Film

Interview: Stand-Out Chicago Actor Pat Healy on Making Westerns, Costumes to Inspire Character and Bonding on the Set of The Pale Door

Chicago-born actor Pat Healy has been working steadily and memorably in film and television for more than 20 years, in parts of every size and shape, beginning with his time early in his career at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Perhaps it was there that he learned the fine art of staring into your soul, which not only aids in making him one of the funniest character actors around but also forces you to hang onto every word when he’s delivering intense dramatic dialogue. He’s worked with some of the biggest directors in the world and had standout roles in such films as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, David Gordon Green’s Undertow and Snow Angels, Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

The Pale Door

Pat Healy in The Pale Door. Image courtesy of the film.

In the early 2010s, Healy gracefully moved into more substantial roles beginning with the exquisite horror work The Innkeepers and continuing with a string of great roles in films like Compliance, Starry Eyes, Draft Day, and his groundbreaking lead performance in 2013’s Cheap Thrills. Hell, Marvel even cast him in a small role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and in 2017, Healy achieved two personal milestones: he got to work with Steven Spielberg in The Post and he directed his first feature, Take Me. Just in the last year, he’s become a series regular on ABC’s “Station 19” and appeared in the Sundance hit, HBO’s celebrated Bad Education.

His latest movie is The Pale Door, which co-stars a rogue’s gallery of terrific character actors such as Bill Sage, Melora Walters, Stan Shaw, Noah Segan, and Zachary Knighton. The film 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.

Healy plays Wylie, the brains of the operation, who plans the gang’s capers but often sits out of actually executing them. As I said in the introduction to my interview with Segan last week, 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.

The Pale Door is currently available in theaters, on VOD and digital. Please enjoy my conversation with Pat Healy.

Once again, this is one of those rare opportunities where you get to be in a Western, and I’m guessing that means something to you.

It’s my favorite genre of movies. They don’t get made any more, and I’ve been lucky enough to be in two, and I did a television pilot a few years ago, and I had to learn a lot of riding and shooting while riding. So to be able to do that now…I guess when you’re a kid, you want to be a cowboy or some sort of soldier, shooting a gun, it starts with that. The Westerns are really our American mythology. And then to have the genre element, the American mythology of witches, combined in a pretty clever way I think, that was exciting for me. We don’t do a lot of riding in this, but to be on a horse again, even through we’re just loping around mostly. Still, to get on one of those animals and looking out on the wide open spaces of Oklahoma is pretty special. I consider myself fortunate in that way.

When you find out that this film melds these two genres, it’s a really cool way to keep both of them fresh.

Anything to keep them alive, I think is important, especially to someone, as you know, who shares a love of film history, mythology and history in general. It’s important to keep it alive because it exists for a reason, and it’s kept alive in other ways like cop movies and action movies that are essentially Westerns. Obviously, horror is bigger than ever now; it’s finally a mainstream genre, and those movies can usually be expected to do well, especially the ones with wide releases. I think it helps the genre to piggyback onto one that is popular now and maybe introduce some people to things they might have otherwise seen. But I think in the other way, the character I play, Wiley, who’s the logic guy, the business guy, the numbers guy—he plans everything down in a book and writes everything down.

You can say he’s the brains of the Dalton Gang. No reason to be humble.

[laughs] Yeah, alright. He’s the brains of the operation—I think they even say that in the movie. So for him to be thrust into this situation where none of that is helpful to them, and if he’s a person who approaches everything with logic. As soon as he realizes the thing on the train is not the thing  that’s supposed to be on the train, immediately he’s like “I don’t know, I’ve never encountered this before.” Then cut to a little bit later, and it’s insane. Every time I do something, I think “This is me and this is me in this situation. How would I react?” Me, I’m a fairly logic-based person and a skeptic and not a believer in the supernatural, then I would be in shock, and that’s what happens. He goes down this road where none of his tools are useful, and he goes into a bigger and blacker hole as it goes on. We’re talking about the genres blending, and there’s an allegory because it’s a tried-and-true genre that doesn’t veer too far. I like Westerns because the stories are simple but the characters are complicated, and that’s what makes each one unique and different. So in this case, we have a very simple story of a train robbery and a gang, but then this other movie happens, and suddenly everything goes out the window. Those are very exciting movies to watch because you can’t know what’s going to happen next, and that’s the thing I look for most in a movie. Even if a Western does what you expect, it’s all the details of the characters or situation that make it interesting.

I’m always fascinated by someone who not only, as you said, has the skills to deal with something like this, but doesn’t even have the frame of reference to understand what’s going on.

No frame of reference. That’s something that I constantly brought up. Let’s say you were in a gang now and you did a heist, you’d have the frame of reference of horror movies, so even if you didn’t believe in it in real life, there’s all that stuff. But a hundred-some years ago, there’s none of that reference. I constantly kept coming back to that. What would that look like? There’s nothing. It’d be like now, if the simulation that we’re living in just suddenly stopped and we saw we were living in the Matrix. Although it wouldn’t even be that, because we’ve all seen The Matrix [laughs]. There would be no way for this person to comprehend what’s going on. It’s written in a way where he ends up in the natural progression from starting there, and what I decided as an actor, is that he goes into a state of shock, running on instinct, and he can be helpful in certain ways, like shooting a gun, but he never really recovers from that shock and just enters a different dimension.

Other than wearing that spiffy hat, how do you embody and convey intelligence in a film like this? How do you stand out as that guy?

Well yeah, so much of it is the wardrobe, which is different from every other character. It makes you stand in a certain way because it’s tight and form fitting, so you stand with a more correct posture and makes you walk in a different way. It even makes you talk in a different way, especially with the accent, which we decided would be a more refined, genteel, Southern thing, different than the raw accent some other people were doing, and that stands out. And you mentioned the hat, it’s a more refined hat. In the first half of the movie, the other gang members are men and women of action, and he is a person of thought, so you see the gears turning for him a lot more, and you see him refer to his book and thinking. He doesn’t participate in the train heist; he plans it and tells them where they need to be and when. And then when all hell breaks loose, you see those gears turning and then they start to turn in a bad way. His mind can’t comprehend or handle what’s going on, and you let it take you and let the weirdness that’s happening on set with the effects and makeup and what happens in the story, and let it take you out of that place, and brains aren’t working anymore.

Let me ask you about working in Oklahoma. Did being there help add to the Dalton Gang bonding scenario?

Oh yeah! We’re in a very small town. We’re all staying in the same little roadside motel. It’s extremely, oppressively hot and humid—I’m not completely unfamiliar with that because of Chicago, but it was like times 100. And we’re shooting at night, so it’s a lot. You’re already exhausted but then you go out and it’s 80 or 90 degrees with 95 percent humidity at 3 in the morning and mosquitoes the size of small crows. It helps put you in the world of the movie, and we’re together all the time off camera, bonding. When it’s a low-budget, compressed-timeframe movie, you’re always bitching too because something is going wrong all the time [laughs]. But this was very smartly put together by the producers, and it creates that bond between us and that translates to the relationships on screen.

Pat, always a pleasure. Hopefully we’ll see you back in Chicago soon.

Good to talk to you, Steve, and can’t wait to see you in person. Thanks.

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