Living Among Us Makers Discuss John Heard in His Last Film

John Heard plays a vampire in his last film, Living Among Us, director Brian A. Metcalf and star Thomas Ian Nicholas remember.

Vampires come out of the coffin in the new film Living Among Us from writer/director Brian A. Metcalf. The film opens, much like HBO’s True Blood, with vampires tossing off the soil of their ancestors and going public. The vampires are united, have a spokesperson, and even their own PR machine that books them on reality TV. A camera crew, which includes star Thomas Ian Nicholas (American Pie) spends the night with a middle-class family of neighborly vampires. Metcalf and Nicholas spoke with Den of Geek about the actor who played the head of that family.

Living Among Us stars John Heard, who passed away in July 2017, in his last feature film role. “I had actually texted with him the day before his death so I didn’t believe the news when they discussed his passing away,” Metcalf remembers. “We had done ADR 4 days before his death.”

Heard began as a stage actor, winning Obie Awards for roles in Othello in 1979, and Split in 1980. He is best remembered as Peter McCallister, the forgetful father in the Home Alone movies. The movie Big almost typecast him as the ambitious businessman role, but his natural versatility brought him through a variety of types. His film career began in the celebratory underground newspaper film Between the Lines (1977), and he gave an emotionally raw performance as a Vietnam vet in the 1981 film Cutter’s Way, that starred Jeff Bridges.

“John Heard was a phenomenal actor,” Metcalf says. “He gave this film a sense of realism and weight. You can tell that he just really enjoyed acting. At the very first table read, I was extremely impressed with how natural he was.”

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Heard was no stranger to horror. In the 1982 cult classic Cat People, he played Oliver Yates, the lover Nastassja Kinski’s Irena Gallier spared from her more ferocious feline appetites. He avoided cannibalistic subway straphangers in C.H.U.D., and read scripture in The Seventh Sign.

“John was very awe-inspiring and challenging at the same time,” Metcalf said. “We had numerous discussions on how things should go but always worked everything out well and got along great.”

In Living Among Us, Heard plays Andrew, an indulgent father, much like he played in the Home Alone movies. This time Heard is the head of a vampire family, alongside his wife Elleanor (Ésme Bianco) and their children Blake (Andrew Keegan) and Sybil (Jessica Morris), who invite a group of documentary filmmakers into their sanguine home. But you know what happens when you invite a film crew into your home, evil ensures.

“John Heard was a pleasure to work with and we were very fortunate to have him in the film,” says Nicholas, who plays the most adventurous of the film crew. “I first met and worked with John about 28 years ago on a film entitled Radio Flyer.”

Heard flew through dozens of unforgettable performances. He lent emotional weight to acting superstars in such films as Beaches which starred Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, Awakenings under Robert De Niro and Robin Williams and The Pelican Brief, topped by Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts.

“On set, John liked to joke around but was serious in front of the camera,” says Metcalf. “He didn’t mention previous films too much on his own but I asked him about his earlier work such as Cat People, Big and Awakenings. If you brought up some of his other roles at first he wouldn’t talk much but then he would go into some deep discussions about the films and his roles, but you really had to get him there.”

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Heard’s excelled in both drama and comedy, especially when given freedom to explode, like he did as bartender Tom Schorr in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. The film may star Griffin Dunn, but Heard’s arc is the widest. He kicks the hell out of a cash register and gets the bad news of his girlfriend’s suicide, which he blames himself for, on the same, endless night.

“As the director on set, I was always watching and studying his and other actors’ methods,” says Metcalf. “I would say that he has a bit of method acting in him. When I get to work with all these great actors, I get to learn their acting styles and Andrew was able to teach me a lot. He would tell me that he wasn’t so much acting as he really was reacting to situations placed before him.”

Heard was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1999 for playing Newark, New Jersey police detective Vin Makazian on The Sopranos. Makazian was Tony Soprano’s cop on the inside, even vetting Dr. Melfi before the mob family head hired her as a shrink, and harassing her dates at traffic stops. Makazian was the guy who told Tony that Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero was a rat. The character ended his relationship with the family by jumping off the Donald Goodkind Bridge rather than betray their trust.

