I auditioned for Josh Brolin to play Josh Brolin, which is really bizarre. It’s like, ‘How do I do this without looking like I’m mocking him?’
Exorcisms. Do they ever go well? It seems that every time you try to coax evil out of a possessed body, another incubus rears its ugly head. Dutch filmmaker Diederik van Rooijen’s The Possession of Hannah Grace is the latest spin on exorcisms gone awry. Somebody find a foolproof priest!
New jobs are nerve-wracking, and it doubles up if you entertain the half-baked idea of moving around dead bodies for a living. In van Rooijen’s supernatural set-up, it gets worse. Megan (Shay Mitchell) is a former policewoman with a troubled past who’s also grappling with addiction. She has taken the graveyard shift as a medical examiner at a morgue to distract herself when the disfigured cadaver of Hannah Grace (Kirby Johnson) is brought in by an EMT. He ominously explains that the young woman perished while trying to expel a demonic force. When Megan begins to experience horrifying visions, her estranged cop boyfriend Andrew (Grey Damon) gets entangled in the nightmare as she tries to live through the night. Or is this but all in her head?
You probably recognize Damon as Jack Gibson from ABC’s firefighter drama Station 19, which is currently in its second season. The TV mainstay previously appeared on a string of shows like True Blood, Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story, Aquarius, The Magicians, and The Flash.
Anthem sat down to discuss the actor’s journey and to go behind the scenes of his new horror flick.
The Possession of Hannah Grace is now playing in theaters.
Once asked whether you’re a fan of horror, you said you have “an affinity for darker films.” What kind of stuff were you referring to exactly?
Anything David Fincher I’m pretty stoked about, or Darren Aronofsky. They have that palette, I guess. I do love horror films and I’m very specific when it comes to my taste in that genre. I tend to favor realism, even if there’s a ghoul or something in it. I really appreciate artistry and directors who make you feel like it’s a real environment instead of pure fantasy. So Fincher, Aronofsky, Stanley Kubrick… Movies like The Witch, Hereditary, and Get Out I can appreciate more than the average popcorn horror film.
Se7en is one movie that haunts me to this day.
And you know he did ALIEN³ and that movie was supposed to be a disaster. Nothing was going right and he still managed to make it like a pretty awesome movie.
In The Possession of Hannah Grace you play the estranged boyfriend of somebody who’s dealing with addiction issues. That must inform your character right off the bat, no?
Somebody who’s struggling with an addict, for sure.
We’ve all known or seen addiction in our lives.
I grew up around it. Not directly, but in my neighborhood. Then living in a place like Los Angeles, there’s a lot of people with addiction issues. Not to get dark, but the world has addiction issues and there’s a lot of abuse that goes on. It’s scary to think about. That’s also why it’s good that our film touches on it. I don’t know if Diederik [van Rooijen] intended to do this, but I think the whole film is a metaphor for battling our demons. I thought it was beautiful how that worked together, like how The Babadook was a metaphor for that character battling grief. I think those are the best kind of horror films, I really do.
This film was once titled Cadaver as I understand it.
It was. We later added the possession element, I think to just give it a little more depth around the mysterious cadaver.
Is the shoot still fairly fresh in your mind? What do you remember from being on set?
It was cool! The morgue was all one big set so it was easy to sort of forget that you were on a set. Oftentimes, you know where the film world ends because the other side of it is just wood. On this set, it was easier to immerse yourself into that world. We shot around Boston, which was beautiful with the fall colors. This government-type building—it might’ve been a bank, I can’t remember—doubled as the morgue’s exterior where Shay Mitchell’s character is going to and fro. Being in that environment felt cold and isolating, which really set the tone for the film. I know I’m riding this metaphor train again, but I see the film as a metaphor for addiction and how cold and isolating that can feel. It’s really brilliant how Diederik did that.
Are you superstitious in real life?
Not at all! Yeah, not at all… But that’s not to say that if a plane starts going down, I’m not gonna pray to God or something. [Laughs] Nobody knows how they’ll react in those scary situations. Are they gonna start praying? Are they gonna start counting the cracks in the pavement? Who knows? I’m inherently not superstitious. I also think that’s the reason why I can really have a love and respect for these types of films, whereas my girlfriend gets a little freaked out by ghosts and things like that. I don’t know why some people do, but I do think there’s a huge religious context from their childhood or something.
You’re killing it on Station 19 right now. Are you currently filming the rest of season two?
We’re on a little month-long hiatus right now. It’s more about the writers figuring out where best to take the characters and the storylines. Everyone is really happy and excited to get back to work.
If the recent wildfires in California weren’t surreal enough, you’re playing a firefighter on the show and shoot in Los Angeles, which is obviously doubling for Seattle.
From the bottom of my heart and Station 19, we’re just so thankful to real firefighters. Getting to play these characters, we’re in a little closer proximity of understanding what they go through, what they have on the line, and what they’re risking. It’s really a beautiful, selfless job and we’re so thankful. We’ve all talked about it. We’re so appreciative of them. We also urge people to thank their local firefighters because I don’t think they realize the kind of stuff they get into, sometimes for days on end. It’s crazy, especially with these recent fires. Whatever you believe in—climate change or what have you—there’s a shift happening in our world.
