Interview: Deirdre Mullins on female-centric horror film Mandrake and equal representation within the industry

Premiering exclusively on Shudder from November 10th, Mandrake is a Northern Irish folk horror tale that marks the directorial feature debut of Lynne Davison.

Premiering earlier this year at FrightFest Glasgow the film follows probation officer Cathy Madden (played by Scottish BAFTA-winner Deirdre Mullins), who is given the task of rehabilitating notorious killer ‘Bloody’ Mary Laidlaw back into society after twenty years in jail. Cathy has always believed that every client deserves a shot at redemption, but her beliefs are firmly tested when two children disappear near Mary’s farm.

To coincide with the film’s release, Peter Gray spoke with Deirdre about working on a female-driven horror film, her intentions to direct, and championing equal representation for women in the industry.

I always appreciate that the horror genre tends to be one that thrives on the unexpected, as I was completely unsure as to where Mandrake was heading.  When you first read the script for Mandrake, what was your initial reaction?

That is such an interesting observation and question, because I too didn’t know how it was going to end.  And that is very key in terms of narrative.  I always note down what I think on that first read.  I think it’s really important because, obviously, you read the script many, many times and you look for different things, but you’ll never get that first read again.  So knowing what you think is going to happen at any place is really important, because you’ll forget what you thought (and) what the audience are experiencing at any moment.  I loved the script.  First off, I loved that it was female-centric and, you know, sort of slightly older women, not the usual 20-somethings.  I love that it had complex women and women with a lot of damage.  It was a really unusual script.

I love that.  The way that you worded how you’ll never get that first read or first watch again is so true, because I think horror is one of those genres that benefits from that “first watch” because we so often have the rug swept from under us.  Of the genre itself, is it one you have an affection for?

They scare me.  But, actually, the one and only prize I received was a BAFTA for another movie (I did), so obviously it’s meant for me.  I do really like the genre.  I like performing in it very much, because it asks for an extreme level of performance that most other genres don’t ask of you.  It requires you to go to a primal place.  Most other genres you work in you’ve had life experiences in those areas, so you’re drawing from an easily accessed experience.  But for horror, you are going to the terror you knew as a child.  These dark pieces that were long hidden away.  It’s an exciting place to work.

There’s a scene about 40 minutes in where your character is going through it! The emotion is so visceral, and I just kept thinking “Let’s hope she’s a great actress because this is painful!” But I so often hear how horror sets are often the friendliest…

Delightful.  Delightful in terms of the cast and crew, but unfortunately it was COVID times, so there was a lot of mask wearing and segregation in order to protect everybody.  Several crew members went down, so we had to replace them very quickly and shut down filming, I think about four times.  It was a real and present threat.  Horrors are sort of like psychological warfare, (it’s) incredibly intimate and incredibly brutal, so you’ve got to, as players and as actors, trust each other to the hilt and be incredibly generous with each other.  It was a very supportive atmosphere, because everyone knows everyone is playing to their highest note.

As well as being friendly, you often hear that strange occurrences take place…

Nothing specific….I have to say, I didn’t love being left in that house (laughs).  The house we were shooting in, you had to be syphoned off after a scene to wait in the green room, and you’d be left alone in an incredibly damp and dilapidated old room.  You just know things have happened there (laughs).  Because it was rotting away one crew member’s leg went entirely through the ceiling in one room, so we have these rooms cordoned off because the floor was so weak.  There was nothing deeply creepy (though), I don’t think I could’ve handled that.

You have a theatre background too, both performing and directing.  Is directing a feature something you’d like to explore?

Absolutely.  Just today I was redrafting a short film that I’m kind of making at the moment.  So, for sure, I would love to evolve.  I’ve done mostly theatre directing, so a filmic career as a director is definitely an exciting way to control the work you get to do as an actor.  You can only say yes or no as to what’s presented to you (as an actor)m but as a maker you can decide,  So I’m really excited about it.

And you’re a core committee member of the ERA 50:50.  Have you found that equal representation has become more of the norm in the industry over these last few years especially?

Definitely.  I think you can even see it when you go to the cinema, or when you’re looking at posters, there’s so many women spaces.  In my youth I’d go to the cinema and nine out of ten posters have guys, and that was just completely normal.  Imagine going along and seeing nine women’s faces and one guy? It was just so normalised that it was bias towards men.  But it’s exciting and enriching that we’re getting so many more stories and so many more angles on the same worlds that we’ve seen all throughout cinematic history but just from a totally new perspective.  It’s so refreshing.  It’s really refreshing for the guys (too) because they’re not just playing these kind of stereotypical macho parts. They’re getting more complex roles.  I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction.  And particularly for something like Mandrake where your leads are not just chicks in their 20’s.  It’s rare to see films led by women over 30, so it’s exciting that 50% of our audience are finally seeing themselves on screen.  That can only be a good thing.

Mandrake is now streaming on Shudder

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.