Santa Clarita 11-year-old Violet McGraw has admittedly been shy most of her life. Acting has pushed her out of her shell, she said, and her new film, “M3GAN,” is good reason to keep going.
“M3GAN,” a tech horror thriller from James Wan, the dark mind behind “Saw” and “The Conjuring,” and Blumhouse Productions, the company behind the new “Halloween” films and “The Black Phone,” opens Friday in theaters. It’s already been creating buzz on social media. The film’s titular doll, a creepy piece of artificial intelligence, does a dance that people have been sharing and talking about on TikTok and Instagram.
In her Santa Clarita home on a rainy day this week, McGraw spoke with The Signal about her role in the film, how she got into modeling and acting, became disinterested, and then caught the bug in a big way. She said “M3GAN” is a movie that’s scary and fun, and ultimately a rewarding experience for her that is keeping her on the acting path.
To answer a question she gets so much, no, McGraw is not the robot.
“M3GAN,” according to the film’s website, tells the story of a “life-like doll programmed to be a child’s greatest companion” who is paired with the newly orphaned 8-year-old Cady (McGraw), now in the care of her aunt Gemma, played by Allison Williams. Gemma is unprepared to be a parent and brings M3gan into her home as a way to help her protect Cady from harm — both physical and emotional.
“I won’t let anything harm her,” the doll explains in a clip from the film’s trailer. M3gan’s abnormally large empty doll eyes, stiff face and robotically monotoned voice indicates that she’ll most likely take that objective too seriously during the course of the film, and horror will no doubt ensue.
“I don’t think we look the same,” McGraw told The Signal in response to that often-asked question. “That would mean people are calling me creepy,” she added with a laugh.
The young actress, who’s no stranger to the horror genre with roles in the 2018 series “The Haunting of Hill House” and the 2019 movie “Doctor Sleep,” said that while her movies might be scary (though her parents won’t let her see most of her horror work), she isn’t really afraid of them when she’s working on set.
“They don’t have music or anything yet,” she said.
But the creepy M3gan doll, she relayed, which was sometimes actress Amie Donald and sometimes an actual robotic figure, really became her friend, just as it did in the movie.
“At first, when I saw her, she was kind of creepy and disturbing,” McGraw said. “But since we were (shooting) for three months, I think I got used to her. And we started having conversations. We became very close friends.”
She said she shot the movie in New Zealand last summer, especially thrilled to be working near where her favorite movies, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, were shot. She even paid a visit to Hobbiton, the real-world landscape of Middle Earth, which she said was a huge treat that literally transported her to the fantasy world.
And while she was brimming with excitement and enthusiasm for her new film, she said she wasn’t always the talkative, outgoing type.
Born in San Jose, McGraw came to Santa Clarita with her family when she was 4 years old as a result of frequent trips the family made to Los Angeles for various auditions. McGraw’s two older brothers and older sister all work in the business, too.
The oldest in the group, Jack, 16 years old, 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, 14, did “The Good Dinosaur” (2015), “The Angry Birds Movie” (2016) and the TV series “Jupiter’s Legacy” (2021); Madeline (or Maddy), who’s Aidan’s twin sister and one minute younger, did the films “The Black Phone” (2022) and “American Sniper” (2014), and the Disney series “Secrets of Sulphur Springs” (2021-22).
But according to McGraw’s mom, Jackie McGraw, it all started with the youngest child.
“So, Violet had a picture hanging in a mall in Northern California from one of those ‘mall picture’ places when she was 1,” she said. “Someone had asked if she was a model baby or (a) regular baby, and left information for an agency.”
That led to McGraw’s start in modeling. Her sister, Madeline, thought the work looked like fun and asked if she could do it, too. The rest of the kids in the family would eventually all wind up in front of the camera.
But McGraw would grow disinterested with modeling. Her mom said it just wasn’t something her daughter was passionate about.
“So, I stopped sending her out on auditions,” she said. “Like, I’m not doing that — I’m not that mom. And then she came out and stayed on set with Maddy for about three weeks. After we wrapped on ‘Outcast’ (the 2016-17 TV series) — the second season — she said, ‘OK, I kind of want to audition.’”
McGraw said it was being on that set when she fell in love with the process of creating make-believe — the set-up, the special effects, the stunts.
“I thought it was really cool,” McGraw said. “Like, there’s a lot of people who did this one thing.”
Her mom added, “And then Maddy had gotten the audition for ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ and Maddy reads it and says, ‘No, Violet needs to read for this role. This is a Violet role.’ And so, I called her manager at the time and I said, ‘Hey, Maddy thinks Violet should read for this,’ and she’s like, ‘Yeah, great. I’ll give her the audition.’ And the rest is history.”
McGraw would go on to play young Nell in the popular Netflix series, and that would be the experience to cement her decision to go before the cameras again and again.
McGraw’s mom said her daughter has been fortunate in that she’s been on very supportive sets where she’s encouraged to ask questions. “The Haunting of Hill House” set was no exception.
“They’re just so supportive of her asking questions and letting her explore,” McGraw’s mother said. “I mean, she was never a rambunctious kid anyway. She’s always been an old soul. But to be a kid on a set with adults and have them encourage you, and you’re asking questions and learning about everything, and nobody was like, ‘Be quiet, kid.’ It’s just really encouraging.”
In fact, McGraw’s mom said her shy daughter became more talkative the more she worked. McGraw agreed.
“I think meeting a lot of people got me to be a lot more social,” the young actress said.
It’s not even something she forces herself to do. McGraw finds it almost playful to go to dark places. She’ll cry on cue and, according to her mom, even sleep on cue.
“She would actually fall asleep if she had to sleep on cue,” her mom elaborated.
As for her crying on the spot, McGraw can do it within less than a minute, she said. But she wouldn’t share her secrets other than say she has a few things she thinks of that makes her sad, or she’ll listen to particular music that helps her go to that place.
McGraw credits her sister, Maddy, for providing her many of her acting tools.
“My sister is very supportive,” she said. “She tells me to just live in the moment. She gives me a lot.”
Speaking to McGraw is like having a conversation with an adult. Her mom said that’s probably because her daughter has grown up in such an adult world. Then again, she added, she’s always been like that.
“I remember, even in preschool, she’d facilitate play,” she said. “If a kid broke that fourth wall, she’d say, ‘We’re hunting for treasure. Why do you want to do something else now when we still haven’t hunted all the treasure?’”
McGraw is simply committed to her make-believe. She certainly had no trouble sharing her feelings about it, definitely not the shy kid she may have been at one time.
In early December, she attended a red-carpet event for “M3GAN” at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, talking to reporters, taking pictures, and playing the part of the movie star. And while perhaps she’s even playing the part of an adult, she’s no doubt a kid at heart, living in the moment as her sister taught her to do, excited to see her movie again at the local Valencia theaters on Friday with friends and family.
“The movie is creepy,” McGraw said, “but it’s also a really fun movie. I really love it.”
She’s hopeful that others will feel the same.