When I reviewed Poor Agnes for the Fantasia International Film Festival, I knew that Lora Burke was someone I had to speak with. In the film, she plays Agnes Poelzl, a brilliant, psychopath serial killer. Poor Agnes is easily the best movie I’ve seen all year, and it’s become one of my favorites. Lora Burke’s performance was the best part of the movie, and I’m very excited that we got to speak with her about her role in this fantastic film.
PopHorror: Hi Lora! How are you?
Lora Burke: Hi! I’m good.
PopHorror: Great! First off, could you give us a brief description of Poor Agnes and your role in the film?
Lora Burke: Sure. So Agnes is a troubled young woman who has sociopathic tendencies. She lives in her own secluded world, trying to stay away from everybody and just, basically, live out her life. And then unwillingly, Robert Notman’s character, Mike, is almost thrust upon her and she uses it as an opportunity to try and inject some excitement into her regular, mundane life. We go through a journey of power and struggle and deprivation. Some wild and crazy bad things happen to him (laughs).
PopHorror: Oh, yeah. It was rough at times. I was definitely surprised.
Lora Burke: Yeah, it shocks. I remember reading the script and asking, “What is happening?”
PopHorror: The one scene where Agnes tells Mike to stab himself was definitely a difficult scene to watch.
Lora Burke: Yeah, when I was reading the script, the most shocking part to me was the dinner table scene when Chris has obviously been mentally affected by the drugs that she’s given him and can’t speak properly. Agnes starts making fun of him; I couldn’t believe it.
PopHorror: Yeah, that was something I was wondering about. How did you, you know, what was that like for you?
Lora Burke: For me as Lora?
PopHorror: Yeah, for you as Lora. The things that you said were terrible.
Lora Burke: Shocking, yeah. It was so bad. I think I just had to have the confidence in myself to just kind of let go of Lora in that moment and know that nobody is judging me as a person for what I’m saying; it’s all acting. I think without doing tha,t it wouldn’t have worked. If I would have been self-conscious, or me that was saying these words, then Poor Agnes wouldn’t have been as well received as it’s been. You just have to dive right in and hope that nobody judges you as a person.
PopHorror: You did a good job. I’ve said before that they could have put someone else in the film, and I don’t think it would have been the same movie. There were little things that you did, and I don’t know if they were conscious decisions or if they just happened naturally, but when you would hurt Mike or Chris, there would always be this slight smirk across your face. It added to the character and made Agnes scarier than what she was. It was like she enjoyed it.
Lora Burke: I don’t necessarily think it was a conscious decision. It’s not like I thought, “Oh, I’m going to smile here.” The whole thing is is that Agnes is bored. She’s borderline depressed. Nothing excites her. That’s why they have the scene in the van at the beginning with the old man. She’s killing him, and it just doesn’t do anything for her. So once Mike and Chris get involved, it’s kind of like a rebirth for her. She’s finding enjoyment in life again. I let that seep into it, and as a result of that, the smirks came out (laughs).
PopHorror: It worked. Do you think that Agnes was just lonely? Just craving affection? She basically lives in the Canadian wilderness, very isolated.
Lora Burke: I don’t know if lonely is the right word. I think that she chose to be in a life of isolation. She would’ve quite happily been left alone. Maybe she didn’t realize she was lonely until she got Mike involved, and then she realized that maybe human connection isn’t so bad.
PopHorror: One of the things that I found really interesting was the chemistry between you and Robert Notman. It felt real. Not just a relationship, but the power dynamics and everything. It all felt very real and organic.
Lora Burke: Oh, yeah. I’m the one in charge (laughs).
PopHorror: I can really only put it this way. You two were the perfect people to play these characters. You just couldn’t have had the same movie with two other people. What was it like working with Robert?
Lora Burke: It was very fun. He actually comes from a comedic background. He’s a very funny guy. It was actually really nice to have him on set, not to say that nobody else was funny, but he definitely gave light, comic relief during what was very dark material. It was nice to have him there just to lighten things up, which he did in between takes. He’s very infectious. Just a really great guy. We got on really well outside of work, so then we could be comfortable enough with each other while I was doing these horrible things to him. There’s a trust there, a really nice trust between the two of us.
