I tell people this all the time: getting cast in anything is like a strike of lightening. It’s completely out of your control.
The adage must be true: nothing good ever happens after midnight. Still, everything fun just might.
Julius Ramsay’s debut feature Midnighters, along with his first-time scribe brother Alston, operates on one-mess-turns-into-another mechanics. Taking a familiar conceit—one fueled by too much alcohol behind the wheel—the lives of Lindsey (Anthem’s 2014 breakout bet Alex Essoe) and Jeff (Dylan McTee) are sent into a tailspin. Driving home from a New Year’s Eve party, the married couple slam into a shadowy figure. Ill-advised decisions follow: leaving the scene and bringing the mangled body back to their country home. While caught in a trap of their own making, Lindsey’s sister Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine) returns home from her night on the town only to discover that the “dead” man isn’t after all. Thinking him to be an intruder, she finishes the job, exacerbating her sister and brother-in-law’s web of lies. Then, a pair of alarmingly pleasant uniformed cops turn up the next morning to sniff around their property. Just when the trio are about to breathe a sigh of relief, in walks Detective Smith (Ward Horton) with his big shiny teeth and a psycho stare, tossing another wrench in their tracks-covering fate. Now everyone’s out to kill nearly everybody else.
In the film’s stable of uniformly strong actors, Horton is a cut above. He’s steady. Most widely recognized for his lead role playing husband to Annabelle Wallis in 2014’s horror blockbuster Annabelle, Horton appeared as a series regular on the CBS medical drama Pure Genius in 2016, and most recently appeared on stage in New York City with Harvey Fierstein’s play Torch Song.
Midnighters is now in select theaters, and available on VOD and Digital HD.
How are you doing today, Ward?
I’m doing alright! I just left my kids’ parent-teacher conferences.
Oh yeah? I hope they gave you some good news.
Yeah, I’ve got some good kids. They’re doing great.
Congratulations on Midnighters. This was actually my first time seeing you in anything. You have incredible screen presence. Where do you start with a character like this?
With this guy, on the screen and on the page, you can see him being this menacing and kind of aggressive guy. But I didn’t want to play him that way. I wanted to make sure that he came across as somewhat likable and trusting. I think it’s telling that [Lindsey] lets him into the house from the start. So there’s gotta be something about him that makes you think he’s a good guy who’s trustworthy. Obviously once he gets into the house, he begins to change. You don’t want to judge any character that you play. You base every character on a likable quality so that’s where I started with him, allowing myself to then make that change and explore some of the darker sides of that character. That was really exciting for me because it’s not something I get cast as in general—the bad guy. Getting the opportunity to do that was really fun and exciting.
Your character flips the switch at a moment’s notice—a sociopath. He has this clean-cut charismatic front, but you know he’s capable of true insanity. This is real Ted Bundy stuff.
Watching you reminded me of the Dardenne brothers saying that they always cast actors who won’t just “go through the lens.” Guillermo del Toro admitted to casting The Shape of Water entirely based on the actors’ eyes. I guess it would be strange and narcissistic if you thought about yourself in this way, but I think this really applies to you in how you present yourself.
No, no—that’s definitely not something that I think about. [Laughs] All you can think about is the moment that you’re in and the people or person that you’re with. As long as you’re present in the moment at that time under those circumstances, then the rest will take care of itself. Then you hope that you have that effect on the audience and the story and ultimately the film. If you’re saying this, hopefully I’m doing my job and furthering the story through that.
We obviously don’t want to spoil anything here, but I loved the finale. It’s probably the coolest use of a garage door in film since the original Scream.
Oh for sure, right? Yeah, it was really fun. We definitely don’t want to give anything away, but that was definitely a fun scene. There are some [set] stories around that, but I can’t really say without giving it away. The garage door opening is, hopefully, a nice surprise for the audience.
This movie is very character-driven. You don’t really expect that going into this kind of thriller/horror mash-up. Was that very attractive to you?
