Milly Shapiro’s “Charlie” in Hereditary, a tongue-clucking loner who hides severed animal heads in her giant orange hoody, is one of those characters who seem like they’ve crash-landed from some other place. It keeps you firmly in the movie’s reality when a character doesn’t seem like anyone you’ve seen before. You certainly don’t forget her. Charlie is far from the protagonist, but seems to get central placement in all the posters and soaks up most of the focus in the film’s marketing — which seems like a wise decision. “Sell the sizzle, not the steak,” so the old saying goes. Charlie is the sizzle.
It will probably come as no surprise that Charlie was 15-year-old Milly Shapiro’s first film role. It may, however, come as a surprise that she already has won a Tony and been nominated for a Grammy — both for her work playing Matilda on Broadway — putting her closer to entertainment’s holy grail, the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) than many performers far older and more prominent, such as Frank Stallone.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to have people all over the world recognize my face while still a teenager, let alone what it would be like to have them know it as one of the creepiest movie characters of the last 10 years. I got the rare chance to go directly to the source this week, and speak to Shapiro over the phone. Only almost as soon as getting the opportunity I quickly discovered I didn’t really know what I wanted to ask. “What’s it like… being you?”
I ended up being almost as nervous to talk to her as I was scared seeing her onscreen. Of course, what it’s like to be someone else is one of those ultimate unknowables that we can never stop trying to know. It’s part of what makes us human. And luckily, she was much easier to talk to than to watch behead pigeons. As the Hereditary hype cycle goes from popularity to fan theories and controversy, Shapiro had more opinions than you might expect, all about as precocious as you might imagine for someone who started singing and acting at the age of three — after seeing a performance of Cats in Tampa, for the record.
What’s she doing now? Well, she has a cabaret show with her sister (Abigail, with whom she performs as “The Shapiro Sister”) later this week, three shows nightly. Yes, we’ll probably never know quite what it’s like to be Milly Shapiro. But she doesn’t mind if you ask.
I really liked you in this movie, I wanted to congratulate you on that.
Thank you so much.
Can I ask how long you’ve been acting?
I’ve actually been taking acting lessons since I was around five, but my first job was when I was 10, when I was in Matilda.
How did you decide that you wanted to act?
It was kind of just something I always wanted to do. I really first decided I wanted to be a performer when I was three years old and saw Cats, in a production in Tampa. I turned to my mom after the show and I just said, “I need to do this.” She was like, “Okay.” Then, she got me lessons. That’s when I really became passionate for it, and I haven’t stopped since.
Had you seen other plays before that one?
No, I actually hadn’t, it was the first show I ever saw live.
Wow. So I’ve read that you have a Tony win and a Grammy nomination already, are you gunning for a future EGOT?
It would be really cool to have one, that would be a lot of fun, so maybe.
How did you first get involved with Hereditary?
I got the audition one day when I was walking home from school, and they sent the script so I read it over. Then, I went in for my first audition and it went really well, but I actually didn’t think I got it because when I was auditioning, everyone else there was a redhead. So, I was like, “Oh, they’re probably looking for someone that’s redheaded and younger.” Then, I got a callback and I went in, and then I got another callback and I got to meet Ari [Aster, Hereditary’s writer/director], and then I got the part.
You said that you thought they were looking for someone younger. How old was the character in the script?
In the script, Charlie was 13, and I was 14 turning 15 at the time. So a lot of the girls in the room when I was there were like 12-ish, so they looked younger than me, so I was concerned about that.
I assume you’ve seen the movie by now?
Yeah, I’ve seen it.
What did you think?
I thought it was really cool. All the acting is so amazing, and it’s so well written, and it transfers over to film really well.
Yeah, I mean it seems very polarizing. It’s getting almost universally great reviews, and most people online are talking about how much they love it, but then the audience scores that came back are really low. Do you have any theories on why that might be?
I think a lot of people don’t get it the first time, and they’re probably going in expecting the typical horror movie and they’re not really open to a new style because it is very similar to The Exorcist and The Shining in that there is a lot of development and it’s not about jump scares. It’s about psychological scares, and I think a lot of people weren’t really sure what to expect when they went in. They just expected the typical modern horror movie, which is a bunch of jump scares, and you’re not really supposed to think about it, everything is handed to you. But Hereditary isn’t really like that, and I think all the reviewers were going in with an open mind, and I think a lot of the people going in to see the film that didn’t like it weren’t really open to the new ideas of it.
I’ve also read some theories where some people think the ending is… they have different theories about the ending. Is it a metaphor, or is it literal? Did you take the ending literally?
I think in a way it is literal, but in a way, it’s also not, because everything that does happen does typically happen, but it’s hard to explain in a way because it is so complex at the end. You wouldn’t really get it unless you’ve seen it a few times. There’s a lot of hidden things that when you see the film, if you understand the ending, and then you go and see it again, you can see all these little things.
So what’s it like for you being the face of this super scary movie? Have you thought at all about what it will be like being recognizable for scaring the crap out of people?
