Horror Business: Bill Moseley Interview

Bill Moseley is an actor, musician and horror icon.  He burst onto the horror scene in a huge way as Chop Top in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and has since starred in movies like Repo the Genetic Opera and the TV show Carnivàle. But perhaps most notable is Bill’s chillingly well-realized portrayal of Otis B. Driftwood in Rob Zombie’s Firefly family trilogy, including House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, and the long-awaited 3 From Hell.

Bill and I talked about his career history, including the pretty incredible story of how he got on the radar of Tobe Hooper for Texas Chainsaw 2 through a short film he made called The Texas Chainsaw Manicure. We also got into details about his acting process and how he gets into the psychotic mindset of characters like Otis. And, of course, we discussed what we can expect from 3 From Hell.

Before we begin, here are three key creative lessons learned from this conversation with Bill Moseley:

  • Make stuff and put it out there. Bill was a struggling actor who, on a whim, made a fun short film in a day with his buddies called The Texas Chainsaw Manicure. With very little expectation of it getting much recognition, Bill sent it around to multiple networks and it got in front of Tobe Hooper, who then cast Bill as Chop Top in Texas Chainsaw 2. This put Bill on the trajectory of becoming the horror icon he is today.
  • Get out of the way! When filming 3 From Hell, Bill began screwing up Otis’ lines because he was over-thinking the performance and becoming insecure. After repeated bad takes, Bill suddenly heard the voice of Otis in his own psyche tell him to ‘get out of the way’ and let him do his job. Bill said that he sat the performance out at that point and simply let Otis take over, which made the performance go much smoother. This idea of getting out of the way is relevant to most artists, not just actors, who often will stifle the flow of their own creativity by over-thinking the material and finding reasons to feel self-conscious. This may be part of being human, but it’s destructive to the creative process. Sometimes, the best way to serve your art is to get the hell out of its way!
  • Art is not safe. During the brutal hotel room scene in The Devil’s Rejects Bill had to get through a large number of takes and mentioned to Rob Zombie that he was emotionally struggling to get through the scene. Without skipping a beat, Rob Zombie replied “Art is not safe” – meaning, that working in horror and other darker arts can take an emotional toll on those involved when it’s taken seriously. It’s supposed to. Yes, there are schlocky slashers and exploitation films that exist for cheap thrills and entertainment (I love a lot of them), but then there is the type of horror that is meant to portray larger truths about real evil. Sometimes the only way to properly depict evil is to confront and embrace the inherent danger that comes with exploring it. That’s exactly what Bill did, which is probably why Otis is such an effective character (and probably why he’s still stuck in Bill’s head).
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Dread Central: Hey, Bill! How are you doing?

Bill Moseley: Good, man. How’s it going?

DC: Really, really good, thanks. So how did you first get into acting?

BM: Well, I come from a good Midwestern stock… We always acted; that was encouraged by my parents who were part of a play-reading group in my little hometown of Barrington, Illinois. So that was always available, but it was never really looked at as a career. When I graduated from college with an English major, my first port of call was Boston, where I ended up working as a head copywriter of a small ad agency. That wasn’t really my deal. I then moved to New York and ended up getting a job right off the bat as the editor-in-chief of a little 32-page magazine.

I think it was the summer of ’84. I left New York, and I went out and worked on a ranch in Cora, Wyoming. It was just basically a summer of manual labor, and I was working one day next to a kid that had been sent out by his parents to straighten him out. He was maybe 15 or 16 and he was a sugar freak, constantly pounding the sugar. He would work and start sweating under the hot Wyoming sun, and he would go into what I called “sugar deliriums.”

DC: Wow.

BM: All of a sudden this stuff would just come out of him, like cartoon voices, jingles–just crazy blather. I would usually turn a deaf ear to it, and just dig my hole or pound my fence or whatever I was doing. One day he was just going on. “I’m Captain Crunch. Captain Crunch.” Then all of a sudden he said, “Texas Chainsaw Manicure,” and I heard that. It went right in because I was completely freaked out by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I had seen in Boston back in ’76.

