Whether you know him best as Herbert West the Re-Animator, or his multiple Star Trek franchise roles that include Weyoun and Shran, anyone who's a fan of Jeffrey Combs' ability to embody diabolical genius will probably want to check him out in Would You Rather. As Shepard Lambrick, a slick salesman promising great opportunity, he's the rich and eccentric host of a dinner party game of deadly dares.
As himself, Jeffrey Combs is someone a fanboy can listen to forever, with that distinctive voice of his. So it was a pleasure to talk to him at length about Would You Rather, with a little Re-Animator and Edgar Allan Poe thrown in the mix.
Warning: although this interview does not reveal who makes it out alive - if anyone - in Would You Rather, there are some spoilers. If you have seen it, however, it may clarify a few points.
Luke Y. Thompson: When I first heard about this film and I saw your name attached, I thought, "I bet they're just throwing us a cameo so all us fans will go see it." But I was happy to see that you are basically the main role. How did this come about?
Jeffrey Combs: Yeah, thanks. Yeah, that can happen, that cameo stuff. It's a little trick that they'll pull every once in a while. "Hi, Jeff! Would you like to do this movie, not much of your time?" And what do they do? They turn around and blast your name on it, and then ultimately the fans are tricked, or disappointed - they feel jilted by that. Not this time, though. Maybe a little too much of me! (laughs)
LYT: I don't know if there's any such thing.
LYT: I was wondering when I was watching it, was there any Nicolas Cage influence here? The way the hair was, and the suit, and your gestures, it sort of reminded me of him a bit.
JC: Not even on my periscope there. Not even a thought. Great minds think alike? Same hair line? I don't know. No, I didn't really try to channel that at all.
LYT: When you play a character like this, you've got to obviously find the sympathetic thing in him, and understand his motivations. One thing I never quite figured out was what was driving him to do this. Is that a spoiler for subsequent movies or do you have any insight as to why he did these things?
JC: I think that it was actually on purpose that you don't know, and why you are sort of in a quandary. I think it was the intent for the writer and the director for that to never be explained. It's one of the inexplicable things about evil, is that a lot of the time you just are never going to understand what the hell prompts someone to do that. You can't give an explanation, because I don't think there ever is a justifiable one.
The only thing that we could kind of come up with in a weird sort of way is that Shepard Lambrick is a victim of his own lineage. This is a family legacy, a sadistic streak started generations ago, and passed down from father to son, indoctrinated from an early age. I decided in my own mind that my wife is not in the picture. In fact, women are not. Women are merely, "Give me a son so I can pass this on then I will get rid of you one way or another so that there's no distraction." It happened to me, it happened to my father, and to his father and to his father, so there is this family dynasty that has this hideous manifestation. I don't know anything else; this is the way I was brought up, and it's the way I'm bringing up my own child, trying to convey that the game has rules that can't be broken, even though it has some flexibility to it.
You see in the one scene that I'm so frustrated with my son, because he seems to be crossing some line, which is interesting because, what, I'm not crossing some lines? But there are rules that you have to follow, even though it's in a dark, dark game. So, that's sort of my answer. You can't explain, and neither can you be sympathetic. It's interesting that at the end, I point out to [the winner] "You see? We kept our word. We keep our word. You win, and we will fulfill our promise." It's like a contract, and very proud of that. So there's a twisted ethic going on here, but it's endemic and inexplicable.
LYT: It's also interesting that you have the Lambrick Foundation copyright under the title, like it's a propaganda film of sorts.
JC: (laughs) That's the producer and director's very, very dark and sick little joke about the whole thing, that the movie has been funded by the Lambrick Foundation; they set up a big production company for the movie.
LYT: Which would imply that they want people to know about the game, they think it's actually going to be a draw, in a perverse kind of way.
JC: Well, in a way. I think it's a tongue-in-cheek kind of joke that you get in the end, like "Wow! Pervasive power here."
LYT: How long was the shoot?
JC: It was three weeks. We shot for three weeks, all in one location, fortunately, and very rarely does this happen, in sequence. We got to shoot all of the dinner sequence start to finish. "OK, we do that, now we do that, and we move you here." That really informed and helped us as a cast to really build intensity.
LYT: I was wondering if there was a way the player could win by being the most self-sacrificial and inflicting the pain on themselves carefully. Do you think there was?
JC: No! I think there are aspects of that where people say "I'm not going to hurt somebody else, I'll take the hit." But we see what happens to the Afghan vet, right? He's given the opportunity to not take it, and he says "No, I don't want to hurt anybody any more, give it to me." It's almost Christ-like, in a way, but he does not survive. Maybe he does; they do drag him out hanging on by a thread, so maybe he does survive, we just don't know.
LYT: But he also provoked the son and made himself the target; maybe if he hadn't done that...
JC: Unknowingly, he stood up for himself and challenged the power. And what happened is the spotlight of the game veered right over and he became target #1. The game was not going to go that way until he opened his mouth. You notice there's no scene between my son and I, but obviously my son went and told me, and I come in and, "OK, son, I'll take care of it." And boom! You are screwed, dude! See what happens? And that's the sick thing about sadism - do you all see what happens when you challenge us in any way. And it happens again, when my son had to leave the game, and the gambler says "Gee, that's too bad." And who gets picked next? "You're next!"
Ultimately, I have total control. I'm the puppeteer. I'm determining the flow of the night, to a degree. On the other hand, when the cards are brought out the end, and there are four people left, those are totally random. In my mind, I don't know who's going to get what. If I did, then really some of the fun would be gone. Like I said before, this is like a cat, toying with a bird that is injured. They don't kill it right away. They do not - in fact, they kill it at the last minute. They want it to suffer, and wiggle, and writhe, for as long as possible, and we view that as being mean, or sadistic, but the cat doesn't see it that way. In a way, for the cat, it's just simple instinctual training, working on its reaction time, I don't know - but that's sort of what's going on here, and it's really creepy.