Leigh Whannell: writer, actor, plumber
While the Saw horror franchise he co-created with James Wan is currently in cinemas, actor and writer Leigh Whannell will be seen on Australian screens next month in local horror Dying Breed. In a wide-ranging interview, he tells Simon de Bruyn why he sticks with horror roles, how auditions scare him, the reasons he didn’t remake The Fly, and why acting is a lot like plumbing.
In terms of taking on this film as an actor, were you looking to return to Australia to shoot something, or was it more the fact of being attracted to a good script or the project?
It was being attracted to the project that did it, I wouldn’t go back to Australia just for the sake of going back to Australia, but that was just a sweetener, something that made it even better.
I feel a little bit schizophrenic in terms of my creative life because I’m a writer and an actor, and I feel the writer side of me is very picky, I only like to work on things that I’ve come up with, and that I’m not doing it under any creative deadline. So I’m sort of very picky as a writer, but as an actor I’m a bit of a prostitute. As with any actor you’re a gun for hire, you’re getting hired to do a job. So after years of writing and sort of sitting alone in a dark room, I decided I wanted to go back into acting and then this project came up. But it was more just a bonus that it was in Australia.
Looking back, a lot of the projects you’ve acted in, you’ve also written yourself.
Yeah. It’s interesting, after Saw I became a writer, it was weird, I wouldn’t say it was an unexpected turn of events but I had no idea what to expect after Saw, it was just such a whirlwind and such an ascension to the unknown. I had no idea, no precedent for it, and no idea what to expect, so what ended up happening was that I became a writer straight after Saw. And writing sucks up all of your time, then demands extra time you don’t have. To be a writer you need to exist in an alternate universe where the day is 33 hours long. It’s just a very demanding job, and I just didn’t have time to go out there and audition, and do things like that after Saw. I guess the path of least resistance, in terms of acting, is to just put myself in things that I like, that way I can sort of do both.
I still like acting in its purist form, where you just act, you don’t call yourself anything but an actor. But it’s not satisfying; for me it’s too much like sport, you have to win the role and defeat the competition, the opposition.
And I’m terrible in audition situations, I get nervous, and after a few years of being over here what I’ve realised that what I really want to do is just keep writing, and then if the film gets made I’ll act in it. There’s nothing wrong with that, I don’t feel the need to prove myself anymore by winning the role at an audition, where when I was an actor in my 20s in Melbourne, surrounded by other actors, it was really a competition atmosphere. Like: “hey, I got that role, how have you been going?” “Ah, a bit quiet,” you know, it’s not good.
So it seems as though you want to write your own meal ticket* in a way.
Yeah, it’s something that’s become more acceptable. I mean if you look at the career of someone like Seth Rogen, he’s someone who’s obviously hugely successful here at the moment and in Australia, all of his roles have pretty much stuff that he’s had an involvement in; that he’s written, or been involved in the writing of. Some people might say “that Seth Rogen guy, he can only get roles in things that he writes,” but I don’t think people really care, nor can they differentiate that much.
Once upon a time I was really determined to prove myself as an actor on its own terms; I wanted someone else’s approval. And in some ways I still do but maybe it’s less me taking a stand than it is me accepting reality. I auditioned a lot in Melbourne before I came out here and I wouldn’t call myself a successful actor – it was only when I started writing my own stuff and took the power that I started working as an actor. So that’s what made Dying Breed so nice, that was an example of me acting in something I had nothing to do with the writing of.
When you pick up a script you don’t have any involvement in writing, like Dying Breed, how do you approach the character – especially being a screenwriter yourself?
I’ve been wearing my writer’s hat for so many years that I guess that part of my brain is a well tuned muscle, I’ve been using it every day, so as an actor it can’t help but inform your decisions. I think I really approach scripts now from a writers’ perspective. I try and look at the script as a whole rather than just flipping to the pages where my character speaks. I read the whole script and I try and examine what it is that my role means within the entire story, rather than just trying to make my role the centre of the universe. I realise I’m just one star in the particular universe. So it does inform your decisions and hopefully it makes me a less selfish actor as I consider the whole story and my place in it.
Does that mean you write your own back-story and things like that?
I actually do. With Dying Breed I wrote a little back-story. I not to take too much of an intellectual approach to anything, I try to take a more subconscious approach to some things, meaning I don’t want to make acting too intellectual. But I definitely do write a lot of stuff before I play the role.
