Directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos and adapted from James Herbert’s novel Shrine, the horror thriller The Unholy follows disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), as he follows a story about a strange occurrence to a small town where he finds a series of events that are labeled miracles. But when it becomes clear that something more sinister than miraculous is going on, the battle between good and evil reaches a breaking point.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Morgan talked about being a fan of the horror genre, how cool it was to get the stamp of approval from the author’s family, the push and pull of good and evil, and how religious faith is at the core of many horror stories. He also talked about shooting the final season of The Walking Dead, and working with his own wife, Hilarie Burton, on the show.
Collider: When something like The Unholy comes your way, do you need extra convincing to read a creepy script? Do you have to get into a certain mood and set a certain ambiance when you read a script like this?
JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN: Not really. I knew the people involved and I knew the James Herbert of it all, and that helped with it. I am a fan of the genre, obviously. I’ve made a living, between comic books and the horror genre. I hope that I have better taste than maybe most, when it comes to picking the right scripts. I was a big fan of James, and I had a relationship with Evan [Spiliotopoulos] and I’d worked with Sam [Raimi] before. When Sam and Evan send a script over, that Evan has adapted and Sam is attached as producer, I don’t have to really set a mood because I know it’s gonna be pretty decent, and it was. I read it at the beach. I had a weekend off from The Walking Dead, so I went where my family was and I remember sitting there and reading it in one sitting, with my kids crawling on my face. That’s always a good sign. That means I should probably do it.
When you do a project, you obviously want it to be the best version of that project that it can be. What did it then mean to you, to actually get the endorsement of the author’s family?
MORGAN: It’s the best thing that you can get. I’m used to the opposite of that. I’ll never forget doing Watchmen and Alan Moore being like, “Fuck you, I’ll never watch it, you guys suck,” without even giving us a chance. So, it’s always nice to have the opposite of that, where someone endorses what you do. I told Evan, the biggest compliment that we can get is from his family. Being that James isn’t with us anymore, this is the closest we can get to that. They’ve been close to this material for their whole entire lives, so to have their endorsement, to me, meant more than anything else could, as far as making a movie that holds up the original material, which is so good. He was such a great writer. He’s another kind of Stephen King, a prolific horror writer that grabs you and doesn’t let go. That was a thrill. That was really cool.
There really is no greater battle than the battle between good and evil, and there’s no greater battle between good and evil than the one between God and the Devil. Are you someone who believes that where there is good, there must be evil nearby to balance it out, or do you feel like it’s less clear-cut than that?
MORGAN: I think both are true. It’s less clear-cut than simplifying it that much. You’d have to be blind not to see what’s going on in the world right now and as much good as has been going on in the last year, the off-set side of that and the evil part of it is undeniable. Is there supernatural attached to it? No, not in the stuff that I’m talking about right now. But there is definitely a good side and a bad side that seems plain as day to me. There’s always the push and pull of those two forces. A movie like The Unholy obviously takes that to another level. That’s what makes this an interesting story.
Why do you think it is that so many horror stories have religious faith at their core?
MORGAN: My wife just flashed me. I look over to the window and my wife just flashed me, on a great question. I gotta erase that from my memory. It’s a great question, and I think the best way to answer it is to say that religion is a backdrop for people that believe and that are really open to believing in either the good side and the miracles or the evil side. I don’t claim to know the Bible backwards and forwards, but it’s that good versus evil. This movie is based on the real-life instances. There have been 16 instances of Mary coming and being channeled through someone, and it’s always got a religious backdrop with a church involved. There are a couple that are very famous.
The one that I did a little bit of research on was in Fatima, which there’s a documentary film on now that I want to see, but haven’t seen yet. I know that James Herbert had done a lot of research and pulled from these instances of real things. What’s fascinating about this film is that it can happen. There’s a chance that, if it hasn’t already happened, it could happen. It’s hard for me to answer any religious questions and answer it well because I’m not very religious. I believe that there’s a greater power, but one church to another, it’s whatever you believe in. I did like the fact that this could happen and that Mary could possibly be channeled through someone. There are people that talk in tongues. There’s all sorts of stuff there. It always happens to the religious. It never happens to a dude like me, but it’s always rooted in something that could be real. I don’t know why it always happens through the religious angle. I wish I did. Maybe Evan knows or has a better answer for it, but it’s fascinating. Even The Possession had a religious angle.
