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Jeffrey Combs!!!

It's hard to be a genre fan and not be impressed with the constant contributions of thespian actor JEFFREY COMBS. He's appeared in everything from HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL to FROM BEYOND to THE FRIGHTENERS, as well as several FULL MOON movies such as CASTLE FREAK, DOCTOR MORDRID and THE PIT & THE PENDULUM. He a frequent collaborator with filmmaker Stuart Gordon. Most recently on THE BLACK CAT, and together the duo created a true Icon of Fright, Herbert West from RE-ANIMATOR. We're proud to present a candid, casual conversation with Jeffrey about his work. Read on! - by Robg. 10/07


Hi, Robert! How are you?

Oh, Jeffrey! Such a pleasure to get to talk to you. I’m such a huge fan of your entire body of work.


Well, I hope not all of it! Some of it sucks!

Listen, I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s on a lot of the Full Moon stuff, so I loved it all.

Where are you calling me from?

I’m in New York, sir.

Good man!


Considering your huge, impressive body of film work, and of course the fact that you’re very recognizable in the horror genre, I was wondering if you could tell you your earliest recollections of the horror genre? Do you remember the first films to scare or have an impact on you in terms of introducing you to the world of horror?

Yeah, yeah I do. The very first movie, I went to a matinee… because dude I’m old enough where I saw things pre-VHS. Ok, the only time you could watch movies was on TV on the few channels you got in black and white with commercials and totally cut up. (Didn’t know it at the time.) Or you’d go to the movies and catch a matinee. And there was a movie, I think it was called THE HEAD THAT WOULDN’T DIE? All that I remember is that at the end of the movie there was this woman head, and all they did at the time was cut a hole in the table… (Laughs) Just like we did on RE-ANIMATOR! Only there wasn’t a pan with blood in it. They didn’t even bother with that. They were so cheeseball that they just cut a hole for her head, and then they had wires on her head and the camera slowly dollied into a real close-up of her face and the whole time she was saying “Kill me. Kill meeee. Kill meeee.” (Laughs) And it just rocked my world.


I can see that having an impression on a young Jeffrey Combs!

I just walked home going “Oh… (pause) FUCK!” (Laughs) I’m scared. That is my idea… that’s a nightmare. Then I watched some movies years later…

It’s a whole different affect when you watch it as an adult, of course.

Yeah, it’s not the same thing!
You’re latest film RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL comes out on DVD October 16th. Were you surprised that the character of Dr. Vannacutt returned for the sequel?

Well, I was surprised that it was 8 years after the fact! The first movie did really well, and it’s a nice movie. Bill Malone did a great job with it. But usually with sequels, they’re kind of fairly right away. Except in my career with the RE-ANIMATORS. (Laughs) The 3 of those spanned over 20 years, I think. But typically… look at SAW for God’s sake!


They crank those out once a year! (Laughs)

I was a little surprised when they called. But I owe that to Victor Garcia, the director. Because he insisted that Dr. Vannacutt be part of it, because he felt that he was the face of the house, you know?

Well, I saw in a recent interview you mentioned that in the first film Dr. Vannacutt is somewhat of an enigma. And now in the second one, it’s fairly the same, although you did film a branching scene with dialogue?

One of the branching scenes I did dialogue in.


I’m just curious, as an actor, how do you build your backstory for someone like Dr. Vannacutt when there’s not much of a backstory there? Did you apply any kind of process when it came to returning to this character?

You know, it’s real strange when you don’t have dialogue, you are kind of flying by the seat of your pants a little bit more. And I have to be honest, it’s almost more difficult because you have nothing that you can hang on to that you can sort of bring it around. From a technical point of view, I kept thinking of the old 30’s movies. Even when I did the first HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, just the whole look.
The thing is when you get in there and you’re surrounded by the whole look and the costumes and everything, it really informs you about who you are and where you are. I just kind of leaned back on technique and I look at Vannacutt as my homage to the old mad scientists from the 30’s. It was my idea a long time ago to give him one of those little mustaches. Those pencil-thin Errol Flynn mustaches, because he’s from a different time. Bill Malone wanted that too, an homage to the movies he grew up with. I think Vannacutt resonates with people because they can go “Oh yeah. I know what movie this guy’s from.”


Director Victor Garcia has a history in special FX make-up. I believe the attention garnered by his short film is what got him this job?

Great short film. El Ciclo. I don’t know if you’ve seen it?

No I haven’t seen it yet! What was your experience like working with him as a first time director on a feature length?

