Kiersey Clemons On Fighting Monsters — Real & Metaphorical — In Sweetheart

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for Sweetheart, now available on digital and VOD. 
Sweetheart is an unusual title for a horror movie about a young woman stranded alone on a deserted island haunted by a mysterious monster. Are we in for another fish person/human sex romp, a la The Shape of Water
The answer is a lot less explicit. In fact, we don’t find out why the film is called Sweetheart until a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment near the end. But if you catch it, the significance immediately clicks. That seemingly banal word elicits a violent, visceral reaction from women. Too often, it’s used to discredit us, or diminish our concerns, leaving us vulnerable, angry or scared — much how one might react to a fantastical sea-monster lurking in the shadows. 
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The plot for J.D. Dillard’s second feature is pretty straightforward — at least, at first. After her boat crashes during a storm, Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) finds herself stranded on an island in the middle of nowhere. As if surviving thirst, hunger, and a scorching sun wasn’t hard enough, she soon realizes she’s not quite alone. Every night, a monster emerges from the ocean, on the hunt for prey to drag back down into the depths. But when Lucas (Emory Cohen) and Mia (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence), also survivors of the wreck, wash up on the island, Jenn starts to realize that threats come in all sorts of insidious forms. 
With almost no dialogue, Clemons delivers a startling, charismatic performance. Jenn has very little backstory, but we get a real sense of her personality just from watching her walk around this idyllic setting or run from the nightmare it turns into. Combined with Dillard’s strong pacing, the result is a tightly-wound, tense horror movie that creatively reframes the genre to reflect urgent, real-world issues. 
Does Jenn ever get off the island? I won’t spoil it for you. But Clemons believes the journey is more important than the final destination. 
Refinery29: How was this role pitched to you?
Kiersey Clemons: “J.D. really focused on pitching the movie as a whole, rather than the character, because anytime an actor hears that there’s a creature or a monster in a movie, you’re kind of turned off. That was the first thing he tackled, explaining this creature and that mysterious manner in which we’re going to see it, and what it was inspired by. And then I got to really create Jenn. She doesn’t have much dialogue, so her personality and her character are all based on the ways you see her surviving. Like the way that she reacts to the suitcase of clothes that washes up on the beach — you get insight into her style, and what she thinks is funny.”
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I was so happy when the suitcase washed up on the beach so she could get out of her grimy shipwreck bathing suit. 
“Personally, I was like, Wouldn’t she take advantage of this and be naked the whole time? But then that puts me in a rough position, so…”
You mentioned J.D. spoke about the significance of the monster when he first approached you. What did he say?
“At the time, we were really reacting to the [2016] election, and the fear of this monster being in office. We wanted it to be this big white translucent figure, because normally scary things are dark — we wanted to do the complete opposite of that. Just do something different from what we’ve been told has always been scary. There’s a lot of low-key political themes in it. When the two people show up, we wanted them to a be reflection of the creature as well — they’re just as threatening to her life.”
Having a Black woman at the center of this kind of story is in itself a kind of radical shift. Is that something you talked about?
“Definitely — J.D. wrote it visually imagining one of his sisters. This was inspired by them, and for them. He wouldn’t have made it without a Black woman being the lead role. It also plays into those themes of Black female hysteria and people not believing Black women or people of color when we say that we’re in danger, or that something is violent to us. It’s that constant feeling of like, instead of fighting against the thing that’s violent, we’re fighting other people to be heard or to be believed. You see that a lot in the movie, so it’s most important that a Black woman be in that position in [this case].”
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The scene where Jenn is called “sweetheart” is subtly the scariest moment in the movie.  
“You’re wondering, Why is the movie called this? Maybe it’s just ironic. And then when [Lucas] actually says it, as women, it makes our skin crawl! It makes us so mad. Like, shut up! We’ve all been called something like that, sweetheart or honey or whatever, by a man, and it’s just so frustrating.
You’ve said you created your own backstory for Jenn, where she was kind of lost in her life, and dating this older guy before she ended up on the island, and that in a way, the monster represents this toxic relationship. It really reminded me of Midsommar, which was also described as a breakup horror movie.
“I love that movie! Isn’t interesting that the scariest thing in this movie is this man that she’s with? We really wanted Jenn to be normal. There’s nothing she does to save her life that requires skill. She’s not a doctor; she doesn’t know marine biology; she wasn’t taught to fish. She’s just using common sense. That was important to make her relatable. And then bringing Emory Cohen in, who plays her shitty boyfriend, also says a lot about her. She didn’t have very high standards before this. This guy treated her like shit, and she really has to be in a life-or-death situation to realize that he wouldn’t save her, help her or believe her. All of those times he was silent when she needed him, that silence was violent.”
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Speaking of her being normal, I love the scene where Jenn catches a fish. I would fully react with that level of surprise if I managed to do that. 
“We obviously did not kill a real fish, but there was a lot of stuff that I did for the first time to get the reaction. That was one of them, also trying to figure out, once she’s caught the fish, how she’s going to eat it, and cook it, and peel the scales off, that was honest reaction. Or how to break open the coconut. I did all of those things for real, for the first time.”
This is a pretty physically demanding role — how did you prepare?
“Before I started I ran quite a bit every day because I knew that I would have to be doing lots of takes running up and down the beach. I didn’t want to be responsible for not being able to get another take because I’m tired or I’m out of breath. Basically working on my stamina, getting my cardio up.”
You barely have any dialogue in this movie. What was that like for you as an actor?
“I kind of liked it! When I ended up having to say dialogue to Emory and Hannah, I was like shit, I don’t know how to talk anymore, I don’t know how to use words. It was a test for me to rely on my face and my mannerisms and physicality. Sometimes I forget if emotion is showing from my toes to my fingertips. It felt like an intensive acting class.”
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Do you think Jenn makes it off the island?
“I think possibly. Because — spoiler alert — at the end, the island is on fire. Planes fly over the island, and I think that she timed it out so she knows when planes fly over. They can see the island, and someone will come rescue her. And she’s cut the monster’s head off, so she has her proof. But also, there’s a very good chance that the planes don’t come on time, and she dies. So…”
I like not knowing for sure. 
“JD said something really dark to me about this. He said: “At the end, I like that Jenn is left there because it’s a metaphor for life. You can slay your demons, you can rid yourself of the toxic and bad people and feelings, but there will always be the next challenge. You’re still stuck on the island.’” 
What do you hope women take away from the movie?
“If your [partner] is talking to you like that in any capacity, [they] deserve to be taken away by a monster in the night.”
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