The true power of the horror genre isn’t in its ability to scare, spin a yarn, or even cause a physiological reaction in the audience — though it does possess all those traits. No, it’s in the way it uses horror tropes and metaphors to sneak through the cracks and in the shadows, past its viewer’s defenses, to tell stories of the outsiders and the marginalized people in a way that creates empathy and a Gestalt shift that they never see coming, or would resist in a more dramatic and straightforward genre.
That truth is bared out in My Animal, a new queer werewolf tale arriving in limited theaters this weekend. The film was written by Jae Matthews, half of the electronica band Boy Harsher, directed by Jacqueline Castel making her feature film debut (though you would never guess it based on the movie’s lush and hypnotic visuals and the leads' aching performances), and staring out actors Amandla Stenberg and Bobbi Salvör Menuez.
The film follows Heather (Menuez), a lonely, queer lycanthrope living in a remote small town in Canada in an amorphous ‘90s year. Heather works at a local ice rink and her greatest dream is to join the local hockey team. However, everything changes when a new girl arrives in town, Jonny, with whom Heather feels an instant connection. The looming threat is both the shifting moon and Heather’s impending transformation, and the closed minds of the locals who would likely feel more comfortable with a werewolf in their midst than the brewing queer love story.
For Stenberg, their recent roles in Bodies, Bodies, Bodies and now My Animal have built a reputation as a budding queer scream queen, and they happily accept the label. “I haven’t set out to be a queer scream queen, [but] I’m very happy if that’s my fate,” they tell PRIDE. It’s a genre that she’s drawn to, she explains because she sees its potential for both storytelling and opening hearts and minds. “Horror has so many less creative and narrative limitations and just gives way to amazing metaphors. It has always provided fantastic metaphors for queerness,” they share. “That was, of course, the first thing that struck me about this script. I feel like I’ve seen werewolf movies. I’ve loved werewolf movies, but it hadn’t ever struck me how poignant it is to explore queerness and gender.”
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While Heather’s gender is never explored explicitly, the film teases that the character perhaps, like the actor embodying the role, falls outside the binary. It was something that Menuez told PRIDE they enjoyed exploring. For Menuez, they liked embodying Heather’s gender and contemplating how their experience in a small town differs from the actors who grew up in New York, and the way that informs their understanding of gender — and the options that exist outside the binary writ large. “I could put on the trans spectrum,” Menuez reflects. “But it’s not explicitly that. This is someone who is having their own unique experience in their body and in their gender, and it is not quite fitting perfectly into her assigned space in the world.”
Being an outsider and seeking someone who sees and embraces you for who you truly are is a major theme that runs throughout My Animal, and it’s echoed by the actors who share an instant connection on set, which becomes very evident on screen. The chemistry between the two leads is an essential ingredient and it is electric. As their dynamic evolves from longing stares to tentative touches, and finally a scene involving an egg that you won’t soon forget, the heat and energy between Menuez and Stenberg crackles.
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Stenberg explains that chemistry came naturally to the two of them. “I feel like me and Bobby have always kind of been kindred spirits. We’ve occupied similar spaces. And I think similar creative and creative worlds, intellectual worlds since we were teenagers,” she says.
In an interview with The More Deadly Podcast, director Castel recalled how the casting came together and that the two leads had a little bit of history. Menuez was cast first in the lead-up to filming the two discussed casting. “Bobbi, of course, was like, I’m dying to know who do you want for the role of Jonny?” recalled Castel. “I was like, I really want it to be Amandla Stenberg. And Bobbi was like, ‘We know each other.’ Which was really crazy, because I did not know that.”
As for that fiery chemistry between her leads, well that it turns out came about very naturally. “What was also really funny is that Bobbi revealed that when they first met, they had a little bit of a crush on each other,” said Castel. “So it was perfect!”
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Throughout filming, the two grew even closer, says Stenberg. “I feel like one of the biggest blessings of having been able to work on this really beautiful project is walking away with such a special friend,” she shares. “I think that there was a really innate and natural chemistry between us. I think it’s also because I think we understand a lot about each other’s life experiences and have similar perspectives on the world.”
This is a sentiment that Menuez also holds, adding that they also share a very strong work ethic. “It was honestly just such a joy and a pleasure to get to work together. Because I just felt so much, like, on the same page around our level of dedication,” and that together they also crafted some of the most emotionally and physically intimate scenes spending their days off together talking them through and going over the script.
“It was really exciting to be like, what is it that we want to see in a movie as queer people? How do we find that together and push for that together and make it something that we want to see in film and something that feels real and makes you feel your body?," recalls Menuez. "I just felt like we were really so aligned and mutually so dedicated to a shared vision. We kind of came in with a level of mutual trust. Just having been friends and obviously moving through such an intense movie with intense material that that trust just deepened each day on set. I really felt so supported by Amandla to make those moments feel so real.”
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All of this alchemy comes together and the finished result in an achingly beautiful story, a modern queer fairytale anchored by two stellar performances, along with a rich and saturated use of color and heightened by a thumping ‘80s-inspired electronic score from Boy Harsher’s Augustus Muller.
Editors note: These interviews were conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strikes.
My Animal arrives in limited theaters September 8 followed by a digital release on September 15. Watch the trailer below.
My Animal | Official Trailer | Paramount Movies