First, she’s shaking up the horror genre. Next? A biopic of America’s most famous female poet.
The first thing Ella Hunt did on the set of Anna and the Apocalypse was go to punching school.
The 20-year-old British actress, best known for playing Ellie on the reboot of Cold Feet, turned up for her first day of rehearsals and was asked to throw her best, most formidable punch.
It was all in a day’s work considering Anna and the Apocalypse is a raucous Christmas musical about a gory zombie rampage in a small Scottish town and the motley crew of kids squaring off against this army of the undead. Throughout the course of the film the eponymous Anna really does have to punch stuff, and quite a lot of stuff too. Which meant that Hunt’s punch had to be impeccable. Emma Watson in The Prisoner of Azkaban-impeccable. Cameron Diaz in The Holiday-impeccable.
The only problem was that it really wasn’t. “I threw a punch and I laughed at myself,” Hunt recalls. “And then I threw another and I laughed at myself again.” The dual female choreographers – fight and dance – sent Hunt home immediately to phantom punch things in front of a mirror so that she could “start believing in myself as a badass.”
It worked. In Anna and the Apocalypse Hunt is a totally believable action heroine, as comfortable belting out one of the film’s tongue-in-cheek showtunes as she is wielding a hacked-off candy cane against bad guys. Strong and strong-willed, Hunt’s Anna spends the movie desperately searching for her father and it’s those very real world stakes that ground a movie that might otherwise have descended into pastiche. After all, this is a film that features a zombie getting its head slammed repeatedly into a toilet seat until cranial matter erupts spectacularly like an exploding watermelon.
There are shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to it all, but Hunt says she wasn’t inspired by Sarah Michelle Gellar’s iconic performance. “It was a little before my time,” she explains, citing Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the Alien movies and Lily James in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as her springboards. Three-dimensional women, basically, who are “badass and can take care of themselves,” as Hunt puts it.
Anna and the Apocalypse is the latest in this year’s cache of female-led horror films, a slate that runs the gamut of A Quiet Place (Emily Blunt as another Ripley simulacrum) and Hereditary (Toni Collette and the world’s most terrifying dollhouse) to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Halloween, which boasted the most successful opening weekend of a female-led horror movie in history.
“It has been exciting to watch the horror genre really open its arms to these female-driven stories,” Hunt says. “There have always been women in horror movies but they’ve been the damsel in distress… Now as a society we’re asking for more.”
Behind the scenes, too, Anna and the Apocalypse reinforced roles for women. The set was split evenly between male and female crew, and as a result “it was the most collaborative work environment I’ve ever been on,” Hunt says. “I didn’t realise it was something I had been lacking in jobs before, and I think it was so exciting to look around me and so many awesome women working jobs they were stimulated by and were respected in. All of our voices were heard.”
Hunt has seen the movie eight times. (“I always think, you know, oh I’ll introduce the film and I’ll go to the q&a and then I’ll leave, but then I end up watching the first ten minutes and then I stay.”) She still cheers when she sees her co-stars perform pivotal zombie-killing manoeuvres onscreen.
But after two years of promoting Anna and the Apocalypse, from a film festival in 2016 all the way until yesterday afternoon, when we spoke on the phone from Hunt’s new home in New York, she’s ready to move on.
She’s ready to say goodbye to fake blood, too. “There were a lot of evenings when I went home [from set] and I still had blood on me and I just came to work the next morning covered in blood,” she recalls. “It’s very sticky. And there were parts of the movie where my neck, specifically, is covered in blood, and I didn’t realise that there was so much skin on my neck because bits of my neck got stuck to other bits of my neck,” she says, laughing. “This is so unglamorous.”
Hunt’s next job involves no fake blood whatsoever: a starring role in Dickinson, one of Apple’s highly-anticipated forthcoming original series. Hunt plays Sue, the best friend of beloved American poet Emily Dickinson, played by Hailee Steinfeld. The show was written and created by Alena Smith, previously a writer on The Newsroom and The Affair and, like all of the original shows Apple is producing, is shrouded in mystery.
“It’s a bold new look,” Hunt ventures. “I think it’s going to be awesome, that’s all I can say.” (Rumour has it that, though set in Dickinson’s 19th century Massachusetts, it will have a modern sensibility and comedic tone. Less Robin Hood and more The Favourite, if we had to hazard a guess.)
After breaking out in Anna and the Apocalypse, a movie that contains multitudes – zombies, dance sequences, teen romance, best friends and ugly Christmas jumpers – Hunt wants all her future projects to be just as varied.
“I have such eclectic taste and I’m open to anything,” Hunt says. “I want to do films that are daring,” she adds. “Anna and the Apocalypse has inspired me to be bold and take jobs that are different.”
Anna and the Apocalypse is in cinemas now.