PopHorror: Absolutely. Did you have to apologize to him at all? You were brutal.
Lora Burke: I don’t think I did (laughs). I didn’t want the power dynamic to shift at all. You know, I was Agnes, and Agnes wouldn’t apologize. No, I don’t think I did. There was one scene when I threw gasoline in his face. I purposely… I made a conscious decision as Agnes to throw it. I was dousing him with it, and I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna get this first splash right in his face.” That was kind of Lora; I wanted to do it. I might have apologized for that one.
PopHorror: So why do you think that Mike wanted to stay? What was it about Agnes that attracted him to her, despite all of the terrible thing she’d done?
Lora Burke: From the initial time they meet, or after she starts doing all of the crazy things to him?
PopHorror: After things started to get crazy. You know, there were times where he definitely could have escaped. When he went to the grocery store, he didn’t have to go back.
Lora Burke: I don’t think that he wanted to stay, necessarily. Stockholm Syndrome is a theme that’s running through the film. She molded him so much, broke his will. She broke him down to nothing and then built him back up and molded him into what she wanted him to be. He was so petrified of any repercussions. He just wouldn’t even think about it. It was like a trigger had gone off in his brain. The thought of leaving was just unfathomable.
PopHorror: Stockholm Syndrome is absolutely a prevalent theme throughout Poor Agnes.
Lora Burke: Yeah, for sure. I did some research on it ahead of time to try and understand. Even James, our writer, when he was writing. There’s actually a manual that tells you how to basically break someone down to the point of them, as a person, basically disappears and then you build them up to be the person you want them to be. There are tests that you can do to see if they’re loyal to you or not. Her sending him to the grocery store was a test to see how well she’d done. I just think she enjoys lording over people.
PopHorror: I didn’t actually know that there was a manual on something like that.
Lora Burke: Yeah, he had mentioned it to me. We had a meeting before we even went to camera, and we all had to sit down and have a chat and just talk to the character. It was really helpful to have that time before we got to Thunder Bay.
PopHorror: That leads into my next question; how did you prepare for the role of Agnes?
Lora Burke: I read a lot and watched a lot of YouTube videos, specifically looking a psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists… anybody that fell into that kind of category. It was really hard to find female specimens to look at and study. The woman that kept coming up was Aileen Wuornos. Charlize Theron played her in Monster. She kept coming up time and time again, but to me she was a completely different character to Agnes. So there was all of that research, and then the sit down with everyone was huge. Then I just tried to embody the physicality and use what I had read and seen and just let it seep through.
PopHorror: Agnes is a totally different kind of villain. First and foremost, she’s a female. But not only is she a female, she’s strong and she’s not only using her brains to take care of her victims. Often, we see female killers and it’s only like a black widow type of character. They’re only using their brains and outsmarting them. Agnes is different; she could beat you up.
Lora Burke: She’s obviously smaller in stature than some of her victims, but yeah, like you said, she’s not only clever, but she has physical strength as well. That’s great. It’s great to play a different character. Yes, there’s comic books and obviously Wonder Woman is huge right now, but she’s not a villain. Agnes is kind of set apart. She’s not like any of those strong females, because she doesn’t care about doing the right thing. She just is what she is. It was a great challenge for me as well, the physical aspect. I am a physical person. I come from a dance background, so that was really nice for me. I went to boxing, I was always a tomboy growing up, so it was great for me. I loved it. Chopping the wood, I never chopped wood before. I was really nervous. I took my first swing and it was a clean cut.
PopHorror: (laughs) It looked like you were doing it for forever!
Lora Burke: Thanks! I was actually worried about my eyes on set. I was like, “Can I put safety goggles on?” They said I didn’t need them, and we just went for it and it worked.
PopHorror: There was the one scene where she beats up the cop.
Lora Burke: Ah, yes, outside of the car.
