There’s a certain elevation of quality when a director/showrunner works with a performer multiple times across different projects. It can beget a closeness between the two that allows a bond during the creation of these new projects. One such relationship is that between Carla Gugino and Mike Flanagan, with the actress having roles in Flanagan’s television series such as The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass, also working with the writer/director on the film Gerald’s Game. The two’s fifth collaboration, The Fall of the House of Usher, has been met with critical acclaim, love from horror audiences, and earned Gugino her first major film and television nomination with a Critics Choice Award nomination for her performance as Verna, a mysterious otherworldly being, in Netflix’s series that features several stories from Edgar Allen Poe woven into the narrative.
Carla Gugino might have just recently received her first nomination from a major awards body, but she’s been working towards this moment for 25 years. She hit television screens twice in 1988, an episode of Who’s the Boss? and Good Morning, Miss Bliss before film roles in Troop Beverly Hills (1989) and Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990). She worked in various roles across the 90s, having multiple roles a year every year that decade, before 2001’s Spy Kids hit theaters. Gugino grabbed the attention of an entire generation watching the film who saw her as the mom who turned out to be a spy, a role she’d reprise in both sequels. Having never really slowed down acting, the performer has really hit a stride with genre audiences over the past 5 years with the aforementioned series and films – and, of course, other projects like Manhunt – that have allowed her meaty roles that attract mainstream audiences. Gugino’s career has only gotten more fun to watch the longer it goes on, so it will be exciting to see how it progresses over the next decade.
I sat down with Gugino to discuss her first major nomination, her work on The Fall of the House of Usher, and ask her to choose a favorite death of the show, so beware of spoilers at the end.
Tyler Doster: I first want to congratulate you on your Critics Choice nomination. How does it feel to receive this nomination? I know there was a little hiccup where you were initially left off the nomination list.
Carla Gugino: Thank you. (laughs) Yeah. I mean, life works in mysterious ways, I guess. Yeah. It’s funny, because in a career that’s been the majority of my life; which at this point is a lot of years; this was the first time that I have gotten acknowledged in this way for film and television.
And I’ve been so fortunate to have worked with amazing people and do amazing projects and have critical responses that’ve been really positive and all of those things. But in terms of the award world, I’ve not really been a part of that. So yeah, I am thrilled. It was a good kind of surprise. I didn’t really think a lot of it initially when I wasn’t; I was just so thrilled for my castmates, Mary McDonnell and Willa Fitzgerald, who were both nominated in the Supporting Actress category for the show. And as you know, do such an amazing job of bringing Madeline to life. And so I was just so happy for them. And then this crazy news happened, and so it was, yes, a wonderful turn of events, for sure. I’m honored.
TD: What are you most excited about for attending the award show as a nominee?
CG: Oh, boy. I just presented at the Creative Emmys a couple of nights ago. And I think that there’s a certain kind of silliness just innately to an award show. Because it brings up, I think for everybody, it’s a little bit like a high-school situation where it’s winners and the losers, quote-unquote, and all of that. And I think that the thing that strikes me whenever I’m at one; I don’t know that it will be any different as being a nominee; is just that it’s really hard to judge art that way and people’s artistic expressions.
Art is so subjective, and what touches hopefully in a performance or in a film or in a story or in a piece of art, fine art, you come from the most personal. And it can tap into something universal. I think that’s what’s extraordinary about storytelling, and what made me want to do it when I was 13, and want to do it for the rest of my life. What I love is that there’s a room full of people who love to do the same thing and love to bring stories to life. And it’s so hard to get things made, and it’s so hard to make them good. So if you’ve gotten to that point, then something has worked. And so I think it’s just, for me, about being able to be in a room with a bunch of people, many of whom I’ve known for many years, getting to celebrate that.
TD: Switching gears over to The Fall of the House of Usher, is there anything about Edgar Allan Poe’s work that speaks to you personally?
CG: The first story that I read when I was quite young; I don’t know exactly what age, but I’m guessing 10, 11, 12; was “Tell-Tale Heart.” I had never read anything like that before, and it got into my bones. It was so incredible how this piece could give me a sense of that kind of existential dread that either I didn’t know I had felt before, or I hadn’t felt before. Obviously, that story is so much about guilt and responsibility for your actions.
And I think the thing that struck me about Poe even then was this deep humanity. He’s fully writing in horror and owning that genre, so to speak. But he has this deep sense of humanity and complexity and nuance. I do think that also it’s beautiful that Mike Flanagan got to bring his work to life in this particular incarnation. Because Mike, he’s so facile with horror. And it’s definitely obviously the genre that speaks to him. But I think that the thing that attracted me to work with Mike on Gerald’s Game, which was our first thing together, is that I’m not a horror fan per se. I love anything done well; The Shining is one of my favorite movies. There are many; there’s so many things. I love a great horror movie or a great piece. But I gravitated towards his exploration of humanity and the big themes like karma, accountability, trauma, grief, death, self-examination, empathy, all of these things. With the horror genre, I just feel like you have an opportunity, as long as you can deliver scares and make people genuinely feel the suspense, then you can be as smart and complex as you want to be. And I feel like Poe, way before it was such a mass thing, he gave us these really beautiful gems that were so scary and also so revealing of humanity.
