Kelsey Zukowski is an experienced and passionate writer, actress, and model, specialising in the horror genre through dark examination. Based in Los Angeles, she has worked on productions across the country, working heavily in the indie horror scene in Chicago as well as LA. She has a Bachelors of Arts in Digital Cinema with a concentration in Screenwriting from DePaul University. From acting she bridged in to modelling, working heavily with alternative, gothic, and avant-garde photography.
Please tell our readers a little about where you are from. How did you become interested in horror films, and did anything from your early life push you in that direction?
“I’m from a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. As a kid, I was pretty easily scared and wasn’t all that attracted to the genre. Halloween is what really changed that, I call it my gateway drug in to horror. I guess it was the first horror film that I really got wrapped up in and was able to embrace and see the fun along with the terror. Not quite your typical 13 year-old girls, my friends and I became completely obsessed with the film. We watched all the films over and over, memorised nearly every moment, and often did re-enactments from the films. Once I even dislocated my kneecap when playing the victim running away from Myers. What can I say? I commit to my roles?
From there I just consumed any and all horror I got my hands on from the prime age of slashers, to psychological horror, mainstream to indie, and foreign. A Nightmare on Elm Street was another film that really had a massive effect on me; it’s still my favourite film and Wes Craven a horror visionary I respect so highly. I don’t know if anything in particular about growing up pushed me to horror, I just fell for it and once I did it really just became a part of my passion, identity, and where my home would always be.
If anything I would say I’ve always been partial to a counter culture, against the norm mentality. I definitely felt different and misunderstood by most of my peers growing up. I think horror is the ultimate misunderstood, dare to be different genre that has a lot more than people give it credit for at first glance. I also think that’s part of the reason us horror fans are so passionate and there’s such an amazing horror community; the rest of the world doesn’t get it, but we really do. We embrace that identity and obscure, morbid understanding and will defend it to the death.”
What do you think makes a good horror film, and what are some of your favourites?
“When I watch horror any number of things can make it stand out as being good. I’m really big on themes, especially powerfully executed themes. I can appreciate great, building suspense and tension, creative, gory, creepy kills, intriguing characters, and great commitment with the acting. I want to either care for the main characters and be diving in to this horrific adventure through them or to have a villain I can’t help but root for. At the least, I want to be drawn in by the villain, they are the root of the horror after all and the mind of a monster is always the most thrilling aspect. Most importantly it comes down to the story and how the filmmakers utilise the genre to tell it. A good horror film doesn’t just deliver all these elements in the same way that countless others have done it before. There are so many films where I can acknowledge so many things about it were top notch, but it feels lackluster if it’s nothing new. It at least needs to have its own purpose and individuality if nothing else.
But in my opinion what makes the greatest horror are films that do things with the genre that you wouldn’t expect, that bring some sort of examination of fear and the darkness possible in every person and can be a haunting reflection of the world we live in. I love anything psychological and I’m partial to surreal, gritty material as well. There are really so many sub-genres of horror and I love them all in their own way. A lot of times people will say, “That’s not really horror”, but I think horror is a much wider spectrum than people give it credit for. Most people seem to think it’s just slashers, ghosts, and “torture porn” when it’s much bigger than that.
I’m a big fan of rape/revenge films and morally grey serial killer films that really get in to the mindset and the madness, but French extremity is probably my absolute favourite brand of horror, at least in modern horror cinema. I really respect films like Frontier(s), Inside, and Martyrs to name a few that are creating a unique and vital face of horror. They’re giving gore and unimaginable physical torment for the human body to endure purpose and meaning. It’s not just about shock value, but it’s bringing things to the extreme, allowing horror to be a metaphor and one that can open the world’s eyes to the dangers around us and even within us. It’s true creativity and a meaningful art form.”
Was it difficult to build a career in acting and modelling? What were some of the challenges you faced, and if you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
“Honestly, not really. Sometime there are dry spells, but when that project comes along that reignites that amazing energy and you eagerly throw so much of yourself in to it and are just floored by the other creative energy you get to work off of, it’s so worth the wait for the right role and film. Sometimes that ends up being my own projects. If you aren’t getting the roles you want, create it for yourself. Bringing to life your own script is insanely gratifying.
