The idea of a pandemic that is capable of ripping away your memories is a terrifying one, especially when you’re forced to question just how real they were to begin with. This is the premise of the new South African dystopian film ‘Glasshouse,’ which tells the story of a family’s survival in the midst of a worldwide contagion known as The Shred. Mother (Adrienne Pearce) and her three daughters Bee (Jessica Alexander), Evie (Anja Taljaard), and Daisy (Kitty Harris) have sought refuge from the world in a greenhouse. However, they find their idyllic sanctuary disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Hilton Pelser). I had the opportunity to talk to UK rising star Jessica Alexander about ‘Glasshouse’ just a few days after the film’s world premiere at Fantasia Festival.
Hayley Paskevich : How did Glasshouse first land on your radar, and what was it about the project that made you want to get involved?
Jessica Alexander : Gosh, well, the project first came to me last year in October. Still very much COVID lockdown times. And Kelsey, the director, who I’ve known for a few years now, she cast me in a project a long time ago which we still have not had the opportunity to make.
HP: Oh, wow.
JA: Yeah, we first met when I was 19. And I’m 22 now. So we’ve known each other for a while. It’s a South African film, so she was casting for the role in South Africa. I think she didn’t find anybody that she really gelled with. And so she ended up calling me and asked me if I would do a tape for the movie. I first read the script just after she’d first written it in lockdown. We had a call, we were just catching up and chatting. And she said, “I’ve written this script. Would you like to read it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.” Obviously, I read it. I finished it probably at midnight, or 1 am in the morning. And I did not know what to make of it at all. I remember thinking from the first time she sent it to me, “Wow, I’d love to be in this movie. But she hasn’t asked me to audition. So I’m not gonna push her. I’ll just talk with you about the script.” But then a few months later, we had a conversation and I did some audition tapes and then I took the role. And I had to get an expedited passport and a visa and be on a plane to South Africa within a couple of weeks. It was a nightmare. [Laughs] It was a knife’s edge on me getting there.
HP: Speaking of that whole process, I actually interviewed Kelsey last week, and she mentioned that you kind of made it over to South Africa just in the nick of time for filming. What was that process like?
JA: Oh, my god, it was crazy. I remember just being on my sofa watching TV, I was watching cartoons or something. And Emma [Lungiswa de Wet] called me and was like, “You need to get to the embassy right now, you need to get to the embassy in London. And you need to go and get this visa, and get signed off to travel.” My passport was about to expire. So I had to get an expedited passport. During the COVID lockdown, they were not taking any applications. So I had to call up people non-stop on the phone for hours.
HP: Oh, my gosh.
JA: It was crazy. And then I finally got permission to fly. It must have been the day before I got on the plane. And even down to literally a couple hours before my flight, my COVID results hadn’t come through from this company for some reason. I contacted them so many times, but they didn’t respond. I ended up tweeting them. [Laughs] I never even use Twitter but I had to tweet them and say, “Oh, my results aren’t here, like, your service is rubbish.” Just because I was so desperate.
HP: That’s crazy, wow.
JA: And I got on the plane. Everything was working against us for me to get there. But I got there. I actually got there before any of the other cast. [Laughs]
HP: Oh, no way. So everything was working against you, and yet you somehow not only made it there, but you were the first one.
JA: I was the first one there, and they all pulled up in the car the next morning and I was like “Hi!” [Laughs] But thank God I got there. I remember my manager was, like, “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s the middle of a pandemic, you don’t have to fly across the world to make a film right now.” And I was like, “Dude, I could sit at home and do nothing, or I could sit on a movie set. I think I’m gonna do that one.”
HP: You read a really cool script, and you know the director, why not?
JA: Yeah, you have to, you have to. I couldn’t resist it. It’s an unresistable script, really.
HP: That’s a great way to put it. Do you feel you’re similar to your character Bee and are there certain traits of hers that you maybe wish you had?
JA: I think I saw bits of my younger self in her, like her naivety. I think as women, we all go through a phase in our life — like when we’re early teenagers — where you’re very naive to the dangers of the world. And it takes something bad happening to you or some kind of threat that you finally come face-to-face with that makes you realize actually how dangerous the world is, especially as a young girl. Bee chooses oblivion, she chooses to forget all those things that happened to her, which is not the approach I would take., you know? If ‘Glasshouse’ was real, I would probably act like Evie. But Bee was a very interesting character to play because she’s not as gone as Gabe [Brent Vermeulen], but she’s half there. It was a challenge playing her, really. Kelsey always kept telling me, “She’s like a butterfly. She’s got a butterfly brain.” So you have to think of it, like one moment she’ll flutter down and she’ll settle on happiness, but then just as quick she can fly off and she’s angry. I guess I have mood swings. [Laughs] So I’m probably like Bee in that sense. I can be a bit melodramatic at times and Bee can definitely be melodramatic.
