Maika Monroe is patient with me. My iPhone 5 is on its last legs, liberally censoring an already stilted conversation between two strangers (three if you include her manager). Monroe’s voice is cool and self-assured, with a shade of sweetness that fluctuates somewhere between hesitation and modesty. Perhaps this is an adaptation of media training, a way to circumvent the extraneous prying questions of another caffeine-addled journalist on a 10 a.m. call. The sweetness feels a little evasive at times, but maybe she’s shy. Or maybe she’s a genuinely kind person, and amidst my phone-fumbling anxiety, I am reading too much into it. I catch ev-ry oth-r w-rd as her voice crackles in and out, so I spastically swing my arm around until I find that sharply angled sweet spot between AT&T and outer space. When I hit it, her voice erupts into the room with alarming clarity—“My mom is a sign language interpreter and my dad is a general contractor, so they are really far away from anything in the arts.” Thank god. She’s still at the beginning. I only missed the previews.
At fourteen years old, Santa Barbara-native Monroe was taking dance classes while in hot pursuit of a career as a professional kite- boarder. But when the casting directors for Bad Blood (a schlocky horror flick with a nearly un-findable IMDB page) contacted Monroe’s dance studio requesting teenage extras that could swing dance, she found herself suddenly positioned on a new trajectory. “It was one of those moments in your life that changes everything. You’re on one path—at least it seems like you are—and then a moment changes everything.” She was quickly hooked on moviemaking. “We got to see all the fake gore. It was fascinating to watch. I would hang out with the director and watch the monitors, and I thought it was so cool. After that, I was like, ‘Oh, I want to try to do this!’” So Monroe gave it a try. A handful of years later, she found herself at Cannes Film Festival for her lead performance as Jay in the acclaimed indie horror hit It Follows.
Although Bad Blood was her first taste of acting, Monroe was no stranger to the world of cinema. As a daughter of a film-buff dad, she was watching Kubrick films long before getting her driver’s permit. Unlike myself, who walked away from The Shining with a newfound fear of bathtubs, Monroe came away with a lifelong crush on Jack Nicholson. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was really influential to me. I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘Oh my god! This is insane!’” Her performances in the horror films It Follows and The Guest resulted in her coronation as a ‘scream queen’ by film critics. Her fluency in the horror genre may be, in part, influenced by her lifelong study of Nicholson, of his charming composure that masks Rube-Goldberg-esque machinations of madness—the barometer of said madness being best measured in the degree of his pointed eyebrows. Although her roles so far might align her with the Shelley Duvall camp of the female character fleeing in terror from an evil force, she adopts a more Nicholsonian approach in her performances: a composure and determination that adds agency to what would otherwise be the “screaming damsel” role.
Ten years ago, the title of “scream queen” would have been a something of a backhanded compliment. With most horror films occupying the “cheap thrills” seat in the cinema canon, genre-actors were often subject to a double standard, where an otherwise strong performance might be seen as campy or amateurish because of the perception of horror as being somehow lowbrow. Even The Shining was panned by many critics when it was released—Nicholson’s performance was called “idiotic,” Duvall was lambasted as a “semi-retarded hysteric,” and Kubrick’s vision was accused of “cheapening” King’s original story. After It Follows became one of the rare horror films to earn a place at Cannes, the tides began to change—now, horror is invading the art house indie scene. Monroe is fortunate to be unbound by the antiquated criticism of horror, but her ascent has not been without its obstacles. “I definitely feel that there’s a double standard in Hollywood. I remember people telling me that for women, you have to make it by the time you’re 25, while for men it kind of doesn’t really matter. I always thought that was so frustrating that people would say that to me. So many times in movies a guy is 40 and the girl that he’s dating is 20. It’s annoying.” Amen. Remember Mrs. Robinson? That iconic, lusty cougar played by Anne Bancroft in The Graduate? Bancroft was 36 and Dustin Hoffman (playing a recent college graduate) was 30 years old. So, here’s to you Mrs. Robinson.
“Acting is everybody’s favorite second job.” Another truism from the book of Nicholson. At seventeen, while she was still flirting with the idea of acting, Monroe moved to the Dominican Republic to pursue a career as a professional kite-boarder. But when she landed the starring role of Mandy in Labor Day, she was forced to choose between her first and second favorite job. Ultimately, the seduction of Hollywood drew her back to the golden coast. Although she left the world of kite-boarding, her disciplined athleticism is one of her greatest assets as an actress. She performs the majority of her own stunts in action films like 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence, the surfing film The Tribe of Palos Verdes, and the Netflix sci-fi thriller Tau—roles that have brought her right to the cusp of household-name stardom. Her IMDB page sports an impressive 27 films, with seven stacked to release in 2018-19 alone. So what can we look forward to? A drama entitled Greta co- starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Isabelle Huppert. A stylized home invasion thriller called Villains alongside fellow horror It-boy Bill Skarsgård. She also touches upon Shia LaBeouf’s new film, Honey Boy—a masturbatory, delightfully Freudian project in which LaBeouf plays his own father and Lucas Hedges plays a young Shia. I sincerely can’t wait.
