Ben Aldridge on M Night Shyamalan, the apocalypse and fighting Dave Bautista
The star of Knock at the Cabin opens up about the film's "insane" premise and bringing Shyamalan's vision to life.
Ben Aldridge has long been an admirer of M Night Shyamalan, and so when the chance came to work with the director on his latest thriller Knock at the Cabin he didn't need to think twice. For Aldridge, who rose to prominence thanks to a main part in the BBC military drama Our Girl and a memorable supporting turn in Fleabag, it marks the biggest film credit of his career thus far – and the magnitude of it all is still sinking in when he speaks to RadioTimes.com the day after a special screening in central London.
"There's a dream come true element to it," he says. "I love The Village so much, I love Signs so much and sometimes I kind of couldn't believe I was there. Last night they showed a reel of all [Shyamalan's] work and they opened it with a shot of me and Jonathan [Groff] in Knock at the Cabin. And then they cut to, like, Samuel L Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Joaquin Phoenix – all of the incredible people he's worked with. And I was like, 'Oh, that's pretty cool.' It was great!"
Over the course of his now almost 30-year career, which has included such hit films as The Sixth Sense and Split, Shyamalan has become known for a number of trademarks, notably including his penchant for wacky premises and crazy twists. But he's also developed a reputation for injecting a great deal of tension into his films – he's sometimes referred to as cinema's modern master of suspense – and according to Aldridge, even the process of auditioning had a certain degree of anxiety to it.
"It was strange because I'd been given the scenes – just three scenes for a taped audition – and a week later I was told that he wanted to do a Zoom with me," he recalls. "And we went through the scenes for an hour and a half, but he wouldn't give me any more information about the character or the story because he said I had enough to go on."
That initial Zoom call went well, and a few days later Shyamalan called Aldridge directly to offer him the part. "He said: 'I will be sending you a link, you have 24 hours in which to activate that link, and once activated it will expire within six hours'. It's because he's super protective over his scripts, so I had that limited window in which to read it, but I'm a slow reader so I just found it so daunting.
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"But I couldn't believe the premise of this script that slowly unfolds," he adds. "The stakes are so high and it's so violent, and the part is incredible. I was intimidated, and then I was terrified when we were making it, and I guess I'm still kind of scared of it now! But yeah, it was an intense script to read."
The film is loosely adapted from Paul Tremblay's 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of The World and sees Aldridge star as Andrew, a father who decamps to the titular cabin for an idyllic getaway with his husband Eric (Groff) and their eight-year-old daughter Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui). Alas, any hopes for rest and relaxation are quickly put aside when a group of four strangers – wielding some especially threatening weapons – arrive on their door-step with a bone-chilling ultimatum: if they don't sacrifice one of their number, they will be directly responsible for the apocalypse.
As is often the case with Shyamalan's films, that premise might sound a little outlandish, but Aldridge reckons it very much speaks to present-day anxieties sparked by everything from the climate crisis to the COVID pandemic, which can often make it feel like we really are living through rather apocalyptic times.
"I think it's in the collective social conscience that kind of thing could happen," he says. "The fact that we've had COVID, the fact that we lived through the pandemic, the fact that we are very aware of a climate crisis. And I think he's playing on very real fears of ours, and what he's really doing is he's making you think about a family, which we can all relate to.
"And then he's making you think about these biblical, world-encompassing stories, and throwing up these kinds of questions that he doesn't necessarily answer with the film. But I think you kind of walk out thinking: A) What would I do? and B) What is truth? What do I believe in? What's going to happen? He really wants to get under his audience's skin and I think this film does that."
After initially being confronted with the film's unanswerable question Eric and Andrew react in slightly different ways: whereas Eric seems open to at least considering the possibility that there might be a smidgen of truth to the seemingly insane pronouncement, Andrew doesn't entertain it for a second, instead believing that it's all some sort of homophobic hoax. But how does Aldridge himself reckon he'd react if put in a similar situation – would he be more of an Eric or an Andrew?
