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Ari Millen on Vicious Fun: how to avoid being pigeonholed, and acting in a horror-comedy

"It’s easy for actors to get pigeonholed"

Vicious Fun is a hilarious and bloody modern comedy-horror movie currently available to watch on Shudder, the horror streaming service. Since its debut, the award-winning film has blown the festival circuit and horror community away, delivering a straightforward but incredibly enjoyable story. It is one of those rare movies which manages to find the perfect balance between horror and comedy.

The film is also a hardcore horror fan’s dream with its homage to ’80s classics in the genre, all its slasher gore, and brilliant humour. The movie is about a horror nerd and journalist Joel (Evan Marsh), who accidentally infiltrates a self-help group for serial killers. It’s obviously a dangerous crowd, but a charismatic blonde Bob (Ari Millen) proves to be the most ruthless psycho in the gang, and refuses to let Joel go.

Previously we here at The Digital Fix got a chance to speak to Vicious Fun’s director, Cody Calahan, where we learnt what it takes to make a successful horror-comedy. Since then, we have been lucky enough to meet with Ari Millen (Orphan Black), who plays the film’s main antagonist, and fan favourite character, Bob. Playing one of his craziest roles to date, Millen tells us what it is like acting in horror and comedy, how he overcame his dancing nerves, and how to avoid being pigeonholed.

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First, congrats on Vicious Fun, and also being nominated for best actor at Panic Fest. How does it feel that everyone with a Shudder subscription will see you as a killer maniac?

Ha, very excited. I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since I first read it, and now it has finally released. There is a lot of anticipation. It’s very exciting.

We got a chance to talk to your director, Cody Calahan, and he said how you read the script, and immediately wanted to be part of this movie about a self-help group for serial killers. What drew you to Vicious Fun straight away?

It’s one of the best scripts I had ever read. The movie is so wildly wacky, and so much of it was already on the page. It wasn’t something that needed to be stretched story-wise. At least for me, it was easy to go far out and grab stuff to bring into the story’s development.

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For Bob he was all there, and for the other characters, I feel like they were just so well written on the page that it was easy to cast exactly who we wanted – knowing who could do that performance and who could bring those characters to life. So we were very lucky in a sense because Vicious Fun’s script was a gift to us actors.

One of my favourite things about the film was, as you said, how clear all the characters were. Apparently, I heard that you told Cody,“ you have to let me play Bob.”

Ha, yeah, oh yeah

So why him specifically? As you said, all these characters are so detailed. Why didn’t you gravitate towards another killer or even the lead role of Joel?

I think a lot of the time, it’s easy for actors to get pigeonholed into roles. You get put in this little hole, and that’s it, that’s what you do, and do well, and you’re convincing in it. Although I often play bad guys, I’m normally much more quiet, more reserved, and more introverted – if that’s the right descriptor for it.

Someone like Bob is a complete extrovert, and is way bigger than would ever normally be at my comfort level, and so I think that is what attracted me to him. It was for the challenge, for the complete fun of it too, and because comedy is not necessarily something I’d get traditionally cast in that often. So if I’m going to get to do a movie with comedic elements, I definitely just want to go for it and jump in the deep end, and sink or swim. Bob was perfect for that.

I was going to ask about the comedy too. Vicious Fun is a horror-comedy, and your comedic timing is great. Acting comedy is just as hard as writing it, but you made me laugh many times during many Bob scenes. Where did your sense of comedy come from? Do you have any other films/shows that influenced your approach to the genre?

There is comedy that I appreciate; whether or not it fed into Vicious Fun and Bob, I don’t know. But I feel like that movie is very much, first and foremost, Cody’s sense of humour. And it’s really him, you know, unapologetically saying, here you go, this is what I love. Cody and I have known each other all our lives, so he and I more or less have the same sense of humour, and so for Bob, I guess for most of the time, I just focused on trying to make Cody laugh.

That might have been some of the inspiration, but I mean as far as comedies that I like, I mean everything, ha. I like everything. Things like Monty Python, I’m rewatching the show Pushing Daisies right now, and it’s brilliant, and anything by Edgar Wright or Simon Pegg. You know, just silly, weird and clever stuff. But not like sophomoric stuff.

