Kate Siegel became an artist to give a voice to the voiceless. As a child, she turned to stories to articulate the emotions that she felt at any given moment. That purpose has guided her throughout her career as she’s solidified herself as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after scream queens.
This September, Kate stars as Erin Greene in the much-buzzed-about new series, Midnight Mass. Now available on Netflix, Midnight Mass follows an isolated island community that begins to experience miraculous events and frightening omens after the arrival of a charismatic, mysterious young priest.
Pop-Culturalist was lucky enough to speak with Kate about Midnight Mass, how the series tackles fanaticism, and the scene that she’s most excited for fans to see.
P-C: How did you discover your passion for storytelling?
Kate: I was a very sensitive child. I had a lot of emotions that I couldn’t name. My literal vocabulary didn’t expand past things like “sad”, “happy”, “sleepy”, which are the words we teach our children, but I always felt a combination of those. Sometimes I felt sleepy and happy, which we learn is comfort and things like that. Through stories, I was able to say to my mom, “It feels like a big ogre is chasing me,” when I was feeling anxious. It brought me so much relief that I wanted to be part of it and a part of that lineage of storytellers that help people to express themselves.
P-C: Who or what has had the biggest influence on your career?
Kate: That’s a multifaceted question because it starts small and then expands. My sister had a huge amount of influence on me, professionally, because I knew I wanted to be an actor when I saw her play Sarah Brown in her middle school production of Guys and Dolls. I saw the way people looked at her and the way she was able to express herself. I wanted some of that. That competitive spirit with my sister set me on that path. There were also teachers along the way that helped narrow down what I wanted to do.
Some of my bigger overall influences tend to be authors like Stephen King and the way that his stories affected me and the way I wanted to help the world. When my father died, the first thing I did was turn to books. There’s a Stephen King book called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon—it’s about a young girl who gets lost in the woods and has to find her way out. I would read that obsessively over and over and over again, because that’s how I felt. Again, it was the language of grief that I didn’t have words for. My whole career has been about giving touchstones for people who might’ve been suffering or feeling underrepresented or feel joyous in a way that they can’t express in their life to be like, “It’s like that! I’m having that moment where Erin saw Riley [Zach Gilford] in Midnight Mass for the first time and has conflicted feelings.” It’s giving people a vocabulary.
P-C: You’ve had a lot of success throughout your career. When you look back, is there a particular moment that stands out to you?
Kate: I remember sitting at dinner waiting to go see a movie at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinemas when we got the phone call that Hush got the green light, and we were going to make the movie. The financing had come through, and they were going to let me play the lead, and Mike [Flanagan] was going to direct. I went to the bathroom of a now closed-down restaurant, and I cried in a very dramatic Kate way thinking that things like this don’t happen to people like me because I had struggled to be a professional actor for a decade-plus at that time. I had given up on the idea that I might get to be, even in the most literal sense, a movie star. I thought I would always be something small or something to the side, and that would be enough. But in that moment, my whole life changed.
P-C: In those more challenging times, how were you able to persevere?
Kate: There are things that make it easier, and there are things that make it harder in the face of rejection. Things that make it easier are good friendships, getting enough sleep at night, a belief in what you’re doing—that you’re doing something good, and you should keep going—a sense of humor about your situation, a sense of perspective that losing a part is not the same as losing a limb, even though it might feel the same.
Then, there are things that make it harder, like drugs and alcohol, stuff that makes you want to quit things right away. You’re like, “I’m going to do drugs and then I don’t have to worry about anything else.” I actually think that something that held me back for a while was my competitive spirit. It made it really hard to deal with rejection, because if you’re keeping track of the runners next to you and you trip, then it’s hard to keep going, but if you’re not watching anybody and you trip, it’s all right, because who the heck cares?
P-C: That’s a great answer. You’ve got a new series coming out on Netflix called Midnight Mass. Mike has referred to the project in previous projects that you’ve been involved with. What is your earliest recollection of the story, and what can audiences expect?
Kate: The first time I heard about Midnight Mass was when we were making Hush. Because it was a low-budget movie, we needed a story that Maddie, the main character could write—she’s an author in the story. We needed a book that wouldn’t cost us any money. We didn’t have to buy the rights to anything. Mike was like, “Oh, I have this now-defunct idea for a novel called Midnight Mass. I have three chapters written. We can use that so we can use those pages, and we can use that story.”
We used it. If you look, there’s a screengrab in Hush where you’re looking at Maddie’s computer screen and it says, “The red and blue lights of the cop car twinkle off the Jesus fish.” That’s the first shot of Midnight Mass, which is, for those of you who haven’t read anything about it, a series about a small fishing community on an island that is very insular, and they have closed ranks. Then, a young priest arrives at the church and miracles begin to happen.
P-C: Erin is one of two characters in the series who finds her way back to the small island community, and she’s suffered a lot throughout her life. What was your preparation like bringing all of her different layers to life?
Kate: My preparation for Erin was a lot more of stripping away than adding things on. When Erin comes back home, which happens months before the show starts, she’s a bit more settled in than Riley is when he comes home. She has come back there to hide from somebody in her past, but she’s had to come back to a place of her trauma to hide. That’s deeply uncomfortable for Erin. She speaks about it in the scene at the crock-potluck, which is a community picnic. Her mom has recently died, and she’s living in the house she grew up in and sleeping in the bed her mom used to sleep in, and teaching at the school her mom used to teach at. It was very much on the page. It was written what needed to be performed for Erin.
