Exclusive Profile Interview: Actor Brett Rickaby


From The Crazies, Malevolence: Bereavement

A few year’s back, this Shock writer was doing a set report on behalf of Fangoria magazine for Bereavement, the prequel to filmmaker Stevan Mena’s Malevolence and of all the things I witnessed on that visit, what impressed me the most was watching actor Brett Rickaby at work. Despite not knowing him beforehand, he’s got that immediate familiarity where you know you sort of recognize him, but can’t exactly place where from. (It’s most likely from one of the dozen’s of television appearances he’s made over the years.)

As soon as Mena called out “Action!”, Brett immediately embodied the character of Graham Sutter, channeling what Anthony Perkins did best with Norman Bates or more recently Nathan Baesel as Leslie Vernon in Behind The Mask. If those few scenes were any indication, his performance in Bereavement is what genre fans should be most looking forward to in the prequel.

Fast forward to this weekend, he stars as Bill Farnum in The Crazies, one of the first of the townspeople to come into contact with the Trixie virus and become infected. Between those two films, not to mention his extensive body of work both in television and on stage in theater, Rickaby has the potential to be the go-to character actor for horror movies. Shock sat down with him over breakfast to talk more in-depth about his career.

Robg.: Were you familiar with the original Crazies when you signed on to do this remake?

Brett Rickaby: I didn’t see the original before I worked on this. I felt for me and what I had to do, there was enough in the script that I could play with.

Robg.: Plus your character is not really in the original, it was a character created for this new one…

Brett: Yeah, so unless it’s something historical or there’s a real strong urgency to revisit something – Certainly someone can make the case that you’re doing a Romero remake, you should go rewatch the original. But I felt it was already there and I already had a strong idea of what to bring to it, so I trusted in that. I went back and watched it after the fact. It was fun to see the original that way. Lynn Lowery came in the same day when I flew into Iowa and that’s when I met her. I didn’t know until after that she was in the original! And I like her cameo.

Robg.: What was the biggest challenge in terms of how to play Bill? Was it the dark content? The stuff you had to do physically? Dealing with the make-up FX? What was toughest on you?

Brett: Well the make-up was easy. I’ve always loved the transformation process with make-up, it’s terrific. When I first went in and auditioned, we did the scene on the back of the truck after I burn down the house. The sheriff comes up and says, “What happened here?” And there was a line where I was supposed to say, “A reckoning.” It was too much, it was too on the nose and I don’t think we wanted to go in that direction. All through out the process, Breck (Eisner) would be really specific about certain things. He pointed out that I’m the only character that goes through all the stages of the illness, so let’s mark those and figure out what those are. First, it was disorientation. Then the one that really got me as we moved along which is where the core of the character really existed for me was when “your worst thoughts become your predominant thoughts.” I thought wow, that I can relate to, that I can work with. But then after that stage, it starts to manifest more physically and you start to see it externally.

The hardest thing was modulating my performance by finding the nuances between stages. It was the little things, like striking the match or the whistling on the back of the truck. When we got to the jail is when I got to go for it. That scene was shot in a bank and they made a jail cell within it. Those were real bars. I don’t know if you’ve ever reached through jail cell bars, but it hits at a certain point and you can’t reach straight out. So by the end of those scenes, I had unbelievable bruises all up and down my arm. I’ll take a little pain for the show! I hurt myself on Bereavement going a little far too. Going back to the burning the house scene… interesting tid-bit, that was shot in four different locations. All the inside stuff was in Georgia. The burn was in Iowa. Then we realized we needed the turnaround shot of me lighting the match, and me in reverse throwing it, so that we shot in a school outside in Iowa and it was windy and raining so the match kept going out! So when the match lights, that’s actually a quick CGI shot. And then the fourth location was for when my eye appears in the peep hole. It all came together really well!

Robg.: Wow. Movie magic! Did you do anything specific to prepare for the role of Bill in The Crazies?

Brett: Well, going back to the “worst thoughts thing” – just before we did reshoots on Bereavement, Stevan Mena came out here to promote Brutal Massacre and we met up. That night, I started feeling kind of ill. After that, I was down for months with something called Ramsey Hunt syndrome, which is shingles of the ear. I have to tell you, one of the things that happened as a result of that was sometimes when I’d go to bed, I couldn’t go to sleep and what was happening was this virus was causing not my worst thoughts, but my best thoughts to become my worst thoughts and they were haunting me. I could not sleep! You know, literally the thoughts you entertain on how to be a better person or how you could do better, they were mocking me. It was horrible! So when it came to The Crazies and Breck brought up that example of your worst thoughts becoming your dominant ones, I knew exactly how to play it because I lived it. With a virus no less!

