Patience has really paid off for Patrick Wilson. A lifelong fan of horror movies, the stage-trained actor took a different approach to the genre than most of his peers—he waited until his career was thriving to select a quality scare flick, rather than sign on to the first crappy horror film that came his way. The list of credible thespians whose resumés suffer from early genre transgressions runs long, including A-list names such as Brad Pitt (1989's Cutting Class), George Clooney (1987's Return To Horror High), and Matthew McConaughey (1994's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation).
Wilson, however, waited until he’d earned praise in movies like Hard Candy, Little Children, and Watchmen before giving horror a shot. The project he did pick, Insidious, opens today, and it’s one of the most impressive scary movies to hit the mainstream in years. (You'll understand why it's such a blast when you check out our interview with creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the horror nuts who gave us Saw.)
Wilson and equally atypical horror star Rose Byrne (Get Him To The Greek) star as the parents of a little boy whose comatose body becomes a gateway for an army of bizarre ghouls and wall-scaling demons.
Complex chatted with Wilson about why he finally dabbled in the genre, cross-dressing ghosts, and the movies that scared the piss out of him as a kid.
Complex: Prior to first reading the Insidious script, had you received many horror scripts?
Patrick Wilson: There had been a few over the years, but nothing huge. I think after Hard Candy, though, I got into some more thrillers and darker movies, so I was sent my share of those, but there was never any that really appealed to me. And I’ve always loved the genre. For me, I love mixing it up; I love to do as many different types of genres as I can, and that the system will allow.
So I’d always sort of had my eye for a good horror movie, and when this came along, within the first 30-40 pages—when it wasn’t even really my story, it was more Rose’s movie by that point—I loved the way it was structured. The first half is really about her, and then I come into play later. But even before I got to any of my good stuff, I called my agent and said, “I love this script. I love the way it’s written, it’s very smart, and I love the pacing of it. This would be a lot of fun.”
Were you familiar with James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s work at that point?
Patrick Wilson: Yeah, I knew Saw. I had not seen Dead Silence or anything, but certainly. I saw Saw in the theaters when it came out, and I really dug it. I thought it was really inventive and creative and different. And I really respected that. I may have seen the second and third ones. [Laughs.] I forgot where I lost them; it just became a different thing, you know?
But we’re talking about guys who are the top of their game here, as far as people in this genre, so I really applauded that. I love classic horror movies. There’s actually a really cool history, whether it’s from Psycho to Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist or whatever else, of actors you wouldn’t typically see in genre movies, and I love that. Now, I’m not putting myself in that pantheon of greatly respected actors, but you’re certainly like, “Now that’s really cool—everybody gets their shot at a really great horror movie.” So I’m glad that I waited and that I was presented with this one.
That’s a good point, because seeing you and Rose Byrne in a movie as insane as Insidious does give it a certain amount of legitimacy.
Patrick Wilson: Well, I think that speaks to the power of a good movie and a good script. There’s not like a specific genre or something where I’ll say, “Oh, no, I don’t ever want to do that kind of movie.” If the script is good, the part is good, and it’s different from the last thing I did, then it’s like, “OK, this will be entertaining; this will be a good time,” so, yeah, this one was a no-brainer.
When you read a script like this one and then sign on to it, is there ever a moment after the ink dries when you worry, “Wait, what if they don’t pull all of this craziness off?”
Patrick Wilson: Well, the deal with me, whether I’m doing this movie or it’s Watchmen or whatever, you first ask yourself, “What is your character grounded in?” If you start from a realistic place, you can take the audience anywhere. That’s kind of what I felt like here; the set-up is of this family drama, so, for my money, once we established our rules and our situation, when I watch a movie like that and the characters believe it then I’ll go along with it. It’s when you start cutting corners and don’t give the proper respect to it, in a weird way, that it doesn’t work.
Also, whatever the convention is, if you can address it and sort of challenge it, and that’s something that I think James and Leigh have done really well in this movie. Embrace the genre but also question it and attack it, and that’s exciting filmmaking to me.
There are some perfectly timed scares in the movie, particularly during the sequence where your character investigates the triggered burglar alarm, or when the freaky demon dude is suddenly hanging out behind you in broad daylight.
Patrick Wilson: Yeah, and it’s all that old, very organic, “Texas switch”—is what they call it—filmmaking. You’ve got the camera here, you slide it over for reaction, then the guy ducks out of frame, you slide back and he’s not there; meanwhile, he’s lying on the ground. He scoots out of the way, and then you’re back in business.
It’s not rocket science—you just have to know exactly where your camera is and what you’re doing. There are very little effects, and I love that. That’s when you feel like you’re part of something special. When it’s made, when it’s built, and when you can see it happening, it’s fun.
