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The Cottage - Reece Shearsmith interview

Reece Shearsmith in The Cottage

Interview by Rob Carnevale

REECE Shearsmith talks about going virtually bald for horror-comedy The Cottage, coping with moths and gore, and his long-time passion for the horror genre…

Q. The part of Peter was originally written with you in mind…
Reece Shearsmith: Yeah, I don’t know whether it was flattering or a real slap in the face. But Paul told me that he had a part for me and it was great to read. It’s such a fun part to do. I read it and thought: “Yeah, I can do that.” It was great to get the comedy and frustration of that situation and I loved that escalating kind of turmoil he’s in. I loved the first scene with Andy [Serkis]. And with Jennifer [Ellison] being so fierce and in charge actually, to play the fear of that and then The Farmer situation, which no one can see coming, was great. But it was nice to have the time to set the characters up before we get slaughtered. Hopefully, the audience is on our side before that happens and you care a bit more than in your usual slasher film.

Q. When did you find out that you had to have such a great hairdo?
Reece Shearsmith: Oh God! Well, when this first came to me as a script five years ago, Paul said he wanted the character to be balding and I thought: “Well, I coild wear a bald cap and that’ll be fine.” Then it all went away, the film didn’t get made and Paul, in his frustration, went off and made London To Brighton to great critical acclaim. And it was suddenly all back on again with three weeks to go! So, I went and did it one day with him because he wanted to oversee it. A week before filming they shaved the front of my hairline off and gave me a big monk. But Paul was like: “Oh, a bit more, a bit more..”

But it’s quite a hideous look, I think. It aged me. I had to have a cap on for six weeks. And the day after filming there was a wedding and I was torn as to whether to go with Peter [my character]‘s hair or whether to shave it all down to nothing. Ultimately, I did that in the end and went like Phil Mitchell to the wedding [laughs]. It’s quite a shock to see it, though. Many people I know are that balding now – I’m lucky to have hair – but I just thought it looked like a lot of people I know! It was a relief to see it coming back every morning, when I had to wet shave. Especially as when they shaved it off, they told me it might not grow back the same.

Q. How was the scene with the moths?
Reece Sheersmith: It was great. It was weird because the night of that scene, the moths didn’t hatch. A man arrived, a moth wrangler – there are such things – and he turned up with a big tub containing rack upon rack of pupa, like Silence of the Lambs. But none had hatched. It wasn’t the right time. I think he half suspected they wouldn’t but brought them anyway as an act of goodwill. One came out and he just fluttered to the ground – I think he wasn’t equity. But that was it, we couldn’t do it as we didn’t have them and I just had to go in the room and act the scene as if they were and start flailing. It was all done after with CGI. Paul was really upset about that and wanted to redo it. He even joked that I’d have to shave my head again. It would have been quite funny to have been able to do the scene with real moths but I was frightened about them, thinking it would be real and I’d be bashing them as wildly as I could. I thought I’d probably hurt them and somebody somewhere would be upset about that. But thankfully no moths were harmed in the making of this film.

Q. Bearing in mind the moth phobia in the film, do you have any real-life phobias of your own?
Reece Shearsmith: I don’t like spiders but I don’t have any particular phobias. Moths are creepy because they have no respect for your personal space, and wasps because they’re arbitrarily dangerous. They’ll just get you for no reason and they’re horrible. I’ve been stung by a wasp a few times. But I have nothing irrational that you’d have to see a man about.

Q. Have you always been a big fan of horror?
Reece Shearsmith: I am, yeah. I’ve been kind of steeped in horror for as long as I can remember really. I mean, myself, Mark [Gatiss], Jeremy [Dyson] and Steve [Pemberton] are all very like-minded in our memories of watching the early Hammers and Universals. All of it informed our work with the League [of Gentlemen] . There was no great master-plan but it was just kind of our joint sensibilities that were very attuned to dark humour – not particularly in horror films but documentaries as well that we remember having vague memories of. We all have the exact same memory of a bonfire night in 1976 where we all didn’t go out to watch the fireworks, but watched Carry On Screaming in the house. It’s weird, we all had the exact same night despite all being in different parts of the world. So, it’s nice to do a film that’s not far away from the world I’ve been steeped in for the past 10 years. It was lovely to do this part and be Jamie Lee Curtis for the latter part of the film and do all the things that you see in horror films, like being pursued down corridors, and just play them out.

