Enter ‘Clock,’ Dianna Agron’s Body Horror Spiral
A woman's attempt to fix her “broken” biological clock initiates a hallucinatory nightmare.
When Dianna Agron entered her thirties, she noticed a shift from those around her. Suddenly, everyone — from close friends and family to people in her community to even strangers — were asking about when she was going to have children.
“I never understand the impulse to comment on other people's decision making, especially as it relates to their body, whether or not they want to build a family, how they want to build a family, when they want to build a family. There is not a right equation,” she says to NYLON. “Yet I think so many people in their minds have a very set version of what that looks like. And if you are not subscribing to that timeline, it is very concerning for many people.”
The universal albeit extremely annoying experience continued for Agron. Perhaps her latest role in Clock, Alexis Jacknow’s psychological body-horror about a woman who undergoes a clinical trial to fix her “broken” biological clock, will keep the invasive questions at bay.
Clock is a horror film without a flesh-and-bone (or even spectral, for that matter) antagonist. Agron’s character Ella is under an immense amount of pressure to become a mother. Her friends don’t understand how she could feel possibly complete without a child; her father sees her decision not to procreate as a slight to their Jewish ancestral lineage; her husband will grin and bear forgoing fatherhood if it means she’s happy. As soon as Ella goes against her better judgment, the spiral begins to take form.
“Our whole point in the making of this film and the storytelling here is we're not saying that you shouldn't have a child. We're not saying that a woman should have a child,” she says. “All we're saying is that if somebody is making a personal choice and you care about that person, you would hope that the first impulse would be to support them and to understand them, and to not put pressure on them to change their mind.”
Ahead, Agron discusses the physicality of her role, how singing eased her performance, working with Jacknow, and more.
I watched Clock before the trailer came out, and I did not realize how scary it was going to be. It is a true horror movie.
Absolutely. It is.
Do you like horror movies?
Yes and no. It depends. It's definitely maybe a newer experience for me because I'm quite riled up by scary horror and I really don't dip into anything that's gory. It's not typically somewhere where I spend a lot of time watching because it affects me. It affects my dreams. It really has to be an early afternoon watch.
I wish I had watched this during the daylight and not in the dark in my room. What exactly drew you to the script?
I thought it really spoke to me in so many ways. I have now been in my 30s for quite a few years, I'm more towards 40 at this point. And from the moment I turned 30 years old, I experienced an influx of people — whether they were in my direct circle of friends or community or strangers — asking me many questions about my life choices and my decisions to have children.It felt like something that was par for the course. I had entered this new decade and that meant that people felt very entitled to ask questions that are quite personal and oftentimes should be reserved for conversations that are long and with care and compassion. I was kind of taken by the fact that that was just something that was considered normal. So with that kind of life experience, it was interesting to read Alexis's script.
I thought, if I'm going to step into this genre, what better way than to have it be centered around the female experience? And I thoroughly enjoyed it. We had an initial conversation after I had read the script and looked over her look book that she had sent along, which further illustrated the tone and the images that she was considering, all of the world that she was building. We just had a really excellent conversation, and I so appreciated that one, that she was giving me her full trust to tell something that was so personal to her and that we were going to get it made. It was green lit at the top of last year, and it was an immediate go. We really quite suddenly were not only agreeing to make something, but in the process of making it very, very quickly, which was quite thrilling.
The film is coming out at such an interesting time in culture. It used to be the nosier people in your family who would ask you, but now whenever I’m online, I see anonymous strangers feeling like they have authority to question women’s lives and choices. It's like, what's going on here?
I never understand the impulse to comment on other people's decision making, especially as it relates to their body, whether or not they want to build a family, how they want to build a family, when they want to build a family. There is not a right equation. I think so many people in their minds have a very set version of what that looks like. And if you are not subscribing to that timeline, it is very concerning for many people.
It almost makes them question their own timeline to have somebody deviate from it.