There’s only really one effect I can think of, and that’s when the demon guy flies across the wall, I guess. Yeah, I didn’t see any other effects. There was nothing with us; for the stuff in “The Further,” we were shooting in the bottom of this bombed-out building in downtown L.A., and they lined the walls with black felt and garbage bags. Turn all the lights off and there you go! [Laughs.] “Have fun!” People get made up and start to scare you. It’s all very real.
When the lights went off, Ty [Simpkins], who played my son, would get very scared. So you’re dealing with a real child there, and the real emotions, so it actually heightens your game.
In that “Further” sequence, the ghouls have this really creepy face makeup that’s straight out of old black-and-white movies.
Patrick Wilson: It’s fantastic, right?
Yeah, I thought it worked really well. When I spoke to James [Wan], we talked about how that makeup look is pure Carnival Of Souls, the old low-budget creepshow from 1962.
Patrick Wilson: Yes, that’s straight up Carnival Of Souls! Absolutely. James is such a vat of that knowledge. He’ll start referencing movies I’ve never even heard of. [Laughs.] But I love that. That’s what I dig about directors like James and David Slade [who directed Hard Candy]; they have a totally different frame of reference from growing up than I do, but it’s great.
You meet somebody who’s so passionate about one genre that they start quoting movies that I’ve never even heard of, that’s awesome to me. That’s someone who knows exactly what kind of movie they want to make, and, I don’t care what genre you’re in, that’s what you want. Someone who’s so focused on the story they’re trying to tell, and that is James and Leigh to a tee.
What’s cool about them is that they have this kid-like energy about their movies and horror in general.
Patrick Wilson: They are kids. [Laughs.] It’s hilarious. They’re just awesome guys. Leigh needs to write a damn comedy—I mean, the guy is just hilarious. It’s just ridiculous how funny he is.
Is it true that the freaky old lady that haunts your character is actually played by a dude? If so, that’s a pretty funny trick.
Patrick Wilson: Yeah, yeah. He’s a character actor, and a very nice guy. [Laughs.] He’s a really good actor. At the beginning stages, I was sort of asking James about his process and what kind of movie he wants to make, and how does he see these demons and ghosts. He said, “Well, I want this creepy figure. She’s an old woman, but I want to get a guy to play her.” [Laughs.]
Everything about the movie was just a little bit off, and I really appreciated that. I knew from then on that James knew exactly what he wanted to do with the movie.
Being that Insidious is rated PG-13, I have a feeling that it could really mess up some younger, non-horror-savvy viewers. When you were growing up, were there any horror movies that scarred you?
Patrick Wilson: You know what’s funny for me? In hindsight, you look back on a lot of those movies and say to yourself, “You know, that movie isn’t really that scary.” [Laughs.] Or, “That’s not even a really good movie.” Because you’re also being introduced as a kid to movies in general, when a movie can move you and scare you, it’s all the more impactful.
I remember when I was a kid, I saw Salem’s Lot. I don’t know if you’ve seen that in the last ten years, but it’s not, to me at least, scary at all—it’s actually kind of laughable. Wait, that’s a terrible thing to say about someone else’s work. [Laughs.] But you know what I mean. I’ll be diplomatic: It’s not usually mentioned in the “scariest movies of all time” conversations. However, it was one of the first movies that I saw and the kid scraping on the window still freaks me out in my sleep. Like, if I think of scary images, it’s “Redrum!” to some people, but it’s that’s creepy guy in Salem’s Lot for me. I didn’t watch the movie again until I was about 19; I watched it thinking I would be scared, but I was like, “What? This is ridiculous!”
Also, Poltergeist freaked me out! At that time, my parents’ house got robbed. So, right when I saw that movie, for some reason the fact that my house had just been robbed made the experience so much scarier to me. It just went together. It’s like, you have a hard time believing in reality and fantasy when you’re a child, anyway, but for some reason Poltergeist always became synonymous with the night that my house got robbed.
It’s always scarier when you can relate to a horror movie in some way.
Patrick Wilson: In some ways, being scared is—even more than laughing or being moved to tears—a very primal reaction. You’re genuinely scared. Being frightened is uncomfortable and exciting. I think that’s why some people get very scared by certain movies and others will say “That’s ridiculous. How is that scary to you?”
Younger audiences, I think, associate horror movies with their own personal experiences. I hope people have a similar reaction with this movie, truthfully. It’s a real, old-fashioned horror movie, even down to the title card coming up like it did in The Exorcist. Even the score—this movie has got to be played loud. This isn't a thriller or a gory movie saying it’s a horror movie; it’s genuinely a scary-ass movie, and I love that.