How Warner Bros. Found Their Shining Stone in Actor Kyliegh Curran
Georgia preteens pressed up against their classroom window to watch as Kyliegh Curran received the news of her latest casting. The hallways filled with whispered cheers as Curran’s mother relayed the message to her outside of her reading class. “Kyliegh,” she recalls her mom saying in the school hallway, “You’re going to be in a movie!” After a couple auditions on tape and a callback from director Mike Flanagan, it was settled. Curran was going to star in Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep (2019), the sequel to King’s haunted hotel story, The Shining.
Doctor Sleep picks up on the iconic story of Danny Torrance, the young, telepathic boy who rode his tricycle through the deserted Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The sequel takes place 40 years after Danny’s traumatizing experience at the Overlook Hotel. In an effort to find peace of mind, Danny tries to cut his bad coping habits and settle down somewhere once and for all. However, the potential for peace is shattered when Danny meets Abra Stone, a young girl who also possesses an extrasensory gift, what King termed “the shine.”
Flanagan’s film stars Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance and Curran, in her major feature debut, as Abra Stone. It’s hard not to doubt Curran’s age; she acts much older than she is. The now 13-year-old brings an air of confidence and ease to the table that one might associate with an “old soul.”
Perhaps this apparent wisdom is linked to Curran’s multi-city upbringing. Born in Miami, Curran practiced theater in a conservatory at Actors Playhouse in first and second grade. “[The conservatory] taught me the basics of music and acting,” said Curran.
She took her first bow at that very theater in Coral Gables, a flourishing Spanish-style area located southwest of Downtown Miami. This was the location that facilitated Curran’s appreciation for the arts, a place where she was first given the opportunity to be in the spotlight. By the end of Curran’s first show, Madeline’s Christmas, she had a realization: “This is my life now!”
Coral Gables was ultimately a launching point to even greater achievements. “I think [Actors Playhouse] is very close to Broadway, so that was a very good base for when I moved up to New York,” said Curran. For eight months, Curran and her mom would wake up in Manhattan. Curran, who landed the role of young Nala in Broadway’s production of Julie Taymor’s The Lion King, looks back at her time in New York with a tinge of nostalgia. Taymor’s production concept of presenting actors as animals simultaneously with puppetry won Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Musical and for Best Costumes in 1998. It was Curran’s first major theatrical role yet.
Every day in the city was an opportunity for Curran to explore with her mother. They’d go to the market and spend time in the park before Curran’s performances. Oftentimes, they would meet up with Mehret Marsh, the other young actor performing the role of young Nala, cultivating a friendship Curran still cherishes today. Curran fondly recalls the cast of The Lion King when considering who has supported and informed her career as an actor. “We’re all very supportive of each other,” said Curran. “We help each other practice. We make up dance routines. It’s a very inclusive community.”
However, New York and Miami had their setbacks. While Curran praises both cities for being musically oriented, she recognizes that her current success is directly linked to Atlanta’s booming film industry. “Atlanta is very film based,” Curran said in an appreciative tone. “More studios and more opportunity for film.” Juggling attendance at the British Academy of Performing Arts, an acting academy in Marietta, the Renaissance International School of Performing Arts in Milton, working with a voice teacher and acting coach and participating in theater, Curran also manages to complete her academic work, spend time with her siblings and friends and attend dance classes. “The dance programs are amazing here,” Curran said as she listed her dance classes off both of her hands. “Two classes of ballet, two classes of jazz, modern and tap.”
Curran’s discipline and maturity level are the key components to her success. The young actor understands the level of mastery and work ethic that is required to become a star. However, her love for horror sets her apart from other child actors, many who would not dare to take on the dark material Curran developed and performed in Doctor Sleep. “I will never push for a child to audition for something the parent feels is not appropriate,” said a Georgia talent agent who prefers to remain anonymous. “It is the agent’s job to present the opportunity. It is the parent’s job to monitor the material, protect their child and decide whether their child is mature enough to handle certain material.”
“They’ve always been super supportive,” Curran said in regard to what her parents think about her role in Doctor Sleep. “They were there to help me if I ever felt uncomfortable.”
“The smartest thing I see are parents who keep their kids grounded, respectful of others, maintain a normal life off set and allow them to be kids when they are not [at] work,” said the Georgia-based agent, who has specialized in representing young talent in both Atlanta and Los Angeles.
