In addition to taking part in the Plan 9 From Outer Space live stage reading at Sleepy Hollow International Film Festival, Jeffrey Combs is also bringing a literary legend to life on stage with his one-man show, Nevermore: An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. Ahead of his latest live performance as Poe at Sleepy Hollow International Film Festival tonight at the Tarrytown Music Hall, Daily Dead caught up with Combs (who can also be seen in the upcoming horror anthology film Holiday Hell) to discuss playing Poe for more than a decade, the genius of Poe's written works, the tragic real-life story of the Master of the Macabre, and he also discussed reteaming with Greg Nicotero for Shudder's new Creepshow series
You'll be doing your one-man show in Tarrytown, near where Washington Irving was inspired for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," which seems perfect. Where did your fascination with Edgar Allan Poe begin? Did you read Poe growing up or was it something that you came to later in life?
Jeffrey Combs: Well, all of us in America at least, are introduced to Poe at some point in our education. Sometimes it's junior high, sometimes high school. For me, that was ninth grade. We didn't spend a lot of time on it, but what I remember was how accessible and clear and vivid of a writer he was. You kind of struggle through a lot of the required reading, but you just swallow whole Poe because it's just so clear. And that's the sign of a great writer. So I would say the penny was dropped there, but I didn't really remain completely fascinated with Poe until really much later.
I was reading biographies of historical figures, trying to find some kind of a character or a historical character that I could portray, quite honestly, out of a desire to find something that would maybe open up people's perception of me, not just being sort of, "Oh, he's the genre guy." And what happened is I reluctantly read a Poe biography and I quickly realized what a fascinating psychological study he is. From an actor's point of view, he's just really got it all. There's comedy, there's tragedy, there's very high intellect and contradictions, and you cannot place him in a category. He's just a true Renaissance man with a pen.
And so I said to Stuart Gordon, "Why hasn't anybody made a movie of that?" Maybe a year, year or so later he approached me to do "The Black Cat" episode of Masters of Horror. He had actually listened to me a little bit and gone off and created a project that sort of was a step in the direction like that. And then when we were shooting that, he said, "You ought to do a one-man show." That was not something I wanted to hear or do. I'm pretty lazy and that sounded like a lot of work.
To be blunt [laughs].
Jeffrey Combs: I'm not that lazy, but that's a mountain to climb to put together a one-man show. But fortunately, Dennis Paoli, who is Stuart's go-to writer, is a gothic literature professor. So, he started finding quotes and all of the connective tissue in between the pieces that we chose and the next thing they know, we have a little play, and found a theater and initially did a four-week run that turned into years and touring. It's been all over the country and Canada doing it, and now Sleepy Hollow.
That's amazing, the legs that this has had. You've been doing it for as long as a decade now. Is it the same version that you started with, or have you made little changes along the way?
Jeffrey Combs: I am always finding new stuff. I'm always reassessing. I am very wary of making wholesale changes like, "I'm not going to do that poem. I'm doing to do this one instead." Simply because the structure that we came up with just hit it out of the park right away. It was like, "Okay, you don't want to mess with that."
But some of the dovetailing, some of the little bits and pieces, some may work better than others, or out of the performance, I discover a better way to do something. A clearer way to do it. I'm always fine tuning, but the spine is intact as it's always been. There is an aspect of my show that's somewhat interactive. Some enthusiastic members of the audience will say things, at least at the beginning. And I always felt that since we are creating an imaginary recital here, Poe would have to respond to this in some fashion or other. So it's a fluid thing, a little bit fluid.
Interesting. I've seen highlights from the show and you blend this kind of dark humor that Poe has, but then of course there's this other tragic side of him. There's the alcoholism. There's all these horrible things that happened to him in his life. Is that difficult to weave in and out of?
Jeffrey Combs: Yeah, well, you know it is like all theater pieces or art pieces, they're holding a mirror up to life. Poe may have had more of it, but we all have heartbreak and heartache and loss and disappointment and frustration in our lives. That's really kind of a way for us to examine ourselves by examining Poe. We all deal with things with humor sometimes. And sometimes the humor just doesn't quite cut it. That's one of the things that really drew me to this piece, was its perseverance in the face of so much disappointment in life.
