For most moviegoers, M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin will serve as their introduction to Ben Aldridge, and what an introduction it is.
The English actor — who’s most known for his TV work including Pennyworth’s Thomas Wayne and Fleabag’s “Arsehole Guy” — also appeared in December’s well-reviewed but underseen Spoiler Alert, so Aldridge has been on the verge of breaking out for some time now.
In Shyamalan’s latest emotional thriller, Aldridge plays Andrew, the protective husband of Eric (Jonathan Groff) and adoring father to Wen (Kristen Cui). Early on in the film, Andrew’s family’s cabin getaway is invaded by Dave Bautista’s Leonard and three other strangers who insist that Andrew and Eric must sacrifice a family member in order to stave off the apocalypse.
For Aldridge, working with Shyamalan was a dream come true as he felt like a movie star for the very first time.
“Of anything I’ve ever watched with me, it’s the most I’ve been like, ‘Oh my God, the director has made me look like a movie star,’” Aldridge tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So that was a very exciting thing. Everything he does is with purpose and thought behind it.”
Aldridge is also a big admirer of Paul G. Tremblay’s source material, The Cabin at the End of the World, but he was quite relieved that Shyamalan opted not to make a very particular and tragic choice, one that book readers will undoubtedly recall in an instant. (No spoilers here.)
“I think it would’ve been unwatchable, and I’m so glad it was changed because I would’ve hated to have acted that. I could have, of course, but I like the choice Night made,” Aldridge admits.
As a gay man himself, Aldridge is beyond proud of how the film depicts a loving family with single-sex parents and an adopted child in such a relatable way.
“What I love about this film is that it places this queer family at the center of the story, and while it honors some of their predicaments and challenges in life, it doesn’t make the film about that,” Aldridge says.
In a recent conversation with THR, Aldridge also details the psychological toll of his fiery character amid the film’s fraught circumstances.
So what was your relationship to Night’s films coming into Knock at the Cabin?
I didn’t tell him this for the entirety of us filming, but The Village is not only my favorite Night film, it’s also one of my favorite films. I don’t rewatch many films because I feel guilty that there are so many films out there that I haven’t seen, but The Village is one I rewatched a few times when I was younger. I just love the world he created. I loved that it’s Crucible-esque, very specific, and you knew something was up without knowing what that was. The acting was so good, and the soundtrack is something I still listen to. Signs is also quite a perfect movie. So when I was asked to do a tape for this, without knowing what it was, I was like, “Yeah, of course.”
Thank you for not saying The Sixth Sense like everybody else.
Was there anything unusual about the casting process from there?
For plenty of things nowadays, you only get the scenes; you don’t get the full script. So I knew that would be the case with Night, and I had these three scenes that I tried to piece together in terms of what the story might be. So I did an audition tape, and then a week later, I was told that he wanted to do a Zoom session with me. So we spent an hour and 45 minutes workshopping the scenes, and he was also trying to get a handle on who I was as a person. But he still wouldn’t give me any extra information on the plot. He was like, “You’ve got enough to go on.”
And then three days later, he called me and said, “I’d like you to be in this film. Now you can read it.” I had 24 hours to press a link that was sent to me, and once I did, that link would deactivate after six hours. So the unusual part of the process was being asked to do it before ever reading it. I’ve never had that before.
And that first page turn was really exciting, but it was also shocking. I was intimidated by it. I was like, “Wow, this is a tall order. This is going to be relentless.” I was so curious as to how he was going to stage such a violent script, and so I was intimidated by the journey Andrew goes on to make those final choices.
Did you read Paul G. Tremblay’s book [The Cabin at the End of the World] just to have the frame of reference?
Yeah, I started on the book straight away and loved it. I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. I like reading queer literature, and I often like to Google stuff to read next. So I loved reading it, and I thought Paul had written Andrew and Eric’s relationship so well. It’s so detailed in how they’re different and how their yin-yang works and how they operate as a couple, which just felt really lived in. I hadn’t read many advanced queer relationships like that before, one that operated as a tight-knit nuclear family. So knowing that it was going to exist in this film as well was really exciting, and bringing that to this mainstream studio-backed genre felt like progress to me.
I admire the book, but I’m glad the film made a particular change that probably would’ve lost most of the audience. I couldn’t have watched that.