You’re filming the final season of The Walking Dead. How is that going? Does it feel, in the writing, like it’s the final season of the show?
MORGAN: No. I’m just finishing Episode 3. We’ve been here for two months, so we’re really taking our time. We’re doing 24 episodes, I think. It doesn’t feel like the end yet and I’m glad because that’s a long time to be thinking about the end. We have another year here to shoot, and we’re shooting straight through. It’s brutal. But I know it’s there. It’s in the back of all of our heads that it’s there. After the COVID six episodes that we did, that are almost done airing, we’re back at full strength. We shot those COVID episodes with a quarter of our usual crew, and it was very weird and crazy and surreal. My episode, the big one that airs on Sunday, “Here’s Negan,” was really just me and Hilarie [Burton] getting to do our thing, which was great, with limited locations and all of that. That didn’t feel like a bottle episode at all, when we shot it. Matter of fact, I think it’s gonna look really big.
But now that we’re just getting to the end of Episode 3 of this new year, there’s so much story and it’s very grand in scale. Our first two episodes, we had 28 shooting days. Normally, we do that in 16. So, it suddenly seems a lot bigger somehow. I think everyone is keenly aware that it is our last year, as far as the writers and stuff. It feels good. It feels like the story is really good. I’ve only seen the first four scripts, and they’re great. There’s so far no reference and no feeling in the story that it’s ending at all. It’s opening up all of these new chapters that are really interesting and cool. I’m excited.
That being said, it’s fucking surreal as hell to think that this will be the last bit of it. It’s become such a part of my life, and a part of everyone’s life that’s in the show, that it’s hard to reconcile the fact this will be over in a year from now. Well, in fact, I will still be here a year from now, but you know what I mean. There’s not a Season 12. It’s very weird. And the news, when we got it in the middle of the pandemic, was a complete surprise, not only to me and the rest of the actors, but to everybody involved in the show from production. Scott Gimple and Angela Kang had no idea either. It came from nowhere and there was such a huge pivot. I think they had Seasonal 11 all mapped out, where they were gonna go, and suddenly it became, “We also have to close the story, in a way.” It took everybody by surprise, so it was a massive pivot. And then, they threw in the six tacked on episodes to Season 10, and instead of doing 16, we’re gonna do 24 more. There was a lot of stuff to wrap our heads around. So, in a nutshell, I’m not thinking about the end yet, although it’s back there. We still have a lot of story to tell.
It’s really cool that you get to have your own wife, Hilarie Burton, come in and be Lucille.
MORGAN: It was fucking great. It was the best thing, ever. She was so fucking good. I was so proud of her. I wanted her to play Lucille from the get-go. If we ever got to tell the story of “Here’s Negan,” I thought that she would be a really great Lucille. But the show expanded a great deal on what we saw in the comic. They changed it around a little bit and expanded that role. Scott and Angela called and said, “Hey, we want Hilarie to be Lucille.” And I was like, “Oh, my God, that’s fucking great.” I told Hilarie and she was excited, but we knew what the story was based on the comic book, so she was like, “I’m just gonna be in a hospital bed, have a couple of scenes, and that’s the end of it.” And then, when we got the script, I was actually shooting The Unholy. I read “Here’s Negan” on the set of The Unholy and I called Hilarie and said, “You better strap it on girl because it’s a lot more than two scenes in a hospital room.” We’d never worked together, in our whole lives. We’ve been on the same show, but never shared a scene. And so, to be able to do this with her, and this story and character in particular, was super cool and really special. It was the first time we’d been away from our kids, ever, since the pandemic had started. We’re with our kids all the time anyway, but it was like going on a date. Being on the set with 50 crew guys, it was the first time we had been alone, so we treated it like a date. It was great. We had so much fun. She’s so good. I can’t wait for the world to see her do her thing. It’s a cool episode.
I think she’s tremendously underrated as an actress.
MORGAN: I agree. And she’ll tell you that she was a little bit nervous about it. It was a lot to take on. Even me, I really had only seen her do Christmas movies and shit. I didn’t know what she would be capable of and she killed it. She’s so good. I’ve seen couples on screen before that have no chemistry, at all. You think, “Oh, my God, how are they together?” There was a little piece of me that was like, “God, I hope our chemistry comes through on the screen and we don’t muck this up because the writing is spectacular.” I think it really works, so I’m very happy and very proud. I can’t wait for the world to see it.
The Unholy is now playing in theaters.
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