411 Movies Interview: Jeffrey Combs
Jeffrey Combs is one talented actor and person. How talented? Well, he did our entire interview over the phone while he was driving. After reading our interview, I’m probably going to get a lot of e-mails from Star Trek fans. They’re going to say, “Why didn’t you ask him about Star Trek? How about Re-Animator?” Well, if you look up some of his previous interviews, he’s covered that stuff to death. Personally, I wanted to get inside his head as an actor. I wanted to know what kind of work inspires him and what gets his creative juices flowing. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy my interview with Jeffrey Combs. Special thanks to Jeffrey for doing this interview. Return to House on Haunted Hill will be available on DVD on October 16th. Also, photo credit belongs to www.startrek.com and www.horrormagazine.it
TONY: What made you want to return to this film?
COMBS: Well, having done the first House on Haunted Hill, it really sort of held sort of a close place for me, especially because my old friend, Bill Malone, directed it. And I always thought that Vannacutt was sort of an interesting character that wasn’t used very much in the first film. He was certainly there, but he wasn’t fully formed yet. So, when they came to me with this project, I kind of thought, “Well, this will give me an opportunity to sort of build on that.” Strangely, fans sort of really hooked on to Vannacutt. I mean, here’s a movie with a lot of really big names and stuff, and yet so many people would come up to me and go, “Man, I love Vannacut!” This is a character that doesn’t say a word of dialogue. It sort of taught me kind of an interesting lesson. It’s not so much screen time as, you know, the effect that the character has. I didn’t hesitate very long in order to do it. Although, it was shot in Bulgaria, and that made me think for a second.
TONY: Did you do any research on doctors to prepare for this role?
COMBS: Dude, at this point, I have played so many doctors that I kind of know what all the tools and utensils are. I kind of wanted to do this character, because he’s sort of an homage to all those movies in the 30’s, where these kind of guys were really what I grew up on. And I wanted the little pencil thin mustache. It was sort of Bill Malone’s idea to have him sort of retro. I just loved the idea that he’s from a different place and time. In the horror genre, the 30’s really started all of that in film. And to have a modern day movie with this sort of retro kind of doctor, it really intrigued me.
TONY: When you play a bad guy in a film like this, do you like to be alone on set and keep your distance from the actors so that when you get into the scene, they’ll be scared of you?
COMBS: No. I don’t really deal with that. I certainly did my preparation, but we’re all actors. By the time they’re reacting to me, frankly, we’ve shot it three or four times in different coverages, so it’s not quite like we only do it once. It actually is better that you get to know the actors a little bit and rehearse with them so that you’re comfortable with each other, rather than remaining kind of a mystery. Frankly, you got a scalpel in your hand and you’re wiping it across somebody, whether it’s a sharp scalpel or not, you guys better be careful, otherwise somebody could get hurt. It’s not quite that sort of mystery, where I want to keep somebody freaked out about me. I don’t really tend to play those sort of actor games.
TONY: What’s your most vivid memory from shooting this film?
COMBS: It’s four o’clock in the morning in this building that’s been condemned for like twenty years, and yet we’re using that as a set. And walking in, and they have recreated a whole set in there from a movie that I shot eight years ago. And here they are having faithfully recreated the room based on that movie, and we’re halfway around the world eight years later. To me, that’s surreal. That was just so strange for me, to deal with that. It’s like a dream. It was very strange.
TONY: You have been in a number of films in your legendary career. Do certain films and certain roles stick with you more than others?
COMBS: Well, I sort of have like a top five movie list of things that really stick out in my mind, and they’re not all actually big hits. I mean, some of them certainly are. When we were shooting Re-Animator, it wasn’t Re-Animator with a capital R. It was kind of a low budget little movie, and who knew what this was gonna be, ya know? But it was my first opportunity to have a nice juicy role on film. And I had just the time of my life making that movie, with Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton and this madman Stuart Gordon. At the time, I just had no idea that it would become as iconic as it has. Even if it hadn’t, it was really a wonderful experience shooting that movie. The Frighteners … just from a creative point of view and being able to sort of collaborate with Peter Jackson on that character and honing who he was and how he looked and all of that. On top of that, the fact that I was shooting it in New Zealand, which is such an incredible place. And getting to kind of live and hang out in Wellington for all those weeks and month, it was really, really special. Another one of my favorite movies is not a horror movie. It’s called Love and a .45. It’s Renée Zellweger’s, like, second movie. It’s got a kick-ass cast. It’s kind of a lovers gone bad on the run movie set in Texas. I really had a great time shooting that in Austin. When I have memories of movies, I think more of where they were shot, rather than anything else. It’s funny, as time goes on, that’s what I remember. From Beyond, The Pit and the Pendulum, Castle Freak. Italy. Living basically in Italian. Living in a castle or in an apartment in Rome, that’s just great being able to do that kind of thing. Not to say that the work isn’t the first and foremost most important thing. Then again, I think of things where I was shooting in places that weren’t so great, ya know? And I’d have to put The Black Cat on that list. I really enjoyed getting to portray Edgar Allen Poe last year.