Yeah, for sure! I guess with independent film, or low-budget films in general, you can’t always go out and get people who are recognizable names. So each of the actors in this smaller cast are unknowns and I feel like the audience can really better delve into who these people are. Julius Ramsay was great at allowing us to explore these characters. It was a very collaborative experience because, while he had a very clear vision of what he wanted, he allowed us to be very outspoken about what we felt was important for our characters and the story. But yeah, you trust him with the story. You trust that Julius and his brother Alston, who wrote the film, get that right. As actors, you don’t have to worry about that so much. I remember there were a couple of moments in the film where I would do something and really needed that explanation of why this was happening at this time, and Julius gave that to me. Then there were times where it still didn’t make sense to me and we needed to change something to make sure that it worked for that particular character in that moment. Working collaboratively like that is really exciting for an actor. It’s really the ultimate thing that actors want the most: to be able to work on something collaboratively with your director and with your writer. You don’t always get that, especially if you move up the chain with studio films and television and all of that. There are so many cooks in the kitchen and so many people who are higher up the chain. You’re there to service that and not as much is given to servicing what’s right for the story and the character. That’s why films like Midnighters is really exciting.
What’s the story behind this house that you filmed in? It’s under renovation so it already doesn’t feel entirely secure and gives you this uneasy feeling. I’m sure that helps you.
Yeah, the house itself is a character and I do feel like they found this perfect spot. It’s in disarray, just like [Lindsey and Jeff’s] relationship. Their marriage is kind of in disarray as well. What’s going on in the film and the story is in disarray. All of that really works hand in hand with each other and, yeah, that house was a little scary. I remember it being cold. We were shooting in February. It was hard to keep heat in that place, especially in the basement. I remember you constantly had a chill to the bone, which really works for those moments. I love the fact that you’re seeing that breath come out of their mouths when they first get back to the house.
I know that your co-stars arrived on set first so they obviously had a chance to bond by the time you showed up. That actually seems really beneficial because it reflects the film’s narrative with you, a mysterious stranger, bulldozing his way into their lives later.
Totally. It was nice shooting the film chronologically, too. You don’t always get to do that so that was pretty cool. There were some things that we had to rearrange a little bit, but yeah, it was Julius’s idea and wish to have me come later. I don’t show up until around halfway through the film. For those first couple of weeks, they were all getting to know each other really, really well. Then I, the outsider, show up and there’s a little bit of discomfort like, “Who is this guy?” I think that definitely worked for what Julius was trying to accomplish.
You brought up your kids earlier. How old are they now? Do they visit you on set?
My kids are 12 and 8. On this project, I didn’t bring them to set, but I definitely want to spend as much time with my family as possible. Unfortunately, the work takes you away from them a lot. So any opportunity I can have them around me, I take that opportunity. For instance, I did that when I was doing a TV show a couple of years ago out in L.A. I live out on the East Coast so they were able to come out for the month and I was able to bring them to set a lot. My daughter, who’s 12, loved being on set, just sitting in the video village and watching what was going on. It was the same with the film I did a couple of years ago. They spent a lot of time out there. So when I have the opportunity, I want them around. I think I’m always a better person when I have my family—my rock—close by. It’s not distracting for me. I think I’m more open and do better work that way.
I think it’s wise that you didn’t bring them around Midnighters. I wouldn’t want to see my dad doing what you did, even if it’s make-believe. That’s like heart attack time for the kids.
[Laughs] Yeah, but I did have so much fun getting to go there with this guy. I hope this film allows me other opportunities to do stuff like this where people can see me in a different light. Because of the way I look and stuff, I get cast a certain way and I don’t get these opportunities. I’m very, very grateful to Julius and the team for taking a chance on me and allowing me to do this.
You’re probably most recognized for playing the lead in Annabelle, which did huge numbers at the box office. I always wonder what actors take away from every project.
Well, that was my first big gig. Honestly, I didn’t even know when I booked it just how big it was. I thought of The Conjuring, but it wasn’t really on my radar so much. I went into that a little bit blind. When I booked it, I kind of started realizing—with that genre in general—how passionate the fanbase is. I think I learned a lot about that. For me, when I look back on that, it was a big steppingstone. John R. Leonetti, our director, was wonderful. He was very passionate. With Annabelle Wallis, you could tell what a great and wonderful actress and person she was. She was gonna be going places and she has obviously gone places now. So it was an all-around great experience for me. It was the first time that I had a stint for a longer period of time in L.A. shooting something. The whole experience was a very steep learning curve for me. It was a great learning opportunity. The fact that it was successful and people seemed to enjoy it—that’s icing on the cake.
How much fun did you have on the show Pure Genius?
It was great. That was awesome. I wish that got to stay around for a while longer. Network television is very different than the cable stuff because you can have these huge numbers and following, but if it doesn’t make the cut, it gets cancelled. That was unfortunate because we did have a fairly passionate fanbase. It just wasn’t big enough to warrant CBS to have us stick around. I made some wonderful friends on that. It had a great ensemble cast and we still keep in touch. We’re all keeping up with each other to see what everybody else is doing. That was also my first entry into network television as a series regular. That was, again, a big learning experience. I wanna be able to do that again. I wanna be able to bounce back and forth between different mediums. I recently finished doing an Off-Broadway play in New York that was very well received. It’s transferring to Broadway in the fall and it looks like I’m going to be a part of that. So it looks like I’ll be on the theater scene for a bit longer. But I always hope to be able to go back and forth. Working on all three mediums keeps everything really alive and interesting for me.
You’re taking about Torch Song. First of all, Harvey Fierstein must be such a character.
Oh yeah. [Laughs] He is.
So do you have a preference between film and TV versus theater? Is that an unfair question?
No, it’s not unfair, and I don’t. I love them all and that’s why I say I want to be able to bounce around. There’s just something about a live audience. They’re at your fingertips. You get that immediate response. There’s nothing like it! But theater is also difficult because I don’t live in New York City. I live in Connecticut so I’m commuting back and forth. While film and television can take you away from your family as well, you normally have your weekends and you’re not working every day. With theater, you’re doing eight shows a week. It’s kind of a brutal schedule and exhausting. Torch Song was an emotional rollercoaster for my character so you can get really physically exhausted from that as well. So this will be the first time that I’ve ever done Broadway. There are a lot of firsts! This is like the theme to our interview. [Laughs] First time on Broadway. First studio film. First network television show. I’m very fortunate and lucky that I’m getting to experience all of that in this short period of time. So to answer your question, I’ll then want to go from this play right into a wonderful film, then maybe pick up a television series and work on that for a while. Hopefully, I would have success with that if it gets multiple seasons, and during hiatus, I could get back into film or maybe do three, four months on an Off-Broadway production or something like that. I think to be able to do all of that and do it well is exciting. I’ll feel proud of the work that I’m doing and I’ll feel like I have success no matter what anybody else says.
I know this all started back in grade school when you first dipped your toes into theater. You ended up studying business and worked as an investment banker for a period before returning to your early passion. This is kind of personal: Do you think you would be deeply disappointed right now had you not circled back to acting later in life?
[Laughs] I feel like I’m a pretty positive person. I can make a good situation out of anything. Would I be deeply disappointed in myself? No. Would I have that feeling that I didn’t go after something that I have a passion for? Yeah, I probably would. I would always have that nagging feeling. But look—there’s a lot to be said for the stability of a real job. I mean, I’m currently unemployed. That’s hard. That’s hard on your family. That’s hard on your way of life. So would I be deeply disappointed? No, but I think I would have that yearning that I missed out on something I was passionate about. I was in [investment banking] for a few years and I was probably on my way back to business school to get a MBA. And then 9/11 happened. I just realized that life is too short and I wasn’t completely satisfied with where I was in my trajectory. Thankfully, I got that wake up call and had a wife who was supportive of me making a career change like that. I think I’m a better father, a better husband, and just a better person for following that dream. That’s what I would want for my children as well: to find that thing they love and to go after it no matter what.
With acting, is there a dream role? I apologize for the cliché.
There’s not. Honestly, there’s no dream role. I like to be surprised by every script that I read. So there absolutely is not. Every job that I book is a dream role. I tell people this all the time: getting cast in anything is like a strike of lightening. There’s usually so many people involved in the decision-making and there are so many variables that go into it. It’s completely out of your control. So anytime that I’m able to be compensated for doing something that I love is a dream role and you can’t take that away from me. I love every second of that.