I ended up going back to the bunkhouse after we were done working and writing out a scenario of a woman who goes to a beauty parlor and gets her hair done. She’s under the dryer. The beautician comes up, asks her if she wants anything else. The woman goes, “Yes, I’ll have a manicure.” The beautician calls to the back of the parlor, “Manicure.” You hear this rumble of a chainsaw, the silver door slides open, and outcomes Leatherface with a smoking saw. He comes up and starts sawing on this poor lady’s fingers. She screams and passes out, and when the beautician slaps her on the cheek to bring her back she looks down, and she has a beautiful manicure.

DC: Nice.

BM: So I ended up going back to New York after writing that little five-minute scenario, and I gathered some buddies and we shot The Chainsaw Manicure. I thought I was going to get some help from Broadway Video, which of course is SNL’s production company, but they didn’t really help. We ended up doing a lot of post-production there, but then they wanted to be paid. So I ended up going to work as a waiter just to try to make the money to pay back Broadway Video.

In the meantime, I took The Manicure and tried to sell it to Saturday Night Live. They didn’t want it because none of their stars were in it. I tried to sell it to Fridays, which was ABC competition back in the day. They didn’t want it because it was a videotape and not a film. So I basically just had to eat The Manicure.

When I was out in L.A. I had dinner with my buddy who was part of the Seaman and Price writing team, and they had just had a hit with Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I went and had dinner at Pete’s house, and I brought along The Manicure just to amuse him and his wife. I screened it. Pete said, “I love this. If you can give me a copy, I happen to have an office across the hall from Tobe Hooper at Paramount.” That was when Tobe was doing Poltergeist. So I said, “Sure, take it,” and he did.

He walked it into Tobe Hooper’s office, handed it to Tobe. Tobe queued it up and watched it. Later I found out that Tobe called Steven Spielberg in, who was, of course, producing Poltergeist, and said, “Check it out.” They both loved The Manicure, and they especially liked my cameo as the hitchhiker. Then my friend also got me Tobe’s home number and told me to give him a call in a week. So when I got back to New York, I called up Tobe. He answered the phone, which I later learned was a miracle, and I said, “Hi. This is Bill Moseley, I’m the guy that did The Manicure.” He said, “Oh, I love The Manicure, Bill. Now, who played the hitchhiker?” I said, “Well, that was me.” He said, “You know, if I ever do a sequel, I’m going to keep you in mind.”

DC: That’s so cool.

BM: I thought, “Great.” Two years went by, and one night, in early 1986, I got a call from Kit Carson, who had written a screenplay for Chainsaw 2. He sent me a copy of the script, told me to look at the character of Chop Top, and I did that. I called him back, and I said, “This is hilarious. This is great.” He said, “Oh, I’m glad you like it.” So the next person I heard from was from the legal department of Canon Films offering me a contract.

DC: Wow, and the rest is history.

BM: That is the longest way of explaining how I got in the film business.

DC: You claim that you were traumatized by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

BM: I had never seen anything like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I saw it in Boston. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon. I saw it on the tail end of a double bill with Entering the Dragon, at the old Paramount Theatre in Boston. There was quite a raucous crowd, and I had never seen a Bruce Lee movie either. Everybody’s yelling at the screen, “Kick his ass, Bruce!” We’re all elevated and happy. Then an opening couple of scenes and just those weird tortured violin notes of the opening of Chainsaw Massacre, and it’s like the air went out of the theater. Everybody was like, “What the …” As it proceeded, it just never let up.

DC: No, not to this day.

BM: I just got sucked in, and so it did traumatize me. For years afterward, I was completely traumatized. I would see it again and again and again. That was right around the beginning of the video, so a lot of times I just had to go and find it at theaters. Instead of it liberating me, it just made it worse.

DC: Wow.

BM: Really, the time I finally got away from the trauma was when I had been hired as Chop Top. I was in Austin, Texas at the Brookhollow Motor Inn where we were all staying. A car drove up with Texas plates and out pops Jim Siedow.

DC: No way.

BM: I went, “It’s the Cook!” It burst out of me. He went, “Hey, man. How are you doing? Good to see you.” At that moment I had an epiphany, I guess, or some kind of healing, or whatever you want to call it, but I realized, “Holy shit. I’m one of the family.” I think that was really what freed me more than anything. Instead of the old “If you can’t lick them, join them,” instead of being afraid of them, now I’m one of them. And that changed me completely.

DC: Wow. That’s so cool.

