Through the years, Melanie Papalia has poured her blood, sweat and tears into her craft and established herself as a young actor on the rise in Hollywood. Her on-screen excellence leaves her poised become a breakout star in 2014. An incredibly expressive young actress, Papalia continues to showcase her talents with captivating and highly emotional performances, each more challenging the next. Her latest role teams her with director in Zachary Donohue for his directorial debut with ‘The Den.’ A true spine-tingler, ‘The Den’ breathes new life into the found footage genre. The story focuses on Elizabeth Benton (Melanie Papalia), who after receiving a grant for her graduate thesis, logs onto a video-chat site known as THE DEN, on a mission to explore the habits of its users. During one of her random video-chats, Elizabeth watches in horror as a teenage girl is gruesomely murdered in front of her webcam. While the police dismiss it as a viral prank, Elizabeth believes what she saw is real and takes it upon herself to find the truth. Her life quickly spirals out of control as she gets pulled deeper into the darkest recesses of the internet. And eventually, Elizabeth finds herself trapped in a twisted game in which she and her loved ones are targeted for the same grisly fate as the first victim. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Melanie Papalia to discuss her blossoming career, her evolution as an actress and the challenges of bringing ‘The Den’ to life!
I wanted to give everyone a little bit of background on you. What got you started on your journey in the entertainment industry?
You know, it is funny. I can’t remember ever not wanting to do this! From the time I had the first thoughts of what I wanted to do as a career; I have always wanted to act. I have always been in the arts. I have been a dancer since I was three years old. I just always sort of knew this is what I was going to do. I started doing it slowly in Vancouver, Canada when I was about sixteen years old. That is when I got my first agent, who I got through my dance school. Slowly, I started auditioning for things and getting smaller parts. Coming to the United States was always the end goal. I worked my butt off in Canada trying to get enough credits to be able to have someone take me seriously or want to get me a work visa for the U.S. and that happened a few years ago. Slowly but surely I started doing better and better projects. That is what brought me to ‘The Den.’ I was sort of new or newish in the U.S. when I got ‘The Den.’ It was such a fantastic experience! I guess the short answer to your question is that I don’t even know what it was that made me want to do this but it has always been in me to be the actor and tell stories. That is all I have ever wanted to do!
What do you find has kept you inspired through the years?
When I was younger I don’t think I looked at certain actors as “That is who I want to be like!” However, I always loved movies. Always! When I would watch certain films, I would think “This is what I am going to do.” If a movie touched me in a certain way, I would think “I want to do that!” Now, I think there are so many great actors who I aspire to have careers like, work with or even shake their hand! [laughs] I feel like I have been influenced, as time goes on, by the new actors, directors or films that are making me feel ambitious about being creative. When I was younger, Horror films were my favorite, which is really weird! I always wanted to make just one and scare the shit out of people! [laughs] I really wanted to make a horror film that left people chilled! When ‘The Den’ came along I thought “Wow! Maybe I get to do it now but I need to make sure I pull it off well!” I had seen enough to think I could do it!
That leads to my next question. What was it about the script or character for ‘The Den’ that made you feel this was a project worth pursuing?
When I got the script in my hands, I found it to be really exciting. After I read it, it was exciting to think that I could maybe be a part of something that hadn’t really been done before! Found footage is so exhausted but I think the topic of this film is really relevant and the way they wanted to do it was something we hadn’t seen. I think I was also excited by the fact I could be the girl in this movie that even though things don’t end well for her, could still put up a good fight and be the driving force behind that terror. It may sound really weird but I wanted to be a part of a movie that left the audience chilled. I think in reading the script and character of “Elizabeth,” I wanted to take the challenge of making her likable, even though she does a lot of dumb things, and see if I could make the audience get in her head and understand why she does everything that she does. She gets sucked into this vortex of an internet hell. I viewed it as a challenge but as a whole the project really excited me.
What do you think you brought to the character that wasn’t necessarily on the original written page?