“It was great to have my mom or my dad on set,” said Curran. “One day my mom saw me on the monitors and was like, ‘Kyliegh, you did so well!’ And we went out and got ice cream; it was amazing.”
As bright and positive as Curran is, she admits to her affinity for anything horror. When she’s not being a kid, she is immersing herself in the horror genre in both film and literary mediums. Curran has watched Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan’s terrifying filmography and is currently reading Stephen King’s The Stand. “My brain just exploded; there was so much suspense,” said Curran, shifting the conversation from her own roots to her admiration of Doctor Sleep’s origins, Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining.
Curran’s mother is usually her partner in exploring the genre, but Curran even had trouble convincing her to watch Kubrick’s film. The Shining is a disturbing, psychological thriller. The film starts at the Overlook Hotel, a beautiful establishment that needs a capable caretaker for the upcoming winter.
Jack Torrance, played by a young Jack Nicholson, arrives at the hotel for an interview. He is warned that a past caretaker who tried to stay the winter ended up butchering his family and taking his own life before the season came to a close.
Torrance, desperate for a quiet place to finish his writing, accepts the position anyways. He gathers his wife and son, played by Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd respectively, and he drives them to the hotel with high hopes to finally complete his book. However, the empty Overlook is anything but quiet; it is home to spirits that terrify and coerce the Torrance family, while also distorting time and space.
“My mom refused to watch The Shining with me,” said Curran. “Before the callback, my dad and I watched [it].” Curran and her father shared the terrifying experience at Movie Tavern in Tucker, Georgia. Curran excitedly describes the moments of watching Kubrick’s masterpiece on the silver screen: “I felt so invested in the movie because of how big the screen is. The volume was way louder, so the music kept shocking everyone with jump scares.”
Krzysztof Penderecki, the Polish composer of Kubrick’s The Shining, creates music that chills to the bone. The Guardian once wrote that Penderecki’s compositions are “used as the musical manifestation of the subconscious,” and that each piece is a “sonic realization of the horrifying and disturbing realms of imagination.” Curran’s appreciation for Penderecki’s music and the way it evokes jump scares from the audience, suggests that she might one day take a seat in a graduate level film studies course with the ability to not only contribute to discussion, but also direct it. Curran is not afraid of the interaction between the film and the audience; she’s curious and explorative, building a vocabulary around cinema at a young age that is necessary when entering the realm of film theory and criticism.
“There were just so many little things that put you off; it was so disturbing,” said Curran, almost jumping out of her seat with excitement. She says that she was especially creeped out by Kubrick’s smaller details. The title card that reads “A MONTH LATER,” still makes her skin crawl. “How can dates be so scary?” she asks rhetorically.
When Curran talks about Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, she reveals a deeper connection between her and the fans lining up to watch the sequel. There is an admiration for Kubrick’s attention to detail that every horror exploring cinephile shares. Even if one was to watch the film once a month, there are aspects of Kubrick’s adaptation that can still shock and confuse. Jack Torrance’s reflection doesn’t always show up in the hotel mirrors he passes by, the television in the lobby area has no visible cord plugged in (but plays for Danny anyway) and the camera takes on a phantom-like quality while noiselessly following Danny’s tricycle through the Overlook’s hairraising hallways.
Soon after viewing Kubrick’s chilling film in theatres, Curran accepted her invitation to read for Abra Stone in front of the director Mike Flanagan. “Mr. Mike himself—called my mom and goes, ‘Hey, we’d love to have Kyliegh come in and read with Mr. Ewan,” Curran said with a smile from ear to ear.
Curran remembers the reading as a relaxed experience with kind professionals. “My nerves just melted away, and I did my best. And I hoped that was good enough, and it was,” she said about reading lines with Ewan McGregor in front of Flanagan.
Flanagan is not a stranger to the horror genre, nor Georgia-lensed productions. His latest television series, The Haunting of Hill House (2018), was filmed in LaGrange, Georgia and Atlanta. The show premiered on Netflix last October, and its haunting popularity gained Flanagan a second season.
“We brought in Kyliegh to meet Ewan and to do a test scene with him to see how they connected,” Flanagan explains. “And Ewan came out of the experience saying, ‘I feel so in tune with her. I think that the relationship between Dan and Abra really is the heart of the movie for me, and with her, I see it. I can see it all working.’”
