You'd think it would be difficult to empathize with someone who uses Facebook to destroy people's lives in gruesome ways, but Liesl Ahlers absolutely pulls it off in Friend Request. With the new horror film coming out in US theaters this Friday from Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures (the same studio behind the recent US theatrical release of 47 Meters Down), I had the great pleasure of catching up with actress Liesl Ahlers, who plays Marina, the social outcast who blends witchcraft and social media to haunt her college classmate Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and her friends. During the Q&A, Ahlers discusses how she brought out both the humanity and the vengeful side of Marina, learning to walk on stilts for the demonic version of the character, which member of The Breakfast Club she thinks Marina shares similarities with, and much more.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us, Liesl! What was the audition process for Marina like, and what attracted you to this unique character?
Liesl Ahlers: I auditioned for the role of Marina in South Africa. I had one day to prepare for the audition. I didn’t get any sleep that night. I practiced my accent, studied each scene vigorously, and did in-depth research on trichotillomania. The more I delved into the character of Marina, the more I wanted to make this character my own...
As part of my audition process, I made the choice to create a strong visual image of what I wanted Marina to look like: I decided to wear loose-fitting jeans and a black hoodie, I tied my hair back into a ponytail, and (this is the crazy part) took my foundation and covered my eyebrows and eyelashes, which made them “disappear.” I remember looking at myself in the mirror before I drove off to the audition thinking, “This is a bold and crazy choice, but I feel like this character is worth taking a risk for.”
What attracted me to the character of Marina was the way in which she was described: “Mysterious. Dark. Traumatized. The embodiment of loneliness. The kid you’d instinctively avoid on the playground." I was immediately intrigued, excited, and curious to uncover all the layers of this character. I remember thinking, "I need to play this character! I feel a strong connection to her, like I know what she’s like."
Marina is a very interesting character, because even though she puts this violent curse on Laura and her friends, she’s still someone you empathize with because she just wants to find a social connection. What was it like for you to tap into Marina’s dark side and her lonely side?
Liesl Ahlers: Marina definitely has two distinct sides to her. Marina’s lonely side fascinated me; she’s fragile, shy, and often childlike. I could connect to that. My goal was to embody everyone out there who have been bullied, rejected, and labeled as social outcasts. I wanted them to relate to Marina and for the world to realize that you should never judge a book by its cover.
I enjoyed tapping into Marina’s dark side; it was so much fun for me to play because we’ve all felt rejected at some point and secretly daydreamed about getting our power back. I experienced the dark side of Marina as liberating. It felt like I was standing up for all the people who had been bullied and rejected, like I was fighting back for all of them. It was incredible!
You and Alycia Debnam-Carey share some intense scenes in Friend Request. What was it like working with Alycia to create that believable relationship?
Liesl Ahlers: I immediately felt connected to Alycia. She’s a very generous actress. I felt comfortable around her, which allowed me to express myself fully. I think we both worked off of each other’s energy in order to “find” each scene and to convey it as believable as possible. The honesty that Alycia conveys in her acting is very inspirational. I enjoyed acting alongside her as much as I enjoyed spending time with her off set. It’s “easy” to act alongside someone who takes their craft seriously and who allows you to feel safe and comfortable.
Your performance as Marina is literally transformative, as she becomes a demon that haunts Laura and her friends. What was it like to get a full body cast and work with those special effects to bring a different side of Marina to life?
Liesl Ahlers: I’m so happy you asked about this process because it was such an incredible experience. I was fortunate to have an incredible special effects makeup team. It was such an exciting experience having a full body cast made of my body and having to learn to walk on stilts, which was a completely new experience for me, but I enjoyed the challenge!
For the demon, I had to walk on stilts, wear face and neck prosthetics, false teeth (that were very sharp), contact lenses, and gloves that covered my arms. I felt very constricted in the costume, as you can imagine, but what was fascinating was that feeling so constricted encouraged me to feel strong and powerful, to use my newfound height and exterior to my advantage.
When you look back at your time on set, do you have any favorite or funny moments that stand out?
Liesl Ahlers: There were a lot of funny moments on set! One that stood out for me was in a very intense scene, where both Alycia and Connor [Paolo] were trapped in a dark and narrow passage, and the demon confronts them. Simon [Verhoeven], the director of the film, all of the sudden decides it would be a great idea if the demon said a couple of lines, but, since I was wearing a full set of false, very sharp teeth, I ended up sounding like a very cute, lisping Donald Duck! After I finished my lines there was this moment where I looked at Connor and Alycia and we all burst out laughing!
What was it like collaborating with Simon Verhoeven to tell this story? Did you two work together on making Marina as believable as possible?
Liesl Ahlers: Working with Simon was a blast. He was very passionate about the story from the get-go and wanted to tell it in an authentic way. Simon was so supportive towards me as well as my character choices. We both wanted to make the character as believable as possible. I remember saying to him, “I want people to like her, to empathize with her. I want people to feel conflicted,” and he said to me that’s exactly what he had in mind: to make her as sweet and fragile as possible. We shared a clear vision for the character.
Do you have any favorite horror films or horror film performances that inspired you or came to mind when you were playing Marina?
Liesl Ahlers: I do have a favorite horror film: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but, strangely enough, I wasn’t inspired by a particular horror film while shooting Friend Request. I leaned more towards the mindset of keeping my head clear of other horror films and horror performances in order to take a fresh and new perspective on my character, although I was inspired by Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club. I saw a similarity between Allison Reynolds and Marina. My biggest inspiration were my friends in real life who have been victims of intense and severe bullying, and I somehow felt that through this character I was given the opportunity to stand up for them.
With Friend Request out in US theaters beginning Friday, September 22nd, do you have any other projects on deck that you can tease, and where can our readers follow you and your work online?
Liesl Ahlers: I am excited to announce that I will be portraying the lead in a new drama-thriller series, The Crossing (working title), which will be released internationally in 2018.
You can follow me on my official website: www.lieslahlers.com and on Instagram: @liesl_ahlers
You can follow The Crossing on Facebook: @thecrossingSA