The Horror Review: EST: 1999

  Behind Leslie Vernon:

An Interview with Nathan Baesel

 Nathan Baesel

Like a solar flare set off in a pitch-black room, Nathan Baeselís first starring role (in his debut feature-length feature no less) as Leslie Vernon--a humanistic serial killer with a m.o. which is disconcertingly ethically justifiable--is one of the most chilling portrayals of the homicidal mind since Christian Baleís performance as Patrick Bateman, Anthony Hopkinís role as Hannibal Lecter, or--by Robert Englundís assessment--Anthony Perkinsís definite part as Norman Bates. The Horror Reviewís Egregious Gurnow chats with this very up-and-coming actor about Pink Floyd, why a horror icon wonít watch horror movies, Shakespeare, and the reason everyone is obligated to buy, not one, but two copies of Scott Glossermanís groundbreaking film, Behind the Mask.

Egregious Gurnow:  Nathan, welcome.

Nathan Baesel:  Thank you for having me.

Egregious Gurnow:   First things first, congratulations on the success of your new film, Scott Glossermanís award-winning Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Nathan Baesel:  I appreciate that

Egregious Gurnow: Before we proceed to the interview proper, letís take a moment to give our readers a bit more insight into who Nathan Baesel is. From the hip, what book are you ashamed I havenít read?

Nathan Baesel:  The book that Iím ashamed you havenít read is On The Road. The book Iím ashamed I havenít read is The Bluest Eye.

Egregious Gurnow:  Ooo . . . would have never seen it coming. Is it Kerouacís text in particular or the whole of the Beat movement? Whatís your two-cents on the other cats of the era: Gingsberg, Snyder, Kesey, Cassady, and Burroughs? 

Nathan Baesel:  I love jazz.  I think itís the form of music I respond to most and because of its influence, I lost myself in the Beat movement for a while, particularly in Kerouac.  Like the middle class white kids of the 50ís who turned writing into a jazz solo, Iíve been trying to keep my acting as honest and impulsive as a jazz riff.    

Egregious Gurnow:  Film I must go home and watch immediately if not sooner?

Nathan Baesel:  Das Boot.

Egregious Gurnow:  Agh! The whole crab sequence. [EG tries to shake the heebie-jeebies off of himself.] What draws you to this film?

Nathan Baesel:   I love stories that plug me into a time and place that arenít my own, where I can lose myself in a fully realized world or mythology.  Das Boot so vividly summons the experience of a U-boat crew in the last days of a lost war that you can smell the stink and feel the sweat rolling down in beads.

Egregious Gurnow:  Pink Floyd helmed by Syd Barrett or Roger Waters?

Nathan Baesel:  Roger Waters. I never got in to the Sid Barrett thing. I mean I appreciate the headiness of Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun and that but thereís something much more coherent about Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. I guess one who pines over one who went over the edge is more accessible than one who went over the edge.

Egregious Gurnow:   A man after my own heart. And well put I might add. Of course, you know weíre in the minority here, right? I have no doubt if we were conducting this interview at a convention weíd be dodging debris and oral condemnation right about now.

Nathan Baesel:  Yeah . . . . To each his own. 

Egregious Gurnow:  Patrick Bateman or Hannibal Lecter? 

Nathan Baesel:  Hannibal Lecter. Heís an icon. Like Darth Vader. I enjoyed American Psycho and found it disturbing, but more because it was incoherent and less because of itís content. Maybe Iím slow.

Egregious Gurnow:   Hey now, I wonít have anyone telling my interviewees that theyíre slow, not even themselves. American Psycho is a mind-bender but you gotta hand it to Bret Easton Ellis and Mary Harron, they did--much like Glosserman--posit one hell of a social critique.

Nathan Baesel:  I should probably read the book then watch it again.  Christian Bale gave a hell of a performance though.

Egregious Gurnow:  [EG gives a nod of consent.] Okay, good. Now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, onto the interview: Given that not only myself but a number of critics have called Behind the Mask the best thing to appear in horror in the last twenty-five years, were you aware of what you were creating at the time or was it a case of merely being content to have fun making a film?

