Let’s say that hypothetically, you were on Spring Break. (Actually, let’s say Summer Break because it’s Summer and also that break is longer.) Your friends from school are off together with plans to have a ton of fun at some vacation spot. You, on the other hand, are off to spend your break with your protective, more or less hippie-esque older brother in Joshua Tree–a place that looks eerily like it’s a part of The Lion King live action but nevermind that sidebar.
Then, you see a group–actually, your focus is more on a person (a girl in this super specific hypothetical case). Now you’re literally stuck between a rock and hard place. Do you stay with your older brother and work out the family issues two siblings who are kinda close but also distant because your older brother has also had to be your parental figure most of your life would have? OR Do you finally go put yourself out there and try to have a break that you hope you’ll never want to forget?
If you’re Evan in the new thriller/mystery/monster movie Head Count, spoiler alert: you choose the latter. Even more of a spoiler alert, you choose the latter and SURPRISE! You and your new friend group get terrorized by a shape-shifting creature known as the Hisji. (I argue that it’s your fault, but I guess, that’s not the point.) When I get on the phone with Isaac W. Jay who actually plays the role of Evan in the Elle Callaghan directed project, we get into not only Evan’s choices (including if they were the right choices and also why they needed to happen), but we also discuss Evan’s relationships, and surviving a very smart, very lonely creature that resembles the very human fears we all know too well.
But first, we have to start from the beginning.
I really like things that make you questions your reality and things that make you question what’s going on.
Isaac became attached to the project after previously working with writer Michael Nader on his project Flock of Four. “I think he’s a really talented writer and would love to be in anything that he’s written. He mentioned that he was doing a movie about some teenagers in the desert and was interested in me in it,” Isaac explains how Head Count first got on his radar. As Isaac describes it, he kept his “ears and eyes to the ground” about it eventually getting a meeting with the director Elle Callaghan.
“We really hit it off immediately and I thought if I get to work with these two people, it’s gonna be great and then I read the script and I immediately was interested in the relationship between Evan and [his brother] Peyton.” One of the emotional driving points of the film, Isaac was drawn to seeing a horror movie carry that kind of dynamic. And among that, Isaac was also interested in Head Count‘s ability to blend that emotional aspect with monster, thriller, and psychological horror elements.
That said, he admits that he wouldn’t consider himself to be a huge horror movie person despite loving psychological thrillers. His interest in psychological thrillers carries similarities to the narrative pieces in Head Count. “I really like things that make you question your reality and things that make you question what’s going on,” he explains sharing that as an actor, playing in horror is fun because it offers more opportunities than other genres.
The cast of Head Count filmed together at an Air BnB in Joshua Tree, CA which Isaac shares is the same one that Michael Nader and the producers had previously stayed in and was inspired by. Shooting for this movie meant three weeks of the group together in the desert, an experience that Isaac likens to summer camp. “[Working on Flock of Four taught me the importance of] the relationships between you as a person and you as a fellow actor and how okay it is to blur those lines,” he looks back. While the Head Count cast’s dynamic didn’t turn out exactly as it is on screen in terms of romantic relationships, the group did hang out together and bond in a genuine way similar to his Flock of Four cast. “I’ve always tried to keep my acting life and my other life as separate things and then working on Flock of Four, I really, really got to love the three guys I was in that friend group with. I have individual relationships with all of them in certain ways that reflect in the movie and allowing that to sorta influence a little bit what’s going on with you on screen.”
Defining on-screen relationships was especially important for Isaac on this film, in specific, defining the relationship between Evan and Peyton (Cooper Rowe) as the bookends. “I really wanted to try and make sure people really cared about Evan and his brother and what they’re going through,” he says.
For Evan and Peyton, it’s mainly been the two of them against the world throughout their lives since their parents died. As a result, Peyton takes on the parental and older sibling role around Evan–which comes off at times as a burden on them both. Looking for a little bit of fun, Evan ends up leaving Peyton to hang out with the group.
As Isaac describes the situation, it’s like Evan’s “going into the dark house at the end of the street.” The choice to leave Peyton differentiates the character from Isaac who, as a self-described family first person, agrees he doesn’t think Evan made the right choice in leaving Peyton. (Admittedly, while Isaac jokingly describes Evan as being ‘anti-Peyton’ he actually enjoys Peyton’s sweetheart nature.)
That said, even if leaving wasn’t necessarily the best decision on Evan’s end, the two brothers find themselves in a situation where it’s hard to imagine a happy ending had Peyton tagged along. “I don’t think it would’ve improved if Peyton had hung out with the group because in that one scene in which Peyton comes back, we see Evan’s extreme embarrassment and terror of how ‘uncool’ his brother is. So, I don’t think it would’ve gotten better if Peyton had hung out with this group of people,” Isaac gives the idea some thought.
