Fantastic Fest: Kevin Sorbo on the Twisted Julia X 3D, Christian Films, and Hollywood Snobbery
Genre fans already know Kevin Sorbo for his long-running stints on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Andromeda, two shows for which he's earned international stardom on the small screen, and in recent years the erstwhile Hercules/Dylan Hunt has branched out by adding Christian flicks to his resume. But are audiences -- not to mention fans of his faith-based work -- ready to see Sorbo as the ultra-violent, masochistic lady-hunting sociopath he plays in P.J. Pettiette's horror satire Julia X 3D?
Sorbo stars in the Fantastic Fest entry Julia X 3D as The Stranger, a suave serial killer who takes sadistic pleasure in kidnapping and torturing young single women he finds via the internet while listening to the dulcet tunes of The Carpenters on his iPod. When he brings home his latest victim, a blonde named Julia (Valeria Azlynn) whom he brands with the signature X -- the next in his series of alphabetically-marked "girlfriends" -- he discovers she's not quite like his other conquests. And thus begins their twisted, comical love story.
Movieline spoke with Sorbo in Austin, TX after a Fantastic Fest screening of Julia X 3D about the joys of playing such a warped, dark character, how he balances the role with his run of faith-based films, why Hercules: The Legendary Journeys never got the respect it deserved from mainstream Hollywood, how Hollywood is "a whore" and snobbish to boot, and that one time a botched line reading on Hercules became a YouTube sensation (i.e. "Disappointed!").
P.J. Pettiette prefaced the intro by warning the audience that Julia X takes a few tonal shifts they may not expect. How much of a concern was it that viewers wouldn't go along with the film?
Kevin Sorbo: I think people come into movies like this with assumptions. They go, 'Oh -- this is going to be a slasher movie, or a horror movie,' so I think there's a page out of Scary Movie with something like this. There's a lot of very comical stuff, it's like a very strange love story.
It is quite twisted. And at times, quite surprisingly romantic.
Sorbo: [The characters] are both so fucked up, and they both realize they found their soulmates.
I'm going to talk about this in vague terms so as to not spoil it for readers...
Sorbo: That's right, you don't want to wreck the twist where people halfway through go, [redacted]! I think saying it's a strange love story might be enough.
When Julia X first came along, were you looking for material that was a significant departure from the projects you're known for?
Sorbo: Probably not. I was looking for something different, and certainly to play a bad guy. I've had enough people come and ask me, talking about other scripts. But this came along and I said yeah, this is interesting to me. I'm not myself a huge fan of Friday the 13th and stuff like that, I don't need to see slasher movies like that. I enjoyed Scary Movie because of David Zucker-type of humor - Airplane, Naked Gun, whatever. I love that kind of humor. So when I read this it had a lot of interesting beats. There's a line from When Harry Met Sally when she fakes the orgasm and Reiner's mother, who's in that scene, says, 'I'll have what she's having.' That line for me [in Julia X] is when she leaves and I say, 'Please let her continue.' [Laughs] For me that reminded me of that movie.
Do you think your fans, particularly those of Hercules and Andromeda, will be surprised by the things they see you do in Julia X and the extremes to which this movie goes?
Sorbo: You know, I was just in Spain for the film festival there last week and a lot of fans from all over Europe came down there. They've already seen the movie -- I guess it's in Germany, or something. They said they were so blown away and so scared, but so attracted to it at the same time. It was a really good response.
It is wonderfully perverse to see you play these twisted shades, even beyond the fact that your character is a killer. Was it hard to hit tonally?
Sorbo: Hercules had a lot of humor in it, and I like sarcastic humor. Maybe it's because I'm a fan of Letterman, I don't know. I grew up in a family of four boys as well, so that stuff was always there with us, competition-wise. So I identified with that. I've done a lot of sitcom work, and I actually had my own pilot for ABC. I feel I'm comfortable with finding the right timing for things.
What makes it even riskier here is the element of violence, especially when it's extreme violence done to female bodies. That's often hard to watch in horror films.
Sorbo: Yeah, but they made female characters that were actually very strong. And somebody mentioned in the audience that a lot of times in horror movies, they trip, they can't find the car, can't find the key, those women always look so helpless. These are not helpless women. They're pretty tough women, in their own right.
That's the first great surprise in the film.
