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'Orphan: First Kill' Star Isabelle Fuhrman Explains How a 'Dr. Phil' Episode Propelled the Film Forward

'Orphan: First Kill's' Isabelle Furhman talks about returning to a role she originated at only 10 years old.

Scott Huver
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Isabelle Fuhrman in 'Orphan: First Kill'

Paramount+

Talk about a Hollywood horror story: an actor in the prime of her life is asked to reprise a role she played 13 years earlier, and because it's a prequel, she has to play it even younger than the first time around. 

A lot of performers might have run screaming from such a pitch meeting, but Isabelle Fuhrman was actually the one doing the pitching, and she had an ace up her sleeve. When Fuhrman first took on the lead role in the sleeper hit 2009 horror film Orphan, she was only 10 years old, acting in her first movie, but (spoiler alert) the central twist was that her character, the creepy Russian-born adoptee Esther who constantly leaves deadly chaos in her wake, was in fact a well-preserved 33-year-old adult masquerade as a child. 

Now, Fuhrman herself is 25 years old with a slew of subsequent film and TV credits on her resume, including stints in The Hunger Games and Masters of Sex. And she, like Esther, has remained uncreased by the passage of time, making picking up the cult-favorite villainess again, at just a few years younger for the new prequel Orphan: First Kill, far more seamless than it sounds at first blush. 

"I think that in being in on the secret of Esther, we were able to play with her as a character so much more and have fun with her," Fuhrman tells Metacritic. "And as an audience, you get to actually have moments where you can like her, and you're allowed to like her, and it's OK. And I think that that's something I've never seen in a sequel of any horror movie or prequel, where you're actually allowed to love the villain and not just because you're watching them do what they normally do [but] because you're actually given time to get to know them and their humanity and who they are."

Here, Fuhrman talks to Metacritic about her age-hopping journey and how an episode of Dr. Philactually inspired her to pick a key moment to orchestrate Esther's revival. 

Let's just start with the whole head-trippiness of this project coming your way years after the original, and the flip-flop of being so young playing decades older then, and now being closer to Esther's age but playing her a few years younger. That must have been a real puzzle for an actor to wrap her head around. 

It was such a challenge, but I was so game for it! I couldn't imagine anybody else taking on this role other than me; it would've made me really upset! So I really felt like I was lucky that [director] Brent [Bell] trusted me and trusted our team that we could find a way to make me look like I was a kid again. And the rest of it was really kind of up to me to just rediscover the Esther that I created when I was 10 years old, revisit that world all over again, and step back into those little ribbons and make it work. 

You've had a lot of professional experience since then, and you've had a lot of life experience since then. So, in what ways did you try to figure out how to get back to the headspace you were in when you first played Esther? 

The first part of it really was I rewatched the movie, and I remember just being like, "Wow, I did a lot of really intelligent things when I was 10 years old." And I feel like I understood what I was doing, but I didn't realize how good I had done, honestly, because it's hard to watch those things when you're in the moment or whatever. Years later, it's easier.  

I reread my notes and my script that I had done when I was 10, and it was really there that I kind of found Esther all over again because I realized that the emotional choices that I made as a kid were actually going to be my biggest asset in finding her again as an adult. Because as much as I could intellectualize everything that I've now learned throughout my years in wisdom, growing as a woman, there was something to the honesty and the innocence of where I was coming from as a kid, and really the love I had for Esther that I had to take with me as I was rediscovering this role. 

And on top of that, too, I think I had learned over the years. Orphan was my first movie ever, so I've learned how to really feel confident in my craft as an actor, in that I was able to very easily use those two things — where I was at 10, where I was at 23 — when we were working on the movie, and find something new and fresh while, at the same time, still bringing us back to who we loved. I was really proud of that, actually. It's difficult. 

I bet. Had possibly returning to the role been talked about over the years in-between, or did it just kind of come out of the blue? 

