'The Midnight Club' Star Iman Benson on Her Physical Transformation for Ilonka and Whether the Finale's End Signifies a Season 2

The actor talks about working with Mike Flanagan for his YA Netflix drama and what the ending means for her character.
by Carita Rizzo — 

Iman Benson (center) with Chris Sumpter (left) and Sauriyan Sapkota in 'The Midnight Club'


Warning: This story contains spoilers for The Midnight Club, streaming now on Netflix. Read at your own risk! 

Before taking the lead in The Midnight Club, Mike Flanagan's adaptation of Christopher Pike's YA novel about a group of terminally teenagers who find respite in the ghost stories they tell each other, Iman Benson was best known for her comedic work. Benson's previous shows include YA cancer sitcom Alexa & Katie, Kenya Barris' autobiographical comedy #blackAF and the short-lived TV adaptation of Uncle Buck

"I don't know if I've ever done anything to prepare for this [project]," admits Benson. "But it's been amazing and challenging in the best way." 

On The Midnight Club, Benson plays Ilonka, a recent high school graduate who discovers she has terminal papillary thyroid carcinoma and will likely not reach her 19th birthday. Nudged by an early '90s search engine (yes, this show is a period piece) and creepy visions to seek out Brightcliffe Hospital, Ilonka makes the decision to live out the rest of her days at this hospice run by the mysterious Dr. Georgina Stanton (A Nightmare on Elm Street's Heather Langenkamp), surrounded by fellow teenagers facing the inevitable.  

At midnight they gather in secret to tell ghost stories that serve as windows into their souls — not to mention, for fans of Flanagan's previous work, The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass, an opportunity for many of the horror master's repertory actors to make an appearance. Add a supernatural mystery and the tableau is set for the perfect psychological horror drama.  

Knowing that Flanagan repeatedly works with the same cast and crew makes Benson hopeful that this is not the end of her collaboration with this team, even if Ilonka's journey appears finite. 

"It's cool to see the relationships that they've built. They've really created a sense of family outside of set as well, and everybody loves each other," she says. "I would love to be a part of the family." 

Here, Benson talks to Metacritic about Ilonka's journey and ultimate vindication, whether or not there might be a Season 2 of The Midnight Club, and what that final scene meant to her. 

As an actor, what were the themes and challenges that you wanted to delve into through Ilonka? 

First, dealing with the terminal illness aspect of it. Also, there's this reoccurring theme in the show, and it's her biggest challenge to deal with, which is learning to accept that everybody's process for accepting is valid. I think she wants everybody to deal with it how she does, and she wants everybody to feel the way that she does. 

As someone who hopefully has a long life ahead of her, what's it like to process themes like the end of life with people your age? 

It's a difficult concept to grasp and it's pseudo — you're not actually living that life. I think it's one that you can't fully grasp unless you're actually going through it.  

Christopher Pike based Ilonka on a real-life person. How did that affect you?  

I didn't know that. I actually didn't. It might be a good thing that I didn't know that. I do hope that that person was done justice in our adaptation and our version of The Midnight Club because it's heavy work that we do. But that's extremely personal, so I really do hope that they feel like they were done justice. 

Did you read the original book? 

I did read it after I filmed. But no, I hadn't read it before I filmed. 

Why did you decide to not delve into it before? 

I wanted to go into it fresh-eyed, and I know that there are a couple differences between the book and the series. And I wanted to just have my own take on Ilonka without having previous knowledge on how she was written in the book. 

Many of Pike's books are embedded into the show, as part of the ghost stories. Why do you think the show benefits from the stories that they tell each other at midnight? 

It takes away the focus from such a heavy topic of dealing with terminal illness, and it gives the audience this sense of the kids being lively. You get to see their imagination, and it puts them in a different light than just being sick. Because that's not all they are. I feel like it brings more life to the show and our characters. 

What impact does telling these stories have on the characters?   

I feel like it's a form of therapy. The stories are a way for a lot of the characters to say the things that they want to say, but they don't feel like they can necessarily say it the way they want to. Nobody's going to tell you can't say something in a story. So, it's just a great form of therapy for them. 

