Exclusive Interview: Jeffrey Combs Returns to Play Poe in “NEVERMORE”Books/Art/Culture,Fearful Features,Home,Movies/TV,News Heather Buckley
Like a lightning rod striking from a demon’s view of storm clouds, Jeffrey Combs embodies Edgar Allan Poe in NEVERMORE. The one-man stage show, coming to the Boston area this Friday, Halloween night, features a sparse set with Combs at its center—commanding the text and the audience, ranting, yearning, recreating and elaborating on material from speaking engagements Poe himself performed throughout these United States.
Combs, director Stuart Gordon and writer Dennis Paoli, a team well-known for literary genre adaptation, sought to bring Poe to live theater after their collaboration on the BLACK CAT installment of Showtime’s MASTERS OF HORROR in 2007. That was Gordon and Paoli’s second time working with Poe material—the first being 1991’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM—and it made sense for this troupe to move from screen to stage, given Combs’ background in the latter venue and Gordon’s extensive work there, most famously as co-founder (with his wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) of Chicago’s Organic Theater Company. Certainly, NEVERMORE, first staged in LA in 2009, is an intense, immersive experience of an artist crying to be heard in a meaningful way, to make his mark in the field of his vocation. It is ultimately a tragedy—that of an anguished visionary doomed to never know the success and power of his own influence—on literature, on theater, on film and on artistic media still to be invented.
FANGORIA was honored to speak with with Combs to discuss the history, craft and associations surrounding NEVERMORE and his genre work in general. The new staging of NEVERMORE, produced by Izzy Lee and Bryan Moore, plays on Friday, October 31 at 8 p.m. at The Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, MA, followed by a bonus screening of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH starring Vincent Price; tickets can be ordered here.
“Poe is a different animal from Lovecraft,” Combs says of the two authors who’ve provided the basis for his best-known work. “I enjoy doing Poe, because it’s plot-driven, and Lovecraft is more about a feeling, an atmosphere. For an actor, I think the reason Stuart has been so successful in adapting Lovecraft is because he understands plot and character, and with Lovecraft, a lot of the time you have to create that, because he’s not so much writing from the point of view of a person, but more of an atmospheric feeling.”
Though Combs will probably always be remembered best for his breakout turn as Herbert West in Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR, his association with the film wasn’t necessarily a sure thing. “Happy accident, happy accident,” Combs laughs. “I was doing a play in LA in a small theater, back in 1984, called PVT. WARS [by James McLure]. It was a three-man show about Vietnam veterans in a VA hospital after the war, and each one has his own physical or emotional issues. It was one of the early plays that dealt with PTSD—and believe it or not, it was kind of a comedy, a dark comedy—and my character was a rich kid who joined the Army, for whatever reasons we don’t know. The other guys don’t like him. He looks down on them, thinks they’re idiots.”
When asked how this role might have prepared him for his subsequent role as West, Combs replies, “I think the character was sort of a little snit, looking down his nose at everybody, thinking he’s better. He was a little bit more neurotic and had some issues, and then to really get to Herbert West, I just had to get rid of all of the neuroses and go for straight-ahead full-on confidence in what I was doing. That’s the thing about Herbert: He’s what we all want to be, the person who doesn’t compromise. That’s his big appeal. We all have to, every day, go, ‘Yeah, OK, all right, sure, I’ll do it your way.’ That’s not Herbert.
“A casting director came and saw the play—and I don’t think I’d even invited him,” Combs continues. “He said, ‘I’m casting something I think you might be right for.’ OK, great! And that turned out to be RE-ANIMATOR. I went in and read for Stuart, and I got a callback and read for the producer, Brian Yuzna. We didn’t know it would be something that you and I would be talking about 30 years later, so it was just sort of a chance to have a nice role in a little independent movie. I looked at it as an opportunity to have some experience in front of a camera, because I hadn’t really had all that much. So that’s how it all began…amazing, isn’t it?”
NEVERMORE’s Massachussetts engagement, Combs says, “came about because of Bryan Moore, a great sculptor whose bust of Poe was accepted by the Boston Public Library, with the unveiling to be held on October 30. Bryan came up with the idea of having my show come up there as part of the unveiling celebration. It turned out to be a month of Poe in Boston.”
NEVERMORE benefitted from a long period of gestation, and the actor’s own growing fascination and identification with his subject. “Even before MASTERS OF HORROR, I read a biography of Poe, and I said to Stu, ‘Why hasn’t anyone made a movie about this man’s life?’ It’s the most incredible, tragic, epic story! Such an interesting character. A year later, he sent me an e-mail with a script attached for THE BLACK CAT! While we were shooting BLACK CAT, which was a brilliant adaptation, Stuart kept saying to me, ‘I feel like I’m sitting with Poe. You should do a one-man show!’ It was like, get out of here! A one-man show—that’s a lot of work. Lot of memorization; you’re trying to make me work hard! Like Yoda, he just kept gently talking to me, long after we were done with THE BLACK CAT, until finally I thought, ‘Well, OK, what would that be like?’ From there, we sat down and read through Poe’s works and picked poems, a story, and figured out what would go first, second, third, what we’d finish with—that kind of thing.
