Paget Brewster has made a career of lighting up the screen with memorable performances in some of the most finely crafted projects in film and television. Known throughout the industry as a seasoned veteran that can elevate any material, Brewster is most recognizable in her role as Special Agent Emily Prentiss of the long-running CBS crime drama, ‘Criminal Minds.’ Her resume includes a series of regular television credits such as ‘Andy Richter Controls the Universe,’ ‘Huff,’ ‘Another Period,’ ‘Community,’ ‘Grandfathered’ and many more. Not to be overlooked are Brewster’s film credits which include ‘Welcome to Happiness,’ ‘My Big Fat Independent Movie,’ ‘The Specials,’ ‘The Big Bad Swim,’ ‘The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,’ ‘Desperate But Not Serious,’ and ‘Man of the House.’ In recent years, she has continued to challenge both herself and her audience with deeply complicated characters as she continues to expand her already well developed craft.
Her latest project, Kyle Rankin’s ‘The Witch Files,’ is no exception to that aforementioned rule. The film centers around an unlikely gathering of teenage girls who soon discover one of their group may possess supernatural powers. Intrigued, they follow her into the local woods, where they harness the ambient energy of witches who were persecuted there hundreds of years ago. Realizing they now have the ability to make every desire a reality, the girls form a coven and soon have the entire school under their control. Their newfound power, however, comes at a deadly cost, and before long they find themselves under attack from one of their own … who isn’t about to give up the good life without a fight. ‘The Witch Files’ is told with a mixture of deft humor and teenage drama that will appeal to fans of Charmed, The Craft, and Mean Girls. The witchy plot certainly proves we should all be careful of what we wish for. The witty new thriller arrives on digital platforms and DVD on October 9, 2018.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently connected with Paget Brewster for a spirited interview in which they discuss her career, creative evolution, and the making of ‘The Witch Files.’
How did you get involved with the arts early on in life?
Wow! You know, I was always in plays, sang in glee club, formed a band, failed out of Parsons School of Design, so I really had to make a run at it! I started in San Francisco doing this talk show. Prior to that, I didn’t realize that agents were different and represented different types of people. I was bartending and an agent hung out at my bar. I finally convinced him to represent me but he represented correspondents and anchor people, so I ended up going on auditions to get a talk show and ended up doing 55 episodes. Then I moved to Los Angeles and got an acting agent and was just lucky, really!
Was there anyone behind the scenes giving you the extra push when you needed it?
My parents were so afraid of me coming to act that they kept trying to talk me out of it, which was pretty inspirational, just in terms of trying to prove them wrong! [laughs] You know how it is when your 18. You’re like, “I know what I’m doing!” Of course, I didn’t but they are really proud now. Honestly, I’ve just been really lucky. I’ve taken a lot of classes and wanted to learn and watch people in different departments do great work. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to do that!
When do you feel you really came into your own as an actress? Was there a breakout moment for you?
I did six episodes of “Friends” and that was a pretty incredible break for me. That was probably the most exciting thing and the one that made me say, “Okay, I can do this for a living.”
Where do you find yourself looking for creative inspiration these days?
Good writing! That’s really it. Everything has to start with the writing. It’s really appreciating someone’s voice and feeling like, “Oh, that’s exciting! I would like to act that part.” Personally, I have no interest in directing or producing and I’m not a really good writer. I’ve tried but it just doesn’t go anywhere. So, the one thing I am good at, and I’m not even great at it, is acting! The one thing I know as an actor is that it has to be in the writing or you can’t be good. I’m lucky to have been on a network show for a long time and I’ve been able to save money so that I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do, knock on wood. This latest movie, ‘The Witch Files,’ is a great example. It was a little independent movie. At a certain age and with a certain amount of money in savings, you think, “Ugh, I don’t want to do a little indie film and change in a public bathroom!” Actors get spoiled if you do well for awhile! [laughs] I loved it! I thought it was such a great idea. I thought what Kyle [Rankin] wrote was really unusual, clever and thoughtful. I wanted to do it! It was also shooting in Maine, which is where Kyle is from. My mom and dad also live in Maine, so I was able to see them and eat steamer clams everyday and be in Portland! Maine is just so beautiful, but it really all came down to the script! It was me playing a cop, which is something you don’t always want to do if you have done it before, but I did in this because I thought it was such a great idea.
How did ‘The Witch Files’ first come your way?
I think it came through my manager. I ‘m pretty sure he sent it to me. I’m also pretty sure that the part I played was originally written for Ray Wise, who I love. It was written as this grizzled older guy. I know for a fact that Ray had been signed on to shoot something else at the time. Kyle had worked with Ray before but the timing just didn’t work out. When Ray wasn’t available and they were moving forward into production and start shooting, they were like, “Oh, my God! We have to get somebody to play a cop! It can’t be Ray because he’s busy!” So, they came to me! I think my agent might have had a grizzled male detective actor that she represented but then they found out, “Oh, she also has Padget. She plays a cop on CBS! Let’s ask her.” Honestly, I think that’s how it happened! [laughs]
What do you feel you brought to the role to this character that wasn’t on the written page?
