Inside the Bizarre, Campy Brilliance of ‘Orphan: First Kill’

·6 min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Paramount+
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Paramount+

The central conceit of Orphan: First Kill is so absurd as to (almost) defy coherent explanation: Isabelle Fuhrman, who rose to fame when she was 12 in 2009’s Orphan (in which she played Esther, a violent 33-year-old woman with a hormonal disorder who poses as a child) now reprises the role in a prequel film, out Friday. Press for Orphan: First Kill has emphasized that no CGI was used to make Fuhrman (now 25 years old) look more like her younger self—a trick that took strenuous work to pull off.

“I was squatting a lot of the time and walking in a squat,” Fuhrman told The Daily Beast during a recent interview. “I had a good thigh workout every single day.”

Julia Styles, who joins the cast to play one of Esther’s first marks, sported “massive” platform boots for her shared scenes with Fuhrman—who, when she wasn’t perfecting her squat-walk, also spent a lot of time riding around on small moving chairs that allowed her to “walk” beside characters and appear shorter.

For both Fuhrman and director William Brent Bell, practical effects were the only way to go. “Otherwise,” the actress said, “everyone’s gonna be watching and going, ‘Well, you can see that it’s all CGI.’” (Just ask Star Wars fans how they feel about Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing’s CGI-assisted resurrections.)

Although Fuhrman does not necessarily look like a clone of her former self when she played a 9-year-old 13 years ago (honestly, who could?), she does capture the same malignant-kid energy that made her original performance so captivating. And thanks to returning dialect coach Eric Armstrong, she sounds eerily similar, too.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Paramount+</div>
Paramount+

Truth be told, however, the wisdom of Orphan: First Kill lies in its humor. Everyone involved, including Fuhrman, director Bell, screenwriter David Coggeshall, and franchise newcomer Styles, seems to have embraced the campy spirit that made the original such a wicked treat. It’s the idea itself—the wacky experiment at the film’s center—that fans will flock to see, and they’ll be rewarded for doing so; it’s a blast.

Beyond reuniting with Armstrong to get her pitch just right, Fuhrman credits her own notes, scribbled onto her original Orphan scripts as a tween, with helping her rediscover Esther.

“I knew that the adult Isabelle would make choices as an actress that were more intelligent, but when I was a kid, I made choices based on the emotions that were presented to me—which was a different place to think from,” Fuhrman said. “I really had to kind of marry the two of those things together in order to find her again. It was through rediscovering what it was like for me to feel young and bouncy and goofy that I was able to kind of drop back into Esther as a character.”

Fuhrman also worked with two body doubles—child actors Kennedy Irwin and Sadie Lee—whom she credits with helping her embody the character. Working with them was eye-opening, she said, as she and her fellow producers tried to contextualize certain scenes while also preserving the girls’ childish innocence. She recalled receiving the same protection on the set of the original Orphan.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Warner Bros./Everett</div>
Warner Bros./Everett

While revisiting her old notes, Fuhrman noticed that for one of the 2009 film’s most chilling scenes, in which Peter Sarsgaard’s character rejects Esther’s sexual advances, her notes read something like, “‘He thinks you’re ugly, gross, and disgusting, and he doesn’t love you anymore.’ It’s not exactly what sexual rejection is, but it’s close enough that it looks the same in the movie.” Fuhrman used the same strategy while talking to her young body doubles. “When I was talking with the girls on this one, there’s a scene where I caress Ross’ (Rossif Sutherland’s) face... I just said, ‘Try and count all of his wrinkles,’” she recalled telling them. It got the job done.

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For years, an Orphan offshoot seemed unlikely. But then came the Natalia Grace case—a viral news story in which a pair of adoptive parents in the U.S. charged with neglect for allegedly abandoning their adoptive Ukrainian daughter claimed that she was actually an adult con artist and “sociopath.” Most of the charges against the couple have been dismissed, per Deadline, and Grace has denied being an adult scam artist. The story is now the subject of an upcoming Hulu series starring Ellen Pompeo.

Inspired by the number of people sending her the news story and noticing its obvious Orphan parallels, Fuhrman reached out to original screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick. “He was like, ‘Actually, we have a script for a prequel, but we took it out a couple years ago and nobody really wanted it.’ And I was like, ‘Why don’t you take it out right now?’”

The timely hook was evidently all it took. Still, as one might imagine, Fuhrman did have her doubts at times, especially as she learned to live in a squat and roll around on her tiny chairs. Could this really come together and look somewhat convincing? It was a question that Fuhrman’s mother asked her more than once during their phone conversations while the actress was in production.

“I was like, ‘I have no clue. I have no clue. I won’t know until I see it,’” Fuhrman said. “Then I remember when I got the stills of the movie to approve, I was like, ‘These look really good. This actually kind of looks like it worked.’ And then when I saw the movie, I was like, ‘It totally worked.’”

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In some ways, Orphan: First Kill is even creepier than the original; after all, there is something undeniably unsettling about watching a 25-year-old hop around like a child—even if she really is playing a 33-year-old impersonating a 9-year-old. More than the scares, however, this is a film that knows (and loves) that its fans are in on the joke. And although viewers who’ve seen the original (or read literally anything about it) will walk into Orphan: First Kill with full knowledge of Esther’s scam, there are still plenty of surprises to come.

“The reboots and sequels and prequels that I’ve seen recently, they do give the fans what they want, but they kind of fall into this trap of being the same story told over again,” Fuhrman said. “With this, I think we really wanted to lean into the fact that we know Esther’s secret now. And it is kind of funny—it is funny to be a grown-up woman, pretending to be a child, trying to pretend to be a member of a family that you don’t have any clue about. And to be brought to a completely new world in the United States, with a rich family in Connecticut, and to think that you have the upper hand. Because she doesn’t.”

If anyone knows how to deceive, manipulate, and murder their way out of a bind, however, it’s Esther—aka Leena Klammer, aka the girl who haunted kids’ nightmares all throughout the 2010s. Thinking back on the role now, Fuhrman notes that, ironically, “I think it made me a better person. Because whenever I meet people, I always feel like I have to overcompensate—let them know that I’m nice and I’m not actually scary.”

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