A brilliant scientist, Quint ( Henry Ian Cusick) knows that his children have a genetic disease that will eventually claim their lives. Quint also knows that he can save his children, but to do so, he must freeze them in cryptobiosis, test organs from clones, research the immortal Turritopsis jellyfish, and avoid being terminated by Masterson (Kathleen Quinlan), his former boss and deadly dealer of dark science. It's a tough line to walk and a fascinating trajectory to follow in Chimera Strain, the first feature film from Maurice Haeems. With Chimera Strain out now from Vertical Entertainment, Daily Dead had the great pleasure of chatting with Ian about portraying Quint's slipping sanity, reuniting with Quinlan (with whom he had worked on his first North American film), and the parallels between Quint and Ian's beloved character Desmond from Lost.
This was a really intense on so many levels. I really enjoyed it because it was so haunting, but yet it also makes you think so much, too. As a viewer, it was really intense that in that first scene, you're literally cutting your finger off. As an actor coming into this project, what was your reaction when you opened the script and page one, your character is cutting his finger off? That's a pretty memorable way to open a movie.
Henry Ian Cusick: Yes. My recollection is that's not the way the movie opens. That was way at the end. This movie has gone through so many permutations. I think we started shooting this in 2015 and it was pushed back because of the weather. The location where we were shooting was kind of an old, defused, chemical-type plant.
So, the original opening was me wandering through this chemical plant and doing some sort of a liquid experiment and there was a sort of a dolly track of me, and then there were these huge sort of tubs that you went into, that you weren't allowed to go into because it was just so dangerous, but yeah, I pretended to go into them. That was the opening. The cutting of the finger was towards the end when I eventually was trying to prove that I was Chimera. Maurice has been working at it for a long time, so he's got different versions of it.
And this is Maurice's first film, so his learning curve was huge. And he did a great job. It's always interesting working with first-time directors. It's not the first time I've done it, but it's almost wonderful to watch them get things really quickly and Maurice is extremely intelligent. He's had a few successes in the engineering world and he had his own company. And at the age of—I don't know how old he is really, but I would say middle-age—he decided to write, produce, direct, and edit his own films. I think that was his 50th birthday present to himself. Take a screenwriting course and make a film. So he's quite an impressive man.
That's amazing, because I think one of the cool things about the movie is that it is so scientific and technological, and hearing you say that, I can totally see how Maurice took that angle with the story to really ground it in reality. Because you've played a lot of scientist characters and doctors over your career, and it's an endlessly fascinating role to play, because there's so much stuff that's interesting about science, but was that kind of the draw for you for this movie, is that there's just so many different layers to the science of it and how Maurice really honed in on a plausible, scientific angle?
Henry Ian Cusick: Yes, there were many, but one of the things that drew me was Maurice's innate knowledge of biology. He actually studied when he was writing this. I think the story goes, that he had somebody he knew, a child who was dying, and he decided to study what the disease was. So, when talking about all the science, he's very knowledgeable, but makes it very easy to understand. One of the things that kind of drew me to this was that he said all the science is sound, in theory. These Turritopsis jellyfish do exist. You can't see them with the naked eye, but they do, they grow, they regress, and they grow again. So they are immortal, unless they're eaten by a shark, but by and large, they can keep doing this for the rest of their lives, so they are immortal. That in itself, I thought, "This is real?" And he said, "Yeah."
And I thought, "Oh my gosh," I was kind of interested in that, because I'd never heard of that before. That excited me. And then when he said that the science is sound, I thought, "Okay, I take your word for that." Just because the way that he explained it was so interesting, and also, very easy to follow. So I thought it was a really interesting script of course, that science is grounded and also then you have the emotional [aspects]. A father trying to save his kids, are they still alive, are they not? And also the search for immortality. That line, "If God wanted us to be mortal, he would have given us less curious minds," the idea is that we are always going to be in search to live longer, live healthier, and the idea that we eventually will become the gods. I love all that stuff.
It's so technological, but at the same time, there are these great dialogues that you get to dig into as an actor. I know you have a theater background, and in this film you have these monologues where you're talking to your dead wife, but in actuality you're by yourself, so it's almost like you're doing these Shakespearean soliloquies and it's really interesting. Did your theater background come into play at all on this movie?
