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FrightFest Interview: Ellen Adair and Mitzi Akaha for HERD

Updated: Feb 4

Acting... and survival

HERD is operating under and interim agreement with SAG/AFTRA. All interviews and promotion done for the film is compliant with Union strike regulations.

Directed by Steven Pierce and co-written with James Allerdyce, Herd follows a strained relationship set against the backdrop of a new strain of virus that has caused a zombie outbreak across the US. Ellen Adair and Mitzi Akaha play Jamie Miller and Alex Kanai; a couple who are still dealing with a heavy loss and past trauma. Jamie is unable to move on, while Alex attempts to hold everything together, but when one of them is injured, their resilience is pushed to the absolute limits trapped between the walking dead and warring militia. Amongst other insights, Ellen and Mitzi share both their experiences and discuss the important relationship (and drama) at the heart of this tense apocalyptic thriller…

What do you feel separates Herd from most other zombie movies?

Ellen Adair: Because the zombies are not ‘undead’, but people with a virus, it hits closer to home in a number of different ways. First of all, I think it’s more terrifying because of the film’s plausibility. But I also think there’s a consideration in this film, even more strongly than in other virus-based zombie films, such as the excellent 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later as well as The Last of Us (all of which I love!); all of which are prime examples about the human race who have become infected by a virus. In Herd, they’re certainly terrifying because they’re infectious, but how human are they still? There’s not an obvious moment when a switch is flipped. What’s left of their consciousness? And if you’re scratched, what’s the moment when you’re truly lost? How long do you have to consciously reckon with your fate? There are parallels with a lot of real if slower-moving, diseases.

Mitzi Akaha: Steve and James are the keepers of the origin story, but in my opinion, Herd wants to confront ‘herd mentality’; the self-preservationist, an us-versus-them paradigm that we in America use to define and, unfortunately, divide ourselves. It’s a big and big-hearted message... and then there are zombies. I think that’s what sets it apart in the genre world: ours is a story about humanity within the context of a zombie outbreak, a human drama in more colourful clothes.

Were you conscious that COVID may have killed off the genre, having lived through a very real apocalypse?

EA: When I first read the script, in the spring of 2021, I thought, “Oh, this was written in 2020!” And then I thought, “I would die to do this movie, as long as I get to do the movie first… and die afterwards.” It’s not a one-to-one analogy for COVID, or for 2020, but it’s stewing in the same juices in the best possible artistic way. A catastrophic event like the COVID pandemic could have united people in response to adversity. But in the US, some politicians decided to weaponize a global health emergency to make sure that people still remain divided, and the country became more polarized than ever.

That’s not the story of this film, though; it’s looking at the way that people make themselves into factions even without the aid of politicians. Herd examines the human tendency to divide, rather than to unite. It shows how close we are to devolving into chaos.

MA: Personally, I was afraid we’d all be tired of the end-of-days storyline after COVID, but I think the pandemic (and subsequent social and physical sequestration) only increased our need for apocalyptic storytelling, and escapism in general. We hunger for stories that reflect our experiences back at us so we can make sense of them, see alternatives, and find hope.

EA: And I think a story like this — that isn’t about the pandemic but arises from the collective cultural experience of it — is so vital, right now. We’re all busily in the midst of pretending it never happened or isn’t still happening (I’m not exempting myself, here, either). No one wants to watch a movie about COVID! But we actually need to process what has happened — and is happening — to us. It’s not about didacticism, messaging… we just need storytelling to hold the mirror up to nature, this nature, now, here. And expressing all of this; the emotions in horror are so heightened, for performers and audiences alike, which makes the catharsis very pure. I think it’s a gripping, action-packed ride that will be very enjoyable, a good time for horror audiences, but I also think it’s the emotional journey we need. Because it came out of all of the complications of the moment we’ve lived through and are still living through.

In terms of the performances, what was the most crucial aspect of developing the relationship between Jamie and Alex?

MA: It helped that Ellen and I had killer chemistry from the first Zoom audition, and we just trusted that and built upon it.

EA: Very true. Speaking for myself, I just fell in love with Mitzi on the very first day — on the very first scene we did — so that was basically that. She’s astonishing to get to watch and play in a scene with. And hilarious and delightful in every way. The hard part was pretending to be annoyed by Alex.

MA: And our issues were specific — we are, after all, a queer, mixed-race, mixed-culture couple — but they’re also universally relatable; at the root, every hurt comes from feeling unheard or unloved, and I have no end of those experiences to draw from. For Alex, it was important to me that I identify specifically what of Jamie’s behaviours or relationship patterns most upset Alex, and also what makes Alex need and love Jamie. The latter part of which was easy.

EA: There was also something more psychoanalytical for us both to play with. The essential dichotomy between Jamie and Alex is that Alex wants to be able to process or work on things by talking through it, and Jamie wants to lock every sad thing in a box and never look at it again. Obviously, one of these responses usually leads to a healthier, better life, but Jamie has only survived by locking away the trauma of her abusive father, who threw her out when she was a teenager. On a fundamental level, her childhood left her in doubt that she could be loved for who she is. So, she’s spent a lot of her life trying to make herself into a shape that she thinks will be accepted, and then resenting that she has to do that, (even though she’s doing it to herself). I think that’s why Jamie is (largely) the most comfortable when she’s alone. When the couple loses a baby, they’re forced into conflict because each wants to process this joint grief in a very different way. For Alex, Jamie is pushing her away and for Jamie, Alex is shoving her nose into the sadness that she’s trying to avoid. So ultimately, their journey is: can Jamie grow in order to reconcile and (hopefully) meet Alex where she is?

What do you feel the film and its characters say about humanity?

EA: To me, the film is about the human tendency to splinter into groups, or to self-identify in opposition to another set of people. It’s the human tendency to say “That’s them, over there, and they’re like that, and this is us, over here, and we’re this other way,” rather than living with the truth that we all ought to be ‘on the same team’. It’s about judging other people as being separate from us, rather than like us, whether that’s because of something like their sexual orientation — I think Jamie and Alex being a queer couple is an incredible thematically important element — or their beliefs, or whether that’s because you start warring with your neighbours over resources. I think that’s where the fact that the ‘zombies’ aren’t undead monsters, but are other human beings who are (transformatively) infected, also ties in. Who do we make less than us? Who do we dehumanize? And I think the film is incredibly compassionate.

MA: We’re a clan-based people, and few would argue against that, but Herd reminds us that we can choose how we define where we draw the border between us and them, safety and danger. A zombie apocalypse would be the most pressing time for a community to come together, but somehow, the fear in us can so easily trigger us to shut down and turn in, deny trust, and protect the soft parts. For all its dark turns and portrayals of wickedness, the characters we get to know are all so good, if even sparingly, and the experience of this film nudges us toward wanting to lean into that ‘loving and tolerant good’… over fear.

EA: Suffice to say, we think Steven and James are geniuses. And they’re as good on a set as they are on a page. This was genuinely one of the greatest pleasures of my entire life to get to be a part of this film; one that sees everyone (well, nearly everyone) as human. Jamie’s dad threw her out when he learned she was queer, which was deeply scarring for her. But as a result, she judges the whole community and dismisses them out of hand. But the film doesn’t. The film sees with a clear eye… but a nuanced one. Everyone is complex. Everyone is human.

Herd has its world premiere at FrightFest on Saturday 26th August. Book your tickets now.


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