When the jump-scares are removed from James Wan’s latest horror film endeavor Lights Out, there’s a raw, emotional story about the realities of a family torn apart by mental illness. These realities were brought to light by leading ladies Maria Bello and Teresa Palmer. “We wanted the movie to have a level of dramatic credibility and not be an exploitation,” says producer Lawrence Grey. Bello and Palmer, who both face mental illness in their real lives, admirably took on these roles to let others know they are not alone.
Bello’s character Sophie is nearly possessed by what she calls an “entity”— the dark spirit of a friend, Diana, she once had during her time in a mental health hospital as a child. Sophie struggles with depression and the dark force which exists in the form of her friend, and this caused her to unwillingly push her daughter Rebecca (Palmer) away. On top of it, she is internally tortured by having a younger child, Martin (Gabriel Bateman) to care for as well. Screenwriter Eric Heisser explains how Bello and Palmer’s portrayals hit close to home for the actors, and says they were fearless in bringing experiences from their real life to their mother-daughter dynamic on the big screen.
“Both of them had very powerful real-life experiences that they were bringing to the role. You do everything to make your partners feel protected and safe,” says Heisser. “But actually, both Maria and Teresa are incredibly bold and really wanted to bring truth to these characters’ experiences, because so many times in movies, it’s just phonis, bolognis from the beginning to the end.”
Bello, who suffers from bipolar disorder, openly discussed her condition in her 2015 book, Whatever…Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves. The 49-year-old, whose father also battled mental illness (as well as addiction), says she was never interested in a role within the horror genre until now, specifically because of Sophie and her intense struggle. Immediately, she connected to the part after reading the script.
“Here’s this depressive mom on the brink of a breakdown, she can’t connect with her kids, she doesn’t have the emotional capacity to do so,” she says. Bello calls her disease a blessing, saying, “I’m fortunate enough to have the gift of bipolar disease… I felt like that was a real gift I got to bring to the screen, to understand what that is, to be in that position of being incapacitated emotionally and mentally, not being able to connect with people in the real world.”
(Go on, push the big buttons!)
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