Nathan Baesel:  I had never booked a film before Behind the Mask and I wanted desperately to have that experience. I was just happy to get the job. When I got to the set and saw how well Scott had planned and was running the show, I felt confident that if I delivered on my end, heíd have a pretty decent foundation to build his movie on. As I started working, I got the sense that there was a chance that we had something special on our hands because crew members would constantly come up to me and say, ďWhen I read the script I had a completely different idea about who Leslie was, but I love where youíre taking this guy!Ē The crewís encouragement always let me know I was on the right track. 

Egregious Gurnow:  When you say that you were issuing a completely different take on the character from what people had envisioned while reading the script, do you think they were referring to the amiability which you brought to the character?

Nathan Baesel:  Yeah.  I think most people saw him as this big burley guy who kills people and says funny stuff now and then.  I went a different way.  I wanted him to be relatable.

Egregious Gurnow:  Where you surprised at the success of the feature?

Nathan Baesel:  Yes and no I guess. I had a firmly held belief that if everything worked out on our end, it would translate in turning people on. That seems to have been true to a great extent. There is another plane, however, on which rests the ultimate fate of the film. The general publicís appreciation of any film is like a living organism which thrives or fails due to so many unaccountable factors. The life of the film, once it was out of our hands, has been really positive and I canít say what thatís because of. Iím grateful that itís found an audience and that the audience seems to be real people. People I know and mix with every day. 

Egregious Gurnow:  You are a classically trained actor. Has your time at Juilliard served you well in your transition from the stage to the screen? Whatís the biggest pro and con going from one to the other and which do you ultimately prefer?

Nathan Baesel:  Bunch of questions. I learned to deal with a number of styles, stories, and personalities at Juilliard. That prepared me for the world. I donít prefer stage over screen or vice versa. They both have merits one over the other. Work is work. Bills getting paid are paramount. Creative expression and finding new and unexplored areas of the psyche are the second-most rewarding facets of what the world of entertainment can offer.

Egregious Gurnow:  Isnít it a pain how we must first meet our temporal needs, sometimes . . . whoís kidding who? . . . most of the time at the sake of the artistic integrity? But, hey, you definitely killed two birds with one stone with Behind the Mask, eh?

Nathan Baesel:  I was conscious of my blessings every day I worked on it. 

Egregious Gurnow:  You worked alongside Robert Englund, another individual who, like yourself, is no stranger to Shakespeare. Considering that your career as a classically-trained stage actor to playing a horror icon ironically echoes his at this juncture, did he lend you any insight into how to play the role by either observation or in so many words? 

Nathan Baesel:  He showed me what a class act is as a professional actor. But specifically he hovered over Leslie and finally gave his stamp of approval when he likened Leslie to a young Anthony Perkins. That was when I knew I was on to something good.

Egregious Gurnow:  When you say he likened Leslie to Perkins, do you think he was referring more to the girth and weight of what Vernon represents or the scope of your performance? When he said that, did you pause, starting to feel the heat being turned up in that you now have a larger responsibility than just playing a slasher killer? 

Nathan Baesel:  I felt like Leslie just clicked with me.  I got him.  I was never confused or unfocused about what I wanted to do with him and where I wanted to take him.  Along the way I got nods from key people which confirmed I was right to walk the road I was walking and his was the last, most significant confirmation that I was creating a guy who just might have a shot at sparking a phenomenon like Perkins did and like Robert for that matter.  I think that was our unspoken wish for the film: that Behind the Mask would mirror those iconic films it was drawing from.  The juryís still out on the ďphenomenonĒ thing but itís going well.  Who knows?  

