In Goodnight Mommy, Austrian actress Susanne Wuest goes through the wringer. After a divorce and an unspecified accident, the never-named ‘Mommy’ returns to her idyllic family lodge and her two young boys covered in bandages and seemingly different. What happens next would make even the most dysfunctional family unit take pause. We spoke to her about her make-up rigmarole, befriending child actors - and a cockroach named Matilda.
Would you call Goodnight Mommy a horror film? It often feels like a dark family drama.
It‘s true. I wouldn’t say it’s a horror film in a conventional way. But – and this is why the horror genre is such a good way of telling a story – I do believe that everything can look beautiful if you look at it from outside. The closer you zoom in, most of us exhibit behaviour that is strange to someone from outside. I believe with an extreme story like this, the closer you look the more horrifying it gets.
Until three days prior to filming, I hadn’t read the script.
How did the directors pitch it to you?
Well, they didn’t at all. It actually happened the other way around. Veronica [Franz, co-director] suggested I should be in a horror film. There’s not really genres as storytelling in Austria, unfortunately. I joked that she should write me a script – and this is what she did. A year later, she came back to me, saying, “we’ve written a script – you have to do it”. She really only told me the beginning of the story. Until three days prior to filming, I hadn’t read the script. It’s almost entirely improvised.
What was your relationship like with the twin boys, Lukas and Elias?
Oh, they’re very sweet. Severin [Fiala, co-director] and Veronica didn’t want me to get too close to them, so they tried to keep us apart, in a way. Which is actually true to the story. But they’re very cute, very sweet little boys. There were some really hard-core table tennis matches during breaks. (Laughs.)
It seemed like a very idyllic location.
Oh, it was. But it was also very isolating. I stayed at that location for three months, without being able to communicate with anyone. There was no cell phone reception, no internet. It was on the Austrian-Czech border, and there is literally nothing. It was quite a challenge.
You spend at least the first half of this film behind a mask. How challenging was that?
I realised very early on that this was going to be really tough. You have a hot bandage wrapped around your head, you can’t see properly, you can’t smell, everything is swollen, your sense of balance gets lost. It’s quite painful. There was a lot of prosthetics under the bandages, too. It was two hours of make-up every morning, and then at least an hour to remove it. If you do this for three months, you don’t have skin on your face anymore (laughs).
You feel horrible and miserable all the time. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
You sometimes hear that actors in superhero movies negotiate how much time they spend outside of the mask, so their face can be seen...
Honestly, no one enters this profession because they want to have a comfortable life... You go into acting because you have a passion about it and you are willing to sacrifice a lot. It actually helped that it was painful and isolating – because it does your homework for you. It was really helpful to understand the character. You feel horrible and miserable all the time. I wouldn’t want it any other way. (Laughs.)
So how method did you go? The scene where a cockroach enters your mouth - was that shot for real?
Yes! Matilda the cockroach! She has a credit at the end. Before we started filming, they asked me: “Are you afraid of bugs?” I said, “no.” They said, “would you mind having one of them in your mouth?” I said, “No, but I really want to get to know the roach beforehand.” So months, prior to filming I asked them if I could raise three of them. They were super cute. Seriously. We trained them a lot. They have a great sense memory.
You also get your mouth super-glued shut.
That was painful! At one point my eyes were more-or-less glued shut, my mouth was more-or-less shut, I couldn’t breathe anymore, I was crying, I’d been crying for days. At one point, one of the directors came in and said, “Susanne, are you alright?” And I couldn’t say anything! (Laughs) So they said, “I can’t understand you, sorry,” and went out again.
There is a massive twist at the end. Were you and the filmmakers hoping to demand a second viewing from your audience?
What I’m really proud of is, since it’s all improvised in the German language, there is a certain difference between the singular and plural. Without wanting to give it away, I had to find a way to speak without ever saying the ‘you’ plural. It’s so much easier in English. We should have shot in English! But if you watch it again, you will see it works quite well.
Goodnight Mommy was released in the UK on Mother’s Day weekend, which would be a slightly sadistic Mothering Sunday treat. Has your mother seen this film?
Yes, she has! I think it’s just more proof for her that it’s time for me to do nicer films...
Goodnight Mommy is in cinemas now.