With 136 film and television credits to his name, Jeffrey Combs has proven himself to be one of the most reliable and fascinating character actors of the past few decades. But to horror fans, he’s nothing short of a legend. With credits that include Re-Animator, Bride of Re-Animator, From Beyond, The Frighteners and so much more, he’s a natural fit for Shudder’s revival of Creepshow. When we visited the set earlier this year, we were able to watch Combs at work in a story titled “Bad Wolf Down,” where he plays a Nazi officer who messes with the wrong squad of American G.I.s. Because they’re werewolves, you see.
We weren’t able to speak to Combs on the set (because he was too busy filming, including a particularly gnarly final showdown with a werewolf), but we were able to chat with him on the phone a few weeks later, were he dished about the new show and his long history with the horror genre.
Note: this interview was conducted over the phone with a number of other journalists.
One of the things I loved about observing the set was just how familial it felt. I think at one point, there was a great conversation about Frankenhooker, and everyone was just having fun. I know you and Greg Nicotero have a past together – I believe Bride of Reanimator might have been your first time, but I just wanted to know how did you get involved with Creepshow?
Well, very simply, I get a text from [executive producer Greg Nicotero]. I’ve known Greg for quite a while, since, as you say, Bride of Reanimator, and he’s always been such a mensch and loose and full of good will and accessible no matter how much incredible success he’s had. I’ve worked with him a number of times over the years. I even pointed out to him, he did a little short some years ago, he was wanting to put his foot into being considered for directing. He did a little short called Monsters Inc. or something like that. It was almost like a promo, like a display of what he could do, and he asked me to be in that and I was happy to be asked. I love Greg. So he texted me and said, ‘Would you be interested in this?’ and it’s evolved pretty quickly from that. I was pretty excited about it. You say something about the set and how full of ease and good will it is, and I think that’s all attributable to Greg. He’s accessible and there’s a good vibe on his sets.
Even though there’s a good vibe, it was clear that the set was not quite chaotic, but a very fast, down-and-dirty shoot. How did this compare to some of the other horror projects you’ve worked on over the years, both low budget and big budget?
The thing that sort of struck me, and I told Greg about this, this stuff you can kind of get bogged down in – ‘Oh my God, how do we get this? What do we do?’ – but Greg, I’ve known him since before he was directing, and I was just admiring his ability to see the lay of the land and come up with a very quick solution to solving three problems all at once. That takes a lot of experience to know how to make your schedule and yet do it in a way that the shots still have quality. So I was deeply impressed with Greg, as well as Bob.
Can you tell us a bit about the character you play in your episode?
Well, sure, I mean, it’s the first time I have ever played a Nazi, let alone a Nazi general. That’s a first. But that’s why I accepted it. I like a challenge, new territory, and I’ll tell you, it’s kind of chilling to be in that uniform. But the whole look of it kind of came out of discussions with Rob. Of course the costume kind of takes care of itself, but I said, ‘Listen, let’s crop my hair. Let’s just cut it off. That’s what these guys would be like.’ The one thing I really hate is a period piece and people’s hairstyles are not even accurate. It’s like one of my pet peeves. Remember the TV show Mash? Mash was supposed to take place during the Korean War, but they all had ‘70s haircuts. It’s kind of like, ‘What are we doing here?’ So the make up guy, Addison, was just great with that hideous, frightening scar on my cheekbone, and that was something we were really in harmony about. I sort of felt that this was a Nazi who was not a thug, but was probably of German aristocracy and therefore probably went to the finest military academies and it was almost like a badge of honor to have a little fencing scar on your face. It showed that you were tested and prevailed. So we were all on the same page with that. And the mustache, that shitty little mustache. I didn’t have much time to grow it, but I did my best.
Going off that, I was wondering, even though the episode has supernatural elements with the werewolves, does a lot of research go into portraying a historical character like a Nazi?
Well, I love history. I’ve read a lot of books about a lot of eras of history, but of course World War II is kind of front and center if you are interested in history and the tragedies of the modern world. We’ve all grown up with all kinds of World War II movies and stuff. I just love the idea that this was kind of like horror meeting The Twilight Zone. I had never really thought of or was aware of anything where World War II and werewolves was any kind of a mix, so that was pretty clever.
