For The Filmcraziest Show, I was able to chat with actor Michael Abbott Jr., who plays the character of Michael in the new Shudder Exclusive The Dark and the Wicked. The film happens to be one of my favourites from last year (my review can be found here) and that’s one reason why I was so pleased to be chatting with Michael about the film.
The film is about a grieving family where Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) return home to rural Texas to help with their dying father (Michael Zagst). Once there, their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) warns they shouldn’t have come, as there’s a darkness that is haunting their farmhouse and an intense threat that Louise and Michael have just came upon. Soon, the dread and horror and grief are dialed up to 11 in The Dark and the Wicked.
For this interview for The Filmcraziest Show, I’m trying something a bit different than I usually do: I’ll be including an edited transcription of my conversation with Michael Abbott Jr., and the 12-minute video version and podcast version of my conversation with him will be plugged in throughout the post.
You can download the podcast here, or listen to it right here:
Read on below for the conversation, which is edited for clarity:
Michael Abbott Jr.: I’m Michael Abbott Jr. and I play Michael in the Shudder Exclusive The Dark and the Wicked.
Danie Prinn, Filmcraziest: Your character’s name is Michael, too, did your casting come first or did the character name come first?
MAB: I think it was written as Michael before I was anywhere near it. It was happenstance.
DP: Feel like it makes things simple on set.
MAB: You would think but the actor that played my father was also named Michael so sometimes it got a little confusing… Bryan had his own names for me but we won’t talk about that. [Laughs]
DP: What was it like working with writer/director Bryan Bertino?
MAB: He’s an international man of mystery. No one really knows a whole lot about Bryan. I feel like he stays away from the media and shies away from doing much press and that adds to the illusion of who this guy really is. But [he’s] an absolute master of the horror genre and his knowledge of that forum is absolutely unbelievable. His ability to communicate with actors is on par with some of the best directors I’ve certainly had the opportunity to work with; especially on a film like this that was so personal for him.
He wrote the script on the farm that we actually shot on. It was the farm he grew up on as a kid so it was personal for him from the very beginning. I think he felt an obvious and very deep connection to what was written on the page and what he wanted to see on the screen, so I think that really came through in his communication for [actor] Marin [Ireland] and I who had never worked on a horror film before. It was a really new experience for us and he held us by the hand and walked us through it, 100 per cent.
DP: You’ve done dramas like Mud and Loving. What attracted you to do this project and try on horror?
MAB: Full disclosure, I’ve never really been a fan of the horror genre for no other reason than that they scare the shit out of me. I have enough anxiety as an individual already without adding horror elements to my life. I think I’ve always associated horror with cartoon-y type characters and situations. When I first read the script, one of the initial things I was drawn to was [that] it was not only a horror but also a psychological thriller which I’ve never really seen those two mediums melded together so perfectly. The other thing was that, besides the horror elements in the script, this kind-of thing can stand on its feet as a drama.
I’ve never really had an attraction to being a character being chased through the woods by a man with a machete or anything like that. I think one of the things I really liked was that these were real characters dealing with obviously very real circumstances, very dramatic circumstances. Loss, grief, isolation, and the fact that this was a horror film that the audience can really connect to … That’s my long answer for why I was drawn to that [laughs]. That and I just wanted to work with the guy that did The Strangers.
DP: For sure, I like long answers. I’d love to ask though, for you as someone who’s scared of horror movies, what was it like filming that light switch scene? Was it creepy?
MAB: You know, it was a little creepy. And aside from the fact that [cinematographer] Tristan [Nyby] was actually standing on top of the bed over me with the camera in his hand, I’ve never actually been in bed with so many people in the same room with me, so that alone was a little creepy. [Laughs]
It was certainly less challenging in this film to have to act creeped out because one of the things that the crew did so brilliantly, especially Tristan and Bryan working together in pre-production, was the lighting that you see, the set dressings that you see, all of that stuff was already there. So the crew took the elements that already existed and just built upon what was already there, so it was very naturalistic.
We were out in the middle of nowhere [in] Texas, it’s very dark. People say, “This movie’s so dark I have a hard time seeing.” Try being there because that’s how it was lit. So, yes, that scene was creepy. They were all creepy because we were all actually there living these scenes as the characters were experiencing them, too, and I think that’s a huge testament to the crew.
