I recently had the chance to chat with Jeffrey Combs, cult icon, star of the RE-ANIMATOR series, the highly acclaimed MASTERS OF HORROR episode THE BLACK CAT, about 60 other films and the last 3 STAR TREK TV series…
Here’s what he had to say about the Direct-to-DVD sequel RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, his genre career, Poe vs. Lovecraft, the Hollywood machine and the chances that we’ll see Dr. Herbert West reanimate a dead President…
Jeffrey Combs talking to ECDVD on the red carpet of the 300 DVD Premiere in San Diego
Axel – Mr.Combs, nice to talk to you again. How’ve you been the last few months?
Jeffrey Combs – Hey Axel, how are you? Where are you calling me from now?
A – Calgary, Alberta…
JC – Wow!
A – Yep. Canada.
JC – Been there many times.
A – I know it. The entire country loves you up here. So, things are good? New flick coming out on Tuesday…
JC – Yeah, things are very good. Things are kind of quiet right now, but I need that. I’m going to be doing a lot of traveling here in the next couple of weeks. Did you get a chance to see the movie?
A – Negatory. My screener is MIA somewhere. We’re still looking for it. But I’ve seen the first film, I’ve read the production notes on this one and you know I’m a big fan of the rest of your stuff, so I’ve got a whole raft of questions to drive you insane for the next 20 minutes.
JC – Oh, alright, let’s do it. Drive me nuts. Go for it.
A – Can you describe your experience in revisiting the part of Dr. Vannacut, the demonic Doctor in charge of Hill House Asylum?
JC – It was kind of surreal. You know, 8 years later is kind of weird. I’d really kind of forgotten about that project. Usually when a sequel comes up, it comes up fairly quickly. This one really came out of nowhere. You know… ‘what do you mean RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL?’ I think originally when they conceived of this, Vannacut wasn’t part of the idea – at least that’s what the director told me. Then he advocated… kind of lobbied really for Vannacut. I mean, you have to have Vannacut, right? He’s the face for the house and, without him, you just have a house with no real personality to it.
A – What are your thoughts on why now, 8 years later, is the time for a sequel?
JC – Well, what I also didn’t realize at the time was how they were dovetailing the production to use this new technology, which will allow the viewer to navigate and determine the course of the movie, much like a videogame. I think the technology came first and they were looking for a project to utilize it in and right there in their library was HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL… and they’d have a better shot at getting some exposure with a title that was already known.
A – Speaking of that new technology and the kind of marketing they are able to create from that, do you feel that the sequel is more in line with William Castle`s type of theatrical marketing than the first film (the 1999 film)?
JC – That’s a good question because he was the king of ‘sense-U-round’ and buzzing your seat and any kind of gimmick that he could come up with. So, in an obtuse way it is a sort of homage to that way of thinking. It seems to me that that sort of stuff obviously doesn’t get people into theatres anymore, but maybe it will get them to buy a DVD. It might be a little ahead of the curve because you need to have an HD or BluRay or Xbox player to utilize the navigation technology. I’m no expert on this but, what percentage of the population has that right now?
A – It’s a slowly burgeoning small percentage, I think.
JC – Slowly burgeoning until the price comes down on that stuff. Of course, having said that, it still has the pull of being a sequel to a movie that did very well 8 years ago. So, whether you have the equipment or not, you may be compelled to check it out because of the name.
A – How was your experience working with new director Victor Garcia? This was his first feature, right?
JC – It was his first feature but I was blown away by his short. He won an award for Best Short at some film festival for this short. It’s just a terrific, atmospheric piece and really quite powerful, with not a word of dialogue spoken in the entire movie. It impressed Joel Silver so much that it moved him to the top of the list to direct this movie. The movie has a great look and that’s due in large part to Victor and to the Director of Photography, Lorenzo Senatore. The thing to remember is that this wasn’t just a regular movie, there were all kinds of variations and different versions of scenes… logistically it was a nightmare, and Victor was able to keep that all straight and organized and still keep a good sense of humor about it, and that’s what you need to be a good director. The director is constantly having problems and demands throw at him. It’s amazing to me that he could keep it all straight, I mean, I was confused and I only had to deal with my little world.
