Genre films are a particularly interesting breed of cinema as more often than not they allow actors who have excelled in smaller roles and other mediums to showcase their range with opportunities that don’t come by as often in the dramatic spectrum. Terrific character actors such as Stacy Keach, William Sadler, Sam Neill, Michael Rooker and Michael Shannon broke onto the radars of many from roles within the horror genre, furthermore establishing themselves as heavy hitters within drama as well whilst never dismissing their genre entries. And now as the independent landscape molds around lower-budget films with high-profile names, this pattern is all the more visible as truly great actors are finding their way into more tasteful yet horrific projects.
Among these actors is Michael Cudlitz, who anchors the psychological horror/thriller Dark Tourist about a traveler whose obsessions with visiting the scenes of infamous crimes brings him closer to his more depraved impulses. Dark Tourist serves as one of Cudlitz’s rare leading roles, following an acclaimed run on the cult cop show Southland and a string of great, smaller roles in action, drama and comedy films. With this opportunity, Cudlitz shows fans and critics an unforeseen side of his performances, going into places outside of most actors’ comfort zones to inhabit a genuinely frightening but all-too-human character in a world full of damaged souls. Cudlitz spoke to Diabolique about Dark Tourist, his attraction to his inaugural horror role and his dual role as both producer and performer on the film…
DIABOLIQUE: Dark Tourist is the first psychological horror/thriller that you’ve taken a leading role within. What attracted you to this project as your first horror leading role?
MICHAEL CUDLITZ: For me, the most important thing that draws me to any of my projects or the work that I choose is the material itself: the characters, if the story is provocative to me, if there are layers to the characters. It can’t just be about genre for me, no matter what it is. Even if it’s an action movie or project, it has to be based in character. Everything has to be character driven or it really doesn’t appeal to me. Frank John Hughes wrote an amazing script that has a lot of wonderfully damaged characters that all collide at this wonderfully horrific moment in time.
DIABOLIQUE: Not only are you the lead actor in Dark Tourist, but you’re also on board of this project as a producer. How was collaborating with director Suri Krishnamma as a producer as opposed to as the lead?
CUDLITZ: It was great. I actually came on as a producer early on, mostly in name because I got the money people connected to the script. The money people were friends of mine and came to me, saying they had a certain amount of money to make a project with and asked if I had any material that I wanted to produce. I said, “No, but I’ve got a friend who is a writer that I respect and I will check with him if he has any material.” I asked my friend Frank John Hughes if he had any material he was looking to produce and he said he only had one script that fell into those parameters, budget-wise, that he wasn’t selling because he wrote it for me. I said, “That’s great, because the people who want to buy [the script] want to make it with me attached to it.”
Three months later, we were in production and seven months later, we were shooting Dark Tourist. We went down to New Orleans and we set up with a local production services company. The night before we started shooting, we realized a good portion of our money was stolen from us, so we had to come back to Los Angeles and try to find funding again, which we did. The original investor actually reinvested in the film, but that took some work. We had to bring in another producer to help get that done and we basically produced the film for a lot less than what we had intentionally set out to do.
From that point on, I became an active producer and by that I mean [I was involved in] the day-to-day nuts and bolts of production, keeping us on track and on schedule, helping with staffing and pulling in favors with people I’d worked with before. But working with Suri, I was dealing with him mostly as an actor. We were all working collaboratively so there was never any friction or tension; we knew the budget and the schedule so everybody was on board. It was an awesome experience.
DIABOLIQUE: For your first psychological horror-thriller role, you’ve chosen a much more grounded and human tale of terror as opposed to something supernatural. Was this human aspect of the horror important to your decision to pursue this project?
CUDLITZ: Yes, that was a deciding factor. As I said earlier, it’s all about character and if these characters aren’t believable or if you can’t get invested in these characters, I don’t think the story is worth telling.
DIABOLIQUE: You’re joined by a great cast in Dark Tourist, including Melanie Griffith and Pruitt Taylor Vince. How was it working with them on this intense and independently-produced material? Were they just as courageous to dive into this project?
CUDLITZ: Yes. The script is what drew everybody to Dark Tourist. Frank wrote an amazing script and that’s what brought Melanie and Pruitt to the film. They read the material and couldn’t say no. As an actor, if it’s not a money job, it’s the material. If there’s definitely great material, you can get good actors at a discount because they’re so excited about the project. So we lucked out, or lucked in as they say, with Melanie, Pruitt and also Suzanne Quast. Dark Tourist is Suzanne’s first major role as an actress and she’s just terrific in the film as well.
DIABOLIQUE: This project is a particularly interesting choice for you as you haven’t played as many antagonistic roles throughout your career. As an actor, did you find it difficult to connect to a character that was as psychologically damaged as Jim Tahana in Dark Tourist?
