'Creepshow' Star Jeffrey Combs On Playing An Evil Nazi Battling American Werewolves During World War II [Set Visit Interview]

With 136 film and television credits to his name, Jeffrey Combs has proven himself to be one of the most reliable and fascinating character actors of the past few decades. But to horror fans, he's nothing short of a legend. With credits that include Re-Animator, Bride of Re-Animator, From Beyond, The Frighteners and so much more, he's a natural fit for Shudder's revival of Creepshow. When we visited the set earlier this year, we were able to watch Combs at work in a story titled "Bad Wolf Down," where he plays a Nazi officer who messes with the wrong squad of American G.I.s. Because they're werewolves, you see.

We weren't able to speak to Combs on the set (because he was too busy filming, including a particularly gnarly final showdown with a werewolf), but we were able to chat with him on the phone a few weeks later, were he dished about the new show and his long history with the horror genre.

Note: this interview was conducted over the phone with a number of other journalists.

One of the things I loved about observing the set was just how familial it felt. I think at one point, there was a great conversation about Frankenhooker, and everyone was just having fun. I know you and Greg Nicotero have a past together – I believe Bride of Reanimator might have been your first time, but I just wanted to know how did you get involved with Creepshow?

Well, very simply, I get a text from [executive producer Greg Nicotero]. I've known Greg for quite a while, since, as you say, Bride of Reanimator, and he's always been such a mensch and loose and full of good will and accessible no matter how much incredible success he's had. I've worked with him a number of times over the years. I even pointed out to him, he did a little short some years ago, he was wanting to put his foot into being considered for directing. He did a little short called Monsters Inc. or something like that. It was almost like a promo, like a display of what he could do, and he asked me to be in that and I was happy to be asked. I love Greg. So he texted me and said, 'Would you be interested in this?' and it's evolved pretty quickly from that. I was pretty excited about it. You say something about the set and how full of ease and good will it is, and I think that's all attributable to Greg. He's accessible and there's a good vibe on his sets.

Even though there's a good vibe, it was clear that the set was not quite chaotic, but a very fast, down-and-dirty shoot. How did this compare to some of the other horror projects you've worked on over the years, both low budget and big budget?

The thing that sort of struck me, and I told Greg about this, this stuff you can kind of get bogged down in – 'Oh my God, how do we get this? What do we do?' – but Greg, I've known him since before he was directing, and I was just admiring his ability to see the lay of the land and come up with a very quick solution to solving three problems all at once. That takes a lot of experience to know how to make your schedule and yet do it in a way that the shots still have quality. So I was deeply impressed with Greg, as well as Bob.

Can you tell us a bit about the character you play in your episode?

Well, sure, I mean, it's the first time I have ever played a Nazi, let alone a Nazi general. That's a first. But that's why I accepted it. I like a challenge, new territory, and I'll tell you, it's kind of chilling to be in that uniform. But the whole look of it kind of came out of discussions with Rob. Of course the costume kind of takes care of itself, but I said, 'Listen, let's crop my hair. Let's just cut it off. That's what these guys would be like.' The one thing I really hate is a period piece and people's hairstyles are not even accurate. It's like one of my pet peeves. Remember the TV show Mash? Mash was supposed to take place during the Korean War, but they all had '70s haircuts. It's kind of like, 'What are we doing here?' So the make up guy, Addison, was just great with that hideous, frightening scar on my cheekbone, and that was something we were really in harmony about. I sort of felt that this was a Nazi who was not a thug, but was probably of German aristocracy and therefore probably went to the finest military academies and it was almost like a badge of honor to have a little fencing scar on your face. It showed that you were tested and prevailed. So we were all on the same page with that. And the mustache, that shitty little mustache. I didn't have much time to grow it, but I did my best.

Going off that, I was wondering, even though the episode has supernatural elements with the werewolves, does a lot of research go into portraying a historical character like a Nazi?

Well, I love history. I've read a lot of books about a lot of eras of history, but of course World War II is kind of front and center if you are interested in history and the tragedies of the modern world. We've all grown up with all kinds of World War II movies and stuff. I just love the idea that this was kind of like horror meeting The Twilight Zone. I had never really thought of or was aware of anything where World War II and werewolves was any kind of a mix, so that was pretty clever.

One of the things that was stressed during our set visit was the importance of the practical, hands-on special effects as opposed to reliance on CGI. How importance is that to you, for Creepshow to represent that? That the show isn't using CGI as a Band-aid, but going back to the more hands-on effects?

When CGI first came about, we have a new tool in the toolbox. It's absolutely amazing and it can be incredibly effective, but you go back and watch some of those movies over the last couple of decades, and they don't hold up so well. They look a little cheesy, so I kind of feel like CGI was a new tool that was just overused. I find it much more captivating to see practical effects. As you know, before there was ever CGI, I did a little movie called Reanimator, which was completely practical effects and clever editing, and it holds up over time. I believe that if CGI had been available back then, it would probably date that movie moreso than it is. Plus, in the good hands of Greg Nicotero, if anybody knows practical effects better than anyone, it's Greg. So I embrace it. I love the idea. I just think CGI kind of hasn't quite found its place on the palette. It is a new tool we have to use, but it's like a new color. OK, you like the new red, but everything you're doing has a lot of red in it now. Can we find another way, too? I like red, but there's other colors? I think it's great that we're doing that.

On that note, I know that in a recent interview with Mick Garris, you said you wanted to be a cartoonist and you were interested in drawing. I wonder if the comic aspect of Creepshow appealed to you in that respect.

I don't necessarily think of it – yeah, when I read the script, I loved all of the capturing of cels and you dissolve in, it's a great way to tell a story graphically, visually dovetail into things by using comic book motifs. It's not quite accurate when you say that I wanted to be a cartoonist. What I was saying with Mick if I recall is that that was sort of my first venue of artistic expression without even knowing it. I was just drawn to picking up a piece of paper and drawing. Even before I ever knew I wanted to be an actor, I wasn't really interested in drawing still lifes, I wasn't interested in the drawing of landscapes. I was more interested in drawing faces. Now that I look back, I realize that it was this unformed fascination that all actors have with human behavior, with character, with what a face says. So in my innocent youth, I was already trying to stumble towards what I finally found as my vocation. I was an OK illustrator, but there were guys that I knew that were like, 'Wow, that's really great,' but I've never been one of those. Thanks for asking.

Just wondering if you could us a bit about what it's like to work with Rob Schrab, and also, what's it like to have a director of your particular episode and then also a sort of overseeing director of the whole series with Greg Nicotero?

It was the best of both worlds. I first met Rob – maybe about a year prior, I had a breakfast meeting with Rob and a couple other people about a potential project. I liked him immediately, and went home and followed him on Twitter as he did me. Our names came up over time, and I was just really honored when Rob told me that he had actually suggested me to Greg. 'What about Jeff Combs for this?' and got the ball rolling. Rob is really a wonderful writer, and I love collaborating with him because it's so great to have a director who also wrote the piece. Because if there are little alterations or adjustments, the committee is already there in one person. He's generous and very supportive. And having Greg there as sort of a backstop, it was just lovely and collaborative. It made it easier for everybody.

Going off of that, what draws you to horror and these roles that you're so well-known for?

I don't know. I suppose the old saying of, 'Know thyself.' I've always been drawn towards...well, let's say, conflicted characters. Characters that maybe ride the line between being good and being not so good. I never play a character thinking, 'I'm a bad guy.' Even if I am the antagonist, I always try to find a legitimate and rational justification for what you might label as bad, but from their point of view is justified. So life and humanity is in the grey area a lot of the time anyway, and it's hard to say if someone is completely good or completely bad. There's always another way of looking at it. Not always. But for most of us, that's sort of the way it is. I do like audiences to walk away from my portrayals thinking, 'I like that guy. Why did I say that? Why did I say I like that guy? Because actually he did some awful things.' Or the other way around. 'What a good guy, but boy, he had some flaws.' Don't we all say that all the time? I guess an actor's purpose is to hold a mirror up to who we all are. Maybe I make it a little more colorful sometimes or a little more theatrical, but that's part of the fun.

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With such a limited time you have being in anthology horror, do you maybe feel like sometimes you have to play it larger than life, or do you approach it differently?