Yeah, I think it would’ve been unwatchable, and I’m so glad it was changed because I would’ve hated to have acted that. I could have, of course, but I like the choice Night made. Besides that choice, I was shocked by the end of the book, and I was shocked again by Night’s change. But I think Night’s change is potentially more satisfying for an audience member. In the book, that literary ending of “what!?” works amazingly on the page, but as an audience member, there needs to be more satisfaction than that. So I respect Night’s flip on that as well.
Night likes to rehearse, so is that where you, Jonathan Groff and Kristen Cui really built your dynamic as a family?
Yeah, Night’s rehearsal was really interesting. Two weeks of rehearsal on something is completely rare, and I wondered if it would be very psychological. In a theater rehearsal, you’d end up speaking about your own experiences a lot, but Night’s rehearsal process is about him hearing the words. He’ll talk about colors, but it’s not psychological. It’s getting the dialogue down and seeing if it’s working and then finding it on the floor. But yes, those two weeks were totally key. Jonathan and I had an instant rapport, and Kristen is just this magical little human. She’s so cool, and she’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met. She’s super unique, charming and whip-smart.
The three of us spent a lot of time together hanging out in the park. We played Just Dance on the PlayStation; it’s one of my favorite games. She also took me ice skating. I’m an uncle and I’m very close to my nieces and nephews, but this was the first time I’d experienced anything that felt like a little family unit. It was super intense and relentless to film, but we really bonded well as a cast. And maybe it was us just taking care of Kristen or keeping things light, but Kristen was a major reason why we had a lot of fun.
Night’s notes can be pretty unconventional at times. For instance, he famously told Anya Taylor-Joy to cry her character’s tears instead of her own, and it changed her whole perspective on acting. Did a particular note of his stick with you as well?
He gave that note to me once, actually. I heard him give it to Jonathan and perhaps Nikki [Amuka-Bird] as well. It’s a really interesting note, and it’s very impactful. What he kept on repeating to me and Jonathan — and probably even more to me — was “play the love.” It was the love between Andrew and Eric, and their love for Wen [Cui]. Andrew fiercely defends his family and the truth as he sees it, while trying to negotiate with these people, so there was a way in which everything could have been played with extreme anger. That extreme stress and anger is what I felt as Ben playing Andrew. So the love note just really helped make sure his anger and his tact was justified. It just really hammered home an emotional call for both me and Jonathan, and before a take, I’d look at him and Kristen and think, “I love you.” And that really infused into the scenes.
Night would say to Kristen a lot, “Just think the thoughts,” and he meant the thoughts of the character. He was coaching her so much, and for Jonathan and I, it was kind of like learning to act again. We were like, “We should heed some of this advice.” As an actor, you can take shortcuts sometimes, but Night doesn’t really allow for that. He sees everything, and he really wants you to be connected to the moment and the character. I’m someone who uses music to prepare quite often, and I really had it in my head that I would be using music on the side of this set to get to that level of stuff all the time. So I made this playlist called “Anxiety Inducing Music.” It was weird stuff, but it also had some intense classical music.
So I was listening to some music on the side of the set, just after the fight with Rupert [Grint], and Night quietly came up to me and said, “I understand why you’d want to use music right now, but I really just want you to use the script. Use Andrew to get you there.” He was like, “Relying on other people’s art to inform your own art isn’t always the way forward,” and that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that. So I don’t know my stance on it because it’s really helped me in the past, but he was asking me to jump in at level ten every single day. So I respected that that’s what he wanted on his set, and I yielded to his process and dug deep. I didn’t have a choice, so that was an interesting conversation between us.
This movie covers territory that all of us deal with day in and day out in regard to truth and whom we can trust to deliver it. Similar to Andrew, if we hear something we don’t want to hear, we’ll often discredit the story or the messenger in any way we can. So what are your thoughts on this very relatable theme?
Yeah, the truth is harder than ever to get a hold of now, and people are suspicious of what is reported. We’re living in a time where the basic truth of an election result can be completely denied. Any proof of something is now being denied: “No, that actually didn’t happen.” And the fact that it’s happening from the very people that are meant to uphold the truth and look after us is a really scary thing. So I don’t know the answer of where to find the truth or who to trust, but I feel like our intuition as people is a very powerful thing. That’s something to listen to, potentially.
