Kate Siegel on the Humor, Horror and Holy Mess of Making ‘Midnight Mass’
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Midnight Mass Season 1. Don’t read before finishing all 7 episodes!]
By now, you should have devoured Midnight Mass, the new seven-episode thriller from Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House and Bly Manor). That’s not only because we’re about to spill a bunch of stuff about the series, but also because it’s a damn triumph. Horrifying and heartbreaking, insightful and daringly spiritual, the long-gestated project stars Flanagan’s wife Kate Siegel as Erin Greene, one of the residents of the isolated Crockett Island, which is beset by a series of supernatural events coinciding with the sudden arrival of a new priest (Hamish Linklater), and the return of prodigal son Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford, Friday Night Lights).
Across the board, the ensemble is top-notch and the combination of slowly mounting dread, deeply realized characters and unthinkable evil is, well, a mass effect we can’t stop thinking about. We chatted with Siegel about navigating very tricky themes, keeping the show alive in the time of COVID and some of the series’ greatest (a.k.a craziest) moments.
OK, so I’ve tried to pace myself because I really loved it, but I couldn’t stop. I was like consuming more and more. I don’t think anybody’s expecting this.
Kate Siegel: I don’t think so either and that is the best part because you are my first real interview about Midnight Mass. I’m so excited to start these conversations because it’s going to drop into people laps and they don’t know what they’re going to get.
I think there’s definitely going to be some people out there that are going to be angry.
Yes. Oh, we hope so. Come at me, bro. [Laughs]
Your husband, Mike Flanagan, is a former altar boy, grew up Catholic. Same here. I was Altar Boy of the Year at my elementary school. Even got a trophy for it…so there’s like a level of PTSD happening here and I’m like, “This guy is working through some shit here and I am here for it.”
Oh my God, he’s said, “I’m leaving this show behind for my children, so when I’m dead and they ask me things like, ‘What’s good and evil? What happens when we die, Daddy?'” All of these things, he can point to the show and say, “This is everything. This is my feeling.”
Oh, we need to talk to you about that scene between you and Zach Gilford. The “what happens when we die” scene. Both of your monologues are shot in a single take, aren’t they?
Yes. I wish I could say that it took a long time. It’s something where you want the story to be, “Oh, it took us three days.” But we just had what we called “Monologue day.” Because we were shooting sort of in these weird COVID blocks, Zach and I were up first and did all of our stuff together first. Then, they moved on to Hamish [Linklater] and [Samantha Sloyan]…they would jump around between groups in order to keep the bubbles small. So the last day Zach and I worked together was “Monologue day.” We got into Erin’s house and we burned through every scene in Erin’s house, which is where his big monologue, my big monologue about my abuse with my mom, the crying about the baby stuff in the bed the next morning — all of that was one day.
And you know Zach, he’s been working and been incredible for decades. And so, to steal from Stephen King, it was like the Ritual of Chud: We bit into each other’s tongues and just held on for the ride. [Laughs] And because they gave us the grace of being there with each other, when I felt lost, Zach was right there listening to me. And when he was lost, I was right there listening to him. It wasn’t like he did his coverage and I was off shooting something else and he had a tennis ball [to act against]. We were with each other. That’s something that Mike and Intrepid Pictures have always been great with, giving actors the space to do the work they need to so they can deliver these scenes they wonderfully write for us.
It is an unreal sequence. The only movement is the camera slowly pulling in on both of you. It was gorgeous. I mean, you forget in that moment all the horror that is happening.
Yeah, but isn’t that life? That’s one of the things I loved about that moment, which is that these horrible things are happening, both of these people, Erin and Riley, are steeped in trauma like teabags, like hot tea, and they’re leaking trauma everywhere they go. But in this one moment, they’re kind of in the eye of the storm with each other, telling each other what they believe. I don’t know, there’s something truly terrifying about that because you know it’s not going to go well for those two. You just know.
Part of me that was like, “I think he wants to believe more of how she thinks.”
Of course he does. But he believes that he’s going to hell.
How did Mike tell you about this? Does he say like, “All right, we’re going to do this,” or, “I’m thinking of you for this role?”
Well, the difference between this and something like Hill House or Bly Manner is that Midnight Mass has been brewing for him for almost as long as I’ve known him. Because in [his movie] Hush, the book that my character Maddie wrote is called “Midnight Mass.” You see Samantha Sloyan’s character come to have a conversation with my character about the book and she says, “I loved Riley. I loved Erin.” And it’s a joke because she hates us on the show! [Laughs] But all the way back then, we knew the story of Midnight Mass. The blurb on the back of Maddie’s book, it describes the show you have watched.
In Mike’s head, it was a movie, it was an unsold TV pitch that he took around town and nobody bought it. And then they bought Hill House instead and then he was going to do it as a novel, so it’s about three chapters of a novel. And then Netflix came back and wanted Season 2 of The Haunting and Mike said, “In order to get that, you have to greenlight Midnight Mass, no questions asked.” Because it’s been his baby. It’s his dream project. And so very early on, when that happened — and I don’t often pull trump cards with my husband — but very early on, I put a trump card down on Erin Green. I was like, “I’m sorry, there’s no one else in the world. You’re writing my voice. You can’t give that to somebody else.”
It’s almost like it was preordained.
Maybe. I like to think I proved myself enough during Hill House and Hush that they were willing to kind of pass me the mantle of Erin, the people who might’ve been hesitant.
It’s such a great character. Your first scene, walking home from church in the first episode, Riley is so disoriented and so out of his element there. But there’s this immediate comfort that if he’s with Erin, it’s okay.
I think that’s true. I think it’s that intimacy of young love. I imagine most people, even if it’s been decades, if you stumbled across your first love somewhere, you could sit down and have a very comfortable cup of coffee because you shared a lot of firsts. They shared so many firsts and she just knows him. Whatever he’s done, wherever he’s been and vice versa, they know each other. That’s rare in this world.
And she has some stories of her own, which I love. She’s not the paragon of purity.
The exact opposite. If Erin’s a moderate, her expression of feminism is also moderate. She’s more like the Gaia, the earth mother. She has been out there, done things. She is more of that pagan mother figure.
And this small town, this Crockett Island, when I hear something like, “Oh, it’s a small community” I think small town, but I don’t think 172 people or whatever it is.
Yeah. It’s based on a real place named Tangier, an island called Tangier off the coast of West Virginia. And it is an island that is literally sinking into the ocean. There was some plan to shoot there originally, but because of the environmental effects of having a film crew there, the island literally couldn’t bear the weight. There’s a great documentary about Tangier and it’s a small island where everyone’s lived there forever. And this thing about the skeletons popping up when there’s too much rain is true.
It happens to these people, bodies wash up on shore, like old skeletons of your grandma because you can’t bury them that deep in the marshlands.
My god. Now, was the cast told in advance what the horror actually was? Did you know what was coming to Crockett Island?
Oh yeah. We began pre-COVID. The day before shooting was March 15, 2020. On March 16, everything shut down and they sent us all home and we had read all seven episodes. We had had the background, we’d had a table read where we sat at a table and read every single word together. And we all went home and we didn’t know if it was going to get back up, we didn’t know if the world was going to end, and in some way there was some sense of acceptance and letting go. Like if all we ever got was that table read, then that’s enough because we heard it. It was there, the magic was there, the cast was there. But during those months of shutdown, everyone had time to [spend] with their character. And everyone also had the terror of thinking it was going to go away because Netflix kept canning shows.
And so then very quietly, and only because of the way Mike Flanagan and [cinematographer] Michael Fimognari prepare with these extensive shot lists, did Netflix say, “You guys can go back, but what we need you to do is cut the population of the island so there’s no extras.” That’s why it’s 170 people. That’s when they added the oil-spill storyline. And because we had been gone from our sets for months, all of that overgrowth, is real life. Those are real. None of that is stages. All of those houses were built and then left to weather by the ocean. The whole thing feels preordained. For the people who are furious at us for shaking our fist at God, He was there at every step of the way, She was there at every step of the way going, “I think this show should get made.”