TONY: As we look back on your career, have you ever turned down a role, and now you regret it?
COMBS: No. I can’t think of one where it went on to become a huge hit, and I’m sitting there going, “Why I’d turn that down?” No. I can’t think of any of those. Nope.
TONY: Do you have a dream role or some kind of film that you want to be a part of?
COMBS: I’ve never been one to really sort of hone in and go, “I want to play that.” Lately, Tony, I’ve been watching, for some reason, a lot of film noir. And there is just something really bitchy and melancholy and cynical about that genre that really appeals to me. If I could get to play something like that, that would be really great. It’s a little harder these days to get people into that sort of film noir frame of mind. It was such a particular point in American history, where a whole section of GI’s coming back from the war, and their eyes having been opened. The world is not a kind place. And that sort of was permeated into that genre, and I don’t know if we’re there at this point. They really hold up, and in their day, they were sort of the B movies a lot of em.’ They’re smart and tight, and I would love to do something like that. I think of Michael Connelly, the writer, and a lot of his books have a noir feel to them, even though they’re set in modern day. I’d like to do something like that. I did get to play, recently, a police detective for Bill Malone, who directed the original House on Haunted Hill. He’s got a project called Parasomnia that’s in post production right now. I got to do a little bit of that in there, so that was really nice.
TONY: I know it’s hard to pick just one, but who’s been your favorite actor to work with?
COMBS: There are so many actors that I have worked with that I really, really admire, and for so many different reasons. And I’ll tell you something, the first one that comes to mind, believe it or not, is Scott Bakula, because he was the quintessential leader on set. I had never seen anybody do that so well. Of course, he was the captain on Enterprise. And I recurred on that show and did about 10 episodes. I didn’t know Scott, but I grew to deeply admire his work ethic. He always came completely prepared, and he was always aware of everything that was going on in every single department: Lights, sounds, props, sets, the other actors. It was all a piece for him that he was nurturing and making sure everything was running smoothly in a way that was not pushy or aggressive in any way shape or form. What I always admired was even after a 16-hour day and he was wrapped, he would walk around to every single crew member and shake their hand. Every night. And that’s infectious. Everybody wanted to do their best for Scott, including me. Because of that, that to me is leadership. He’s Joe Montana. He’s the quarterback. He’s the Peyton Manning. Absolutely amazing. When you asked that question, that’s the first thing that came to my mind.
TONY: What’s the best piece of acting advice you’ve ever received?
COMBS: That’s a tough one. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not sure that acting can be taught. The simpler the better, I guess. Hit your mark and speak the truth. Just go for it. Just do it. Stop thinking about it, and just do it. A lot of actors say this, but they do their better acting when they’re off camera than when they’re on. If I could bottle why, I’d be a better actor. I’ll do my close up, and then they’ll turn the camera around on the other person, and I’m just off camera, and I’m really good there. I don’t know what that’s about.
TONY: What kind of work inspires you, and what gets your creative juices flowing?
COMBS: Good ideas and good dialogue. Smart-paced material that’s trying to say something without being heavy-handed about it. That I like. I really hate overly exploitative shock and unmotivated crap. I really am not impressed with that at all. But if it’s coming from a place that’s justified, then I’m intrigued.
TONY: How has the horror genre evolved since you first broke in? What’s changed?
COMBS: My first thought about that is, in one way, it hasn’t changed very much at all. I remember early on when I did one of these. Before Re-Animator, I did a movie, a supporting role, in a little film called Frightmare. It was about a group of college kids who are horror fans, and they find out that their horror icon/star dies, and they go and steal his body and bring it back to their house and have a dinner party with him as the guest of honor. It was kind of a story based on an old John Barrymore story. When John Barrymore died, his friends, Errol Flynn and all that, did that with him. That movie was a bunch of kids in a house, and they were all gonna die, and it was just a question of which one was next and how they were going to die. Now, that was in the early 80’s, and look at the movies that they have now. Are they any different? No. It’s the same dumb thing. It’s the same dumb, dumb, dumb sort of formula, if you want to call it that. And I think they get away with it, because they update it and now the kids have cell phones or more attitude. It’s more modern and it’s a new generation, so you can just kind of keep it going, but there’s nothing new there. Although it’s probably more crass and much more vivid in how they die, but it’s no different. What is different is this fascination now with sort of this “humiliation horror.” I call it “humiliation horror.” I don’t get it. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but it’s very odd. It’s like, “Let’s really humiliate these people or do grotesque things to them.” And it’s not really motivated. You wanna go, “And why are you doing this? The fact that you’re making a movie and you can?” So, I don’t know where that’s going. I don’t know what that means, and it troubles me that that’s popular.