Egregious Gurnow:  You have mentioned you have an admiration for the Bardís works, along with American playwright Eugene OíNeill. Now, for our horror fans who might not be in the know, Shakespeare penned his fair share of horrific little ditties: King Lear tearing his eyes out; Macbeth, the Scottish slayer; Hamletís father taking it in the ear; the multi-corpse pileup at the finale of ďRomeo and JulietĒ; and the Britís most popular play during his lifetime, ďTitus Andronicus,Ē its success due, in part no doubt, for much the same reason that horror is one of the reigning cinematic mediums today--the overabundant amount of bloodletting witnessed during the play. Have you had an opportunity to act in any of these works?

Nathan Baesel:  Iíve had the honor of taking on Shakespeare in several of his plays. An actor takes words which are not his own and personalizes them so that an audience is led into believing that they are his own thoughts and feelings. The trick is finding a way to personalize language that is archaic but nonetheless relevant. In some cases, Shakespeare adopted dramatic themes from ancient Greek plays to bring out the most profound human emotions from the audience. An actor whoís worth his salt should be able to draw from the depths of human folly and the heights of human accomplishment to portray characters larger than life in a way that makes the most stand-offish spectator reflect and repent.

Egregious Gurnow:  Good answer. Which Shakespearian role in particular did you like the most and why?

Nathan Baesel:  Hamlet.  The play as a whole, and the character in particular, are so complex and unknowable.  There are just as many reads on his intentions and motivations as there are on Jesus Christís

Egregious Gurnow:  And not to sound trite, but you are chatting with a film critic: You mentioned part of the challenge to such material is taking such words and making them your own in a plausible, convincing manner. That said, what was your take on Kenneth Branaghís Hamlet?

Nathan Baesel:   I didnít care for it.  I think heís a brilliant actor but I didnít agree with his take.  I think of Hamlet as a man tormented.  He is compelled by the fucking ghost of his father to kill his uncle but his incredible powers of reason make him impotent to action.  I think when Branagh threw his sword fifty yards across the court to stab Claudius in the throat I wanted to puke in my lap.   

Egregious Gurnow:  Do you see Shakespeareís violence carried down throughout the centuries as readily as we have the other facets of his writing?

Nathan Baesel:  Violence is one of the qualities of his stories which make his work continually relevant. As long as man is willing to wage war on his fellow man over irrelevant and misguided notions of security and piety there will always be a relevance to Shakespeareís plays.

Egregious Gurnow:  Nice jibe there. I like the reading of the Bardís continuing political relevance . .

Nathan Baesel:  Yeah, well . . . .

Egregious Gurnow:  The character of Leslie Vernon is multifaceted to say the least. How did you prepare for a role in which you would play a very amiable, astute serial killer? 

Nathan Baesel:  simply felt that the audience would have more of a jolt if they related to Leslie instead of reviled him. If heís clearly a bad guy thereís only so much mileage you can get from that. But if heís a nice guy, a good guy, a guy you know . . . a guy youíd want to hang out with, then youíre taken in a much more personal direction when the shit hits the fan.

Egregious Gurnow:  Indeed, we not only sympathize with Leslie, we empathize with him. Whatís more, after he issues his philosophical justification for what he does, we even come to--God forbid--respect him. Risquť indeed. We canít fault Glosserman for not challenging his audience, can we?

Nathan Baesel:  Thereís something compelling--disturbing though he may be--about a man who believes heís doing noble work by leading people through the horrors of fear to the comfort of ultimate peace.

Egregious Gurnow:  Having said that, you accomplish the Herculean task of making Leslie Vernon a sympathetic killer, so much so that the viewer is unsure if whatís occurring onscreen will ultimately wind up being a gag and then, wham, the shit hits the fan as you said. You alluded to this earlier in the interview but how much was already provided in the script as opposed to what you brought to the role?

Nathan Baesel:  I had to talk Scott into casting me. My take was different from what everyone else was doing. The script seemed to call for Evil incarnate. I remember at the audition that there were guys who were screaming during their audition. Angry. Evil. I believed evil was more powerful when it wasnít apologized for and exercised with venom. Evil is most powerful when it is employed with great understanding, calm, dignity, and calculation. In short, I thought Leslie could draw an audience in by being relatable, then turn them on their heads by revealing his darker impulses. All the while the humorous tone could be supplied by the absurd situation that these ďnormalĒ people are found in. Scott bought my argument. The rest is history. 

