Interview: Elisha Cuthbert on returning to horror in The Cellar

Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) and Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) Woods in ‘The Cellar’

Nearly two decades ago, writer-director Brendan Muldowney released The Ten Steps, a short film in which a family’s young daughter faces her fear of their new home’s eerie basement. Clearly, the idea had its claws deep in Muldowney: 2022 sees the release of a fully-fledged feature film realisation of that original premise in the form of The Cellar.

Much has happened in the film business since The Ten Steps was released back in 2004. The horror genre in particular has seen an enormous boom in recent years; a hungry audience awaits new chills and scares.

Canadian actor Elisha Cuthbert — whose eclectic career includes the role of Kim Bauer in Fox’s 24, the 2005 remake of House of Wax and sitcoms including Happy Endings and Netflix’s The Ranch — returns to the horror fold after a long, self-imposed break as the lead in The Cellar.

After her daughter mysteriously disappears while exploring the cellar of the family’s new home, Keira Woods (Cuthbert) begins to discover bizarre clues that suggest the disappearance may be the work of an other-worldly force.

We had the immense pleasure of speaking to Elisha about how her approach to accepting roles has evolved throughout her career, what drew her to the role of Keira Woods in The Cellar and what her many years in the acting industry has taught her about herself.

Although The Cellar is an Irish production, your character is Canadian much like yourself, and it’s simply a character detail rather than an important plot point. Small details like that can be such a compelling element in a film. How did you initially become involved in The Cellar, and how did that idea for the character come about?

Elisha: Yeah, Brendan (Muldowney) and I spoke on that. There was talk of maybe writing in where she was from — then I remember saying to Brendan, “I don’t even think we really need it”. 

I don’t think it moves the story along in any way. People are married to people from all over the world, and I think audiences are smart enough to know that it’s a non-issue. But it’s interesting; it adds a level of intrigue. We certainly had a backstory for them — Brian and Keira — we thought maybe they met in school, and then she moved and stayed there for whatever reason. There were talks about maybe writing something in there in an earlier draft. But ultimately, we thought it wasn’t necessary.

As far as getting involved in the project, I had seen another actor that my agent works with working with Brendan before. I got sent the short, The Ten Steps, which was Brendan’s short film prior to this feature film, and then read the feature after. I was really intrigued by The Ten Steps; I thought it was an interesting concept. 

In its feature length it was really intriguing, because he had brought this mathematical element to it that I thought was really clever, and I loved how it ended – without giving anything away. It really threw me for a loop. I didn’t see it coming, which is rare, because I read a lot of stuff. So I thought that was really cool, and was like, “yeah, I want this. I want to make this movie”.

What awaits the Woods family beyond the tenth step?

In recent interviews you’ve spoken a little about how it feels to be back in genre film after quite a long break. House of Wax in particular has quite a cult following, which seems to have grown in recent years. What in particular made you feel that now was the right time to dip your toes into that familiar water again?

Elisha: I think that in our industry, sometimes when you’re successful at one thing, the industry itself can try and label you. Everyone wants to put labels on everything. I felt like I needed enough distance.

There’s nothing wrong with being a scream queen – if you’re good in the genre, I think it’s a compliment. So I take the compliment if that’s what people want to give me. But I also wanted to represent other things in my arsenal so that I wasn’t just a one-trick pony. After House of Wax, a lot of genre films were flooding in. It was really something I wanted to pump the breaks on, because I really wanted to try and tackle some other things before we started going down on singular road, if that makes sense.

When Roland Joffé came around, it was “oh, I want to work with this filmmaker”. Captivity transpired from that. With The Cellar, it was a woman’s point-of-view that I have never played before. I’ve never got to be the mother that is at odds with a teenage daughter, and also having to rescue and save her children. I thought that was interesting, especially coming off 24 back in the day – the roles were reversed. I thought, “wow, this is a cool way to sort of step back into those Jack Bauer shoes”. In a different way, of course – but there was something intriguing about that.

Elisha’s Keira Woods will stop at nothing to protect her children in The Cellar

Over the years of your career as an actor, have you found that the roles you’re being offered are drastically different to those from the earlier days? And are there particular kinds of characters that appeal to you much more now as a reflection of yourself?

Elisha: I think I shied away from certain things when I was younger, out of fear. I try not to do that anymore. I try to listen to that fear, and make sure that it’s one of truth and that it’s really not my story to tell, because sometimes fear can hold you back from growth. So I do now have the sense that, sometimes, challenging things can be good.

When I was younger, I didn’t quite grasp that concept so well. I’ve turned down things like, for example, after one project is done and I feel like I need to shift and pivot to make sure that I stay on track on that pivot, and don’t just let myself slide back into what’s easy.

I think I remember turning down a vampire show that was going to be successful. I wasn’t really in the mind space to play this vampire for the next five years. It wasn’t where I was at mentally, or what I was ready to do. There have been projects along the way that have been great, but just didn’t really speak to me. Those can be big commitments, and your heart really has to be in it.

It must be very difficult to weigh up opportunities like that. If you look at the big franchises in Hollywood like at Marvel, some of these roles are commitments of a decade or more. Anyone taking on being Spider-Man has to ask themselves if they truly want to dedicate a chunk of their career and life to that.

Elisha: Yeah, and a lot of those are on such a big scale that they can almost define your career, depending on how long your career ends up going. You’re so known for that one major role that it’s then a job to shift and pivot and do things that are really far from that to escape the labels.

Across your career, there’s quite a varied spread of genres and types of projects between television and film. Has that been a very active effort?

Elisha: It’s been pretty active. Especially after 24 and diving into TV, there was a lot of one-hour dramas being brought to my attention. I was so adamant about wanting to do comedy, and ending up not working for a whole year because I just kept turning down all these dramatic roles on TV.

But I stuck to my guns, and ended up getting Happy Endings and that all came together. It was such a beautiful experience, and it was worth the wait, but that year felt like ten. I’m like, “am I doing the right thing here? I could be on a show right now”. 

But it was very strategic in that way. The projects themselves, like Happy Endings, I never anticipated happening. But the idea of wanting to shift has always been very much calculated. After that, it was “what have I not done?”. All of a sudden, The Ranch comes along, and it’s a sitcom and in front of an audience. That’s something I’ve never done before, so let’s have at it! For me, it’s always about the evolution of trying to change and to do different things and not constantly the same, over and over again.

THE CELLAR is now in cinemas and streaming on Shudder.

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