Man in the Mask: Interview with actor Damian Maffei, discussing his love of the genre, his role in The Strangers: Prey at Night, and what makes him tick.
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor 33Dead had the opportunity to chat with actor and producer Damian Maffei. Damian plays the terrifying “Man in the Mask” in the recently released The Strangers: Prey at Night. While his latest role as the axe-wielding, sack-headed killer is garnering a lot of attention, Damien is no stranger to the world of indie horror. Our guest columnist talks to him about his career, his love of Horror, what it was like to don the iconic mask, and what’s next for the talented actor.
PART ONE: THE ACTING BUG
Morbidly Beautiful: Firstly, I want to start out by thanking you for your time. I know you’ve been busy promoting and doing other interviews, so it’s appreciated that you’d take a few minutes and speak with us here at Morbidly Beautiful.
Damian Maffei: Of course, happy to. If there’s anything actors do best is talk about themselves and have an appreciation for people who want them to talk about themselves.
MB: So what got you into acting? I mean, I know that it’s a dream for lots of people. But at what point did you decide that this was worth the risk to pursue?
DM: You know what’s funny, and probably scary, is that I think MANY actors, certainly including myself, didn’t see it as a risk. Not when I was starting out. Which comes with the whole ‘invincible youth thing’. It was just, “I’m obviously quite gifted, perhaps the greatest ever, not hideous, being an actor is my destiny.” For quite a while there, it never really was realistic that I WOULDN’T wind up acting as a profession.
Even more, I was never really interested in becoming a “star”. Doing character work, that’s where I wanted to wind up. Getting lost and unrecognizable in juicy parts, I thought that made me so damn interesting. While my friends tottered off to become ‘big stars’, ‘leading ladies and men’, I thought I’d be doing stuff that I was proud of. Of course it’s all absurd, and by “getting lost and unrecognizable,” I don’t mean with a sack on my head.
But, for me, it wasn’t until adult life started to rain down upon me that I started to get nervous. Bills have to be paid, you have to eat food and stuff to survive. And then our first child came along. That’s a real eye opener. You know, babies don’t come with coupons. And they’ll let you have one, even if you’re stumbling around trying to get acting work. It’s pretty crazy. So I think around the time of the first child was probably my initial mental stumble, “Do I keep trying this?”
My wife, who is an exceptional actor herself, continued her higher education and went right out and got a job that would support our family. She made that huge sacrifice so I could stumble around, no idea if I would gain any traction with it.
MB: Yeah, exactly. That’s very cool of her!
DM: That said, it was something I always felt I could and should do from the start. I was good at it, and was willing to work my ass off, and I figured if I continued to do so, keep doing good work, eventually it would have to pay off.
MB: After seeing some of your other work, I agree man, you’re good! What other jobs have you held prior to acting?
DM: I was a waiter. Worst ever. I’ll bet on that. I’m good with people until they give me attitude, act as though they’re superior beings. Then I cannot suppress, I must be a dick back to them. So that didn’t work out too well. I delivered pizzas. Was also bad at that. Also, the whole giving me a hard time thing, I didn’t do well with that. And I sold suits at a clothing store. Suit salesman. I was very personable, helpful, and warm. Unless you were a dick to me, then I’m like… “You don’t need a suit, you need my foot up your ass.”
MB: Yes! I’m the same. I’m cool until you give me shit, then it’s game over, man. You’re a father to a couple of boys. Do you find your career hard to juggle when you have a family at home?
DM: The hardest part about having the kiddos and doing this stuff is being away from them for so long. You go on to a movie, you shoot for a couple of weeks, month, 2 months…more. It’s hard. And especially if you’re starting out, or haven’t begun raking it in, you just can’t afford to travel back home on the off days, or bring them to you. That’s the toughest aspect, to me.
PART TWO: MAKING A MONSTER LOVER
MB: Understandable. It has to be hard, but someday they’ll get to see that their dad played a badass axe wielding maniac. So, I know this through previous conversation, but what some of our readers are unaware of is that you’re a big horror fan yourself. How old were you and what movie was it that brought you to the dark side?
DM: Oh, I don’t know how old I was. Young. Younger than society and my parents thought I should be watching such things. But I was crafty. BACK IN MY DAY, we didn’t have the same parental controls, and I’ve always been a night creature, so I’d sneak down and have at the TV. I’ll say that ALIEN was probably my first experience watching a horror flick and truly loving every second of it.
And Ripley is incredible of course, but I remember watching that movie and emotionally latching on to Captain Dallas, as you were likely meant to do. He was their leader, he was level headed, and he meant safety for me as a viewer. So when he went into those ducts, man…what a scene. When they lose the signal and he’s sitting there with his back up against the wall, mumbling to himself, asks Lambert if he’s clear so he can get the hell out of there…that was powerful stuff. Still is.
MB: Hell yes. Ripley is amazing, and Dallas had an effect on me too. I know exactly what you’re saying.
DM: I probably saw BLACK CHRISTMAS not too long after, and that will always be a near perfect movie to me. Those two pushed me to further check out the genre, and I started just blowing through every flick available in the horror section of the nearest video store. Another distinct moment for me was I remember Halloween night, sitting at home, I was probably 9, and I watched NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, TRANSYLVANIA 6-5000, and THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. That was a good night.
I had seen parts of NOTLD before, but this was my first time start to finish, and it was just amazing. And of course I loved ROTLD, and started searching out everything Clu Gulager was in after that, something about him made me want to see more. I do recall having nightmares that night though, fast moving, gooey zombies. So that’s a drawback. Worth it though.
MB: Dude. Black Christmas is top shelf. The voice on the phone is terrifying. It was neat reading some trivia about the movie. Who is your favorite slasher?
DM: You mean character wise, not necessarily the movie overall? I’ve always liked the idea of Cropsy from THE BURNING. That movie is a little sleazy (Weinstein?) and Cropsy is a little sleazy. His motivation is a little wonky though, so I can’t fully get behind him. I like Owl Head in Stage Fright. As a lover of the theater, I can identify with him, not only just taking a break from the slaughter and enjoying a sit on stage with some classical music, but also the want to destroy bad theater and everyone involved in it.
My FAVORITE though has to be Jason from Friday the 13th part 2. Sacky-J. For me, slasher wise, it’s the perfect marriage. Jason in that movie is a tragic figure. NOW HOLD ON…it’s true. He is a boy that most certainly was made fun of, probably viciously, by the other children, he SORT OF drowns due to lack of supervision, and sees his mother beheaded just trying to keep other kids from drowning.
His mother was his whole world. So he’s a bit of a clod, he’s confused, lost, and he’s out there just trying to do what he thinks he needs to do, stop these counselors. They’re the bad people. And he’s dangerous, man. And he tries to hide on a chair towards the end of a movie. That’s great stuff. His whole story, aligned with a whole slew of slaying…HE’s it for me.
MB: As a Horror lover, have you always wanted to act in this genre? Is there a specific actor in general who inspired you?
DM: Anytime I want to be involved with something creatively, it tends to be in the horror genre. But I’ve always just wanted to act. Do some character parts. There seems to be this thing out there from some folks who’s goal is to be a “horror actor”. I don’t know what the hell that is. Does that mean they’re only good enough to be in horror movies? That’s pretty funny, bless their hearts.
Claude Rains has always been a favorite actor of mine. A brilliant talent, who spent significant time in all genres, and most certainly left his impression in horror, being a pivotal cog in the Universal Monster machine. The Invisible Man, Phantom of the Opera, and The Wolfman. He’s always been an inspiration.
But others, with their time in such things have inspired. Roy Scheider, Clu Gulager, Lance Henriksen, Ellen Burstyn, Kurt Russel. I mean, I could go on and on about really good actors whom have had at least one inspiring turn in a horror flick. Gave themselves and a good performance to a genre that is often saddled with a bad rep.
PART THREE: BECOMING “THE MAN”
MB: Speaking of slasher greats, you play “Man in the Mask” in The Strangers: Prey at Night. Most assume it’s going to be like the first one. Having seen it twice myself, that assumption is shit. What’s your pitch to those who haven’t seen it yet?
DM: Instead of making the same movie, much to the disappointment of some fans, we set out to make something in the same world, but that travels a different path. I think it utilizes many of the aspects that worked with the first film, but sort of puts it into a game-changing mode for the trio of psychos.
The couple from the first sort of stumbled around, hid, shot their friend, hid some more, and don’t really do much to save themselves. Here, there’s a bit more flight and fight. And the fighting, I think, comes organically, it comes from being backed into a corner.
So, if you want to see something in the world of The Strangers, but not just trotting the same movie out there — and are willing and able to embrace this movie for the direction it takes — go see it. Welcome us into your hearts and minds. Otherwise, if your life is devoid of a new, feverish slasher experience, and you want to fill that hole in your slasher loving soul, check this out. Fill your slasher loving soul hole.
MB: I think that if you guys tried mimicking the first, it would suck. For me personally, I was just happy to see two bad ass chicks and one creepy motherfucker in these masks immortalized on the screen again.