Honestly, I kind of sought it out, which is really funny: There was this story that went really viral on the Internet and was actually covered on Dr. Phil, about a family that adopted a child that they then bought an apartment for, and they left her and said to the cops that she tried to kill them and she was actually an adult. And there was a lot of speculation in whether or not she was a grown-up and she wasn't a kid. Anyway, it was all over the news that she was like the girl from Orphan, and I remember getting messages and emails from everyone I had ever met about it. 

And I sent a message to David Leslie Johnson, our producer, and just was like, "Hey, you want to sit down for a cup of coffee and talk about the movie, maybe? Talk about this news story?" And as we're chatting, I was like, "Did you ever think to do a sequel or something?" And he was like, "Actually, we have a script for a prequel, but we took it out a couple years ago, and people weren't really interested." And I was like, "Take it out right now." And within a couple of months, we were really kind of set to go, right before COVID happened. 

Then the question became whether or not they could make me look like a kid again and how much money would it be to do CGI. And it was actually Brent who was like, "No, we're going to do it practically because that's the only way it will work." And we did this little test shoot in L.A., and he did it. And I trusted him implicitly from that point on. I was like, "All right, let's do it. You figure out all the other stuff. I will work on the performance, and we will make this happen." And I'm really proud of the movie. My jaw hit the floor when I saw it for the first time. I was like, "We did it. It's crazy." 

One of the things I enjoyed about this movie is that it has got a sense of humor, but it doesn't wear it on its sleeve at all times. It's always scary, it's serious in its own intentions, but you do get to wink and nod, here and there. What was fun about doing that as an adult performer? Because as a kid, you were probably just following your direction and your instincts, but now you get to really know what you're doing when you're playing with the audience. 

You get to have a lot more fun with it, that's for sure. And I think I also got to kind of enjoy the fact that I knew it was going to be kind of funny to watch a child steal a car and drive off with it. And it's because she's actually an adult, and she's finally getting away from these people she's sick of, for the first time, and she's lighting a cigarette, and she's listening to music and putting on lipstick and running off. There were some parts of the humor in it that I really relished in and I felt like, as an actor, were just such fun moments to play and that we could actually have fun. 

It wasn't just the serious, scary movie where you're being chased or being scared all the time or being the one doing the bad things. There were moments that you actually get to breathe with these characters. And I think because so many people love Esther and became so attached to her, she's so iconic, that it'll let people into her world a little bit more. And I think people really love that.

What was it like to become this kind of cult horror icon as a kid? What was that experience like? 

I didn't really realize it on a day-to-day. That's the thing that's so funny: My life was so normal, actually. The movie came out, I know it did really well, and it was, I think, more successful after a while — it became this kind of cult classic people watched at home — I became this horror icon as this character. But it wasn't really in my radar, if that makes sense.  

I was still going to school. I was, like, in sixth grade when the movie came out, in middle school. I was having crushes on boys and getting acne and dealing with so many other more pressing matters that it really wasn't something I went to bed being like, "Oh, wow, I'm a horror icon." I just felt like Isabelle. I also felt incredibly awkward when I was in middle school. I didn't feel like a movie star at all. 

Was it better, do you feel, for you to have had a career in-between, to have a lot of acting experience in-between, rather than, say, had you picked her up every couple of years since the first one? Was it easier to return to her, knowing that you had done a number of other things and you weren't just going to be typecast as her? 

Yeah. I think I made a conscious effort, when I was younger, not to do scary movies, because I didn't want people to think I was scary. And I think it actually made me a better person because I had to constantly overcompensate, when people would be freaked out when they realized I was in the movie Orphan, and I was scary. I was like, "No, I'm actually really nice, and I'm not scary." So I think if I had played this role year after year when I was younger, I don't know if I would have any sort of agency over her. 

