James Ransone just might be one of the most humble people in Hollywood. Maybe it’s because, at age 40, he’s been working in the industry for years without an ego-boosting “breakthrough” moment. Maybe it’s because, as a Baltimore native, he grew up on a diet of punk band Fugazi and the comedic stylings of Mr. Show with Bob and David, both of which he says informed his “ethos.” Maybe it’s because, after struggling with addiction in his 20s, he’s been through the wringer and came out on the other end better for it.
Whatever the case, Ransone feels strange when people, especially critics, call him the secret weapon or MVP of It Chapter Two. But, the reality is, as the actor behind fast-talking adult Eddie (played by Jack Dylan Grazer in Chapter One), he stands out in a sea of A-list talent that includes X-Men‘s James McAvoy, Zero Dark Thirty‘s Jessica Chastain, and Saturday Night Live veteran Bill Hader.
“I’ve never been in a pop culture phenomenon like this, so it’s kind of strange,” Ransone tells EW over the phone ahead of the film’s arrival in theaters. “When you get to this level, for me, it’s weird, stupid luck. Right time, right place. There’s plenty of really qualified actors who are probably more famous than me who could’ve done just as good of a job if not a better job at playing Jack Dylan Grazer in that movie. And I really mean that. This is so massive, it’s a juggernaut that I go, ‘That’s crazy that they allowed me to do it. This is a mistake on your part but whatever.'”
In Chapter Two, adapted from the adult portions of Stephen King‘s horror novel, the Loser’s Club reunite in Derry, Maine 27 years after the events of director Andy Muschietti’s Chapter One. It has returned and they vowed to put an end to him. But that doesn’t mean all the nightmares that await don’t come with laughs, many of them from Ransone’s whip-smart delivery… even if he doesn’t always take credit for it.
Below, Ransone discusses the music and TV shows that made him, the moments that informed his outlook on the industry, and working with Hader to bring infectious laughs to a tragic tale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You said you don’t like to watch yourself on screen. Does that make it weird then when you see critics raving about your performance?
JAMES RANSONE: Yeah, just because I think they’re lying.
Why do you think that?
I don’t know. Why do I think that they’re lying? Well, less than I think that they’re lying, I think what’s really strange is I like to go through… Here’s really what I think. I think most of them wouldn’t admit this to you, as an actor you like to cherrypick out the bad stuff. That’s been my experience. The truth is, when someone says something really nice to me about me in an interview or a review and I read it, I don’t feel better. “Oh yeah, totally. I’m a great person” or “I’m a great actor.” I’ve never felt that way. But then, as soon as someone says something negative, it’s like, “I knew it! I knew it!” You know what I mean?
What do you mean by “cherrypick out the bad stuff”?
I’ll tend to think that the bad reviews are more objectively correct about me, but then I’ll tend to take it personally. It’s just a horrible feedback loop and that’s why I don’t watch myself. It’s better to just do the work. This is what I don’t think a lot of people talk about — or, I don’t know, maybe they do talk about it — the only really fun part about all of this stuff is when I was there, with those guys, shooting the movie with Andy and Isaiah and Bill in Toronto, that was a time in my life when I was at the circus and I was performing in the circus. Then everything else becomes talking about something I did about a year and a half ago, and then having to just live with the results of something final and on screen and that’s what everybody gets.
What I really enjoyed about your performance in this movie is the range you’re able to give between all the comedy and emotional scenes you’re working with. Do you prefer to do one over the other?
I think I was probably loathe to admit this to myself when I was younger, maybe because I was too scared or maybe I felt like I was an outsider, but I always went for the joke even in any of the dramatic stuff I tried to do. Comedy just always felt more fun to me because in some ways it felt more honest. You can manipulate people into feeling emotionally fraught with a scare or sadness and you can sexify that up with the lighting and the music and get people to feel really sad about a moment, but comedy’s funny because it’s so genuine. You can’t force people to laugh. If something’s funny, it’s inevitably truthful. No one can laugh at something that’s disingenuous. It’s more fun for me to play comedy.
When I was watching this movie, I appreciated this idea that often times when people are in really tragic situations they use humor as a coping mechanism.
One hundred percent, totally.
Did you have a similar outlook when approaching the material?
I don’t know if it’s a similar outlook when approaching the material as much as I have it as a fundamental understanding about the nature of the human condition. Most really funny people I know came from really difficult circumstances. One way or another they all came from dark places and I think they use humor as a way of coping. It’s also a fake way to tell the truth. You can say something that might be true, but if you say it in a funny way you can deflate the tension in the room and you’re not lying. Obviously Bill Hader is a much more recognizable name and he’s been around much longer and he’s been in many, many, many pop culture things, but what’s been interesting about working with him is that we’ve also been around the same amount of time. I feel like we’re meeting at this crossroads where he is going towards more dramatic stuff and he’s really good at it and I wanted to go towards comedy my whole career anyway.
Speaking of that relationship, was it easy to fall into that comedic rhythm with Bill?