DP: Okay, so the isolation made it a little bit unsettling at times?
MAB: 100 per cent. Two months of that, six or eight weeks of that, we were out in the middle of nowhere Texas, no neighbours. No one knew we were in town, no one knew what was going on. I tell people it’s a perfect pandemic film, we could have shot this during the pandemic because we had built our own little bubble already so there was no one infiltrating or going outside of the bubble. It would have been the perfect film to shoot during a pandemic. We were a tad early on that.
Would you do it again?
MAB: A horror film or shoot this same film again?
MAB: I’m not the type of actor who says, “I won’t do these kinds of movies” or “I won’t consider these projects.” It really depends on the script for me and if I’m drawn to the character and if it’s something I can bring something to. Just as important is who’s behind it, who’s steering the ship. You can have a fantastic project or fantastic script but if you don’t feel the synergy with who’s leading the charge then it’s never going to work. Some people may say, “You fake it till you make it.”
On a film or TV shoot, I think that’s utter bullshit because unless you have some type of connection with your director, it’s never going to work. We were lucky we ended up with Bryan Bertino, the master of the genre. He’s certainly one of them.
DP: You keep saying master of the genre and I keep thinking the same just with how he creates the sequences and how he uses the music, as well. Have you been able to hear [Alan Jackson’s] What A Friend We Have in Jesus and think of it the same since this film?
MAB: I will steer clear of that song for some time, but it’s certainly effective. Tom [Schraeder]’s work on the score and Joe [Stockton]’s work with the sound design on this thing… I think that for everyone it certainly was a passion project. By no means was it a large-budgeted film, and what they were able to do with the limited resources they had speaks wonders for the commitment everyone had to sing this thing through.
I think this is a film made specifically for these horror and psychological thriller film fans and I think being on Shudder now, I think it’s certainly found its audience. The feedback has been incredible.
DP: Have you had a favourite bit of feedback so far?
MAB: It’s funny you say that because, just yesterday, I screenshotted this tweet I saw and texted it to Bryan and said, “Out of everything I’ve read, this one means the most to me.” I’ll tell you what it says because I literally just texted it to him. It says, it’s from a man named Chad, I won’t tell you what his last name is but:
“I come from a rural background and farmed until I was 30 and I loved that they had a non-exploitative portrayal of rural folk. My wife and I watched this last night and we were just floored. Loved it. Bertino does no wrong.”
And what that says to me, you know … It was very important to [Marin Ireland and I] that the audience feels for these people and that they connect in some way and feel as though they could be in those character’s shoes. Even down to the farm work and working with the goats, stuff that seems so menial and simple and kind-of throwaway, it was important for us to make it look like we did that everyday and those were activities that we were in our body and that we’d lived those lives and we were used to working on a farm like that.
It meant a lot to me just because I know a lot farmers and rural folk and I’m sure that they’re trying to pinpoint, “Hey, he’s not handling that goat the right way,” however you handle a goat. That one made me feel good. Another long answer for you, how about that?
DP: I love it. Also, going back a bit in our conversation, you had said a lot of the set was already there. Was that mannequin room already there?
MAB: [Laughs] The room itself was there. The mannequins were brought in. I have a feeling that there had been a seamstress’s mannequin on the property somewhere and that’s kind-of what brought the idea to Bryan but in terms of the large volume of creepy mannequins, I think most of them were shipped in. They actually had bigger trailers than we did and were treated better than the rest of us.
DP: [Laughs] Was anyone scared to go into that room?
MAB: I absolutely wouldn’t go in that room. Unless the whole crew and Bryan were there… I can’t even walk through a JCPenney’s without hiding behind something.
DP: Without Shuddering?
DP: Pun intended.
MAB: I hear you, nice plug.
DP: Michael Abbott Jr., who plays Michael in The Dark and the Wicked, thanks for chatting with me on The Filmcraziest Show.
MAB: I appreciate it, Daniel, thanks for having me.
The Dark and the Wicked is currently streaming on Shudder in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and New Zealand.