BM: And it gave me the enthusiasm because I’d never done a movie like that. I think I’d done maybe one or two other movies, but little obscure things. I’d never done anything with that kind of pressure–the sequel to one of the greatest, if not the greatest, horror movie of all time. So that was it. Thank you, Jim.

DC: Yeah, wow. So I do want to talk about 3 From Hell, but first I want to talk about Devil’s Rejects. Personally, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I loved House of 1000 Corpses, but there’s something undeniably magical about Devil’s Rejects. In your mind, what was so special about that movie? What made it lightning in a bottle?

BM: I think it certainly starts with the script, but also the characters. For me, it was the first time I had ever reprised a role. So I consider House of 1000 Corpses kind of kicking the tires, finding Otis. Then The Devil’s Rejects, it was like taking Otis out for a spin.

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DC: Interesting.

BM: I literally didn’t really “get” Otis until about six weeks after we’d wrapped House of 1000 Corpses. Rob needed to add some more footage, so we did the “Run, rabbit, run” scene, actually at the makeup studio of Wayne Toth. Rob said, “We’re going to do this little extra pickup because we need more material.” As it is, I think House of 1000 Corpses maybe runs 88 minutes, and that’s with all the extra stuff that Rob added. So when I did that scene, that was when I kind of got Otis.

DC: Very cool.

BM: That was, again, after most of the production had ceased. So by the time we did Devil’s Rejects, I already knew the character. Sid Haig and Sheri and I were already pals, because we did House of 1000 Corpses in 2000 and it didn’t come out until 2003. So for three years, we wandered in the wilderness. Universal dropped us. MGM picked us up and dropped us. It just seemed like we weren’t going to get a break. Of course, there was 9/11 then, there was Columbine, so the country, the mood, it wasn’t really conducive to putting up House of 1000 Corpses.

Finally, good old Peter Block at Lionsgate saw it and acquired it from Universal. Of course, that paved the way. But in those three years that of trying to find a distribution deal, we’d go to Rob’s house for picnics. We kept the faith.

DC: What is a Rob Zombie picnic like?

BM: I remember one was kind of a Polynesian theme, a pool party where everybody showed up in grass skirts and funny hats. It was a lot of fun, but we kept together as a group because we had shared adversity. So by the time we actually did Devil’s Rejects, we were a well-oiled unit. And Devil’s Rejects is a completely different movie. It’s almost a different genre than House of 1000 Corpses.

DC: Yeah, it’s more of a road movie.

BM: House is kind of old, dark house, classic horror. Kids go to an old dark house, and they check in but they never check out. But Devil’s Rejects, everybody looks different. Baby doesn’t laugh, Spaulding’s out of makeup most of the time. Otis is no longer an albino. I look more like an Allman Brother, with the beard, and my hair is a different color. So there was this drastic change, and that was liberating and pretty amazing of Rob. I really was impressed with Rob for coming back to the story, and yet changing things so drastically.

DC: Yeah, it felt very grounded.

BM: It’s also one of those movies where everything worked. The editing, the acting, the soundtrack. Everything worked. A lot of times you’ll see movies where nine out of ten things work, or three out of seven things work, and it hobbles the impact. But with Devil’s Rejects, I didn’t think there really was a weak spot.

DC: No, definitely not. One thing that I remember hearing Rob Zombie say is that if your characters are cool they can get away with anything. There’s something very lovable about the Firefly family. You see these characters doing these horrible things, but to me, and I might be psychotic, but I found myself rooting for them. I found myself falling in love with these characters. The only other example of that would probably be Natural Born Killers. But I’m really curious about how you were able to create Otis, and how you were able to, in a weird way make him likable and make him cool. What did it take to create Otis?

BM: At the very beginning before we even shot House of 1000 Corpses, we were trying to figure out the makeup of Otis. I remember at first thinking that Rob wanted his version of Chop Top, because I met Rob at a horror awards show called the i-Gore Awards over at Universal in Burbank back in October of ’99. I emceed this horror awards show in character as Chop Top wearing a ratty tuxedo, and that’s when Rob went, “Holy shit, it’s Chop Top.” That’s what got his manager to call me and offer me the part of Otis.

