"Phobias" horror film stars discuss tapping into fears, playing tortured, and anti-Asian attacks

Leonardo Nam and Hana Mae Lee spoke to Salon about their new film in which an evil scientist tries to harness fears

By Gary M. Kramer

Published March 15, 2021 6:17PM (EDT)

Leonard Nam in "Phobias" (Vertical Entertainment)
Leonard Nam in "Phobias" (Vertical Entertainment)

New horror film "Phobias" doesn't go for the obvious or common fears — spiders, snakes, heights, or even flying. This entertaining anthology film has the evil Dr. Wright (Ross Partridge, deliciously sinister as a gleefully mad scientist) trying to harness the fear out of captive "patients" who suffer from robophobia (robots), vehophobia (cars), ephebiphobia (youth),  hoplophobia (weapons), and atelophobia (imperfection) in order to extract the sensations of terror and turn them into an easily contained gas for weaponization. 

The film opens with Johnny (Leonardo Nam of "Westworld") being attacked by a group of young men because he is Asian. (They call him Chinese, but he corrects them; he is Korean). Back home, when the computer Johnny is working on contacts him and wants to befriend him — to be a part of his world as well as solve his problems — the young man is skeptical. But the robot reacts anyway, punishing Johnny's abusive neighbor and then his chief bully. Alas, the price Johnny pays is being captured and sent to Dr. Wright's lab where he meets Sami (Hana Mae Lee), who is haunted by a car accident, revealed in the next episode. Other detainees recount their stories and fears. Renee's (Macy Gray, who co-executive produced) is arguably the most disturbing.

Nam makes for an engaging hero in "Phobias" as he goes from a passive victim to active leader. And Lee, a far cry from her comic turn in "Pitch Perfect," shows her sinister side. Nam and Lee spoke with Salon via Zoom, about their fears and making "Phobias."

Leonardo, I watched your first scene in the film with horror, seeing your character being attacked because of his race. There are horrific real-life attacks on Asian Americans happening across the country right now. And while I know you are Korean, can you talk about Sinophobia (anti-Chinese and by extension anti-Asian sentiments)?

Leonardo Nam: I am so grateful you even asked this question and are giving us this platform as a way for us to talk about this. I'm disheartened by what's been happening our community — and by community, I mean not just the Asian American community, but the American community as a whole. This has been happening since the beginning of time. To know and to see that this experience is coming to light, and that President Biden has spoken about it — I so appreciate someone who is in a leadership position like that taking their position seriously and using it for good. I wrote an article at the beginning of the pandemic where I talked about xenophobia and the anti-Asian hate crimes that were happening. We can keep talking about the negatives — regarding the violence and horrible attacks that the community has experienced — but I also want to take a moment to highlight the positives that have happened. I'm heartened by the cross cultural grouping, these allies that have come forward and these organizations that are solidifying and helping each other. Communities that have helped people walk home from the subway. As horrifying as that is, that you need to have that presence there, the fact that people were thoughtful to do that and did give a damn to do that, I am so grateful.

When we were filming [the attack scene], I didn't have to stretch far. I have experienced that my whole life. It wasn't that we could predict this would be the climate right now, but it has been happening, and I'm grateful we can now speak about it, and that people are finding their own voice to say something. When people generalized the community to say we don't speak out loud — we put our noses down and keep going — that may be true to a certain degree, but anyone who's been aggressed does not feel they can talk about it. You are retraumatized if you are asked about it, and if you gather the gumption to say something, you have to retraumatize yourself and be aware that is what you going to have to do. But I am grateful people are speaking out and helping others and highlighting the possibility that our community as America, can shift focus away from hate and to unifying and living in an allied community. There have been several people who have reached out to me. What was originally overwhelming to me, I started to see as a positive thing — that people want to help.

Hana Mae Lee: That was very beautiful, Leo. I'm still shocked and super-saddened by everything that is going on. I grew up in the [San Fernando] Valley were everyone was mixed-race, and we all hung out together, so it wasn't only white, Black, and Mexican — and me. I didn't grow up with that hate. I don't talk too much about politics because it makes me sad, and I have so many emotions about it. The time we are in now, and what is happening, is crazy to me. I don't know where the disconnect is — our education system, our families — where we learn to only see color and that's it, and not skill and talent, but color and gender. There needs to be a relearning and teaching of that. When we die, we are just bones. We are all made out of the same thing. We need to go back to that. It saddens me when I see what's going on now, and I'm in shock. I feel like I'm watching something from years ago. It's very disheartening. 

