Warning: Spoilers ahead for Orphan: First Kill
Whether or not you’ve watched 2009’s Orphan, there’s a good chance you already know how it ends. After 13 years, the horror film’s shocking, albeit silly twist is just too good not to be spoiled: The titular orphan (played by Isabelle Fuhrman) isn’t the nine-year-old she appears to be. She’s a murderous 33-year-old Estonian woman with a rare form of proportional dwarfism that has allowed her to pose as a little girl named Esther for years. That surprising final reveal is pretty hard to top. Yet Julia Stiles, who stars in that film’s prequel, Orphan: First Kill, now in theaters and available to stream on Paramount+, believes the new movie’s twist is just as memorable as its predecessor’s.
“We’re in on Esther’s secret from the very beginning so we get to spend the movie watching her try and trick everyone,” Stiles tells TIME. “To then have her meet somebody that’s going to one-up her is a very satisfying twist.”
First Kill takes place two years before the events of Orphan. It shows how Leena, a 31-year-old patient at the Saarne Institute, stole the identity of a missing Connecticut girl named Esther to became a murderous con artist who lusts after her adopted fathers. (The now 25-year-old Fuhrman reprises her duel Orphan role with help from some clever camera tricks.) Stiles plays Tricia Coleman, the real Esther’s affluent birth mom and Leena’s worst nightmare, who is hiding a pretty big secret of her own. “In order to trick the audience you want Tricia to just be this genuinely grieving, delicate woman in the beginning of the movie,” she says. “Then in the second half you realize she’s a really good liar.”
Midway through Orphan: First Kill, Tricia unexpectedly reveals how she knew Leena was not her missing daughter: the real Esther is dead. The grade schooler was accidentally killed by her older brother. To protect her son, Tricia pretends to hold out hope that Esther will return despite knowing she never will. But when she does, Tricia isn’t willing to give up her newly reunited family—especially knowing how happy it has made her husband, Allen (Rossif Sutherland), who is none the wiser to her lies. (“The only thing worse than a dead child is one that’s gone missing,” Tricia explains.) It’s why she goes so far as to kill the investigator who discovers that Leena’s DNA doesn’t match Esther’s. With him out of the picture, Leena can continue playing the role of dutiful daughter. “Tricia really believes that everything she’s doing is justified. That she’s protecting her family,” Stiles says. “That’s the scariest thing about her.”
The other scary thing is how easily Tricia can go from being a sweet, caring mom to a total sociopath. Stiles created two different voices to differentiate between the “before and after” Tricias. Early in the film, Tricia sounds “more skittish and breathy,” but her voice becomes “more powerful” once she reveals her true self to Leena. Still, more often than not, Tricia speaks in those dulcet tones in hopes of convincing the world—and maybe herself—that she is that kindler, gentler person.
Stiles admittedly preferred playing the more sinister version of Tricia, who, as the film goes on, becomes something like a more unhinged version of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. After coming clean to Leena, she spends her time teaching the young woman how to dress and act like Esther in order to keep the ruse going. “I think they’re like two peas in a pod,” Stiles says of the sociopathic bond between the fake mother and daughter. “I think, in many ways, Esther found the right family.”
To make sure Fuhrman, who is 5-foot-6, appeared child size on screen, Stiles wore a pair of “Gene Simmons boots” that she admits were “utterly humiliating because it made me about seven inches taller, and I’m already tall.” (Stiles is 5-foot-8.) “They kind of made me walk like a baby giraffe,” she says. “So to not let that at all be distracting was the biggest acting challenge.”
The original Orphan claims that Leena was the only survivor of a house fire that she caused. The death of the Albright family is what allowed her to become an orphan. But the truth is far more complicated. The fire isn’t the product of arson, but a casualty of Leena and Tricia’s all out bloody battle that covers every inch of the house. They leave a kitchen burner on and an oven mitt catches fire. The inferno quickly engulfs the entire home, forcing them outside on the roof.
In the film’s final moments, Tricia and Leena are left hanging off the roof, hoping Allen will save them. At this point, he’s still entirely unaware that Leena is not his real daughter, so when Tricia claims Esther is “a grown woman” who tricked them, he flinches, causing his wife to fall to her death. “I think, in that moment, he realized what Tricia had done and all that that means. He turns on her and decides to save Esther instead,” Stile says. “That’s the ultimate tragedy.”
Allen chooses Esther because he believes he is saving his daughter, but he soon realizes that his wife, as crazy as she sounded, was telling the truth. When he squeezes Leena’s face, her fake teeth pop out. He calls her a monster and she pushes him off the roof. His death makes her the only survivor of the house fire, but it wasn’t her plan to become the final girl. As delusional as it may sound, she believed there was a chance she could love happily ever after with Allen.
Knowing what we do about Leena’s past and future, it’s hard to consider her the hero of this story. But Stiles doesn’t mind if fans think Tricia is the real villain of the Orphan series. After all, she says, “the villain is the hero of her own story.”
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