Jules Willcox spoke to The Natural Aristocrat about portraying Jessica in Alone, one of 2020’s darkest psychological thrillers, and breaking her foot for real during shooting in a reversed ‘life imitates art’ moment.
This interview contains spoilers to horror picture, Alone.
Jules Willcox illuminates Alone with her portrayal of Jessica, a woman forsaken by fate. You never know when you’ll meet the wrong person that sets off internal alarm bells across your chest. When you can’t shake an icy gut feeling about an unsavory individual. What if every cloudy intuition, every ‘don’t talk to strangers’ childhood lesson you ignored ended up being true? Perhaps, no scene in Alone encompasses this better than when Jessica believes her car is being followed by the film’s unknown antagonist and dials 911. She informs the operator it’s a false alarm after the car behind her passes but it wasn’t… Jessica had just dialed a minute too early.
Thus, the audience can easily place themselves into Jessica’s shoes, their worst fears escaping the nightfall jail of their 3 AM nightmares. Forcibly shipwrecked on land via a slashed tire. Only the will to live, to survive, driving Jessica to escape her island, her captivity in an unmarked basement. After all, if you scream in a forest and nobody is around to rescue you, did you really make a sound?
Interview with Jules Willcox:
The Natural Aristocrat [Nir Regev]: For me, the strongest scene in Alone is post-escape when The Man claims you’re his mentally ill sister and that you’re having ‘another episode’ to a third party. Naturally, the third party (Robert) is confused & unsure who’s telling the truth. There’s so many layers to this twisted interaction. It’s a commentary about society not explicitly believing those perceived to have bipolar disorder or otherwise. As if the label disqualifies their credibility instantly. What was it like shooting that moment?
Jules Willcox: It shows how manipulative Marc’s [Menchaca] character is… He’s playing chess, you know? I don’t even think Jessica realizes how sick of an individual he is! He really took it to another level. In a way, it also presents Jessica as an unreliable narrator of her own story.
It was a tricky scene and it showed what depths The Man was willing to go down to. He was working on a physical level and on a psychological level. It’s not only ‘Woman Against Nature’ as we find with the river scene but ‘Woman vs The Physicality of a Man’ & also on a mental level.
When Jessica takes that big plunge into the river, was that you or a stunt double?
It was both, Michelle Damis was my stunt double and she is incredible! Michelle had to do quite a bit more than she thought she was going to do because I broke my foot in the second week of filming. So, two thirds or three quarters actually of the film I’m in a walking boot which you can’t see in the final edit.
You broke your foot while filming on-set?
It happened during filming, it happened during a stunt. It was just a freak thing! I was running barefoot in a cleared path, when I was running away from The Man and getting out of the house, and we went for a couple of takes. Then they’re like, ‘Let’s do one more and then we’ll throw your shoes back on,’ you know because they wanted to see the bare feet. The stunt coordinator was amazing and he had cleared everything, and we’d walked the path several time. And that one last time… I hit a root that was sticking up out of the Earth!
Wow, so it was practically just like what happens in the movie?
Yeah, we had to improvise because the really bad wound that Jessica was supposed to have, was the gunshot through the shoulder. But because I broke my foot, we had to put that limp in that I naturally had. That’s when they rewrote the scene of Jessica stepping on that.
I thought the opening of Alone was captivating. The film was really able to build this foreboding sense of being stranded just like its namesake. What was your routine to get into this anxious, panicked state for each take?
We were shooting in the Pacific Northwest and it was beautiful of course and it’s wide open. I was living in Manhattan at the time so I didn’t have a ton of time to prep on the film. It happened really fast! So, I flew out to Oregon, and I’d worked with the director [John Hyams] before on a television show. They needed an actor who could do all the grueling physical stuff and also the emotional stuff, and so he contracted me to do it. I really connected to the grief that Jessica was experiencing. We’ve all experienced grief in our life and it’s such a universal experience. She’s really running away from her grief in the beginning with her husband killing himself.