Paul Tremblay wrote this book shortly after Trump was first voted into power, and he played upon those collective fears. What is the truth? What is our social responsibility towards each other? Would you make this choice? Having survived the pandemic and with the climate crisis ever looming and real, Night, as he always does, is asking some thought-provoking questions within this package of entertainment. I love that he creates these massive commercial beasts, but you don’t walk out of his films being like, “That was a joyride.” He gives you something to think about instead.
The flashbacks are filled with intolerance, hate and prejudice. Was that a tough place to live for those however many days on set?
As a gay man, it’s something I know well, and even though they’re not the most pleasant parts of our narrative, they’re very relatable. There’s a commonality that all gay men will have experienced something like that at some point, and it’s especially prevalent now. But besides being uncomfortable things to act in, there’s an element of catharsis to them. There’s also an element of pride for me in telling those stories. What I love about this film is that it places this queer family at the center of the story, and while it honors some of their predicaments and challenges in life, it doesn’t make the film about that.
What it centers above everything else is the love of a family, and that’s universally relatable and potentially progressive. If people do come out in droves to watch this film, you might get people that haven’t witnessed a loving single-sex parent family before and don’t understand it. They might even be against it, but the film also might change their minds.
My first day on set was being bottled in the back of the head, and that was quite intense because this stuff happens to people because of who they are and who I am. In the book and in the film, Andrew owns a gun even though he’s probably very against gun ownership. He owns a gun because of his fear of homophobia and because he’s been attacked. So these were quite serious things to get to grips with, but I found it affecting. I was also pleased that we were shining a light on some of that darkness.
The characters are urged to make some very big sacrifices, so does this movie make you think about the smaller sacrifices you can make right now for the greater good?
Yeah, it certainly makes you think about your collective conscience and responsibility. I’m reading a book at the moment called Lighter by Yung Pueblo, and he talks about how our only way forward out of some of the situations that we’re in is if we start acting in a loving way towards each other and start caring for each other. And that begins with caring for yourself and healing yourself first and foremost. So it’s a really interesting take on it, and the movie certainly makes you think about the small things you can do. If we all did small kindnesses every day for each other and operated out of a sense of care for other people and not just individualism, then the world would be a better place.
Does being tied up in a chair all day take its toll after a while?
(Laughs.) Yes, but there was a real feeling of claustrophobia, which was helpful. But we weren’t always tied up. If it was a wide shot or a close up on our hands, then we were fiercely tied up, but otherwise, we had fake ropes we could break out of, thank God. I have to say that there was an element of this film where I was really looking forward to the end. I was looking forward to no longer playing that amount of fear and tension. The shallow breathing and fighting and forcing my body and mind into this adrenalized state was getting to me even though I had lots of fun with an amazing group of people. So it did grate, but once we left the interior set of the cabin and got to the exterior cabin in the actual woods, it was nice to be in an environment with sunlight and trees.
It’s a heck of a thing to be a film or TV actor because you ultimately leave your performance in the hands of a director and editor. How often are you surprised by the choices they make in the final cut?
I’ve worked predominantly in TV, and I’ve sometimes been surprised and thought, “Oh, that’s how we decided to tell that moment. Oh, that’s the part we chose.” I’m also not sure how much time people had to be selective in that process, but with Night, you know that he’s pored over all of it. His process breaks scenes down into micro moments, and he might do those micro moments several times over. Action scenes normally take ages to shoot, and they produce an amazing 30 seconds. For example, the break-in sequence took us a week and a bit to shoot, but even his regular scenes are like that.
So he’s got this mastermind plan, and of anything I’ve ever watched with me, it’s the most I’ve been like, “Oh my God, the director has made me look like a movie star.” (Laughs.) So that was a very exciting thing. Night is so precise and economic in how he moves his camera. He’s trimmed out all the fat, and everything he does is with purpose and thought behind it. So it’s always a surprise.
Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing next to a crackling fireplace, what day from your Knock experience will you likely recall first?
You’re making me emotional.
Your co-star Abby Quinn said the same thing.
(Laughs.) There were so many beautiful days and difficult days.
Abby’s answer involved a trip with you and Jonathan to his Pennsylvania hometown.
Yeah, mine would be the same highlight. We went and stayed on Jonathan’s dad’s farm. It was midway through the intense shoot, and we had this beautiful weekend away, riding horses and just escaping the cabin for a little bit.
Knock at the Cabin is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.