Nell Tiger Free Is This Generation's Scream Queen

If Nell Tiger Free had a cinematic sweet spot, it undoubtedly would be the horror genre. The English actor has made a career of scaring the bejesus out of us with truly terrifying and suspenseful projects, including the Apple TV+ series Servant, Too Old to Die Young, and this month's The First Omen. Needless to say, she quite likes it this way. Scary movies are what made Free fall in love with film in the first place. She suspects, just a little bit, she's been rehearsing for this moment since she was a young girl. Free was a rambunctious second child who was always running around, screaming, and falling over. Desperate to channel that energy elsewhere, her parents enrolled her in a Saturday acting class, where her love for performance blossomed. Just starting out, Free wanted to do anything and everything horror because it was her favorite genre, but as she got older, she just wanted to make movies, no matter the genre. Still, the darker projects continue to find her. One could argue she loves the genre as much as it loves her.

"Little Nell is getting her wish whether she likes it or not," Free says with a chuckle. Free's younger self would certainly be pleased to see her coming up under the guidance of horror legend M. Night Shyamalan. The American director known for his supernatural plots and crowd-pleasing twists has become somewhat of a mentor for Free, who went from being age 19 to 24 while working on Shyamalan's series Servant. "M. Night definitely nourished me to be able to come and do roles like this," she says. "I always say I don't think I could have played Margaret [in The First Omen] when I was 19. I couldn't have walked on and done it in the way that, hopefully, I've done it now."

Nell Tiger Free poses for photo shoot with photographer Nicole Nodland

(Image credit: Nicole Nodland)

There was a moment toward the end of filming the fourth and final season of Servant where Free considered veering off in a completely different direction. She thought maybe she'd do a rom-com or a musical and surprise people with something out of her wheelhouse. But then, The First Omen came across her metaphorical desk. "It felt like a real acting challenge," she says of the film. "It felt like something that was going to push me and test me, and I was like, 'You know what? Whatever the genre is, I love the script so much, and I love [horror]. Why wouldn't I go do it?'" Just like that, Free was sucked straight back into the creepy, bone-chilling world she adores so much.

The First Omen is the highly anticipated prequel to the 1976 Richard Donner–directed classic and 2006 remake The Omen. The film follows Margaret (Free), a young woman who travels to Rome from the U.S. to pursue a life of religious solitude. Once there, mysterious events start happening at the convent school she is assigned to teach at, leading her to uncover the church's terrifying reason for bringing her there in the first place. It's a little bit Handmaid's Tale, a little bit Rosemary's Baby. It's intense, gory, and very creepy—all the things you want from a great horror film without any of the origin-story tropes.

For Free, who loves horror fan and is a very big fan of the original, getting the script was a geek-out moment. "Reading that and learning the fate of this character, I was like, 'Oh, please let me do this!'" she says. Soon after, Free met with director Arkasha Stevenson via Zoom, and the two immediately hit it off. By the end of the meeting, both women were in tears, which Free says is pretty standard for the two of them. "Every time me and Arkasha see each other, we start crying. I don't know what it is. We just set each other off constantly all the time," she adds.

Nell Tiger Free poses for photo shoot with photographer Nicole Nodland

(Image credit: Nicole Nodland)

The horror genre has long been a male-dominated space, directorially speaking, making Stevenson feel like a fresh choice to helm the film. Free assures me, though, that gender didn't matter in this case. Stevenson was simply the best person for the job. When asked about her experience working with the director, Free often finds herself at a loss for words. "There aren't words that are worthy to describe Arkasha because everything she does, she does with such sensitivity and care and patience, and she knows exactly what she wants to achieve. She nourishes all of us, and she looks after us all, and she cares deeply about everybody that she's working with," she tells me. This was particularly important when it came to handling the film's more delicate theme of sexual violence in the Catholic church in a thoughtful way.

The subject of sexual assault is one Free is quite sensitive to and was a key component to connecting with Margaret and her experience. "It's honestly the thing I get up on my soapbox most about and talk most about because I think it's something we need to talk about," Free says. She takes me back to crying with Stevenson over Zoom, telling me the two weren't actually crying for this fictitious character. They were crying for anybody who has had something similar happen to them, where their control of their body is taken away from them and they are attacked. "When you're already incredibly sensitive to a topic, performing [and] being heartbroken by it comes quite easily. So it helped me step into Margaret," she says.

Margaret goes on quite a journey from beginning to end in the film, and for Free, it almost felt like playing six different characters. For such an undertaking, it was surprising to learn that she did almost no prep for the role outside of rewatching the original. Free tells me she's a big proponent of keeping things separate. "You have to be able to do it. Otherwise, you'll get lost and start believing you are that character, and cringe things can happen," she says. Steering clear of any sort of metaness, she's completely herself right up until the moment they start rolling. Even the more intense scenes that required a lot of physicality from Free involved minimal prep leading up to them. She prefers to just live in the moment.

Nell Tiger Free poses for photo shoot with photographer Nicole Nodland

(Image credit: Nicole Nodland)

I start to gather that Free isn't someone who is easily phased. After all, the actor loves being put in weird situations for work and describes being dragged into the darkness and hanging upside down as a meditative experience for her. When she tells me she also loves reading the comments around her projects—the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it—I believe her. "I'm not going to lie and be like, 'No, I don't read the comments. I just rise above.' Not true at all. I'm there—2 a.m. under the covers, White Claw in hand—reading all of the YouTube comments," she laughs. Her favorite for The First Omen is one commenter who said she looked like Tom Holland in a dress. "Hey, I'll take it!" she says.

As for what's next for Free, I ask if she's happy to stay put in the horror genre and continue her scream queen reign. "I really like the idea of that," she says. But that doesn't mean Free is closing any other doors. She's excited for what's to come and embracing the unknown. If it's another scary movie, that's great, but if it's something different, that's great too. She says, "Hopefully, people will like me if I don't do a horror [movie]. It's like, 'Why isn't she screaming or contorting? She looks too happy.'"

Don't miss Nell Tiger Free in The First Omen, now in theaters.

Photographer: Nicole Nodland

Stylist: Emma Jade Morrison

Hair Stylist: Ken O'Rourke

Makeup Artist: Emma Day

Executive Director, Entertainment

Jessica Baker is Who What Wear’s Executive Director, Entertainment, where she ideates, books, writes, and edits celebrity and entertainment features.