Playing Martin is a British actor and performance artist by the name of Laurence Harvey, whose name and face my not be familiar to most people outside of the UK aside from his work in THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Laurence, and hopefully this interview will shed some light on Laurence as an actor and a person.
Without any further ado, ladies and gentlemen.... "Martin".
The Death Rattle: HUMAN CENTIPEDE II is your only film according to IMDB, so you're a bit of a mystery to horror fans. What was your background prior to making the film?
Laurence Harvey: Yeah, HUMAN CENTIPEDE II is my first feature film, although I've done a number of shorts (a film I did with Tony Grisoni is on IMDB, but that's listed under Laurence Harvey III) and quite a bit of TV (comedy & children's) and adverts. I come from a performance art background (I studied under Anthony Howell who founded TING: Theatre of Mistakes), and have worked alongside Gary Stevens, Brian Catling, and Robin Deacon amongst others in the UK. Robin now teaches at Chicago Institute of Art, and my other US art connection is Rafael Sanchez whose piece THE LIBATION BEARERS I appeared in at New York's Threadwaxing Space gallery years ago. But between the performance art work and an involvement in 'straight' (off West End/ off Broadway) theatre in the UK, I've done work at the Young Vic, Battersea Arts centre, Serpentine Gallery, Bank, and The Gate theatre (all in London) amongst others, also work in France, Poland, and Germany. As for the adverts, that work has been all over Europe, and I did a campaign in the US (which because a certain company merger didn't go through, had to be shelved). As I've been working for the past 20 years, it kinda sucks when some reviews refer to me as a 'non-actor'.
DR: I'm very curious as to how you found out about, and eventually got the role of Martin.
LH: My agent rang me saying that somebody had been in touch, wanting me for the lead in a new film. He had checked the website saw the words 'Adult Entertainment, Amsterdam', and thought it was a porn film, but thought he would check with me before turning them down. I wondered why they would want me, I'm a character actor involved with experimental theatre, perhaps they needed a short fat guy for a Ron Jeremy biopic, or was I being typecast after the play I did called THE MAN WITH THE ABSURDLY LARGE PENIS?
Anyway, I asked what the title was, and as soon as he said HUMAN CENTIPEDE II, I told him to go ahead and arrange a casting. At that stage I hadn't seen the first film, but I knew it had been on at FrightFest earlier in the year, and it was a film I was looking forward to seeing.
The casting was arranged, and there was a screening of the first film in the morning of the day of the casting. So, I kinda knew what Tom Six was about when I met him for the first time. At the casting he described in detail the character, and told me the A to B of the plot and shots, scene-by-scene. And I must say it was the best casting of my life, we got on like a house on fire. I loved his mix of high art and exploitation, he got a kick out of the fact I love the same films and was used to extreme cinema (including Japanese film such as the ALL NIGHT LONG trilogy and the GUINEA PIG films, as well as the bleak humour of Béla Tarr). Tom, Ilona and I even share a disgust of cheese!
Even after the casting I wasn't sure I'd got the role, but I wanted to be involved with the film in whatever way I could. I was sure that they'd find someone with a bigger profile for the part, but I'm so glad that they offered it to me. I think Tom & Ilona took a huge chance by casting me, and I'll be forever grateful. And by their reaction to my work, I'm glad I didn't disappoint.
DR: While playing Martin, did you base the character on any particular figure in cinema, or did you go somewhere mentally to create an original antagonist?
LH: Well, I knew before-hand that Tom wanted the character to be this underdog that everybody abuses in one way or another, and that he would be living at home with his mum. Unfortunately (in life, but fortunately for the role), after living in London for many years, I'd had a housing opportunity fall through whilst all my stuff was in storage and I was visiting my parents, so a temporary visit stretched out into something more long-term. So a lot of the character was based upon my own frustrations at living with my parents in a town where there is no gallery or theatre, and therefore no job opportunities in my field of experience.
I did look at a couple of films before I got the completed script, Peter Ferdinando's amazing performance in TONY, also, because of my involvement as part of disabled film-maker's group - 15mm Films - I was interested in seeing the Go Shibata film LATE BLOOMER (Osoi Hito), but rather than influencing me directly, they gave me confidence to find my own way with Martin.
Also, I had talked with Tom about the psychology of Martin, as I most definitely did not want to have him as a travesty of someone with mental illness. It was decided between us, that Martin's mental state was entirely down to the abuse he had grown up with, rationalising that the authority figures at school were probably as abusive as those we see him dealing with at home.
Martin isn't a 'real-world' character, he is a fantasy figure that gets trotted out by the tabloids whenever they want to stir up a furore about a certain film. What appealed to me about what Tom was doing with the film is that he was serving up moral crusaders' own fantasy and ironically showing how much worse their imaginings are than most horror films.