When I was a kid, and I came onto this movie, obviously I had an audition process, and what I brought to the table was what the team behind the movie liked. I had found this character and captured the essence of her. But so much of who she became — like her look, the outfits, some of the mannerism, the accent, things like that — those were things I didn't have any control over. Those were things that were creative decisions made by a collective group of people. And this time around, I had so much agency and freedom to play with this character that I had made and created, that I loved. 

And Brent trusted me because I had had all this experience. I think when I was younger, obviously it was my first movie, and you're treading softly and don't really know a lot of things — how a set works, everything. And I think also you don't really know how to ask questions, because you're worried that you're going to make people upset or waste people's time. And I think as I've grown as an actor, I've gained in confidence, and I feel so much more. On this one, I was totally able to say to Brent, "No, I don't want to do that. I don't think Esther would do that." And so we'd be like, "Well, what can we do? What would make more sense?" And it really felt like a collaboration, rather than I was just playing a role that I had been selected to play. 

I have to ask you if you've got a good anecdote about freaking somebody out when they realized that you had played Esther. 

I have a couple of new friends this last year that I went on vacation with. And the minute I left, they all watched the movie because they hadn't seen it. And I remember no one told me until like a week ago. We were at dinner, and they were just like, "Yeah, no, when you left, we all watched the movie." I was like, "What?" They're like, "Yeah, we all sat around, and we watched the movie." So I was like, "But what?" They're like, "Well, we didn't want you to think it was weird that we watched it when you were there." I'm like, "So you just waited until the day I left to watch the movie together?" Now we're going to go see the new movie, all of us as a group. That'll be fun. 

Either as an actor facing a challenge or as somebody who just loves making movies, what was your best day on set making this one? 

When I was a kid, I was not allowed to do wire work, which is a stunt thing where they put you in a harness, and they pull you up on wires. Because I was a grown-up, I got to do it, and I remember it was so cool to be in that!  

The first day was great. It was super cool, the first day, to be in that harness, and to be pulled up on a wire and on the top of a building, and all of that. And then the reality sets in the next day that the harness has to be so tight to keep you safe, that my ribs were completely bruised, and I was in so much pain and so sore. But first day was amazing.  

If this movie hits audiences the way you all want it to, do you play the long game and wait another decade or so before you try to do it again? Or are you ready to put the pigtails in again right away? 

I think time is kind of running out. That's the thing: I hope we don't wait another 13 years if that happens because I'm not going to look the same, and I'm already starting to feel a little old. I mean, I used to never get sore, and the other day, I went swimming, and I felt so sore for like two days. I was like, "What is wrong with me?" My knees are starting to hurt. They're starting to click. I remember when I was a kid, my dad's knees would click every time he would go to pick something up, and I thought it sounded so cool. And just this last year, my knees started clicking every time I squat down to pick things up. And I'm like, "It's not cool because it kind of hurts." Now I realize why my dad said it wasn't cool. 

Horror evolves pretty quickly as a film genre. This movie definitely feels of a piece with the original, but did you feel that there was anything in this one that was different from or reflective of the way that horror movies are made today? 

I think we had more fun with this one. I think we were able to lean into the fact that everyone knows the secret, and we were able to make something that was scary and kind of — Julia [Stiles] used this word: "delicious." I think the fans will find this really delicious and also, at the same time, kind of funny.  

And I think there's nothing wrong with leaning into the fact that there is some comedy to Esther's character and what she's decided to do, which is pretend to be a kid. And there is some humor in that, and it was fun to play with that, honestly. I think we didn't discover it at the time, when we were making the movie, but I think since seeing it and realizing how people are finding that, I'm like, "Yeah." The humor was definitely there. I just don't think we all kind of realized exactly what extent, but it's fun to see that people are enjoying it. And I think this movie's entertaining and enjoyable, as it should be. 


Orphan: First Kill is

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Get to know Isabelle Fuhrman:
Fuhrman has essentially grown up on screen, having appeared in Orphan (Metascore: 42), The Hunger Games (68), Good Girls Get High (63), The Novice (85), and The Last Thing Mary Saw (52).