Paul had a very… it’s very ironical this film. He kind of proudly says that there’s nothing in it that’s not been done before. I think some people are saying: “A man with a leather mask on his face, yawn, yawn…” But he was meant to be that. The music is very overblown and it’s all quite pompous. It was all quite deliberate on his part to push all the buttons and do all those staples that you recognise from horror films and yet play with the expectation as well. There’s that great scene where I’m listening in at the door and you know there’s going to be a big knife come through and get me in the head but you just don’t know when. So that was all about playing with those kind of mechanics. Audiences are very sophisticated and they know the nuts and bolts of the genre – certainly with horror more than others I think. But they attract lots of people, they’re much derided as a genre but people go and see them and they’re not all dumb. There’s some very clever horror films. Stephen King gets a lot of flack for not being a proper writer because he’s a horror writer, but I think he writes some brilliant books. I think it’s wrong to just bin it before looking at it.

Q. What are your favourite horror films and why?
Reece Shearsmith: I like a lot of the ’70s grim ones, like The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now. That’s not quite a horror film but I think it’s horrific. A lot of The Ring films are also scary… Ringu or Pingu. In Pingu they capture a little penguin obviously [laughs]. But seriously, they’re great, they know what they’re doing the Japanese filmmakers. They’re very insidiously scary and they’re all framed slightly off; you don’t ever quite get to see the monster. They’re more psychological. The Exorcist still stands up as being a very disturbing horror film. It stays with you. The Shining is also very creepy – and not instantly obviously so. The great ones come back to haunt you.

Q. Will there be many DVD extras on The Cottage that you’re aware of?
Reece Shearsmith: Yeah. A lot of the scenes were longer, so there’s a few more extended arguments. There’s some nice bits that have been cut that hopefully will be retained. There’s some bits where I shout and I hope Paul doesn’t put them on. I get really angry and throw a hissy fit at some stupidly cut takes when they hadn’t finished. He said: “We can’t put that on the DVD because it looks like you absolutely hate me.” And yes, I did [laughs]. But there should be some good stuff.

DVD is great. We did a lot of DVDs for our shows and we put everything on them – all the mechanics of how… even for the third series we put extras on that were about the writing process. There was nothing left hidden or magical about any of it. I sometimes think that’s a mistake on the DVD. I remember someone once saying backstage: “It’s magic what we do…” And I think there’s some truth in the element of keeping something back about the process and not tearing it all apart to scrutinise it and then going, “oh”. It’s like being told how to do a magic trick. I love magic. People think it’s dumb but I’m a big magicians’ fan. But the most annoying people fein disinterest because it’s stupid and they can’t bear the idea that the wool is being pulled over their eyes. But then when they’re told how the trick is done they’re like: “Oh is that it, that’s stupid!” But there’s artistry to that and I think it’s exactly the same in filmmaking. When everyone is jumping at a certain point in this film and you’ve pushed the button and it’s worked that’s a great moment – it’s like achieving the trick. And I think there’s something about those moments that should be retained. But we’ll also do a commentary on the DVD and explain why Paul was such a difficult director [smiles].

Q. Both you and co-star Jennifer Ellison have recently enjoyed West End productions. Which do you prefer: theatre or film?
Reece Shearsmith: It’s such hard work doing a musical. I did my first musical last year, performing in The Producers, and it was a big part to suddenly be doing Leo Bloom in that. But I had such respect for the ones that are doing it all the time. It’s such hard work. It’s a proper slog. It became like clocking in. And it’s a big factory – you go in, everyone’s got their little plot, people are taking in and out of it if they have days off or holidays, and it’s just a jigsaw that all works. It always amazes me that this product would happen every night and it was just all these elements coming together in a big machine. But live theatre is great.

I loved doing the League live because you get that element of spontaneity, but then when I’m doing live I start to crave the precision of filming. It’s a different discipline; it’s like a scalpel and you’re very precise suddenly. It’s scary as well because you think this is it, this is my one go at making it if I can the best it can be, because this is how it’s going to be remembered and rendered and left on this film indelibly. And people are going to look back on this and that’s that. But live you get the chance every night to rework it and change it and hone it. But that’s maddening as well because then you get the false, weird oddness of being able to look at it and say: “Well that’s weird, because last night they laughed at that and yet they didn’t tonight. So what did I do? Nothing was different.” And you have that strange thing of being able to tell within five minutes what an audience is like. Very quickly an audience gets a personality and you start to think: “What is it about you all; you all hate it, don’t you?” And then you come out and have friends in and they say: “It was brilliant!”

Read our review of The Cottage

Read our interview with Andy Serkis