The Den of Geek interview: Reece Shearsmith

"It was fantastic to be Jamie Lee Curtis for six weeks on the Isle of Man.": Reece Shearsmith talks The Cottage, The League Of Gentlemen, Psychoville, Doctor Who and more...

For the first time I can remember, an interviewee who failed to answer my phone call at the alloted time has called me back. It’s Reece Shearsmith from The League of Gentleman and, of course, The Cottage – which is what we’re scheduled to talk about in our 15 minute conversation. He apologises profusely, saying that he was in the garden having a waterpistol fight with his son when I’d called. I now feel guilty for breaking this up, but not as much as I feel shellshocked at the thought of having Papa Lazarou on the other end of the phone. First things first though.Were the films on which The Cottage’s premise is based your kind of movies? I’m thinking about Psycho, Friday The 13th, Texas Chainsaw, The Hills Have Eyes, Dusk ‘Til DawnOh yeah, very much… I’m a huge horror fan so it was great to have a chance to be in one and do all those things that have become horror film staples – like being chased around by a psycho farmer with an axe. All those films you mentioned, they’re all from the video nasty period of my teens. So yeah.So it was great to get into the shouting and screaming and running around bloodstained corridors then?

It was. It was fantastic to be Jamie Lee Curtis for six weeks on the Isle of Man.

Do you personally find gore funny… Are you the kind of person who laughs hysterically when limbs are chopped off in low-rent Italian exploitation movies?Yeah, oh yeah… That’s one thing, but on the other hand I think that in my old age I’m becoming more squeamish to things like Saw. I watched Saw III the other day, and they’re just becoming literally a distillation of ways to torture people and watch them suffer. The traps and devices that Jigsaw makes are horrendous; twisting people’s arms and legs off then finally their head. I actually couldn’t watch that, which surprised me because I’m not squeamish…

I never used to understand when people used to say ‘it’s better when you don’t see it’, I would always be the one saying ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ve got to see the head coming off.’ But I think as time goes on, I want it implied more.

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Do you think that as effects have got better, the fun in watching that kind of thing has been dimished?

Possibly. It’s so real. Anything is possible on film so it almost goes the other way and you think ‘yeah, and…’ It just goes off the other end of the scale. If it’s Dario Argento, and it’s putting a knitting needle through someone’s eye and it’s suddenly a cut to a proper in-camera rubber head, it’s actually a whole lot more charming somehow. When it’s too real, I don’t quite know what the point is.

Are you a fan of the whole special effects and prosthetics process?Absolutely. Before I began acting, that’s what I wanted to do. I went and worked for a little bit with a make-up artist called Christopher Tucker – who did the effects for The Elephant Man, and Company Of Wolves.

Wow…Yeah. For a while I did really want to get into it. When I was younger I was really into art and model making, and I used to cast my own face and hands, make prosthetic limbs, all of that. I loved it; from Tom Savini and Creepshow and all of the great models and masks he did for that to Dawn of The Dead, Night of The Living Dead. All that.

… and that fed into the first things you began doing on stage?Certainly. In terms of the black comedy of The League, and my sensibility with the other guys in that. I think we all had a love of horror movies; from the early days of watching the black and whites on BBC2 – Fear On Friday. It’s never been a wilful decision, it’s just what made us laugh. All our references in The League were all filmic, from 70s horror movies and the like.

Was there a tipping point when you switched from wanting to be behind the camera, to being in front of it?

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That was funny. It happened after I’d done A-Levels; I’d got a place on a foundation art course, but I didn’t do it. I thought no, I want to act. I want to try and do that. I saw it as a crossroads, where if I didn’t do that now, I would look back wished I done it then. Oddly, I just changed direction; and everyone was saying “What are you doing? We’ve been steering you in this direction…”

But I went to Bretton Hall, which was still kind of hedging my bets – it was a drama degree, kind of like having a degree in washing up…

…or like my film & TV degree…

[Laughs] Yeah… Exactly. You sort of put it in your back pocket in the hope that you’ll be able to use it one day… [more laughter]

After that was when I went to work with Chris Tucker, so I still had it in me that I wanted to do the make-up, but I’d spent so much time trying to act, I thought I’d better pursue that – having spent three years learning ‘the craft’. But you can’t really learn acting, you can either do it or you can’t…

Is it right that Paul Williams [the film’s writer/director] wrote the role of Paul in The Cottage specifically for you?

