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Reece Shearsmith says the most frightening villains don’t “rant and rave” they’re unwavering in their craziest beliefs

Ben Wheatley's new film In The Earth hits UK cinemas this week so we sat down with one of the film's stars Reece Shearsmith

Reece Shearsmith in In The Earth

Reece Shearsmith has been a staple of British TV ever since the debut of his darkly disturbing but hilarious sketch show The League of Gentlemen. Known for acerbic wit and affection for the gruesome Reece has become a British national treasure appearing on everything from The Great British Bake Off to Doctor Who.

His new role, though, in Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is an altogether different beast. Zach, the crazed man living in the forest who terrorises lma (Ellora Torchia) and Martin (Joel Fry) with his stories of a woodland spirit might sound like the typical fare but Shearsmith plays this a little differently than you’d expect.

It’s a restrained, genuinely frightening performance, that’s not concerned with getting laughs, but with terrifying audiences (although he does manage to get some laughs out of an amputation of all things). Last week we sat down with Reece to chat about all things In the Earth, including how he got cast, what it was like working in those creepy woods, and to ask if he’s a believer in the paranormal.

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The Digital Fix: We’ll start at the obvious place, the beginning. How did you come on board In the Earth?

Reece Shearsmith: It was April last year of the lockdown and I got a text. I think I texted Ben just to say how are you doing and this is all very strange. Isn’t it? And he said, “I’m writing a horror film.” And I was like, “Oh, great.”Well, if there’s anything in it for me?” And he said, “Well, there is.” So I was like, “Oh, right.”, and then it was quite quiet for a few months and I was writing Inside No. 9 and he just rolled on.

And I thought, “I wonder if he’s still doing that film.” And then in June or July, there was, “Yes, it’s happening. The dates are happening, we’re going to do it in August.” I was like, “Really? I can’t believe it.” I didn’t really think it would happen, but suddenly we were there and we were filming in Henley, I’d had COVID tests, and we were a little band of 25 people that were now into the-into the world again and filmed this thing. And it felt like a ray of hope. It was such a great experience, a triumphant experience, to actually film something in those circumstances. It felt very safe, but it was also really cathartic to think it was possible.

You mentioned the cast of 25 people because you worked with Ben in the past on High-Rise, which was a much bigger production. What do you think the advantages are with working on a smaller scale like this?

Ben is very good at calibrating the big or smallness of a project. So, you know, I think he knew he could do this in 15 days. It would be shot like A Field in England was, mostly in order. We were able to just hoover it up and with no messing around, no lighting.

Reece Shearsmith in In The Earth

Suddenly everything becomes about the performance and just capturing what we need in the moment. You know filming is that weird thing of you write it, and then there’s this strange time of hoovering up and collecting the bits you need. Then there’s the end where you reconstruct the whole thing again in the edit.

This was joyous because it felt only about the performance. Ben is a very safe pair of hands as far as an actor’s concerned because you’re so sure that he’s got it all in his head, he’s an editor as well, so when he’s filming, he’s editing in the evening. So he’s constructing the film and what he needs as he’s going along. That’s thrilling because he’s not going to miss a beat because he knows exactly what he wants. I marvel at the fact he has it all in his head, you know, nothing is by accident.

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So it was good. It felt very fast, sometimes that’s the best way to work because you’re not bogged down in oceans of time where you start to lose the wood for the trees. You don’t know what you’re doing anymore.

You made a very timely movie that’s basically about the pandemic, and the isolation of the pandemic, during a pandemic. How did you feel about that while you were making it?

Well, I mean, it was sort of cathartic because we were out of it all and in the woods. So it was our saviour that we were able to embrace the nuts and bolts of actually making the film. It allowed us, from having not been able to go anywhere since March, to make this weird journey into the woods and that was a joyful thing. It never felt like we were, “Oh, we shouldn’t be doing this or it’s too soon” because it felt like the pandemic’s a jumping-off point for a bigger story about humankind and how we tell ourselves stories.

How do you approach a character like Zach? Do you work out a backstory with Ben or do you have another process?

He didn’t give me much about what had happened or where he comes from or what-what his story was. It was just, we find him in the woods. I wanted to try to play as long as possible that he was a benign character and he was gonna be helpful to them. Ben very quickly sort of saw through that and said, “Yeah, the audience will think that for about 20 seconds.” So it was sort of like I couldn’t really play for very long that I was going to be a nice character, but then that was interesting to know because it was like, “Well, let’s not beat about the bush, the audience won’t be that trustworthy of you I don’t think for very long.”

Reece Shearsmith in In The Earth

That’s nice, it’s a relief to not kid yourself that anyone’s going to think anything other than this strange man in the woods that they happened upon that’s there suddenly seemingly going to help them. We calibrated how frightening it would be and how mad he would be and what kind of performance it would be. I think we came down on the side of it being more measured because it was more frightening, I think, to have someone who was so calm and unwavering and sure of themselves in their craziest beliefs.

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That is probably more chilling if you think I’m not gonna be able to persuade them any other way, and I’ve had it now. That was more frightening I think than being ranty and ravey.

Without spoiling anything, there’s a theme running through In the Earth of nature versus the scientific, the supernatural versus the explicable. Your character falls very much on the side of nature. Which side of the coin would you personally say you fall on? Are you a believer or more of a scientific sceptic?

That’s interesting, yeah. I’ve sort of got one foot in enjoying the gothic elements of the mystery, you know, obviously, I’ve been obsessed with ghosts and the supernatural and what happens to us all since I was little, yet I increasingly don’t believe any of it. Of course, it’s not true.

In the Earth hits cinemas on June 18, with previews on June 17. While you wait why not check out our list of the best horror movies.