Lost Children and New Parents
When selecting the actors to portray the key roles in MAMA, it was crucial to find the correct performers, regardless of their star power at the time. The key parts that the filmmakers needed to fill were those of the new family cobbled together after Victoria and Lilly are found in the woods and returned to civilization. Their unlikely saviors are their Uncle Lucas and his wild-child girlfriend, Annabel, who is admittedly unprepared for motherhood wild-child called.
The free-spirited Annabel supported her boyfriend during the years that he spent searching for his missing nieces. After they are found, the bass drummer initially resists getting involved with the girls' caretaking, but ultimately she finds solidarity with them.
When casting for the part began, actress Jessica Chastain had already worked with filmmakers including Terrence Malick, John Madden and Al Pacino, but few of her movies had been released and shewas still relatively unknown. That would all change during 2011, the year her career launched into the stratosphere.
Del Toro gives his production executive, Russell Ackerman, credit for bringing Chastain to his attention. Needless to say, the executive producer was blown away with her work. As timing met opportunity, the buzz about Chastain began to build as her slew of 2011 releases -- including THE HELP, in which she gave an Oscar-nominated performance -- her to audiences worldwide. Del Toro commends: "Our biggest victory in MAMA was casting Jessica Chastain. She has the unique ability of showing great strength and great vulnerability at the same time, and the intangible gift of instantly making you care about her."
The director also praises the production's Annabel: "Jessica is a beautiful human being and an amazingly talented actress. I will be forever grateful for how she dug inside herself to give a dimension of life and sorrow to Annabel that I never dreamed of. There were intense moments where she made huge emotional investments that you feel on screen. We were very lucky to have her."
Chastain admits that she looks for projects that challenge her comfort zone, and when she read MAMA, she was immediately hooked. She reflects: "I'm a huge fan of horror films, and MAMA is terrifying and unlike anything I've ever done before." She also responded to her character's deep arc. "I love the way goes from being a reluctant guardian to the girls, to the place where she'd rather die than let harm happen to them."
The performer appreciated that the Muschiettis weren't aiming for cheap scares with their feature debut. Rather, she knew they were constructing a thriller that is as much psychological as supernatural. Explains Chastain: "Mama tries to kill Annabel because Annabel is the rival to the affections of the girls. Mama is perfectly fine with the girls being in Annabel and Lucas' house, as long as they love Mama best. But once the girls discover that Annabel is warm, they see there is something they can get from Annabel that they could never get from Mama. You start to see their alliances shift, and that's what causes all hell to break loose in the house."
With the collaboration of wardrobe, hair and makeup departments, Andy Muschietti worked with Chastain to create Annabel's signature look: a reluctant hero and raven-haired 30-year-old teenager. Toro admits he was the most surprised when he first saw the character come to life. He laughs: "The look of Annabel was very surprising to me -- tattoos, black hair -- I would have gone a completely different route. But when I saw her, I understood who she was instantly."
The actor who would play the dual roles of artist Lucas Desanges and his twin brother, Wall Street financier Jeffrey, needed to have range to portray a father driven to his breaking point before he drives his young girls out into the wilderness. Dale gives some insight into the character of Lucas: "The girls' uncle feels a tremendous responsibility because nobody knows really what happened on the day that they disappeared. He wants to unravel the mystery, but ultimately, fatherhood is not a role that he's entirely ready for; there are a lot of things that he doesn't know. So when he starts that journey, he's doing it blindly, just out of love."
The director and producers auditioned many leading men in Hollywood and Europe for the role of Lucas/Jeffrey, but all had very different ideas on what was needed in their performer. Del Toro explains: "Andy was interested in going one way, the studio was interested in going another, and I was interested in going a third way. Then all of a sudden, we saw the reading that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau did, and we converged. He was the guy who could pull it all together." Del Toro credits the GAME OF THRONES star with "radiating a sense of being centered and grounded" in making him believable as someone who could make Annabel consider taking on this madness.
Coster-Waldau appreciated that the project was not remotely what he expected it would be: "I knew the genre of the story, but I didn't expect the story to evolve as it did. It's like you read one of those horrible stories in the paper about a guy who's lost it and had a breakdown and killed his whole family and himself; that's how it starts. Then suddenly, the story becomes something very different. But when I saw Andy and Barbara's short, I could see clearly that Andy is unique in how he uses the camera. I loved how the short is about these kids and Mama, but it's almost like you can feel them."
As Chastain notes, Coster-Waldau was moved by the terrifying jealousy of the Mama creature. He elaborates: "As long as there's no emotional connection between the kids and whoever they meet, Mama is fine. But as soon as there's an emotional threat, she goes in and gets aggressive. Clearly in the beginning, Lucas is the one who's connecting with the girls. So he is a threat and she pushes him down the stairs in a very special way."
For the critical roles of the feral girls left in the woods for five years, 10-year-old Megan Charpentierwas cast as Victoria and eight-year-old Isabelle Nelisse was brought on board as her little sister, Lilly. As both girls are in the majority of the scenes of the thriller, the filmmakers knew the search to cast them would not be a simple one.
Barbara Muschietti admits casting the children was her biggest fear: "We were terrified about finding these two girls because this is heavy material that requires a lot from them physically and emotionally, and they're in just about every scene of the movie." Casting sessions across Canada uncovered what the producer calls "the two most precious little girls ever. Megan and Isabelle are amazing. Amazing! They're both completely different but spectacular, and everybody on set was absolutely in love with them."
Dale reflects on the process: "Casting children is very intuitive. Then you take a chance that what you see at the audition will hold up when you get into the rigors of working long days away from home -- and, in this case, going to a darker place than the average child actor would go. I've been so impressed with how Megan and Isabelle have managed to maintain a kind of grace and fun through it all." He laughs: "It's been inspiring and a breath of fresh air for all of us cynical film people."
Andy Muschietti couldn't have imagined that the two characters he and his sister created six years ago would manifest into the young performers in his feature debut. He discusses: "Victoria and Lilly have different arcs, but they both have to go through a lot emotionally and be credible. Megan is a more rational, adult kind of actress, even though she's 10, while Isabelle is more visceral and spontaneous. But they both bonded with Jessica and delivered the perfect intensity."
As for casting the film's signature character? Mama herself is the final element that translates from the short film to the feature. The role is played in both productions by Spanish actor and movement expert Javier Botet, whom Andy had seen in the Spanish horror film [Rec] recognized as perfect for the title character.
Standing an astonishing seven feet tall -- with uncommon body features and physical abilities commensurate with his measurements -- Botet moves delicately, deliberately and terrifyingly as Mama. Barbara Muschietti surmises: "Javier doesn't speak a word, but he speaks volumes."
Del Toro likens Botet to one of the former's frequent collaborators -- the inimitable Doug Jones, who has played fascinating characters in del Toro's movies such as Abe Sapien, Pan, Pale Man and the Angel of Death -- describing Botet's work as "part performance art, dance and creepy mime."
Finally, ALIENS' Daniel Kash joined the production as Dr. Dreyfuss, the psychiatrist in charge of Victoria and Lilly's care after they are mysteriously found in the woods and returned to civilization. Although his interest initially seems altruistic, the doctor's motive in diagnosing the girls turns out to be less than benign. As one might imagine, Mama is none too pleased with his therapy suggestions or subsequent treatment plan...
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