A Delicious Role: Jeffrey Combs on Would You Rather

His new horror villain, why the Re-Animator musical was weird for him, and his concerns about an inevitable reboot.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

If you don’t know who Jeffrey Combs is, go watch Re-Animator right now.

Welcome back. I mean, can you believe that thing they did in that one scene with the thing? Combs is one of the most beloved faces in horror movies, frequently collaborating with director Stuart Gordon, and also appearing in big budget movies like The Frighteners and House on Haunted Hill. In Would You Rather, Combs plays Lambrick, a wealthy host who has eight guests competing for a grant. It’s not an interview though. It’s a process of elimination as he tests the table with manipulative games of choice. I saw the film at Screamfest and got to talk to Combs on the phone this week about his latest film, his classics and the stage musical of one of those classics.

Would You Rather opens in limited release this Friday, February 8.

CraveOnline: There are so many great characters in Would You Rather. Was Lambrick the perfect one for you?

Jeffrey Combs: Well, I don’t think there’s any other that I could’ve played. It was a gift for me to be asked to do it, that’s for sure. Juicy character, not a particularly likable guy but that goes with the territory. It’s far more interesting to play the conflicted bad guy than it is to play the straight arrow or something. Just a delicious role. I was honored to jump in there with a great cast. Everybody just really, really brought in their ‘A’ game on this one. I think this movie, not speaking necessarily about myself, but from where I sat, everybody was perfectly cast, this terrific group of actors.

Is he unlikeable? Because he certainly seems to be having fun.

Right, that’s sort of the disturbing thing about it. He thinks this is great, good fun. He doesn’t know any different. The director and I sort of talked about it and this has just been who he is since infancy. He’s been indoctrinated by his father and his father before him, on back through the lineage of the Lambrick family. This is a sick, sadistic streak in them. They have to go this far to find amusement in their life. They sort of lack the empathy gene. I sort of made up my mind also that there’s no women in this family. They get rid of them because they would maybe get in the way of the father indoctrinating the son.

They have to be born somehow.

Yes, of course, but then once that’s achieved, they’re marginalized or eliminated. Because they’re so rich, they can do whatever the hell they want. It just doesn’t matter. I think the whole movie is a bit of an extreme examination between the haves and the have nots here. When you’re that rich, you don’t even see people as human beings and everything is for your amusement. You don’t even want details. They have no souls, these people. That was sort of my biggest challenge, was to portray him as an enigma in a way. Didn’t want to get too specific about it. That’s why it’s so unnerving when you watch the movie. Who is this guy? With evil you’re never going to get a full and complete explanation that will satisfy you. The guy that opens up a bunch of kids with an assault rifle, you’re never going to understand where that comes from. There is nothing that that comes from other than sickness.

Had the 1% and 99% started to come up with the Occupy movement when you were making Would You Rather?

Well, I would wager that that was certainly in the background when they were fleshing out this script, came up with the idea, this whole notion. It was a couple of years ago at the height of that movement, so it really is sort of a more intense and exaggerated look at those who are in control and how they view the rest of us. So I think it strikes a chord with people in that way. I think watching this movie you probably understand that’s sort of what it’s all about.

When you were reading the script and got further along in the manipulation games, like the way he twists the game with the lashes, were you surprised how Lambrick kept changing his own game?

Yes, I was but at the same time it’s completely motivated in the script. If that Iraqi vet had not challenged my son, had not mouthed off, had not stood up to our authority, then the spotlight of the game would not have swung to him. In a weird way, because he did that, it’s almost like a lesson to everybody else. That’s sort of how sadistic power works. We make an example of somebody and that keeps everybody else in line, right?

It also makes the game unpredictable. Right when they think they’ve figured out how this works, they can never stay ahead.

And that’s one of the aspects of the game, the way we play it, is that it can be changed on a whim. It’s not structured to the point where it’s the same every time. That’s our enjoyment. I actually can say where we’re going. I can just, on the fly, be impulsive. There are no hard and fast rules of how it’s going to play out, and later when I announce that my son won’t be coming back and the gambler starts off, well who’s next here? Who do I pick next? Him. So there is a vindictive quality about the game. You never see my son come to me and say, “That guy mouthed off to me.” But we are out of the room together and when I come back in that is indeed my intent. Coming in that room, don’t worry, son. I’ll take care of this.

When they approach you with this sort of creepy villain character, at this point in your career are you like, “I’ve got this. I know what to do?”