Egregious Gurnow:  Well, weíre glad he did. I think if he would have went the route of ďEvil for Evilís sake,Ē the character of Vernon might have lapsed into the rote serial killer weíve seen a hundred times over and the film wouldnít have as much impact, to say nothing of meaning. You truly flesh out the character and, undoubtedly--to many polar moralistís chagrin--give the figure a human face.

Nathan Baesel:  Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader did the same thing

Egregious Gurnow:  Letís get into this idea a little more. Vernon is portrayed, despite being a serial killer, as something of an iconoclastic ethicist because, on a philosophic level, he is volunteering to be the counter to Good in order for the word to house any meaning and, in so doing, is willing to die for the idea. William Faulkner once intoned that, at base, every creative act is executed due to the artistís ego needing to be recognized, in short, in an attempt to validate a sense of importance. Do you see Vernon as an egoist given that his situation permits martyrdom to follow or purely someone attempting to, however ironic, make the world a better place?

Nathan Baesel:  I guess itís a little bit of both. Leslie is very much an egoist in that he has very little regard for the lives of people beyond how they can serve him and his purposes (with the exception of his Survivor Girls) and grow his legend. On the other hand, his lack of regard is based on a thoroughly considered philosophy in which he is performing a service to humanity and the universe as a whole by wielding fear and death. This philosophical clarity strengthens his purpose and makes him more intriguing, I think, than your average crazy, bloodthirsty slasher.

Egregious Gurnow:  Well put. And I think this is the dilemma the audience is forced to contend with as well. In this respect, Vernon has a real-life counterpart: The Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, proved to be much harder to catch for much the same reason in that authorities had never had to capture a killer whose modus operandi was anything other than personal. Ted had a philosophical agenda he was attempt to meet in much the same manner as Vernon.

Nathan Baesel:  I crossed a troubling personal threshold when I came to that understanding with Leslie.

Egregious Gurnow:  In what respect?  How did you ultimately reconcile it?

Nathan Baesel:   Itís important to me that I never comment on my characters from the outside but step into the skin fully to the degree that I can.  I approached the shoot feeling that I had a lot in common with Leslie but there were a few areas I steered clear of because why even try?  Iím not a homicidal person.  I donít intend to be one.  Iíll just ďactĒ that stuff.  At some point during the shoot, I understood that there was so much more power in a deeper acceptance of Leslieís philosophy.  I donít feel comfortable saying much more because I donít condone anything Leslie does in the film, but when I had a meeting of the minds with Leslie philosophically that was the last domino to drop and I was ďin.Ē

Egregious Gurnow:  Going back to your reading of Vernonís motive: His philosophy is very Marxist for--like Raskolnikov in Dostoevskyís Crime and Punishment, Gary Cooperís character of Alvin in Sergeant York, or even John Doe in Se7en--he is killing for the greater good. How do you think Leslie reconciles the contradiction of murdering a few, which is the cession of life, in order to improve the quality of life for all?

Nathan Baesel:  In the scene where Leslie says goodbye to Taylor, Todd, and Doug and then goes off to do his work I had a little moment with each of them.  Knowing how everything was going to play out, my farewell to Doug was tossed off--heís going to live after all--but Toddís was much more personal and I was trying to tell him without telling him, ďYouíre going on a journey.  Trust that youíll emerge from your fear in a much better place.Ē  I doubt any of that comes across on a casual viewing but I tried to keep a constant sense of integrity about Leslie so that an invested viewer could glean those little nuggets.  

Egregious Gurnow:  Clever indeed. Youíve have went on record as stating and, on behalf of Horror Reviewís readers--for shame--that you havenít watched many of the films that harbor the clichťs which your character of Vernon is simultaneously emulating while turning on their head. In so doing, Glosserman deconstructs the whole of the genre while positing a very wry, albeit fascinating, revisionist theory that the mundane slasher flick is to be reviewed as narratives which perhaps disclose very cognizant killers and that the routine, uninteresting preparatory planning stages which precede the killings have merely been excised from the final product. Of course, this is part of the black humor of Behind the Mask before the whole culminates into a devastating finale but, having said that, Nathan, how come you donít like horror films?