Well, I didn’t get a sense from Victor that he showed any kind of tentativeness or worry about this being his first film. He’s very emotionally pleasant. This is sort of an important thing for directors, but I don’t think that he’s flustered very easily. Because there’s always something that comes up.
You have a game plan but it’s kind of like war. You have a plan, but after the first shot is fired, or the first take is made, throw it away because things just start coming in that just change things around.And this was an especially complicated project because it wasn’t like you’d just shoot a scene and then be done with it. Then you had to shoot variations on that scene.
And if it’s complicated for an actor to have to do all of these off-shoots, imagine what it’s like logistically for a director who has to concentrate on all of them for all of the actors. It is a phenomenally daunting task, yet Victor seemed to have it all in his head, which was amazing to me.

Well, it’s a really interesting idea for this DVD, having this branching version where we can pick different directions the movie can go in and I’m looking forward to checking it out.


And I’ll tell you, when I was shooting it, it wasn’t really articulated to me. So, I showed up and I thought I was done! I though, good, I was done with that take and they’d go “no, no, no, no!” Wait a minute! And I’d think, “What are you talking about?” (Laughs) Then I realized how brilliant this was. There’s 96 permutations.
Jeffrey, I’m such a huge fan of different points in your career, I just wanted to delve into a few of my personal favorites for a bit if you don’t mind.

Go baby!

I just watched FROM BEYOND, your second collaboration with Stuart Gordon. Great movie.

It just came out on DVD for the first time.
Yeah, and that’s what I was just about to ask. It’s often been thought of as somewhat of a “lost” cult classic. How do you feel about the fact that it’s recently been re-released and restored as the director’s cut that Stuart (Gordon) always intended?

Well, finally! Huh? (Laughs) It’s always been sort of a curious thing. Once Empire Pictures crashed and burned and all the body parts and pieces of the company got gobbled up and held and possessed by other companies and other companies, finally it wound up at MGM.
But MGM’s library is so vast that they didn’t really see this acquisition as something that was worthy of their attention, until years later. And I would imagine it was because of a growing query from people. “Hey where is this FROM BEYOND movie?” I’m pleased that it’s out there. Um, but ... for me, I enjoy the movie, but it’s not as near and dear to me as RE-ANIMATOR. In some ways, it was less of an enjoyable experience for me, because the nature of the role is the victim.
I was just about to mention that the character of Crawford is for the most part a victim in FROM BEYOND, which is different from your other character work at the time.
I was playing the Dan Cain role, basically. I was playing the one that was basically reacting to what everybody else was doing. “Hey, you can’t do that! No, I can’t. Don’t go! Wait!” So all of a sudden, from being the driving force in RE-ANIMATOR who had a dark sense of humor, there’s very little of that for me in FROM BEYOND. Those are harder roles for me to play! (Laughs)
(Laughs) Well, you eat eyeballs in it! You get to do all sorts of crazy stuff!

Oh, great! Oh joy, oh joy. I get to eat an eyeball. Thanks for bringing that up! (Laughs)
Sorry! (Laughs) We just mentioned Stuart Gordon, and I’m also such a fan of his as a filmmaker. He’s always doing interesting things in his movies. Since you guys have worked together so often, what’s your relationship like? I imagine you’ve developed somewhat of a second-hand as director/actor at this point?
We have. And he’s a great, good friend of mine. I have a tremendous fun time with Stuart. We laugh a lot. We have our own little in-jokes and it’s comfortable. Stuart and I both come from a theater background where the philosophy is, once you have a group of actors that you know and trust and can count on, then actually problems are solved if you keep them in your troop and re-use them. Because you can go and solve other problems because that one’s taken care of.
Kind of like Orson Wells did with all those actors in CITIZEN KANE, they all came out of his theater group where he directed many plays. David Mamet is like that. Lots of people have that philosophy. And then there’s others that don’t! Stuart and I will go at it! We will disagree with things. Certainly we’ve done that in the past, but it’s never seemed to affect us. It’s all towards the work. It’s nothing personal involved in it. He can drive me nuts! But he can make me laugh too.
He is a tenacious man with his vision and in some ways, maybe I’m a bit of a temper on him sometimes too. It’s like, “Stu! You’re not going to do THAT much blood? Come on!” And he’s like “Yeah, sure. It’s great.” “But… it doesn’t make sense!” I never win!
Well, ya gotta try at least, no? As I said before, I grew up on a lot of the Full Moon stuff. I love CASTLE FREAK. I particularly love THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. What stands out for you from that Full Moon era and those films I just mentioned? Did you shoot some of those in Romania or something?

Well, CASTLE FREAK was shot in Italy.

