LULU WILSON is passionate, sharply intelligent, mature well beyond her 13 years, and nuanced—all at once.
Sometimes it’s not even what she says, but how she says it, like she takes everything in without letting any of it linger around in her head for too long.
She turned 13 years old last month, just before Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House began streaming, which is being hailed as one of the best Netflix originals of the year—and maybe even of all time. Directed by Mike Flanagan, the series, loosely based on the novel by Shirley Jackson, tells a horror story which proves, in 10 parts, that the broken familial relationships between the grown-up Crain family are just as scary as the paranormal events they experienced as children during their time in Hill House. Lulu plays Young Shirley, the eldest daughter of the Crain family who grows up to own a mortuary with her husband.
We call Lulu on the afternoon of Halloween—a coincidently perfect occasion to speak to a young star who has built much of her career as an actor in horror films: Ouija: Origin of Evil and Annabelle: Creation are two standouts. We ask her if she has plans to dress up. She does, but hasn’t decided yet whether she wants to be Sabrina the Teenage Witch (she’s really into the new Netflix series Sabrina, released just after Hill House) or Kurt Cobain. Two hours later, we see a photo of her wearing a perfect Lady Bird costume, pink cast and all.
Listen in as we discuss with Lulu her experience working with director Mike Flanagan, what keeps her coming back to the horror genre, and what it was like to be a part of those incredible tracking shots that have everyone talking.
Hannah Loesch: Mike Flanagan, as you know, is getting all sorts of buzz about his incredible work on this show. This actually isn’t the first time you worked with him: he also directed you on Ouija: Origin of Evil! Did he have you in mind right away for young Shirley because you guys already knew each other?
Lulu Wilson: I think he did, I think—me and Mike have the best relationship. One of my best experiences was on Ouija because he’s just such a kind director. I think he did have me in mind [for Hill House]. I did do one take for the audition process, but I think he knew from the start… he emailed me, he’s like “Okay, we have this great project, I hope you’re on board, just read the script and I hope you love it because I do.” So I read it and I immediately fell in love like he did. And I just think, yeah, he might have had me in the back of his mind. We have, like, telepathic powers. We just always speak to each other. [laughs]
Hannah: [laughs] It must have been so great to work with him again! How would you describe his style of direction?
Lulu: He’s very different from a lot of directors, especially that kids work with. There are a lot of kids on Haunting of Hill House: there’s Mckenna, Paxton, me, Julian and Violet. Before we started filming, in the pre-production, we all had a meeting, all the kids and Mike, and he just said, “Okay, everyone! Give us one word that you want your character to be like.” And I loved that because he let us...even though the twins were only—not actually the twins!—but they were only five years old at the time. I thought it was great that we got to mold our characters in that way.
Cailin Loesch: Do you remember what word you used?
Lulu: I think I said...I definitely said motherly, because I could totally see Shirley as—Shirley is the most motherly of the Crain children. She wants to take care of them above all else. But I also said tough, because I feel like to grow up to be a mortician and to be embalming bodies all day long, you have to have guts. And I think Shirley definitely does.
Cailin: Yeah, absolutely.
Hannah: And...you’re older than Paxton, right?
Lulu: No! Paxton is actually older than me! I think he’s 14.
Hannah: Oh, and you just turned 13. Okay, okay! But you’re one of the oldest of the kids on set. So I know your character was motherly, but what was it like for you in real life working with younger kids for so many months?
Lulu: It was great. I had such a great time, because I have two older sisters, so I’m the youngest. So just kind of having that flip was really fun. Especially me and Violet, [we] have a great relationship. She plays Young Nell, and we would just spend hours at a time talking, and she’s just like a little grown-up. She’s very mature. And so is Julian—everybody was! Mckenna and Paxton, they were all just so great to work with. I think they really helped bring out the motherly side in me, because I really ended up caring for the people I was working with.
Hannah: I saw some of Violet’s Instagram posts, and she very clearly idolizes you. It’s really cute. She really looks up to you.
Lulu: Yeah! She’s so cute. I love her so much!
Hannah: So you’re well known for your work in horror films, and now this Netflix show! What is it about the genre that draws you in?
Lulu: Well, I think it’s just the many layers of a horror film. Or TV show! Because I like to peel back the layers. There’s always some comedy, there’s gotta be comedy, and there’s always, obviously, the scares—and sometimes you wanna cry at the end of a horror movie! And I just find that really moving, especially in the Haunting series, you really care for the Crain family. You really don’t want anything bad to happen to them. I think that that kind of element really draws me to horror films and TV shows.
Cailin: I’m sure you’re seeing all of the stuff people are saying about the show...a lot of people are even hailing Haunting of Hill House as Netflix’s best original series of all time, which is like, insane.
Lulu: It really is. I wonder what you think it is about the show that has struck a chord with so many people that you wouldn’t see in a show that’s already been on, or people hadn’t seen before.
Hannah: Besides the fact that you really start to pull for the Crain family and hope that they make it out alive and well!
Lulu: I think it’s the relatability, too, because The Haunting of Hill House is a lot about the family, and about how they don’t always get along, but in the end they’re family. They have to fight for each other and for their lives, and they all get closer in this whole journey when they try to figure out their dark past … You don’t always get along, but in the end you’re family. I love that, ‘cause I can relate to that.
