The latest indie horror film shaking up festival screens this summer is Red Monkey Film’s Pesona Au Gratin. The suspenseful film, which stars Wendy Charles (The Real Babysitters of New York) and Mel England (Little Big Top), is feeding horror fans’ obsession with the cannibalism sub-genre by serving up a delectable menu featuring twisted bites of black comedy.
In Persona Au Gratin, directed by Rebecca Heck and written by Andy Cannistra, Rowan Vittles is an average American teenager with a problem: his family is hooked on eating people! With the help of best friend Seth, and girlfriend Rellie, Rowan tries to detox off of Mrs. Vittles’ (Wendy Charles), high protein diet and escape the family “business,” but falls prey to the town mortician, Mr. Ghoulden (Mel England), who has other plans for Rowan.
Persona Au Gratin premiered last night (August 17) at Indie Fest in Garden Grove, California (Orange County) with the promise to give horror sub-genre followers heaping portions of thrills and laughs at the same time. We were able to sit down with the film’s stars, Wendy and Mel, and get their take on the film as well as some of their behind-the-scenes experiences of dealing with the process of taking a taboo and repulsive subject like cannibalism and artfully making it laughable.
As children, did you both know you wanted to be actors when you grew up?
Wendy: I knew when I was 11 years old and was cast in my fifth grade play, The Way Out Cinderella, a quasi-fairy tale. I was cast as the fairy godmother, a delicious character part for an 11-year-old. From that moment, I knew I wanted to be an actress.
Mel: Yes. I knew from the age of 5. My mother enrolled her very hyperactive kid in theatre classes, and from the first day, I knew I was home.
What scares each of you and why?
Wendy: Although I consider myself somewhat fearless, little creepy creatures like rats scare me.
Mel: Probably being out of control, which I guess scares everyone really, but it’s sort of like roller coasters or really crazy weather – but when you realize you’re totally powerless it is the most humbling thing…our little human egos don’t like that! Oh, and a life without coffee.
Did you ever dream of being cast in a horror film?
Wendy: I am always dreaming of playing roles that are completely opposite of my own life and experience. Acting for me is ‘living and behaving truthfully and fully under imaginary circumstances.’ Also, in general, the riskier the role, the more exciting it is to play!
Mel: When I was a kid I had two favorites – I always wanted to be Dracula! I loved Bella Lugosi in the old black and whites, and it’s so weird because actually Mr. Ghoulden is kind of like that, but I don’t want to give it away. And Vincent Price was the king of all things oozing horror.
What are your favorite horror films?
Wendy: The Shining with Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duval, and I also love all of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers, including North by Northwest and Notorious starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.
Mel: Wow, I guess I’d have to say the Exorcist – it’s so classic. A few years ago I was in Little Big Top with horror star Sid Haig, and while we were filming The Devil’s Rejects came out and we went to the premiere. I have to say, I was surprised and impressed – not only was it horror, but it actually had a very deep metaphor and message. I learned that horror movies aren’t just fluff; there is a “method to the madness.”
How did you handle the working with the subject of cannibalism on the set? Did you ever get grossed out?
Wendy: The fake hands and feet were very creepy, especially since I had to serve them on a platter to my family.
Mel: Well, as Mr. Ghoulden, I don’t actually eat the people, I only supply the worker with the meat, I get something even more twisted out of the deal.
Are your characters based on anybody you’ve known?
Wendy: When I was 10 years old, I had a piano teacher who was the strictest woman and I feared her, and ultimately quit piano lessons, although I just resumed after many years. She had her rules and regulations, and while she didn’t scream, she was a disciplinarian. I pieced together women in authority I have known over the years, but also asked myself the actor’s question, “if I was in this situation, how would I behave?”
Mel: Mr. Ghoulden is written that he’s this Mortician who’s always cracking jokes about dead people, but no one seems to laugh. I wasn’t sure how to deal with this – but it did crack me up! And then I got it! He cracks himself up! He’s the only one laughing at his own jokes, and I remembered Paul Lynde who used to be on Hollywood Squares and on Bewitched – and made a whole career out of laughing at his own jokes! And I met him when I was a kid, he was doing a national tour of a Woody Allen play and I met him backstage and got his signature – so if anything, my performance is sort of homage to Paul Lynde – not an imitation, but he sort of inspired me.
