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Netflix releases new psychological thriller: 'Leave the World Behind'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There's a new psychological thriller on Netflix today, and here's how it starts. A white family leaves New York City for a short vacation - mother, father, two kids. They rent a gorgeous house near the beach. Suddenly, the cable goes out and their smartphones - no information coming in, going out. Then in the middle of the night, a Black father and daughter come to the door. They say it's their house, and they want to stay there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND")

JULIA ROBERTS: (As Amanda Sandford) This really doesn't seem like their house. I don't know. It just all feels like a con to me. And they want to stay here with us? Forget it. I wouldn't be able to sleep with strangers in the house. Rose is right down the hall. What if he sneaks in? I don't want to think about it.

FADEL: That's Julia Roberts playing a quintessential Karen in the new film "Leave The World Behind." How these people navigate each other while the outside world seems to be under attack drives the tension. Mahershala Ali plays the wealthy, debonair homeowner, G.H. Scott, and Ethan Hawke plays Julia Roberts' spineless husband, Clay.

ETHAN HAWKE: What's always so interesting about reading history is the people that experience these traumatic events - they just don't have all the information. They don't know that it's the beginning of World War II. They don't know it's September 11. And so when we look back, we said, how come they didn't do this, or how come they didn't do that? It's 'cause they didn't know. They just thought it was Tuesday, you know?

MAHERSHALA ALI: There's just something terrifying in just really sitting with the unknown and not having enough information and sort of guessing at what is out there. And so I think those things sort of add something to the energy and the dynamic.

FADEL: To give listeners some perspective here, I mean, it starts, as you say, Ethan, nobody knows what's going on. And then late at night, two people come to the door. And, Mahershala, that's your character, G.H. Scott...

ALI: Yeah.

FADEL: ...And his daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND")

ALI: (As G.H. Scott) I understand how strange this must be for you, us turning up like this, unannounced. We'd have called, you see, but the phones are out.

ROBERTS: (As Amanda Sandford) Yeah. My phone doesn't seem to have service.

MYHA'LA HERROLD: (As Ruth Scott) It's almost as if we're telling the truth.

FADEL: You navigate it so differently than your character's daughter.

ALI: Right.

FADEL: If you could talk about that generational divide here, as you realize you have to live in this house with this family in what could be an end-of-the-world scenario.

ALI: Wow. Having been partially raised by my grandparents, she would tell me, be very conscious of speaking out about things. Like, she would drill it into me...

FADEL: Yeah.

ALI: ...Because she had so much fear around her own experiences. So looking at Myha'la and her sort of age group, there's just a different approach to how they operate in the world. The things that we were sort of accepting of - there just was not going to be a Black president, so don't ever expect that.

FADEL: Yeah.

ALI: Myha'la is of the generation where Barack Obama's president.

FADEL: Yeah.

ALI: So there's a whole different set of expectations. And I'm very appreciative of this generation for their unwillingness to sort of bite their tongue.

FADEL: So you have these two families coexisting in this one house, suspicious of each other, and things are going really wrong outside - oil tankers running ashore, planes falling out of the sky. I mean, you start to watch the characters reveal themselves in times of crisis, right? And there's a scene, Ethan, where you're driving out, trying to, I think, go to the store. You're in the middle of nowhere, panicked, and you roll down your window, and there's a woman there, begging for help - only speaks Spanish.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Spanish).

HAWKE: (As Clay Sandford) OK, I don't understand what you're saying. I don't speak - I don't speak Spanish.

FADEL: And you seem kind of paralyzed, but you ultimately roll up your window and drive away.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Spanish).

HAWKE: (As Clay Sandford) Sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Spanish).

HAWKE: I remember when I got the script, and I got to that scene, and I was like, I'm not doing this movie. It upset me so much.

FADEL: Yeah.

HAWKE: You know, the metaphor of the affluent white American male who really thinks he's a great person - and Clay really believes he's a good heart, and I believe he does have a good heart. But the fear overtakes him, and he's not the person he wants to be, and he drives by somebody less fortunate and prioritizes his own family and his own life. That's when the movie's working at its finest, I think, is...

FADEL: Yeah.

HAWKE: ...Is, you know, we all live - there's fault lines, you know, and America has terrible, terrible fault lines. And in periods of crisis, those fault lines get exposed.

FADEL: I mean, not to make this about me, but I've covered a lot of conflict, and I recognize all of it in the way that people turn into the biggest monsters or the biggest heroes. In these...

ALI: Yeah.

FADEL: ...Moments, you have to make choices about how to survive, how to live.

HAWKE: Crisis reveals character, right?

FADEL: Yeah. The director of the film, Sam Esmail - he also brought us "Mr. Robot," and that series, this film, they have a shared worldview, technology being at the center and our reliance on technology. And, Ethan, your character - I never related more than this moment. I'm going to play this clip.

HAWKE: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND")

HAWKE: (As Clay Sandford) I have no idea what I am supposed to do right now. I can barely do anything without my cell phone and my GPS. I am a useless man.

ALI: So well played.

HAWKE: (Laughter).

ALI: So - yeah, yes.

FADEL: I lost my phone once, and I didn't leave the house. Is there a bigger commentary here though? I mean, is it also a commentary on how much we don't know how to do now that we depend on tech for everything?

ALI: Yeah, we kind of live in a prison of convenience. You know, I think...

FADEL: Yeah.

ALI: ...The more convenient things have gotten for us, the more - I don't want to say the dumber we become, but there's skill sets that just begin to atrophy. We were - I think Ethan and I and everybody - we were talking about phone numbers the other day, at least, and I remember thinking, like, I know one number. I know my wife's phone number at this point.

HAWKE: It's a little bit of a wake-up call just to remind you not to be asleep. You know, there's a lot of ways in which all of us can help be a part of a solution, and there's ways that we can bury our head in the sand.

ALI: I do think our technology has put us to sleep. It's shrinking us as people. And one of the blessings of that technology is that we are more connected...

FADEL: Yeah.

ALI: ...That the world is smaller. And so there is an opportunity for us to be on the same page with certain things, however hard that might be. But I do believe that the film is very much a wake-up call around our relationship with technology and just our relationship to humanity and then how we treat one another.

FADEL: That's Mahershala Ali and Ethan Hawke, two of the stars of the new film, "Leave The World Behind," and you can find that on Netflix. Thank you so much, both of you.

ALI: Thank you.

HAWKE: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.