In the horror-comedy M3gan, talented roboticist Gemma (Allison Williams) builds a Model 3 Generative Android—M3gan, for short—to help her 8-year-old niece Cady (Violet McGraw) cope with the loss of her parents. The incredibly lifelike humanoid robot, who is programmed to sing, dance, and babysit, quickly becomes Cady’s best friend, but after developing a mind of her own, the high-tech toy becomes Gemma’s worst nightmare.
Produced by Blumhouse (The Black Phone) and James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring films), M3gan is Frankenstein for the Internet age. Except this time, the monster we created is a marvel of artificial intelligence that has been designed to protect its child companion from harm, both real and imagined. (Wan’s initial pitch for M3gan, which he co-wrote, was “Annabelle meets The Terminator.”)
To Williams, M3gan is a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks outsourcing child care duties to a highly intelligent, but morally dubious machine is a good idea. “We all have smart devices in our home, but we never really stopped to talk about what happens if Alexa becomes sentient,” she tells TIME. “Like, what do we do?”
The film, in theaters now, doesn’t answer that question, but its star and executive producer hopes it will spark conversations about the role these smart devices play in the lives of adults and children alike. So far though the chatter around director Gerard Johnstone’s film is less focused on the perils of A.I. and more on the mysterious killer doll at the center of it.
M3gan is an impressive feat of movie magic; a mix of animatronics, puppeteering, CGI, and the stunt work of actor and dancer Amie Donald. After working with M3gan, Williams totally understands why the Internet is so obsessed with her. “Any iteration of M3gan was the very definition of uncanny,” she says. “She’s hard to look away from.” Below, Williams discusses creepy dolls, not playing against type, and why Chucky is no match for M3gan.
For years, I was looking for things that took me outside the realm of [my Girls character] Marnie because to me what defined a good career was being able to play a variety of people. [After] Get Out, I learned to love playing with the idea of my identity, the expectations people have once they see me on screen.
How does horror allow you to do that?
I’ve enjoyed the amount to which I can play against the roles that I’ve played before, and have them in conversation with each other. I’ve loved being able to explore very serious subject matter in some of these movies. I get extremely scared so it’s not from a place of lifelong passion for being scared [that I make horror movies]. From a purely creative standpoint, I find them extraordinarily appealing.
How scary was it acting opposite M3gan?
Whether it was the animatronic puppet or Amie Donald in her hellish mask, every version [of M3gan] was so scary that it was not hard to inject fear into my performance. Being that close to the animatronic mechanism was helpful in preserving the sense that [my character] understands that it’s an inanimate object, but there’s still that part of her that thinks, “What if I walk out of the room and it starts walking all by itself?”
I had read about the mask that Amie Donald wore while filming the movie. It sounds absolutely terrifying.
Terrifying! When we did the principal photography, they used a M3gan mask that was as real as possible. It had tiny pin-prick holes in the eyeballs so that Amie could see. She had to come up with a system of hand gestures for her handlers because we also couldn’t hear her very well. When we went back and did a little bit of additional photography, they realized that they didn’t need to have M3gan’s face on the mask. They could add it in post. It got way scarier once they cut the face away. In some early cuts of the film, you could just see Amie’s adorable face smiling through the middle of this see-through mask. It was so unsettling.
You play a toy-making roboticist in M3gan. How did you prepare for the role? Can you build a robot after making this movie?
One hundred percent, I can build a robot. No, I’m kidding, but I know a lot of people who work in A.I. so I have been around that jargon for a long time now. Have I ever understood it? Absolutely not, I am an English major through and through. I am terrible with numbers. However, I reached out to my friends who have expertise in this field and asked them what they thought about Gemma as a character and M3gan as an invention.
What was their take on M3gan?
[They] were quick to point out that M3gan’s mobility is the aspect of her development that we’re the farthest from. It was fascinating to have conversations where people were like, “It’s exaggerated, but you’re not very far off the mark.”
I think she’s just iconic. She takes the idea of being a fierce protective bestie to its extreme. She just wins you over. It’s impossible not to get caught in her vortex.
From the Chucky films to Annabelle, dolls are a horror movie staple. Why are they so unsettling?
I think it’s their potential for menace despite their innocent packaging. There’s something creepy about the eyelid mechanism, knowing that even when you close your eyes to go to sleep, their eyes are open.
While we’re on the subject of iconic murder dolls: in a battle between Chucky, Annabelle, and M3gan, who would win?
M3gan has the potential for the most harm. She’s got the World Wide Web in her head. She can just Wikipedia Chucky and Annabelle and figure out how to do an on-the-fly exorcism pretty easily. That’s just not a fair fight.
That sounds like the pitch for M3gan 2.
Yeah. D.I.Y. Exorcisms by M3gan!