The Haunting of Hill House and Hush actor on playing a fearless mom-to-be in the unsettling new Netflix series.
Kate Siegel usually brings trouble. In The Haunting of Hill House, she was the icy and disruptive Theo, the middle child of a cursed family, whose extrasensory abilities (and cutting sarcasm) made closeness with other people an impossibility. In the follow-up show, Bly Manor, she played the faceless, vengeful spirit Viola, who for centuries glided through the old English home while trapping new souls in her orbit of anguish. Even as the hero of the 2016 thriller Hush, starring as a deaf author stalked in her remote cabin by a slasher, her character is tougher—and more brutal—than her would-be predator assumes.
Each of those was made with her writer-director husband, Mike Flanagan, who has a penchant for tapping into his wife’s dark side. But their latest project together, the new Netflix series Midnight Mass, gives her a much different role to play: the nurturer. Siegel is sweet and sunny school teacher and single soon-to-be mom Erin Greene, whose warmth, unflappability, and basic decency provide stability in her small fishing village when bizarre “miracles” start to upend the island.
“When Midnight Mass came around, I said to him, maybe for the first time in my career, ‘Mike, I have to play this part. I know this woman,’” Siegel says. “I had just gone through two pregnancies, and I was dealing with focusing on some trauma in my life that I was working through. And I was like, I think I can bring a certain amount of joy.” The actor describes Erin as someone who “crawled through broken glass, left an abusive relationship,” and ended up back in her tiny hometown, pregnant and soon to face the otherworldly. But Siegel felt she could bring something additional: “a single ray of sunshine of hope from being at rock bottom.”
Flanagan says that perspective brought vitality to a story that sometimes veers into deep darkness. “Erin is going to be a mother, and she’s one of the only things on the island that represents new life and new birth,” he says. “Everything else on Crockett Island is kind of rusting away. All the young people have left, and everyone who’s trying to keep this island alive are slowly dying on the vine.”
Erin is one of the few people to show kindness to the island’s prodigal son, Riley (Zach Gilford), when he returns after serving time in prison for killing a young woman in a drunk driving accident. He can’t forgive himself, but he finds comfort in Erin’s welcome. She’s also a woman of faith, and when a new Catholic priest, Father Paul (played by Hamish Linklater), arrives on the island, bringing a series of inexplicable miracles with him, she’s at first as entranced as the others. But she’s also among the first to realize something is wrong. In a series full of twists and reversals, even the audience knows Erin is someone whose judgment can be trusted.
“Kate, as an actor, has been waiting and ready for a character like Erin for years,” Flanagan says. “This has a warmth and a vulnerability and a softness that she’s never gotten to play before. And in a story as dark and cold and hard as this one can be at times, that’s a wonderful thing. I think we needed it.”
Siegel, 39, spoke with Vanity Fair about the long and fraught journey to making Midnight Mass, her awkward early years in the film industry, and how her partnership with Flanagan changed her as an actor.
Vanity Fair: When Mike’s developing something like this, at what point do you begin discussing whether you’ll be in it and which character you might play? Like how, how did you come to be Erin?
Kate Siegel: The genesis of it is I let Mike do his magic and trust that he knows who I am as a performer. That, to me, is the benefit of working with someone who knows me inside and out. There’s a trust level and a faith level. And so with Theodora Crane [in The Haunting of Hill House], I didn’t really campaign for that. He was like, “I think you might be right for Theo.” And I had to audition and I booked the part. I’m sure I had a leg up there, but you know, it wasn’t that way when Midnight Mass came around, I said to him, maybe for the first time in my career, Mike, I have to play this part….
What made her so appealing, as opposed to some of the other roles in the story?
The message that Erin brings, hopefully, is that in a world where there’s fanaticism everywhere, Erin is somewhere in the middle. She’s listening and she’s making her own decisions.
Even before it gets weird, she’s there to rescue people. There’s an early scene where Riley’s on the street and he sees his old friend, and Erin smiles at him. It’s such a warm, inviting smile, and I think it’s the first time anybody is actually happy to see him in the show. He needs that, and that big-heartedness makes her the kind of person the viewer wants to hang with.
Zach Gilford was a generous and giving scene partner, and I love him in that moment because it’s true: We were all trapped in our little island community because of circumstances with COVID. We only had each other, and his face was the only face I could see. Like, I couldn’t even see Mike’s face. I can’t see the camera op’s space. They had the KN95 masks. They were still doing the goggles and the shields and they can’t come within six feet of us. The authenticity for me was just letting that feeling out, which was: It’s so good to see a face that I know. It’s so good to be here with you.
