Tyler Labine rocketed to genre fame with the cult-following of the horror/comedy Tucker and Dale vs Evil. Alongside Alan Tudyk, Labine brought innocence, humor, and authenticity to a now beloved classic. His career as a character actor has much grander scope than many realize. He’s had parts in Flyboys, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Monsters University, and Super Troopers 2. He is also a series regular on NBC’s New Amsterdam.
The actor let us pick his brain about the largest role he’s had in a mainstream feature and also opened up about working with a collaborative director like Adam Robitel, as well as bonding with cast mates like Deborah Ann Woll, Logan Miller, and Jay Ellis. Keep reading to find out which movie “scares the sh*t” out of the veteran actor. Escape Room is currently available of Blu-ray/DVD.
WH: I spoke to Adam (Robitel) just a few days ago and let him know how much I dug the film. He was great to talk to and I’m sure you will be as well. I wanted to start off with the cast; I know it’s a mainstream film, but just six main actors is a relatively small cast. How quickly did you guys click together and did Adam give you guys any sort of bonding experiences?
Tyler Labine: I would say going to spend 11 weeks together in a vacuum in South Africa was a bonding experience. We were also there three weeks prior to shooting; rehearing a lot, going out to dinners, meetings, and just exploring South Africa together. It was an important element and I think that was all Adam’s doing.
The script was good. What am I saying? The script was really good but having the six main players being people who were really into collaboration was huge. There was a lot of improv or editing on the fly and we’d all go home and rewrite scenes, which is not very–that’s not normal. Many directors make sure that actors don’t do that [chuckles], but it was a really cool, neat collaborative experience. It made us all feel a much more proprietary sense of being there and what our roles should be.
WH: That leads me to my next question. The movie didn’t really have any weak links in the cast. Do you attribute this to excellent casting or were you able to help and play off each other?
Tyler Labine: I would say that casting a movie like this is probably one of the most critical things that they did. They could have gone and cast it really hastily; cast it with people who had no experience or weren’t as collaborative as we. I don’t know how much they knew about our work ethic, but I know they knew we were very experienced.
I think they sort of went for substance over aesthetic; not that anyone is unattractive in the cast, except for me. They just did an amazing job with the casting, and I can’t say enough about how Adam let us run with things. It made us feel like we could really give our input without the suits standing next to us with their axes drawn.
WH: When I brought the cast up to him [Robitel], he couldn’t speak highly enough about you guys.
Tyler Labine: We had fun. There was a lot of tension in and around the film, like any shoot, but I think we all left going, “That was neat. That was an amazing life experience.”
WH: Which of the rooms really left you most in a state of awe when you first saw it? Which set really just made you appreciate the scope?
Tyler Labine: Well, we shot on the lobby set, initially. You should have seen that set. We were in there for nine or ten days and it was just so well crafted. It’s like being a kid who grabs the first piece of candy set in front of them. You’re like, “I want that one,” but then each next set you go to you’re like, “Holy sh*t, look at that one!”
By the time we got to the upside-down room I think all of us, unanimously, were like, “This is next level sh*t.” I’ve never seen a set with that attention to detail. I mean those floor panels really had to drop. We were elevated off the floor by about six feet. We were all in harnesses and the set was rigged with all these moving pieces! Even the bottles had the liquid floating to the top of them. I knew that production design alone, this movie was going to get some attention.
WH: I think you just answered my next question as to which was the most physically demanding of the rooms.
Tyler Labine: Oh, no, that one wasn’t. I’d say the winter room was the most challenging by a long shot. That space was about a third the size of what it looked like on screen. Also, despite what it looks like, it is not cold in there. We’re actually in a studio in South Africa during one of the hottest times of the year.
We’re wearing parkas as we’re using every muscle in our body to try and it make it seem like we’re cold. What’s actually happening, is we’re sweating our as*’s off as people are getting headaches and dehydrated. Trying to pretend like you’re freezing for nearly three weeks gets you worn out. I actually ended up getting stitches because I busted open my hand trying to break the ice after Danny falls through. I decided, because I’m such a method actor, to punch the ice. I did it the first time and was like, “that’s rad,” so I kept doing it and by the fourth or fifth take my knuckle split open and there was blood all over the ice.