Nathan Baesel:  Umm . . . they scare me.

Egregious Gurnow:  Succinct. I doubt anyone will fault you here. Having said that, I just rewatched another mindbender in the Behind the Mask vein: Wes Cravenís New Nightmare. In the film, Heather Langenkamp, playing herself--that is, a mother and veteran horror actress from the Nightmare films--goes on a talk show and baulks at the question of whether she deems horror suitable, for she is placed between a rock and a hard place by the host after stating she wonít let her son watch any of her films. Whatís your take on this, will you allow your sons to watch Behind the Mask before the age of 17?

Nathan Baesel:   Sure, if theyíre up for it.  My four year-old is familiar with the mask from all the promotion of the film.  I think he thinks itís cool.  Heís very much into Batman, another man who assumes an identity to wreak fear and purge his troubled psyche.  He might be ready for Leslie sooner than I think.

Egregious Gurnow:  Aside from Leslie Vernon [EG wryly smiles], what has been your favorite role thus far, on either stage or screen?

Nathan Baesel:   I did a production of Noah Heidleís play ďPrincess MarjorieĒ a few months after I wrapped Behind the Mask and the character I played was completely insane. I enjoyed that ride so much. I just went nuts and the audience went along for the ride with me. Iíd do that play again in a heartbeat. I also very much enjoyed playing Lewis Sirk on Invasion. It was a well done show and the story just got better and better. Had we got a second season out of it, Iím sure it wouldíve been the most interesting recurring role of my career.

Egregious Gurnow:  Whatís the biggest pain in the ass in regards to acting?

Nathan Baesel:  [Without missing a beat.] Waiting! I fucking hate waiting. And that seems to be all you do as a film/tv actor. Fortunately with Behind the Mask, I was involved in most of the scenes and when I wasnít in the scene, I usually involved myself behind the scenes with learning as much as I could about the camera and setting up shots and the business of directing. Scott was so open to input that he asked me to co-direct a scene near the end of the shoot. Although Behind the Mask was my first film I couldnít have had a more thorough crash course in filmmaking.

Egregious Gurnow:  Ope. Sounds like we might have a burgeoning director on our hands sometime in the near future . . . . Was it Glossermanís influence that got you interested in the craft or has the thought always been looming around in your mind as a career possibility?

Nathan Baesel:  Iíve relied on others to provide the stories I tell for much too long.  Iím getting to a point where I have no excuses now for not telling my own stories. 

Egregious Gurnow:  Ten-dollar question. As you yourself have expressed in previous interviews, many performers want to create as opposed to merely act, to add something of their own to the role, the prime example being Brandoís portrayal of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. Now, how does a performer handle a situation with a Hitchcock or a Kubrick in which actors are cattle to be pushed in one direction or another, a mere means to an end as it where, and never permitted any creative input into the proceedings?

Nathan Baesel:  I donít thrive in that kind of environment and I donít know any actor who does. I think if the vision is inspired, an actor will endure that kind of direction because they believe the end result will pay off. I love to collaborate and I love to have someoneís ideas alter and enrich my interpretation of a character, but I wither creatively when thereís no room for me to do my thing. In that situation, I tend to suck it up and do what Iím told and get it done quick so I can move on and leave the whole thing behind me.

Egregious Gurnow:  That said, if time and death werenít a metaphysical obstacle, would you do a Kubrick or Hitchcock film if given the opportunity?