“Working with him, I remember always getting what I needed out of the scenes from him,” Metcalf says. “I remember one time he was to have a confrontation with Andrew Keegan’s character and I mentioned to him to make sure that he lets Andrew know he is the boss. So when I called action, he grabs Andrew by the collar across the bar. This shocked everyone and Keegan gave a very real surprised reaction. That take is still in the film. I did ask how other directors had worked with him, more for a learning experience for myself.”

Vampires Come Out of the Coffin

For Metcalf, filmmaking is an educational process. The director, who also produced The Egyptian Book of the Dead, says he “always had a fascination with magic, occultism, vampires, all of that stuff.” He believes “there are many connections between” the horror genre and how it feeds into the world of the supernatural.

“I did do a lot of research on what were considered ‘true’ vampires such as Elizabeth Bathory, who was known to bathe in blood to keep her youthful appearance, and Vlad the Impaler, who was known to impale his enemies on wooden stakes,” Metcalf says. “Instead of just rehashing what current vampire films have already done, it’s always good to go to the source to create your own legend.”

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In Living Among Us, the vampires go public because they have been suffering a disease that keeps them from the sun and are now finally eligible for health care. Metcalf learned about the importance of healthy plasma.

“I discovered a book on genetic disorders which is where I first learned of the ‘Vampire’s Disease’ or Porphyria,” says Metcalf. “I discovered that people throughout history were affected by this disease such as Mary Queen of Scots and King George III.”

The director found the “real symptoms from Porphyria actually felt true to vampires. For example, swelling, burning, redness to severe scarring and blistering may appear after exposure to sunlight with cutaneous porphyria. So exposure to sunlight must be avoided by those affected.”

While the film takes the condition to an extreme conclusion, the root cause of vampirism, it has created a very real underground.

“I just recently discovered that there are actual groups of people in hiding that suffer from this disease,” says Nicholas. “It’s sad to hear that they do this because they experience discrimination.”

Metcalf pointed to a report from 2004 that said “there were about 200,000 people affected in the U.S. alone.”

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“I think if they made the public more aware of their disease, they would find sympathizers and supporters that would help start the process of finding them some sort of cure,” Nicholas says. “If that’s what they in fact desired.”

“Once I learned all the facts about the disease, I tried to add back some of the mythos in vampire culture and marry the two,” Metcalf says. In the film, sectional leader Samuel (William Sadler) breaks the news about real vampires at a blood donation facility. He believes vampires can coexist with humans, if only society would come up with a cure or find a marketable blood/albumen product. This reflects how Metcalf sees a vampire unveiling would play out.

“I think some of the general public would go into a panic and overreact without necessarily knowing all of the facts because of fears, perhaps from having watched a lot of films,” Metcalf says. “Others would try to understand the science of why they would be coming out of the coffin.”

“I think that society has a multitude of reactions,” Nicolas says. “Especially since were all much more connected through technology you can see and read about the multitude of reactions.”

Of course no one believes in real vampires. “I know that they exist outside of the movies, that was the complete basis of our film,” Nicholas says. “Obviously we still take the vampires in our movie to an extreme level that is far beyond what exist in reality.”

The director admits he’d like to run into the real deal.

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“I would love to meet a vampire,” Metcalf confesses. “The very initial premise of this film came about when I first watched Fright Night as a child. I thought how cool it would be to have a vampire neighbor next door and to actually try and ask him about his life. The story evolved into numerous different iterations throughout the years.” But Metcalf doesn’t think he would “personally want to become a vampire. I love the daylight too much.”

Metcalf and Nicholas got to meet some self-proclaimed vampires on opening night. Living Among Us premiered at a Red Carpet Event at Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills. It was attended by Los Angeles Vampire Queen Maria Mors and Don Henrie, the real vampire from MTV’s Mad Mad House.

“I researched the real vampire scene,” Metcalf says. “It seems to be a more a lifestyle choice than anything else. It seems to have started as an outgrowth of the Goth scene, which I used to be a part of, but evolved into something entirely different. They now have dating sites, games and clubs dedicated to them.”

Photo of Living Among Us opening, left to right, Slevin and Maria Mors, Brian A. Metcalf, Don Henrie and Allison Bennett, photo by Marie Bargas.

Living Among Us is playing in select theaters.