The Toronto After Dark Film Festival is a ten-day fest that brings genre festival darlings to The Big Smoke. This year’s docket included The Assent, a slight twist on the demon genre wherein a father battling schizophrenia fights to protect his son, whom he suspects is either suffering from his disease, or is possessed by a demon. Struggling to maintain his grasp on reality, Joel does whatever he can to spare his son from demons, be they literal or figurative. I got to chat with lead actor and producer, Robert Kazinsky, about his work on this film along with some of his greatest horror and sci-fi hits and comic book aspirations.
Tell me about your experience making The Assent.
Robert Kazinsky: I’d never done a horror before. At this stage of my career, I’m really trying to push on. Last year, I did my first comedy, which was a real adventure. This is my first horror and it’s a genre I have always tried to tend to stay away from because I don’t find movies scary. That’s my own personal thing. I think it’s just a problem with being in the industry, when something happens that’s gory, you’re just like, “Oh, good squib,” or, “Good effect.” And then you look up who did the effect and you’re like, “Oh them, I know them,” and then you are always trying to work out how to do it. When you have an understanding of structure and how things work, you’re like, “Here comes the red herring.” But over the past few years, it's been an influx of really great horror for me with things like Hereditary, which I think is not just great horror, I think that stands with anything. Toni Collette should have won an Oscar for her performance. Then you’ve got The Haunting of Hill House, which is such a different way of doing things. The sixth episode is, I think, one of the greatest episodes of television ever constructed.
So, this film came along and I had the opportunity to come on and be a producer and put my input in and we had the chance at making something that might be original—an original take on an old idea. Pearry [Reginald Teo] is such an engaging director with strong ideas that I felt that he might be able to pull something off here that could genuinely be scary.
Being a producer, you probably knew everything that was going on, but as an actor playing this role where there's a bit of a duality and unclear motivations, how did you approach that and how did you play the earlier scenes versus the later ones?
Robert Kazinsky: I play somebody who is schizophrenic. I grew up with somebody who was schizophrenic. I don’t want to talk too much about him, but the things that I witnessed, the behaviors that I would see were someone struggling to maintain reality, the reality that they know is true despite the fact that all of their senses are telling them it isn’t. My friend would believe the most awful things, and at some point, those things become the reality and the reality just wouldn’t exist anymore. He would believe things that were so absurd to me, but with absolute conviction. And you know, I have quite a lot of experience with a loved one struggling with mental health in my life and there's a lot of different mechanisms that go into managing your behaviors from medications to CBT, therapy. There’s a lot of different stuff and I wanted to put all of that in there.
I personally suffer from panic attacks. They’re really awful things. So we were trying to bring all of these elements into Joel. Here’s somebody who has something to stay on the true path for, he has his son, Mason, and he is trying to make sure his schizophrenia isn’t going to take his son away from him, being an only parent. As reality begins to shift for him, panic starts to come in, terror starts to come in, and he ends up battling with reason against observation and he ends up in this existence where he doesn’t know what’s true. He’s just trying to find a tether, which is the operative action for the actor.
I felt that, in the film, in the end, I wasn’t sure what was real or not.
Robert Kazinsky: Honestly, I don’t know, either. It’s one of those things that I’ve actually learned about film over the years, that sometimes you don’t have to give an answer. The one that really vexed me as a kid was Total Recall. Was it a dream or was it not a dream? And it wasn’t till I was much older that I realized that even the writer might have been like, “I don’t know.” There is no answer to that.
I think that’s really effective, which is why I tend to lament sequels that answer questions I didn’t want answered, but that’s a whole other discussion.
Robert Kazinsky: Yeah, exactly.
I'm switching gears a bit. Just briefly on my background, I write a lot about Jews and horror and Jewish horror, so tell me what it was like being a Jewish person playing on Catholic lore.
Robert Kazinsky: That is an unexpected question.
You don't have to have an answer to it. I figured I would throw it out!
Robert Kazinsky: You know, I'm raised Jewish, I am bar mitzvah’d, but I am a scientist. I don’t believe in religion; I think religion is a curse on the world. I think every religion is a curse on the world, let me rephrase that. I identify with the heritage and my people, and the community and I'm very, very, very proud of being a Jewish person. It’s one of my major things in life, all my life I have wanted to be the tough Jew, the Bear Jew. When you think of Jews, you tend to think of Woody Allen, but you know what, there’s also me; an MMA fighting 200-something pound guy. I always wanted to show that there’s Paul Newman and there’s me.
