Carla Gugino on Her Nuanced Turn as the Evil Stepmother in Lisa Frankenstein

An exclusive Q&A with actress Carla Gugino.

In Lisa Frankenstein, directed by Zelda Williams and written by Diablo Cody, Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) is a self-conscious teen who doesn’t feel comfortable anywhere—not in the pristine home of her domineering stepmother Janet (Carla Gugino), nor at school with her popular stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano). It's not until an electrical storm awakens a 19th-century corpse (Cole Sprouse) that Lisa finds a kindred spirit and a new purpose in life.

Veteran stage and screen actress Carla Gugino proved the perfect person to play the fascinating, sometimes frightening character of Janet. Having excelled in thrillers, horror shows, and comedies, Gugino knew how to create the complex, even terrifying personality that would be Lisa’s foil with clear and comic precision.

We spoke with Gugino about her vision of Janet, the power of production design, and what makes the movie such a touching love story.

Get your tickets for Lisa Frankenstein, now playing in theaters!

The official trailer for Lisa Frankenstein

How did you get involved in playing Janet in Lisa Frankenstein?

They offered me this role. I'm a big fan of Diablo Cody, so I was really intrigued by the prospect. I don't often get to play a straight-up comedic role. When I read the screenplay, it made me laugh out loud. I loved how it connected to films like Weird Science and Beetlejuice, movies that really had an impact on me at a certain time in my life. When I met Zelda, right away, I felt that she was a natural director. I knew that I wanted to be part of this. There is not anything out there like it.

As an actress, what did you feel you could bring to the role?

What initially struck me—and this resonated with Zelda, as well—is the idea that Janet believes that she has created a home that she thinks is truly an oasis for herself and her family. In her mind, she is saving her new stepdaughter, who has had a terrible tragedy. She truly believes that she is providing Lisa this amazing life and that she knows how to give Lisa her confidence back. Unfortunately, Janet can't read a room to save her life.

The more she tries, the more frustrated and disillusioned she becomes that none of her care and advice is landing with Lisa. Even though the audience reads Janet as the antagonist and is waiting for her inevitable demise, it felt important to me that I could fall in love with her and understand where she is coming from. Playing her like a Cruella de Vil was not interesting to me. I loved that Zelda felt the same way, telling me, “She is doing her best and really does see herself as saving Lisa.”

Describe Janet’s relationship with her daughter Taffy and with Lisa.

Janet and Taffy really have a normal mother-daughter connection with each other in certain ways, even though Janet is a bit too self-absorbed to understand it. But she has been a good mother to Taffy. Of course, it helps that her daughter is interested in doing all the things her mother wants her to do. Taffy loves being a cheerleader and being the popular girl, all the things that Lisa has no interest in. As a mother who sort of lives through her children, Janet finds Lisa impossible because Lisa is her polar opposite and doesn’t want anything she has to offer. Lisa has no appreciation of this perfect home that Janet has put together so carefully.

Liza Soberano and Kathryn Newton in Lisa Frankenstein

How is Janet’s home a reflection of her character?

The home and its interiors worked so well in the film because the production design was so good. The thing I love about making movies is when every department is working at the top of their game to tell the story. And that was the case here. I only had a few days on set, but when I walked into the house and saw the pastel palette and all the little figurines, it was everything that I hoped it would be. You immediately understand her world and the fact that she just needs people to be like she wants them to be in her world; and when they aren't, things go terribly wrong.

You worked with the costume designer Meagan McLaughlin Luster to create Janet’s look.

McLaughlin Luster had great pieces. The original costumes were of that ‘80s style of a baggy sweater, slouchy pants, and a ponytail on the right-hand side. I really felt, however, that Janet needed to be pristine. She sees herself as a sort of movie star with everything perfectly in place. It’s precisely because Janet is so hilariously not self-aware that she is so meticulous in the way she dresses. She has so little ability to be introspective, and yet, she thinks that she absolutely is. We wanted her to look very put together so that when she comes apart, we really start to see her disassemble.

Carla Gugino at the Hollywood Athletics Club for the exclusive viewing party of Lisa Frankenstein

You’ve done great work in traditional horror projects. Did you bring anything from those to this role?

The horror I've done has not been like this. Although there is some dark humor in The Fall of the House of Usher. Here, it is more the metaphor of horror. In her mind, Janet starts off in a beautiful romance novel, which turns into a schlocky horror film. She can't believe what is happening to her life and what this girl has done to her. The thing about Diablo's writing is that it has such a musicality to it. With her comedy, you have to have that precision, and I think that was often my focus. With Janet, it was capturing that sense of starting off in one movie and ending up in another.

What do you hope people take away from the film?

This movie is made for entertainment. It is totally bonkers, and I love all of the pop-culture references. But it is also a love story. This Victorian man who never really got a chance to live his life is literally rebuilding himself and his body by helping Lisa rebuild her self-esteem and sense of self. In that way, they are both becoming whole. I love the love story inside this crazy fun movie.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.