Italy, ok.
As was PIT AND THE PENDULUM. In fact, both of those movies were shot in the same castle! Literally a castle that Charlie Band owned.

(Laughs)


In a small village between Florence and Rome. And about once every 2 or 3 years, he would come up with the notion that maybe another movie could be shot in this castle. Because it’s an all inclusive place. There’s many, many rooms and many levels to it and bedrooms. You could live and work in the same place.
So, you’d have your own room and bathroom and then breakfast, lunch and dinner in the big kitchen. Or you could go out to a restaurant or a café if you wanted to. So, my memory of all those, CASTLE FREAK and FROM BEYOND and PIT AND THE PENDULUM are all that they were shot in Italy and the wonderful time that I had there, really for the first time spending an extended period of time overseas in a different culture. So, my memories are more about where then what. Isn’t that funny?


Yeah, it makes total sense though. Speaking of PIT, THE BLACK CAT was probably my favorite episode of Masters Of Horror Season Two. I’ve heard that you’ve always wanted to play Edgar Allan Poe and you did an amazing job. What is it about Poe that appeals so much to you as an actor?

Well, I hadn’t always wanted to play him. It was maybe 3 or 4 years ago, I read a lot of historical novels. Or biographies of people. And I was thinking “Who would I like to portray in history?” And you know, that’s kind of difficult! I was reading some things and I came across a biography of Poe and I started reading it and I realized “Oh my God, Has anyone ever done his life?” His life, he’s like the American Van Gogh. He is a tragic artist. Self destructive. Mercurially brilliant.
And he would lacerate people in his editorials, because he was a critic. A poetry critic and he was scathing. We cut it from the scene (in THE BLACK CAT) but it was there. A portion of it is there where he lacerated someone in a review, because that was sort of his day job was as an editor for a periodical weekly newspaper. He was the editor, he was the critic, he was all these things. He lacerated this guy’s newest publication and then ran into him on the street the next day and asked to borrow some money from him.

Wow!

If you watch in THE BLACK CAT, in the bar scene, a guy named Griswold comes in, who was a historical guy, and he asked him to pay for his bar bill. And the guy says, “After what you wrote? Are you kidding?” But that’s true! That’s Poe. He was a dreadful alcoholic, but he was deeply in love with and devoted to his wife who was sick. He was just so complicated and so vulnerable and hungry for stability in a life that had none. We think of him as the great American writer, yet in his day, he couldn’t rub two nickels together.

And writer’s that were huge in those days, we don’t even know their names now. Part of his problem was he saw the total injustice of that. “What’s a guy gotta do? What do I have to do?” He got some fame in his life, but it was truly tragic and self-destructive. So, I went to Stuart and said “Has anyone ever done a story about Poe’s life?” And that was the last I heard of the idea. Maybe a year went by and Stuart came to me and said, “Would you like to play Poe?” They came up with this brilliant idea of dove-tailing biographical details of Poe’s life into one of Poe’s stories.


Brilliant, brilliant script by Dennis Paoli & Stuart for that!

Brilliant script! Brilliant melding of two things. It’s just great.

It’s one of my favorite things that both you and Stuart have done, I really loved it.

Mine too! I was just talking to Stuart yesterday actually, and we had just finished shooting that a year ago.
Wow. The only other Poe project I think I heard about was that Michael Jackson at one point wanted to play him in a movie years back. Thank God you beat him to the punch on that one!

I heard that! That’s odd! I heard that Sylvester Stallone wants to do a Poe movie.
I heard that too. He’s got a Poe script.

Whether he wanted to direct it or perform it, I don’t know?

I think he just wanted to direct it. I don’t see him as Poe.

I don’t either. But I’m just pleased that I got to try my hand at it. I think it has a beautiful look and it really is something to be proud of.
In the past few years, there’s been a lot of talk about HOUSE OF RE-ANIMATOR. (I know you’re going to get asked about this a lot. I apologize in advance.) What intrigues me is the plot details that have surfaced so far. In a recent interview, Stuart Gordon said that the 2 problems with it are 1) because of the political angle, it’s a difficult film to convince financers to invest in and 2) by the time it might get made, the current President will probably be out of office. My question to you is, considering your deep affinity for the Herbert West character, how do you personally feel about putting him in a political satire?

