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Looking for a unique holiday movie? 'The Humans' is a dark, psychological drama

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Thanksgiving may be a time for loving gatherings and joyful celebration for some families, but not for the Blake family in Stephen Karam's dark, psychological drama "The Humans." Erik and Deirdre Blake, played by Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell, travel from their home in Scranton, Pa., to spend the holiday in the almost completely unfurnished and somewhat dilapidated Manhattan apartment shared by their daughter Brigid and her boyfriend, Richard. Here's Erik giving a pre-dinner champagne toast.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HUMANS")

RICHARD JENKINS: (As Erik) Whatever gifts God's given us, in the end, no matter who you are, everything you have goes.

JAYNE HOUDYSHELL: (As Deirdre) Well, that's a positive way of looking at things.

(LAUGHTER)

SNELL: Along with their other daughter, Aimee, and ailing grandmother, Momo, the family endures a tense gathering filled with loss, secrets and moments of dark humor.

I'm joined now by writer and director Stephen Karam and Jayne Houdyshell. Welcome.

HOUDYSHELL: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

STEPHEN KARAM: Hi. Good to be here.

SNELL: You know, the dialogue is just captivating. There's this buzz of kind of anxious tension from the moment the family arrives. And it kind of bubbles up, almost explodes and then subsides again throughout the evening. What do you want viewers to feel as they're watching?

KARAM: I like that you're charting the roller coaster. There really are as many laughs as there are jump scares in this film. And maybe a lot of people, I hope, just process their own family's imperfect, wonderful, messy love that they have in their lives and around their own dinner tables.

SNELL: You know, Jayne, you won a Tony Award for your role as Deirdre Blake, the mother in "The Humans." You must know this character intimately. In your mind, who is she?

HOUDYSHELL: Who Deirdre Blake is, basically - and I didn't set out to do this consciously, but when I began working on it in - as the play, I realized that there were many parallels between my mother and the character of Deirdre. And as I worked more and more on the role and went deeper and deeper into it, the more it was - it was actually rather comforting. I felt closer to my mother in some ways than I ever had before.

That's also, I think, a testament to Stephen Karam's writing because it's ultimately just very real. His characters speak as human beings speak. They speak at the same time. They talk over one another. They talk behind each other's backs. They talk in front of each other. They repress things. They let things out. And all of that speech sounds like human music.

SNELL: Well, Stephen, the apartment itself is kind of like this oppressive force in the story. It's dark, with a stained ceiling and bubbling paint and this kind of harrowing spiral staircase that makes it impossible for wheelchair-bound Momo to get around. The film spends so much time drawing the viewer to the physical space. Did you intend the apartment to be another character in the movie?

KARAM: I did. And, Kelsey, I love that you're talking about the spiral staircase, because this essentially is an apartment that I lived in for seven years.

SNELL: Oh, really?

KARAM: And I loved it. You know, it's - you know, I had no money. I was there for seven years. I was in the basement of a ground-floor basement duplex.

But, yeah, it was important to me that the family be met by the audience - that you have a chance to observe them. So the camera's even hiding behind the architecture of this really confined space. So it's not only a character, it's, in some ways, related to the audience because they essentially kind of become one with the space as they get to sometimes almost view the family as if they're the space itself.

SNELL: I was really drawn to the relationship between Deirdre and her daughters. They're played by Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer. Jayne, your character doesn't mince words. But at the same time, she's really restrained in what she shares with them and how she shares it. What did you draw on yourself to bring that dynamic to life?

HOUDYSHELL: Well, again, my own mother. My mother had a tremendous amount of integrity and dignity. She was a totally unpretentious woman, a hard-working woman, and she had four daughters, of which I was one. And we, as children do, particularly as we got older and into adolescence, we loved to make fun of our mother amongst ourselves and sometimes in front of her. And we just thought we were being witty and clever and funny. We never thought that perhaps it might be hurtful or feel disrespectful or dismissive of her, et cetera, et cetera.

But now, in retrospect, living inside Deirdre Blake and having that relationship with her daughters, I see so completely how my mother must have internalized and repressed and suppressed all of her feelings. And it never occurred to her to - of course, she had feelings about it and they would come out, but usually they were unintended. She didn't intend to show them.

And that was a very familiar dynamic in the Blake family, as well. The cracks would show in their psyches and in their hearts. And we see that with Deirdre in terms of her relationship to her daughter. After she'd have an interchange with them, you know, you then see her privately responding, but it's just between Deirdre and the audience. It's not anything that she shares with her family.

SNELL: Yeah, speaking of that, Stephen, all of the characters in this film are struggling with some pretty deep and personal pain. You know, Deirdre and Erik don't seem to understand exactly what their daughters are going through. And, you know, without giving anything away, their daughters are also in the dark about what they're dealing with. Did you intend this to be a generational thing or is it about something else? Is it about, you know, kind of feeling your way in the dark when it comes to people we love?

KARAM: I think it's more the latter. I think I am just curious about how easy it is to misunderstand and miss the people that you love the most, that you know better than anyone or that know you very well, how hard it can be to see each other clearly.

I'm interested in the comedy of how, you know, Beanie Feldstein, who plays one of the daughters, how much she is like Jayne Houdyshell's character, how much she's like the mom. So I often point out, when people are like, why are they so mean to each other? - it's actually because they are so similar. And Beanie is, you know, the classic 25-year-old who hasn't figured out how much she's actually like her mom. But I hope the audience also feels that they do want to be more connected. They want to have an easier kind of love. I don't know. Maybe you can speak to this, Jayne, because you live it.

HOUDYSHELL: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. That's a beautiful phrase - an easier kind of love. I mean, I know - how often do we all wish for that?

SNELL: Well, that's writer and director Stephen Karam and actress Jayne Houdyshell. Their movie, "The Humans," is now playing in theaters and is available for streaming on Showtime, as well. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.

HOUDYSHELL: It was wonderful.

KARAM: Thanks, Kelsey.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHET BAKER'S "AUTUMN IN NEW YORK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.