Santa Clarita 13-year-old Madeleine McGraw said the character she portrays in the newly released horror thriller “The Black Phone” and the other teens in the film have to rely on each other to survive their ordeal. McGraw agreed that the same could probably be said of the way she and her actor siblings support each other in their individual young careers … except there’s no crazy killer going after her family in real life.
McGraw, one of the leads in the new movie from Blumhouse and Universal Pictures, lit up when describing her experiences surrounding the production and release of what some critics are already calling a winner.
“Seeing it was amazing,” she said when asked about watching the film for the first time with an audience. “It was literally the most unreal experience ever.”
She added that moviegoers jumping, cheering, screaming and responding to it the way they did made the movie feel like the roller coaster ride it’s intended to be.
“The Black Phone,” according to IMDb, tells the story of a 13-year-old boy who, after being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, begins receiving calls from the killer’s previous victims on a disconnected phone. The film also stars Ethan Hawke of “Training Day” (2001) and “Dead Poets Society” (1989), Mason Thames of the Apple+ show “For All Mankind” (2019), and Jeremy Davies of “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “Spanking the Monkey” (1992).
Fresh off the red-carpet premiere on Tuesday at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, McGraw said this movie, compared to the others on her more-than-impressive resume, is most special. Her mom, Jackie McGraw, who sat across from her in the family living room during the interview with The Signal, said other projects her daughter worked on, while still big to them, did not so prominently feature her. She said this role was her daughter’s biggest to date and that in this one she was also able to show off quite a bit of range as an actor.
McGraw’s mom was thrilled and seemed more than proud to share a recent write-up about the movie and her daughter’s acting that someone posted on Letterboxd, the social platform for opinions about films:
“This one review says, ‘Anchored by two new great performances by its two child actors who give two of the greatest performances of all time and what I hope will be a star-is-born moment for one in particular. That one is Madeline McGraw as Gwen. … She steals every scene that she’s in. She’s great in the tender moments, in the snarky moments, in the emotionally vulnerable moments. There’s one particular scene that had me tearing up just thinking about what she was pulling from to get to a place that she had to go for this particular scene. Please, Hollywood, don’t let her slip away.’”
McGraw is certainly no stranger to Hollywood. Her first major job came in 2014 with the TV series “Bones.” She also performed voicework in “Toy Story 4” (2019) and “Cars 3” (2017), and she played Bradley Cooper’s daughter in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” (2014).
Working with Clint Eastwood, her mom said, is something that her daughter really only understands now. She was just 5 years old, her mom said, when she did “American Sniper” with her twin brother, Aidan, who, by the way, is one minute older.
“All I kept thinking of was my dad, who passed away when I was 17,” McGraw’s mom continued. “I kept thinking, this would be, like, my dad’s dream. He was such a Clint Eastwood fan that we all had to watch his movies. So, I kept telling her, ‘At 5 years old, you’ve peaked. You’ve been in a Clint Eastwood movie.’”
McGraw got her start in the business after her youngest sister, Violet, now 11 years old, landed a job she thought looked like fun.
“It really started by accident,” McGraw said. “My little sister was doing this modeling job, and I asked my mom if I could try it. And so, then we were in L.A. getting headshots by an L.A. photographer, and then he posted them on his Facebook, and an L.A. manager saw them, and, yeah …”
Yeah, she was off and running, she said.
The family originates from Northern California. They were in San Jose at the time she asked her mom if she could model, and as McGraw and her siblings — Aidan, Violet and McGraw’s older brother Jack, who’s now 15 — were getting more work, trips to Los Angeles became more and more frequent.
Eventually, the family moved here — to Santa Clarita. That was about seven years ago. McGraw went to school at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Newhall, but for the last three years she’s been home schooled. All the while, she and her siblings have been busy on TV and movie sets.
Going from oldest to youngest, Jack has provided his talents on such projects as the TV series “Workaholics” (2015), and the movies “Criminal Minds” (2016) and “Toy Story 4” (2019); Aidan did “The Good Dinosaur” (2015), “The Angry Birds Movie” (2016) and the TV series “Jupiter’s Legacy” (2021); and Violet did the TV miniseries “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018), and the movies “Doctor Sleep” (2019) and “Black Widow” (2021).
Asked if there’s any sibling rivalry, McGraw said absolutely not. Her mom agreed. McGraw said they’re actually each other’s biggest fans and supporters, along with their parents, of course.
“When we watch a movie that the other was in, it’s like, ‘That was so cool. You did such a good job,’” McGraw said.
McGraw’s mom added that sometimes the kids audition for the same parts. McGraw said she just wants the job to go to the one who fits the role the best.
“Sometimes,” McGraw continued, “when we get (an audition together), I’m like, ‘Oh, this is so for Violet. Like, I shouldn’t even be going up for this. This is Violet.’”
But in “The Black Phone,” McGraw totally owned her part.
“I loved playing the role of Gwen because I could relate to her in a lot of ways,” the young actress said. “Like her fierceness and how she would do anything to protect her brother.”
She could totally communicate her protection of a family member.
One of the most challenging aspects of the part, she added, was accessing the feeling of abandonment, which is something her character has to deal with.
“It was hard because I have such a loving and supportive family,” she said, “but Gwen comes from a very broken home with an alcoholic father. So, even though she’s super tough and doesn’t take any garbage from anyone, I feel like she uses that side of her to hide her more vulnerable side.”
One memory McGraw has from making the movie was a fight scene she did.
“I loved getting to do stunts,” she said. And, yes, she did do her own stunts, she answered. “It was so cool getting to see how they choreographed it and how they make it look so real. Like, you have to get the timing just right.”
She also mentioned a funny — or perhaps scary — moment when, during the fight scene, she accidentally hit one of the actors in the nose.
“And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you OK? I’m so sorry.’ And he said, ‘Oh no. You’re totally fine. It helped. It helped.’”
Evidently, the other actor was able to sell that particular punch to the face particularly well.
“The Black Phone” opened in theaters Friday. The film is directed by Scott Derrrickson, known for his work on “Dr. Strange” (2016) and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005). It’s written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, based on a short story by Joe Hill, son of author Stephen King.
Oh, and a little bonus: Halloween Horror Nights at the Universal Studios theme park in Hollywood just announced another one of the mazes to expect this Halloween season. According to the park’s website, the maze is called “The Horrors of Blumhouse,” and it will feature moments from two Blumhouse movies, “Freaky” (2020) and “The Black Phone.” Who will play McGraw’s role in the maze? Even McGraw didn’t know.