TONY: Have you ever thought about directing a film?
COMBS: Yeah, I’ve thought about it. Quite honestly, at this point, because I’m known in horror, if I were going to direct something, the only thing that anybody would let me do would probably be horror. And my tastes are so much more varied than that, that it would just be like, “Oh, now the horror actor is the horror director.” And I just want to avoid that like anything. I directed a Shakespeare play about two or three years ago. But that was a play, and my thinking was to do that as kind of a precursor to, like, getting used to the idea of directing on film. And that was quite a challenging and somewhat successful venture, but also exhausting. It kind of made me rethink it. I remember having a conversation with Bill Malone, and he said, “You know, Jeff, as an actor, you get to do so many movies, but as a director, I probably only get to do a handful in my life.” And it really sort of opened my eyes. When you commit to directing something, it’s not like you’re done in ten weeks. It’s a year or two commitment to something. That kind of gives me pause, as to whether or not I want to do that.
TONY: As you look back on your career, has acting been what you expected and have you gotten all that you want out of acting?
COMBS: I’ve gone a lot farther than a hell of a lot of my friends, but I also am somewhat frustrated that I’ve been pigeonholed. Humans want to make it really easy and just categorize things. Because someone had some success in a particular genre, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who they are or the only thing they want to do. That has been a real challenge for me … to constantly perpetuate a career and keep working and yet at the same time, try to broaden people’s view of me as an actor. Even though a lot of the things that I do are horror and Sc-Fi, I hope that people will eventually kind of put it all together and see that I’m always trying to be different.
TONY: Are you surprised that Star Trek is still so popular?
COMBS: It’s a huge fan base. And loyal. They’re so loyal. Now, that we have DVDs, they’re not going anywhere.
TONY: A lot of have people have called Re-Animator a cult classic. Do you find that word positive or negative?
COMBS: I think that’s positive. That’s all a good thing. What’s amazed me about that movie is how it’s grown over the years to become generationally just overlapping and just getting more and more of a fan base. Part of that is all the different DVD releases, of course, but I think, also, it kind of transcends time a little bit. It also didn’t hurt that a movie like American Beauty sort of paid homage to it and used it in its dialogue. It had become so iconic that it was something that an audience could relate to, having had that conversation. It’s a pretty amazing thing. It’s pretty amazing.
TONY: Personally, I’m heard from a number of horror directors that want to work with you. How does that make you feel?
COMBS: Well, it makes me feel like they should call my agent. (laughs) That would be great. You know what’s really great now? I’m starting to work with younger directors now, like Victor Garcia, Jeremy Kasten, Ryan Schifrin. These guys are the new generation of filmmakers. And that’s a nice thing. That’s a nice thing.
TONY: What was it like working with the young cast of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer?
COMBS: That was great. Jennifer Love Hewitt is just the sweetest thing in the world. I just saw her again down at Comic Con in San Diego this Summer. She was just such a professional and so terrific. I look at that cast, and they’re all doing really well. Once again, I just remember where we shot that, which was down at this weird resort in Mexico. The thing about I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is many years later, someone said to me, “Why don’t you try to get a job on CSI?” I said, “Well, yeah. I love CSI, but why would I do that?” And they said, “Well, dude, don’t you remember Danny Cannon, who directed I Still Know What You Did Last Summer? He’s the executive producer of that show.” And I had absolutely no idea. I’m clueless with this stuff. And then about a year later or so, my agent called and Danny Cannon wanted to use me in an episode. I suppose I could play the game a little bit better than I do, but I just don’t have the time to figure it all out. I just don’t. That’s a terrific cast, and they’re all still doing well, I suppose. I don’t know about Brandy.
TONY: As an actor, who do you want to work with?
COMBS: Chris Cooper. That would be great. I would love to work with the greats. I’d love to work with Hoffman sometime or Robert Downey Jr. I’m really impressed with him. I think he’s just a terrific actor. Those are the kind of people who I’d like to work with.