Triple Threat Madeleine Coghlan on ‘We Burn Like This’ and Her Journey Behind the Camera

(Featured image courtesy of Carlos Ruiz)

Growing up in a family home that always seemed to be full of rescue dogs, young actress Madeleine Coghlan, star of new festival favorite We Burn Like This, always felt uneasy being the topic of conversation. “I didn’t really like being the center of attention or anything like that.” However, she found that if she stepped outside of herself and into a character’s shoes to inhabit a role, that social spotlight suddenly felt much more comfortable. Coghlan’s commitment to that unique privilege of “getting to not be myself when I’m in front of the camera or in a creative process” brought her all the way to the Tribeca Film Festival for her debut performance in the horror anthology Holidays. Made up of eight short films from various directors (including cult favorite Kevin Smith), each focusing on a different holiday, the film brought chills and thrills to the festival, especially in Madeleine’s “Valentine’s Day” segment. “It was such a great and overwhelming experience, but really fun.” While in New York, she was able to visit her mother’s hometown and share her success with her grandparents, but the most rewarding aspect of the trip was simply watching the film with the packed premiere audience. Hearing the reactions of shock and fear as the festively gruesome sequences played out was “the most special part” for Coghlan, and that live, communal experience is “what I think we’ve missed the past couple of years.”

During the pandemic, Madeleine has continued to tour the country through various festival premieres, all from the comfort of her own home. She hopes that the virtual platforms built to keep the festival experience alive during quarantine can live on, even as in-person events return, as “different ways of watching and digesting content… It’s kind of nice to have that option for people.” Film lovers who never had the opportunity to travel to Sundance or South by Southwest have now been able to participate in virtual Q&As and premieres in a safe and affordable way, and Coghlan hopes that wider accessibility is here to stay.

For the past few years, Madeline has recurred on ABC’s The Rookie as Abigail, protagonist John Nolan’s future daughter-in-law whose past proves to be more complicated than meets the eye. Of course, filming changed drastically after the second season with the advent of COVID, but the Rookie team was more than ready to adapt to the new rulebook of safety protocols and even implemented some particularly creative ways of ensuring the crew’s health. Camera operators engineered ways to remote control their equipment from afar to cut down on the number of people on set, and “bubble pods” were set up for each cast member. Like something out of a sci-fi movie, these clear tents were individually marked as places where the actors could isolate and rest between takes. “You just had to talk a little louder to other cast members and crew… [and] at the end of the day, they would disinfect and clean them.” For Coghlan, all of the new guidelines to juggle were more than worth it for how safe and protected she felt for all of production, even though she did feel like a goldfish at times with all the people tapping on her bubble. Details about the upcoming fourth season (set to premiere on September 26) are still largely under wraps, but Madeleine did tease that possibilities are open for Abigail’s return.

Earlier this year, Coghlan made her horror comeback with Crypt TV’s Mira Mira, in which she plays the dual roles of a young woman grieving the suicide of her father and the dark spirit that lurks in a mirror in her new home. The series was filmed in Utah closer to the beginning of the pandemic, and the combination of being away from home and working in an unprecedented new reality ended up placing Madeleine more firmly into the uneasiness of her character’s mindset than she’d expected. “I didn’t have the comfort of my stuff and familiarity when I came back after we wrapped for the day.” Between shooting from sunset to sunrise, sleeping during the day, and having to switch between such polar opposite personalities on a dime, Coghlan found herself fully immersed in the world, “[but] it was just nice to have a lot to focus on so I didn’t have to focus on everything else going on in my head. It was a nice break, even though it was terrifying.” When asked about the series of dark roles she’s played in projects like Holidays, Castle, and Mira Mira, she joked that it wasn’t intentional but also clarified, “If I had to choose, I think I would choose that over [a victim]… I think the villain is a little more fun sometimes.” However, for how fun they are, she would like to avoid taking too many of those kinds of roles. “If I keep playing these characters, I won’t be able to anymore, because as soon as I’m on something, people will go, ‘Well obviously she’s the killer because she always is.’”

