By Brennan Carley
There’s a moment in horror hit-factory Blumhouse’s bloody new Freaky Friday sendup that will rattle you to your core. It’ll shock you more than the movie’s wickedly inventive kills (to avoid ruining the fun, we’ll just put the words “buzz saw” here). It’ll make you shriek even louder than the sight of Vince Vaughn spending Freaky’s run time expertly emulating the mannerisms of a high school girl. The scene doesn’t involve blood, gore, or jump scares; really, it’s just a bit of dialogue delivered so effortlessly and expertly that it’s all but predestined to go down in scary-movie history.
The line is uttered by the movie’s star, Kathryn Newton, who’s quickly gaining a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand young actors. At an unsanctioned party during a town-wide lockdown (triggering!), a football jock crassly propositions a fellow student; little does he know her strings are being pulled by a loose-screwed mass-murderer. Full sociopath-mode activated, Newton — eyes ablaze — dismisses him with the frigid, fucked-off coolness of a top-of-the-line Sub Zero: “Your touch makes this pussy drier than sandpaper, you fucking monkey.” She pauses, lapping up the silence. “I can’t wait to kill you.” Mic… dropped, shattered, and eviscerated.
In the absence of geopolitical rhyme or reason and faced with ongoing evidence that American democracy is far more rickety a conceit than many of us would’ve ever guessed, there’s fleeting comfort to be found in scream queens, the only royalty this side of the Atlantic we all agree upon. From Jamie Lee Curtis’s film debut as Laurie Strode in 1978’s Halloween to Drew Barrymore’s first-act-and-finished scene-stealing Scream role, moviegoers have embraced our scream queens as emblems of our shared struggle and hopeful resilience. Newton certainly walks in their footsteps as Millie Kessler, Freaky’s innocent, all-American heroine. But she truly makes her mark as the Blissfield Butcher, the movie’s body-swapped villain, who operates with an undercurrent of energy rippling through her (or is it his?) every step.
When Newton and I talk in mid-October, she’s all energy, all the time, bounding back and forth between Zoom calls in Los Angeles, a tumbler of iced coffee in her hands as her hair and face are hastily attended by a masked glam squad who rush in and out of frame at lightning speed. You wouldn’t know we’re in the middle of a pandemic, or an election, or discussing a slasher movie where one character gets literally shattered to pieces. “I feel kind of like a poodle,” Newton cheerily tells MTV News, as her hair is brushed and set into place. “This is so fun.”
Newton started acting at age four, first in soaps (All My Children) and sitcoms (Gary Unmarried) before graduating to roles in the long-running CW hit Supernatural and cult-favorite Halt and Catch Fire. It wasn’t until 2017 that the world began taking real notice of the then-20-year-old’s blossoming career, following a murderer’s row of projects that put the actor on the map and in the crosshairs of casting directors all over town. That year, Newton appeared in Greta Gerwig’s indie darling Lady Bird; the runaway HBO hit Big Little Lies, as the daughter of Reese Witherspoon’s tightly wound Madeline Mackenzie; the award-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and an oft-overlooked BBC adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Everything since has felt lightning-fast and well-deserved: a breakout role in 2018’s laugh-a-minute Blockers, a Psyduck-training junior reporter in Detective Pikachu, Julia Roberts’s daughter in the somber addiction drama Ben Is Back, and the intrepid leader of a group of leaderless teens in Netflix’s beloved The Society (the streamer scrapped plans for a planned second season earlier this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic).
When Freaky’s creative team came calling last year, Newton says, it felt like she’d played her cards perfectly. The role felt different and creatively challenging, presenting her the opportunity to reteam with Paranormal Activity 4 writer Christopher Landon. While Millie felt like a manifestation of her own personality (“I am such a dork: I like sweaters, and I’m a grandma,” she jokes), the Butcher felt confident, carefree, and just damn cool. “I have three poodles and Barbies… I am not cool at all,” she says. “Doing this movie, when I would walk on set as the Butcher holding a chainsaw or a knife and people would look at me and be like, ‘You look… cool,’ I [felt like I’d] I got everybody tricked. I learned that you can’t sell yourself short.”
For Freaky, Newton drew on years of studiously dissecting horror movies like Diablo Cody’s black comedy Jennifer’s Body and learning to mimic Barrymore’s iconic Scream howls in her family’s car: “I would practice my scream and record it and my mom would be like, ’That one hurt my ears,’” she says. She imbues her Blissfield Butcher with steely-eyed malice that milks silence for scares. And much like the fantastical but ultimately warmhearted Freaky Friday to which the movie pays winking homage, Freaky traffics in much more than just body-swapping and chopping. “It’s about believing in yourself,” she says. “[Millie has] a lot going on for her, but it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t see it. And it literally takes becoming this to believe in herself.”
Though Newton has been paying her dues for years, she’s still frequently tasked with falling in rank in support of the icons around her, whether it’s in service of Frances McDormand in Three Billboards or Roberts in Ben Is Back. But in Freaky, Newton serves as Vaughn’s foil, balancing the comedy legend’s sugar with a heap of much-needed salt, taking the traditional notion of a scream queen and turning her inside out as a drifter with a taste for blood. “Vince was really helpful in setting the tone, because we all know that this movie is bonkers,” Newton says. “The stakes are so high. It [could’ve been] so over the top so easily.”
But, “by the end, you’re rooting for the Butcher,” Newton adds with a grin, referencing the swaths of high school bullies, power-hungry teachers, and dumb-as-rocks jocks he axes throughout. “You want the bad guy to win because the bad guy keeps killing all the [real] bad guys. I think it broke all the tropes, all the clichés, and we need that right now: a fresh take on a story that we love.”
Playing two polar opposite characters came naturally to Newton, she says, considering the collaborative partnership she forged with Vaughn when they met time during a choreography lesson for Blissfield’s cheerleading squad. “We were doing ‘Hail, hail, Blissfield High!’” she says, nailing the arm-ography from her chair. “Immediately I could see he was going to play. I was so excited when I had scenes with Vince. That was my best work because he’s so spontaneous. It just makes everything magical, to be in the moment with someone who’s so funny — it made me so much better.”
“She’s fantastic, funny, talented and easy to be around,” Vaughn says of his Freaky scene partner. “She’s dedicated, focused, and has a terrific attitude — [and I learned watching her] that someone can learn a dance routine faster than you and still be humble.”
Though Newton has graduated from key ensemble player to leading lady in the past year, she says finally earning the top spot on call sheets hasn’t changed her outlook on choosing or preparing for roles. “My whole life, I’ve been so lucky with the projects that I’ve gotten,” she says, citing Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley as women she admired first before they became on-set role models. “They’ve just changed my life. To have people you look up to like that believe in you and show you just by being themselves, I just felt this was the [right] way to do it [myself].
Although Freaky is opening in a post-election landscape, and although horror is, and always has been, a genre best enjoyed collectively, Newton is decidedly unconcerned that the circumstances aren’t… ideal to launch a big-budget, would-be blockbuster. “It’s a reflection of the times that we’re in and you’re going to see yourself in it,” she says. “You’re going to see your friends. It’s funny, it’s crazy, and it’s joyfully scary. You’re going to have fun watching this movie and I think we all need to have fun right now.”
With no end to the pandemic in our immediate line of sight, Newton says she’s happily taken the past seven or eight months to reevaluate the next roles she’ll choose and the steps she’ll take to stack new levels onto the foundation she’s been steadily building for the past two decades. “Whatever I do next, I have to really love,” she says. “You don’t know what you’re capable of until you try. I’m still figuring it out. But maybe I’ve got to dream bigger.”