Eric Christian Olsen is one of those actors you’ve seen in a bunch of different movies and TV shows, but you probably don’t know his name. That’s because over the past few years, Olsen has been working consistently on shows like NBC’s Community, Brothers & Sisters, Fired Up, and he recently started on NCIS: Los Angeles. Basically, he’s one of those actors right on the cusp of being recognized.
However, a few months ago, when I was in Toronto visiting the set of The Thing prequel, Olsen met up with the group I was with at a local restaurant and no one recognized him. I think that’s about to change.
During the interview, Olsen told us how he got involved in the project and who he plays, was he interested in doing a horror film, what was it like to work with all the Norwegian actors, the practical effects, and what does he remember about seeing The Thing for the first time. He also told us how the movie isn’t your typical modern horror film, and he talks about NBC’s Community and how he was supposed to do more episodes last season. Hit the jump to read or listen to what Olsen had to say:
Since I know some of you like listening to an actor talk rather than reading a transcript, you can either click here for the audio or read the complete transcript below. The Thing gets released April 29, 2011. The trailer should be online soon.
Antarctica: an extraordinary continent of awesome beauty. It is also home to an isolated outpost where a discovery full of scientific possibility becomes a mission of survival when an alien is unearthed by a crew of international scientists. The shape-shifting creature, accidentally unleashed at this marooned colony, has the ability to turn itself into a perfect replica of any living being. It can look just like you or me, but inside, it remains inhuman. In the thriller The Thing, paranoia spreads like an epidemic among a group of researchers as they’re infected, one by one, by a mystery from another planet.
Paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has traveled to the desolate region for the expedition of her lifetime. Joining a Norwegian scientific team that has stumbled across an extraterrestrial ship buried in the ice, she discovers an organism that seems to have died in the crash eons ago. But it is about to wake up.
When a simple experiment frees the alien from its frozen prison, Kate must join the crew’s pilot, Carter (Joel Edgerton), to keep it from killing them off one at a time. And in this vast, intense land, a parasite that can mimic anything it touches will pit human against human as it tries to survive and flourish.
Question: How did you get involved with this? Were you very interested in working in a horror genre movie?
Eric Christian Olsen: I did so many comedies that we’ve had numerous discussions about this genre of film and I’ve always been really hesitant to do so because the last thing I wanted to make was a horror movie. I told my dad about this script and he told me a great story of when he was 9 years old and the original, the 1952 movie came out, and he wanted to see it so bad and my grandfather wouldn’t let him see it so he snuck into it and he was so scared that he had to hide behind the seat and he would gather enough courage and poke his head out and watch 15 seconds of the movie and put his head back down. He said that movie terrified him. I had seen the original one when I was young, and I rewatched it then had my first meeting and audition with Matthijs and he didn’t want to make a horror film he wanted to make a thriller. He wanted to do justice to what John Carpenter did so well in his version of it in the scene where they are testing the blood, that’s the kind of paranoia and the kind of tension that’s so hard to do in storytelling and that’s what Matthijs wanted to do. He really wanted to do storytelling versus “somebody comes up and chops somebody up with an axe and they run away and pick out the next person.” I found that really appealing to me in contrast to a lot of the stuff I had already done so I said “Hell yeah.”
Do you think there’s a sequence in this that sort of compares to the blood testing scene?
Olsen: Yes. I think because when the problem starts to arise there’s problem solving and because there’s five biologists, a paleontologist, and an extraction person everybody tries to figure out their best way based on technology in 1982 to figure out the problem, so there definitely is that. Overall, I think there’s a way on the prospective on how they want to make the movie, which is, we are going to tell the story versus just doing a horror film.
And who is your character?
Olsen: I’m Adam. I work for Sander who gets a phone call from his partner, this Norwegian guy, which is how this all dove tales together and he brings me in, which is his assistant and then he tells me to find a paleontologist and an extraction person and I went to Columbia with Kate and we’re good friends and the movie opens with me pitching this whole story to Kate about what it is they possibly found in the ice and we don’t know what it is. She guesses and I say bigger and then she guesses and I say bigger and then we’re off to the races in the story. But it’s a great relationship because we have that past history so when you go into this, kind of when Act 1 ends and you go into Act 2 and Act 3, its then about alliances and relationships and how that’s stressed when you don’t know who anybody is. The way that I look at this and the conversation I had with Matthijs is it really is kind of Aliens meets Lord of the Flies in that all of a sudden all the rules that dictate how we act in a normal society, New York or where we started in Washington D.C, are thrown out the window its really a separate society and what do we do under the banner of self-preservation, like who am I going to kill to protect myself? If we were all stuck in the Antarctic and shit was going crazy, I’d kill you. He’d kill you. I think that’s what’s more of an interesting story, that’s about relationships, that’s about…not just the paranoia and something out to kill us but the paranoia of who you are and can I trust you. I think that’s one of the things that really attracted me to this and I think what attracted Matthijs. Because we’re all making that version of this movie, because there’s a terrible way to make this movie, I think. I think there’s a version where they hired Chad Michael Murray and some terrible actress and they are running around with a bunch of jump cuts and that’s a movie versus guys who are big fans of the first one and want to do justice and pay homage to what John Carpenter originally did.