When you’re dealing with an exorcism, a demonic force, something like that, we don’t know whether it’s real or not in this movie. We don’t know if the father is actually a con man or whether he’s also ill or any of these solutions, we don’t know if it’s real or not. But even if they were real, let’s say that hell is real, Satan is real and demons possess people, religion has no bearing on that. Dealing with a Catholic exorcism is no different than how any other religion would deal with it, our film just happens to be a Catholic guy who did a Catholic exorcism.
I have to ask about Pacific Rim and I'm going to use the excuse that it’s horror adjacent. Tell me about working with a horror master like Guillermo del Toro.
Robert Kazinsky: Now that was an experience. That was my first proper movie and GDT, he is one of the greatest humans I’ve ever met in my life. He really is. He is so interesting, he has this incredible passion for monsters and he has done almost every kind of monster, and on Pacific Rim he wanted to do big monsters.
I was the most excitable person on the face of this planet because here is this little kid from nowhere, 26 years old and he's got a lead role in this ginormous Hollywood movie. So every day I'm excited and I am running around giddy all the time. And the only person more excited than me is GDT. Every single day. And you would have discussions with him like, “What if the monster did this?” And he would be like, “YA!” and he would take it even further and further. He has this sketchbook which he carries with him on every movie, which is basically how he draws shot to shot in this sketchbook, and it was the most fantastical thing you could possibly imagine. He is just infectiously smart, and he’s not in this industry for money, he’s in it because he loves it.
There were a lot of practical effects on that movie. It seems like a lot of actors tend to prefer acting alongside practical effects. It seems like you did the same for The Assent. Do you prefer practical and how was that on both of those films?
Robert Kazinsky: Do you like running or swimming? They’re different things entirely.
On Warcraft, for example, where I was motion capture, and you're in a volume and you don’t even look like your character per se, and you're carrying a stick instead of a sword, and there's a lot of different elements to it, everybody allows you to play with your imagination. And that is a tool, as actors, that we tend to rely less and less on as we get more experienced. We tend to sit there and say, “Why can’t we have the thing or this, that, and the other to play off?” Doing Warcraft allows you to really embrace your imagination the way we did as children in a really committed manner to create those worlds in your mind to really understand your part in the picture is in that mind, and it amplifies whatever is in the director’s mind as well and gives you a grander picture and a clearer picture on that. But then at the same time, it is lovely to have those things there to play off because it creates a more physical reality for you to work with. I think I am very lucky that in my career, I have had the opportunity to exercise both of those muscles. I have no preference either way, my job is to do the best I can do using the tools at my disposal. I always enjoy watching practical effects because actors are the least talented things on every set. It is the crew that really have the talent, the designers, the prop makers, and to see those things come off, it’s exceptional and really makes you proud to be the smallest cog in the big machine.
Yeah, quite literally inside a Jaeger.
Robert Kazinsky: Yeah.
*I cringed, dear reader*
Your character in The Assent, there’s a lot of duality there, similar to the character you played in True Blood. Talk to me about playing characters with dual sides to their personalities.
Robert Kazinsky: You remember when you were a kid and you got caught eating chocolate and your mom would come in or your dad would come in and be like, “You were eating chocolate,” and you’d be like, “No, I haven’t,” but you had chocolate all over your face? And then they would point it out, and put you in front of a mirror to show you the chocolate all over your face, but you were so stupid and so proud and so embarrassed about being called out that you would say, “No, no, no, no, I didn’t,” and you would swear to it? That’s what these guys are like.
When you’re playing a character like Warlow or something like that, you don’t play the lie, you play the truth. You aren’t sitting there going, “Muahahaha” with a pinky to the mouth. You’re playing the absolute honesty of being him. When you’re playing a character like Joel, his reality is his truth for every single second, whether it is the reality as we perceive it or not. So you just always play the truth. It’s like playing a bad guy. Bad guys never think they’re the bad guy unless you’re playing an actual psychopath. No one ever thinks they’re the bad guy. They’re the good guy in their story.
Speaking of good guys and bad guys, I know you’re a DC Comics fan. If you could jump into any role not currently in the canon, who would you want to play?
Robert Kazinsky: I mean, look, when the time comes, there are very few people who look more like Guy Gardner than I look like Guy Gardner. It’s like he was drawn and then I was born and I am Guy Gardner.
They willed you into existence.