A – Did you find much of a difference, working with European filmmakers, as opposed to the North American ‘Hollywood’ style of filmmaking?
JC – The only real difference – and it’s a big one – is that usually, when you’re making a movie, you tend to bond with the people you’re working with. That’s not so easy to do when you’re in a country where everyone speaks Bulgarian. You can’t ask people how they’re doing, how’s the family… what’s for lunch? You’re kind of on the outside, in your own little bubble. Victor is Spanish and, while his English is very good, you’d use slang, or a turn of phrase… he just doesn’t have those shortcuts, so even there you find problems with communication.
A – Did that sense of isolation lead to the cast bonding more than you’ve usually found?
JC – Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I really was very isolated. They did all of my stuff in a very short period of time. When I got over there, I also found out that they were filming all nights! Which was good for me, really. Their night is our day, in America, so I never had to adjust myself for jet lag. But at the same time, they didn’t get to me for a week. They said ‘we need you out here right now!’
A – And then said ‘hurry up and wait’, right?
JC – Right, ‘hurry up and wait’. So I ended up turning into a vampire, because I had to stay on their schedule so I was ready to work. So I had a week off, but I had to stay up all night and sleep all day. So that was really weird. What are you going to do at 3 AM in Bulgaria? Just kind of hanging out in your room. And then sleeping all day, getting up in the late afternoon in this strange country… I began to feel very isolated and started getting a little squirrelly.
A – So it didn’t work as a great ‘method acting’ technique for you?
JC – Well, I was pissed off… No, when it comes to the work you just get down to it. There were a lot of technical things they had to work out before we could start, so it was unavoidable. In the first film I had these very specialized glasses that I used to operate with… very retro from the 30’s… and they were just a prop that looked cool. They built them from scratch in Bulgaria and they’d keep coming to me with these prototypes. They just kept working on it until they got it perfect.
A – You began your career as a stage actor at the renowned Old Globe Theatre…
JC – In San Diego. There’s actually two Old Globe Theatres. One in London, which is the ‘new’ Old Globe and the ‘old’ Old Globe in San Diego. I didn’t start there, but I worked there.
A – Well, you got me there. I’m getting my info by way of that all-powerful, nigh-infallible repository of all human knowledge… the internet. My apologies. How does your classical training help you in your many genre roles?
JC – It helps and it hurts. The transition from stage to film and TV is rough. It helps a lot to have the experience you get doing a lot of different plays, different styles and techniques. Being exposed to that and doing so much stage work before I ever did a film, really helped tremendously. You learn how people speak differently, carry themselves differently according to their character, according to historical periods. On the flipside, film requires such a dialing down of what you learn on the stage. A hand gesture needs to be translated into raising an eyebrow for film. You’re not required to ensure that the guy in the back row gets your gist, because the camera is right in front of your face. That’s a major adjustment that stage actors have to make. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do that than to do the opposite. It always amazes me when someone has a successful film or TV career and then decides they’re going to do theatre… it so rarely works out. I really think that’s just because it’s always easier to do less than to try to add more.
A – Now, you’ve played several different roles on the last 3 STAR TREK series. What draws you to these projects? Are you, yourself, a Trekkie?
JC – I wouldn’t say I was a Trekkie, I never went to conventions or anything. I did love the original series, just for the pure energy and force about it… and the humor, obviously. You know, you look at it now and the sets and everything are kind of cheeseball, but they had a commitment to the material that was absolutely infectious. I think that’s why STAR TREK has lasted so long with so many branches and franchises, is just because of the groundwork laid by the original writers and cast, they were all so committed to making it believable.
I remember though, when NEXT GENERATION came out, I couldn’t get arrested on that show. I couldn’t even get an audition. I was thinking ‘come on, I can do that. I don’t understand!’. Then DEEP SPACE 9 came around and the guy that ran the show, the executive producer, was a fan of mine and of RE-ANIMATOR. That opened the door for me to play a role on that show, which they then recurred. Then, down the road, they had another role, a one-off, that they also decided to recur. So for a glorious three years I was recurring in two roles on the same show, something which is generally unheard of. Then they moved a couple of those characters into VOYAGER. Then when ENTERPRISE came along, they asked me to come in and guest star and I was kind of ‘you know, I’ve already been there and I’ve done that’. To which they replied, ‘yeah, but this time you’re going to be an Andorian!’. And, because I was a fan of the original series, I knew what an Andorian was…
A – And you can’t pass up the little blue antennae…
Combs as Andorian Commander Shran on ENTERPRISE
JC – Exactly! And hadn’t really been explored, so that intrigued me. So I have been very fortunate with the STAR TREK franchise having three recurring roles.
