In Barrett's case, it's a group of extraterrestrials known as "the Greys" who begin visiting his house and his family with increasing frequency and sinister intentions. Together with his wife Lacy (Keri Russell), Daniel has to figure out what they want and how to stop them before they harm their two young sons. From writer/director Scott Stewart ("Priest," "Legion") and the producer of similarly-themed films like the recent "Insidious" and "Sinister," "Dark Skies" ends up being a remarkably effective and creepy thriller, mostly because the Barretts' quiet suburban existence feels so normal and relatable. At least until, well, terrifying aliens show up.
With 'Dark Skies' hitting theaters this Friday, Moviefone spoke to Josh about relating to his character, comparing "horror movie dad" notes with Ethan Hawke, and the inherent terror of the suburbs.
Is horror an intimidating genre to take on as an actor? It is in theory, yeah. It requires a ton of imagination, I guess like any summer movie these days. But the history of horror movies goes back a long way ... of people trying to convincingly be terrified when looking at a piece of tape on the side of the camera box. I have a whole new respect for it. But this film in particular wasn't that way so much. The way Scott Stewart talked to us about it, what we were all trying to think about was not thinking of this necessarily as a horror film while we were doing it, but just thinking of it as a family drama -- this family struggling to figure out and deal with these things that are happening to them. It's really the last resort to accept that there are malevolent dark forces in the universe coming at you.
Would you say that realistic grounding helps you buy in? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Scott didn't want any "horror movie acting," I'm not sure what that is. [Laughs] But I think he just wanted this to feel like a real family that's struggling with things. What attracted me to the script is that the things that these people are dealing with, they're all fears that I think are very relatable to people. And ultimately, I feel like most horror films or scary films deal with people's fears of things they can't control, fear of the unknown, but also specific things that I think are very relatable right now. You know, like my character not having a job, being out of work, fear of not being to provide for your family and trying to protect your children from forces you can't control. It's certainly a very primal thing that anybody can relate to.
Did being a father yourself help you relate to Daniel at all? Oh, of course. I think having children in general is always very helpful for acting. The fear of losing something like a child is one of the strongest feelings there is, and so yeah, that was very instrumental to playing Daniel. Keri and I both have two children, somewhat similar in ages, so we talked about that a lot. It made for a shorthand. You immediately just go towards anything happening to your child and you're right there.
So how much do you have to trust your director in a movie like this? Oh, hugely. And I feel like you have to trust your director in any film. With Scott, it was very easy. He's an incredibly smart man. Especially for someone coming from an effects background, it's very rare to have someone who is as good at that as he is, and also able to talk to actors in such a good way. Yeah, he was incredibly helpful, and I trusted him implicitly the entire time.
This movie seems to share a couple similarities to a movie that recently came out, "Sinister" with Ethan Hawke. And I believe you've worked with Ethan a few times before. I have, yeah. Many times.
Did you two ever share notes on playing dads in horror movies? We did talk about it actually, yeah. I mean, we're both fathers and so I think that's the thing that immediately grounds you. Ultimately they're about families or people trying to protect their families from whatever outside forces there are. In his case, it was a serial killer. It's interesting, because in that film, his character is certainly much more complicit in the results of what happened. It was his own ambition that put his family in harm's way. And it's an interesting thing, because in that one, it was much more explicit, but there is something that touches upon [that] in this film too. The parents have to question like, "Am I somehow bringing this on?" All you want to do is help your children and protect them, and then when things start going badly, it's hard not to somehow blame yourselves for the difficulties. But aside from that, the characters are just so different. Why do you think so many horror movies find terror in the suburbs? Because the suburbs are terrifying. [Laughs] The whole idea of the suburbs was to create these family-friendly places where people could flock and have more control over their existences, and keep things very controlled and placid and keep outside forces at bay. Whether it be violence or drugs or whatever people are scared of. And of course, as you know, there is a huge underbelly to any seemingly perfect scenario, and I think that's why so many stories and filmmakers try to get at the flipside of that seemingly-perfect facade.
So what would you say the scarier part of "Dark Skies" is for you, the aliens or the suburbs? Actually, this is how I feel about horror films: there's enough scary things that happen in day-to-day life. Sometimes just going and getting the mail is scary, when you open your bills. And so, sometimes I feel like scary movies are just tapping into those anxieties and magnifying them. I think they definitely serve a real purpose in our society. As sort of a little ideological safety valve to let people experience their fears, and whether there's a communal aspect, or somehow just knowing that other people are experiencing the same fears is a useful, helpful experience. I don't mean to make it sound like a self-help movie. [Laughs] Just getting together with a bunch of people on a Friday night and screaming together, you walk out, maybe a little shaken, but I think it feels good too. Like a good cathartic experience.
This movie rests as much on the kids' shoulders as you and Keri, how was it working with the two of them? They were both incredibly professional kids. They're impressive in that they're kids and they show up and they know their lines and they are really good. But then the fun part is that you realize in between takes, you're just kicking the ball around, that they're just kids too. They weren't like scary, automaton "actor kids," they're both very real kids. They were pretty great to work with.
As a father yourself, do you feel protective of them at all when it came to filming some of the more terrifying elements of the story? Yeah, there were definitely takes where I'd sort of look at Scott like, "Oh my God, what are we putting these kids through?' But they seemed to have a pretty good grasp on it. And in a way, they're much closer to it because that's what they do as children, is play make-believe. It's less of a stretch for them. We get a little bit conditioned out of it as we get older.
"Dark Skies" opens in theaters on February 22.