We sat down to interview Chris Malcolm, professional actor and star of Biters & Bleeders, an upcoming New 32 horror short. Here’s what he had to say about the production.
What first drew you to this production?
I think initially I was drawn in by the fact that this was a horror film. I love horror movies and grew up watching more of them than I probably should have. Of course, I had no idea at the time just how deep and filled the script was. This particular audition consisted of two scenes that dealt with the complexities of the relationship of two characters. It was light on the horror elements which was really interesting to dive into knowing that there was something more sinister going on in the background.
Biters and Bleeders is an intense project, with extremely intense subject material. As an actor, I have to imagine it’s compelling, but must also be daunting. What were your first thoughts or feelings upon reading the screenplay for the first time?
My first thought after reading the script was, “how the heck are they going to pull that part off?” There are plenty of special effects throughout the script and it is no easy task to bring something like this to life.
Then, there are a few….unsettling scenes, to put it lightly. It’s always fun to go outside of your comfort zone when it comes to a role. But it’s hard not to have all sorts of thoughts and voices going off in your head. You have to go to some dark areas of yourself to make certain circumstances believable. That goes both ways for all the characters in this film. Not just to do certain things to other people. But the characters that are abused have to receive it. How do you even do that? What sorts of mechanisms are built into victims that allow them to continue on through the rest of the day once something awful happens to them. The week? Their life? They all live in a sort of dark area that we as people like to pretend doesn’t exist. But they do exist and they are not that uncommon in the society we live in. There is just an unsettling excitement knowing that you are going to have to tackle some subject matter that is hard to read and even harder to see. There is comfort in knowing that the thing about acting is that it isn’t real and you aren’t alone.
My other thoughts surrounded the characters. I couldn’t stop thinking about how tragic the characters were. They have very obvious flaws that they are living with. How do they cope? How did they get here? Why can’t they break the cycle they are stuck in? It’s all very sad and isolating to read. The trauma that they suffered and continue to suffer is a fascinating tool into their world.
We had a lot of submissions for Tad who were frankly incredible, and it was one of the hardest castings we’ve ever done, but no matter how we cut it you always had the edge after every round of auditions. Were there things about Tad that you connected with, or inspired you about the role?
There were so many things that connected with Tad. The first time I read the audition scene, I could see a rough shape of it. In that particular scene Tad is being verbally abusive toward Penelope. Basically, it’s a fight or argument. Who hasn’t had a fight with someone they love before? There is a certain veil of guilt that is present in such fights. The guilt is masked by Tad’s stubbornness which is again, a very common theme in any type of argument.
I also liked the sense of Tad being somewhat easy going. He lives in a constant daydream where stress doesn’t exist and things just happen for him. It is because he comes from wealth so he has never really had to work or worry about life. He is used to being on top and not having to get his hands dirty. He’s not an alpha male in the sense of a physically imposing male, but he is in the form of control. He HAS to be in control of Penelope in order to function. I can’t connect to that sort of mindset personally. But it was appealing to me to explore the intoxicating effect it can have to exhibit power over someone.
So to put it lightly, Tad is, well….icky. He’s compelling and a fascinating character study, but as an actor, what’s it like to play a character who isn’t exactly admirable?
Tad really is an icky character isn’t he? There is always a challenge when playing a character like Tad. No matter how awful or hateful a character is, they are still human. You have to find some way to connect to that human part and fill them out. Characters that are evil or do some very awful things still have a favorite food. They still grew up dreaming about life and longing for connection with others in some form. The form of connection may be unhealthy, but they still latch onto something trying to fill some void.
When trying to find Tad I tried to really embrace the fun parts of his relationship. He couldn’t be all bad all the time or else Penelope wouldn’t be here now struggling to love him. What does/did she love about him? What part of him won her over? At what point did he lose his way? When did he turn on her and give up on himself? Once I was able to get my foot in the door and find the nice parts of Tad, the bad were easier to follow and feel. For instance, he likes to play tricks and scare people. That’s a very child-like behavior to latch onto that in its purest form is innocent. Tad is also carefree. There is a sense of positive outlook with that mindset. The script is so well written that it was very easy to get a sense of the guy and run with it. There were plenty of clues in the writing about what kind of person Tad is. From his use of words, to his actions, and even the way he looks at Penelope. It’s all there waiting to be extracted.
