Barbara Kingsley stars as the quirky Karen in the rural horror film, Honeydew. I got a chance to talk to her about creating her very unique character as well as the very real hallucinogen that makes this film scary.
Honeydew is written and directed by Devereux Milburn (shorts “Stayed For” and “Wade”) and stars Sawyer Spielberg in his feature acting debut, Malin Barr (Skyscraper, First Love, CBS’s “Bull”), and Barbara Kingsley (The Straight Story, “Jessica Jones”).
Honeydew tells the story of a young couple (played by Spielberg and Barr) who are forced to seek shelter in the home of an aging farmer (Kingsley) and her peculiar son, when they suddenly begin having strange cravings and hallucinations taking them down a rabbit hole of the bizarre.
First of all, what drew you to Honeydew?
Barbara: The story and the character. It was, first of all, as a woman my age, to see a protagonist/ antagonist, the matriarch of the farm as a woman was amazing, and a chance you don’t often find. But also because Devereaux’s writing within the story is so gorgeous. Each character has their own kind of melody line, their own little jazz riff and I, as a writer, I just went, ‘Oh yeah, I’d love to be a part of that’ and then I met him and absolutely fell in love with this amazing artist and truly great human being.
This film is labeled a horror film, but it’s decidedly not your typical horror film. What do you think sets it apart?
Barbara: Well, I’m not a fan of horror films. I was kind of scared and I was up front with Devereaux about that. I’m not the person who wants to see axe slice and the splattering blood. But what I liked about it was the fact that I think it’s a psychological thriller that sort of, you know, has a foot in both the horror genres and the psychological thriller genre. There’s so much more that is terrifying about the psyche of these people that things will or will not happen in the consequences.
So when playing Karen, how did you get into character?
Barbara: I was raised by a very, very strong line of matriarchs. Growing up, I had my great grandparents, I had two great grandmothers and great grandfather’s and then I had three grandmothers. I’ve been raised by really strong women and I studied the elders because they spend time in my bedroom on the weekends, you know, sleeping in the other bed. So I watched all those fascinating things about the elderly, and I loved them. I loved their quirkiness. And Deveraux, we had several meetings in which he showed me a tiny clip of his grandmother and I fell in love with her quirkiness and her whimsy. And I thought, well, if everyone agrees then I can sort of build all of this into her physical life and her journey, her behavioral and mental journey and her outlook on life. What she does in the film is not the thing I agree with… but when you’re playing a character, you cannot change the character. That’s very true to play it 100 percent. So that other people can make better choices. So people say ‘oh god, you’re such a terrible villain.’ No, she’s a mom and she’s doing the best she can.
How did you come up with Karen’s quirks?
Barbara: Well, the way she talks came from Devereaux and the little clip that I saw of his grandma, and then I worked on that kind of accent and dialect. And once he said ‘yeah you’re finding her,’ I was able to tap into a rhythm that was antithetical to my own upbringing, which is Kentucky. But things like the way Karen would work her mouth, that specifically came from my grandmother Kingsley who’s dentures didn’t fit. The kind of limp came from watching my great grandmother James who had terrible varicose veins and a bad hip. I don’t know if you could really tell him a film, Karen did a lot of humming under her breath, a lot of Christmas carols and stuff like that. The Christmas Carol aspect of Christmas music came from Devereaux, but my husband’s mother, who played Eulis in the film, my real husband, his mother had a tendency to sit and sort of rubber fingers together. She would just hum and hum and that was kind of how she’d spend a lot of her time which I thought was kind of cool. So it’s a cobbling together of those things. When we were talking wardrobe, I was specific about I’d like wool, baggy socks so my toes can wiggle in there and I would like a boot that is too big for me so it creates a shuffle naturally. So, kind of a combo but after 46 years on stage, you know, you kind of drop in, you just kind of drop into those people… The weird thing is that there is nothing about me and the way I look or the way I live my life that would ever lead you to believe that there’s a Karen in there, because I’m an old hippie from the 70s, in a tie dye shirt, a pair of jeans.
What was it like working with your husband to kind of create this villainous duo?
Barbara: If you think about the worst times in either spouses behavior, you kind of go ‘Yeah, I remember that night where you got so mad that you punched a wall or whatever it was. We’ve been married for 41 years. So, for Eulis and Karen, that was, again, it was even easy for me to go back to the relationship between my great grandmother and my great grandfather and even my mother and father and how they navigated how they talk to each other. We’ve done other projects where people didn’t even know we were married until we were done. Because he’s a D’Ambrose and I’m a Kingsley and it’s not like your agent or the casting person wants to pressure a client, by saying, ‘these two, you know, they’re married.’ Except, during COVID, occasionally we’d get a call, because they needed “real married couples.” I actually told Deveraux, I said, ‘My husband is an actor and if you’re seeing other people for Eulis, I’ll send you his picture and resume and you can let me know if he’s somebody you think might be right.’ Devereaux went, ‘Oh my gosh. He’s perfect.’
What exactly was it that created this hallucination type drug that kind of captured your victims?
Barbara: This is a real thing. Ergot is a blight disease. I’ve seen it more frequently on corn, even as a kid playing in the corn fields in Iowa and Illinois. And what it is is it’s a fungus. And when plants get this fungus you’re supposed to destroy them. Because if you eat them, they eventually screw with your brain. And in addition, this particular blight starts to atrophy the cells in the body. So there’s your beginning of your cautionary tale is that when they discovered that there was Ergot on their land, whether they knew what it was or not, their choice was to continue to harvest the green. And well, it killed the cattle… but it’s a very real thing.
Why is this movie called Honeydew?
Barbara: Honeydew is the sap like thing that falls off the wheat. There’s a sap white sticky thing in the development of Ergot. And that’s as far as I understand. The thing about honeydew is it’s a little sticky attractive thing and so maybe it also draws them in as a double of metaphor.
(According to The American Phytopathological Society, honeydew is a sticky yellow sugary solution that is the first obvious sign of ergot infection. The Ergot shown in the film, mostly through Gunni, affects humans through muscle spasms, fever and hallucinations.)