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Jacqueline Castel talks about her unique werewolf horror in My Animal

With entrancing synths and vivid red lights, Jacqueline Castel’s My Animal feels like an ’80s-inspired music video. And in her feature directorial debut, Castel uses this distinct style to inject a fresh, queer love story into the werewolf genre.

Heather (Nocturnal Animals’s Bobbi Salvör Menuez) is an outcast who aspires to be a hockey goalie in her small town. When she meets Jonny (The Acolyte’s Amandla Stenberg), a confident but tormented figure skater, a friendship turns into sexual attraction as the two women grow closer with each meeting. However, Heather is hiding a huge secret — she’s a werewolf — which forces her to battle her “animal” within.

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My Animal premiered at Sundance Film Festival as part of its acclaimed Midnights Section. Before the premiere, Castel spoke with Digital Trends about the inspiration behind My Animal, the challenges of selling a head-scratching script, and the reasons for casting Menuez and Stenberg.

A woman pulls her hair in My Animal.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Digital Trends: Congratulations on the film’s debut at Sundance. Does this feel like the end of a long journey, or is it just getting started?

Jacqueline Castel: Ah, I don’t know. I mean it’s hard for me to tell. I was doing post up until the very end [laughs]. I think we got our DCP (Digital Cinema Package) generated last Wednesday, and I was doing a QC (Quality Control) on it, so it feels like a whirlwind. I’m still kind of in that weird mode of like, OK, I’m transitioning out of being in a dark room for weeks on end to now coming to the more social aspect of talking about the movie.

It’s a bizarre shift, so I don’t know. I feel like I’m probably still in the middle somewhere of the whole process. I don’t think it will really hit me that the movie is done until I see it with an audience at the premiere. Then I’ll be like, oh, OK. Oh, I did it.

This is real now.

I know, exactly, right? It’s sort of a surreal process in a way, especially when you’re under these deadlines. You basically are like, Oh, we got it in? OK. Then you just have to go on hyperdrive trying to finish.

My Animal is quite a few genres combined into one. It’s a family drama, a teen romance, and a werewolf story. Where did the film start? What genre were you looking to explore?

Well, the screenplay was written by Jae Matthews. When I first read the script via our producer, Michael [Solomon], I definitely saw there was a really strong family drama and love story present. There were these aspects of the genre, and when I came on board, I was like, “Look, Jae. We should really explore this really cool metaphor. Let’s really push the genre components of it.” So,it was just us working together for about a year before we took it out to cast to really find that right balance.

It’s like some weird nightmare to shop out a script like this because no one knows what to do with it because they’re like “Well, it’s this, and it’s that, and it’s this. How do you define it?” These are the types of films that I always love, but they’re the ones that are really hard to sell, like in a marketplace, because people are head-scratching.

But I really love threading that line, playing between genres, and using genre to explore deeper societal issues or topics. It was this smashing together of all these different elements, and hopefully, it’s effective. We’ll see when people see it [laughs].

Poster of handcuffs for My Animal.

I read that Bobbi and Amandla were your first choices when you began casting. Which role did you cast first? What characteristics were you looking for in each actor?

I wanted to build the entire movie around Heather because it really is Heather’s story. So it was very important to me that I find the right actor to play Heather. There was a heavy research stage. Bobbi was on my list for a very long time, and I just kept going back to Bobbi, like there’s something about this actor. There’s something really compelling.

There were a lot of other factors, like strange and interesting synchronicities, that occurred. When the project first started and before we started going out to cast, for Jae’s birthday one year, I symbolically adopted a wolf at this center in upstate New York. I adopted this wolf called Diane because that’s the name of the Roman goddess of the hunt, wolves, wild animals, and the moon. I’m like, OK, this is the wolf I’m going to adopt.

Right as I approached Bobbi nine months later, I got a notification that it was Diane’s birthday, and I realized at that moment, the wolf that I had adopted had the same birthday as Bobbi. I was like, I don’t know. This is like totally aligned. This is the person I’m supposed to cast. Then Bobbi got the script and immediately was like, “I love this project. I want to do it.” It was pretty instantaneous.

Amandla was simultaneously my top pick. When Bobbi and I had our first conversation, I remember Bobbi was like, “Oh, who are you thinking about for Jonny?” And I was like, “Well, I would love to cast Amandla Stenberg.” Bobbi’s eyes lit up, and was like, “Well, we know each other.” And I was like, “Oh, really?” We did a formal approach to Amandla’s team while having Bobbi on the sidelines like, “Yo, you gotta do this movie.”

It was really nice to have that mutual support because I felt that there would be a personal connection for those actors with the material. They both knew each other from the queer scene in New York and L.A., and were really outspoken about those topics. I felt like they really agreed with what I was looking for in these characters. You can inject people’s own narratives into a movie. I think that that makes it more powerful. You build it from the inside out. It’s a power source.

Two girls look at each other in red light in My Animal.

My Animal premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Paramount will release it at later date.

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