Sloth Speaks! Our Interview With the 'Seven' Actor Who Freaked Everyone Out

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

John C. McGinley discovers a murder victim is still alive in ‘Seven’

Seven filmmaker David Fincher is known for his meticulous, exacting direction, but “don’t breathe” may just take the cake. That was Fincher’s on-set advice for Michael Reid MacKay, who played a memorable would-be murder victim in the brutal 1995 neo-noir thriller. MacKay’s character Victor, a child molester with a long rap sheet, met a gruesome end in Seven as the serial killer’s illustration for “sloth.” As the film approaches its 20th anniversary this month, Yahoo Movies talked to MacKay about his audition, the 14-hour makeup process, and how a real-life surprise created the movie’s biggest jump scare. (Warning: 20-year-old spoilers below)

Related: ‘Seven’ Turns 20: A Look Back on How That Killer Twist Ending Came Together

In Seven, a grim, unnamed city is stalked by a murderer known only as John Doe (Kevin Spacey) carrying out an unusual agenda: Each of the victims are tortured and killed in the name of one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Detectives William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt) are assigned to the case, which begins with the discoveries of “gluttony” (an obese man force-fed until his stomach exploded) and “greed” (a lawyer forced to carve a pound of flesh from his own body, who died of blood loss). The third victim they encounter is Victor, who has been tied to a bed and tortured for a full year as a representation of sloth. His body is so wounded and emaciated, the officers assume they’re looking at a corpse — until he startles them with a sudden, horrifying cough. Victor is immediately rushed to the hospital, where doctors reveal that a year of suffering has turned him into a vegetable, useless for helping the police identify the killer. (“Even if his brain were not mush, which it is, he chewed off his own tongue long ago,” a doctor grotesquely reveals to Detective Mills.)

Watch the scene below — if you dare:

As one might expect, MacKay’s audition for Seven was a bit unusual. To nab the part of Victor, the actor was instructed to lie down on the floor and remain completely still, then very slowly turn his face toward the camera. This didn’t phase MacKay, who specialized in roles that involved heavy special effects make-up and strange body movements — like his film debut as the Mummy in 1987’s Monster Squad, for which his audition consisted of lurching across a room, dragging one leg behind him. So he followed the casting director’s instructions, slowly turning his head to stare into the camera. “And they went, great! That’s it! That was creepy!” MacKay recalls with a laugh. The actor knew, too, that he had the right look for the part; with his very slight build, he was used to answering casting calls with descriptions like “extremely thin” or “anorexic type.” Not long after the audition, MacKay’s manager called to tell him he’d been cast.

Contrary to what has been printed over the years, MacKay was not asked to shed additional pounds for his Seven role. (“I told David Fincher that I lost weight, and apparently he took it seriously, but it was just a joke!” McKay clarifies.) Instead, the first thing he was asked to do was a photo shoot. Because the character’s pictures show up in a police file, the director needed several shots of Victor looking “normal,” so the actor posed for a fake driver’s license photo, a mug shot, and so forth. Later on, he would also pose in make-up for the photos found at the crime scene, which showed the deterioration of Victor’s face over a year’s time.

Michael Reid MacKay at a horror convention in 2012 (Photo by Joey Foley/Getty Images)

Next, MacKay visited the special effects studio, where makeup artist Rob Bottin (Star Wars, Total Recall, Fight Club) went to work. The actor had his body, head, arms, and feet cast for molds. Then over several sessions, the effects artists planned out the steps for creating Victor’s elaborate full-body makeup. “It started with airbrushing tiny little veins on my body, and then there was a step where they did some more painting, and then they put the gelatin sores all over me,” says McKay. But that was just the beginning. Once it was all worked out, the entire process of applying the makeup and prosthetics to MacKay’s face and body took 14 hours.

On the day of the actual shoot, MacKay woke up at 5 a.m. and reported to the special-effects studio, where they applied his makeup throughout the day in anticipation of his 8 p.m. call time. MacKay was transported to the downtown Los Angeles shoot in the back of a van, and says that when he arrived, crew members hid him with sheets, “because they didn’t want to give anything away.” They took away the camouflage when they reached the set.

“Once we got on set, Morgan Freeman was standing there,” says McKay. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘You don’t look too good.’” A woman from the costume department took one look at MacKay, shuddered, and turned her back, apologizing profusely. “She goes, “Oh I’m sorry! I can’t look at you! I can’t look at you!” McKay says. “ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Because I was really, really creepy-looking.”

For four hours of filming, MacKay lay strapped to a table on the set, which resembled a small room in a decrepit apartment (with dozens of car air fresheners hung from the ceiling to disguise the smell of Victor’s decaying body). It sounds like an easy job, but it wasn’t. “I had to lay perfectly still,” says MacKay. “David Fincher said, ‘Michael, if you breathe just a little bit, we can see that. Don’t breathe.’ And so I had to hold my breath. It was hard, but it was manageable.”

The bigger challenge for the actor was lying still while he was being spritzed with water. In order to maintain the “sweat and grossness” of Victor’s body, as Michael puts it, a makeup person sprayed him between takes. But because he was mostly naked, the spray lowered his body temperature. “And so when the water hit me, it made me shiver, and so I couldn’t shiver because I couldn’t move,” he says. “They put a little heater up to me, but that really didn’t help, so I just had to really suck it up and clench all of my muscles and hold my breath.”

The point of all this torturous muscle-clenching and breath-holding was to create the illusion that Victor was dead. That’s what the audience is led to believe, and it’s the assumption made by the Freeman and Pitt’s characters, as well as the SWAT team that breaks down Victor’s door. In what is arguably the film’s scariest moment, MacKay reveals that Victor is actually alive, jolting out of his stasis and coughing in the face of lead SWAT team officer California (John C. McGinley). According to MacKay, the shock on McGinley’s face is real.

The scene in the “sloth” apartment (Everett)

“David Fincher said to the SWAT team, ‘Okay, you guys — when you come into this room, it’s a terrible smell. It’s dark and dank. And you see this corpse, and you see it’s really, really creepy. So I want you to portray all of that,’” says MacKay. What Fincher strategically neglected to mention was that the corpse was an actual actor — so when MacKay started coughing (“And that was such a great release because once I was able to do that, all my air came out!” he recalls), the other actors jumped back in very real shock.

That take is the one that made the final cut — and it’s so effective on screen that it even scared MacKay. “When I saw the movie with friends, I wasn’t really grossed out or anything like that, because I knew what I’d looked like. But what really freaked me out is when I actually came to life. Because it comes out of nowhere. I didn’t expect that!” he says.

Nowadays, MacKay is a frequent guest at horror and sci-fi conventions, where he is popular with fans of Seven, Monster Squad, and X-Men 2 (in which he played Jason/Mutant 143, the boy who takes over Professor Xavier’s brain). Even though he spends most of Seven in heavy makeup, dedicated fans still approach MacKay at the grocery store to praise his role in the film. And the classic thriller is still helping MacKay land roles — like his turn as the terrifying demon called The Man Who Can’t Breathe in this summer’s Insidious: Chapter 3. “When I went to do a meet-and-greet with Leigh Whannell, the director, he said, ‘When I saw your tape, I thought, ‘God, he reminds me of that guy in Seven,” MacKay says. “And then he looked at my resume and he said, ‘Omigod, he was that guy in Seven!’ I thought that was the coolest.”