Stepping into the role of Martin, the revolting antagonist at the center of The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), British stage veteran Laurence R. Harvey not only had big shoes to fill—he had the odd task of stapling mouths onto asses. Something tells us that they don’t teach that in either film school or actors’ workshops.
First, let’s explain those “big shoes.” Harvey’s predecessor in the now-ubiquitous Human Centipede franchise, German creeper Dieter Laser, delivers such a coldly menacing performance in Dutch writer-director Tom Six’s 2010 freakshow that his character, the surgeon Dr. Heiter, upstages the actual lips-to-sphincter monstrosity he creates; well, depending on who you ask. As he dreamt up his much crazier sequel, Six envisioned the second villain as more of an everyman, a forty-something social outcast who lives at home with mom and fantasizes about copying the acts in his favorite movie, The Human Centipede. It’s a completely different character than Dr. Heiter, and Six needed the right man for the sick job.
Now onto those ass-stapling requirements. More specifically, Six was looking for an actor who’s not afraid to run laps around Laser in terms of an extremely disconcerting behavior. And he found precisely that in Harvey, whose previous credits—children’s television in London, as well as theater—are devoid of any feature film work, or scenes where he bashes skulls in with a crowbar. Or masturbates with sandpaper. Needless to say, his work as The Human Centipede II baddie, “Martin,” required Harvey to stretch himself as an actor.
The result of that extra dedication is one of the most disturbing horror movie rogues in years, a nasty guy who’s even sicker than Dr. Heiter. In reality, though, Harvey is an incredibly nice guy, as well as an admitted genre movie nerd. Complex chatted with Human Centipede’s latest flesh-and-blood monster about what drew him to the role, his approach to raping a chair in the audition, and the joys of pretending to dismember people in front of a camera.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Complex: Before working on the sequel, were you a fan of The Human Centipede?
Laurence Harvey: Basically, my agent rung me up and said that there were these people who wanted to do a film called The Human Centipede, which he hadn’t heard of, actually. He was kind of unsure about it. I remembered hearing about the first Human Centipede from when it was playing at Fright Fest in London. It was one of the films that I wanted to go and see, but I couldn’t get to Fright Fest. So it was something that was on my radar, but at that stage it was still a quiet, cult hit. It was still on the festival circuit, rather than having been released anywhere. It didn’t have the cultural means that it does now, with South Park and all of that. [Laughs.]
It was this interesting-sounding, quirky independent horror film that seemed to have something imaginative about it. I knew that I was auditioning for the lead role, so I was convinced that a character such as myself who’s done mainly kids’ TV and stage comedy wouldn’t get the part. [Laughs.] I’ve done some progressive roles in theater, but I would have thought that a film director wouldn’t have known that—that wouldn’t have been on his radar. I went to the casting, but immediately before my casting, Tom arranged a screening on a kind of Monday morning for people to see the film. So I went to see the film, and throughout it I was thinking, “Is this a good film? Or a bad film?” [Laughs.]
I couldn’t figure out if [The Human Centipede] was intentionally bad in a campy way, but I was riveted. The first film doesn’t show anything, though. Being that they were casting for a sequel, I wondered how he…. I wasn’t that interested in being in something that was just a rehash of the first one. So I went up to the casting, and I thought, A, I’ve got pretty big shoes to fill after Dieter’s performance [as the first movie’s villain], and, B, I was wondering how Tom would be in person. And then we met and got on like a house on fire—it was the best casting experience of my career.
We just kept finding all of these similarities between how our minds work; like, for instance, we both hate cheese. [Laughs.] We both have a love for Japanese splatter films, as well as classic European art-house films, like [Ingmar] Bergman. It was that kind of high art and low art combination that just made me really go for it with this film. When you meet Tom, there’s such a bounciness, a childlike energy to him, that you just want to go for it and do everything he asks of you. I’m really pleased that Tom chose me to do it.
Were you able to read the script prior to the audition? It seems like the script would scare most actors off before they even arrived at the casting location.
