James Ransone has seen some shit. His breakout role came in the form of a homicidal, self-asphyxiating teen in Larry Clark and Ed Lachman’s Ken Park in 2002 before appearing on the second season of The Wire. In recent years, he’s had to fight off demonic villains in well-tailored suits (Bughuul in the Sinister films) and clown costumes (his most recent addition to his expansive filmography: It Chapter Two), and has portrayed endearingly bumbling characters. In the continuation of the It remake that launched in 2017, directed by Andy Muschietti, the story skips 27 years ahead and finds the Losers’ Club all grown up—middle-aged, in fact—and haunted once again by the manipulative, shape-shifting, sharp-toothed Pennywise. Ransone steps into the shoes of Eddie (played young by Jack Dylan Grazer) with an eerie resemblance: all these years later, he’s still the motor-mouthed, anxious germaphobe whose every other word is a profanity. Ransone’s Eddie still gets made fun of for being “little,” but he plays a big part in the epic final battle against the psychopathic clown.
In the midst of his paternity leave—an unusual moment of idyll for the actor—Ransone spoke to Complex about his harrowing roles, filming It’s most disgusting scene and improvising alongside his fellow comic relief, Bill Hader. Ransone was ready to tell all—except for the meaning behind his mysterious nickname.
Hi. How are you?
Living the dream, you know?
I loved you in It and in a lot of these recent horror films, like Sinister. What’s the appeal with horror movies for you?
Well, the appeal of any job for me is that I’m just lucky enough that someone would hire me to go be in movies still to this day. I still really like horror movies, to be honest, because it seemed to be one of the few things right now that wrestle with larger, metaphysical ideas and become depoliticized very quickly, and they become more universal. And I think that that’s why people like that stuff right now. There’s a lot of stuff out there that seems like such a slog to get through because it’s so politicized, and I feel like people are going to get sick of it, to be honest.
I’m also a child of the ’80s, and my grandfather owned a video store, one of the first video stores. You would walk down the aisles and look at all of the boxes, and you could only go by the cover art. And then, you look on the back and read what it was about. And so, I knew which ones I didn’t want to watch because they felt like they were too scary. But still, to this day, I’m a huge John Carpenter fan.
I mean, he’s the best.
Yeah, the best. And also, he has that DeNiro and Scorsese thing with Kurt Russell. What a team.
A lot of us at Complex became big fans of you because you’re just so funny in these horror films, and it’s the same case here. Eddie was my favorite in Chapter One and he remains my favorite as an adult in Chapter Two. You guys look and act so much alike. It was remarkable how accurate the adult cast felt. How did you accomplish that?
Number one, thank you. Number two, it was literally just the stupid hand of God, blind luck that Jack Dylan Grazer [who plays younger Eddie] already played to my three tricks that I’m able to do as a bad dog, you know? But also, I’m getting older, so that just means I’m slower and I thought, “Ah man, this kid is talking so fast. I don’t even know if I can keep up.”
So fast. Did you have to practice fast-talking for this role?
No, I just snorted a lot of cocaine. I’m just kidding. No, no, no, no.
This is becoming a PR nightmare.
My publicist is used to that. No, I literally just watched the first movie, and then, when we were shooting it, Andy Muschietti, who has such an attention to detail, held my hand through any sort of physical idiosyncrasies that I hadn’t picked up on.
I just remembered that Ti West once told me that your nickname is PJ, is that correct?
Yes, that is true.
What is the story behind PJ?
I will never tell you. I will only tell you that the J stands for Jimmy. And that is short for James, but I won’t tell you what the P stands for. It’s a nickname that my family gave me.
Wow. Okay. A mystery.
You can call me PJ. I’m just not going to tell you what the P stands for. It’s not gross...Get your head out of the gutter!
It’s not in the gutter!
I’m just kidding. It’s like Pennsylvania.
No disgusting words.
I’ve seen you in various terrifying situations in your filmography, but I actually very recently watched Ken Park for the first time. That was, maybe, your most traumatizing role.
