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.”
Bello says openly discussing the disorder is “not a big issue," and that, "the shame about it is way passed." Though she’s had low points, to her, it’s truly a blessing in disguise. “Especially for an actor, to understand what those really high highs and low lows are,” the actress explains. “To be able to use that emotion to convey something on screen, which a lot of people may not be able to do.”
Palmer bravely explains how she also could “completely relate” to the story, as she grew up alone with her mother, who is schizophrenic. Thus, she was particularly sensitive in portraying Rebecca’s relationship with her mother accurately, which also meant the deliberate choice of Bello as Sophie. “I’m so familiar with mental illness… I was really sensitive about who was going to be cast in [Sophie’s] role, because I wanted it to be portrayed in an accurate and real way. In some movies, it’s been done really well and I feel like in other movies, it hasn’t,” says the 30-year-old.
Being on the same page allowed these co-stars to make a great team. “Even though it’s a horror film, we just really need someone who will breathe life into this in a way that grounds it in such a beautiful reality. [Maria] was just brilliant,” says Palmer. The intricate details Bello gave in her portrayal of a woman haunted by demons gave Palmer deja vu in many ways. “The way she chooses to twist her fingers, and all the little things that she does, it’s so reminiscent of my own experience with my mother, that it forced me to just be present in the scenes with her and it’s really quite beautiful,” she says.
Palmer says the darkness personified through Diana is a “good metaphor for the darkness that comes into your life when you are suffering from mental illness.” Even Alexander DiPersia, who plays Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret, is open about bringing his experience with mental illness to the film. “The supernatural was scary, but the drama side was scary. I also grew up with mental illness in my family, and my best friend turned schizophrenic at 18,” the actor explains. “To watch this family go through it, and to watch what was going on, it was difficult, it was hard. Maria’s performance was so strong, that watching it was extremely affecting. Dealing with the mental health issues and this familiar issue was difficult, but effective,” he says.
Bello reflects on her love for her 15-year-old son Jackson Blue McDermott, and how this emotion led to the tiny details which made her performance so raw and convincing. “I tried to play that, trying to be regular in front of my child. Trying to be in control. Trying to be a normal person. And then when I’m alone, letting myself just completely go there, the real struggle,” she says.
Bello compares her self-destructive relationship with Diana to an abusive relationship. “Not being able to let go, terrified that this person you’re with is going to hurt your kids, so staying with them so they don’t hurt your kids,” she says. Even though Sophie is at times the “bad guy,” succumbed by Diana, putting her before her children, Bello says being the “good guy” wasn't important to her while taking on this role. “Specifically a role like this, when it could be the bad guy, the evil, horrible mom, I can’t think about that, I can’t think if my character is likable or not. All I can think about is: How is it truthful?,” she says.
The root of this truth is the love she has for her son. “For me, the truth comes out in loving my kids so much… Staying in the moment with the emotional feeling of, ‘I’m doing the best I can and I’m really out of control here.’” She calls the day her son was born the “greatest and worst” of her life. “I knew I could never help him to stay away from ever bad things that may ever happen to him. You just want to protect this beautiful little baby,” she explains.
Palmer, who’s mom to two-year-old Bodhi Rain Webber and expecting another little one on the way, can also relate— especially when revisiting her challenging time growing up with her mother. The actress tells Bustle that dealing with this story and reliving her childhood was extremely emotional for her — but completely worth it:
It was challenging in the sense that, for me to stay in the zone of being a woman who’d been terrified in this manner and had her childhood ripped from underneath her. For me, it meant going to places often at times uncomfortable. Also, I’d go back into my childhood and think about memories and triggers, I used to have these reoccurring nightmares as a child, so, whatever had triggered the nightmares, I would get into that, just sitting and kind of marinating in those feelings as a child. It was really hard at the end of the day, because I’m a mom. I can’t bring any of that home with me so I would do a thing at the end of day where I’d let go of the energy and then I’d be home and talk about Peppa Pig.
Both women have immeasurable courage and strength for reliving some of their greatest difficulties and boldly speaking to them for the sake of one thing: the truth. Thankfully, their admirable nature in who they are as people is being reflected on the big screen. “I have not seen enough characters in film and TV that have the trait of nobility. It’s something I was itching for,” says Heisser. His partner Lawrence chimes in: “What kinds of people survive this harrowing experience? People that have an element of bravery and strength to them. Not the idiots that sometimes survive.”
And if there's one thing both of these women have off screen, it's the ability to prevail — and to survive.
Images: Warner Brothers (6)