Interviews: Penn Badgley, Sela Ward, Dylan Walsh
Your typical American family. The proud parents with the well-behaved children. The kind of family that eats supper together and obeys when daddy tells them what to do. That is exactly what THE STEPFATHER is looking for when he goes searching for a family to mold, to shape, to kill… but only if they don’t live up to his expectations. And when this Stepfather is portrayed by Dylan Walsh, there is a bit of hope that he may be able to pull off what Terry ‘O Quinn successfully tackled years ago when the original Stepfather garnered enough of a fan base to become a sort of cult classic.
I have to admit, the cast this time around seems to be a good choice for creating the “perfect family”. Sela Ward is an extremely talented actress and I’m happy to see her taking on a genre picture. As for Dylan Walsh and Penn Badgley, they seem to make a nice, stepfather - troubled youth, pairing. And yes, Penn is replacing the incredibly lovely Jill Schoelen’s character which hurts me a bit. But aside from changing the heroine of the first to a hero, I have to say that I enjoyed sitting with all three of these very nice actors. As I said, Sela is such a talent, but she is also one of the most sincere actresses I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. As for what kind of movie they will make together, only time will tell, but read on with a slight spoiler warning. But truthfully, if you’ve seen the original, I think you’ll be okay.
Did you see the original movie and could you talk a little bit about this one, and what attracted you to doing it?
Penn Badgley: I know that I personally did not watch the original. I know that in the original I believe my character was a girl, and there are enough differences that I think I did not want to have any predisposed ideas about it or to mess with what I wanted to do with the character and the development and the art. And so I think probably the night we wrapped, I might watch the original with a bottle of whiskey or something. I have not had a drink in two months and I'm getting the shakes so I think it would be nice.
Now in THE STEPFATHER, does he go in knowing that he is going to be doing evil or does he think that he is doing something good?
Dylan Walsh: Not at all and one of the fun things about this movie, by the way, let me just weigh in on that, I did not watch the original. So if you have questions about the original, I don't know about it. For the same reason I did not want it to interfere. We've talked about it, there is part of this movie that is a genre that you can't escape. But there is a whole section of the movie where you can just forget about the violence and imagine that this is almost one of those Hallmark movies where they are just trying to make this family work. And it is such a common thing nowadays. So many families are just sort of patched together. No, he is just trying to do good by these people.
To refer to the original but not make it weird, in the original he basically has his archetypal family image like he wants the kids to be this way and he likes them to be this way, does he have a similar mindset towards that?
DW: Yeah, in this one. I feel like it's a David Harris movie that he sort of caught up for whatever reason. In a more like a 1950s family dynamic, where he is the captain, he is the king. He sits at the head of the table. He tells them what to do and they do it. There is this whole new thing that is going on where there is gray areas and you sort of negotiate back and forth. It's not very good, and it's almost like a clash between two different ways of going about being a family.
PB: While I was going to say even in the late 80s when the original is set. You know families have changed so much over the last 20 or so odd years. So a guy who is trying to be set in a 1950s way must be completely screwed with like dealing with this f*cking kid and whatever.
DW: His stuffiness and how stiff he is. It's kind of his whole behavior, and he is trying. I imagine he has had these different families and has tried different things, as a repertoire of tricks. It hasn't worked before, and he is trying to make this one work. But yeah, that is what his flaw is, he is caught up in this more old-fashioned way.
Sela, can you talk a little bit about your part, and what attracts you to this person?
Sela Ward: Have you looked at him? It's those blue eyes.
DW: And my fake neck.
SW: She's recently divorced, and just had an ass for a husband, and it has been a while, and here is somebody… He just comes off so like you couldn't make a list of what you would want in a guy and he is behaving, in the beginning, very attentive and great about the family and the kids and wants everybody to be together. All of those things that women get totally hooked into, naïvely. And she falls for him. She is lonely. And also trying to raise those kids by herself is difficult. I'd look for a guy in the grocery store too. It's fascinating to me how many women do get seduced and how frightening that is. Because you really know nothing.
How do you make her grounded or sympathetic and not like she is stupid? Like, how could she possibly fall for this guy. How do you break that sort of gravitas to the role?
SW: Dylan and I actually talked about that a lot to make sure that there is enough nonverbal stuff between the two of them. And also carefully to see what it is about him that she is falling for so that she does not look stupid. I also decided that I needed to be really busy. So that I am not noticing a lot of things going on, that everybody else is. And that's always a tricky fine line, so it's not necessarily on the page, we’re trying really hard to finesse that
Obviously you are doing a genre picture, how hard is it to it keep real for all of you. Especially for this guy where you are stabbing each other and attacking each other. How do you keep that real without going over the top?
