The murders that took place at Merrymaker Campgrounds were a tragedy, but they inspired best-selling author Roland Baumgarner's most successful book. Fifteen years after the violent events, the cabins at Merrymaker Campgrounds are reopening its doors for a new generation, but something bloodthirsty still waits among the trees in John Woodruff's Animal Among Us.
With the new horror film out now on VOD and DVD from Uncork’d Entertainment, we caught up with one of the stars of the film, Larisa Oleynik, to discuss her role as Anita Bishop, and she also reflected on her life-changing role as Alex Mack in Nickelodeon's The Secret World of Alex Mack and discussed the legacy of 10 Things I Hate About You, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me and congratulations on your new movie Animal Among Us. I enjoyed it quite a bit and it had me guessing pretty much all the way till the end, so that was fun.
Larisa Oleynik: It's kind of like a ride, is what I'm telling people. You just kind of strap in and go, "Okay, sure."
Yeah, it takes some hard left turns, and it's worth hanging on for the ride. When you read the script for the first time, was that part of the appeal for you, just how unexpected the story was and where the story went for you as an actor?
Larisa Oleynik: Yeah, I know the writer, [Jonathan] Murphy, he and I have worked together before. He's kind of a weirdo [laughs], and I mean that in the best sense of the word. I love weirdos, I'm a weirdo. Horror is not necessarily a genre that I love simply because I scare very, very easily, but I locked into the character right away. And I was like, "If they let me make this funny, then I think I know how to do this job, so that was the appeal.
There's definitely a lot of humor within the horror, especially from your character. Was it important for you to balance the horror with humor? Did you have a lot of creative freedom to make it your own thing?
Larisa Oleynik: When I met with them, I just wanted to make sure that I was on the right track and that our visions were lining up. There's still some stuff that I added, but it was the character I found on the page. I just wanted to make sure that I wasn't interpreting it wildly out of film. And then once we got in there and started playing, they just let me play even more. So that was really fun as an exploration. A lot of it was ad-libbed. I don't know how much of that actually made the final cut, but we at least got to do those takes where we kind of went off script, when we would veer off script and then come back to it and then veer off, which I love doing, and Christian [Oliver] likes to work that way, too, so that worked out well.
And you two had worked together early on in your careers when you were both in The Baby-Sitters Club movie. Was this like a reunion for you two? Was it surreal at all to be working together again?
Larisa Oleynik: You are the first person to know that. We hadn't seen each other in 20-plus years. I'm actually still really close with a lot of the other babysitters from that movie, so that was pretty funny. It was just kind of a funny coincidence. We were both like, "Who could have predicted this?" [Laughs] We're out here in the woods with guns chasing a monster. Who'd have thunk it?
Exactly. I want to see a horror movie where it's The Baby-Sitters Club 20 years later at a cabin in the woods.
Larisa Oleynik: I think that's a great idea.
So, when you were filming out in the woods at this camp, were you staying out there in the wilderness throughout the shoot?
Larisa Oleynik: That was one of the weirder aspects and ultimately a really fun aspect. We were at a camp the entire time. We could not escape. We could not leave. We were stuck with each other in the woods eating camp food. Christine [Donlon], who plays Poppy, we became really, really close and shared a cabin for a while. The camp was actually really cooly. It was fun to be there and be in it and have it be totally immersive, because it takes care of a lot of the other aspects of getting in character. It was like, "Well, here we are in the middle of nowhere." It was very camp-like. We would have bonfires and pass around a bottle of whiskey. It was really fun.
I had a great time on my own, too, just walking around the camp and getting to know that there were all of these nooks and crannies, and all these old cabins. That was really part of the fun of it and it was kind of creepy [laughs].
It's a very physical movie, too, especially for your character, who is working with guns. Did you have to do any training or anything like that for that aspect of it? Or was that something you were already familiar with from previous roles?
Larisa Oleynik: I've worked with guns, so I was pretty comfortable before this. I was in Vancouver doing a Christmas romantic comedy for Lifetime [before Animal Among Us]. So I was coming from a totally different world, and not having as much time to do the prep I normally would do, I did a lot of walking around the camp and that was kind of like my morning prep for the character. I would go for a jog or go for a run around the camp and kind of take it in as though it was mine.
I think Poppy was trying to get out of the system and wants a change in her life. But I think Anita loves her surroundings and loves the camp and has a great amount of pride in what she's doing. She thinks this legacy of theirs should be un-tarnished and maintained and held up to certain standards. That's where her drive comes from, and taking in the land and having a lot of respect for that kind of land, too. Because that kind of land when you're out there in the woods, it's much more powerful than you are. I'm not even talking about monsters, but there are things out there that are far more powerful than we are.
Yeah, Mother Nature is not someone you want to mess with. Are you a believer in Bigfoot or Sasquatch or any type of creature like that? This movie kind of plays with that concept.
