Emphatically trying to understand the emotional and powerful motivations that drive people to commit devastatingly drastic and brutal acts can be a difficult process for many people to take on. But through his diligent rehearsal and preparation process with his co-stars and writer-director, Greg Francis, on the new independent action crime film, ‘Poker Night,’ versatile actor Michael Eklund grippingly created a distinctive and powerful serial kidnapper and killer. The resourceful performer effortlessly infused his character with a continued emotional pain, due to his sense of betrayal that has continued on from his childhood, while enthrallingly wearing a mask, in an effort to cover his distress that would have otherwise showed through his facial expressions.
‘Poker Night,’ which is now playing on VOD and iTunes and in theaters, follows a rookie police officer, Stan Jeter (Beau Mirchoff), who was recently promoted to detective in Warsaw, Indiana, after he solved a high-profile case by sheer coincidence and pure luck. To help initiate him into his new job, several veteran detectives, including Calabrese (Ron Perlman), Bernard (Giancarlo Esposito), Davis (Corey Large), Maxwell (Titus Welliver) and Cunningham (Ron Eldard), invite him to take part in their title ritual they hold for all newly promoted investigators. To help Jeter ease into his new position, they reveal their most daunting cases of their careers, which the he integrates himself into in order to better understand how they solved their prolific investigations.
The poker game and the remembrances of the veteran detectives’ cases are integrated into the thriller’s main plot as flashbacks. Immediately after Jeter leaves the game, he answers a domestic-dispute call, and when he arrives on the scene, he’s abducted by an unidentified masked assailant (Eklund). Jeter then wakes up bound to a chair in a basement, where a television is set on a news program that informs the detective he’s been missing for three days.
Jeter also discovers that Amy (Halston Sage), Maxwell’s underage daughter, who has been hoping to start a romantic relationship with Jeter, is also being held hostage. In order to find a way to escape, the investigator relies on the stories his fellow detectives told him during their poker game. To save their lives, Jeter must find a way to understand their abductor’s history and motivations, which is unveiled during further flashbacks, which allude to child rape and murder. The new detective is willing to take any means necessary in order to survive and be able to pass his own daunting case to the next rookie officer during the force’s next poker game imitation.
Eklund generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Poker Night’ over the phone during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the actor discussed how he was drawn to play the crime thriller’s brutal antagonist, as he thought Francis’ script offered a unique insight and backstory into the serial killer’s motivations and life, particularly through the character’s flashbacks; how he’s drawn to work with actors like Mirchoff, as his co-star became truly committed to perfectly portraying the physicality and emotions of the new detective; and how wearing a mask throughout the action film forced him to use the physicality of his body to tell the story and relay his character’s emotions, as he wasn’t able to convey his inspirations through his facial expressions.
ShockYa (SY): You star as the deceptively smart serial killer in the new action crime film, ‘Poker Night.’ What was it about the character, and the script overall, that convinced you to take on the role?
Michael Eklund (ME): Well, the film’s director, Greg Francis, sent me the script. After I read it, I thought it was very different from other scripts I had read that deal with the same theme of this type of serial killer.
I also liked that the flashbacks take place over one night of poker, where the veteran cops are giving advice to the new detective, who’s played by Beau Mirchoff. I thought it was interesting how their stories were interlaced with my character’s backstory, which reveals why he carries out the things he does. I thought that was unique from other scripts about serial killers and their mindsets overall. I liked how the story goes into his lifestyle, too, and explains how he became the monster that he is.
SY: Speaking of Greg, who both wrote and directed ‘Poker Night,’ what was your experience of working with him overall? What was the process of developing your character with Greg as you were making the film?
ME: This movie is really the perfect example of the collaboration process. It was a total collaboration between all of the cast members, as well as two other people-Greg and our amazing DP (Director of Photography), Brandon Cox. He made the film look the way it did. Greg also allowed all the actors who came on board to collaborate with each other to create the movie that we made, which was really fun. So the combination of Greg, Brandon, the other actors and myself allowed us to have the most amazing experience making this movie. We’re looking forward to making another one together soon.
SY: Also speaking of collaborating with your co-stars, how did you create your on-screen bond with your main co-star, Beau Mirchoff? Did you have time to rehearse together at all before you began filming?
ME: Beau is one of those actors who I gravitate towards, as when he signs onto to a film, he becomes as committed to his role as I do. So it was really refreshing to work with him, because he’s very dedicated, and put himself through a lot of misery making this movie. I’m the one who puts him through all that, so we needed a very good and committed actor to pull that off. I think Beau did an amazing job playing the hero, as well as the victim. It’s a hard role to pull off, so I was very honored to work with him.
SY: Did you have any rehearsal time with Beau and your other co-stars before you began filming ‘Poker Night?’ Or do you feel with this type of story, it’s better to capture your first instincts in your characters’ relationships on-screen?
ME: It’s different with every movie, as you need to test out if you need to build your relationship with the other actor before you begin shooting, or if it’s better for the film if you don’t. On ‘Poker Night,’ Beau is such a good actor that we were able to build our relationship off set first. Then when we got to the set, we were able to leave our friendship behind, and do the work that we needed to do. There was also a trust element that needed to be established. When you’re doing intense scenes like we did in this film, it helped Beau and I to connect off set first, as much as we did on camera.
There were a lot of moments when all the castmates would get together. It’s important when you’re making a movie to have those times when you can unload on each other, and leave the work and the roles on set, and just celebrate the work that we’re doing together. We didn’t have the chance to do it a lot, but there were a few moments when we all got together and were able to just be ourselves, which was fun.
SY: Many of your scenes feature action sequences between your and Beau’s characters, as Stan is trying to escape from his captor. What was the process like of participating in the action sequences? Do you prefer performing your own stunts for your films?
ME: I did all my own stunts on ‘Poker Night,’ and I try to do that as much as possible on all my movies. The only time I don’t do my own stunts is when I feel like the stunt performer can make it look better than I could, as they’re talented artists, as well. But I’m willing to try anything first, unless it’s out of my range. On this film, there were a lot of fighting scenes with Beau, as well as intense emotional work. I think we both did all of our own physicality on the film, and it’s always more fun when you get to do it yourself.
SY: Also speaking of the emotional aspect of your character, how did you prepare to get into his mindset overall? Did you do any research to help you better understand his motivations?
ME: Yes, I always do as much preparation as I can. A character like that is very different from how I am in real life, obviously. So I had to put the puzzle together, and figure out why these types of people do the things they do.
I found that the common denominator between a “normal” person and these “vicious” types of people is that everything they do is rooted in truth. My character in ‘Poker Night’ was betrayed, so when I figured out this movie was all about betrayal, I knew where to ground my character.
SY: Your character wears a mask while interacting with Stan, in an effort to conceal his identity from the detective. What was the process like of wearing the mask while you were filming? How did wearing it influence the way you conveyed your emotions and reactions towards Stan?
ME: It’s really interesting you asked me about the mask, because I’m sitting in my truck, and I have the mask on the back seat. (laughs) So the mask and I have been reunited. I’m looking at it right now, and it’s bringing back a lot of fond memories of wearing it.
I found it to be refreshing to wear the mask, as it allowed me to be freer in my performance. I didn’t have to worry about my facial expressions during shooting. Wearing the mask forced me to think more about my body movement than anything else, as I was trying to tell the story. So once I put the mask on, it wasn’t very difficult to harness the character that I was playing, because the mask did most of the work. It also forced me to use the physicality of my body to tell the story, and I enjoy doing that kind of work. Then later on when the mask came off, it told a whole different story.
