Michael Rooker is a man who probably needs very little introduction. In fact, when introduced to him as he walked through a downtown Toronto hotel lobby he was introduced to me with beaming pleasure and the statement “I’m sure you know who this guy is.” Rooker’s tough yet sensitive looks and gravelly voice precede him almost everywhere he goes. A favourite with film buffs for years, Rooker has played a wide range of characters from his debut in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, to disgraced baseballer Chick Gandil in John Sayles’ Eight Men Out, to his current genre work in the films of James Gunn (Slither, Super) and on the hit television series The Walking Dead.
Deborah Valente, on the other hand, is someone who does require a bit of an introduction, but hopefully won’t need one for much longer. The Toronto native started her acting career in much the same way as many others; by becoming a model and acting on stage. After several smaller roles on screen, she most recently had leading roles in independent productions where she co-starred with Stephen Rea and Ving Rhames.
Rooker and Valente appear together onscreen this month in the horror thriller Cell 213, a Canadian shot film about a shady lawyer (played by Six Feet Under‘s Eric Balfour) who is forced to serve hard time following his conviction in the murder of one of his clients. The cocky, young man is remanded to the same cell as his former client that might just be possessed by the Devil himself. Rooker plays Ray Clement, a guard at the prison whose motives are just as suspect and unclear as those of the warden (played by Bruce Greenwood). Valente plays Audrey, a woman assigned by the state to monitor prisoners rights who might have stumbled on to a bit more than she bargained for at the South River State Penitentiary (actually filmed at a defunct correctional facility in Guelph, Ontario).
The affable and refreshingly candid Rooker, and the sweet and enthusiastic Valente, sat down with Criticize This! recently to talk about working in the horror genre, the psychology behind horror films, and why sometimes cliche is a good thing.
Andrew Parker: So what got you guys involved with Cell 213?
Michael Rooker: Deborah, why don’t you handle this one first because you were on board with this long before I was.
Deborah Valente: Well, I was handed this script and it was really different from anything I had been approached with before. I was really drawn to the psychological aspect of it and this whole idea that this prison cell could be someone’s own personal hell. That was really interesting to me.
MR: And with me, it was just one of those things, you know? My agent approached me with a script, I read it, thought it would make a good movie. I asked if they were ready to go and they were. From there it was just a matter of fitting it in and finding the time.
AP: Yeah, you work quite a lot. How hard it is for you to create a schedule for the amount of work you do in a given year?
MR: It’s funny because only once in my career have I ever had three things lined up back to back. Just like anyone in this business you end up getting a lot more offers than you end up taking or that even end up happening at all. When I get something worth doing the first thing I ask is “Are they ready to go?”. If it is, cool, let’s do this. In the end it’s the real stuff that interests me the most. The real stuff is what matters.
AP: You have both worked on films shot in prisons before (and also both with Ving Rhames in a starring role). What is it like working in an actual prison as opposed to a set?
MR: Well, I can’t say I’ve done a lot of them, but I did do one and that was Undisputed, and that was a bit of a different experience. Because in that movie with Wesley Snipes there was a whole different kind of fear because that was an actual working prison out in the middle of the desert in Nevada. We lived there with the prisoners and got to know the guards and we ate and slept there. It was all really clean and sanitized, but you get ready to go to bed and it’s just like “whoa.” And then on this one the place had been closed up for quite a long time so it was a lot darker and grimier than the one before.
AP: In a way that seems like it could be just as scary, but in a different way.
MR: Yeah, you could definitely say that. There was definitely a more creep presence there.
DV: Yeah, pretty creepy. There was definitely an almost ghostly presence that permeated this place.
MR: Ghostly’s a great word for it.
DV: Yeah. But for me, and this was kind of lucky, it was the exact same prison that I had shot at before with Animal 2.
MR: No shit? [laughs] So the ghosts kind of already knew you?
DV: [laughs] I guess they did.
AP: So you kind of already knew your way around?
DV: Well, yes and no. In the last movie, I was more in the proper part of the prison, but in this one I was in some much darker corners of the prison, like the old offices that I had never been to before, and it looked like not many other people had been, either. So even though I had filmed there in the past it was still a pretty new experience.
AP: Deborah, in your past few films you have had to get in the face of some pretty heavy hitting character actors and in this one you have to establish dominance over Michael and Bruce Greenwood. How do you come to find that power as an actress?
DV: Well, for me personally, it all starts with finding the character and knowing where they are coming from before shooting. One of the first things I like to do is come up with a bio for my character…
MR: [surprised] Really?
DV: [laughs] Yeah, you’ve never done that?
