‘The First Omen’ Star Nell Tiger Free Pays Tribute to 1981’s ‘Possession’ Through Physical Horror [Interview]

Nell Tiger Free (“Servant”) finds herself embroiled in a terrifying conspiracy as American novitiate Margaret Daino in The First Omen, which 20th Century Studios will unleash in theaters on April 5.

The prequel to The Omen is directed by Arkasha Stevenson, based on characters created by David Seltzer (The Omen), with a story by Ben Jacoby (“Bleed”) and a screenplay by Tim Smith & Arkasha Stevenson and Keith Thomas (Firestarter).

The First Omen sees the shy Margaret sent to Rome in 1971 and explores the events surrounding the birth of the Antichrist. Ahead of the film’s release, Bloody Disgusting spoke with actor Nell Tiger Free about the film and the tribute she pays to 1981’s Possession with an impressive physical performance.

In The First Omen, Margaret finds herself drawn to an isolated young woman, Carlita (Nicole Sorace). In her bid to comfort and befriend the young girl, Margaret notices something may be deeply amiss at her new convent, and her superiors may have sinister designs on the young girls within the Church. It falls to the shy novitiate to attempt to thwart it. In other words, The First Omen taps into controversial themes of sexual abuse within the Church, something that Arkasha Stevenson and Nell Tiger Free took great care in approaching.

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios’ THE FIRST OMEN. Photo by Moris Puccio. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“We had very frank, open conversations about it,” Free explains. “Nothing was off the table as far as things to discuss with me and Arkasha. There was no limit to what she and I would talk about in every walk of life and sense of life. It found its way into our conversation very naturally because, politically, at the time, there were some serious things going on, and it just very naturally found its way into the conversation. We spoke through these things and worked out what we were both comfortable with and what we were both comfortable with being in this film and showing.

“I never for a second worried that anything was going to be gratuitous or that anything was going to be there for the sake of it. At the end of the day, this is a horror film. It’s here to entertain. It’s here for people to enjoy. We’re not trying to spoon-feed you any sort of message or anything, but it is an exploration of assault, and it is an exploration of being in control of your own body. Thematically, these things just made sense with the story that we were telling. And we tried to tell it in a way that is something that is not there to shock or offend. It’s not there for those reasons. It’s there because it makes sense for the story. Because Arkasha and I were working it out together, there was never a moment where I felt like I was pushed too far or felt uncomfortable, not for a second, because we wanted to tell the story. We wanted to tell it right.”

When asked whether she had a pre-existing relationship with the franchise before taking on the role, Nell Tiger Free reveals she’s a massive horror fan.

She tells us, “I loved the original. I’ve seen it countless times. I’m a big horror buff, so naturally, The Omen would be in my wheelhouse of things that I love to watch. Coincidentally, it was also something that I absolutely enjoyed performing. So it was just an all-around lovely full circle moment for me.”

The First Omen

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios’ THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The actor’s horror fandom is never more apparent than in a scene that sees Margaret grappling with an unseen force, resulting in a daunting physical performance that pays tribute to Isabelle Adjani‘s unforgettable tunnel scene in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. Even more impressive is that this stunning moment took only two takes.

“Oh my God, I could not tell you for all the money in the world what was going through my mind in that sequence,” Free says of her mindset during this performance. “I honestly couldn’t. We didn’t have any rehearsals, and we didn’t choreograph it or do anything like that. We had Possession as a reference, which was a brilliant reference, and we just went for it. If memory serves, it was two takes. I’d like to dispel any rumors that I was on sort of a pulley device or CGI. There’s none of that.

“It was just 4:00 AM somewhere in Northern Italy, and we were all deranged and halfway through shooting anyway, and it just happened. Do I know if it could happen again? I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m lucky enough that Arkasha created an environment where I just wanted to push myself as hard as I possibly could for her. It was an exhausting thing to perform, but it was such a satisfying exhaustion. Even though it was a very difficult thing to do, I just have nothing but really, really fond memories of performing at that moment. I’m just happy that it seems to be being received well and that just means the world. So yeah, I’m grateful people are happy to watch this weird, freaky thing that we decided to do.”

More than just delivering a powerful horror moment on screen, playing Margaret helped Nell Tiger Free focus less on vanity and more on her performance. The actor encourages everyone to tap into their inner Adjani, too.

“This film has helped me so much because there is not a lot of opportunity for beauty in this movie, in the typical sense,” she explains. “That was a beautiful thing in itself; it was like the dance that we were talking about, that was an opportunity to tap into the ugliest, most brutalist, intense, animalistic side of myself and show it to the world. It felt amazing and liberating, as well as incredibly feminist and cathartic. I would implore you to go home and do it in the mirror because I’ve been telling people this.

“You should honestly give it a go. It feels amazing.”

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