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Jeffrey Combs talks 'Would You Rather'

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Would You Rather Jeffrey Combs

Would you rather stab a fellow dinner guest in the thigh with an ice pick or strike another diner three times across the back with an African whipping staff? That is just one of the highly unpleasant choices offered to characters in the new horror movie Would You Rather, which opens this Friday at New York’s IFC Center (the film will also be available on VOD).

Directed by David Guy Levy, Would You Rather stars Jeffrey Combs as a sadistic 1%-er named Shepard Lambrick who invites a group of troubled folks to his mansion and promises to solve the problems of whoever wins his homicidal version of the titular game. “I think the movie really has something to say about what’s going on in our society right now,” says Combs, who is best known for portraying Herbert West in the Re-Animator movies. “It really echoes the haves-versus-the-have-nots that we’re all dealing with and seeing in the news — granted, in an exaggerated way.”

Below, the affable Combs talks more about Would You Rather, which also stars Brittany Snow, John Heard, and former adult film actress Sasha Grey. Plus!: Why his days playing Herbert West are probably over and the one movie he would rather not have made.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’ve been describing the film, only quarter-jokingly, as Agatha Christie-meets-Saw. Would you disagree with that?

JEFFREY COMBS: [Laughs] Well, I suppose that’s the thumbnail sketch. I think it’s a little more deft and a lot less graphic than Saw. But I do see the echoes of Agatha Christie and Ten Little Indians.

I got the impression you had a lot of fun making it.

It was really a remarkable experience. Having started in the theatre, what you miss [with] film is doing things in sequence. The real gift of Would You Rather was we were able, for the most part, to shoot things in order, which is absolutely unheard-of in film. Usually, the first thing you do, for some inexplicable reason, is the last scene in the movie. But on this we filmed in sequence. That allowed some really amazing things to happen. Great cast, great cast. Everybody just brought their A-game and really fed off each other. Yeah, we had a delicious time.

I know actors tend not to regard villainous characters as out-and-out baddies and try to understand things from their point of view. But with a role like this do you give up and just go, “Well he’s crazy as all-get-out”?

Right. And what I also appreciated was that the writer (Steffen Schlachtenhaufen) and the director didn’t even attempt to try to justify, explain, give any sort of real context to what made this guy tick. I think that’s one of the more perturbing things about evil — it doesn’t really matter what their back story is, they are what they are, they’re doing what they’re doing, and it’s perturbing that they are unknowable. He never opens up, he never really tells anybody why. He just is, and it makes it all the more chilling.

The viewer is left with the thought that this could conceivably be something the Lambrick family have been doing for hundreds of years.

Exactly. There are hints of that—it’s really perceptive of you. Like, the clock (which Combs’ character uses to measure the amount of time the game’s “contestants” have to decide which choice they make). David Guy Levy, the director, and I really realized that this clock symbolized the lineage. It’s almost like a family legacy passed down from generation to generation, from father to son. This is a sadism that is entrenched in the Lembrick genealogy almost. I’m just one in a long line and long ago indoctrinated my son into this vicious game. You notice there’s no women in our family. It’s almost like women are done away with and it’s the men who are going forth with this awful, awful power game. It’s scary.

You mentioned the cast. It’s always good to see John Heard in anything.

Isn’t he terrific?  I was honored and thrilled to be sitting at the table and to my left is the great John Heard. He just really brought it.

One of your other costars is Sasha Grey. Did you feel obliged — for purely professional purposes of course — to watch some of her filmography beforehand?

Quite honesly, I wasn’t really aware of her filmography at all until I was almost on the set. You know, everybody comes with their own history. She was very professional and engaged and brought everything to the role. If anything, she was very private and quiet.

She is one of the few people who has more screen credits than you.

[Laughs uproariously] There you go.

Next: “That film torments me to this day!”