You may know him best as Malcolm Wilkerson from Malcolm in the Middle, Swink from Stay Alive, or even himself on Preacher, but in the new horror film The Black String, Muniz completely detaches himself from previous portrayals to wholly immerse himself in a story that's equal parts horrific, haunting, and darkly humorous.
A potent blend of It Follows and Jacob's Ladder, The Black String follows convenience store clerk Jonathan (Muniz), who is plagued by a vicious rash and disturbing visions following a one-night stand with a mysterious woman from a singles hotline. The Black String is easily one of my favorite movies of 2019, and with the film now on DVD, Digital, and On Demand from Lionsgate, I was thrilled to speak with Muniz about the movie, including the story's clever ambiguity when it comes to Jonathan's mental state, the everlasting passion of the movie's cast and crew, and how Jonathan is the favorite role he's ever played in his career.
Congratulations on The Black String, Frankie. It's one of my favorite movies this year, and you did a phenomenal job.
Frankie Muniz: Awesome, thank you.
It was so much fun to watch and it's so emotional and horrific in all the right ways. How did you get involved and what was that like reading the script for the first time? Because this story really goes to some places that I didn't expect and I'm sure it was kind of that way for you as well coming into this.
Frankie Muniz: Yeah, for sure. To be honest, I was sent the script and I read it and it was one of those that I was almost too anxious to finish it and you really don't know where it's going to go, and I loved the script. So, I actually went to LA and auditioned for it. And it was kind of my first audition in I don't know, 20 years or something like that, and I just I loved it. I loved the character, I loved the role, and I wanted to do whatever I had to do to be a part of it. And fortunately, they chose me and we made the film and I'm just thrilled with how it turned out. I'm really happy to have been a part of it and people who have been seeing it really like it and that feels great because we worked really hard.
It feels like Jacob's Ladder meets It Follows and it has its influences, but it's totally its own thing, too. I remember being really excited when you were in Stay Alive and I'm like, "Oh, man. Frankie's doing a horror movie. That is so cool." And now it's fun to see you come back to that genre and just really knock it out of the park because this role, you have such an arc in this movie. You go from this lonely but stable guy to effectively homeless. What's really relatable about it is that you're portraying someone in this time period in their life where they're in their late 20s, early 30s and things maybe didn't work out the way they expected. There's something really grounded about your character and then he has this really fantastic thing happen to him.
Frankie Muniz: Yeah. What I really like about the character is you see him in the beginning, and he's working hard. He's working hard at his job, he's working hard to be become better. They show that maybe he had some episodes in the past with maybe drugs or maybe a psychological episode, but he's really doing whatever he can to be better and to get by and do what he needs to do. So, when this happens to him, you do feel for him because he's not this bad guy. He's a good guy.
And nobody believes him no matter what. Even the doctor with that giant crazy rash after the night with Dena is like, "Yeah, it's not really that big of a deal." What do you mean? How is everybody just missing everything he said? And if you think about how you would react if that happened to you in real life, everyone just dismissing what you think is truly happening, it would make you crazy. You would keep trying to fight for what you believe, but other people would think that it's just you going even crazier.
So, I call it the different levels of either crazy or different levels of passion depending on how you look at it. I played it as I was 100% passionate about what I was fighting for, and I had to do what I had to do to show that, but from the outside it looks like, "Man, he's just going crazy." There's that aspect of the film that you just don't know which one it is and I love that. I love the kind of the suspense of like, "Is it real? What are we going to find out? What are we going to see?"
You worked with Richard Handley and Brian Hanson, who's a first-time feature director, which is hard to believe because the way he directed this really feels like more of a seasoned pro. You've obviously worked with a ton of directors on really big studio projects. Coming on to this with a first-time feature director, was that a leap of faith for you, or was it fun for you to go on that adventure with these guys?
Frankie Muniz: It was. They had made a short of this for their school. They went to Mount Saint Mary's film school and they made a small short. So, I got to see that and it was awesome. It looked cool, but you are really putting faith in the other people. People don't obviously talk about this that often, but from a budget standpoint, this was the smallest budgeted product I've ever been a part of by a lot. So, it says a lot about Brian and Rich and really the whole crew, which was really small as well. I think there was a 12-person crew. I'm used to being on films where there's 150 people standing at craft service. I was craft service and the lead actor [on this]. But it was one of those things where it shows that they did an amazing job for using the resources that they had, and we were in a million different locations and that costs money. So, the fact that we could do that and make this film, I'm so proud of it even more than if it were a bigger budget because I know what we did. I know how hard we all worked and the passion we all brought to it and I think that shows in the finished product for sure.
