Gavin Schmitt Interviews Rory Culkin
As the youngest member of the Culkin family (at least five of whom are actors), Rory Culkin was on screen about as soon as he could walk. Today is perhaps best remembered for his role in “Signs” as Mel Gibson’s asthmatic son. But that was really just the beginning.
Rory went on to appear in Wes Craven’s “Scream 4” (affiliate link) (which I would argue is the best since the original). He has also branched out into independent film, appearing in a few of Derick Martini’s pictures (notably “Lymelife” and “Hick”). Their relationship has been called the next Scorsese-DeNiro, which may be a bit strong, but is not inaccurate. Rory’s biggest role to date was the title character in “Gabriel”, which had him going through various stages of mental illness (eat your heart out, Michael Shannon).
Now, in October 2016, he again plays a title role in Thomas Dekker’s “Jack Goes Home”, (affiliate link) a story of a young man who discovers that his perfect childhood was not the way he remembered it. Rory was kind enough to chat with me about his career and “Jack”; he is unfortunately not a man of many words, but don’t mistake that for him being blunt. Despite his stardom, Rory still comes across as a somewhat shy acquaintance that is humble and thankful for the hand he has been dealt.
GS: With “Signs”, you were working with M. Night Shyamalan at the height of his career. Was the hype noticeable on set?
RC: Yeah, “The Sixth Sense” (affiliate link) had already come out, of course, and he had been nominated for two Academy Awards. The only thing that really strikes me, actually, is how young Night was. He was only in his 20s when we shot that, which sort of blows my mind. Especially for such a huge project.
GS: On screen, the aliens are more hinted at than shown, which makes them more scary. Were you able to work with the props or see them on set?
RC: Uh, no. I was shown an image once, but didn’t actually get to see what I was dealing with, which is probably appropriate considering how young I was (11).
GS: Since that time, you seem to have largely switched to independent films. I know an actor doesn’t always get to pick his films, but was this switch intentional?
RC: It’s really more of a coincidence, I think. The indie films just happen to have the scripts that I respond the most to. So those projects are ones I identify with, and they just happen to be independently financed for whatever reason.
GS: On a similar note, is there a reason you seem to be more of a New York guy than a Los Angeles-based actor?
RC: I grew up in New York, and I don’t know. I guess I can’t imagine living anywhere else. For one thing, I don’t drive, I’m not a very good driver, and that’s a big part of living in LA. Well, most of the country, actually. (laughs) This is just my home.
GS: The horror community is still mourning the loss of Wes Craven. You played an important role in “Scream 4” (2011). What memory do you have of Wes?
RC: I was honored to work with him on one of his last films. Maybe it was his last film, I’m not actually sure. [It was.] Sorry for the spoiler, but I actually play the killer in “Scream 4”, (affiliate link) and I called a meeting with Wes to discuss the character. I wanted there to be a justification for why my character was murdering people. At least a justification that made sense for him. I didn’t want to just be a “crazy killer” who chose the path. So Wes explained that my character wasn’t a killer, he was a soldier. And when he puts on his uniform the killing isn’t murder, it’s doing the right thing in the name of a soldier. That really stuck with me. There are plenty of other things, but that’s the first one that comes to mind.
GS: In interviews for “Gabriel”, you’ve said that the role really took a lot out of you. Did you immerse yourself completely in “Jack Goes Home”, or does it vary film to film?
RC: Yeah, I did, but in a much different way. Gabriel (affiliate link) had this constant internal struggle, and Jack is more stable. I like to think of it as a whirlwind; for Jack, he’s being hit by a whirlwind, but for Gabriel, he was the cause of the whirlwind. So there’s sort of a different approach. One is “what the fuck is going on?” and the other is “what the fuck is wrong with these people?” Typically that immersion happens. I don’t force it, but I often find myself diving in a bit more than I thought I would.
GS: Does director Thomas Dekker approach directing different because of his background as an actor?
RC: Yeah, or at least he’s really good at making the actors feel that way. He grew up as an actor, so he knows what an actor wants to hear or needs to hear. I’ve worked with directors with all sorts of backgrounds, and I do think it’s reflected in their films. Directors who started as editors may be more focused on cuts or the final product. I worked with a director who had actually started in wardrobe and was all about the look of the picture. Selfishly, yeah, I do like working with directors who come from my world. Thomas Dekker knows when an actor needs encouragement and you’re not lost when he’s around. There are small things, like he knows what might make an actor uncomfortable. He’s able to make decisions before bringing something to me because he just knows what we would want to hear or not hear.
GS: Allegedly, Dekker would play upsetting music on set to create a tense, oppressive tone?
RC: Yeah, he would play some music, but then we met in the middle. All actors are different, and that helped at the beginning of the shoot, but at a certain point it was like, “Okay, we can get rid of the scaffolding.” I can only speak for myself, but that’s all it took to get rid of the training wheels and see what needed to be done.
GS: You had the wonderful Lin Shaye as a mother figure…
RC: Yes! She’s sort of physically small, but in the blink of an eye she can become a demon. Moments before you hear “action”, she just puts on this face and has a terrifying stare. She can turn you inside out with her stare. She’s amazing, and I’d like to see more of her in roles like this. I’d like to see her command more scenes.
GS: The two of you share an intense scene, was it tense getting into the role?
RC: What was strange about it for me, is that it’s very intense subject matter, and it’s somewhat autobiographical for Tom (Dekker). So it’s pretty heavy stuff. But Tom always kept it light on set, at least with me. It was strange, but I liked that we didn’t have to take it too seriously. That’s especially nice when Lin is staring daggers at you.
GS: What has it been like transitioning to the role of the leading man? This is one of your first times in that position.
RC: I just kind of roll with it, I guess. I never thought of it in those terms… “leading man”. That sounds nice. I just try to do my part. And I focus from the beginning. When I receive a script, I remove all the pages I don’t have lines on, whether it’s a little or a lot. I don’t need to know the other parts. I suppose that was the difference for “Jack”. (affiliate link) The script was like a book, and I didn’t get to throw away almost any pages because I’m in every single scene, except maybe one or two. That’s the only difference for me, though, just more to study.
GS: What can you tell us about “Welcome to Willits”, with Dekker co-starring and some of the same producers on board?
RC: I, myself, don’t know exactly what to expect… it’s madness! The story involves drugs and extraterrestrials. I’d tell you more, but that’s all I know.
GS: Looking forward to it. Thanks for your time, Rory!
RC: Thank you.