Breakups are hell, but Ari Aster‘s Hereditary followup Midsommar takes it to the next level with the story of a codependent couple who fall apart in spectacular fashion during a trip to sunny Swedish ritual that’s hiding some dark secrets. For his part, Christian (Jack Reynor) already has one foot out the door when tragedy strikes and forces him to stay with his longtime girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh). While Midsommar is ultimately Dani’s story, Reynor gives a lot to his clueless, self-absorbed teddybear, and it’s clear both he and Aster have a lot of sympathy for Christian.
With Midsommar now in theaters, I recently sat down with Reynor to discuss playing the bad boyfriend and the intense experience he had making the film. The actor talked about why he was drawn to play Christian, having the opportunity to subvert gender roles in the horror genre, and what he makes of the emotional impact in the film’s ending. He also talked about surviving the challenging shoot, from the bugs to the bear shoot, and the psychological demands of getting into the headspace for a film like Midsommar.
With this character, you’re essentially taking on the bad guy role, the bad boyfriend, that the audience is going to be pretty frustrated with. So when you read the script, what was it that hooked you into the character?
REYNOR: I was very aware when I read the script and when I spoke to Ari that I think every single person has experienced and has the capacity to either be Christian or Dani depending on the relationship. You know, Ari is a filmmaker. The way he wrote this, it was always going to ultimately be Dani’s story, and the audience was going to land on her side. We’re viewing what happens from her perspective. But it wouldn’t take a huge amount to shift the other direction and for it to have become a film about a guy who’s trying to escape a suffocating relationship that’s dysfunctional and that’s breaking down, you know?
That’s not to say I absolve the character of Christian from the negative aspects of his personality because he fall short of the mark in so many ways. He is insensitive, and he’s not emotionally available to this person to whom he has a responsibility after staying with her through this tragedy and this trauma that she’s experiencing. He’s a shit friend to Josh too. He takes his thesis. I mean he’s not a great guy. But I don’t think we can just write him off altogether as a one-dimensional villain or an antagonist. I wanted to try and bring some semblance of empathy to the character as well and to try to put myself into his mindset, bearing in mind that he’s kind of an ignorant person as well and not particularly intelligent. That was a part of it.
The other thing that really drew me to the film was this awful sequence. The last 40 minutes of the movie where he suffers a horrific fate, and all of that toxic masculinity that he’s embodied throughout the film gets turned on its head. There are not many examples in contemporary cinema or in the history of cinema where it’s a male character who is exposed in such a humiliating way and certainly in a sexual context too and suffers this kind of fate. That has been largely reserved for females. I think it’s really gross in a lot of films. But this was an opportunity for me to try and inhabit that thing and to see what it was like from the inside. It was nerve-racking, and it did feel very expositional. It made me feel more vulnerable than I anticipated I would feel.
Filming those sequences — not just running around naked, but having to do a love scene in front of a crowd where people are moving you is not something you’ve really had to do in your career before.
They don’t each that in acting class. How did you process that on set, keep a clear focused work head, especially when the emotional trajectory of the story is going into this more manic, demanding territory?
REYNOR: We shot it on the last day. It was always there. It was always impending. It was difficult. I was very aware of the fact that there was a dozen women standing around who were also completely naked and who were performing in it in a way that was exposing of them too. So that was something that I was trying to bear in mind. It was just something that we had to go for really. There’s no processing of it in the moment. There’s not really any processing of it beforehand because it’s so outside the norms of what you experience in your day to day life that you just have to prepare yourself in terms of the practicing of good mental health, which is why for the entire shoot, I’ve never done a film where I was more on top of that aspect of it than I was on this film. That was as much as I could prepare for, we were going to do. After we shot it, I mean it was a tough week after it was finished, you know?
REYNOR: It really sat on me.
Did you take a little break at least, or did you have to roll right into another project?
REYNOR: No. You know, I actually rolled into a short film that I’d written and directed that Will Poulter was the lead of.
Oh, that’s funny.
Reynor: So I was actually kind of blessed in the sense that I didn’t just stop dead and just have to sit there with my own brain trying to deal with all that. It was more of like I had an opportunity to get into something else that was my project that I owned and that helped.
I think that this ending is really interesting in how you read it and how it makes you feel. Unlike Hereditary, which just shattered me. This actually kind of amped me up a little bit. I’m aware that that’s a terrible way to feel, given what you watch on screen. To watch a lot of people burn alive and walk out going, “That felt great.” That’s weird and it’s made me think a lot. What is your reaction to the ending?
