• Interviews

Nikki Amuka-Bird about Shyamalan’s horror films: “It is about the human journey.”

What would you do if four strangers came to your secluded cabin in the woods and asked you to kill one of your family members to prevent the apocalypse? This is the question at the heart of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest psychological horror film Knock at the Cabin, with Nigerian-born British actress Nikki Amuka-Bird playing one of four strangers.

It is her second time working with the director, following the 2021 Old.

She was interviewed via Zoom from her home in London.

Knock at the Cabin is based on Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World”.  Had you read it before receiving M. Night Shyamalan’s script?

I read the script before I read the book. And reading his scripts is a very top-secret affair. You have a small window where you can read it before it disrupts. I had never read anything like it and I made a decision to do the movie based on the script. But after that I had the book to refer to too.


How helpful was it?

It was really beautiful. Especially for the characters of the four strangers as it goes into the details of our lives before this day and the supernatural visions they are all having. There is a big section about how vivid and haunting Sabrina’s visions are and it is almost like a psychosis. It is about this unrelenting state of mind that drives them to this day. It helped me understand how these four people could do this extraordinary and abnormal thing. The book also has an incredible tone, which is kind of intense. So it helped to dip into the book before filming, because it put me right into the mood for the film.

Your character Sabrina is part of a group who foresees an impending apocalypse. They seem to believe that the only way to prevent this is for this family to sacrifice one of their own. What fascinated you about the story and your character and how did it make sense to you?

Even as you are saying it now, it is quite shocking. It is probably the weirdest thing I have ever read in a script and there were two things that primarily fascinated me about it. First, it was so extreme, so the audience members are immediately asking themselves: Are these people insane? Are they for real? Do they have an ulterior motive? And I really enjoyed the ambiguity about it and that you are so gripped because you don’t know whether to believe them or not.

And then in portraying the character, I was really driven by the idea that this woman, who had no spiritual beliefs beforehand was so convinced and committed to the idea that she was going to do a selfless act and essentially sacrifice herself for the good of humanity. So it is crazy on one hand but at the same time, it is also full of grace and is about overcoming our biggest fear, which is the end: The end of all of this. So she is also very brave and heroic.

There was also the acting challenge: Can you make the audience believe it? It is almost on the cusp of being hysterical. You are either going to laugh or be terrified so you have a responsibility of showing enough humanity for the audience to come along for the ride with you. If you can get them at the beginning of the story, they are in for this wild ride.

It is a horror film. Are you a fan of this genre?

I am a fan of every genre. I don’t like horror films with violence for the sake of violence – like shock horror. But I am a fan of good storytelling and anything that will make the audience stop and think and feel engaged.

I have always been a fan of Night’s for this particular reason because I feel like his genre is so specific. It is a very visual thing, when you are sitting in the cinema and the hairs are standing up on your arms, because he always puts you right in the heart of some extraordinary circumstance. He is known for having twists at the end but the way he talks about it is that he uses fear to take the audience through their fears and past their fears. I don’t think it is just about a twist, it is about ending with a sense that in spite of the unknown, there tends to be a positive outcome.

How are M. Night Shyamalan’s horror films different from other horror films?

Cinematically, he is an auteur. You can tell that he has been influenced by Hitchcock. You can tell that he is interested in classical cinema, and he always brings that to the film.  His films are also deeply personal to him. He is a family man and there is quite often a family at the center of his films. He also asks himself big questions in his life and his films reflect this. When we did Old, he shared with us that he was really aware of his own mortality as his parents were getting older and were dealing with their health.

And in this film, the central question really fascinated him in terms of what the sacrifices were he would make for his own children. There is always a very deep sense of the personal in his films and you leave with a sense of the characters rather than the fear and the spook. You think about the human journey or spiritual journey.

In Old you played a psychiatrist, Patricia, who is on holiday on a secluded island, where people suddenly start aging at a rapid rate. It dealt with the concept of time. What kind of thoughts did this film trigger in you?