"I would consider myself more of an Andrew," he says instantly. "Night spent a lot of time when I was auditioning for him – he really wants to get to know you as much as he can as a person – and he would say when we were rehearsing, Jonathan is more of an open person, he's more of a believer and Ben is slightly more of a cynical person. He would say that I've got more of an edge to me, which I'm gonna take as a compliment!"
Although the film includes a couple of flashbacks that reveal details about Eric and Andrew's life prior to their ill-fated holiday, the bulk of the film's 100-minute runtime takes place entirely inside the four walls of the cabin, which had been constructed specially for the production. And although Aldridge says the cast got on like a house on fire, he adds that "cabin fever was real" during the shoot.
"It's slightly different than the traditional meaning, but the experience of making the film had two worlds to me," he explains. "One was the fact that, as a cast, we got on really well – we were messing around a lot, there was a lot of joking, a lot of laughter and levity. And there had to be, I think, because the other world of the film was inside the four walls of the cabin, which was a completely three-dimensional set and completely lifelike and you'd walk onto that set and the temperature would change, we'd kind of leave the jokes at the door really.
"The atmosphere was like getting on board a runaway bullet train, where the stakes are incredibly high," he adds. "And it's kind of tiring... we'd be tied to a chair and then my heart would start racing, I'd probably start sweating. And Night is a really gentle person, but he and Paul and the other screenwriters had written something that was... once 'action' was said it would flow through your body, basically, you didn't have a choice. You had to fully commit to making it real because the premise is mad, the premise is insane! And it kind of required a lot of acting muscle from all of us."
Speaking of muscle, one of Aldridge's co-stars is none other than Dave Bautista – the former professional wrestler and star of such high-profile films as Guardians of the Galaxy, Dune and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Bautista takes on the role of Leonard, the softly-spoken but physically imposing leader of the four strangers, a role which gives him perhaps more lines of dialogue than the rest of his filmography put together. But being Bautista, of course, he also gets a couple of minor action scenes including one that sees him briefly do battle with Andrew – which was rather an unnerving prospect for Aldridge.
"There is a small action scene with him that I do, a fight that we have, and I was like: 'Oh my God, I'm intimidated, he used to be a pro wrestler, he could really kill me easily!'" he says. "But then he was so gentle. He's so considerate of everyone else, and also his own body and not getting injuries. So yeah, he was sat on top of me at one point and he is massive, I've never felt so small. But he also gives a really good hug as well. He's a lovely person – a Hollywood movie star and such a nice person, a low-key person who loves his dogs."
Bautista might have seen it all before when it comes to making big movies, but child actor Kristen Cui is at a very different stage of her career – appearing in her very first big screen project – and Aldridge thoroughly enjoyed working with the young star, especially getting the chance to build a family dynamic with her and Groff.
"It was lovely," he says. "I've played a dad before, but I've never played a dad in a single-sex couple, which – because I'm gay myself – if I were to have a child obviously it would be in that context. So that was a really new experience for me and I think it meant that Jonathan and I bonded really quickly.
"And something about spending loads of time around a child, you're more playful yourself. We were playing Just Dance on the PlayStation with her, we were going ice skating and she was so great. She's so disarming and funny and she's so good in the film."
Of course, Shyamalan has worked with child actors many times before – going back to Haley Joel Osment's unforgettable turn in The Sixth Sense – and Aldridge said he learned a lot from watching the director coaching Cui, explaining that he found himself "relearning about acting" as a result. And this was just one of many things about Shyamalan's process that he enjoyed seeing up close.
"I've never worked with anyone that is so precise about his shots, his framing, where he wants you to look, where he wants you to move," he explains. "He is in control of every element of it all – he's seen it all in his head, he's written it all down as a storyboard, and you as an actor are slotting in to help him execute that vision. He's built the thing and not to sound too reductive, but you're kind of like the decoration, really – you're helping him bring it to life."
Knock at the Cabin is showing now in UK cinemas. Check out our TV Guide or Streaming Guide to see what's on, or visit our Film hub for more news and features.
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