We talk with Larisa Oleynik, star of “Animal Among Us”, about her first horror film, growing up on a TV show, and how being nice goes a long way.
Larisa Oleynik is very familiar to thirty-somethings everywhere having starred in the hit 1990’s Nickelodeon show The Secret World of Alex Mack, a show I watched every episode of while growing up. She remained in front of audiences with the film Ten Things I Hate About You, and having reoccurring roles on the hit shows Mad Men and Pretty Little Liars.
As I spoke with Larisa on the phone, she had just completed a morning of filming on her latest project. While we discussed her latest film Animal Among Us (available now on VOD and DVD), Larisa was cheery and easy to talk to, laughing often and was very thoughtful with her answers. It was a pleasure to speak with her as she gave great insights into the life of an actor and what it’s like having a career in film and television.
INTERVIEW WITH LARISA OLEYNIK
1. You haven’t done too many horror movies in your career, is that right?
I have done zero horror movies, unless you include a Lifetime movie where my baby gets stolen (laughs). But yes, this is my first horror movie.
2. How was the experience of filming your first horror movie, any different than other movies?
I don’t even really consider this a horror movie. I mean, I don’t like scary movies, but I like movies that are weird and twisty. That I don’t mind. So when I’m telling people about this movie, I say I can’t do scary movies. But this movie is fun because it has a bunch of humor and it has a little wink to it. And I don’t think it’ll be giving people nightmares, let me just put it that way.
But it was a good experience. And the thing about shooting this movie was it was a lot of nights, so there were many days that started at 6pm and ended at 6am. We actually filmed at a YMCA camp, so we all slept in cabins and were like campers for 2 weeks. Christine (Donlon) and I shared a cabin, and when they told us we were like, “Oh cool, how exciting and fun!” (laughs) So it definitely puts you in the right mind set. No one was leaving set at the end of the day. We were all kind of clumped together as campers. So that was really fun and interesting.
3. I was going to ask what attracted you to the script; I guess it was because the film is kind of twisty like you said?
Well I worked with Jonathan (Murphy) before who wrote it, and I know he has a sense of humor. I remember thinking, “I think this is a dark comedy.” One of my favorite movies of all time is American Psycho, and I like Gone Girl. You know, these movies are dark but they’re funny — they’re deeply, deeply funny. And that’s what actually makes it more disturbing. You’re having an enjoyable experience even though you shouldn’t be.
So when I met with Jonathan and John (Woodruff), the director, that’s what I was testing out with them. I was like, “W can have fun with this and play, right?” And that’s what I’m always looking for, projects that feel collaborative where you can do things spur of the moment. Plus, when I heard we’d all be staying at a camp together, I just thought it was too much fun to pass up!
4. You mentioned you don’t like scary movies. Did you ever watch horror movies growing up, or do you watch any now?
I do not, I pretty much steer clear. I’m into Vampire and Werewolf stuff, things that are more mythology based…that stuff I can get into. But no, as far as horror movies go, I watched Scream and that’s as close as I’ve gotten. Even that terrified me (laughs).
5. So Animal Among Us centers around a murderous monster that some characters call Bigfoot or Sasquatch. Do you believe in any legendary beasts or legends like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, or even aliens?
Oh sure, sure. I think if we can think it up, it’s probably possible. I mean, I’m not going to go out hunting for these things (laughs). I think stories have been passed down for a reason. Even if they are purely allegorical, part of the fun of them — and part of what the movie questions — is that we all have a little bit of these mythological characters in us. And why they continue to play parts in stories is because we find something in there that is in each of us. .
6. That’s a great outlook, I like that. You eluded to Anita being a complex character, nice on the surface but harboring a dark secret. It’s a tricky balance to pull those 2 sides of a character off. How do you prepare for a role like that to show those 2 sides?
You know, the stakes are very high (in the story). And when they’re already that high, it means you don’t have to work as hard as an actor. Basically, for me, I think it really comes down to relationships. Anita cares about her sister (Penelope) tremendously, and that really is one of the core relationships of the movie. Even though Anita gives her a super hard time, so much about their relationship is about protecting Penelope and trying to get them out of this situation they’ve been put in. And also protecting the family name. Anita has such a tremendous sense of pride and honor, I think that’s really the driving force behind her. This is the plan they have come up, and they are going to see it through. So I just kind of latched onto that
And that’s just the attitude I like to have on set anyway as an actress. I’m just like, “We are going to get this done.” (laughs) So I like to refer to the circumstances of that and remember that it’s literally life or death — and you just kind of go from there. And a lot of her character is informed by the fact that they are in the middle of nowhere, so a lot of her humor is that you simply have to humor yourself.
7. Speaking of Anita’s sister, I thought you and Christine Donlon, who plays Penelope, had a great on screen chemistry. Do you ever do anything to build chemistry or some kind of relationship with co-stars on set?
We were sharing the cabin (on set), Christine and I, and we had some people in common. So we texted a little bit beforehand but we kind of just dove right in. We both had the same attitude, like we’ll get as close as possible while filming, and just like you would at camp we talked all night long until we fell asleep. We would fall asleep mid sentence and then wake up in the morning and start talking again (laughs). We just became incredibly close and we’re still very close.
And Christian (Oliver) and I have filmed together before. Christian and I have done a very different movie together. We were in The Babysitter’s Club, when I was 13 or 14 and he was maybe 18, something like that.
