The last place you'd expect to find the Oscar-nominated star of the acclaimed independent drama "The Visitor" is in a horror movie about a group of college students being terrorized by a redneck zombie torture family. But that's just one of the many surprises in "The Cabin in the Woods," the twisted take on the horror genre from producer Joss Whedon ("The Avengers") and director Drew Goddard (the writer of "Cloverfield").
In "Cabin," Richard Jenkins teams up with Bradley Whitford (Emmy winner for "The West Wing"), and the role they play in how five young people become hunted by an undead clan is the central mystery of the film. So if you haven't seen it, check out "The Cabin in the Woods" now on DVD, Blu-ray, or digital download. And if you have watched it already, read this spoiler-filled conversation I had with Richard Jenkins. He revealed how he got involved in this unlikely project, his main worry when the film was shelved for years, and how Joss Whedon's shoes ended up stained with blood.
[Related: 'The Cabin in the Woods' on DVD/Blu-ray]
Matt McDaniel: I remember when it was first announced that Joss Whedon would be doing a horror movie with Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford and it just seemed so incongruous. It was immediately intriguing. So what was it about this project that drew you to it?
Richard Jenkins: Well, I had the same feeling when my agent said, "They want you to do a horror movie." I said, "No, I don't. It's not what I do. I don't think so." She said, "It's Joss Whedon. Read it. It's really good." So I read it, and the next day I said, "Okay, I'll do this."
I just loved it. I've got it immediately, and I understood what it was doing, even though I haven't seen a lot of horror films. I remember watching movies with my father when I was a little boy. The people would run from the monster, or whatever it was, and they would always stop, turn around, and look for where the monster was. My father would yell at the television or the film, "Keep running, you idiot! Why are you stopping?" And the kids that go to the cabin in the woods make the same dumb mistakes every time. And finally, somebody is telling us why the guy stops, turns around and looks for the monster. I just thought it was so smart.
MM: Now, you and Bradley Whitford have this entirely separate storyline going on at the same time as the cabin stuff. So, it did seem like those guys are working together for a long time doing this job, did you two talk about the backstory developing, how these guys got to there?
RJ: No, we just kind of knew they were good at what they do, have to be. It's just like if you're going to do this job, you've got to have a lot of confidence. You have to be pretty sure of yourself, have a big ego. You have to be confident. I always thought of it like a neurosurgeon or somebody. I think I'll cut this cranium open and go in there -- takes a little bit of ego.
MM: I've got the sense your character -- it might have been like the short-sleeve shirt with the skinny tie — that he was like one of the mission control guys from the Apollo moon landing.
RJ: He's a little bit of a throw back, yeah, I agree. That's what it kind of reminded me of, too.
MM: But I think what really make sense when you're watching the movie that there is this confident/callous thing on the surface, but you get hints of the toll this job is taking on them.
RJ: Yeah, and that's good. It's absolutely true. When trouble happens here, it's really trouble. That's the thing that's always in the back of your mind. If something goes wrong, it's really, really dangerous.
MM: But you also get the sense that these guys are affected by the deaths that they're watching.
RJ: Yes, and we wanted to do that in just glimpses. [They are] sometimes affected by them, sometimes impressed with the grit of these kids which makes it sad that they have to die. The fact that [Whitford's character] has kids -- we never talk about if I have kids -- it's very complicated.
MM: The Blu-ray is going to great because you can pause it and see the little hidden jokes that are everywhere. Did you have a favorite monster on that board where they were betting on what it was going to be?
RJ: No, but I'd have to say that my favorite thing in the movie is the office pool. I just think it's genius that Joss and Drew put that in and I love it. The whole idea of it, it sums up the film for me.
MM: Your characters are reacting a lot to what they see on screen. I was wondering, technically, did they actually project all that footage for you to react to.
RJ: They shot the kids first and then they brought us in. So they had all that stuff on screen and not all of it but most of it. So we get to see, yes which was nice.
MM: Then when things actually do fall apart and there are monsters running wild, was that fun to just be there for that insanity or was it just too technical?
RJ: I didn't see that, but you know that was kind of put together. But we only saw the monsters walking around the lot. It's like how I always imagined Hollywood. Remember those old pictures in the '50s that are on sound stages in the Hollywood where the Roman Soldiers outside smoking or having a cigarette, they're having some coffee at the commissary? That's what it was like. Because Joss was doing the second unit of all the creatures, he was doing them. He had blood all over him all day. His shoes were always red and the creatures would be walking around the lot. It was great. It was great.
MM: Now, Joss was the producer on this, Drew was the director, how did those two guys partner together on set?
RJ: Well, Joss was doing most of his work the same time Drew is doing his. So, they were a soundstage away, so I didn't see Joss much. But he came over and watched some stuff we did, but for the most part he has his hand full with unicorns and mermen. So Drew, he was the guy in all the things that we did. He was our director and he was amazing.
MM: You're an actor who jumps between all sorts of genres going from Farrelly Brothers comedies to Oscar nominated dramas, so do you tailor your approach to a character for a certain genre?
RJ: No, I approach it all the same. I will hit the same. You know what, it's just the process. It doesn't matter to me which one it is, I really have fun in all of them. I think there's a little bit of both and everything, I know that somebody is "oh well, one is not like the other," but they really are. So no, I don't. What I do is I look at a part and I think if I really like it and think I can bring something to it, if I have something to add, then I'll say yes, I'll do it.
But sometimes I'll read a part and like it and think "there are other guys who could do this better than me that I just don't know where I'd go with it. I don't see myself playing it." And then I'll go onto something else.
MM: Now this movie, the release was delayed for several years because of all sorts of legal wrangling, so was there ever a worry that it just wasn't going to get out?
RJ: I worried for Drew, that's what I worried about. I liked him so much that I thought it was going to be a shame that this young director didn't have an opportunity to show his skill and that's what I worried about and just do the job. He's got a huge fan base and he is incredibly talented and everybody knows it, everybody knows his work. But Drew, that's what I was worried about and I was hoping for his sake that the movie would be released.
MM: I really love just the sort of chemistry between Bradley Whitford and yourself. I was describing the movie to someone and I said it had Bradley Whitford in his Bradley Whitford-liest. Did you find that sort of chemistry with him immediately?
RJ: Yes absolutely, that's what he's like. He is not hard to like. He's a funny guy. He's a funny smart guy, that's funny.
MM: Well, it's a really great movie and really, it just blew me away the first time I saw it, and I'm not really a horror fan. But in some ways that almost makes it better, because it sort of explains to non-horror fans what people who love the genre see in it.
RJ: I know, it's a love letter, it is. It's a letter to them and I agree with you, I love the movie. I saw it at the Austin film festival, South by Southwest. I can't remember a night like that, oh my goodness. It was crazy. It's fantastic, so much fun.
MM: Did the experience of being in it change your appreciation or at least perception of horror movies as a genre?
RJ: Look, as a kid I loved them. I was growing, I loved them, but as I got older I kind of didn't follow this genre anymore. But as a young kid in high school, I just loved them all and then I kind of moved away from them. But I do love the genre and I understand how people get juiced by it. I understand how people get really excited by it and fall in love with it, because as a young guy, I did too. But it was fun to me, and I also did "Let Me In" which was another amazing experience working in a genre of a vampire horror, but a serious movie by a serious man [director Matt Reeves], so both experiences were fantastic.
"The Cabin in the Woods" is available now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download.