WH: I think you now rival Leo DiCaprio breaking the skull and bleeding everywhere in Django Unchained.
Tyler Labine: Yeah, I wouldn’t say it rivals that because that moment in the movie is cool as hell. He was bleeding like a motherf*cker; I just had this big bloody open knuckle. It never even made it in the movie, which is unfortunate. They had it in there for a long time, but then they realized it didn’t make sense for my character to do that [chuckle]. But, you know, it felt like a good idea at the time!
That room was a brutal environment. By the time we were done with the ice room, everyone was like, “That’s it. I don’t want to do this anymore.” Then we moved to the upside-down room and everyone was like, “Yay, this is fun again!”
WH: Another thing I brought up with Adam is how reserved your character is. Obviously in Tucker and Dale vs Evil you showed that you had comedic chops. In Escape Room you had a few one liners, but most of it was played relatively conservatively. Was this something you and Adam decided upon consciously?
Tyler Labine: You have to keep in mind, I never want to play a character the same. I found out right before shooting that they wanted him to be southern, I didn’t know that. Adam was like, “I think this guy needs to be from like, Virginia. Can you do that?” and I was like, “Fine, I guess I’ll just do a gentle one.” I didn’t want to be too much ‘Dale’, you know.
The character, Mike, on paper, really wasn’t too much there. In fact, it was talked about between Adam and I before I even got there that he was really banking on me sort of bring the character to life. He really wanted to encourage me that when we got there, if I thought of something, go for it. Of course, you have to kind of do that respectfully because there’s other actors in the scene, but once we got a feel for it, we were good; especially Nik Dodani and Logan Miller, they were always game to play.
I’d say about 60% of what you see from me in the movie, was stuff I wrote or made up. All that, “Well, we just gotta do this five more times” most of what I said were things that I just come up with on the fly. Mostly, because I wanted to keep Mike alive.
WH: I think the conservativeness of Mike really helped. Sometimes if all someone is doing is quipping, you don’t believe they’re a real person in a real perilous situation.
Tyler Labine: Exactly. When I say I ad-libbed, I don’t mean always quipping, but more so adding to the character. I wasn’t always looking for the joke, because I’m like you, I hate that. If you’re quipping and not advancing the plot or the character, I think it’s super self-indulgent and wonky; I hate it.
WH: I know it’s not necessarily horror, but Mike was often in pretty grave danger. Did you find it easy or difficult to play “scared?”
Tyler Labine: You know, It’s funny. It starts out being really fun. It’s almost like being a kid, like playing pretend. Then you realize, “Sh*t. I’m about to do this for ten weeks.” I think it was about week three that everyone was finally like, “Well, guess I’m just having nightmares now.” I was falling asleep feeling tense. I was waking up feeling tense. I couldn’t’ shake that state; my brain was like, “We gotta just stay there. Just stay in that place so that it’s real enough.”
WH: Well, we’re running out of time, so I want to ask one last question. Being a site that focuses so heavily on horror, I like to ask all the actors, directors, writers, and everyone we interview to give me one horror movie that is either your favorite or one that you think has been criminally overlooked as of late.
Tyler Labine: Absolutely. My favorite psych-thriller/horror, which I think sort of kicked off this resurgence of psych-thrillers, is a movie called Session 9.
WH: You’re kidding me. That’s the exact same movie Adam gave me when I asked him!
Tyler Labine: Is it really! Well, it’s this crazy movie about these guys who need to go do construction on this old psych hospital. It’s just so well-crafted and scared the sh*t out of me; and it still does. It’s simple; there’s no big effects or anything. It’s really just a psychological f*ck you. I love movies like that, like Jacob’s Ladder, like movies that make you just feel weird afterwards.
WH: It’s not horror, but Requiem for a Dream is always my go-to “f*ck you up” movie.
Tyler Labine: Exactly. Requiem for a Dream is like a flashier version of that sort of, “We’re just going to tap dance on your brain for a while.” Maybe it’s because I saw Session 9 not knowing anything about it, but my wife and I left the theatre and we were both like, “We need to go do something fun right now or we may just end up dying.”
WH: Well, Tyler. It’s been a joy talking to you and I appreciate you diving into the film with us!
Tyler Labine: Of Course! Take care.
Check out Tyler in Escape Room, currently available on Blu-ray/DVD.