Considered “The Land of Opportunity,” America is one of the most culturally rich and diverse countries in the world; but it also has a dark past. Usually when you think of America’s racial oppression it lives in the deep south where history books often taught us is where one could find “for colored” signs and Jim Crow laws. However, segregation didn’t just reside in the South; it sprung up everywhere, including the quiet outskirts of Compton, California.
In Amazon Prime’s anthology series THEM explores terror in the 1950s, centering on a Black family who moves from North Carolina to an all-white Los Angeles neighborhood known as The Great Migration. The family’s idyllic home becomes ground zero where malevolent forces, next-door and otherworldly, threaten to taunt, ravage and destroy them.
The first season introduces us to the Emory family, who are terrorized by racist entities — both real and supernatural. As they fight off racist neighbors, their oldest daughter Ruby Emory befriends a fellow high school student and seemingly sweet Doris, who slowly begins to lead Ruby down a shocking path reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Sophie Guest plays Doris to perfection, who at 15 years old is already a seasoned actress (Two and a Half Men, Love the Coopers, Jack Reacher), Guest is haunting and memorable as the soft-spoken “caring” friend but as the show dives deeper it slowly reveals the evil lying underneath Doris’ seemingly perfect blonde-haired, blue-eyed façade. Guest as Doris is both striking and breathtakingly chilling as a master manipulator neither Ruby nor the audience sees coming.
The Koalition spoke to Guest about taking on the role of the devilish Doris, tackling horror, what THEM means to her and more.
“When I first got the audition for this show I didn’t receive a script, I just got my sides and a little character description so going into the project I didn’t know much about it. [However], when I got the role I just learned more about who Doris was and it was really intriguing to me to be able play someone who is this kind of proper lady, if you will. Especially in the 50s being able to wear those cool costumes was really intriguing to me and being able to depict some of the terrors the Emorys faced and the African-Americans faced in the 50s and even today.”
“Doris was really stepping outside of my comfort zone whenever I was playing [her] because she is so different than I am. Having to step out of my comfort zone to say, one of my lines ‘you’re really pretty for a colored girl’ which is an awful thing to say, and it did make me step out of my comfort zone to say that. I would say, even though it’s not necessarily the right kind of courage, Doris kind of brought me that kind of courage and bravery to step outside of my comfort zone to say things that weren’t necessarily nice or the right things to say.”
While very few of us will ever experience real supernatural horror in our lives, terror is something we’ve all experienced. People of color know “the gaze” or heard the “for a Black girl” comment Doris says with ease or the terror of navigating this country in Black skin. THEM explores the tension between the public and the private. THEM sheds an important light to help bring about a real understanding of the systems put in place to support racial hierarchy. For Guest, she considers being part of such dynamic and important show an honor.
“I was definitely honored to be able to be part of this show just because the screenwriting by Little Marvin is fantastic. Reading this script, I knew it was going to be an amazing show but watching it onscreen, all that hard work and all that effort that went into the making of the show really came off and I was really excited to delve into THEM.”
As the role of Doris THEM creates a point of reflection for White women, to look at how their own acceptance of power and privilege at the cost of others’ freedom and safety only re-enforces systems that are harmful to everyone, but especially to young and impressionable minds like Ruby. Guest as Sophie helps to lay this out clearly. In order to tackle this difficult role and a person as awful as Doris, Guest break away from the stigma viewers often place upon actors; she is not the person she depicts.
“I think it was really all about separating myself from the character. You know it’s hard to, especially whenever you’re a part of the audience, you’ll watch it and it’s “oh, I hate that girl” and sometimes that stigma sticks with it, meaning like, ‘I hate that character that you played, therefore I hate that actress.’ But I think for me it was all about separating, ‘I’m going into work and I’m playing Doris but really I’m Sophie Guest.’ Separating those harsh things that I really have to act out and have to say, is kind of uncomfortable for me to say but I have to separate my job from who I really am.”
THEM is also fused with horror with history, that pays an homage to old school thriller and horror movies. Guest, known for her dramatic and comedic roles had to approach Doris differently. Tiny ticks and blank stares slowly creep into the character’s look. As she becomes more creepy, there’s a sense of unease that grips the viewers.
“The main thing I did was just those dramatic or more doll-like movements with my body and how I held myself. Whereas the drama, especially when I’m playing a character who isn’t necessarily real, is really exaggerating certain those aspects. Whereas if those was just a drama, I would try to play it much more natural but since I’m playing Doris, I really tried to exaggerate those eye movements and those little ticks with the head that I did and those eerie smiles. I was watching an interview the other day of Allison Pill, who plays Betty on the show, and she was talking about how her smile was really a stable to her character and I totally agree. The smile that she had freaked me out to the core and I think that’s such a great example what I mean by those exaggerated things that throw you into the horror aspect.”
THEM also sheds an important light to help bring about a real understanding of the systems put in place to maintain racial hierarchy, while showing how this system impacts generations. For Guest THEM wasn’t just a TV series but a learning experience that really affected her.
“I definitely think THEM was a huge learning experience for me, just in the history context of it. I, of course knew about segregation in the 50s, but I didn’t know to what extent. So this series interesting to me to learn more about the terrors that African-Americans families faced in the 50s and still today and that’s what THEM really meant to me was learning all of that; learning that horror. And watching the show coming onscreen and feeling that pain and that anger just as I was watching it was really a big deal for me.”
THEM is currently streaming on Amazon.
To learn more about THEM and Guest, check out the full interview below.