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Johnny Galecki's SXSW film The Master Cleanse: See an exclusive clip

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Johnny Galecki is best known as Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, but after 10 seasons on the CBS sitcom, he wanted more from his stable career as a “hired gun” actor. Sifting through various projects in search of the right one to produce, the 40-year-old ultimately discovered The Master Cleanse, a horror/drama/comedy project from first-time filmmaker Bobby Miller.

The Master Cleanse delves into creature feature territory, with Galecki playing a lonely man who attends a spiritual retreat that promises to cleanse and purify his life, but ends up literally releasing his inner demons. Ahead of the film’s SXSW world premiere on March 13, EW has an exclusive, creepy clip from The Master Cleanse, above, and an interview with the Emmy-nominated actor. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve had a very diverse career, from Christmas Vacation to Roseanne and The Big Bang Theory. With The Master Cleanse, were you looking for something strange to counteract the tone of the roles people might associate with you?

JOHNNY GALECKI: When I first came aboard The Master Cleanse, purely as a producer, the writer-director, Bobby Miller, had another actor in mind. I gave him fair warning that if, for whatever reason, there might be a scheduling conflict with this actor, that I was not going to play his lead role. I had no interest in wearing both hats. There was a scheduling conflict with the initial actor, and everyone just ignored my cardinal rule. [Laughs.] [Bobby] called me and said, “Well, you have a wardrobe fitting tomorrow morning!” So, it was not the premeditation of playing the role whatsoever. I was as thrilled as I was terrified to take on those reins, but it wasn’t by design.

I hesitate, then, to call it an accident that you also starred in this film, but…

Feel free to call it an accident! It very much was. I endeavor to be a creative producer, and so a lot of what I had to contribute fortunately happened before we got to shooting. Being a producer was a bit of a distraction from the acting and some days vice versa.

Still, at least tonally, this is a very different project for you. How do you, as an actor, prepare to make the jump from a mainstream comedy series like The Big Bang Theory to a low-budget indie movie?

I must admit it’s a welcome change. As much as I love The Big Bang Theory and playing Leonard 200-some episodes in, I think playing a departure from that character only serves that character once you return to him. The actors that I admire, that’s always been a part of their careers, that sense of unpredictability and diversity. If you liken it to a musician that’s been playing the same type of music for nine years, you jump at the chance to play in some sort of different genre. It’s much more exciting or liberating than it is even scary or challenging. But, goodness, I’ve been lonely before. That’s really the number one word to describe [my character] Paul Berger in The Master Cleanse. The poor guy is searingly lonely, and I think that’s universally relatable; I had plenty to pull from. The difference, and one of the things I really liked about the character, is that he’s not really aware of that. I’d like to think that I’m pretty self-aware; at least I try to be. [Laughs.] I can’t imagine anyone who would say differently. In Paul’s case, one of the things I loved about him is that he’s kind of emotionally arrested at this traumatic point from a previous relationship, and it’s kind of analogous to the slowly boiling frog. His life kind of unravels so slowly that he doesn’t even realize it’s in freaking shambles, and that’s fun to play. 

How do you think your experience as an actor informed your work as a producer on The Master Cleanse? Were you more in step with certain aspects of production or was this a learning experience for you as well?

You can never predict how an audience is going to respond. But with 300-plus live studio audience episodes under my belt and dozens of theater productions in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, I might have a little bit — and please use italics when I say “might” — have a little bit more of an inkling than some other folks in the business of how an audience might react.

Since you didn’t go into this with the intent to star, what drew you to it as a producer?

Bobby and I hit it off immediately. It was one of those things where we sat down for a half-hour lunch and ended up taking a long walk around the block for about two and a half hours talking it all out. When you’re of like mind like that, the communication is pretty effortless. It’s immediately apparent that it’s a special and valuable creative partnership. A director has a thousand different decisions to make every single day, and in his case — as a writer-director — even more. I would hope that [Bobby] had someone creative in his court that was going to be a bodyguard and, at times, a voice of reason, especially on an independent film on a very low budget and a ridiculously ambitious schedule. We shot this thing in 22 days with practical effects, which is ambitious for a rom-com, never mind a weird fantasy thriller with puppets.

