Interview: Nicky Whelan on Fighting Sharks in Maneater

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ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke to Maneater star Nicky Whelan about filming in the water and the long-lasting appeal of shark movies. Maneater releases in theaters, digitally, and through video-on-demand today.

“Jesse and her friends’ idyllic island vacation turns into a gruesome nightmare when they become the target of an unrelenting great white shark,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Desperate to survive, she teams up with a local sea captain to stop the vicious man-eater before it strikes again in this heart-pounding thriller.”

Tyler Treese: Shark movies are always so much fun. What do you like most about this genre of film?

Nicky Whelan: Well, shark movies come out every year, and they’re always a hit and people love them. There’s just this obsession with shark movies, I think ever since Jaws. So when this came across my lap, I was like, “I’m absolutely going to be part of a shark movie. Let’s do this.” It was a challenge. It was an independent film that was made in 18 days on a low budget with a mechanical shark, and we did it. We made it and we put it together and it was a really incredible experience.

The reactions of the actors are so important in these movies because it’s obviously not a real shark. Having that mechanical shark, how are you able to really sell looking so terrified? Because it comes across really well in the film.

Oh, thank God! You’ll see in the movie, a CGI shark was also used for a major portion of it. Mechanical sharks are incredibly challenging to use. It’s such extra work, and Justin, our director, was adamant on using that because there is a sense of old-school realness. I don’t know; there’s something really authentic about doing that that makes the movie-making process so cool, but it does make it more challenging. The conditions that we were working in were pretty hardcore, to be honest. The rough waters, the heat, the time of day, the beach we shot on was very close to the airport. The water was pretty crazy. It was [an] exhausting process and a great, exhausting process that we went through. So the sort of being fearful of nothing in front of us … I don’t know. I guess that’s the part we really have to be acting and look fearful, but we were exhausted and the conditions were hardcore. So I think that helps a little bit in making these movies when you’re in pretty wild locations.

You mentioned filming in the water. That has to be so difficult. Did you find that process rewarding?

It doesn’t even look like it, but we couldn’t see the floor of the ocean. In some areas, the water was super choppy. The water would go from beautiful, dead calm to crazy choppy by lunchtime. It was stinking, hot weather. I was out of breath. I was absolutely exhausted. The local team that worked with us, the lifeguards were so incredible. So I always felt safe, but I was very tired and emotionally drained. Swimming in the water all day … it’s like when you’re a kid and you play in a pool and you get out and you’re really hungry and tired, that’s the whole time, you know? So I would collapse on the beach — we all would — and then think about those guys with the mechanical shark, holding that enormous puppet up and then having all the camera crews in the water. I mean, everybody really showed up. It was full-on no joke.

You’ve done martial arts training. What’s been most rewarding about your martial arts journey and how’s that helped you in acting?

I had done a few lessons years ago, of jiu-jitsu, but it’s not my go-to, it’s mainly boxing, what I do as a form of fitness. But like I said this a few times today, I look fit on my Instagram and I do a bit of boxing and a bit of stuff … you throw someone in the ocean that hasn’t swam for a minute — and I consider myself to be a good swimmer — This really kicked my ass. By the end of the evening, these days of shooting in the water on Maneater, I was absolutely exhausted. It really kicked my ass. I now know that if I go to do another movie in the water, I’m going to need a different kind of fitness preparation. I wasn’t overly physically prepared for this, but it was good because it pushed me and it felt very rewarding when I wrapped this movie for sure.

Your character’s just going through a lot. Her friends take her on this vacation to get her in a better mood and obviously it all goes awry. So what did you find most interesting about the script of Maneater?

Well, you know, that’s the thing. She starts out so broken and we’ve all been through heartbreak once in our lives. It leaves you so open and so wounded sometimes, and even your friends jumping around you happy can’t snap you out of it. Then when this shark rocks up, it’s life or death. It snaps her out of it so quickly and really makes her become this enormous version of herself that maybe she needed to become. She loses everything from all her friends to her fiancé in a very short period of time, incredibly traumatic for her. So the comeback that I make, or the character makes, was kind of fun. I mean, even though it’s hard to sort of portray that in such a short period of time, that’s coming after the shark and jumping in with it in the end and going bring it on, let’s go. It’s kind of unrealistic, but it’s also kind of super fun, and that’s the beauty of making movies is you can jump in the water with a fake shark and take it on and it kind of feels badass. So it was kind of cool.

The soap opera Neighbors came to an end recently and you had such a great stint. Since that was your big break, how do you look back upon that show now that it has ended?

I have such fun memories of being on Neighbors, and obviously, [I’m] so incredibly grateful for them taking me on when they did with no acting experience. I auditioned for that show. I always wanted to do acting, I was a TV presenter before that. So that was the opening for me on so many levels and I absolutely loved it. I’m still friends with people from the show. To see it end was really emotional. Watching the videos of that time in my life. I mean, that was 16 years ago for me and it started everything, you know? didn’t want it to end, even though I don’t live in Australia anymore and I’m not on the show. It’s just that comfort of knowing Neighbors was always there. So I just have good memories.

The first thing I saw you in was the final season of Scrubs which I thought was really fun, despite the big changes. What are your memories from working on that show?

Jumping into such a popular show … we changed the dynamics of that, [which] is always risky to see how the audience embraced us. Being an Australian girl coming onto an American series that’s a comedy set, working with full-on amazing comedians and writers and directors — it was no joke. I was super nervous going onto that set and comedy’s hard regardless. So I wasn’t a major character in that. I was in a lot of episodes, but I wasn’t a leading role. So I was able to gracefully step into an environment with not too much pressure and really see how things are run. Scrubs is just cool. It’s sad it didn’t continue on, but I really do think if you look at the characters that came on that season, are all doing so well now and are really, really great actors. Obviously, Donald Faison and Zach Braff, which are legends who sort of kept that show afloat … so I just was stoked to be a part of Scrubs, and Bill Lawrence was such a badass — the creator. So it was a good start to my career in America, for sure.

Hall Pass recently celebrated its 10th-anniversary last year. How do you look back on that experience?

I really had to go to war for that one and audition my ass off for that and fight for it. Stepping onto set with the Farrelly brothers, who to this day are still like family, and working opposite Owen Wilson, being so young and so new in America … trust me, I still look back at that and go, “wow, I had the balls to do that!” I mean, half the time, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew I loved everything and I just was excited and there’s some beauty to being young and having sort of a bit of naïvety to the whole thing. So I look back at that and I still wish I did more comedy. I love comedy so much. It was a really great time of my career for sure.

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