Did you know Chad Michael Murray is my cousin?
Olsen: You know what I bet that’s one hell of a family reunion, hanging out with Chad Michael Murray.
What’s it like being around all these Norwegian actors?
Olsen: I’m 100% Norwegian. Three generations removed and all continuous inbreeding of Norwegian of Minnesota and Iowa so I traveled to Norway before. We literally grabbed the burliest Vikings that we could find in this movie and shipped them over here and you met them. They are creatures from Where the Wild Things Are. They are literally giant paws and beards, rummaging through stuff and eating berries with their paws. They are Vikings, some of these dudes are full on Vikings, and that’s great because it adds to the paranoia. Some of those guys don’t speak English. So when shit goes down and they are speaking in Norwegian it only adds to the paranoia.
Olsen: Yeah I spent all…I’m shooting second unit on the weekends so we shot first unit Monday-Friday and Saturday and Sunday under one of the most beautiful practicals I have ever seen. So much so that when I walked in I didn’t know it was the actor.
How long is the period of time that the movie is, you know from when it first starts to all that stuff?
Olsen: It starts out in New York we’re leaving in two days, flight out there to Argentina another 2 days. It’s in a span of 4-5 days the whole movie.
They had a storyboard photo of it. It looks painful.
Olsen: Yeah it’s incredibly painful. When I walked in to see it, it was in this tent, and I just went in there to look at it. I just literally froze in fear. I couldn’t take my eyes of it.
The first time you saw The Thing, do you remember the first time you rented it or…?
Olsen: I was probably thirteen or fourteen, and I remember as soon as the dog scene happened I was just terrified with the rest of the movie. The most terrifying scene was when they were tied up testing the blood. You could just feel it. Your heart was beating so fast during that whole scene. Then I didn’t see it again till I had the audition and meeting and then I re-watched. I re-watched it in a much different sense.
So this is Matthijs’ first feature and he is from the Netherlands. Does this bring a different dynamic for a first time director and European?
Olsen: You know what, he’s amazing and mark my words he is going to be a huge director. I think that he knows the story he wants to tell, he knows how to tell it. The tonality and how to make it consistent all the way through so you don’t feel like you’re watching a schizophrenic film where you feel like you’re watching four different films. He’s a great communicator as far as how to make accurate how actors feel what he wants. I think him being from the Netherlands hasn’t affected anything. It’s like asking…that’s not a good analogy. None whatsoever.
Have you seen his shorts?
Olsen: Yeah, I’ve watched everything.
Because I haven’t seen anything.
Olsen: Yeah, you’ve got to watch it because that’s the thing – what’s really funny about him, even with his shorts he’s a storyteller. He got hired to do some commercial for some car company. It was just about the car and he got fired after three days because he wanted to tell the story. He said there was no story. That’s his passion as a director to tell a story.
I you’re in a movie, people will think your there for comic relief?
Olsen: I don’t think I have a single joke in it. Uh, the first scene there’s defiantly elements…no. I’m playing a complete contrast to most I’ve played. There’s no room for comedy.
Is that one of the things that attracted you to the role; that it’s so not what people expect?
Olsen: I had a conversation…I’ve done so many broad comedies, I was talking to my mom and see asked why I don’t do some more romantic comedies. So I did three romantic comedies and she asked me why don’t I do something that you want? Why don’t you do something you went to school for? So I’m doing a series next year where I’m playing a lawyer who dropped out of law and is now an undercover cop and doing this at the same time…I think I’ve been really lucky to be able to jump back and forth. I think one of the appeals for this for sure is that this character…after that first scene…there’s no comedy. And I think that’s appealing to any actor.
You said something before about it not being a horror film but being a thriller, this is a horror film, but I think it’s a throwback to a different kind of horror film. It’s not a slasher, or torture horror, where people are just getting hacked up one after the other, this is a horror film the mature sense of the word. Would you say that?