A chemistry read is an opportunity for an actor to read lines with the actor playing the role opposite of theirs, usually the lead. It is a chance for the director to view the instinctual relationship between actors. Before every chemistry read, the casting director must first approve the actor.
“We looked at north of 900 actors trying to find our Abra, of varying degrees of experience,” said Flanagan. “This is the character to whom King is passing the mantle of The Shining to. This is the new generation of The Shining and Abra is a force to be reckoned with…she’s more powerful than Dan.”
This country is full of competitive talent agencies hoping to cast actors in career-launching roles, as big and small studios do nationwide searches. It is incredible that out of all of the children, from the east coast to the west, that auditioned for the role of Abra, Flanagan discovered the precious stone right here in Georgia.
The importance of chemistry here is undeniable. Curran proved she was able to perform alongside Golden Globe-winner for Fargo (2018) Ewan McGregor, while also managing to contribute an organic element to the relationship. This isn’t simply a vocal match; it’s a physical match as well. Chemistry cannot be faked, and neither can potential stardom. During the chemistry read and throughout filming, Curran radiated the energy Flanagan needed to see alongside someone with as much experience and star power as McGregor.
“Definitely watching them work was a big learning experience for me,” Curran said about working alongside McGregor and Doctor Sleep’s main villain, Rose the Hat (played by Rebecca Ferguson). “They would kind of talk to themselves when they were getting ready, and right before the camera would turn on, they’d just snap right into character.”
“At one point, Mr. Ewan would be playing chess, and then he’s standing all of a sudden as Dan Torrance,” Curran said with a voice full of admiration. There are levels of genius to this career that sometimes go unnoticed. Curran studied these moments on set, recognizing the gift McGregor has to be able to play strategic games, support Curran as a co-star and act his own part.
In addition to studying McGregor’s skillset, Curran prepared to work under Flanagan’s guidance by going through his IMDb page and watching his feature films, including Before I Wake (2016), as well as his Netflix series debut, Haunting of Hill House. “I watched [Haunting of Hill House] three times,” said Curran. “It’s a masterpiece!”
Flanagan’s original series follows a family of young parents and children who endeavor to flip an old, creeping house that still stands today in LaGrange, a town located southeast of Atlanta. Flanagan directed the series’ child actors to perform a spectrum of extreme emotions: insurmountable fear, unwavering bravery and intense self-preservation.
Curious to understand how child actors approach such intense material, Oz asked Curran if there were parts of Doctor Sleep that scared her to the point of stepping away from the script. “I read halfway through Doctor Sleep,” she said, pointing to the paperback copy on the table. “But it got way too disturbing for me. I couldn’t really handle how disturbing it was.”
“I learned how to kind of ‘leave it at the door’ and separate my character from my real life because sometimes we can muddle our characters with our real life, and that just really messes with your mind,” Curran said about engaging with a script that disturbed her to her core. “I try to think about the positive things in my life and in the world,” said Curran. “But there are somethings you can’t let go of from the book and script.”
Casting a child actor is more than a phenomenon; it is a shot in the dark. Before any acting coaches come in, and prior to auditioning on tape, the young actor has to find their calling at an age when children are traditionally distracted, hyper and, without an adult’s supervision, almost completely directionless.
Curran’s acting is a firm and well-researched career move. She does not get on stage or in front of the camera because of her love for playing pretend. Curran knows this is what she was born to do, and she is building mastery over the skills with a focus that is often impossible to attain by other children in her age group.
“We generally know in the first few seconds of meeting if a child has the personality and a sparkle in their eyes,” said the Georgia-based talent agent on witnessing star power. “From there, we look at how well they listen, follow directions, express themselves and, if they are at a certain reading level, how well they deliver lines.”
“[Curran] was kind of brand new, and it’s one of those stories you hear about where someone’s audition just naturally rises up past this ocean of fully deserving, wonderfully talented, very experienced young actors,” said Flanagan. “She really just kind of distinguished herself.”
Curran’s performance refused to be overlooked. She was able to tap into the fear and perseverance required for Abra Stone’s character during the chemistry reading.