I guess I got pretty lucky and fell in to acting. Writing movie reviews for horror websites and being an aspiring screenwriting in the genre myself, right out of college I was friends with a few directors and had one or two offer me roles. I did theatre when I was much younger, but hadn’t really thought about pursuing acting further. I basically switched to focus on writing. Since I had such a passion for horror I figured why not jump at the opportunity? From there I started pursuing roles more and fell in to an absolutely amazing group of indie horror filmmakers in Chicago, that was a massive step in to fully embracing my creative desires and allowed me to grow personally and professionally.
I never thought I would be a model. I really just needed headshots and some different looks of myself as an actor for promotion. I quickly became partial to the themed photoshoots, it really let me take on a character, story, and mood that was unique and more restrictive and more free than film at the same time. I worked with a lot of fantastic photographers that awakened another creative side to me. I really love the challenge of bringing out a story in a snapshot, bringing out so many parts of myself in different characters and stories and creating something that can speak to people. I view my modelling as art pieces. I really seek depth in everything I do.
I’m also pretty lucky that what others typically want to collaborate with me on is the dark, compelling material I am drawn to. I’m usually up for trying something new too. There might be a film or two that I now realise didn’t enrich my body of work and wasn’t the best decision to be a part of, but everything is a learning experience. I’m extremely proud of nearly everything I have done and really happy with where it has brought me. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and I can look back at the last 10 years even and see how crucial each stage was in taking me to the next chapter in pursuing my passions and simply in becoming the person I am today.”
Please tell our readers about your new film Within These Walls. What makes you most excited about this project?
“Within These Walls is my baby, a total passion project. It was a collaboration with director, James Tucker. We were lucky to get an outstanding cinematographer, Ryan Baker, and his whole production team, Six Gun Pictures, on board. He really showed a massive interest and his work and dedication allowed us to take this to a much higher level than we thought possible initially.
The film centres on Alaina, a recent college grad, who is returning home and moving back in to the house where her mother violently committed suicide (the horror fans know this is a horrible idea for any number of reasons). She’s a writer and wants to be able to figure out her next step in life, focus on her writing, and come to terms with her mother’s death. She feels deep regret and responsibility for not being there to save her mother. There is a presence of something in the house that slowly makes itself more and more known. Alaina is certain that this must be her mother, even when it becomes violent. She feels her mother is punishing her for leaving her there alone to die, which only makes her more desperate to reach out to her. Any reaction or malevolent behaviour is better than nothing, than her truly being gone. As things escalate her mind and body are completely terrorised and violated in every way, pushing her closer to the edge of madness. Her fear and regret is fed off of viciously, making her more and more secluded to the point where she is physically trapped inside the house. Alaina has to go on a difficult journey of uncovering truths of the past and her own self-discovery if she has any hope of defeating this spirit that has such a hold on her.
There are so many reasons why I’m excited for this film to be released and for everyone to witness what we created. First of all the amount of passion and insane amounts of hard work and creativity really paid off. We shot the film in 8 days total, 6 days were back to back and was everything that took place in the house. They were 17-20 hour shoot days, sleeping for an hour, and back at it again. I think I mostly performed off on adrenaline, but there definitely is some realism to how worn down my character begins to look. It blew me away how above and beyond everyone in the crew went as well as our amazingly talented cast. It was so evident that everyone really believed in this. They went the extra mile every step of the way, to not only bring out this vision, but to make it something bigger and a truly visceral experience. I think our passion is what really gave us that charge when we were all basically walking zombies for a week. Sleep? We have a movie to make, priorities! It was a totally insane, but totally amazing experience. Now seeing the finished film, it’s just this incredibly satisfying high I get when seeing what we created.