Robg.: What was your favorite scene you got to do for the movie? The most memorable part for you on The Crazies?

Brett: There was something that didn’t make it into the movie. There’s that moment where I’m standing in the jail cell like a statue. After that, and when I pace the cell, there were some moments where I was banging on the bars with my hand and they’d start to get bloody, and I was yelling out my wife’s name. I thought that was interesting. There was still some subconscious connection to his family even though he had done this horrific thing. Maybe there’s still something in there that feels this remorse and guilt, yet his synapses aren’t working anymore! That’s not in there anymore, but I understand why.

Robg.: Were your aware of The Crazies comic book?

Brett: No! When I went to the premiere screening last Tuesday night, Brett Wagner says “You’re a comic book!” I asked “What are you talking about?” And he told me they made a prequel comic book with my characters backstory. If you look on the cover, that’s totally my face. On the inside? Not so much. [Laughs] But how cool to be on a comic!

Robg.: Breck is a fairly new filmmaker and a young director. What was the experience working with him like compared to other director’s you’ve worked with, especially considering your extensive TV background?

Brett: The first thing that struck me about Breck is he is very smart. And he does know what he wants. His style is a bit different, he kind of works a bit like TV directors in the sense that in TV you work rather fast and kind of loose. He was pretty loose, but if there was something he wasn’t getting, he’d come in and give it to you in a way that wasn’t smothering in any way. I appreciated the parameters he’d give us to play in, but he’d also be very specific at the same time. He has fun on set, he can joke around a little bit, yet he’s very efficient and moves forward with stuff. I really liked working with him. It was very different working with Breck as opposed to Stevan (Mena) on Bereavement. Stevan’s extremely intense. And the thing that he has in mind, he wants to get that. What’s great about Stevan though is if you’ve got something in your mind when he brings up his idea, and there’s a little conflict, he’s totally open to that. Even if ideas are bumping heads a bit, he doesn’t mind because he knows and trusts that in the long run, the best thing’s going to come as a result of that. I love his intensity. Principle photography for Bereavement finished in Fall of 2007. We did reshoots in Spring of 08 and then last year, we did some pick-ups and inserts. And then we went back again because there were some camera issues on one of the shoots. So as I kept going back, our bond kept growing and growing and growing. I kept coming back because I felt that kinship with him and I just wanted the film to be good.

Robg.: I love Malevolence and from what I’ve seen so far about Bereavement, it seems like such a dark, interesting piece.

Brett: I can’t wait for that one. When I read that script, I thought to myself “wow, talk about emotional range”. I don’t know what appeals to other people as they’re watching something, but for actors, it’s “what’s the emotional pallet? What’s the range?” And the range for Graham Sutter was huge! From vulnerability to sheer insanity and anger and rage, it was phenomenal. I couldn’t wait to do that part because it called for huge commitment and to be able to shift back and forth so quickly. Some of my favorite parts of that process was sitting down and talking with (writer/director) Stevan Mena about the character.

Robg.: A lot of people have tried to define the origins of a serial killer in their movies. And from what I read of the script for Bereavement, Stevan managed to explain perfectly how Martin becomes what he becomes. As an actor, I imagine you don’t play Sutter or someone like Bill Farnumas a “bad guy”? You play it straight, right?

Brett: Sutter doesn’t know any better, he’s doing his absolute best for redemption. He’s doing what he thinks he needs to do to be redeemed. Somewhere along the line, because of his exposure as a kid to the slaughterhouse and the empathy that he felt for those animals, somehow there was a split in his personality because of the horrors that he witnessed, and what his father taught him. These are the things he passes along to Martin. The thing is, Graham Sutter gives to Martin something that his dad never gave to him which is this interesting affection, which makes it even scarier and creepier!

Robg.: With Bereavement, it’s got intense subject matter and you’re working with two young kids as Martin, Spencer List and Chase Pechacek, not to mention Spencer’s sister Peyton. How much was expressed to them that this was make believe considering how dark the material was?