What was it like working with another director beside James Wan; you’ve done it before in One Perfect Day of course, but you obviously have a good working relationship with James.
I know James so well, so we have a real shorthand and I trust him a lot, and with Dying Breed director Jody [Dwyer] I didn’t know him, but I learnt and I trusted him and I just find it very interesting working with someone else. Essentially as an actor you’re like a plumber in a house – if the house is being built, the plumber doesn’t come in and give people advice on how to tile the roof or how to build, they just do the pipes, do their work, and that’s it. As an actor I feel like that’s your job, you come in as a kind of hired gun. You can definitely have input and you can affect the script and the director’s decisions, but in the end the decision lies with the director. So it was good to hand off all my trust to Jody and just let him steer it.
You’re obviously a fan of the horror genre; is that something you’re drawn towards? Do you worry about being typecast or pigeonholed?
I guess you would split it into two categories. As a writer, yes, I don’t want to be typecast as that and I’ve done everything in my power to avoid it, mostly by turning down offers to write scripts. After Saw, James and I were offered every horror film in town; we could’ve remade Friday the Thirteenth, most of these films were just remakes, and they weren’t creative in any way. Right when Saw came out, Hollywood went through this horror remake craze, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they’re doing a Nightmare On Elm Street remake, Friday the Thirteenth, Hellraiser, Scanners, The Fly – everything – and we were offered all of them but we turned them all down.
So I think the good thing about that is that [we’ve tried to] control that part of our destiny; if we don’t want to be typecast as horror writers, then we just say no to it all. So we said no to everything and I started writing my own scripts in various different genres. I’ve just written a noir-mystery film for James, and I’m working on an Australian film at the moment with my friend Angus Sampson, which is a bit hard to describe, but it has elements of a crime drama and a bit of black comedy. And I’ve been working on a kids movie; I’ve got this children’s film that’s sort of my great unfinished epic that I’ve got cooking away, so I’m just trying to diversify myself.
As an actor it’s trickier, because I can’t afford to be as choosey as an actor. I’d probably be more accepting of a role in a horror film as an actor, where as a writer or a filmmaker I’d try and avoid it more. With Dying Breed, I remember when that role came up, I was looking to get out of horror, and then my manager said “there’s a horror film in Australia and they’d love you to act,” and I was resistant at first but then, as the package came together, it became too hard to say no.
You did start diversifying a bit with Dead Silence though, although its still horror.
Well after Saw, we were so associated with starting a little micro-genre, the ‘torture porn’ genre, so Dead Silence for us was an attempt to do a more classic version of horror, and it wasn’t entirely successful for various reasons. We were doing it for a studio and the studio was combative in some ways; it was a tough experience doing that. That was our little Hollywood trial-by-fire, making that film.
We learnt about all the pitfalls of doing a film with a studio, all the horror stories you hear like notes and re-writes and re-shoots, and it all happened to us. So I kind of look at that film as more just a big learning curve for us, rather than a successful venture. But you’re right, we have moved on and hopefully over the next few years, the films that I’ve written, hopefully, fingers crossed, will get made and they will be very different to Saw.
You’ve also produced, is that something you want to do more of?
Yeah. I’m producing a film in Australia with a friend, and that’s good, I mean I don’t really know what I’m doing in terms of ‘on the ground producing’ so that’s more of a blindfold adventure where you’re just going into unknown waters. But yeah I do! I really like instigating film projects. My circle of friends are very inspiring, I have just had a couple of Australian friends staying with me and they really just live a great artists’ life: they live in Paris, they have their own bands, they write plays and put them on; everything is very self generated and that’s what really inspires me. I don’t want to be at the mercy of someone else.
Hence the refusals to do remakes of someone else’s work.
Exactly, to me it’s already been done. I mean, I don’t go and see cover bands, I don’t like cover bands, why would I then become the cinematic equivalent of a cover band where it’s like “hey, it’s the Australian Nightmare On Elm Street show”. I’d rather come up with my own new world, which is tough. The easy money is definitely in the remakes, but I’d trying to take a tougher road. Maybe it’s dumb, maybe I’ll regret it when I’m 60 years old and trying to pay off debts and I’ll regret not taking all those remake jobs, but for now I’m staunchly against it.
Dying Breed opens in Australian cinemas on November 6.
*poster image pun intended 🙂