Brett Rickaby has made quite the name for himself in the horror genre over the past year. No, he didn’t have a lead role in The Crazies, but thanks to a particularly disturbing performance, he practically wound up becoming the face of the film. Still, that was only Rickaby scratching the surface of his potential because it’s in Stevan Mena’s Bereavement that the actor really gets the opportunity to show what he’s capable of and, boy, does he seize the opportunity.
In 2005’s Malevolence, Mena introduced us to Martin Bristol, a six-year-old boy who was snatched up and emerges as a ruthless killer years later. What happens during that time gap? That’s where Rickaby’s Graham Sutter steps in and Bereavement kicks off. Sutter is Martin’s kidnapper and takes the boy to his dilapidated pig farm where he shows little Martin how he tortures and kills his victims. As Sutter wipes the slate clean after every brutal lesson, nobody ever knows what happens at the old pig farm, that is until Allison (Alexandra Daddario) gets a little too curious for her own good.
Graham Sutter is absolutely out of his mind, however, it seems to take a very sane and mindful man to bring a character like that to life. While Rickaby labels The Crazies the easiest film he’s done and Bereavement the toughest, both productions still required quite a bit of work on his part. In honor of Bereavement’s August 30th DVD and Blu-ray release, Rickaby took the time to tell me all about his preparation process, inhabiting the mind of a sadistic killer, his exciting and well-deserved plans for the future and much more. Check it all out for yourself in the interview below.
Can you tell me about how you got involved? Had you seen Malevolence?
Brett Rickaby: I have seen Malevolence although that came after the offer. It’s actually an offer, which to this point in my career is relatively rare. It was a straight offer; I didn’t even audition for it. I wasn’t the first one that it was offered to, so I don’t know where they were exactly in the process, but there was a little bit of time before they actually ended up going and shooting.
I was in New York actually; I’d just finished working on a Sam Sheppard play at The Public theater, which was kind of nice. I’ve always been a huge Sheppard fan and I got to play a quintessential Sheppard man. I’d just finished that project, I was on the tarmac here in LA and I had just turned my phone on and there was a message, I called my manager and there was an offer. I took a look at it, I read the script that day and I was like, ‘Okay, here’s a little I can do something with.’ It was basically the first leap for me so I was very excited about that as well, but also as something I could definitely do something with. It was not long after that we get talking with Stevan [Mena], the director, and they encouraged me to take a look at Malevolence and I did and there wasn’t that much of Sutter in Malevolence, which is good for me because I felt pretty wide open to create Sutter as I saw, working hand-in-hand with Stevan from that point on.
When you’re offered a role as opposed to auditioning for it, does that change your thought process during the period leading up to having to sign on that dotted line?
Yeah. I think you’re probably more apt, [laughs] at least I am at this point just because of the novelty of it on some level. It’s an ego stroke and so you’re like, ‘Oh, wow! Hey, this feels good. I’m somebody! I’m important!’ So, on some level, yeah, it definitely feels good to be wanted in that way.
I’ve always taken things based on whether I think I’ve got something that I can contribute; is there something I can do with this role? Obviously there have been times when I’ve taken things just because I need to work, but if I feel like I don’t know what I’m gonna do with this thing – that doesn’t happen that often. I usually find something to relate to. That’s our job as actors. You start out you don’t relate to it, well, you gotta find something and once you find that key that unlocks it, then things start to open up a little bit. Usually, early on in the reading of it, I’ll know whether I’ve got something to bring and I felt it immediately when I read this, which I know is kind of weird. [Laughs] You’ve seen it; you know how brutal it is.
It’s a real challenge, too, because, man, I read it and there’s so many dead bodies. I kill so many people. How am I gonna work against that? That’s one of the things I always look for as an actor; I’m always looking for the opposites. I know I kill this many people; where do I find the humanity in this guy? There’s got to be something to bring out the humanity. If he’s a jerk, if he’s a killer, where’s the humanity? Or if it’s a “nice person,” where are his flaws? That’s what I’m looking for. I found it in the vulnerability of Sutter. Obviously he has some mental illness going on; he’s got some mistaken thinking and his own thinking causes him all this torment, which creates the actions.
