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May 19, 2021

‘The only place I feel 100 per cent safe is on a set’

May 19, 2021

Leading the cast of horror film The Unholy is Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He talks about Covid-19, the need for escapism, and being a mentor.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan does not sugar-coat his feelings about the impact the pandemic had on his work.

Taking an eight-month break in the middle of filming The Unholy was a “horrible way to make a movie”, says the charismatic star.

Returning to the set of the horror film – based on the book Shrine, from acclaimed British author James Herbert – Morgan, 55, from Seattle in the US, suddenly found all conversations were about safety procedures for Covid-19.

“It wasn’t about, ‘What should I do with this character?’ or ‘How do I get back into character?’ There were never discussions about that,” says Morgan, who is arguably best known for his TV work (he has starred in Supernatural, Grey’s Anatomy and The Walking Dead).

“It was, ‘So I have to get tested three times a day’ and ‘I’ve got all these masks’. It was everything but what you normally talk about in a film. It took us a minute, trying to get back up to speed, and it was hard.”

But now, he reflects candidly, “the only place I feel 100% safe is on a set”.

“When we went to go back and do this movie, I didn’t [feel safe]; it was the first time I’d been out of my house in eight or nine months. Now it’s the only place I feel safe. I don’t like going to the grocery store, but I love going to work every day.”

The Unholy, directed and written for the silver screen by Evan Spiliotopoulos, sees Morgan play Gerry Fenn, a disgraced journalist turned stringer-for-hire, of supernatural tabloid fodder.

When he is sent to investigate a strange occurrence in a small farming community, Gerry, a born sceptic, quickly dismisses the incident as just another benign story.

But then he witnesses teenager Alice (Cricket Brown), who is deaf, whispering next to a petrified oak tree in the middle of a field, and a series of inexplicable events follows. Does Alice really have special powers that mean she can perform miracles?

Fenn sees an opportunity to redeem his reputation and resurrect his career, as the hopeful masses descend upon this off-the-beaten-path town.

But then he starts to question whether something more sinister is afoot, and enlists the help of Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton), the local doctor.

Father-of-two Morgan – he has two sons with One Tree Hill actress Hilarie Burton, who recently guest-starred in The Walking Dead alongside her husband – hopes that The Unholy gives viewers a chance to “disappear and get transported somewhere else”.

“I think that that in itself is needed more now than ever before,” he says, after the difficult year we have had.

He also recalls how being at home during the pandemic made him think about the theme of fake news that is explored in The Unholy.

It “wasn’t something that was really impressed on me when we originally started the movie”, he notes.

But after “being glued to the news for eight, nine months, and the fake news idea in the Trump press conferences every day”, the issue resonated more with him.

Indeed, Spiliotopoulos has said he always “wanted to tell a supernatural thriller in the framework of a journalism thriller” in the process of adapting Herbert’s book.

“The term ‘fake news’ is in the zeitgeist, so I tried to explore the consequences that ensue when a journalist loses their moral compass,” continues the Greek-American screenwriter, who wrote the script for the 2017 remake of Beauty And The Beast.

“Gerry is guilty of fabricating stories. At the beginning of our film, his self-serving actions open Pandora’s box. He wins great acclaim, revives his career, has a second chance at fame and success.

“But the results are catastrophic for the town of Banfield, the character of Alice, and potentially the entire world.

“From that perspective, the supernatural threat is a metaphor of very real social and political damage that can be done by intentionally false narratives in the media.”

Gerry’s story trajectory certainly takes viewers on a ride, which is what most attracted Morgan to the “well-rounded” part.

“We added a little bit more of a sense of humour as we went,” he follows.

“But he was this guy that we meet and is disgraced, a bit of a pr*ck, and then, through the course of this story, does get a little bit of a shot at redemption. And it’s fun because he acknowledges that he’s a pr*ck, and I got to sort of play with that.

“Evan gave me all sorts of room to have some fun with that character, and I did.”

Morgan had his first acting jobs back in the nineties, and other film credits include gritty action dramas like Watchmen and Rampage. But for his young co-star Cricket Brown, who is in her early twenties, this is a breakout role.

Is it important for Morgan to be helping the next generation of talent coming up through the ranks?

“Absolutely. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, so any little bits of wisdom or shortcuts, or just a pat on the back at the right time, is very important because this business can eat you up and spit you out.”

Brown has been studying acting for a long time, he adds. “But it’s a whole different deal to be on a set and with a camera in your face.

“I loved working with her,” he continues. “I loved the scenes of us just one on one, and her

trying to figure out what her process is going to be, and just kind of giving her the room to do it. That was key.

“I could see it clicking in her head through the course of a scene, and it was a really fun thing to watch. There’s only big, big things to come for her.” The Unholy is out in cinemas now.