Conforming to routines and expectations is obviously a habit Madeleine won’t cater to as a performer. Last year, the young actress officially made herself into a multi-hyphenate with Oh, Sorry, a short she wrote and starred in. Working closely with close friend Wyatt Oleff (best known for his role as Stanley in Stephen King’s It) to create “something that resonated with both of us while playing into the chemistry and the dynamic that we also kind of had already,” the two crafted a story of siblings grappling with a family loss. “I was also scared to do it, to really do it, because it was very similar to thoughts and feelings I’d had before. I didn’t really have all the bells and whistles of genre or fantasy… To just decide that it was going to be simple, real-people stuff scared me a bit.” Despite her apprehension, Oleff and her other friends encouraged her to tap into those deep feelings, which produced a very special and unique story of one young woman’s struggle. “It was pretty cathartic and ended up being something I’m really proud of.” A large part of the goal in making Oh, Sorry was clearing away the stigmas surrounding mental health and addressing how anxiety and depression can manifest in so many different ways. “I just think the more we can talk about it the better, to the point where it becomes casual conversation, which I hope we’re heading to. For a long time, it felt like something that was for me, my kitchen, my bathroom, and my bedroom that I could deal with alone or in a journal… Any kind of message that says, ‘I feel this way, and it’s okay if you do too,’ is very important to me.”

Coghlan and Oleff have been friends for a long time, and though she joked that their bond will continue “whether he likes it or not,” she compared it to a sibling connection, often in how Oleff is the one to set her straight in times of need. “Where one of us is maybe not as strong in one thing, the other picks up the slack… Sometimes I want to get very Lynchian or disjointed, and he’s like, ‘Okay, let’s take a step back and see what this is really about.’” Conversely, to take him out of his serious focus, Madeleine admitted that “it’s fun to break him sometimes and make him laugh at something dumb I’m doing.” She’s found their relationship to be an equal one, where they can both build each other up and encourage the other’s talents while never seeming to lose sight of the pure fun of working with your friends. Oleff ended up co-directing Coghlan’s second script, Writer’s Block, something that she described as “a long time coming.” With their strong connection and line of communication already in place, Madeleine felt that they could jump right into the type of natural back-and-forth that can take weeks for a director and actor to cultivate. “Our other director, John [Budion] was really incredible as well, and I think there was a lot of mutual respect on the set. It was all very collaborative.”

In April, Madeleine brought her new film We Burn Like This to Santa Barbara for a world premiere drive-in screening, set up right next to the beach. “It was a nice welcome back to film festivals and also a blast from the past.” She appreciated the “little taste of normalcy” and the opportunity to experience the excitement and energy that just couldn’t be replicated online. Filmed in Montana, We Burn Like This is a “drama about a young girl in her twenties [Coghlan] who’s trying to heal and deal with generational trauma.” The echoes of her family history, namely her grandmother’s survival of the Holocaust, shape a searing coming-of-age narrative that was inspired by writer-director Alana Waksman’s own experience and the antisemitism that still runs rampant in American communities today. “It’s something we don’t always pay as much attention to. What’s in us that isn’t even from our life, but from family and relatives? I think we can be like sponges, so I think it’s really interesting to see that exploration portrayed in film.” The film recently had its international premiere in-competition at the Deauville American Film Festival and has already begun collecting award nominations, including a win for the Directors Choice Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Woods Hole Film Festival. For the closing night of the Montana International Film Festival, the cast and crew will be returning to the Treasure State to showcase the movie to the locals who helped bring it to life. “It’s Montana, so it’s not necessarily Los Angeles or New York where everyone’s just annoyed when things are getting filmed. People were just offering their bars or their homes, and they wanted to be involved.” The Santa Barbara screening was special because her friends and family drove from Los Angeles to share the moment, but she’s especially excited to bring the film back to the people whose generosity and kindness made it happen in the first place.

Coghlan is now settling into the director’s chair with Defibrillator, which follows a young woman returning to her seemingly empty apartment late at night, where chilling and unexplainable occurrences ensue. “It was a very COVID-friendly shoot because I was directing, writing, and [starring] in it.” Former Oh, Sorry collaborator Idan Menin boarded the project as director of photography, and Madeleine praised him for his help with all of the technical aspects of directing that she didn’t have as much experience with, like playback or aspect ratios. “Idan was really good about being like, ‘This is your vision. Let’s make it what you have in your head.’” Working with fellow multi-hyphenate Miranda July on Kajillionaire just inspired Coghlan further to pursue all of her aspirations without sacrificing her own unique vision. Having emphasized her love for Lynchian and Twilight Zone-esque otherworldly narratives, she’d love to continue playing with non-linear narratives, but she’s also making it a goal to also work on those grounded, start-to-finish plots that will challenge her in a healthy way.

Check out We Burn Like This, possibly coming to a theater or festival near you soon. Defibrillator is currently in post-production, but watch out for the vastly talented Madeleine Coghlan’s directorial debut to be released in the near future.

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