Yes. And even still, I have so many friends who have lovely children, and I've got godchildren, and if I were to have guessed maybe a decade ago, if I would be standing here with a child already by my side, I would've said yes. That said, there have been many things that have happened and many choices that have led to where I am right now. I'm very happy and very resolved in all of the choices that I've made. I'm very active with the kids that are in my community. They are very much a part of my life.
I think it is funny to consider the fact that I'm 37 years old. I have friends that are my age, that their mothers had them between the ages of 40 and 45, and that was 37 years ago. And that was definitely more atypical then. But somehow it's still atypical now. That is something that gives me pause because we are living in a world where there is this very fixed timeline. I'm surprised that it isn't given more leniency considering how much technology we have that can also afford us more time if we are in the right place and circumstances to participate in that. There's just so many elements of this experience, and I was very happy to make a movie that talks about this experience.
Something that I enjoyed was the film’s claustrophobic, Jewish anxiety, especially when it comes to Ella and the pressure that she has about lineage and ancestors. It’s a huge weight on her.
I think as a Jewish woman playing this Jewish character, that that’s a part of her experience. Her father, he very much makes it known that not only does he want children at the table, he feels it is her responsibility considering their family lineage and history to do that, to be of service in that way. I think that that story is also similar to many families. So many people could understand that that’s something that they feel a personal burden because of their culture or background, because their parental figures put that stress and pressure on them.
Our whole point in the making of this film and the storytelling here is we're not saying that you shouldn't have a child. We're not saying that a woman should have a child. All we're saying is that if somebody is making a personal choice and you care about that person, you would hope that the first impulse would be to support them and to understand them and to not put pressure on them to change their mind. Once Ella starts being open to changing her mind and going against herself time, you watch her lose all of her sanity and capability to keep going. She is in this spiral, this torture spiral of doing everything against her better judgment and against her gut feelings. And that is what is so horrific to watch. Every time she takes one of those pills, you see it and it feels intense because it is intense both for the character and within the story.
There are so many wonderfully unsettling scenes like this in the film. Do you have any favorites or any ones that were particularly compelling?
I really enjoyed the stunt work. I've had more minor stunts, falling off of a three-story house into a crash pad or a little bit of fight training. But the stunt in which you see me get out of the car, run to the cliff's edge, there was a techno crane following me out of the car. I was harnessed in my jeans, and as I was harnessed, there were three men holding the rope, and 20 feet behind them, it was attached to a tree. There was a lot of protection as it related to the safety of that stunt, but at the end of the day, I was still collapsing to my feet and leaning two feet off of a 60-foot-high cliff, which was so wild, and both thrilling and terrifying, probably leaning more to the side of terrifying. That felt like a big personal achievement as far as getting over a fear of heights and contributing that to the storytelling of this film. There were so many things that Alexis wrote that we did the scene with that tarantula being an inch and a half away from my face, and it was an inch and a half away from my face.
Oh my God.
The scene in which I'm eating the raw eggs because I'm in another world and not grounded in the reality of what is happening, I was eating raw eggs. That was something that was fun because Alexis would say we could do it in post or that props made this gelatinous version of raw eggs, but I never wanted to do it. If it didn't look 100%, then I felt that there might be a disconnect with the audience.
I think as far as what I'm most proud of are there are two scenes towards the end in the final act that are 10 and 12 minutes each. It was very similar to a play in which you have to, from top to bottom, contribute so many varying emotions. The one is the scene in the kitchen with Jay, but there's a lot of discovery and a lot of impetus to return to the clinic. And then that first scene in the clinic where she goes to find Melora Hardin's character, and all of the revelations that happen within those scenes. Those two scenes are tough scenes to hit all the beats and play all those emotions, but with a kind of real determination to, it was like the phone was nowhere near set. I was very hydrated to access any tears that needed to come. You basically have to drink 10 times more water than you would understand to be even normal. The physicality involved in those two scenes, it was a marathon, and luckily they weren't shot on the same day. Those two scenes I'm really proud of because that was a whole new level of strength and dedication and focus that was required.
