Note: Spoilers ahead for Herd.
So, it looks like the SAG-AFTRA strikes will not be ending soon, supposedly the “gap… is too great.” We at Awards Radar continue to stand with the dedicated film performers striking for a better deal, and this conviction is only strengthened when we see how many of them are still able to promote their films due to the interim agreements their studios not tied to the AMPTP have struck. In other words, I had the pleasure of speaking with Herd star Ellen Adair because of these smaller independent studios that have somehow been able to meet demands that far larger Hollywood production companies insist are just completely untenable. “The interim agreements granted by these smaller studios and independent productions are a sign of how reasonable SAG-AFTRA’s demands are. When your own goal is exponential growth and not actually compensating the artists who give their studios value, that fosters these toxic attitudes about that persist even if it hurts their own company.”
That might be why Herd felt so much more refreshing than the typical zombie apocalypse thrillers that have been churned out at a faster clip over the last few years as bog-standard “content.” This is a movie that could have only been made by people who respect artists and let them actually say something through their art. Mx. Adair agrees, finding that “a lot of the interesting complexity is in the story. I read it in early 2021. It’s very much a product of COVID-19. It’s coming so much out of the fact that we all originally assumed a hypothetical scenario like COVID would bring us together. That we would all join hands in the midst of this terrifying collective threat to us and declare ‘We will stop fighting!’ That didn’t happen. Herd explores a human tendency to divide. The ‘zombies’ here are not ‘undead,’ they’re just sick and need help.”
Sometimes these kinds of human insights come by accident, or through a director or particular performer’s input as production ramps up, but I was informed that although “the script went through some changes from the first draft, setting out as “a portrait of American society was very important from the beginning. This was originally intended as something that confronts an attitude about how we isolate ourselves from Those People and declare that they are all the enemy.”
But they were most intrigued by the character side of the story. “I also really strongly responded to the character of Jamie. I had an immediate feeling of Jamie’s struggle and what she was going through.” The arc that Jamie goes through, and how that journey subtly undermines the most popular tropes of the zombie apocalypse genre, was a predominant topic of our conversation: “Some of the things that made the movie so interesting to me were Jamie’s issues with her father, and how that affects her own trauma as someone struggling with the possibility of being a mother.”
In particular, we discussed how relatable we found the scene where Jamie builds herself up to finally confront her father, who disowned her when she came out of the closet as a teenager. Several scenes of her steeling herself for that moment, with the emotional tension rising and rising, she knows what she has to do to finally overcome this terrible trauma caused by this man and then… she finds out her father has already died. She is denied that satisfying catharsis most of these movies feel obligated to provide. Watching that scene made me realize I was also having to deal with this disappointment. I suddenly found myself feeling just as deprived as Jamie. They confirm that this was very much intentional. It is key, in fact, to her character growth: “That realization that the catharsis she dreamed of will never come, that frees her in the end. That expectation had consumed her. Accepting that she won’t have that moment allows her to finally heal and make peace with who she is right now.”
Some of you have probably already figured out by now, that Ellen Adiar does not identify as a man or a woman. This part of their identity was something I was grateful they were willing to talk about more in this interview. In their own words, “I personally identify as nonbinary, but I do present as ‘feminine’ to the world. I don’t want to be a woman, I do not remember ever wanting to be a woman, but I always knew I wanted to be a performer.” Their career has made them “very practiced at playing female roles because I have the most access to those roles, but I embrace them. I enjoy playing roles that are closer to myself like Jamie, but I also love playing roles far away from me.”
They have not yet had an opportunity to play a nonbinary character because “I don’t typically look like a nonbinary character. Some of that is due to inequalities that we collectively need to address, but some of that is also just one part of common aesthetic preferences beyond gender normativity.” They give an example, who happens to play the most interesting and morally ambiguous character in the movie: “Jeremy Holm one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life, but he usually plays heavies and tough guys since his face and stature ‘fit’ that archetype.”
Acting out rich, rewarding roles like Jamie, in cinema that ultimately lands on empathy as an oft-neglected virtue, has led them to understand a part of themselves and make peace with their own identity struggles. “I feel like it’s just something that must be so hard to imagine; being something else. When I was a teenager, I didn’t get that. I assumed these girls I was in classes with must have such a hard time presenting as ‘girl.’ They must be stronger or braver than me. Because I had a hard time and could barely present.”
With so much going on in this current climate of moral panics scapegoating anyone not adhering to cishet gender normativity as “groomers,” the uncertainty they have felt whether or not to speak out has hardened into a resolve. They used to ask “Am I going to take up space?” when being part of the conversation. But now, Mx. Adair knows they now have a responsibility to speak out. Their story deserves to be told.