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Q&A: Dallas Roberts on “SHADOW PEOPLE” and “WALKING DEAD”

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The actor currently seen each week experimenting on zombies in AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD gets freaked out by more nebulous beings in SHADOW PEOPLE, which hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow and a free FANGORIA screening in Manhattan tonight, courtesy of Anchor Bay. The actor, who will appear at that showing, took some time to discuss both projects with us, along with last year’s acclaimed chiller THE GREY.

Dallas Roberts has been no stranger to horror in his decade of acting, having previously appeared in the evil-child thriller JOSHUA, the modern-Poe opus TELL TALE and Douglas Buck’s remake of Brian De Palma’s SISTERS. In SHADOW PEOPLE, he plays Charlie Crowe, a real-life Kentucky DJ who becomes entangled with the titular beings, who have allegedly appeared late at night to people suffering sleep paralysis and on a few occasions literally scared them to death. Writer/director Matthew Arnold (who will also appear at tonight’s screening; see details here) combines Roberts’ scenes as Crowe with actual footage and interviews with Crowe and others involved with these phenomena. THE WALKING DEAD casts the actor as Milton Mamet, a scientist and confidant of The Governor (David Morrissey) in the safe haven of Woodbury, where he tries to determine what makes the undead tick—while starting to quietly rebel against the Governor’s iron hand.

FANGORIA: SHADOW PEOPLE is an interesting combination of documentary and narrative filmmaking; how much of what you did was scripted, and how much were you allowed to improvise?

SHADOWPWALKINGROBERTS1DALLAS ROBERTS: There was very little improvisation; the screenplay as written was adhered to as much as possible. Maybe there were a couple of moments where I would ease myself into the script at the beginning of a scene or out of it at the end, but there wasn’t a whole lot of “Let’s sit around and talk about it,” just because the economy of the storytelling and the filmmaking was set up from the beginning.

FANG: How much footage of the real Charlie Crowe were you made privy to before the film?

ROBERTS: I was made privy to a lot, but I chose not to watch much of it. I saw him and realized, “Wow, this is a guy I don’t look like at all, I don’t sound like at all, and I don’t have Daniel Day-Lewis time to go there.” I just shut that off and decided to ignore it and play it the way I would play any narrative—from the inside.

FANG: Did any of the facts of his life play into your characterization, or did you really just depend on what was on the page?

ROBERTS: Once I realized there was enough descriptiveness and the script held up on its own, I just decided to focus on that, and on a human going through this experience rather than trying to approximate an exact person going through it. I tend to do that; I like writing that’s self-contained.

FANG: Is this the first time you’ve played a real person on film?

ROBERTS: No; it’s funny that you should ask that. I played Sam Phillips in WALK THE LINE, and did the same thing. I looked at video of him for about two minutes, and said, “Nah, I’m never gonna do that [laughs]. Let me just play Sam Phillips the way I want to.” I think those are the only two.

FANG: How about all the true cases regarding the Shadow People—how much of that were you given, and did you want to read it all before you took on the part?

ROBERTS: Yeah, that I welcomed a lot of. That mythology and those shared stories have existed for eons across cultural boundaries, the same way the story of the creator—of God, Jesus, Yahweh, Allah or Buddha—is present in every culture. That story seems to be pervasive, which I found fascinating. It really drew me in, and it did start to get under my skin—no pun intended. I had no reference for it before I began work on the film, but when I realized we were dealing with something that has existed since long before film itself existed—these stories and experiences—I found that riveting, and frightening at times.

FANG: Did you get to meet any of the real people who had been involved with these phenomena over the years?

ROBERTS: I didn’t. But I did an interview just 30 minutes ago with someone who said, “I’ve had sleep paralysis”—not with the sort of figures in the corner, but halfway there. And as we were working on the film, we would all have our little moments. Your brain started to play tricks on you: “Did I see that?” And it did start to get to you a little bit.

FANG: It’s interesting you bring that up, because a key theme of the movie is that the more you find out about these beings, the more susceptible you are to them. Did anyone involved get too caught up, and start seeing things where they wouldn’t have before?

ROBERTS: Yeah, and you could count me among them. I think everyone did. I believe the reason—I’m just spitballing here—but people have always needed stories, and storytellers have always held a sort of mystical place in society. People want to be transported, and experience singular emotions in a group setting. Because that’s such an age-old cross-cultural phenomenon, the power of it is bigger than us. The collective unconsciousness has played that story out so many times for thousands of years. There’s something about that that’s inherently more fascinating to me than a guy with a machete at a summer camp.

