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Isabelle Grill – autumn/winter 2019
Isabelle wears all clothes and accessories Dior AW19Photography Fumi Nagasaka, Styling Linda Engelhardt

Isabelle Grill: in the deep midsommar

The magnetic star of Ari Aster’s ritualistic relationship horror talks cults, collective living, and her visceral upcoming thriller

Taken from the autumn/winter 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

Isabelle Grill is terrified of horror films. “Sometimes, if I’m really interested in a film, I’ll go on Wikipedia and read what happens in it,” says the Swedish actress on a Skype call from her apartment in Stockholm. “Even that’s enough to create these awful images in my head!” It’s ironic, then, that the 21-year-old has made her feature debut under the direction of American filmmaker Ari Aster. Widely hailed as a contemporary master of horror following the success of his 2018 breakout, Hereditary, the director’s follow up, Midsommar, was this summer’s most sun-drenched chiller. If you’ve seen it, you will recognise Grill as the striking, almost entirely silent Maja, a nubile member of a remote Swedish community in the throes of a sinister purification ritual, performed every 90 years on the summer solstice.

Grill hadn’t watched Hereditary when she auditioned for the part in Midsommar – “It hadn’t come out yet,” she explains – but when she did, the tale of family trauma and satanic possession gave her “nightmares for weeks”. When she read the Midsommar script, however, after being put forward for the role by the director of a play she’d auditioned for in Stockholm the year before, Grill was more curious than scared. “I was like, ‘This is really cool but I don’t understand the tone. Is it a horror film?’ It felt more like a drama (but) with some really interesting and disgusting elements.” She put this to Aster at their first meeting, having impressed the director with her audition tapes. “I had a long list of questions for him, and he could answer every one. He had such a clear vision – he’d thought so much about the society these people came from – and I knew he was going to make something great.”

That Grill couldn’t readily categorise Midsommar is not at all surprising: Aster delights in merging genres and subverting their tropes. Just as Hereditary is a searing family drama wrapped as a horror film, Midsommar is basically a breakup movie, exploring themes of unhealthy codependency, betrayal and revenge through a genre-specific lens. It is the story of Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), a young American couple in a stale, four-year relationship. When family tragedy befalls the fragile Dani, Christian begrudgingly asks her to join him on a boys’ trip to rural Sweden. Their destination is the bucolic village of Hårga, home to the friends’ fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who has invited them to partake in a secret, nine-day festival with – it soon transpires – darker motives than simply assisting them in their anthropology theses.

Premise established, Aster plunges us into the warped, eternally sunlit world of the Hårga, replete with flower-punctuated fields, psychedelic ceremonies, eerily upbeat folk music and a whole host of pale-skinned, brightly smiling villagers dressed in flowing white robes. Grill’s Maja is among this band of all-singing, all-dancing revellers, eager to embrace their visitors in this pastoral idyll. She is immediately distinguishable by her long, pre-Raphaelite-red hair and pleasingly asymmetric features, but it’s not just Maja’s appearance that commands attention: from our first encounter with the character, her presence is spellbinding. Her sly sideways glances betray a steely resolve to seduce the object of her affections, while her girlish coyness and sweet singing voice (Grill’s own, incidentally – she used to sing in a band) reveal a contrasting naivety.

“That was a big challenge – portraying both Maja’s timidness and determination, these kind of extremes (that exist within) her body,” Grill explains. “Acting without speaking can be scary – you never know how it’s going to read to the audience, but Ari’s directing was really helpful. He’s extremely meticulous. The Hårga has its own language, Affekt, which is more motion-based than verbal, so I imagined Maja had her language on the inside, and that was mainly how she communicated.” For an actress in her first proper role – after high school, Grill attended a drama school on the outskirts of her native Gothenburg and filmed around 15 shorts before joining the Midsommar cast – this ability to confidently convey such nuances is all the more remarkable.

“Both Dani and Maja are going through really intense, personal things, and instead of being all alone, they are supported. That is a part of Midsommar’s theme – asking (if) we should live individually, in couples, or collectively”  – Isabelle Grill

In preparation for the part, Grill explored other quiet characters on screen, “like Eleven from Stranger Things – she doesn’t speak much, but she says a lot without (words)”. She also studied the relevant parts of a 100-page booklet that Aster and his production designer Henrik Svensson compiled prior to shooting, containing every detail of the Hårga world, from the Affekt language to the songs, rituals and runic symbols employed by the community. Lastly, she spent a lot of time researching cults – what it’s like to grow up with a different set of social norms, and how this can affect a person’s moral compass and lead to “some interesting choices”.

Since working with Aster, Grill has made interesting choices her speciality. Soon to be released in Sweden, Svartklubb – by rising director Nils Alatalo – is poised to be another visceral, leftfield drama. The actress describes it as “an action thriller about illegal, underground clubs”; an on-set snapshot on her Instagram shows Grill in a white fishnet t-shirt, menacingly wielding a hammer. So far, so horror – although her forthcoming projects, The Store by Hanna Sköld and The Beekeeper by Marcus Carlsson (also Swedish directors), delve into the more sober themes of “capitalism” and “dealing with knowing that you will lose someone you love,” she says.

Only at the beginning of her career, Grill is already showing a taste for difficult roles that needle at the moral codes imposed on young women through history. It’s a fearlessness she applied to playing a central role in what is Midsommar’s most memorable sequence – and undoubtedly one of the wildest sex scenes in recent film history. In it, Maja has sex on a bed of flowers, encircled by female members of the tribe who caress their breasts and moan in perfect unison with her. It is a uniquely ‘Asterian’ tableau – taking a societal taboo, and turning it entirely on its head.

“Everybody is so interested in female sexuality, and there are so many norms in terms of what’s ‘right and wrong’,” says Grill of the scene, “but this is something completely different.” Prior to filming, the actress had never even performed an on-screen kiss before, and yet she was undaunted by the task at hand. (Yorgos Lanthimos is her favourite director, she later reveals, and films with something “weird or ‘off’” are the ones that most appeal to her.) “When you decide to become an actor, nudity and sex scenes are things you know you’ll have to do, because you’re portraying life. The most important thing for me was talking to Ari about it, and he assured me that I’d be comfortable.” Another point she’s keen to mention is the Hårga women’s natural body hair. “That was really important to me and Ari, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to live in this remote society but still conform to western beauty standards. It’s something in a lot of films that makes absolutely no sense, and it felt good to take a stand.”

When Maja’s chorus of cult members mimic another character at the film’s climax, the effect is as cathartic as it is deeply disturbing, an odd juxtaposition that underlines the film’s clever probing of societal norms. “The society in the film does everything collectively, which seems so weird but, at the same time, it’s so comforting in a way,” Grill reflects. “Both Dani and Maja are going through really intense, personal things, and instead of being all alone, they are supported. That is a part of Midsommar’s theme – asking (if) we should live individually, in couples, or collectively.”

For Grill – who is yet to sign with an agent, despite her busy schedule and upcoming projects – surrounding herself with women has been a vital survival tool. “Being a young woman in this world, where you’re expected to be so perfect because you’re a woman, and where there are fewer opportunities to play complex roles, can get too much. So I think being around other women – speaking to them, not being competitive, helping each other out – is really the only medicine.” 

Hair Sainabou Chune at Mikas Looks, make-up Veronica Aldrin at Mikas Looks, photography assistants Jonathan Bengtsson, Valter Törsleff, local production Olle Edvard Öman at LUNDLUND