Sorbo: No question. Because you don't really know it until the second time she escapes and dives through the window, you start realizing there's something about this woman that's not quite the same. Because she actually initially comes across as very helpless, when I'm throwing her around and branding her and she's fumbling around. Then she shows her true colors.
Do you see this as a new kind of serial killer villain in the horror lexicon?
Sorbo: Yeah! Because of the humor element in there. But the thing is, he is very violent. He's very scary. He goes from one extreme to the other, there's a north and south pole to this guy and you don't know where he's going to be. When he's beating her up around the house and sits her down and says, 'I think we're having a great time, aren't we? This is a great date!' I didn't hear the reaction I thought I was going to from the audience at the very end. It was interesting; there was sort of a sadness in the audience...
Which was the toughest scene to shoot?
Sorbo: Probably near the very end, when I have Alicia [Leigh Willis] on my back and I'm throwing her up against the walls. We had certain places we had to hit because they made breaking areas in the right spots, we had to make sure we hit them in the right area. I don't know if she's a Method actress but she comes across that way, she really gets into it. I'm from the Meisner technique -- she might be the same, but she really commits, which was great. On top of that she's sexy as hell. I can't remember how many women around me commented on her legs. But my favorite scene, frankly, is my scene with Joel [David Moore] when I speak with him for the first time. He's like, 'Holy shit!'
That's a fun scene; you two are like characters from two different movies sharing the same scene, talking on two different levels about the situation.
Sorbo: It was, because he has no clue. I've known Joel for years, he's a good friend, but that's the only time we've ever worked together.
Were you instrumental in bringing him onboard?
Sorbo: No! They told me they got him, and it was just like, boom! I think at the time when he got it he probably had no idea I was playing The Stranger.
How do you see Julia X in relation to your greater career, especially side by side with your faith-based films?
Sorbo: [Laughs] They're a little bit different. Well, I'm a Christian but I'm also an actor. So there are people like my character. There are certain characters I wouldn't play just out of principle, but this character, I like the bends and twists of him and I just said, yeah, I'm going to do this. But with What If..., and there's another one called Abel's Field and I've got another one I'm shooting this year called Persecuted, and I think we got James Woods which could be very cool. I like to mix it up. I got three TV series that I've sold, two to SciFi and one to Sony. So hopefully I'm on TV on a regular basis again soon, I kind of want to get back in that television mode. So we'll see.
You're known for a number of sci-fi and fantasy properties - is that a creative space you particularly relish working in, or are you looking for other sorts of projects?
Sorbo: The last five or six years I've really mixed it up a lot, but I have no problem being identified with Hercules and Captain Dylan Hunt from Andromeda. From 1993 to 2005 I was very heavily employed, and any actor's grateful to have that. Two series that did that well, that combined 250 hours of television -- I think a lot of actors would love to have that resume so I'm very fortunate. Both shows are still on in about 100 countries around the world.
You're so strongly associated with those characters, Hercules in particular -- do you feel like that ever works against you?
Sorbo: I don't think anymore. People still look at it, and I think the public is open to seeing me in different things, it's certain areas in Hollywood. It's funny, they all have blinders on. They all know you're actors but they look at you one way. It's like, wait a minute -- what if I play a different role? Well, then they think you're that. Hollywood is kind of stupid in a lot of ways, and they're weird people to deal with. The studios are a very odd bit, it's amazing to me that anything gets made because there are so many cooks in the kitchen and everybody's afraid to make a decision. They want to keep their jobs, so nothing happens.
Do you prefer, then, to work outside of that system?
Sorbo: I would rather work outside of it, but you know -- if you want to get involved in network and cable then you've got to work with the studios again. I don't have a problem with studios, it's some of the people that work in them that make things difficult because, like I said, I think a lot of them are just afraid to make decisions.
You were previously up to play roles like Superman and Mulder in The X-Files before your Hercules days.
Sorbo: Before Hercules, yeah. I was down to the last few guys in both of those series.
How different do you think your career would have been if you'd done those shows instead?
Sorbo: X-Files might have [changed my career] because it was mainstream and on a network. Hollywood does have a snobbery toward first run, syndicated shows. Hercules, we ran for seven years and Universal Studios wanted to go for three more years on it, but at that time I was pretty burnt out working 100 hour weeks, lifting two hours a day, every day. I loved Hercules, but by that time I had gotten married, I kind of wanted to move back to the States. I was living in New Zealand and nothing against New Zealand, I had seven wonderful years there and I loved it. But I was ready to do something different. You've got to fight these people on these different things sometimes... it's weird, on the one hand they're happy to have you working that way and on the other they want you to do something different.
