Scream Queen Maika Monroe Returns: The ‘Longlegs’ Star on Facing Off With Nicolas Cage and How She Leaves the Darkness on Set

Maika Monroe
Shayan Asgharnia for Variety

Maika Monroe is not a fan of the dark arts. Though one of indie horror’s most respected scream queens, she’s not of that genre: She laughs easily and talks animatedly with her hands, often starting sentences with the word “Yes!”

“Going Method doesn’t work for me,” she says. “As soon as we’re done with the day, I go back home and watch ‘The Kardashians’ or something to shake it off.”

The fact that she’s so personable is partly what got her the notably cold role in Oz Perkins’ terrific new horror film “Longlegs,” in which she plays Lee Harker, a shutdown, haunted, high-strung FBI agent on the hunt for an occult- obsessed serial killer, played by Nicolas Cage.

Perkins says the “irreconcilable difference” between Monroe’s personality and the characters she embodies is what drew him to her. He was particularly inspired by her evocative performance in the 2022 thriller “Watcher,” in which she plays an isolated woman in eastern Europe convinced she’s being stalked by a serial killer.

“‘Watcher’ was in my mind when I met her, and I found that to be a very reserved, stoic, serious performance,” he says. “Then I meet her, and she’s very much the opposite of that. The way she sits and fidgets and laughs a lot is kind of silly. It’s very not what she gives on camera, and there’s a lot of real estate between those two poles. To me, that’s interesting and promises a lot.”

At 31, Monroe is already a veteran of indie horror hits like “The Guest” and “It Follows,” the critically acclaimed indie horror feature from David Robert Mitchell, but “Longlegs” has the potential to introduce her to a wider audience; while Monroe is acting in the same gear as she does in some of her signature work, the story is especially claustrophobic, leading to one of her tensest performances.

“Something that I took away the first time reading the script was how uncomfortable Lee was in most social situations,” Monroe says. “Where she’s comfortable is looking at bloody crime-scene photos and trying to figure out what the knife was doing.”

Cage has admired Monroe’s self-taught craft since her breakout in “It Follows.” “My feeling about Maika is that she’s effortless,” he says. “I think there is an ease to her performance style where I don’t see any acting. She has this inherent kind of childlike grace, vulnerability and charm. You immediately care about her, care about the character she’s playing.”

Shayan Asgharnia for Variety

Monroe and Cage only share the screen in one scene in “Longlegs” — Perkins intentionally kept the pair apart until their on-screen meeting.

“They’d been filming with Cage for five days at that point,” Monroe says, “and it was his last day. The director chose to not have me see anything, not meet him, not see what his face looked like. He created this character — this thing — and so I was so nervous.” Her eyes widen, remembering his inhuman look. “So the PAs bring me up to this door that enters into the room where he is, the cameras start rolling on me and the director calls action,” she continues. “I open the door, and it was incredible: I wasn’t in a room with Nic Cage; I was in a room with Longlegs.”

“After we finished that scene, we’re sitting across from each other and he leans over, in his full makeup and everything, and says, ‘Oh, I’m such a big fan of you.’”

“Longlegs” will undoubtedly be another favorite for Monroe’s faithful. The actress made a splash in 2014, at age 21, after years of bit parts in film and TV, by landing the lead in “It Follows,” about a young woman avoiding a sexually transmitted supernatural curse. That film first gained buzz at Cannes before its wide critical and commercial success, earning $23.3 million on a $1.3 million budget. Monroe’s wattage was made brighter by a pivotal role in the blood-drenched ’80s throwback thriller “The Guest,” quickly turning her into an “It” girl of the indie scene.

Yet Monroe’s breakout year almost never happened. Born to a father in construction and a mother who was a sign language interpreter for a Santa Barbara school, she first found herself on a movie set in a roundabout way — she was plucked at 13 from her dance class to be an extra in the 2006 slasher “Bad Blood.” That led to an interest in acting, yet her auditions amounted to very little. Tired of rejection in her early teens, she turned her attention to going pro as a kiteboarder. So at 17, she fired her agent and moved with her mother to the Dominican Republic.

Still, her longtime manager continued to send her scripts, one of which was “The Guest,” which piqued her interest enough that she sent in an audition tape. She got the part and shot the film in summer 2013. That same year came “It Follows.” So at 21, Monroe moved to Los Angeles.

Though she landed parts in two big-budget 2016 tentpoles — “Independence Day: Resurgence” and dystopian teen drama “The 5th Wave” — neither featured characters as complex as those she’d played in indie horror films.

“Working on studio films does feel very, very different than indies,” she says. “There’s a lack of intimacy on those sets. The indie world is what brought me up, and I just think it’s such a special environment.”

Monroe came into the business at a time when horror took a turn away from misogynistic schlock, focusing instead on dynamic cinematography, brainy plots and realistic dialogue and character choices. Along with films like 2014’s “The Babadook” and 2015’s “The Witch,” horror movies like “It Follows” transformed the genre, with unique concepts and strong leading roles for women.

Still, it took Monroe some time to warm to the idea of making a life in horror films. You can still hear the kiteboarding teen when she says, “I remember reading the scripts for ‘The Guest’ and ‘It Follows’ and being like, ‘OK, these are weird, but I have to pay my rent and feed myself. So, yeah, I’ll be there.’” She adds, “When I started, horror movies were moving away from hot girl running, covered in blood, to interesting, unique, layered characters and storytelling. There are so many credible female roles within this genre now that those are usually the most interesting scripts that I’m reading. So many people connect with these films, which is an honor to me.”

Shayan Asgharnia for Variety

Monroe’s next project will take her back to the beginning of her career, as she’s set to star in the long-
anticipated “It Follows” sequel, “They Follow,” directed by Mitchell. “Being able to step back into this world with him in this role that changed my career is very exciting,” Monroe says.

Also exciting is having her name at the top of the call sheet, allowing her to set the tone for productions that are creative and welcoming, a world away from the alienation she felt auditioning at the start.

“I love my job,” she says. “I’ve gone through phases when I was working all the time just to work, and I started to fall out of love with it, but now I feel so lucky to do this for a living. I want to continue to love it.”

Talking about one of the year’s darkest films sends Monroe thinking about an antidote: “Survivor.” She’s bingeing it as the press cycle for “Longlegs” heats up. She imagines being a contestant on the show, which in many ways is not far from horror.

“I’d probably get grumpy just having rice, but I feel like I’d be really strong in the social aspects,” she says, laughing once more.

Makeup: Jenna Kristina/Forward Artists; Hair: Laura Polko/PRTNRS; Styling: Chloe and Chenelle Delgadillo/A-Frame; Styling Asst: Justin Ramirez; Dress: Versace; Shoes: ByFar; Tights: Wolford; Earrings: Mara Paris; Bracelet: Cartier

From Variety US