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Yeah, that is true. I first started learning the role in about 2002 or something, when he first came to me with the script.

…So he came to you when The League was at its height, and you – or at least Papa Lazarou – were some kind of household face, if not a name…

Yeah… [Laughs]… But it didn’t get made then. It would’ve been his first film. I mean, horror spoof films are ten-a-penny now, but then it was unusual. It was before Shaun Of The Dead, and they were like ‘we’re not going to take a punt on this new, stange film – and what is it anyway? It starts as a thriller, then it changes to a comedy… and our minds can’t compute it.’

And so they didn’t do it. In his frustration, Paul went off, and in three days he made London To Brighton, which he got great critical acclaim for. after that people were like “Let’s have another look at that script you wrote then…”

…And then Shaun Of The Dead comes out…And the Shaun Of The Dead comes out, and Severance and all these other things that are like it… And then The Cottage finally comes out and everyone just says “it’s like Shaun Of The Dead and Severance“.

Were you acquainted with Paul beforehand, or was he just a fan? [Note: I think Reece mishears this as ‘man’]

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He was just a man, yeah… The producer rang my agent. He came to me told me ‘a man has written this script, and there’s a part in it, which he says was written specifically for you’. So I read it, and I met him, and I really hoped it would happen. And it was going to happen back then, but then the money went away – as these things do.

What drew you into the film more, the horror of the second half or the theatrical beginning – specifically the dialogue you share with your character’s brother?

That’s interesting, ’cause it was both really. I love the fact that it starts, basically, as a two-hander with me and Andy Serkis…

Did you know it was going to be Andy Serkis at the time?Not originally, originally. I didn’t know who it was going to be then… But they did want him, his name was always mentioned, even when I was first asked to do it, but then it went away. Then, I couldn’t do it at one point – I was doing As You Like It in the West End – and Paul [Williams] was like ‘Oh mate, The Cottage is on, I can’t believe we’ve had to re-cast it…’ I don’t remember a name, who was being banded around as ‘me’; but it all fell-through again. Finally, thankfully, it all came back around again.

Reading that script, I love the way it turns a hairpin halfway through with and becomes a fight for survival from this unknown element, and I love the Pinter-esqueness of the first part of it. You don’t get many films that are just set in a room. And I thought it would be great to do it; it was challenging because he filmed a lot of it in one long take, so it was like doing a play: you had to know it, you couldn’t rely on it being cut and think ‘thank God for that, I can’t remember it’. We had to learn four page passages.

It was great doing that with Andy ’cause he’s so rigourous as an actor, and he’s trying different things. We both kinda upped our games; there’s a lot of arguments between us in the first section, and you’ve gotta nail ’em to make ’em believable – so it was nice trying to plan out these huge rows and scenes.

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I understand that you shot the film basically in sequence. Was that something that helped you, and helped with the vibe?

Yeah, absolutely. You could chart that journey better. And it helped practically because as I was getting bashed up, it would’ve been annoying to go back and get cleaned up again. Although, the very first thing we shot came after I’d had the battering from Jennifer Ellison, my nose was broken and my jaw was meant to be broken; so we had to kind of decide how bad it was, make-up and shoot that, and then go back and later shoot the run up to it in sequence. We actually found that it was worse when we got back there than the make-up we’d used!

But yeah, it was good to chart that decline, and it felt like it was really happening to us. It was all shot at night, so it was quite gruelling – I think something happens to your brain if you don’t get enough daylight, you become clinically depressed.So it was quite easy to summon up the necessary desolation at the end of it…It was! That was what it was like…

…Please, just kill me off now……Yeah. I’d rather be dead.When you were reading the script, how quickly were you aware that – like The League – Paul Williams was walking the line between making people laugh and making them chuck up over their popcorn?

It’s the extremes… Going from this bungled kidnapping to stumbling on this farmhouse. I read it not knowing what was coming, just like everyone…

…did you literally turn a page and go, ‘Oh…’?

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I didn’t have any forewarning; I think they may have said ‘it’s a horror’ so I was thinking ‘this is more like a thriller’ as I was reading it, but then this farmyard business came in and I began to think ‘I really didn’t know where this is going now’. Oddly, it is a bit like two different films, but I always just thought of it as a continuation of that night and what happens next. She takes him hostage and they just start walking and that’s where they arrive at.

