Into the Dark Star Nyasha Hatendi Takes Us into the Madness of Pooka!
This Christmas story will pull you into the darkness and leave you there to find your own way out.
By Chris Morse
Hulu’s Blumhouse-produced anthology series, Into the Dark, has been taking us on a very seasonal journey since it premiered back on October 5th with its first episode, the Halloween-themed The Body. For those of you not yet up to speed, this series will span a total of 12 months with each feature-length episode focusing on a different holiday or theme from that month. November brought us another great installment in Flesh & Blood but for Christmas comes something very special with Pooka!
We have been hearing about Pooka! since our October interview with series production designer Cecil Gentry, who shared with us a great deal of excitement for this particular episode. Although there are surely some great surprises in store for us as Into the Dark heads into the new year, Pooka! was destined to be something special and it certainly delivered on that promise. It officially hits Hulu tomorrow, on December 7th, and is an incredibly unique, dark, and not to mention a little depressing spin on the holiday season. This is one you are going to want to watch as soon as it's streaming.
Pooka! tells the story of an out-of-work actor named Wilson who gets a job promoting this year’s hottest new toy, “Pooka.” It’s just a gig at first but something about this costume starts to push this man to the brink as he slowly unravels into two personalities clashing with one another, both in and out of the costume. Struggling through this psychological conflict, he dives deeper and deeper into the darkness before all is revealed and it certainly doesn’t play out how you might expect.
Star Nyasha Hatendi plays the part of Wilson and takes us along on this roller coaster ride of naughty and nice, good and evil, and darkness and light. There’s a lot to the character in this story and, fortunately for us, the actor graciously spent some time speaking to us about the episode. There is a lot to unravel with Pooka! so let’s get right to it.
Ray Morse: First, we want to say thank you for taking the time to speak with us about Pooka! Can you give our readers and listeners a little bit of your background as an actor?
Nyasha Hatendi: Yeah, sure! So, I started acting pretty young. I went to a drama school in London and a very old-school classical theater place called RADA, which was really great fun. I left that and ended up working, and most of my work was based mostly in England and was basically on stage. I did a lot of weird, wonderful plays and then ended up breaking into television a little bit more in UK, but then about three or four years ago [I] decided to come to LA and to realize that dream. I went and I got very lucky and ended up on a series called Casual, and worked with some incredible, talented people, which has led to bigger and better things. And I’m still on the road, so to speak.
Ray: Into the Dark has definitely made an impression on us so far by taking holidays and giving them a darker spin. Did the horror aspect of the series draw you in or was it something else that intrigued you?
Nyasha: You know, what’s funny is when I think about the horror aspect of the film, I didn’t really see it as a horror. I mean, what happened was horrific but I didn’t necessarily see it as a horror. What drew me in was the idea that this man who doesn’t quite know what is going on around, doesn’t quite know who he is, and through meeting these different characters throughout the film, discovers who he is. Only then [does he] discover why he was in the situation that he’s in. It became this meditation on the consequences of our actions.
When I first read it, the first five pages I read, I knew that it was something I wanted to do because it had so many references to some of the stories that I love, like Scrooge and A Christmas Carol, which I don’t know if you would see that as a horror movie or some story in the horror genre because that’s why it resonated with me. That’s what I sort of felt about it and as you read it and you get through to the end, it becomes so horrific that it becomes a very, very frightening realization of the consequences of his actions as something that he cannot escape and I found that really intriguing. I found that really challenging and an interesting journey to take, which was saying a lot of things that I thought were relevant in our time today to what’s going on in the world.
Ray: So, in Pooka!, you are an actor playing an actor. Did you find any particular challenge in that or did that make it easier to translate to the screen?
Nyasha: Well, the one thing that was easy about it was that feeling of constant rejection which actors have to go through. It wasn’t difficult connecting to that in Wilson but then it’s actually quite difficult to act an actor because there’s always ideas of what that is and I’m very defensive of my fellow actors. I think there’s all these clichés surrounding who they are, so I was trying to avoid that to some degree [and] I had to be quite careful. But then at the same time, there’s something where you are innately aware of what this experience is and how it shapes his character, who he is, that it wasn’t such a leap so to speak. It was “same old, same old.”
