Horror is in Bruce Davison’s blood. The Oscar-nominated character actor, whose resume is festooned with genre movies, including the classic Willard, adds The Manor, part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse anthology, to his credits.
Set in a nursing home where something supernatural preying on the residents, it reunites him with his Last Summer co-star Barbara Hershey for the first time in over 50 years.
I caught up with Davison to talk about his horror heritage, why he loves working with female directors, and having no plans to retire.
Simon Thompson: You have a strong heritage in horror, so it is clearly a genre you take great pleasure from.
Bruce Davison: I grew up on horror. As a kid, I would always race off to buy Monsters magazine. When I got to Hollywood, meeting some of my favorite horror actors, the biggest stars in the genre, like Vincent Price, was incredible. Over the years, I got to do a few of them and got a lot of success out of one called Willard. I’ve always really liked it because horror films are usually independent films, for the most part, where the creativity lies. They’re the ones that are flying by the seat of their pants, and they get to do all kinds of stuff that you don’t get an opportunity to do in a more corporate-controlled situation.
Thompson: There were elements of The Manor that reminded me of the Ron Howard movie, Cocoon. Did you get that, or am I way off the mark here?
Davison: No, you’re absolutely right. It’s very astute of you to say that because I was just talking about that with someone yesterday. It is like a dark Cocoon. It deals with the primal fear of all of us, which is getting old, being abandoned, and dying. The most significant part of any horror film, whether it be a movie like Cat People or something else, it’s the fear of that darkness and the unknown when we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. What is that fear? I don’t think that has been plumbed nearly enough in the horror genre, and that’s why I really was attracted to The Manor.
Thompson: How did this project land in your lap?
Davison: I don’t know how anything lands in anybody’s lap. Everybody takes credit when it’s successful, but it was my assistant. He read it and said I should do it. I had a meeting with Axelle Carolyn, the director; I read the script and really enjoyed it, and then there was Barbara Hershey, with who I did my first film in 1968 called Last Summer. Working with Barbara was like picking up mid-sentence all these years later. As actors, we become kind of like war buddies. You know you go through great intimate experiences, you hit the beach with people you form great camaraderie with, and then you don’t see them for 50 years, but you pick up where you left off. It was like getting back on the bike.
Thompson: My next question was how that felt, but I think I know the answer.
Davison: It was wonderful. It’s almost like slipping on comfortable clothes. We knew each other right at the beginning, and I’ve watched her from afar. I’ve seen her at events or in hotel lobbies but never got to talk too much to her. I’ve watched her grow, and I’ve watched those seeds that I saw become the great performances she has done over the years. It’s been fantastic. There’s almost a sense of pride in being with someone when they’re young and starting out and then getting a chance to revisit that many years later. We haven’t had the opportunity to work together since. It’s never a question of the person; it’s a question of the job or the work that comes along. It’s like a river where you can see a friend swim by occasionally, but it’s serendipitous if you fall in with someone you know. Sometimes it feels like there are only a few 100 of us in the industry, and we all just keep changing hats and saying hello down the road.
Thompson: I want to talk to you about Axelle as a director. It’s simple but very effective and creative. You have worked with countless directors over the decades, and, by comparison, she is new to the game, so did you know that Axelle had the elusive ‘it.’
Davison: Well, you never know, really. You’re looking at it from hindsight of the finished product, and you never know how that’s going to turn out. You can follow your instincts of what seems to work. What I found with Axelle that I liked were her empathy and her collaboration. I love working with female directors so often because ego isn’t an issue. It’s not so much about my idea versus your idea; it’s about what we can offer each other. I would do something a little strange or outrageous in this scene, and suddenly she was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea. I like that.’ Axelle was open to that with all the actors. I thought I found her ability to collaborate creatively, and most of the time, that’s what makes stuff work.
Thompson: Jason Blum, who is behind Welcome to the Blumhouse, has changed the face of horror. Why did you want to be involved in a project that had Jason involved?
Davison: He’s one of those pioneers of cinema. He’s taken a genre and worked it in that he can do things like creating opportunities to bring in more women and underrepresented groups. Jason’s wide open to new ideas and new thoughts, and he knows what will be a good scare. That will form something very positive in a way that people want to see and enjoy. That goes along becomes a franchise, and then he says, ‘Okay, we’ve got that, so what are we going to do that’s new?’ It’s always a sense of feeling with Jason that he wants to do something new in some way and use the genre, expand it, take it to new places, and that can come with risks. Like you pointed out, it’s like finding a new primal fear that is scary and going that way. Jason’s a pioneer filmmaker committed to creating a new perception of the genre and evolving it.
Thompson: This film is partly to do with the last chapters of life and slowing down. As an actor, you seem to have been omnipresent in my life, and you continue to work on multiple projects every year. I’m assuming you have no plans to stop any time soon?
Davison: I go where I’m kicked, and as long as they’ll keep kicking me down the road, that’s great. My whole life, I’ve been typecast for about five years, and then I’ll do something successful, and I get typecast as that. When I was first with Barbara and Richard Thomas and Catherine Burns in Last Summer, we did that film, and I was the nasty kid in it, so I was cast as a nasty kid for a while until the next successful thing came along. Then, in Willard, I was a successful weirdo and didn’t kiss a girl for ten years after that, and then there was Longtime Companion, and I was a sensitive bedside guy for a while, and then X-Men happened, so I’m the nasty Senator in movies for a time. It’s the Seven Ages of Man. The best thing that happened to me was Robert Aldrich, the director, who said, ‘Don’t be a leading man, kid. You’re trying to be a leading man, and you shouldn’t be. You should be a character actor, a supporting actor. Play the doctors, the lawyers, the villains, the victims, and so on, and then you can raise a family in this town.’
Thompson: It’s funny how not trying to be the leading man has led you to some of the projects you speak most highly of.
Davison: When I was starting out, I did a film called The Strawberry Statement. I first came to Hollywood in the Manson years, which you can see in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and I auditioned for it because, at the time, it was the hot film to get. I got the lead in that, and it led to more success. Then I was co-starring with Burt Lancaster in a Western, and that’s where I met Aldrich, and he gave me that advice. He warned me that if I continued to chase those roles, then I’d be used by the time I was 30, I’d do six films, and nobody would ever hear from me again. I even remember that a few years later, I was at a poker game that I used to attend, and I was with two other Academy Award-nominated character actors. They were bitching about having to sit on a bench in Redondo Beach while a 19-year-old girl said two lines and how embarrassing and humiliating it was that she didn’t know who they were. Charles Durning looked up from his cards and said, ‘Well, it gives you a chance to act.’ I took that advice with me everywhere, and I still do. It’s thanks to that advice that I get to do movies like The Manor.
Thompson: It’s great to hear that you have no plans to retire.
Davison: An actor never retires. He just dies on stage and says, ‘Let me see you top that!’
The Manor, part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse series, lands on Amazon’s Prime Video on Friday, October 8, 2021.