Interview: Cabin in the Woods Actor Jesse Williams


[From Mar. 8 to 17, Flixist will bring you live coverage from deep in the heart of Texas at South by Southwest Film 2012. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]

Looking at the images of Cabin in the Woods, you may mistakenly think Jesse Williams’ Holden is the athletic, brave lead. He is and he isn’t. Like all the main characters of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s mind-bending horror-adventure, he is a complicated character who has a surface level stereotype (the brainy one) and a lot more going on below.

Following Cabin‘s premiere at SXSW, I sat down with Williams to discuss the intricacies of his character and what it would be like to be raped by a tree.

[Editor’s Note: Some responses have been edited or removed to avoid major spoilers. There are still very minor spoilers, but we do not believe they will ruin any part of the movie.]

You and Chris Hemsworth are both jocks and nerds in this film. You have the witty lines and clever plans, but you also kick some ass. Was that part of the appeal to you?

What appealed to me was having a bookish awkward weirdness but bringing a humanity to this guy. But he’s also new to the group, while the others have established relationships and are long time friends. Holden is just thrown into the mix last minute. Curt is trying to set him up [with the girl]; he’s kind of awkward — it’s just a square peg in a round hole kind of thing. So that was an interesting vantage point to approach the adventure with. I think it was by design to give a another outlook on these relationships as we watch them possibly be deconstructed. So as we change as individuals and those relationships do to,  how do we analyze that? So I think Holden had a really interesting vantage point there and that’s what originally attracted me to the role.

The film is really hard to discuss without getting into spoilers. How was it originally pitched to you?

Very mysteriously. It was shrouded for sure. We were told form the beginning it’s a horror film but it’s more than that — very much like how we are marketing it. Less is more would be the description. Our auditions were fake. The material we were reading totally wouldn’t be in the film at all but you could still see the elements of it, that it was going to be a genre-bender. You could see whatever angle you try to view it it’s not straight comedy. It’s not straight horror but it’s totally legit. There is no shortage of creativity in these guys voices! I’ve seen Cloverfield, I’ve seen Lost. I know Joss and his status in the community. So you know these guys are going to swing for the fences. So it’s really a matter of do you respond to the cadence and atmosphere of the atmosphere they are painting?

Joss has such an odd ball sense of humor in this film. Was it difficult to tell which lines should be read for laughs or be delivered a bit more seriously?

Yeah, but I’m not sure if that’s a testament to the written word or the circumstances at the given time.  This is a movie that gives you a lot of room for playback, for rewind-value. Not only aesthetically for the monsters and the crazy stuff. I was talking about this with Drew the other day — I can say this without giving anything away — there is an angry molesting tree in this movie. There is a tree that actually grabs someone and gently molests them and kills them. You know, it’s with love! Stuff like that … you want to be original. You want to be in this ballpark. Other horror films are so derivative. So many sequels and remakes. So if they are going to go for it, hey, that’s why we are here! So I’m willing to take risks for that.

The film was shot and shelved in 2009. How did it personally effect you to not know if it ever would reach theaters?

It was tough at first because you want your stuff to come out, but it honestly didn’t concern me. For one thing, I didn’t think it would ever stay on the shelf. It’s too different. “Oh, it’s another rom-com. We can just get Sandra Bullock and make another.” It’s not like it’s too much like something else. I knew that the moment I read for the audition. This isn’t like anything! It’s just not! After working so hard on it, we all wanted it to come out. Our work is our calling card; it’s how we get our next job. I was fortunate enough to book another job soon after so I was less stressed about it but its something I’m so proud of. I just want people to see it. You feel like you have one-hand tied behind your back. “I really want you guys to see it, but I can’t tell you a word about it!”

This is a great movie but if you tell someone anything about it it kind of spoils it. Do you think that’s a problem?

Yeah, I think it’s unique and kind of a throwback in that way. I’m pleased to see that press aren’t spoiling it. We aren’t saying that from a selfish perspective. “Don’t ruin my marketing plan!” We are saying, “Don’t ruin it for yourself!” We want people to see the film unfold the way it was designed. You don’t need to see seven trailers, a teaser, a behind the scenes and two spoilers. That shit is lame! In the ‘60s you’d just go to the movie. You let the movie contain the story. Now you go to Fandango and it tells you what’s in the movie. “It’s a tear jerker and she loses her arms!”

And at the same time the bar is moving. “It’s not a spoiler if I tell you something that happened in the first 20 minutes” Yes, it is! Somebody busts their ass to write that and rewrite it. Those first 20 pages count!

There is a scene early on where you remove a painting, revealing a one-way window into the girl’s room next door. When you put the painting back, a lot of people in the audience groaned. Would you of told her, too?

I wondered the same thing. I waited a couple seconds and then was like, “Oh, I just noticed!” You can be a dirtbag about it and no one would be the wiser. But you learn about your characters through moments of struggle and conflict. Not moments of joy but really tough moments (this isn’t a really tough moment). I think the point was to demonstrate him being honorable. He has a conscience. And then hell ensues. It’s one of those little ways to show who they are first before the real elements of the film start. It shows itself throughout because it makes me think of what’s the point of being a good guy. What is the value of being a good guy? All you have is your character and honor, but you still think, “It wouldn’t of mattered. You could still have seen her naked!” Everything else would have played out the same. He’s acting nice and sweet but he could be a dirtbag. I think that was definitely by design.