Well, this is one of those things where Stuart and I still have an on-going difference of opinion on! Because my argument was “Fine.” I love the idea of Herbert getting put into a political story where the President or Vice-President is dead and can’t be, so I resurrect him, bring him back and chaos ensues. I love that sort of idea! But where we sort of veer away from each other is that Stuart wants to do it right on the nose. Like an impersonation of Bush and Cheney and all of them. I just thought, firstly RE-ANIMATOR has never been a political vehicle and you’ve got a long way to go to convince me that it should be! And two, that’s fine now, but in two years I don’t know if it’s still relevant. Then as it came closer and closer to like, you have to write this thing, then you have to shoot it, then you have to post, then you have to release it before an election day, it became even more and more clear to me that it shouldn’t be an impersonation. It should be like DR. STRANGELOVE. Have a dynamic where there is a President and a Vice-President that are running rough-shot over all of our liberties and freedoms. But don’t have it be so obvious. When you see DR. STRANGELOVE, none of those people are particularly recognizable as anyone that’s ever been president. And yet, the point is made about power. Absolute power and corrupting absolutely. And so, that’s sort of been my take on it.
He is right. People are weary about financing it. They don’t want to go there. I’m not so sure that horror and politics are a mix…

Yeah, Yeah.


I told Stuart once “If you want to be Michael Moore, do a documentary!”

There’s nothing wrong with subtle social commentary somewhere in a film, but I agree with you, it shouldn’t be blatant.

And you know, I think you make your point better if it is oblique. People will maybe see it rather then if you throw it in their face. You don’t want to split your audience!


You mentioned in a previous interview that THE FRIGHTENERS was the best experience you’ve had on a movie. It’s a terrific film and I often felt it was vastly underrated. I love Peter Jackson. What was it about Peter Jackson as a director that set him apart from all the other director’s you’d worked with to make that particular film one of your favorite experiences?

I would just say that Peter Jackson comes really prepared. I don’t ever remember seeing him look at a script or a storyboard. But he knew what he wanted. He knew how he wanted it to look. He had such a sense of poise and simple ease on the set that he made the job that he was doing look effortless. He’s very collaborative. Not stuck with just his ideas. If you came to him with something, he was totally and completely open to it and that portrayal of mine is both of us. It’s Peter and I working together. I remember nights of giggling. I’m just thrilled that we had such a good time. I had really high hopes for that movie, but its distribution and release were ill-conceived.
Well, I think now it’s found its audience and people that are fans of Peter’s have gone back and discovered it, along with his other crazy horror movies. I think it’s starting to catch on as one of his best films.

And I think that Michael J. Fox is terrific in that movie!

Oh yeah! It’s one of the best things he’s done.
It’s one of the best things that he’s done and at that time, that movie should never have come out… I’ll never forget the date. It was July 19th! (Laughs)

(Laughs) It was supposed to come out around Halloween that year? But it got pushed up to a summer release, correct?

We can thank Sylvester Stallone for that.


Oh what did he have coming out that year?

He had DAYLIGHT.

Oh…

It went over, and all of a sudden it wasn’t going to be ready for summer release, so the studio thought we need to find something that can fill that slot. They were looking at these terrific dailies from New Zealand. Let’s just move this movie forward! And we all thought “Great, man! We’re a summer release!” (Laughs) “We’re going out in the summer!” But it’s not a summer movie per say. It’s very epitomical of Halloween. It’s a perfect Halloween movie! And then whatever ad campaign they put together for it was goofy. I always say that they promoted it as a live action Casper movie with Michael J. Fox being funny. Well, that may be true for the first half of the movie…
But then it gets dark!

But then it corkscrews down and then you’re splitting your audience. Because the hardcore horror fans are going to stay away in droves, because it’s “light”, right? Besides, they’re going to the beach or the lake or something. It’s July, dude! So then the other half, the “date” movie people say “Let’s go see that!” They enjoy it for about 45 minutes and then it goes some place that they didn’t expect. So, you’re not pleasing anyone. Peter doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter genre of things.


All his films are vastly different!

I don’t think the studios know what to do with that. I don’t think they know what to do with complexity and nuance.

You were in Ryan Shifrin’s film ABOMINABLE and you shared a great, humorous scene with Lance Henriksen. Probably my favorite scene of the movie!

Right. We did PIT AND THE PENDULUM and then another movie that shall remain nameless.
(Laughs) What was it like to reunite with Lance for that?

I love Lance. I just spoke to him recently on the phone. He’s a terrific spirit. We had a terrific time on ABOMINABLE. We just worked together one night. He’d never seen me do something like that before. (Laughs) He was going “Damn! What are you doing?”


Yeah, I had Ryan explain the whole Darwin Awards to me because I love that little speech.

Well, the curious thing about that and this hardly ever happens for me. I did a cameo for Ryan in that movie, it was just that scene in the store.

