My worst moment: ‘Midnight Mass’ star Annabeth Gish on the perils of script changes and human error

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Annabeth Gish attends the 2019 Hammer Museum Gala In The Garden at Hammer Museum on October 12, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. - Frazer Harrison/Getty Images North America/TNS

A new priest is relocates to an isolated island community and unexpected things start happening in the Netflix horror series “Midnight Mass,” which stars Annabeth Gish as Dr. Sarah Gunning, who she describes as an “anchor and a very solid source of reason and science. She’s medical through and through and she gives a very distinct balance to what happens.”

Gish said she never imagined “as earnest and empathetic and soft as I tend to be innately that I would gravitate toward these high-stakes horror shows. But I love them because the emotions are so raw.” Which is ironic, she said, because “I’m a scaredy cat.”

She has been acting since she was a teenager, with 1988′s “Mystic Pizza” as an early pivotal role, and her credits since have included “The West Wing,” “Brotherhood,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “The X-Files” and “The Haunting of Hill House.”

When asked to share a worst moment in her career, she replied: “I’ve had many over 35 years of doing this. But what I like so much about this column is that it really shares the vulnerability behind what we do. So many times as actors, we’re shiny and bright and you see all the fancy pictures. Especially now with Instagram, you see all the pretty stuff, but you don’t see all the heartbreak or the pain or anguish, which we all clearly have.”

The story she shared was a memory of showing up to the set unprepared — through no fault of her own.

My worst moment …

“I had just joined a show. It was a very successful show and we’re not saying which show it is (laughs) but it was in the last decade. It was my first day and I had a scene with very animated dialogue and there was a lot of information and exposition that I needed to memorize. It was a five or seven page scene, it was intense. First days are always hell anyway. It’s like the way you never sleep before the first day of school, right?

“So I show up to work. Go through hair and makeup. I’m ready to go. Feeling confident. I get to set for a rehearsal and everybody has these little sides, which is what you have on TV shows with your dialogue. And I haven’t even looked at mine yet because I’m so prepared. And we start rehearsing and the other actors are saying lines that are entirely new to me.

“We take a pause and I’m like, uh, did something change? Was the scene rewritten? And I then proceed to look at my sides and the entire scene has changed but I did not receive the new pages the night before. There was a technical snafu. It was a mistake on someone’s part, a human accident that I then had to suffer through and I immediately broke into a sweat.

“So all eyes were on me. Even though I’ve been doing this a long time and have my own professional reputation, I was the new person on the show and I felt like an absolute failure. I felt like all my value systems that I pride myself on — I’m a professional, I’m prepared — were completely nonexistent.

“So I’m like, ‘Uh, I think I need a minute.’ These weren’t lines that I could quickly learn. They weren’t quips. They were substantial paragraphs that I had never seen before. So I’m sweating. And I’m just like, ‘I think I need a minute of grace.’ And they were like, ‘How much time do you need?’ And I was like, ‘How about 30?’

“I go back to my trailer and immediately call my husband and start sobbing like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ And he was like, ‘Babe. You can do this.’ But it was one of the moments in my life where I really didn’t know if I could. Especially as I’m aging, it’s hard to memorize lines (laughs) and this was fast dialogue. It needed to be sharp. It needed to roll off my tongue. And I tend to be a perfectionist anyway and I over prepare.

“Needless to say, I had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment in my trailer and I was like: Annabeth, you have to do this. You can’t go home. Put on your big girl pants and make it work.

“It was terrifying and I hope it never happens again. Now I’m super anal about asking if there are rewrites or not.

“The good news of the story is that everyone, from top to bottom, cast and crew, were supportive. I learned the dialogue fast. We did it. It took a little more time and it was imperfect from what I envisioned. But I did it. And I survived, although not without some emotional moments beforehand — I was on my hands and knees in my trailer like, ‘I can’t do this!’ — but I did it.”

What was it like actually doing those scenes?

“I fumbled through, but you know that aphorism ‘fake it ‘til you make it’? That’s what I did. And film and TV are a kinder medium for this sort of thing. On stage, you can’t cut and check your sides to refresh your memory. But I had some sort of mental acuity in the moment. I was under pressure to deliver and I did. And I came through and I’m proud of my performance.

“Learning my lines, for me, has always been about repetition. I certainly don’t have a photographic memory. So I need time, for sure. There’s a monologue in ‘Midnight Mass’ where I have to say technical medical terms like ‘erythropoietic protoporphyria’ and everybody in my family knows that monologue because around the dinner table I would say, ‘Oh yeah, erythropoietic protoporphyria,’ because for me, it’s about repetition. The more you know the lines and the dialogue, then the easier you can throw it away so it sounds like it’s inspired rather than learned.

“I did end up watching that scene (from the day she learned her lines at the last minute) and it was completely cringe-y because of the memory of what I was going through when we shot it. What a privileged problem, I sound so ridiculous. But I literally started sweating watching it. I think I’m starting to sweat now just thinking about it (laughs).”

The takeaway …

“We are far more resilient than we realize and sometimes we have to stop our minds from telling us stories that prevent us from that resilience. I could have just fallen apart. I thought about doing that. I actually was like, ‘I just want to go home.’ But then what? You’re here. Show up.

“It gave me a different kind of confidence, because I definitely rallied under pressure. But also I am always on them about the rewrites: Tell me, tell me, tell me.

“We have a saying in my family: If you’re gonna laugh about it later, why not start now? So we try to see the humor even when you’re going through it. I don’t know that I necessarily laugh about that experience but I can smile about it. And I pray to God that I never have to experience it again (laughs).”


Annabeth Gish and Hamish Linklater in "Midnight Mass." - EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX/TNS/TNS