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Oh wait, then again, shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or Workaholics inspire me too. Although It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia isn’t sophomoric-even though it is sophomoric – ha, it’s just brilliant. There’s so much intelligence behind being silly, you know? So, I don’t know, if it makes you laugh, that’s what matters, right?

Yeah, horror-comedies tend to struggle to keep people laughing, as well as scared, so one that does like Vicious Fun, is a real achievement.

Yeah, totally

You are no stranger to acting in horror, though. As an actor, does that ever take you to dark places, or get pretty intense? How do you deal with going to that place of ‘I’m a killer now’?

Haha, I mean, I don’t know if I’m doing it wrong. But I haven’t done anything like Heath Ledger did when he did the Joker, or anything like that. I haven’t had to go under to any decompression places are anything like that. I don’t know; for me, I like to see what is on the page, I like to do what the directors say, and I like to see what I look like.

The more I look different after all the hair and make-up, the easier it is for me to separate from myself and become the character and find the permission to make the choices that I wouldn’t make in real life. I guess that is it, and then at the end of the day, the make-up and the hair is gone. I don’t see the character anymore, so it is me again. Maybe that’s the secret – ha, it’s when I start to look like myself again.

Ok, talking about makeovers, here is the big question. Is it true that blondes have more fun?

Haha, definitely; Bob is some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time, but also scary because he was so crazy. Like there is Bob’s dance scene in the film, but I’m terrified of dancing. I was more scared of that scene than anything else I have ever done in my life. I got the music maybe two weeks, three weeks, or a month ahead of schedule. So I would put it on, try and figure out some choreography by my own, self-judging the whole way through, just terrified, terrified, terrified.

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It came to the day of shooting the dance, it was just sort of like a free for all, and I had a just go with it kind of moment. You know, I think the blonde hair certainly helped bring it out of me, but it was still terrifying. I think that moment was the most fun and most scary thing for me. Because so much of Bob and that scene are so unlike me, that I had no instincts to know if I was doing it right or not.

How many takes did you end up doing for the dance scene? How long did your trauma last?

We had two takes; we only had time for that many, so the track played twice, and Cody called cut after the first playthrough. Then he took me aside and told me, “ok, we need this moment, and this moment, and this moment”, you know, telling me everything we needed for when we did the second one.

I remember talking with Jeff Maher, the DP (director of photography), because he was holding the camera for that scene, I think, and working together to get the scene right in those two takes. Yeah, so two takes, that was all the first assistant director (Scott Weatherall) would give us for the time frame.

So you mentioned remembering filming the dance scene, which leads to a question that we previously asked Cody, but we want to know your answer. What was your favourite, fun moment on set while filming Vicious Fun?

I mean, yeah, the dancing was very memorable to me. I think another, which I was just talking about earlier today, was the cop shot with Joel (Evan Marsh) on the one side and Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) on the other, and the cops where Bob is now the FBI agent with the bad fake moustache.

That was the last thing we shot, and there was something about the cop scenes that you remember. The world that the cops live in is very different to some of the other worlds that inhabit Vicious Fun, and they were a lot more ridiculous.

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I think the set was very cohesive in the sense that everyone gave each other permission for the ridiculous world and in all the adlibbing we did. If someone was doing something, that allowed someone else to do something else. So for me, not coming from a very strong improvisational background compared to Evan Marsh, or David Koechner, or even Kristopher Bowman, who was one of the cops, just watching them was great – just seeing how brilliant they could be was really fun.

Watching them go back and forth gave me permission to join in. That scene was the last one, so there was also a now or never just go for it kind of atmosphere, just have as much fun as possible.

There was also sort of that feeling of “and now the movie’s done”. So there was sort of that sense of the scene being close to your heart a bit. But I think I got to wear my heart on my sleeve and leave it all out there. Just do anything I want to do, just go for it because if not now, when?