Olsen: I think that’s a better description than what I gave you. I think that got lost in my generation of the horror film, in Jason vs. Freddy, or whatever these stories have become, that horrible movie when they went out to the lake and somebody was like water snowboarding or wakeboarding, and they got cut off. There’s no story. You’re right. That’s what a horror film has become but this a truer sense of what it was when it started off. So yeah, it’s a thriller for what we know now and it’s a horror for the beginning or the birth of preexistence.
Horror movies, or thrillers, they move at a really fast pace and what it seems like you guys are going for is more of a slow burn, more character piece, more methodical kind of thing. Do you think that’s risky at all because of the way audiences are now geared for this quick-cutting kind of thing or do you think they are hungry for what you guys are going to be doing?
Olsen: I think it’s a combination of both because one of the movies that I saw, that I loved, was…have you’ve guys seen Zodiac? Terrifying. It was great. There was that building tension all the way through. He told a great story. I think that everybody watching these Jason vs. Freddys that made a billion dollars, I mean there’s nothing in there. It was all slow, and breaking cues, and pull-backs so I think its got to be, in all honesty, its going to be a combination of both those things. I think that’s the tough part, is making it what we’re talking about, but also having enough of those, and we do with the practicals, we have that with the CGI, the combination of those things. We’re going to have that. That’s a good question.
Getting into your Zodiac thing, when Jake Gyllenhaal is in the basement of the house.
I was literally on the edge of my seat like OMFG! When do you think in this film there will be a scene like Jake in the basement? Where you’re like edge of your seat, holy shit?
Olsen: To do justice to that movie, we just have a guy in a basement with another guy. So that started long before that scene so in this movie we started right around that point and that’s where things started to fall apart. But it’s a slow fall apart and it’s a slow build to those scenes right around the end, right around the middle of Act 3 that have all of them. It gets to a point where your literally sweating, its just emotionally exhausting.
How have people who either – the people who have seen the original might have respect for that kind of film – they might know its slow and it will be building to something big. People you haven’t, how important is it for people who haven’t, to come into it and experience their own thing?
Olsen: That’s a good question. That’s more of a marketing, advertising question. I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that. I would argue that it’s a standalone but I think its much better if you’ve seen the first film. Is it necessary? Probably not. It’s beautiful, dove tailed in, obviously, and its set up like first movie, like John Carpenter’s movie. Without seeing the first one this one makes sense from point A to point B.
You mentioned how the movie sort of convinced you that it would be a different kind of movie but how did you convince the director and producer that you were going to be different?
Olsen: Long, long conversations. I mean Adam in the first script is different from what he’s become now and again that’s a tribute to Matthijs and how great he is at communicating. A conversation I had with him, a conversation I’ve had with Mark, and then he has to go to the writers and then come back with a draft, and then you come back with another draft, and he changes this, its kind of an evolution of the character. In life, simplistically when you study biology, with people in a situation there’s – whatever the catastrophic events are – there’s fight or flight and my character is flight. He doesn’t think about it, its just self-preservation, it’s weakness. I think that he’s the fish that goes under the shark because it can’t fend for itself, it can’t maneuver in the water, it can’t navigate on its own, so it finds something more powerful than itself and aligns with that which I think puts him in an even more weak position because when all the alliances fall apart and he doesn’t know who to trust he’s swimming on his own for the first time. That was a character that evolved out of multiple conversations. I think it’s a really human story to tell. I think as an audience member I think you’re going to identify with this kid because at the end of the day he’s doing what he has to do to survive.
Did you do things to add to the character on-set?
Olsen: Yeah, always, because everything changes and when you change one thing here it’s going to change everything down the line. So as everything evolves and changes, what somebody else does versus what I do, you got to make linear reconstruction all across the board for what it is your going to be doing.
After doing a movie like this would you go back to doing something comical like Fired Up, or at this point would it be staying in one direction?
Olsen: No, I think that’s the beauty. One of the great things about Hollywood right now, one of the great things about Hollywood now is you could literally jump comedy to drama, from TV to film, and back and forth and there’s no consequences like there was even 15 years ago. I plan on…I’m doing a show called Community right now and I have so much fun on that and it’s a completely different character than I’ve ever played. I have another show that I’m doing next year, and then this, and then probably another comedy next summer and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Now what’s the situation with your Community role, do they call and say, “come in and do an afternoon” or drop by?
Olsen: Yeah, they’ve really great about…I’ve been busy doing a lot of stuff this year and they were like could you come in and do two days here or two days there. I was going to do the last 5 episodes of the year but I couldn’t because I started this and something else. I mean, did you see the paintball episode? These guys are geniuses. They are geniuses. When you are on to a series you can only do two episodes, two to three episodes, on a network series so I hope to do more because I love the Russo brothers, Arrested Development for me was the show of my generation.
For More Coverage on The Thing: