By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—For five seasons, Douglas Smith played Ben Henrickson, the conflicted oldest son of Bill Paxton and Jeanne Tripplehorn’s polygamous characters on the acclaimed HBO series “Big Love.” Though the series ended nearly six years ago, the Canadian-born actor says he remains close friends with many members of his extended “Big Love” family.
“We’re all pretty much in touch,” the outgoing actor says during an interview. “I texted with Bill (Paxton) last week and I spoke with Jeanne when I was in Oklahoma for Thanksgiving because she’s from Oklahoma.”
Smith, 31, also is set to play a version of “Big Love” writer Dustin Lance Black in the upcoming ABC series “When We Rise,” which chronicles the American gay rights struggle.
Before that, though, Smith stars in the horror-thriller “The Bye Bye Man,” in which he plays a college student on an adventure with two friends who encounters an evil being that takes control of his mind. Inspired by true events, “The Bye Bye Man” is written and directed by husband and wife filmmakers Jonathan Penner and Stacy Title, respectively, based on a short story by Robert Damon Schneck (included in his “The President’s Vampire: Strange-But-True Tales of the United States of America”).
The film also stars Lucien Laviscount (“Scream Queens”) and U.K. actress Cressida Bonas along with Oscar winner Faye Dunaway (“Network”), Carrie-Anne Moss (“Matrix” franchise) and Doug Jones (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) as the Bye Bye Man.
The tall (6-foot-3) and attractive Smith is no stranger to the horror genre. He previously starred in 2014’s “Stage Fright” and “Ouija,” but he insists his passion for film is much broader. Other credits include the short-lived HBO series “Vinyl” and the 2013 tween fantasy sequel “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.”
During an interview in a warehouse room recreated to look like the study that appears in “The Bye Bye Man,” the rising star talked about returning to the horror genre, working with his illustrious co-stars and what’s ahead.
Q: Does this set look familiar to you?
Smith: Yeah, it looks a lot like the set.
Q: How were you cast?
Smith: I was sent the script by my agent. I read it and thought it was really cool. I auditioned for Stacy and the writer. We really got along. It was one of those short auditions that turned into an hour. I felt kind of bad for the other guys in the waiting room.
Q: I’m sure you’ve been the one in the waiting room before.
Smith: That’s true.
Q: Did you do a particular scene at your audition? Or did you just talk about yourself?
Smith: We did a lot of that was well, which is why it took longer than I expected. We did three different scenes. We broke (down) the stories. I talked about my experiences and they talked about some of their stuff. Stacy (Title, the director) talked about wanting to infuse the scenes with a manic craziness. We got along. It was just really organic. I wasn’t surprised when I got the call saying that they wanted me to do it because the meeting went so well. Then we were off to the races.
Q: This is more of a psychological thriller than a straightforward horror movie, isn’t it?
Smith: It’s like a worm that gets into your head. We were calling it a psychological thriller but it’s still in the horror genre. But it’s more the nature of the Bye Bye Man preying upon your phobias. It’s not like a possession, like “The Exorcist.” My character’s scenario is that her starts to see his best friend and girlfriend (cheating on him).
Q: He gets paranoid, right?
Smith: Yeah, and then it spirals into other things. But it’s different for every person.
Q: And your character, Elliot, is an orphan.
Smith: His parents died in a car accident. It colors his backstory and how he responds to it. And there are some car-related things that happen. That’s more like the theme of “if we’d only done this one thing differently.”
Q: Is there going to be a sequel?
Smith: Maybe. I did “Ouija,” and they did a “Ouija 2,” but they chose to go 30 years in the past (so I wasn’t in it). I think this should go 20 years in the future. I think my story is pretty much told in this so if I were to write the sequel, I’d move it forward.
Q: Are you interested in writing?
Smith: Yeah. I’d like to see a futuristic horror movie.
Q: Are you a fan of horror/psychological thrillers?
