‘The Blackening’ Star Antoinette Robertson Talks the Horror-Comedy and Challenging the Genre’s Worst Instincts

‘The Blackening’ Star Antoinette Robertson Talks the Horror-Comedy and Challenging the Genre’s Worst Instincts

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As a child, The Blackening star Antoinette Robertson was easily scared by horror movies, but it wasn’t until she got older that she realized the genre was scaring her off for a whole different reason. 

Written by Dewayne Perkins and Tracy Oliver, the Tim Story-directed The Blackening is a horror-comedy that expands on Perkins’ 2018 short, parodying the age-old trope that Black characters are the first to die in horror films. Robertson plays Lisa, an ambitious lawyer who reunites with her college friends for a weekend getaway at a remote cabin. And despite some personal drama involving her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), Lisa must step up to help save her friends from a masked killer, who’s ensnared them into playing a dangerous board game called The Blackening.

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For Robertson, The Blackening was especially meaningful because she and her fellow collaborators were able to bring a bit of Black joy to a genre that has traditionally been rather unwelcoming to Black actors and characters until recently. Looking back, Robertson now realizes that her feelings about the genre were always more complex than just being afraid of jump scares and boogeymen.

“To be perfectly honest, because people of color — and Black people specifically — weren’t valued in the horror space, it never made me feel like it was a space I wanted to veer towards,” Robertson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “(Black characters in horror) were either a sidekick or something that was a little disposable. So, when the opportunity to take on that particular trope came across my desk, I was more than happy to participate.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Robertson also discusses the toll that her character’s most violent scene took on her, as well as her most memorable days on set.

So The Blackening takes on the horror trope in which Black characters are usually the first to die. When did you first become aware of this pattern?

I mean, I’ve never been one to watch a lot of horror movies. Somewhere around high school, people would have conversations about horror movies, and they’d be like, “Y’all ever notice that the Black person is the first person to die?” And to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t until someone said it that I started to really pay attention, and then it became like a bet. We’d all be like, “Okay, how far into the movie do you think this person is gonna die?” And I would say, “I give her ten minutes,” and then somebody else would give her fifteen minutes. So, once I got older, I understood that these characters really never got a chance to show you who they were. They were either a sidekick or something that was a little disposable. So, when the opportunity to take on that particular trope came across my desk, I was more than happy to participate. 

Melvin Gregg as King, Grace Byers as Allison, Antoinette Robertson as Lisa, Sinqua Walls as Nnamdi, Jermaine Fowler as Clifton, Dewayne Perkins as Dewayne, and Xochitl Mayo as Shanika in The Blackening.

Melvin Gregg as King, Grace Byers as Allison, Antoinette Robertson as Lisa, Sinqua Walls as Nnamdi, Jermaine Fowler as Clifton, Dewayne Perkins as Dewayne, and Xochitl Mayo as Shanika in The Blackening.

Glen Wilson/Lionsgate

Did you not watch a lot of horror movies because of this trope in some subconscious way? Or were you just never a fan of scary stories?

It’s a little bit of both. To be perfectly honest, because people of color — and Black people specifically — weren’t valued in the horror space, it never made me feel like it was a space I wanted to veer towards. But I also had some pretty cruel cousins that liked to scare me a lot. So it put me in a world where I was a little bit of a fraidy cat, and I stayed away from the genre anyway.

Was there anything unusual about your casting?

It was pretty unusual because it was at the height of Covid, so everybody was doing these weird self-tapes. When I went on Zoom to meet Tim Story for the first time, they sent me the script, and I was pretty excited about it. (Casting director) Leah Daniels Butler said, “I want you to meet Tim on Monday,” and I was like, “Okay, cool. 14 pages? Let’s get it done.” Casting can be a very impersonal process, but it was nice. They gave me direction over Zoom, and so I could get a sense of what Tim and Leah were looking for. We laughed and we had a pretty good conversation. So I felt like I nailed it, but a month and a half later, I was like, “Damn, I really thought I nailed that.” So I thought I didn’t get it, and then they finally called me. They were like, “Yo, you were right. You did nail it. You got it.” And I was like, “Oh my God, this is crazy.”