8. Wow that was like, 24 years ago, right?
(Laughs) Yeah, something like that, and a very different film!
9. What was it like working with gory effects and blood splatter?
I wasn’t too worried about the blood. I was actually more concerned about the guns. I think we were trying to be more conscious about not introducing guns into the story unless they’re absolutely necessary. I think that’s an important conversation that’s taking place right now, not to glorify it or make it seem too cool. I mean my character is hunting a monster and protecting her family, so there are those reasons. I was concerned about holding the gun properly, things like that.
But there really wasn’t anything that really creeped me out. But I will say that the creature is pretty genuinely terrifying looking (laughs).
10. Oh I agree, the creature looks great! So I must admit, while growing up I was a huge fan of The Secret World of Alex Mack and having the opportunity to talk with you is quite the moment for me. While filming that series, what was the earliest, unexpected lesson that experience taught you about having a career in film and TV?
Well, as you know, I was the lead of that show, and it’s kind of an art form in itself to learn how to be that person on a set. And I’m still trying to figure that out! Luckily I’ve worked with people who have handled that really well. I mean I was 12 at the time, so that’s fine (laughs). But really I think the number one rule is be nice, just be a nice person (laughs). It’s hard enough trying to make a movie or a TV show. So just try to be nice and get along with everyone, that’s all people really need.
I did a job over the summer where the lead of the show was a 12 year old kid, and he handled himself so beautifully, I was so glad I got to witness him coming into his own. One of the best people I’ve ever worked with was John Lithgow (3rd Rock From the Sun), and he handled a leadership role more perfectly than anyone I’ve ever seen. And I tell him every time I see him, “Thank you for providing that example for me.”
11. That’s great, I love John Lithgow. And that was on 3rd Rock From the Sun?
Yes it was. He’s a tremendous leader and so kind. And being kind will get you pretty far. I mean, there’s talent and all of that (laughs), but just be nice.
12. What was it like growing up in front of an audience on TV? You were 12-17 or so while doing Alex Mack, right?
Yeah, I was 12 when I started doing Alex Mack. It was challenging for me, and when I started getting recognized and stuff it was very confusing. I was shuttling back and forth to my real life living in northern California. We’d travel to southern California to film and then go back to northern California to be in school. So I was trying to maintain some sense of normalcy, whatever a normal childhood even means. But it would get confusing sometimes when I’d be hanging out with my friends and someone would recognize me. I was very self conscious about it.
As I’ve grown up, I think this is something I’m still trying to figure out, trying to take on a public persona but also be able to leave it as I need to.
But as I’ve gotten older, people seem to have a relationship with me, or a relationship with a certain character I played as if we’ve grown up together. And that’s something I really appreciate more and more. I think there’s a lot of value in that.
It feels like a sense of community, and that’s very cool because these are people you’ve never met, and who have never met each other. This sense of community reminds people of their humanity and just bonds us to people when they feel connected to a certain movie or actor like that. That’s very interesting to me.
I feel pretty lucky to be a part of that — especially when it’s positive (laughs). Most people who feel an association with me or the characters I’ve played have been pretty positive.
13. Do you find performing easier as you have gotten older? Do you approach it differently now as opposed to 20 years ago?
Oh, it never gets easier. Never gets easier. I’m always looking for ways to keep making it fun (laughs). But I think that comes with getting older, life just gets more fun, so acting gets more fun. I always try to find joy in it. But it’ challenging. There’s never a job that I take on where I think, “Oh, this will be a walk in the park.” It’s kind of like you always jump and just hope that the net will be there (laughs).
14. Right, fingers crossed for that net! Which roles or performances have been the most meaningful to you, or which have taught you the most about yourself?
Anytime I do a play, it’s tremendously transformative. All of the concentrated hours that get put into doing a play is a lot more taxing energetically. And that experience is so immediate, whether people like it or they don’t. Actually, that’s when I’m always having to re-learn that whether (audiences) at the end of the day like it or they don’t, doesn’t totally matter. I mean it does (laughs), it does, but that’s not necessarily where you’re going to get your growth from.
I would also say anytime you’re fired is something you learn from (laughs). Or things that I’ve done that have ended up on the cutting room floor, you’re just like, “Ok, that’s just what that is.” You just have to keep going.
15. That’s happened to you, you’ve been cut out of things?
Oh yeah. Yeah, it happens to everybody. But part of the reason why I love this job so much is that each character, each crew, each project, always teaches me something, always. Usually a lot of humility (laughs).
16. And you had your big break in a play as a kid. You were in a production of Les Miserables?
Yeah that’s right. I did Les Miserables. With Rider Strong actually. We were both in the same production.
17. Your current play, Miss Lilly Gets Boned, is that still showing or did that wrap up?
No, that wrapped up about 2 weeks ago. That was with a great company in L.A. called Rogue Machine. They do some of my favorite theater in L.A. My friend Bekah Brunstetter wrote it. This is the third time we have worked together on a play. I also did an off Broadway show in New York that was really, really fun called Who’s Your Baghdaddy. It was a musical comedy about the Iraq invasion, as you do, you know (laughs).
18. Hey, there’s humor in everything, right?
Sometimes you just have to play a CIA analyst who raps about biological weapons (laughs).