I had to find out where was he broken. He got broken somewhere along the lines and I had to go back to that and try to dig into that. We don’t get to see that that much in the film and I think that that’s okay. We want to see him kind of get it, but on some level, I want the audience to relate. They don’t have to understand intellectually, but on some visceral level to still kind of end up feeling a little but sorry for the guy. If they can relate on some level, then that’s better; that makes it even worse because who wants to think, “I actually kind of feel bad for this guy.” Why should I feel bad for the killer? But I think it’s better that way and hopefully I was able to pull a little bit of that off.
Did you use that same approach when you played Bill in The Crazies? I can kind of see it working for that role, too.
With Bill it was a totally different thing. To date, The Crazies was the easiest film I’ve done and Bereavement is the hardest film. And they were back-to-back, so it was really interesting! There was so little energy that I had to use to do Bill in The Crazies. One of the things that Breck Eisner, the director of that, talked to me about was the stages of the illness and a lot of that had to do with disorientation, that the virus was disorientating and zapped you of all this energy and whatnot. This was a good challenge for me in a way to learn to play with economy. I like big emotion as an actor. I love to go for stuff. I love to commit to stuff. I had to really rely on my thoughts; it’s one of the things that Breck talked about as well, that your worst thoughts sort of become your predominant thoughts and I said, ‘Okay, well, then I’ve just got to be willing to just sit there with no energy and think bad things.’ So in that way, there wasn’t really all that much that I had to put into it. But as far as me trying to solicit empathy from the audience, I never tried to do that with Bill where I made a concerted effort to do that with Sutter in Bereavement.
What is it like for you personally having to get into that type of headspace? Is it though to jump in and out of?
The Crazies was easier for me just to think about thoughts. We as humans, they’re not as extreme as Bill or Sutter, but we as humans have how many thousands of thoughts a day? And where do they come from? The bad ones we get used to turning away, right? And we like to think about the good ones; for the most part. Sometimes we’re depending on how habitualized we are; we can’t help but to think about bad thoughts because that’s what we’ve been presented with and we train ourselves in a way. I’ve come to learn that, for me, just for me, I think that a lot of the problems that I suffer in my own life, are a result of my own making and a result of my own thought process.
Knowing that, this is good news for me as an actor because I know that stuff on film, theater or whatever, it’s all about drama! So I, as an actor, need to look for the drama. I need to go to the bad stuff, so I’ve got to be willing to do that. But then once it’s done, I’ve gotta let it go. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. It was easier with The Crazies because it was just about thoughts, but thoughts that also lead to emotions and that was much more the case with Bereavement. I’d been working on this in a personal way for a while in my acting. I made a concerted effort maybe about seven years ago to really try to strengthen and grow as an actor; it was really time to challenge myself to grow if I wanted to have more of a career. I had been working with developing a flow of emotion that was greater, but that also demands more of you mentally. Many times the demands of working in TV and film, acting is like landing a jet on a head of a pin. It’s like, “Go,” and it has to happen now and you don’t have the same luxury of prep time you have in the theater. Something needs to be delivered and it needs to happen now because we’re not shooting this scene again tomorrow. You gotta bring it. That’s something that I made a concerted effort to practice, that emotional flow.
That said, sometimes when you’re on set, you have to sort of keep the engines warm, so sometimes leading in you need more prep time and sometimes leading out, it takes a little cool off time and sometimes that can be a little messy on set and while on a personal level I just want to learn to be comfortable within my own skin [laughs], I got so interested in trying to placate my ego and be an important person, I try not to step on people’s toes. However, you know, sometimes when on set the boundaries get crossed over a little bit. You try to be polite and whatnot, but if you’re playing a serial killer and you don’t have the room to create, sometimes you can step on people’s toes on set. It becomes a little tricky when you’re playing somebody who’s as volatile as Sutter, so there were a couple times on set where, you know, people got a little scared. [Laughs] I say laughingly.