And you all were able to keep all of this a secret? There have been literally no leaks, it’s unbelievable. And you guys never used the term vampire. Never.
Nope, never say the word vampire, no fangs. I don’t even think he is a vampire. We’re not even sure that he is.
They do refer to him as an angel and he’s got all the makings of it.
I mean, that is quotes. Those are quotes from the source. We’re not making up Bible verses. It’s literally, “Eat my flesh, drink my blood and live forever.” That’s what it says in the book.
Something else that I feel viewers will absolutely love is your stuff with Annabeth Gish, who’s amazing. That sense of connection, their womanhood and that these two women, Erin and Sarah, are the ones who put it all together.
It is interesting because it does seem, as it’s playing out, that there is a certain level of agency that Erin and Sarah and even Samantha Sloyan’s Bev have in this community. These are the women who have kind of borne the pain of this community.
I think you see that in many small towns and in big towns, that there’s some figureheads that all tend to be male, but the real power in moving the town is in the women. I believe Midnight Mass does a very successful bait-and-switch where you start to think this show is about the two white men and then, by the end of the show, it’s about the women and the Muslim sheriff played by Rahul Kohli. And so all of a sudden, those are your heroes.
Which is so great! And again, I don’t think people are going to be expecting episode five.
No, and when that happens, that’s going to be great. It’s like “No, we still have episodes left…What? What could possibly happen?!”
It is bananas. And the opening of episode seven is just…haunting.
And it feels like where we’re going, where the vaccinated are going to come rip the unvaccinated out of their houses. [Laughs]
You had no idea that that was going to be the world’s temperature when this show dropped.
No idea. It’s enough to make a person believe in God.
With all these night shoots, all of these signs or coincidences, the horror you had to film, how did you shake it all off?
Well, I have two young children and a ten-year-old stepson. That really helped. It’s been said many times before and will be said many times again, horror sets tend to be hilarious and comedy sets tend to be real downers. [Laughs] So our cast was just bonded. We were in this whole lockdown in Canada and many people didn’t have their families with them. They couldn’t have their families because Canada had a two-week quarantine and had shut the borders to anybody but essential workers. All we really had was each other and we were all in a bubble getting tested every day. And so the cast bonded in a way I’ve never seen before.
I think that intimacy is right there for everyone to see. It feels like a town where we’ve all lived together our whole lives. So we’d shake ourselves out of it. Oh, and we watched a lot of the show I Think You Should Leave, which is a sketch comedy show on Netflix. Bachelor in Paradise was a big hit at the time.
One of the best comedies on television.
The best situational comedy I’ve ever seen. I only wish now that that FBoy Island was available a year ago. That would have been my dream. I live for Nikki Glaser.
Horror is having a real great moment right now on television. The first two seasons of The Haunting were so steeped in the Gothic stuff. This is so much more of a traditional horror story.
I don’t think anyone ever thought of it like that. I still don’t think it is. I think it is a story about faith versus fanaticism. And that’s terrifying, because the stakes are really high. Fanatics, it lives deep in the core of your soul. It’s not something you can shake off when someone questions your faith or your faith is shook, it’s that level of push-and-pull that creates situations where horror can bloom. But also, the opposite of horror.
There are glimmers of hope, which is more akin to God.
Hope. Hope and…what is the word I’m looking for? It’s glorious. It’s that beautiful moment Erin describes where the gates of heaven open up and her daughter is there, like she’s transported.
Speaking of being transported..how about Rahul Kohli? That guy took us to some places I never imagined. And so different from his Bly work.
Let me tell you, he would live up to every one of your expectations. He is humble and charming and funny. And if you tell him I said any of that, I’ll deny it, but he is my favorite. [Laughs]
Midnight Mass, streaming now on Netflix.