I like that you are both Asian actors headlining an American horror film that is not a remake of a K-horror or J-horror film or a franchise. Can you talk about the importance of making a film like this in your career?

Nam: I wanted to dive into a new genre. This is my first foray into this, and it feels nice to play a character that is three dimensional that audiences are going to hitch on to and the race or gender isn't the thing the filmmaker is trying to highlight. It's about the ride of emotion that every human has. It feels like a fun experience playing that kind of a role. In regard to have someone who looks like us in an American film, it feels great! I love that we are at this crossroads, and hopefully this opens the door to many more opportunities, not only for us but for different kinds of filmmakers and actors and characters that more people will be able to see themselves reflected on screen.

Lee: I love horror. I grew up loving being scared — I mean, not in real life, but with monsters and all that. I've done a handful of horror movies and psychological thrillers, where it becomes physical. It's fun. You get to explore all different kinds of fear. And that I don't speak like this (mimics accent of the Asian stereotype) which is sometimes called for, but it's not necessary. It's nice that we are not Asian immigrants in "Phobias." It's not about race. It's a mixed, diverse cast. We all have fear; that connects us.

Sami is a scary badass in "Phobias." In what ways do you instill fear in others?

Lee: Personally, I don't know. I don't wake up wanting to f*ck up people. I don't know how I make people fearful of me, but I know that I have a lot of internal fears and phobias. I feel like everyone has something that they are paranoid about or think about, or don't want to think about. It was easy for me to tap into a fear in this movie. What do I choose? I have a plethora of things I'm afraid of!

Such as? I was going to end with that question but since you brought it up . . .

Lee: My fears — losing self-control is a big one because who is controlling me? I have a fear of heights because my eyesight isn't so good. When I am a higher up, the fall looks way farther.

Hana Mae, your segment mostly involves being frightened by your car behaving weirdly— windows, the radio, and door locks all having a mind of their own. Can you talk about playing those scenes? How do you act fearful?

Lee: First, this is not the stereotype about Asians being bad drivers! [Laughs] I love horror movies, and so when I saw "The Sixth Sense" and I went home and washed my face, I was like "Who's behind me?!" So, it was pretty method. What was great was Maritte [Go], who directed my segment, said that that kind of thing happened to her for real. When there is some sort of truth or experience behind a fear makes it more graspable and makes it more fearful. Sometimes I get paranoid, and when the music starts changing and you have no control . . . This is not a computerized car. It's a Caprice, and everything's manual. 

Johnny in the film sees technology being used for good as well as evil. What are your thoughts about the power and danger of technology?

Nam: I have, in my past, literally gone up to my Alexa and put it on mute. That concept that they are listening, and information is being collected [is scary]. Playing Johnny was interesting because I was trying to find a way to carry the audience through an experience. And to jump from my segment "Robophobia" and into the government institution, I wanted to create an element for that leap, so I shaved my head to change the actual physical alteration of him. Going from internal in "Robophobia," interpreting 1s and 0s and converting that into the decision to make change. That was a fun, finding that. Johnny is a victim of hate, but I wanted to find how does he mute that? The bigger goal is his love for family. What is going to happen to his dad?

Speaking of the government institution, I understand the location was "truly a sick place" — what do you know about it?

Lee: That hospital was messed up! Do you remember Leo?

Nam: It was a massive compound way out in the boonies!

Lee: I don't know if they were doing experiments, but a lot of the props in the movie were not props. They were real. 

Nam: I remember walking around in between takes into different rooms and being like, "This is so cool that the art department did this." And they said, "Nope, they didn't touch this room." It was crazy and weird. [Laugh]

Lee: It was pretty intense. Those tables and lights were scary.

Dr. Wright also chains, abuses, tases, and tortures Sami. What are your thoughts about women being victimized by men? Curiously the women in "Phobias" are all pretty strong and in control in their individual episodes, but there is an element of torture porn, though.

