“I had a real issue playing the reality of it rather than just playing the fiction. You have to keep your sanity and stay separated from the reality because it is dark. It’s not pleasant to inhabit that world. This actually happened to somebody. It’s horrible. That poor girl.”
Henry Thomas is a veteran actor who is known for his work in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Legends of the Fall, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game, Better Things, and many other films and television shows. The movie he is talking about is Lifetime’s latest thriller, Girl in the Bunker, which premieres Monday, May 28 at 8/7c. It is based on the true story of Elizabeth Shoaf, a 14-year-old girl who was abducted by a 36-year-old unemployed construction worker named Vinson Filyaw. Elizabeth was held captive one mile from her home, 15 feet underground, in Filyaw’s survival bunker.
Henry does a phenomenal job portraying Vinson as a damaged and delusional man who is capable of anything. His understated approach really heightens the disquieting atmosphere of the film.
“I actually went in a little too hot,” Henry confessed, “but the director wanted me to downplay everything. There was no overstated arch villain boasting, ‘You’re never getting out of here alive!’ When he would say things like that, it was all very calm and very matter-of-fact. Which made it very creepy.”
No matter how horrible a character is, to portray him believably, an actor has to find some shred of humanity, a way into the role so it feels authentic and resonates with the audience. Although it was extremely difficult, Henry did find something.
“He was smart, but it was like he kept losing his mind and falling deeper and deeper into this delusional fantasy he had created. He was so off course that you could almost kind of feel a little pity for him,” Henry expressed. “I am not making any excuses for anything he did at all – it’s pure insanity. But the fact that he was so narcissistically wrapped up in this idea that he was in the right, he was getting even, and he was justified in doing what he did in his mind… It was disturbing, but it was something I could kind of wrap my head around in terms of making him human. Otherwise, he’s just this depraved person in a basement and there’s no depth to that.”
“Julia did a great job as Elizabeth,” Henry pointed out. “She was pretty moving. But I think she was very uncomfortable with the material and the heaviness of it.”
Julia Lalonde (Anne of Green Gables, Odd Squad) is riveting as Elizabeth Shoaf, a terrified young girl who is smart and determined to find a way out of her horrifying and seemingly hopeless situation. Complex and contrasting emotions ripple through her, letting the audience know, even though Elizabeth is alone and chained up in an underground bunker that is surrounded by explosives, she is not helpless.
“Actors are usually quite sensitive people. It’s hard when you’re in a professional environment and you are expected to perform and deliver when you’ve got all of these human things that you have to deal with as well,” Henry continued. “There’s a lot of putting on a brave face and saying, ‘No, no, no, that’s fine. I’m totally comfortable with that.’ But I could see she wasn’t. A lot of the situations were pretty grim. It was pretty obvious to me that she was despising me because of the character.”
“There was a point when I let her know that I was really uncomfortable with the situation. I told her that I have a 12-year-old daughter, and this wasn’t my happy place. I think it was a revelation for her when she realized that I was uncomfortable too. After that, it made everything a little easier.”
“My biggest fear coming onto this project was Vinson – the actor who was going to play him and the scenes we would then have to take part in,” Julia revealed. “Having Henry, this pro, talented actor who always knew when to switch on and off the character, was such a relief to me.”
“Throughout the shoot, he was always super nice and approachable, making jokes with the crew and chatting with everyone. During some of the more intense scenes, the director would call ‘Action!’ and Henry would deliver these incredible, terrifying performances that were scary good. But, as soon as they called, ‘Cut!’ he would switch back to himself, ask if I was alright, and make sure everything was good.”
There was a time when a movie like this would be shot in about three weeks. But now, actors only have about 12 or 13 days to get it done.
“It was such a brutal schedule,” Henry acknowledged. “It’s long hours and not very comfortable working conditions. Everything goes on the screen; there’s not a lot of fat. We shot a bulk of the scenes in the bunker in only two or three days.”
“But the director, Stephen Kemp, he was really on top of things. And the director of photography was very efficient and moved quickly. Most of it was hand-held, so we were really fast.”
Currently, Henry is wrapping up a new series for Netflix called The Haunting of Hill House, which will be out in the fall. It is based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror novel of the same name. The series is also an homage to famed director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and it features a few twists that haven’t been seen in previous adaptations. The Haunting of Hill House was directed and created by Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Hush, Oculus).
In closing, Henry told Entertaining Options, “I’ll know if this film resonated with people if I get really dirty looks for the next month. It’s happened to me before! I’ve had people at the airport stare at me and shake their head like I’m such a creep. That’s when I know I’ve done a good job.”
Lifetime’s Girl in the Bunker premieres Monday, May 28 at 8/7c. A docu-special called Elizabeth Shoaf: The Girl in a Bunker will air immediately after.
Fun Fact: How Henry Thomas got into acting
“My piano teacher was the musical director for the local theater group. She did these educational plays, and at her suggestion, I got my first part, a 1920s newspaper boy in a play about the history of sheet music. I went from playing ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Hot Cross Buns’ to sitting around for a long time in the wings. I would come out and sing, ‘Extra! extra! Read all about it! Song’s for sale.’ That was my one line and I thought, ‘Man, this is great! It gets me out of playing the piano!”