What do you think Ilonka's story, "Witch," says about her own situation? 

Ilonka wants control in her life and some security and stability. Her being able to predict things and maybe prevent things from happening, I feel like that's something that she ultimately wishes she could do in real life. 

Which is, I assume, why she starts digging into the cult that once lived in the house, the Paragon. What drives Ilonka to find answers through them? 

I think Ilonka's very hopeful. She's very optimistic, and anything that gives her a glimpse of, "This could help," or "This could cure you or the others," she's going to explore it a hundred percent. And the Paragon gives her something to grasp onto. And I also think it adds a sense of mystery to the show. One of my favorite things about this show is the fact that there's a lot to uncover. The Paragon keeps audiences on its toes, and it's not necessarily an aspect that people will predict. So, I feel like it adds that edge-of-the-seat aspect. 

What was it like, from an acting perspective, to play all the different characters within the ghost stories?  

It was great. It was fun to be able to hop into different wigs and different costumes, different eras, different cars. Being able to play in each character's world and play these different characters that are nothing like Ilonka, that's when I had the most fun. Kevin's [Igby Rigney] story with all the girls was the most fun because it was something new every day, and it had all the prosthetics. I loved whenever we got to work with prosthetics. 

Speaking of Kevin, Igby Rigney was also part of Midnight Mass. Whatever material they're based on, Mike's work seems to always be about family. Do you feel like this fits those themes? 

Absolutely. One of our biggest themes is the characters finding a big sense of camaraderie, and friendship, and family in each other because they're bonding through these experiences that they're all sharing — not just their illnesses, but being at the hospice, and dealing with teenager things. I feel like these kids are a family, essentially. 

Was there an emotionally difficult scene, or sequence, or episode to get through? 

I would say Ilonka's diagnosis, going through those emotions of her, not only getting her diagnosis, but even more so, her finding out that she's terminal, and that there's nothing that she's going to be able to do as far as curing herself. Those emotions were very difficult to go through. 

How do you deal with that?  

I feel like it's not necessarily something that I have to deal with. I'm not going through it fully. I'm not in their shoes. But looking at life through their lens, it's humbling. I have a lot of compassion, and understanding, and respect for people who are going through those things because it takes a very strong person. 

I love that it's just the beginning. It starts at the nadir of her life. And then, it builds up from there, and becomes hopeful, despite the fact that the end is in sight. 

I think it's ultimately about bringing a different perspective of who these kids are, in the sense that they're not just terminally ill kids, they're kids who have imaginations, problems and other issues. It's about bringing a different lens and changing the narrative of what it is to be terminally ill. 

You went through a physical transformation for the role. What was that like? 

I shaved my head for it, which was a journey. It's a mental journey for sure. It was emotional. Every day is different. Some days you feel like a badass, some days you don't. And I feel like that's the reason why I wanted to shave my head. I wanted to be able to, in some way, put myself in the shoes of somebody who is terminally ill. 

What do you make of the last image of the show? 

Hopefully, it means a Season 2, and that there's more to uncover with that character. And, in essence, what else is going on underneath? I would say there's more. 

Do you feel like it's validation for Ilonka? 

Absolutely. I think it is validation for her. There's truth to it. She always had a question mark with that, especially with the character that we're talking about. She always had a question mark. "There's more to what you're saying." And she was right, fighting for so long to uncover things. 

Do you think Ilonka finds peace at the end? 

Yes. I think she does find a sense of acceptance in her journey. I feel like that's one thing that she struggles with throughout the series. But I think so, and I think she does it in a beautiful way. I think that it's realistic. 

What will a repeat viewing of this show give an audience? 

Uncovering little Easter eggs that you might not have seen before. There are some things that we foreshadow in the series that you'd be able to catch quicker the second time.  

Get to know Iman Benson: 
While ready for her big break, Benson has popped up in shows including Station 19 (Metascore: 55), Suits (65), and Creepshow (64), while playing bigger parts in the aforementioned Alexa & Katie, #blackAF (61),  and Uncle Buck (37).