Two-hander, technical definition, a movie with primarily 2 characters, often exploring power dynamics and how they shift over the course of the film. Two-hander, slang, a girl (or guy) who is such a ‘handful’ it takes more than one hand to handle them. Carles Torrens’ new film PET presents the viewer with one of the darkest two-handers imaginable – a lonely man reconnects with a classmate who doesn’t remember him, and kidnaps her and keeps her in a cage below an animal shelter. What sounds like it could have been an exercise in female exploitation flips half-way through as it turns out the ‘pet’ may have just as much control as her captor.
I saw PET at its SXSW premiere and haven’t been able to shake it since. Anchored by two truly mesmerizing performances from Dominic Monaghan and Ksenio Solo, the thriller dives into the duskiest shadows of human cruelty, especially of the ‘be cruel to be kind’ variety as Monaghan’s character Seth insists he is here to save Solo’s Holly. Monaghan followed his career-making performance as Merry, one of the hobbits in Lord of the Rings, with an equally memorable role as Driveshaft bass player and rocker has-been on Lost. In an ensemble filled with talent, Monaghan consistently stood out as the ‘heart’ of the show, the character we all rooted for. I will also mention the criminally-cancelled Flashforward, in which he played a highly questionable quantum physicist. If you don’t know Ksenia Solo, then you’ve missed out on one of the best shows SyFy has ever aired, Lost Girl, in which she plays the sassy human sidekick of a morally questionable succubus. Solo was always my favorite character, a sort of mess-of-character in the chaos of a fairy world no one but she is privy to. She has also been on Orphan Black.
In these two actors, Torres, who directed the film from a script by Jeremy Slater, has found a fascinating rabbit hole of human motivation to take his audience down. No one is who they seem. Whenever the film feels like you might be ahead of it, a new twist is revealed to deepen the relationships. It’s not an easy film, but it is a one that rewards the watcher who is willing to wade in these wicked waters with the characters.
Rounding the festival circuit, PET makes its International Debut at London’s Fright Fest this weekend. I had a chance to sit down with the director and the two lead actors at SXSW earlier this year.
BEARS: I understand the project has sort of been in development for a long time, and that you, Dom, got involved in it many years ago. Could you tell me a little bit about that process?
Dominic Monaghan: Yeah, I got involved in it between seasons 1 and 2 of “Lost”, which is like 10 years ago now, at that point it was a film at MGM, I was gonna do it with Melissa George. She ended up doing a TV project with Gabriel Byrnes, so that went away, then I got my friend Shannyn Sossamon attached to it, and then Shannyn Sossamon and I went and did another film and then it just disappeared, but I was always saying to my agent, “Keep an eye on it.”, because I loved the project. I met Jeremy Slater, who wrote it, who had told me that he wrote the character for me, which I just thought was a lie initially.
BEARS: Well, if it was after season one of Lost, when you were fairly questionable…
Monaghan: He said in previous interviews it was like “I saw Dom play Charlie in the first season of Lost,” – when I go in and out of that drug psychosis — and he based that character around it. So I felt very connected to it, and then to be honest I had to let it go because I loved it so much. It’s like an ex-girlfriend I was still in love with, I gotta forget about this thing, it was just driving me mental. And then last summer my agent said ‘it’s back,’ but I’m like 10 years older now, so instead of playing a guy in my early 20’s, like fuck, I’m gonna have to pitch that I’m a guy in my early 30’s. When I met Carles my whole pitch was “It’s obviously sad if a guy in his early 20’s has never had a girlfriend, never had friends, has a kinda deadbeat job, but it’s so much sadder if it’s a guy in his early 30’s.”
Carles Torrens: It’s more interesting if this guy’s bitter. I mean he can still be a nice, quiet guy but if you’ve been rejected for 10 more years with this character there’s this bitterness inside that may even make it more believable.
BEARS: You’re a little more willing to take that leap into doing something really horrible?
Torrens: Yeah here’s this guy who’s maybe running out of time, he does it now or it’s never. So that made Seth more desperate and I really dug the approach.
BEARS: Ksenia, what did you think of the script when you first read it?
Solo: One of my agents at the time called me and he said, ‘I read this script, it’s probably the darkest script I ever read, don’t know if you’ll like it but I think you should read it.’ So he sent me the script and he sent me some information about Carles and there was a link to a short film that Carles had done, which I heard amazing things about. I watched the short and I was incredibly impressed with him. Usually I don’t usually gravitate towards horror/thrillers but there was something about this short that made me go ‘Wow, I think this guy’s gonna do some amazing things.’ So then I read the script and I was also very impressed with Jeremy Slater and this incredible story that he’s written. Then I had a very old fashioned audition process, I put myself up on tape because I was up in Canada at the time and then Carles and I did a Skype meeting because I was in New York at the time and he was in Los Angeles.