So I figured that that was my character, where we hang onto a character, like a life-preserver on a sinking ship. I really figured that was what he wanted. By golly, he gently but firmly led me away from Chop Top. I like to say that Chop Top’s on the shoulders. It’s all up top, but Otis is right in the balls. It’s all about standing firm with thumbs in the belt, and kind of, “Fuck you.” Also, what Rob wanted more heroic and sexy qualities, which he had to lead me to. I didn’t find them naturally in thinking about Otis. So because I’m not naturally sexy or commanding, it took me a while to find that. When I did, then out came Devil’s Rejects Otis, which was a lot more comfortable, a lot more powerful and focused.

DC: I’m curious about your acting process in finding Otis.

BM: I don’t think I really did research the character. My philosophy of acting is to read the script a bunch of times and think about it. Just get comfortable with the relationships of the different characters, and then serve the production. If the director has some ideas, great. If not, just say the words and move one foot in front of the other, and see what happens. I wish it were more mystical than that.

DC: No, sometimes simpler makes all the difference.

BM: Because some people say, “My God, how hard is it for you to get to that dark place?” I think, “Well, really not that hard, actually.” It’s not about getting to the dark place. It’s about getting back by the time you get home with two young children. So like, let’s leave Otis down in the car. Don’t want to get home and start freaking everybody out. So I’m not a method actor, as far as that stuff goes.

DC: I remember hearing that there was a scene in Rejects that you emotionally had a really tough time getting through because it was just very brutal. I think it was the hotel room scene. Then Rob Zombie turned to you and said…

BM: “Art is not safe!” It was so helpful because, well, of course, a lot of times we know that the chainsaw is rubber, or doesn’t have a blade. Or we know from spending too much time with Tom Savini, that there’s a blood pump right off-screen, and that a lot of it is foam rubber. But then there are scenes, like the scene with Priscilla Barnes in the Kahiki Palms Motel room, where you’re there, you’re not kidding. I mean, you’re really doing the things you’re doing. And yeah, I mean, certainly I would hope it would make just about everybody uncomfortable.

DC: No, of course.

BM: What was tough about that scene was not only what I had to do in the scene, but also the fact that it comes from boredom. Like, we’ve been waiting around for Captain Spaulding. We’ve taken over the room with Banjo & Sullivan and their wives, me and Baby, and we’re sitting around. We’re waiting. There’s no air conditioning. The TV’s on. There’s Buck Owens. We’ve been there for probably a couple of hours, and all the excitement has worn off. It’s just fucking boring.

So out of that comes Otis saying, “Okay Mama, take it off.” So a lot of times it’s easier to do a scene like that when you jump out of a closet and you’ve got that energy, and you’ve got to knock her on the head or rip her clothes off. All of that kind of energy makes it easier to do those brutal acts, but when you’re doing it just out of sheer boredom, that really exposes Otis as a diabolical thinker. But you just have to go for it. I mean, with acting, good acting, sometimes you just come to that. It’s like in the third Indiana Jones when he has to walk across the invisible bridge to get to the Knights Templar. Sometimes you just have to put that foot out there and say, “Okay, here we go.” That’s basically what happened.

Rob said, “Cut.” I walked off the set. A lot of the women in video village were visibly upset. My stomach was in knots. It was a bummer, as it should be. I said to Rob, “Oh man, I feel bad.” That’s when he said, “Art is not safe.” What that told me was that we’re not just making a stupid horror film sequel. A lot of them really come from more of a cynical place than a creative place. Like, “Oh shit, if we can do half the business that that first one did the kids will eat it up.”

What Rob told me was that Devil’s Rejects was not a simple horror movie sequel, that we were going for something special. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that art wasn’t safe. When he told me that, it was the best thing he could’ve said because I had to go back and do it twenty more times.

DC: Oh my gosh. Whoa.

BM: You had to go in there and do take two, and then here’s another setup. Then it’s his POV, her POV, the ceiling cam, the two-shot, the master. Oh, my God. Each time it was different. It didn’t get boring. It was always raw. Priscilla Barnes, God bless her, she told me later that it was the greatest acting experience she’s ever had.

DC: Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.

BM: I really appreciated that, because she’d worked with Jack Nicholson in Crossing Guard. She’s not a newbie, certainly, so I really appreciated that because it was an amazing scene. I’m certainly proudest of that. It’s just really from walking through it, and let go of all this stuff that was saying, “No, not this. This is wrong.”

