While comedian and actor Jonah Ray was most recently beaming in to television sets from the Satellite Of Love on Netflix’s now sadly defunct reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, he’s been hard at work on other projects for the past year as well. To wit: Ray is one of the leads of Pooka Lives!, the new installment of Hulu’s Into The Dark anthology series, the Blumhouse-produced collection of horror films with the rough conceit of each episode revolving around a particular holiday. It’s the series’ first sequel—Nacho Vigalondo’s Pooka! was a Christmas-themed entry—and in it a group of friends invent a summoning spell for the furry little toy one night, only to have it go viral, leading to more than they bargained for. Ray plays a father and husband (to his MST3K costar Felicia Day), and spoke to us about the experience, acting opposite a giant menacing stuffed animal, his favorite horror monsters, and—of course—the weirder sights of life right now under lockdown.
The A.V. Club: You’re safe somewhere?
Jonah Ray: Yeah, yeah. We’re at home in Los Angeles, so it’s not too congested. We just actually did our first grocery run, the first one in, like, two weeks. So it was really—right when I get outside, I’m just like, “My throat hurts! I have a headache! I can’t feel my fingers!”
AVC: That’s pretty much how I am, too. And doing that while trying to dodge toddlers all over our block.
JR: My neighborhood is like—there’s so many people with young kids, and to see them constantly just yanking them back or picking them up, it’s real ridiculous. The thing that made me very upset taking a drive yesterday, I saw some people that, I don’t think they lived together, but they’re all hanging out walking down the street together. And then one kid at a crosswalk pressed the crosswalk button, and then right after he pressed the crosswalk button, he started rubbing his eye!
AVC: That’s not quite the kids who went to spring break-level dumb, but still.
JR: It’s hard not to be angry at a lot of people right now. And I’m usually—I think the best of people. I wait until people prove me wrong, personally, and now I feel—I’m going like, “Look at all these people.” And my wife is saying, “See? This is how I feel every day.”
AVC: Anyway, let’s talk about horror movie monsters for a while. How did you get involved in this film?
JR: I was asked to audition. I didn’t know who was involved in it. But it was an audition that I was actually excited about, because it was taped. I don’t do too well in the room. When I go to audition in a room, I tend to—it’s weird, because I’ve been doing stand-up for so long, I’d think that I’d get in a room and own it. And I always hear these stories of, you know, Ben Schwartz—Schwartz will do something like take off his shoes before he starts doing the part, to be memorable, or do something like that. I always kind of get in my head. But I was able to send a tape in, and they said, “Oh, they really liked your take on the character.” And then I kind of started hearing more about it, and I got more excited. I realized that Felicia Day was involved and that it was going to be a Blumhouse thing, and so then I was very, very excited.
AVC: So it was pure coincidence that you and Felicia ended up husband and wife on this?
JR: Well, you know, she’s a producer on it. And she was honest with me, where she was like, “You know, I put your name on a list of ‘maybe’ people, but other people already had your name on the list.” So it wasn’t too much of the nepotism going on between former coworkers.
AVC: When did you watch the first one and get a sense of what you were getting into?
JR: After I got the email for the audition, I thought, “I should probably watch the first one.” And much to my enjoyment! It was funny because the sides I got for the part, they were serious scenes. They weren’t really funny scenes. And so I kind of thought it was going to be tonally the same as the original Pooka!, the Nacho Vigalondo Pooka! I’m a huge Nacho Vigalondo fan, because Timecrimes I think is—it’s the best time-travel movie. It’s so good. And so I kind of just took it—I thought it was going to be a lot more serious.
And then when I realized, I was like, “Oh, Alejandro Brugués is directing? But he does really good horror-comedies,” because he did a great job with his segment on Nightmare Cinema, which I really enjoyed, “The Thing In The Woods.” And then once I got the full script, I saw, “Oh, there’s a lot more humor in this one than the original,” which is more of a psychological thriller.
AVC: This movie also has a vibe almost reminiscent of late-’80s creature-feature horror as well, but also is comfortable leaving realism behind without making a big deal of it or trying to nudge the viewer. Did you guys have conversations about the tone you were going for during filming?
JR: Yeah. Alejandro, you know, his favorite genre is funny horror. He loves Sam Raimi, and he loves visual jokes. And we all love horror movies so much. So there was that idea of not so much meta-commentary, but that [the characters] were trying to live in a world where we know these things exist, but it’s also—it’s still kind of spooky that it’s happening to us. In a way, the jokes we were trying to lean toward were like, “Yeah, this is ridiculous, but it’s also kind of fucking scary, right?” Almost kind of like what we’re dealing with right now, where it’s like, “This is crazy!” And everyone is making jokes about it, because that’s how a lot of people deal with stuff now. And so there was definitely a—you know, I love ’80s horror movies, too, so I was watching a lot of those, because you want to take it as seriously as you can, because when the stakes are real and it’s grounded, then that’s when things are even funnier and even scarier.
AVC: The creature, Pooka himself, is so distinctive. Was it odd when you were acting on set with that? How do you deal with him as a movie monster when you’re actually there with it?
JR: My approach was essentially that it was confusing. Because when you see something that you’ve seen in movies, and then you see it in real life, and it doesn’t look right? And you don’t know how to respond to it? Kind of like when you see that shock of people, like when you see an actual fight or someone getting punched. It takes you a while to register that it’s real, because it doesn’t seem like the thing that you thought it was going to be. Or like the first time I went to New York, and I just thought, “Oh, the Statue of Liberty is not as big as I thought it was. I thought it was the tallest thing in the city for some reason.” Just that kind of dumb thing. So my approach was just the idea that I’m kind of confused by the existence of Pooka. It looks silly, but it’s also otherworldly. And that was kind of my approach to trying to be scared. Because fear can also be confusing.
AVC: As essentially a giant stuffed animal, he’s got that unsettling connection to a sense of childhood innocence. I’m curious about your take on horror monsters. Some of the most unsettling ones often have an element of something childish or kid-oriented about them.
JR: You could talk about Chucky from Child’s Play, Pennywise from It, there’s so many. It’s the John Wayne Gacy thing of it, of just, “Oh, this seems like it should be safe, but it’s not.” And that’s always such a fun approach, I think. Where you see a haunted house, you’re like, “Why would you go in there? It’s clearly haunted.” Or you see Freddy Krueger, and you’re not like, “Well, let’s see what he has to say. We don’t want to pass judgment just on the fact he has knife hands.” So there’s something about the way that Pooka is so innocent and lumbering, and it’s just—we’ve been there. We’ve been at Disneyland where there’s people just dressed up in costumes. And it’s kind of spooky to think, “What is underneath there?”
I was at the MGM Grand in Vegas, and I remember it was, like, 110 degrees outside, and there was a guy in a fluffy dinosaur outfit in the sun, and I remember he was waving, and then he got dizzy, and he fell down. And then he tried to get up, and another animal-person character came up to help him, and he pushed them away, and they got into sort of a shoving match. And like, who are these people that are clearly kind of fucked up, that are this close to kids? That was something that I thought was pretty cool about Pooka!
AVC: Do you remember as a kid the horror monsters or villains that stood out to you? Because the VHS covers in the video store that freaked me out back then were Troll and Ghoulies and Dolls, and those sorts of creatures.
JR: Ghoulies I think is the scariest box art, just because of the idea of coming out of the toilet like that. I think I didn’t see that movie for a long time because I didn’t want to not be able to take a poop, you know? And then, of course, Candyman comes around and ruins bathrooms and mirrors in general. But yeah, the box art—even Munchies, which is a comedy—is still spooky. The box art always makes it. All the Puppet Master or Demonic Toys box art. House—they all did such a great job of just being simply frightening.
AVC: Was there a difference between ones that you thought were cool versus the ones that scared you?
JR: I was always such a huge fan of Freddy Krueger, because I really thought I would be able to convince him to be my friend. But the one that really kind of scared me the most was Critters. For some reason, especially Critters 2, when they form into the big ball and then they just roll over people, and they’re a skeleton. Before they got really goofy, Critters was one that, just because they—there was a bunch of them, they were small, they could gang up on you, they could bite you. But they could also shoot those little needles into your leg like a porcupine. And they were just frightening. The red eyes and this huge mouth on such a small, little ball. That was the one I think maybe that was my favorite.
AVC: Is there a qualitative difference in being on set or acting when it’s opposite a horror monster, whether it’s Pooka or when you did Victor Crowley?It almost seems like it’d be something primal, like when you play with action figures or stuffed animals as a kid.
JR: Here’s the difference from just my experience of doing the two: When I was doing Pooka Lives!, the guy playing Pooka, Alex [Ward], he would take off his mask, and we’d all be hanging out and talking about music and movies, and then you’re ready to do a scene, and these people come and put the mask on, and then all of the sudden you’re scared of him. And so it was truly just acting.
The other side of that was when I was doing my scene for Victor Crowley. I’m shooting my scene all night, a night shoot. And we’re starting to have to hurry up and it’s getting really intense, because the sun is going to come up and we need to get these shots with the Victor Crowley character. And the thing is, he hasn’t been around, he just got to set. Kane Hodder [who plays Victor Crowley —Ed.], you just didn’t see him. There was this whole thing that was required where he goes into his own trailer to get the Victor Crowley stuff on.
So we’re doing the shoot. We’re in the middle of the woods, it’s night, it’s cold, everyone’s tired and kind of stressed. And then, on the walkie, they say, “Kane is ready.” And everyone is told to stop talking. Work has to stop. And you just kind of stand there. I’m kind of going like, “What are we doing? Is this some kind of diva move in the horror world I don’t know?” And then we’re just waiting for him to walk from where the trailers are to where we’re shooting. It’s at night in the middle of nowhere, and it’s quiet, and everyone just starts to look down at the ground. And again, I’m kind of going, “What the fuck is going on?”
And then off in the distance, you hear Kane as Victor going like [howls], screaming, just bellowing this painful scream. And I immediately got scared. I instantly was legit scared, and you kind of start to hear him coming closer, screaming, and everyone is like, “Quiet!” And you’re thinking, “Is something going to happen?” [Laughs.] I know I’m on a movie set right now, but is something really going to happen? And then he gets up there and he puts everybody into a mood. Kane Hodder is such an amazing actor that he basically instills fear on the entire set, so everyone starts to work from that place. So I would say that was much more scary than dealing with the life-size toy of Pooka.
AVC: How does horror as a genre work for you personally? Do you go to it as a source of comfort or fascination?
JR: I was obsessed with horror as a kid. Me and my brother, we watched Tales From The Crypt, we would watch every horror movie that we could get our hands on. And then he stopped wanting to watch horror movies, because he wanted to be cool—he was older than me by, like, three years—and that’s what drove me to look for even crazier horror movies. Because I almost felt like I had to make up for his lack of liking horror movies. And so I was always such a huge fan. So I go to it out of comfort, for the most part. I just love—it makes me feel good, horror movies.
AVC: Where does the MST3K show stand now? Are you guys sort of in limbo at the moment?
JR: Yeah, but Joel’s got some ideas in the pipeline, and it’s pretty exciting, what he’s working on. So hopefully some time soon within this year you’ll hear what’s next for the Satellite Of Love.