It was a surprise to me… I’ve read reviews of The Cottage and they just haven’t seemed to ‘go’ with it. You could easily just decide that [adopts authoritative ‘reviewers’ voice] ‘it doesn’t know what it wants to be’, but you could equally say ‘it knows exactly what it wants to be: it starts in a cottage and ends on a farm, is that so hard to grasp?’

It’s linear; people’s minds are not going to explode ’cause they can’t take it in.The black humour, the horror and comedy is a very delicate thing to get right though – because you’re dealing with extremes in very different areas of your brain, so it’s hard to nail ’em if you’re doing one thing and then you want to turn a hairpin and get a laugh where you’ve been frightened.

I don’t think that Paul ever wanted it to be truly horrific, turning people off. I think he wanted it to be more of a rollercoaster – with people enjoying it through their fingers.Y’know, enjoyable scared rather than ‘oh, that’s horrible’ and alienating the audience because it becomes too real. He wanted it all to be heightened, and feel a bit overblown and theatrical – even the music is really over the top, he always wanted a big orchestral sound for that. Paul was always thinking those things, it wasn’t random. He was trying to push all those buttons.

It’s all very familiar, Paul says that himself. There’s nothing new in it. He likes the notion that – maybe – you’ve seen ‘that thing about a man who collects faces, and keeps a scrapbook’, and something else, and that it ticks all the boxes one by one. Hopefully, that’s an enjoyable thing.

You do have to come at it with a certain mind-set, you have to be appreciative of the things The Cottage is ‘sampling’, don’t you?

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I think so, yeah… But it’s also very rough and ready. Paul’s not that big a horror film buff that he’s elitist about it all; he’s not being obscure. This is more his memory of what horror movies have in them – and I think that’s what attracted him to do that kind of thing.Do you think it’s still possible for our generation to make a good ‘straight’ horror movie?Oh, yeah… I hope so. The audience is very sophisticated so they know the nuts and bolts of what is used to scare them: like if you have somebody creeping through a house, you’ll hear something behind the door, but the first time it will be… A CAT!… So the protagonist – and you – are let of the hook, but the next sound will be someone who’ll put a knife through their head. I think people know that… Well, I know that, so I’m sure others do. It’s formulaic, and it’s been deconstructed with Scream – which did it brilliantly ’cause it was actually scary as well. It walked a very fine line, but I thought the ghostface mask thing was actually quite horrific when it was actually attacking the people.

I think if you did it… You just have to not wink at the audience. You need to have complete faith in the story, and I think the actors have to totally believe in it, and then I think the audience can be taken with it too.

I guess it’s the same trick as making good sci-fi, you have to be totally invested in it…Absolutely. It’s too easy to wink. I think that’s probably what happens. All that it takes to let the film-maker get away with it is a ‘wink’ to the audience; ‘oh, I know… But it’s not real’. It covers a thousand sins.

Nowadays, it’s actually much braver to try to create a world and stick to the rules, invest in it and be earnest. It’s a scary thing to do, but when you pull it off, it’s wonderful.

We recently interviewed Nick Briggs – someone who you worked with on a Doctor Who-related Autons project in 1998, I believe. I wanted to ask you about the whole Doctor Who thing; were all of you in The League fans? Was it something you coalesced around?I was never a big fan of it, Steve was never a fan either – Mark, of course, was the one.

And he never managed to convert you, judging by the sound of your voice…No, not really. I used to watch it, but when I’m with Mark, I just think ‘I’m not like you…’, he’s my yardstick of what a real fan is. He can quote you lines of dialogue from when the Doctor stepped out of the TARDIS in whatever episode, whenever… I don’t know.

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I’ve got some obsessions, but Doctor Who isn’t one of them, actually. Tom Baker was probably ‘my’ Doctor, and I remember watching Sarah Jane Smith and that thing with the big crab arm, I can’t tell you what that creature was – was it from Pyramids of Mars? I think it was, that’s the one I remember with the mummies with the big pointy chests. I was a fan, but not a massive fan; and it was nice to do those things. It was very early days when we did those spin-offs, they were the P.R.O.B.E. things, Nick Briggs was involved in that as a director, and he – of course – went on to do the voice of the Daleks in the new Who.

