Interview: Actor Nyasha Hatendi for Into the Dark’s POOKA!

For the release of the third episode of Hulu’s “Into the Dark” series, Pooka!, I had the chance to speak with the incredibly talented Nyasha Hatendi. The episode, which centers on a struggling actor who takes a seasonal holiday job as a plush Christmas character, is one that carries a lot of emotional weight as well as horrific imagery and surprise twists. During our chat, Nyasha and I discussed everything from what it was like to embody Pooka, the emotional themes presented, and working with acclaimed director Nacho Vigalondo.

Nightmarish Conjurings: Thank you so much for speaking with us today Nyasha! To start things off, for those who may not be familiar with your latest role as Wilson in the third episode of “Into the Dark” series, Pooka!, can you tell us a little bit about him?

Nyasha Hatendi: Yes, a little, but not much more. Basically, Wilson is the central character in Pooka aka “the protagonist”. By all accounts he is a struggling actor looking for a break. When we meet him he’s waking up to a world that is strangely familiar but still somehow foreign to him, (kind of like Bill Pullman in The Lost Highway) and as the film goes on we learn more about this world, which looks a lot like LA, and more about Wilson himself, as he learns it himself, in real time, so to speak.

We get a sense that he’s a guy whose riddled with longing, somewhat sad and reserved as if he’s retreated into a shell after some sort of trauma but as the film progresses, he learns how to heal and encounters characters that illuminate a sense of hope in him that he can finally overcome this weird malaise that he finds himself in.

Nightmarish Conjurings: What was it about the role of Wilson that intrigued you? Was there any sort of research you did to get into his headspace?

NH: Part of what intrigued me about the role was precisely the fact that we don’t really know anything about him and we get to discover that as we go through the film. So it was really a blank slate on which to build. As we experience the story, the interactions Wilson goes through illuminate who he is. So part of the preparation/research was finding a way to remain open. This was actually quite challenging with a piece as weird and wonderful as this because I think there was a lot of anxiety in the air when we started! Which, ironically was very energizing. Knowing what happens in the end was also a big draw because it plays on some issues which were and still are very prescient now. i.e toxic masculinity and more importantly the consequences of allowing that kind of dysfunction to continue unchecked.

I read up on mental illness, split personalities, bi-polar disease, narcissism. At one point I thought it might be a good idea to try some DMT just to get a sense of what it was like to see your life flash before your eyes…I didn’t in the end, but I thought about it! But mostly I just read Gerald’s script over and over, with glee! Otherwise I didn’t really have to do much research to get into Wilson’s headspace to be honest, I’m an actor so I’m always in that headspace. Painfully self-aware, constantly in need of approval, craving attention but too self-deprecating to grab it… never good enough. Seriously, it’s sad and terrifying!

Nightmarish Conjurings: Pooka is many things outside of just being a stuffed animal – what was it like wearing the costume and were there any challenges you faced?

NH: Pooka is indeed many things! The costume was a fantastic creation of Nacho’s, I believe, brought to life in collaboration with Alexis Scott, our wonderful Costume Designer. They did such a great job. Putting on the costume for the first time was really very strange, but I loved it! It was like wearing a giant mask, so it was actually quite liberating even though practically getting in and out of it was quite a chore. I had to wear Lycra for all the sweat and an ice vest strapped to my back and chest, to keep my core temperature down under all that fur. We spent the first week on the top floor of an old apartment building, with intermittent air conditioning during that record breaking heatwave earlier this summer. It was 112 outside but it was worse inside, with a hundred or so people packed in sweltering heat. Wearing the costume in the middle of all that was pretty challenging. I think we all bonded suffering through that experience, it got very hot in there!

But ultimately the restriction of the costume meant I could only move in a particular way, the more I got used to that, the easier it became to move around, the more playful I was able to be and that became how Pooka moved. Before you know it I was cursing at kids and freaking people out. It was always great to see peoples faces when we were walking around on location. Confused, bemused and a little scared all at once it was great! There’s a documentary series on Hulu called Behind the Mask, which is all about mascots, the guys in the costume develop super alter egos while in their costumes and how they become invincible, I was definitely beginning to feel that after a while. But one thing I noticed was that when I was in costume the kids, mainly and even some adults, felt the urge punch or kick me! It was this strange shift that happens once they objectify you as Pooka, suddenly they could be a little nasty… It was really interesting and informed a few choices throughout the film.

Nightmarish Conjurings: The film has strong, emotional themes running throughout such as loss, regret, family dynamics, how the holidays impact us, etc. Were there any that you felt hit close to home?

NH: All of the above really. All those themes hit close to home to varying degrees which was great because it was easier to be emotionally honest. Look, Christmas, depending on your experience growing up can either be wonderfully nostalgic or painfully real. Something you pine for or something you absolutely despise. It can be just as much a reminder of joy and happiness as it can be a reminder of grief and sorrow. Spending time with the people you love can either bring you closer together or make you painfully aware of what you are missing. It’s always a double edged sword. The idealism surrounding the holidays can make it difficult for people to actually enjoy it and a lot goes unsaid. I love that tension. You’re always on edge and at any time it can change from a dream to a nightmare and it works really well in Pooka.

