Fran Kranz on Dollhouse, Cabin In The Woods, and Much Ado About Nothing
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Fran Kranz had an acting career before Joss Whedon came along, with roles in The Village, Donnie Darko, Matchstick Men, Training Day, and The TV Set, and appearances on episodes of Frasier, Welcome To The Captain, Private Practice, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Granted, a lot of those early roles have names like “Passenger” and “Slacker Boyfriend,” but everyone has to start somewhere. Kranz got a major career break via Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse, where he played Topher Brink, the antisocial genius who made the series’ mind-blanking, brain-swapping technology possible. He continued on with Whedon as Marty, the squirrely pothead who sees there’s much more going on than meets the eye in The Cabin In The Woods, a genre-busting horror-comedy Whedon co-wrote with Cloverfield screenwriter Drew Goddard, who also directed. Kranz will also be seen soon in another Whedon project: Much Ado About Nothing, a version of the Shakespeare play shot in less than two weeks in Whedon’s house, with many other members of Whedon’s usual acting ensemble. To mark Cabin In The Woods’ DVD debut, Kranz talked with The A.V. Club about inadvertent Dollhouse/Cabin crossover, auditioning for Cabin by reacting to a fake monster, and Whedon’s take on Shakespeare in the upcoming Much Ado, which Lionsgate recently picked up for distribution. (Note: This interview largely steers clear of Cabin spoilers, but one question does deal directly with Kranz’ thoughts on the film’s ending.)
The A.V. Club: Cabin In The Woods was on the shelf for a year and a half because of MGM’s bankruptcy. What was it like sitting on everything you knew about the film for so long, waiting to see if it would eventually get released?
Fran Kranz: It was very difficult, because people started to think I was a crazy person. I think some people doubted I ever made a movie called Cabin In The Woods. They might have thought the four months I was in Vancouver, I was off somewhere else or something. It was definitely a struggle, because I had all kinds of people coming up with all kinds of reasons that this movie would never come out, whether it was the financial situation at the studio, or just that a movie on the shelf that long gets kind of a scarlet letter. It becomes damaged property or something; no one wants to go near it.
But I always had faith in the movie because it was so good. It’s so damn crazy and fun, and I love the script. I knew even before I saw it—just having worked on it, being on set practically every day, and caring about it so much, and paying attention to how it was being made—I knew we pulled it off. I had faith someone was going to recognize that at some point, and we would get the recognition that we deserved. So it was very sweet that Lionsgate swept in and the movie found its right home. And now it’s had its success in theaters, but now it’s sort of on the brink of its well-deserved cult-film status, cult-classic status. I think it’s right on the way. As difficult as it was, I guess it makes it that much sweeter to wait on it and finally feel I was right: The movie was great, it was going to come out, and people were going to love it.
AVC: How much of the script did you get to see before getting the role?
FK: I was lucky, because I know there were some actors who had not read the script until they were offered it. I was lucky, because I had a good relationship with Joss—I was working on Dollhouse, we were just finishing up the first season. But I, like everyone else, had to first audition with some fake sides. The role was named Marty, but it was a character being interrogated by police after seeing his friend’s head chopped off in a parking lot of a bowling alley by The Clickity-Clack Man, and all I know about The Clickity-Clack Man is that he had lots of claws, I think about a thousand of them. I had a feeling that wasn’t the real movie, but I didn’t know. I just had to sell it, as painful and uncomfortable as it was to try and sell this insane situation. I think everyone was in the same boat—all these actors got these insane fake sides that they had to do their best to sell.
I think at the end of the day, what Joss and Drew [Goddard] were trying to see is that someone could have fun, but also be sincere about a really outrageous situation, which is certainly where Cabin In The Woods goes. I mean, horror films in general put humans in these awful supernatural or horrible situations, but Cabin In The Woods cranks it up a few notches and becomes outrageous and totally bizarre. I think he wanted actors that would take that not just in stride, but would take ownership of it and have a take on the situation and have their own way of having fun with it.
AVC: Is it true that you based your characterization of Marty in part on an ex-girlfriend of yours?