CUDLITZ: Nope! [laughs]
DIABOLIQUE: As an actor, a role like this must be daunting considering how many great performances have come from psychologically unstable characters in the vein of Jim in the past. Was there anything specifically in this performance that you wanted to avoid that you may have seen depicted previously in terms of the archetypical unstable character?
CUDLITZ: No, I think if you’re being honest to the character and the character is being written in an honest way, you just need to perform the scenes. The only responsibilities you have is to the written character. I don’t really waste time judging, critiquing or emulating anyone else’s performances, so I’m not worried about that. [Jim] is a singular person and he has a very specific voice, so no, not at all. Jim Tahana is Jim Tahana.
DIABOLIQUE: Inversely, was there anything you wanted to convey about this character that you personally wanted to bring to the character?
CUDLITZ: One of the things I thought was really important is that you need to have a lot of empathy for Jim or he’s just a monster. You have to understand why he gets to where he gets. You don’t have to like him or approve of what he’s done but you have to understand how he got there. I think a lot of that was on me to open that doorway so that the audience could take my hand and follow me in that doorway.
I think a lot of that is on the page, but that particular element is just in the way it’s played, and I hoped I could get people to really understand that there was something about Jim that I guess you liked a little bit. I think we got there and the audience comes with us. You’re certainly not going to like what he does but you’re certainly going to understand his journey and how he got there.
DIABOLIQUE: You’ve not only have a great film career, but also a prolific career on television and on the stage. As an independently produced horror film, the schedule of these films is often times compared to that of a television show and with horror films, many actors have compared it to stage acting due to the amount of patience and physicality that comes with the role. Was your approach to Dark Tourist different or similar to your approach to television and stage work?
CUDLITZ: It’s interesting that you say all of what you just said about television and stage because I agree with you, 100%. I did think this schedule lends itself to the same thing as television schedules lend itself to, which is true. When you don’t have a lot of time to make shit up, you tend to not make shit up. The work is the work, but the truth stays when you’re working on a fast schedule. It’s hard to create stuff that’s there and sustain it; you don’t have time. I used to say, “When you’re working in television, you don’t have time for bullshit. You really just drive through, commit to a choice and then move on.”
I think we had a 20 day schedule, because we were supposed to have 22 days but got cut down to a 20 day schedule. I believe there’s 135 scenes in the movie and I’m in 132 of them. There’s no stand-in’s or extra people around because you can’t afford them, so being a producer, that helped me because I was aware of what was going on at any given moment. When we got into the editing room, I was aware of what footage we had and what footage we didn’t have because I was there for almost every single shot of the film.
I found Dark Tourist to be extremely immersive and very, very satisfying. I think the work shows from all of us who were involved in the film. A lot of people say, “We’re proud of what we did with what we had,” but that doesn’t qualify it. I think we kicked the shit out of this script and I think we made a really, really wonderful film.
DIABOLIQUE: One very interesting thing about independent film, especially genre work, is that more people are seeing these projects faster than ever thanks to digital distribution and instant streaming. If Dark Tourist takes off in that realm, even though the film releases simultaneously theatrically, would you be more enticed to return to independent projects, either as an actor or producer?
CUDLITZ: It’s all about the material. I’ve never done a large role in a big studio movie. I’ve done smaller roles and I’ve done sizable things, but nothing where I was working the majority of the schedule on a big studio movie. So for me to say, “Yeah, I’d love to do independent stuff,” doesn’t mean I’m walking away from studio stuff, because I’ve never really went off in that world that much. I think it comes along with the material. I don’t care what the budget is, necessarily, as long as there’s enough money to make the project and it’s not going to come off as cheap or hurt it because there’s not enough money. I’m not adverse to independent works of any kind. It all comes down to the story.
DIABOLIQUE: Now that Dark Tourist is hitting theaters, is there any other projects of note of yours that is either in development or awaiting release?
CUDLITZ: I just have some TV stuff in development right now with a buddy of mine; we’re working on that. Then I have the movie Chavez, with Michael Pena, and that comes out in March of 2014, I believe, and that’s it.
Dark Tourist, starring Cudlitz, Melanie Griffith, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Suzanne Quast creeps into select theaters and on VOD from Phase 4 Films today, August 23rd. For more information on Dark Tourist, you can watch the trailer here. For more from Michael Cudlitz, you can follow him on Twitter: @Cudlitz.
For more on Cudlitz, Phase 4 Films and Dark Tourist, keep checking back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com! Don’t forget to pick up Diabolique #17, available now for iPad/iPhone at the App Store, and will be on shelves and for other digital platforms this week!
– By Ken W. Hanley