Larisa Oleynik: Sure, why not? These stories have been passed down since the beginning of time. Just because these stories have been passed down, that in itself makes me be like, "Sure. Who am I to say?" [Laughs]
I mentioned The Baby-Sitters Club, and I want to step back into the ’90s again and ask about The Secret World of Alex Mack, which I watched growing up. What was that process like for you to audition along with hundreds of other people and get the role of a lifetime?
Larisa Oleynik: One of the most interesting things about it is that I had been acting for a while, and I think I got that job when I was 12. I'm from Northern California, and my mom and I had been going to all these auditions. Going into that summer, I said to her, "If I don't book anything big this summer, let's just forget about it. Let's just forget about the whole thing and I'll go back to school. I had gotten close on a lot of things, but I very maturely had decided, "Let's not just do this if it's going to be iffy or wishy-washy. If something big doesn't come my way, let's just say we gave it a go." And then I ended up getting the job.
I had no idea it was going to change my life quite so much as it did. I don't really remember much about the audition process, other than it was a character that came very easily to me. She was me, you know? It felt very natural. I can't remember if [co-creator] Tommy [Lynch] was in the room with me for my take, but I'm sure they all worked with me a bunch. I just had a great feeling, very sort of seamless, like, "Oh, okay, great. Now this is what I'm doing." And then when Nickelodeon was bringing me to events, it started to feel a little bit more real. But I was just doing my job every day. We had no idea it was so special.
And it introduced a whole generation to morphing. What do you remember the most fondly about that show? Looking back now, is there something in particular that you really remember fondly about that time, or was it just the whole experience?
Larisa Oleynik: I understand how rare this is now. I was very respected. As a young woman and as a young performer, that's not always the case. But I always felt like I was allowed to speak my mind and have my own opinion about things. It was refreshing to be starting to find my voice in that way. Everyone at Nickelodeon really seemed to get that. It was important to them that we be real kids and not cookie cutter little performers like dancing monkeys. It was a very safe place for me to grow up. That's really special. I felt very safe and very protected all the time. Aside from that, the character was non-conforming. I look back on that and I'm like, "Thank God for my little self that I got to have that experience."
We see so many reboots now and shows coming back. If you ever did have the opportunity to play Alex Mack again, and it was something that you were excited about and it was the right opportunity, would you ever play that character again and see what she's up to as an adult?
Larisa Oleynik: We've talked about it a bit. The honest answer is I don't know. It occupies such a special place in my heart right now and I just don't want to tamper with it. I think that's how the fans would feel, too. We wouldn't want to do it unless it was something that was special and honored when it happened and was not just trying to capitalize on nostalgia. Not that there's anything wrong with that at all. I still wear my overalls every day [laughs].
Speaking of nostalgia, another past project of yours that holds up really well is 10 Things I Hate About You, which amazingly turns 20 this year. What was that experience like? You had such a great cast, including Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, and that whole story is so endearing, and new generations are discovering it. What do you think of the whole legacy of that film?
Larisa Oleynik: It's crazy to me that teenagers come up to me now and say, "I love 10 Things I Hate About You," and I'm like, "What? You were not even born when that movie came out." That's bonkers to me. I love that script. I still love that script. I was enamored with it. And I was enamored with the process of making that movie, and I was enamored with everyone I got to work with. I think that stuff just kind of translates, honestly.
It was unlike anything I've ever experienced, working on that movie, and so many of us were so young. Julia, Joey [Gordon-Levitt], and I—all three of us had just turned 17. Heath was only 19, I think. We were just excited to be there. We were genuinely enthusiastic about what we were doing and we were really enthusiastic about being with each other. That was a huge part of it. We hung out all the time, and that kind of chemistry is just undeniable. It caught us all at a time when we wanted to be there. No one was jaded. I went on to play Joey's girlfriend in 3rd Rock from the Sun, so he and I have that connection, too. And I talk to Julia every once in a blue moon. I see the writers [Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith]. It's a little family.
That is great to hear. And it showed us that there are different ways to do Shakespeare and you can do it in different eras.
Larisa Oleynik: And also, the Pacific Northwest in the ’90s, that's something very special. That's a special time period for a special place. That's another character in that movie.
In addition to Animal Among Us being out this week on VOD and DVD, do you have any other projects coming up that you'd like our readers to know about?
Larisa Oleynik: I have a family show coming out on Netflix in 2020, I think in January, and I'm playing a mom of a boy [played by Jace Chapman]. He's been homeschooled for a while because he has this terrible social anxiety disorder. And so we've been homeschooling him, but he really wants to go to school. After a failed attempt at going to school, we get him an emotional support dog. And that dog's name is Dude, and it's called The Healing Powers of Dude.
It's not of the horror genre, but if you have little nieces and nephews—I'm really excited to watch it with my friends' kids. It's also genuinely funny and entertaining. So that's coming out, that's going to be streaming on Netflix in the new year. I'm really proud of it. It was really fun to be playing the mom with this kid who I now have deep affection for, and watch him navigate his first season being the lead of the TV show. It was very cool. It's like, "Anything you need, you let me know. I've literally been there."