NEW YORK — In “A Monster Calls” (opening Friday), young Scottish newcomer Lewis MacDougall is cast as Conor, a boy who has to face a litany of tough problems. He has daily nightmares, he’s bullied at school and he has to care for his devoted mother (played by Felicity Jones), who is battling a terminal illness.
On top of all that his overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) comes to live with them to help nurse Jones’ dying character — a situation that Conor loathes.
Suddenly one night, a nearby tree comes to life as an enormous monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who explains that he will tell Conor three stories, but that he has to also share his own truth — to reveal what’s really bothering him.
“When I first got the part, I was extremely excited, as you can imagine — ecstatic really,” he said during a chat in New York. “But I was also nervous as well, because I did realize it was such a big role to undertake. There are lots of high emotional scenes. That’s what really made me nervous — wondering if I could get in touch with the emotions needed to make Conor believable.”
The 14-year-old actor said that when he first heard about the film project, he knew he had to learn everything he could about the story. “When I was first asked to audition, I didn’t have access to the script, so I immediately sought out and read the book [by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay]. What struck me was that a lot of people — myself included —could relate to Conor’s story, and not just kids but adults as well. Everyone has experienced some sense of loss in their life. That’s what made me think, if this movie was done right, people would really like it.”
Filming the intense emotional scenes in “A Monster Calls” took a daily toll on him. “When you’re screaming and shouting, all the other emotions start coming out. You can’t really control it at that point. You simply let loose. Yes, at the end of the day, there would be a bit of an adrenaline rush for a bit, but by the time I got home, I’d fall right into bed!”
Because Conor and his mum are so close in the film, before filming started Jones and MacDougall went out and had what MacDougall called “a few bonding sessions together. We went to the zoo together, just the two of us. That was good fun, actually. But we also went to a theme park and went on a roller coaster and stuff — so doing all that was really helpful. Sharing a scary ride with someone on a roller coaster is certainly a great way to bond!”
“A Monster Calls” is one of those movies likely will make most audiences weep — a subject MacDougall knows something about.
“Of course, when you’re a lot younger you cry a lot easier at movies, so I remember when I was like 3 or 4 years of age, I cried watching ‘The Jungle Book,’ ” he said. “But crying at ‘The Jungle Book’ is nothing like the tears you shed due to the emotional levels of this movie.”
For director J.A. Bayona, his enthusiasm for making Ness’ novel into a film was centered on the fact the story was “so emotional, but also not simply a fantasy, but it’s about how we need fantasy sometimes to understand reality.
“This is what we do: When we write a book or make a film, we try to give a vision of what life is really all about. I think that fiction or art can give us a better comprehension of what life is about, even more than life itself.
“Of course, the film is also about how one deals with his or her own personal demons — and that is focused here on Conor and his own demons, represented by his nightly nightmares. What makes the actual monster very human is the fact he is the result, the physical representation of what Conor is going through in his own mind. But at the same time he is the solution. That contradiction makes it all very human. I think that what Conor needs to learn is something we all need to learn. Life is about contradictions, that things can be black and white at the same time. Growing up is about accepting that uncertainty.”