DW: Well, that has definitely been a line to walk. I mean, it has been a battle the whole time. I think after day two, the first day on set at six in the morning. We started our first scene together, it was the first day on set and I think we were like settling into a genre that day. And by the second day, I was doing a bunch of stuff, running around the basement and screaming and covered in fake sweat and dirt and stuff, and on that day I realized that I needed to abandon any attempt to do anything particularly special. Other then just make people believe, I mean, I think that is the key. With these things that you just need to make people believe and nothing more than that, because with this in particular… with this story, I think the simpler, the better. This is a simple, tense thriller. You know from the get go that he is the killer. The first thing you see is him surrounded by a dead family. I just think the key is to make them believe. I know for me personally, what I am doing before every take is before we are being shot, like all the thrilling stuff is me running around and doing a lot of breaking through windows and breaking through doors and stuff. And so I am doing a lot of push-ups and screaming and making all the blood come to my face, and I think that intensity brings something to it you know, otherwise I would feel really silly. There is something to be said at the moment that we can't quite relate to it, at least I know that I cannot relate to certain aspects of this kid. That is finding his stepfather to be a murderer. That is just something that we have to suspend the audience's disbelief and maybe just fake it you know, because you just have to bring up the intensity level and kind of go for it. You know.
SW: But it's all based in truth. It is based on a true story, is it not? It's loosely based on a real guy who did kill his whole family. So it's not like it's a slasher movie or a guy with a chainsaw hacking everybody up. So it is based in truth, and you play truthfully, because it could happen to anyone. I think that is why it is going to be so unnerving, because women, I mean some lonely divorced single parent so desperate for attention and help, you can easily see why this charming man sort of sweeps her off her feet. It is very believable, I think.
Dylan, in a role like this there is such a thin line. I think, when it is very successful is when the character is convinced what he is doing is not the mustache curling kind of evil things or tipping the hat and winking at the audience. How did you approach the character, and how did you find that way?
DW: Well, what you're saying is the first thing you have to get grounded and think of it. And I thought it was helpful to think as much of the movie as you could on as a different kind… as a different genre. And then when it kicks in, it is what it is. So there are characters and what they want and what is in the way and getting it. But you know what, all of that aside, I have to say then you get to a point where there is no escaping. You are doing standard things that are done in these kinds of movies. And then what is hard is that you start relating more to movies that you have seen, images you have seen, rather than the character. And that is where you can get into trouble, and it is walking a line between those. There are sort of jolts that happen at a specific time in the movie like this where somebody's hand goes on a shoulder, and they turn, that would be in this movie too, but 456 times? And to keep those moments, feeling like they are kind of organic and natural is hard. That I guess is the challenge.
Are you allowed to say anything about your neck condition?
DW: Sure, what do you want to know about it?
DW: Well, there is a place in the movie where I am after them and Sela's character gets in back of them, so I get a little wound and I have a whole prosthetic on my neck.
For your character he is searching for the perfect family. Is there like a set of ground rules that he is looking for that is really in the movie or is that just…
DW: Well, I think it's kind of hinted at, and it's kind of what I was saying, this 1950s thing, hopefully it doesn't hit you over the head. Hopefully the audience starts to sort of piece things together in terms of his behavior and what he seems to want. The first couple things that he does is pretty great. He is helping this kid out, get back into the swim team and do various things that make him look really good and he is well-meaning. It's that he wants to be able to control every facet of it and there is no turning back and forth. It's that kind of 1950s that the man is the head of the family. And what he says rules.
Is it cathartic for you, because producer Mark Morgan was telling us how you were able to turn on and turn off the evil side. He said one minute you have this great smile, and the next minute you just lose all emotion, which we occasionally see in “Nip/Tuck” sometimes, you do have your outbursts you know. So with a film like this is it nice to tap that throughout?
DW: Bigger knives [Laughing]. No, but to be honest with you I am having so much fun doing that because in “Nip/Tuck”, you are never going to portray what that guy is hopefully. But here, it's almost like in a moment, you can go back and forth between these two, the genre film and then the part of the film that is just this family story. No it's fun, it's liberating.
Have you shot any real physical scenes yet? Any violent scenes where anybody has been hurt?
