Harrison Abbott chats with The Dead Center star Jeremy Childs…
Having toured the festival circuit for months, Billy Senese’s The Dead Center will soon be embarking on a limited theatrical release, before making its way onto VOD and physical media.
The slow-burn horror tells the story of Daniel Forrester, an emergency psychiatrist (played by Primer director Shane Curruth) who is struggling to reconcile his desire to help people with the harsh realities of the mental health industry. Not only is his hospital working against extreme pressures and with strained resources, but there’s also an abudence of red tape holding him back. Yet in spite of all these frustrations, Daniel insisits on admitting more patients than he can realisitcally handle, often fudging the paperwork and bending the rules in order to provide them with care.
This workholism gets the better of him however, when – under false pretenses – he takes onboard a violent amnesiac by the name of John Doe. Claiming that he recently died and came back to life, John is a bewlidering engima that fascinates Daniel, to the point where he begins to spiral into a deep obbsession. What follows is a tale fraught with dark undertones, psyhcological intrigue and superantrual thrills.
In anticipation of the release, we had the pleasure of chatting with Jeremy Childs (Preacher), who plays the antagonistic John Doe. In the subsequent interview we cover a lot of ground, including the challenges of playing such an ambigious character, his research into mental ilness, and what it’s like being caked in heavy prostethics.
You’ve worked with [director] Billy Senese on numerous occasions now. Given your relationshop, did he approach you with this specific role in mind?
Years ago, I did my first project with Billy, which was a short film called The Suicide Tapes. It was about a man named Michael Clark, who had amnesia, called himself John Doe and came back from the dead – Do you see where I’m going with this?
Yeah, it’s kind of like a prototype for this movie.
I guess you could say it was the origin for The Dead Center. It was actually quite a long short, about 22 minutes, but it played really well internationally. So I think that planted a seed in the back of Billy’s head, that he should develop the idea into a full screenplay. And that’s where it all began!
I guess he must have always had me in his head when he was writing the part, because we had already spent so much time developing the character for The Suicide Tapes.
In that sense, you could say that you’d be involved with the project before it was even conceived.
Correct. Well, in terms of the character anyway. But when it came to the story, that part was new even to me. After all, the short was just a 22 minute monologue, framed as a single black and white shot. This is a full movie.
It was a pretty big expansion then. When you first read the scrip, what was your reaction?
I thought it was wonderful. Billy writes because he has something to say and this screenplay is no exception. It’s about the inevitability of death, the randomness of it and how it makes no logical sense. That idea was playing on all our minds while we were making it, because [Billy] had friends who died too soon and my own father had passed. So we were all dealing with those emotions. That’s what stuck out to me.
You just touched upon this a little, but what is it about working with Billy that you find so appealing? Why do you keep on collaborating together?
I’ve worked with hundreds of directors over the years and it’s kind of rare to find someone who you have a ‘’second speak’’ with. Don’t get me wrong, you can find people who you can work well with, but Billy and I instinctively know what the other is thinking. We grew up in the same part of the country, we have the same influences, we even like the same movies. I can always tell what he’s looking for and what he wants.
I think that’s why I keep working with him. I also just trust him, you know? He gets better at his craft with every project. It started with our radio shows –
Yeah! We would do these weird things where we didn’t even stay stationary while recording. Like, we’d move around the space and act everything out with the microphone to get a more organic feel. Those radio collaborations then graduated into film shorts and in turn they became graduated into our first feature together: Closer to God.
So it really has been a journey and a learning experience for us. But at the same time we did sort of click from the get-go.
That’s really cool. I’d like to move onto the Dead Center now.
It strikes me that your part in the movie must have been challenging. Because it’s quite multifaceted, in that you’re essentially playing three characters. There’s the amnesiac side of John Doe, there’s his true identity [Michael] and then there’s the sinister Entity the lurks inside of him. How did you differentiate all of these personas as an actor?
Well firstly I appreciate you bringing that up, because it was definitely something I tried to be mindful of. Not only were they separate identities, but there was a further complication in that they were influencing each other to a certain extent. Like, I had to figure out how much ‘’the Entity’’ was driving John Doe and so on. So it was a very convoluted process, one that Billy and I talked about at great length.
