[The following story contains spoilers for Old.]
Aaron Pierre’s Old performance is one of few words, but his character, rapper Mid-Sized Sedan, is fueling a whole conversation around M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, thanks in part to his attention-grabbing name.
That may be the point of the fictional rap star, whose given name isn’t revealed to his fellow beach goers and the audience until well into the movie. For actor Pierre, who says Shyamalan “pre-determined” that stage name, Mid-Size is a conversation about duality and a chance to examine our own snap judgments.
A celebrity introvert modeled after “conscious hip-hop” artists, Mid-Size serves as viewers’ entryway into Old‘s mysterious beach — an introduction that is deceptive in more ways than one. After having his quiet escape interrupted by a group of vacationing families and couples, the rapper finds himself having to go on the defensive when the body of a young woman floats up shortly after the group has gotten settled on the seemingly serene sands.
With suspicions about him firmly raised, and things on the island quickly spiraling into the horrifically weird, the tight-lipped musician — who eventually reveals his name is Brendan — finds himself having to stave off not only the rational fears he shares with his fellow rapidly aging beachgoers but their violent and irrational ones, too.
For fans of Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters’ graphic Sandcastle, which inspired Old, Brendan’s arc shares some similarities with at least one character from the graphic novel. Yet, like everything else in Shyamalan’s Old, it’s both heavily adapted and aggressively ramped up for the screen. The result is one of Shyamalan’s most direct conversations about racism and a sympathetically guarded character who has nearly as many twists as the film.
In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, actor Aaron Pierre — who broke out this year as Caesar in Barry Jenkins The Underground Railroad — discusses how he and director Shyamalan built his quiet and brooding character, how they explored racism on that time-warping beach and at least part of what that rapper name is all about.
You and Barry Jenkins connected via Twitter DM after he saw you in a production of Othello, which led to your work on The Underground Railroad. I’m curious about how you got attached to Old?
The process for Old was a little bit more of the usual process. If I remember correctly, my team sent me an email just letting me know that there’s this wonderful opportunity to collaborate with M. Night. As you can imagine, we didn’t have the script. It was just the sides. So in that situation, it’s always a challenge but it’s a positive challenge because you have the opportunity to attempt to fill the gaps when you don’t have any of the script.
I remember taping for that and just sort of giving it my best, giving it my interpretation. And then I think, actually, a few months passed by before we heard anything. Usually, by that point, you wonder whether it’s out of your grasp, but it turned out that it wasn’t and I had the opportunity to read the script and had the opportunity to work with M. Night over Zoom. I remember at the end of the Zoom, I was like, “So are we doing it?” He hadn’t offered me anything at that point, but I say what’s on my mind sometimes. He was like, “Well, we’re gonna get our teams to talk.” (Laughs.) But he implied, yeah we absolutely are doing it and he was excited to work together. And I was, of course, over the moon to collaborate with M. Night who, to me, is just a genius. Just a masterful storyteller.
You said you didn’t have the full script when you were auditioning, so at what point did you first read the ending and what did you think about it?
The first script that I read was some time ago now, and I can’t actually remember what that ending was, but I do remember when we saw the premiere, being like, “Wow, that’s dope.” That’s the version that I had seen when he sent it not long before I flew out to New York and just seeing it on the big screen was for me the perfect ending, and the perfect note to end on given the story that had just taken place before.
Aaron Pierre as Mid-Sized Sedan in Old.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Most of the movie is filmed in a single location: the beach. At times, while watching, that made it feel more like a stage play with the way your and other characters occupied that single space and moved around on screen. I also imagine that working primarily on the sand might have created some walking issues — trips or slips. Did you run into any trouble having to perform on that beach and what was it like mostly filming in that single location?
No, we didn’t, and that’s genuinely the truth. No incidents occurred. But what I will say to you is that you are so attentive and so observing because you just brought up theater and plays and M. Night used to say this is like a play, and he used to refer to us as his theatre troupe. We would have to work as a theater ensemble because although the beach is vast and the sea is vast, it’s all very similar. It’s one location. What that means is that we are not relying on anything fancy to tell this story. We’re relying on conversations between these characters — the moments of things having come to attention, as opposed to any sort of crazy lighting or whatnot. That was so wonderful to do. It really brought us together as an ensemble, as a group, and it was just a beautiful experience. And just on a side note, to go to work every day, and it be this beautiful beach in the Caribbean was just — I never thought that would ever be an experience that I would have.
To follow that, you weren’t just working on a beach. You were also working in hurricane season and during COVID, which I think separately are very intense experiences. But together, it very likely complicated your work. What was the most challenging and then the most surprising thing about filming under those conditions?
The most challenging thing was also the most beautiful thing. It was being at the mercy of nature. You can’t control the sea, or the ocean, the way you can control a light. When the sea and the tide decide that it’s taking your beach, that’s just it. It’s not like you can change that, so we had to really be in tune with the sea, and the tide and how much of the beach we were going to have that day. We can’t be in control of the sunset. The sun might set an hour earlier than you anticipated. These are things that you can’t control and just to be at the mercy of that was the most challenging thing, but also the most beautiful thing, because of the subject matter.
We were dealing with time. We’re dealing with our relationship with time, in this day and age, and all the things that encompass that and come with that. Working at this time was a really unique experience. I think there were many people who weren’t working at this time and it was a privilege. Night has said to us many times this couldn’t have been made at any other time with any other group of people. It was a really special environment, each day. As you can imagine, because it was COVID, we were with each other a lot. That just really connected us and encouraged us to do the best work we can.
Mid-Size is the first character we see on the beach, but is one of the last people we learn significant details about. How much about your role was on the page and how much did you discuss who this character was with M. Night? Did you have to fill in any details to help inform that performance?
I remember having many conversations with M. Night when we were out in the Caribbean filming. Night is such an open book, and he is so generous with his wealth of knowledge, experience and also insight. Any question you might have when you’re part of his process, no question is a silly question. He’s so happy to involve himself and answer any questions you might have.
We definitely spoke at length about Mid-Size Sedan — about Brendan — and we came to a place. We obviously had the character which he presented to me and then he was also — this is why I say he’s so open — open to me having suggestions about what his influences might be as a young Black man and as a musician. Even down to his hair. M. Night was so excited because I arrived in the Dominican [Republic] with braids. At that point in time, it was the middle of the pandemic, the barber wasn’t open, my braids were like all the way back here. (Laughs.) And I was certainly open to any hairstyle but that hairstyle particularly really spoke to me, and it felt very correct, and in tune with this character that we were creating. And M. Night was like, “Absolutely, let’s do it.”
Then also, just again, speaking about what his influences might be, for me, I thought I created this conscious hip-hop musician in my mind. Someone who was influenced by the likes of J. Cole, of Kendrick Lamar, of Nipsey Hussle — artists like that. I wanted to influence Mid-Sized, so we spoke about so many different things, all the way down to how he speaks versus how before he speaks an audience might react to him. We spoke about so much and we had such an amazing time and it was such an open conversation at all times.
I was wondering if you know the backstory on the name Mid-Sized Sedan. I thought it was interesting ahead of the film and after watching it, it spoke to me in a different way and I got very curious about where it might have come from. But I could just be reading too much into it, so I would love to hear what you know.
I would actually like to know what you thought.
I think it’s somewhat of a joke, but also your character is having a very specific conversation about othering and obviously, previous M. Night work covers that theme. The first name that we attach to your character is ascribed to this indistinguishable giant metal machine and that I think sets up a perception of who Mid-Size — this looming Black character — is to the other people on the beach. It felt like a conversation about who you think people are before you ever talk to them, and how that changes once you learn more about them. Brendan has a humanity that people were not affording him for various reasons when they first entered the beach.
I think that’s a really attentive observation. The name was already pre-determined, so M. Night had already come up with that name. But it’s so great to hear you say all of the things that you just said because those are conversations we had once we arrived on set, and in that rehearsal space about his name, for example, and what might that name — that perception — give people.
To add to that, he has the tattoos. He has the jewelry. And although the jewelry was not excessive, and the tattoos were intentional, people don’t always take the time to ask questions about those things, and can sometimes just come to a quick estimation of your character and sort of put you down as that. But really when you get to know Mid-Size, when you get to know Brendan, you find out that he went through extensive education, you find out all of these other sorts of things. I think it’s just a really wonderful moment, if you do pick up on it as an audience member, to say wow, as cliche as it may sound, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and you need to take the time to understand and empathize.
There’s one comedic moment that really stuck out to me because it draws on something I had thought about walking in knowing that this was a movie about aging with Black characters, but that I doubted I’d actually see: the black don’t crack joke. Was that always in the script and did you ever get into any of the aging makeup?
That line was absolutely intentional, and it was put in there by Night. (Laughs.) I did have aging makeup but it was very minimal. I think, if I remember correctly, it was around the eyes and around the smile lines. I’m not sure where you were sitting [at the premiere] but it was so nice to see that reaction from the audience. The way the auditorium sort of lit up was crazy but it was really funny.
There is a very conscious space socially and physically between Mid-Size and the group, almost the entire film. In the beginning, I assumed it was about his celebrity status, but by the end, it felt like a response to one specific beachgoer and his racism. For you, what was driving Mid-Size’s isolation and then, eventually, his fear?
To me, on my journey sort of creating this character and my explanation for the initial distance that he has with many of the people on the beach, it actually stemmed from a place of being not a recluse, but being introverted. I think I’m a strong believer that things can coexist. A person can have a career which is in the entertainment industry, for example, but they can still be an introvert, and when those lights go off or their mic cuts out, they’re back to themselves. They’re not in performance mode anymore and that can be a completely different character to the one that people may know and love as the actor or the musician.
So I established him as an introvert, that was my explanation for him, but later on in the script, it then certainly became a thing of, yes I’m an introvert, but I also am safeguarding myself from any potential harm, given the tension that is on the beach, and also my life experience. Because when you’re in a situation like Old puts you in, where things are ramped up to the very highest level, your life experience is going to creep into your mind and you’re going to say, “Well, if that’s the case on a day to day basis, what happens in a time where time is not as we understand it?” So that also influenced his distance at times.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Your character’s demise is a bit different from the others. You don’t die directly as a result of trying to get off the beach or aging but after being stabbed by someone. Everyone’s death speaks to a larger message in this film, so what does your character’s death speak to?
I don’t know what M. Night’s answer may be to this, but the answer that I had for it is, it was speaking to the violence that Black people around the world have experienced, and continue to experience. That’s what it was for me because I think this movie — yes, it is a thriller, yes there are comedic moments, yes there are moments that make you jump. But I think what M. Night does so well is it’s also a commentary on what’s happening in the world, and what he is observing. And I think that Mid-Size’s passing speaks to that violence.
The twist — that the resort is just a front for a medical research group that’s using the beach to find cures and treatments — is not in the graphic novel. But it’s seemingly in line with M. Night’s library, which is full of twists as morality lessons. More specifically, it feels like it speaks to the real unethical practices and discriminatory history of medicine and medical testing when it comes to people of color, people with illnesses and disabilities. From your perspective, how much of that was an intentional conversation in how you, Shyamalan and the cast acted out this narrative, and how much of that was just a byproduct conversation of the twist?
Something that I love the most about his work is the specificity. Everything is specific and everything is detailed and I believe everything is intentional. And I wish that you could have been present at our rehearsal reads and our table reads, to see how in-depth we all went with conversations about the themes within this movie because it was something that was so important for each of the cast members. It wasn’t just a movie for any of us. It was a really important project to be part of, at this point in time, with this incredible filmmaker. And to answer your question, yes we spoke at length about all of these things and what it meant to each of us; how we hoped it would be received by an audience and what they might understand from this movie.
One final — and lighter — question. Correct me if I’m wrong, but your character seemed to appear around sunset and maybe spent the night on the beach before the rest of the group arrived. How old do you think he was by the time his beach vacation came to an end?
If I remember correctly, Mid-Sized arrived in the early hours of the morning and they arrive, I think it’s sort of like in the afternoon-ish. So I suppose he was aging slightly beforehand. And this is going to be really boring, but I’m not going to answer that question. (Laughs.) I want people to guess how old my man was when he left the beach because it’s — especially given the line you mentioned — like, “How old was my man when he got on the beach and left the beach?” (Laughs.)
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.