Bill Engvall has made folks laugh for decades, so it may come as a surprise that he induces scares instead of smiles in his role as the unsettling antagonist next door in Marcus Dunstan's The Neighbor. With the film coming out on DVD September 6th from Anchor Bay Entertainment, Fortress Features, and Salt Company International Production, as well as VOD from Starz Digital, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Engvall, who discussed growing up with a fondness for the horror genre and Vincent Price, playing a charming character with a dark side, working with Dunstan and Josh Stewart, and much more.
Congratulations on the film, Bill. It was great to see you play a darker role in a film like The Neighbor, so kudos to you and the whole team for putting this together.
Bill Engvall: Well, thank you, man. I've got to tell you something, it was blast to do something so different, and I think I shocked a lot of people that are Bill Engvall fans, because like you saw, there's no comedy in it. I give kudos and tons of credit to Marcus Dunstan, who directed it. He really pulled out of me what needed to be, because it is a whole different genre.
I'm used to being the goofy, sitcom-like dad. My first scene on the set was me beating a guy to death with a butt of a shotgun, so there was no dipping your toes in the water. It went right to the details.
Was that what attracted you to this film and this role in particular, to do something so different that people aren't used to seeing you in?
Bill Engvall: I've always wanted to do things, a) to stretch myself, but also to stretch my fans. I don't want them to be too complacent with what I do, and I've been a horror film junkie since I was a kid. I go back to Vincent Price, The Screaming Skull, and the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre I saw when it came out, so it's one of those things I just have loved. When I was a kid, literally I would decorate my room with a glowing skull, and there was a weird dark side to me, so when this opportunity [arose] and when Marcus called, I literally said to him, "You know who I am, right? I'm the goofy dad." And he said, "I know exactly who you are, and that's what I want."
With his help, and also working with Josh Stewart and Ronnie [Gene] Blevins—those guys really helped me get this guy, Troy, to a level that he needed to be. Troy was an interesting character, because life just basically took a dump on him. His wife died of cancer. He's left to raise two boys, so there's a human side of him. But what he does is completely bad. That's why I love the role, because even though he's doing these horrific things, he's still a dad. He's just trying to make his boys okay, and it's kind of like he's just stepped in quicksand and the more he moves the deeper he gets, so there's this real weird dichotomy of "I want to feel bad for you, but then you're doing some awful stuff."
Troy has twisted family values, but in his mind, he's trying to do the right thing and make a living for his family, albeit in a very different way than most folks.
Bill Engvall: Yeah, he just made bad choices about how he does it. That character would have been easy to overact, and that's why I really give Marcus all the credit in the world. He kept me right at that level of "damn it, dude, I want to root for you, but I can't." The guy comes over and brings you beers! It's like he's your buddy, but you don't cross him. And it was just such a blast. The people in Jackson, Mississippi, where we shot it, were just great. These poor people in the hotel, I don't know what they thought, because we would literally go to work at 4:00 in the afternoon and come dragging in at about 5:30 in the morning, and they're setting up for breakfast, and we're like, "do not disturb." At one point I walked up to Marcus and I said, "Marcus, does nobody get murdered in the day? Can we not shoot in the day?"
Did Marcus and Patrick Melton write this character with you specifically in mind?
Bill Engvall: You know, that would be a question for them. I don't know. I would like to think they did, but it just fits so well, and I tell you, I've got to be honest with you, when I got to the set, I was nervous, because Josh has been in The Dark Knight and The Collector. He's got some pretty serious credits behind him, as does Ronnie and all the actors there, so you didn't want to be that guy. You didn't want to be the weak link. It was my first foray into this genre.
It was funny because I got the part on Skype. Literally me and Marcus Skyped together and he goes, "Yeah, I like you." I say, "That's it?" He goes, "Yep." I said "okay," but when we Skyped, I was clean-shaven, hair was fairly normal-length, and he didn't say "grow a beard" or "grow your hair long." He said you might grow your hair a little bit longer, but I showed up and I had this beard and he goes, "Oh, perfect, I knew you'd be right for this."
You know what the funny thing was? The week before I shot The Neighbor, I shot a faith-based Christian movie where I played a street corner Santa, so I went from really good to really bad.
Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum.
Bill Engvall: Yeah. Because I love doing this stuff, I really hope that this exposes me to an audience that is gonna go, "Whoa, I didn't know Engvall could do that." They're just so much fun to do and it's funny because there's always been a lot of great comments, just from the trailer, about people saying, "Hey, good for you. Way to reach out and stretch yourself," and then there's been people like, "Why would you do this?" It's not a life choice. It's just an acting role. It's just a part, but that's what I want though. I want people talking, good or bad.
People are definitely taking notice and talking. When you look back at making this movie, is there a fond or favorite memory that stands out in particular during the whole experience?
Bill Engvall: You know, what was funny was the movie was so intense that Ronnie and Josh and I were always screwing around in between. You had to, because you had to break the tension. In Jackson at night it was cold, and because it's an indie film and not a big-budget thing, there were no trailers and stuff like that, so we would literally sit, at one point I remember that all three of us were in the van laying down, and I said, "Show biz, huh?"
Yeah, we were laughing a lot. Josh was really helpful to me, and he's just a friggin' blast to hang out with. He's an old West Virginia guy. We both came from the south, so we kind of hooked up right off the bat.
You guys had a great back-and-forth in the movie. What was it like filming the fight scene with Josh near the end? Was that fun to get down and dirty and a little bloody? [Spoiler Warning]
Bill Engvall: Yeah, that was like my dream come true, the special effects. The guy that did it [Robert Kurtzman] is a big special effects guy. He's done all sorts of major films, so I sat down in the chair and literally in 20 minutes he had me looking like that, and I went, "Oh my God. This is my dream come true." I didn't want to take it off.
Yeah, it was just great, and it was funny because Marcus is the sweetest person, he's just really nice, and he just writes these dark movies. After the fight scene when I have that last speech before he [Josh's character John] kills me, I'm laying on the floor and they put this blood in my mouth, and I've got to cough and spit it out, and right before the scene, Marcus gets right down to my ear—this sweet little angelic face—and he goes, "Now make him want to kill ya!"
Like a little devil no your shoulder.
Bill Engvall: Yeah, he is totally the devil on your shoulder.
What's interesting about this movie, too, is that in addition to being a horror movie, The Neighbor is a Southern drama. You have that small-town crime aspect to it.
Bill Engvall: Well, that's what really attracted me to it, was that it wasn't just a slasher film. There's a real story here, and what I love is the suspense and the building of it as it gets towards the end, when they're going through the house after each other. It really turned out the way I wanted it to. It was just fantastic.
Before I sign off, do you have anything coming up that you can tease for your fans?
Bill Engvall: Yeah, for the fans that really want some comedy, I've got a new podcast out now. In fact, I'm going to be interviewing Marcus on it. It's called My Two Cents. It's on iTunes, and we just talk about whatever I want to talk about, so next week I know we're doing two interviews. We're talking to Marcus, and then we're talking to the guy from Paranormal Witness.