Speaking with Slash Film, Boyd Holbrook talks about his love for horror movies, the preparation for his role and a sad update on his feature The Thirst:
A mysterious, bloodthirsty creature (or several) haunts a European village, stirring up a wave of panic as townspeople are picked off one by one and leading to the widespread assumption that they must be cursed. That’s not just the general premise behind director Sean Ellis’ latest horror film, “The Cursed,” releasing in theaters today, it’s also the loose inspiration behind the film, rooted in real-world history in 1760s France and a prime example of folklore that taps into the sort of primal fears which attracted actor Boyd Holbrook to “The Cursed” in the first place.
The “Narcos,” “Logan,” and “The Predator” actor portrays John McBride, a pathologist initially shrouded in mystery who’s sent to the English countryside to investigate reports of animal attacks on young children. His arrival is made necessary by the ruinous choices of landowner Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie), who instigates a coldblooded massacre of an indigenous Roma community for refusing to rescind their claim on what he deems to be his land. By the time remorseless mercenaries subdue the Roma elder (Pascale Becouze) and sentence her to the cruelest death, the fate of Seamus’ settlers is already sealed. She ensures that 30 pieces of silver, melted down and fashioned into a set of fang-tipped teeth, are buried with her, and sets off a curse that brings about supernatural retribution in the form of werewolves — the likes of which even horror junkies have never seen before.
“The Cursed” originally debuted during 2021’s Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews, though under a different title (“Eight For Silver”) and with some slight changes from the theatrical cut. Holbrook’s character ends up wearing several different (metaphorical) hats throughout the film, entering the picture first as a prototypical ‘mysterious stranger comes to town,’ proving himself to be a skilled scientist, slowing doling out hints of a tragic past, and even getting into the thick of the action later on.
I had the opportunity to speak with Holbrook about his eclectic career that spans underrated supporting roles (“A Walk Among the Tombstones”) to exciting high-profile projects still on the horizon (“The Sandman,” “Indiana Jones 5”), the preparation that went into his performance in “The Cursed,” and the eeriness of acting in a film that features a pandemic in the background. And yes, the rumors are true: he’s a big f***ing fan of horror films, too.
‘I’m a big f***ing fan of horror films’
Is there any one thing you look for in a script that draws you to these projects, or are you just constantly looking for something new?
You know what, I’ve not really done a lot of this by some grand mastermind plan. I wish I was that smart, but turns out, it’s just how life has sort of bounced me off one wall to another wall, into these projects with these characters. I think for me, being an actor is just investigating something that’s really foreign to me: a different person’s life that I really get a lot of satisfaction and joy out of, just sympathizing to a level of their existence, and how their life is. I’m just fascinated with that…
I think it’s more challenging, too. For example, a lot of Brits are playing Americans, but no Americans are playing Brits … Working with [director Sean Ellis], and Kelly [Reilly], and Alistair [Petrie], was something that I hadn’t had a chance to do yet, so that’s what I wanted to explore in this. And I’m a big f***ing fan of horror films, that’s fun.
Do you want to be known as a character actor, as a chameleon or jack-of-all-trades who can handle anything that a director can throw your way?
Yeah, I love how everything can accumulate into something like that. It has to be a character that has a great arc, and the story has to be all there. But then, stuff I do look for is, where’s the character’s voice? Where does that function out of? The cosmetics, that’s really a lot of play that you can get to do, and sort of mask work, so to say, and really just function out of a different place. Depending on how big the budget is [laughs], you can go a little further, or if it’s an indie film, it’s just pretty raw. So yeah, I’m really interested in that, actually.
‘Take a classic folklore and add a new bite to it’
Your character in “The Cursed,” John McBride, he’s almost several different characters in one. These qualities, that range on display, is that what helped draw you to this character specifically?
Yeah, I’m really fascinated about any time period before 1895, when things weren’t so luxurious as they are now. A more pioneering, revolutionary people who had to deal with so many restraints and just actual living. There’s something romantic about that for me, and the masculinity and the femininity to strive through those times, so that was really interesting for me. And then also, the folklore that this is based on, which is the Beast of Gévaudan, which is from 1768 to 1773, I think, where about 80 people died in this region in France, and that’s documented. So, that was pretty interesting to take a classic folklore and add a new bite to it [laughs].
Now, how do you prepare for a role like this? Did you do research into what kind of medical information was available in the 19th century?
Well, really, for me, I hadn’t played a Brit before, so it was about a month of drilling dialect stuff. I worked with my great and dear friend, Gerry Grinnell, he’s my voice coach, so we just beat that in. And on top of that, just getting old manuals of autopsies and anything. I mean, it was pretty primal stuff back then. Again, just the rawness of all that was just really present in the work, I think.
Since you mentioned autopsies, I do have to ask you how filming went for the autopsy scene. Was all that practical effects? How was it, filming that?
I won’t give much away of the film, but there’s one scene in particular where we’re doing a bit of an autopsy scene of some sort [laughs]. I was really mystified and mesmerized of actually what was happening, of how they got to pull that off with special effects and just the reality of it, and the surrealness of it all was pretty astonishing.
Were you able to improvise a lot on set, or was it mostly a case of what was in the script is what you got?
What was pretty much in the script was what you got. Sean would change things along as we went on, but it was, pretty much, I’d say about 90%. And I prefer it that way. Making a lot of choices all the time I think maybe works for more comedy-driven stuff, more loose. But since this is a horror film at the core of it, you need that technicality to build that tension, and to be making random choices on the fly doesn’t really fit for that kind of filmmaking.
In this movie, there’s a cholera epidemic going on, and looking back on it, that’s kind of scarily relevant. Did you catch yourself going, “Wow, this movie was a little more prescient than I even thought it was,” while filming?
Well, yeah, we were reminded of how history repeats itself in different forms, and how everything can just really be changed by a disease, and modern medicine, of how that can all shape and just set the function of things. Yeah, it was interesting to see that, and also surreal [laughs], and I don’t think anybody’s enjoyed the last two years too much.
I know you have a feature in the works that you’ve actually written the script for, or are in the process of writing. Do you have any updates on that?
You talking about “The Thirst”?
“The Thirst,” yep.
Yeah, “The Thirst,” unfortunately, it’s really hard to do both things, produce, and direct, and write. I think it’s like a different puzzle, and then acting is also a different puzzle. I’ve put that on the back burner, long story short [laughs]. I just really want to focus on acting, I’m in search of a perfect performance, and I’m just trying not to split my time, and it’s just really mastering and do one thing well. Really well [laughs].