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The director and star of 'Orphan: First Kill' on the unique challenges of the horror prequel

It's time to see how Esther was born.

By Matthew Jackson
Orphan: First Kill

How do you make a prequel about a character who looks like a 10-year-old girl when more than a decade has passed since the original film, and the actor playing that character is now a 25-year-old woman? That's the central challenge that came with Orphan: First Kill, the follow-up to 2009's Orphan, in which Isabelle Fuhrman returns to show us the origins of the terrifying Esther Albright.

Fuhrman was only 10 years old when she first played Esther, an orphan who's adopted by a loving family reeling from a terrible loss in Jaume Collet-Serra's original film. Her age at the time, and her ability to play Esther's inherent darkness, helped facilitate the now-famous twist that Esther is not a little girl, but a woman in her 30s with a genetic disorder that makes her look like a child. With First Kill, which hits Paramount+ this Friday, Fuhrman had to transport herself back to the character, which meant re-examining choices that she made as a very, very young actress more than a decade ago

"I actually really spent most of my time with the original Orphan script, because I had taken so many notes as I worked on that movie the first time when I was 10," Fuhrman told SYFY WIRE. "So to go back and read my 10-year-old notes was actually the most informative for me, because it very quickly made me realize that the choices that I made when I was a kid on how to play Esther, while being 23 looking over them, I was going, 'I don't know if I would've made the same decision as a woman to play it that way.' But I realized that that was the Esther that everyone fell in love with, and I needed to find a way to marry the two versions of who I was, as a woman now playing Esther, and creating this character of Esther throughout the movie."

Esther is indeed a character, a cherubic child birthed from the mind of Leena Klammer, the adult woman behind the little girl persona we met in the original Orphan. In First Kill, we get to see firsthand how Leena became Esther, escaping from a mental facility in Estonia and then concocting a scheme to impersonate the missing daughter of an American couple (Julia Stiles and Rossif Sutherland). We know from the original film that this story doesn't end well, but we don't know how things go to that point, and First Kill sets out to tell us that story while also giving us insights into how Leena became Esther.

"That was kind of the fun, that anticipation of waiting for her to snap, and become a bit more of the character you saw in the first film," director William Brent Bell (The Boy) said. "We kind of tickled that at the beginning and then we kind of brought it back towards the end, but it was important for me that we get to see a new side to her. We didn't get to see her drink vodka or practice her voice in the first film, because we didn't know she was faking. And this time we get to see these things. She hates being in this dress, she hates wearing pigtails, but she feels like she has to do it because she's trying to fit a part. So it was really fun doing that."

Though we know Esther's secret from the beginning in First Kill, the film — conceived by original Orphan writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Alex Mace, and scripted by David Coggeshall — makes plenty of space for twists of its own, many of them centered on the unexpected dynamics within the Albright family. Pulling those twists off in the film was a challenge all its own, but the most important hurdle for First Kill to clear was, from the beginning, how to make the 25-year-old Fuhrman look 10 again. 

To get there, filmmakers used a combination of various tricks, from makeup to body doubles Kennedy Irwin and Sadie Lee standing in and acting alongside Fuhrman. Sometimes, the easiest trick was simply altering our perceptions not by making Fuhrman look shorter, but by making the actors around her taller

"It was so much trial and error," Fuhrman recalled. "I think we had ideas of what we were going to do. There were some scenes when we did the original camera test in LA, I was literally sitting on an apple box on my knees. And I was telling Brent afterward, when we found out we were going to go and I was going to play Esther, I was like, 'I don't know how I could do that for the entirety of a film.' So they actually built this little chair that we didn't end up using because it didn't look believable.

"Then Julia, and Rossif, and Matthew [Finlan, who plays the Albrights' son Gunnar] had to wear these massive platform, Gene Simmons-like boots. [Julia's] had leather fringe on them, Rossif's were bedazzled, sparkled, Matthew's had this weird stitching on them. And you're acting in these very serious scenes with each other, and I'm squatting while they're wearing these giant boots. And there's something kind of funny about that."

Getting to the Gene Simmons boots, and the other camera tricks, was an arduous process, but going through it only strengthened the filmmaking team.

"I never doubted that we could do it," Bell said. "It was just a matter of kind of showing [people]. We had to put together a lot of tests and proof of concept stuff to be able to make everybody see it. And that took, on and off, the better part of a year. But everybody wanted it to work. And then when that final test came in, and it was not perfect by any means, it was like, 'Okay, yeah. This is going to work.' I mean, everybody loves that challenge as a filmmaker. Like, 'Yeah, I want to be involved in this. Let's crack that.' And that is going to be something we'll remember forever."

For all its tricks and all its twists, the appeal of First Kill all goes back to watching Fuhrman return to her signature character, not just to recreate the experience of the original film, but to show us an entirely different side of Esther. It's that side, the side that came before she'd figured out who Esther really is, that Fuhrman seems most excited for audiences to experience.

"She's realizing that she's stepped into a role that she has no idea how to play," Fuhrman said. "And I think that's what's really fun for the audience to watch,  is that we get to watch the actress in Esther be born. We get to watch her manipulation in this family be sort of set on the back foot, versus in the first movie where you see it on her front foot because she's actively pursuing this from the beginning [in the first film]. And in this situation, she's completely out of her element. She's in a completely new country, with completely different people, in a whole new world in super-wealthy Connecticut, and she's in this family where everyone has expectations of who she is as Esther. And so she has to become Esther. She has to create this character and really listen to everyone around her and absorb that information, not to manipulate them later, but so she can survive here."

Orphan: First Kill premieres Friday in theaters, on-demand, and streaming on Paramount+. 

Looking for another movie about a dangerous kid — but this one really is an actual child? Stream Firestarter on Peacock