Lee: Torture, for me, is a little different. I deal with pain very poorly, but I have high tolerance. Meaning, if something really happens, I try to walk It off and play it cool if I'm around people. If I'm at home, it's a different story. But in those torture scenes, the car scene, Maritte said it was a lot — so let's just use your eyes. In the chair, maybe it is too much and it looks like I'm really being electrocuted. I wanted to try it all. I had a lot of seizures when I was a kid, and I'm sure that was frightening for my mom. When I experience pain, my face can get weird, and I can get really quiet, so I wanted to explore the physicalities of it, because I haven't been able to do that. There are so many different kinds of pain, and how we express it. Some people might be dead quiet because their arm is broken and they are in shock, and some people are sobbing. It was fun to do all sorts of levels of torturous pain. Sami is a badass, but she is up to no good. So, when she goes into the [government] camp, she gets very internal. She's tortured by all these things. It was fun to play. 

Leonardo, what was your mindset in the torture scenes, and how did you develop your body language? 

Nam: Playing that level of intensive pain or any level of feeling and emotion is so much fun to do. You get to scream your guts out, and that's what I hope the audience can partake in as well. It's part of the fun of watching a film like this. It's a rollercoaster ride of emotion. You get to roll with that as an actor. There are so many films where the characters are centered and held within, but here you are allowed to let it out and go with this crazy ride. 

Leonardo, your character shifts from being passive victim to an active leader. Whereas Hana Mae, your character goes from active to passive. How do you calibrate these issues of having and losing control? 

Nam: Going from passive to active, there was a moment in reading the script and doing it that I thought, "How can I not perpetuate the stereotype of this meek Asian dude that doesn't know how to fight back?" It was an interesting instinct where for so long a majority of roles of projects haven't given the breadth of being a lead or having a full transformation. I had to remind myself, this is a long journey, and I had to start at this place. It was exciting for me to find these key moments and find his voice and his way into becoming this active leader. 

Lee: I think Sami has goals and she will stop at nothing to achieve them. Living a life on her own and getting people she needs, like having her boyfriend as an ally to achieving her goals. She is used to being in control, but when you have zero control — and that relates to me too — with her, it is all internal. What she stood for is pointless at this place, because she's so helpless and drained of physical, emotional and mental energy. She's tortured by what she's done to others and the tortures going on around her. It's a constant repeat of pain. I didn't want her to be one-note. What would it be like if something like that happened? Would you be completely the same? Some folks have traumatic experiences and don't change, and some people change so much, you wonder, "Where did the person I know go?" Leo's character has to think five steps ahead of everyone else. He's a savior, while as the rest of us are so messed up we don't realize we need to be saved.

I was surprised all the patients were women and this man has to save them.

Nam: And it is a man that was torturing all these women. You could read it as that, but when I was talking with Jess Varley [the director of the "Outpost 37" segments] and Joe Sill [director of "Robophobia"] and Maritte, they found a way to balance that out by including creators and filmmakers that were female and understood from that lens not to only make it a journey of victimhood, so I hope it doesn't come across as that.

Leonardo, we didn't get to talk about your fears earlier. I'm afraid you can't escape this question. What are your fears?

Nam: I have a fear of drowning, but it's dissipating more and more. I surf, and it does cross my mind. I'm a good swimmer, but the ocean is so vast. We don't know how deep it is. That freaks me out a bit. And bad food. What creeps me out is Cornish hen. The fact that it's small.

You know about ortolans, right? These tiny birds are drowned in liquor and you eat them whole, with a napkin over your head.

Nam: A napkin over your head?

Yes, there are several theories about that. One is that you don't want people see you eating this. Another is so you can privately spit the bones out.

Nam: That is SO GROSS! 

I don't like rats or mice. Snakes are fine. But vermin . . . NO!

Nam: I had mice in my house, and one ran over my foot and I f*ckin' yelled so loudly! I was ready to get it, and it did that, and I lost it! And the rats in New York. I opened my door to throw out my trash once and it was like this whole circus, they were juggling balls!

"Phobias" is available on demand and digital beginning Friday, March 19. 

Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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