Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes explores the tragedies of Mary Shelley’s tragic life that inspired her creation of 1818’s Frankenstein — the first science fiction novel ever written. Notably, the film explores the torrid love affair between Mary and Percy, their several miscarriages and Mary’s desire to write through her pain.
Actor Giullian Yao Gioiello shared with CBR what it was like playing the unlikable Percy, being apart of a women-led film and the importance of having an intimacy coordinator on set.
CBR: What kind of research did you do to get into the head of Percy Shelley? And later in the film, Victor Frankenstein?
Giullian Yao Gioiello: You know with Percy — it wasn’t easy, necessarily — but it was a little simpler for me because I am a romantic. I am an artist. I am idealistic. I sort of question the status quo. And that’s sort of all of his Percy Shelley legend. And as I got deeper and deeper into his poetry, I was enamored by it immediately. I connected a lot to the, you know, the hymn of intellectual beauty and, and it was just like, his writings were incredible. I would read them out loud — and obviously, I’m an American, but I was playing English for this — so just speaking his words out of my own lips was a big thing for me, even though I don’t recite a lot of his poetry in the film. It’s a big part of getting into his mindset getting into his world. And that would always be the thing that would help me drop right into that.
And then with Victor Frankenstein… I mean, I guess, you know, the spoilers out. I played two roles in this film. He’s a lot older. He represents this very dark part of Mary’s imagination and psychosis. And so, physically, as an actor, I spent a lot of time just on stillness. Because, in some ways, I believe some of the scariest things about darkness and psychological cloudiness is how it’s hard to even discern what’s going on, and your mind sort of fills in the gaps. You know, when you like, look in the closet, and it’s dark, it’s scary because your mind fills it in and I really wanted to build my character off of that idea of almost like a shadow. Our film is sort of toeing the line between horror and psychological thriller and whatever. But Victor was definitely part of that, that darker dream world, and I wanted to make sure that he inhabited that. In contrast, Percy, to me, I wanted to feel alive, to feel very young, romantically involved and passionate. And so it was sort of like finding that contrast and really establishing those physicalities and, and building, you know, the mentality for those characters.
I definitely think the stillness comes through and it gives Victor this haunting quality when he’s around Mary.
And it’s a challenge too because we wanted him to be older as well. You know, perhaps in his 40s. And I’m not in my 40s. I’m 28. And so, you know, there’s only so much makeup and special effects can do. I really wanted to make sure that he just had the quality of someone who had been in his workshop for years and maybe had never left. And knew exactly what he was doing and had a strength and a groundedness to him.
What was one thing that you would like audiences to take away about Percy Shelley from watching this film? Whether a part of your portrayal of the character that you think is important for audiences to see or a fact about the real Percy Shelley?
You know, it’s crazy. Alix and I spent so much time focusing on how this is a story that has been told before, but this is a new telling of it. And we like to think of it as a modern retelling of the story. A lot of people think of Percy Shelley as a legendary, iconic British poet, which he is. There was, I think a really important part to all this sort of dictated the whole energy of the film for us, and that was from Nora, was that this was a reminder that men in the early 1800s were pretty horrible.
And I mean, men can be horrible now too, but they were especially running rampant. There were very few rights for women at the time and men were given all kinds of leeway. I mean, Percy, when we start the film, I’ve left my wife for a mistress who is younger than me. And it’s just, I wanted to do him justice in, in giving, you know, the romantic aspects of him — the idealism, the artistry. But, I also wanted to remind the audience that he was despicable at times. And that was important to the story we were telling. And it’s tough because as an actor, you want your character to be liked. But I think I think if anything, it’s even more fun to play [an unlikeable part] because you have parts of yourself that are battling each other. And you get to share that on-screen. So that was a big thing. And I don’t want to spoil the plot too much. But, it was a big thing for me to remind people that he was not a perfect person. He would do things that were not right, even back then. Yeah, so I wanted to make sure that that was told hopefully in a nuanced way.
What was the hardest scene for you to film?
You know, there’s a scene where Percy and Mary are very in love and they’re married. And they’ve had a child and lost a child together. They’ve been through a lot, but it doesn’t excuse, you know, the behavior. You know, Percy was an avid drinker. He was we were doing opiates. He was doing liquid opium and at Byron’s place partying all the time. And, and one night, he comes back. And he just decides, I want to have sex tonight with my wife. And, you know, it sounds fine on the surface. But I think what was really important for Nora, and Alix, was to capture the nuance of that situation and say that just because you’re married, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to ask for consent. And that scene is pretty harrowing, both to watch and as a scene to be a part of was very difficult for me. I knew I was going in I’d be playing a character who had a lot of you know, tumultuousness, and beautiful moments and dark moments, but this is definitely, you know, on the dark side. And it was difficult, but it was made easier because of the way Nora ran the set.
We choreographed it in a way to say, “Okay, what are we comfortable with? Not comfortable with?” You know, most of the crew out, and let’s actually rehearse this, which is not something we get to do a lot in films. You really don’t get to rehearse very much. But we spent the time to rehearse [the rape scene]. You know, especially with sex scenes, it’s historically never been something that’s been really, like done in a structured way, unfortunately. And that’s been the sort of unfortunate way that Hollywood has established itself. But like, the year after we filmed this, there’s something called an intimacy coordinator that now shows up on set.
I just learned about that! It feels like a role that should have always been there.
Yeah! And it’s incredible. It was something that I was actually fighting for and I was reaching out to the union to start adding because I think it was something that was sparked by the MeToo Movement. I think people really started publicly realizing how much harassment was living in the world of films and asking, “What can we do about it?” And one of the great things and ideas was to have someone who helped choreograph and help set the boundaries and the rules for the actors on set during sex scenes. And I’m saying all this to say that while we didn’t have one on this set, it really felt like we did. Nora, you know, was leading a mostly female crew and female-led crew — producer, director, writer — and there was an immense amount of thoughtfulness when it came to shooting sensitive scenes that could put any of us in an uncomfortable situation. So, it was a difficult scene to shoot, for sure. But it was made a lot easier by the environment that we were working in, because of Nora and Devin and Gabe, who were producing as well. And it was harrowing, but that’s what it was supposed to be. That was what we knew going into it. And it couldn’t have gone better, actually.
I think it definitely comes across the way it’s intended to on-screen. Yeah, I really appreciated it. I think it was really delicately done. And I can’t imagine having to film it, but I’m glad it’s there as part of this larger story being told about Mary and Percy that we need to know.
Yeah, exactly. This film was full of moments that I never thought I would have to live through. Yeah, it’s kind of like, “Okay, I’m fully immersed in a lake. This is really cold here, like, why am I here? In my clothes?” Or, you know, what am I doing here at night with my, my actress wife? To be an actor, you end up in so many very strange, unique situations. And it can be very scary. If the crew or the director or the environment you’re in is not like a totally safe one. And it often isn’t. So again, yeah, it was so wonderful to have that, that intimacy and that thoughtfulness on the side of production.
Written and directed by Nora Unkel, A Nightmare Wakes stars Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Gioiello, Claire Glassford, Philippe Bowgen and Lee Garrett. The film is currently available to stream exclusively on Shudder.
2014’s Godzilla 4K Remastering Sample Is Mind-Blowing
About The Author