TD: On the topic of working with Mike again, how does it feel to walk onto a set where you know that you have a collaborator you’ve worked with several times now, especially with creating these deeply complex characters in the horror sphere?
CG: It’s such a blessing. Acting is the passion of my life, so I’m always so excited when I get to do it. And so grateful that I feel that way, even more probably than when I started, which is hard to believe. But it’s really exponentially cooler when you get to do it with somebody that you trust creatively.
And with Mike in particular, he has a beautifully assured hand, but he has a delicacy in the way that he wields that; I don’t know how to say it better. You feel like, “Okay, we have an extremely strong storyteller here who knows exactly what he wants to do.” And because of that, he has hired people that he has faith in bringing it to life. Therefore, there’s this tremendous freedom within that that comes from that. And I think there’s nothing more exhilarating than collaborating with people who you can keep bringing each other to the top of your game. I feel certain that he does that with me. I think what’s also so interesting that Mike does is he brings actors back. So not only do I have that relationship with him, but I have that relationship with so many extraordinary actors. And that again adds to that just amazing workspace to come into. Yeah. In terms of Verna, when each script was done, Mike would send it to me as they were being written. So I got to feel it in real time, and I got to read it as if I was watching something that I wasn’t binging.
TD: What was your immediate response to reading Verna’s character in the scripts? And how did that, if at all, change over the course of the episodes as you dove deeper into her?
CG: So every time I finished a script, I was dying to get to the next one. But I would have to wait until it was ready and written and ready to be seen. So the suspense every time was pretty fantastic. But as she built, because as you know from the show, she built slowly, and mystery is kept for quite some time. As she built, I got more and more exhilarated reading her. And then by the end, I was just absolutely terrified about how I was going to bring her to life. I think I was just so interested as an audience; and then I realized, “Oh, right, it’s me that has to actually do this.” (Laughs) Because she drives the narrative in certain ways; in terms of just the deal that is made and the consequences that come from it, I felt a great responsibility in that. And also just got down to the work.I think that’s the thing: is that the only way into something like this process with Verna, it was such an unusual one. I don’t think I’ll ever be asked to do something where you get to play this many incarnations of the same character, and one of them includes an ape. It’s a pretty unusual opportunity.
TD: Speaking of the mystery around Verna, I think so much of that comes with the costume design for her character. There’s just this mysterious allure every time she’s around. How did that help you once you got into the costume? How did that help you create the character, as obviously you had already read the scripts?
CG: Well, Terry [Anderson] is extraordinary, our costume designer. We just really hit it off. We had not worked together before; he had worked with Mike before. But we just started brainstorming together. He had these wonderful ideas, I’d throw ideas, then he’d build on those ideas, and I’d build on those ideas. So there’s never a single costume that she has where there’s not a touch of the raven, because that was the thing performance-wise that felt very important, is that it never felt like a costume show or a wig show or an accent show. She is hiding in plain sight. And because the character’s larger than life, there needed to be a subtlety to all of those elements. And yet we did have to differentiate these different incarnations of her.
So once she becomes the closest to Verna in her human form, meaning towards the end of the show when you start to get to see, we really wanted everything to have this black: the lines, the But even earlier, the bartender; there’s a feather necklace. The way that the shirt is cut is almost like feathers. And then of course, still in every character, there’s a little bit of it, but something that would be less apparent. Something like the woman who needs a heart replacement; we wanted colors that absolutely just were the worst colors for my skin, including the wig as well. I said, “Let’s find a color that turns my skin green. I want ruddiness in my cheeks.” It was such a collaboration with all of the departments in that regard. And all of that was so helpful for me, because some days it would be two different versions of Verna on the same day. So I had to be able to find my way in quickly. Both the body movement work that I did with Terry Notary, who was extraordinary also; and costume design by [Terry]… We had two Terrys, two brilliant Terrys, as well as hair and makeup. All of that was incredibly helpful for dropping in quickly.
TD: Did you appreciate being able to wear those little things that were subtle winks to the audiences, like the feather necklace?
CG: I love it. It’s so fun. It’s so fun. I think especially because Mike has established over these years these wonderful Easter eggs. All of the fans are really looking for them, they’re always done subtly, and they never take you out of the story. And that’s what I love so much about Michael Fimognari, who was the DP for the entire show, and also directed half of the episodes. They’re storytellers that work so seamlessly together. And it’s always about the story; everything else is there to support that. Therefore, it’s really fun to have those little links in there.
