Talking with Unfriended's Shelley Hennig, the New Queen of Horror


If there’s one thing that becomes immediately clear during my brief conversation with Unfriended’s Shelley Hennig, it’s that I’m talking to an actress who’s down to try anything once. Perhaps that’s why she chose to do an ensemble horror movie that’s shot entirely from the perspective of a laptop. Perhaps that’s why she’s drawn to horror in general.

Apart from Unfriended (the recently released horror flick that follows a Skyping group of friends as they’re picked off one by one by the ghost of Laura Barnes, a classmate who commits suicide after being bullied over an embarrassing video that goes viral), Hennig has starred in 2014’s Ouija and is a regular on MTV’s Teen Wolf. She’s a woman whose star, thanks mostly to stand-out roles in supernatural thrillers, is on the rise.

To reiterate, Hennig is at an interesting point in her career. She’s about to break big at any moment (although what she’s done so far is nothing to scoff at), which could mean leaving behind horror, a genre that’s treated her exceptionally well.

I called up Shelley to talk about her future aspirations and the work she’s done so far. Sadly, I didn’t have enough time to ask the most important question of all (“What’s scarier? A ghost murdering all your friends or working for Donald Trump?”), but we did get to explore the Unfriended filmmaking process and her new status as a Scream Queen.

Here is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Jezebel: You’ve been in a lot of horror movies at this point (Unfriended, Ouija). Do you relate to the term “Scream Queen”?

Shelley Hennig: Not really. I think everything is horror these days, even these supernatural shows, including Teen Wolf. Everything I do has an element of horror to it. It’s so available and out there that I don’t think I’m anything special within that genre. But I have been told that I have a pretty good cry face that people compare to Kim Kardashian cry face.

That’s a flattering comparison. She’s the master of that.

I can’t beat her! I’m looking forward to doing other things as well, but horror has been really good to me. I think I understand it and I’m really able to— I think, as an actor—make it as believable and grounded as possible, which is a real challenge when you’re doing supernatural story lines, but it’s something that’s really important to me—to keep it grounded. An

Even with Ouija. The fact that it was about the ouija board—everybody has a story about the ouija board! Everybody—almost everybody—can relate to those crazy experiences that some of us have had. So, I dunno! Maybe I do so much horror that I don’t even think about it.

Yeah, and with Unfriended, I’m sure people can relate to the technology aspects—

[At this point in the interview, our call breaks up and we get disconnected. Shelley calls me back a moment later.]

How appropriate!

Our phones our haunted by a ghost teen!

Laura Barns!

Back to what we were talking about before, I guess a movie like Unfriended is even more relatable because of the prevalence of online harassment and bullying.

Absolutely and what’s so cool about the film is that because it takes place on a girl’s desktop—my character Blair— you’re actually learning a lot about her based on how she moves her curser. She’ll type, erase, and start typing again. You learn a lot about her browsing habits and her browsing habits end up telling you about the character and we can all relate to that.

It’s funny because I watched the movie with a live audience and it’s amazing how much people relate to the elements within the movie. The filmmakers didn’t let the limitations of doing a movie on a desktop mess them up. They used it to their benefit. The glitches of modern technology is what makes it suspenseful.

And then the whole bullying thing, of course. Although the movie is not a brochure of how to stop bullying, it definitely sheds some light on that problem and again, all these things make this movie surprisingly relatable, which is really important to me and the filmmakers.

Now I’m just imagining them showing this at a high school as a lesson on bullying.

Ha, I don’t think that’s what [director] Timur Bekmambetov intended the movie to be. He came up with the idea because he spends his entire life on Skype. He’ll be directing a movie in Russia and Skyping into a production meeting in Los Angeles and giving notes here while he’s over there.

He came up with this idea that a movie should take place on Skype because it’s where he lives his life. They were trying to figure out what that movie looked like and then he and Nelson Greaves, the writer, were like, “Oh, we add the element of horror.” And that’s when the bullying thing came into play. It’s definitely a big part of the movie, but it’s told in a very interesting and unique way.

I want to double back to something you said before about moving on to other stuff and it seems like between this and Teen Wolf, you’re playing a lot of teens which is probably fun, but—we’re the same age. 28, right?

I’m just open to doing all different kinds of movies. I have a movie called Scout coming out and it’s a coming of age story. It’s got Danny Glover, Ellen Burstyn and Nikki Reed and a bunch of amazing actors. I just watched it. I have a very small role in it, but it was really fun to make and really light, but I do want darker roles.

Basically, I feel like, at this age, if someone has a great idea or innovative script, I don’t have any limitations in my mind. Especially after doing a movie like Unfriended where I was literally acting through a portal and looking down a lens—not seeing people or touching people. To still be able to get the emotions across, I shocked myself. People keep asking, “How did you do that? How did you do that?” I have no clue how I did it. I just made it work.

I pride myself on being an actor—and I think it comes from my soap opera days where I’d only have one take and if someone messed up a line, I’d have to repeat it as a question just so we’d keep going, so there’s this side of me that, when they call action I will make it work. I’m very— because of the soap opera training and Unfriended where it’s a trial and error filmmaking process—I feel like I’ve become a “Yes” girl. Like you tell me to do something and I’ll make it work. And I get off on that and I think it’s fascinating and I love that challenge so I’m just looking to have even more challenges.

I love every project that I’ve done because they’ve been challenging in their own unique ways and I’m just looking forward to continuing the process of growing and being proud of the work that I do and the projects as a whole. Like, everybody on Teen Wolf is amazing, everybody who worked on Unfriended is incredible. The collaboration is what makes these things watchable. So I’m just looking forward to hopefully having even more opportunities.

You say it was challenging to make Unfriended. Can you go into what you mean by that?

For the audition, we Skyped in one room with another actor in another room while the directors watched on computers. It was essentially voyeurism. And it was love and first sight, even in the audition process, doing something unique and that I’d never seen before. I knew that this project was going to be something different and that’s what really hooked me and I knew I had to be a part of it.

The process then continued very similarly. We did do rehearsals in real life, like the actors sitting next to each other in a room, but then the first day on set, we were all alone in our bedrooms, all in one house. Each actor had a bedroom set-dressed for their characters and Adam [Sidman], one of the producers, created this technology to be able to film in real time. So we had our laptops and Gopros and million wires coming out of our laptops and we had the filmmakers in our ears, directing us in real time and sending messages to our computers without warning. They were messing with us and we’d respond organically.

That was, you know, different but also liberating. Everything felt organic and real. It was almost like improv. And Nelson wrote a great story that he allowed us to capitalize on by never making us say the same thing twice. As I was watching the film—half the stuff I don’t remember saying because I only said it once.

The biggest challenge was starting and stopping in these emotional places, so at lunch one day I raised my hand like a school girl and asked Nelson and [co-director] Leo [Gabriadze] if we could film the movie in one take and their eyes just lit up. My co-stars looked at me like they were going to fucking kill me. I was like, “I’m sorry! Let me explain!” I said, “Don’t you think it would be a little easier to run it through from beginning to end so that you don’t have to start and stop with emotional stuff?” So that piqued their interest and everybody agreed to do it.

It was the most satisfying experience of my career. My costars were amazing, everybody was on point and if we got off track, we had Nelson in our ear to just remind us to revisit a certain topic. But it was unbelievable! We literally ran through the entire movie in one take and, according to the filmmakers, that one long take is the majority of the movie.

That’s crazy.

Yeah, it was crazy. I don’t know how the fuck we did it.

Image via Unfriended/Universal Pictures.

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