DC: I’m sure you’re sworn to secrecy about a lot of details, but what can you tell us about 3 From Hell that you’re particularly excited about?

BM: Well, one thing I can tell you is there was one scene in the first couple days of shooting where I have to say a bunch of words to some people. We did a couple of takes, and I kept dropping my lines. So I would go off and start emoting, and then I would get tongue-twisted. So okay, first time, yeah, that happens. The second time, oh, okay. I’m just kind of getting the eye from the director, like, “Dude?” I said, “Give me a second here.” I sat down, and I realized that I was getting too actor-y. I was getting self-conscious.

I heard this voice in my head say, “Bill, go over there and sit down. I got this.” It was the voice of Otis. As soon as I realized, “Get out of the way, Hollywood actor. We don’t need you. We don’t need your self-critique. Just get out of the way,” I did that, and never looked back. Just had a great time. I sat it out, basically, and just let Otis have his time.

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DC: That’s huge. I think sometimes the artist has to get out of the way of the actual work.

BM: That’s what’s fun about working with Rob. I think that, probably speaks more to the spirit of low-budget independent themes than maybe anything, because that seems to be where my roots are happiest, that kind of acting. I mean, that’s when you just fucking go for it, and that’s the way I like to do it.

DC: That makes a lot of sense. So, this is kind of a silly question, but I can’t help myself. There’s been a lot of rumors about a Nightmare on Elm Street reboot, and everybody’s first choice, if they had to recast Freddy Krueger, is you. Have you gotten into any official conversations about that, or is this just strictly rumors, and fan speculation?

BM: Yeah, that’s rumors, fan speculation, et cetera. It’s certainly flattering to be thought of in those terms, but I would want to see Robert Englund. I mean, I see him at some of the conventions I go to. He’s hale and hearty, man! I don’t know why they’ve pushed him off the stage, because he is Freddy, you know? He’s in great shape, great form. He’s funny as hell. He’s always really fired up. He’s great at conventions. He does funny photo ops and he’s always into it… But why is Robert not still cranking them out? I don’t get it.

DC: Right! Me too. So what else are you working on nowadays?

BM: Right now I’m working on a new music project. There was a band called Warbeast, and they are on the Housecore record label, which is Phil Anselmo’s label. I worked with Phil a couple of years ago on Bill & Phil, Songs of Darkness and Despair, which is available on Housecore and iTunes. The band Warbeast just lost their lead singer, Bruce Corbitt, to throat cancer.

DC: Oh man, I’m sorry.

BM: So the guitar player and bass player have been talking to me, and we’re doing an internet band called Mr. Machine, based on the old ideal toy. So we’re putting together an EP and seeing what happens.

DC: Oh, that’s great.

BM: It’s music by internet, which is very strange. Usually, I like to get in there and bang around with people in person. But no, it’s been fun. And I’ve got a busy convention season, and of course I’ve been polishing my toenails for 3 From Hell.

DC: Right. Couldn’t be more excited about it.

BM: Well, you know, Rob is excited, and that makes me very happy. It’s something that’s really put an extra pep in his step. I think it was a great experience for him to get the gang back together. Sheri did a great job, so it’s fun. It energizes you.

DC: Yeah, of course.

BM: For me, after doing Devil’s Rejects and having such a wonderful experience, that was a long time between films. So it was very exciting to hear that we were getting the band back together. Also, once I got out of the damn way, there was Otis. He really hadn’t gone too far in all those years. He was right there and ready to go.

DC: That’s amazing. Bill, I really, really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you so much.

BM: My pleasure.

Written by Nick Taylor

Nick Taylor is a producer and journalist specializing in horror cinema. With a background in marketing and PR, in addition to writing for Dread Central Nick hosts a horror-filmmaking podcast called The Nick Taylor Horror Show. The interview-style podcast explores the techniques, strategies, and key pieces of advice for aspiring horror filmmakers, straight from the minds of some of the latest and greatest names in horror today (Joe Dante, Mick Garris, William Lustig, Joe Bob Briggs + more).

Nick is currently producing a documentary on Steve Johnson while working on Zombie Road, a feature-length immersive zombie movie on the Oculus Rift platform that integrates film & real actors into a cinematic video game platform in virtual reality.

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