Nathan Baesel:  Absolutely! There are a few directors that Iíd crawl across broken glass for and those are two of them. Just being a fly on the wall would have been enriching. Maybe that would have been more enjoyable than being an actor for them. Yes, metaphysical obstacles aside, Iíd like to sit beside the directorís chair on one of their productions

Egregious Gurnow:  Like writing, you donít graduate with a degree and start rolling in dough. As you have stated on your blog, to an almost heart-wrenching degree I might add, you have to slowly, gradually, and--in lieu of the threat of starvation--patiently work your way up the ladder. The common phrase writers have is that the tyrannical need to create winds up feeding the soul but not the stomach. Do you concur? What keeps you from throwing in the towel knowing that life would be that much easier if you were to take a rote 9-to-5?

Nathan Baesel:  I have thought a lot about finding a more stable job because my wife and boys deserve to be cared for and my instincts as a father, husband, and a man compel me to keep busy and work hard and get compensated well, which is difficult to do as an actor. Itís hard to say why Iíve kept at it. Iím stubborn, that has a lot to do with it Iím sure. I think Iím a unique talent as well and my characters are different than what you generally see out there. I believe I have a lot to offer as an actor and as long as acting continues to be relevant, Iíll continue to strive to tell interesting stories.

Egregious Gurnow:  God, if I had an award for good answers, hands down, youíd win the sucker. Very well phrased. You mentioned in another interview that at Juilliard that you learned the value of the voice onstage. However, you apparently also have a great appreciation for elocution. You are aware you arenít supposed to be upstaging the wordsmith, right?

Nathan Baesel:  Um, sorry.

Egregious Gurnow:  Síkay. Can you tell us a little about your upcoming roles in Jim Torresís Like Moles, Like Rats and Brooke Andersonís Off the Ledge?

Nathan Baesel:   In Like Moles, Like Rats, I play a sociopathic assassin in a Children Of Men-type future world. It was pretty wild. I think itís working itís way around the festival circuit now, trying to get screenings and ultimately distribution. I havenít seen it, so I donít know what kind of shape itís in, but there were some real good people on the production and some good work done, so weíll see. In Off the Ledge, I play a suit-type party boy with questionable morals. I enjoyed the work and the people but, again, I havenít seen anything from the film, so I donít know how it all turned out.

Egregious Gurnow:  Sounds like youíre drawn towards the more, shall we say, ďfunĒ characters. Is this intentional or is this merely how the chips fell? Any fear in being typecast as the ďcrazyĒ guy? 

Nathan Baesel:  I like impulsive, emotionally unstable characters.  Sue me.  I also like to play good guys who have their heads on straight but I donít get the opportunity to play them as often.  I think I have a natural intensity that doesnít suit those guys most of the time.

Egregious Gurnow:  Where would you like to wind up ten years from now? 

Nathan Baesel:  Iíd like to be able to feed my family, pay my bills, and have several creative avenues. Iíd like to be producing my own material and collaborating with my friends and family on the work.

Egregious Gurnow:  Where do you think youíll be ten years from now?

Nathan Baesel:   [With way too much verve and enthusiasm.] I think Iíll be a superstar!

Egregious Gurnow:  A-hem. [EG still chuckling, attempting to collect himself.] Now, however trite this might sound, as you can well imagine, if I didnít ask, Iíd be placed on Horrordomís sacrificial alter: What are the chances that Leslie Vernon will rise again?

Nathan Baesel:   If the DVD sells well, thereís a certain chance.  I know that ideas have already been circulating around Scott and Davidís heads and Iíd love to take Leslie on again. However, I donít think weíd undertake a sequel unless the script is as good or better than Behind the Mask.  The first was so good it would be pissing on Leslieís legacy to set out with anything less than inspired . . . and Leslie would never have that.

Egregious Gurnow:  Indeed. I often feel apprehensive when a great work leaves an open door for a sequel for fear the follow-up might lessen the impact of its precursor. However, I have no doubt that you, Scott, and David would have no problem keeping the momentum going and, with that said, everyone . . . go out and buy another copy of Behind the Mask so Leslie Vernon can rise again!

Nathan Baesel: Think of my hungry children and have pity people!

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon Official WebsiteClick Here

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon Official Myspace PageClick Here

Nathan Baesel:  Click Here


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