I think it’s a lot of fun, because I’ve always liked scary things, scaring people, and so getting to be part of a film and have that as my image is really cool.
Have you been recognized for it already?
I have a few times. Not as much as you’d expect, and it’s really strange because one day when the poster first came up in movie theaters, me and my sister and my friend actually went by them, and people just didn’t take notice of it. I think it’s the context, that people aren’t really putting two and two together, being like, “Oh, wait.” It’s kind of interesting.
What do you think it is about you that made you so effective in the role?
I’m not really sure. That’s an interesting question. I haven’t really been asked anything like that.
You just showed up and did your best?
Yeah, that’s all you can do. You take direction and have your interpretation of the character.
What kind of direction did Ari Aster give you? Is there anything that he said that maybe stuck with you, or that you remember?
Not really anything specific, but he did help me delve into the thought process of the character because she doesn’t think like a normal person would, and she’s very other-worldly. Being in this world that she’s in, she doesn’t really understand why things work like they do, which is why she does things that aren’t really considered normal or natural to most people. Because to her, it is normal and natural, and she’s just in a different world in a way. Once Ari and I really figured that out in detail, it was really easy for me to get into the character and really understand her.
Has it been exciting to see yourself in the posters and in all the marketing for it, or is it weird?
It’s weird and exciting, because it’s really cool but it’s also very strange. It’s hard to explain because you’ll just be going to a movie and then you’ll see yourself and you’re like, “That’s really cool.” But, it’s also very strange, you’re like, “That is my giant face, that is very odd.” So, it’s a mix of both.
Is it weird to see this scary version of yourself on everything?
Yeah, it is, because I’m not really like her in real life, so seeing that all the time is kind of weird.
Is this the kind of movie that you would normally go see?
I think I would. I am a huge fan of horror, and I really like horror that I don’t always understand at first because then I can’t stop thinking about it. If it’s just a jump scare horror movie, usually I’ll just forget about it and won’t really care.
What are some of your favorite movies?
I really like horror movies like The Exorcist and The Shining, and also the old IT movies. I really like those because you don’t always know what’s going on and it’s complicated, and it’s more than just the scary part of it. It’s about building up to it and the relationship that the characters have and building a bond with the characters, and it’s not just about the scary parts. Because if you don’t really care about the characters eventually, then you won’t care if they get killed.
Right. So you said you heard about this when you were on your way to school, so are you still going to regular high school?
Right now I actually go to professional children’s school. It’s actually a school for working kids. Alex Wolff [who plays Charlie’s older brother, Peter] went there and he’s an alum from there, so that was kind of funny.
How’s that different from a regular high school?
You’re allowed to leave if you have a professional commitment, and everything’s online, so if you are gone, it’s easy to keep up with the work. It’s not just about school, and it’s available so that when you are gone for a professional commitment, you can still have the good education that every child should get, but you can also do what you love to do.
Are you still pursuing acting after this? Was this just a fun thing to do or is it a career?
For me it’s fun, and I wanna do it as much as possible because … just ’cause something’s your career, doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and fill you with joy. Being able to pursue acting as a career is something that I really want to do because I love it so much, and getting to do something that I love so often would make me really happy, so I want to really try to pursue that.
Did you start as a singer or acting first?
I originally started singing, but then I went towards acting.
So are you still singing, or are you pursuing musical roles?
Yeah, I still sing. Me and my sister have a cabaret later in the week, and that’s going to be a lot of fun. I sing all the time. It’s just … I love to do it. I try to do it as much as possible.
I noticed that you’re also active in an anti-bullying organization. What made you want to get into that?
Well, I have been bullied personally myself, and I’ve witnessed a lot of friends and kinds being bullied and it’s something that’s so awful, and it really pains me to think that other humans could be mean to each other. But it happens to everyone. I actually joined a no-bullying organization because they are really adamant about how excluding the bully isn’t going to make anything change and it isn’t going to make anything better, because usually people are bullies because they’re hurting themselves. I just thought that was really a smart way to look at it, because nobody’s mean for no reason. I like being in the organization because they helped build a community and a group of people and not think of themselves as individuals, and if you want to keep the community happy, you have to be kind to everyone, and it just really spoke to me.
Is there anything more that you hope to get out of the experience of doing this movie?
Just to have fun with it. It was just such a great experience, and I just am so happy that I got to be a part of it. I’m so grateful that I did.
If somebody recognizes you from the movie on the street, how would you suggest they approach you?
Just come up and say, “Hi.” Don’t feel shy because it’s cool to be acknowledged for your work, because I worked really hard, and to have someone come up to you and say that they like your work in the film is just such a gratifying thing. Don’t just awkwardly, sneakily take a photo, and just come up and ask if you want to meet me. I’ll say, “Hi,” and stuff. I’m a nice person, I’m not creepy. I’m not cutting heads off pigeons.
That seems like a good place to leave it. I really appreciate you talking to me.
Yeah, my pleasure.