Known for Krampus: The Reckoning and Blind People, in The Covenant, Monica Engesser is Sarah Doyle, a troubled woman who returns to her childhood home with her estranged brother Richard (Owen Conway) after the tragic deaths of her husband and daughter. When Sarah begins to experience violent and hostile supernatural phenomena, Richard enlists the aid of a paranormal investigator who confirms that Sarah has become possessed by a powerful demon. Together, the three men fight to save Sarah’s soul. In this one-on-one interview, Engesser reveals what attracted her to the role and the challenges she faced in making this chilling film.
This film draws us in slowly, then hits you between the eyes with haunting, disturbing images. What attracted you to the role of Sarah?
Monica Engesser: Creating two characters for the same project, which was very cool for an actor. There’s this very realistic portrait of a woman grieving, and then there’s the possessed woman, who was completely taken over by a demonic force. When I read the script, it sounded like a fun project. They say actors are a little crazy. I thought it would be an opportunity to really develop two characters and try to make it uniform, so you could still see at least a little bit of Sarah when she’s a full blown demon.
Did you audition for the role? What was that like?
Engesser: I had worked with Robert (Conway) before. He sent me some sides and I believe the full script. I like getting the script because you can add so much if know the whole story. First I sent him a tape of Sarah having a fight with her brother, Richard, then a tape of the demon scene where there’s lots of Latin. And that got me the role.
Sarah lost her child and her husband. What did you draw from to get into the role of this tragically disturbed, possessed woman?
Engesser: It’s very hard to imagine that scenario. I’ve been lucky in my life that I haven’t had any close family members or friends go through a terminal illness. I also haven’t lost anyone close to me through suicide. But some of my friends have lost children and parents, or have lost people through suicide. So a lot of it is really listening to other people and what that experience is like for them. I do have a son, who is just over a year old, and I was away from him while we were filming. So I was able to draw on missing him and experience that kind of hole in your heart when you’re not there or when I might never see him again. There is real suffering in the world that people have to deal with, so you want to bring as much authenticity as possible when portraying that, just out of respect for people who have lost a child or loved one.
What was it like seeing yourself in that Linda Blair bed scene where you’re covered in scars and blood?
Engesser: (laughs) It was a little surreal. Catherine (Cat Bernier) is a fantastic make up artist and she had this vision of this biblical, pestilence-covered leprous demon. It was quite a process to get all that makeup on. But it was very helpful, for if you see what’s looking back at you in the mirror, it definitely gets you in this evil, creepy mindset.
For some actors, a film like The Covenant would be emotionally draining. What did you find most challenging about being in this film?
Engesser: It was draining, and I would say more physically than emotionally, especially for the exorcism scenes. When you’re in makeup like that, you need to let go, but you also have to be aware of this piece of latex glued here and that you’re wearing silicone, so you can’t really twist your neck a particular way. There are many levels of awareness when you’re filming scenes like that. Also, a lot of grieving scenes for Sarah were emotionally draining. Again, you want to be as authentic as possible, so I had to make myself really sad for several days of shooting. It’s funny, the scene where I see Elizabeth’s ghost outside is kind of weird because to the audience, you can see that she’s not really there and that Sarah’s actually crazy. Yet for Sarah, it was one of the happiest moments because she was seeing her daughter again.
Was the film shot as scripted or did you or director Robert Conway make any changes during shooting?
Engesser: There were a couple of changes, but not much. There’s a necklace that Elizabeth and I wear, which I thought would be kind of cool in that there was something we saw that was hers as a tangible part throughout the film. There were some little things that Owen and I added in our sibling relationship—like when I found an old picture of us in the house. Robert is incredibly generous as a writer and director.
Looks like you have a full plate of upcoming thrillers for 2017–Possession Diaries, JackRabbit 29 and Breakdown Lane–what attracts you to these types of films?
Engesser: I’m not sure exactly. I think that bizarre roles are a lot of fun. I’ve always played creatures and aliens, and I think much of that is because I’m 5’ 11”—taller than your average girl—so early on, I tended not to get cast as the ingénue, love interest, or your basic leading lady. I got more creature-esque or alien roles. As an actor, I really enjoy exploring all the various facets of humanity. It’s not that I go out of my way to do these horror films; it’s just what happens to find me.
I keep hoping to see you in a rom-com where you get a chance to laugh a bit.
Engesser: (laughs) I would love to do a comedy. I did stand up comedy when I first moved to L.A. I love making people laugh.