In her most recent film, Monroe was cast as the Cape Cod heart-throb McKayla Strawberry in A24’s Hot Summer Nights. The film is a genre-spanning, early ’90s period piece following the lives of teenagers in the summer months before Hurricane Bob. The pathetic fallacy of the eminent hurricane serves as the backdrop for protagonist Daniel (Timothée Chalamet), who gets in over his head dealing weed with the roguishly handsome neighborhood bad-boy Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe). Hunter, like most machismo-driven grease monkeys, is wholly insensitive, yet hyper-protective of his younger sister McKayla, who Daniel inevitably falls for. The story is told in the style of the The Virgin Suicides: an unseen adolescent boy narrates the film’s action with the nostalgic fanfare of suburban legend. Older teens are deities. The line is blurred between truth and fiction.
We all knew a McKayla Strawberry, a girl whose small-town mythology gave her the aura of celebrity. In one scene, McKayla sticks her gum to the underside of a mailbox. As soon as her back is turned, a local boy eagerly peels it off and puts it in his mouth. How do you embody such a magnetic character? In Monroe’s opinion, it was about understanding McKayla’s vulnerabilities. “There are glimpses of the character when she talks about her past, and for me, if I lost my mom at the age of 12 or 13, it would really change who I am right now... there’s a certain toughness, and a sense of just growing up too fast.” So vulnerability is the key to aura? Vulnerability seems like half an answer: it’s too passive, too safe. There is an active ingredient in her performance that she doesn’t address. In a defining scene between Monroe and Chalamet, Daniel is sucking on a red lollipop when he runs into McKayla in the aisle of a hardware store. With the cinematic fanfare of Phoebe Cates emerging from the pool in Fast Times, the slow motion camera closes in on McKayla’s face as she takes the lollipop out of Daniel’s mouth, gives it a prolonged suck while starring straight down the barrel of the camera, and puts it right back in his mouth. “When we filmed it, I wasn’t even looking at Timo, just our DP Javier. It wasn’t sexy or cool at all.”
Lollipops aside, we discuss the unmistakable chemistry among the cast of Hot Summer Nights. Filming in Atlanta with the entire cast living in a house together, “it felt like summer camp.” A unique aspect of the production: everyone who worked on the film—cast, producer, and director—were all under thirty while filming. Directing his debut film, Elijah Bynum was actually only one-year-old during the year in which the film takes place. Between Stranger Things, It, and Hot Summer Nights—what is the millennial fascination for the ’80s and ’90s? Why do we have nostalgia for a time period we didn’t live in? “For me, the biggest thing that has happened in this generation is technology. It makes me miss a time of sending letters. Just always being connected, and all this information is so immediate. I think about being in a time where you read the newspaper and if you’re in a relationship and you go on a trip you can’t text and talk all the time. I don’t know if it’s that way for everyone, but it seems like such a huge change that we’ve had.” With smartphones in existence, modern story telling lacks the suspense and mystique at the core of all comedy and tragedy. Would we have a third act of Romeo and Juliet if the Friar could SMS our star-crossed lover about his roofied young bride? If James Caan’s character inMisery had “find your friends” on his iPhone? If the killers in Scream had caller ID? “I totally agree, it’s too easy!” Monroe laughs as we lament the loss of narrative intrigue through good ol’ fashioned miscommunication. I smile to myself, reminded of the technological difficulties at the top of our conversation. Maybe our miscommunications added just a shade of intrigue to an otherwise uneventfully pleasant exchange? Maybe not.
With such a rookie team at the helm of a big-budget production like Hot Summer Nights, I ask Monroe if she thinks this hints at a greater shift in the entertainment industry. “I think the next generation is going to start”—she searches for the right word—“I don’t want to say “taking over” because that sounds negative—but I think the way that movies are made is rapidly changing. Now with TV and streaming services it’s just a different world. I feel like we have these amazing actors, like Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney and Meryl Streep, and I think it’s time for the young blood to come up. It’s exciting.”
From Bad Blood to “young blood,” Monroe finds herself at the edge of an evolving cultural conversation. Monroe’s generation has the future, or should I say their iPhones, at their fingertips. When all the banality and horrors of our modern world are democratized by a single screen, it’s no surprise we long for a simpler time. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say: with a reality TV star as our president, the gap between satire and cinema verité is rapidly disappearing. As a result, the genre of “horror” has developed a subtlety that hits ever-closer to home. Is that too fatalistic a note to end on? Have I gone off track? I just hope to live in a world where a 36-year-old fox like Anne Bancroft doesn’t waste her time with a dud like Benjamin Braddock.
Photographed by Kelia Anne
Styled by Mercedes Natalia
Hair by Ryan Richman
Makeup by Kelsey Deenihan
Flaunt Film by Karl Richter