The reveal with Ella's husband is one of the most harrowing nightmares that you can imagine.
I know, I know. Very much so. And Jay is such a sweet man in real life. There would be moments where we'd be filming where he'd be apologizing.
I know this isn't you, Jay.
How do you prepare to hit all of these different beats?
What was not a typical timeline ended up being our timeline for this film, because it was green lit so quickly. The moment it was green lit, Alexis drove to Austin and was hitting the ground running. I had flown in for some costume rehearsals and some camera tests. Then, I flew back to New York because I was putting on a two-week show at Cafe Carlyle and I was singing for those two weeks. We actually, unfortunately, had to cancel the very last show because we had to start that Monday. I flew out on Saturday. We had a few last costume rehearsals, and then we started principal photography on Monday. It was just rapid fire. And I think that in a way, singing for two weeks prior, because it's such a healing process — singing, humming, warming up the voice, like the vagus nerve is really stimulated by all of that. I think that I had been coming from such a joyful, peaceful place to then enter this disheveled, nightmarish. I mean, I had bruises, I had cuts. There was dehydration towards the end because it got so hot. All of those driving scenes in the car, I was pounding electrolytes because I was having moments of feeling very faint. There was just a lot at hand. I think it was nice that I had the front end of that experience was just a joyful, easygoing pace.
God, being an actress is so hard. I’ll watch a show and be like, “Wow, they look so cold…” and now when I re-watch Clock I’m going to think, “Oh no, Dianna was so dehydrated…”
Those circumstances are quite wild. In the beginning, we were filming a lot where you're just in the slip and those were the cold nights. And then by the end, you're always competing with challenges. But man, when you're focused, it's amazing what you can convince your body of and how you can forget a lot of those things.
With Alexis being an actor herself, how does it play into her director process? What's it like working with an actor-slash-director versus just someone who's solely a director?
I think that her experience in the theater is actually what I noticed the most as far as her skill set. Because to be an excellent director, you obviously have to be so committed to your story and your cast, and you also have to be such an incredible and steadfast leader for every department. Everybody is coming together to make something. In this circumstance, we didn't have an enormous amount of time. I think it was a 23-day shoot. Every day counts. I think that the choreography within the scenes, how those things were to play out, was very strong in Alexis's mind in the same way that a play would be. Those choices were so helpful in the acting process. And if you've had any experience in front of the camera, you know how you would love to be spoken to and how to ask for what is needed.
And I think we were so aligned in that process. I always felt very capable of asking her, “Hey, it would be really helpful in this scene if I was able to have these couple minutes to walk in before I sat down,” or whatever it was. She was so receptive to that. I always felt safe with her. Then, it was also so fun because there's two scenes that we're in together and the scene outside where we're both having a cigarette. I loved that scene. I loved getting to see her wear both hats because I think her acting is fantastic, and it is so equally matched to her skills as a director. She's really capable of it all. And I was so happy that we shared that moment.
The scenes that stayed with me involved Ella’s grandmother, especially the scene with her dad and the photograph. It made feel so f*cked up.
Me too. It is such an interesting thing to think about ancestors, and some of us are blessed to still have generations of family in our lives. I've unfortunately lost all of my grandparents at a pretty early age. Yet I have my grandmother, Joyce, she was so supportive of me as a young person. She would repeatedly say, “You can truly do anything!” Also, in a very funny Jewish grandmother way, she was like, “And you're going to be a big star, kid!”
She was right.
I was like, “What? What do you mean? But I love watching musicals with you, and I love dancing.” I started singing because of her. It was something that I wanted to do for her. I thought she would enjoy it. And so it is interesting to think about my life choices and wonder if any of my grandparents, if they were still alive today, what they would think about my life because they are another generation past my parents, and we are ever-changing. But then there are still things that have stuck in people's minds as goals and hopes for their children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren. It's interesting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.