HP: Oh, for sure, yeah. [Laughs] I like what you said about the butterfly, too, her thoughts are very much flitting all over the place.
JA: Yeah, no, she’s all over the place, poor girl. It was quite liberating to play someone like that, though. Because I didn’t have to sit in any of the emotions that she was feeling for too long — it’s fun. Like, in one scene, I can be going through five different emotions. As an actor, relatively new to the game, I felt like I earnt my stripes on that project. [Laughs]
HP: How was preparing to play Bee and getting into her headspace different from your process for embodying the character that you’re most known for, Olivia in Get Even? Which I loved, by the way.
JA: Oh, have you seen it?
HP: Yeah, I have.
JA: Aw, that’s so sweet. I love that you’ve watched that. God, they’re so different. When I did Get Even, I was young, I was 19. I’m still young now, but a lot has changed in the roles that I’ve been playing. Glasshouse is a lot more dark and a lot more — I don’t know, what’s the word? Abrasive. Not only on the audience, but also on me playing the role. Get Even was a great show, but it’s very light, it’s a teen show. The other film I have coming out called A Banquet is very, very dark and very physically demanding. And it’s been really fun to make that leap, this is the kind of stuff I’ve always wanted to do. This is where my passion lies. This is what gets me out of bed at 5 am when Kelsey says, “Get out of bed at 5 am.” [Laughs] It’s been very different. And preparing for the role… in all honesty, I don’t think I really prepared much for the role of Olivia in Get Even, it came quite naturally to me. Because I just felt like a younger version of myself, taking on parts of what I had experienced at school. But this is so far from reality, it’s sci-fi genre and horror.
HP: It’s got the whole dystopian element. So for Get Even, you drew very much more from your own experience, but Glasshouse you had to create Bee based on the script — it’s not based off your own life.
JA: Yeah, definitely, definitely. It’s a lot more transformative. And a lot more immersive. And I think in a way, I enjoy it more; I enjoy all my jobs, of course. But there’s just something so much more thrilling about it because you’re existing in this world. And because the set design — you know, there’s not really any CGI or anything in the movie. It’s like everything you see, it was there.
HP: It’s very real, it’s very tangible, yeah.
JA: Yeah. When we walked into the glasshouse the first time, we were like, “Holy shit! Like, this looks like a different world.”
HP: It’s a stunning building.
JA: Oh, it’s amazing. And I wish everyone could see it in person. We spent a month in that thing. Day in, day out. Even if you’re not doing a scene you just hang out in parts of the glasshouse, hang out in the beds that our characters would sleep in, or something. It became like a real home. It was hot though. It was hot and sweaty in there. I’ve never experienced heat like that in my life.
HP: Kelsey mentioned that a bit when I talked to her, like how the clothing was designed for comfort and practicality.
JA: Oh, yeah. Jesus, I’ve— [Laughs] I’ve never felt that kind of heat in my life. You get home and you’d get in the shower at, like, two in the morning after a night shoot or something. And like, the grime that would be washed off our bodies. You don’t even want to know. It was so sweaty. Some people, like a lot of the grips and the DOP — sweat patches this big. Like, soaking wet. Because the sun is just blazing through this house made of glass all day long. And obviously the bonnets as well that we had to wear… we were told they’re going to be very cool-looking on screen. But I tell you for four weeks, suffocating inside one of those things. The heat of South Africa, when you’re from the UK, is really something as well. [Laughs]
HP: Oh, I’m sure. That sounds like it was an interesting time. And it actually leads great into the next question I have. Because one of the film’s main themes is the importance of memory, was there a particular scene or moment on set that you found especially memorable?
JA: Oh, gosh. Oh, there’s so many. But honestly, the first time I watched Brent perform as Gabe was soul shaking. Because he arrived later than all of us because he had been finishing up on another project. We had already done a few days filming by the time he arrived. He’s a very quiet and sort of interior kind of person, he’s quite mysterious to be around. Then they call action and you just watch. The performances he gives in this film are so shaking, you know? I remember the first time I watched him, I thought, “Right, okay, now I see the film, now I get it. This film’s gonna be amazing.” No one really knew what to expect. You’d watch people’s faces when they’re watching the monitor, when they’re watching him. And everyone’s just staring at him in fascinated terror.
