Interview: 'I Am Not A Serial Killer' Star Christopher Lloyd On Playing Monsters And Leaving A Legacy

I saw I Am Not a Serial Killer at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year and it was one of the most pleasant surprises of the fest. A throwback horror movie that never feels the need to wink or nudge, Billy O'Brien's film is slick, sick, and deeply interested in the humanity that lurks behind a monster (and vice versa). It also features the great Christopher Lloyd in his best role in years, playing the elderly neighbor and friend to a teenage sociopath who finds himself pursuing a serial killer in his rural town.

I was able to speak with Mr. Lloyd for a brief phone interview to discuss his work in I Am Not a Serial Killer, but we also managed to chat about the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, playing a Klingon, and how his first copy of the Back to the Future screenplay ended up in the trashcan.

And Lloyd's not shy about giving away many of I Am Not a Serial Killer's twists and turns, so I've marked the first part of our conversation with a spoiler warning. Feel free to skim past that if you plan to see the film.

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Looking over your recent filmography, you're doing a lot of work in movies, television, and voiceover work. You're keeping busy. So how did this movie cut through all of that and get your attention? How did it come your way?

It's an Irish contingent with the director and producer and other people involved. They got in touch with my agent, who called me and sent me the script. I read it and I just fell in love with it. I thought it was a very special kind of original script in the genre. I loved the character they wanted me to play. It's a kind of an odd, complicated guy and I was very happy to do it.

You've played a lot of villains over the years and many of them have been more outlandish and cartoonish villains. This guy is a lot more complex and you understand why he does what he does. How do approach a character like that?

It's important that he comes across as a human so we don't suspect him of being the villain, so to speak. I had the feeling that here was a guy who really does not understand his history, his past. His past, I think, goes back thousands of years. He's some sort of anomaly. Maybe aliens dropped him or he got lost in the cosmos and ended up on our planet. He's evolved to the point where, in order to remain living, he has to replace body parts that are aging. He's met this woman and it's the first time he's ever known or had any notion of the concept of love, but he's totally fallen in love with her. He can't bear the thought of dying, of leaving her alone and not being able to be with her. So he does everything he can to keep living, however nasty that gets. I felt that he's a very decent human being! He's evolved. But there's this trait he carries with him genetically from maybe thousands of years ago that he doesn't understand. He doesn't know where he's come from. As somebody said recently, he's an enigma to himself.

He is a very complex character. Since so many people know you from iconic roles like Doctor Emmett Brown, is it satisfying to play a role so small and mysterious? 

Yes! I love the challenge to make him real and believable and credible at the same time within the bounds and the reality [of the film]. Which is something that attracted me to this film. He lives in a normal...he does all the normal things. His wife and he socialize and go out to restaurants and all that. He's a wild card. He's really out there. I was interested in keeping him human and not giving away his awful self, so to speak. I like the challenge. Every role I get is always a challenge. I can read a script and say "Oh, I can do that!" and then when I start working on it, I suddenly realize that I had no idea what I was getting into. Then I have to really work hard! It's okay.

***End I Am Not a Serial Killer Spoilers***

Back to the Future

Was that your experience early on? Your first film role was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where you're surrounded by other actors who would be famous within a decade. Did that feel like a film acting clinic after your stage work?

Cuckoo's Nest was my first film and I had wanted to do film for some time, but somehow I had not clicked. I would go in for interviews or readings and I never had the sense that I was anywhere near what they were looking for. Cuckoo's Nest came along and I was cast and that was great, but it was my first film, so I felt like I was kind of walking around on the set as Walk-On A. I was expecting [director Milos Forman] to come up to me and say, "Chris, we love you but it's just not working" and send my back to New York. It was a learning process.

And then you did Taxi and won a few Emmys, but then you immediately start landing work in bigger movies. You're Doc in Back to the Future. You're a Star Trek movie villain. Was that whiplash?

It felt good. [Laughs] I don't know what they saw in me that convinced them I would be a good Klingon. I'm not sure. Honestly, I don't know myself well. I just did not see where that came from. I loved it. I loved his whole deal. The make-up, the costume, and his sensibility. This evilness! He's willing to destroy civilization just to get his own way. He doesn't care. There's no morality to this guy. That's kind of fun to play once in awhile.

There's a story I've heard about how you first threw the script to Back to the Future in the trash and your wife had to convince you to take the part.

She was a girlfriend. She wasn't my wife. But yeah, I had come out from New York and I had done Cuckoo's Nest and an agent called me from L.A. and wanted to sign me up and I hadn't had any success getting signed up in New York. It was a good agent. I came out from New York and I was working pretty constantly in New York, either in regional theater or summer stock or whatever. I came out and I went for about eight months without anything happening. I decided I had to go back to New York. That's where my roots are, that's what I know, I'm losing my momentum in the theater while I'm out here trying to get momentum going in film and that's not happening. This was before Taxi.

I happened to be on a little independent film shooting in Mexico City and while I was there, my agent sent me a script. The Back to the Future script. I was already committed to a play back in New York about Hans Christian Andersen, where Colleen Dewhurst was going to play my mother. I was excited about that and I got this script called Back to the Future and I thumbed through it. Didn't pay a hell of a lot of attention. Yes, I let it slip into the wastepaper basket and my lady friend at the time said that I never used to do that. No matter what was sent to me, I would check it out. Take the subway downtown or whatever, just to make sure there's something there I shouldn't do. I took the script back out, read it over some more, went back to the L.A. and had a meeting with Bob Zemeckis and that was that.

A lot of people are going to seek out I Am Not a Serial Killer because they know you and like you from your famous characters. Are you at peace with everyone remembering you as Doc, even as you keep on taking on very different characters? Or does that bother you?

Not at all! I loved it. I'm happy for people to see it. I think they made a good film. It's very well written and I think everyone in it does really well. I'm proud of it. I hope it has a lot of success and will become a contribution to the genre.

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I Am Not a Serial Killer is open now in limited release and available on VOD.