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The cast of Netflix's eerie new series Midnight Mass says it was a 'battle' to realize Mike Flanagan's dream project
In the spring of 2020, writer/director Mike Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy assembled the ensemble cast for Midnight Mass, a Flanagan dream project that's been years in the making. The cast was set, a table read was meant to be the precursor to shooting, and it seemed the project was finally happening.
Then, as we all know now, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, shutting down film and television production for months. That summer, Midnight Mass became one of the first major productions to resume work in North America. By that point, it wasn't just about making a good new horror miniseries. It was, for the cast and crew, something more personal.
"I think we all felt like that's where it became personal for us," Midnight Mass star Rahul Kohli told SYFY WIRE. "Now it is our passion. We love this man [Flanagan] to death. We will go to hell and back for him. We're going to do everything we can to make sure that we get the seven episodes in the can for this guy. We love the project, we love the script, and what that meant was none of us backed out. No one backed out."
Even without the new rigors of pandemic protocols applied to production, Midnight Mass was always destined to be a massive undertaking. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Flanagan veterans like Kohli, Kate Siegel, Annabeth Gish, Samantha Sloyan, and Robert Longstreet, as well as newcomers to the "Flanagan Family" of actors like Zach Gilford and Hamish Linklater, Midnight Mass sets out to deeply immerse the viewer in the lives of the few dozen residents of Crockett Island, a small community that seems to be constantly receding.
The fortunes of the community, known affectionately as "The Crock Pot" seem to shift suddenly and perhaps miraculously with the arrival of two figures, one new and one familiar. The familiar one is Riley Flynn (Gilford), a recovering alcoholic fresh out of prison for an accident that cost a young woman her life. Riley's story is immediate evidence of the emotionally challenging tale in store for Midnight Mass viewers, but for Gilford, coming aboard a Flanagan production for the first time was an exercise in simply engaging with a very fulfilling script.
"I feel like Mike puts such good things on the page that it was easy to just be this person in this situation, because what they were saying felt authentic," Gilford said. "You memorize your lines, and then you can just be there and listen to Hamish or whoever, or be in the montage scene, and it kind of just happens. You just be this person. You’re like, 'OK, this guy had a drunk driving accident. He killed someone. He carries all this guilt. He hasn’t forgiven himself, but he has this issue with religion that he has come to through his experience…' It’s so complex, but it’s all right there. If you just say the words, it’s kind of hard to act bad, I think."
Opposite Gilford's Riley and his "issue with religion" is Father Paul (Linklater), the newly installed parish priest in Crockett, brought onboard to replace a departed monsignor. Father Paul brings with him an immediate sense of renewal on the island, not just in terms of his natural preaching charisma, but in terms of the miracles his arrival seems to bring. Though what's really going on isn't something we'd dare spoil here, Linklater made sure to emphasize that, whatever's happening behind the priest's collar, Father Paul is sincere in his convictions.
"It’s sort of like the scripture, I think, has opened up for him, given the experience that he has," Liklater said. "It’s sort of a new slantways reading of the book, where a lot of things make more sense than they probably ever did his other times ‘round reading the book."
As Father Paul's presence influences the dynamics of the Crock Pot more and more, citizens naturally begin taking sides. Leading the charge of the faithful is Bev Keane (Sloyan), a deeply devoted servant of the local parish who finds the apparent new age of miracles both captivating and vindicating after years of being essentially labeled the town busybody.
"I think for her it’s the conviction that’s driving her. But unfortunately, I think also underneath, I think you see some in [later episodes], is she’s so determined and convicted because she’s terrified," Sloyan said. "She’s terrified of being wrong. She’s terrified that these things that she’s put her belief and her life in, she needs them to be true. She needs them to work out. In that need is the fear. So, both are there all the time. So, nothing is getting in her way, because I feel she feels that her life depends on it."
On the other side, very much outside of the realm of the church and its happenings, is Sheriff Hassan (Kohli), a devout Muslim who struggles with the judgement he feels from various Crockett residents. For Kohli, playing a character so separate from his co-stars meant that he often took on a very literal sense of isolation, something that was easier to do physically because of COVID, but no less emotionally challenging.
"There was a good chunk of weeks going by where they all worked together on these [church scenes]. By the time I came back in and I was brought into the fold, they had card games, private jokes, you know, they knew each other all very intimately, almost like, you know, like a congregation," Kohli said. "And then it was me sitting in a chair…[I] put headphones on and sat there like a sore thumb. So that was my experience of Midnight Mass. "Don't know if it was worth it. Still learning my trade, still figuring out how I want to work and how far I want to take things, and my level of commitment. I very much made it up to everyone, though, once we wrapped."
Though many other members of the cast did get to spend more time in production together, the COVID protocols involved in making Midnight Mass still presented various other challenges, some of which they were able to use to their advantage. As Erin Greene, another recently returned Crockett resident who rekindles an old connection with Riley, Siegel found herself spending day after day surrounded by masked faces, with the only exception being her co-star.
"The adjustment period towards 'you can’t actually talk to anybody, and our director is behind his KN95 and his goggles and his face shield, and when he starts speaking, all of it fogs up, so on some level you’re being directed by Bane,' it was really hard at the beginning," Siegel recalled. "And then after the adjustment period, which lasted about a week or two...eventually, as we all did in the pandemic, we got used to it. We got used to this new normal. Then I started to see how it could be useful in the performance aspect of being isolated and how Zach’s face was the only face I saw for weeks. I would go home and go to bed, and I would wake up and go to work separate from Mike [Siegel and Flanagan are married as well as frequent collaborators]. We would all be in our full PPE, and the only person I could see was Zach. I think that level of intimacy is on the screen."
For Linklater, a first-timer who praised the Mike Flanagan/Trevor Macy experience in a roundtable with the press, the added layer of isolation only enhanced the sense of camaraderie, as the show developed an extra intensity that translated to vitality.
"I felt like it was such a full experience," he said. "It’s sort of shocking that it turned into a piece of product that’s going to be binge-able, because we really were living in the experience of making this show because of the pandemic, because of the pressure cooker or pressure release of getting to go to work after being locked in our homes for so long. And then getting to do a show where there was so much which is such an exhale of a lot of held breath, you know? That’s how it felt. So, for me, I feel like it’s sort of some of the most richly-lived few months of my life, because it was really a lived-in experience more than just making a show, because of the pandemic of it all and because of the material and the people."
Now, Midnight Mass is ready for the world, after years of development from Flanagan and Macy, months of pandemic delays, and a production full of masks and frequent COVID testing. In summing up his experience on the series, even with the isolation and the protocols and the other struggles, Kohli said he wouldn't change a thing, and he suspected his castmates felt the same way.
"I think it became personal because it was a fight. It was a battle," Kohli said. "It was work. It was tough. I was having the biggest career anxiety I've ever had, completely alone, nowhere to go. Even the gym got called into question at one point when the cases started to go up in Canada. But we sure were going to do it, and we did it, and we did it safe, and now the world's getting to see it and we're starting to see the buzz and we're like, 'There you go.' And it was worth all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it."
Midnight Mass arrives Friday on Netflix.