Film

Interview: Michaela Watkins and Michael Chernus on Werewolves Within, Improv on Set and Filming in the Dead of Winter

Some might say it’s scary how many talented comedic actors make up the ensemble cast of the new horror comedy Werewolves Within, directed by Josh Ruben (Scare Me) and written by Mishna Wolff (based on the virtual reality game of the same name). After a proposed gas pipeline creates divisions within the small town of Beaverfield and a snowstorm traps its residents together inside the local inn, newly arrived forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson, Veep) and postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) must try to keep the peace and uncover the truth behind a mysterious creature that has begun terrorizing the community.

The film features such luminaries as Wayne Duvall, Cheyenne Jackson, Harvey Guillen, George Basil, Catherine Curtain, Rebecca Henderson, Glenn Fleshler, and Sarah Burns. In addition, we get one of the greatest comedic character actors of all time, Michaela Watkins (Wanderlust, Sword of Trust, Casual, and about 5000 other films and TV series) and the terrific performer Michael Chernus (Orange Is The New Black, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Captain Phillips, Mistress America), who has quite a few higher-profile acting credits than you might realize. I got to speak to the pair recently about the film’s seemingly crowded on-set dynamic, how Werewolves Within distills Americans into our best and worst qualities, and the impact of working in an actual freezing-cold environmental-impact comedy. Please enjoy…

Werewolves Within

Michaela Watkins in Werewolves Within; image courtesy of IFC Films

Michaela, I read a quote from you once that I’ll never forget, that you tend to play characters that you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes in a room with. I’m wondering, where does Trish rank on that hang-ability timeline?

Michaela Watkins: I would say two minutes would be my shush limit.

Michael Chernus: That’s generous.

What about you, Michael? How would Pete rank with you?

MC: I feel like I’ve been hanging out with “Petes” my whole life. He’s not someone I would gravitate towards, but he is someone I know for sure.

When you have such a large, very funny ensemble cast, with so many great improv artists among you, are you always looking for moments where you can stray from the script without stepping on someone else’s joke? Were you given that kind of freedom, or was Josh being the air traffic controller in those situations?

MC: It’s a little bit of all those things. Josh is a great at…air traffic controller is a good metaphor. He’s also conductor of this incredible orchestra of improvisers and actors. I find that whenever I try to come up with something funny, it’s awful. I fall flat on my face, and it’s never the joke you wrote at home or bit you did in your mirror that works. This may not be the way everybody works, but with this group of actors, just showing up, listening and being present, you’ll find your moment and how you fit into the chorus. It was such a wonderful group of people to play with, because it didn’t feel like anyone was trying to one-up each other.

MW: I agree with that. For me, there was no plotting or planning of how I could deviate from the script. Everybody embodied their characters so much that if there was something that was driven by our character’s behavior, things would bubble up and there was improv there, but it was really character-driven improv. Like if somebody swore, I knew my character would say “Language.” That’s just who my character was; she was a horrible person, so the greatest thing you could do would be to swear.

Like many great horror movies, we discover that the true monster is ourselves. Do you get a kick into the crazy and awful sides of these people? What does that bring to the comedy?

MC: It’s a total delight. One of the reasons we got into this. Not to be too cheesy and on-the-nose, but the werewolf is within. The film is based on this video game, which in turn in based on this parlor game called “Mafia” that’s been around a long time. It’s sort of a social experiment about what happens when you get a group of people around in a room and say “One of you is a killer,” and let the games begin and see how everybody accuses of each other and has their own agendas and biases, which influence how they see those around them. Is it fun to play someone who’s creepy? Yeah, especially when there’s free rein to do that, and you’re doing it for a purpose.

MW: It’s so fun to play that person because as artists or actors, we’re so aware of human behavior and how we are, that we check ourselves and hold ourselves and try to evolve to be the highest version of ourselves. When you get to be the laziest version of yourself, or if you grew up in a different lifestyle and had different conditioning, who would that person end up being? That’s what’s so satisfying about it, living a ghost ship life of yours that wasn’t the life that you chose to live, but it’s playing make-believe and dress-up. It’s still a rooted, realistic person inside of there.

MC: That shadow self that we all have. If there were no morals or laws, what would you do?

So much about these characters has to do with how isolated they are from the world, and then there’s a snowstorm coming on top of that to further isolate them. When you consider the darker parts of yourself, do you wonder “How would I behave if no one was watching me?”

MW: I think when people are scared, people’s survival instincts can make you become really self-centered, “I have to take care of me and my own.” We’ve seen that in this country in the last few years, where people feel like their slice of the pie is threatened and the hackles come up and [they] start accusing the neighbor, and the mob mentality that comes with things like that. We don’t feel safe enough to assess and go “Okay, this is just paranoia.” But in this movie, there is a real threat; we just don’t know where it’s coming from, and you watch everyone turn on each other.

Werewolves Within

Image courtesy of IFC Midnight

Talk about Josh. It’s only his second film, technically, but he’s directed what seems like hundreds of shorts over the years. How was he different than some of the other people you’ve worked with?

MC: He has boundless energy. I don’t know how he does it. And he’s so positive, and it’s infectious. He’s so optimistic, encouraging and supportive, and really it was a democratic process with the best idea always winning. Improv almost isn’t the right word; it just felt collaborative. Because he’s an actor and comedian, he knows how it feels when you aren’t treated as an equal collaborator, when you’re just a piece of screen flesh [laughs]. Lens meat.

MW: Josh is a genius about comedy. He’s a musician about it, and it’s funny you said composer because he hears the music in his head, and sometimes between takes, he’ll say “What does this need?” and you can see that he’s hearing the rhythms and making sure that they’re there. He is so encouraging to everybody that if you’re on the right path, he encourages that. I’m just a trained seal, and if he throws me a fish, I’ll just give him anything, leave it all for him. “You like that? Here’s more!” For actors like me, who are wicked director pleasers, I don’t have any perspective when I’m making something. All I really have is that the director is happy, and if the director is happy, I’m happy. And he was very happy the whole time, and I realized “Uh oh, he’s just a happy guy. Is this going to be any good?” I’m kidding. If you see his feature Scare Me, it’s so good. He’s a little wizard.

You shot this in upstate New York in the dead of winter, so the snow and cold is not faked. How does that change or inform your performance? David Letterman always said that comedy was better in the cold. Is that true?

MC: It really informed everything so much. We were also staying in an old ski lodge that had been converted recently into a hip, upscale hotel, but it hadn’t opened yet. We were part of its soft opening and were the only guests throughout shooting. So our working life and home life were mirror images of each other. We’ve been jokingly saying that it was like adult summer camp in the winter, and we were trapped together in the snow, which bonded us very quickly.

MW: It was everything I’d hoped it would be in terms of that environment. What was weird is that we were in this isolated place, making this, and we all got on planes, and a week later there was a global shutdown.

I heard that. You missed it by days, it sounds like.

MW: Yeah. I couldn’t believe how quickly we came up against getting the whole movie in the can before things shut down. It’s such a blessing, and it was such a great way to go into isolation, having been around the funniest people. It was such a celebration out of society.

Thank you both so much. It was great talking to you. Best of luck with this.

MW: Take care.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *