This Friday, you’ll be able to watch the haunting, tense new thriller Coming Home in the Dark, starring Daniel Gillies, Erik Thomson and Miriama McDowell, directed by James Ashcroft in his feature debut. Gillies plays the film’s primary antagonist, Mandrake, and it’s a performance unlike any he’s done thus far in his career.
1428 Elm chatted with the actor about the movie, how he prepared for the role of Mandrake, what he looks for in a script, and whether or not he hopes to continue making movies like this one.
1428 Elm chats with Coming Home in the Dark star Daniel Gillies
1428 ELM: You did such a great job with this character, but what was it like getting into his mindset and was it hard to shake off after because he’s such a sinister role?
DANIEL GILLIES: Let me think about that question because it’s an interesting one, and I’ve heard it before. Getting into someone’s mindset, the mind’s weird, right? I don’t think actors get into mindsets, but look, I can only speak from my experience. In my experience, you sort of just behave your way into it, into a way of being.
Like, there’s the scene, and it’s written in a certain way, and certain things have to be accomplished during the scene, and you just do what’s asked of you. You’re preparing…I’m trying to articulate this because it’s a beautifully mysterious process. You do as much research and work as you can about what you think this person is.
They don’t regard themselves as a villain because, everyone, to my mind, thinks they’re a hero of some kind in their own life, and you do what’s in front of you. I love doing it so much. It’s weird that I haven’t been broken because I’ve definitely had some tough times as an actor, but I still love it.
1428 ELM: I think what makes Mandrake so fun—well, I don’t know if “fun” is the right word, maybe compelling to watch on screen, is that he’s not an over-the-top villain. As you said, he doesn’t see himself as a villain. It’s a subdued role, but you play it so sinister. You said you don’t get into a mindset, but how do you approach doing a part like this? Was there a specific kind of research?
DANIEL GILLIES: Yeah, lots. I read a lot of literature about men who are like this and read a bunch of court cases until it was intolerable actually because it’s frightening reading about people who are bereft of this kind of, what we would consider basic empathy. But it is a sickness. There are men, in particular, and women, who aren’t quite wired the same.
It made me incredibly sad for them, these kinds of people, and that’s where I found a bit of a love for Mandrake because I saw him as mentally ill in a way. It made me think a lot about the death penalty. Playing this role made me really reconsider my stance because when you think about, say you lost somebody dear to you to a monster like this, you would want the death penalty for them, but it’s not about what you would want. You want society to at least, morally, be better than you. Society needs to be better than you are.
There is psychopathy, although it ostensibly looks like a form of evil, is actually a sickness. So who knows what justice looks like for men like this? But there is an illness there. But with the right ingredients, you can cultivate that. If you put somebody in certain socioeconomic circumstances, you give them enough abuse, and they’re not afforded the kind of privileges that I’ve had in my life, of education and shelter and protection. The cauldron of that can create something incredibly dark.
These people are real, so it was important to me that he felt like a person. I didn’t really want to do Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher, a very famous movie with a psychopath, and Rutger is fascinating in it, but after I saw it, I said to James [Ashcroft], James loves that performance, I said no, that’s a cartoon. I don’t want [Mandrake] to feel like that. Not that that’s what James was pushing for at all. But he had to be naturally sinister.
1428 ELM: I think that’s one of the reasons this movie works so well is it’s very subdued, and a lot of it hinges on the performances. Is that ever intimidating as an actor, when you don’t necessarily have a big production design or fake blood or anything like that, where everything really is centered on your performance?
DANIEL GILLIES: I’m more confident when there are fewer people. Well, hold on, let me just correct that a little. If I’m in good hands, and I knew I was with James, I knew that his cinematographer was really great, and I knew that the cast was good. Once those ingredients were on the menu, then I knew we were safe. But you want a smaller crew. The thing that ruins movies, well, it’s a one-two punch: people needing to make money and they’re selling you a product, and the second is too many chefs in the kitchen. You need somebody to be a voice. You need a leader.
I’d rather fail spectacularly in the hands of someone like James than fail because 40 men and women who didn’t know what they are talking about were arguing in a room together. I feel a lot safer, and they feel like they’re on the journey with you. That sacrifice is worth it because it’s so personal. Think about this guy, now [James] has all these offers on the table, and he’s going to come and crush Hollywood. But what I love about James is he’s this guy in New Zealand with his family. I want to fight for that guy, especially because of his love for movies, and now he’s a dear friend.