So, Martin is referred to by other characters (i.e. his abusers) as being mentally disabled, but my own take on it is that he has been developmentally retarded by those abusing him, so that his social skills, his empathy (and therefore the rationalisation of the consequences of his actions), as well as his emotional development are virtually stunted at a nascent stage. If you look at one of my favourite films Rolf de Heer's BAD BOY BUBBY, no matter how twisted Bubby's life is at the beginning of the film there is some social and emotional interaction (some negative, but some positive even if it is not exactly 'healthy').
But more than any other film, the biggest influence came during a break in filming when I went to stay with my friends and their one-year-old twin boys. They were a HUGE influence, the way they would appear to 'try on' emotions, or respond with an inappropriate degree of emotion, so that was the emotional and social developmental stage I saw in Martin. (Although he is also a grown adult with hormones, and a pre-adolescent mixture of sex and violence in his fantasy life, but I think much of how that comes out is due to his own abusive background).
DR: Can you describe Martin without giving too much away?
LH: See above. Although I would just point out that there is part of Martin that is like the silent-movie clown: he's the little guy trying to get along in life. Oh, and he loves children.
I took a female friend to a screening of the (uncut) film, and she said that Martin would have been fine, if he'd just had a little love in his life. She said that she wanted to reach into the film and give him a hug and tell him not to make the bad choices he makes. "No, Martin, don't do that, it's not nice."
DR: HUMAN CENTIPEDE II made its big debut at Fantastic Fest. What was your experience there like, and what was it like to watch the final product with an audience?
LH: I wanted to see so many films there, but end up managing to see only one; the rest of the time was shaking hands, meeting people, posing for photos, and a lot of press.
When we came into the auditorium for the screening, I saw that people had ordered food, and I just thought "NOOOOOOOOO! You don't know what this film is like."
DR: How was the crowd reaction during the Fantastic Fest screening?
LH: Great! They were laughing at a lot of the 'silent comedy' elements, then, when things really got dark they had shut up. And at the end there was a stunned silence. The film is a visceral ordeal, it is grimly satirical, and has an ambiguous ending. Every time I've seen it there is a stunned silence.
DR: Any particular anecdotes or fond memories of the THCII shoot that you'd like to share?
LH: Only that towards the end of filming the warehouse did look like the aftermath of a Hermann Nitsch performance. I must say the guys playing the segments had a far tougher time than I did, crawling and rolling around on a splintery floor with all the dirt and water and gunk. I take my hat off to them.
I might just mention that after how cold the water was on the first day that we used the rain-machine (all acting goes out the window, your body just goes into survival mode, and your head is echoing with the loud clattering of your teeth), Tom wanted a third and forth take of a scene (due to technical problems), so I agreed to do it only if he bought me a bottle of scotch. He was as good as his word, which meant that the second day with the rain machine was much easier, and having large slugs of scotch between soakings - marvelous!
DR: What are your thoughts on the first HUMAN CENTIPEDE, and how would you compare it to the sequel?
LH: The first film seems very much about the tropes of the horror film. It presents traditional elements of horror narrative (innocents lost in the woods; the mad scientist; the escapee turning back for a friend instead of appealing to external authorities; etc), but shows up their inherent absurdity. But, at its heart there is the stomach-churning repulsiveness of the central idea - which is actually our own horror of the 'leaky' body.
When I saw it for the first time, I spent the first half-hour wondering whether it was a good film, or a bad film, and if it was bad, was it intentionally bad (tongue-in-cheek)? Because the opening scenes reminded me of 70's Euro policiers (starring Alain Delon, Yves Montand, et al.) and the Dutch film THE VANISHING (Spoorloos). Then Dieter is marvelous, touching one moment, then very Monty Python the next. Then Ashlynn and Ashley seem to be improvising. It then swings into clunky teen-horror territory, so (as a viewer) you don't get a handle on it, until the film has already gripped you. I also like the fact that it felt like a very sleazy film, but without showing any sexualised nudity, or gore. Then, of course there are all the references (to Cronenberg, Pasolini, the sculpture of the Chapman brothers, and Anthony Wong amongst others).
The two films are like the obverse and reverse of a coin. Whereas as the first film is about horror film narratives, the sequel is about the narratives of reception - in particular the tabloid scare story of the obsessive viewer who feels compelled to re-enact filmic violence. The victims in the first film are all at the mercy of a foreign 'other' (both Dr. Heiter and Europe itself), whereas the victims of Martin are the people around him; it is home that has become unheimliche.
Heiter and Martin are inverted versions of one another, and not only physically. Whilst Heiter is a powerful person, with status in society (the bourgeois cultural signifiers of an appreciation of architecture, fine art and classical music are all in place), with a background , not only in medicine, but in a complex specialised field of surgery. The viewer gets the impression that Heiter despises other humans for not measuring up to his exacting standards. In almost every way conceivable Martin is the opposite of that.