FK: [Laughs.] Oh, that’s really funny. I’m not trying to say she was some big pothead. I feel like if I say I based Marty on anyone, everyone assumes that person must be a giant pothead. No, it was more just mannerisms. To be perfectly honest, I think I just missed her. We were up in Vancouver, and I was away from my home, and while I love the cast and I love the city of Vancouver, and I couldn’t have been more busy with a film I loved so much, I think I saw some similarities in the character, and the characterization that I had already brought to the table in auditions. I started to see that I had maybe subconsciously taken some things from her mannerisms and her way of speaking, and sort of the sound and qualities of her voice, and I just ran with it. I thought it was a nice way to think of her when she wasn’t around, to sort of keep her close by.
There’s a sweetness and a loyalty to Marty. He’s obviously goofy and funny, but there’s an earnestness to him that grounds him that I think makes people love him. He’s not just funny, and the stoner guy that everyone’s expecting to die first or second—or if he’s lucky, third. He’s someone the audience really fights for and pays attention to, because underneath all the typical stoner antics, you feel there’s a real person there. For me, it’s always important as an actor to have your character be a real human being that you yourself love and believe in, so as many real-life qualities and examples that I could bring to the character, I wanted to. So yeah, an ex-girlfriend was one of them. And she knows. I think she’s proud of it.
AVC: This is a really physical movie. You spend a lot of time rolling around in muck, or running and fighting. What was the hardest part of the shoot for you?
FK: It was cool for me. It was a learning experience and something I definitely feel I can learn a lot more from, or get better at, certainly, the physicality of it, the action of the film. It was nice having [Cabin co-star] Chris Hemsworth on set. Granted, this was before Thor, but he’s naturally an athletic person. All that action came so naturally to him. I don’t normally come back and watch playback between takes. I like to do what I’m doing and it’s out of my hands, but I wanted to make sure my running around and my fear looked real, and the heavy breathing and the true terror. Also just the fighting. I wanted to make sure it played.
I would watch Chris, and he was so natural and good and exciting that I realized how much more I had to do, and had to bring to it. I wish I could say I was some great athlete, but it’s unfortunately not the case. I felt like I had a lot to learn and take on to really sell those moments of fear and panic and fighting. I would watch a lot of playback and incorporate falling and hurting yourself and really getting into it. There were times Drew would say, “You guys don’t look tired at all! Can you just run around the cabin or something?”
As we got better at it and did more and more, we realized that… Horror is so often a “thinkless” genre, sort of considered popcorn movies, but you really put a lot of not just heart and soul, but a lot of physical energy into it. I have a whole new respect for actors in horror films, because it’s not easy—it’s tiring, it’s exhausting. We were all in really good shape by the end of that movie. We were all working out constantly, Chris was leading boxing sessions. We really got into it, in order to sell these action sequences as best as we possibly could. It was tough, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to do something similar again, and just try and get better and better at that.
AVC: The big question coming out of the movie for a lot of people is why Marty makes the choice he makes in the end. Do you personally have a take on that? Did you discuss it with Drew or Joss?
FK: The way I look at it—this might be kind of sad, but I think Marty’s life is his friends, and I think he’s not going to let his friends be hurt any longer. Them being under attack is enough for him, so he’s willing to sort of sacrifice the world to be alone at the end of it with the person he loves—not romantically, but as a friend. I think that’s the way he’d like it to end. I think also, when he sees behind the curtain and sees exactly what has been going on, I think it leaves a bad taste in his mouth, and he believes there might be a purging and cleansing, a necessary purging. I don’t know, that’s a good question, but I think it’s also, if anything, it’s sort of necessity being the mother of invention. Maybe we just want a giant evil god to destroy the world on film, and that’s what it is.
AVC: Were you concerned about the character becoming too close to Topher on Dollhouse?
FK: I shot it right between the two seasons, and I think inevitably, as much as I try to make every character clear and distinct and separate… That’s what I love about acting, is playing different roles. I want to work for the character, and not make it work for me. Inevitably, and unfortunately, probably a lot of Topher bled into Marty, and vice versa, maybe, in the second season of Dollhouse. I do think there is some inherent similarity, in the sense they both have a Whedon sort of wit, and maybe a snarkiness and attitude that you see all over Joss’ work. So there were some similarities there, that you would hear his voice in these two characters. I tried my best to have them as distinct as possible. At the very least, I don’t think Marty would like Topher, I don’t think he would enjoy or stand for someone manipulating human beings the way Topher does. I would have to say it’s fair if someone thinks there are similarities in the performance. I think they were so close together, and the same author. I might have tried, but I might have failed in certain areas, too.