I have so much pride for this project. As an artist, there’s so much of myself in this film and it is an excellent example of the material I crave as an actress and a writer. Aside from what went in to creating it, I think it really tackles the basis of fear, being violated and entrapped in nearly every way. Almost every fear has to do with not having control, when that’s ripped away from you so viciously by something you can’t even see, yet has such domination over you, what can you do? There isn’t enough known to really fight, but you have to. As hopeless as it seems, giving up gives away that little bit of power you had; your will to live. We set to make out a grittier haunting film than we have been seeing in modern cinema. The director and I weren’t afraid of taboos, in fact we embraced them as a key element in this powerful story that showed just how far this spirit would go in tormenting its prey. Like nearly everything I write, it’s also very surreal and psychologically charged, which offers a lot of interesting exploration. While this poor girl is victimised in nearly every way possible, in the end it’s a battle of survival and enlightenment. There’s strength in suffering.”
Of all the horror films you have acted in, which one is your favourite and why?
“I have had so many amazing opportunities and been involved in so many incredible projects I’m blessed to be a part of. They were all great experiences. At the end of the day, I’m biased towards the scripts I’ve written simply because I was so involved and was a part of creating this in the initial development and the execution in bringing the character and world they inhabited alive. When I write a script, I tend to put my characters through utter hell and back. It’s based in reality, but these are horrible circumstances I have never experienced anything like luckily.
There are elements of fear, struggle, guilt, entrapment, crippling emotion, and fighting just to name a few that are very much a part of the human experience, but it’s taking them and intensifying in a different, sometimes mind boggling scenario when you try to put yourself in that position. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself as an actor for films I’ve written, because as a writer what you imagine and then put to paper is 100% real, full of gripping emotion, and being pushed to unthinkable limits. As an actor, I have to push myself to that point so nothing is sacrificed. I’m not sure if those are the best performances of mine because of the material I’ve written or because of where I push myself to, because it’s so personal and vital to me. This applies to two films in particular: Within These Walls and a short I filmed right before leaving Chicago, Words Like Knives. It’s definitely between those two, both really feeling like a massive part of me as a horror artist and what I want to do with the genre I love so dearly.”
What upcoming projects can we look forward to, and where do you see your career in five years?
“Within These Walls is an official selection of Jennifer’s Bodies, The Women in Horror Film Festival in Scotland, which will be screening March 6. Words Like Knives screened there last year. It’s a really fantastic festival showcasing the best women in horror filmmaking in the world. I’m honoured to have my work featured in the festival two years in a row. There should be several more festival screenings announced shortly and distribution following that. I had a small role as the younger version of Debbie Rochon’s character in the bloody revenge indie horror satire, Axe to Grind, which is currently out on DVD now. It’s available on Amazon as well as several other movie rental and retail stores. The Burning Dead, previously titled Volcano Zombies, will be released on VOD March 3. I have more of a small featured part as a cannibal frontier/ volcano zombie, which was super fun to shoot, taking on a completely animalistic role. Future projects to be released soon without specific dates include the spooky fun horror anthology by Reyna Young, Forgotten Tales, and the gritty slasher, Middle of the Night. It hasn’t filmed yet, but I have just been added to the cast of Who’s There?, a creepy haunting film by Michael Isaacs and Necrocity Entertainment, also starring Kelci C. Magel, which I’m very excited to work on.
I love my work and the projects I’m involved in; indie horror really is where I want to be. However, I am very focused on constantly moving myself to the next level for the next exciting challenge. A lot goes in to a film to make it a reality as anyone who works in film knows. Especially on the indie level, getting the budget is often the most difficult part along with endless planning. So having a little more to work with each film is something to strive for. I also want to be able to get more of my scripts produced and made and I’m exploring a lot of different options in where to go with my writing from here. I would love to just dive deeper in to acting in indie horror films and alternative and gothic modelling as well. For acting I really want meaty roles with substance, strength, and some sort of exploration; that challenge female roles in the genre whether it’s a multi-dimensional and fierce victim or intriguingly sinister villainous character. Basically in the next 5 years I just want to keep going forward, seize opportunities, and see where it can take me.”
How can our readers find out more about you, your films, and read your reviews?
“I have a very comprehensive website that has my photo shoots, past, current, and future film projects, trailers and some short films, and many movie, music, TV, and book reviews I’ve written. I also post about everything on Facebook. Here are all the links where you can find more about me and my work. Thanks everyone for reading! Keep the horror alive.”