Actor Isaac Jay was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico and graduated from the University of Southern California with a BA in Dramatic Arts in 2015. Currently he stars in the new horror thriller Head Count, which also marks the directorial debut of Elle Callahan. In Head Count, newcomer Evan (Jay) joins a group of teens on a getaway in Joshua Tree. While exchanging ghost stories around the campfire, Evan reads aloud a mysterious chant from an internet site. From that moment, someone – or something – is among them. As unsettling, inexplicable events become more frequent, Evan realizes this summoned shape-shifting creature is targeting them to fulfill a deadly ritual.
Recently, I spoke to Isaac Jay about his experiences making Head Count:
JD: I watched Head Count yesterday. First of all, I’ve got to congratulate you on your performance. You’re very good in it.
IJ: Thank you.
JD: How did you get attached to the project?
Made Sure to Get in the Room
IJ: I had worked with the writer, Michael Nader, on a previous film, Flock of Four, and he’s a really, really talented wonderful writer. So when he mentioned that he was writing another movie that was going to be shot soon, I immediately put my ears and my eyes to the ground started looking for it, and when I saw the auditions come up for it, I made sure to get myself in the room. Then I met Elle Callahan, the director, and she and I just really hit it off. We had a lot of the same ideas and thoughts, just talking in the room and then I read the script, and I absolutely fell in love with the relationship between [the characters] Evan and Peyton and the way it wraps up at the end. Also, the monster and the story’s spooky whodunnit, psychological aspect. I really love that in thrillers and I thought it was done very well in the writing.
Sun-baked Version of John Carpenter’s THE THING
JD: There were aspects of it that almost reminded me of a sun-baked version of John Carpenter’s The Thing.
IJ: Yeah, I can see that.
JD: I don’t want to give away too much to a movie that does rely heavily on suspense and mystery, but we could say that there are a number of scenes in the movie where we can’t be sure who certain characters might or might not really be. As an actor how did you handle that kind of scene—how did Elle Callahan direct them?
IJ: As an actor, I sort of approached it the way Evan would approach it. Obviously, I have no idea that these people might not be who say they are. So just I assume that everybody is in fact who they seem to be, take them at face value. As an actor I’m never really questioning that until Evan starts to question it, and even then he’s still oblivious to the whole thing. He knows something is going on but he can’t quite wrap his head around it. So I tried to really approach it with like, “I have a question about what’s going on, but I really don’t know what’s going on.” Making sure not to notice certain things before I had to notice them. And Elle is really great about that, I think she was very on board in terms of what I did and how it worked, and she and I both really agreed that Evan is somebody who constantly feels like he needs to be in control. So just looking for that mental aspect of what can I hold on to that makes me feel like I am in control of the situation. If you are in a room and you think maybe there’s something weird going on, how can you shore it up so that you get rid of that feeling because you don’t want to feel unsettled, you want to be solid.
JD: Although I think that comes off, I think that definitely comes through, yet he’s taking some definite chances. I mean my mother would have told me not to go off with a bunch of strangers into the desert.
IJ: Yeah, but I do! [laughs]
JD: In the context of the story, he is obviously interested in a beautiful girl. It made it accessible enough—but in a way he still is going into that dark house at the end of the street. Only it’s in the desert.
IJ: Absolutely, it is.
JD: Although to be fair, he does not make the number of dumb mistakes that you see in many horror movies, like the people who go into the dark house and don’t even bring a flashlight although they know there’s a psycho killer running around.
JD: Was there anything particular you did to prepare for the role?
IJ: Good question. Not like different than what I normally do. The guy who played my brother, although he’s not in the film, both Elle and I agreed that the relationship was insanely important, so he and I actually made an effort to try and hang out with each other a lot before the movie and really get to know each other. And then while we were in Joshua Tree, there’s really not any phone service or sort of connection with the outside world, and we were shooting there for two weeks—and the whole group—all we really had were each other, so we spent a lot of time together. But I actually specifically tried to not spend a lot of time with other people. I know that sounds bad, but just to try and keep that feeling like an outsider wanting to be a part of the group, but not actually quite knowing any of these people or what’s going on there. And then Elle didn’t tell any of us any of the lore of the monster, or let us actually see what it looked like until we were filming with it. So there was a really interesting aspect of this horror existing all the time, which it does in the film, but in our imagination, without knowing what it is we’re dealing with, that was really interesting and really fun because obviously it just lets your imagination go crazy and wild. As an actor you go, “Well, what is really happening, like I know the outside and I know where this goes, but I don’t know what this thing looks like.” You have to completely create that for yourself, which is what I think would happen in real life.
Isaac Jay and Ashleigh Morghan in HEAD COUNT. Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films 2019.
Cast as Cut Off as Their Characters
JD: Was being that isolated—did that help you get into the mindset of how trapped these characters are?
IJ: Absolutely, absolutely. We really felt like there was nowhere to go. On the night we were shooting the hot tub scene it was like pitch black fifty feet away from the house. It really feels like there’s just nothing out there, and then when there’s a noise or something, and you look and you don’t need to act, because it could be anything. And there is nothing. It’s really unsettling because you really feel alone. The only people you have are these people in your immediate vicinity.
JD: What’s next for you?
IJ: I was just on set for Elle’s next movie Witch Hunt, which I think will be a really good movie. And then I just wrapped on a web series called Body of Work, which is about the art world in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a zany comedy so, a little bit different than horror.
Isaac Jay in HEAD COUNT. Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films 2019.
JD: You do know that you are joining an illustrious line of very notable actors, several of whom of won Oscars, that includes Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Amy Adams, Matthew McConaughey, Renée Zellweger, Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Jamie Lee Curtis, who all cut their teeth on low-budget horror movies.
IJ: [Laughs] I hope to be, yes.
Head Count opens in theaters and is available On Demand and Digital on June 14, 2019.