I knew right out of the gate, he'd lost his mother. He was raised in a family that maybe viewed him more as a pet than as an actual child in a way. A fairly well-to-do family in Richmond couldn't have children and so, "Oh this little boy. We'll adopt him." And then the stepfather was just doing it because his wife wants to, and then she dies, and then Poe is sort of the outsider. Always on the edge. Always not fitting.
We all know that to one degree or another. Poe put a pen to paper and wrote about it. "I don't fit in" is basically the theme of one of these early poems "Alone." I don't see it the way other people do. I just don't. Artistic temperament, I would say. But in spite of all of that, he was voluminous in his writing. He was a genius. And it just shows you again, Shakespeare came out of nowhere in Stratford, and Poe comes out of Richmond, Virginia. It just shows you that genius can uproot, come out of anywhere, anytime.
And now we regard him so highly as a literary giant, but at the time of his death, he was broke, he was–
Jeffrey Combs: Penniless. Pauper's grave. He's buried in a pit back there with people that don't have any money. It was only years later that they moved him with a big monument out in front in Baltimore. There's the second grave in the back where it's like, "Oh, this is where he was first buried."
Wow. And then his death, too, is kind of shrouded in mystery, where people have all these different theories.
Jeffrey Combs: Yeah. When you don't have clear-cut answers, that's when the conspiracy theorists jump in and start fantasizing and creating connections that maybe aren't really even there. Let's just say his lifestyle caught up with him, or maybe a bad choice caught up with them. There's all kinds of different theories. It could be a combination of some foul play, some combination that caused him to just kind of get in with the wrong people or drink the wrong drink or just have some kind of an episode that caused him to slowly pass away over a few days. You know, he was found with somebody else's clothes on.
Yeah, that's so bizarre.
Jeffrey Combs: Well, one of the theories is that there was corruption in voting in those days, and they would pick up people that were drunk during election times and then they would get them drinking, sometimes with questionable alcohol that might be poisonous. And then they would travel them from polling place to polling place, changing clothes in between and vote the way they wanted you to vote. "Okay, now we're going to go over there. You put his jacket on and you put his jacket on." And so maybe something like that happened.
And then another story is that he actually left Baltimore. He went to catch the ferry, but the river was high because of rain, and so he couldn't catch the ferry. So he had to take the train back to Baltimore and they think maybe a couple of guys rolled him.
If you had the chance, is there another historical figure that you'd want to do in a one-man show if you got the opportunity?
Jeffrey Combs: I'm just going to laugh because what I realized here with this is the massive amount of work that's on your shoulders. I don't mind the work, but it's lonely work. I'm all alone. The camaraderie of being in a play with other actors is part of the joy of it. You know, "Let's work that. Can we run lines? How'd you think that went?" There's none of that, so it's a very sort of isolated experience.
Your only other character that you interact with is the audience. But then that's gone, and then it's like, "Okay." So I'm not sure that I would want to do that, especially since this one is such a pure little jewel. And the words, it's all about the words. It's all Poe. So I don't know who else would do at this point.
It's hard to top Poe. That's really a mic drop of all mic drops. Before I let you go on, in addition to Nevermore coming to tthe Sleepy Hollow International Film Festival, is there anything else coming up that you can talk about? One thing in particular I'm really excited to see you in is Greg Nicotero's new Creepshow series, which I know he got you involved with.
Jeffrey Combs: Well, I've known Greg since Bride of Re-Animator back in the early ’90s. I'm just so thrilled that Greg has risen in stature to where he's at. I remember on set watching them and going, "Man, way to go, Greg. Look at you." He's got all the skill set there. And I had a great time doing it. I was thrilled when they asked me.
It started with a text from Greg, going, "Would you be interested in doing an episode of Creepshow?" And it was kind of out of nowhere. But I've known Greg and so I was in. I was in on that. My particular segment is a World War II story, and I kind of like that genre. So I just had a great time doing it. They treated me well and it was really enjoyable, and I think that series is going to really, really make an impression. I hope so, anyway. I loved the way it was shot. There were some really nice artistic choices, and they firmly believe in physical special effects.
To learn more about Sleepy Hollow International Film Festival and Nevermore: An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, visit: