No Exit Actor Dennis Haysbert On His First Thriller And Watching Robert De Niro In Heat [Interview]

Dennis Haysbert has built his career playing authority figures. Whether depicting one of the best fictional presidents in history on "24," the stern dean of Winchester University in the movie version of "Dear White People," or God himself on "Lucifer," he's proven to be one of the most reliable character actors in the business. "No Exit," the new thriller that debuted on Hulu this past weekend, sees him team up for the first time with fellow veteran character actor Dale Dickey, who plays his wife in the film. The two play a pair of travelers who are snowed-in at a mountainside visitor center, and when the protagonist discovers a kidnapped girl in a van outside, they immediately become suspects.

"I've never done a thriller before," Haysbert told /Film in a recent interview, almost sounding a little incredulous that he's never been a part of a project like this. We spoke about the benefits of filming the movie in sequence, the "raw" and "kind of refreshing" set piece where the movie ratchets to another level, and what he remembers about working on the set of Michael Mann's classic crime flick, "Heat." 

But be warned: to talk about "No Exit" with any depth requires spoilers, so tread carefully as you read on.

'The script was written so tightly that all you had to do was just play the moments'

You've had and continued to have such a terrific career, and I imagine a lot of projects probably come your way. I was curious if there's something specific about this one that really drew you in.

I've never done a thriller before, so this one was a lot of fun and a welcome challenge. I didn't know it when I got the role, but when we finally got to the visitor center and started filming there, we learned that we were going to shoot it in sequence. And I said, "Oh man, this is going to be great. This is like doing a play and a movie at the same time." So I said, "Okay. Let's go. Let's rock."

Since the true nature of your character isn't revealed until later, I was curious if there were little moments that you wanted to subtly pepper throughout the early part of the movie to try to tip your hand one way or the other. Filming in sequence must have added a whole additional angle for you.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you could stay in the moment because you didn't know ... I mean, you knew, but [your character] didn't know what was coming up next, so you had to play the moment and play that as honestly as you could, and just let it flow. Everyone was so, so good at doing that. It was really special to watch.

Did you have conversations with Damien about the arc of this character, and things to do along the way to maybe head fake the audience here and there?

Didn't have to. The script was written so tightly that all you had to do was just play the moments. As things came up and materialized, then you could react honestly to what was going on. Because there's a lot of things we weren't privy to, that we weren't supposed to be privy to, like all the things that were going on in the back rooms. Man, it was just a blast.

'No two soldiers are the same'

Did you and Dale Dickey meet before filming began to talk about the shared history between your characters?

Before we started filming, yes. When we finally broke out of quarantine, we met, we had a couple of sessions with Damien, our director, and we got to know each other because this was the first time we had met, and the chemistry was perfect from the gate. Just absolutely adore this lady. We had so much fun playing our chess and playing kind of a figurative tennis.

You've played a lot of different types of people in your career, but this is a very specific guy. Was there any particular research you did for how to embody a guy like Ed?

Well, I could only say that I've played so many similar characters that I could pull from experience. I played a number of military guys over the years, and no two of them are the same. I've met a lot of soldiers, I've had five USO trips to Afghanistan and Iraq, and no two soldiers are the same. Everybody's acting each according to their gifts. Ed is nowhere like Jonas from "The Unit," they're two completely different soldiers. There were two distinctly different traumas that they've gone through. [Ed] had some PTSD, and as the movie progresses, he gets to exorcize some demons. He gets to feel sane and he gets to feel some worth again.

When you think back on your experience of making this movie, is there one moment that jumps to mind first? It doesn't even have to be a moment when the cameras were rolling. It could be a conversation between takes or a joke on the set or anything. What's the first memory that pops into your head?

The first thing that pops into my head is how much fun we had as a cast, and how even through all that intensity, we still managed to take the seriousness off sometimes when the cameras were not rolling and just have some fun. That fun came through the game of poker. David, Danny, and I would play some seven stud, and even Havana got in on it a little bit. Damien was too ensconced in what he was doing, and little Mila, well, it would just be abusive to take money from a child. [laughs] But what a great time we had. We would all hang out and go and have dinners together, and we did a lot of group activity, which is very rare. Because usually in these kind of casts, everybody goes their separate ways to deal with whatever they're dealing with in order to shoot a movie this intense.

'Okay. All right. We're going there'

I want to ask you about a scene that you're not in. When you were reading the script for the first time, what did you think about the moment where Darby's hand gets nailed to the wall? Was that a surprise to you that the movie would go there? Because I think up until that point, it hadn't really gotten to that level of intensity, but that kicked it to a different level.

That was raw. And I said, "Oh, you going there. Hey, it's not a popcorn movie. This is real stakes right now." I think it was kind of refreshing in a way to see. I said, "Okay. All right. We're going there." So after that, nothing surprised me.

Do you have any stories from the set of "Heat" that you can share? That must have been quite the experience for you.

The first thing that comes up from "Heat" is, oh my God, is watching De Niro prepare and standing in the middle of that little restaurant. It just seemed like a flurry of activity going all around him, and he just seems so grounded in that moment. I just said, "I'm watching one of the most brilliant actors alive work here," and he was just in his own head. Ever see those movies where it looks like everything's speeding around, but you're standing absolutely still? That was Robert De Niro right there. I was just mesmerized.

"No Exit" is currently streaming on Hulu.