Exclusive Interview: Leslie Simpson – Star of Dog Soldiers, Straw Man, The Descent and Invasion of the Not Quite Dead
Posted by LiveFor on February 4, 2010
Leslie Simpson has starred in horror modern greats such as Dog Soldiers, The Descent and most recently Doomsday. This year he is set to appear in Andrew Barker’s psychological thriller Straw Man as well as The Indywood Project’s Invasion of the Not Quite Dead. He has been a friend of Live for Films for a while now and LFF’s Rich got a chance to catch up with Leslie and discuss his past projects and what we can expect to see from him this year…
Hey Les, thanks for taking the time to speak to us.
You’re best known for your work in Neil Marshall films, how did you guys meet?
- To get ahead in this industry is often a question of luck (or fate, depending on which side you dress so to speak) and it was definitely the case for me.
I had literally just decided to become an actor after years of doing my thing on the wild side. My first point of call was to join the Actors Centre in Newcastle, where there was a board offering student film work and profit-share theatre.
In among the usual guff one day was a brief for a paid short called Combat. Neil had sent the brief for his short to lots of professional agents in his search for someone to play the lead. For some bizarre reason no-one got back to him, so he decided to post it up at the Actors Centre.
I saw the post, sent him my photo & (laughable) CV, and the next day I got a call to pop over to Carlisle to meet him. We spent the afternoon getting bladdered in a pub and talking films. Now I thought I knew my films, but Krishna’s holy underpants, Neil’s a walking encyclopaedia. Suffice to say we got on great. At the end of the afternoon when Neil got up to leave he turned round and said I’d got the job. He was such a relaxed & easy-going bloke and I was having such a good time that I’d forgotten why I was there. Now you’ve got to love a bloke whose idea of an audition is getting you rat-faced and chewing the fat about your favourite subject. If only all life was like that.
And there’ll no doubt be lots of agents & actors who read the brief when it came into the office who’ll be kicking themselves now. Gerrin there Leslie!!
You play a Crawler in The Descent, what exactly did you have to do?
- I don’t know why but there’s something of the masochist in my personality complex. If something’s not difficult, I’ll find some way to make it difficult on myself. At drama school they used to say that I worked as though I carried six bulls on my back and I think that’s true to some extent. It’s fair to say that playing a crawler was an ideal job for me.
For me, acting is ultimately a case of wiggling your backside when you’re asked and the ability to pull faces convincingly on cue. Playing a crawler on the other hand was a case of not shaking like a dog crapping razor-blades on cue and trying to look menacing while you’re bollock naked and wiggling your shaved backside in the air. Neither was an easy trick to pull off in sub-zero temperatures. Add to that an almost five hour make-up job each morning, three hours de-rigging at the end of each 14 hour shooting day, a cave set that was made out of sandpaper, and the barrel of KY jelly we were smothered in daily that actually insulated us against the heat… and you have my dream job.
The Descent is a modern masterpiece in my opinion, and I’m delighted to have been part of it. I was asked to revive the role in the sequel but decided against it. Not because I wasn’t prepared to go through the process again, but because I didn’t want to travel the world signing autographs at conventions as the crawler from The Descent series. I love being asked for my autograph, sure, but, erm, not that much.
Doomsday didn’t quite get the reception many expected on its release, do you think expectations were abnormally high following The Descent?
It was a great shoot, and the mood was as buoyant, relaxed and as good fun as the previous two films.
I think Doomsday highlights an inherent flaw in the film industry. Because the desire to make money far outweighs any creative concern in the studio system now, there is no room for development or nurturing. Doomsday was a massive undertaking in comparison to Neil’s previous films. He had bigger toys to play with and was going for it, putting everything to the test and experimenting with his own possibilities and craft. He was given the paint and brushes and lordy lordy, he threw the paint at the canvass with relish in an effort to entertain and delight. For me, Doomsday is a master craftsman’s learning curve, a technicolor fantasy and a prime slice of wanton imagination. There are hundreds of examples in the history of cinema, but history has been re-written by a small number of near-sighted business men who’re stamping on the shoulders of the greats who built everything, and now they’re systematically destroying the industry that they talk about ‘sustaining’ because they’ve forgotten the basic principles. Never trust someone who keeps telling you they’re honest.
And at the very least, where’s his praise for the actual film-making? No-one can tell me that it’s a badly ‘made’ film whether they love or loathe the story, because it’s just not.
There see, I can get serious too if I want to. Don’t cross me, right? (walks away muttering)You work with a lot of the same actors on your projects, Craig Conway for example, are all you guys good friends?
- I don’t see them enough to be honest, and it’s even harder now for various reasons. We all get on great and share the same work ethic – then we get roundly drunk and have a laugh when we’re done. There aren’t any egos in the group.
But the ensemble method was Neil’s original vision. He told me on that first day that he wanted to build an ensemble that he could trust and would know what he was after without asking; following the example of one of his heroes, John Ford.