So it was important in the way the mask was designed. So there were a lot of meetings about what the mask should look like. There were about 30 or 40 options before we chose the mask that we did. We had an awesome special effects crew build the mask, and we ultimately had three different versions in the movie. We were able to move one version more in the face, so that if I wanted to make facial expressions, I’d wear that one. Then there was also a more concrete mask that we used when we filmed scenes that we didn’t need close-ups on. Since each mask had its own personality, which one I would put on depended on what we were filming that day, and what I felt like doing. So I enjoyed wearing the masks.
SY: You filmed ‘Poker Night’ independently, which received a VOD and theatrical release. Why do you think the On Demand platform is beneficial to independent films like this one?
ME: Everything is being released on VOD now, so it’s the way of the future. But I think having a theatrical, as well as a Video On Demand release, is important. It’s an accomplishment if anyone can get a film off the ground. Being on set and filming the movie is one step of it, and then having it come out and have a life of its own, is another huge step.
A lot of films today find a life on Video On Demand. That platform makes it easier for audiences to find them, which I think is quite cool, since it wasn’t available even 10 years ago. So people don’t have to worry about finding a city that’s playing a film they want to see. Getting an independent film into any theater today is very challenging, so the fact that we even had a limited theatrical release is an accomplishment. The release on VOD has also been very rewarding.
SY: Besides ‘Poker Night,’ you also recently starred in last fall’s horror sequel, ‘See No Evil 2,’ and that film’s co-directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska, mentioned how they enjoy working with you on films. What is it about the horror genre you enjoy? What have your working relationships with the Soska sisters been like when you have collaborated with them?
ME: (laughs) The Soskas are a forced to be reckoned with, and I will work with them anytime. I’ve made two films with them so far-‘See No Evil 2,’ and we shot another movie, called ‘Vendetta,’ which will be coming out (this) year. Horror movies aren’t typically my thing; if I’m going to do something on the darker side of films, it’s usually going to be in the thriller aspect.
But ‘See No Evil 2’ was definitely a fun experience. I shot the film when I had a week off from shooting the second season of ‘Bates Motel,’ after the Soskas asked me to be a part of the sequel. So the shoot worked out perfectly.
All of the credit goes to working with the Soska twins, and they really put their signature stamp on their films. So I think it’s going to be really cool to see what they have coming out next, as they keep getting better. I hope they keep bringing me along on the ride.
SY: In addition to movies, you have also appeared on such television shows as ‘Bates Motel,’ which you just mentioned, and ‘Arrow.’ What is it about television that makes you enjoy working on series? How does starring on a TV sow compare and contrast to filming movies, especially indies like ‘Poker Night’ and ‘See No Evil 2?’
ME: I love working on TV. If you find the right television series, they’re like mini-movies. My heart will always belong to film, but if a good TV series is shot like a film, I like working on them.
TV is also a good way to keep your craft sharp, because you work a lot faster. On films, you have more of a luxury of time, while TV teaches you to work and think faster. So I love both mediums for different reasons. But if a role is good and has a challenging aspect to me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a TV show or film.
SY: Having acted on various films and television series throughout your career, is directing something you’d also be interested in pursuing in the future?
ME: Yes, directing is definitely on my radar. The way I see it is that I have a lot to learn from an actor’s and director’s point-of-view. So right now, I shadow my directors without them really knowing, so that I can learn as much as possible. I definitely have a storyteller inside of me that definitely wants to come out, as he has a lot of things to say. But it will be down the road from now, and I’m currently enjoying the life of an actor.
SY: Besides ‘Poker Night,’ do you have any other upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?
ME: I have a few films coming out, including ‘Zoom’ and ‘Into the Forest’ with Ellen Page. I also made the movie ‘Eadweard,’ which is based on the life of Eadweard Muybridge, who’s the grandfather of moving pictures. I also just completed a movie with Clive Owen, called ‘The Confirmation.’ So there are a lot of little gems people can be excited to see coming out soon.
Written by: Karen Benardello