PopHorror: Yeah, I was curious, though, and I don’t know if you know the answer to this. Near the end of the film, Agnes is in the back of a car, presumably on her way to prison. She kept saying that she was going to be sick, and we do see her get sick. Did she force herself to get sick? Almost like she was outsmarting them, or was it genuine sickness?
Lora Burke: I think they cut a line out. She made herself vomit. In the original script, she says something about drinking.She basically drank a ton of milk that morning, and she made herself get sick. It wasn’t like she was ill.
PopHorror: I figured that she was doing it on purpose.
Lora Burke: Oh, yeah. That was all part of the snowball down the hill into her escape.
PopHorror: I’m a big fan of the ending, where you see Mike turn around, and you don’t see who he’s looking at, but you just know that it’s Agnes.
Lora Burke: Is it, though? Let me ask you… Do you think it was Agnes? It was purposefully left ambiguous.
PopHorror: You know, I think it is. Throughout the whole film, the dynamic between the two. I think they really were fond of each other and they wanted to, not to get all sappy and love story like, but they wanted to be back together. It’s such a weird relationship, but I ultimately think they wanted to be together. I like that it was ambiguous, because there were so many different possibilities.
Lora Burke: Oh, yeah. You can take it however you want. James’ writing was really great. He did an amazing job.
PopHorror: It’s always interesting to see what the writers can do with a script. It was a very dark movie, but there was still this dark humor to the film. Some of the things that Robert said were funny; some of the things that you said were funny.
Lora Burke: Yeah, I think that you needed that in there. I think that’s why James put it in there, to kind of break up the darkness. Just to throw in those sprinkles of humor.
PopHorror: Of course. Not every film can be a complete soul crusher from beginning to end. It’s exhausting for the audience, the actors, the directors, everyone.
Lora Burke: Yeah, it is. It alienates an audience, as well. Using that little bit of dark humor, it hooks you back in. When something really terrible just happened, it’s like, “Why am I laughing?”
PopHorror: There were definitely times where I knew I shouldn’t be laughing, but I was anyway. Was there anything else that you wanted to touch upon?
Lora Burke: Yeah, it was just really great to be a part of this project. I think it’s really interesting timing wise, when we came out. Stuff that’s going on, kind of, globally right now. It’s interesting to see how it parallels between Agnes and without being too specific, world leaders. Just complete and utter self-absorption, whether it’s Agnes or others who are just controlling the lives of others. You know, just complete and utter self-absorption and self-belief and self-power. It was just kind of interesting, the timing when we came out.
I just wonder, if Agnes was put into a position of power, would she have been that kind of leader? Or would she have used her sociopathic tendencies for better? If she didn’t have this desire to kill, I think she could have been a brilliant person. I think she knows that, as well. I don’t think it made the film, but in the original script, she mentions what she could have been had she had a greater projection on life. Instead, she ended up in a cesspool.
PopHorror: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you don’t know too much about Agnes throughout the whole film. You don’t know how she ended up where she is. So much is left to the imagination, so it’s interesting to think about how she ended up the way that she is.
Lora Burke: Of course. I spoke with James about this, as well. He had his ideas, but had not written a backstory. We discussed it, and it helped, you know, asking all of these questions. I just really enjoyed playing her. It’s always fun being the villain.
PopHorror: I agree. Being the bad guy in horror films is a pretty good deal. The good guy always suffers throughout. One final question: do you think we’ll see anymore of Agnes, or is her story over?
Lora Burke: I don’t know, honestly. I’d love to see, not a prequel, but a beginnings of. How she got here, basically. Fleshing her out. Just finding out more about how she became who she is.
PopHorror: Hopefully, we get to see that. Thank you so much again for you time, Lora. I really appreciate it.
Lora Burke: Thanks, Matt!
Lora Burke did a phenomenal job at playing Agnes, and it was a lot of fun speaking to her about the role. Be sure to check out our review of Poor Agnes, and stay tuned for whatever role we get to see Lora Burke in next!