Christopher Abbott on ‘Possessor’, Identity, and Anxiety

To put it lightly, we’re feeling out of sorts lately. The abrupt loss of offline social life has kept us homebound and isolated, with digital communication replacing real life interaction. This inescapable reliance on screens to communicate and connect – to ourselves and others – breeds an insidious strain of paranoia: How should I behave? Is this who I really am? Am I really in control? In Canadian director Brandon Cronenberg’s film Possessor, a visually compelling sci-fi psychological horror, these kinds of questions, about identity, anxiety and reality, roll in like a light mist, barely perceptible until you’re coated. And while the film doesn’t explicitly grapple with the effects of social media or surveillance culture on our identities, the acute psychic horror of losing yourself to ominous technological forces feels like an ever-present threat.

In an alternate, dystopian 2008 (a time before social media), Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a corporate assassin who takes control of other people’s bodies to kill her marks undetected using implant technology to control the host’s brain. But over time, the job of impersonating other people – a kind of psychological possession – begins to erodes Vos’s sense of self and loosens her grip with reality, blurring the lines between her hosts and herself. Eventually, she finds herself in a mental power struggle with one of her hosts, Colin Tate, (Christopher Abbott, star of Girls and Black Bear). Her reality identity has become indistinguishable from his, and she doesn’t know who is who – and neither do we.

Here, Abbott tells Sharp about working with Cronenberg, the perils of social media, and the challenges on set.

What drew you to Possessor?

I had seen [Cronenberg’s debut film] Antiviral already and had really liked it. I thought it was wildly unique and just a world I hadn’t quite seen before. The script was pretty clear in terms of its objective and what it wanted to do. That said, obviously when you see the film it’s quite visually striking and those things aren’t on the page; upon viewing it there’s a lot going on but Brandon has this way of writing that is pretty crisp and there’s a lot of room between the lines to do stuff. So, I think the initial conversation for me was to stay out of the traps of this kind of Idle Hands performance and just to kind of trick the audience as much as you can to be confused of who, which character is at the forefront.

There seem to be a ton of films in the last few years that really mess with the viewer’s perspective, like The Lodge and Horse Girl, and now Possessor, that, to varying degrees, touch on our warped perceptions of reality and the illusion of self-control, both of which feel quite relevant at the moment. Movies that are mindfucks that make us question who we are and why we do what we do.

Look, I think the question of identity is definitely a pretty strong theme in the movie and given the times that we’re in now. Whether people are back to work or not, we’re all given a lot of time to think and probably question our place in the world and the life we’re trying to lead. Obviously, this technology doesn’t exist, how do you make it real? For me, it was kind of more about mental health issues that could be associated with what’s happening in this movie. So, whether it’s schizophrenia or audio hallucinatory things that are happening, whether it’s multiple personalities, to ground it into the effects of what’s happening, that was kind of my through-line.

What are your thoughts, then, on technology that does exist, like social media?

In terms of the social media thing, I don’t have it, and it’s not for any statement except that it gives me anxiety. Or, I have anxiety and it heightens it. So even that in itself, I can easily feel overwhelmed, so, using that for this part was kind of easy. You open in the movie with Andrea’s character Vos already at odds with herself. You know that she’s really good at her job and has done this act obviously many times, she’s one of the top in her business, but obviously, it’s starting to come to a head right from the beginning, it’s starting to fall apart. I think you learn what’s happening to her is her own identity is, with each job she has done, has probably taken a piece of her own identity away from her the more that she does it.

And the more kind of addicted she gets to the violence of it, what does that do to somebody? And when Vos is in Colin, inhabiting Colin’s body, it’s someone who is really good at their job, so we had to make sure there’s an illusion there but as it unravels it’s just about kind of marking, tracking, again, how much of her is coming out and how much is Colin trying to fight through himself and sometimes it’s like 50/50, it’s all a percentage battle as the movie goes on.

What was the biggest challenge for you when filming?

Well, honestly probably just keeping track of how much we want to show. How much of Vos is coming out and making sure the only moments that Vos is in Colin are the ones where you really see how Vos maybe is when she’s completely alone. So, that’s a moment where there’s that quality. I didn’t want it to be this kind of masculine/feminine battle, it’s not so much about that. It’s really about her as a person, and that coming through.

But in the same sense I find it an interesting theme to witness that. What is that? What is a woman in a man’s body? What does that feel like? It’s not like she hasn’t done it before so we didn’t want to go too far in terms of this idle hands thing, of like, “Oh, a penis!” or whatever, but there is a curiosity there. There’s a scene where she’s kind of inspecting his body. Now I started going off on a bit of a tangent but…something like that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.