Stan Against Evil: John C. McGinley and Janet Varney on Ghosts, Ghouls, and IFC’s Horror Experiment

With IFC's Stan Against Evil set to premiere this week, the show's leads tell us how they'll keep the peace in a haunted town.

It’s 99 degrees in suburban Atlanta and with zero cloud coverage, it could double as the face of the sun. On a late June afternoon, it’s doubling as a small New England town called “Willard’s Mill,” the fictional setting where 172 falsely accused witches were burned, and ever since, the town’s sheriffs all faced death at the hands of those tormented souls. All the sheriffs except Stanley Miller.

The titular character of Stan Against Evil, created by former Simpsons writer and comedian Dana Gould, has plenty to be grumpy about: ghouls, demonic creatures, the death of his wife, a woman (!) taking over his job, and a daughter who really wants to pick blueberries with him. Beyond the draining heat, lead actor and producer John C. McGinley is immersed from the moment he steps on set, a condition he requested before he signed on to IFC’s horror-comedy.

“My first note when I said yes to this was: When the scary stuff happens, it has to be like the monkeys in the Wizard of Oz,” McGinley tells our group of reporters after a day of shooting. “They have to make the hair on the back on your neck stand up. So far, that’s the tone we’re achieving.”

The on-set frights, including some deadly realistic puppets, give McGinley and actress Janet Varney, who plays the town’s new sheriff Evie Barrett, all the tools needed to build a world of horror, which gives them license to have a little fun inside of it.

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Still, the small town is filled challenges, especially for Varney’s character. Barrett needs to figure out, quickly, why the town is cursed, convince Stan’s lazy ass to help fight off demons, and deal with townspeople who say things like Stan never “gave me a ticket” or “made me use a breathalyzer” or  “commandeered my car.”

Varney has the presence to turn the place around, even if she walked into our interview in full sheriff costume, looking like the real-life version of Ethel from Brickleberry. We’ll find out exactly what’s in store when the series premieres November 2nd at 10 p.m. on IFC. Here’s an excerpt of our press conference with Varney and McGinley… and you can read our full report from the set here. 

What’s the backstory on landing this role?

Janet Varney: Dana Gould liked the idea of me playing Evie from early on. That happens sometimes. You have someone create something with a person in mind. The chances of it actually turning out to be that person are pretty slim. Not in a bad way, but it’s sort of the way things roll in the business. For me, this actually being a reality, it is sort of a pinch yourself moment. I loved those scripts so much that you almost detach yourself from it and go ‘I’m okay if I’m not in it, it’s going to be an amazing show.’ To get to do it is a dream come true. I’m so excited about it. The scripts are laugh-out-loud funny. The call sheets are laugh-out-loud funny. A one sentence description of a scene is laugh-out-loud funny.

What horror films or shows did you draw from to play these characters?

John C. McGinley: Almost everything you need is on the page. This isn’t one of those gigs where you have to show up and pull a rabbit out of your ass every time someone calls action. The tone is on the page. It’s a matter of adhering to it and staying authentic. All this craziness, with the X hour days and insane page count that we’re doing every day, sometimes tone gets thrown in the trash at the expense of having to execute pages. That’s when you’re dead meat. Dana did all the pulling from his favorite films and the stuff that impacted him. He set the table for us.

How long does it take for your characters to start believing in the paranormal?

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McGinley: Kicking and screaming. The best solution for Stan is to take a lead pipe and bash their heads in. It’s not much of a leap of faith as it is a stroke of lead. I just fucking wrote that on the fly!

Varney: My character has ostensibly come from Boston to sort of cool off from the big city and of course is met with crazier stuff than she could have possibility have imagined. My guess is there are definitely moments of ‘why did I come here’ just repeating themselves. You find out pretty quickly what the town is all about.

Dana Gould said he thought about his dad when he created Stan. Have you based any part of what you’re doing on anything you know from Dana, or is it all from the page?

McGinley: I read an interview where John Malkovich was asked something like this and John said as far as he knew, there were two schools of American acting. One was when Robert De Niro he had that really fertile stage where he became the characters. And for John, he let’s the characters become him. I’m in Malkovich’s school. I let them become me. The reasoning is John knows him better than anyone he could ever study. I let Stan come to me. As Janet will tell you, we usually have about a day or two to get ready to go film or TV show. I had about a month and a half. I can pretty much do root canal in a month and a half. I let Stan come to me. My first obligation is to the words. I’m very, very focused on the page. And then I layer things in after that. I found his voice, and then I found his movement. I let it come to me.

What is it about small towns that make mystery stories so intriguing?

McGinley: I guess the poetic license is that it’s a contained environment and as long it can stay contained, overwhelming resources aren’t available so we’ll have to deal with it ourselves because the cavalry is not coming. We’re the cavalry.

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Varney: I’m from Arizona where I feel like our history, as a state, is so young in comparison to some of these wonderful southern cities and towns. Also in the northeast, where this is set, there’s that connection to history where you have this unchanged place in many ways that gets steeped in where it came from and it hasn’t evolved in the same way a city would. I think there ate opportunities to stay connected in that way. And let’s face it: quaintness is creepy. So let’s maximize that.

If you could back bring a character as from a previous project you’ve worked as a demon in Stan Against Evil, who would it be?

McGinley: I’d probably bring back Zach [Braff] and kill him! [Laughs]