Henry Ian Cusick: It wasn't strictly dialogue heavy. There were a lot of scenes where I was just looking through a microscope or drinking coffee or taking a pill, but I knew what I was supposed to be doing or thinking at any given moment. The scenes with my dead wife, yeah, they were kind of cool that we kind of figured out that sometimes she was there, sometimes she wasn't there, and I thought they did a good job with that because Maurice said, "Just try pretending to fight with her as if she's there," and then I did, and then I get caught by my son, fighting with no one. I wasn't sure how this would work, but that's the thing about indie filmmaking. You trust your editor and director and you think, "Well, they're obviously gonna make things look as good as they can," so you just give it over to them.
And my theater background helps me in everything I do. I would highly recommend any young actor to just try some theater, because it does help you with preparation. If you have a whole script, you can plot your line, your linear graph, where you are at any given point. It doesn't really work so well on TV because you never know what's gonna happen next. Lost is a good example, where you were just playing scene by scene and trusting your writers, but with a play or a film, when you know the ending, you think you can really chart your journey.
Yeah. It's interesting you mention Lost because I kept thinking that Quint has some Desmond in him, because he's got his day-to-day routine and he's kind of isolated. It's almost like you're in the hatch again. I know it's probably coincidental, but it was very interesting to think that he's driven by this sole purpose in his life, in this moment in time, and it was neat parallel for fans of your work.
Henry Ian Cusick: Yeah, I can see what you mean by that. He was completely isolated. I guess Desmond's sole objective was to push that button every 108 minutes. In this one, [Quint] has a little bit more to do, a little bit more to keep his mind active. If you think about it, if all you have to do is push a button every 108 minutes, what do you do in between those? How long do you have to do anything? That's not a long time to go to do something else. You're always, "Ah, I've got to go and push the button now." You can't really wander very far. You're a slave to that button.
As much as you are isolated in this movie, you're working with some great actors in this film, too. Oscar nominee Kathleen Quinlan is really, really fun and very menacing as Masterson, and you have some intense scenes together. What was it like working with Kathleen and also Erika [Ervin], who was great in this, too, as Masterson's right-hand woman?
Henry Ian Cusick: So, I know Kathleen from the first job I ever had in North America, which was a Lifetime movie called Perfect Romance and my love interest was Kathleen Quinlan. In the story I'm e-mailing the daughter, but Kathleen was the mother responding on the e-mails. And then I come to meet the daughter and she has no idea who I am, and I fall in love with Kathleen and it's a romantic story, and we get together.
So that was the first time I met her and she was delightful—lovely, lovely, lovely. So, when they were looking for an actress for this role, I mentioned Kathleen Quinlan to Maurice and said, "She's great." And she turned up and she gave a performance that kind of surprised me, because she went big with it, and it needed it because my performance was so small and in my head and not particularly big, but we really needed her. I thought she was terrific and it worked really well.
With Erika, I had never met her before, but she was delightful. She can be menacing, but she's super friendly and very talented and very committed to the whole project. It was great when you have people coming in. We started for a month, I think they turned up for like two weeks, and as I keep saying, in indie filmmaking, this is not luxurious, you are, it's really rock and ready. We didn't have trailers, we had little rooms we'd go into, it's not glamorous at all.
In addition to this film, is there anything else that you have coming up? I know you're also on The Passage, which just had its season finale. But is there anything in addition to Chimera Strain that you wanted to mention to our readers?
Henry Ian Cusick: So, what else do I have coming out? I've got Chimera Strain, The Passage, I've just—well, I haven't signed the deal yet, so I'm not gonna say, but there's something really cool, a role that's coming up that I've never played before. So, you're right, I've played a lot of scientists, a lot of sort of troubled, turmoiled men, but ultimately with a good heart. This is gonna be very different for me, I'm very excited to do it. So that's all I'm gonna say.
So, not a character that's pushing a button every 108 minutes?
Henry Ian Cusick: [Laughs] No, absolutely not. I don't think that'll ever happen again. That was a one-off.
Well it was a great one-off, and Chimera Strain is awesome, too. It's going to haunt me for a while.
Henry Ian Cusick: It stays with you, right? It really does, you kind of walk away and you go, "Huh." It's an intelligent sci-fi film and I love intelligent sci-fi where it stays with you and makes you think, "What did happen?" And you're trying to figure it out as you head home. So anyways, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it, thank you very much.