But then, also, he had been a successful actor in his previous life, so it was interesting playing kind of like a [Lady] Gaga’s A Star is Born moment where a successful actor has to go back to the beginning and sort of rediscover it again. That was quite interesting to kind of rediscover the need to perform, the joy of performing, and the anxiety surrounding it and how that can be somewhat intoxicating and that was quite fun. That was very easy to relate to.
Ray: Wilson’s audition for the Pooka costume was pretty bizarre. Was your experience auditioning for the show anything like that? Or do you have any particularly fun audition stories you’d like to share?
Nyasha: Fun audition stories… They’re not fun. I hate auditions. They’re always terrifying and I’m always shitting myself whenever I walk into a room and I’m always shocked when people don’t seem to notice, but with this one, the scene is every actor’s nightmare. This is a horror film for actors as much as it if for anyone else, but specifically for actors because that scene where you’re totally objectified and nothing that you do or invest in the actual work seems to be of any value to anybody else other than one’s self, I think [it] kind of really captures that fear, which I think all actors go through.
In the process of doing this, at the time I was in London doing a stage play called Fatherland, which was all about toxic masculinity, so I was all sort of geared up and angry and I needed another outlet, so the audition process for this was actually quite cathartic because I ended up being able to scream and shout and sort of let go in a way that I normally don’t get to do. Because his character had so many different shades and is one of those things where you would go in and could play all of them, it was actually quite cathartic.
So, yeah, it was actually quite fun and it took a long time. I know that there was a long list of people before me that they were thinking about and thankfully I was able to kind of weather the storm and they ended up having to go with me at the end of the day, so I was very thankful for it. But, yeah, it was an ordeal.
Ray: One big theme of Pooka! was the naughty and nice personas, which not only was reflected in the toy itself but also in your character. There was almost a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde aspect to Wilson. How did you approach that balance and juggling these different personalities as the story unfolded?
Nyasha: It was interesting. I think when we first meet Wilson there’s this sort of a blankness to him. He’s not quite aware of who he is and where he is, and there’s this sort of childish naivety that he has. As he goes through the paces and he starts to meet these different characters, they all bring out elements of himself which he enjoys. They encourage him to be a better version of himself, but in spite of that encouragement, there are moments where he gets annoyed or he gets impatient. There are moments where little triggers happen. We always get triggered by various things for various reasons and usually what we do is we learn to sort of control those and we learn not to act on them.
But it was very interesting discovering what those triggers were and those triggers kind of identified another personality that Wilson had, which he was beginning to discover as well, so it was interesting being very aware of the way Wilson was affected by the people around him, by the other characters, and then finding those moments where he was behaving in ways that were beyond his control – that were just sort of instinctive reactions which he would sit back and look at and think, “Oh no, that’s not a very good thing to do or say or a way to be,” and in doing that he discovered who this other personality is, which [happened] more towards the end. It was one in the same person but different reactions to different circumstances by the same person for various different reasons. That is how I went about it, pretty much.
Ray: Pooka! was not your typical Christmas story. In the end, it was a lot less about external struggles and a lot more psychological after that final twist. How did you feel about the script taking this darker path?
Nyasha: I really loved it. I loved it. I loved the way that it sets you up and then it sort of dashes it in this psychotic, rageful way. Not really, I think I love seeing both sides of the coin. I love being exposed to the beautiful as well as the horrific. I think there’s something very honest about that and I think that this piece was very honest in that way. A lot of the time when it comes to Christmas, we have this idea of Christmas being this wonderful time, same with Thanksgiving, but Christmas could be quite tense as well with a lot of different expectations and you always feel that it’s going to go a particular way and you get disappointed about it.
But we always like to pretend that it’s going to be this great experience and, in the same way, the film kind of encourages you to engage with this idea which is wonderful and cathartic and lovely, but then it also kind of twists that and it shows you the underlying truths that we don’t like to acknowledge, or we don’t like to sit with, but it forces you to see them and I enjoy that. I do. Maybe I’m like a sadomasochist but I find that honestly to be ultimately more cathartic.