I’m always tripped out by people freaked out about that movie because of the violence in it is so fucking intense, and that’s not what seems to bother anyone. They’re bothered by the sex in it, but never the violence. And that’s more horrifying to me about what it says about the audience in that movie. This person murdered their grandparents with a knife! And no one bats a fucking eye at that. And that’s weird to me, you know? Why is violence so acceptable? I trip up about this a lot. It freaks me out.
Yeah, Ken Park was a very harrowing viewing experience for me.
But it was great.
Would I do that again? No, because I don’t have anything to prove. I felt like I did that because I had something to prove, which was like a “fuck you” to people. Because we sanitized sex, and we sanitize violence in a lot of our films. And I was a kid with a fine art background. I was like, “Why don’t you see what it looks like fucking for real?” You know? I’m just not interested in proving that point anymore because, A. people are dumb, and B. no one cares.
Right. I would love to walk through one of the scenes in It with you: the part where you get tongue-sucked then have black liquid squirted all over you in the basement.
First of all, it wasn’t black liquid, it was brown tempera paint. And it was brown tempera paint mixed with water and peas and carrots. It was so gross. And Andy thought it was so funny because they use, probably, 15 gallons of this gross tempera that they pressure sprayed into my mouth. I was holding my breath as they were spraying it and I remember almost passing out because I was like, “I don’t think I can hold my breath any longer.” By the way, this was the last thing I shot.
Oh my God. What does that taste like?
It’s really chalky.
I am lucky to not know what that really tastes like. What I liked about this movie is that it has room for two comic reliefs, you and Bill Hader.
Yes. Scooby-Doo and Shaggy.
What was it like sharing the comedic spotlight with him?
I felt like I was going to get a chance to learn how to do improv and sketch comedy with somebody who knew what they were doing, and I felt really hyped about that because the truth is that we didn’t know each other well. We met at an audition for that Michael Mann movie, Public Enemies, like 12 years ago. And we got along fine, and then we had similar tastes in music and art and books and movies and TV shows. So, when we met, it was built in, we knew each other, but then it was really fun for me as a performer to learn some new skills. Because I don’t have a lot of them.
A lot of it was improvised then?
Well, there was a full script. I didn’t see the movie because I can’t watch myself. I hate watching myself in anything. I just freak out. I can’t do it. But we did improvise a lot of stuff. Bill said he thought it was about 50% improv and 50% scripted. So, we would shoot what was on the page and then we’d add something and Andy would like that. And he’d go back in and expand on that or elaborate on it. The whole puppy scene was all improv.
All of my stuff in Tangerine is improv so I knew how to do that. I’ve just never gotten to do it with someone like Bill Hader.
Was there anything actually scary that happened while filming this, besides the tempera paint?
No, nothing scary. I had a lot of crazy, awful personal things happen to me when I was shooting that movie. My mother-in-law got sick and died right after.
Oh, I’m sorry.
There was crazy family drama. But then my wife got pregnant, so we had a kid.
Oh my God! Congratulations!
Thanks. I was dealing with a lot of stuff while I was filming that movie. So, behind laughter, there were a lot of tears.
Well then, what was your favorite thing to shoot in this during this film?
The stuff at the top of the stairs with Jessica Chastain. I kept trying to make her laugh. I was really intimidated by her at first. So, I was like, “Fuck. If I can make her laugh, I’ll win her over.”
And you succeeded?
Yeah. I think I did. She’s just fucking intimidating, you know? She went to Julliard. It was so gratifying because I got her to crack on camera.
By the way, it was very satisfying when she took off her blazer at the end, because the whole time I was like, “I do not want to be wearing a blazer while I’m fighting a maniacal clown.”
Well, that’s why I was like, “Eddie is wearing a sweatshirt. A members-only jacket.” Because I have a lot of tattoos, and I’m really lazy. I was like, “I am not sitting in the make-up chair to get my tattoos done.
At least they didn’t give her heels to run around in.
She would’ve shut that shit down so fast.
What are you working on now, after It?
Nothing. I’m on paternity leave. I have not shot anything since we wrapped last year. This is the longest I’ve been off, I think, in my career.
How does it feel?
I was freaking out about it before the kid was born. Now I’m psyched. I don’t want to go back to work. I hope my next movie is a rom-com or something like that.