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Nicole Beharie: 'Monsterland' has potent parables for 2020

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Nicole Beharie stars in the anthology series, "Monsterland." Photo by Barbara Nitke/Hulu
Nicole Beharie stars in the anthology series, "Monsterland." Photo by Barbara Nitke/Hulu

NEW YORK, Oct. 2 (UPI) -- Actress Nicole Beharie said Monsterland, the new horror anthology about flawed people and the disastrous choices they make, seems particularly relevant in 2020.

"We're looking at how wonderfully terrifyingly beautifully human people can be," Beharie told UPI in a phone interview earlier this week. "We did this a year ago, but I couldn't have imagined how potent, how aligned with the times, that notion would be."

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Writer-producer Mary Laws' adaptation of North American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud debuts on Hulu on Friday amid the real-life backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, high unemployment, political division and civil unrest.

This is the first series Succession and Preacher writer-producer Laws has created.

"It is less about slashers and blood and guts, although there is some of that, obviously," Laws told UPI. "It's more about human beings uncovering dark things about themselves and about the world through the lens of monsters and the supernatural."

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The Neon Demon scribe is a fan of the horror genre, but with her playwriting background also is committed to developing believable characters and digs into important issues.

"Nathan's book was doing exactly that," Laws said.

Sleepy Hollow, Miss Juneteenth and Little Fires Everywhere star Beharie echoed the sentiment, noting she loves the entertainment of horror, but craves substance, as well.

Monsterland provided both, she said. It was also created by a woman, and its eight standalone installments had diverse casts and took place in interesting locations.

"Each episode is really in its own world," Beharie said.

In her episode, she plays Annie, a New Orleans socialite and mother wrestling with her past.

"On the surface, she's doing everything right and doing everything she should be doing to maintain the lifestyle that she wants for herself and her family, and it seems OK until you look a little bit closer," Beharie said.

"It's so easy to point fingers and sort of create fake news -- a version that you feel more comfortable with of yourself or reality. I feel like that's what this trippy, crazy anthology is delving into."

Leaving Annie behind wasn't too difficult because Beharie only played her for just one episode, but the beautiful horn music Anthony Harvey plays in it haunts her to this day.

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"It has that jazz vibe," she said. "That music that he's playing, the music that my character Annie hears throughout the piece, definitely stayed with me."

Elsewhere in the series, Orange is the New Black alum Taylor Schilling plays Kate, a bipolar woman whose desperate act takes a shocking turn for her and her wife, Shawn, played by Roberta Colindrez.

"I can relate to depression. I can relate to elation. I can relate to hopelessness -- not on the scale that Kate is experiencing those things, necessarily, but I do think that lives inside of all of us," Schilling told UPI in a separate chat.

"That is what I think is actually so exciting about the series. It's exploring unexplored territory we can all relate to."

Because so many people struggle with mental illness or have a loved one who does, the actress tried to handle it with "authenticity and tenderness."

"It felt important to be very respectful," she said.

Schilling hopes the episode's message resonates with 2020 audiences.

"We are so connected in our experience and our darkness. Our private selves, our shadow selves are not unique to us," she said. "By acknowledging and naming those parts that oftentimes don't get a lot of air, we can feel less alone and better. Monsterland does that in a thrilling and fun way."

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After starring on a TV comedy for several years, Schilling enjoyed popping in for a single episode of an anthology.

"It had all of the thrill of great writing and juicy material and something that felt risky and challenging and artistically really valuable, like a really important place for me to explore, but there was no pressure," she said.

"It wasn't an entire film. It was not an entire series. There was nothing riding on anyone's individual back. It was the very best of both worlds."

City on a Hill and Kingdom actor Jonathan Tucker also got his own episode.

He plays Alex, a mysterious drifter who shows up just as single mom and waitress Toni (Kaitlyn Dever) is at a crossroads.

"This was a thrill to come on with Mary and her team, to put something together quickly and passionately. It kind of felt like one of those Formula 1 races where you go into the pit and they are throwing tires on," Tucker told UPI.

He was intrigued by Alex and would have spent more time with him if it were possible.

"Some of these characters you really want to play with," he said. "It's like driving a car for a period of time and you're like: 'Oh, I would have loved to have driven that car in the desert,' or, 'I would have loved to have driven that car up to the mountains.' I certainly felt that way about this character."

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When choosing a project, Tucker looks for ones that ask big questions and have overarching themes and Monsterland fit the bill.

He said he won't take a job if he doesn't connect to the material on a visceral level.

"If it doesn't resonate with you, then you should pass on the role because somebody else will find it, and you don't want to take [away] that opportunity the filmmaker has to find somebody who understands the character or narrative better than you," he said.

For an actor, playing a character who is restrained can be as difficult or rewarding as portraying someone who is unhinged.

Alex in Monsterland gave Tucker the opportunity to play a lot of different notes on the intensity spectrum.

"You're hoping you can find a character who can do both, because people are very dynamic and we all have a story to tell," Tucker said.

Monsterland premieres Friday on Hulu.

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