After an extremely successful festival run that wowed both critics and audiences alike, including us (review), writer/director Ben Young’s feature debut releases today. A tough, but profoundly powerful watch, Hounds of Love is a film not to be missed. It’s an incredible film from every aspect; one that stays with you long after the credits role, which is a testament to everyone involved with the film.

In celebration of release, we sat down with actress Ashleigh Cummings, who plays Vicki Maloney, the unsuspecting teen that unwittingly finds herself the latest victim of serial killer couple Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John White (Stephen Curry).

Keeping the discussion spoiler free, we chat about how she approached the heavy subject matter, what’s been most surprising about the project, and more.

How did you get involved with this project?

Well, actually, I was on an acting hiatus. I’d decided I would take a bit of time off because I’d started when I was very young and I hadn’t had a break. So, I said I wasn’t going to do anything and then this script came along. My agent begged me to read it, and once I’d read it I had to meet the director. I went in for the audition, and basically I was really intrigued by his storytelling, firstly. He told it through the perspective of the females, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. It’s not your usual kind of psychological thriller/horror story perspective. Especially not in the female serial killer’s case. And then I asked him how he was going to go about shooting all of the scenes, and what his vision was, and he explained that it was about the psychology and not about the gore, just the sort of beautiful horror of the story. Then he told me he was really interested in hiring good people first and foremost, and so after he told me those two things I was pretty excited to jump on board.

There’s a lot of trust that I imagine has to be involved in a film with such heavy subject matter. Not just between the actor and director, but between the other actors as well. How did you go about building that trust?

I think that was established very early on. That was one of the things I noticed when I walked into the audition, was that my trust with them was pretty immediate. Then we had a phone call conversation after, where he (Young) offered me the role, he said “First and foremost, humans are the most important part of this project so you, as a human, Ashleigh, are much more important to me than your sacrificing that for the story.” So from the outset he said communication is very important, he’ll always be there for us so if I ever wanted to talk about anything, or if anything was too much, I just say the word and that’s it. Then when I met Stephen and Emma, again, it was just that communication that was there at the beginning. We explored what the boundaries were, and pretty early on we decided that we trusted each other enough to not have huge boundaries, you know like, what we were doing was in service of the arts, and we loved each other enough that nothing really ever freaked me out. Yeah, they’re just such incredible humans that it’s astonishing to see them on screen as this serial killer couple because they’re some of my favorite humans in the world, and they’re the most softest, kind hearted people ever. But the other thing is that the crew was extraordinary. Every single person is aware of the content and pulled it together. Everyone kept checking with me to see if I was ok, if I needed a break, all the time, and it felt less like a machine and more like a communal creative project. There was a lot of heart in it.

Was there ever a moment where you did need a break?

Not on set. I know that, well, you know actually not that I needed a break but I remember one scene, I can’t even remember exactly which one, but I remember afterwards just not being able to stop shaking and not being able to stop crying. Because of the reality of the situation, and that people could go through that, and that’s a really hard thing to ignore. Not that I tried to ignore it, but this was at the forefront of my mind at most times. So, I definitely found that off set I really had to take care of myself, and do some real meditating or I’d go down to the beach; stuff like that. I would talk to my family, my boyfriend, and everything, and just communicate through all of it so I didn’t feel alone. I kind of came to the conclusion that delving into that sorrow and that pain doesn’t necessarily help the situation at all. Of course we want to have empathy for the people who have gone through this situation, but past a point it just sort of exacerbates the horror of it and so I just had to keep creating amongst all of that, and that’s the only thing I can really offer.

Speaking of your family and friends, how have they responded to seeing you in this film?

Uh, a lot of them haven’t seen it yet. I don’t think any of them have seen it yet, to be honest. Even with just the trailers, some of them are saying, “I’m not seeing this!” Yeah, I’ve had a few people flatly say they refuse to go. Which I am absolutely ok with. Yeah, we’ll see. My family, they want to go and see it because they know how proud I am of the film, and Emma, Stephen, and all of the people involved in it. It’s such an incredible project. What’s been created is extraordinary, and they want to see it for the artistic merit, but I think there’s a little bit of a psychological element of seeing me in that scenario.

That’s understandable! It’s a very tough watch, but extremely powerful.  I loved that Vicki demonstrated a perfect balance of strength and vulnerability; how much was in the script and how much of her character was what you brought to the table?

I remember reading the script and seeing those definite layers to Vicki. With my discussions with Ben, he at one point said, “I hand this part over to you; this is your character.” And he really let me have ownership over her, but at the same time we’d get on set and he’d color it with his direction, which is amazing, because at the beginning I was struggling to find who she was pre-kidnapping. Basically what I did was I went through the stages of grief and I found that they slotted into her story. I didn’t want her to be just crying and screaming the whole time, because we find her at this very acute stage of the kidnapping in which everything is very heightened, but I don’t know that you can sustain an entire film with just that one emotion, you know? It’s not that interesting. So I definitely tried to color it with the stages of grief, like denial, acceptance, and all that kind of thing. I kind of created this table, and throughout any and every scene I had to be aware emotionally of what has physically happened to me, so that I knew exactly where I was. You know, if I had to walk differently, or if I had been on drugs, or any of those kinds of things. It felt like a collaborative thing, really. But I feel like Ben had written this incredible character. And that’s what I love about Vicki; I love that she is both strong and at the same time, at one point she does just sort of give up. I think that’s really important to put on screen. Most films the character would be really strong the whole way through, and I don’t think that’s really reality.

Was there an added pressure to your approach considering this is based on a true story?

Well, this isn’t based on a true story, it’s inspired by maybe nine different stories that Ben had read about? So these people are completely fictional, and the story itself is completely fictional. But it is inspired by true events. There was definitely a kind of, not pressure, but you want to honor these experiences and you want to be aware of the people who are still surviving their traumas. You also want to tell their stories truthfully, and decided not to hide away from it anymore. So that’s why we all gave it everything that we had, every inch of our energy wasn’t even close to the amount of what these people went through, or do have to go through, and so it was just trying to honor that to the best of our ability.

I think you all definitely succeeded in giving it your all. What has been the biggest surprise from this entire experience for you?

You know, I think actually seeing this film for the first time, I knew Ben was phenomenal, I knew it. I knew it the minute I met him in the audition to working on set with him, between the trust and the freedom to move was astounding, especially for a first-time director. Like, not because he’s a first-time director, but in spite of being a first time director. But then when I saw the film, he just constructed in such a way, with cool shots that I wasn’t even aware he was getting, he just created another layer to this story. Just the way he pulled it all together, it really caught me by surprise.  Not that I didn’t have faith in him, but his originality and his vision is so unique. And also seeing a lot of Emma and Stephen’s scenes for the first time, because either I wasn’t in the scene or I was meant to be acting, but they were phenomenal. It was mind-blowing.