Well, having seen the first film that same morning, I knew what the centipede was all about. At that stage, there wasn’t a hard copy script—it was still in Tom’s mind. But he kind of knew the whole A-to-B, scene by scene narrative, as well as camera angles and lighting and so on. He had this idea of it being a horror film with a social realist element to it, and a satirical element. I was really impressed by the detail of his recounting of the narrative. Nothing shocked me in his telling of it; it wasn’t until later, when we were actually filming the rougher scenes, that I thought, “Whoa, wait a second.” [Laughs.]
When I spoke with Tom Six, he told me the story about how you raped a chair during the audition. So, the obvious question is: What the hell were you thinking?
[Laughs.] Yeah, the chair. It was all about incrementally becoming like Martin in the audition. Knowing that Martin lives with his mother, I went back to a lot of stresses that were brought about by my own mom, though it’s not quite the same thing as Martin’s mom. [Laughs.] One scene during the casting asked me to bash Martin’s mother’s head in, and I just couldn’t get to the right place. I used to live in London, but the housing situation I was going to move into fell through, so I was left with my stuff in storage. I moved back in with my parents for what I thought was going to be a short time, but it’s been a few years now. I’m kind of fed up with living with my folks; they treat me like a child.
I’ve got a few hundred DVDs of art-house and exploitation films, so I know what would happen if my mom threw out my collection of violent Japanese films. [Laughs.] The scene where Martin’s mom rips up his Human Centipede fan-book is exactly like that, so I channeled my own feelings and really went for it, but obviously there wasn’t a real head for me to bash in during the casting, which was disappointing. [Laughs.]
Tom was really into everything I was doing. He suggested that I do the rape scene, in order to kind of challenge. I just thought, “Well, it’s in the script, I’m going to have to do it eventually, so I might as well do it the best I can now.” So when he suggested to do the rape scene, I kind of thought, “Well, it’d be stupid to just wave my crotch in mid-air.” [Laughs.] I come from a performance art background, and one of the approaches to objects is to use them in ways that they aren’t normally used. There were lots of chairs in the room, so I just kind of flipped one over; the legs basically gave me something to hold on to. [Laughs.] The seat on the back of the chair was at the right height, just like it’d be if somebody was kneeling down and there was a bum sticking up in the air. So I just went for it like that. I think Tom was a bit shocked, but also impressed that I actually did it.
Yeah, and then you kind of feel like she says that quite a lot. It’s not the best of upbringings.
When you are on set, did you have to stay in character as Martin at all times? He’s such an extreme and creepy character, I’d imagine that it’d be odd for your co-stars to casually hang out with you once the camera starts rolling.
Well, I used quite a lot of my own life experiences in Martin, so it wasn’t like I had to switch into a totally different person; with Martin, I just had to play up my own social anxieties. I get on really well when there’s only one or two people at a table, but if there’s about seven, I start to feel a bit intimidated. But then if there are 500 people around, I don’t feel that awkward. So, basically, any number between three and 500 people is when I feel intimidated. It doesn’t make any sense. [Laughs.] It’s kind of like being afraid of heights when you’re standing on a chair, but not when you’re standing on a cliff. Yeah, I’m kind of a contradictory person.
On set, the co-stars had all been cast at the same place, so they all kind of knew each other. They had a bonding process. The way we shot the film, we shot all of the stuff inside the warehouse at the end of the shoot. So before then we shot each of the scenes when Martin bashes them over the head and throws them into his van individually, so I met each of them gradually, one-by-one, and that was interesting. There was no reason to ignore them, but I kind of felt separate from them, anyway.
Now that the film is out there and it’s receiving extreme reactions all across the world, you must have to attend functions where the attendance numbers fall in between that three-to-500 range. How has the newfound attention been for you?