Were you isolated from Mike during the shoot? Did you guys have to compartmentalize?
You couldn’t be together with your husband during the shoot?
We didn’t go into work together, but we were in a pod together. So at home, we were allowed to be unmasked together and like, sleep with each other. Thank God, or else I would die. But once we got to work, I was in the red zone. And so in order to speak to me, he had to wear his mask, his goggles, his face shield. For the first time in my career, it was the most separate I’ve been from my director.
This was one of the first productions to go when filming resumed after the initial lockdown. What was that like?
We were supposed to start on March 16th, 2020. And we all got sent home from Canada on March 15th saying it’s a two week hold. It wasn’t. Shocker.
Instead it was almost half a year.
What ended up happening was all these sets just sat on different land in Vancouver on the beach and they aged. Because our sets were ready to go, and because you could make the town a very isolated community and we didn’t need that many extras, and because literally every shot was prepared and ready to be done, Netflix was kind of like, “Why don’t you guys head back up there. See what happens.” We never shut down, not one day. We were very, very careful.
Mike says he shopped this story around for years and it got rejected by almost every network. When you get sent home like that, after finally getting the green light, was there a lot of fear of like, maybe it’s going to fall apart?
It was an everyday fear. And I don’t mean that as the same fear we had about the health of our family and friends. But I would walk into the room at least once a week and say to Mike, “Just tell me—is the show canceled? Right? It’s canceled. We don’t get to do it. Just tell me.” And he was like, “Kate, no one knows.” I would call Samantha Sloyan [who plays the island’s oppressive church busybody Bev) and we would be like, “Well, if we never get to do it, we did have that one table reading, where we read all seven episodes straight through. We didn’t record it. We didn’t tape it, but we all did it.” But that would not have been enough. It would have been such a miserable loss.
I wondered if we could go back a little and talk about how you and Mike met.
Mike first met me when I was doing a play. I did The Heidi Chronicles at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and he came and saw it. He then asked me to audition for an indie movie that never went. That audition was as satisfying as about three years of work, because I was used to being part of the cattle process of it. Mike was there, and the producers were there, and we did the scene and they liked it. He adjusted me a couple of times and then he sat back and said, “All right, why don’t you do one just for yourself. Do it how you would like to do it.” If it was a cartoon, I would have had “tilt” written across my eyes. I had forgotten what it felt like to do it for myself. All of a sudden, I was very interested in this person creatively. He was somebody who was willing to give one of 43 20-something brunettes the time it took to do something of value. That’s a special human.
But the movie didn’t happen. So, when did you meet again?
He called me up a couple of months later and said, “I have a thankless part for you in my movie, Oculus, somebody dropped out because they broke their leg. I’m really into the way you work and you collaborate. Can you come out and be this ghost?” I said okay, and then the offer came in and it was a featured extra. And I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I need a line. I need something. I want something.” And I wouldn’t have said that under normal circumstances, but I thought he might understand. And he did.
Your Marisol Chavez is one of the freaky victims of this supernatural mirror. It’s scary even though she doesn’t say a lot. Did that satisfy what you needed?
Marisol had a scene that I believe was cut out. I’d say probably it was him placating me a little bit. And I appreciate that. Over the course of Oculus, we had a lot of conversations and, um, I am willing to say that both of us were partnered at the time and things got complicated. We both had to make some tough decisions. Speed through three years—fast forward—and we came back together. At that time there was a sense of freedom and choice. We loved and respected and cared deeply for each other. And so our relationship was built on two people that walked through fire together.
You mentioned that you were in the business for 10 years before you felt like you had a breakthrough.
I was in the business 10 years before I figured it out.
What were some of your early roles? Did you have a commercial or TV role or something else that kept you going?
I worked with [The Shawshank Redemption director] Frank Darabont early on in my career in Mob City, which was going to be a big thing. I played this weird Jersey version of a madam at a brothel. And I was in my underwear! But this is very much what the 10 years of my struggle was like, I would get this, on paper, very easy role: Prostitute runs a brothel, wears underpants. Most girls would just show up and do that correctly, and then they would move forward with their career. I would be in there with like a “Joisey” accent, and I’m ready to make a whole world out of three lines. Like I have notebooks, and backstory.
Isn’t that a good thing, though?
That was too much work for that part. So I had to learn how to drive my own car, you know? Sometimes you have to be in first gear, and grind it, and get it there, and sometimes it’s an easy drive to the grocery store, Kate. Not everything needs a backstory and a binder, and you’re never gonna get a gold star. You’re never going to get upgraded. You have to figure this out.
Does that come from having a writer’s spirit as well as being an actress? You later co-wrote Hush with Mike. It seems like you enjoy that part of it.
