Ray Wise interview: Suburban Gothic, Twin Peaks, genre films

We talk to the great genre actor Ray Wise about his latest film Suburban Gothic, the possibility of a third Twin Peaks series, and more...

If you don’t know who Ray Wise is, then you’ve missed some memorable genre television and cinema performances over the past three decades.  His portrayal of Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks alone has earned a special place in genre fandom. This memorable performance was preceded or followed by a wide range of additional genre and supporting credits in the original RoboCop, Jeepers Creepers 2, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Star Trek The Next Generation, Swamp Thing (both the feature film and television series), X-Men: First Class, and as the Devil himself in the CW’s Reaper, to name but a few.

Wise attended the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal for the world premiere of Suburban Gothic, Director Richard Bates Jr’s new supernatural horror comedy. Wise and Bates had worked together previously on Excision.

I had the opportunity of meeting Wise and of discussing his role in Suburban Gothic as the father of the main character played by Matthew Gray Gubler (Criminal Minds, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou).

I haven’t seen the movie yet since the premiere is only this evening. So I don’t know much about your role in Suburban Gothic yet. Tell me more about it.

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I play Donald, the father of Matthew Gray Gubler’s Character. I’m an ex-jock, an ex-athlete, who now teaches in high school and who coaches high school football. I’m a very physical, very manly, jockish person, and I have a son who isn’t. I think my son is kind of a sissy, a namby-pamby, and a momma’s boy. My son gets evicted from his apartment by his landlady, and he comes back to live with his mom and dad, me and my wife − and that’s when all the troubles start, because he’s not somebody you can live with easily, because he does everything wrong, especially according to my character.

And then of course, the supernatural comes into the whole story, and my son is kind of a medium for that sort of thing. So he and that young girlfriend of his [played by Thor: The Dark World‘s Kat Dennings] embark on a mission to cure the supernatural situation that’s going on in our town, and I and his mother go along for the ride.

What attracted you to the role?

I had worked with Ricky in a movie called Excision. It was out a couple of years ago and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. And I really like Ricky. I like him as a filmmaker. We have a very good working relationship. He sent me this script, and I thought it was very funny. It’s a beautiful blend of horror and humour. It has just the right mix, just the right tone, I think.

It was a very enjoyable film to do. It was a very relaxed set. The cast worked together very well. We were very happy making the film, and he’s the kind of director who allows you to improvise. He gives you your head, and he lets you do what you feel is right. Then, if he wants to tweak it a bit here and there, he will. He casts his movies so that he gets the rights actors for the rights parts, and then he lets them do their thing. I think it’s a great film, and that he did a great job directing it. 

Supernatural and horror movies that also have a strong element of humour are rare − movies like Shaun Of The Dead, Zombieland, and so on. Does Suburban fit in that category?

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It’s in that vein, but I think even more so. I think there is an even bigger mix of humour along with the supernatural aspect. There is more humour and it’s very well done. It’s done very subtly. I think it seems totally real, and yet very funny.

I saw the trailer, and at one point your character says something to Matthew Gray Gubler’s character, something I can’t repeat here, but it’s following something that happens after Gubler’s character interrupts his father’s moment of intimacy with his mother. It’s a hilarious yet very tense moment, and a teenager’s worse nightmare. As an actor, how can you say something so funny and still keep such a straight face?

-Well, that’s why they pay me the big bucks [laughter]. I’m able to do that. It’s not easy. It’s difficult, because when funny things happen, you want to laugh along with everybody else. Sometimes you just can’t do that. You have to maintain that concentration. It’s more difficult sometimes, but you have to do it.

As I watched the trailer for Suburban Gothic, I remember thinking that this movie might be the next thing in horror comedy. Do you see movies like this one becoming a trend?

Yes, I think we’re on to something. Mr Bates and I will collaborate in the future on a couple of other projects.

You’ve accumulated some serious genre creds: Twin Peaks, the series and the feature film; RoboCop, the original one − the good one; Jeepers Creepers 2; and so on…

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Yes, I’ve done them all [laughter]. I’ve also done Star Trek [The Next Generation] and Swamp Thing, the original one, with Louis Jourdan and Adrienne Barbeau. 

