Editor’s note: With the 21st annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards fast approaching, we’ve decided to open up the work of some of our Rondo nominees to a wider audience here on RUE-MORGUE.com. This interview with genre favorite Alice Krige by longtime contributor Carly Maga first appeared in RUE MORGUE #207.
Voting ends Sunday night at midnight, April 23. Click here for a list of all of our nominees and our handy copy-and-paste ballot.
By CARLY MAGA
You know Alice Krige’s face. Throughout her four decades as an actor in theatre, film and TV, there hasn’t been another quite like it: the severe cheekbones, the cupid’s bow lips, and most importantly, the intense stares that betray complex mental machinations going on inside – as if she’s always tapping into an unseen dimension, force, or wavelength.
For audiences, it’s a face – and an accompanying performance – that instantly elevates any project on the big or small screen: Mary Brady in 1992’s Sleepwalkers, the Borg Queen in 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact, the evil priestess Christabella in 2006’s Silent Hill, Holda the witch in 2020’s Gretel & Hansel, and, more recently, the ill-fated orphanage caretaker in 2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. How many faces, after all, can claim to be the face of Leatherface?
But for Krige herself, it’s a face she only sees under duress.“If I’m being interviewed, I’ll watch [my performances],” the 67-year-old actor tells RUE MORGUE, “but I don’t enjoy it at all. All I am able to see is what I didn’t accomplish.”
Krige grew up in a family of serious servitude to others – her father was a physician for small rural communities in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. When the family moved into Johannesburg, her mother became a psychologist, a vocation that inspired Krige’s early education at Rhodes University. After taking her first acting class while trying to fill an open spot in her psychology studies, she fell in love with it, much to her parents’ horror. But to Krige, acting was “the same terrain from the other end of the telescope” as psychology, and she moved from South Africa to London, England to pursue classical theatre in the Central School of Speech and Drama, where she’s now based with her husband, filmmaker and dramatist Paul Schoolman (they met on the set of 1981’s Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, Krige’s film debut). For every role, she is compelled to bring a disciplined, studied, convincing gravity to whatever being she’s portraying – even though that often requires what Krige calls “looking straight into the void” or “the abyss” – confronting the darkest parts of humanity to understand someone who can burn women and children alive, suck out the life force of virgins, or turn all of Earth into a human-robot hive mind.
“I’m endlessly interested in the human psyche and the human spirit and the human condition,” she says. “The great lesson of having spent 42 years doing this is to not judge. Who am I to judge anyone that is perceived as a villain? I don’t know if so-called villains experience themselves as villainous. I just see what they need and what they want and where their vulnerabilities and their frailties are and try as best I can to inhabit that.”
That approach remains steadfast no matter what vein of horror she lands in, in fact, it has allowed her to explore many different facets of the genre throughout her career – from the modern slasher of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to the arthouse psychological horror of Gretel & Hansel, to the 1940’s-inspired slow burn of Ghost Story, to the sci-fi lore of Star Trek and, well, whatever Sleepwalkers is. That bonkers creation by Stephen King and directed by Mick Garris was Krige’s next biggest genre appearance, starring as Mary Brady, a vampiric werecat who lives off the life force of human female virgins, has an incestuous relationship with her son Charles (Brian Krause), and whose mortal enemy is the common housecat. Even in such a ridiculous premise, Krige’s performance never winks. In fact, of all things, she relied on her classical training and two years at London’s Royal Shakespeare Company to pull it off.
“When I finally understood that, actually, [Sleepwalkers] was a satire on the genre and that Stephen King was having fun, I just thought, well then, she can be Shakespearean, she can be a tragic figure of that dimension,” she says. “They were beings that lived in a different dimension, and she was having to draw her sustenance out of this dimension, which had a whole different set of mores and morality. That’s a tragic situation. So, you just got to take a hold of that and go for it.”
To Krige, the parallels between horror and classical theatre aren’t that far-fetched. In fact, she’s one part in a long history of character actors who move from the stage into genre films, which goes back to Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, and Vincent Price to today’s names like Colm Feore, Julian Richings, Robert Englund, and Toni Collette.
“Like in [Shakespeare’s] Coriolanus, or the Scottish play, you look into the abyss, the absolute darkest aspects of the human condition,” she says. “What that enables you to do, whether it’s in theatre or the horror genre, is to paint in the broadest strokes and more intense colours than if you try to reproduce life that’s less on the edge. That’s the edge of good horror that sends you reeling back, not just laughing because someone’s head’s been hacked off, but horror that takes your breath away and makes you reassess being alive.”
And sometimes, even for the most practiced actor, that’s a dangerous place to be. Throughout her career, there has been one character she regrets getting too close to: Christabella in Christophe Gans’s 2006 Silent Hill film adaptation. The final two weeks of filming were composed entirely of scenes in which Christabella orchestrates several ritual burnings of women and a child victim of abuse, Alessa, whose anger starts the curse of Silent Hill. When the shoot was over, Krige says the character followed her home.
“The thing is, when you say yes, you can’t stop halfway,” she reveals. “Christabella was way darker than I ever, ever imagined. It was a very difficult experience. I would go back to my hotel room and I would think ‘I’ve got to meditate or do yoga or shift myself out of this space somehow.’ But I was always too tired. So I spent two weeks in that space.”
So powerful was her hold on the character, or vice versa, that even her dog was frightened.
