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INTERVIEW: Actress Florence Hartigan On ‘Phoenix Forgotten’ and ‘Malevolent’

We recently caught up with actress Florence Hartigan to talk with her about her latest film Phoenix Forgotten and upcoming animated movie called Malevolent. Here’s what she had to say.

Florence Hartigan
Florence Hartigan – courtesy © Michelle Terris

DAVID: Hello and thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Let’s begin with you. For those who don’t know, tell us … who is Florence Hartigan. 

FLORENCE: Hi, it’s my pleasure! I’m an actress and singer, born in the US to Irish parents, who quickly moved us all to New Zealand, which is where I grew up. But now I live in LA where I mostly just try to get out in nature and eat great food and act and sing things as much as I can. I think that’s a pretty accurate self summary! 

I’d like to start with your latest film, now in release and on DVD, a found footage horror thriller called Phoenix Forgotten. How about a brief summary of the story to kick off some questions. 

Sure  – Phoenix Forgotten is based on a real life UFO sighting which happened over Phoenix in 1997. Hundreds of people saw mysterious lights in the sky. I play Sophie, a documentary filmmaker who comes back to her hometown of Phoenix 20 years later, to try and figure out what happened to her older brother  – who went looking for the source of the lights and disappeared. 

RELATED: Full review of Florence Hartigan‘s thriller Phoenix Forgotten

How did you get involved with the production?

I had previously worked with Justin Barber, our director, on some other projects and he and TS Nowlin, our writer, approached me early on in the process to shoot some test scenes for the film. As the project picked up momentum I didn’t know if I was going to get to be a part of the final project, but as it turned out I was able to audition and got the part, which was really exciting. It’s been awesome to see the project through from the very start.

You play the lead, as Sophie, and it looks to be a pretty demanding part. How much freedom did you have in developing the character with director Justin Barber?

Justin also co-wrote the script with TS Nowlin, our writer, so they both had an idea of what they wanted from Sophie. But Justin was super collaborative and very open to anything I brought to the table, and any research and ideas I had in my preparation, and we collaborated on a lot of out of the box research before shooting – I went to police stations and interviewed cops who deal with missing persons cases, I researched desert disappearances in the area the film is set in. I just tried to do anything I could to fill my head with information Sophie would know, or would have researched. I knew that would help me in all the improvising later on – which there was a lot of in this film.

Florence Hartigan
Florence Hartigan — Phoenix Forgotten, 2017 © Cinelou Films

I really liked what you did with Sophie and mentioned that in my review, calling you and Chelsea Lopez standouts. What drew you to the story and Sophie herself?

Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say! I always like stories with a strong emotional hook. Sophie is trying to shed light on this big dark mystery in her family’s past – her brother’s disappearance basically made her family fall apart – so I had this really interesting emotional history to draw on for her. And it was fun to stand in the shoes of somebody who asks people the tough questions and digs up all the emotional worms – as an actor I feel like that’s what you do all the time for the characters you play, so it was fun to play a documentary filmmaker – someone whose job intros film is literally to do that. Also, as I mentioned before, there was a big component of improvisation in the process of making this film. I’ve studied improv for years, so that was something that made this project stand out to me as well.  

Speaking of strong female characters. You’ve got a new film coming out soon and it’s a really interesting project. Tell us a little bit about Malevolent and your role in it.

It’s a story that’s described as Saw meets Groundhog Day – it centers around Miriam DeKalb, and her three siblings (one of whom is me). When her billionaire sociopath father, Cyrus learns he is dying, he calls Miriam and her three siblings together to discuss his will.  But actually his plan is to pronounce judgement on us all, via a grisly death he has planned for each of us. And then enters the Game Master – who is a woman from another dimension with the ability to stop, reverse, and repeat time … so it’s very fun and gory with a cool fantasy/sci-fi element to it as well.

In the film, you do voice work with some big names, such as Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise, and William Shatner. Again, how did you get involved with the film and since this is animation, were you more restricted in how you portrayed Kelsy Dekalb, your character?

I was invited to audition for this role through our director Jason Axinn, who I’d worked with on other projects, and was fortunate enough to be cast. Obviously there are certain restrictions in creating moments and filling out your performance since you’re using only your voice, but there are certain freedoms as well. You don’t have to think about eyelines or hitting marks or where the camera is, all of the technical nitty gritty stuff that’s in the back of your mind in a film performance. You can just concentrate on the sounds you’re making. The main puzzle for me to work out was making all those non-word sounds that are so important in a horror film come to life.  All the physical noises.  So to fill those in I just actually moved my body in the booth the way I would on screen. So there’s some great video of me punching air and contorting like I’m electrocuted … very flattering stuff like that!

Looking over your TV and film work, I think this is your first animated film. What are the differences for you in live action acting versus recording for animation? Did you approach it differently?

I didn’t approach my preparation differently at all really. As I would any role I broke down the script the way I usually do and prepared and learned my lines. As an actor part of the joy in it is the detective work you do do find your way into the character – discovering who they are and how they are the same and different to who you are, so I’ll take every opportunity I can to do that. It was cool to get to play Kelsey because I’m fascinated with characters that have had every privilege but end up really damaged, so diving into her story was fun. The real difference was recording on the day. But I although this was my first animated feature, I had done voiceover before, and also I’m a singer so I’m no stranger to a recording booth!

So you’re getting a name for yourself now in the horror genre. How’s that feel? What do you like about the genre?

It’s interesting, since moving to LA these seem to be the projects that have fallen in my lap – which is great by me! I love horror movies actually, because I am a fan of the genre (I have The Craft on in the background as we speak!) but also as an actress in horror movies you get to play at people at the height of human emotion – terror, sadness, anger … but there’s often a comedy element needed to alleviate and provide balance to that, so you get to play at both ends of the scale. You’re painting with a big emotional palette, which is so fun for an actor.

On our website, we dedicate a lot of content to discussing the impact and influence of great moments in movies. How about you? Are there any movie moments that you really like, or performances in general that have had influence on you?

Oh man, so many. I always think of Juliette Stephenson’s monologue in the brilliant film Truly Madly Deeply – she’s such a gorgeous, deep-diving actress, and there’s a scene where she says goodbye to her husband that is truly heartbreaking. Recently, I was blown away by the movie Get Out and Betty Gabriel’s performance – I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it, but there’s a moment where her character is saying everything is fine … but it clearly isn’t. She does such a good job with the character and there is so much going on underneath her words – it’s truly disturbing to watch – which is the intention.

Thank you so much for talking with us and I wish you the best of luck with your career and hope our paths cross again. Anything you’d like to add? 

People can follow me on twitter @flohasthoughts or instagram @fl0bie if they’re interested in checking out the latest on what I’m up to. Thanks and all the best to you!