Jeffrey Dean Morgan Talks The Possession, 'Horrendous' Child Actors, And The Rut
How do you get in touch with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who lives with his family far outside the confines of Hollywood "in the woods," to ask him to be in your film? If you're like The Possession director Ole Bornedal, you go old school. "The script was sent to me with a really nice letter that Ole had written asking me to be a part of it," Morgan told Movieline. "It sat on my desk for a couple of days, but I kept reading this letter." Eventually Morgan read the script and, enticed by the familial relationships at the center of the demonic possession tale, got over his reluctance to take on the "overdone" horror genre to play a father desperately trying to reconnect with his daughter — and, in the process, save her from an evil spirit.
In this weekend's The Possession Morgan plays Clyde Brenek, a career-focused college basketball coach whose pending divorce is taking a heavy toll on his two young daughters, one of whom — Em (Natasha Calis) — has formed a strange attachment to an antique Jewish box found at a yard sale. (The film is inspired by the real life account of the Dybbuk Box, a Hebrew wine cabinet allegedly haunted by an evil spirit which reigned down terror and ill fortune on multiple owners.)
Movieline caught up with Morgan last month at Comic-Con, where the Watchmen veteran planned on walking the floor to find geek treasure for his son ("Sometimes it gets a little unruly for me down there, but I dig this world"), marveled at the maturity of his young co-stars ("I’ve worked with kids that are just horrendous, and it’s mostly because of their parents") and discussed Karyn Kusama's The Rut, in which he'd play dad to Chloe Moretz's teenage huntress.
What made you want to jump into a story like this?
Because it was an actual story. I certainly wasn’t looking to do a horror movie — I think they’ve been kind of screwed up lately, all the found footage, it’s just been kind of overdone. The script was sent to me with a really nice letter that Ole [Bornedal] had written, asking me to be a part of it. I didn’t read the script; I was like, ‘Oh God, it’s a horror movie — it’s just not what I’m looking to do.’ It sat on my desk for a couple of days, and I kept reading this letter.
What did it say?
It was just very sweet and complimentary about my previous work, and it was really well-written.
Do you get a lot of those letters?
Sometimes! I guess I do, because I’m never around. I live in the woods, so really the only way you can get to me is if you send a letter.
You’re like Bill Murray!
[Laughs] I love Bill Murray, but I’m not quite Bill Murray. I wish!
So you got a letter from Ole.
So, I got this letter — and I read the script and I was like, “Crap, this is a really good script.” The story’s there, it’s really character-driven, it’s not a typical horror movie.
Demonic possession is its own storied subgenre within horror. What set it apart, beside the dybbuk aspect?
I guess it’s a little Jewish. But I think it was the dynamic of these characters that sets it apart. The only way this movie works, the only way any movie works, is if somehow the audience can get invested in these characters. And again, I don’t know if this genre has capitalized on getting to know characters very well. I think this movie had that aspect to it. Then I watched a couple of Ole’s films and thought, this guy has a singular look that I haven’t seen. Him and his DP are so good at setting a mood and knowing where to put a camera — and you’d think all directors know this stuff but they really don’t, it’s a crap shoot. I felt like you really knew what he was doing behind the camera. I had a couple of conversations with him on the phone. He was like, “Don’t think of this as a horror movie,” and what he saw and what I saw were really meshing.
You've played a lot of fathers, but here so much rides on finding the right young co-star.
That was the other key for me — how are you going to find this little girl? You’re asking a lot of any actor, much less a young actor, to make this believable. Her performance is what makes this movie work or not work. He sent me a DVD of an audition/work session that he’d done with her, and only after I saw that did I agree to do the movie. I saw that audition and was like, holy God, this girl is something. And she really is something. The stuff she pulled… was amazing, and I don’t know how she did it and what kind of life experience she has to be able to draw from. It was terrifying to act opposite of.
I guess that helps?
Yes, but I was really worried for Natasha, going into some really dark places. For one, I didn’t know where she was going and getting this darkness.
How old was she at the time?
She was 11. Eleven! So it kind of blew my mind.
Did you draw on your own life experience, being a father yourself, to tap into your character?
Yeah. I love kids, which helps. And the opportunity to be the dad to Natasha [Calis] and Madison [Davenport] in this film, they were such great little girls and had such great senses of humor. They didn’t take themselves too seriously and they were actually little girls.
Instead of miniature grown-ups?
Yeah! I can hear her talk now and she’s grown up a lot since I last saw her, but she was just a kid! An eleven-year-old kid who was just a kid. She wasn’t some actor-y [child performer]. And Ole gave us an opportunity to not just stick to the page, so I was able to infuse some humor and other stuff that maybe wasn’t there, that kind of shows the father-daughter relationship, especially going through the divorce that my character is going through. So there are just some really real moments in this movie that were my favorite things to film. Natasha was so great at falling into that, I think I learned from her somehow. I thought I was going to have to be babysitting a kid, but she was probably more babysitting me. I’m just truly blown away by what she did and I give a lot of credit to her parents for raising her – I’ve worked with kids that are just horrendous, and it’s mostly because of their parents. [Laughs] Off- and on-camera. But off, yeah. They’re little beasts! Little holy terrors. And you always worry about that, you know? There’s that rule, don’t work with kids and animals. There’s a reason for that! But it was great, it was truly great. I think the relationship we formed between takes and off-camera really shows on screen.
How would you describe Sam Raimi’s influence as a producer on The Possession?
He’s sort of the innovator. I don’t know how much, but Sam would get the dailies after the first week and the notes stopped. I know that Sam was prepping his Oz movie at that time and he was watching the dailies, but all the feedback we were getting from Sam was really positive. He just sort of oversaw from afar.
You have so many upcoming projects! Do you foresee any of them bringing you back to the genre fold again, the Comic-Con fold?
None of them, really –— which means I need to find another one so I can come back! Maybe they’ll do something with the Watchmen stuff, the prequel stuff. Maybe we’ll get to do something there.
You’re attached to a Karyn Kusama project called The Rut, which would be one of multiple projects with Chloe Moretz.
I’m very excited about that. That’s one of those countless movies that you’re just waiting for all the pieces to come together, finances and all that, but I’m so thrilled to be working with her and Chloe, who I’ve done a couple of things with already.
Chloe has established her reputation as the preeminent young lady ass-kicker.
That’s exactly right! She’s doing Carrie now. She’s amazing, Karyn is amazing, and I think they got Ray Liotta to be the heavy in this. It’s a really cool script. It’s Winter’s Bonemeets…
A little bit of Hanna! I loved that movie, by the way. Good one. But I’m very excited about this movie. We need a winter location in the woods somewhere.
Well, you do live in the woods.
I know, and don’t think I haven’t said it! Because I do actually know where we could shoot this movie…
The Possession is in theaters today. Read Movieline's review here.