“I really put myself in Abra’s shoes,” Curran said. She discloses the question she asked herself in order to act frightened or in combat with the villains of Doctor Sleep, such as Rose the Hat. “How would I feel if this horrible, disgusting person was standing right in front of me?” The question prompted emotions of rage, terror and trepidation.
“I would love to see just what’s going on in his mind when he’s writing,” said Curran, describing her experience reading King, an author she admires for his ability to evoke fear from his readers while holding them in for a lengthy period of time. Most of his books can run from 300 to 1,138 pages. Curran’s reading level is beyond impressive. Most children wait until high school to crack open their first Stephen King novel, but for Curran it was necessary research for the role of Abra.
In both King’s and Kubrick’s versions of The Shining, the Overlook’s chef, Dick Halloran, explains to Danny Torrance what “the shine” really is. Before the Overlook’s staff clears out of the hotel for winter, Halloran gives Torrance and his mother, Wendy a tour of the industrial kitchen. When she leaves her son with Halloran to tour the rest of the Overlook, Halloran leans over to tell Torrance about the first times he realized his own shine.
“I can remember when I was a little boy, my grandmother and I could hold conversations entirely without ever opening our mouths,” Halloran says to a quiet, young Torrance. “She called it shining. And for a long time, I thought it was just the two of us that had the shine to us. Just like you probably thought you was the only one.”
In order to accomplish scenes like this, The Shining and Doctor Sleep both use voice over to illustrate the powers of the shining to audiences; to show a conversation going on between two telepathic characters who never open their mouths.
“They took me into a separate room and I just read lines without context,” Curran said while describing her own experience to showcase Abra’s ability to speak telepathically to McGregor’s character. To Curran, voiceover work does not provide the same challenges she loves taking on in front of the camera. “It wasn’t a big deal. It was just a reading off of the lines, putting it in the mic and then you’re done,” Curran said. “I like voiceover work, but I don’t really see myself doing that. I like to be in front of the camera and being able to see what I’m doing.”
Curran, now 13-years-old, finds film to be a happy balance between theater and voice over when considering the difficulty of the three mediums. “In theater, we all know you have one shot, and if you mess it up, you mess it up,” said Curran. “Retakes for me were very liberating because Mr. Mike let you have as many retakes as you wanted.”
In addition to creating a balance between real life and the character played on camera, Curran believes that work ethic should be considered the most important aspect of an actor’s career if they plan on making it. “There’s a lot of Georgia talent, and I don’t think they get enough recognition,” Curran said. “I’d tell [those aspiring actors], ‘Persistence and hard work definitely pay off,’ and, ‘You’re doing great, keep it up!’”
There is an obvious admiration that Curran holds for Flanagan’s ability to create King’s unique universe; the director adapted Doctor Sleep into a full-length screenplay himself. “I have a lot to learn about music, [and] a lot to learn about acting,” said Curran. “Especially with expressions and reactions, I definitely need to learn more about that. I’m hoping to learn a lot more about writing too.” With high school around the corner, Curran plans to attend a performing arts academy to continue strengthening her skillset.
“I want to write novels, horror novels and scripts,” Curran said zealously. For now, viewers can see the young actor on the silver screen in Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, but it might not be long before Curran pens her own feature-length horror film. She might even direct it.
The Haunting of Hill House stars Henry Thomas as the father Hugh Crain; however, viewers might recognize him as Elliott, the young boy who houses a friendly, homesick alien in Steven Spielberg’s ‘80s masterpiece, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982).
The casting of Elliott did not come easy for casting director, Marci Liroff. “The Story of Casting Elliott in E.T.” is a short film available on YouTube. It briefly tells the story of Liroff’s casting experience and her ability to be perceptive while judging a plethora of child actors for the role. “In about three seconds flat, [Thomas] had us all crying behind the camera. He just became this little boy. He used his, I think his fear and his anxiety, to really push further in the role,” Liroff said describing Thomas reading Elliot’s lines. “And he moved us so deeply and so, so fully.”
The video captures Thomas crying to someone reading the NASA agent’s lines off-screen. Thomas’s chin trembles, his eyes well up and he pleads to the NASA agent who is trying to take E.T. away from him. “I don’t care what the president says,” a young Thomas recites, tears streaming down his small cheeks. “He’s my best friend!”
Spielberg’s voice is heard off–screen after the audition comes to its end, “Hey kid, you got a job.”