Since his big screen debut in 1975’s classic, “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest,” Christopher Lloyd has cornered the market on playing brilliant but wildly off-kilter oddballs. In an amazing body of classic films ranging from the “Back to the Future” “Star Trek” and “Addams Family” series to his role as Reverend Jim in TV’s “Taxi,” Lloyd has reigned as America’s leading portrayer of the eccentric.
Lloyd takes another off-kilter step in his latest film, the zombie comedy “Dead Before Dawn” directed April Mullen. Available now on DVD and VOD, Lloyd plays another tormented soul with something not quite right about him who warns a group of endangered young people about an ancient curse.
Yahoo Movies spoke with Lloyd by phone about the challenge of playing a lifetime of bizarre and unusual roles.
1. What inspired you to make a zombie comedy?
Christopher Lloyd: Well it seemed like a challenge. It’s an interesting role in that this guy, he’s part, not zombie, but he’s a Zemon. He’s also somehow in spite of things, he’s retained his heart and soul and is trying to do well by his family and the kids or whatever, so he’s in a very conflicted situation spiritually and emotionally and trying to reconcile these two extremes.
2. Comedy in horror is a hard balance to walk. If you’re too funny, you're not scary. If you’re too scary, you forget to be funny. How do you find that balance?
CL: I kind of felt for myself and my character that he’s aware of what he is, and that he is fighting it at the same time. He kind of sees the irony of being a Zemon and human at the same time and trying to put all that together and make it work out. So I felt a lot of the comedy was that effort. The effort to strike a balance and not to go too far that he couldn’t go be too human because he’d lost part of that nature in himself. So I feel a lot of the comedy came out of that and for everybody.
3. Throughout your career you’ve bounced between genre films and doing very serious theater work. Do you prepare for a horror film the same way that you do for a Samuel Beckett play?
CL: Yes. I mean it’s always been the same process. My goal is if I get a part no matter how extreme or outrageous it may be or whatever, how to make him believable, how to make him credible to an audience. You know, finding out what is his essential human characteristic that everybody can relate to, and that’s what I do. I feel that’s the actor’s challenge. You’ve got to make this person human somehow. I saw a film some time ago, quite some time ago, maybe it was in the ‘80s or something, of a man who was playing the part of Hitler and pretty difficult person to make people want to be sympathetic towards. And this actor without…he just somehow you saw what this guy was in a human kind of way. It didn’t make him any better. It didn’t excuse the heinous things that he did and the monster that he was but you could see a little bit of yourself in him, and I felt that was quite an accomplishment. And I kind of find similarly whatever I’m playing to find what is a common trait, human trait that I find in myself that I can bring in this character without distorting it and people will relate to.
4. Since “Cuckoo’s Nest” you’ve played some of the most famously celebrated kind of off-kilter characters in history. What is it about you that people want you in those parts?
CL: Well I’m not always sure. I have not tried to guide myself, my career into those kind of parts. I guess somewhere along the line directors and whatever thought maybe I could connect to those character, and I guess I do and I enjoy it. I don’t think I’m crazy but I see their reality and hopefully something that makes it real. But it’s not. I didn’t set out to be a Captain Kruge or Uncle Fester or any of those. It’s just sort of people would give me a call when they were looking for the person.
5. What is the trick with characters like that, with character like those who are so involved in what’s going on upstairs, of expressing that in a compelling way?
CL: I just try to get into their heads. Of course the scripts help a lot. You know, good script writing will give the actor clues about what the character, what goes on inside his head. Whatever the character is doing I try to understand why he’s doing it. What is it doing for him to do this or that? What makes doing this or being this way important for him, and then try to bring that to life.
6. In a lot of your films – like this one – you’re equal parts off-kilter and genius. Do you think that in life madness and genius go hand in hand?
CL: I think there is some madness in genius but I certainly don’t think of myself as a genius. The writer makes me a genius or mad, either way, the writers put it down on paper and I keep looking at it until I can get an insight that helps me bring those dimensions to life. But I think with say Doc Brown and “Back to the Future,” he’s just got this urgency to keep trying to think of new ways of doing things and sometimes they fail like when he had that contraption he puts on his head which is going to enable him to see all kinds of things that nobody has seen before and it fails miserably. He doesn’t care. He wants to find the solution to new things. And he gets going on the flux capacitor, how to create time travel and it’s a matter of huge importance to him, and I guess to the extent that it’s such a big important thing for him to do something that’s impossible there’s an element of madness there. So they are sort of connected I guess.
7. You’ve been involved in so many beloved cult classics. What do think makes a film or show last through the ages and continue to connect with people decades later?
CL: Well I guess “Back to the Future” has a general family interest. I mean just time travel itself, people have been thinking about how great it’d be able to go to a different place in time. that’s kind of like a universal fantasy through the ages and everyone has had at one point. Everybody has that time wish and the writers of “Back to the Future” put that down in a way that, that was like family entertainment. I mean what kid doesn’t think, ‘Gee,’ Like Marty, to go back to the Old West or to go back. It’s sort of an inherent wishful thinking and “Back to the Future” really played on that and did it rather geniusly the way it created on paper to be.
8. Could we ever see a “Taxi” reunion? What would it take?
CL: Oh, golly, that would be wonderful. I don’t know. For some time it was kind of rumored about. That was so magical. I mean that was such a great group of actors and a wonderful writer, team of writers, which is really where the show is at. If you don’t have the scripts you don’t have it, and somehow it all came together. But I mean except for Andy Kaufman, bless him, it would be really interesting to come back and do a revival. That would be great. But I don’t see it happening at the moment.
Watch a clip from "Dead Before Dawn"