Jessica’s wanting to get a new start, she’s not wanting to talk her mom because her mom is going to want to talk about things and emotions… And she doesn’t want to deal with all that. When you’re alone, you’re confronted with the truth in your mind whether you like it or not. I think Jessica does whatever she can to try to push things away. But ultimately, having The Man show up, forces her into a very present state, where she has to be active. She has to fight.
I think I really prepared by being in nature, it’s such a beautiful place. You wake up really in the morning, 4 AM, whenever the call time wise and watch the sunrise. I’d just put myself in the circumstances of where Jessica was, having lost someone and trying to escape from that.
The scene where Jessica freaks out initially and calls 911 when she thinks she’s being followed really throws viewers into a loop. For a second when the car passes, you really think she’s okay. Then the film pulls the rug under out from viewers, before relief washes over the audience. What did you draw on outside of the script to craft that moment?
We question ourselves all the time when something really crazy happens or even just in an abnormal way. I find myself wanting to have the benefit of the doubt for the other person, probably because I’m mid-western! (laughs) Surely, they didn’t mean that! There’s a little bit of, ‘Am I blowing this out of proportion?’ There’s a little bit of her questioning herself and I can connect to that in my own mind. Can people really have such harsh, mean intentions? I’m a glass half-full person, so I hope for the best! I think in that scene there’s almost a disappoint when seeing, oh that wasn’t what I thought, maybe I am ‘blowing this out of proportion.’
Have you ever had such a gut instinct about person like Jessica does in the film? There was some definite Ted Bundy vibes when The Man approaches Jessica’s car with his arm in a sling and asks for assistance.
Gosh… I think probably in the early days of moving to Hollywood! (laughs) Again, being a midwestern girl, I had to be quite careful and skeptical of people’s intentions. We were actually shooting when all the Weinstein stuff was coming out, really the height of the Me Too movement. We talked about that a lot, all the gas-lighting of women and how they’ve been taken advantage of for so long. I’m from Missouri, the ‘Show Me’ state, ‘Show me who you are with your actions.’
I’m curious how were you able to film that final fight scene with a broken foot? Were the scenes shot in narrative order?
We shot in order, which was crazy! I was in the Whitewater rapids with a broken foot, with a boot on. (laughs) Our stunt coordinator would help me. I was in crutches most of the time with the boot, and the stunt coordinator [Alex Terzieff] who’s just a massive human being, lifted me up and put me in the water. (laughs) I knew he felt bad every time he did it because it was so cold, we were shooting in November in the Pacific Northwest.
That last fight scene was on our last day of shooting. We had rehearsed the fight in the fight coordinator’s jiu jitsu gym. We practiced on mats several times, and between me and Michelle [Damis] my stunt double, we just did it all. It’s also choreographed to be very scrappy. We’re not professional fighters, Jessica doesn’t have any training. She is just relying on pure adrenaline and at that point, so was I. We were in our costumes, I also had layers of freezing cold mud.
So that wasn’t makeup on your face, that was legit mud?
(laughs) Oh, it was legit! That was legit! When I was crawling out of the car, they were like, okay are you ready? I was like ‘Oh jeez, I’m putting my face in mud!’ My skin has never looked so good, it’s like a spa treatment. But the mud weighs a lot, once it starts caking on to your clothing, so the movement starts to get so much harder. You’re like basically caked down in clay.
You’re rolling around on the ground, the kind of stuff that Michelle, the stunt person would be doing would be like kicking with both legs because I could only kick with one leg. We really went for it! Thank God it was all on the last day because I was exhausted after! (laughs)
Why do you feel Jessica doesn’t go for the gun when The Man offers her an opportunity to even out the playing field in the forest?
I think at that point, she didn’t trust him at all. There’s a perceived opening but why is that and why? She’s going by instinct, period.