Where the guy comes in, buys some supplies and I tell him about what happened on the mountain. And that’s all I did. Then about a year later, a year! Ryan called me up and said “We’re going to add a scene to the movie because we think it needs it. There’s a spot where we want to bring you back and we’re going to have Lance there. Would you reprise your role as Buddy the clerk?” I was thrilled to do that. So, there’s actually a year difference between those two scenes I did in that movie!


Wow. Ryan’s a really good guy and in fact, the first time I met him, we had a long conversation about you and Lance! Because you guys are two of my favorite actors, so I told Ryan, “Tell me everything about working with Jeffrey and Lance!” (Laughs)

(Laughs) It’s a long way off, but there’s a potential project where Lance and I might work together again. Maybe next year, but we’ll see.

Of course, you and Stuart Gordon have now tackled Lovecraft and Poe multiple times. So, what’s next for you two? Any other stories or authors you guys want to tackle?

(Laughs) I don’t know! I don’t think so. We haven’t really talked about what we would do together next. It’s kind of a curious time right now. I just talked to Stuart yesterday and right now it’s really a quiet curious time. There’s weird dynamics out here because of potential strikes next year. A lot of people are not going forward with things until that’s all figured out, so it’s kind of a quiet time right now. There’s the possibility of a couple of movies next year for me but not with Stuart. I don’t know what Stuart and I would potentially do together again? It’s an actor’s life for me!


You work consistently. You’ve worked in television and movies, you’ve done some voice over work as well. You’re consistently busy. Do you have any advice for aspiring actors? Any advice you can offer to other actors?

Being busy, even though from your perspective it seems I work a lot, well I do, fortunately. But, my biggest problem is keeping myself occupied when I’m not working on a script or role. I’ve not always been successful at that. But I would say the most vital thing that has kept me chugging along here is training and a philosophy of versatility. Any young actor should not jump in his Volkswagen and drive to LA and hit the ground. It can happen, it can happen because there are no rules, but there are tendencies.
And the tendencies are that the better trained people are the ones that have more longevity. So, if you can do plays and get as good a training as you can, do that. I went to college; I didn’t come to LA until I was 26-27. I just didn’t think I was ready, and you know what, I was right. One of the things that I did was that I created a foundation for myself in theater, so that when I came to town and they said (which they always do) “Ok, thank you very much!” and you leave and you didn’t get the gig, at least I had in my mind the idea that I was good because I did all that other stuff. I can go back and survive by doing theater if I had to, because I had a base of confidence there. If you have just confidence without any sort of justification for it, pretty soon you’re going to get burned out. So, just keep training and just keep doing plays. Learn from others. Find pace-setters. Find people that you say “How do they do that?” or “I admire that” and learn from them. And be reliable! Because no one likes somebody they can’t count out.


Do you still do work in theater?

I haven’t in a while. I directed for the first time a couple of years ago RICHARD III.

How’d that go for you?

It was quite a challenge for me, but it turned out very well. It was a nice little equity company near where I live, but boy, it can really take it out of you! I enjoyed it, but I didn’t really want to turn around and do that again. But my thinking was I should try that so that maybe I can have that experience for when I maybe direct a movie one day… Can you hold on one second? Someone’s trying to call, could be an emergency.

Go ahead!

(Short Pause)

My dentist.

(Laughs) When are you due in?

Next week.

Last question! I met you briefly in passing at conventions, and you do a lot of these appearances both at the horror conventions and the STAR TREK conventions. I’m curious, what is the convention experience like from your perspective? Getting to meet so many people that are fans of your work and getting to talk to them about it in detail?

It’s really lovely to get on the ground polling like that. (Laughs) What people like and what people don’t like. But to be honest, it gets a little weary because it’s probably the same 10 questions all weekend. And then you start feeling like a politician, you know? I’m trying to keep the answer fresh. But it’s always the same kind of things. How do you keep that interesting for yourself?


One of the conventions I saw you at was one where you were reunited with Tim Thomerson and Charles Band…

Oh was that the one in Philadelphia?

Right! So there’s a lot of conventions where you bump into these people that you’ve worked with in the past.

Yeah, that I love. I love that. To see old friends. That happens even more so with the STAR TREK conventions that I will go to, because it’s a bigger world. There’s so many character actors that I’ve worked with long before I ever did Science-Fiction from when I was doing theater. These are old friends! But you lose contact but what’s nice too is when you have friends in common and you get to catch up while visiting (conventions). It’s really quite lovely. It’s just nice to sit down and have a drink with an old pal.


Well, Jeffrey, thank you so much for your time. I really, really appreciate it and it was such a pleasure to talk to you.

Alright Rob, nice talking with you!


Special thanks to Tracy Galermo for making this interview possible!

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