FANG: In fact, SHADOW PEOPLE is almost not even played as a horror film, but as more of a drama about people who have experienced these phenomena. Is that something you and the filmmakers consciously aimed for?

ROBERTS: I was certainly drawn to the lack of gore. It’s not, “We’re gonna throw your scarf into a motorcycle chain and your face is gonna get torn up.” The terrifying thing is the human mind. I’ve found that when you shoot a film, you never know what’s gonna happen; it could come out two years later looking completely different than you expected. But I was pleasantly surprised, when I saw the film cut together, that it stayed true to that notion.

FANG: You’ve also been working down South on THE WALKING DEAD. Can you talk a bit about that experience?

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ROBERTS: Yeah—it’s incredible, really. It’s kind of like being tied to a rocketship bound for all these places that have captured something about where we are mentally as people. It’s an really fun show to be a part of, and my experiences there, with David Morrissey in particular, have been great. And then you add in the crazy makeup and special effects—that has been fun as well. Because I’m there, and can see all the work they do to make a walker getting taken out with a machete look even more incredible.

FANG: Can you elaborate on your onscreen relationship and dynamic with Morrissey?

ROBERTS: First of all, David’s a magical actor. Every time I open the script and it says, “Milton, The Governor, Milton, The Governor…”, I’m like, “OK, this is gonna be fun.” He’s just so surprising and fluid. He’s an actor’s actor in my book. And I love the whole sort of Burns/Smithers syndrome between us. It’s a relationship where he’s in the power position, and I’m in service to him. But we trade off; there is real value to having Milton around, and playing that guy, who’s also mortally afraid of human contact anyway—I find it so much fun.

FANG: In recent episodes, we’ve started to see Milton rebel a little bit against the Governor. Will we be seeing more of that?

ROBERTS: It depends on how the Governor behaves, really. I think Milton does understand that the price of electricity and warm water and a lab is the brutality on the edges of society. Idealistically, he wishes that wasn’t the case, but rationally, he has to understand that’s how it works. The friction between those two ideas is really where Milton lives.

FANG: Is there anything coming up in future episodes that you can tease us about?

ROBERTS: They have such a tight leash on me, I can’t even give you a close hint! That said, I received the episodes the way the audience sees the episodes: One week at a time. I didn’t know what was coming either, so I was as shocked as I believe everyone is. I don’t think anyone is predicting what is actually going to happen two weeks from now, when season three wraps.

FANG: I also wanted to ask you about THE GREY, which was the complete opposite environment from THE WALKING DEAD. How was that experience, both dramatically and physically?

ROBERTS: That was one of those cases where I was standing on a mountaintop in minus-37-degree cold as the sun came up, thinking, “I will never be here again. Thank God for acting and the movies and that I was put on this planet at this particular time to watch this event happen.” [Laughs] If it wasn’t a movie, I would just go inside because it was too cold! But standing there, experiencing the icicles forming on my eyelashes as I watched the sun come up in that kind of inclement weather, was remarkable. That group of guys was amazing, and [director Joe] Carnahan leading us—there’s nothing more fun than watching a guy do what he loves to do the most. It was one of the special ones, for sure.

FANG: How did Carnahan keep up the morale during such a harsh shoot?

ROBERTS: Well, you cannot be in a bad mood around Joe Carnahan. You walk on set for the very first time, and there’s a giant plane in a hangar on hydraulic lifts, with AC/DC blasting at 90 decibels, and that never stops. The whole time, he wants so much for you to get what you want to get. You really do feel empowered by him. And he’ll make you laugh like no one’s made you laugh before, and that, when you’re stuck halfway up a mountain for hour 14, is a magical gift.

FANG: How was it acting opposite star Liam Neeson?

ROBERTS: Liam is successful enough and has enough accolades and applause that he doesn’t need me to say this, but he’s the most remarkably giving, human movie star I’ve ever met. Honestly, that was the easiest part of my job. When Ottway, his character, or Liam tells you to do something, you just go do it, because that’s probably the best idea there is. I found Liam to be incredibly generous and alive in a way that movie stars aren’t necessarily.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor, the position he holds to this day while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews.
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