A Hollywood scream queen is a tough role to get right. One has to strike the right balance of earnestness, camp, and bravado in order to capture a swarth of horror lovers. New scream queens seem to crop up less and less in the modern age, but with Unhuman, the latest in a string of horror projects for actress Brianne Tju, Hollywood has opened its doors to unveil another in a long line of classic scream queens. Unhuman sees Brianne Tju in the lead role of Ever, an outcast high school student on a field trip gone wrong with her fellow classmates. After their bus crashes and the inevitable zombie outbreak ensues, the classic John Hughes-esqe band of teen archetypes realize they need to work together to survive. The trepidatious Ever takes the helm as she learns what it means to be somebody, rather than the “nobody” she thinks herself as.
After role in the TV series adaptations of horror camp classics Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Tju has become quite comfortable on horror and thriller sets, though this time was her first in the main spotlight. That was a big milestone for Tju, not only professionally, but also for what it meant to her and the industry as a Chinese/Indonesian person in a leading role. Tju’s AAPI identity informs her decisions in all of her work, and is proud to be a face of representation for Asian individuals in the entertainment industry.
We talked with Tju all about her lead role as Ever in Unhuman, why she loves the horror genre so much, and what being an AAPI person in Hollywood means to her today. Read the full interview below.
Where did you get your start acting? Did you grow up in a particularly theatrical or artistic family?
I didn’t grow up in an “industry” oriented family. My mother was a dancer growing up and that’s actually what I thought I was going to pursue as a career. I was a competitive dancer and that’s how my manager scouted me. I had already been doing commercials and print (to supplement my college fund) and then I transitioned into television. The rest is history.
Your newest horror film, Unhuman, is now available on video-on-demand. Tell us about the film and your experience working on it.
It’s a horrifying twist on the quintessential John Hughes high school movie. I play Ever, who feels like she’s beyond just an outcast; she feels completely insignificant. Throughout the film all the characters go through a transformation while they fight for their lives. It’s a tale of friendship and being true to one’s self.
I had an incredible time shooting this film. It was not easy. There were a lot of stunts, long days, and the New Orleans heat but I think that bonded the cast and crew. I’m really proud of the work we all did.
What attracted you to your role of Ever? How is she different from the horror/thriller-based roles you’ve taken on before?
I liked Ever because in the past I’ve always played more outspoken and confident characters within the horror/thriller genre. Ever felt like new territory, and I felt she was relatable to me and a lot of teenagers in high school. She struggles with her identity and self-worth. The transformation she goes through is inspiring and badass and I think it sends a great message while also being a fun and entertaining film.
How did you prepare for the role of Ever?
I really tried to get back in touch with “high school me.” I rewatched My So-Called Life while shooting. I’ve often felt invisible because I’m Asian in a world and industry that doesn’t always support and appreciate that. That’s what I love about the film, we get to see an Asian lead discover her voice and worth.
Unhuman is your first major leading film role. Was that intimidating for you?
It definitely was. Luckily Marcus Dunstan, the director, was incredibly supportive and collaborative. I learned that as the lead of a project, the atmosphere and culture in the workplace is also your responsibility. I worked everyday so I also had to learn how to take care of myself to make sure I could make it to the end of the shoot.
Between projects like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and now Unhuman, your name is becoming synonymous with the horror genre. Did you watch a lot of horror movies growing up? What are some of your favorites?
I’m honored [laughs]. I did enjoy watching horror movies growing up, but I wouldn’t say I watched a ton. The ones that really stood out to me were psychological. I loved Shutter Island and The Others. I like horror that’s story and character-oriented. The horror serves as a tool to emphasize the emotion.
You’ve quickly garnered a reputation as one of Hollywood’s newest scream queens. What is it about the horror genre that keeps attracting you to these projects?
I love being able to use my imagination. In horror the stakes are high and the situations are beyond normal. I like the challenge of finding a way to ground those aspects and make it feel human and relatable.
Favorite classic scream queen?
Sarah Michelle Gellar is an icon.
I imagine acting in a lot of horror movies can lead to a lot of intense experiences on set. How do you unwind after shooting some of the more heavy or physically demanding scenes?
I’ve personally found that horror movie sets are the most fun to be on. I like getting messy and doing stunts. I think having a good relationship on set with your cast and crew is key. Being able to support one another is important when the material is so heavy. I often turn to my hobbies on my time off. I knit, watch lighter movies, do pottery, and just explore the outdoors. It’s good to just leave the work at work and snap back into real life. Also, therapy.
Who would you say are your biggest acting inspirations? Do you have any inspirations from outside the world of film/TV?
I love Tong Leung, Sandra Oh, Michelle Yeoh, Rooney Mara, and Florence Pugh to name a few. In general I often find myself inspired by strong yet vulnerable women; my sister Haley, my girlfriends, Frida Kahlo, Brene Brown…
You are very vocally proud of your Chinese/Indonesian heritage. Does that upbringing inform your work or approach to acting in any way?
It informs everything I do. I’ve had a specific upbringing, one that is not often portrayed in mainstream television and film. I try to work it into every character I play because it’s what I know and understand. I want to push the boundaries of not just diversity, but true representation. I want other Asian-Americans to watch the characters I play and feel seen.
What progress have you seen in the entertainment industry for AAPI performers like yourself? What work still needs to be done?
I think representation is lacking. We have made strides in inclusion but it’s not enough to throw people of color into projects just to check a box. That’s tokenism. We need stories told by Asians starring Asians for Asians. Stories that are nuanced and specific. That’s why I really enjoyed Fire Island because it checks all of those boxes.
Do you have any words of wisdom or personal philosophies you live by as an actress, or even just for everyday life?
What is meant for me will be. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to say no and stand up for what I believe in. I try not to lead my life and career with fear; fear of being not enough, being forgotten, and that I’m just lucky to be in the room so I should keep my mouth shut. Fuck that.
Nurturing your personal life, relationships, and mental health is also part of the work. You have to fill your cup before you can give to others and acting is a lot of giving.
What else can we look forward to from you in 2022?
The Cow will be releasing sometime this year and Tegan and Sara’s High School will release in October on Freevee. I love both of those projects very much and I can’t wait to share it with everyone.
For more from Brianne Tju, follow her on Instagram