That Molly C. Quinn ended up playing a nun in a monastery going through an exorcism isn’t that surprising. In fact, you could say it was divinely ordained. The 27-year-old actress, who many will recognize from ABC’s Castle, was perhaps destined to play a kind of genre-defying religious role. “I’m obsessed with religion, and I’m obsessed with guilt, and I love horror,” Quinn tells Refinery29 over a recent Zoom interview. “My mother was a Seventh Day Adventist and my father was a Catholic, so I went to church on Saturdays and Sundays. A lot of God. A lot of confusion.”
The endless stream of God-adjacent events that defined much of Quinn’s childhood weekends would become the perfect springboard for playing Mary in Mickey Reece’s horror-thriller Agnes, which premiered June 12 at Tribeca Film Festival. The movie — part exorcist horror flick, part study on grief, and part dark comedy — jumps from genre to genre without sacrificing its profound dedication to portraying a modern-day nun who turns to God to deal with the grief of losing her son. Yes, there is some projectile body fluid, speaking in tongues, and sinister priests with bad intentions, but because of Quinn’s quiet performance as Mary, the indie film is able to surpass the expectations of a typical possession movie.
From the film’s early days, Quinn and her production team at Quagmire supported Reece’s vision for a different type of horror movie after seeing the director’s 2019 film, Climate of the Hunter, a thriller-mystery about two women lusting after a maybe-vampire. The film won a few narrative film and directing awards at festivals, and after the first read of Agnes, Quinn felt it was clear that Reece knew how to lull viewers “into this false sense of security” before “going in a completely different direction halfway through.”
In Agnes, that shift happens after audiences think that they’re sitting down to watch a movie about a nun named Agnes, who may be possessed by the devil. In fact, the movie is really about Mary, a young mother dealing with the loss of her child before, during, and after witnessing her closest friend (the titular Agnes) go through a brutal exorcism.
Mary feels different from other nuns in pop culture — she isn’t ironically horny like the nuns in The Little Hours, thrill-seeking like the Warrior Nuns, or overtly cheeky like Diane Keaton in The Young Pope. She’s kind of a normal girl. To tap into Mary’s mindset, Quinn made a journal for her and started writing entries to delve into her personality, both at the convent, and during her life before taking her vows. She also went a bit method in connecting with Mary’s loss as a mother. “I wanted to find who she was in the past because she was a bit of a wild child,” Quinn says. “And we see some of that even at the convent. But then going through this change of motherhood and then really just sticking on the wholesomeness of her love with her son. In order to do that, I actually have a couple of friends that have young sons, and I was just like, can I steal your kid for the afternoon?”
Her time spent as “Mary” left her with the connection needed to take on the complex character: “What I found in Mary was her capacity to love. And then her anger at that being taken away. I think the only thing that's clear at the end of the film is that she is still very angry.”
People facing anger and loss often seek out something bigger than themselves for answers. For some, that means religion, which Quinn believes attracts people looking for something to follow, like Mary and her fellow nuns, played by Rachel True, Hayley McFarland, Mary Buss, and Zandy Hartig. “From my experience, people that are either very deeply into religion or deeply into clubs, whatever it is, they really like to be a part of a smaller group because they want to be held in check,” Quinn says. “They want someone to say, ‘Oh, come back over here.’ It's like this weird desire. We have to constantly be parented.”
“Mary didn't go to the convent to worship God,” she adds of her complicated and unforgettable character. “Mary went to the convent to escape her life and to cocoon herself in her son.”
At the end of the film, Mary’s journey is far from over. There’s a stillness, though, that washes over her after a conversation with a young priest-in-training played by Jake Horowitz (he has “Hollywood” good looks, as the nuns say). He compares God to a deli sandwich. It’s weird, and funny, but also sad and deep. It’s very Agnes.