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Actor Henry Czerny on High Stakes Games and Therapeutic Carpentry

Over the past 12 months, Henry Czerny has played some pretty terrible fathers. On HBO’s critically acclaimed Sharp Objects, he sat sipping cocktails, his expensive sound system and headphones drowning out the chaos wreaked by his wife and daughters in their small Missouri town.

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In Fox Searchlight’s gleefully wicked new horror Ready Or Not, he goes one step further as patriarch Tony Le Domas, leading his ludicrously rich family on a bloody game of hide and seek.

The ultimate aim? To kill son Alex’s new bride. Unluckily for them, Grace (Samara Weaving, niece of The Matrix star Hugo) is far more resourceful than they anticipated. The film is pitched somewhere between The Most Dangerous Game and You’re Next and even more fun than that sounds.

When he’s not ignoring the murderous activities of one family, or leading those of another, Czerny – who also played the deplorable Conrad Grayson on Revenge – is a charming, thoughtful Canadian actor with a storied resumé and a passion for woodwork.

We caught up on the phone for a chat about deadly dads, rediscovering Henry and the romance and therapy inherent in crafting something by hand.

Ready Or Not is a lot of fun.

Yes, it's a fun romp. I enjoyed it, and I don't say that regularly.

It feels like it was fun to make too.

Absolutely. It's work, of course, but we had a tremendous amount of fun doing it and I was hoping that would come across on screen. It certainly did, in my opinion. Work and play happened simultaneously here, which I hesitate to say.

Don't advertise that too much or they might take a few figures off your salary.

Right! [Laughs] They're not always like that, I should say. I've had my fair share of work as work. But this one was a gift. Samara was just terrific as the lead. And Mark O'Brien, those two as the romantic leads were great. Sometimes, somebody is carrying a film and the pressure's on and their behavior might exemplify that pressure, but Samara was just a treat. And Andie MacDowell was a sweetheart. Everyone was really sweet.

Henry Czerny and cast of Ready or Not
Henry (centre) and family get ready to play some dangerous games. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

I went in to Ready Or Not expecting it to be something more like Get Out, so I had to readjust my expectations. It's definitely a bit more tongue in cheek.

Absolutely. The genre that it's given is a mystery-horror-thriller but I think it bridges across the spectrum of comedy too. I'm not sure you would call it horror but some of it is definitely horrific. I find it as humorous and cheeky as it is horrific.

Do you have a favorite death scene in it?

I'm pretty simplistic so the arrow in the mouth was my favorite.

The mansion where the film is set is pretty stunning. Were you on location for the whole shoot?

It was shot up in Canada at a mansion that was built by one of the co-founders of General Motors in a town called Oshawa, which is just east of Toronto.

Henry Czerny with Adam Brody
Henry goes a-seeking with Adam Brody. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Is filming in your hometown a bit of a draw for you?

Yes, it is. I still have dear friends and family in Toronto, so I have a chance to visit as well as work.

How did this role come up for you?

I have a representative in Canada. I've been with him since 1985. He found this and he didn't really know what to think of it. I read it and I thought it was great tongue-in-cheek stuff. I thought the writing, particularly for this genre, was terrifically complete.

Granted, it's not August: Osage County or Eugene O'Neill, but Guy and Ryan [writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy] did a great job crossing the 't's and dotting the 'i's for those of us who like to plumb around and find out why people do certain things.

One thing I really appreciated – which isn't in the final film – at one point, Tony Le Domas is on a cellular phone call with the butler Stevens. What comes up as the description for Le Domas on Stevens' phone is "Petulant child". That gave me a great insight into how this guy approaches situations.

What was it about Tony that made you want to play him?

I love the idea of people who assumed they're in some sort of control when that's really never the case. This is a very clear example of someone who thinks he's got his cards well placed in his hand but finds out in short order that things are going to go differently. I like exploring that.

Is there a certain gleefulness in how Tony approaches the prospect of bloodletting?