No, I wouldn't say you have to approach it larger than life. When I was on set and I saw the lighting effect in an early scene, I went, 'Wow, this is very theatrical. This is like dark opera or something. They're really going for it. It's not naturalism here. It's kind of broad stroke, bold choices.' And you're right about not having much time. I think that's the most stressful thing about any kind of – be it anthology or just television or cable in general. It's usually last minute, a lot of the time. For instance, I had a mustache, but I didn't really have enough time to do what I wanted to do. And there's the whole stress of will that costume fit? Because we only have one afternoon. Will the shoes fit? Will the hat fit? So many things where you are at the mercy of other people being able to do it in a short period of time to support you. I'm happy to say that on this one, every department was just really honest. But I have been in situations where, 'Those shoes don't fit. Can you deal with it?' That's hard. That just adds stress. But I had a real comfort level here. Everybody did their job so it made mine easier. But there's a lot of stress in a short-term, 'Let's hurry up. Let's do it. You're on board. Let's go.' You kind of have to make quick and instinctual bold choices. Right now. You can't be tentative. So hopefully it came through.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is probably the closest you've been to a Stephen King property. Are you a fan of his work, what are some of your favorite works of his, and are there any stories that you gravitated towards?

You're right. Sure, when I was much younger, I gobbled up a lot of his stories. The Stand, Shining, Pet Sematary. I loved The Shining. And you say I haven't really done any Stephen King and that's true, but a little bit we kind of borrowed from him for Castle Freak. At the beginning of The Shining, that character in the book is a man who's trying to redeem himself from what he's done to ruin his family, so going to this hotel is an opportunity, he thinks, for him to repair his relationships with his family. Of course, the hotel has other plans. In Castle Freak, it's very much that same music. I'm a guy who has done irreparable damage to my family. My choices have killed my son and blinded my daughter. So we go to Italy to inherit this castle and maybe this is something that can heal a broken marriage. What I loved about The [Shining], the book, was that it drew you to that character. You wanted him to succeed. I would say in the movie, that was completely ignored. At least the Kubrick. That was completely ignored. It wasn't deemed an important plot point or conflict. I think that was a mistake, despite all of Kubrick's genius. That was an error, because there was nowhere to go. So we tried to borrow a little of that in Castle Freak, but maybe I played a little bit of Stephen King music there.

Which is your favorite werewolf?

My favorite werewolf? That's a good one. I kind of think werewolves are hard to do. You look back at like Lon Chaney Jr. and everybody was so amazed at that makeup. You look at that now, and it's like, 'Uh, OK. That looks a little stilted and uncomfortable and not very natural.' To tell you the truth, I was standing over that looming werewolf that attacked me, that was pretty spectacular on Creepshow. It was alive. I had never thought of a tall, sleek, pointed nose, looming kind of werewolf before. You usually think it's somebody who's stoop-shouldered, kind of with an underbite. But this was majestic and frightening. That's a tribute to Greg Nicotero's vision, because that thing was just inspiring. The animatronics on it? Wow. So I'd say the one I had a two-shot with. (laughs) Wait 'til you see it, that's all I can say. Well, you guys did see it. But wait 'til the fans see it. It's pretty amazing.

What are you most excited for the fans to see, whether it's in your segment or anything else you've seen filmed?

I'm just excited to be a part of it. Am I mistaken, or was ours the last segment to be shot in the series? I think they wound up production after our hours, or was there another one after that?

I think yours and Tom Savini's were the last ones.

Right. I'm honored about that, my old friend Tom Savini, there. I'm just honored to be part of the mix. I just got a real sense of something really special here with this. I can't wait to see the finished product. I'm betting it's going to be ultra-cool and diverse. I love the horror meets Twilight Zone twists. I really like that. And here's to many more of them – that's what I'm hoping, that they come back and continue this. Fans will eat this up, I think.

Would you come back?

Yes, of course. All they have to do is – they have my phone number. That would be great.

Would you think about calling up Stuart Gordon to join you?

Yeah, I mean any time. I just spoke with Stu last week. He's one of the pinnacles of horror. I would think that's great. I would think it would be a perfect mix there. We'll just have to wait and see about that. That's up to him, right? I had lunch with him last week. I'd love to come back. I have to figure out how to get Shudder in my life. Is that a platform, is that where it's at?

It's a streaming app.

It's a streaming app. I have to get busy with that. I'm not the most tech-savvy guy, so the learning curve begins for me. Thank you all. I appreciate this. Put out the good word everywhere you can. I think fans are excited to be seeing this iteration of it. I've kept my mouth shut about being a part of this. I went to a convention this weekend in Philadelphia, and [someone asked], 'So what have you been doing?' and I had to say, 'You know, I can't tell you. In this day and age of social media, if I told you, everybody would know, so just hang on. Something will be announced.' And I noticed that they announced three actors a couple of weeks ago, so I don't know where I'm at in this roll out, but I imagine at some point, it'll happen. I'm sure all of you will be a part of that, and I appreciate it. And thanks for your interest in asking me some questions. I appreciate it.