It was quite a deep exploration for me in that coincidentally the character’s name was Patricia and my mother’s name is Patricia. My mother had passed away from cancer a few years before and she grew up in the West Indies and we were shooting in this Caribbean Island, so there were a lot of synchronistic things. We were shooting during the pandemic when we had collectively and globally gone through this huge scare and time slowed down and we were all in our homes for months.

Then this opportunity to go to paradise with Night showed up and I had a lot of really personal conversations with the other cast members about people we had lost, because I think the clock ticking in this movie, is a reminder to enjoy the present moment with your loved ones and that there is this clock that we are all dealing with even if we would like to ignore it. But in a way, we only have today. We were in this beautiful location and time kind of slows, when you are in the Caribbean, so you have time to exhale.

What is the atmosphere on a Shyamalan set like?

When you are making a movie with him, he creates this very jovial atmosphere around it. He invites everyone to his house for barbeques and picnics and he introduces you to his whole family. So, when you are not working, you have this incredible relaxed time and when you are working, you are in the most intense scenario that you can imagine being in. So, it was interesting to push ourselves and our imagination in terms of time and mortality and our deepest fears but then also be together to relax and debrief as well.

You have a very eclectic career. How do you pick projects?

Actors cannot necessarily be strategic because we don’t really know what is coming next. So, I respond to a good story and whether I can challenge myself. Every actor has a masochistic thing where they want to do what terrifies them. It has been a great education for me because you study the background of the character and I like learning about different professions. We are so fortunate that we get to explore alternative truths in life.

I recently did comedy with Armando Iannucci in Avenue 5. I was surprised to find that it was more terrifying for me than doing horror. It was a completely different skillset. I was in awe of the actors who were able to improvise. I left with an interest in taking more risks and challenge myself to surprise.

I experienced my first leading role this year in Jericho Ridge. It is my first action role. It was a new one for me and I got to do many stunts. I had to be fit, I literally had to look after my body. My body was my instrument. Also, I felt I had the responsibility to create a certain atmosphere on set and make sure that everyone had a good time on set.

You played a detective in Luther, who does not always see eye to eye with Idris Elba’s eponymous character. What was the appeal of this series for you?

When I first started, she was just a keen member of the team. As we progressed, the creator Neil started to introduce the idea that she was seeing that Luther had unorthodox methods and they were going against her sense of ethics and morality. Then he could not resist to twist it even more and she was going to kill him. So, it was a real ride.

I was a little worried because I was a big fan of Idris’ and I was nervous as a woman going up against him but I was pleasantly surprised to find that people were into it. She was brave and strong and knew what she wanted. There was a bit of mystery to the character too so I would love to go back and answer those questions. Maybe they even join forces. Kiss and make-up.

You appeared in NW, the 2016 adaptation of Zadie Smith’s novel, which was a game-changer for your career. You were nominated for a Bafta for this role. What did this mean to you?

That was a huge opportunity for me. I am a big fan of Zadie Smith and she was so supportive. When you have a book as a source that you can dip into, you can see the seed as it was planted. 

Also, in terms of being a woman of color and seeing a role written for a woman, who looked like me and was dark-skinned like me, but who was on a journey that was so complex. What Zadie was exploring with the character in terms of a woman trying to break through the glass ceiling and really experiencing a lot of mental collateral damage from that. Knowing that she had to work twice as hard to prove herself in the workplace. She embodied that: Someone who had to push themselves so much that they did not recognize themselves anymore.

Also, there was this aspect that she was trying to find herself by discovering more about her sexuality so it was something that I had never seen before. It was also shot in NW, the postcode in London, where I live, so we were shooting in and around my neighborhood. So it was quite surreal to leave my house and walk a few streets down and then create the life if this character.

What is next for you?

I am about to shoot this very exciting project that Bob Zemeckis is directing.