Behind Leslie Vernon:
An Interview with Nathan Baesel
Like a solar flare set off in a pitch-black room, Nathan Baesel’s 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 Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman, Anthony Hopkin’s role as Hannibal Lecter, or–by Robert Englund’s assessment–Anthony Perkins’s definite part as Norman Bates. The Horror Review’s Egregious Gurnow chats with this very up-and-coming actor about Pink Floyd, why a horror icon won’t watch horror movies, Shakespeare, and the reason everyone is obligated to buy, not one, but two copies of Scott Glosserman’s 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 Glosserman’s award-winning Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Nathan Baesel: I appreciate that
Egregious Gurnow: Before we proceed to the interview proper, let’s 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 haven’t read?
Nathan Baesel: The book that I’m ashamed you haven’t read is On The Road. The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read is The Bluest Eye.
Egregious Gurnow: Ooo . . . would have never seen it coming. Is it Kerouac’s text in particular or the whole of the Beat movement? What’s your two-cents on the other cats of the era: Gingsberg, Snyder, Kesey, Cassady, and Burroughs?
Nathan Baesel: I love jazz. I think it’s 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 50’s who turned writing into a jazz solo, I’ve 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 aren’t 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 there’s 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 we’re in the minority here, right? I have no doubt if we were conducting this interview at a convention we’d 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. He’s an icon. Like Darth Vader. I enjoyed American Psycho and found it disturbing, but more because it was incoherent and less because of it’s content. Maybe I’m slow.
Egregious Gurnow: Hey now, I won’t have anyone telling my interviewees that they’re 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, he’d 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, “When I read the script I had a completely different idea about who Leslie was, but I love where you’re taking this guy!” The crew’s 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 public’s 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 can’t say what that’s because of. I’m grateful that it’s 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? What’s 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 don’t 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: Isn’t it a pain how we must first meet our temporal needs, sometimes . . . who’s 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 jury’s still out on the “phenomenon” thing but it’s going well. Who knows?
Egregious Gurnow: You have mentioned you have an admiration for the Bard’s works, along with American playwright Eugene O’Neill. 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; Hamlet’s father taking it in the ear; the multi-corpse pileup at the finale of “Romeo and Juliet”; and the Brit’s most popular play during his lifetime, “Titus Andronicus,” 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: I’ve 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 who’s 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 Christ’s
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 Branagh’s Hamlet?
Nathan Baesel: I didn’t care for it. I think he’s a brilliant actor but I didn’t 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 Shakespeare’s 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 Shakespeare’s plays.
Egregious Gurnow: Nice jibe there. I like the reading of the Bard’s 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 he’s clearly a bad guy there’s only so much mileage you can get from that. But if he’s a nice guy, a good guy, a guy you know . . . a guy you’d want to hang out with, then you’re 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. What’s more, after he issues his philosophical justification for what he does, we even come to–God forbid–respect him. Risqué indeed. We can’t fault Glosserman for not challenging his audience, can we?
Nathan Baesel: There’s something compelling–disturbing though he may be–about a man who believes he’s 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 what’s 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 wasn’t 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 “normal” people are found in. Scott bought my argument. The rest is history.
Egregious Gurnow: Well, we’re glad he did. I think if he would have went the route of “Evil for Evil’s sake,” the character of Vernon might have lapsed into the rote serial killer we’ve seen a hundred times over and the film wouldn’t have as much impact, to say nothing of meaning. You truly flesh out the character and, undoubtedly–to many polar moralist’s chagrin–give the figure a human face.
Nathan Baesel: Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader did the same thing
Egregious Gurnow: Let’s 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 artist’s 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 it’s 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: It’s 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? I’m not a homicidal person. I don’t intend to be one. I’ll just “act” that stuff. At some point during the shoot, I understood that there was so much more power in a deeper acceptance of Leslie’s philosophy. I don’t feel comfortable saying much more because I don’t 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 “in.”
Egregious Gurnow: Going back to your reading of Vernon’s motive: His philosophy is very Marxist for–like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Gary Cooper’s 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–he’s going to live after all–but Todd’s was much more personal and I was trying to tell him without telling him, “You’re going on a journey. Trust that you’ll emerge from your fear in a much better place.” 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. You’ve have went on record as stating and, on behalf of Horror Review’s readers–for shame–that you haven’t watched many of the films that harbor the clichés 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 don’t 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 Craven’s 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 won’t let her son watch any of her films. What’s your take on this, will you allow your sons to watch Behind the Mask before the age of 17?
Nathan Baesel: Sure, if they’re up for it. My four year-old is familiar with the mask from all the promotion of the film. I think he thinks it’s cool. He’s 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 Heidle’s play “Princess Marjorie” 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. I’d 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, I’m sure it would’ve been the most interesting recurring role of my career.
Egregious Gurnow: What’s 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 Glosserman’s 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: I’ve relied on others to provide the stories I tell for much too long. I’m 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 Brando’s 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 don’t thrive in that kind of environment and I don’t 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 someone’s ideas alter and enrich my interpretation of a character, but I wither creatively when there’s no room for me to do my thing. In that situation, I tend to suck it up and do what I’m 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 weren’t a metaphysical obstacle, would you do a Kubrick or Hitchcock film if given the opportunity?
Nathan Baesel: Absolutely! There are a few directors that I’d 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, I’d like to sit beside the director’s chair on one of their productions
Egregious Gurnow: Like writing, you don’t 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. It’s hard to say why I’ve kept at it. I’m stubborn, that has a lot to do with it I’m sure. I think I’m 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, I’ll continue to strive to tell interesting stories.
Egregious Gurnow: God, if I had an award for good answers, hands down, you’d 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 aren’t supposed to be upstaging the wordsmith, right?
Nathan Baesel: Um, sorry.
Egregious Gurnow: S’kay. Can you tell us a little about your upcoming roles in Jim Torres’s Like Moles, Like Rats and Brooke Anderson’s 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 it’s working it’s way around the festival circuit now, trying to get screenings and ultimately distribution. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know what kind of shape it’s in, but there were some real good people on the production and some good work done, so we’ll 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 haven’t seen anything from the film, so I don’t know how it all turned out.
Egregious Gurnow: Sounds like you’re drawn towards the more, shall we say, “fun” characters. Is this intentional or is this merely how the chips fell? Any fear in being typecast as the “crazy” 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 don’t get the opportunity to play them as often. I think I have a natural intensity that doesn’t suit those guys most of the time.
Egregious Gurnow: Where would you like to wind up ten years from now?
Nathan Baesel: I’d like to be able to feed my family, pay my bills, and have several creative avenues. I’d like to be producing my own material and collaborating with my friends and family on the work.
Egregious Gurnow: Where do you think you’ll be ten years from now?
Nathan Baesel: [With way too much verve and enthusiasm.] I think I’ll 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 didn’t ask, I’d be placed on Horrordom’s sacrificial alter: What are the chances that Leslie Vernon will rise again?
Nathan Baesel: If the DVD sells well, there’s a certain chance. I know that ideas have already been circulating around Scott and David’s heads and I’d love to take Leslie on again. However, I don’t think we’d 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 Leslie’s 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 Website: Click Here
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon Official Myspace Page: Click Here
Nathan Baesel: Click Here
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