REYNOR: I would certainly agree with you that there is an empowerment that’s happening with Dani’s character. From that perspective, it’s a catharsis. But I think that it’s not to be overlooked that with empowerment, there can be difficulty. You know? Empowerment doesn’t always necessarily mean that everything, it’s just going to be great. You know what I mean? There’s elements of it that might be difficult and that might be challenging and that might feel painful. You know what I mean? I think that that’s the case with this film. It’s clear that she has arrived at a different place at the end of the film, but where is she going to go next?
I’m also curious about the more technically challenging scenes, in the sense that Ari is setting up these incredibly wide frames, where there are like four or five different points of action in it, and you might be over here on the side, but everything has to be right. What was it like executing those on set?
Reynor: Very difficult. Very arduous stuff. But Ari and I are both … Particularly I think there’s a couple of influences for Ari. He’s a big fan of Swedish cinema, which helped obviously. But also, Japanese cinema and particularly directors like Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Kobayashi. Those directors often employ wide angle lenses to shoot crowds of people and a lot of points of action, as you say. There is often very refined camera movement in those scenes as well in those films, similarly to this. Bearing that in mind when we went into production, I was prepared to have the patience to do it. But I think for a lot of people, I don’t know if they could visualize it necessarily in the same way I could as Ari had described it to me. But I was very excited for it. Walking on set every day despite the discomfort of the heat and insects all over the place and people being really pissed off, I was looking at the camera setups and I was watching the intricacy of these shots and how they were being executed. I was going, “This is going to look beautiful.”
They do pay off. Can you recall which scene took the longest to know?
REYNOR: No. They all took a long time. [Laughs.] It felt like acid, and just time dissolving.
Dissolving time with a bunch of bugs.
REYNOR: The bugs were hardcore because we had all these scenes where there was food out on these tables. They hadn’t sprayed the food with glycerin or anything, so it was like actively rotting and filling with maggots. And all this kind of stuff as we were sitting there. The place that we were shooting, I mean there was just swarms and swarms of wasps. You just had to be okay with wasps being all over you every day.
Oh, man. What a mental exercise.
REYNOR: Yeah. But there’s crazier. Have you ever seen that movie Roar?
Yeah. No lions, I guess.
REYNOR: No lions. A bear though!
Yes, the bear. Let’s discuss filming those scenes. How long did you have to be in the bear get-up
REYNOR: Not that long actually, to be honest with you. There was a dummy of my face that looked exactly like me, and he spent most of the time in the bear. But there were a couple of shots where I had to put the head on and they basically laid the bear suit over me, and it was uncomfortable. Again, it was really hot in there, but it was also the awareness and being attached to your character and trying to empathize with your character where you do feel … It’s dark and it’s unsettling to watch all these people around you basically making it look like they’re going to kill you in a horrific way. There’s nothing you can do and you’re paralyzed. You know? It was heavy.
REYNOR: There was a psychological toll making this film for sure.
I’m not surprised to hear that. I guess the bear suit’s good protection from the bugs, at least?
REYNOR: [Laughs] I guess, yeah!
Your character obviously suffers a very intense psychological toll as does Florence in her role. Was that something where you guys worked through the really dark scenes through a rehearsal, or did you bring that all live to the take?
REYNOR: No. We brought it all live. Yup. We did some rehearsal in terms of … We did a little bit of improv and we had very extensive conversations as a cast about just different cultures, toxic relationships, just dynamics between people and stuff. That’s always very informative, that stuff, when you do it before a film. I mean it’s a luxury to have it, but it can make a film. But when it came to the more intense scenes, Florence and I just kind of went for it together. A lot of them were caught too, like it was a great argument scene that we had that was caught. There was also some really nice moments of connection and compassion between the two of us, which didn’t make it either.
So there’s a lot. There’s a lot that was taken out. But Florence and I are great friends, and we have a really great relationship with one another. I think if anything lent itself to the authenticity of the relationship and it feeling like a lived in relationship, it’s the fact that it’s hard to watch someone that you care about living in the pain and trauma of this character for such a long time. She spent two months every day really present in that pain and that heartbreak. She’s so convincing at it and so committed to it. It was just astonishing to watch, and it really helped me with my character.
Yeah. I was just talking to my mom the other day about this — people don’t give actors enough credit for the emotional and physical damage they can take on a set.
Reynor: Yeah. People don’t even think about it. I think a lot of people just think, “Oh, it’s just a movie. You’re just going to do it. It’s not real.”
REYNOR: It’s fucking real when you’re there.
Midsommar is now in theaters. For more on the film, check out the links below.