For me, he's so frequently frustrated that the glee diminishes rather quickly for him. At the start, he's thrilled that this is the game they're going to play, rather than parcheesi or Monopoly or what have you.

There's no way Monopoly would be finished before the sun came up.

Not with that many people. Unless someone's cheating.

Are you a fan of horror films in general?

No, not really. If I look closely enough, this world is nothing but wonder and blessings and if I look closely enough in a different direction, it's horrific all over. Life has enough horror for me at times. You just have to look at our political situation here. That's enough of a horror film.

The other thing I wanted to talk to you about is Sharp Objects, which I adored.

Oh great, I'm thrilled. I enjoyed it a great deal myself. It was pretty dark for a lot of people and somewhat confusing, but I'm thrilled that it's out there in the library of film and series.

Your character, Alan, was fascinating in how he just sat on the periphery of all the awfulness that was going on in his home.

I think that's where he found his solace. I think, early on, he might have confronted Adora and the world with what he thought should be going on but I imagine the responses were not what he expected.

I think he's the kind of person who decided to let them play it that way and he'd just play his game, which was music and enjoying what he could, outside of the whirlwind she was involved in. I think he consciously separated himself just enough to be able to maintain his lifestyle and to convince himself that he wasn't a part of the tumultuous part of the family.

Henry Czerny
Alan (Henry, right) stays out of it. Photo: HBO

I spent the entire series assuming Alan had a darker role in everything that was happening with Adora, Camille, and Amma. But I guess, in the end, his darker role is that he does nothing.

Well, that all depends on the viewer. When we started shooting, I only had episodes one to four and they were constantly being rewritten. In the book, Alan is less of an entity than he is in the series.

In the scene where Adora loses it with Camille because she slept in her car overnight and people might have seen, Alan was not written in that scene. I was in costume and done with make-up and I got a call saying they wanted me on set.

Jean-Marc [Vallée, director] put me on a stool, gave me a grapefruit to eat and told me to sit there. It was Jean-Marc's idea to put me there to enhance the discomfort within the family.

That was a tell-tale scene for me because I didn't want to disturb what was happening with those two and I realized that if Alan said anything to anyone, this thing would go down a very violent rabbit hole for everyone. His way of dealing with the arguments was to stay the heck out of them.

With Adora, there's not much you're going to be able to get through to her. She's going to do things the way she's going to do them and if you don't like it there's only one option: get the hell out. He liked his stereo, he liked his house. There's nothing like a terrific set of headphones and some terrific music – his choices were a bit odd – to placate yourself with.

Henry Czerny
Alan (Henry, far left), still staying out of it. Picture: HBO

It's quite appropriate at the moment to address the culpability of the people who stand by and do nothing.

You see, I thought making Alan clearly culpable was a mistake. You're giving people an out who are the Alans in their families, who don't do anything. Once you see Alan being culpable, you release them. "Oh, well I would say something to my wife if she was doing that to our children."

If you didn't have that in there, more people might relate to Alan's choice and adjust what they're doing. It makes for better drama, but it makes it easier for people to step away and disassociate themselves.

Has Alan stuck with you since the show ended?

No. I've been in Alan's shoes. I've been at the dinner table when people have lost their tempers and understood that if I stepped in then it would be just one more series of verbal punches. That wasn't unfamiliar to me. The rest of Alan was left in the show… thankfully.

Are there characters who linger after a show or film ends? Do you ever find yourself getting somewhat attached to someone you've played?

Not really. I don't find an attachment to the characters but they might find an attachment to me. Early on, I played some very disenfranchised characters and there's a sense of resentment within them that life is not as smooth for them as they assume it is for other people. Little do they know, it's not really smooth for anybody.

For me, if I play those to the hilt, my body doesn't know that I'm kidding. There's a kind of toxicity that my body takes on. That lasts for a little bit if I've played one of those for any length of time.

