Director Zach Cregger’s Barbarian is the kind of twisty horror movie that presents quite a challenge when it comes to conducting a spoiler-free interview. The September 9 film is loaded with shocking shake-ups, including the introduction of Justin Long as homeowner AJ. An even bigger shock is that Long, who’s known for his natural affability in everything from Galaxy Quest to Lady Of The Manor to Apple’s “I’m a Mac” ads, plays against type as a douchebag—which he also does in House Of Darkness, his other film releasing on September 9.
In a conversation with The A.V. Club, Long gives exactly the right amount of information to entice fans—including anyone who enjoyed his work in Victor Salva’s classic Jeepers Creepers, a creature feature that shares more than a few parallels with Barbarian. He also reminisces about that early career experience, talks about subverting audience expectations, and names the horror auteurs he’d love to work with next.
The A.V. Club: Is it true that your first read of the Barbarian script took place in a dark RV, and you got so scared you had to pause reading it?
Justin Long: Oh, yeah, it’s true. It sounds like one of those made-up anecdotes. But I was in an RV park, a very scary environment, like a horror movie environment, and in the middle of Louisiana. And it was so remote that—you know, there were sounds, and I guess I’m easily scared by the dark and the unknown! And so I had to put it down. I finished it in the morning. But I was conflicted because I was so engaged by it. The movie, it was just breaking all of these rules and subverting a genre that I was so familiar with. So just as a horror fan, I was excited to read it. And then when I found out [Zach Cregger] wanted me to do it, it was like a very easy [yes].
AVC: So the big question is ... how do we talk about this movie? With all its wild twists kept under wraps, how do I conduct this interview?
JL: [Laughs] I know. The actors are the same, we’re in this same position where we love the movie. At the risk of sounding arrogant, we’re so proud to be in it. And we want to talk about it because it’s one of those movies that I think will generate a lot of conversation hopefully. [Cregger is] wrestling with a lot of big ideas in it—misogyny and incest and sexism—there’s some really major stuff. Who’s the real monster, who is the barbarian? And what you think is the monster, you know, the overt, obvious, scary-looking thing is, in fact, quite sympathetic and tragic. It really brings up a lot of things ... that we can’t talk about without spoiling it.
What we know—and that’s why the trailer is so good, because it doesn’t give anything away—is that Georgina Campbell goes to an Airbnb and it’s been double booked with Bill Skarsgård. And Bill is so good at [being] such an inherently likable presence, he’s so charming. But because he played Pennywise so well [in It], I think it does something to the viewers’ expectations. He’s got just that little bit of creepiness that you can’t avoid. So it subverts those expectations. And then people, I think, have expectations when they see me in something, and Zach does a great job subverting that. So it really is an unexpected ride. I love the idea of people going in it as blind as possible. It does make it hard—this all sounds so cryptic.
AVC: What are you telling people going into this movie? Is it just, “See it, knowing nothing”?
JL: Yeah, it’s, “See it. And if you don’t like it, you can blame me.” It’s also something that I’m glad people are seeing in theaters. I know a lot of the press screenings were at like nine in the morning and they’re watching it on their little computers. And I usually hate when people talk during movies, but there’s something about this one that it’s part of the fun. Yelling at the screen, laughing. It’s a very audible experience.
AVC: So let’s talk about those expectations audiences have about you. Do you think about type? How did you and Zach Cregger approach playing with what we typically associate with you?
JL: I think about type, yeah. And I think Zach had those expectations, he had that awareness of roles I’ve done. I knew him from the comedy world, we knew each other a little bit before this. We had spent time together, and he told me he liked me! [Laughs] I don’t know if he’s just saying that. But he had a certain idea of my persona or whatever that is on screen. So yeah, for sure, he’s playing with that. And as an actor, that’s the best you can be asked to do. Something totally different and something that is, in a way, liberating. You get to examine a darkness, a guy who is a total narcissist. And I definitely have narcissistic tendencies that I got to really lean into. And it was fun. My character does things that, fortunately for me and the people close to me, I would never do, just awful things. So that was kind of a challenge, finding a way to connect to someone who had done the worst kind of stuff. That was a good acting challenge.
AVC: There are some unavoidable parallels between your work in this and in Jeepers Creepers back in 2001. What are the rules, then and now, for acting in such monster movies?
JL: Well, what Zach did that is also very smart is he’s aware of all those rules, aware of all those tropes. And he really subverts them in a smart way. Georgina’s character, I think, does what is to be expected. You’re watching it and you think, Well, what would I do? He kind of covers all of the avenues of escape, you know, whether it’s a phone in another room or a door that’s been locked from the outside. She takes logical, intelligent steps that all then have obstacles. For Jeepers Creepers, a movie like that, my character wasn’t as tightly sewn together. It was like, I go back to looking into a tunnel there, you know? So those are the tropes that Zach really plays well with so effectively.
And I remember having the experience of seeing that movie. And the whole audience is yelling at you! And it’s a wild thing to hear a whole audience call you stupid or go, “What are you doing?!” I saw it with my mom for the first time and there were three ladies in front of us who were very vocal, very angry at my character. And when it was over, my eyes are—spoiler alert—my eyes are gone. And my mother is crying, “Oh, they took your eyes!” And the three ladies in front of us, they’re getting up and they go, “Good. I’m glad his eyes are gone. Stupid, stupid white boy.” They were furious with me. [Laughs] My mom started to make a move, like a protective mother. And I was like, “It’s just a movie,” you know, pulling my hat down.
But they’re doing that to Georgina now in the theater [at Barbarian screenings]. And Georgina is such a likable presence, so it’s less of, “You’re stupid, don’t go in there!” And more like, “We like you! Don’t go back in there and be a hero.” It’s a lot of that. My character is so unlikable that whenever bad things happen to me, they’re sort of rooting for bad things to happen to me.
AVC: You’ve worked with some very cool filmmakers. Who would be your dream collaborator?
JL: Well, Zach Cregger—I’m not just saying this because he’s my director now, but I think Zach is my new favorite voice. I’m blown away by what he did with this movie. But I love Ari Aster, I love Hereditary and Midsommar. I’d love to work with Sam Raimi. Kevin Smith [again]. I love horror, so I would love to do another. But Ari Aster is the guy that, if I could pick anyone, I would say, yeah.