BEARS: When you got the script did you know it was seven years old and people had been trying to make it for a long time?
Solo: I had no idea. No idea. And I found out it was at MGM and I was like ‘Oh my god, why didn’t they ever make this film?’ But I see that it could be, you know, a tough one to make and I think you need to have the right people, to really, you know, make it shine but the script found its family.
BEARS: So Carles, how did you come upon the script?
Torrens: Jeremy Slater and I had the same agent and he gave it to me to read. He’s like, “You’re not gonna make this film, it’s just for me to see what kind of stuff you like,” and then I read “Pet” and I think it had the same effect on me as it did on Dom, as it did on anyone who’s ever come across this movie. I’m like “I gotta make this film,”but my agent’s like “Well it’s really difficult cause it’s been in turnaround in MGM for many years, it’s not going anywhere, it’s stuck there.” So I actually went to Spain and found some IMC’ers who wanted to buy the script – so I approach MGM with that money and I bought the script. Now I just had to find a way to make the movie, so I start shopping around and looking for producers until I found the right production company to make it.
You know MGM would have made it “big” and we had very little money and we had to shoot it on a whim so I knew I was going to have to make the dark and dirty version of “Pet.” Dominic had been attached to this movie, and I didn’t know this ( everyone did except for me) and I actually wrote a short film for him one time but he couldn’t do it.
BEARS: So you two had already met each other?
Monaghan: No, we hadn’t met, but they sent me the script of his short film. I remember it, not a horror film but there were elements of the short film that were horrific, and it stood out, couldn’t do it as I was working.
BEARS: So when you were talking to the financiers in Spain how did you pitch this project? This is a pretty dark project, and it’s not like a slasher horror film which you know is gonna turn around and make a bunch of money because people like to just watch people die.
Torrens: Yeah, you know I was like “It’s an American movie…” No, no I was very honest about… it was all about the scope. The conditions of these slasher films, they get made like cookies so I’m like ‘here’s a movie that scope wise can be made for a little, but the content of it is really powerful.” Studio movies, they have a bad reputation sometimes but I have to say the scripts are always very well developed, they have those beats, they work in a very accessible way. PET had that, this is a very dark movie yet it’s accessible to an audience, so it’s just an opportunity to do something that’s not too risky that could be very unique and powerful.
BEARS: Dom, what excited you about the character and playing something so dark?
Monaghan: I like the complexities of him, it’s very important as an actor try and find things about him that I can understand and empathize with. I mean, if you’re playing a murderer it’s hard to like that person but you need to find why, or who didn’t give them love, what are the things they went through in their life to get to this? So you’re constantly trying to understand these characters even if they have despicable elements to them. My thing was, let’s try and have him be a sympathetic character who is way in over his head. I mean Carles and I were constantly talking about the fact that he really didn’t know who he’s messing with, (you know you’ll see the film) and Ksenia’s character comes across as just a gorgeous young lady – but very quickly you’ll realize “OK, I’ve picked on the wrong person.”
BEARS: Yeah that makes it that much more interesting because, for your character, you’re completely out of the element that you thought you were going to be in.
Monaghan: Right. And also for the audience who’s sat there going ‘OK, I know how this is going to play out, boy meets girl, boy’s a bad person, shit happens.’ At some point in the film, there’s that moment where the audience is like ‘Oh, shit,’ which is what’s happening with Seth. So I love the fact he comes in, ‘I’m in control, I’m gonna tell you how life is, you make these mistakes I’m gonna fix you.’ And then [snaps finger], it just shifts. And it should shift as fast for Seth as it does for the audience.
BEARS: Ksenia, what do you tell people about the film when you talk about it, because you can’t really say too much but you have to prepare them?
Solo: It’s a really dark and twistedlove story, and that no one is gonna like me after this film. So I say ‘If you love me now remember those feelings because after you watch me play Holly, that might not be the case.’ Holly was such a challenge, and such a complex undertaking and that’s what I was most looking forward — just having the opportunity to play a character like this.
BEARS: Dom, you sort of have the ultimate experience in terms of creating character. With PET, you’ve got a script, you’ve got the entire project there, you know all about that character who’s in the script, and can kind of come up with more things to add to that. On a show like “Lost,” where the character developed over many many years, I can assume they didn’t always tell you everything, since sometimes you didn’t know if they’re still making decisions or trying to keep things hidden. And then you have a situation like “Lord of the Rings,” where you can always go back to the source material – if you wanna have more research it’s there for you. Can you talk a little bit about working in those three very different ways?
Monaghan: To some extent they’re all really the same as an actor. My whole thing is how do I try to understand the character that I’m gonna play as much as possible? And how do I have as much of that understanding transferred to an audience? Research is big, so obviously if you have a piece of source material, you will constantly be cross referencing that. If you play an open ended character like Charlie [in “Lost”], you really don’t know what’s going to happen to him, all you can do is work with the truth you’ve got and just go into that. I was looking at addiction, I was looking at isolation…people living on desert islands, obsessions, because he was obsessed with that girl. Then in terms of this guy [Seth in “Pet”] it’s the same. I mean what is someone like who’s in their early 30’s, doesn’t have friends, doesn’t have a girlfriend, doesn’t have relationships with their parents, has a deadbeat job, doesn’t have any future? What’s that done to people?
BEARS: Ksenia, you also come to this project with an extensive TV background, how did you approach this role as opposed to a character that has many years to develop, with you finding new things out as you go.
Solo: That’s exactly the difference, it’s like, you’re given the entire journey in the character’s arc more or less, most of the time left guessing where your journey is gonna go. So it’s just two very different beasts and I think I approach it the same way but again, just the process is very different because in a film you have your beginning mark and your end mark and in a series every episode is a new discovery of your character and I think you’re never fully aware of what’s coming because TV writers like to keep you in the dark and keep you in the mystery.
BEARS: I always wondered if on a TV show, a lot of times the writers feel guilty handing actors something where the character changes, like ‘sorry the new character’s this’ and you’re like ‘Hey, wait a minute, I’m so surprised that this is what my character is now doing.’
Solo: The majority of those moments are usually with dialogue or maybe relationships with the other characters. You sort of have a very general idea of what’s happening but of course there are so many surprises along the way and sometimes you’re completely thrown off guard. You know, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really great writers, but if there’s ever a moment where I feel like something’s not truthful to my character I definitely speak up about it and say how I feel.
BEARS: Seems like in television, in many cases, you have different writers coming in over the course of several seasons and you’ve got ones that moved on and in many cases the actors sort of become the ‘protectors of the character.’
Solo: Absolutely, that’s the right way to say it. Especially when you’ve been playing a character for so many years and everyone sort of rotates and you’re the one, you’re the rock that’s been sitting with this character from the very beginning — you do feel very protective and when someone comes in who maybe doesn’t know the show as well, doesn’t know the genre as well, or maybe know your character as well, and you feel like you just sort of have to stand your ground and protect your little baby that you’ve raised…
BEARS: You surely develop an instinct for that character after several seasons. But with this character, you have the director right there, and he is the only one who is molding this vision with you. Did you find you depended more on Carles than you would a director on a television set?
Solo: Holly is such a calculated character and there’s so many complex layers to her that it was definitely a team effort, but at the end of the day I was locked in that cage and in a way I had to fend for myself in the moment because of the circumstances of the story, and where I was, physically locked in a small space. But Carles is an incredible director and person and he really made sure that the environment was collaborative. Dom is a beautifully subtle actor and that made me a better actor. It’s just a great group of people but I think there was a balance of very much depending on the script and the dialogue, and the characters as they were written by Jeremy, and then having Carles’ take and input and energy with it, so it was a mix of things upon which I very much depended.
BEARS: Sure, so how long did you have to spend like… in the cage …
Solo: Seven full days …
BEARS: Seven full days in the cage?
Solo: I think it was seven full… six or seven full days.
BEARS: So, I’m assuming they would take breaks every once and a while, let you out of the cage?
Solo: Once and a while, yeah.
BEARS: I’m guessing the set wasn’t the easiest to work on, considering the cage and the material.
Monaghan: It‘s important for me to try and do as much background work as possible and let all that stuff go so that you can then play on set. Acting for me is all about playing, I take it seriously but it has to be a play for me. I’ve had people say it must be quite a dark set to work on, quite dark, but I try as hard as I can to turn all of the on-set environments into a place of levity and fun, because if I can’t play then I can’t discover and have fun.
PET makes its UK and International Debut this friday at London’s FrightFest.