Robert Kazinsky: They willed me into existence and I’d love to be Guy Gardner. But, staying on the Jewish thing, Moon Knight is the one that I would really want because Moon Knight is a brilliant character and he’s a Jew and he’s an ex-Marine and I fit into the Moon Knight shape so well. However, there is not a chance that I am going to become Moon Knight, so, that would have been the dream. Not many roles come up that ask specifically for Jews and in this day and age, you really have to cast what’s written, but there’s probably a list of people way better suited for Moon Knight than me.
I don’t know, we'll see. I'll support your campaign for it.
Robert Kazinsky: I appreciate it.
I want to talk about True Blood a bit. I know it's a little bit more fantasy than it is horror, but did you enjoy kind of playing this fanged character?
Robert Kazinsky: Oh, I’ve still got my fangs. Every Halloween, I bust them out. Those fangs, you have no idea the expertise that went into making those things. They are flawless. I guarantee you, every member of the main cast still has their fangs. I bet Anna [Paquin] still has her fangs. It is one of those things, that if you manage to get away and they give them to you, you know they liked you. Playing any kind of monster, it’s just so camp and funny and extreme. You’re playing an orc in Warcraft with such extreme physical behavior, playing something that is 800 pounds and 8 feet tall, it’s a very different physicality. Playing Warlow was so camp and so silly and so wild and with such a supportive group of people, it was one of the more fun things I’ve done.
You don’t have to answer this, but it’s what the people want: talk to me about shooting the shaving scene with Jason.
Robert Kazinsky: [Laughs] What do you want to know?
Tell me everything.
Robert Kazinsky: It was lovely. It’s one of those things, and I’ve talked about it before, so I am just going to be repeating a bit, but it’s one of those things where, every time I’ve had to do a sex scene, it’s a very technical thing and your priority is always your partner. When it is written in a scene that I have to kiss my partner, I will always say, “I know it’s written in the script and we don’t really have a choice, but can I still have permission? Do I have permission to kiss you?” And they’ll always say yes because we are stuck, we have to do it, but it’s just showing that respect and making sure they’re comfortable, making sure the angles always work and that they are always feeling like there is no reality to this, it’s just a technical exercise we have to go through to make this scene look like what it looks like. That’s really important to me. I’ve been a big women’s rights activist all my life and consent and comfort, and the pressure in the world women, specifically, are under in this industry, to preform, “Ya, take your top off, that’s what you do,” you want people to be comfortable at all times.
So, when I’m doing this scene with Ryan [Kwanten] who’s like, I want to point out that I was in good shape then, but Ryan Kwanten is in a different league than any human on this planet. That guy has like a Tyler Durden Fight Club body. It’s nuts. And we’re both sitting there topless and he is the one making sure I’m comfortable. He’s like, “Are you okay, man? Are we gonna be good with this?” This thing was written a bit more graphically that what ended up on screen, which I think people would have preferred to see. But it was a hell of a fun thing to do. That was the second time I have had a homoerotic professional experience; the first time was in theater where I kissed a guy for the very first time. Right now, I am shooting a movie and it is a very gay film and I get to be very gay in it. It is a really different experience and actually one that, thanks to Ryan and my old buddy, Will, I am very comfortable playing these days.
I hope your experience with horror was good. Are we going to see you in more horror films?
Robert Kazinsky: I'll do anything that's good.
What’s your favorite scary movie?
Robert Kazinsky: Hereditary. It’s just a brilliant film. It's a tough one because there's a lot. It's a hard one because there's classics, right? There's like really classic horror, which changes the face of horror every time it comes out, like Hellraiser or the The Exorcist. The ones that have actually got me, there are two horror movies I can think of that ever actually got me and one is The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I watched it at like 1:00am and then it finished at like 2:30 and I was just staring at the clock waiting for 3:03. That one got in my mind. The Ring didn’t get in my mind, I love that movie, but The Exorcism of Emily Rose got in my mind and Hereditary messed me up. For like a week after, I was just not at my best.
The next day after I saw it, I saw it in theaters, I felt like I had done the hardest workout ever at the gym, I had full-blown muscle pains because I was just that tense for two hours.
Robert Kazinsky: It was just, every time that you… it was just horrifying. Even though you could kind of sense, “Oh, they’re in trouble here,” it was just… that last bit, oh gawd, when she is banging her head on the top of the ceiling, oh my gawd, that image stayed with me a while. It still stays with me.
I walked home after, it was like the scariest five minutes of my life.
Robert Kazinsky: Yeah, that was a good movie. That director, Ari Aster, I think if the rest of his career is as half as good as that movie, from a directorial standpoint alone, he’s going to have a hell of a career. He’s impressive.