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Dennis Haysbert And the Psychological Appeal of Hulu’s No Exit

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Met Darby Thorne, a young woman who just wants to make it home to her family after receiving an urgent call. Enroute to her family, she is stranded in a blizzard and is forced to find shelter at a highway rest area with a group of strangers. Friendly chatter is made, people are introduced, and life seems normal. All goes well until Darby stumbles across an abducted girl in a van in the parking lot that sets her on a terrifying life-or-death struggle to discover who among them is the kidnapper. What would you do if there was nowhere to run and no one to trust?

To learn more about building a character-driven psychology thriller where everyone could be the kidnapper, The Koalition spoke to veteran actor Dennis Haysbert who plays Ed about bringing No Exit to life, adapting a movie, the psychology of a thriller and more.

Director Damien Power (Killer Ground) was immediately drawn to the 2017 No Exit novel, determined to direct the film version because of its inescapable realism. What he created was an incredibly character-driven, tight script that used its contained spaces to build suspense and intensity. For Dennis, the script created a perfect storm (no pun intended) of events.

When we first met Ed, he’s seated at a table in the room with Sandi. There is a familiarity to their body language. Ed is a US Marines veteran, who met Sandi, then a nurse, while being treated in a Veteran’s Administration Hospital. Trapped during a snowstorm, Ed seems like the ideal person to rely on. A strong and silent type, but what about Sandi?

Thrillers like No Exit require a particular intense concentration from the audience. It’s a genre audiences have a very visceral experience with, but at the same time, a thriller can be about things people care about, and characters you can relate to. No Exit is a story that easily fits all those qualifications; you’re scared for Darby, you’re leery of Ed, but you cannot look away. Then there’s the isolation that builds upon the natural tension, given the tightly wound spring coil of a plot, and the intensity of the single location setting.

Although the film is set in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, because of Covid-19, the decision was made to film No Exit in New Zealand where there was two weeks of rehearsals. Production Designer Gary Mackay and his team created a completely practical visitor center set inside the exterior location – the car park and the edges of the surrounding woods – in the Penrose Studio in Auckland. A significant benefit of filming in the studio, in one location, was being able to film in sequence – a rarity for film production.

For Dennis, the script “was an incredibly fun read and when I finally got to the end of it, I said, ‘well this is going to be very interesting to shoot.’ {What] was really fun about [this movie] was when I found out we were going to shoot it in sequence [which] was really helpful [for that] dramatic build.”

Also, deciding not to read the book before shooting the movie helped ground Dennis in the script. “The only bible I have is the script in front of me. I read the book afterwards and, of course, it’s going to be different. [Finding the nature of the character] came from the character during the film.”

“It was a wonderful treat to be able to shoot everything that happened in the visiting center in sequence so you could get that slow build. [I was able] to incorporate an analytical Marines mindset into the character; the search, that reasoning and break down what was happening. Shooting in order helped tremendously.”

“Interesting thing is, it was it felt like a kind of The Twilight Zone and also being in a snow globe knowing you couldn’t leave. Your whole world was the visitor center in that parking lot; that’s all you could do.”

The strength of the movie is also in its minimal casting. Sandi seems quiet and reserved, Darby is a recovering addict, Ash, played by Danny Ramirez, takes control as a leader, while Lars, played by David Rysdahl, is shy and withdrawn. Despite these different characters and their vastly different backgrounds, the chemistry leaps off the screen. Even around the tension, there’s comfortability and an ease with these characters until everything explodes with unpredictable twists and turns.

“We bonded big time. I love this cast and these people will be friends of mine forever. Because of the way we worked together, there’s no ego in how we worked. We all worked to improve everyone’s performance. So, we’re shooting, and you had a close-up, we gave 150% and that doesn’t happen very often in films or anything. Everybody did that and it’s not something we did consciously, we just did it.”

No Exit will debut February 25th exclusively as a Hulu Original in the U.S. and internationally as an Original on Disney+ under the Star banner and Star+ in Latin America. Check out the full interview in the video above.

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