Loss is never easy, especially when you’re told to bottle it up or risk retaliation. It’s not unlike a fairytale, to then find solace in something magical or mythical that promises to take the pain away, but the distinction between a fairytale and a cautionary one is if that being acts on good intentions and if goodness wins in the end.
In Jeremiah Kipp’s Slapface, a young boy named Lucas befriends a dangerous monster, known as the Viralgo Witch, as he deals with the loss of his mother and the torment he receives from a group of girls at school including his secret girlfriend Moriah. Originally, created as a proof-of-concept back in 2017, the story is meant to explore the effects of bullying and abuse and the patterns it creates.
Mirabelle Lee’s introduction to Slapface came as a last-minute audition for Moriah after the short was greenlit to be made into a feature. After reading the audition sides and submitting a tape, she went back and read the script, a smile on her face recalling that moment, “I just immediately fell in love with the project [and] the whole concept of it. I knew then that I needed to be a part of this movie.”
After some edits and rewrites to turn the story into a feature, August Maturo was cast in the lead role of Lucas with Mirabelle joining shortly after alongside other cast and crew members to begin their shoot in October 2019 for a film festival circuit run in 2021 followed by an official US release earlier this month. With a little over two years behind the project, Mirabelle shares that she doesn’t think the space changed how she’s seen the role. “I think I still have the same understandings and perspective of Moriah that I did when I was filming. Throughout my time of filming, I got to know and understand her character more because our director and writer Jeremiah Kipp gave us more background information while we were on set and allowed up to play these games he kind of invented where we’d kind of makeup backstories for our characters on the spot,” she says. It was those games that helped her tap into the scenes and get a grasp on her character.
A backstory that she made for Moriah, she recalls, is one with the character’s mom and dad so she could figure out their relationship together. We know that Lucas is coping with the death of his mother and being raised by his brother, we also know that Moriah’s frenemies (emphasis on enemies but she can’t admit it) Rose and Donna at least have some kind of dynamic with their mom. But in terms of Moriah, aside from a moment when she’s on the phone with Lucas telling him that he can’t come over because her mom would freak out, we don’t see much of her dynamic with her parents until a later scene where (light spoilers) it’s too late.
“We kind of like imagined that Moriah had very controlling parents who wanted her to be perfect all the time and that’s the reason why she rebels with Donna and Rose,” Mirabelle explains.
Along with that, to craft her character, Mirabelle drew inspiration from people she’d had experiences with. “I’ve known some two-faced people like Moriah is and I’m not like Moriah in real life so I couldn’t draw from experience,” she says with a laugh. “So I just used people that I knew previously who inspired her.”
The only place she knows she belongs [and] can be 100% herself is with Lucas. With Donna and Rose, she always puts on some sort of mask or personality to get people to like her.
Despite the fact that Moriah can come across as two-faced, she’s not a mean girl although she has done mean things. “She really just wants to fit in,” Mirabelle says about Moriah. But what she thinks is fitting in isn’t actually good for her and in fact, is the thing that strains the one place where she does fit in. “The only place she knows she belongs [and] can be 100% herself is with Lucas. With Donna and Rose, she always puts on some sort of mask or personality to get people to like her.” The cruelty that Donna and Rose show towards Lucas is hard for Moriah to watch and engage in, but when they tell her to, she still does it even when we see that it pains her.
“Doing that I thought was going to be really, really hard to find that balance,” Mirabelle responds when I ask about tracking those beats of behaving cruelly but also having to show enough remorse that the viewer can see why Lucas would forgive her. “But when I got to set, it just came really naturally because August and I in real life were really, really good friends, so it was easy to just have that love in my eyes you could still kind of see. It was easy to pretend to hate him, but it was also really easy to just find that connection with him since we were friends in real life,” she shares.
It also made shooting some of those scenes difficult. I equate seeing August as Lucas get bullied to the sight of seeing a puppy getting kicked, something Mirabelle cosigns on explaining that it’s hard to watch someone you’re friends with getting hurt even if it’s just acting, but it’s even harder having to be the one to do it noting that in the scene where she has to spit on him especially, she felt incredibly bad.
“When I was filming, there were moments where I was like, ‘I hate you right now! You are such a bad person!'” Mirabelle exclaims about Moriah with a laugh. It’s in response to me asking her if she wants viewers to antagonize, sympathize, or find something in between with Moriah. It’s a question that she agrees is kind of hard to answer given that aspect. “But I don’t want people to hate her because all in all, no one is perfect. Everyone has some good in them, everyone has some bad in them and I think Moriah is the perfect example of that where she does have her good moments but she also does have her bad moments. So I hope people just see her as a good person–a good person who has bad moments.”
Those bad moments often are born out of the fact that while Donna and Rose claim to be Moriah’s friends, they’re very much her tormentors the way they are Lucas’. Except while they resort to physically bullying Lucas, they like to play mind games with Moriah. Slapface, without spoiling the movie, gives a name and a presence to the way(s) in which Lucas’ trauma from the bullying manifests, but with Moriah, it takes a little more inference. For Mirabelle, she says that the two of them find solace in each other in the moments where they can just be together without outside forces or people telling them how they’re supposed to act or react. “They can 100% be themselves and they can kind of deal with it and cope with it by hanging out and just being together,” she says.
“I think she would have chosen Lucas but, I don’t know, I think it was just peer pressure,” she starts when I ask her if she could picture something changing in the story or Moriah’s fate that would have made her choose Lucas. “In the moment, they were kind of like, ‘Do it! Do it, Moriah! Do it!’ and I think Moriah gives into peer pressure very easily, she just wants to be liked. Which is a struggle a lot of teenagers that are her age, like 12-years-old, have to deal with,” Mirabelle explains. “So I think she would have chosen him if she wasn’t put in that position because I don’t know, peer pressure just gets to Moriah.”
So I hope people just see [Moriah] as a good person–a good person who has bad moments.
And yet, while watching, it’s hard not to root for her to eventually overcome it and not let it affect her. But, Moriah’s inability to stand up for herself and what she knows is right is not only seen in her actions, there’s an unintentional character design detail that also gives it away. For a part of the movie, Moriah has a blue streak in her hair, until she later dyes it to purple, something that Donna and Rose tease her about. Mirabelle shares that originally, the plan for the character was for her hair to be completely blue, but they couldn’t figure out a way to do it without her having to permanently dye her hair, so it was changed instead to a streak. “But I love it,” Mirabelle smiles. “It adds just a certain pop and I think that pop of color in her hair kind of represents and symbolizes Moriah’s true personality because in reality, she’s like a nice, energetic person but all of that is tamed down with Donna and Rose. So that one piece of blue or purple is just her trying to be herself but not being able to 100% be there.”
In Moriah’s instance, a case can be made, that the reason she struggles with giving into peer pressure and going back to Donna and Rose is that, even though she has Lucas, she doesn’t feel like she has a strong support system or space that could shield her away from them. Similarly, while Lucas has Moriah (when she gets to be herself) and to an extent his brother (when he isn’t trying to toughen him up), there’s a reason the Virago Witch has such a hold on him and those around him–because he lacks those systems and spaces to shield him too.
“For me, I always just go to the people that closest to me who I know for a fact wouldn’t judge me. In any sort of situation, they would always have my back,” Mirabelle says when I ask her what support and creating safe spaces looks like for her. “And I think finding that safe space is finding people who truly have your back because I’ve said previously, I’ve been around two-faced people like Moriah and it takes time to find that group of people, but when you do, you know you have that safe system.” But, it’s also important to find time for yourself as well. For her, she notes that when she’s feeling overwhelmed, she finds comfort through meditation and reading, advising others to look for comfort objects when dealing with something by themselves.
Slapface has made its rounds through film festivals, being acquired by Shudder for distribution rights last year before going on to receive not only praise from critics for being a character-driven horror story but also recognition for its cast for bringing these characters and their experiences in this project to life. Now, closing the chapter onto this project, Mirabelle is excited as she moves on to the next things, although they’re all currently under wraps so she can’t talk about them just yet. So instead, we close out our interview talking about/manifesting hopeful projects that she could do in the future.
One is an adaptation of any one of Brandy Colbert’s books. “I would love to just have like any role in there because I’m just like the biggest fan, like I love her books so much,” she excitedly raves thinking about it. “Like her, Colleen Hoover, and Nicola Yoon. If they ever had any sort of role at all for me in any of their adaptations,” she throws her hands up, “like sign me up! Like I’ll take anything!” For Nicola Yoon specifically, she pitches her latest book Instructions for Dancing putting her hat in the ring for the role of Danica, Evie’s younger sister.
The other dream project is to work with Jordan Peele. “I think his approach to horror is always so unique because in a lot of horror films, they have like straight horror. It’s like, I don’t know, he always incorporates some kind of funny moment–it’s never a comedy at all, but I find myself smiling with his movies, which I think makes it very unique,” she says. “And every single story he tells, it’s just nothing I ever thought would be in a horror movie. In most horror movies, I think of monsters, ghosts, curses, all that stuff, but in his movies, there’s no like monsters and stuff like that. I think that’s why I love him so much.” In terms of the specifics of the project she has in mind, she’d love to finally live out her dream of her and her sister Anais as the twins in The Shining.
“Everyone asks me like, ‘Why would you want that role, that’s not like the lead or anything?’ but it’s like, yeah, but I don’t think you understand my obsession with those two creepy little twins!” Mirabelle grins. “I was obsessed with them, I tried to convince Anais so many times to be them for Halloween, she sadly never said yes. But if I got to play them in real life, I would lose it again.” She jokes that it’s a perfect role for the two of them as twins in the industry, especially as twins who love horror and she notes that if they were asked to do the project, she knows that Anais would say yes to it.
But outside of the twin element that they’re born to play, it’s also a note on something that Mirabelle shows throughout our chat as we discuss how she developed her portrayal of Moriah: that sometimes the standout in something is what is initially understated.