You don’t appear to be in Neil’s next film Centurion, is there a reason for that?
- None of the ensemble are involved in Centurion. There’s no contract signed in blood to say that he has to work with us on every film. Beyond that there’s nothing specific to report. I wish Centurion the very best of luck.
I never knew you were in Hammer Horror Films, Beyond the Rave. How was it working on that?
- Oh yeah, I’m a dark horse me. Hammer an’ that. It was great. I played the vampire Belial, a right little toe-rag who was part of a double act with Jake Maskell (best known for playing Danny in Eastenders).
It was extremely successful when it appeared as an online web-series, but it’s due out on DVD pretty soon as a single film cut.
I think my abiding memory of the shoot was the night I was harnessed and suspended upside down from a tree. The idea was to drop from the tree, bite the neck of a passing victim and haul him back up. We did the stunt over and over, but because of technical difficulties we couldn’t nail it and I was up there for much longer than anticipated. Eventually all the blood in my body ended up in my head and I fainted. On the last take they dropped me down as per the action – but because I was unconscious I smashed the poor bloke playing the victim full in the face with the top of my floppy head. No doubt my head’ll have been about a pound heavier than usual, what with being engorged with blood an’ all.
That said, I was back for the next scene harnessed up and jumping over a car. I’ll never learn. Don’t know what happened to the other bloke though. Nose job on Hammer no doubt.
As it happens there’ll be 2 films on the DVD. Beyond the Rave and an easter egg short called the Curse of Countess Nymphenstein starring the fantastic Emily Booth and yours truly. It’s a comical take on the 70s Hammer films. I play a horny blacksmith who enters the lair of the countess. Trying to nail the Russ Meyer style of rubbish acting was great fun. Okay, okay, I was lying, I didn’t really need to research how to be rubbish.
Are you ever worried about being typecast since you predominantly feature in horror films?
- I appreciate being asked to do anything at all. Flippin’ heck, I’ll do owt. An actor acts. When I was a kid I had a very strong feeling that I’d be a horror actor at one stage in my career; not from any particular desire to be a ‘horror’ actor – although I’ve always been a big fan of the genre. I’m just grateful that as an adult I get paid to play dressy ups. Beats doing it in front of the mirror in private anyday. Apart from that, if I look back through the roles I’ve played on stage and on screen there’s very little to tie them together, character-wise. The very few people that do employ me have the confidence that I’ll give anything my best shot. I’m used to being ignored because I’m simply not a self-promoter, so anything’s a bonus.
You’ve also done a number of non horror shorts, what attracts you to a particular project?
- I treat shorts like a kick about in the park*. It’s like a training session for me. I get to learn new tricks like bouncing the ball off either shoulder or honing my overhead kick; it’s basically a chance to play and experiment with ideas. In that environment you often get to work with new film-makers. You can get stung by shorts, sure, because most shorts are done as favours, but the bad apples don’t tend to survive very long despite apparent progress in the short term, so I don’t normally kick up a fuss. In the words of William Burroughs, “I take the long view of things”.
We haven’t heard much about Straw Man for a while, Phil spoke to (director) Andrew Barker a while back and the trailer looked intriguing, what’s happing with that?
- Now here’s a prime example of something that comes out of left-field when you’re open to offers and willing to accept scripts from strangers. I can tell you categorically that Straw Man is a corker. It’s brave, poetic, layered and very strange. It will certainly split audiences because it’s so un-british and indefinable. It’s been a labour of love for Andy Barker and Adam Krajczynski and post-production has been fraught with difficulties.
The time that it’s taken to complete is down to the fact that it’s digital. Anyone who tells you that the digital revolution will make life easier has never tried using one of those self-serve doowackies at Safeway. They call for security every time you breath near the scales. Now multiply those problems by a gazillion and you come close to trying to put a digital film together. The last cut I saw was magnificent, and I know that Andy and Adam are very close to being happy with what they’ve got. Once it’s done, I’m sure everyone will get a chance to see what they’ve come up with.
You’re in every scene of Straw Man, how did you find that? Did you go method?
- I don’t do drugs.
Oh, right, sorry, I misread. No, no, I didn’t. As far as I’m concerned the method is just another set of techniques and I’m not a technical actor. I prefer to use a more intuitive approach; like Jimi Hendrix, only not as good. I even take my instrument to the loo with me like he did and play with it all the time.
I don’t really like to talk openly about the process I adopt on a particular project because that manipulates the audience perception of what you’re doing. Rather than simply watch and absorb the character as a complete being, the audience will be saying to themselves, ‘do you know what he went through to get into that role?’ And that’s like saying the brush strokes on a painting are more important than the experience of looking at the whole thing.
It’s a matter of opinion at the end of the day. But yeah, good idea Rich, if people don’t like the character in Straw Man, then all I have to do is tell them what I put myself through so they’ll change their minds and think I’m great. Hurray!!
Is being in front of the camera your dream or do you fancy moving in to writing or perhaps directing at some stage in the future?