The show Revenge, playing a character like Conrad Grayson for a couple of years kind of gets to you for a little bit. I used to cycle to work so I'd cycle home along the beach after work, removing Conrad from my system before I got home.

Do you have palate cleansers that you use once you're done with a character to remove them and bring Henry back?

That's an interesting question. It's mostly friends and family, spending time with them. Getting away from anything to do with storytelling and getting back with people who have known me for a long time.

Having said that, as I got older, I've sensed that I supposedly put on these characters and then supposedly go back to Henry, who is a non-character. However, I realized that I'm really just reinserting an old program that I call Henry. I think we all do it.

It's interesting to me that I go through the process and do my homework to find out why this guy does this and what's his objective. Once I shed that character and come back to my supposed normalcy, I start to question, "What's my objective? What do I think survival is?"

It all becomes a beautiful mass of subjectivity because it's all concept. When you ask me what I do to get back to Henry, I just marvel at what Henry does. Sometimes I'm tickled by the stuff I come up with.

Henry Czerny
Henry as Alan with Patricia Clarkson as Adora in Sharp Objects. Photo: HBO

Is there ever a moment when you step back from the character and almost wake up, relieved that your life isn't Conrad Grayson's?

It never goes that far. I never get confused between what's apparent make-believe and what is my make-believe. There's a make-believe that I get paid for and a make-believe that gets me from point A, being birth, to point B, being some supposed death.

In between those two points, have you anything exciting coming up?

Ehhhh…no. I did an episode of Schitt's Creek, but really, I've just been hanging out at home building stuff, being domestic and useful.

What have you been building?

I built myself an office and I built little jewelry boxes for friends and family, which I find very therapeutic. It requires a great deal of muscle memory. I watch a guy named Paul Sellers, a British woodworker, online. He's terrific. He's got a great manner about him.

As with acting, woodworking offers you to go as far down the rabbit hole of how precise you can be and how intimate you can be with the project. It sounds really weird, but as I'm making something for someone, I'm thinking about that person. I'm also thinking about what the wood is doing and saying, how to work it, what it's resisting, what it seems to like.

There's a relationship that goes on there throughout the building process. Someone once said that the end result of something is just something you imagine. What really is going on is the experience of doing. What you call a finished project is never really finished because everything is in flux, everything is in transition, but this notion that you've done something is less interesting than the doing.

Henry wakes up after working at the workbench for a while. I disappear. It's the same with acting: I somewhat disappear. The great actors, the ones we really revere, are capable of being technical and being not there simultaneously. To be along for the ride and still have some control over the ride.

Ready Or Not is in cinemas nationwide from 21 August.

Henry Czerny's favorite products

Hair: Aveda Rosemary Mint Shampoo and Conditioner
Because the head of the hair department on one of the films I’ve acted in suggested it… 10 or so years ago.

Skincare: Mildly scented soap and, occasionally, moisturizer
Both purchased exclusively at Trader Joe’s.  Because I’m letting 'Poland be Poland', as it were.

Fragrance: None 
At 60, I don’t like to inhibit or conceal what venerable pheromones I still exude.

Clothing: Cotton 
Comfortable and uncomplicated to wash.  Always line dry, if I can.  Doesn’t waste energy and keeps any shrinking to a minimum.

Footwear: Keens. 

Designers: Glad they’re doing their thing.
I should never shop for dress clothes on my own, but I do, and only when necessary.  My sense of style is … working class chic.

When I was 9 or so, I used to have to accompany my mother, for days it seemed, while she perused every nook and cranny in every bargain clothing shop on 'The Junction’ (about 10 blocks northeast of our family home in Toronto), only to return home with a bag of fresh tomatoes, or the like, from the local grocer.  Several times a year. 

I wouldn’t put anyone through anything close to that, even once.

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Henry Czerny

Mark Grassick joins us with over 17 years' experience as a journalist covering pop culture in the UK and Ireland. He's interviewed everyone from Alan Rickman to Iron Maiden and is currently a bearded, music-mad father of two and husband of one residing in London, England.