How did you prepare and approach for your characters in the film?
Wendy: I wanted my character to be believable as a mom of three children, and so I asked myself the magic question, what if? What if I was in this situation, and had to fight for my family’s survival. How would I act? How would I behave? What motivated me? Why did I act the way I did? Mrs. Vittles had to be believable in her reactions to each situation.
Mel: Mr. Ghoulden has a definite dark side. You have to make it very personal. Mr. Ghoulden can’t allow anything to threaten the business network – to the point that he’ll do anything to protect it. It’s definitely sociopathic. On the outside, he puts on a very shiny face to the world – like a preacher with a dark side. There are some references to religion in the film that also show a kind of distorted messianic complex going on. To relate to that kind of insanity, you have to be willing as an actor to expose those parts of yourself.
Persona Au Gratin is being coined as a “dark comedy / horror film.” Did you intend to play funny in the film?
Wendy: I always felt if my reactions and actions were true, then the comedy would be revealed naturally as we played the scene and spoke the writer’s words.
Mel: Well, you always play it straight – deadly serious with comedy – especially a comedy horror movie. But, with Mr. Ghoulden it is a little tricky in that at first he seems almost goofy in his outward appearance and demeanor, but then you find out the truth.
What was the most challenging thing about acting in Persona Au Gratin?
Wendy: The subject matter of the film (cannibalism) is horrifying!
Mel: Playing fantasy or horror or sci-fi always is always sort of like doing Shakespeare – it’s so seemingly removed from everyday life, that your job is to make it so dangerous…really dangerous.
What were the biggest standout moments you had while working on Persona Au Gratin?
Wendy: We had a wonderful ensemble feeling each day on the set: our cast and crew all loved working together, and our director and DP were fantastic. A really wonderful vibe each time we arrived on set.
Mel: Working with Wendy by far! She is such a committed and talented actor, and gives 2000 percent every time, it keeps you on your toes…Our characters approach the problem in very different ways, which made it really fun… I had her under my thumb — and she was squirming! I loved it!
Do either of your families resemble the Vittles? Any metaphoric symbolism speak to you from the film?
Wendy: The film is symbolic of how families deal with “problems” in public and in private, and nobody really knows what goes on behind closed doors. The film for me is symbolic of the secrets people keep and how surface appearances don’t reveal what is truly happening.
Mel: Absolutely, doesn’t everyone’s? Every family is trying to survive. And every mob boss – like Mr. Ghoulden – is trying to keep everyone in line. I always wondered seriously if the film wasn’t a weird allegory for child abuse, or a fascistic society, or maybe it’s just about veganism?!
What’s your favorite midnight snack?
Wendy: I love very healthy snacks at midnight to help my dreams stay sweet: blueberry tea with organic soy milk! Yum!!
Mel: Coffee. I’m not even joking.
What crazy foods do you dream of trying someday?
Wendy: I would love to try escargot (snails); this is as adventurous as I get with crazy food!
Mel: Uh, wow, I was in Vietnam last year, and as an honor they served me the head of the chicken. It’s a delicacy there. I was so embarrassed, I didn’t have the guts. So maybe someday I’ll have the guts!
When can the public see Persona Au Gratin? Any plans for an official release yet?
Wendy: We just entered into our first festival and we are now on the festival circuit!
Mel: We’re in the festival circuit… so, who knows, Cannes here we come!
What other projects are you currently working on?
Wendy: Auditioning on August 27 for a major off-Broadway production at The Pearl Theatre: an adaptation of The Marriage of Figaro.
Mel: I was just in Archaeology of a Woman opposite Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland, a short I did, Missing just premiered at the NY International Film Festival this week, and I’ve got another project that’s about to hit the festivals – called Ron and Laura Take Back America. It is a “mockumentary” about American politics, religion, Hollywood, and reality shows…all our golden cows!