If Showtime's mixed-bag 'Masters of Horror' series produced at least one truly great thing its wake, it was 'Nevermore,' the Edgar Allan Poe one-man show, starring Jeffrey Combs and directed by Stuart Gordon. The idea sprung from Gordon's second season episode 'The Black Cat,' which found Combs playing Poe in a story that wove reality with dark horror. Inspired by Combs remarkable performance (and uncanny likeness), Gordon and writer Denis Paoli began tinkering with a full-length play based on the author's life and works. The play opened in Los Angeles during the Summer of 2009 for a four week run, but due to overwhelming popularity, played through till December of that year.
Since then, Gordon and Combs have taken the show on the road, including stops in Baltimore and Austin, Texas -- home of Fantastic Fest and the world famous Alamo Drafthouse. The director and star hosted screenings of two of their most popular film collaborations at the festival (you can read about that here), before sticking around to perform 'Nevermore' to live audiences for four nights in a row.
I loved the show so much, I saw it two nights in a row, and I was grateful to get the chance to speak to both of the men between performances.
Cinematical: There were lines in 'Nevermore' that I thought really stood out. One of the things that was said, concerning actors, is that their purpose is to please. I thought that was interesting, and didn't know if either of you felt like that was their only purpose.
Jeffrey Combs: Never really thought of it. I mean, you know, to entertain is another way of saying "to please", and that is, you know, I think it's a little broader than that. I think sometimes "to enlighten" could be something that an actor could bring to the whole dynamic of it. I think that's pretty simply put. Indeed, that is indeed what actors want to do. They want you to appreciate the story and them. I also sort of find the idea that not only do actors want to please when they're onstage, I find actors really want to please off stage a lot of the time, don't they?
Stuart Gordon: Sometimes yes and sometimes no.
Combs: Sometimes yes and sometimes no? That's a director talking right there.
Cinematical: Do you feel the same about your actors? That that's their purpose when they're out there? To please?
Gordon: I think that's part of it, but there's more to it. Y'know, I think being an actor is being a surrogate for the audience. He's sort of like putting them through a story. Usually, like with our show, you're really feeling for this guy, and it sort of helps you. And in a sense, the audience sort of becomes an actor in a way, so that the actor's channeling from the audience, so I think that's part of it as well.
Combs: Feelings are universal, and if an actor's doing his job, I think he's making people sit there, and if it's in a movie or a theatre, going "Hmm, yeah, I know that...I know that."
Cinematical: On your end, as far as being pleased, I'm sure there's a different kind of satisfaction that comes from performing in front of a crowd, as opposed to just doing the TV and movies.
Combs: Well, John, I want to please you right now!
Cinematical: Nice! Another quote that Poe said is that wealth determines an author's success...
Combs: Well, wealth and social influence determines an author's success. Emphatically. In other words, well, I mean nothing's really changed. I think Poe was dealing with the same sort of frustration that people, not necessarily just artists, y'know...damn it! if you're connected and mediocre, well, guess what? You succeed. It's who you know and who can help you. It's not a meritocracy, okay? It's not because you're "good." Although, that can certainly help you, but there are times when you go, "what's a guy gotta do?" And you look around, and you see that people are succeeding and they don't merit it.
Gordon: You gotta get Oprah to push your book.
Cinematical: Hal Holbrook started playing Twain in his forties, and sort of became forever linked with his Mark Twain show.
Combs: As well he should.
Cinematical: How interested are you in pursuing that avenue -- becoming forever linked with Edgar Allan Poe?
Combs: Forever and nevermore? I've not really thought about that too far out. We just sort of approached this as bringing Poe to life, and our little four week run...
Gordon: We're in year two now.
Combs: ...has just blossomed into an ever-expanding run here, and I'm humbled and I'm pleased about it, but, y'know, it's kind of like I can't really think about that because it doesn't help me, aid, in doing a better show tonight or tomorrow.
Cinematical: In a one man show, when it's that kind of performance, when it's so singular, there's not as many balls in the air to juggle as there is with a film, or even with a play that has a larger cast -- you're talking about two years with one man. If that continues, how do you stay vital?
Gordon: Well, the thing that's great, just watching Jeffrey, the show is still growing, and he's still changing it, and he's still coming up with things. Last night, there was a whole new section that I'd never seen before.
Combs: What was that? The music stand?
Gordon: It was the thing with the music stand!
Gordon: That was completely different than anything he's ever done before. And he's constantly surprising me. That's something that's so fantastic. My job, in a way, the director is there in the rehearsal to kind of encourage. Now that he's there with the audience, I'm not really needed to do that anymore...
Combs: Well, look, look, look...Let me jump in here, because Stu has been absolutely phenomenal through this whole process. I mean, it's daunting to do an hour and a half of non-stop soliloquiy, and Stuart has been so incredibly supportive and positive and encouraging and very zen. I mean, it's almost non-intrusive, and yet saying just the right sort of nudge, the right kind of English, that just kind of keeps me on the bubble. Keeping me really focused.
Combs: He's like Yoda.
Gordon: Only bigger.
Cinematical: Paoli's script is excellent...
Combs: It is.
Cinematical: I'd heard that all the words were Poe's words...
Combs: I'd say 95% of it.
Cinematical: He did a great job with the script. Has the content changed, in regards to the stories and poems, from the initial script?
Combs: No, no, no. When we started, we started this way, Stuart and I kinda got together and go -- what would the evening be like, what do I want to do, what poems do I want to do? That sort of helped us. Came up with the great device of placing Helen in the (audience).
Gordon: Which is based on truth.
