Sophie Wilde is easily frightened. She credits this to her “overactive imagination”, the kind that makes you spend sleepless nights squinting at the dark corners of your bedroom, conjuring up monsters and ghosts in your mind. When she was 11, a move to a new home in Sydney paired with an ill-advised trip to see Paranormal Activity in the cinema sent her imagination into overdrive. “It got to the point where my mum and auntie pretended to bring an exorcist in,” she tells NME in a cosy cafe at the height of central London’s lunch rush. “I’m not even joking, real story. I would put salt rings around my door because I read that warded off demons.”
With a laugh she adds: “Horror movies are not for me.”
It comes as a sort of ironic surprise, then, that the Australian actress’ big breakout arrived this July with Talk To Me, the buzziest horror movie of the year. On set in Adelaide, the cast and crew “knew it was sick”, the 25-year-old says, but nothing could’ve prepared them for the film’s dizzying success: among other achievements, Talk To Me dominated the summer movie season, spawned a TikTok viral track, and became A24’s second highest grossing film behind Everything Everywhere All At Once.
CREDIT: Joseph Sinclair
Wilde plays Mia, a grief-stricken teenager who gets hooked on the power of an embalmed hand that when grasped, can allow its user to communicate with the dead. While most horror films fail to explain why anyone would meddle with the afterlife, Talk To Me is as exciting as it is horrifying, and it’s Wilde’s full-bodied performance that captures the ecstasy of possession. One moment she’s rigor mortis-stiff, her eyes wide and black. The next she waves it off with a breathless laugh, drunk on spirits.
That careful balance is felt most acutely in a thrilling montage set to a bass-heavy rendition of Édith Piaf’s ‘La foule’. As the camera circles, Mia and her friends take turns with the hand, each possessed by eccentric personalities as they cackle, cry and growl. The filming process was similarly frenetic. “We actually only had 20 or 30 minutes to shoot that whole montage when we were meant to have an hour,” Wilde remembers. “It was just absolute fucking pandemonium. Us improvising, doing all of this random shit to get as much content.” But that pressure cooker environment was freeing as a kind of quickfire acting exercise. “When you don’t have time to be in your head and just be in your body and present in the moment,” she explains. “That can produce some of the most incredible work.”
“It’s been the most surreal year of my life”
Over lunch, Wilde is giggly and giddy, with a penchant for sprinkling the occasional “slay” into her sentences. She calls this period of time “the most surreal year of my life”, and it began in the snowy mountains of Utah, where Talk To Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It was the first time she ever saw herself projected across a couple dozen feet, and Wilde spent the minutes before the screening in a bathroom stall, crying on the phone to her friends and knowing that Midsommar director Ari Aster was in the audience. A large part of this year has been spent sharing rooms with big names and cementing herself as our incumbent scream queen. “To have people I idolise like me… what the hell?” she says in disbelief. “Someone came up to me and they were like, ‘Can I get a selfie with you?’ And I was like, ‘Can I get a selfie with you?’”
“I’m definitely having certain conversations that are wildly different to where I was a year ago,” Wilde adds. “I feel like maybe I still haven’t really processed that that’s actually happening.”
Once the dust settled on Talk To Me, Wilde was back on screens with Everything Now, a school drama positioned as a successor to Netflix’s homegrown British hits (think Sex Education or Heartstopper), but with a more vulnerable edge reminiscent of early 2010s coming-of-ager My Mad Fat Diary. Wilde stars as another Mia, who plays social catch-up to her friends after taking time out from school to recover from an eating disorder. The audition for Everything Now happened in the middle of shooting Talk To Me last spring, and the crossover between the two runs even deeper. Both stories find levity in dark places, encouraging Wilde to turn inward in ways she hadn’t before. For Talk To Me, she “wanted to pick traits of mine and then exacerbate them to the point of creating a character”, particularly her “silly side.” As for the Mia of Everything Now, Wilde looked to the past. “We’re very different but she felt like my younger self,” she says. “She felt like the version of me when I was in my early twenties, and I did not know myself and I did not like myself and I was figuring out a lot of shit.”
