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Interview with Chris L. McKenna, Star of King of the Ants

By Jim Harper

How did you come to play the part of Sean?

It was an audition two years ago when I met Stuart Gordon. A friend of mine told me I had to read the script. It was incredible. I read it over and over again. I read it three times the night I got it, drinking coffee at an all-night diner. I just couldn't put it down. I was so in love with the idea of being able to portray this character. I'd never seen anything like it before. I'm really not just saying that. I've read a lot of scripts, some of them good, some not, and some characters I like, some I don't. But I've never been affected by a character like I was with this one. I was never so positive I had to play a role as this one. I waited by the phone and found out that I was cast about 20 minutes before the start of the read through. I ran out the door and went down to meet Stuart, Ron, George, Vernon, and Lonnie and everybody else who was there at the read through. I was very nervous. They were all waiting for me because they knew they had all been cast and were waiting to see who was cast as the lead and in comes this lumbering Irishman with a silly grin on his face [laughing]. We had the read through and at the end, apparently, George [Wendt] went to Stuart and said, "I think this guy's pretty good." We started filming the next day. It was a great experience.

Stuart Gordon is one of the most respected independent directors around today. What was it like working for him?

Stuart was a great guy the minute I met him. I could tell he had a great energy about him and he really responded to what I was doing. We were really on the same page as far as where this character should go and how he should be portrayed. He kept the energy high around the set. He was always smiling, always happy and there were plenty of times he could have flipped his lid. But he always kept his cool. He was never rattled and we all took our cue from him and kicked out a movie that I'm very proud of in 24 days. I don't know if there are a whole lot of directors out there that could have accomplished that.

With the dubious exception of House, George Wendt isn't well known for his serious roles. How did you find it working opposite him?

First of all, I don't want to hear any more knocking of House. I'm a fan of that movie and a fan of his work in it. I'll see if I can forgive you [laughing]. George also played a heavy in another horror movie with Arliss Howard. I had seen him play evil characters -- even in the Michael Jackson video with Macaulay Culkin, he's rather scary and menacing. So I knew he had it in him. Besides, the fact he's been nominated for more Emmy's than I have fingers. That doesn't happen without some versatility and a fully capable actor. I wasn't surprised at all to see how scary he could be and let me tell you, he's a powerful man. You see him slam me against the van -- that was real. The guy picked me up two or three times in the film and I'm not so light. I wasn't surprised about what he could pull off and he was terrifying as I knew he would be. Off the set, he's such a great guy and a sweet and humble man: his wife invited me over for dinner, and we got stuck in a car together and bitched at his GPS satellite system for a couple of hours [laughing], and we wandered through the California hills. George is a friend now, and I'm glad to know him.

You've stated that this is your most challenging role so far. How did you prepare for playing such an extreme role? Was it hard working with the makeup?

It certainly was challenging. I kept to myself a lot, I shaved my head and I looked very strange and frightening to most people. I didn't have any social life whatsoever -- it was impossible with the schedule we were on. Also, I think it helped with the character. Sean was a loner, so I was going to be a loner. I was doing all the Meisner Method stuff I could think of because I was very excited and exhilarated, but nervous, about playing this role. So I spent a lot of time on myself. I did a lot of soul searching, had a lot of nightmares. The biggest part was trusting Stuart that he wouldn't let me fall and he would know what to do, and how to get the performance out of me that the role in the movie deserved. Working with the makeup was another challenge that I never had to deal with before. With the makeup on, it was amazing the transformation that you make. You can't help but look in the mirror and see how you look and you watch your posture change -- the way you move, the way you talk, everything is affected. It really turned out to be a great tool for playing Sean. Of course, it was very sweaty, sticky and uncomfortable, hot and annoying. Other than that, it was a blessing.

Critics are already hailing King of the Ants as one of the most intense films of recent years. How do you feel about that?

I'm proud to have been a part of the most intense film in recent years. The script is amazing and Charles Higson is a genius, as is Stuart Gordon. To be able to work with the two of them and to be able to create this with them was an honor, a challenge, and a privilege. It certainly is intense and difficult for some people and it does take a strong stomach. But, I think if you could look past the violence and if you really get the movie, you'll see that there's more to it than just that. And there's some deep character development in this that's really at the heart of the film and what makes it a special film. Not just the violence, which gets all the attention. For the brave souls, I think there's a very deep and satisfying movie behind all that.

Primarily because of Stuart Gordon's background, King of the Ants is finding quite an audience among horror fans. Are you a fan of horror films? Do you have any favorites?

I love horror films. I'm a film buff all around. My favorite horror film of all time is The Stepfather, no question. My dad made me watch it when I was younger. Terry O'Quinn's performance was absolutely riveting and one of a kind. Actually, my first paying job ever was singing the theme song to The Stepfather II. I was extremely excited at the prospect and I was very honored to be a part of that franchise. It turned out, later on, Terry O'Quinn played my father in a pilot I did for UPN called The Contender. We got along great and I got to tell him all my feelings about his film and performance and how wonderful he was and that I was, in some small way, a part of the success of those films. That was a great experience to be able to work with him and I hope to again in the future. But The Stepfather really affected me deeply. When he beats that psychiatrist over the head with a two-by-four, it's really hard to sit still. It's really a powerful scene in more ways than one and that's what I always remember about that film.

Where will you go from here? Do you plan to keep working in independent cinema?

I've always said that if I can make a living working in independent films that I was really passionate about, I would be a happy man. The next film I'm doing is an independent with Terry Zwigoff called Art School Confidential. I'm very excited to be a part of his movie also written by Daniel Clowes. Together they created Crumb and Ghost World, so this movie should be of that caliber and that's a very exciting prospect for me. I'm interested in studio projects as well. But independent film holds a special place for me and I'd love to be able to have a few more forays into it before my time here is done.

Can you tell the readers in your own words what they can expect from King of the Ants?

You can expect to be surprised and, I hope, to care about a guy who has so few redeeming qualities. I think that's what's so interesting in the film and the script is that you find yourself rooting for a cold-blooded murderer simply because of how well you get to know him and how you can understand him. I think those who can stomach the violence will find at the end a very interesting reaction that you may not be able to explain to anyone else on paper. It's the kind of movie you have to see to believe and to appreciate. You can expect to have some fun, have a few laughs, to be appalled at certain times, and at the end, to be a little shocked, but satisfied at how it all turns out.

Article published 07.07.2004.

Read Jim Harper's review of King of the Ants.



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