‘Renfield’ Director Chris McKay on Portraying Codependency and Toxicity with Emotion – and Accuracy
This article first appeared as part of Jenelle Riley’s Acting Up newsletter – to subscribe for early content and weekly updates on all things acting, visit the Acting Up signup page.
Sometimes, you find startling accuracy in the most unlikely places. Codependency and toxic relationships have long been fodder for film and television, but lately there’s been a batch of quality entertainment that does an excellent job of depicting the reality of an unhealthy relationship — and the struggle to break free from one.
Surprisingly, it’s comedic entertainment that seems to be doing it best as of late. Take the first season of the Apple TV+ comedy “Shrinking,” which depicts a therapist (Jason Segel) trying to help a client (Heidi Gardner) break up with her verbally and emotionally abusive husband. It’s a character arc that rings only too true, expertly captured by “Saturday Night Live” breakout Gardner. Over on HBO Max, the animated series “Harley Quinn” has spent three seasons showing how its titular character starts a new life out from under the shadow of the ultimate toxic boyfriend, the Joker. While it’s a fantastical story that uses heroes and villains with superpowers, the metaphor is apt — Harley Quinn has no identity outside of her famous paramour and has to rebuild her life, and self-worth, on her own.
As traditionally seen in literature and onscreen, the character of R.M. Renfield is presented as the ultimate lackey to Count Dracula — a devoted servant who worships his master. “Renfield,” the new horror comedy hitting theaters this week, takes a new perspective on the character, played in the film by Nicholas Hoult. Chris McKay directs the screenplay by Ryan Ridley (with a story credit by Robert Kirkman) that sees Renfield in modern-day New Orleans, buckling under the weight of decades of service to the diabolical Dracula, played by Nicolas Cage in a performance both hilarious and genuinely terrifying.
After years of servitude, Renfield finally begins to truly understand just how toxic the relationship is — and that he deserves a shot at a better life. He comes to this conclusion only by accident, when he stumbles into a meeting of the self-help group DRAAG.: Dependent Relationship Anonymous Addiction Group. At first, Renfield is just following a potential victim, but he soon finds himself relating to the stories of the other members and understanding just how manipulative Dracula has been – fair enough considering the term “gaslighting” probably didn’t exist when Bram Stoker created the characters in his 1897 novel. Renfield realizes the controlling behavior he’s become used to, and dares to dream of a better life for himself. And while the movie is outrageous, fantastical and very, very funny, I can personally vouch that it actually does an excellent job of depicting the ideals of such organizations and the path to recovery.
That’s not by accident, says McKay. “Over the years, vampires have stood as a metaphor for so many things,” says the filmmaker. “This movie presents him as the ultimate toxic narcissist, with Renfield as his codependent. He’s literally the boss from Hell. It’s something that so many people can relate to and addressing that feels more timely than ever.” In fact, a large part of what drew McKay to the script was the ability to show something “very funny but also powerful and emotional.”
Because “Renfield” is a big, supernatural comedy, it could just use the group for a punchline. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see how much thought is put into the portrayal. The scenes with DRAAG, led by the sympathetic Mark (played by Brandon Scott Jones), find humor without ever making the people the butt of the joke. “You don’t want to punch down in comedy,” McKay notes. “The thought of taking potshots at people with very real issues just seems so disrespectful.”
Those familiar with such programs will also recognize a lot of the ideas and language as ringing true. That’s thanks to screenwriter Ridley’s research into such organizations – and McKay himself spoke to members and leaders from Co-Dependents Anonymous, a.k.a. CoDA. “We really learned how the meetings were conducted and how they talk to each other in meetings and how much respect is shown,” says McKay.
McKay also credits his cast with finding just the right tone in a film that encompasses several genres — sometimes all at once. As usual, Cage holds nothing back in his performance as Dracula. But he also has to be believably charismatic to hold Renfield in his thrall — and scary enough to keep him from leaving. “Every toxic narcissist believes they’re in love with the person they’re abusing,” McKay notes. “It’s a sociopath version of love, but when that love is taken away, they’re going to feel hurt and abandoned and jealous. We needed someone who could convey that feeling of betrayal and Nic went above the call of duty to give us a nuanced Dracula.”
And when it came time to cast members of the DRAAG., McKay didn’t just necessarily look for comic actors. “I wanted people who had a facility with comedy but I wasn’t looking for broad caricatures. I wanted people who could also be sincere and earnest and real,” he notes. “If you don’t get that these are people Renfield should care about, that’s a failure on my part.” McKay also shot the group scenes with multiple cameras so they could do long takes. “When you have people telling stories and being emotional, I don’t just want to cut to little snippets. It’s sort of like creating a 10-minute play. I think that really allows the actors to take hold of the performance and stay in that character.”
So while “Renfield” is a bloody blast, it also might be the best depiction of a toxic relationship I’ve seen on screen this year. It’s what some refer to as an “Eat Your Vegetables” Movie, where you’re hiding a healthy message in a big, fun comedy. McKay points to his two previous features, “The Lego Batman Movie” and “The Tomorrow War,” as works that can be fun spectacles but also tackle much deeper themes than on the surface. “I love genre films but in order to care, there has to be an emotional component. I can have guns and bodies exploding in ‘The Tomorrow War’ but at the end of the day it’s about a father and daughter. Yes, ‘Lego Batman’ is poking fun at superhero tropes, but it’s also showing the effects of grief and loss and estrangement.”
And McKay says this is nothing new. “That’s something filmmakers in the 1950s did a lot, sneaking in themes into genre films. They would find ways to put in these elements where, if you were listening, you could get another layer out of it,” says McKay. “They might not be aware of it at the time, but some people watching the movie are going to hear a line like, ‘They don’t have power unless you give it to them,’ and something might click.”