“The day they brought me home from the airport, [Krige’s dog] Skipper was sitting at the gate and she was doing this full-body wag,” she recounts. “I walked up to the gate, and Skipper stopped wagging. She looked at me, and she backed off, and she would have nothing to do with me for the three weeks that I was home. It’s the only time that’s happened, that the character was such a potent energy that it didn’t get left behind. I really do wish it wasn’t out there.”
Strong words from a woman who has portrayed some of the most memorable female villains the genre has ever seen. Krige’s iconic portrayal (and rotting face) traumatised an entire generation with her depiction of Eva/Alma in 1981’s Ghost Story directed by John Irvin, based on the novel by Peter Straub. Her first venture into horror (and her second feature ever) at 25 years old, Krige was surrounded by Hollywood legends: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman and Patricia Neal. But even then, Krige is the stand-out performer among the greats as Eva Galli – a flirtatious and mysterious young woman who meets a horrifying end – and Alma – Eva’s spirit who haunts the men who killed her, driving many of them to their deaths. But even as terrifying as she is as this femme fatale-turned-rotting corpse, to Krige, she was never the evil one.
“She’s not the villain at all,” Krige once told Daily Dead. “If she’s anything, she’s the victim. When I was offered the role, it was an extraordinary challenge to play reincarnations of the same soul, as it were, but it’s immensely sad. She was not looking for what happened to her, but that she should come back to seek vengeance is heartbreaking, but totally understandable.”
Her first horror film is a perfect foil for her latest – She Will, the feature debut by director Charlotte Colbert, who also co-wrote the script, which won the Golden Leopard for Best First Feature at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival. Krige stars as Veronica Ghent, an actress who is recovering from a double mastectomy in a small cabin in the Scottish wilderness with an aide, Desi (Kota Eberhardt), by her side. At first, Veronica is quaffed, closed off, and cold, even to Desi and especially to the other guests at the compound (spearheaded by Rupert Everett as a verbose concierge). But as her healing progresses, a surreal bond forms between Veronica, the lush forest land, and the women who were persecuted for witchcraft there centuries ago.
Eventually, in their isolation, Veronica and Desi find strength and solace in each other. And in her dreams, Veronica confronts a long-buried trauma sustained while filming her acting debut at thirteen years old, just as her abuser, the now esteemed “provocateur” director Eric Hathbourne (Malcolm McDowell), is casting another young actress to star in the remake.
“Alma certainly is experienced as a vengeful spirit,” says Krige. “For me, Veronica is not so much vengeful, but demanding the truth be told… She wanted him to tell the truth and not to replay that story. And that’s a vast improvement. I’m not this avenging, malign spirit that’s come back to kill you all. I just want you to be honest.”
Despite being drawn to roles that dance of the edge of violence and despair, Krige mostly recalls her parts in soft, sympathetic tones. In reality, Krige is gentle, thoughtful, smiley and quick to make a joke. She’s not a natural-born horror lover – in fact, she left South Africa just as TV was becoming mainstream and she only saw The Bridge Over the River Kwai and Davy Crockett in cinemas as a child. Both times she asked her mother to leave when they got too violent. Not all her roles have gone the darker route, but in horror, a happy ending has been hard to find for the characters she builds so caringly and carefully. And with She Will, Krige is clearly enjoying this one.
“I loved that the younger woman gave the older woman another chance at being human, at being vulnerable, at being open to affection,” she says. “I haven’t actually seen it in any other story, and for me, that’s what you are left with in the end. It was a very rich and life-affirming experience.”
Even before She Will has reached a wide audience outside of the festival circuit, Krige is aware of its potential reception in the horror community. She likens it to Oz Perkins’s 2020 feature Gretel & Hansel and her character of Holda, a child-eating witch luring young Gretel (Sophia Lillis) to turn on her brother.
“I think it’s rather a beautiful movie,” she says. “Holda’s journey is so torturous because she’s made a choice that’s destroyed her, essentially. But many of the reviewers said, ‘But it’s not scary. Where is the horror?’ But it wasn’t a horror movie. It was, like She Will, a psychological drama with elements of looking down into the abyss, which is the horror element, for me anyway. Horror is a very big label, isn’t it?” she continues. “I very much hope that people who see it don’t go expecting to see Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
The more credits Krige adds to her acting resume, the more she’s expanding beyond it. She is now writing and producing several of the films she appears in, like the upcoming Shingetsu, the second in a trilogy of films co-created with Schoolman and actor Gunter Singer. She has two more films underway, titled Three Widows and another tentatively titled Naked Abuse.
And ever the perfectionist, she’s also still trying to improve her acting. Strangely enough, she’s even getting closer to being able to enjoy watching herself on the big screen. In She Will, she’ll admit, there was one moment she didn’t hate.
“I thought, ‘Well, thank God I wasn’t trying too hard,’” she says with a laugh. “I suppose the longer I’ve worked, I try to think less. I do the research and the exploration to the same level of intensity as I’ve ever done but, increasingly, I seek to stop thinking once I’ve begun, to simply be in the moment. And, curiously, that is also something I’m learning to do in life. They’re both equally as hard.”
In another time, or in another storyteller’s hands, Veronica has the makings of a typical wicked witch: a reclusive and angry woman, bereft of physical symbols of sexuality and youthfulness, magically appearing to her enemy like a waking nightmare. But Krige’s performance gives Veronica a sense of whimsy and sincerity, even as she wades into painful, even sinful, territory. Colbert’s direction (and her script, co-written by Kitty Percy) makes it abundantly clear that this is her story, and it’s dark, sensitive, eerie, and hopeful all at once. Finally, it seems, the horror genre is ready for female villains that are as complex as they’ve always been to their performer.