How much did your character change from when you first read about her?

Well, her name changed. Her first name was Lisa originally, and then it went to Nicole and back to Lisa. So I feel like they did a lot more character development over the course of the month and a half that I didn’t hear from them. They gave her a little bit more of a standout role, and it was a little bit bigger than it was before. I remember seeing the character art and all the different hues of Blackness within this script, but this character was so layered, intelligent and ambitious. She loves to love on her friends. She’s the glue within her friend group. But it was also nice to see her be vulnerable, and when she has to be, she’s a force to be reckoned with when it comes to people who try to harm the people that she loves.

She’s hiding the fact that she’s back together with Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), who’s mistreated her time and time again. I know you have to defend your character, but did you side with her friends’ disapproving opinions on the matter? 

I did, but then I had to remove myself. I had to remember a time where there was that one guy who did things that hurt me, and for whatever reason, I kept going back to him. And so I tapped into that part of me. I was like, “Of course, there’s a part of you that always wants to believe that somebody is gonna grow and eventually evolve into the person that you have fallen in love with in your mind.” But then there was a little part of me that was like, “Come on, Lisa. Don’t let this man make you crazy for the 50th time.” There was also a part of me that felt like it was more empowering for her to say, “I’ve gone the ‘I’m in love with him’ route for the past 10 years, and while I miss the connection, I’m not gonna commit to him because he doesn’t necessarily have the traits that I want him to have.” So that was a way of protecting herself and establishing a boundary. And so I completely understand why she didn’t tell her best friends, because our best friends know exactly where the bodies are buried. (Laughs.) They’re the first ones to let you know when you’re being illogical in moments.

I regret more and more that I don’t keep in touch with people as much as I should, so I do admire that these college friends are at least trying to stay in each other’s lives. Do you feel this type of regret often, considering movie and TV sets can become like family in a short amount of time before everybody scatters across the world? 

I do. I feel that all the time. It’s so wild to spend a very short amount of time with people, bond with them, have them feel like family and then they just disappear from your life somehow. And what I loved about meeting this particular cast is that it was like lightning in a bottle. We all vibed so well, and we’ve stayed in contact. We talk on the phone all the time, and we’re constantly texting. So I’ve never met a group of people that I want to be around more than this one, and I’m a loner more than anything. So it takes the right group of people and people truly wanting to stay in contact. It has to be mutual. There have been instances where I’ve reached out to people and they weren’t necessarily on the same page. Or they didn’t value the friendship as much as I did at some point in time. But I’m grateful now that I have a group of people who are most definitely putting in the effort to stay in contact and actually build relationships outside of this project.

Antoinette Robertson as Lisa, Grace Byers as Allison, Jermaine Fowler as Clifton and Dewayne Perkins as Dewayne in The Blackening.

Antoinette Robertson as Lisa, Grace Byers as Allison, Jermaine Fowler as Clifton and Dewayne Perkins as Dewayne in The Blackening.

Glen Wilson/Lionsgate

So, as someone who hasn’t seen a single episode of Friends, I wouldn’t have lasted very long in the game the group has to play. You probably learned the answers in the script, but did most of the questions stump you on first read? 

Oh, I probably would’ve died on the third question. There were a couple that stumped me. I had no idea who the five Black people on Friends were. I remembered Aisha Tyler. I also remembered the Aunt Viv question (from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), but I couldn’t remember all the other ones. I didn’t know the second verse of the Black National Anthem. There were so many things I did not know, and I was just like, “Oh my gosh, if my life depended on it, I most definitely would not have survived.” Lisa was definitely light years ahead of me when it came to her knowledge.

With the help of some kind of pillar candle holder, she has a moment where she goes ballistic on a character. She unleashes the beast, as they say. Did you enjoy tapping into that side of yourself? 