1428 ELM: The cinematography, you mentioned that, is impressive. The first scene, when you’re in the movie and the light pours in on your character where you don’t even see his face yet.
DANIEL GILLIES: Yeah, I can’t take any credit for that stuff. That’s how he framed and shot me. I’m so grateful. They did that on the day, I believe, that wasn’t in the script. That was an idea that just came to them, I think, and it’s such a beautiful idea. I’d never seen that in a movie before. I’d never seen an introduction to a character like that before.
1428 ELM: You had that in the ending scene, your character is cast in the light again.
DANIEL GILLIES: It’s interesting because he kind of is darkness. It’s just occurred to me; I never thought about this. Once he arrives, night falls, and it’s night until…yep. I won’t say anything more. He’s the one who eclipses the sun. They couldn’t have done that any better, poetically. I never thought of that.
1428 ELM: How does it feel knowing that the movie is coming out with a broader release now? I know you guys had a positive reception at Sundance, but now it’s going to reach a different audience. Is that something you’re excited about?
DANIEL GILLIES: I’ll be honest, I know people say, “I don’t control this,” but I’m going to do everything in my power to market this thing. I have already, and I’m going, I’m not a dummy, I know what this is, I know it’s an opportunity, so I want many people to see this. I think it’s a really interesting film.
And just selfishly, I want a career change. I don’t want to be regarded as the guy in a suit from The Originals. I forgot my character’s name for a second there. Fans are going to love that. [Laughs] No, it’s just not interesting to me now. I am very grateful for that time, and I loved that I did that at the time. It served its purpose. But I think it would be dishonest and tell you that I wasn’t excited that [Coming Home in the Dark] has the potential to change what has been going on for me.
1428 ELM: Is this a genre you want to keep working in, thrillers and horror?
DANIEL GILLIES: I don’t know what genre this movie belongs to, but I want to do more movies like this. I’m just looking for good ones. I like movies that philosophize openly and don’t supply you with every answer. I like a movie that’s defiant, that says to you, “I’m going to live with you whether you like it or not after you leave here.”
I can’t remember what I saw last week, like what movies I’ve seen, most movies, I’d say 95% I don’t recall, or only moments of them. That’s sort of the way you remember any film, even the good ones. You remember moments. But I just want to work with good stuff and good material that frightens me slightly and that I believe is really saying something.
I don’t even necessarily need to know what’s being said. I use Lynch as an example all the time, Lost Highway is one of my favorite films. I don’t know what that movie means, but I watch it no less than like four or five times a year. I can tell, it sounds like I’m contradicting myself, but I can tell that he knew what he was saying. You can feel that with Lynch’s stuff.
1428 ELM: I read in another interview you did, you’re interested in writing and directing. Are you working on anything right now?
DANIEL GILLIES: I’m writing something right now, and I’m not entirely sure what it’s going to be. At the moment, I have this dream of it being eight to ten featurettes about a couple. It’s a sexual horror. I am interested in sexual taboos and how little people talk about what they’re doing.
That’s changed dramatically over the last 20 years with the ubiquity of pornography, with women’s rights changing as much as they have, with the Me Too movement. I went out dating again after many years of being married, and I noticed that the world was different in that regard. There are whole societies out there. I mean, I’m not talking Eyes Wide Shut, but I thought it was so interesting that people are living these lives on the surface and yet there is a whole animal in us that is going on that we just don’t talk about, no one talks about, not accurately.
1428 ELM: Well, as a huge horror fan, I feel like horror gets a bad rap even though it’s such a good genre to explore things like that. People are now finally realizing how influential it is and how open it is to explore social issues and beyond.
DANIEL GILLIES: I agree with you 100%. You look at movies like Get Out or Let the Right One In is a beautiful story. It could have been anything, that movie. They could have put it in any genre, and they happened to choose a vampire genre. That movie is not a vampire movie. It’s about the death of your innocence and the beginning of your sexuality. There are dozens of examples of horror films that explore great philosophy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Coming Home in the Dark will be available to rent or purchase this Friday, Oct. 1 on demand.