A – You are also sometimes referred to as the first and only ‘Lovecraftian’ actor because of your roles in several, really almost all of the Lovecraft adaptation in the last 20 years.
JC – Well, not all of them, but I think that’s really more because RE-ANIMATOR really brought Lovecraft back into people’s psyche and they were all of a sudden saying ‘hey, this guy is cool’ and with success perpetuating this kind of thing, there was FROM BEYOND and then, at some point, somebody made a trilogy – NECRONOMICON – and had me play Lovecraft as sort of the glue that held the three disparate stories together. I suppose you could throw THE LURKING FEAR in there as one of the Lovecraft-based films. The curious thing is that none of them are really close at all to the stories. Lovecraft is notoriously hard to adapt. His stories aren’t really character or plot driven, they’re just very atmospheric, and that doesn’t hold up too terribly long on film. FROM BEYOND is only a one or two page story. I’d say RE-ANIMATOR is probably the most faithful to the Lovecraft story and even that is updated and characters added, but the same relentless idea is there.
A – In addition to Lovecraft, you’ve also played Edgar Allan Poe in THE BLACK CAT and gave, what I think is a stellar performance as Montgomery Clift in NORMA JEAN & MARILYN. Are there any other historical personages you’d like to play?
JC – Wow!
A – Surprised you with that one, eh? I really did think you were phenomenal as Clift.
JC – Yeah, you got me with that one! You know, I almost didn’t play Montgomery Clift. I remember my agent calling me and saying ‘they want you to come in and read for Montgomery Clift’ and I just said ‘No, I’m not going to do that. No way. I don’t look like him, I can’t do that.’. Then they called back and said they weren’t looking for identical, just a quality like his. So I said OK, I went in and I got the gig and I’m glad I did it. Once the onus of trying to do an impersonation of him was off of it, it was fun, but you know there was only one Montgomery Clift, so it was hard to do.
And thank you for mentioning Poe because I’m very proud of that.
A – Are you a fan of gothic American literature? Having played two of it’s biggest names?
JC – No, not really. I’m a much bigger fan of Poe than I am of Lovecraft. To be perfectly honest, about 3 or 4 years ago, I was reading a lot of historical novels and biographies and I came across this book about Poe. I read it and I said to Stu (Stuart Gordon, director of RE-ANIMATOR and THE BLACK CAT), ‘This guy had an amazing life. I can’t believe nobody has made a movie of this!’ His life was so tragic. He’s like the American Van Gogh. Stuart, I guess, took that in and about a year later called and asked me if I wanted to play Poe. He said that he and Dennis Paoli had this idea for MASTERS OF HORROR and they wanted me to play Poe, but as the main character in one of his stories. I thought ‘Wow! What a fucking brilliant idea!’ to take one of his stories, written in the first person, that personified Poe so well. I mean, the stories written in first person, the guy is an alcoholic, tormented by this cat which, in the story, is clearly a metaphor for his own demons. I thought that was just perfect, and that’s exactly what they did. The script blew me away and I immediately said yes, but I was still scared to death. Poe is iconic, and I knew that if I fell on my face I would never be able to forgive myself. I really wanted to do the man justice. He was a very sad, but misunderstood, man. He lost his whole family very early in his life, so when he got older, family was very important. Unfortunately, he had this genetic proclivity to drink, which ultimately destroyed him. He really just didn’t have very much luck in his life. Despite that, and the fact that he made very little money during his lifetime – he lived in abject poverty – yet we revere this man, just like Van Gogh. Poe had some small success while he was alive, with The Raven, but there were so many other writers that were so much better off than he was, financially. History has shown that his resentment towards that was justified, really. He must have been sitting there thinking ‘What the hell does a guy have to do?! I’m better than these guys!’. What also doesn’t get brought up often is that Poe was from the south. He was a southern writer and we’re talking about maybe 10 years before the Civil War, so all of those animosities and divisions were already there. The writers on the Northeastern seaboard looked down on anyone from the South, they couldn’t possibly be literate. That really didn’t sit well with Poe. Of course, it didn’t help that he was writing scathing reviews of their work before he came North to try to jump-start his own career. It probably didn’t go well that he tore these writers a new asshole, then showed up saying ‘Hi! I’m a writer too!’. So, he didn’t really do himself any favors either. But, no one had ever done him before. No one had portrayed this man. I’m just glad we were able to do it, and do it well, I think.