Considering that, how do you handle working with someone as young as Spencer List?
Spencer I never really had to worry about. We shot the kitchen table scene where I stab him with the knife, we shot that early on and it’s actually my favorite scene in the movie because of what’s going on between he and I. But, at that point, we barely knew each other and you can feel the tension there in that scene. The more we worked together, the more we knew each other and he is just a total professional. I’ve never seen a kid who had such a clear distinction between ‘this is real’ and ‘this is not real.’ He was professional enough and had enough experience and enough savvy, but also took his work very seriously, but was able to flip the switch, go between really getting engaged, really involving himself in the work and then shutting it off after.
The one who was a little bit harder played the younger version, Chase [Pechacek], played the younger version of Martin and I think he was six or seven at the time. I don’t remember exactly, but I take the knife to his cheek in that scene early on in the movie and that was trickier. That’s a real delicate balance where you want to try to make it okay for him on some level, but then it starts to get too okay and a kid like that who has hardly any experience in front of the camera and know what the world’s about, then you start to lose a little bit of focus and you’ve got to snap him in and break him into the reality and make it a little not okay again and then you gotta make it okay. You’ve gotta be careful not to scar the kid here. There’s a delicate balance there and you just kind of walk it back and forth.
What’s next for you? Are you staying within the genre or looking to branch out, maybe do another stage play?
Yeah, that’s always a possibility. I’ve been thinking about that a little bit. There’s a little bit of a hunger because the reward of being in front of other people live is very visceral, it’s very tactile. It’s almost sensual in a way that it’s so immediate and I love that a lot. It’s been a while and you lose the muscles. If you don’t use them, they get weak, so my stage weights are a little wobbly right now. But we’ll see.
We’re getting closer to stuff on The Book of Matthew. Still got some work to do with that, but acting-wise, I just yesterday closed a deal on a new film called, a little indie called Tentacle Eight. I have the lead in that so basically it’s my second lead, but I’m the central character that goes all the way throughout it and I’m not a creep, Perri. I’m not a creep! I kind of hardly can believe it. [Laughs] I’m this NSA code breaker who kind of gets entangled in a plot to reveal the existence of a covert unit within the intelligence community and I actually have a romantic love interest in this film and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s never happened for me, in film or TV!’ So, some new territory for me and it’s a good thing. It’s going to be interesting to see with a toned down emotional palate to play in, what colors I end up finding and how do I carry this movie. That’s the great thing about this genre, you asked about the horror genre, it supports such a huge emotional palate with which to paint with and I love that. So this is gonna be an interesting. It’s got new challenges for me; it’s gonna be interesting to see with a more limited color palate what I end up coming up with.
That’s fantastic! I’m excited to see you in that and see you get behind the lens, too!
Oh, thank you! I’m hopeful that happens. I’m still kind of open, if we get some, you know, somebody – I just want to see that project made. The difficulty with that project is that it’s kind of controversial. We’re trying to walk the middle of the road, to try not to offend people in one way or another with the subject matter, which is not only Christianity, but sort of a more, is this particular church that the lead character gets himself into, is it a way, is it the way, is it a cult even? It just tells the story of one man’s journey through a particular Christian thing. I’m trying not to offend Christians, nor atheists, but I just want to tell this story and maybe there’s a bit of a dialogue that can happen as a result of that although I think, for the most part, particularly businessmen may be a little bit afraid of that, in terms of what that might wreak, but I think also the public is still a little tentative to – there’s nothing that fires up an argument quicker than the subject of religion. But I’m not looking to do that so much as just try to open up a questioning and thought provoking dialogue on some level.
If it does get off the ground, are the people you had involved before still good to go?
As of right now, everybody’s still hanging in there. We’ll have to see when we get there. Things will always change when you get to the time, contingent on people’s schedules and negotiations and all that sort of stuff, but right now we still have – we actually got a few other people gonna be sneaking in there pretty soon.