So far, I’m lucky that I haven’t been recognized on the street. But, yeah, at the recent Fantastic Fest in Austin, it was interesting to watch the people’s reactions. Also with the press, if it’s a woman on her own coming to interview me and Tom, she’s really wary of me. [Laughs.] There was this one interviewer who wouldn’t look me in the eye until we’d been talking to her for about 10 minutes, and by that point we’d manage to mollify her into understanding that we’re not insane. [Laughs.]
It’s funny, after the first screening, I noticed that certain people wouldn’t come up to me and say hello, but a couple days later I’d see them and then they’d come up to me and say, “After the movie, I didn’t want to approach you, but I’ve been watching you,” which is kind of worrying. [Laughs.] “I’ve been watching you and you seem like a nice person.” And that’s nice. I’m an actor, so obviously I’m not the same person as Martin.
Your performance as Martin already seems to be working its way into the pantheon of all-time great horror movie villains. Even the critics who’ve bashed the film seem to praise your performance. You seem to be a fan of horror movies, so how does it feel to potentially earn a spot alongside the great icons of the genre?
The idea of becoming an icon is really, really cool. [Laughs.] But it’d be nice to do something outside of the horror genre next, to show that Martin was just a performance and not a one-trick-pony kind of thing. I’ve always had a fondness for extreme cinema, whether it’s in the horror genre or it’s pretentious art-house stuff or whatever.
I love the old movie actors like Peter Lorre, who managed to be both a horror icon and a weasel-y kind of thriller actor, as well. So hopefully I can steer the course into having one foot in the horror camp and one foot somewhere else.
Once the film goes off the rails, so to speak, in the final act, inside the warehouse, you do some incredibly disgusting and cruel things to your co-stars. How was it shooting scenes where you have to hammer a guy’s teeth in, or cut someone’s knees open? Does the thought pop in your head of, “Wow, I can’t believe what I’m doing right now”?
Well, you’re talking to somebody who grew up reading every issue of Fangoria! [Laughs.] I love all of the great gore films, and I really wanted to have prosthetics in this film, for me personally. But I didn’t get them—everybody else got them, but at least I got to work on them. At least I got to slice them up and pop kneecaps out. For me, that was the most fun part of the film. Being in the warehouse, there was so much blood everywhere, it looked like we were in some performance art piece with chopped-up cattle carcasses.
I was telling Tom Six how The Human Centipede II somehow manages to exceed all expectations, in terms of going into the experience anticipating the awfulness on screen and still being revolted to no end. Everything that takes place in the warehouse falls directly into that revulsion.
Yeah, Tom, myself, and everyone involved with the film didn’t make a film for the audience to go into the cinema, spend two hours, and leave saying, “Well, I killed a couple of hours, so I guess I better go and do something else.” No, we made something else entirely. What I thought we’d made at the end of the shoot was a sort of splatter-comedy that was this satirical thing, but then I saw the black-and-white images after Tom made that change and heard the soundscape, and I thought, “Wow, this is really a much tougher and stronger movie than I thought it was.”
I think taking away the color does that; instead of it being this fun kind of gore-fest, it becomes something a lot more harder-hitting viscerally. A horror film should do a number of things: It should shock you, unsettle you, and just pummel you with vicious imagery, in order to make its point. And I think this film does many of those things.
That’s one thing that no one can take away from Tom Six or these movies: Regardless of how much you hate the films, there’s no denying that Tom Six set out to truly horrify the audience. And not enough horror filmmakers do that these days.
Yeah, I’m so sick of that kind of PG-13 horror, or those slick remakes of either foreign films or classic horror pictures. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has this clunky dialogue and lacks a real sense of humanity or even a sense of reality, whereas the remake just feels like a slick thing that’s meant to be a fun ride, but there’s more “fun” than “ride” in it. I think Tom really wants to make something that no one has ever experienced before, or experienced in quite that way. I like that about both the first film and this one. He’s a very intelligent and idiosyncratic director.
Rest assured, I can’t imagine anyone ever making a Human Centipede down the line.
[Laughs.] No, Tom Cruise’s movie company isn’t seeking out the rights to this movie at the moment.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)