I never feel like I’ve got this and I know what to do. If there’s one thing that I always approach every role with it’s complete nervousness, unknowing how it’s going to turn out. Humility, starting from scratch every time, so I never approach a character going, “This is handled” because I think if an actor starts at that place, I think they’re sort of doomed because there is a certain arrogance there at play. At least I don’t. At the same time I have to be confident in my choices and following my instincts, but I never think everything is decided, even in my own head. No, I don’t approach it that way. I can’t.

I have fortunately become friends with Barbara Crampton in the last few years and we’ve talked a lot about Re-Animator and From Beyond.

Nice, that’s good.

Especially the outrageous sexuality in those movies. In Re-Animator you come in at the end of that scene, but did you have a sense of what they were doing with the head scene?

Sure, I was upstairs in my dressing room with Bruce [Abbott] and we were hearing a lot of screaming over and over as they were shooting that sequence from all kinds of different angles. I sort of view Re-Animator as sort of a straight ahead kind of melodrama. If you look at it in a weird way, Barbara is tied to the railroad tracks and David Gale is Snidely Whiplash and we’re sort of Dudley Do-Right coming to the rescue there, saving the damsel in distress. It’s a pretty straight-ahead storytelling motif there. The twist is that my character is not exactly the image of total moral fortitude, and yet he’s the hero. He comes in and stops that nonsense.

So does Dan. He’s more the straight white hat hero.

Yeah, so does Dan, so in a way it gives us a bit of the hero aspect to our characters, kind of vindicates Herbert a little bit after all of the stuff he’s been doing.

Have you seen the Re-Animator musical?

Yeah, I did. Mm-hmm, I saw it. Have you?

Yes, I was still rooting for poor Meg. Stuart Gordon was at the show I saw, still workshopping a little.

Did you see it in L.A.?

Yes, I’m in L.A.

I saw it. I’m in a unique situation there. It was kind of surreal to me. It’s a different animal completely from the movie. I sort of thought it was sent up for yucks and laughs and I feel that the movie has a sincerity to it despite all of the crazy stuff that’s going on. And a gravitas, you care about these people and I sort of felt that the musical was great good fun, but a little appealing to the crowd with the yuck yuck, wink wink, spraying stuff directly into the audience as if it was a party as opposed to it happening organically because of what was happening, breaking that fourth wall and I don’t know, it’s just a different animal. It was weird. It’s weird seeing someone portray a character that you’re known for and doing sort of impersonations of line readings. It’s an odd feeling.

That’s fair. You’re right, it’s somewhat word for word, even down to turning “I suggest you get a pen” into a song lyrics.

It’s this weird mix of a musical and yet a kind of lifting of visual moments and line readings straight out of the movie. So it was very pleasing for the audience but I wonder if someone had never seen the movie, if they actually got some of that stuff or knew that it was a lift, a complete lift. In the original story, Herbert West is blonde, so you can’t even say it’s just a different interpretation. Well, then why were they trying really hard to make him look exactly like me then? There are many ways that you can play Herbert West, not just my way.

Did you express any of that to Stuart?

Somewhat. I just told him it was weird for me.

That’s fair. Do you think we’ll see Herbert West again in a fourth movie?

That’s a hard one. I don’t sense any heat about anything like that. Brian Yuzna owns the rights to it. I suspect the way it is out there, I’m cynical about this, I would imagine that at some point they’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse and they would reboot it, is what they would do. With fresh young faces and a whole new cast and CGI special effects and really for a new generation! And it won’t really compare.

Before you go, I also wanted to ask about The Frighteners, a mid-career Peter Jackson movie. Was your experience more like big budget Peter Jackson or the old, early Peter Jackson?

Oh, it had a pretty good budget, that movie, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a film. Very generous, collaborative, very unselfish. Peter Jackson and his team were inclusive, wanted to know my opinion of things, if I had any input. They weren’t really proprietary about their ideas. Coming up with the character was sort of a collaboration between Peter and I, very trusting and really a pleasant experience all around. The only disappointment was that it wasn’t distributed at the right time, in the right way.

It seemed like a character you had a lot of input in.

Yeah, and a lot of trust from Peter to let me try things and say, “Yeah, do that. Do more of that. Yeah, let’s go that way. I like it. Good choice.” But he also had his own ideas and so it was a real blending and it worked really well. We had a great time. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.