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Into the Dark - Exclusive Interview - Nyasha Hatendi

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This Friday, another episode of Into the Dark will drop on Hulu and I had the opportunity to interview the lead, Nyasha Hatendi (Casual, Black Earth Rising, The Front Runner), who plays the character of Wilson.

"Pooka", the Christmas episode of the holiday-horror anthology series, is about a man struggling to find himself and turning to a new mascot job for the hottest toy of the season, only to get roped into a much darker turn of events than he could have ever anticipated.

Mads: For starters could you tell us a little bit about the episode and the character you play, Wilson?

Nyasha Hatendi: Sure, yeah, the episode is called "Pooka" and the character I play is a guy called Wilson, who is this strange character we meet at the beginning of the film and we’re not quite sure who he is, and we kind of learn that as we go through the piece.

M: In the episode, Wilson is this guy who lives by a routine, he does the same thing every day, in and out. What do you think it was about being a mascot for the Pooka toy that made him want to take that on?

NH: Well it's funny, I think, well one, the fact that as an actor, there's like that famous notion that you take whatever job you can get, and if it meant, in his case, playing a mascot, then he was gonna have to take it. He was going to go with whatever he was given, but then at the same time, there was something about the costume and the "Pooka" being in the pooka thing - which allows for a certain, I don't know, a distance from himself. It allows him, sort of, a time not to be himself, and so there is a certain freedom that I think he kind of discovers in wearing the costume which becomes quite intoxicating.

M: That makes sense. Are you a fan of horror, like the genre, itself?

NH: No I wouldn't say I'm a fan, I'm quite squeamish. I remember I went to see Saw once and I had no idea what it was and it was the most traumatic experience I think I had ever had.

M: Thats a rough one to start with!

NH: That was tough. Then again, there are some, when I think about it more, I never really saw myself as a horror fan, but I am a fan of psychological horror I guess. So, you know, your Hitchcock, David Lynch, and your Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, all those things I really did enjoy, but I never really saw them as horror for some reason. I just saw them as these incredibly tense psychological dramas. So I'm a fan of that but then, the more I sort of got into it, the less squeamish I've become and understood what it is, as a genre, the more I've realized I am a bit of a horror fan.

I think I'm just a fan of any film that allows you to experience the things that we’re the most frightened of in a way that's really engaging, but also cathartic and sensitive and saying something beyond the actual story, beyond the obvious. I think that's what horror is and I've realized I actually am quite a big horror fan, in that respect.

M: Yeah, I agree with that actually. Rosemary's Baby is one of my favorite films too, and along those lines, this episode is kind of unconventional and there's actually parts of it that are darkly comedic. So what do you think is the most disturbing thing about this particular episode?

NH: The most disturbing thing, I think, is the way that it ends. I remember when I read it for the first time, and you kind of spend most of it trying to pick your way through, trying to figure out what the hell is going to happen, where is this going to end? And as your hopes build you kind of get this horrifying understanding that, wait hold on, could it end in a terrifying way? Or could it end in a bad way? And you know, I don't want to spoil it - because I'm not saying that it does in any way or form - but I think that was the thing that hit me about it and it got me in tears because you're dealing with grief and loss and those things are very powerful. So when you realize that's what happening, it's very impactful, it's very moving, but also very engaging and entertaining.

M: Did you do anything specific to prepare for the role? Like, did you ever have a Furby or a Tamagotchi or any of those toys - kind of similar to Pooka - when you grew up?

NH: Yeah, I did actually, I did have a bear. I had a big bear called Jasper, Jasper the bear, that was like this massive polar bear type thing that I used to cuddle when I was a kid and we became very close. But then at some point, something happened in our relationship and we became enemies. I think he was used in a toilet at one point.

M: I had a lot of toys that became chew toys for my dog, ha.

NH: You know what i mean? It just didn’t work out, so yeah I have had my furry toy but preparing-wise, I mean, at the time I was doing a play in London called Fatherland, so I was kind of well into this world where we were investigating toxic masculinity, ironically, I had already been sort of investigating that world and I think one of the underlying themes of this film is the dangers of toxic masculinity and so I was kind of already immersed in that world. And when i got the script, I read the first few pages and it suddenly just made sense to me. It really connected to me.

But the way to prepare, because it did happen really quickly, I think a week after I got it, I was in London, and then I was doing a table read here in LA. It became one of those things where we all weren’t sure what this thing was going to become. It was crazy and it was wonderful but we had no idea and so instead of trying to control that - and you do the work, I worked on my actions and read the script and learned my lines - but as far as the character is concerned, what's interesting about Wilson is he almost doesn’t know who he is at the beginning.