Ray: A major part of Pooka! was about building relationships. What was your relationship like with the rest of the cast?
Nyasha: That’s a great question. The cast were absolutely and utterly wonderful. In fact, the whole team on this [was]. I’ll start with the cast. Like Dale Dickey, I love. I’d seen her on Winter’s Bone years ago opposite Jennifer Lawrence and I remember her as much as I remember Jennifer in that film. She had such a rawness and honesty and generosity surrounding her. I was really privileged to able to work opposite her and I think we had a wonderful time together. Jon Daly is the funniest I have met in a very long time. He’s incredibly talented in so many different ways and also just very kind and engaging. And then Latarsha, who plays Melanie, was also just a very wonderful, kind spirit.
We all took the time to sit with each other and talk through the scenes with each other. I remember after the first read-through, Nacho, who’s an actor himself, actually, as well as the director, is very sensitive to the experience that we were going through in this because it did happen very quickly and the piece itself was very dense and complex. I remember when we went to this table read, the first table read with Blumhouse and Hulu and all the execs and everybody sitting there, and read this out loud for the first time. I was shitting myself.
I was like, “When is somebody going to realize that I am not capable?” and I thought I was going to get fired. I was so nervous and sort of anxiety-ridden, and I think all the cast were in the same place of that not knowing. Nacho insisted that we all sit down together and we work through it, and he said, “This is a mess, we’re going to have to find our way through it.”
And so, as a result, I think everybody involved in the piece knew it was going to be this discovery which we all went on together and everybody, to their credit, really was committed in that way, and that goes for all the cast. Also, little Jonny, Jonny Berryman, who is a wicked improvisational kid – he can improvise like nobody else – he was also this sweet, professional presence on set.
Then, from the camera crew to the hair and the make-up to the costume, everybody sort of really pulled up their slacks and said, “You know, I’m going to make this work and I’m going to make it special.” I think the three weeks I was on it was probably the most committed bunch of filmmakers I’ve ever been with and they were also just always in good spirits. It was a very positive experience.
Ray: That’s great to hear. We spoke with Cecil, the production designer, back in October, and he was so excited about Pooka! It was almost like he wanted to send us a copy right then and there because he really wanted us to check it out and we’re very happy we’re talking with you about it now.
Nyasha: (laughs) Yeah, that’s cool. Cecil’s great. As I say, he was one of the team and he’s such a visionary. [There are] so many subtleties in the way that he designed it that I’m really excited to see it. I think it’s one of those pieces that you would want to watch at least five times just to really understand all the different nuances because it’s so well conceived and detailed. Cecil was great and he was right – it’s a good one.
Interview: A Look into the World of Hulu's Into the Dark
Series production designer Cecil Gentry takes us into the darkness of Hulu's new anthology series.
Ray: We kind of still have the Pooka song stuck in our heads. Did you get to keep a doll of your own? Maybe a costume or another memento?
Nyasha: The costume, definitely not. That costume should be burned. (laughs) Oh, God, that costume. We were sweating into that costume like crazy. It’s got to be a health risk [and it's] probably radioactive, so I would definitely not like [that]. But the dolls, yeah, I was talking to the guys at Blumhouse trying to twist their arms and say, “Look, I want one of these dolls,” but I think they’re going to become collector’s pieces so they were a little reluctant. They were thinking about having some toys. I don’t know whether they ended up doing that but you might be able to pick some Pooka toys up. If there was, I would definitely want them.
That said, I wouldn’t give them to children. In fact, there was one kid on our set who I said [to], “Would you want a doll?” And he looked at me and he just said, really calmly, with this really sort of deadpan expression, “No, no. That thing scared the shit out of me.” So, I would love one, just to remember the piece, but then again, you never know, you might wake up in the middle of the night with these glowing red eyes that come to life…
Ray: We actually have a few big fans of Mass Effect here at Dead Entertainment and we learned that you voiced the character, Jaal. What was it like working on Andromeda and how does video game voice work differ from more traditional acting?
