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The Cutting Room: Mena Suvari on “SOUTH OF HELL”

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Welcome to THE CUTTING ROOM, a new weekly column on FANGORIA.com that highlights the  stories that most share DNA of our print counterpart. Rather than just feature the articles and interviews that didn’t make the cut, this column is dedicated to providing a greater lifeline between FANGORIA Magazine and FANGORIA.com.

After another ho-hum year for horror at the multiplexes, more eerie eyes than ever are turning to television for their scare fare. Yet late last year, the reigning champions of the horror box office, Blumhouse Productions, attempted something different entirely on the small screen format, unleashing seven episodes of the Eli Roth-produced SOUTH OF HELL as a binge-block marathon on WeTV with the season finale available exclusively on iTunes.

For those unfamiliar, SOUTH OF HELL focuses on a possessed demon hunter whose long-dead cult leader father suddenly returns, threatening to unleash Hell on Earth. Equipped with a reckless spirit and an insatiable demonic alter ego, protagonist Maria Abascal must overcome the forces of evil to prevent her petrifying past from becoming the world’s terrifying future. And while playing two sides of a chilling coin can be a bit much for some actresses, noted horror fan Mena Suvari aims to fill Maria’s schizophrenic shoes admirably.

With the show now available on VOD and iTunes, FANGORIA spoke to Suvari to talk about SOUTH OF HELL, the dual nature of her character, and shadowing the many genre greats Blum & Co. recruited behind the camera…

FANGORIA: So, what attracted you to a project like SOUTH OF HELL?

MENA SUVARI: EVERYTHING! Basically, I’ve been a fan of the horror genre my entire life so, honestly, when I learned about this project, I loved it. I’ve done horror in the past, like THE RAGE: CARRIE 2, the remake of DAY OF THE DEAD, and I worked with Stuart Gordon on the movie STUCK, but I’ve never been able to do anything like SOUTH OF HELL. I love horror, but I really love when there’s a supernatural element, so I loved everything with the possession and playing a demon was really exciting.

I’m also a big fan of Eli Roth as well as Jason Blum and everything he’s done over at Blumhouse. I also have seen DEXTER front to back, which was created by our showrunner, James Manos Jr. So with everyone that was involved, I was just excited and on board from the very beginning.

FANGORIA: As an actress, how does one prepare to play such a schizophrenic character?

SUVARI: Oh God, I prepared A LOT. I love supernatural horror, so I probably drew a lot of the character from my own inspirations, including demonic performances I’ve watched, in order to get into that possessed state of mind. But there was also so much preparation involved in terms of all the make-up and prosthetics involved, and there was so much they put into creating our world, like the wind machines. So there was also a lot of physical preparation I had to do in order to keep up with all of that.

I actually think Maria’s nature with Abigail [her demonic persona] is actually one of the things that attracted me to the role because I’d never acted opposite myself. That was something I, more or less, had to wrap my head around since I didn’t even understand how they were going to film it. So that required learning in the moment how to work with my stand-in, who I would be acting opposite, and I had to direct her in a sense as to how I was going to play the other character.

For instance, Maria is the more “plain” normal character that I play on the show, and for Abigail, I had to play the demon version [of Maria.] So if I saw on the schedule if I was playing Maria and Abigail, I would shoot the scene as Maria and then I’d watch the footage first so I could direct the stand-in as to how I was going to play Abigail. That way, I could capture the intimation of the character when I was playing opposite her, and then for Abigail, I’d go into hair and make-up and do the opposite for her. And then there was trying to understand how they’d be shooting these scenes, how they’d be capable of shooting certain scenes and if it was going to work, but ultimately, it was just fun.

South of Hell

FANGORIA: Did you approach the character as if there was a part of Maria that was Abigail and vice versa, or was it like playing two completely separate characters entirely?

SUVARI: It was definitely like playing two characters because Abigail isn’t a human. Abigail is a demon, especially in the fight scenes when there’s more make-up involved and it’s almost like playing three characters since it’s a different level of Abigail. But Abigail and Maria have completely different personalities, and that’s almost a part of the tone of SOUTH OF HELL. Besides, on a TV schedule and with a show like this, things are moving so quickly that you almost forget emotionally where you are at, so treating Maria and Abigail like separate people worked better.

FANGORIA: For each intense moment of SOUTH OF HELL, there’s also a good amount of humor on display without falling necessarily into horror comedy territory. Was that something you picked up on when you first read the pilot?

SUVARI: Oh yeah, and not only that, but there’s also a lot of heart in SOUTH OF HELL that the writers brought to the show. Obviously, so much goes into making a show, and we had such a great editing team as well, but when I had to go in to do voice-over for the show, I felt like they created such an awesome tone. I had so much fun watching it because it’s not just demon vs. demon battles that you haven’t really seen before, action-wise, but SOUTH OF HELL carried a story that you can really get caught up in. You can really care about the characters and the personal journey that they’re going through, and that’s partially in thanks to both the humor and the heart in the story.

FANGORIA: As a horror fan, what was it like to work with Eli Roth and Jason Blum?

SUVARI: Oh, it was awesome. Working with Jason was something I could check off my bucket list. [laughs] Horror is a part of my life, and I’m the person who always tries to wrangle my friends to see a new horror movie when it comes out, and it gives them nightmares while I’m like, “I love this stuff!” So I’ve seen Jason’s current crop of films and I wanted to work with him, and I can’t say that I didn’t nerd out.

Actually, one of the things I really loved was that because Jason and Eli were involved, they brought in so many great directors for the episodes. They brought in Rachel Talalay, Ti West, Jennifer Lynch and Jeremiah Chechik, so it’s been such a pleasure for me as well to become friends with a lot of these people. In fact, I was able to do a Funny or Die Halloween video with Eli, and that was really fun, too. To be a fan of these directors and their work, and then getting to work and hang out with them is really cool.

FANGORIA: Jennifer Lynch has been killing it with her episodes of THE WALKING DEAD, and it’s been really great seeing female horror directors getting opportunities to shine on television. How was your experience working with Jennifer and Rachel?

SUVARI: Jennifer was such an inspiration on set. She is such a phenomenal talent and an amazing woman, and I consider her a great friend. I would love to do what she does one day. I really loved getting to work with her because she’s incredible on set; the way she captured the story while getting what she needed to get was unbelievable. Sometimes, when you work on TV, directors will just be running around the set to get everything, but Jennifer actually works with you.

Working with Rachel was really exciting, too, considering she came from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. She has such a good body of work, and it was refreshing to be able to work with women directors because they’re able to pull something out of this character and understand a female-driven show differently than any other director. It added something different to the experience, and it was something really wonderful.

FANGORIA: Considering you pull double duty in terms of performance, would you ever consider getting behind the camera of SOUTH OF HELL for season two?

SUVARI: OH YEAH! I’m already planting those seeds in other aspects of my life and on the show, for sure. I’m highly driven to do that, and I love being able to work with Jennifer Lynch and Rachel Talalay and getting to learn from them. I was able to shadow them a little bit on set this season, and that’s a great inspiration. I never really had the experience in the past where I’d be able to do that, so I would love the opportunity to do that. I would work really hard just to do that and I’d definitely keep acting! [laughs]

SOUTH OF HELL is now available in its entirety on iTunes.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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