Are you a fan of the ‘new’ series, the ‘re-boot’?I haven’t watched it, not a single one. Not all the way through anyway.

You’re the one! The one person who hasn’t seen any of the episodes!I haven’t, I really haven’t… I saw a few of the Ecclestone ones, but didn’t see a whole episode. I didn’t even see the first return of the Daleks, and I was quite intruiged by that. I haven’t seen any of Tennant’s, and certainly nothing of Catherine Tate.

Personally, did you make a conscious decision to move away from TV and do more theatre?

No, no… It’s just timing, and whatever comes along. I’ve just started a new, big TV project that Steve Pemberton and I have been writing for two years.Finally, we’re filming it for BBC2 in October.

Is this Psychoville, which I’ve heard you mention before?Yes, it’s Psychoville.Can you give us an idea of what to expect?

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Well… Um. Gah… Oh God, it’ll spoil it…

Sorry!Well, it’s our sensibility; it’s dark, very dark. I didn’t think it was going to be as bad as The League but actually, in some ways, it’s worse. The characters we have are scattered around the country, but they all embark on a strange journey because they’re being blackmailed by this mysterious stranger. It’s almost a horror-thriller, but hopefully funny as well. It’s a narrative where one of these characters a getting these strange… [tails off, as if to hold something back].

Their lives become intertwined and eventually we have these big revelations. Hopefully it’ll be like a Lost, or 24 or Heroes-type thing. That was the premise, we wanted to do this big sprawling narrative, but with funny characters. It’s certainly not yer average, same half-hour every week, catchphrase comedy.

Kind of like where Vic & Bob went with Catterick, which you were involved in?

Yeah, yeah… They did a bit more of a narrative with that. I loved that.

… A horribly underrated effort…Yeah, Bob says it’s the best thing they’ve done. It’s so funny and clever; and it was completely shat out on BBC3 and never seen again – like really good things are.

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Did the experience of putting The League on film draw a line under that for you?

Well, as far as Royston Vasey and those characters go, yes. Myself, and Jeremy, Mark and Steve – who are The League Of Gentlemen – want to do another project. The will is there to do it, and I think it’ll probably be another film if we do it; probably a horror, a straight horror if we do it. That will probably be our next venture. Steve and I will be busy for a while, so that may scupper it for a while.

It won’t be Royston Vasey. We know when to stop – or at least we should do.

At the time the film wasn’t tremendously well received, did that put you off writing for film?We always knew it was going to be difficult, ’cause people don’t accept spin-off films. In fact, our film was about the unhappy nature of spin-offs; people don’t think they’re real films – so, any review automatically says ‘spin-off from TV show, if you don’t about that you’ll be completely baffled’… And it’s like, ‘well… no. If you think about it for one second, the premise of our film is about some characters from a TV programme, who realise their characters from a TV programme – and that’s happened in other films.’

Some people can’t accept it… But some people loved it. Some people thought it was the best thing we’ve done. It’s contentious, and I think that’s better than ‘yeah, s’alright’.

That was always the premise of The League, wasn’t it?Yeah, but it wasn’t wilfully thinking ‘this’ll get ’em’, we just did what we did and people went with it. It’s the coolest thing in the world to think that you’ve educated three million people in what was originally a private joke about a landlord. It’s always surprising when other people find it funny, ’cause it’s just what we laughed at in our room while we were writing it. We never thought about mass appeal, which is why it’s not Little Britain. And it’s much more cultish. It’s never been massively popular, but I think I would rather it be two million people’s favourite thing than a really homogenised version of itself. We’d never be interested in doing that; I think we half-tried – me and Steve – to make this new show broader, but it ended up being worse, it’s even darker. I just think we’re too strange – some people can’t watch some of The League, they find it too horrific, other people think it’s like Mr. and Mrs. Tiggywinkle. I think it’s just in our nature to be more discerning.

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Thanks very much Reece, you can go back and play with your son now. Have fun!

Reece will be signing copies of The Cottage at Zavvi in Oxford Street with Cottage director Paul Andrew Williams at 6pm on Monday 13th July. Check out our review of The Cottage. We also have an interview with co-star Andy Serkis.