I’ve never done anything quite like that. Part of it was a lot of fun, and part of it was a little dark more than anything. There’s a part of me that’s very empathetic, and I am very, very susceptible to any kind of suggestion in certain regards. So I can convince myself that things are real and it helps in my artwork, but when they were spraying fake blood on me, it was a little bit traumatizing. I definitely envisioned the things that I would do to protect the people that I love and to save my own life, and so it was definitely an animalistic kind of instinct that kicked in. I broke the (candle holder) on the first take, and then I was like, “Do you have another one?” And they were like, “No.” And I was like, “Oh, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. I’ll fake it.” And then I just kept going and they were like, “How was she giggling and then beating the crap out of something 10 seconds later?” And I was like, “She’s dangerous.” (Laughs.)

Antoinette Robertson as Lisa in The Blackening.

Antoinette Robertson as Lisa in The Blackening.

Glen Wilson/Lionsgate

Would someone read the Blackening game’s voiceovers out of frame?

Our first AD, Ian (J. Putnam), actually read the voice in his own kind of eerie tone. He’s not an actor, so he was trying to make it scary, and we were just laughing at him for a while. We eventually got it together, but it’s completely different now that you hear an actual voiceover artist going to town on it. We envisioned the fear, but hearing the actual voice that they chose was just so perfectly placed in the movie. It scared the crap out of me when I saw it for the first time.

Speaking of that, I watched you do a trailer reaction to The Blackening, and it was interesting because you reacted like someone who didn’t know the material already. The jokes hit you just as hard. Were you just far enough removed from filming that you could see it through a different lens? 

Most definitely. We filmed from October to November, 2021, so it was almost two years ago. Of course, I remembered the script and what we filmed, but there were so many things that I did not see on set. Filming is one thing, and then there’s the movie magic that they add, like the special effects and all of those other things. So I had no idea that the arrow shot was gonna look like that. I didn’t know how it was gonna happen. We just reacted. We did the before, he did the impact and then we did the after. It wasn’t a full motion, and so they just put it together in a way that made sense. So, because it’s been so long, they definitely caught me off guard when it came out of the darkness. It actually scared me even though I knew that it was coming. This is why I cannot wait till people see this film. It’s such a great film. It’s such an interactive experience. You’re gonna want to scream at the screen, and you’re never gonna know what happens next. That’s what makes it so much fun

The process of shooting horror movies can either be comedic or creepy, but did this set feel more comedic since the scale is tipped more towards comedy? 

It was definitely way more comedic. In between takes, people were making jokes, and then we’d have to be frantically running. So we would run, jump, scream and do all of the things, and then go right back to laughing. There were instances where I was supposed to be crying, and while I was teary-eyed, they tried to make me laugh during my coverage. And I was like, “You are not messing up my close-up!” So we liked to mess with each other and play around, and the set just had a really great energy. I’ve been on quite a few sets, and there was just nothing quite like it. It was a labor of love at the peak of the pandemic, and we really just wanted to do what we love to do and be around people with good energy. We wanted to make a really great film, and I’m so grateful for the whole experience.

A decade from now, when you and your castmates reunite at a remote cabin to mark the anniversary of this movie, what day on set will you likely remind everybody of first? 

Wow, I would say anything that we filmed in the game room. I want to say it was the second week of filming, but I’m gonna remind them of the takes where Jermaine (Fowler) constantly slapped Melvin (Gregg) in the face because we didn’t expect it. And at the time, Melvin’s character was hurt, so Jermaine chose to kick him and slap him in different takes, and he didn’t know it was coming. And because the reaction shots were on us, we all tried to keep it together, but we couldn’t. We got through a couple of good takes, but then we definitely ruined a few laughing too hard. So I’ll definitely remind them of that and all the pranks that we did. It was just so much fun, and I can’t wait to do it all over again.

Did they save the fire hose moment for last? 

Yeah, they did. We’re not gonna say who survives, but the people who actually survived were the victims in a situation where they were actually being hunted. And given how quite a few Black people fear the police, the survivors ask the questions of, “Who do we call in this moment? Who saves us? We’re not trying to get shot.” And that’s why it was a laughable moment. So they called the firefighters, and that’s the symbolism of the hose. (Laughs.)

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The Blackening is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.