Combs: Which is based on an actual event. I mean, she didn't get up and walk out, and he didn't drink, and those things.
Gordon: But she did break up with him because of his drinking.
Gordon: And there was a performance that she attended that she sat on the first row and he did the whole show to her, and he was constantly talking to her and so forth, so that kind of gave us the idea...
Combs: To give it a specificity, instead of a general kind of recital, it gave us that.
Gordon: She also gives us tension. This is Poe. He's trying to woo her. He wants to marry into a very wealthy widow. And he was actually wooing four different women, and when he broke it off with Helen, he actually ended up going off with another one. When he died, he was just about to marry a woman from Richmond.
Combs: He was workin' it. His wife had died the year before, and he was just determined to get out of this poverty and into a situation with someone he could be agreeable with and love and have a companion, but also have comfort.
Gordon: What's funny is he's criticizing Longfellow for doing exactly what he's doing. Which is marrying into a wealthy family.
Combs: A lot of people don't pick up on that, but he's ripping Longfellow not a year after his wife died. What is Poe doing? He's doing exactly the same. It's career envy.
Cinematical: One of the other things that was said was, "My stories do not transcend; my stories provide no morals," as a criticism that was leveled against Poe. It sounded like the same criticism that people continue to level against horror films.
Cinematical: How do you personally respond to that type of criticism when it's leveled at your work?
Gordon: I think that I disagree with that, actually, and I think that horror films have a lot to say. I don't know if they have morals exactly, but in terms of what they do? Y'know, the thing that's beautiful about horror movies is that they can deal with topics that no one else really can, and the things that people are afraid to talk about. And the main one being death, which is sort of central to almost every horror film, so I think horror films provide a great service to people. So often in movies that I do, the hero is often the villain. He becomes a monster, so it deals with the idea that there's a monster inside each of us.
Cinematical: I watched "The Black Cat" when I got home last night...
Combs: Couldn't get enough Poe?
I was curious about the performance, and was really shocked -- this sounds like a back-handed compliment -- but I was really shocked at the consistency from this TV movie that you guys did years ago, to last night, with you on stage, right in front of me. The performance is remarkably consistent.
Combs: Thank you. That's really nice.
Gordon: Well, this is sort of a sequel to 'The Black Cat.'
Cinematical: I have to ask the fanboy 'Re-Animator' and 'From Beyond' question as well...It took 'From Beyond' a little while, it seemed like, versus 'Re-Animator' which seemed to be almost an instant cult classic. 'From Beyond' has almost snowballed into something now and it's become like 'White Album'/'Rubber Soul,' where there's 'Re-Animator' people and 'From Beyond' people...
Combs (In his best Liverpool accent): Well, I never thought of that!
Cinematical: Which one of the two is your favorite?
Gordon: I don't really have favorites.
Cinematical: You can't pick between your kids?
Gordon: No, I can't. They're so different. In a sense, it is true that I think 'From Beyond' is kind of the flip side of 'Re-Animator.' Jeffrey is playing the exact opposite character Barbara is playing; it's like the two of them have switched roles in the two movies.
Cinematical: As many times as I've seen 'From Beyond,' there was something about seeing it on the big screen. I never noticed how much of the heavy lifting in the acting that Barbara Crampton does. There's so much that happens to you, that's so gonzo and crazy, that it's easy to get distracted. Seeing it this time, I was like, wow, she's doing a lot in this movie. She's carrying this movie.
Gordon: It's true. It's her film.
Combs: It is. And for me, 'From Beyond' was much more difficult. Not just from my technical point of view, from having to get in and out of that make-up so much and being very uncomfortable and all of that, but it was also, as an actor, a harder role. It's hard to play a victim. It really is. I think of my role in 'From Beyond' as Bruce Abbott's Dan Cain in 'Re-Animator.' He's that guy. "No! You can't! No! We won't!" It's harder. More challlenging, more difficult. You should've cast Bruce.
Cinematical: What's next for you guys?
Gordon: I'm working on a couple of things, one being a musical version of 'Re-Animator' for the stage, which I'm hoping to get going next year. It's pretty far along; we've done a couple readings of it, and we're almost there.
Cinematical: Are you coming back to play Herbert West in it?
Gordon: Unfortunately not.
Cinematical: We don't get to hear you sing?
Gordon: He's a good singer!
Combs: I'm too old for that now. For me, I've kind of gotten into voice-over work a little bit. I'm a series regular on a new animated series of 'Transformers' that's going to premiere soon on a new cable network called The Hub, which premieres on 10-10-10. So, I've done the first season of that; that's really great, and next week I'm going to do a voice for a movie, a little independent movie called 'Motivational Growth' about a guy who's been stuck in his apartment for over a year, and it's a mess, and one day he's in the bathroom and the mold that's been growing in the corner starts talking to him. It's a new high in my career.
Combs: I'm the mold, yes. Not "a" mold. "The" mold.
Cinematical: Talking about the Hal Holbrook thing, and growing up seeing Robards play FDR, are there any plans to turn 'Nevermore' into a film?
Gordon: We'd like to. I'd love to do a film version of it. We videotaped the performance, but I'd like to do it where we go into an old theatre, and have the audience in costumes, and have gaslight illumination for the stage, and really...
Combs: ...re-enact what that would've been like.
Cinematical: Is this just a desire on your part or is this something where the wheels are actively, slowly turning?
Gordon: Yeah, we're exploring it, so hopefully that will happen.
'Nevermore' is currently playing at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas through October 2, as part of Fantastic Fest. Tickets are available online and at the theatre box office.