I love being a part of stories. I love figuring it out, looking at the story of Midnight Mass and figuring out who Erin is in that story, what the story needs from her and delivering that. I think it’s also part of being someone who loves her job and loves movies. So that can sometimes make me overwork.
Do you think that cost you roles?
Definitely. I’m certain that at that time I was wearing the blinders of desperation and need, and I wasn’t aware of my place in the machine, of what was required of me. It’s the same thing that makes me put a Jersey accent on a character who didn’t need one. It’s like, “Oh, she’s adventurous and she’s forward about her ambition.” But if you are not self-aware along with that, it can be very off-putting.
What made you want to get into performing? Were you a theater kid in school?
I never wanted to do anything else. Really. I briefly wanted to work in international finance. There’s pretty good money in that, right. And I thought that’s a great way to make global change, but no, I always was drawn to acting for a gamut of reasons. Depending on the day I would argue it was because I didn’t get enough attention as a child or because I love getting to know new people. It’s hard to pin down, but I knew I’ve always wanted to do it.
How did you start out? Did you move to New York or to L.A. and start auditioning for things?
I got my BFA at Syracuse University in theater acting. That is a cut system, which means after your second year, they make you audition. If you’re good enough, you can go on to get your BFA. And if you’re not good enough, you have to go get your BA. I failed that three times, but I would not give up. I have a relentless stubbornness and I kept going back and going back and going back.
What was that time like for you?
I was very sad and very lonely and everything felt very impossible. I saw a listing one day, paging through Backstage, and there was an audition for the Folger Shakespeare Theatre to do Much Ado About Nothing. And I was like, maybe it’ll just feel nice to do some Shakespeare.
And you got a part?
As is the story of my life, I didn’t book that one, but they liked me enough. I made it to the final round of callbacks and they called me up to understudy Juliet for the next one. I was like, Yes! I was chugging along having a nice time, carving out some space in the DC theater scene. I auditioned for and booked a beautiful play named columbinus that was supposed to tour. I was going to go to Alaska and it was going to go to Chicago, then it was going to New York. I was like, finally, my life, it’s going to start happening!
And was that the start of it all?
We did the table read, and I got fired after the table read. Heartbreaking. Like, I can’t. I have my journals from that time, and this girl was suffering so hard. Again, it wasn’t cruelty from the part of the director or any of that. I think I just overthought it. I was getting in my own way so many times, and I sat there and I cried and I cried and I cried. And I talked to some of my friends and I swear to God, I sat there and I said: “I’m going to New York or L.A.” That’s the approach—the stubbornness. So many times it would have been easier to just say, “Well, I’ve got a nice foothold in the DC theater scene so I could keep working,” but I didn’t. I flipped a coin. I ended up in L.A. and then I just like, kept banging my head against the wall.
There’s a moral there about perseverance.
I just wouldn’t stop. It’s not a remarkable story. I booked some things, I didn’t book others. I took classes, I worked very hard. I got lucky. I wrote Hush with my partner and he happened to have relationships that helped that movie get made. And then I worked my face off on that part. I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked on anything. And then once that was done, I started to realize that I had enough muscle, I needed flexibility. And so I started to work on that. I think Midnight Mass is the cumulation of that.
Work your face off is a good turn of phrase, especially given your role in Bly Manor as a ghost who doesn’t have one.
I love Viola. She takes a lot of heat, but I love her. Her ambition ate her alive.
How did you and Mike decide that role was for you, as opposed to one of the others in that series?
I had just had my baby, my daughter. [Our son] Cody is now almost 5 and Theodora is almost 3. I was hearing about all the fun parts on Bly. One day they brought me in and said, we have something for you. And I was literally expecting, like, I dunno, the mail lady, because they wanted a cameo. I was like, “Well, I’m not quite ready to work yet, I’m still breastfeeding…” Then they told me the story of Viola, and I was like, yes, yes, yes, yes. I’m going to get a nanny right now.
What’s on the horizon for you? I know you’re appearing in the new adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife.
I have a film coming out in October called Hypnotic, which is one of those very fun psychosexual, thrillers, PG-13 in the vein of Kiss the Girls or Sleeping With the Enemy, which are movies I loved growing up. The ability to play that kind of leading lady has been really exciting. The next big thing is The Time Traveler’s Wife, where I play Henry’s mother, Annette, and she is a famous opera singer from the 1980s. Talk about big hair, jewels, full gown, and lip-syncing 24 bars of Italian opera on the stage. There were two bodyguards who had to follow me around because of my jewels. This is the kind of thing 7-year-old little Katie Siegelbaum dreamed of.