What I think Nacho and Gerald have done here, and the team at Blumhouse do so well with Sharp Objects and Get Out, to name a few, is to play on those fears that we all share. Ultimately I think that can be quite cathartic. I hope Pooka! brings that to light and perhaps makes people feel a little less alone, while also encouraging people to fully recognize the consequences of their actions and attitudes and to ultimately really appreciate and be grateful for what they have. You only live once, might as well do it right.

Nyasha Hatendi in Pooka!

Nightmarish Conjurings: What was your experience like working with director Nacho Vigalondo and how much control did he have with your character transformation?

NH: When I heard Nacho was going to direct this I was thrilled and terrified all at once, so I watched all his films. I watched his collection of shorts Confetti of the Mind, where you get to experience his genesis as a filmmaker and includes 7:35 de la mañana for which was nominated for an Academy Award. I watched TimeCrimes as well and you realize, huh, he’s not a bad actor, which was very reassuring for all the cast because you immediately had this shared understanding of the process which made us all feel a little more secure. Then of course I watched Colossal and loved it. In fact, the one thing that stood out for me was the performances, they were all so dynamic, natural, heartfelt, funny and at times incredibly disturbing. It was also such an amazing cast, so when I first met I him I felt completely out of my depth but very excited.

So, armed with that knowledge I thought the best thing to do was just to be as open as possible. I knew I was in safe hands. We had very little time to shoot what was effectively a feature, 90 or so pages in three weeks, with multiple locations, stunts, extras etc. So we made a pact and we all agreed that there was so much to go through and so many different levels, that before every shot we’d mark every beat and discuss where the characters were in the story and then we’d just go ahead just explore those beats. Wilson in particular has quite an emotional and psychological arc to go through and with so little time I trusted Nacho to know where Wilson was at every point and then we just calibrated the performance towards each moment as best as we could so there would be a coherent and compelling arc. Once we’d established that back and forth and were secure in it, I could just go for it and play and experiment, without fear of getting it wrong which is when it became really exciting.

What was also quite nice, was that Nacho would also take the time to personalize certain moments, so there was an added level to what was being expressed in each moment which I often found helpful in getting me out of my own head and understanding Wilson from a different perspective. It was very freeing. I also want to say that you don’t often get the opportunity to work like this and I had a great time doing it. Everyone on set worked really hard and I think the pressure to step up and make choices and commit to them was what made it so exhilarating. Everybody did such a great job from Alexis Scott and the wonderful costume team to Cecil Gentry and friends on production design and props, SFX et al. Scott Wining and the Camera Crew, Prell Charusanti did an incredible job on make up, all the gore was down to her really, Stacy Schneiderman not to mention all the cast, especially, Latarsha Rose, Jonny Berryman, Dale Dickey and Jon Daly. Everyone was so supportive of each other, it was a joy to be on set. It meant that we could just get on with it, without fear of judgement, which is incredibly liberating and I think shows in all the performances. It really was a team effort, and I’m very proud of what we all did.

All the episodes “The Body” and “Flesh and Blood” and the NINE more to come will all be as unique and interesting because they were all fostered in that kind of creative environment. So kudos to the guys at Hulu and Blumhouse who let us do this crazy film, it was really exciting working on something that would never exist if people weren’t brave enough, intelligent enough/good enough to take these kind of risks and make them work. And thank you Nacho for being crazy enough and generous enough to be involved! Hopefully it all pays off.

Nightmarish Conjurings: Last but not least, are there any additional projects you are working on that we should be keeping our eyes out for in the future?

NH: Well I’m finishing up on my first short film, that I wrote and directed and will be plugging that soon and have begun developing my first feature and a series about Zimbabwe, where I grew up. Acting wise, am currently in Jason Reitman’s The Frontrunner starring Hugh Jackman and Vera Farming, amongst others, about Gary Hart. It’s a very powerful and relevant film about politics and the media based on a book “All The Truth Is Out” by Matt Bai. Very proud of being a small cog in that wheel. I’m also in a sci-fi movie called Replicas directed by Jeffery Nachmanoff (Traitor) and starring Keanu Reeves, about a man who loses his family and tries to bring them back to life, that comes out in January. I also have a Netflix series called Black Earth Rising directed by Hugo Blick (Shadow Line and An Honourable Woman) another political thriller about the International Criminal Court starring Michaela Coel and John Goodman amongst others, that’ll be on Netflix at some point next year I believe. And of course you can still catch all four seasons of Casual on Hulu at the moment. I suggest you binge it, it really is worth it.

Otherwise I just hope to be blessed enough to continue to do diverse work on bigger and bigger stages, on film, tv and theatre. It’s great to know I can carry a film like this and am going to aspire to find roles that are genuinely as challenging and hopefully work with all the people I admire and look up to. There are so many great and diverse voices out there and I just want to work with all of them and keep defying people’s expectations, crafting roles that are unconventional, human, funny, horrific, beautiful and that challenge the mainstream while remaining true to themselves. I think that kind of work inevitably connects with an audience on a very profound level because it empowers us to grow and learn to see things differently… When you get stuck doing the same ol’ stuff, something inside you just dies… we all need the opportunities to grow. It’s exactly what happens to Wilson, and you’ll see how that turns out!

Pooka, and the previous episodes of Into the Dark, are now available to stream on Hulu.

Shannon McGrew
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