I guess that’s how we pulled it off: with a lot of prep. I spent so much time thinking about these characters and how they would behave, so that when the cameras were actually rolling I could just follow my instincts. I had to stop getting [preoccupied] with it and just trust that they would find me, because I had already done my due diligence.
Does that make sense? I just can’t think and perform at the same time, you know? If I’ve done the legwork in advance, then the characters should just conjure up themselves. That approach paid off for me and Billy anyway. I hope that it translates over to the audience.
Oh absolutely. I think you did a great job, that’s why I asked about it.
I appreciate that.
Especially in those one-on-one scenes you have with Shane. Because you can never be quite sure which side of your character is speaking.
Speaking of those interview sequences, I imagine they were quite fulfilling for you as a performer. Because they’re uninterrupted, lengthy conversations where you really get to sink your teeth into the relationship dynamics. I was wondering how you found that experience?
No you’re absolutely right, it was such a great release! When you’re working on movies, there’s a tendency for directors to always be yelling ‘’cut’’ and breaking up the drama into bite-sized chunks. And a lot of the time you’re just focussed on getting enough coverage.
Which is why having scenes like these feels like such a luxury for an actor. I get to just be in the moment, you know? Plus, I love working with Shane. I could always rely on him to be completely dedicated and so we kind of got lost in what we were doing.
The other interesting thing about the role that jumps out to me is how ambiguous your characters are. From an audience perspective, we don’t find out too much about John Doe or the Entity, at least nothing concrete. Was it difficult for you to formulate those characters when you had so little to go on, or were you given additional insight into who they were?
In a way, it kind of helped to have that lack of information. Billy wrote tons of backstory for Michael Clark, but you can’t really use that stuff when you’re playing an amnesiac. Which is why I had to try something a little different. Have you ever been in a situation where you’re on vacation, or you’re away from home, and you wake up in the middle of the night with no idea where you are?
Sure, I think everyone’s had that. Even if it’s just for a moment.
Right! Well, for John Doe I tried to draw upon that experience and expand upon it. To live in it. Because that’s how he feels all the time. He’s almost like a child, who doesn’t understand the things that are going on around him.
Was that your main basis for the character, or did you do any further research into amnesia itself?
Sure I did. Especially when we were getting ready for The Suicide Tapes. I read a few articles, looked around online and stuff like that. However, it was all in the early stages. Once we got around to shooting, I tried to let go of all that so that the character would feel more organic. Does that makes sense?
I suppose it comes back to your point about following your instincts.
Yeah, it’s like my technique.
If it’s okay with you, I was hoping to verge ever so slightly into spoiler territory now. In the movie’s climax there’s a sequence where you get covered in a lot of prosthetic makeup. Could you talk about that process?
It was pretty wild. Before we started shooting, I went and got a head cast, which took about 2 hours to finish. But unfortunately it didn’t quite work as we intended on the day, so we decided to go with traditional makeup instead. That took another 2 hours [laughs]!
The actual process of sitting there and getting it all [applied] wasn’t too bad, but it was difficult to see and I was nearly blind. It was quite a tough night in general, because we were trying to get it done before dawn and only had about 6 or 7 hours.
And we ended up going back to do some [reshoots] later, without Shane, because the fight wasn’t quite working the way we wanted it to in the edit. That took a while as well. You know, it’s funny, you might film for three or four hours and end up with just a couple of seconds that are used.
My final question to round up: what are you most excited for people to experience with this film?
Oh wow! I guess I’m just excited for it to be out there, you know? This is a piece that we can all be proud of and we’re really lucky that it’s seeing the light of day. We’re fortunate to have Arrow distributing the movie. I’d been a huge fan of there’s since before we even made this film. So I guess the thing I’m most excited about is that it’s now out there being distributed. Being able to sit at the back of an auditorium and listen to an audience react to your work is amazing.
Has the response been really positive then?
Oh yeah, it’s been awesome. As we’ve been doing the festival screenings I’ve attended 2 or 3 screenings and the reactions have always been great.
Many thanks to Jeremy Childs for taking the time for this interview.
The Dead Center is released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 11th.