Barry Pepper On Battling Imaginary Alligators And Internal Demons In 'Crawl' [Interview]

"Here's a little Easter egg for you guys," Barry Pepper said without preamble to our table at the Crawl press junket in the Long Island Aquarium. The actor launched into a biblical passage for MATT 725, which is the license plate for his character Dave's truck in the film. "'And the rain descended and the floods came, and the wind blew and beat upon the house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock,'" he read from a notebook. "You have to keep that one to yourselves, if anyone finds it. Just write about our day and how we got our arms ripped off," the actor said with a wink.

Often cast as hard-edged soldiers or stern government agents, Crawl's Dave Keller is a dramatically different turn for Pepper. Straddling the line between deadbeat dad and blue-collar survivor, Dave is the impetus for Crawl's plot — the first character to make a series of exceedingly dumb decisions that are then met with surprising resourcefulness. But that's what drew Pepper to the role, and ultimately to his first horror movie in his 25-year career.

"I had never been involved in a thriller or horror film before, so that was a completely new genre for me. But I really, I liked the balance of it, I like the fact that it was anchored in this relationship between father and daughter, and I could identify with them as a family. They were just kind of regular blue-collar Floridians, you know, dealing with a modern environmental disaster, and that seems to be something that we're all pretty familiar with these days, and so I felt like it was anchored in realism in that respect."

When Dave goes missing in the middle of an evacuation order during a Category 5 hurricane, his estranged daughter Haley (Kaya Scodelario) goes looking for him, only to find him unconscious in the crawlspace of their old family home — trapped with the bloodthirsty alligator that attacked him. Throughout the thrilling creature feature directed by Alexandre Aja, Dave takes exceedingly harsh physical punishment; surviving bites and broken legs, all while slowly mending his relationship with the daughter he drove away during his divorce. It's the focus on this intimate character drama between father and daughter that may surprise viewers, but supplies the core emotional anchor to the film. "We were in this very claustrophobic, confined space, just working one on one," Pepper described. "That's what really attracted me to the script, was that father-daughter relationship that I could identify with," adding:

"They're estranged because of a divorce in the family, and my character Dave is quite emotionally broken when we first meet him, physically and emotionally broken when we first meet him. He feels like he has failed his family, and doesn't have a great relationship with his daughter, so they're trying to heal and bond and buoy each other to survive. So I thought it was really interesting in that the narrative felt flipped to me, because every other movie you see, it's a father trying to save his daughter. And I really liked that it was a daughter trying to save her father, and it was really fresh. That's really why I signed on. And then the film becomes its own animal, but yeah, that's what I really liked about the script."

Pepper and Scodelario had worked together on the Maze Runner films before, but their characters never crossed paths. The close, claustrophobic quarters and uncomfortable conditions of being submerged in cold water provided the perfect setting for the pair to grow the central relationship in Crawl. Scodelario particularly impressed him, Pepper said, in the emotionally-charged scenes that were arguably more difficult than the alligator-fighting stunts. "That probably had to have been the most difficult scenes, would be the emotional scene work," Pepper said. "Because you can't just act your way through those; they have to come from a really raw, honest place. But it was really lovely working with her again, because she's a gamer, she really went for it. You don't meet a lot of young actresses like that, that are willing to go that far, and I was really impressed with her."

But whether we saw the full extent of Pepper and Scodelario's character drama is up in the air, as Pepper noted, like Scodelario, that many of those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. "There was far more of the character relationships in the first draft of the script, but once you start putting the film together, you realize the pace, it just can't slow down for some of the more nuanced dialogue pieces," Pepper said. "I think this fan base expects a pretty fast and wild ride, which is great, and I think the film is tight, and it's just a popcorn-crunching thrill ride, as opposed to it being weighed down by too much character development and emotion and conversation."

But character drama was something that Pepper, who has starred in prestige films like Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, and True Grit, was used to. It was the action stuff that he was looking forward to. "The gator work was sort of the cherry on top for me," Pepper said. Pepper had to undergo months of "endurance training" to get him in shape to swim in, hold his breath for long periods of time, and open his eyes underwater in green swamp water. "It's mostly about being comfortable being upside down in sort of a washing machine of water and chaos and not choking," Pepper joked.

Despite the alligators being CGI creations, the rest of the film was as real as it could get, with the production building "massive football-field-sized soundstages" the size of an Everglades town, complete with gas stations, houses, floating cars, and 5 million liters of water in the middle of Serbia:

"It was challenging and innovative in that sense, and still highly entertaining, that part of it, so the grueling, sort of punishing fight camp underwater for two months in a swamp was balanced by the entertainment of working with the gator effects and the dog training and the hurricane weather. That all kept it, that keeps you in the game, you know, because otherwise you'd just be soaking went for two months and miserable, you know?"

But for Pepper, one of the highlights of being miserable and wet for two months was being able to work with the dogs that played Dave and Haley's family dog Sugar. But it was an aspect of the film that actually made Pepper the most nervous beforehand, the actor admitted, recounting a film that he shot with Mira Sorvina in which he was bitten in the face by a dog. "And so I was really quite nervous about working with these dogs in Serbia, that they were just sort of hounds, they weren't any specialized breed or anything," Pepper said. But despite a tense start, Pepper quickly befriended JoJo, the main dog that played Sugar. Which was essential for the film — a sequence in which Pepper has to carry Sugar across a huge body of water while the eye of the storm looms above them could have easily resulted in another face bite. "I have to pick her up in some of the most haywire conditions, in a boat capsizing, in the hurricane winds, and the levees break and the wind machines and the rain machines, and we're screaming and there's gator attacks. So she needed to be really comfortable in my arms, like she was my own dog, so that was pretty cool—to build that relationship and not get bit in the face!"

No such bites occurred during the making of Crawl, but those past dog bites and animal-related injuries throughout Pepper's career helped him ease into the role of the most resilient Floridian with an absurd amount of injuries.

"For me, just in terms of me replicating what it was like to get bitten, I've been kicked by horses, bitten by dogs, and all kinds of things, so you just have to really employ your imagination in those sequences," Pepper said, laughing.

Crawl is playing in theaters now.