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Jeffrey Combs on Re-Animator’s endurance, playing H.P. Lovecraft, and more

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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Jeffrey Combs has the mixed honor of being permanently associated with the title character from Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult-classic H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator. Combs starred in a pair of sequels, 1990’s Bride Of Re-Animator and 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator, as well as many other horror and science-fiction films, including some with connections to Lovecraft, including 1986’s From Beyond and 1993’s Necronomicon, where Combs actually plays Lovecraft. Combs is also familiar to genre fans for his appearances throughout the Star Trek universe, particularly his frequent spots on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Combs returns to the horror genre with the recently released Would You Rather, where he plays a millionaire who forces desperate souls to participate in sinister games.


Would You Rather (2012)—“Shepard Lambrick”
Jeffrey Combs: Would You Rather came out of nowhere.  Actually, it came about through the strangest of connections: My best friend since high school, who is no longer in the business, has a grown son. The grown son has a best friend. Best friend is one of the associate producers for Would You Rather, and he suggests my name while they’re putting this together and trying to make pieces stick. They’re interested, but then the project goes away, and comes back again with not much lead time. I got to jump in there and learn a slew of words in a very short time. But I was very grateful to get the role. What a great cast. The most amazing thing was the luck of being able to shoot this film mostly in sequence, which is unheard of in film. So it harkened back to my theater days, when you start from the beginning and just go on through. It’s desired, but what you want and what you get aren’t always what happens in film. But in this particular case, all the pieces fell together—and I have to say, to good effect. I think it really helped the flow and momentum of the piece. Because it was really fresh in our mind what we just did, moving on.

The A.V. Club: Did you see the character as having any redeeming facets?

JC: I’m sure other actors have said the same thing, but you really can’t play evil. You can just play what this person wants and where this person is. What I liked about the character was, there were no apologies or explanations about who he was. He just is. He’s been indoctrinated since birth into a lineage of sadists in a very rich, powerful, global-empire family. And this is their amusement, to toy with other people’s desperation like a cat with a crippled mouse. There’s no morality about it. In their minds, it is just who they are. He’s an enigma. And that adds to just how excruciating and unnerving the whole experience is. Because you never get to know this guy, and you never get to the bottom of why he’s doing what he’s doing.


The Man With Two Brains (1983)—“Dr. Jones”
JC: I was working at the Mark Taper Forum theater downtown. I got a call from my agents at the time, and they said, “Go over to Warner Bros. They’re casting a small role in a Steve Martin movie.” So I jumped in my car, went to Warner Bros., did a reading for a casting director, she said, “Go right now to this address.” I drove over to a house down in Hollywood, a beautiful mansion. They said, “Go into that RV in the driveway.” So I go in, and in walks Carl Reiner. He’s directing the movie. He introduced himself. I do my little reading and he says, “Yeah, that was pretty good. Hey, are you related to the Combs who played for the New York Yankees back in the ’30s? On the teams with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, was indeed a great baseball player with the last name Combs?” I said, “No, not at all.” “That’s okay, kid. You’ve got a job.”

Then I got to work with the great Steve Martin [for one day], very private guy. I remember between takes, he’d go and play backgammon with a friend of his. And I remember that he had a chair, you know like, how an actor on a set has a director’s chair. And he’d blacked out “Steve,” and on a piece of paper, he’d written “Dean” and taped it on there. [Laughs.]

AVC: What did you play?

JC: My scene was, he walks in and Kathleen Turner—who didn’t say a word to me, for the whole time I quote-unquote worked with her—is unconscious on a gurney, and I had a razor in my hand, and I was over her crotch, and Steve Martin comes in and says, “What is that?” And I go over and whisper in his ear, and he’s like, “I know what that is! What are you doing?” And I said, “It’s Valentine’s Day. So we thought…” He says, “So what is that, a heart?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And he says, “Well, I never want to see that again. [Laughs.] So that’s basically it.


Re-Animator (1985)—“Dr. Herbert West”
JC: God, I had no idea what was to come. All I knew was, I was doing a play in Hollywood, and a casting director came to see it. I did not invite him. As I recall, he said, “I’m casting something you might be right for.” I went in and met Stuart Gordon, did my read, got a callback where I was paired up with the great David Gale. We did a scene. I guess we both got cast. Very low budget, shot in 18 days. Who knew? I am not rich from the movie. Somebody got rich.

AVC: Were you a fan of horror and science fiction before you got cast in the role? You’ve certainly been in a lot of genre fare since then.


JC: Yeah, exactly. It’s a double-edged sword. You get known for something, and then they pigeonhole you. They don’t want to view you as being particularly versatile. They just want you to do that thing you did before. It perpetuates itself. You can certainly say no, but then you’re not working. So a long time ago, I just told myself I’d just turn everything, even if it’s all stuck in a particular genre, I’d try to expand people’s perception of me by what I did within the framework I’ve got going.

From Beyond (1986)—“Crawford Tillinghast”
JC: From Beyond was a very difficult movie. I’m kind of schizo about it. It involved a lot of makeup. I counted it up once, it was 30 days in that hideous, bald-headed, dog-dick-out-of-my-forehead thing. I hated it. It was so uncomfortable. And yet on the flip side of that, it was shot out of Rome, Italy, and I got to spend a glorious eight weeks in one of the world’s greatest capitals. It was good. I feel like Charles Dickens: It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. But I also felt like the role in From Beyond was so polar-opposite to what I had done in Re-Animator, where I played a strong, driving personality that pushed the action forward. Here, I was really—for all intents and purposes—being a victim. Someone standing there going, “No!” So I felt like some of the tools in my kit were being taken away from me. That was a bit frustrating, too.


