Film

Interview: Noah Segan on Collaborating with Rian Johnson, Blending Westerns and Horror, and His Role in the Knives Out Sequel

Actor Noah Segan is likely best known of late for playing the fanboy-ish investigator Trooper Wagner in writer/director Rian Johnson’s exceedingly popular and joyously fun Knives Out from last year. And many of you probably understood that Wagner was only the latest of many characters that Segan has played in all of Johnson’s film, from the sinister Kid Blue in Looper or the creepy Dode in Brick to smaller, ill-fated characters in The Brothers Bloom and even Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Noah Segan with Daniel Craig and LaKeith Stanfield in Knives Out. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

But in the breaks between pairing with his close friend and collaborator Johnson, Segan has carved out a nice niche as an always-working actor, highlighted by work in such genre films as Deadgirl, Mohawk, Starry Eyes, What We Do Is Secret, and Camera Obscura, which just happens to have been directed by Aaron B. Koontz, helmer of Segan’s latest film The Pale Door. Co-starring a rogue’s gallery of terrific character actors (Bill Sage, Melora Walters, Stan Shaw, Zachary Knighton, and Chicago’s own Pat Healy), The Pale Door begins as a Western, following the escapades of the real-life Dalton Gang as they plot and carry out their next train robbery. But when the gang attempts to make their getaway, they stumble into a ghost town inhabited by a coven of witches and things take a dark and particularly gruesome turn.

Segan plays gang member Truman, who is a bit of a lovable dope and something of the film’s comic relief, although he’s a hell of a shooter and does his job well while the robbery plays out. The Pale Door is like candy for fans of both Westerns and bloody horror movies, and while the two genres may not seem like a natural fit, they actually work well together here, combining and embracing the mythology of both elements of American history.

Full disclosure: I’ve known and been friends with Segan for a number of years, so sitting down with him to talk movies (or anything) comes pretty easy to us. That being said, I really did want to seriously discuss his work in this film, as well as dive into how playing such a high-profile character in Knives Out (in which every scene he’s in features Daniel Craig and/or Lakeith Stanfield) has changed things for his career.

The Pale Door will be available in theaters, on VOD and digital on Friday, August 21.

Please enjoy my talk with Noah Segan…

How’s it going, Noah?

Steeeeeeve, oh my gosh. I’m so happy to hear your voice. How are you?

Good. I have to say, as I was watching the movie, and the first time we see you on screen, you’re standing next to Pat Healy, it made my heart sing. He’s such a nice, smart guy, and I’ve known him for years. Please tell me you guys got along famously; that would make me feel so much better.

Oh yeah, Pat and I have worked together before, we run in the same circles, and there have been times when he’s been incredibly generous in terms of helping me prepare stuff professionally. He’s such an incredible actor—he’s a fucking Steppenwolf guy, he’s the real deal. When I saw you in Chicago a couple of years ago, he had given me a list of things to do and places to go—he was very much involved in my Chicago journey. You and he were my Chicago people.

The Pale Door

Noah Segan and Pat Healy in The Pale Door. Image courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

Knowing your love of the genre, I have to imagine that any chance to be in a Western has got to mean so much to you. It’s like you’re in your element.

Well, you know it’s definitely like giving catnip to a kitten. It’s an easy yes for me. I don’t even need my buddies to be making the movie to want to be in it. It was incredible because as much as it became all about that insane, great, classic horror/witch stuff, you’re like “Wait a minute, this is a Western ensemble. This is The Long Riders or The Wild Bunch. This is The Magnificent Seven. We are doing the thing.” And all of those guys walked in knowing it—Pat, Bill Sage—I’m such a huge Hal Hartley fan, so I was gobsmacked to see Bill there—my buddy Zach is rolling in, and Stan Shaw, who’s legendary. Then Melora walks in, who is such a fun and gregarious person, but you also feel like there’s something regal happening here, which helped inform the character in a really great way. With her and Stan, it’s hard not to pivot away from talking shit and smoking cigars to “Tell us a story, please. Bless us with the legends.”

I’ve heard some actors who get to work with legends say that while they’re shooting, they sometimes get lost in watching this incredible actor just do their things, and they forget they have to do something or they have lines, and they might ruin the take because they’ve become the audience.

Exactly. And the thing with somebody like Bill is the greatest mechanic. You want to build a Ferrari? He’s going to go back in the shop and come out with a fucking Ferrari. And to that end, you’re sitting there having a glass of wine with the guy at night, and a few hours later, you get up and go to work, and say “Hey, buddy. How are you doing?” and he’s like “Great, how are you doing?” and they yell “Rolling,” and he’s just in it, and your’e like “Wait, this is the guy now.” So yes, there’s an A Game you must rise to to work with those people.

That’s got to be the best feeling, to have the confidence in your abilities to be there, but then be made better by someone else.

And you want that. They want that. They’re rooting for you, so even Bill or Stan is asking “What is this kid doing? I hope he’s doing it as good as I am because we’re in this together.” And you realize you’re all on the same team, and you’re like “Holy shit. Big fan.”

Talking about Melora Walters, I love her and will watch her in anything. What does she bring to a set, especially one like this where she’s able to cut loose like she does?

The thing about that caliber of actor, and I have to say that everybody in the movie is incredible and is up to the A Game, but somebody like Melora who I didn’t know, so she came with the mystery of the great actor. And she was very much able to maintain that because we didn’t have a ton of scenes together. There’s a mystique and regal-ness that comes with it. She has this ability to flip the switch and come through with this work that you’ve prepared and that you can hit perfectly. It wasn’t a surprise but it was as impressive as anything I’ve ever seen, especially standing next to Aaron who has a Magnolia tattoo, right? So I know this guy is going through the same thing I’m feeling, which is being in awe of this person who were are such a fan of.

