SPOILER ALERT: This article contains mild spoilers for “M3GAN.”
At just 11 years old, Violet McGraw already has a proven talent for capturing the uncanny: playing against it, inhabiting it and grounding it in performances as compelling as they are preternaturally evocative. Her turn as young Nell in Mike Flanagan’s acclaimed Netflix horror series “The Haunting of Hill House” drew tears and praise from viewers, while her portrayal of young Yelena Belova in Marvel’s “Black Widow” showcased her flair for the dramatic.
But it’s McGraw’s next role in Blumhouse and Universal’s scary-ish satire “M3GAN” that places her directly in the spotlight, adding a comedic spin to her already horror-filled résumé. In the film, McGraw plays Cady, the niece of Gemma (Allison Williams), a robotics engineer for a toy company. After Cady’s parents die in a freak car accident, Gemma takes her under her wing and, in a well-intentioned but delusional effort to distract her niece from her grief, creates M3GAN, an animatronic doll built to attend to Cady’s wishes and needs. M3GAN, whose eerie, wide-eyed design embodies the evolution of a world contorting itself around artificial intelligence, steps into the role with as much eagerness as a Model 3 Generative Android is capable of mustering — to exponentially escalating, and devastating, effect. In his review, Variety’s Owen Gleiberman called the movie a “diverting genre film, one that possesses a healthy sense of its own absurdity.”
As Cady, McGraw took on the task of acting opposite M3GAN, who came to life through a combination of human acting, animatronics, puppetry and VFX. New Zealand actor Amie Donald donned the M3GAN costume on set, perfecting the movements that contributed to the doll’s viral dance moment, while Jenna Davis (“Raven’s Home”) supplied M3GAN’s voice. Director Gerard Johnstone calls McGraw a “force of nature.”
“When I first met her, it was really funny, because she wanted to talk to me about her character. It was really cute,” he says. “As a parent, I’m naturally wanting to make sure that the mother is included in the conversation, because she’s her guardian. But [Violet] was like, ‘Mom, you’re at the other end of the table. I’m talking with Gerard.’”
Speaking over Zoom from Santa Clarita, Calif., McGraw chats with Variety about the process of shooting “M3GAN,” how she bonded with the cast and crew on set and her favorite snacks she tried while filming in New Zealand.
What was the audition process for “M3GAN” like?
I auditioned, and then I got a callback. Then I had a little Zoom meeting with the director. Then it was my ninth birthday, and my managers on Zoom told me that I booked “M3GAN” and that I was playing the role of Cady. I was really excited, because I thought it was a really fun new idea, and I could not wait to be a part of it.
How do you feel like you relate to your character, Cady?
Cady is a young little girl, and she’s sad because she lost her parents. I still have my parents. But I think we have the same personality a little bit, because Cady becomes very close with M3GAN. I think I would also get really attached to M3GAN as well, because I’d think of her as my best friend and a sister to me. I feel like that’s how we can relate a lot.
What were some of your favorite toys you played with growing up?
I loved to play with dolls. I liked to play with the American Girl dolls a lot, because me and my sister got a bunch of sets. We put them all over this open space, and we made this whole little town like a beach. It was really cool, because for Christmas every single year, we would ask for a new set, so we could complete our town.
What was your favorite American Girl doll?
I got a Truly Me doll, and a Truly Me doll is where you make it look like you. I got one, and I named it Violet, because she had my hair and we got the same clothes.
What did you and Allison Williams talk about when you first met?
We were just talking getting to know each other more, and I asked her randomly, “Do you like ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Harry Potter’ more?” She said, “‘Harry Potter,’” and I got a little upset because I love “Lord of the Rings.” They’re my favorite movies. Don’t get me wrong — I love “Harry Potter,” but I love “Lord of the Rings” more. But that was literally our first little conversation when we met.
Did you have any fun bonding moments with Allison and the rest of the cast?
We usually just hung out on set. On lunch breaks, we would play twelve-square, which is like four-square but just with twelve squares. We played it with the entire cast and crew. I thought that was just an amazing tradition that we all had. It was so fun. I always looked forward to lunch every day on set, because I could not wait to just play twelve-square.
What was your favorite scene to shoot in “M3GAN”?
Anything with M3GAN, of course. Also I really liked — I wasn’t in this scene, but I got to watch M3GAN’s dance. I just love the dance. It’s so iconic. That was really cool to watch. I also loved — spoiler, but I also loved when I got to control Bruce, that was also really cool and fun to do, because I felt like a superhero.
How did you film that fight scene with Bruce?
Well, they had Bruce on a separate, and then they flipped the camera on me. I just had to do some movements, and I had to pretend like I was watching everything. Bruce was filmed in New Zealand, and I actually filmed controlling the gloves in Atlanta. I did have a little visual of it, so I just imagined it in front of me.
There are a lot of funny moments in the film — for example, when M3GAN starts to sing “Titanium” to Cady. Was there ever a time while shooting when it was hard to keep a straight face?
I don’t think it was that hard for me, because when we were filming, Amie Donald, who’s inside the doll, was singing to me. She has a really good voice. I just stayed in the moment and I just listened to her amazing singing.
I saw in a different interview that you wanted to visit the Shire when you were filming “M3GAN” in New Zealand. Were you able to go? What was it like?
It was so cool, and it was so beautiful there. I got a little emotional, because it was a dream come true for me. The Shire was just so beautiful, and I wish I could live there. I was remembering scenes while I was there, and I thought that was just amazing — like, Bilbo’s house I saw up there. I could not believe I was there. Then we had drinks at the Green Dragon across the bridge.
Do you watch any horror films or shows?
I’m allowed to watch some scary films. I’m not allowed to watch all because some of them can get a little too grown up for me. But I have seen “M3GAN.” I saw “The Black Phone.” I’ve seen a lot of the ones that I’ve been in, because I know what’s going to happen and everything so I can watch my own. The other movie that I’ve seen that I’m not in is “It.”
Is horror something you want to keep doing in the future? Or are there other genres you’d like to explore?
I definitely want to keep doing horror films for sure. I hope I get to do a Marvel film soon. That would be so fun. But I definitely want to keep doing all the films. It doesn’t matter. I just want to keep acting. But I do really hope I’m in a murder mystery movie, because I love murder mysteries.
Have you watched any fun murder mysteries lately?
Yeah, my favorite one is definitely “Knives Out.” I loved that movie. I literally watched it a few days ago.
What was your favorite snack to eat from craft services?
They had these really yummy chips called Squares. They were kind of like Goldfish except cheesier, and they did not have salt on it. They always brought yummy pastries to set, because we were in New Zealand, and they have really good pastries. So I always had a yummy raspberry pastry. Then I also had a croissant. So a lot of pastries and chips for me.
I’m sure that being in New Zealand introduced you to a lot of new snacks and foods!
I went with my two brothers and my mom in New Zealand. The house we were staying in, we walked to this place called Good Friday, and we always got some pastries and hot chocolate. It was so fun, it was like another little tradition that we did. They also had a close ice cream place nearby, and we always went there too. It’s called Duck Island, and they had some new flavors that I hadn’t tried.
What sort of ice cream flavors did you try there?
I had this different kind of vanilla. I think it was called French vanilla. And then I tried — I can’t remember what the name was. It was like a butter with nuts? It was just really good. My mom also got it, but I can’t remember what it’s called. But it was really, really good.