A – I agree. I definitely consider it to be the best and most creative of the MASTER OF HORROR episodes.
JC – Well, I don’t know that they’re even going to be doing any more MOH.
A – That is one of the rumors. You know how it is, back and forth. A James Gunn comes out and says he’s been approached, then somebody else writes an article about rumors of ending the series, despite good ratings and high DVD sales… Who knows?
JC – I haven’t heard anything concrete. I’m just really glad we got this one in there and glad that I got to do a period piece. I remember I was standing there in wardrobe thinking ‘what the hell does this remind me of?’ and then I realized, my theatre days. It’s so rare that you get to do a period piece, most of the stuff is contemporary, modern day…
A – Or, if it is a period piece, it’s so epic and large scale that it loses that theatrical feeling.
JC – Exactly. But I’m very proud of that piece. It’s funny though, that a lot of people were really turned off by the film because of the things done to the cat. I mean, #1 – No cats were ever hurt, and we had about 10 different cats, each doing a different thing and they were all treated very well. #2 – There is nothing in that film that Poe didn’t write. Everything that’s done to that cat is in the original story. So, if you’ve got an issue, it’s not with the film, it’s with Poe. And what nobody realizes is that the cat is a metaphor. The cat isn’t a cat, it’s an idea… it’s his own inner demon. And he just can’t get rid of it.
A – I have to ask you t his. I loved your performance in THE FRIGHTENERS as Milton Dammers, the unbalanced FBI agent. . When I mentioned our interview to my friend Scott Phillips, he told me a story about how he was hanging out with Courtney Joyner one night when Joyner got a call from you, upset at what you thought was a terrible audition for the role in THE FRIGHTENERS. He says you came to Joyner’s with some beer and a copy of ZOMBIE to relax.
Milton Dammers, FBI – THE FRIGHTENERS
JC – Well, I don’t remember that, exactly. I remember that my audition was pretty late in the process. Peter Jackson had been looking or somebody for that role for a long time. My agent had put me in for it and, originally, they came back saying ‘he’s too young’. Then they were looking and looking and couldn’t find the right person for the part and finally said ‘alright, have him come in’. When I got there to the studio, I remember thinking I was out of my league, because Joe Mantegna was sitting there waiting to go in for the same role, and then Michael J. Fox came walking out and said ‘Hey Joey, thanks for coming in, man!’ and I just thought ‘what the fuck am I doing here? This is so nuts!’.
A – Obviously you nailed it and, oddly enough, it earned you one of your Saturn Award nominations, right?
JC – Well, the casting director came out and said ‘Peter wants to talk to you before you audition’, which is unusual. Jackson really put me at ease, he said ‘I’m a big fan of RE-ANIMATOR, you were great in that… here’s what I’m looking for, so keep it in mind when you audition’. That really was great and it really helped to re-centre me and I went in and we really just clicked. But I don’t remember leaving that audition feeling like I’d blown it, although there was a long wait after that where they were saying ‘it looks good, but we have to get you signed off on by Joe Blow from Kokomo and some guy at such and such… studio politics… and I needed to be greenlit or approved by somebody. So it could have been around then, although beer and zombie movies doesn’t really sound like me. Although I would stop by and see Courtney every so often because he lived by himself and I felt for him a little bit.
A – Your performances are often injected with a lot of humor and one of your first roles was as Dr. Jones in Steve Martin’s THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS… Do you ever consider doing more ‘straight’ comedy rather than genre roles?