“I don’t know if it would have gotten any better had Evan stayed with Peyton because one of the beautiful things with this movie is where that relationship ends up. And that’s one of the sorta creepy things about this movie and one of the gut-wrenching things about this movie is where it ends up and how it gets there,” he hints at the ending. “The only thing that allows that is his experience with this monster.” When I point out the ambiguity of the ending, Isaac agrees, adding, “It’s like, ‘Well, there’s all this catharsis, but how much catharsis was it really?’”
Evan’s relationship with Peyton is the only previously established dynamic that Evan has out of all the characters he hangs out with for most of the film so loneliness and fitting in were also crucial to portray, “I really wanted to try and get across this sense of really wanting to belong because, in horror, there’s a bit of a trope between the monster reflecting some sort of fear or insecurity that the main character has. And I think that this desire to belong to a group of people is really strong in both Evan and the monster and I wanted to try and get that across.”
The other big relationship for Evan is with Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan). “I think right off the bat, there’s immediately a physical attraction,” Isaac starts when I ask about what drew Evan to Zoe. Remember the hypothetical at the beginning? Well, when the movie begins, Evan’s friends from school are off on a fun Cabo Spring Break experience while he’s off to the desert which Isaac explains might have influenced his interest in joining this group and seeing Zoe.
“I don’t wanna say objectifies her because I don’t think it’s that, I think it’s an earnest thing–I just think Evan’s a very earnest person–but he sees a very beautiful girl and he goes and he sees how interested she is in photography and he immediately goes, ‘Wow, this girl is really smart, she has something to say to the world,’” he continues having paused in the beginning to pick his words carefully to best describe the two. He also explains a cut scene from the final edit which includes Evan complimenting Zoe’s photography.
“It’s like not only is this girl pretty and this is a group he can really be a part of, it’s like she’s really interested in him and she has something interesting to say to the world and she has a very specific view of the world and specific is very represented in the way that she looks at photography. And I think he really likes that about her,” he explains.
It’s like, ‘Well, there’s all this catharsis, but how much catharsis was it really?’
Closer to the end of our interview, the two of us discuss how the cast would survive the Hisji if they were in that situation in real life. Isaac gives it a lot of thought ultimately deciding that Bevin Bru (Camille), Billy Meade (Max), and Michael Hurman (Sam) would be the survivors out of the cast.
With a sigh and a defeatist tone (that I can’t help but laugh and point out), Isaac sincerely states, “I think the rest of us would probably be toast though, honestly.” I ask him to elaborate for why he seems so sure about his and the rest of the cast’s demise to which he responds–slightly uncertain in the very beginning and then figuring it out almost immediately, “If it’s like this specific monster, it’s like really smart. If you track it, it’s learning how to be human throughout this movie and it comes out really fast. It learns how to function as a person really quickly so this is a really smart monster.”
In order to survive the Hisji, Isaac advises that it requires a lot of survival skills. “I think you have to be really smart and really resourceful in order to even have any chance against this thing and I think as wonderful as the rest of us are,” he sighs again–this time a little smaller but still defeatist nonetheless, “we have quirks and tendencies that I think wouldn’t necessarily help us get past or get through this situation or monster.”
Up next for Isaac, he recently wrapped Elle Callaghan’s next project Witch Hunt which is based in a world where witchcraft is illegal. Another genre film that Elle says takes place in an alternate, yet a similar reality to our own, “just with witches.”
And besides that, his other upcoming project is a web series called Body of Work set in his hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He describes the project as a, “sorta zany comedy about the art world of Santa Fe, New Mexico.”
Before giving our thank you’s and goodbyes, I ask him if there’s anything he’d want me to ask Ashleigh when I talk with her a few days later. There seems like there’s an excitement to the freedom of being able to decide a question that his co-star gets to answer. And while we’ve established the differences between his character Evan and him as an actual person, it’s a moment like this that shows their similarities. They’re similar in the sincere and curious way that Isaac asks if I can ask Ashleigh what her favorite and least favorite parts were working with him on the movie. The two also show similarities when I jokingly ask if he wants me to have Ashleigh call him out (or rather, “drag him”) and his response is essentially a hopefully not; he just genuinely wants to know her answers. And when I joke again that the question is kinda narcissistic, he laughs and agrees.
(And for the record, when I talk to Ashleigh, she challenges Isaac to answer the same questions about her, so, if you’re reading this Isaac, you’ve been tagged.)
Stay tuned for our interview with Ashleigh Morghan going live later this week!
You can stay up to date on all things Isaac W. Jay by following his Instagram account.
(photo cred: Samuel Goodwin Films)