Well, hopefully I brought a little femininity! [laughs] As you know, it’s a small part in this movie that is centered on these young ladies who start dabbling in witchcraft. I just wanted to be a part of it. Again, if you get to work as long as I have, you read a lot of scripts. A lot of them are bad! [laughs] Seeing something really good, unique, and original is a rarity. It’s also not super horror, torture porn, tons of gore or swearing. It’s a movie designed for teen and pre-teen kids to watch and question morality and consequences. The larger idea of the film is “Yes, you can get away with something. You can steal or lie but what are the consequences of that.” It has a physical manifestation in this story where the witches start growing old. What Kyle Rankin wrote in the script is “Our idea of witches is crone.” The idea is that their life force is being sapped by doing evil or doing wrong. I thought that was a good idea. I liked that Kyle wanted to write a movie his kids could watch or he could watch with his kids because there isn’t a lot of that! I thought he did it very cleverly!
I think that really carries over. As an adult, the film kept me captivated as well. It really speaks to all age brackets.
Great! I’m really glad to hear that! Frankly, I haven’t seen a final cut! [laughs] I have been trying to buy it but it’s not available yet. It’s out on October 9th!
I think you will be pleasantly surprised! It turned out very good!
I saw the trailer and it looked great! I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. The whole basis of the idea is found footage, kind of like ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ so it’s cell phone footage, surveillance, and traffic cameras. I didn’t know how that would come together but it looks great! I know that they had to spend a year and a half to two years doing some digital effects and a lot of drone footage that had to be edited a certain way. I’m really excited and it looks really great from the preview! Kyle’s gonna kill me that I haven’t seen it yet. If he sent me the movie, I don’t know where it is in my email box!
We are only a few days away from the release. It’ll be perfect for Halloween!
Yeah, it’s perfect and I knew that. That’s what he was talking about the whole time.
What can you tell us about your process for bringing a new character to life?
What I try to do is ask, “How can I service this story? What can I do to create a problem or solve a problem?” In this film, my character is coming after these girls because something is off and, as you know, she has a personal history with this coven. She’s afraid it’s happening again and I think she believes in the general innocence of these kids who are playing with fire and making a bad decision. She has to try and stop them. Whenever I shoot a scene, I’m asking, “What can I give to the person I am in the scene with so that they have something to do or react off of.” That’s what I studied. When I studied both acting and improv, it was always about giving everything to the other person by giving them something to respond to, be befuddled by or interested in. Hopefully, I do that every time but mostly I want to do the right thing for the story.
You played a plethora of different characters through the years. Is there a role you are still anxious to take on?
I really want to play evil ladies! [laughs] Playing the bad guy is the most fun! I think I’m growing into what you would call a patrician or handsome woman, so I’m hoping I’m playing scary, evil or mean women. I can speak very quickly and I have no problem expressing anger even though I don’t generally feel angry in my life. I feel very fortunate, comfortable, happy and loved but I love acting angry, so playing a terrible person is a lot of fun. [laughs] I’m hoping I’ll be able to do more of that moving forward! [laughs] Is that awful to say? [laughs]
Definitely not! [laughs] You’ve accomplished so much in your career and that really speaks to your longevity. How do you feel you’ve most evolved as an actor?
I think the biggest thing is not being fearful. When you are younger, you are so afraid of looking stupid, failing, or even being emotional. I think I was always trying to be cool or to fit in. I think a lot of us who chose to do this job are misfits. It’s also mostly insulting year after year because you’re being told your not who anyone wants, and that’s hard! Who choses that? I think it’s artsy weirdos! When I was lucky enough to do it for a living, I think I did things fearfully sometimes and didn’t jump in all the way. There is definitely vanity and ego at play. It’s stuff like, “I want to look good in this shot!” Letting all of that go and looking foolish, repulsive, angry, needy or desperate is your job as an actor. Your job is to just be human and empathetic in serveth of the story. For me, I think it was feeling confident enough to look terrible and vulnerable, if that makes any sense! [laughs] Then you can do really emotional scenes or upsetting things because you trust falling into it and aren’t trying to look cool, tough or sexy. The older you get you realize, “I just want to be a part of this story telling process. I want to do the best I can to make this thing.” It’s a huge group effort, so there is no one person doing everything. It’s hundreds of people working together to make it happen and it feels really good to be a part of that! It can be a pretty frivolous job. I mean, it sounds silly. Acting is pretty ridiculous but it’s also pretty enjoyable when you meet people and they say, “Thank you for doing what you do. You make me happy. I work this job and then I go home and watch this show that you do or this movie that you did and it makes me happy. I love what you do!” That’s feels great! I’m also a huge fans of shows, movies and books, so I can relate. I think every human being is a fan! Hopefully, everyone is exciting by something or someone or a particular artform! [laughs] Oh my God! Are you still there? Am I rambling? I am rambling! [laughs]
I’m here and don’t worry, it’s great! Actually, it leads to my next question. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
I don’t know if I’d ever call myself an artist. [laughs] I think we all have to work really had to do anything well or for a really long time. Also, don’t be afraid to take a risk to do the thing you want to do or the thing that makes you happy. If I can take a risk and fail out of art school to make a living doing this, then anyone who is willing to keep plugging away and trying can do whatever it is they love. Obviously, there are varying degrees. I’m not a huge movie star but I didn’t want to be. I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing. I’m lucky and fortunate to be able to do it! Don’t be afraid to work hard, take a risk and take that leap!
That’s a great way to look at things, Paget! Thanks for sharing your time with me today! I can’t wait to see where the journey takes you!
Thank you, Jason! I hope we speak again in the future! Thank you so much for the great questions!