TD: How do you respond to these types of stories about fate and the consequences that we create for ourselves and those around us, including our family members?
CG: Yeah. For me, like I said, I think that one of the things that I gravitate towards my filmmaker is that he is always wanting to go deeper. And for me, those are the big questions in life. We are all flawed and we all make mistakes. We all are trying to figure out how to live our best lives, and we all falter along the way. And in this particular case, it’s really examining also wielding power and the people who have a certain kind of power, and a lack of accountability that goes along with that. And that if you have power, you need to be even more accountable, because you are affecting so many people. And in this case, in terms of something like the opioid crisis: I have unfortunately, as I’m sure we all do, people who personally have been addicted or are addicted or have died because of opioid abuse. And whatever justifications are made for it; if used correctly, is valuable for some people; absolutely. But I think for me, when I read this and thought, “Wow, Mike is tackling that within this story; it’s really ambitious.” And that also really galvanized me. I think it galvanized all of us in telling this story.
In something that’s a straight-up drama, in a more naturalistic setting; and they have, in Dopesick; there have been many things that have explored a similar subject. And they’re extremely valuable. There’s something also interesting to me about being able to do it disguised in a genre like this. Because in a way, sometimes you can get at the truth from a different angle if you’re not coming at it directly. And I find that really interesting.
TD: I love that too, because I feel like sometimes you’ll hit audiences that you may not have hit before due to the nature of, like you mentioned, Dopesick, which is pretty dramatized and upsetting. But people might feel more comfortable watching horror if there’s something about that genre that they like more.
CG: I do think that. I do think that, and I think we all hear things differently and from different places. We all know if your mom or your dad tells you to do something, you just don’t even listen. And then a friend could tell you the exact same thing and you’re like, “Great idea!” So I do think there are so many ways to tell a story, which is cool.
TD: I wanted to talk to you about the final sequence in Episode 2 during the rave, because I think it’s so incredibly done. And it just seemed to me like you would’ve had so much fun doing it. So I wanted to ask, what was filming that specific sequence like? And how long did that take to film?
CG: Oh, it was so much fun. It was also the scene in the bedroom, where she’s in the bed, was actually the first scene that I shot with Mike in terms of the sequence of the show. So that was quite the one to just jump right into. I just love the words in that scene, just so beautiful. And it also made me; and hopefully, made the audience very curious about Verna; because you really go, “Whoa, this isn’t a normal person. What’s going on here?” But you don’t understand yet.
And then the sequence obviously in the club is so bananas. It’s so crazy. Well, one thing, first of all, it was only shot over a course of a few days, which was incredible. But the aftermath was later. But in terms of the bulk of it, what was funny for me was that we had tested that mask many, many times … It was remade until it was perfectly what Mike wanted it to be, because those kinds of masks can take you to different places. There’s the Day of the Dead version; there’s also more of the Italian operatic version. Then we have masks that come from Scream and movies; you’re dealing with a lot of masks. So it was finding the right one for this. And one thing, though, that hadn’t been done till the last minute was they didn’t want to see my eyeballs. So they needed to put a little screen of black film over it. The room was dark, and I was in about five-inch heels. So they put it on me and they said, “Can you see? To walk through this crowd?”
And I was like, “I can barely see. I can see shapes, so at least I will know that I’m not going to run into it. I won’t know if it’s a pole or a human, but I’ll know that I won’t run into it.”
Anyway, it was hilarious because I just had to tell everybody who was working around me, “If I step on your foot, I’m so sorry. If I start to walk towards you, just push me to the side.” I had to look as if I was just floating through the room, and yet it was definitely more challenging than that.
TD: I wanted to ask you if you had a favorite death in the series.
CG: Oh, wow. Well, I don’t think Verna can play favorites. But I have to say, I think that Henry Thomas’s character, I think that death, Pit and the Pendulum, is pretty insane. Also because so much of that was done in post; we worked with a certain amount there.
But that scene was so much about us creating a reality that we were told what was happening; and then creating that based on our reactions to what we were told was happening. And to see that all come together, it’s just such a gruesome, insane death. So I would say that that one at least jumps out at me.
TD: I love that one, too. They’re all so good, though.
CG: What’s your favorite? Do you have a favorite?
TD: I do. I think it’s going to surprise you. It’s actually the death of Madeline’s bangs in the finale when she removes them. (laughs)
CG: Yes! (laughs)
TD: I wasn’t prepared for that one. I actually do like Perry’s death the most. That rave scene was great for me.
CG: Yeah. Yeah, the rave scene as a set piece is just extraordinary, too. Very cool. Well, so wonderful to talk to you.
TD: Thank you, Carla, you too.
Photo: Carla Gugino as Verna in episode 5 of The Fall of the House of Usher. Cr. Eike Schroter/Netflix © 2023