AVC: You’re in Joss Whedon’s upcoming Much Ado About Nothing. Were you part of the Shakespeare house readings that he used to do?
FK: Yeah, he still has people over to his home to do readings of Shakespeare plays—we sit around in his backyard, drink wine. I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I know he’s done others. When I heard about it—I’m a big Shakespeare fan, so I shamelessly asked to be a part of these readings, and he invited me to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then I got an email from him basically around last year this time, saying, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing another reading, but I’m thinking about filming this one, would you be interested?” I said, “Of course.” I’ll jump at the chance to work with the guy.
Then he came back with Much Ado About Nothing and asked me to play Claudio, and it developed in this very casual way. We’re all friends. I might not have worked with some of the other actors, but we all knew each other, because Joss likes to entertain and have fun and bring his actors and his troupe together.
It developed in this kind of organic way that felt no different than Joss just having a party at his house. We all had to prepare something, and bring nice clothes. But it was almost like he was having a formal potluck or something, but we had to bring our lines memorized and with some level of understanding and some kind of take on our character.
Then we shot the thing in 11 days, and to think where it is now, to have this great standing ovation at Toronto, and now we’ve been bought by Lionsgate and we have a theatrical release coming up… It’s amazing, and doesn’t feel like we’ve earned it, because we just had so much fun doing it. So often making a movie is such hard work that when it comes out, you feel some kind of validation, or some sense of having earned it, and that this was worth it and deserving. Obviously I love Much Ado About Nothing and the job we did, but we had so much fun doing it, [having it bought and released] really is having the cake and eating it too. It’s all a wonderful bonus.
AVC: What’s his take on the Shakespearean language for the purpose of the film? Did you play it straight off the page, or is there interpretation?
FK: No, it’s Shakespeare’s script. Joss obviously cut it. The play is about three hours, and he cut it down to something of a more reasonable feature length. Granted, there are loads of creative, intelligent, fun takes Joss has on the play’s story in the modern world, and for modern audiences. Again, it’s necessity, the mother of invention—we had no money, we weren’t in Italy, we don’t have horses or costumes or swords. We were at Joss’ house and we all had suits, so we just tried to dress up, and we had iPhones delivering messages, so a lot of that was “Look, we got to do what we can do.” But in terms of the actual language, it’s right there. That was obviously a challenge, because this happened so quickly and organically that a lot of the time, as soon as we were memorized, we were shooting. We were off and waiting for people to get lines instead of lights—it was a different process that way. I do think Joss was completely fine with that, because he wanted it to feel conversational and natural and intimate. He wasn’t looking for any kind of theatrical or perfect diction and syntax. It was much more about saying the lines with purpose and the right intention, and then we’ve got to move on, because we have 12 pages to shoot today.
AVC: How does his style as a director on a run-and-gun film like this compare to his style as a director on something more complicated?
FK: I think he’d like to have it run-and-gun all the time. As long as I’ve known him—I remember from the first day of Dollhouse, he was the guy that likes to move along. I think a lot of directors prefer to keep things moving, and no one wants to spend too long on one scene if they don’t have to. I think Joss trusts his actors. I have this idea in my head that he would have loved to have shot The Avengers that way.
He’s so excited when he’s on a set. He has this wonderful contagious energy, and he’s having so much fun. So often, a film set can be so stressful, because people are stressed out. There’s heavy equipment to be lifted and moved around, there’s lights and cameras, and there’s all these people waiting, and people can complain. And for Joss, he couldn’t be happier, he’s a kid in a candy store. I think to shoot as much as possible in a single day is probably the way he’d like to always do it.
Part of me does think Much Ado About Nothing is sort of his ideal way of making films, in a setting he knows, with friends and people he likes, so he feels comfortable moving at a quick pace. I think he trusts his text, whether it’s his own or William Shakespeare’s, and I think he likes to trust his cast and crew. If you’re lucky enough to have that kind of trust, you don’t have to worry about getting more than two or three takes.