It's honestly, of everything I've done, obviously Malcolm [in the Middle] was amazing being a part of that, but this is the most proud of a film or anything I've ever been a part of just because of how hard we worked. And it's just different for me, too, as an actor. It's something completely different. I don't think people expect it and I like that. I actually hope people go into it going like, "Oh, we're going to see Malcolm," but they will not feel that once they actually tune in and watch it. So, I think that's pretty cool.
Yeah. It's a total 180 and that's really cool because it is a passion project and it's a totally different role for you. You've definitely showed range in the past, but you really get to go to some places with the whole arc that Jonathan has. And it's interesting, too, that Brian and Richard, they're both military veterans, and you could interpret Jonathan's arc as a reflection of how people with PTSD are treated. Jonathan reflects a lot of different things for a lot of different people.
Frankie Muniz: Yeah, for sure. And one thing I like about the movie is you really can have your own interpretation. We've now screened it at a bunch of film festivals and I love talking to the people who saw the movie after because they bring up a completely different thought process of homeless Mike [Gary Sievers], or me, or the character, and I love that. And there's no right or wrong way to believe it. So, I think that's a cool factor of the movie, too, is you can really have your own opinion of what happened or what didn't happen and all that. And there's no specific way that we're trying to make you think, which is kind of cool.
Oh yeah, definitely, and your character goes through the wringer in this. It's not an easy role to play from a physical standpoint in addition to a mental standpoint, and you're getting knocked around and you're going through all these down-on-your-luck scenes. Since it's so physical, I was curious, did you film Dancing with the Stars before or after this?
Frankie Muniz: We filmed the movie the year before Dancing with the Stars. We filmed it in October or November of 2016. And to be honest, yeah, it was really physical. I was always exhausted. I was either running or getting beat up or fighting or getting held down, which until you do it, man, that's exhausting. It takes it out of you. But I don't know, I'm one of those people when we were filming a scene, like the scene at the gas station where I go up to the guy from the beginning of the movie at the convenience store, and I ask him for money, and he starts fighting with me? I actually got hurt filming that scene, but I don't care. I was like, "I want to do it." I want it to seem real." There's that passion when you're the character. Maybe that's bad for me as an actor that I commit 100% to the physical things, but I don't know. You got to do what you go to do.
Yeah, even if it's pulling a black string out of your arm.
Exactly and they actually stuck that in my arm. I actually got the scar. I'm kidding. I told you I'm committed.
Did you have a lifecast for the scenes where you were self-mutilating a little bit?
Frankie Muniz: Yeah, yeah. Without making it be even more kind ... I don't know if the word's "gory," but it's kind of twingy when you watch that, right? Like, "Ew." But we filmed a lot and I think it plays both ways. It plays like I'm pulling this thing out because I have to... or am I just cutting myself? Am I just in my head? Because I'm sticking this dagger in my arm. It's crazy, but he believes it and you've got to get it out. You've got to do what you've got to do.
That's the beauty and the horror of it. Before I let you go, do you have anything else coming up that you can talk about? Do you want to do more stories in the horror genre?
Frankie Muniz: I would love it. I've done a few dramatic roles, but my favorite roles I ever played are the dramatic roles I played. It's weird because I think most people think of me more for comedy. I don't find myself funny. This is my favorite role I've ever played and I'm the most proud of my performance, which I never say as an actor. I'm usually really hard on myself, but I'm really happy with how it turned out. And my second favorite role I ever played I was on an episode of Criminal Minds from 2007. And it was really dark and kind of dramatic and I loved that as well. So, I'd love to do more of this type of thing. I hope that maybe people see this movie and they think of me differently as an actor. They can see me in more serious roles like this as well.
Otherwise, what am I doing right now? I own an olive oil store [Outrageous Olive Oils & Vinegars] with my fiancée in south Arizona and that's what I do all day. I jump around all over the place.
And you watch [Larry] Fitzgerald haul in touchdowns and life is good.
Frankie Muniz: Yes, exactly. Usually on Sundays while I'm filling bottles of oil and vinegar.