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“We could start a whole new imaginary world” – The Walking Dead’s Tom Payne and director Jeff Wadlow talk Imaginary

6 min read
DeWanda Wise in Imaginary

Credit: Parrish Lewis

Many of us will have had friends as children – but hopefully none quite like this. 's latest horror creation coming to cinema screens is Imaginary, where Jessica (DeWanda Wise) moves back to her childhood home alongside boyfriend Max () and his daughters Alice (Pyper Braun) and Taylor (Taegen Burns). Soon, Jessica uncovers horrifying secrets about her childhood while Alice develops a sinister relationship with a stuffed bear named Chauncey.

Boasting elements of Child's Play and IT, the -directed film has become highly anticipated among many people's 2024 film calendars. Ahead of its release, FILMHOUNDS sat down with star Payne and director Wadlow to enter the world of Imaginary.

Imaginary comes to cinemas in the UK on March 8, Jeff, can you tell me how you developed the project?

Jeff Wadlow: Imaginary came from three sources. It came from who came to me after Truth or Dare and Fantasy Island, and I signed a first-look deal with Blumhouse. He wanted me to do a classic Blumhouse film dealing with a family and a house that goes bump in the night. I'd always wanted to make a movie about an imaginary friend, I love the idea of playing with subjectivity and asking the audience “Is this real? Is it not? Also, if it's not real? Could it have real-world consequences?” And then my good friends, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland (writers) wanted to do a scary movie about a teddy bear. We took those three points of inspiration, and they resulted in Imaginary.

Tom, you play Max in the film. What was it that attracted you to the role?

Tom Payne: I wanted to work with Blumhouse for a long time as I admire what they do. Then Imaginary came along and I liked the script, which made me gasp halfway through. It gave me a visceral reaction which was really cool. I was excited to work with DeWander, and also this is the first time I played a dad in a movie so I was kind of ready for that challenge, having just had my own son.

Did you find having a child of your own made you find Imaginary scarier?

TP: When I made the movie, he was 18 months old, so his personality was just starting to come out. Shooting the movie made me look at him a bit closer. Now he's two and he really visualises stuff, so if you tell him a story, you can tell like he's right there in the story. Thankfully, I haven't allowed the horror of this film to enter into my relationship with my son.

Pyper and Taegan are both such capable young actresses. All of the stuff Pyper does with Chauncey is so impressive to watch. You can learn a lot from child actors about imagination and being in the moment of what's happening as kids can be.

Tom Payne and DeWanda Wise in Imaginary
Credit: Parrish Lewis

You star alongside DeWanda Wise in the role of Jessica, what was she like to work with?

TP: She was a wonderful, fantastically capable, welcoming and generous person and actor. A lot of what you see in the movie – apart from my acting – is that I'm just so happy she's the lead. When someone like that is in that role, they don't have any ego about it, they are just there to do the best job they can and look after the cast and crew. It just adds so much to our scenes and the film as a whole when you're admiring the person who you're working with and you think they're doing a great job. It was a very pleasant working experience.

Jeff, what were your inspirations behind the film? For me, it felt like it had elements of IT and Chucky.

JW: Chucky was a major point of discussion. When you're making a scary movie about a child's toy, how can you not talk about Chucky? As well as Annabelle and M3gan. As a filmmaker, my main two influences were Poltergeist – which I saw at six years old and it totally messed me up – and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. I like the idea of a dark fantasy with a child at its centre, strong graphic images and some adult themes.

There are lots of fantastical settings in the film, and of course, we have the design of ‘real' Chauncey. I wondered what went into bringing this world to life?

JW: Bringing Chauncey alive was a really interesting process. It started with the script, then I worked with my really talented concept artists. I brought in a company called Spectral Motion which did all the creatures in Imaginary and I think they knocked it out of the park.

TP: There's not much CGI in this movie, a lot of effects are practical. Anytime you get to work on a practical set, or with practical monsters, it helps so much because you don't have to fabricate things in your head as much. because however good you are, it still takes energy, like thought energy to create whatever's there. I think that comes across to the audience as well. AI grew up watching movies in the 80s and 90s, where there were real practical effects, and those movies felt different.

Pyper Braun in Imaginary
Credit: Parrish Lewis

Jeff, you've previously worked on The Curse of Bridge Hollow and Are You Afraid Of The Dark? That both tell horrific stories from children's perspectives – is there something in that, these child-centred horror stories, that appeals to you as a director?

JW: They're just fairy tales at the end of the day, I hate to say it, but Disney is responsible for this softening of children's fantasy that could originally be quite dark and scary. It was an outlet for kids who were having these thoughts and feelings while their brains were maturing to experience these emotions positively. I love the concept of dark fantasy from an innocent point of view, because it not only allows a younger audience to experience a story but also invites adults back into that mindset and encourages them to remember those feelings they had when they were that age.

Tom, this isn't your first foray into the world of horror after appearing in The Walking Dead – did you bring anything from this role into Imaginary?

TP: In The Walking Dead, everyone in that world was experiencing or was born in this environment where there is danger around every corner. But in Imaginary, the horror comes at you unexpectedly and then it takes a big turn in a completely different direction that you weren't expecting. I enjoy the fact that as an audience, you start in one place, and you finish in another because when you watch something like The Walking Dead, you know what you're getting yourself into.

Lastly, I was wondering if we could see a return to the world of Imaginary in the future?

JW: Certainly. I don't want to answer every question, it's a lot more fun to leave things open-ended for an audience. And there's a reason why our film isn't called Chauncey. It's called Imaginary because it's about so much more than the bear – it's about the power of imagination. So if you're asking me if there's a sequel I can make about the power and terror that can result from imagination, then the answer is definitively yes.

TP: Imagination never ends. This movie was about a teddy bear, but there are tonnes of different types of imaginary friends. We could follow Max as a kid, or go in lots of different directions. I think we could start a whole new imaginary world, and I'll come along if they invite me.

Imaginary comes to UK cinemas on March 8.