everyone was very supportive, emotionally, physically. It’s cliché, but it was a family. I think that contributes to much of the success of the film.

Coming from this film, what are you doing next? Are you completely go to another direction like since it was so intense?

Well, I will take whatever job comes. No, I do talk to my managers a lot about what kind of projects I want to work on and because I do exist in this world, a lot of my actions and the work I want to do… I come through a moral lens, which is probably sometimes challenging for my managers because I’m like “Oh, is this violence necessary? Do I want to be a part of that project? Is that a message I want to share?”

I think we have responsibilities as artists, because we have a very powerful voice, in changing our society and in influencing it. I just moved to L.A. . I was contracted to stuff in Australia and New Zealand up until January of this year, February, and I just moved over. I’m just exploring the industry here and exploring a new country and there are a million other things I want to do. I’m very passionate about human rights, and the environment. Africa is like my spirit country. Yeah. There will be lots of … I can’t not work in this industry. I love it, and I love acting but there are many other things I want to do as well.

Well thank you very much. Look forward to seeing what you do next.

Thanks so much. Yeah let’s see!

Hounds of Love had its American premiere earlier this month at SXSW 2017. The film is coming to Australia on June 1st through Label Distribution. From more information, visit the website: http://www.houndsoflovemovie.com/