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Jaeden Martell talks the real Stephen King villain behind ‘Mr. Harrigan’s Phone’

Martell and director John Lee Hancock unpack the tension fueling the new Netflix horror tale.

By Benjamin Bullard
(L-R) Jaeden Martell as Craig and Donald Sutherland as Mr. Harrigan in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.

October’s arrival means scares and suspense in spades, which makes this week’s debut of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone an ideal way to kick off the sacred yearly ritual of binging on horror right up ’til Halloween. Featuring It’s Jaeden Martell and the iconic Donald Sutherland (The Hunger Games), the suspenseful new Netflix tale is adapted from a Stephen King story, so viewers probably have a decent idea of what they’re in for before setting foot inside the film’s idyllic Maine hamlet — a place where a lonesome kid dials up one whopper of a supernatural secret.

Martell stars as Craig, a kid who grows up with his single dad (his mother has passed away), and also with a unique side gig: He’s paid to sit and read books to local enigma Mr. Harrigan (played by Sutherland). Think of Mr. Harrigan as the small-town Maine version of Charles Dickens’ reclusive Miss Havisham and you’ve got the idea: He’s an isolated billionaire with a mysterious past, one who spends nearly all his time locked away inside a huge retirement estate.

Craig and Mr. Harrigan bond over books, but things really get interesting in the movie’s mid-2000s setting after Craig decides to gift his benefactor a newfangled iPhone. The old man grouses over all the societal ills the powerful little gadget might one day cause, but he’s still mesmerized by its always-connected pull (the stock reports update in real time!) — That is, until he suddenly dies, leaving the lonely Craig bereft of his most interesting friend…or so he thinks, at least.

RELATED: ‘Mr. Harrigan’s Phone’ dials up the Stephen King scares in new Netflix trailer

“[Craig] is, in a lot of ways, his own villain,” Martell recently shared with SYFY WIRE. “He makes a lot of bad decisions throughout the film, and utilizes this power that he doesn’t fully understand in a negative way. [It’s] not so much malicious, but he…gives in to his own anger, and he eventually learns from that. He’s the good guy and the bad guy, and struggling with that, because [of] this supernatural element: being able to communicate with Harrigan.”

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone paces its scares carefully, with tons of slow-burn tension leading up to each deadly set piece. Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Little Things) told SYFY WIRE he and director of photography John Schwartzman took visual inspiration for the movie’s uncanny, slightly off-kilter look from the 1968 horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, another film that drops a giant dread bomb in the midst of deceptively familiar trappings.

**SPOILER WARNING! Minor spoilers below for Netflix's Mr. Harrigan’s Phone!**

Without spoiling too much, the phone seems to tether the pair even from beyond the grave, and Craig soon discovers it’s the key to tapping lethal supernatural abilities — the kind that can satisfy his wholesome sense of justice. It’s safe to say that he (with help from his buried friend) hold the power of life and death in their hands, though the devil’s in the decision making: Will Craig really resort to deadly measures to help him win life’s unfair battles?

Rosemary’s Baby is an ordinary world in New York, until at the end she has Satan’s baby — and of course there’s that, which is extraordinary,” Hancock joked. “But the ordinary world — there’s something that’s creepy about it. You know something’s afoot, even though everything plays out normally…the placement of the camera [is] just ‘off’; the use of negative space sometimes, to make something where you bend your head just a little bit when you’re looking at it, or the slightest movement one direction or another, or how [Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski] fills the frame.

“We said, ‘Let’s just be very careful and very deliberate about our lens selection, where we put the camera, and make it uneasy — but not bring attention to itself. So inside [Mr. Harrigan’s] study, which is a small room, there’s a lot of stuff which is low camera angles, which may be…a few [millimeters] too wide; maybe a little too much negative space; a little tiny creep that you feel, you don’t see. Those kind of things…hopefully get under your skin a little bit, and keep that idea alive that we can have our cake and eat it too.”

Donald Sutherland in Mr. Harrigans Phone

Playing Craig over the span of several years, Martell and his younger acting counterpart Colin O’Brien appear in nearly every scene in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. Martell confesses that acting opposite Sutherland was a huge highlight of making the movie: “My favorite scenes to film were the ones with Donald — and when I was able to just take a step back and observe.”

As a book-loving recluse, Sutherland’s character stays ensconced inside the lavish study where Mr. Harrigan spends most of his time — at least while still among the living — in a comfy chair where he and Craig form the kind of friendship that outlives this mortal plane. Sutherland wasn’t just a good sport about keeping his seat while on the set, says Hancock: He even used his chair time to share career reflections that, amid the tight shooting schedule, nevertheless compelled the crew to tap the brakes and just…listen.

“He figured out pretty quickly that we moved quickly because we had to,” says Hancock. “…He said, ‘This is a perfectly comfortable chair; do you mind if I just stay here while you light for the next setup?’ And we thought, ‘This is even better! We don’t have to light a stand-in; we’re lighting Donald himself — this will be a time saver!’”

But, laughed Hancock, having Sutherland around for extra innings proved “not so much” a time saver as a master class in cinema from one of its legends. Sutherland was generous with anecdotes from his six-decade career, which spans dozens of standouts including Klute (1971), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Outbreak (1995), The Hunger Games (2012) and more.

“[H]e was so sweet to the crew that he would…tug toward John Schwartzman, our DP [and say]: ‘Did I tell you about that second week on Klute?’ — and everybody would just come to a stop,” said Hancock. “It’s like the E.F. Hutton moment — It’s like, ‘What!?’ Or, ‘Can I discuss Julie Christie and our relationship [from Nicolas Roeg’s landmark 1973 horror thriller Don’t Look Now]?’ And I’d go, ‘Yes! — but not now, Donald…can we do it after work?’”

Adapted from the Stephen King novella of the same name, Mr. Harrigan's Phone stars Martell alongside Cyrus Arnold (Zoolander 2), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Killing Eve, The Sandman), Colin O’Brien (Wonka), and Joe Tippett (Mare of Easttown), and is produced by Carla Hackett, Jason Blum (via Blumhouse) and American Horror Story mastermind Ryan Murphy. Catch Martell and Sutherland playing a deadly game of supernatural phone tag starting today, Oct. 5, when Mr. Harrigan’s Phone premieres at Netflix.

Looking for more thrills and chills? Check out SYFY originals like Chucky, Reginald the Vampire and SurrealEstate all on SYFY and the SYFY app.