PB: We have been fighting on a rooftop in Pasadena and fake rain. It's really cold at night. Actually, it's almost been exclusively physical for me. I know that you guys have had a fair amount of scenes together. And I've got a handful of scenes with the two of them but then, I feel like a lot of the stuff that I have done so far is running around the basement set and running around outside in fake rain. I've just spent a lot of time alone doing this stuff and doing push-ups before takes and screaming and just trying to be intense. So yes, it has been very physical. I'm actually like exhausted after every day.
Does he have a girlfriend in the movie?
PB: Yes. He does yes.
Okay, so how does that dynamic work with the stepfather and the mother and family?
PB: Well, the idea is that obviously Michael is a very troubled kid. It is never said in the script what happens, but he was on a downward spiral ever since his parents divorced and he has been in military school for maybe a year or a little longer than a year. So when he comes back, the dynamic between his mother and his new stepfather and even his brother and sister is very awkward. He feels like an alien in his own family, in his own house. So in the scenes between Michael and Kelly [Amber Heard], his girlfriend, I think that is where you are seeing Michael at his best, he smiles in most in those scenes. He is the most comfortable with her. He feels like she is his confidant. They can really trust each other.
You know, and then there is also the line to walk once he becomes suspicious of David. The only one he can really talk to is her but he doesn't want to alienate her as well, because it sounds like it's crazy for him to be saying that. Put that in the real world. You know the whole time balancing the absurdity of it, like alright, if I actually thought this, what would I say and who would I tell? And it has to be believable that he wouldn't tell his mother and he wouldn't tell his brother and sister. So the dynamic between the two of them has to be very close. I think they have probably been friends all of their lives, and then they started dating in high school. So it's a sweet relationship. There is an element of it that has that 1950s, "Leave it to Beaver" feel, because they are just so wholesome.
In the original there was sort of that creepy kind of element between the stepfather and the daughter. So, is there that between the stepfather and the girlfriend?
DW: We're working on that.
Sela, what made you decide to take this on? Doing a horror film.
SW: I had read the script and I thought I can't get hurt. I don't think I kept reading and I don't think I can look too stupid in this movie so, I think I'll try something different. I think if I were in one of those slasher kinds I couldn't do that. But this is so grounded in something that could truly happen that there is enough truth there for me, that I jumped in and said okay. It's safe. Plus, you know Dylan is so great. I love “Nip/Tuck“, oh my God. And I had been watching “Gossip Girl” with my son just to try to censor it and Penn is so adorable. And so I am going okay, this will be fine. Why not? It's something different. Just to change it up.
So what is one of your favorite horror movies, your genre pictures?
SW: I don't see them.
DW: My favorite horror film, only because it's a bit obscure, or at least I think it is, is THE BROOD. I watched that like a year and a half to two years ago. And I was just told to rent it by the guy in the store. It's like the third time I had ever been to Blockbuster and so I rented it and I was just blown away. It was really an incredible movie for the first half hour, I was just entranced and then it started getting really strange looking fetuses. I think that it probably affected me the most of any horror film I had seen, and I remember it. And then of course I went and saw A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE because of that. It's [David] Cronenberg, I didn't even know he was still working. I'm not really big into horror films.
What's the tone like on the set, and I see your hand is all red, if you can tell us what that is from? And what is the tone like? Do you try and stay in character or do you just go in and out and joke and laugh or do you try to keep the suspense in between the shots?
DW: In and out and laugh a lot.
PB: When we are doing character scenes, when we are all talking, I think there might be something beneficial to maintaining some sort of the character. But in the scenes where we are stabbing each other, we will bring as much depth and weight and reality to it as much as we can, and it is a real story. These are real people. But then when it comes to the point where you've got fake blood. And you're like "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh" to me personally, as an actor, that part of it is just like 100% fake, and you've just got to fake it well. So there is no benefit for me to stay in character.
Now, what about the ex-husband, is he still in the picture at all?
SW: Jon Tenney plays him. Jon is a great actor.
PB: He is a lot of fun.
SW: He is definitely in the picture.
Is he one of the stepfather's victims?
DW: He's not here today [Evil Laughter].
Is this the most formidable family that the stepfather has come in contact with? Does he have this much trouble getting rid of the family members?
DW: I would like to think that this is the best shot at getting what he has wanted, all the pieces are falling into place and he has gotten better with each family. That's the feeling I get.
But you think he has had the same amount of struggle in killing off the other families?
No old war wounds from the past. This is the new thick territory, maybe?
DW: New territory.
PB: The old family wouldn't pick up the glass is all.
SW: We are not as easy.
Let me know what you think. Send questions and/or comments to JimmyO@joblo.com.