Life & Culture

‘I love playing villains; I try to understand them’ says actress Isabelle Fuhrman

The American reprises the shocking character of Esther, a young Estonian girl adopted by an American family, in prequel Orphan: First Kill


Isabelle Fuhrman shocked audiences as Esther, a young Estonian girl adopted by an American family who turns out to be a murderous 31-year-old insane asylum escapee with “proportional dwarfism”, in the 2009 hit horror movie, Orphan.

She was largely unknown at the time and so convincingly blurred the line between adult and child, many people did not realise she was just ten years old when the film was shot.

Esther met a sticky end that left little room for a plausible sequel. You cannot keep a good movie villain down though, and a belated answer to the problem has arrived in the shape of a prequel, Orphan: First Kill. The film not only brings Esther back as a nine-year-old, but, daringly, has Fuhrman reprise the role.

This is even more of a highwire act than Orphan, as the actress was 23 when she put on Esther’s signature ribbons again.

However, Fuhrman, who recently astonished with her commitment and intensity as a dangerously ambitious college rower in the psychological drama The Novice, is nothing if not talented. Helped by camera angles, forced perspective, lighting, child doubles, and a knowing whiff of black humour, she just about pulls it off.
Sitting in a hotel room in LA, dressed entirely in white, her black hair lightened with blonde highlights, Fuhrman, 25, could not look less like a child, or less like the menacing Esther, when we meet over Zoom.

She is at a very different point in her career from when Orphan was released. Then she was 12, and relishing “the first film that I’d ever done that had a huge release. And I was the lead of the movie!” she says cheerfully.

“It was such a surreal moment. I was going to middle school in sixth grade during the week and had this weird Hannah Montana double life where I was doing press junkets on the weekends, but I remember just enjoying every single bit of it.”
Orphan became “a cult classic”.

Even so, it was not until Natalia Grace Barnett, a Ukrainian orphan with dwarfism accused of posing as a child in order to scam people, appeared on Dr Phil, in 2019, in a story that went international, that a company, eOne, agreed to finance another film.

EOne told Fuhrman they were “going to go out and read other people”, angering her agents. “I said, ‘Watch them try and find somebody. I have a feeling they’re not going to be able to.’”

The film’s director, William Brent Bell, said he would only make the film with Fuhrman, and spent a day with her in LA doing camera tests, “just to see if they could make me look like a kid again. And obviously it worked.”

Fuhrman won the part originally with one audition and a callback, beating children and adults. This was not the experience of most of her peers. “I remember watching kids my age audition for things six, seven, eight times before they got cast,” she says. “I think they just knew when they saw me that I was the one to do this role. And I think it’s because I did originate this character, and so much of who she is were things I brought to her, that they couldn’t find somebody else.”

Part of the tension of Esther as a character, in both films, arises from the conflict between her desire as an adult woman and the way she presents as a child.

Working with her 11- and 12-year-old body doubles on Orphan: First Kill reminded Fuhrman that although she felt as if she understood Esther “all the way around” making Orphan, she was actually being protected. “When they were on set, I was like, ‘How do I explain things to them?

How do I explain how to caress somebody’s face in a gentle, loving way?’, because you don’t do that when you’re a kid.”

She remembered how situations were explained to her “in a way that didn’t jeopardise my innocence, for where I was in my life”, but captured the required feeling. A ten-year-old cannot understand “sexual rejection”, says Fuhrman, but “you can understand what it feels like to have someone think you’re absolutely disgusting and ugly, and they don’t want to be anywhere around you. That’s the same feeling at the core base of it.”

Now an adult with an adult’s perspective, her own challenge was to find a way to become the Esther that she was in Orphan. This meant “finding this childhood voice inside of myself and playing with this child that the first time around I had to get rid of to play her. I knew that I could play the woman. But the question was, could I play the child?”

When Fuhrman was growing up, her mother, Elina Fuhrman (née Kozmits), who emigrated to America from Moldavia (now Moldova) in 1989, worked as a correspondent for CNN International.

She won awards for her coverage of the war in Afghanistan and the September 11 attacks, and reported on the conflict in the Middle East and the trial of Slobodan Milosevic.

The actress has said she is drawn to villains, such as Clove, the ruthless career tribute she played in The Hunger Games (2012), and it is clear from her films that she finds the darker side of human behaviour compelling. This makes me wonder if she sees a link with her mother’s work, and its possible formative influence.

“I think I grew up with a genuine curiosity for human emotion and humans in general,” she says non-commitally. “What I find really fascinating about playing villains is not necessarily the crimes they commit but rather the stories they tell themselves that create what they think is hero behaviour, and that is just completely immoral to anyone on the outside watching it.”

She never judges her characters: “I really feel like that’s what helps me when I’m tackling characters like Esther: I just try and love them and understand where they’re coming from. Maybe I do a good job playing villains because nobody just wants to watch someone be bad. You’d rather watch someone do something that they believe in, and that’s almost more terrifying.”

In 2020, Elina wrote an article about returning to Moldova for the first time in 30 years, and about her life behind the Iron Curtain. Nowhere did she mention being Jewish. Fuhrman also didn’t talk about it in any of the interviews I read for research.

I was told to avoid personal questions by the junket organisers, but since Esther is an immigrant from a former Soviet Union country, I ask Fuhrman if her mother has ever talked to her about the difference between being Jewish in the USSR and the United States.

“Yeah, she has,” she says brightly. “She actually wasn’t allowed to practise any religion, so she never grew up with any of it. Funnily enough, we discuss this a lot. She is Jewish by blood, but never grew up practising any religion, and my dad was adopted and Irish, so probably Catholic, but was adopted by a Jewish family.”

She relates a story about her pregnant great-grandmother being thrown off a train after fainting, and giving birth to her grandmother in the countryside. Her great-grandmother was a closed book and the details were sketchy. When Fuhrman was auditioning for a role, they discovered a ledger that revealed she was being taken to Auschwitz.

“We were all shocked, because I don’t think we realised what exactly her life had been like. And because of where she grew up, she’d been terrified to talk to anyone about it. Even when she moved to the United States, after my mum came here and brought her and my grandmother over as refugees, there was still so much secrecy, and she was still so terrified to even say who she actually was.”

America gave the family freedom. “We celebrated Jewish holidays, and we still do,” says Fuhrman, who was born in Washington DC.

“But at the same time, we celebrated New Year’s, because that was the only holiday my mum could celebrate growing up. So I feel like I got a mixture of all sorts of things.”

Living in Atlanta, Georgia, as a child, she went to a non-Jewish school, but since moving to LA, she says: “I think I’ve gotten to be more in touch with my Jewish heritage.”

Orphan: First Kill is in cinemas today and will stream in the autumn

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