You were also the Devil on the CW’s Reaper. So you have a lot of genre experience. Tell me about your experience with genre television and cinema. Is it something you prefer over doing other types of projects?

Yes, those stories interest me more. I find them more fascinating. I think that there are different levels of human extremes in genre films, and I think that the kind of intensity that you have to play in those stories is something that I enjoy. I’m doing a soap opera every day at the moment in Los Angeles, The Young And The Restless, and I’ve been on the show for the last eight months. I’m the bad guy in town, causing trouble for everybody.

I’m playing another really “good” evil character. A character like that really stands out, because everybody else on those shows is really good, and kissy-faced, you know? I come in and I make everything turn dark [laughter]. It’s fun. It’s fun to play those characters. They always have the best lines. They are writing great lines for me on The Young And The Restless and even in films, great lines.

And then I’m also able to improvise great stuff out of my own mind, because I work that way. I jive with those characters, and I sort of think the way they do, and can make my mouth work accordingly, say the right thing at the right time.

You’ve had the opportunity to play both a bad guy and a good guy in the same movie, in Twin Peaks.

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Yes. And that was a great role, and that was the epitome of [television] − or certainly the high point in television, groundbreaking television.

Do you think Lynch will ever get to finish Twin Peaks? I’m sure you’re asked that question all the time…

You know, it’s like David said, “The town is still there. And it’s 25 years later.” Who knows? The last time I saw David, he said, “Of course, Ray, you know, you’re dead! Twenty-five years later, you’re dead, but we could work around that.” And he could.

Because he’s David Lynch…

That’s right. He’d find a way to bring me back [laughter]. It would be wonderful. I wish that would happen. That would be… It would set the world on fire to have a third season of Twin Peaks. 

Of course, in television, you’re at the mercy of ratings, and sometimes the ratings are good, but they are not good enough…

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Yes. And there are other political things involved, of course. There were in the cancellation of Twin Peaks, and in [the cancellation of] my show Reaper, on the CW. If it had been on ABC or CBS, it would still be on the air. I’d still be on the air, playing the Devil.

I thought that the CW − since it’s a smaller market − would still be happy with one million viewers. Look at Supernatural; it’s been hanging in there for ten years with only about two million viewers. But the CW still cancels shows that are popular…

We had over two million viewers on Reaper, and they still cancelled it. And that’s because the people in charge felt that we were not their demographics. We didn’t have enough Gossip Girls on our show.

Any more genre work in your future?

Ricky and I will do at least one more, coming up shortly. And I have a couple more coming out. I just finished shooting a movie in Portland Maine. It’s called Night Of The Living Deb. It’s [the story of] a girl named Debra who becomes a zombie. I play a very rich man who owns the water supply for the town, and because of my cost-cutting efforts, I have allowed a certain virus to generate in the water supply that turns the entire townspeople into flesh-eating zombies. 

Who is the director?

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His name is Kyle Rankin. I did a movie with him called Infestation and another one called Nuclear Family. I’ve known him since the middle 90s, and I’d do all of his projects.

I have another one coming out called Dead Still. That’s another horror film where I play a 19th century photographer of the dead. It used to be a custom. They would take pictures of their dead, dress them up, put them up on a chair, open their eyes even, and take their final portrait.

What kind of story treatment is it? Historical? Horror?

It’s both. It’s very well done historically. The production design is pretty faithful to all the original furniture, all the props, and materials used, including the old-fashioned camera that I use.

It’s a story about a photographer who also makes people dead… So that he can then takes their photograph. So I’ll probably be back here [at Fantasia] next year [laughter].

Do people still ask you to do Leland’s little song and dance skit from Twin Peaks?

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[Laughter] Oh yes! You can tweet me. I have a couple of examples of my singing and dancing. You can look it up. It’s under @therealraywise [on Twitter].

Ray Wise, thank you very much.

Suburban Gothic doesn’t have a UK release date yet, but we’ll pass one along when we have it.

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