Stepping onto a film set for the first time—and that film being Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac—might be overwhelming for the average actor. If you’re Mia Goth, it’s simply setting the tone for the decade to come. Having worked since then in more extravagantly stylized, chilling titles like Suspiria, High Life, A Cure for Wellness, and Infinity Pool, she’s become an indelible screen presence, ethereal and grounded all at once.
But it was Pearl, as Goth herself puts it, that changed everything. Directed by Ti West and cowritten by Goth, the thriller has earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her first true leading role, a treasure of camp and grit. Having started her career at 19, the London-born actress says, “For a while, it was always a miracle to me that I would get another job. It’s Pearl which changed me, in terms of how I view myself and my ability as a performer. That project was an opportunity for me to experience a performance-driven story for the first time—very little plot, just very character-focused.”
Goth and West first collaborated on X, a slick homage to the slasher films of the 1970s in which Goth played the dual role of the aspiring adult film star Maxine and the elderly, menacing Pearl. She calls X a showcase for West, “an opportunity for him to be a director and pay respect to the films he grew up with.” But the extent of Goth’s preparation to play Pearl convinced West to ask her to cowrite the prequel, focused entirely on that character as a young woman. A24 had yet to greenlight a follow-up, but the director, already gearing up production on X in New Zealand, took a chance and asked Goth to begin fleshing out Pearl’s origins.
“I would wake up very early, put my phone on a timer for maybe an hour at a time, and write in the style of a stream of consciousness, rather than script form, because I found that to be an obstacle in me getting my ideas down,” she says. “I would write as Pearl, as me…but Pearl is me. I mean, all my characters are me, turned up or turned down. It’s all me exploring different facets of myself.”
Set on a Texas homestead in 1918, Pearl meets a striving but already violence-prone version of the character, who sees her parents as obstacles between her and dreams of silent movie stardom. Goth constructed Pearl around two personal gold standards: Björk’s groundedness in Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, one of her all-time favorite performances, and Judy Garland’s wide-eyed innocence in The Wizard of Oz. But though the film is suffused with allusions to the golden age of Technicolor, she’s not necessarily drawn to those types of movies. “I really needed to ground it in truth, so that’s where my references come in: to balance the naive insanity of [the film’s] Technicolor with an honest, vulnerable portrayal of who Pearl is.”
She brings to Pearl an old-school showbiz ability to plant her feet firmly in a character’s headspace before swinging an emotion into the stratosphere. As Pearl’s descent into madness is amplified by Goth’s increasingly heightened performance, the film’s initial campiness—all sunshine and smiles on the family farm—inverts into a disturbing reality with serious consequences. “I didn’t play camp, but the world around me, with the colors, and the perfect sheep, and the perfect cow, all that could be perceived that way,” Goth says. “My job as an actor is to make it as honest as possible. That’s the thing: Whenever I’m in ‘genre’ movies, that’s never really something I’m thinking about. I’m just trying to understand and empathize with my character.”