Yes, it was. All the stuff I do with [director] Sean Baker in all of his movies is all improv. The difference between doing that stuff and then learning from Bill Hader was, he’s got that background of writing with John Mulaney on SNL. They know how to attack the joke from every angle without exhausting it. I just really feel like I learned some new skills from him and that’s exciting. It’d be the same way if you met a writer you really liked and they showed you a bunch of tricks and you thought, “Oh cool, I didn’t think of alliteration in that way.” That part was really fun for me. Also at the same time, I met him 10 years ago. We were auditioning at the same time for that Michael Mann movie Public Enemies. We both acknowledged each other, but then when we met up [for It] we remembered each other. We come from, I think, very similar socio-economic backgrounds and a similar time in America growing up. I think if we had known each other in high school, we totally would’ve been friends. I can’t say that about a lot of actors and it’s not for any other reason other than my taste in music was always different, my taste in art was always different, my taste in TV shows.
What music and TV were you interested in?
I grew up in Baltimore and the DC area, and there’s a long history of punk music. Post-Minor Threat it was Fugazi. It was weird noise-art-rock type of stuff. Fugazi was a big influence on us locally because they were the biggest band in the entire world and their shows were still $5. I think that helped define my ethos a little bit. But then what I liked in movies and TV as a kid was really absurd stuff. Mr. Show was my favorite show when I was in high school, 11th grade. Mr. Show was such a big show to me that the first thing I did when I got The Wire was I called the PR department and I was like, “Hey, can you send me over the old VHS copies of Mr. Show?” And they did. That was the first time I felt like I had made it as a celebrity.
What I loved about Eddie is this more complex relationship between Eddie and Richie. There’s a little bit more of a suggestion that maybe Richie could be gay and maybe his love for Eddie goes a little bit deeper. What were your conversations like with Bill, with Andy…?
I wasn’t really involved with any of those conversations that have to do with Richie’s backstory and what his token was. I don’t necessarily know if that informs anything that has to do with Eddie whatsoever. That type of stuff, I really don’t care about and I wouldn’t care about it for straight characters, either. The nature of what they’re attracted to means less to me than the nature of the intimacy that they have with one another. And intimacy is defined by truth and never by sexuality, ever. At a certain point, women go through menopause and I can’t get it up anymore. It all ends in friendship in one way or another. So, I look at that and I go, “Where can I mine anything on screen where it feels truthful?”
What was the most informative direction from Andy in terms of your character?
This is where it becomes personal to me. Where I mine the material from is that in the book the Losers didn’t have children when they come back together after 27 years and I, at that time, did not have a baby. It had been something me and my wife had been working on for a while and I was really scared that it wasn’t gonna happen. When I read that part in the book, it hit me in my stomach. I can relate to that because I am also terrified of not having this thing. That’s where it locked in for me and made it very real. Everything else, I have to be honest, was me looking at Jack Dylan Grazer’s performance and going, “That’s all I have to do, is keep up with that.” I think on some level, maybe it’s just because I’ve been around for 20 years and I’m not famous, I go, “What did people love about the first movie?” They loved those kids playing those roles so much that all I have to do is give my best impression of what I think they did in the first one… I’m the last person they hire. Most actors think they’re getting involved at the beginning. They’re not. They’re getting involved at the finish line. A movie is actually a third of the way done by the time an actor shows up and people are kinda tired before you start shooting. You’re just there filming the second third of the movie and then you go away and there’s a whole other third of the movie that needs to be done which is the postproduction.
When did that realization click for you in your career?
When I realized I was being a dick on certain things and I could tell people were exhausted by my opinions about stuff. I can’t point out what specific job but just having enough self-awareness to go, “These people don’t want to hear this from me.” … With film, all of the pieces are equally important. Sometimes they don’t all work, but if you don’t go into filming that way, I think you’re just kind of being a jerk.
What characteristics of Jack did you immediately want to bring into adult Eddie?
Just the speed with which he can bounce those lines off of people. I can do all of that as a 40-year-old man, but he was like 12 or 13. I saw behind-the-scenes footage of him improv-ing, it was so crazy. He was improv-ing, giving off-camera dialogue and in the middle of it he looks over at the person filming him on the iPhone and winks to the camera. I couldn’t have done that when I was 12, that’s crazy to me. I’m just doing my best to keep up with a 12- or 13-year-old’s performance. That skill is not a teachable skill, it’s crazy what his speed and ability is.
Do you have any tips or tricks of the trade, especially when the dialogue gets a little too verbose?
Homemade methamphetamines… I’m kidding. No, I was just like, “Remember no matter how much you want to lean into this performance, just say it twice as fast as you think it should be said.”
You auditioned for a role in the first It movie.
Yes, I did. I’m not gonna say what it is. I can’t. If Andy Muschietti will tell you, then you can print it. I’ll just be honest, I’m at a point where anybody who gets a role now think it was always meant to be theirs. Actors do this really weird thing where they’re competitive with one another. I think they should celebrate one another, even wins they feel should be theirs. It’s not interesting to have one person talking in a room. We need each other to be good. When I auditioned for something in the first one, I never go, “Well, that’s unfair and it should’ve been mine.”
Was this situation an instance where Andy kept you in mind for Chapter Two?
No, man. I don’t think so. I just think I got stupid lucky that they ended up casting Eddie with Jack. I think it was like, “Whoa, I really look like him.” I think it was just very easy to do that. That’s where I go, that’s just right place, right time. Total blind stupid coincidence that has nothing to do with how incredible of a thespian I am.
It Chapter Two is now playing in theaters.