So a lot of the preparation was following instincts and allowing myself to be formed and affected by the other characters and thankfully, we had a really great cast who came in with their own specific flavors and working off that, I was able to discover who this guy was and that evolves as we went through the piece, but at the same time, it wasn't something hard and fast that I was able to launch into. It was something that I had to discover. It was really exciting, as well as frightening

M: Even though Pooka kind of becomes this frightening character, I feel like he almost, in a way, helps Wilson evolve and figure himself out. Do you agree with that?

NH: Yeah I do, I definitely do. It's like that furry toy that kids have, it's that thing that allows you to have a secret friend, your imaginary friend, like Harvey (Editor's Note: Harvey is a 1950 film about a man who befriends a pĂșca - pooka - an imaginary rabbit, lore that this episode is making reference to!) the one that understands you and allows you to work through your anxiety and I think Pooka, yeah it is that kind of figure for Wilson, but that obviously can be for better for worse, naughty or nice, and it turns out he definitely can be both. I think it's the same idea and it facilitated the same evolution for Wilson.

M: Outside of Pooka, Wilson has a pretty constrained life. He doesn't have a whole lot of friends. How would you describe the relationship with the women in his life? Because he meets this woman, Red (Dale Dickey), whose this kind of eccentric neighbor of his, and of course Melanie (Latarsha Rose) who becomes a big part of his life.

NH: The women in his life was interesting. Dale Dickey, I was really lucky to have such a great cast to work with on this. Dale, she had done Winter’s Bone years and years ago with Jennifer Lawrence and I remember her from that movie almost as much as i remember Jennifer, and there's something about her, a maternalism she has, an innate caring maternalism which might have been some of the eccentricity. There was something profoundly maternal about her and I think Wilson was drawn to that. It was something that he was lacking and felt that he needed in some way and she was that person. The one that was gonna kiss him on the forehead and tell him everything was going to be alright no matter how scared he was and it was that voice that he needed to hear and I think that's what she represented for him, and gave him the courage to pursue the thing that he wanted the most.

Which was to find love, and to find a relationship, a healthy relationship, with someone who saw him, and cared for him, and who he could see and love the same way. As you know, the film evolves. We understand more about the depths of the relationship of Melanie and Wilson. There is something about it in its purest way where it is this beautiful, innocent meeting of these people who want and need the same things, and are in a place where they are ready to give that to each other.

And Wilson recognizes those things as being powerful, recognizing those responsibilities as things that give him purpose and power, they enable him to see that in himself, the women in his life.

M: Is there anything you think people will find surprising about this episode going in?

NH: I think one of the things that's surprising is that it's totally irreverent. It enjoys the idea of fooling you, playing with you, it's very playful. And I think what is surprising is at one point you'll be laughing and one point you’ll be crying and it can happen so quickly it's a bit of trip.

What else would be surprising about "Pooka"? Everything really, everything. It won't make sense to most people, I mean it will make sense, but it’s like nothing that you’ve seen before and I think that's what's going to be surprising, is just how odd and weird and wonderful it actually is, and how it revels in that and it doesn't shy away from that, you know what I mean?

M: I think playful is the perfect word to describe it and it really encompasses the Christmas-sy/holiday theme too. I’ll go ahead and wrap up. I just wanted to ask you one last question. Do you have any favorite Christmas holiday specials or Christmas movies you watch every year?

NH: Oh, what do I end up watching? I end up watching Home Alone, I tend to watch at some point, the first, that's something I end up falling into, and what else? A Christmas Carol, I like Dickens, I like A Christmas Carol. I used to listen to the audiobook that's, you know, based on it, and just realized how charmed and how wonderful it actually is, the story.

M: Is there a specific version of A Christmas Carol that you like or just any version really?

NH: Any version really, the first version, Orson Welles' version, was very good. The old-school, deep classical sort of thing, that was fun. I also watch stuff like Amores Perros. You know that film you always used to love when you were a kid and got into movies? That's the time I tend to watch those. Sometimes it's not Christmas related, it's just films that I've always wanted to rediscover.

M: Thank you so much for the interview, it was great talking to you.

NH: It was a pleasure, you too Mads, take care.

The Christmas episode of Into the Dark, "Pooka" will begin streaming on Hulu, this Friday, December 7th. If you'd like to learn more you can read my preview for the episode here!

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