Many aspiring performers dream of the glitz and glam that can come out of a career in front of the camera, but for Kirby Johnson, playing “the dead girl” in a series like “Dexter” was more on her to-do list, and thankfully for horror lovers, the Universe was listening. As the mostly-deceased star of the new film “The Possession of Hannah Grace,” the Florida native is bringing the jump scares to audiences everywhere this weekend, portraying the terrifying title character with the bendable body.
We recently sat down with Johnson to discuss the difficulty of playing dead, turning party tricks into a career, and why she’s a bit like Harry Potter to her family.
TrunkSpace: “The Possession of Hannah Grace” seems like it could be one of those defining moments for your acting career. How have you been handling the wait because it must be one of those things where you’re eager to see it released?
Johnson: Yeah, definitely. It’s been a really long process. We filmed about two years ago in Boston, so it’s been such a waiting game for me. I’m like, “Let’s put it out! Let’s put it out! Let’s put it out!” (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: Did it start to feel real when the trailer and poster were released?
Johnson: Absolutely. It didn’t even feel real until I woke up one morning and they released the poster. Then they released the trailer, and I’m a huge moviegoer – I go to the movies about once a week, I’m nuts – I went to the movie theater, and I’m walking down the hall, and my poster was hanging in my movie theater. I just lost it. I was like, “Oh, this is so for real!”
TrunkSpace: That poster is fantastic. It should be your holiday card. (Laughter)
Johnson: Well, thank you. Yeah, Halloween is my favorite holiday. This is very fitting for me.
TrunkSpace: It seems like you had to do some real heavy dramatic stuff, particularly in the exorcism scenes. Was it easy keeping that heaviness assigned to the set, or did the weight of it sometimes come home with you just because of the nature of the material?
Johnson: You know, you would think it would be some dark, and dramatic, and heavy to process for me, but it really wasn’t at all. I just approached it the way I would approach any sort of character – just the same as I would approach a young teenage romance. You just take the character in, and you just let it come to life, and then once the cameras stop rolling, you just have to let it go.
TrunkSpace: You’re playing dead – literally – for much of the movie. Was that difficult, just having to stay still and motionless for so long?
Johnson: Oh me, oh my! The hardest was keeping my damn eyes open for so long!
TrunkSpace: That has to be brutal because even if you’re not front and center in frame, you’re still in the scene, which means, no blinking!
Johnson: Absolutely. Just to hold it, and hold it, and hold it… and being in the scene, you know when the last words are. So I’m like, “I know we have a few more sentences until I can break and the scene is done.”
I could beat anybody in a staring contest at this point. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: (Laughter) Whenever you tell yourself to not do something, like blink, your mind starts to fight you and you end up blinking. It’s a viscous cycle.
Johnson: It’s so bad. Or even… I’m sure you’ve seen the trailer. My positions are not the comfiest, and I’m a contortionist, but to hold those for a long period of time, you get a muscle cramp. The other actors will be doing so well, and I’m like, “Damn it, don’t move! Just stay!”
TrunkSpace: You mentioned being a contortionist, and like you just pointed out, you got to show off those skills in this. How important were those serpentine bends and moves in terms of laying the foundation of Hannah’s creepiness, because it definitely plays off in the trailer?
Johnson: It’s so funny because everyone keeps saying, “You’re a contortionist! You’re a contortionist!” Yes, I am, but I’m not trained or anything. It was really, honestly, just some party tricks where I would be like, “Hey, I can pop my shoulders out of their sockets. Everybody check it out.” It wasn’t anything I ever studied or practiced, but I am the biggest horror movie fan. That is a huge part, to be able to do that creepy, weird, slow bending of the body. It brings the scare factor to life to be able to do that and not have it CGI. It’s so gross. It’s disgusting, in the best way.
TrunkSpace: To be able to turn party tricks into a job, that’s a pretty awesome thing!
Johnson: Yeah. The audition process was funny. They just wanted me to cry and do some weird arm movements, but I knew what they were looking for. I knew I was auditioning for a horror movie. I have seen them all, so I was like, “Oh, wait, let me show you what else I can do.” So, I got down on the floor and I was just crawling around in this very important casting office, crawling around the floor like a creep. It got me the job.
TrunkSpace: Sounds like you used your knowledge of horror as a tool in your toolbox.
Johnson: Of course. Do you know the show “Dexter?”
Johnson: Okay. When I was living in Florida, before I had moved out here, I was watching “Dexter” and I was saying to my family, “I’ll play the dead girl. I’ll play the dead, naked girl on the floor. Oh my God, I would do that,” Then, BOOM, I manifested it, and then I got this job, which is hilarious.
TrunkSpace: Did you go back to any of the classic movies like “The Exorcist” for inspiration?
Johnson: Oh, of course. I mean, for me “The Exorcist” is such a classic. I obviously had to re-watch that one. That’s the start of it all, so I definitely pulled inspiration from that.
That’s kind of what you have to do. You have to take inspiration, and then try to make it your own – give it your own twist.
TrunkSpace: If we looked ahead 20 years down the road, maybe there’s someone watching “The Possession of Hannah Grace” and finding inspiration through your performance!
Johnson: That is so surreal. I mean, that’s mind-boggling to think that somebody could possibly be taking inspiration from me. That’s just heartwarming.
TrunkSpace: Between the color of your skin and the veins, it looks like you had to spend some time in the makeup chair. What was that process like for you?
Johnson: A huge process, but let me tell you… I had the most fun in the makeup chair. I spent four hours every day in that makeup chair, and my two makeup artists were absolutely incredible. They made me so comfortable and they made it so much fun that the time just flew by.
TrunkSpace: And as a fan of horror, the end results when you step out of the makeup chair must make it all worth it?
Johnson: It was incredible. I mean, just to see yourself, it’s disturbing, but it’s beautiful because it’s so… the attention to detail of the makeup that they did was incredible. Watching this, I’m like, “Wow! That blood looks so great! Wow! I look disgusting!”
TrunkSpace: We talked about what you thought of it all when the trailer and the poster dropped, but what has your family thought of it all?
Johnson: Oh my gosh, my family is so supportive of this. Okay… my dad, he cried when he saw it. He’s like, “Oh my God! This is so exciting!” My mom is just jumping for joy, and my sister just thinks it’s the coolest thing ever to have me playing a dead girl. My whole family is so supportive of me being the dead girl of the movie. It’s almost like Harry Potter when they’re like, “We have a wizard in the family.” They’re like, “We have an actor in the family.”
TrunkSpace: Do you plan on sneaking into any public screenings when the movie opens and watching the reaction of an audience in real time?
Johnson: Of course. Are you kidding me? That’s going to be so exciting. I mean, I have to go on Friday night. That’s when most people go. I’ll sit in the back and watch all these people scream and jump in fear over myself.
“The Possession of Hannah Grace” opens tomorrow.