Sophie Wilde in ‘Talk To Me’. CREDIT: A24
If starring in a British drama has left a mark in other ways, it may be in her love for London. A month before we meet, she came to town and decided to just, well, stay – living out of a suitcase filled with clothes not meant for the October cold. When we meet, Halloween has just passed, and Wilde excitedly recounts her night spent gatecrashing parties and raves, and scoping out members clubs that turned her and her friends away at the door. “I feel like it’s my spiritual home,” she tells me, confessing that she hopes to move here properly next year. “I love Sydney but sometimes I feel…” she takes a beat to search for the right word. “Understimulated.”
Wilde grew up in suburban Sydney, and if her hometown lacked the excitement she’s now found in London, she discovered fulfilment in unexpected places. Her tastes were refined from a young age thanks to her grandparents. “They’re not, like, patrons of the arts,” she downplays, but evenings were often spent wide-eyed at operas, plays, ballets and orchestra recitals. Her very first play was My Fair Lady, and when everyone got up to leave at the interval, a young Wilde refused to budge from her seat. “I don’t want to miss anything!” she pleaded.
“I had intense impostor syndrome and anxiety”
It was a VHS boxset of Audrey Hepburn (who starred in the 1964 movie version of My Fair Lady) movies that convinced her to pursue acting. “That final scene [in Roman Holiday] when she’s looking at Gregory Peck…” Wilde says. “Just the emotions that elicited in me. I want to be able to make people feel that way.”
Wilde has been acting since she was five years old. At her performing arts high school, she treasured being in an environment that “appreciated people’s individuality”, even as she’d nip to the park with friends to chug goon sacks (translation: boxed wine). Drama school was a “whole other kettle of fish”, which she didn’t particularly enjoy. She got her bachelor’s degree from the National Institute Of Dramatic Art, the same school she played pirates at when she was a toddler. Of course, those classes were very different at the higher education level. “It felt slightly archaic in the sense that they very much still rely on breaking you down to build you back up,” she says. “And I think that you can get the same or even better results from just nurturing people. You don’t need to psychoanalyse a bunch of 18-year-olds who don’t know anything about themselves.”
Netflix teen drama ‘Everything Now’. CREDIT: Netflix
Transitioning to screen acting proved difficult, even as she picked up leading parts in Australian and British series. In class, Wilde was sheltered in a safe space where she could fail without consequences, learn from her mistakes. But now the stakes were immediately tangible. “I had the most intense impostor syndrome and anxiety,” she admits. “I still do, it’s not like that’s gone but I can manage it better. I’d call up my parents all the time, bawling my eyes out.” Talk To Me was different though, the first time she felt truly comfortable on a film set. As if catapulted right back to performing arts school, she could dance around a camera and be outrageous without worrying about messing up.
Even as horror films like Talk To Me garner acclaim, they continue to be ignored in the awards conversation. While performances from the likes of Toni Collette (Hereditary) and Keke Palmer (Nope) have been rightly hailed as some of the best of their respective years, they fail to pick up any awards. Now in 2023, it seems like Wilde’s turn is being teed up for the same fate – that is, unless voters can get with the times.
CREDIT: Joseph Sinclair
“It’s really interesting that horror doesn’t get recognised in the same way as other films,” Wilde says. “I think that with horror, you often get such wide-ranging performances from artists who have to go to so many extremes. People just don’t take horror seriously or maybe because it’s just a commercially mainstream genre that they think it doesn’t have the gravity of a traditional drama. But it requires the same level of integrity and craft as any other performance. Like Mia Goth in Pearl: snubbed!”
Anything can happen now. Wilde can sense it, even if she hasn’t fully absorbed what Talk To Me’s success means for her future. “I feel like maybe now I’m at a nice point in my career where I can actually take charge,” she says.
Next she’ll be on set in New York for Babygirl, an erotic thriller starring Nicole Kidman, Antonio Banderas and Scrapper‘s Harris Dickinson. It’s her first time working in the States, which she confesses she finds “terrifying”. Her dream list of filmmakers Includes Aftersun’s Charlotte Wells, as well as The Babadook director Jennifer Kent and horror auteur Robert Eggers, hinting that she’s more than happy to return to spooky territory. That also includes the announced Talk To Me sequel, which Wilde is certain can squeeze her in despite Mia’s unfortunate end.
“I want to be in it,” Wilde says. I’m gonna get FOMO. I’m like, ‘Guys, can I be the assistant director? Can I be the boom operator?’ I just want to be there!” She has another proposition: “When I’m 40, bring me back for Talk To Me 10. I’m playing the long game.” Perhaps horror movies are for her after all.