Nyasha: (laughs) Oh, mate. Well, thank you very much. I’m glad you liked that. I had no idea how big the fan base was for Mass Effect. I’ve done some video games before but this was kind of like the first time that I was in this sort of level and I loved it. It took about a year to voice all of Jaal, the character I played, and the guys at BioWare are just these really smart, really altruistic people who write these incredible scripts that reflect on the world in which we live and human interaction in a way that I found so exciting and engaging, and reassuring.
Playing Jaal, as far as voice work goes, the benefit of a classical education is you kind of learn how to manipulate your voice to express different characters, and with Jaal, [he] had a delivery that gave [him] sort of an African tint to his voice that I was in love with. I thought with a video game that has this kind of reach, it would be nice to get that sense from the character and that’s how Jaal’s voice sort of emerged. It was an homage to that in a way.
It’s great, being in a booth when you’re voicing a video game is so fun because literally you can chew the scenery as much as you want without ever feeling fear of repercussion. It’s not the sort of laser accuracy that you tend to need for film acting – it ultimately is, vocally, but in order to get there, you need to go through this play. You have to play. You have to have fun playing it and so I had the greatest time doing it and it was an incredible achievement for all involved.
I have to say the fans are the greatest bunch of fans that I’ve ever come in contact with. They are just so into it. I’ve met so many people, just randomly, who’ve told me that they’ve played this game and how much they enjoy it and I was blown away. I was blown away by the phenomenon that is [Mass Effect]. It was a wonderful thing to be involved in.
Ray: Anthology horror can be very challenging to pull off and Into the Dark has been hitting it out of the park so far. Before we go, we wanted to say congratulations on a fantastic episode in Pooka! It was amazing. As far as your future, can you tell us about what’s next for you or tease any upcoming projects you might be working on?
Nyasha: Well, at the moment I am working on working on projects at the moment. I’m still looking for the next break, you know what I mean? At the moment, I’m sort of looking for work. I have a couple of films that are out at the moment that I’m very proud of. One of them is Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner with Hugh Jackman, which I would encourage everyone to go and see. It’s a great investigation of the times that we live in. It’s about the media and a presidential candidate who doesn’t quite live up to the expectations that we have of them but it asks us what we need to believe a leader to be.
Another really interesting film that’s been along the pipeline is Replicas, a Keanu Reeves movie, which comes out January, I think. It’s directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff and that’ll be popping up soon. I highly recommend that. Other than that, I’m just looking for my next gig so anybody who listens to this and wants to employ me, please do. Give me a call, I’m ready!
Ray: Well, best of luck. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. I’m very excited about Pooka! and we’re going to do our best to get the word out for it because I really, really think it’s going to resonate with the horror fans and just fans of great television at this point. So, congratulations and best of luck in the future!
Nyasha: Thank you very, very much. Lovely chatting to you. Thank you!
Pooka! stars Nyasha Hatendi, Latarsha Rose, Jon Daly, Dale Dickey, Jonny Berryman, and Diane Sellers. In addition, the feature-length episode was written by Gerald Olson and directed by Nacho Vigalondo.
Following the first three installments of Into the Dark, The Body, Flesh & Blood, and Pooka!, we will head into 2019 with New Year, New You arriving in January. A very special Valentine’s Day episode called Down premieres in February, which we learned has a unique and exciting spin that hasn’t yet been revealed. March will bring us a still-under-wraps episode titled Treehouse.
Beyond that, we exclusively learned the names of two more episodes back in October. I’m Just Fucking with You will celebrate April Fool’s Day while another episode titled School Spirit should arrive in August or September. That’s all we have for now but this series will surely bring us plenty more holiday horror fun as the calendar pages turn throughout the year.
Hulu’s Into the Dark continues with the arrival of Pooka! on December 7th, bringing us up to a total of three feature-length episodes that are currently streaming. Otherwise, stay tuned to Dead Entertainment for more coverage on this series in the coming months as we continue exploring the darker sides of these holidays.