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MVPs of Horror: 'Gerald's Game' star Carla Gugino breaks down that scene making people pass out

Bruce Greenwood and Carla Gugino in Gerald’s Game (Photo: Netflix)

Gerald’s Game star Carla Gugino would like you to know that no CGI handcuffs were used in the making of Netflix’s acclaimed Stephen King adaptation. In order to play the macabre story’s heroine, Jessie — who is cuffed to a bed for almost two days while her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), lies dead on the floor following a sex game gone wrong — the fan-favorite veteran of such genre blockbusters as Watchmen and Sin City really did spend several hours a day, six days a week shackled to a headboard. And she has the bruises on her back and wrists to prove it. “It was not comfy, let me tell you,” Gugino tells Yahoo Entertainment of her … well, bruising experience making the Mike Flanagan-directed film, which premiered on the streaming service on Sept. 29 joining a wave of King-derived pictures that includes The Dark Tower and reigning box-office champ It.

It’s not as if she wasn’t forewarned, though. Flanagan himself donned the handcuffs prior to production and confessed to his leading lady that he was able to maintain a chained position for a maximum of only five minutes. Gugino, on the other hand, posted longer times in that particular endurance test. “Because I felt watched out for and taken care of, I was able to say, ‘Let’s do another take, I can handle it’ or ‘Let’s not, get me out of here.’ It was such rigmarole to be uncuffed and then recuffed, so it was easier to just keep them on most of the time!”

When it came to shooting the scene that is reportedly making people pass out, the crew didn’t make it easier on her by loosening the restraints. The so-called “degloving” sequence comes two-thirds of the way through the film, when the desperate Jessie slices one of her wrists with a shard of glass and wrenches it free from the cuff, tearing off plenty of skin in the process — and the camera shows every gory detail. “That was 70 percent acting and 30 percent not comfortable,” Gugino says of that pivotal moment. “We made it as tight as possible, so that I could get out of it, but it was still a real struggle. I’m not a masochist; I just felt like it was necessary for me, as an actor, to push those limits as much as possible.”

Even when Gugino isn’t on camera, she was often present in the bedroom that serves as Jessie’s temporary prison … and chamber of horrors. As thirst, hunger, and pain send her in and out of consciousness, she flashes back to long-suppressed memories of childhood trauma when her father (Henry Thomas) sexually abused her. Back in the present day, meanwhile, she sees — or thinks she sees — a ghostly man standing in the corner of her room. And then there’s the wild dog who saunters into the room to make a meal out of Gerald’s body. “I was there for all of Moonlight Man; there might have been some dog stuff I wasn’t there for, but if they shot something before I got there, I’d have them play it back for me so I’d know what I was reacting to. From my perspective on the bed, I could only see what the audience, and Jessie, could see. So I’d try to see Gerald’s body on the ground, and could only see this stream of blood. That was a really smart idea on the filmmakers’ part.”

Gugino as Jessie in Gerald’s Game (Photo: Netflix)

Gerald’s Game feels timely not only because of the ongoing King-aissance that continues with Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of the author’s novella 1922, which premieres on Oct. 20. Also, by telling the story of a sexual assault survivor who reclaims her power after years of remaining silent, the movie speaks directly to the cultural conversation that’s been stirred up in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein, as well as Harry Knowles and Ben Affleck. “It’s unfortunately always a topical subject, but I know what you mean with what’s going on in the press right now. When [sexual assault] happens — especially in our story when it happens to you as a child — the rules are so unclear. So often the person feels that they’re culpable for something they didn’t have anything to do with causing. I wanted to preserve that in Jessie’s mental landscape: She’s a woman who had to cut off something deep inside her and hasn’t given herself the time and space to look at it.”

For Gugino, telling Jessie’s tale of mental and physical survival in the style of a horror film allows the film to deliver its message about confronting trauma with a minimum of afterschool-special contrivance. “It’s what I love about sci-fi as well; we’re able to take a heightened situation and deal with very personal issues. A lot of people who suffer sexual abuse [feel] as if they’re not living in their bodies. The irony of the film is that Jessie becomes connected to her body through literally being chained and having to unchain herself. It’s what intrigued me when I read the book: It delves into serious subject matter that a lot of people can relate to in the midst of kicking ass on a genre level as only Stephen King can do.”

With her Gerald’s Game bruises on the mend, Gugino is already reteaming with Flanagan on another horror story, a 10-episode telling of Shirley Jackson’s oft-adapted ghost yarn The Haunting of Hill House, also starring Thomas, Timothy Hutton, and Elizabeth Reaser. And while she’s a welcome addition to any ensemble cast, seeing her slay a solo showcase like this film is a thrill for the Gugino faithful who have followed her from Snake Eyes and Spy Kids to Sucker Punch and San Andreas. (Let’s not forget such sadly short-lived TV series as Karen Sisco and Threshold either.) “When they’ve introduced me at Comic-Con, they always ask me what it’s like to be a Comic-Con icon,” Gugino says, laughing. “And I’m like, ‘I didn’t know I was one, but it feels fantastic!’ I’ve never wanted to be a personality or a brand but rather disappear into characters. So it’s satisfying to see fans responding to Gerald’s Game. There’s that phrase about the 20-year overnight success. This far into my career, I feel like I have so much ahead of me, and I really appreciate it in a different way than as a younger actor.”

Gerald’s Game is currently streaming on Netflix.

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