JC – It’s funny, when I was in college and doing theatre, most of the stuff I was doing was comedy. I got to be pretty good at that, I thought. I know how to make people laugh, I can do that. But then you come out here to L.A. and these sitcoms are all so ‘comedian’ based, they’re not character based. It’s just a different thing and either A – they didn’t get my humor, or B – I didn’t get their humor. How can you make something funny that you yourself don’t think is funny? Maybe I just have a really weird sense of humor? I do try to put some of that into my roles.
A – Well, I know a lot of people who think you can be pretty damn funny.
JC – But nobody thinks I’m ‘ha-ha’ funny. It has to be kind of special before I want to put that spin on it. Sitcoms are just a really weird deal. I did one once and I just found it to be the oddest experience. You go in on the first day and read the script and there are so many laughs, and it is just the funniest fucking thing in the world! It is just hilarious! Then everybody goes away, you come in the next day and the script has changed, and everything you thought was so funny is gone. Things that made situations funny have changed and they’re not funny anymore. And then a few more phone calls are taken and side-meetings and the writers change a few more things, and by Wednesday everything is different. The producers and the studio and the stars get in there and then the writers don’t trust their material and it’s just not funny anymore.
A – And then they throw a laugh track in to cover it up.
JC – RIGHT! When if they’d just trusted their original instinct, they would have been so much better off.
A – Well, the only shows that are actually funny get bounced around on Fox and cancelled after one season anyways.
JC – And then they cancel it. Right.
A – We talked about this briefly when we met in San Diego. When, if ever, can we expect to see HOUSE OF RE-ANIMATOR, where Dr. West returns to reanimate the President of the United States.
JC – I don’t think it’ll ever happen.
A – Crushing my dreams, man.
JC – I know, but I don’t think it’s going to happen because of these strange dynamics with our current political situation. First of all, the backers are nervous, because it kind of attacks this administration and they don’t want to do that, even at this stage. So nobody wants to put the money behind it. Stuart and I disagree on this, because I think… why can’t we do this and just make it less obvious, not so right on the nose, it doesn’t have to be Bush and Cheney. Can’t we go like DR. STRANGELOVE and just be satirical about it? But Stuart just says ‘NO! Let’s get these guys!’. I think RE-ANIMATOR can stand on it’s own, without being turned into a political mouthpiece. If there is any chance for it, it has to be moved away from being so on the nose and be more oblique about the topic of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Know what I mean?
A – Absolutely
JC – Also, now, by the time it’s written and produced and ready to be seen, these guys will already be out of office and the topical point that Stuart wants to make will be moot. It could still be done but, right now, I’m not feeling any heat off of it. And Brian Yuzna, the producer, last I heard was in Jacarta, Indonesia or something, trying to help them start up a film industry down there, which is not the best place to be to launch a production here.
West returns in 2003’s BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR
A – OK, we wrap up with the ridiculous ‘Inside The Actor’s Studio’ style non-sequiter questions. What is your stimulant of choice? I’m a hard-core espresso drinker.
JC – You know what I like? Green tea. Iced Green tea. I actually take the green tea and steep it and then put it on ice. I make iced Green tea – stimulant of choice.
A – And this is the one that everybody hates, because it puts them on the spot. Half the time I get 5 right off the bat and half the time I get nothing. What are your top 5 Desert Island DVDs that you couldn’t live without?
JC – Right. Top 5 DVD’s? That’s really hard. I don’t categorize or pick my top ten or five or whatever, you know. I just can’t do that. Books, actors, films. Can’t do it.
A – 5 favorite films then.
JC – Well, I guess… one of them… I guess I should try to actually make this list. I am going to fail you miserably. You’ll have to tell your boss that I could answer every question but this one. I don’t know. I like too many for me to distill it down to just five.
A – I have the same problem, and I’ll pick five and then immediately be thinking of 55 more that should have been on that goddamn list.
JC – Exactly. What do you mean five? How about none? I just can’t do it.
A – Fair enough. Thanks for your time. It has been an umitigated pleasure talking with you, man.
JC – Hey, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, man. And just so you know, we shot BLACK CAT in Canada…
A – I know it. And we’re all big fans of yours up here. So I’ll keep an eye out for you so I can harass you in person next time you’re in Canada.
JC – Alright Axel, pleasure talking to you, buddy. Take care.