There are definitely little bits of me that seep through into the character of Elizabeth. I tried to make her a little bit lighter than she was written and bring a little bit more humor to her. She takes herself very seriously, so I tried to lighter her up a little bit. I feel it is funny because I am not really like Elizabeth at all! If I can send out a tweet I am lucky! [laughs] I am not really a technology person! I had to try and understand why someone would really only want to communicate through the window of the web because that is so far from who I am.
What was it like working with director Zachary Donohue and what do you feel he brought to the table for a project like this one?
Working with Zach was awesome! He is a first time director and because of that I feel he was very open for anything. He was open to all of my ideas. Almost every day when we would show up, we were doing something that almost none of us had done before. We were filming in a style that was very difficult. I have never had to worry so much about a camera or the way the way I am bringing it up or down to my face. There were so many things that just didn’t work. We would have to throw them out right away. Zach was always on his toes thinking of new things to do and to throw at me all of the time. I felt 300% supported by him! He never wanted me to feel uncomfortable. There are a lot of uncomfortable things I had to do but he was always right there with me and I always felt I had his support. That is so important for an actress when you are trying to make something real and believable. Zach wrote the film with Lauren Thompson and really had a vision for it. He was the driving force behind how the film turned out. I have the utmost respect for him and I think he is great!
What do you consider the biggest challenges you faced as an actress with this role?
Everything! [laughs] I don’t think I have ever been challenged so much. I have never been in a movie where I am literally face up to the camera in every scene. It was a big load. I knew I was taking on something that could either be immensely screwed up or great if I stuck to my guns on what I needed to do. I didn’t just have to think about my acting. Typically, as an actor, you show up to set, block things out for the camera and worry about acting with the other person. With this movie, I am acting with other actors in two scenes. Almost every day on this project I was showing up and acting to a computer screen. A lot of the stuff is pre-recorded, so I would sit and watch it on a loop for 20 minutes before I filmed each scene. There were a few that I only got to watch for a minute and then I had to say my lines and say my lines to this pre-recorded take. There were times where the footage on the other end wasn’t recorded yet, so I would have to do my lines to a blank screen. It was really weird! I had never been challenged like that! On top of that, having to worry about, if there was a scene where I pick up my laptop and go sit on the bed, what way I would turn or the cables wrapping around me because would have cameras hooked up to the top of the laptop. There were just so many little things that I had to think about on that side. On the acting side, we go to some very dark places. There were days when I showed up on set and wondered how I was going to pull it off! You just do it and hope for the best! [laughs] I feel now that I can handle any project that comes my way because I did ‘The Den.’ It was a great exercise on all fronts!
While you are still very new to audiences, you have been acting for quite some time. How do you feel you have evolved professionally as an actor through the years?
Personally, I feel like I am in a really good place. I feel like there are always ups and downs. A lot of times there are projects you get involved in and think “Alright. People are definitely going to do this and it is going to do something for me.” but then it doesn’t. There are also projects you think will never see the light of day. Then all of a sudden it is out there and people are talking about it. I think I have learned to do the very best I can do on every project and not have expectations for the project itself. I say that because one thing always leads to the next, no matter what! The biggest leap for me was coming from Vancouver, which is definitely a Hollywood North. Things had died down a bit there but have recently picked back up. I think the ultimate goal for me personally was to transition to the U.S., which was tricky because I didn’t really know how I was going to do it. Every actor is trying to do that! [laughs] I was lucky enough to get the film that got me a work visa. I feel that since then I have been able to be a part of several projects that I really like and that people see. I feel like I am a good place!
What other projects should we be on the lookout from you in the months to come?
I actually have two new films coming out in the very near future. I did a film called “Frankie and Alice,” with Halle Berry. That comes out on April 4th. My next movie is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival and is called “Extraterrestrial.” It is an awesome ride, as well! It is another scary movie but in both of these films I play characters who are very, very different than Elizabeth in ‘The Den.’ They should be fun to watch!
Where can we catch up with you online?
We can’t wait to see what you have in store for us, Melanie! Thanks so much for your time today!
Absolutely! I would love to! Thanks so much for taking time to speak with me!
‘The Den’ hits select theaters & VOD on Friday, March 14th!