Bride Of Re-Animator (1989)—“Dr. Herbert West” 
JC: Bride Of Re-Animator was cobbled together. I don’t really have all the details, but I think there were some issues with the script they were going to shoot. Someone claimed they had propriety over some of the ideas. So at the last minute, the script that was going to be shot was jettisoned, and the one we shot was thrown together. I feel there were some great moments in that movie. Especially, the sort of idea of building a human being out of parts: I really love that whole classic horror idea. But I think the tone got lost a little. Sometimes movies are on a track to get made and you don’t have time to pull over and do a polish, because the deal is the deal and we’ve got a start date, and the money goes away if we don’t. It suffered from all of that.

AVC: It seems like with low-budget filmmaking, there’s so much you can’t control. All you can really control is your performance.


JC: Film is such a collaborative effort. Which is what is so remarkable about Re-Animator: It benefited from so many happy accidents. I was so early in my career that I didn’t know how many things have to work and be right for a movie to really take off. The music could be bad, and that affects everything. A performance could be off. The sets could suck. The DP could be bad. The lighting could put everyone into darkness so nothing works and you can’t see it. There are just so many aspects that can go wrong. It’s like going to war with an army. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

AVC: You have to have talent and good material, but you also have to have luck.

JC: That’s right. You have to make good choices and you have to have favorable winds behind you as well, and we did. It was a surprise to me later when I’m doing other films, and you begin to realize, “Wow, we were really blessed.” Because everyone stepped up and did it and crucial decisions were made correctly.


Necronomicon: Book Of The Dead (1993)—“H.P. Lovecraft”
JC: Brian Yuzna, who produced Re-Animator, was directing this trilogy of horror stories, and the glue that bound them together was this interweaving story of Lovecraft coming to an exotic, mystical library. He wanted me to play Lovecraft. I kind of resisted. I said, “I don’t look like Lovecraft.” But John Vulich is a great special-effects makeup artist. He really got me looking like him as much as he possibly could with a chin and a nose. I always felt weird portraying Lovecraft in that movie, because Brian, for the project, really wanted Lovecraft to be an Indiana Jones character, and that’s not a particularly accurate portrayal of Lovecraft, if you’ve read any of his biographies. You do what you can with what you’ve got.

AVC: How does it feel to be so associated with Lovecraft and his writing?

JC: Weird, because when I auditioned for Re-Animator with Stuart Gordon, he said, “You know this is based on Lovecraft,” and I kind of bullshitted my way, saying, “Oh yeah, right, sure.” But I had no idea who he was. Just wasn’t really in my wheelhouse when I was growing up. Not to say I didn’t read. I remember reading Alfred Hitchcock Presents… books, and Eerie magazine as a kid. So I had my fascination with the genre. But I never really keyed in on Lovecraft. I didn’t go that deep. I didn’t explore that. I was fairly ignorant about it.


Love And A .45 (1994)—“Dinosaur Bob”
JC: Love And A .45. I love that movie. It’s one of my top five. Great cast. Sassy flick. I remember that I was really perturbed when I went in and auditioned, because my agent said, “You’re reading for this character,” so [I] prepared and I walked into the room and they said, “You know what? We want you to read for this other guy.” It just really threw me. And I said, “I don’t have that prepared,” and they said, “That’s okay, man. Just read this stuff. We just want to hear it in your voice.” And it turned out to be Dinosaur Bob. I was going in for his partner Creepy Cody, and all of the sudden I have all this other sassy dialogue, which I did, and bam, got the part. I went to Austin, Texas. I was thrilled to be doing a movie where I could channel some of my relatives, because all my family is from the Ozarks. Renée Zellweger’s second movie. She was very young and timid and shy. Everybody just cracked in that movie, man. It was great.

Norma Jean & Marilyn (1996)—“Montgomery Clift”
JC: I was once again somewhat resistant on that. At the time, I was going back and forth shooting The Frighteners with Peter Jackson. And my agents called and said, “They want you to come in and read for Montgomery Clift.” And I said, “No, no. I’m not going to do that. The great Montgomery Clift? I look nothing like him. My facial structure is nothing like his. I don’t have a nose like him. They’re not going to cast me. That’s a wrongheaded choice.” They called me back and said, “It’s not about how you look. It’s a quality they want, and they’re asking for you.” I did my thing, and lo and behold, the director chose me. So I was stoked. I got to work with Mira Sorvino. She’s such a sweet, great actress. She’s terrific. We were shooting at the abandoned Ambassador Hotel in the middle of the night. We went out on this patio to just sort of hang between setups, and there’s Tony Curtis. He was somewhere else in the hotel shooting some other project. So I got to meet him, and that was a total, complete thrill.


AVC: It had to be a little flattering to get cast as one of the most handsome actors of all time.

JC: Exactly. And I was just so resistant, because I’m not up there. I’m not on that level of photogenic, and I don’t look like him. There are so many other actors that do have those chiseled features, and that ain’t me. I suppose it helped because Mira Sorvino conveyed a quality like Marilyn Monroe, but really didn’t look anything like her. So it worked.


The Frighteners (1996)—“Milton Dammers”
JC: One of the greatest experiences of my career. Peter Jackson is a genius. He makes it look easy and effortless. A visionary. Very collaborative and sharing. No real ego. I remember my [character’s] chest is a bunch of scars, and they came to me with their drawings and [Jackson] said, “What do you think?” Which is unheard of in film. It was one of the highlights of my life to work with him.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1994-1999)—“Weyoun” / “Brunt” / “Officer Mulkahey”
JC: Yeah, did like 35 episodes, recurring on two different roles. It was a gift from the gods to be able to do Star Trek. Golden Paramount lot. To be there with that history, production values, and the skill set was phenomenal, the camaraderie. Still some of my very good friends are from my experiences on Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise as well.