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'M3GAN' star Allison Williams says she's not a scream queen but a 'gasp queen'
The star of Universal's new killer doll horror movie looks back at the horror filmography she's created for herself.
Allison Williams takes issue with being called a scream queen. It’s not because she doesn’t want to be deemed a horror actress, having now starred in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the trippy Netflix psychological-thriller The Perfection, and the upcoming killer doll flick M3GAN. Williams says she enjoys being a horror actress. She just isn’t sure how much “screaming” she’s actually done to earn the moniker.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever screamed on camera. I’m probably, like, a ‘gasp queen,’” Williams tells SYFY WIRE ahead of M3GAN’s Jan. 6 release. “ I’ve definitely caused some screams.”
In M3GAN, Williams plays Gemma, a roboticist working for a toy company who takes custody of her niece, Cady, after the girl's parents die in an accident. Gemma gives Cady her prototype invention, an A.I.-powered doll named M3GAN who soon decides that she actually knows what’s best for Cady — and she’ll go to any lengths to ensure that. It’s both an unexpected and strangely natural role for Williams, who got her breakout on HBO’s acclaimed series Girls before making a pivot to horror.
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“It has just kind of happened,” Williams says. “But, it has also been a choice from role to role, story to story, theme to theme. I would say that Get Out certainly set me on the path of seeing this genre differently. I am really scared when I watch horror movies, so I didn’t ever really consider this genre to be one that could feel like home to me because I can’t stomach most of the movies that exist under this banner.”
And yet, here she is, making a niche for herself in horror, the genre that she describes as “the one where filmmakers get to do what they do.”
“I’m having a blast,” Williams says. “I’m sort of putting one foot in front of the other, but it does seem like I’m walking on a path that’s surrounded by thrillers.”
Williams' experience on Get Out proved immensely helpful when making M3GAN, which has as many absurd and hysterical moments as it does terrifying ones. (Of Get Out, which recently made it on the vaunted Sight and Sound list of the 100 greatest films of all time, Williams says she feels immensely proud and lucky to have been a part of it. “What more could you want from a career, honestly? Everything from here is just kind of gravy.”)
Part of what makes M3GAN so over-the-top funny (and scary) at times is how deliberately understated and straightforward the performances are, a trick Williams credits to Peele, who famously had a background in sketch comedy before his pivot to making acclaimed horror films.
“When you’re in a genre like this — and I learned this in Get Out, from Jordan — the key is you kind of keep it real as much as possible and try to forget the genre you’re in,” Williams explains. “Just try to play with what’s true at any given moment. Even if something is going to be funny once it’s finally all done, if you play it that way, it’s kind of cheaper because you’re sort of winking at the joke and it’s not as funny to watch. Ditto with something scary, if you’re overdoing the ‘I’m scared element.’ Most people, when they’re scared, are trying to not be as scared. It’s sort of like when someone’s crying. Most of the time they’re trying to stop themselves from crying. Playing the truth of it all usually ends up being the winning tone.”
Williams’ dry affect serves her M3GAN character, Gemma, well, but the actress found the truth in Gemma, too. “She's found a sweet spot where she gets to make a living doing what she loves — which, at least in a capitalistic society, is kind of the best you can get,” Williams says with a laugh. Settling down and having a family might have been something Gemma saw for her future, eventually, but she certainly wasn’t expecting or prepared to have to take care of her orphaned niece right now. While Gemma would love to do right by Cady, she’s caught off guard and lacks the understanding, time, tools, and arguably the motivation to take care of her well.
“So she deploys the thing that she does understand to confront the thing that she doesn't and offers this piece of technology — this engineering feat of AI masterpiece that she’s been working on — to help her niece because in many ways this is the best that she can give her,” Williams explains. “She’s like ‘I’m not going to be good at this, M3GAN will be better at this than I will be.”
It’s only “tragically a bit too late” when Gemma realizes her mistake — a mistake that’s dangerous for her and Cady, but provides moviegoing audiences with a sassy robot doll that does TikTok dances and murders.
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While Get Out might have prepared her for acing M3GAN’s tone, it couldn’t have prepared Williams for M3GAN herself.
“This was like, on another level, filming with M3GAN. I’m happy to say that I believe that M3GAN will forever be my most complicated co-star, for many reasons,” she says of the various techniques and tricks director Gerard Johnstone and producers James Wan and Jason Blum used to bring the killer doll to life.
Acting opposite a murderous A.I. doll, whether an actress in costume or an actual prop, is certainly an odd experience, but one that Williams says actually ended up working for the film.
“When they’re having a conversation at the dinner table at Gemma’s house, it was very bizarre to film. And while it’s happening, Gemma is also thinking, ‘How is this happening?’” she explains. “So it is one of those moments where you just let the reality seep into the performance because it’s not that far off from what I was experiencing firsthand.”
M3GAN opens in theaters this Friday, Jan. 6.
Want another killer doll fix? Stream Chucky on Peacock.