Do you approach the character differently when you come back after a season or hiatus?
I might. With television, your approach may change even on the day, you know? The writers might decide that a pivotal character who might’ve died, which shaped your character’s life, is alive after all. So you might end up playing your character one way and have things turn out to be quite different later. That’s just television: you kind of roll with the punches. And that’s what’s exciting about television. In that regard, you do approach it differently. On the other side, I think it’s just mainly about making sure that I stay sharp.
Can you imagine if they chose to call this show Blaze Anatomy? Who threw that idea around?
No, that was a joke! [Laughs] For a while there, we were trying to figure out a name and Blaze Anatomy was a funny joke that we all had going. We had a whole list of funny names alongside real, potential names. Strangely enough, all of us were having a really hard time trying to figure out what to name this show. They were very generous in that regard, asking the actors what they thought. When you become part of Shondaland, they’re very open to incorporating your opinions into things. That’s what’s great about it.
Is it true that your mother introduced you to acting at a young age?
Yeah. When I was young, my mom wanted to expose me to as much art as possible, which I’m really grateful for. I definitely consider myself a creature of the arts, if not an artist. She put me in little acting camps when I was a kid. When I was 12, I got into the play A Christmas Carol, which was a beautiful production. Then I didn’t act for awhile and came out to L.A. I was actually gonna be a cartoonist—that was the plan—but I needed to make money and started doing background work. I didn’t like how I was being treated as a background actor so I thought maybe I would become a co-star. That led me to being a guest star and then I just went up from there.
What do your parents do?
They’re both painters. My mom has a few degrees, including an arts degree. My dad—I actually don’t think I ever asked him if he has an arts degree or not, but he might as well. He’s a fantastic painter. But yeah, both of my parents are pretty baller painters. I’m very thankful that I was exposed to that as a kid.
Have you stopped drawing?
No, I still have to draw. But what I like to do now is character design for whatever script I’m writing. It gives me a better aesthetic idea as to what I’m going for and helps me get immersed into the world of what I’m writing better.
I talked to your Aquarius co-star, Emma Dumont, earlier this year and she told me it was really difficult for her to play a Manson girl on that show because that character’s base personality was so different from her own—
She did it beautifully, though, didn’t she?
She has it. She has such a strong sense of self to begin with, which is probably what made it difficult for her. For you, if a character feels really different—maybe you don’t particularly like them as a person—do you feel more or less inclined to try them on as an actor?
I think it depends, you know? In my opinion at least, the job is to try and not have judgement when I take on a role. Let’s say that I was playing some awful dictator. I’m trying to look at the beautiful things about that person. Maybe they’re a family person. You try to understand their point of view, which can be really hard for a mass murderer, for example. But I think in order to play a character honestly, you have to do it without judgement, try and think about why they do what they do, and understand where they’re coming from. So as an actor, you have to take on a lot of different roles like anthropologists or psychologists. If you’re doing your job well, you’ve done your homework. I think figuring out a way to not judge can also be helpful in life. You can open yourself up a lot by learning not to judge too much. That’s the only way I know how to approach things in acting. It can be difficult sometimes.
I’m always curious what actors take away from projects because every job is obviously very different. What do you remember about working on Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake?
I guess that was my first real character role where I tried to emulate Josh Brolin since I was playing a young version of his character. That was really interesting and surreal. I first auditioned for Spike Lee and that was like a “Oh shit!” moment. Then they brought me in again to audition for Josh Brolin to play Josh Brolin, which is really bizarre. It’s like, “How do I do this without looking like I’m mocking him?” If it doesn’t work, you just look like an asshole. I literally went blank—I can’t remember what I did. All I know is that he was very sweet and kind of nodded like, “Alright, thank you.” Then I got a call a couple days later that I got it. It was the most memorable and unmemorable thing. It was memorable because it was these two icons. It was unmemorable because I was basically so nervous that I forgot everything.
What do you find yourself thinking about these days in terms of craft, whether that has to do with technique or new things to explore next?
Checking my ego. I think you need a healthy amount of ego to be an actor, but at the same time, if I’m going to play someone else, I have to take myself out of the equation in a weird way to make it believable and to make it work. I find that scaring myself is a pretty good technique. Sometimes if you go to certain acting classes, they’ll have you dance around in a circle or have you mimic each other. I find that to be very cathartic. It’s also very freeing. It just sort of gets you out of your head and into your body more. But doing things like that, it’s kind of terrifying. No matter who you are, if you put yourself in a circle with a bunch of strangers, that’s fucking weird! [Laughs] But by stripping your ego—“Okay, I look ridiculous”—and just going for it as hard as you can and making the commitment to jump in, you can find out a lot about yourself. That’s been very helpful for me in getting to places that I didn’t think I could go.