So yeah, it was just very freeing and very fun and cathartic in a sense. For a lot of the time, there is so much worry and self-judgment, I don’t know, just the actor in your head, you know. So I didn’t have it then; I just had a load of fun, and for once, it was very freeing.

The cop scenes are one of my favourites. I have already described Bob as being Ted Bundy meets Lemony Snicket.

Haha, that’s a pretty good description.

It was your fake moustache and disguises that finalised that comparison for me. Speaking of, you were talking earlier about getting pigeonholed, which is funny because, in a sense, Bob breaks all of that thought with just how many roles he plays within the film. Did your experience acting as various clones in the TV show Orphan Black prepare you for all the roles of Bob?

I mean yes, yes and no. For Orphan Black, all the characters except for Ira were very much in my wheelhouse of comfort level. I mean, Ira was the most exciting clone to me because he was the complete opposite of me and, therefore, the hardest and the most rewarding for me to act as overall. But as far as Bob goes, Bob is so far away from me.

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He was completely on this different level while I am all the way on the other side looking up at him. But saying that, even though there are many characters within the world of Bob, the fact that he is always still on this level meant I could do it. So as long as I could find that level and just try and keep up with him, then I could play all the Bob’s you see in the movie. Thankfully for Orphan Black, I had a lot of practice being able to do that.

One of the things we learnt about the film is that there was lots of groundwork that we don’t see in the movie, like the killer’s backstories etc. When we first meet the self-help group, Bob isn’t there, but one of the killers, Hideo (Sean Baek), is adamant that they wait for you, like really adamant. Is there a hidden story between Bob and Hideo that you two created behind the scenes?

I mean, that’s a good question for Sean. Haha, you know what, I have my own ideas, but I think it is always better that you have your ideas, and that your ideas are what they are without any influence. I think your story is probably better than my story, so I’ll let your story be true.

OK, so a romantic moment in Rome it is then.

Haha, I guess so.

You have a new movie in post-production right now, Six Days to Die, a western. So you are doing another period piece. Which is more comfortable for you, being in the ‘80s like Vicious Fun, or the 1800s in this latest film?

Ha, actually, even though the wardrobe may lead you to believe that it’s the 1800s, it’s very much post-apocalyptic. It’s à la The Postman, à la Waterworld, and à la Mad Max instead. The world has blown up, basically, and Matt Campagna is the writer/director.

It’s his ideal dystopian vision of what would happen to us, and the world is kind of reverted to the wild west. He is very much a spaghetti western fan, he loves his westerns, and so that’s sort of his ideal world. Whenever he gets to make a movie, he brings his stories into a romanticised western picture film.

But what is easier? Um, I don’t know. If you have seen stills from Six Days to Die, the art direction and the characterisation of the character I got to play is just stunning. I got to work opposite my wife too, so that was a load of fun.

But then always working with Cody and Black Fawn Films, and Jeff Maher is great. I don’t know if you ever saw the film The Oak Room that we did together previously, it must have been maybe two months between wrapping up and going straight into Vicious Fun, but you’ll see the moods that Jeff Maher can set with lighting, I mean it is very beautiful and very sinister at the same time, and I love it. So I don’t know, they are both great.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to act in a horror?

I think find the fun in it. I mean, if you’re not having fun, then what’s the point? I feel like why I would watch a horror and why I do watch horror is for what it will evoke in me. I know there are people out there who purely like to be terrified for the rush of it; that’s not me. What I like is to be able to laugh it off while saying, “it’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real”.

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For instance, that movie REC, the Spanish horror movie REC (2007). I remember the first time we watched it; it was like the middle of the afternoon and the middle of summer; it was a really bright day. We were watching it on a small little computer, and we were screaming like little girls. Screaming, and it was so fun just to watch. I think we must have been 25, 26, 27-years-old? But just to watch that movie where the two people who should be on top of everything were just reduced in such a way.

Just from how funny that situation was when you think about it is what I mean. For me acting in a horror, if you aren’t having fun, if you’re not finding the fun in it, there’s a problem. It shouldn’t be scary to be in it; if people are going to be scared watching it, you need to have