- Funny you should say that. I’ve been practising my writing and directing skills for years now in community theatre, working specifically with non-actors to see if I can find ways to draw decent performances out of them. See above for the point *kicking a ball about in the park. I’m also co-director of an professional theatre company. When I shift gears from non-actors to professional actors I suddenly find that I can communicate my ideas with infinite ease. As for writing, a similar process has been taking place, and I’m currently half way through an idea that I finally think I might be able to make work on a feature scale. It’s simply a case of transferring the skills of one medium to another and getting the right crew around me. Oddly, I’m also meeting interesting people on a daily basis who might have the means to help me to play around with some ideas without much interference. It’s early days and nothing may happen, but that was a long way of saying, yes, I think I would.
Do you plan to work with Andrew again on a future project?
- I’d work with Andrew again in a Teesside minute. These are hard times to try to break in, but he’s got it all. He’s patient, listens to everyone, has energy & ideas to burn, is confident and in control on set, commands respect from his team without imposing it, and is generally a great bloke to be around. The shoot was flippin’ hard work, but boy was it worth it.
He stinks though. There’s always a downside, eh?
So you are currently working on Invasion of the Not Quite Dead, I remember you saying the script was fantastic, what can you tell us about it?
- Jeebus, this has got to be the longest interview I’ve ever done. I’m expecting someone to come through the door any minute with a red book and an irish accent and go, “Leslie Simpson, This is your Loife”.
Invasion is a little gem. It reminds me of those ’50s sci-fi horrors like “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” or “The Blob”, but with zombies. Er, I think they’re zombies, hard to tell really. It has a lovely cheesy quality to it that’s very endearing and familiar. But it’s also contemporary insofar as it’s very brutal in parts, but satirical and funny in others. There are nods to classics of the zombie genre to keep fans happy and alert. It still needs work, as all scripts do, but it’s definitely a contender.
Did (director) Anthony Lane’s passion to get the film made play a big part in you signing up?
- You have to take your hat off to Ant. It’s hard going for most of us, but it takes a will of tungsten and the endurance of a Japanese game-show contestant to do what he’s doing. I’m sure most people thought he’d have given up by now, but I saw something in his eyes that told me he means business, and he’s starting to win many other people round. And I’m certain that the admiration will soon translate into people offering him the money he needs. After all this business is about the entrepreneurial spirit and he’s got it in spades, and money people will not want to be left behind. Let’s face it, who now hasn’t heard of Antony Lane? He’s honest and innocent and so far he’s been true to his word on everything.
But no, it was the first draft of the script that got me interested. It was flawed but it had more than enough. I’ve been involved for quite some time now and he knows he has my complete backing. I’ve seen he script change over time and he’s sculpting what could potentially be a cult classic.
I watched the teaser promo last week, it looks cool, how did the shoot go?
- Yeah, it was a laugh. He’d never worked with film stock before so he was taking a risk trying to shoot in one day. I pointed my concerns out to him that we’d be against the clock so he was in bits with nerves beforehand. Yoinks! But he’s nothing if not ambitious, and he surrounded himself with people who’d been there before. An hour or so to settle in and he was off and running with no problems at all.
A few ‘names’ have been attached to star in the project, is there anyone you are particularly looking forward to working with?
I’ll work with anyone. I’m not fazed, intimidated or excited by the prospect of working opposite a single ‘name’ or ‘star’ on the planet. I like human beings whatever they do, or whoever they are. They’re fascinating creatures those humans. It’s part of my mission to be interested in them while I’m here.
What about in future projects, who would you like to work with?
- Howard Hawks, definitely. What? He’s what? When for heaven’s sake? But that’s just terrible. You mean… ? Okay, what about Sturges? Well, either really I’m not fussed. Whaaaaaat?? No!! Why didn’t anyone tell me? What’s going on??
I dunno, anyone really. It would be easier to say whose work I try to avoid, but that would only be an opinion and I’m a changeable chap.
Invasion is part of a planned trilogy, right? Any hints if you will make all three?
-That’ll be a… probably not. Not saying whether the character dies or not, but neither Ant nor myself are working on the assumption that I’ll be doing any more after the first instalment. But never say never.
We shall wrap up with our customary Live for Films quick fire questions.
What is your favourite horror film?
- Gah!! I’m not programmed to see films as a competition, and I adore horror… so this is under duress right? But, erm, okay, just for the effect on me at the time and the influence on my acting approach, I’ll say…. Angel Heart.
What film(s) are you looking forward to this year?
- Centurion for starters. It’ll be great to see Mr. Marshall back in cinemas this April. Iron Man 2 is a must see, as is The WolfMan ‘cos I like werewolf flicks. The Expendables is going to be a laugh at the very least, and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World completes my hell or high water list.
What advice would you give any potential victim in a horror film?
- Insist on a cash payment in advance.
If you were to be killed by a movie monster what would it be?
And what would be your final words?
- Oh, please, don’t get me started…