Let’s talk about that transition from Western to horror. Lately, people are looking to combine Westerns with other genres—aliens, horror, whatever. But it does feel like they share common ground in American mythology. Do you see that too, that it’s not as weird a fit as it sounds?

Absolutely. You said it very simply. There is something quintessentially American baked into that. It’s like talking about jazz or hip-hop or, to a degree, detective films or Hammett or Chandler. There is a shorthand that we know, and not to get too heavy, but there’s something about genre filmmaking in a broad sense that isn’t just horror. It’s Western, it’s crime film, it’s being able to really delineate what the box is. And because Westerns are such a huge foundational genre, that box is so heavy and strong, and you fight so hard to get out of that box. That’s what makes genre filmmaking so delightful is that you’re constantly comforted by the limitations of it, and you watch people try to punch their way out of it, that makes it the perfect Russian doll to put another box into.

You shot this in Oklahoma. Did that isolation help bring the gang together, as it were?

Yeah, man. It’s summer camp! It’s exactly what you think it is. A bunch of the movie, they built this town out of other sets and crap that was laying around. They built us this town, and then there’s a lot of wilderness that is way out in the middle of nowhere, and at night, you’re going home to a motel or hotel with the same group to have a beer and shake off the day. You are absolutely part of this troop, and it you start to have these feelings like, “I really hope the vibe I feel right now is the vibe we’re giving off to the audience.”

You’ve worked with the director, Aaron, before. Tell me about the vibe he brings to his sets, and what do you think his goal is?

Much like other filmmakers that I’ve worked with before—Rian is the one I’ve worked with the most—they are about unification, they want a benevolent dictatorship. Why wouldn’t you want people to get together, but then you get on one of these sets and you realize that you would do whatever this guy tells me to do. He’s great; I love him and he makes good shit. It’s this idea of everybody coming together over a script and subsequently a really nice, warm, generous person, who ushers you along with these other people to play the song.

In this gang, you get to be the comic relief. Is that a pressure, to be amusing all the time, or does that give you freedom than you might have if you were being someone a bit more serious all the time?

The crazy thing is, I spent the first 15 years of my career playing these real son-of-a-bitch bad guys, super-serious dudes, with their squinting and yelling and beating people up or I’m getting killed. Then all of a sudden, I have a kid and I became a goofy dad, and now it’s like “Can you bring some of that goofy-dad energy to this thing?” I guess that’s my final form, sure. It’s pressure in that, you want to always do the best that you can for your team, and you’re constantly checking in “Am I doing the right thing? Am I here with you?” But then it’s like, “We’re an orchestra and you hired me to play the oboe, so I guess I’m going to play the best oboe I can for you.”

Backing up a bit, how did being Knives Out change things for you. Grandmas know who you are now. We all love Wagner’s enthusiasm, we love that he’s not afraid to wear his fandom on his sleeve. Whenever Daniel Craig and LaKeith are on screen together, you’re there too. You’re on screen so much more than I think I’ve ever seen you. How has it changed things for you?

Thank you. It’s funny, after Rian had done a very early assembly of the movie, before he was ready to show it to anybody, let alone me, I remember at some point when we were together, he looked at me and said, “You know, you’re in a lot of this movie.” [laughs] And I said, “Is that a good thing?” and he said, “No, it’s great. I think it works.” Of course, we have this agreement that whatever the best thing for the movie is is what I’ll do, but I think that the biggest shift for me personally is that I don’t think I’ve ever played a character who felt as much of me. That’s the thing, I do these movies, I do Deadgirl or Looper and there’s crying and yelling, and I don’t think of myself as that. And I don’t think my friends think of me like that either. I think I’m a pretty goofy, silly guy, who just likes shit and am very enthusiastic about shit. So when that came out in the character, I felt validated. And just to have been in a movie that people like so much, that people responded to so much, that grandmas did see, that maybe I can show my kids—I’ve got a movie that, when my kids are 10, they can watch. Cool! There’s something nice about that.

Now that Rian is officially making a Knives Out sequel, people are making jokes about how Daniel Craig should have a new accent for every movie in which he plays this character. But I think that should be you; you should play a completely different character. Do you have any sense as to whether you in any form will be able to be a part of this new film?

Look, the guy has made a bunch of movies, and I’ve been in them and I don’t see any reason we’d want to stop that relationship now [laughs]. That being said, I don’t know and I didn’t know going into Knives Out. I never know what Rian has in mind for me. I just know that I love being a part of his team, and I would do absolutely anything that he needed, whether that’s acting or something else, whether it’s a big role or a small role. You know how it is, it’s just such a pleasure to be doing something that you love with the people that you love, and that enough.

I realize that you’re still very much in the throes of raising two young children, but I’m wondering if you have any current quarantine obsessions—movies or otherwise—that have been occupying your time, when you have any to yourself.

That’s a very good question, because we have a toddler and a newborn, and that does take up a lot of time. The big thing was The Last Dance [documentary series]. We were behind and we finally caught up. I had been meaning to become a basketball fan, and just to get an inside look at the top tier of all time was really inspiring and delightful. I’m a big “Working Moms” fan; I got really excited to have a new season of that, as a working dad [laughs]. I hope your audience who are also home with their kids are like “Hey, this scumbag character actor is sitting around watching ‘Working Moms 2.’ That’s cool.” There’s something comfort foody about it. That’s why I’m excited about coming out with The Pale Door right now—I hope it feels like comfort food for people. It’s a Western; it’s a witch movie. It’s wild and crazy. Get your head out a bit because reality is tough out there.

Noah, thanks so much for doing this. Best of luck and stay safe.

So good to hear your voice. Thanks, man.

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