1997 Interview with Roger L. Jackson

(The following interview was composed for Wednesday's Korner in 1997 for the original version of website. It is now on the blog site as of July 10, 2010).

The following interview with Roger L. Jackson takes us into his fascination with dark, evil characters that are not only in his mind, but are in all our minds. The person behind the Voice is more real than you can ever imagine. And now, onwards into the deeper facets of Roger L. Jackson. 

Is this the first voice character role that required you to incite fear? If not, what were the other roles?
Actually, I'm partially typecast as the dark and evil kind. I do mostly character work, all kinds, but I get requested especially for dark parts. I've been the villain in several animated films (direct to video, oriented to little kids, so you probably wouldn't have seen them). I was Pharoah in The Story of Moses, Mordred in Camelot, and the Evil Monkey in Tarzan of the Apes. On radio/audio productions I've been a murderer and a vampire. And though it's not technically evil, I was the translator device in Mars Attacks. And I've just been hired to do Roach Coach in The Power Puff Girls for the Cartoon Network.

I like evil. Evil is good.

In auditioning for the role, how much time were you allowed with the Screamscript before you actually read it for someone? Who was it that you read for that got you the part?

I read for it at Hayes/Van Horne Casting in San Francisco. We just walk in, get a copy of the script and wait our turn. In other words, you read it right then. In this case the audition was handled by a member of the H/V-H staff, not the producers themselves. We were given the script, which had no explanation of the background for the scene; we were just told that it was a psycho scaring someone on the phone (and during filming, I didn't know who the killer/s were or what was going to happen; very secretive set). So I did my work, i.e. broke down the action in the scene and tried to find a handle on it.
You could tell from the way it was written that the guy was playing with her, spider and fly, so he had to have enough charm or sexiness to keep her on the line. And the way I saw it, being on the phone, he's essentially talking right into her ear, he's almost right inside her head. And someone whispering "I'm going to kill you" right into your ear is a lot scarier than someone standing across the room shouting it at you. Another part of the creepiness is that she lets him inside, no coercion, no forcing; so it's that much scarier when she realizes she's let a monster inside of her. I know many women who have had that experience (right girls?).

Did they tell you why you were chosen, if so, what did they say?

I wasn't really told why, just that they liked it. But on the commentary track of the special edition laserdisc of Scream Wes and Kevin (Wes Craven, the director, and Kevin Williamson, the writer) had some very nice things to say about me.

Your scary, stalking voice stirs my juices, but to the average person, it's quite intimidating. Given that the killer(s) in both movies is/are a bit deranged, how do you feel mentally about being a scary character?

I am a scary character. Okay, not really, that is, I don't look scary. But some people are intimidated by me. I like it when I hear people talk about how scared they were by "the Voice," because it means I got to them, I had an influence on them, I did a good job. There's nothing like the thrill of moving an audience, whether it's an audience in front of your painting or an audience at the theatre.

Are you a horror movie fan and were you inspired by any particular horror movie character?

You mean inspired for this part? Not really. I love horror, science fiction, and other genre movies, but I didn't have anyone particular in mind for this part. The vocal texture is similar to the voice of the bug/typewriter in Naked Lunch (actor Peter Boretski), but not the character. I thought more of Harvey Keitel as Sport, in Taxi Driver, in that he's dangerous and evil, but he has to be charming enough to keep the girls with him. And I thought of Mark Rydel in The Long Goodbye, where he coos soothingly to his girlfriend, then smashes a Coke bottle into her face.

The most terrible horror is the everyday kind. That's why I consider David Mamet's Oleanna a horror film. We all have a little monster in us.

Did you ever work in a haunted house?

No, but I lived in one. A real one.

Before Scream was a part of your career as a voice actor, did you have any aspirations to work in horror movies or goals to do any voice characters for animated films?

Oh yes. Yes yes yes. Animation is my love. It combines the best of cinema and radio theatre. Good voice and sound work drives a well animated film, and can save a badly animated one. Just look at "South Park." The animation couldn't get much cruder, but it's so well written and performed that it just knocks you out. In fact, if the animation were more complex it would detract from the story and character action. (It's really well designed, too).

I'd like to do more work for live-action film as well. Gibberish is a specialty of mine, and I'd love to do alien languages. I've been doing puppet work since I was about seven, and would kill to have the chance to work on something like Jim Henson's "The Storyteller" series (a brilliant group of work; masterpiece material).

But audio drama is just made for horror and fantasy. I wish there were a more active market for radio theatre in America. I could do some stuff that would strip the skin off your spine.

What's your whole take on horror movies? Do you find yourself excited by them?

People like to be scared, they like thrills. They like ghost stories and tales of spirits and creatures that exist beside us, but not in the same world. Madmen and the insane come under this umbrella. Maybe it's part of the innate feeling that there is more to this world than we usually see. And horror films help process these feelings of our being subject to the extra- or super-natural, in the same way religious ceremony can. It's no accident that so much of horror is connected with religion, and the new religion of science. Yeah, yeah, a lot of hot air, I know. But horror serves a purpose. I've found that the same people who say, "I can't watch those scary movies," are often the same people who tie up traffic rubbernecking at accidents, looking for blood and gore. That's not disgusting, but Evil Dead is?

I like good horror films, but I have no patience for mediocre horror. I've never been able to sit through stuff like Prom Night, or formula set-'em-up-knock-'em-down junk, or just stupid tripe like Rawhead Rex. That doesn't mean they have to be slick or big budget. Night of the Living Dead, Deathdream, and Martin are good examples of what you can do without big capital.

