Filmmaker Bryan Bertino’s new film The Monster is perhaps the best character drama of the year that also features a bloodthirsty woodland creature that wreaks havoc on anybody that crosses its path. His prospective victims in the film are Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), a mother and daughter battling more than a few inner demons as well.

Kathy’s a raging alcoholic whose run-ins with her smaller familial companion forces her to see her child as nothing more than something to hold her back from the bottom of a bottle. Her disease also forces her to make the decision to relocate Lizzy to her ex-husband’s house, but they have to make it there first. They proceed to endure the worst road trip imaginable, mostly because of the titular demon, but it’s Kazan’s heartbreaking performance into a selfless mother figure that’s the real standout.

Inverse talked to Kazan about loving Kathy, how horror movies can elevate drama, and how fighting a monster helped her understand how to become a good mother.

The Monster is your first horror movie. What drew you to the project in the first place?

For The Monster, I loved Bryan’s script-writing and was really captured by the story of these two people, especially of the mother really struggling against her worst behaviors to protect her child. She’s not in the habit of taking very good care of her daughter and I don’t think she’s well equipped for motherhood. I was moved by that storyline.

What was Bryan Bertino’s script like? Did you stick to the page or were you allowed to improvise?

We didn’t veer too far. We did a little bit of finessing when the cast had a three-day rehearsal session where we rehearsed as much as we could, and did a tiny bit of improvising on-set to make certain things feel natural. Bryan definitely let us know what he was aiming for tone-wise.

A24's 'The Monster'
Ella Ballentine (Lizzy) and Zoe Kazan (Kathy) in 'The Monster'.

Do you think movies like The Monster in the horror genre can allow actors to explore certain things they couldn’t in other genres?

It depends on the script. Take a movie like Don’t Look Now. That’s a film about two people battling grief. The horror aspects of it help elevate or put a high concept spin on a tiny drama. So, sometimes a horror label helps sell or frame a movie in a way that brings in a wider audience and elevate the movie beyond just being a chamber piece.

I think the audiences kind of empathizes with your character in this situation on a pure survival level, but what was it like working through a character that’s so unlikeable?

I think it’s fair for the audience to find her unlikable, but I don’t think I’m doing my job if I come from the stance that she’s not likable. But, maybe it’s kind of two different things, maybe I don’t find her likable, but I find her lovable.

What was the dynamic like between you and Ella Ballentine (Lizzy) on set, especially during some of the heavier scenes?

We were in a very isolated situation shooting in rural Ontario, and there wasn’t a lot around. We were basically the only actors in the film, so we spent a tremendous amount of time together and with her mom. It wasn’t all because we were just trying to bond for the movie, it was also because we enjoyed each other’s company. It definitely helped that bond as did the three days of rehearsal.

I asked Ella’s mom for baby pictures of her and stuff like that to sort of character-project on to her. My mom has always said to me that when you have a baby you realize how easy it is to love a child, and that people that aren’t well-loved by their own parents can get enraged that it’s so easy for those people. It’s a “What’s wrong with me?” kind of thing. I felt that a little bit being around Ella because it’s so easy to love her, so what was Kathy’s problem? It made me understand how truly enraged Kathy must feel at herself to then rise to the situation of being a good mother.

The Monster is now playing on DirectTV, and will be in theaters and on demand on November 11.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Photos via A24

Sean is a Brooklyn-based writer with several degrees in English literature. When he’s not digging up culture stories for Inverse, he’s listening to Harry Nilsson and mining obscure movie facts for Mental Floss.