Smith: I like some of them. I’m not a horror nut. I go through phases when it comes to certain types of films. Of the more recent ones, I was really wowed by “It Follows.” And I really like classics like “Rosemary’s Baby.” I think John Cassavetes’ performance in that was one of the great performances. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t influenced by him as an actor, almost more than him as a director even though he’s monumental as a director. When I was 11, I saw “Scream” and I loved it so I have a really special place in my heart for “Scream.” This past Halloween me and my girl went to the Hollywood Bowl and saw them (stage) “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” After that, we were on a Tim Burton kick so then we watched “Sleepy Hollow.” I remember being more impressed with it than when I first saw it when it came out. I’ve seen tons and tons of things in the spooky/horror genre. I’m a real movie buff.
Q: You’ve got a great cast in this. Doug Jones is the Bye Bye Man.
Smith: Isn’t he great? He’s such a lovely person.
Q: Did he stay away from you on set to help build the suspense?
Smith: No, we were warm and cuddly the whole time. (He laughs.)
Q: So you can turn on being afraid on cue?
Smith: Well, in all fairness, he was on set a lot when he wasn’t in full makeup because Stacy wanted me reacting to somebody. She made it a priority not to just have him in for the days when he was going to be filmed in full makeup. Instead, he was there for the whole shoot and the whole rehearsal process. When you’re reading the script, there are points where our characters sense a motion at the door. So when they said that Doug (Jones) is doing the Bye Bye Man, I thought he would only be (on set) for a couple of days because he’s kind of like the shark in “Jaws.” But Stacy told me that every time there was a motion or action, she wanted him to be there doing it because she wanted his presence to be there even if we don’t show (his face). So rather than me just reacting to nothing, he was there way more than you actually see him in the film. It was great that she prioritized that.
When he was in full makeup, he couldn’t speak. So he was kind of a silent creature in the corner. And then they’d put in the contact lenses and he couldn’t see us either. It’s pretty common for the characters he plays.
Q: What was it like working with a woman director on this? There aren’t too many female horror directors.
Smith: There aren’t that many female directors, period. I’ve had the pleasure of working with female directors before, mostly in my television work. I worked with strong female directors on “Big Love,” and on “Vinyl,” Nicole Kassell. Nicole, who had directed “The Woodsman,” had seen me in a play and liked my character in the play. I’ve had the privilege to work with a number of really strong female directors. But they’re more the minority. I worked on a film a few years ago called “Ouija,” and it was kind of the reverse of this—the director was Stiles White and the writer was his wife, Juliet Snowden. And in this one (“The Bye Bye Man”), it’s the opposite—the husband (Jonathan Penner) wrote it and the wife (Stacy title) directed it. So I’d worked with a husband and wife team before, only this time the roles were flipped.
Q: How does Carrie-Anne Moss fit into the picture?
Smith: She’s a detective investigating the death of a girl getting hit by a train.
Q: What was it like getting to know her?
Smith: It’s funny; we made a film together a few years ago called “The Boy Who Smells Like Fish” (“Treading Water”), which also starred Zoe Kravitz. She played my therapist. We shot in Mexico City and Toronto. So it was nice to see her again. We didn’t work together a lot. She’s a supporting character that comes in but one of my audition scenes was with her. So there was some meaty stuff. My second audition was a scene in which she brings me in for interrogation after the train accident. Remember David Arquette’s character in “Scream?” It’s kind of like that, although ours is a totally different movie but structurally not too dissimilar.
Q: Do you stay in touch with your former “Big Love” co-stars?
Smith: I texted with Bill (Paxton) last week. I was at Amanda (Seyfried)’s house two weeks ago. We had a bonfire in the backyard, a little bonfire. Yeah, we’re really close. I lived in her apartment in New York for a while. We’re all pretty in touch. Amanda and Bill are the ones I talk to the most. Also, the writer Dustin Lance Black, he wrote all of my character stuff. He has a new miniseries coming out on ABC called “When We Rise,” about the gay rights movement, and he cast me to play him. He didn’t want to let people know I’m playing him but the character is simply called Young Man because he didn’t want to seem arrogant. But you’ll see it’s him when I play Young Man in an episode. It comes out in February. Lance is the creator and Gus Van Sant produced it and directs the first episode. Lance directs the last episode. But, yeah, I’ve known him since my “Big Love” days.