Games bring out the worst in people.
Just ask actress Rachel McAdams who witnessed a game of Mafia – a live-action, two team social strategy game in which the “mafia” minority try to assassinate the other players – turn into an actual fistfight.
“We had to stop playing that for a little while,” she says, laughing. “I’ve been to my share of game nights so I am familiar with the intensity. Some friendships will never be the same, I’ve witnessed that, and what is so fascinating is it’s always the people who don’t want to play the game at the beginning that wind up being the most fierce competitors.”
Growing up in Canada, where the winters were tough, McAdams says indoor games were a big part of family life. “My parents bought us a new board game every Christmas and I have had some knock-down drag-out debates with my siblings over Scattergories or Taboo,” she says. “But I try to keep it in check, it really is just a game.”
Or is it?
McAdams is starring in Game Night, a comedy about a typical game night where the stakes are unexpectedly elevated when her character Annie’s brother-in-law Brooks (Kyle Chandler) tries to hijack their group’s weekly game night but instead becomes the catalyst for a life-and-death stakes caper.
The film also stars Jason Bateman, as Annie’s husband Max, and Jesse Plemons, as Gary, a seemingly disturbed neighbour who was cut adrift from the game night group after his marriage collapsed.
“I didn’t quite know where it was going to land tonally until I saw the finished film,” McAdams says. “If you looked at it at first glance it was a comedy, [but] I knew that the guys were really turning an eye towards the thriller aspect of it.
“I just played it for real and tried to make the stakes as high as I possibly could,” she adds. “There’s a little bit of wiggle room for that screwball physical comedy that has a certain feeling of heightened reality to it, but then you just try to make them grounded and dangerous.”
In Jason Bateman, who plays her husband Max in Game Night, McAdams says she found “a well-rounded actor, so grounded in his comedy and yet he has lightness in his dramatic side.”
“It’s really hard not to have chemistry with people like that,” she adds. “They just are very alive to begin with, so [there’s] not really much to be done. You just kind of show up, and if you’re as committed as they are, it falls into place.”
In taking the role, the 39-year-old McAdams adds it to a properly eclectic body of work, notably Mean Girls and The Notebook (2004), the political thriller State of Play and The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), and the HBO series True Detective and the stunning Spotlight (2015), which earned her an Oscar nomination.
McAdams admits some of those dramatic about-turns in genre or tone were deliberate. “Unfortunately sometimes you’re only thought of as the last project that you did, then you do a love story, and then everything you see is a love story,” she says. “Our attention span is short that way.”
She accepted Game Night, she says, just as she finished filming Disobedience, the critically acclaimed drama directed by Sebastian Lelio. “I loved playing that character but it was very intense and a certain flavour and to be able to just do a complete about-face, there’s a challenge in that,” she says.
Reflecting on her 26-year-old self, who starred in Mean Girls as high-school social queen Regina George who memorably asked whether butter was a carb, McAdams says she is more relaxed as an actress than when she was younger.
“With any performance, or anything you do with when you’re younger, you realise it’s something about relaxation,” she says. “Like not trying to muffle things so much and not trying to control the performance so much, that you just do the work beforehand and then let it all go.
“I remember being in acting school and teachers saying that, just nodding my head like I understood but I didn’t really get that,” she adds. “I think it’s only through life experiences, that you can apply it to your time on screen.”
Game Night is in selected cinemas.