Since her stunning breakthrough in Pump Up The Volume alongside Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis has quietly been doing some incredibly solid genre work in FX’s The Strain and a myriad of Stephen King adaptations. She continues to be one of the most striking actresses working today, and she imbues her character, Isabel, in the new horror thriller Boarding School with a quiet depth that makes her featured role much more memorable.
Below, I spoke to Mathis about working with director Boaz Yakin (Remember The Titans), her most memorable roles, and the fact that she’s a little bit of a chicken when it comes to watching horror movies. We even talked about her star turn in the so-bad-it’s good video game adaptation of, you guessed it, Super Mario Bros.
When troubled 12-year-old Jacob Felsen is sent away to boarding school, he enters every kid’s worst nightmare: A creepy old mansion, deserted except for six other teenage misfits and two menacing and mysterious teachers. As events become increasingly horrific, Jacob must conquer his fears to find the strength to survive.
Boarding School is in theaters and On Demand / Digital HD on August 31, 2018 from Momentum Pictures.
DC: Admittedly, you’re not in this film for very long but you definitely make an impression. What drew you to the part?
SM: Well, I knew Boaz’s work. I think we’d met many years before, so I was excited at the prospect of working with him. I thought that we had created a really unique story. I had never played this kind of woman before, who’s so tightly coiled and a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I was interested in what it was like to be the child of a Holocaust survivor and the, sort of, fallout from having been raised by someone who went through the Holocaust. So even if she bookends the story, if you will, there was a lot there for me to play with and to explore. And when I talked to Boaz, I got excited.
DC: What was your experience like growing up? Did you have any similarities to the kids in this film?
SM: Oh God! You mean, any children that were psychopaths growing up? No! Nothing like that. I’m sure our parents wanted to kill us sometimes but not literally. Not that I was aware of. I was not aware that any of my friends’ parents felt homicidal to the point of actually taking any action.
DC: From the first time I saw the trailer for Boarding School it was obvious that it was shot beautifully and had a great production value. While shooting, could you tell that this was going to be a very striking film?
SM: I think that it needed to be because that’s such a character in the genre – is the look of the movie. But I didn’t know how it would all come together, it’s really hard to tell sometimes when you’re doing these micro-budget movies. So, I was pleased to see the final product and that it all came together.
DC: You’ve been on so many sets by now, can you tell when you’re in the middle of a project if it’s going to be a good or a bad movie? How’s your radar for that?
SM: Not always, I have to say. I can’t always tell. A good experience doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a good film and a bad experience doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a great film. You never know, you just never know, because so much of the magic is in the editing and the post production and how you bring something together. You’d think after thirty plus years in this business I would have a better sense of this is going to be a great movie but you can’t always tell.
DC: Luckily, you’ve made a lot of good ones, but I would imagine that having Will Patton on set was a good sign. Was he on board Boarding School originally? Was he part of the package that attracted you to the role of Isabel?
SM: I think he came on after me. It’s been a few years now, we made it a couple years ago and, I hate to say it, but I start to forget some things after having done this for so long. I think he came on after me.
DC: I was going back and looking at some of the genre stuff you’ve done. From Under The Dome and Nightmares & Dreamscapes…I think you were even in an episode of Salem’s Lot. You’ve done your fair share of Stephen King projects. Are you surprised by the huge success of IT now and how many King properties are still getting optioned?
SM: I’m not surprised, in as much as, his attention to detail in terms of his character development. It’s so rich. He creates worlds that are so specific that you just want to dive into them. I do feel like I’ve joined, sort of, this unofficial band of Stephen King players, if you will, having worked on his material several times. Last fall, I ended up doing a pilot which isn’t moving forward in its incarnation, but I actually worked on Locke & Key which is his son, Joe Hill. Ultimately, that project was scrapped and it’s being completely reconceived for the third time – not at Hulu but at Amazon – but I thought that was funny that now I was working for his son. Yeah, I think it’s amazing. Again, I think it speaks to his well drawn characters and the man is phenomenally prolific so people keep on unearthing his material.
DC: Are you a fan of horror? Do you have any favorites?
SM: I’d go back to the classics like Rosemary’s Baby or The Shining. Growing up, the Nightmare On Elm Street movies were quite hot. Those just terrified me deeply because it was all about going to sleep and that’s something you have to do. So I remember those really terrifying me. But again, I appreciate the genre but I’m also a bit of a chicken when it comes to it. So, I’m the person that’s watching those movies with my hands over my eyes.
DC: Yeah, the older I get I think I’m starting to do the same thing. I think I’m losing my nerve a little bit. Some of my best friends…we’re massive fans of Pump Up The Volume.
DC: We quote it constantly. The Eat Me Beat Me Lady, that was the kind of girl that I was crushing on for years. So, you really shaped the kind of girl I was trying to date for years to come. How do you think Nora Diniro would’ve fared at this Boarding School? Would your character, Isabel, maybe have squashed her rebellious streak and maybe put her in check?
SM: (laughs) Oh wow. Well, Isabel is a psychopath so she…Nora…such an interesting question. It’s sort of hard to answer because Nora would be a few years older than…sorry are you talking about the little girl in Boarding School, right?
DC: Well yeah, or Nora just being in a private school instead of a public school. Would she have been disciplined? She would have been a completely different character. I think it’s fun to think about.
SM: For sure, if she had been in a boarding school. But wouldn’t she have been kicked out? I just feel like she was such a rule breaker that Nora would have challenged authority and pushed that right to the edge and could have easily been kicked out of a boarding school. Although, I’m a product of public school so, I don’t know, you do hear these stories of how much shenanigans that happen when people are in boarding school. So, it’s not always as strict as you would think but certainly not in our boarding school.
DC: Yeah, maybe it would’ve saved her life if she would’ve gotten kicked out.
SM: Oh, exactly.
DC: I’ll just leave you with this last question. The other night with my wife, we went to a Winona Ryder marathon. It was seven hours long and they didn’t tell you the names of the films. They showed four films and it was so fun. I was thinking there needs to be a Samantha Mathis marathon. If you had a choice, what four films in your career would you want played at a marathon like that?
SM: Aww, well first of all that’s really flattering and kind of you, I appreciate that. Pump Up The Volume certainly has to be one of them. Yeah, so Pump Up The Volume would be one of them…um…maybe American Psycho. You know, the truth is, I’ve done a lot more television the last ten years than I’ve done features. But I really did love my character on The Strain so if I could add like an episode of The Strain in there that would show my arc as an actress.
DC: I loved you on that show.
SM: Thank you. She was a lot of fun to play. What else would you think should be in there?
DC: I know there is still a 35mm print of Super Mario Bros. still out there but you probably wouldn’t want to put that one up there!
DC: I do know for a fact. The Thing Called Love is definitely one you’re remembered for. That’s certainly a classic.
SM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Super Mario Bros. is a curious one. I’m always surprised. Sometimes I’ll go to these conventions, you know, sci-fi horror conventions. That is not my proudest moment, I will say, as an actor. But it’s maybe one of the ones that I get asked the most about. There’s such a cult following for that movie, it’s really curious. I’m glad people have an attachment to the bizarre campiness of it.
DC: Exactly. Well, it was such a pleasure to talk with you. Good look with Boarding School and everything else that you’re doing. I really hope to talk to you again in the future.
SM: Thank you so much, it was great to talk to you too.