The scene where The Man takes Jessica to the basement is one of the most brutal scenes I’ve seen in a horror movie because it looks like she has zero chance. Usually horror movies leave the door open a little bit but Alone makes it clear Jessica has nowhere to go, no immediate escape routes, nothing to plead with her captor… Then The Man tells you to “remove your clothes.” Viewers are definitely going to have strong, unsettling feelings about that whole section. What was it like filming such a traumatic moment?
Yeah, she’s caught in a trap, Jessica’s a helpless animal at that point! She’s just trying to do whatever she can do… You know, she asks The Man, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’ to buy time. You’re left wondering, how many people has this happened to?
A friend of mine, he’s a playwright, wrote a play about a person being held captive because he was so influenced and traumatized by those young women who were held captive in Cleveland. They were released several years later. Unfortunately, this happens, these things happen. I really had to put myself in this person’s shoes, what are you going to do? How can I manipulate in any way? Can I beg, can I plead? She does all this and there’s utter hopelessness at this point.
You understand that it’s not just brute force he’s after… He’s playing this sick mental game by leaving her there, and confronting her with her emotional trauma, as opposed to physical trauma. I truly think The Man is one of the most evil characters I’ve ever seen, just how twisted and dark he goes. And Marc Menchaca is the most lovable person on the planet!
I was definitely surprised because I was so used to Marc Menchaca’s character on Ozark!
I know! (laughs) He does such a great job. That monologue when I’m in the bog in the forest is just pure evil!
Did you enjoy Jessica’s final revenge on The Man, when she calls his girlfriend?
Oh yeah! I think what was so shocking is when Jessica escapes, she can hear The Man talking on the phone and his life is totally normal. He’s making a sandwich. It’s like ‘Hey Buddy, you know that normal life you think you can have? No way! That doesn’t exist anymore!” At that point she thinks ‘I’m going to die. Hopefully, someone will come to get me but if this guy is coming after me, I’m definitely going to try to kill him.
I’m going to try to survive! But odds are… I’m not going to make it. So I need somebody to get my body and get Robert’s body and let Robert’s wife what has happened to him.’ Jessica’s an ethical person, she’s not like The Man. She’s trying to escape at the beginning but she’s moved by the kindness of strangers, by Robert taking her in and helping her. Even though she’s skeptical because she’s been through so much.
At first, when Jessica gets in the car with Robert [Anthony Heald] post-escape, I thought he was going to drive her right back to The Man. That Robert was in on it. Did you think that’s where the story was heading initially?
Oh God, I’m glad you think that because I thought that too when I was reading the script the first time! (laughs) ‘Oh no! He’s in on it!’
I felt The Man’s civility while on the phone with his girlfriend, preparing the sandwich was part of what made Alone work as a film. It was just so convincingly real, you’re left wondering, ‘How many people like this live double lives?’ It reminded me of the film The Strangers a lot, that film also didn’t give direct names to its antagonists, preferring Man in Mask, Dollface, Pin-Up Girl like The Man in Alone.
Yeah, it’s this alter-ego. It’s not who he is in ‘real life’ but what he does on the side ‘anonymously’. There was the documentary recently on HBO about the Golden State killer (I’ll Be Gone in the Dark) and The Man reminded me of that. That somebody could have this kind of evil double life.
I feel Alone’s grounding in reality will hit people harder because they can picture the possibility of it happening to them. No matter how low the percentage of that is… The situation is not impossible and that stays in your mind. It resonates with a person’s core fears of random strangers.
I think during this time in quarantine, when people are feeling isolated and alone the film is timely in a way. As if we’re confronting ourselves.
Alone Trailer and Where you can watch the Film:
Alone can be seen now in select theaters and on Video On Demand services. Rent Alone on Amazon today!
Disclosure: TheNaturalAristocrat.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.
– Check out The Natural Aristocrat®’s exclusive interview with one half of tomandandy’s composing duo, Tom Hajdu, on The Strangers soundtrack.
– Be sure to read more interviews with the entertainment industry’s top talent in The Natural Aristocrat®’s Interviews section.