But like I said, with the snobbery factor -- Hercules was a first-run, syndicated show. It becomes the most-watched television show in the world yet Hollywood doesn't want to pay attention anyway. Fine, they don't want to look at me as an actor, I have no problem with that. But I told our DP, our directors, our choreographers, our costume woman Ngila Dickson, I told all of those people, 'You should be winning Emmys and Golden Globes for the show, because it's an amazing show." We had two full units, we had $1.4M an episode between 1993 and 2000, which is a lot of money. A lot of one-hour television doesn't do that today. We were in New Zealand, getting double the money. Yet they never paid attention to us. That entire crew went on to work on Lord of the Rings and sure enough, they all won Academy Awards.
What do you think is behind this snobbery?
Sorbo: The networks did not want to bring cable into the Golden Globes and Emmys, but they had to eventually, they were forced to. Now cable's dominating. But they did not want to. It's a pure snobbery issue, there's no question. I think it's not being on a network. The politics of Hollywood are the politics of Hollywood. You've got to fight that game all the time. It gets frustrating. It's weird; I did a sitcom for ABC called Bobby Cannon. It was a show that my manager and I developed, we got Barry Kemp to write it who did Coach, he did Newhart, he did Taxi. We tested number one in all the markets they tested the pilot in, and they didn't pick us up. I swear, it's weird. Why do you spend the money doing that? It comes down to I think they have favors to run with other people. It's strange that you have just a handful of people, at each network, that decide what the world gets to see.
Is there any way to reclaim that power in the choices that you make?
Sorbo: Ha! I don't think anybody can. You get to a point where you can fight it, but I really think it comes down to everybody's afraid to make a decision. I sat in that room when we auditioned five women to play opposite me in my sitcom and I remember the president of ABC at the time saying, 'Uh, you know, I think that I don't like any of them. What do you guys think?' Of course nobody said anything! I stood up and picked two, I said, 'You think Brooke Shields wasn't good?' I thought she was very good, and we had great chemistry. It's weird. It's just a game.
On a lighter note, there's an infamous video of you from the set of Hercules very seriously delivering the line, 'Disappointed!' It seems like you're reading the direction rather than the dialogue.
Sorbo: [Laughs] I don't remember it! It's funny because I remember every episode as a whole, but I'm watching it with my kids again and I'll look at it and go, 'I remember the episode, I remember the storyline, I know that's me talking - but I have no recall of that scene.' That's me, I know it's me! I know I did it. Do I yell out, 'Disappointed?'
Yes. 'Disappointed!' It's so wonderful because you put such conviction into it.
Sorbo: Then I think I remember that. [Laughs] We had a lot of fun on that set.
I was also wondering if you have it written in your contract that you have to keep your fabulous hair intact.
Sorbo: [Laughs] Well, it's been different lengths through the years! I mean, from Hercules to Andromeda, it was shorter than this on Andromeda for five years. But I'm kind of growing it out now. I'll probably have to cut it for Persecution, because I play a Billy Graham type of character. It's a very good script.
Going back to your faith-based work, what do you think it is that's made this genre so successful in recent years?
Sorbo: I think Blind Side sort of opened the door to that. I would put Blind Side in that category.
And there's Kirk Cameron...
Sorbo: Fireproof? You know, Fireproof hit a chord on marriage, it had a resonance with people. Sony came onboard and put big money into it. I think my movie What If... is a wonderful movie, and we had a deal in place with the same division that put out Fireproof and something happened with the producers and we didn't do it. We went out independently on our own, it stayed in theaters for like five months moving from city to city. I would do radio interviews on local radio stations. But I think it's a movie that deserved as much acclaim as that did.
There's still a huge divide between faith-based movies and mainstream audiences.
Sorbo: Well, here's the thing: I think Hollywood is a whore, they'll make anything that makes a buck. Trust me, they will. So there were a lot of people, when I did Soul Surfer and What If..., who said, 'We need more movies like that!' And I said, 'Well then, you're going to have to support them.' Hollywood will make anything they're going to make money on. So these Christian groups and family groups and blah, blah, blah, if they want more movies like that, then they have to support them. Period.