MR: Shit. [laughs] I can’t say that I have ever done that. Just never felt the need to.
DV: [laughs] You probably think I’m weird now!
MR: Oh no no no no no no no no. I know people who do that. You know, everyone works different from everyone else. You just do what you gotta do.
DV: But yeah, I start by finding out where the character is coming from, the background and all that. And then from there a lot of it comes from the cast around you and the people you are working with, and when you are working with a director like Steven Kay and people like Eric and Bruce you are always learning something new. And you learn a lot by working with people who have worked as much as Bruce and Mike have. Mike was always throwing in things that I wasn’t expecting, which, you know, you get caught off guard sometimes, but you have to use that to your advantage. It’s great to work with someone you can learn a lot from.
MR: She’s lying. [laughs] You’re ruining my image, Deb!
DV: Ha! But I can give you some of your image back because one of the first scenes we shot together was a bit of an, um, altercation, I guess you could say. Not to give anything away, but that’s a good example of what I’m talking about. You were doing things that I wouldn’t have thought of and it was great to see what we could do together.
MR: Well, thanks! But, yeah, not giving anything away, but there is a scene with Deb and I involving some private property and old Ray doesn’t take too kindly to what she is doing and they have to have it out in a way.
AP: That brings up an interesting point about the character of Ray in that at first he seems really professional, but over the course of the film you start to get all these little clues that something isn’t quite right there. Is it harder to play someone with such an arc or is it easier to play someone who is fully fleshed out as being “good” or “bad”?
MR: You know, I have never really played anyone who was ever all good or all bad. You can talk all you want about arcs and stuff like that, but no matter that direction it’s all equally challenging. It’s really great to have a character like Ray that goes the way that he does because you can do something really special to it, but it’s also there in really basic terms right there on the page. The trick with it, like with everything else, is that you’ve got to find the humanity in it. That’s the most important part.
AP: Cell 213 is definitely more of a psychological horror film than it is an “in your face” type of film. Are you guys generally drawn more to psychological thrillers or the more visceral ones?
DV: I would say psychological, definitely. The psychological aspects of a scary movie are always a lot more interesting to deal with and play with. There is a lot more to do on a psychological level and a lot more you can infer from the material than from just the words on the page. There are more gaps that you can personally fill in with your performance and as a director.
MR: I agree, but you know there are definitely merits to both sides of it.
On the first movie I did, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, we wanted to make it as real as possible. Then when it came out after all the delays a lot of people thought it was psychologically scary because they felt that reality. I mean, there are things in the real world that are infinitely scarier than what we see on screen. That’s the truth and they happen every day. On a psychological level, if you tap into that then you’ve got something special.
But there is also something to be said for the more in your face type stuff. Like the jump scare. People always go on and on about how much of a cliche it is, but I think it can be a GOOD cliche and it’s always been there. If you have something pop up out of nowhere or something comes up out of the shadows and you do it right, it’s effective with an audience 100% of the time. Cell 213 has a lot of the psychological elements, but it also has those moments that actually work. It’s even got those psychological jump scares where you think one thing is going to happen and then all of a sudden it goes in a different direction. I mean, you watch this in the dark of a theatre with a bunch of people and this movie really cooks.
But, you know, it was like Deb was saying, sometimes with both kinds of movies it adds that whole element of it being a new learning experience. I have done some movies that have some pretty in your face scares and you read and think they are going to be easy to shoot and you get there and realize that for every movie I make there is a different camera angle and set-up. With all this new technology and new cameras you can do so much more, but this is also the kind of stuff you could never get out of an acting class. So in that respect, I’m kind of always learning, myself.
AP: Deborah, you are a local girl and Michael, you have worked in Canada plenty of times before. What is it like for both of you to make this film here?
DV: It’s always great to be home and working at home and to be in a familiar setting. I’m really proud of what we’ve done and I’m proud that we were able to do it here.
MR: I honestly don’t see that much of a difference and I mean, this is a question that has come up before and I am surprised that it has. I’m not going to pretend to know what goes on over on the business side of things here, so I can’t speak to that, but I go where the work is and the work is certainly here. But when you’ve done as many films as I have you just don’t feel the difference if you are in the States, Canada, Budapest, Turkey, Thailand, whatever. It’s not really that different. Same kind of work, different location. Same cameras, sometimes the same faces and really meeting new people is the only thing that really changes. But in the end there is always a camera, some actors, and some guy running around trying to tell people what to do.
Cell 213 opens in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax, and Ottawa on Friday, June 10.
Top image: Michael Rooker in a scene from Cell 213. Courtesy Cinesavvy.