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Exclusive Interview: Isabelle Fuhrman rediscovers her evil inner child for “ORPHAN: FIRST KILL”

Monday, August 15, 2022 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

With the prequel ORPHAN: FIRST KILL, Isabelle Fuhrman returns to the role that first put her on the map–even though she was 10 when she made the original ORPHAN and is now in her early 20s. She explains both the emotional and technical ways she revived the evil Esther in this RUE MORGUE chat.

Debuting in theaters, on digital and streaming on Paramount+ this Friday, August 19, ORPHAN: FIRST KILL begins with our little antiheroine going by the name Leena and residing in an Estonian institution. She soon escapes the place and poses as Esther, the long-missing daughter of wealthy Connecticut couple Tricia and Allen Albright (Julia Stiles and Rossif Sutherland). The couple, along with their teenage son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), welcome “Esther” back into their home–but she’s got devious plans that will put her at dangerous odds with her new family. Directed by William Brent Bell (THE BOY films) from a script by David Coggeshall, ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is Fuhrman’s second scary sequel in as many years–though her character was deleted from the theatrical cut of last year’s ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS, then restored for the Extended Cut on Blu-ray.

When you first heard about ORPHAN: FIRST KILL, and the approach they were taking with the story, did you have any concerns about how you were going to play younger than you were in the first film?

No, I didn’t. You know, I felt from the beginning, especially after I read the script, which I loved–I loved the twists, the turns, the thrill of it–that I had to come back and play this role, that nobody else could. And in order to do that, I realized that I really had to find who I was when I was 10 years old again. The first time around, I was trying so hard to pretend to be an adult, and this time, I really had to pretend to be a kid, because that was going to be the hardest part. I really felt like I was in Leena’s shoes in a sense, discovering that. I think I had an advantage, in the sense that the character of Esther herself is created during this movie, and so I got to create Leena and then discover Esther again while we were shooting it.

What different approaches did you take here, being more grown up than you were on the original? Did you have more insights into the role than you did the first time?

Yeah, I feel like I had more of an understanding of the things that come with age [laughs]. But I would also say that the innocence I brought to the first movie, when I was working on that script when I was 10–it was those notes that actually helped me the most when I was working on FIRST KILL. The decisions and the choices I made to play Esther back then came from a more grounded, emotional place, without all the information you get as you grow older. It was purely about the emotional feeling behind it. And then I had to find a way to marry the two. In order to play this role again, I had to find 10-year-old Isabelle and ask myself what choices I would have made then, as well as the ones that I would make now, reading the scenes and going over them. And I feel proud of myself and the work of everybody who helped me look like I was a kid, because the emotional part was really something that I had to do on my own.

How much can you talk about how they technically made you appear much younger than you are?

There were so many tricks. We had little butt-dolly chairs, I had to squat a lot of the time in my scenes, and Julia and Rossif and Matthew wore these giant Gene Simmons-type boots that made them so much taller. And then I had two incredible young actresses, Kennedy Irwin and Sadie Lee, who were my body doubles, and they were me from every single angle other than the ones showing my face, basically. We worked together to discover Esther’s physicality, and to add different things into the way she walked and the way she moved this time. I was so lucky to have them there, because it reminded me of where I was when I was a kid, working on ORPHAN for the first time. It helped me to stay in that mindspace of play, and staying loose like a child would, which really helped me in my performance.

There’s that long tracking shot early on, following Leena through the institute, that seems to involve you as well as both your doubles. What went into staging that scene?

I actually have that scene on my phone! It wasn’t planned; we didn’t intend to do something like that. Everything was really trial and error, and it was on the day that we were discovering these things. That was the first time we were like, “Let’s see if we can switch, if we can swap [between her and her doubles].” We did have all three of us there that day, which was so cool, because usually, since they were kids and couldn’t work full days, one half of the day I would be with Kennedy and the other half I’d be with Sadie. That day specifically, we all got to play together, and it didn’t take very long to choreograph; I don’t think we had much time. We just rehearsed a few times, tested it out and then did about six or seven takes of it.

Did it feel different playing the more violent scenes in FIRST KILL than it did doing them in the original movie as a child? Did you ever get disturbed during those moments?

As a kid, I remember thinking those were so cool, because everything was fake, and it was also my first time on a big movie set. I recall that scene where I’m stabbing Peter Sarsgaard’s character John; he had a metal breastplate, and I just had a handle with a magnet on it, and I was able to really go at it. And I remember thinking, this is so great! This is how they make movies! This one was no different, except I felt more like a cool aunt or something, with Sadie and Kennedy; I’d be like, “Look, this is how they do the blood…” I wouldn’t say I was ever disturbed by it; you’re very aware of how make-believe it is when you’re working on it. I think it’s scarier when you see the movie, when you don’t see all the strings attached.

How was FIRST KILL’s William Brent Bell different as a director from the original’s Jaume Collet-Serra?

Oh my gosh, with Jaume on the first one, I would not have been able to do the movie without him, his guidance and his kindness; he kind of treated me like a daughter. He was very protective of me while we worked on the film, and helped protect my innocence; he didn’t say anything too inappropriate about what the scenes were. Everything was explained to me in very basic, elementary terms; it was really just about the emotion behind it. So there was a lot of stuff I saw in that movie, when I was watching it in preparation for FIRST KILL, where I was like, I didn’t realize that’s what that was when I was a kid! Now I get it, but back then I didn’t!

With Brent, we got to work as a team, in a sense. I got to bring Esther back, and he loved that character so much, so we found ways to do what we wanted to do, to do what we thought would be fun and come up with things that the fans would love. And with Kennedy and Sadie, Brent was like, “You can direct them. They’re yours; they’re your character. You three are Esther, so you work together.” That showed so much belief in me, that he trusted me to work with them on how we were going to build this character. And so I really trusted him from day one.

It was also his belief in me, from the beginning, that we could make me look like a kid, that we didn’t need CGI or all these fancy digital tricks; that we could just do it in real time and real life, and that was how it would work best. And when I saw the movie, my jaw hit the floor, and I was like, this is all because of Brent; he’s a genius.

Talking about sequels, do you know what happened regarding your role in ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS–why your scenes were replaced in the theatrical version before being reinstated on Blu-ray?

No; I mean, those things are not at all part of what my decisions or choices are, in any sort of way. I had an incredible experience working with Adam [Robitel, the director] and the cast on that movie. I just think ultimately, they were holding focus screenings, and sometimes when you do those, people don’t get the story and want a different ending, and the studio wants to do something that’s going to make all the fans happy. So I believe that’s why they decided to go back and reshoot the ending.

And it’s not like they just reshot the ending, they changed the entire movie; if you see both cuts, they’re drastically different. I didn’t take it personally in any sort of way; I just felt like creatively, they decided to tell a different story. I enjoyed working on it, and I think it’s cool that the fans now have two versions of the movie that they get to watch. You don’t get that very often, and I like both cuts of the movie, so…

And people go back and reshoot movies all the time; it’s just a part of the business. I mean, funnily enough, I actually lived initially in the first ORPHAN; Esther survived in the original ending. And the focus groups all came back saying, “Kill the B-I-T-C-H!”, so we reshot the ending.

So does that mean we won’t get an ORPHAN 3, or has there been any discussion about that?

Hey, we somehow did a prequel, so you never know! We have kind of talked about it; there have been little whisperings about it. Hopefully it’s not 13 years later, otherwise I don’t know if it’ll work the same way!

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.