Dare I say it? Goddamn, yes! The sequel is better than the first (although I'm hardly unbiased). The second film feels much more like a classic 'midnight movie'; it has the gleeful transgression of THUNDERCRACK!, the 'perverse London' feel of PEEPING TOM, the gore of FLOWERS OF FLESH & BLOOD (Ginii Piggu: Chiniku no Hana), and the domestic homelife of ERASERHEAD. Tom has talked about it being a 'British' film, but to me it feels very Japanese, but I don't know if that's just because of my own interests. The simple narrative is very much like those in the 'lone dove syndrome' sub-genre of Japanese horror. But the narrative simply takes the tabloid fantasy to its logical extremes.
When I first saw the film that we had made, I had a very physical reaction to it. I do think that it is something of an ordeal for an audience, but an intelligent, darkly satirical one that, I think, will provoke a lot of discussion between cinema goers.
DR: One of the biggest pieces of news as of late regarding the movie is that it's going to be released in the UK after being initially banned there. Do you know if it's going to be released uncut?
LH: No, it has had 32 cuts in the UK. Although it has been cut for cinema distribution in the US, IFC intend to release an unrated 'directors cut' version on DVD/Blu ray. Unfortunately Bounty/Eureka don't have that option in the UK, but I must take my hat off to them, they've been really supportive of the film, and were willing to go up against the BBFC. In Australia, Bounty is able to release the uncut version for cinema and home video.
DR: What types of films do you seek out? Are you a horror fan at all?
LH: Absolutely! I'd describe myself as a film fan, with an interest in extreme cinema. I want film to affect me in some way, provoke me intellectually, emotionally, viscerally. I want a film to bore me to tears but still transfix me, to appal me, disturb me, to charm me so much that I come out of the cinema feeling lighter on my toes with a big stupid grin on my face. So, whilst I wouldn't call myself a horror fan per se (I don't think it's a great loss if I haven't seen every PG-13 remake of classic horror films, or US studio remakes of wonderful foreign-language horror films), I do love the transgressive qualities of the classics. From Edison's version of FRANKENSTEIN through to Shion Sono's COLD FISH (Tsumetai Nettaigyo), horror has been one of my favourite genres.
But, I'm also a big fan of silent films (especially Anna Mae Wong and Louise Brooks), arthouse films (I love Béla Tarr, Jacques Demy, Warner Herzog, Guy Maddin, et al.), and Japnese pinku eiga and Pinky Violence films from the 60s and 70s.
DR: Any plans for the immediate future? More films perhaps, or is there anything you're working on that you'd like to talk about?
LH: After filming THC2, I performed in a recreation of Stuart Sherman's Hamlet. Stuart was a New York performance artist who I met a few times. Since his death, my friend Robin Deacon, who now teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago, has been interviewing people who knew and worked with him for a documentary. Robin was influenced by Stuart's work, as was I, and when Robin got the opportunity to re-create this piece he asked me to take Stuart's role. So there are some clips from the piece on YouTube.
Also, I'm shooting an American satire in the States early next year. It's a film that (hopefully) will appeal to genre fans.
DR: Finally, is there anything you'd like to say to the HUMAN CENTIPEDE fans out there and horror fans in general?
LH: I hope you like the film. I hope you like what Tom has done with the look and feel of this second film. And, I hope that you like my portrayal of Martin.
You will need a strong stomach. I think some people that enjoyed the first film won't enjoy this film, but equally, there will be people that didn't see, or didn't enjoy the first film, that will enjoy this. And I do think it is one of those films where you go with some friends, and then discuss over drinks afterwards. Yeah…, drinks, not food.
I've got a couple of convention dates booked in for next year, so don't be afraid to come up and chat (unlike Martin I am warm, friendly and articulate).
Lastly, some reviewers have said that Martin, being fat and socially inept, is somehow indicative of Tom's disdain of fandom. I don't think that is the case at all. I think having somebody with my (current) body-shape is more playing to the tabloid's stereotype of fandom. Having previously worked for a number of years in a comic shop, as well as having attended a number of festivals, and meeting fans since the film opened, I have always found horror fans to be intelligent and enthusiastic, and even those that appear to conform to the stereotype, are, in person, generally warm, generous and witty people.
Now comic-book fans on the other hand…(laughs)
DR: Laurence, thanks a bunch for your time. Congratulations on the film and best of luck to you. Stay in touch!
LH: I'm sorry it has taken me longer than expected to get the replies back to you, it's just the annoying way its set-up here.
Apologies if I've rambled.
Hey, Aaron, just keep up the good work. It's a great blog. And thanks for all your kind wishes.