“We sent that sort of spine of an idea to Dennis Paoli, who’s a professor of Gothic literature at Hunter College in New York,” Combs continues. “He started doing research and finding material that would connect all these different pieces together. And that’s how the show came together. About 80 to 90 percent of what I say is directly from Poe.”
How did Combs approach his own particular incarnation of the melancholy American writer? “Research—a lot of reading about him. Then at some point, I had to put all that down and go with my gut about who this guy might be. Every time I’ve seen somebody do Poe, it seems they’ve never dealt with the fact that he was a Southerner. He was a Virginian. He saw himself as a Southern gentleman. People talked of him that way. Yet most people sort of ignore the whole Southern thing. That was sort of the first idea. To me, Poe is the ultimate outsider. He always was, from the very beginning, standing back and observing, being outside of everybody—of society, even. That can be a lonely place. And I sort of understand that; most actors do. We are sort of The Other. There were a lot of touchstones for me, a lot of things I could just embrace.”
Combs worked hard to capture the agony of the driven, but in many ways hindered, artist. “Poe knew he was good, but he lived in a society and in a time when he wasn’t rewarded for his genius. I think his biggest tragedy was he knew how good he was, and nobody else was particularly picking up on it. He had some success in his life, but not what he should have. There were a lot of mediocre writers who had far more success in their time on this Earth than he did, and that was a great source of frustration for him. The unfairness. We see it today; all you have to do is go into Barnes & Noble and look at the top 10 writers, and you go, ‘Really? Really? This is what’s rewarded?’ So nothing’s changed. That’s the thing I liked about Poe, too: The things he worked against and got frustrated about are all the same stuff. I’m sorry, I look at television and I go, ‘How did that guy get cast? How did that happen? Good God!’ ”
Combs has had a long and distinguished career both on screen and on stage, and says, “I’m in love with both. They both have their charms and they both have their drawbacks. The theater is the domain of the actor. The actor is in control, for the most part. The actor gets to start and finish, and have a through-line. With film, it’s the director’s medium. What you do can be enhanced, or it can be left on the editing-room floor. There are many things you’re not in control of. I don’t know how many movies I’ve watched and gone, ‘Why did they cut it like that?’ [Laughs] ‘Why did they do that?’ You don’t really have as much say-so in how the evening goes, OK? However, there’s a great deal of joy when you get it right, and it’s done right, and it’s not going to go away. That’s a nice thing. And I love the technical stuff, how things are shot and all that. The hard thing about film is waiting around: You’re ready, and nobody else is. Then when you aren’t ready, they are. It can be very frustrating that way.”
Another aspect of the screen acting process that can offer frustration—or reward—is the degree of input Combs is allowed in the shaping of his role. “It varies, it really does. Some people are like, ‘Do what I wrote.’ Some people are collaborative: ‘What do you think?’ It is as varied as the directors I’ve worked with.”
One filmmaker who valued collaboration was Peter Jackson, who guided one of Combs’ greatest screen creations: Milton Dammers in the 1996 supernatural spectacular THE FRIGHTENERS. “Peter Jackson was really, really—not necessarily with the dialogue itself, but with what I did with the dialogue—he was very open, even with the design elements. A lot of the time, directors are like, ‘This is the makeup you’re going to wear, and we’ve decided.’ Peter was like, ‘Well, what do you think? What do you want to do? This is what we were going to do; have you got anything to add?’ That’s one of the reasons he’s a great director; he has no pure ego about anything. There’s always a better idea, maybe.”
What are the qualities that Combs honors the most in himself, and others? “Discipline. Efficiency. Creativity. Professionalism—that’s not too bad. Being prepared, but being open for things going in different ways.”
While Combs’ diverse roles have spanned a broad range of genres, he is obviously most closely associated with horror, and his standards remain high when it comes to his roles. “There are some things about horror—just like any genre, if we’re talking about comedy or opera—there are always gradations of excellence. So when you ask, do I embrace the genre? I embrace it when it’s done well. But I don’t embrace it all, you know—not all comedies are funny, and not all horror movies are good. So I embrace it when it’s done on a level of expertise, but I don’t like sloppy. Because I’m an actor, I care about character, and I care about plot.
“A lot of the time, horror can be very formulaic, and not in a good way. It’s not even the writers’ or the directors’ fault; sometimes it’s the producers and the studios, who dictate a certain formula that is cookie-cutter, and not what you need to tell a story—they just think it is. They’re thinking in terms of, ‘We’ve got to have somebody die in the first three minutes, and it’s got to be really gory, and really bad, otherwise we’re gonna lose our audience!’ Well, that’s just bullshit. That’s just some kind of rule you lay down when you don’t know what you’re doing, when you’re doing what everybody else does. With that sort of dictatorial this-is-the-way-it’s-gotta-be, then everything’s gonna be the same. Character and plot. Character is plot. What a character does is the story. So many times—not only in horror, but in other things—it’s the last thing they deal with. They think about the structure, or ‘Let’s get to that special effect really fast!’ That bores the shit out of me.”