Cailin: It was interesting, because some of the more turbulent moments on the show kind of made you realize that watching the family fall apart was almost scarier than the Hill House ghosts, and the paranormal aspects of it, which I think was really special about it, too.
Lulu: Yeah. It’s like in episode 6, when they are all fighting—these are spoilers, so just watch out—but when they’re all fighting in the funeral home, I think that is a really moving moment because it is very emotional, and it really draws you in, I think.
Cailin: I’m glad that you mentioned episode 6, because I really wanted to ask you about it. It was made up of, like, 3 or 4 tracking shots max. How did the conversation go as you and the rest of the cast and the director were planning to shoot this episode, and what extra preparation did it require to do it that way with the tracking shots?
Lulu: It was great. We did read-throughs for the scenes, and we rehearsed—it was really crazy, because each of the scenes were really long, and it was one shot, which is amazing, that cinematography. We rehearsed it like a play for two weeks, I think, and that one big scene where everyone’s running down the stairs because the chandelier fell was what all the kids focused on the most. There were a lot of elements: there was screaming, there was crying, there was the sounds of the rain and the sounds of the hail, which wasn’t actually happening on set, so we had to yell over nothing, which was a lot to get used to, because it’s not normal to walk into a house and start yelling. That was crazy, because I was upstairs for awhile before I actually had to start coming down the stairs, and I remember just getting super antsy up there, [thinking] I just want to go down, I just want to go down. That really helped me practice my patience, and everybody, I think. We all had to be really quiet, which is really difficult, but the preparation was crazy because we did the play—it felt like a play rehearsal, it took a really long time—and constant read throughs, but Mike was always with us each step of the way, and supporting us, and letting us be free to try new things: to improv, to just add your own take on your character, which I loved.
Hannah: I think it’s interesting how you said that you rehearsed it like a play, because I’m sitting here thinking, How in the world do you do a 20 minute long take, but then it’s like, you’d have to do that for a play!
Cailin: The difference is the camera. It must have been such an accomplishment…I mean, what a collaboration. You have the cinematographer, you have the camera person, the director, and then the actors all have to work together and pull it off just right. What was it like when you guys pulled off a [long] take? Was there a moment of celebration?
Lulu: Everybody was clapping. There was huge applause, standing ovations, and Mike was just—you knew it was the take when Mike, he does this with everything, he would come out of his tent and he’d just sit there and he would just smile at you. And you’d just know that that was an amazing take. And whenever we saw his smiling face, we’d be like, Yes! That was the one! And we’d all just jump for joy. I thought that was just such an empowering moment, because, really: that was teamwork right there. That was the perfect embodiment of teamwork.
Cailin: It’s almost like I wanted to do a standing ovation sitting at home in my living room watching it myself, so I can only imagine you guys. So, I mean, you talked about a few, but do you have a favorite memory from filming the show, and was it the same when you saw it on screen? Like was there a correlation between your best memories from actually being on set, and what resonated with you most when you were watching it on screen?
Lulu: Yeah! Well, my favorite moment on set was—I loved working with Henry Thomas. He was also in Ouija, he played Father Tom, and I have a great relationship with Henry. There’s a fun scene where he’s asleep on the couch, and I tap him and I’m like, “Mom’s home.” And after every take of that scene, we would start cracking up. It was probably like 10:30ish at night when we were filming this, and we would just start cracking up after every take, and I would just hear Mike, like, cackling in the background. It was the funniest thing ever, and that was definitely, by far my favorite memory on set. And watching it—I can’t believe I was able to make that serious of a face when I felt like I was about to crack up. ‘Cause I remember that feeling where the laugher is just bubbling up inside of you, and looking at it, I’m like, I don’t look like that at all! And I just thought that was a crazy thing to watch!
Hannah: It must have been so cool to work with Henry Thomas, because he knows what it’s like to be in this industry at a young age. Did he have any advice for you?
Lulu: So I’m not homeschooled; I have a normal school that I go to every day. And he [Henry Thomas] wasn’t homeschooled either when he filmed E.T., and he just was constantly reminding me to work my hardest. To work my hardest in school, and pay a lot of attention to that, and to never give up on that. Because I love my school, I love going to school every day, and my education is really important to me. He just constantly reminded me that even when I was stressed out to just keep going. And I loved that so much, because he was just very inspiring.
Cailin: I’m sure it’s along the lines of the advice he gave you, but I wanted to ask you: so many girls your age just dream of doing what you’re doing right now, working in TV and film. What would you say to young actors, or even older actors who are just starting out? What advice would you give to them?
Lulu: Well, it’s really hard work. Acting is really hard work: there’s the memorization, there’s the rehearsals, there’s stripping back the layers of your character, and it’s really difficult. I would want everyone to know that it has to be something you love. For you to be able to pursue it as a career, it just has to be something you love, and you dream about doing every day, because if you don’t look forward to doing it, then there’s no point. Every day I constantly remind myself how much I love it, and I think that’s a really important thing to do for you to be able to fully portray a character, or whatever you’re doing.
The Haunting of Hill House is streaming now on Netflix.