HP: It’s unnerving, right? And like what you said about you playing Bee feeling transformative, it very much sounds like it’s the same way for the actor who played Gabe.
JA: Definitely, definitely, yeah. Watching his first performances was definitely one of the most memorable things for me. And I would say other than that, more generally, the… what’s the word? I don’t want to say “vibe,” because that sounds so stupid. But you know what I mean, the vibe of the set we were on. We basically have no makeup, barefoot the whole time, under the sun in the dirt. I was so dirty the whole time, and I loved it. I’ve never experienced a job like that. It felt very freeing, it was very spiritual.
HP: It was very naturalistic too from the sounds of it, I think is what you’re getting at.
JA: Exactly, exactly. The film and the experience of filming it are very similar. I’ve never worked like that before. And I doubt I’ll ever work like that, again, to be honest. That down to earth, getting in the mud, you know?
HP: Oh, for sure, and the fact it was a film about a pandemic that was shot during a pandemic, those are unique circumstances.
JA: It really can’t get any more surreal than that. [Laughs] Kind of crazy in itself.
HP: So I asked Kelsey this question when I talked to her, and I’m curious to know your answer as well — if The Shred were real, what is a memory of your own that you would not want to lose?
JA: Whoa! I’ve never even thought about that!
HP: It can be as general or as specific as you want.
JA: What did Kelsey say?
HP: Um, Kelsey gave kind of a broad one where she mentioned that she would miss the little moments with people and pets, and just those day to day interactions.
JA: Yeah, she’s talking about her dog, that’s very sweet.
HP: She totally was.
JA: God, I don’t know. I guess I wouldn’t want to lose — I wouldn’t want to lose the things that I think I want to do in the future. I think I’d be more concerned about my future than my past, really. Because I forget shit all the time. [Laughs] There’s a lot of my past that I’ve already forgotten, and I’m 22. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve got the brain of a 90-year-old, or maybe The Shred got me already. But I think I’d be more protective over not losing my future and not losing the things that I’ve always dreamt of doing. Forgetting that would be really scary to me.
HP: That’s a really interesting answer. And I totally get what you mean.
JA: Thank you.
HP: Because we do have these dreams and goals in mind, so to have something [The Shred] that would threaten the possibility of being able to achieve them and make you a shell of yourself? That would be really sad.
JA: Yeah, exactly. I’m a very dreams and goals-oriented person, so I think that would destroy me the most. Doesn’t matter if I forget my family and friends — I’m just kidding. [Laughs]
HP: If you have a future with them, then everything will be okay.
JA: That’s my thinking, yeah.
HP: And finally, how would you describe Glasshouse to people who are curious about what they can expect from the film in just a few words?
JA: Just a few words? God.
HP: Just a few words, or even a sentence, just something to give people a general kind of vibe — as you said — about what Glasshouse is.
JA: I would just say that you’ve never seen anything like it before, and you just have to go and watch it to understand it. Because there’s really no way you can explain the movie. That’s the thing that I have been struggling with ever since it’s started to come out. People ask me what it’s about, and I genuinely don’t know where to start. I just say that it’s visceral, it’s romantic, it’s frightening. It’s got everything that you want in it. It’s like— Parasite, you just need to go and watch it. You can’t pinpoint what happens in that film. You can’t understand until you watch it from start to finish.
HP: Right. And it’s got so many layers too, that’s the thing.
JA: You should probably watch it a few times, you know?
HP: It’s not just about one thing specifically, it’s about memory. It’s about family. It’s about love — all kinds of things. Truth, it’s about truth as well.
JA: You’re good at reviewing this film, I like you. Yes.
HP: Thank you!
JA: It is about all those things, yeah. I also say, you might not like it. I always knew this from the beginning of reading the script. I thought some people are gonna think this is quite out there and maybe a little bit controversial. And they’re living in a completely different world to us. Evie knows it’s wrong when she’s doing it, because she’s very clear-headed. But for the other kids who have been affected by the chemical, that’s not the craziest thing they do on a day-to-day basis. I mean, they’re kids that chop up humans to grow food. Yeah, I’m sure you can do something with that answer, do some clever writing, help me out. [Laughs]
HP: Getting to talk to you about [the film] has been really interesting, thank you for taking the time today, Jess.
JA: Thank you for taking the time to come in. Thank you for your brilliant questions.
HP: And good luck with your future projects, too.
JA: Oh, thank you!
HP: Because I know you’re involved with The Little Mermaid and A Banquet, I just wanted to wish you luck for the future as well.
JA: Well thank you very much, the same to you, same to you.
HP: Thank you so much.