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Patrick Wilson may have Tony and Emmy nominations, roles opposite Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep and a bona fide superhero on his resume, but he's not afraid to get down, dirty and scary too. What started off as a short, low-budget horror movie turned into the surprise hit Insidious, and Wilson didn't hesitate to reunite with director James Wan for another very different kind of scarefest, The Conjuring.
If all goes well-- and based on rapturous early buzz and the surprise change to a prime release date, it will go well-- Wilson may have landed himself a franchise. He and Vera Farmiga star in The Conjuring as Ed and Lorraine Warren, the pair of paranormal investigators who discovered the famous Amityville Horror case, but had dozens of other supernatural and terrifying encounters over the course of their career. At the center of The Conjuring is the story of the Perron family, who move into a Rhode Island farm house only to discover it's inhabited by a very malevolent witch named Bathsheba, who hung herself from a tree outside the house years earlier. The Perrons (played by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) bring in the Warrens to investigate, and The Conjuring sets itself apart from most haunted house thrillers by being more about the experts who come in to save the day than the tormented family.
Wilson-- though he was disappointed not to get to grow a mustache-- was still in the middle of getting into the period 1970s vibe when we spoke to him on the set in Wilmington, N.C. last April, as The Conjuring was nearing the end of its 40-day shoot. Here are the highlights from our conversation below, and if you want to see our full set report, click here.
We were upset to hear you didn't have a mustache.
It’s funny, when James was selling me this I guess in December, November, something like that, he was like, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it period, like with a mustache and everything!’ And I was like, ‘Awesome!’ And then I looked at the pictures and I called him back, I was like, ‘Jim, I don’t think he ever had a mustache. I really wish he did, but …’ It was very funny. So the mustache was sort of the selling point at the beginning, but then we realized Ed never wore a mustache.
Can you explain what you were shooting right now?
This is sort of the meat of the movie where Lili Taylor’s character, Carolyn, she’s just been pulled down the stairs. The spirit of the witch – sounds like a Rush album – is pulling her downstairs and she’s flying around the room. A little backstory;: my guy, Ed, up till this point, does not give exorcisms. He’s not a priest and that’s certainly reserved for priests. And this is the point in the movie where he has to decide; there’s really no time to wait for the word from the Vatican to assign someone to come give the exorcisms and, at this point, we come down there and she’s been thrown around the room and really is being taken hold of by this entity so then I’ve gotta give the exorcism myself.
Having worked with James on Insidious, I was wondering if you could talk a little about the differences or any similarities here.
Only in the very basic sense of it being in the genre. A large selling point of wanting to work with him again is because we had such a great experience on Insidious and the crew as well and the camera department. Insidious we knocked it out pretty quickly and it was a wonderful experience, so I knew going into it that James and I really worked well together. And that being said, this is a totally different animal and a different kind of movie.
I think [it's] a little more character driven, and certainly when you’re playing someone who is a real person, you’re trying to figure out how much of it is biographical mixed into this genre. Potentially, if all goes well, to perhaps set up more because with these people, the Warrens, had thousands of cases. It’s certainly a hot commodity; you can mine a lot of stories out of them. I knew going in that James just knows not only the genre so well, but he’s got a very specific sense of tone in his movies.
The Warrens are known for being somewhat quirky, so can you talk about how that quirk filtered into caring about them in the film?
I tread lightly because having met Lorraine and Judy--Ed passed away in ’06 I think it was-- they’re very open people and excited about this. It’s a strange world to go into; not only are we gonna tell your story or at least a piece of your story, but we’re gonna do it in a horror genre and make a horror movie out of it. You don’t really get stories like that a lot. You’re constantly trying to figure out what’s real and biographical and what we’re doing to, like any movie, focus it into a dramatic picture.
They had their own way of speaking and dressing, and automatically, when you set it in the 70s, you’re already an image. Vera and I, we wanted to, as much as the system would allow us, swing with a big stick and make really bold characters. We didn’t really want to just be Vera and Patrick going through a contemporary horror movie either being scared, scaring people or rescuing people. So we sifted through a lot of the physical things that I could find online, crosses, picture, rings, clothes. She was very specific in the clothes she wore. Everybody was all on the same page so you could make a character, but I think you care about it because they come with a sense of honesty and really wanting to help people out. This whole supernatural world was so uncharted, so anybody that dedicated their life to wanting to help people out, it’s not like they made any money. Yes, they were interested in the occult, but I think that they genuinely wanted to help people so I think there was an honesty with them, and I think that you’ll get that, hopefully, with our performances.
If the Warrens become a franchise, would you like to revisit this character?
I don’t know who else would play him now. [Laughs] Vera and I wouldn’t have signed on for one not knowing that they didn’t want to do more. That’s just the nature of the beast.
What is it about him as person that you would like to explore?
For me it’s always just trying to do something different and even though I’ve done the horror genre once, I mean, Insidious is a totally different set up. If anything, I’m closer to Roger, Ron [Livingston]’s character, the husband in peril and saving his family. There is a lot of being protective with me and Lorraine, but I think it’s fascinating, a couple that dedicated their life to the occult, supernatural, demonology and the guy was one of seven or eight demonologists, the only person at the time that was authorized or supported by the Vatican to give an exorcism who wasn’t a priest. He knew more about this world than most priests around the world. I don’t think most priests delved into the demons and the backstories and the hundreds of years of spirits. I don’t think anyone knew that better than Ed. He read. Everything about him, he was always reading and studying and from a very early age just really loved this world. I can latch onto somebody like that that has that kind of passion even though it wasn’t my passion, but it’s something I can really respect.
Did Lorraine come to set to see you?
Did she feel you embodied him?
Something she said--which was all I ever wanted because Ed and I look totally different even through history. I thought about trying to go closer to his look, but it wasn’t that important. People aren’t gonna see me and go, ‘He doesn’t look like Ed Warren!’ You know what I mean? The physicality doesn’t matter, but she had said to me, ‘I look in your eyes and you have that same kindness and that same openness that Ed had.’ And that to me just made me feel great. That’s all I’m going for is just to try to capture his spirit.
This is kind of crazy actually. I was looking at rings [for the costume] and I thought, ‘Eh, it’s probably closer to this one,’ and I sent him a picture and he was like, ‘Oh! That’s perfect! He had an onyx ring, it was grey.’ And so I picked this ring out and they come to set. We were sending e-mails back and Lorraine goes, “Oh my gosh, you know, I looked for that ring. It looks just like that, but I think I buried him with it.’ [Laughs] I was like, well I hope you don’t find it, or maybe you will! And then randomly my dad, my own father, had come up the next week and he had a ring and I don’t even remember when he got this. He had a ring that looked almost identical to the ring I’d picked out to play Ed Warren. I mean, the two diamonds and a little onyx piece there. He was on set and I was like, ‘Dad, let me see your ring.’ He holds out his hand and I was like, ‘Wow.’ And then, of course, my mom goes, ‘Oh, did you get that ring after Dad?’ I was like, ‘No, I had no idea.’
Did working on this make you a believer?
It’s funny. I try as hard as I can to separate my own beliefs. I’m not a skeptical person anyway. I think I’m a pretty open person, but it’s such a slippery slope that when I’m playing him, and this sounds kind of hokey and actor-y, but I really don’t think about my own feelings at all because he was such a believer and if people were hecklers in the crowd, he would take them on, one-on-one. He was very passionate about what he believed in. It’s like that thing about the men on the moon; people say, ‘No, we didn’t send people to the moon,’ and then you talk to Buzz Aldrin, they said, ‘You cannot take that experience away from me.’ Tthere is that kind of sentiment with Ed of going, ‘You can’t tell me what I’ve seen.’ And trust me, you get into the demonologists in some of the books that he’s written, a lot of it’s pretty far out there, it’s pretty deep and supernatural, so you’re sort of like, I wanna read, but the more I read, the more I, ‘Okay, let me just go for the ride.’ It’s tough. That’s a long-winded answer. But when I’m Ed, I believe.