I have a habit of overthinking things and writing large backstories for my character and having crazy ideas. I let myself have all of those thoughts and come up with these crazy ideas. Then, I have to strip it away and strip it away because Crockett Island is full of these incredible characters. What Erin needed to be was a light, like a soft lamp in that group of monsters. In order to let my own personal light shine through her, I had to remove all the dust, all the gunk, all the ideas, and all the choices, and look at Zach Gilford’s sweet face or listen to Hamish [Linklater] give a rousing homily and be present. It’s like a meditation.
P-C: One of the central relationships in Erin’s life is her friendship with Riley. They have this beautiful arc throughout the seven episodes. How did you and Zach approach the dynamic between your two characters?
Kate: Zach and I could not be more different actor types. [laughs] Zach loves to say, “I don’t know. I memorize the lines and I show up.” I’m over here obsessively note-taking. But we had a chemistry read early on and there was an ease. Because the way that shooting works with something like this: it’s not shot in order—we started with the scenes in the rowboat, which if you’ve seen it, it’s intense emotional work. We dove right in. After the first day, there was a sense of faith between the two of us, a sense of trust, a sense of safe space, where it was like, no matter what he was going through, no matter what he was going to show me, I was going to follow him.
The same was true for me. He was never going to cringe if I hit a false note and needed to go back and do a moment again. He was never going to tease. We were never going to mock each other, which isn’t always the case. Acting is a very embarrassing thing to do. It’s something we are told as children that it’s time to give up. If you’re still playing make-believe at 38, it’s a little bit like you’re still doing something for children. We’re all afraid people are going to laugh at us, and no one wants to be teased. It was that level of friendship and trust that I think is what you look for in chemistry between your two romantic leads. We just have chemistry. I lucked into getting to work with someone like Zach Gilford.
P-C: That’s the perfect segue to this next question. Without giving any spoilers, there are two really heartbreaking events that happen in Episodes 4 and 5 that involve your character. As an artist, how do you get into the mindset for those scenes? In Episode 4, it’s very subtle, and in Episode 5, it’s very outward. Is one more challenging than the other?
Kate: Whichever one comes second is more challenging, because you do one, either the subtle or the big one, and you think, “That worked. I did it. I have achieved acting.” Then, you go to approach the next one and the same tricks don’t work. It’s like the things that I used, the skills I used to scream and cry, are very different than the skills I use to deliver a subtle monologue. But I’m always afraid that I’ll go up and ba-dum-dum, and it won’t happen. You always want to stick the landing because if you don’t then you lose points. This wasn’t the case with Theo Crane from Hill House; that was more about holding on. It was about tightening it all in and keeping everything hot and pressured. With Erin, it was always about letting go. It was always about breathing deeper, being stiller, preparing less for a moment, and then allowing my imagination to flood with the visuals that either I’m seeing or I’m thinking, and then letting it flesh out.
P-C: Like you were just saying, Erin is such a contrast to the different characters we’ve seen you play in the past. Is there a particular scene that you’re really excited for your fans to see?
Kate: There’s a scene on the porch with me and Riley—this doesn’t give away anything, so it’s not a spoiler—but we talk about Shark Tank, and it’s a flirty moment between these two characters. It’s the closest to Kate that I’ve gotten to bring to one of my characters. It’s me being silly and happy to be there, talking about TV shows and making jokes. There hasn’t been a lot of Kate in Theodora Crane or in Viola. To be able to truly be myself on camera was a lot of fun.
P-C: There are so many incredible themes within the series about faith, morality, forgiveness. Was there one in particular that hit home for you?
Kate: There’s a message in Midnight Mass that isn’t necessarily in the front of its storytelling, which is about the power of a moderate faith. We have these two polar opposites, which are Father Paul who represents this religious ideal, and Riley who is a militant Atheist. We talk a lot of fanaticism on either side, but what is sometimes overlooked is that Erin Greene is a moderate Catholic. She came to religion late in her life. She never turns from God. She never rips off her Mary medallion and throws it in the water. She never throws her Bible to her ground. She’s relentlessly in her faith, which is a personal expression of love.
In the end, oh gross, I’m about to say love conquers all. But it’s true, right? In the end, a lot of people fall, but Erin’s faith is there for her until the end. That was something that I came to with a lot of judgment. Myself in my life, I was never particularly one to believe in a higher power or particularly one to have a faith that I couldn’t see with my own eyes. I wanted to see it before I believe it. There was something about playing Erin that opened that door for me. That “What if?”. What if there is something greater than me that actually cares? I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I liked playing the character.
P-C: What do you hope audiences take away after seeing the series?
Kate: I think audiences need to remember that fanaticism in any of its forms can destroy you and your community.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
P-C: Guilty pleasure TV show?
Kate: FBoy Island. I count down the days until the next season.
P-C: Guilty pleasure movie?
Kate: Troop Beverly Hills.
P-C: Favorite book?
Kate: The serious answer is The Stand by Stephen King. If you love Midnight Mass, the show, you will love the book The Stand. And then, let’s see. What’s a guilty pleasure book I love to read? Oh, I love anything that’s like a mystery in a New England prep school. Anything like that, that has that Gossip Girl feel to it, I love it. But I’ll put a fancy book cover over it, so people don’t know I’m just reading YA fluff. I love it.
P-C: Favorite play or musical?
Kate: The Crucible. You never forget your first. My high school character was Abigail and there’s always a whiff of Abigail in everything else I do.
P-C: A band or artist that fans would be surprised to learn is on your playlist?
Kate: That’s a great question. I’m a Counting Crows apologist. August and Everything After is on my most played list. It’s definitely on my desert island top five, and it might be number one.
P-C: Who would play you in the story of your life?
Kate: I’m not giving up that job, so the answer is me.