One of the things that was stressed during our set visit was the importance of the practical, hands-on special effects as opposed to reliance on CGI. How importance is that to you, for Creepshow to represent that? That the show isn’t using CGI as a Band-aid, but going back to the more hands-on effects?
When CGI first came about, we have a new tool in the toolbox. It’s absolutely amazing and it can be incredibly effective, but you go back and watch some of those movies over the last couple of decades, and they don’t hold up so well. They look a little cheesy, so I kind of feel like CGI was a new tool that was just overused. I find it much more captivating to see practical effects. As you know, before there was ever CGI, I did a little movie called Reanimator, which was completely practical effects and clever editing, and it holds up over time. I believe that if CGI had been available back then, it would probably date that movie moreso than it is. Plus, in the good hands of Greg Nicotero, if anybody knows practical effects better than anyone, it’s Greg. So I embrace it. I love the idea. I just think CGI kind of hasn’t quite found its place on the palette. It is a new tool we have to use, but it’s like a new color. OK, you like the new red, but everything you’re doing has a lot of red in it now. Can we find another way, too? I like red, but there’s other colors? I think it’s great that we’re doing that.
On that note, I know that in a recent interview with Mick Garris, you said you wanted to be a cartoonist and you were interested in drawing. I wonder if the comic aspect of Creepshow appealed to you in that respect.
I don’t necessarily think of it – yeah, when I read the script, I loved all of the capturing of cels and you dissolve in, it’s a great way to tell a story graphically, visually dovetail into things by using comic book motifs. It’s not quite accurate when you say that I wanted to be a cartoonist. What I was saying with Mick if I recall is that that was sort of my first venue of artistic expression without even knowing it. I was just drawn to picking up a piece of paper and drawing. Even before I ever knew I wanted to be an actor, I wasn’t really interested in drawing still lifes, I wasn’t interested in the drawing of landscapes. I was more interested in drawing faces. Now that I look back, I realize that it was this unformed fascination that all actors have with human behavior, with character, with what a face says. So in my innocent youth, I was already trying to stumble towards what I finally found as my vocation. I was an OK illustrator, but there were guys that I knew that were like, ‘Wow, that’s really great,’ but I’ve never been one of those. Thanks for asking.
Just wondering if you could us a bit about what it’s like to work with Rob Schrab, and also, what’s it like to have a director of your particular episode and then also a sort of overseeing director of the whole series with Greg Nicotero?
It was the best of both worlds. I first met Rob – maybe about a year prior, I had a breakfast meeting with Rob and a couple other people about a potential project. I liked him immediately, and went home and followed him on Twitter as he did me. Our names came up over time, and I was just really honored when Rob told me that he had actually suggested me to Greg. ‘What about Jeff Combs for this?’ and got the ball rolling. Rob is really a wonderful writer, and I love collaborating with him because it’s so great to have a director who also wrote the piece. Because if there are little alterations or adjustments, the committee is already there in one person. He’s generous and very supportive. And having Greg there as sort of a backstop, it was just lovely and collaborative. It made it easier for everybody.
Going off of that, what draws you to horror and these roles that you’re so well-known for?
I don’t know. I suppose the old saying of, ‘Know thyself.’ I’ve always been drawn towards…well, let’s say, conflicted characters. Characters that maybe ride the line between being good and being not so good. I never play a character thinking, ‘I’m a bad guy.’ Even if I am the antagonist, I always try to find a legitimate and rational justification for what you might label as bad, but from their point of view is justified. So life and humanity is in the grey area a lot of the time anyway, and it’s hard to say if someone is completely good or completely bad. There’s always another way of looking at it. Not always. But for most of us, that’s sort of the way it is. I do like audiences to walk away from my portrayals thinking, ‘I like that guy. Why did I say that? Why did I say I like that guy? Because actually he did some awful things.’ Or the other way around. ‘What a good guy, but boy, he had some flaws.’ Don’t we all say that all the time? I guess an actor’s purpose is to hold a mirror up to who we all are. Maybe I make it a little more colorful sometimes or a little more theatrical, but that’s part of the fun.
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