And, as I said before, everyday horror is interesting. I think films like Oleanna, Mommy Dearest, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Peeping Tom are all horror films, or have elements of horror to them. Remember how Faye Dunaway looked like a Kabuki demon in the scene with the "wire hangers"? The video of the family being killed in Henry? Real life monsters, like Nazis, Klansmen, Dahmer, religious zealots, and people like the school board member in Santa Rosa who wouldn't let the Scream crew film at the local high school (even though the kids and the community wanted it) because he didn't want to promote the terrible violence and behavior of this kind of film, and was later arrested for beating his wife.

Are you easily scared yourself?

I can work myself into the groove of a good film, but generally it takes a lot to get to me. The only film that still gives me the heebee-geebees after years of repeated viewing is The Exorcist. Others are still creepy, but there's something special about that film.

Were there any horror movies that you saw during your childhood/teen years that made an impression on you, if so, what are they and why?

As a little kid in the early 60s I loved the monster movies run on tv: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy. In Atlanta (my home town) we had a Friday night show called "The Big Movie Shocker" with Bestoik Dooley. I remember looking out the windows into the night to see if the Wolfman was at the window looking for me. I remember Frankenstein throwing the little girl into the water; that great scene in The Mummy with the piece of his wrapping dragging out the door as the scientist giggles weirdly, having lost his mind; the Wolfman's transformation. The Invisible Man, The Giant Tarantula, The Blob, 13 Ghosts, The House on Haunted Hill, The Teenage Werewolf... Monsters were for me! So I collected monster cards and models and magazines.

"The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits" were the best! I couldn't watch that TZ with the ventriloquist whose dummy takes over his life for years. And the Zanti Misfits still makes my skin crawl.

Some of my most favorite were The Haunting, The Innocents, Night of the Demon, Curse of the Werewolf, Werewolf of London, The Horror of Dracula, I Bury the Living, and Psycho. But horror really changed with The Exorcist. That scared the SHIT out of me the first time. It really upped the stakes for film horror (and it still gives me the creeps). The only other film that scared me that much was Alien, but only the first time. And both of those films rely not on what's seen, but what is not seen, to build fear.
There are too many horror films I like to go into here: Nightmare on Elm Street, The Howling, Evil Dead 2 (Bruce Campbell is genius), Rabid, Hellraiser, Night of the Living Dead, Martin, Fearless Vampire Killers, The Birds, Nosferatu (both of them), Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Conrad Veidt is one of my acting idols), Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Reflection of Fear, Theatre of Blood (you see what I mean), but I would like to say how much I like Cronenberg's horror works, because he brought intelligence to the stories; and Clive Barker's because he is not only intelligent but he really feels the horror, and his stories are character driven. And there is another director who I wish was doing more films: Tibor Takacs. His I, Madman was not only scarey, but smart, funny, and the only film I've ever seen that has a truly romantic doggie-style sex scene.

Are there any particular scenes from either or both movies that you look back on and remember how much you enjoyed the work?

I loved it all. I made a special point of watching Wes work with Drew Barrymore, to see how he works with actors. I was outside on the first night (my first night), in the rain, but I didn't care. It was great. I had to stay out of sight so Ms. Barrymore wouldn't see me, but I managed to look through the window between takes. She had to work herself into a pretty hysterical state for that scene, and whenever we cut, Wes was right there with his arm around her shoulder, taking care of her. He really is a very nice guy, and a pleasure to work for.

In the sequel, in the scene where I talk with Jamie Kennedy (Randy) while the others search for me, after we got a couple of clean takes in the can, Jamie said to me, "Forget the lines. Just go wild. Try to scare the shit out of me." So I improved some stuff. His mom was sitting next to me watching on the monitor, so I said stuff like, "I'm gonna cut your mom a new smile from ear to ear," and one of my improvs, "Have you ever felt a knife cut through human flesh and scrape on the bone beneath?" was used in the movie. That was cool!

You spoke live with the actual actors in each of your scenes. Can you explain the process of making the film. What are you allowed to see as you're speaking to them? Are you looking at your script, the director, the actor or are you just working off of voice cues?

Except for that first night on the first film, I'm off in a room or somewhere close, with a monitor that lets me see what the camera is seeing (the cameras p.o.v.), a phone for talking to the on-camera actors and a microphone to get a clean recording of my dialogue, my script, and someone from the props department to keep the phone working and the monitor safe. They're also sort of my wrangler, getting me water when I need it, and making sure I'm okay.

I understand that Drew Barrymore did not want to meet you in person because she wanted to keep you a mystery.

I think that really had more to do with Wes and Marianne Maddalena (the producer). It's that whole idea of the monster in your head being more frightening than the monster you see. And if Ms. B knew what I look like, she would be thinking of me instead of her worst nightmare. Nyah ha ha!
I heard the reason they cast in the Bay Area for a voice actor was that Ms. Barrymore wanted an actor to play the scene with, instead of just a script person feeding her lines, and I have to say that was remarkably generous on her part. I was just supposed to do the scene with her and then they would hire an actor in L.A. to dub the lines, but Wes liked what I did and hired me to do the whole film. A great break for me. And that began the policy of having me play the scene with the actors live, which is pretty unusual.

What's the first thing that people say when they meet you in person, for the first time, knowing what voice you portray?


Do you feel bummed that they don't find you intimidating or would you rather be seen as a real human being?

As long as they're scared by the movie, that's the important thing. I'd just like it if people realized that there is an actor who does this stuff and that it doesn't just come out of thin air. People think of HAL 9000 as a person, a character in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but they don't think of Douglas Rain, the actor who created him.

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