Brett: Well, Spencer is a total professional. He got it, he totally got it. His dad was there too and his parents were really cool and savy about what we were doing. Both of them totally get it. I felt a little more self conscious with Peyton because she’s a girl, but Spencer would think everything that was happening was “cool”. There’s a scene at the kitchen table where I knife into his hand. At that point, we didn’t know each other that well, which was good for that scene because the interaction in that scene is really intense! It’s my favorite scene of the movie. You can tell he’s a little scared with me! I didn’t have much dialogue with Peyton either because we wanted that (interaction) to be scary for her. It’s a real delicate balance. The trickiest one for me was Chase (Pechacek) who plays Martin at 6. I had to take a knife to his face to give him the scar. He was freaked by that, so in between takes, I tried to make things OK and comfortable for him. It’s the same scene where there’s a girl being murdered in front of him! That balance is tricky. Trying to be aware that this is a 6 year old kid, let him know it’s make believe but he has to buy into this pretend world, but that it is just pretend but we’re going to do it like it’s real.

Robg.: What was the beginning for you in terms of acting? You’ve got an impressive body of work in television. Did you start there or in theater?

Brett: It was theater. Well, I went to undergrad at University of Minnesota Duluth. They had a theater program there. So I did four years there, my first year there I didn’t get cast in a single production, and then things started to happen. I actually won this National Irene Ryan competition thing. Got auditions for grad schools and got into NYU, which was my first choice. Went there for three years, and worked in New York for a while mostly doing stage work. But I was always interested in getting the opportunity to work in front of the camera. We did a national tour of Carousel in which I played the bad guy, Jigger. We played here in LA at the Ahmanson Theater and it was my first introduction to Los Angeles. While I was on tour, my eldest daughter was born, and she’s 13 now so I’ve been out here for about 12 years. At that time, my resume was all theater with maybe five or six films. All the television stuff has happened once I got out here.

Robg.: What do you have planned next?

Brett: I have a project called The Book of Matthew, which is something I’m going to be directing. It’s a spiritual thriller and we’ve got some great folks involved. Right now, Peter Krause (Beastly), Johnathon Schaech (Quarantine), Danny Pino and James Denton (Desperate Housewives) are all attached. It’ll be the first thing I’m directing so I’m really looking forward to it. Basically, it takes place in post-911 New York at a time when everyone is questioning what the meaning of life is. The main character Matthew has a sort of a seeming existence, it doesn’t make any sense to him, it’s futile. And he gets roped into this fundamentalist church by a former teacher, so he thinks he’s going to find something, but as he gets more and more involved in the doctrine, he winds up losing himself within it. The question of the piece sort of becomes is his church the way or is it a cult? It’s going to be controversial by nature, and we won’t shy away from that when the time comes, but my job as a director is to try to walk the middle path as honestly as possible and try to explore what are the things that are worth examining and criticizing within the church. And what are the things of value, because there are things of value.

Robg.: Usually when you make the leap into directing, it’s because a certain piece of material speaks to you personally. What is it about this story that made you want it to become your directorial debut?

Brett: Why this spoke to me was because it’s partly autobiographical, it’s something I went through and I ended up leaving, of course. There’s aspects that I still have a lot of respect and admiration for but it’s a life I could not live. I was only a part of it for three months, but those events haunted me for years, literally years. I finally started writing about it seven years later. It was a play first, and now a number of years later it’s turned into a screenplay and I’ve had a partner come on board to rewrite it. We hope to start by late summer. I’m very excited about that, however, the thing I’m most excited about right now – I can’t wait to see Bereavement! [Laughs]

Robg.: Between seeing you in The Crazies and what I’ve seen of your work in Bereavement, I see you as this great character actor within the genre. Is that something you’d be interested to continue?

Brett: A couple of years ago I was looking at my career, and one of the things my agents and managers would always say is “we’ve got to get you to be a series regular.” Then I looked at myself, and I was honest about the way I looked and thought… what character could I be a series regular for? I think it’s important in this town to understand where your market is. The horror industry is always growing and growing. I felt like I should go in that direction. I created my website to be both legit, but to have more of an edge so you could easily see me going into the genre. So I purposely started heading towards the genre and purposely started to go for those roles. The horror fans have been so incredibly loyal and respectful. When you first come in, people have this assumption that it’s going to be weird, but it’s not at all. The affection you feel from the horror fanbase is really awesome. The thing I love about the horror genre is it usually goes for a large emotional range. That’s very appealing to me as an actor. That’s something I can do and I love to do. I’m looking forward to more opportunities like that within the genre.

Visit Brett Rickaby’s official website right here. Also, watch a behind-the-scenes making-of video on Bereavement at our previous news post right here.

Source: Rob G.