And they looked good! I know this is a low-budget film, but I think the monsters looked really good!

Bobby and Jordan Horowitz, even before I came aboard and before they had finance, started that creature design. We knew we had to get [the creature] stuff right. In fact, we shot a little one-scene short in the Los Angeles Mountains maybe six or 10 months before we went to Vancouver to shoot the movie, just with me and the creature — Junior, as we refer to him — just to make sure that the [creature effects] would work. We knew if that creature didn’t work, we were dead in the water, but it worked great. I started to forget it was a freaking puppet! After six hours of emoting toward this thing, it did somehow take on a human characteristic in my mind.

How do you think the industry views actors who want to make a transition from acting to making films? We see a lot of actors branching out behind the camera who seem like they’re almost chastised for their ambition. Do you have any fears about that? 

I don’t have any fears about it. I’m certainly aware that the majority opinion on actors who want to have a position behind the camera is it’s not often taken seriously, but I’ve wanted to get into producing for over 10 years now. Since [The Master Cleanse], I started my own company [Alcide Bava], I produced a pilot from Warner Bros. and Fox last year, and I have a deal with Warner Bros. Television now. But, up until this point, honestly — and I hope this doesn’t sound crass — but I had many opportunities to take vanity credits on films or television programs or theater, and I never took a single one because I wanted my first endeavor to be legit. I wanted to be in the trenches. [The Master Cleanse] is not a vanity effort on my part whatsoever. I don’t see the point in that. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I think it’s a very natural, organic evolution when you’ve been a hired gun actor for many years or a few decades to simply want to be more a part of the storytelling, and that’s really where I come from with this.

So, what about The Master Cleanse made it “the one?” 

We’ve seen stories about killing your own demons and facing your own self-loathing before. I loved Bobby’s take on it. That is a struggle in all of us, because initially we coddle it, we comfort it, and it becomes a comfort. That self-loathing, we allow to become part of our identity, even though we know it’s unhealthy for us. We find it very difficult to let go, and that resounded with me.

In this film, you share the screen with Anjelica Huston and Oliver Platt. You’ve starred alongside some amazing people throughout your career, but what was the dynamic like on set working with those two actors who have such broad experience?

Everybody was so immediately committed — profoundly committed. Before the day of our first meeting with Anjelica, Bobby came over to pick me up, and we were going to drive down to Venice to her house to meet her. We knew she read the script, but that’s all we knew. Bobby’s from Philly and I’m from Chicago, and we’re both equally loath to show up empty-handed at anyone’s house, but it was too early in the day for wine, and it seemed presumptuous to show up with champagne as if she had already signed on to play the role. So we bit our lips and showed up empty handed. Within 30 seconds, she was showing us wardrobe ideas for the characters and pouring us some champagne. It was like, whoa, okay, I guess Anjelica’s in!

Oliver was the same way. To work with people who have been doing this so well and so successfully for so long, and see them show up on set as if it’s the first day they’ve ever spent on a set — with the same excitement, curiosity, dedication, and passion — it rekindles it all in me again. It’s a wonderfully comforting thing for me to see, because I can’t do anything else, really. This world of storytelling is the only world I know. I don’t have a degree or even a diploma in anything else, and I’ve been doing it for 33 years. Sometimes it does worry me: What if I wake up one morning and my love for this is gone? So, to see someone like Bob Newhart [during his guest spot on The Big Bang Theory] still doing this at 86 years old with the same passion that I’m sure he had when he was 30 years old, boy, I sleep a lot easier at night after working with someone like that, thinking, alright, I’m in this for life, and I’m going to be alright. I’m going to love every single day of it just like I did when I was seven.

What can fans look forward to in terms of where your character or The Big Bang Theory in general is going?

I would tell you if I knew! The writers really keep us in the dark about that stuff, and I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional, either. We just have the utmost trust in them, so nobody asks what’s coming up for their character. No one’s impatient about it. We trust whatever direction they’re going to take those characters in. It’ll be interesting to see how Howard and Bernadette’s baby impacts the group. I’m looking forward to that, but I’m not looking forward to the longer hours that having a child on set will necessitate. [Laughs.]

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