Obviously, the important part of any bad guy are the genuine moments, the things that help endear them to the audience, if only a little bit. How have you gone about finding those genuine moments for Tad?
“Genuine” is a very interesting word when it comes to Tad actually. I think Tad is very primal and simple in a lot of ways. That gives him an almost childlike demeanor throughout the film. He is like the smiling kid killing ants with a magnifying glass. He perhaps doesn’t realize that he is ending life and has never taken the time to really consider his actions and their consequences. When you have a pathway into someone like that, you can find moments where they come face to face with reality and what it means for them. When Tad loses control of Penelope and the power frame shifts, he loses grip on his reality. It is here that his soft tissue is exposed and you can find those genuine moments.
Not to give anything away, but both Tad and Penelope carry their past with them. The route they each take to deal with past trauma might even cross and intersect at different points. But they each have to travel their own path. In these moments you can find some truth into who they are and why they are.
What was your experience like on set playing this character?
Cold! The dude apparently never owned a sweater. The film takes place during a heatwave in the South, so the characters wore the bare minimum to escape the heat. The ironic part of that is we shot in late September when the weather is starting to cool off. The colder mornings took a long time to warm up and the house was very well-ventilated. Throw some fake sweat that didn’t evaporate onto us and it was anything but sweltering. But it was so fun!
On the acting side, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The director Missy Bell was so freaking amazing. She was so great with expressing what she wanted out of every scene and having the means to communicate how to get there. I felt safe and elevated by her on so many levels. It should be every actor’s dream to work with a director like Missy. Raven couldn’t have been a better actor to share scenes with as well. She knew when to give me space to focus and when to come in for a comforting timeout. And the crew? *Chef’s kiss*
One minute we were joking about something and the next we were in an intense standoff. It was amazing to feel the energy shift between such extremes.
I hear from Raven that you’re a very grounded performer, and you’re sincere and subtle in your performance but still extremely powerful. Do you have any acting secrets? Tips or tricks that really help you craft a performance?
First and foremost, I have to pass the torch back to Raven on that one. Her performance really inspired me. It is fun and easy to play on set when you have someone as talented as her. She was constantly feeding me moments and energy. It would have been impossible not to give something back when she had so much going on internally. The scenes with Joyce were the same as well. She brought a subtle chaos to everything and played it wonderfully. It is such a treat to have that caliber of talent surrounding you and elevating you.
But as far as tips or tricks go? The greatest acting teacher I’ve ever had, Jon Menick, used to always say, “acting should always be simple, but it is never easy.” I think that is a profound place to start. Characters are so complex to grasp. Then you throw in circumstances, time and place, tone, relationships and all these other layers. It can be overwhelming. But the more you can break down everything into its essence or just a few words, the easier it is to play and obtain. So I would encourage anyone out there to put a lot of care into distilling as much as you can.
The biggest tip I could give? Relax. Stay relaxed.Spend time getting into a state of stillness and then flow. It’s almost impossible to invite anything in if you are tense or thinking about anything else. It is in the relaxed state that you can discover and create with another actor.
Biters and Bleeders is full of effects, both practical and animated. I hear you in particular had to have lots of different prosthetics at different points in the film. What was that like?
I feel so sorry for our special effects lady Sally. She was so fun to work with. But there was just something about my skin that wouldn’t work with her usual glues and latex. She had a time getting prosthetics to stay on me. Every time we put a new prosthetic on we tried a new method. Finally, on the next to last day we discovered this stinky glue that she had to make that worked. It was great to finally work!
But it was truly a fun experience. It tends to get boring in most productions where you are stuck in formal office attire or something normal. Prosthetics are in a lot of ways an extension of the wardrobe and character. They tell a more interesting story. It was fun to constantly have them evoliving along with the story. But I’ll tell you this, the edible blood is weird. We had mint flavored blood and I had the chance to taste it several times. It’s like a thicker, diluted mouthwash taste. Not awful, but not something you would want to drink on any regular basis.
I hear in particular there was a scene where you had prosthetics covering both your eyes and your neck. You were unable to see for several hours while the prosthetics were on, and fight choreography was happening to you. It sounds kind of scary- what was that like?
Honestly, don’t tell Raven but that was the easiest part of the entire shoot! Once I was in full makeup and prosthetics I was at the mercy of the other actors and crew! But seriously, it wasn’t scary at all. Once the neck and eyes were on I couldn’t see anything and my mobility was severely limited because I didn’t want to rip anything off. That is where Raven and the crew really did all the heavy lifting. Raven was pulling double time on the acting front. She was feeling and reacting with me while I lay still on a bed. It was truly mesmerizing on her part. And the crew made sure to check in and make sure I wasn’t having a meltdown at any point. They kept me safe and kept me in frame. They also worked hard to make sure that I knew what they needed from me from moment to moment since I couldn’t see what was going on. It kept me engaged. I mean the thing is, you can’t help but be fully invested once you have all that stuff on. You know it’s going to look awesome and people are excited to see how the special effects work. On top of that, it was one of those “we only get one shot at this” type shot. It wasn’t truly a get it in one shot type of deal, but the time it would take to set it all up again was daunting so everyone was pushing to nail it in one go. That really adds another level of professionalism and engagement by everyone. It’s quite exciting.
Another interesting side effect of the prosthetics is that they force you to buy in. Once your vision is compromised you start to listen and feel more. You begin to tap into that energy that resonates in the scene. In fact, while the prosthetics were being applied, Raven was filming an equally gruesome scene that had her stabbing an apple. Whew…that sound still lingers in my mind. It helped push me into the next scene with her and heightened everything.
What was your experience like working on this set with New 32? (Alternative question: what was your favorite scene to film/why?)
My personal experience of working with New 32 cannot be summed up into words. It was truly an honor. I’ve never been on a set where I’ve just felt so welcome and comfortable. It felt like a family. That’s so contrived but it really did. Every single person working on Biters was fully invested into making the best possible film. They were professional to the highest standard and went the extra mile to extract every ounce of magic from every second.
It was special. There is no other word I can think of. It was the best week of my life being on set and around everyone involved. Coming back to my regular life was hard to come to terms with for a day or two just because the experience was that special to me. I will forever hold working with New 32 as the pinnacle of what to expect from any project I work on.
My favorite scene? I loved them all for different reasons, but I suppose if I have to narrow it down it would be the kitchen scene. It just had so much going on and the camera coverage was insane. I felt very connected with Penelope and it was a pleasure navigating the scene with her. It’s not often that you get a scene with so much emotion, objectives, balancing, and shifts in it. It was challenging on so many levels. But I think that when a scene is challenging then it truly is exhibiting the nature of humans. To me that in turn means the writing is ace, the directing is focused, and the actors are flowing. The scene had everything going for it. There were actually a couple of times during the scene that I got so into Raven’s performance, that I got sucked in and lost my place for a bit. Raven was mesmerizing. It was a humbling experience.
I know for actors it can be so difficult to keep up the motivation in a world of rejections. Are there things that keep your motivation fire stoked, or keep your optimism alive?
Like Tad I tend to be easy going. I like to think that things happen for a reason and will work out. It’s important to stay grounded and enjoy the process or it will eat you alive.
I recommend meditation, healthy hobbies, and anything that can feed your soul. It is true what they say about acting. It is a marathon and not a sprint. You just have to be willing to play the long game and not let immediate success or failure sway you from your path. I have a ritual/routine that I hold myself to for auditions and life. If you can establish what works for you and continue to work at it, then you will reap the rewards. Foster and grow yourself and your process. Harvest everything. It is very, very important to take the time to reflect and grow with any experience you have. It’s easy to ignore or pass by these things in such a hectic world. It is absolutely worth it and it will springboard your growth and understanding of life, acting, and feeling.
There are so many obstacles and people that don’t have your best interest at heart in this industry. I had another great acting teacher that once told me, “it’s like mining for gold. At first the water is cloudy and full of debris. But once you give it some time, that all settles and the gold will float to the top.” Give it time. Filter those bad things out. Be the gold that floats to the top.
Any closing thoughts?
I just want to thank you for your time and reaching out to me with such great questions. I hope I didn’t ramble on too much, but I used this as a sort of harvest and reflection as well. My hope is that Biters and Bleeders resonates with all sorts of audiences. It carries so much weight with it and deserves to be experienced by not only fans of the horror genre, but anyone willing to confront the pitfalls, struggles and triumphs of a strong, female character in Penelope. There really is something for everyone in this film…just as long as you can stomach the gore. It’s totally worth it.