DM: As much as the horror genre has been the only one consistently running badass women out there to save the day, it’s not often that we’ve gotten badass women on both sides. So that’s nice.
MB: Exactly. What attracted you to The Strangers: Prey at Night? Did you audition specifically for Man in the Mask?
DM: I was recommended for the role by one of the producers, Jon D. Wagner, with whom I had worked with before. So yes, it was always going to be “The Man”.
What attracted me to it was that I found a few scenes in the script where I felt I could bring something to it, make it my own, or at least make the character somewhat interesting. Subtle moments where I could bring a little behavior to the guy. They’re a mysterious bunch, these folks, but they are human beings. Humans are going to have little quirks, some things they enjoy and DO NOT enjoy, more than others.
MB: How did you prepare for your audition?
DM: I read a lot of Shakespeare and really studied the greats, Olivier, Pacino, Hopkins. No, of course not…I have a bag on my head and I’m dragging an axe. I made a head sack out of a canvas tote bag and acquired an old, ill fitting suit. I set up a camera and filmed the scene from the movie where The Man gets into the van with Mike (Martin Henderson). I did it by myself, so I sacked up, hit record, walked into frame, did my thing as though there were someone else there. All on a couch. I watched it, felt pretty okay with it. That was my screen test, I sent that off to Jon and shortly thereafter I was on a Skype call with (director) Johannes (Roberts).
PART FOUR: BEHIND THE SCENES
MB: Are there any cool behind the scenes stories you can tell us?
DM: The first scene I was supposed to film was me sitting in the truck on top of a hill, while Mike and Luke (Lewis Pullman) walk by back from the Aunt and Uncle’s trailer. As they pass, I turn on the lights and rev the engine. They stop and wonder who the hell it is. I then throw the truck into reverse. Anyway, weather chased me off that hill 3 times. Each time, we were just about to get to it, and the calls would come in over the walkie talkies to get me out of the truck, and to ship everybody off to cover.
For that first week or two there, lightning and rain were thy enemy. I’ll never forget, the third time… SO CLOSE to just filming the goddamn thing, they called it, I got out of the truck and slunk down to the bottom of the hill, and there was Lewis laughing his ass off — because if we don’t laugh about it, we cry. I did eventually get to film that scene. Although, in the theatrical release, as they pass by, you can still spot me in the truck on top of the hill if you’re eagle eyed enough. But the rest was left out.
MB: That’s funny. I can understand the frustration involved too. What memory sticks out most from filming SP@N?
DM: It was a pretty good group of people, all around. Out there, in the trenches, fighting the good horror fight, trying to make something that we’re all passionate about. That’s not always the case, that you have an entire production roster of people digging what they’re doing, and just enjoyable to be around. That was this though.
MB: That’s awesome — and makes me appreciate the film more, knowing how passionate everyone involved was. You had the near impossible task of having to strike terror and portray a sense of foreboding without the ability to speak a single word. How did you prepare for that?
DM: For me, it was just about looking at the beats for the Strangers throughout the script, and sort of molding the monster to that. They show up, their favorite all time hobby, something they’re passionate about..strangering folks. And they’re a confident bunch, arrogant even. They take their time, play with their food. I played around with his body language, his posture a bit, tried to find a little something there.
But the game changes for the Strangers. And as an actor, you always want to react and behave truthfully within your given world. Sure, The Man in the Mask is a cold, calculating mother fucker, and they’ve been doing this for who knows how long. So when shit doesn’t go their way, he’s going to react to that. Be surprised, lose his cool — even if just for a moment, to compose himself.
The van scene was the perfect playground to to have some fun with The Man. I mean, his prey is literally pinned to the seat, can’t move. So he can really get in there, take his time, savor the moment. I think that’s how you prepare for it. If you get into a specific mental place with these guys, make choice in your head, then your body and movements are going to flow from that.
MB: Was there any improvisation on your behalf or the other Strangers? Or was everything scripted and directed?
DM: Certainly not everything we did was scripted. I would look at the daily pages, see the header for the scene we were doing, and that was it. I knew when we got in there to rehearse with Johannes, he’d see the scene unfolding differently at that point, and we just went with it. With no dialogue, the moments I needed to make sure to hit were my actions that compelled the other actors to do or say something.
Otherwise, often times on the first take, Johannes would just say, “Play with it, see what happens.” And then he’d come back in and tweak it, or change it. He knows what he wants. It was really nice, and his enthusiasm and energy, every second of every day, it’s infectious. And you can do that, when you’ve got talented people enjoying what they’re doing, having a blast with it. Wanting to get back out there every time.
MB: Just got to say that two of my favorite scenes are the van scene with Martin Henderson and the pool scene with Lewis Pullman. Fucking badass.
DM: Yeah, I mean reading the script, those are the two that stood out for me. When I first read it, got to that van scene, I thought, “Shit, I don’t know what else is going to happen, but I should do the movie just for this.”
MB: The soundtrack and score are killer too. Music to kill by. As a child of the 80s myself, I fucking loved it.
DM: Yeah, I would be cool if I just did movies with soundtracks like this for the rest of my life. Next time out, we need to fire up some ABC. ABC needs to be on the next soundtrack.
MB: Hahaha, co-signed. Stab someone while “The Look of Love” is playing. If you were to pen the next installment, what direction would you take it? Would you sack up again?
DM: No matter what direction you take it in, you’re going to upset some group of fans. I think ultimately you’ve got to get the Man in the Mask in space. That’s really the goal of every iconic character, you must get them in space. And the Leprechaun went to the “hood”. Twice. So I think it’d be interesting for him to go there. Maybe next time out, I’d like to see The Man square off against Kinsey. I think there’s unfinished business there. So maybe Kinsey and Luke return to their city life. Maybe one or both of them are in an apartment now, big building. Like all the great horror flicks with skyscrapers in them. That’s a sub-genre right? Skyscraper horror. Let’s fit the next Strangers into it.
MB: I suppose the possibilities are endless. Maybe a Strangers meet Scooby Doo cross over?
PART FIVE: THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK
MB: Thought I’d change things up a little bit and go “Inside the Actors Studio” with you. Let’s start — what’s your favorite word?
MB: What’s your least favorite word?
MB: Mine is moist. Fuck that word. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
DM: Enthusiasm for a project, an infectious fucking enthusiasm. Infect me, let the passion for your project seep into my bloodstream man, and who the hell wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
MB: What turns you off?
DM: Casting actors in things solely because they think it’ll help make the movie money, which is a plague in the genre, because often times it’s absurd. Nobody cares. Write a decent fucking screenplay and cast the parts with the best actors you can get for them. Make a good movie, the cream will rise to the top. When your goal off the bat is how are we going to sell it to here and there overseas…that’s gross. But that’s business. I’m a bad businessman.
MB: Yes, I agree. There are so many shit movies that headline an actor, and they’re in it for two seconds. Robert England, I’m looking at you. What is your favorite curse word?
MB: What sound or noise do you love?
DM: Slide trombone in musical scores.
MB: What sound or noise do you hate?
DM: Anything touching a chalkboard. Which is why I assume they stopped using them.
MB: Good point! I’d have to agree. That makes my skin crawl. I also hate hearing someone smacking their lips. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
DM: I’d still be totally cool if someone wanted to pay me to play video games.
MB: What profession would you not like to do?
DM: Anything in retail, or dealing with fuckwads.
MB: I know it dude. I’ve been in retail myself. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
DM: “Sorry about that.”
PART SIX: WHAT’S NEXT
MB: Do you have any upcoming projects, or anything else you want to say? The floor is yours, brother.
DM: HAUNT will be coming out this Fall. Produced by Eli Roth and written/directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, the same dudes who wrote A QUIET PLACE. I fire up another villain in that flick, and I had the time of my life. It was a genuine blast doing that movie, and I think it’s going to infiltrate the gory, violent hearts of those who like such things in their movies. Should be substantially badass, so I recommend folks keep an eye out for that.
I also did some time in I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY, written and directed by Mike Lombardo. Its Christmas themed, sorta, but it is NOT the feel good movie of the year. It’s currently making the rounds at festivals, but it is rapidly sneaking up on people, and it never goes where they’re expecting it to. I enjoyed my time on that and getting to work with Lombardo finally. He made a really nice movie there, and basically headed up just about every department. He and it deserve to be seen and embraced.
MB: I’m looking forward to seeing those! Damian, thanks a lot for hanging out and shooting the shit. It means a lot. It’s neat when you’re able to take us away from the bullshit the world throws at us and make us forget about it for a little while at a time. To be able to do that for one person, it’s cool. But to do that for many people? It’s pretty fucking special. Thank you.
DM: That’s the goal — do these things and have people go into them, leave everything at the door, and just get lost in it, whatever the movie is. Have fun with it, or be appropriately horrified by it, and hopefully want to revisit it later on. It’s very cool when you put all you’ve got into something, and then down the road when that something is unleashed into the world, that the targeted people embrace it.
These things are nothing without fans of it. After the theatrical release has come and gone, if it’s going to go on to have any kind of staying power, any kind of life, be celebrated or forgotten, that’s up to you guys. Thank you for taking the time to dig the stuff that you do.