You don’t know this, but the only thing I love as much as horror are musicals, so when I got the opportunity to talk to actor, Tony Award-winner, and Broadway star Shuler Hensley I jumped at the chance. Known for his roles in films like Van Helsing, Odd Thomas, The Greatest Showman, “The OA”, and Cruiser as well as Broadway musicals such as Phantom of the Opera, Young Frankenstein, and Oklahoma, Shuler filled us in on a little of everything.
I not only talked with Hensley about his role in the 2004 horror film Van Helsing but also Cruiser, the indie horror thriller from director Randy Ser and writer Sam Hensley Jr. The film follows a killer (Hensley) who after murdering a cop, steals his patrol car and sets off on a night of carnage and terror in a small Georgia town.
Horror Fuel: “I really want to talk to you about your film career, but first, I have to ask you about Broadway. The only thing I love as much as horror movies are musicals.
Shuler Hensley: “What’s your favorite musical?”
Horror Fuel: “I have to say it’s a tie between Phantom of the Opera and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Shuler Hensley: “Oh, those are good ones. I did The Phantom in Germany. I played the phantom and I had to sing it in German.”
Horror Fuel: “Wow!”
Shuler Hensley: “They had a floor orchestra and they built the theater for Phantom. It was pretty amazing.”
Horror Fuel: “I know that had to be amazing! You’ve done so many fantastic shows. I mean you played the monster in Young Frankenstein. That was a great show!”
Shuler Hensley: “It’s funny because my makeup artist on that show just sent me one of those Instagram “10 Years ago” things. He received one and I think it was eleven years ago today that we did a whole segment for one of those news outlets about the makeup. It took about two and a half hours to put it on before every show. But it’s still worth it. I talked to Mel Brooks, who’s now ninety-four I think. I talk to him all the time. He’s still an amazing man, very creative.”
Horror Fuel: “That’s amazing! What does it take to star in a Broadway musical? What goes into it for an actor?”
Shuler Hensley: “It’s interesting because most of my Broadway experience has been as a part of the original cast. Some of these actors come in and replace people. I find that to be amazing because they sort of have to catch up and still be doing the show. I’ve been very fortunate to go through the rehearsals, the whole process, and do the production. It’s usually about six or seven weeks of rehearsal before you even get an audience. So, it’s baby steps you know. It’s reading the script, learning the music, choreography. The choreographer on Young Frankenstein Susan Stroman directed and choreographed it. She also did one of the revivals of The Music Man. She comes from a dancer background. It’s extraordinary when you find choreographers that can make everyone look like they’ve been dancing forever. My mom was a ballet director, so my first experience on stage was in ballet. If you saw me now, six-foot-three and two-fifty, you wouldn’t believe that. That’s how I started. I’ve always been drawn to the stage. It’s meeting and networking and being open to the process and doing the best you can.
People like Mel Brooks – people don’t know this about Mel, but he has a huge musical background. He was a jazz drummer. It is fascinating to me, how music ties into everything, how music and rhythm have such a big part in film and television. Mel Brooks’ jokes are very rhythmical [beat sounds]. It comes from his jazz. It’s an interesting dynamic when you’re building a character if you can associate it with a style of music or a rhythm. It’s incredibly helpful. The monster in Young Frankenstein is “Putting on the Ritz.” That’s a big number that everyone remembers.”
Horror Fuel: “I did not know that about Mel Brooks. As for Young Frankenstein, that number is iconic. It’s like with the Cats’ number “Memories.” You always associate them with each other.”
Shuler Hensley: “Yeah. It’s just a crazy, funny, feel-good kind of show. I don’t tour a lot but I made sure to go on the Young Frankenstein tour because it’s such a part of America.”
Horror Fuel: “Totally. What is like to win a Tony Award? They are so prestigious.”
Shuler Hensley: “It was a phenomenal experience. I started that Oklahoma production in London. I was doing Phantom of the Opera in the 90s – and my wife is British so, on our way home, we decided to go to London to see her family and while I was there, I found out that the National Theater was doing the production and Trevor Dunn, who is the director of Cats and Le Miserables, was directing and we wanted to get it back to Broadway. The role I did, Jud, his sort of the “monster” in the show. There are elements of his character that I think people car relate to.
Getting back to your question, the whole process of the Tony Awards, what I remember most vividly wasn’t necessarily the show itself, but everything leading up to it. We would get to go have special dinners with all the nominees. So I got to hang out with people like Carol Burnett, and all these amazing people involved with theater. Those are the moment I remember the most.”
Horror Fuel: ‘I’m sure it was an amazing experience. The Conjuring actor Patrick Wilson also stars in that production?”
Shuler Hensley: “He does.”
Horror Fuel: “We talked about your role as Frankenstein’s Monster in Young Frankenstein, but you also play the role in the 2004 film Van Helsing, opposite Hugh Jackman. You were so good! And you looked amazing!”
Shuler Hensley: “Yes. Wasn’t it great? Greg Cannom created him. He’s like the Spielberg of makeup departments. He’s extraordinary. He has a couple of Oscars. The makeup took about seven hours. I would shoot all night in Prague. Most of the buildings are like five-hundred years old. You could basically just hang lights and make it look like the set of a monster movie. I would shoot every night, starting at about 10:00 at night and stop around 5:00 in the morning. I would get to make up about 3:00 in the afternoon. I would sit in the chair and watch myself disappear. I wore leg extensions which made me about seven’ four”. These leg extensions had these flexible feet that were designed for amputees. You could run and walk in them. They really felt like a leg. It was an amazing experience to be able to do that character again for Universal Studios.”
Horror Fuel: “How did you get in the headspace to play the monster?”
Shuler Hensley: “What’s interesting is, I, at the time, had seen some interpretations of the character, but I didn’t want to get into a Boris Karloff type, I wanted to go back to the book. What’s interesting about Mary Shelley’s book is that you feel for the monster. It’s like somebody being put on a different planet. It wasn’t so much that he was evil, but that he was an outcast and confused and lonely. I think you do end up feeling for him.
I think what is great about Stephen Sommers, who wrote and directed Van Helsing, was that he was very open to talking about the monster. We actually added a couple of scenes from the original script that was sort of an homage to the book and created the idea that the monster is highly intelligent, is lonely, and actually had a heart. I play a lot of monster type characters but I find that the most effective way to play these characters is to not automatically assume that everything about them is evil. There are things that people can relate to. I feel like that disturbs the audience sometimes more than anything. It’s like Hannibal Lecter, there were elements of that monster that Anthony Hopkins created that people see and makes them wonder if he isn’t so bad.
Horror Fuel: “I’ve never seen Frankenstein’s Monster as a villain. He’s a victim in my eyes that happens to do a few bad things because of his circumstances.”
Shuler Hensley: “Yes, absolutely. I think that’s what’s so interesting about the monster and I think that that’s why he’s lasted so long. He’s just trying to survive. He just wants to be left alone and not persecuted, things that we all would want. I worked with Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma and several other projects, he’s a dear friend of mine and it was great to be on set with him. He’s one of the nicest people on the planet. It’s fantastic to be able to do projects together. Even though Hugh was cast as Van Helsing, when I auditioned for the part of the monster, I didn’t know who they had cast. It was a nice surprise.”
Horror Fuel: “Jackman is an amazing actor. They did an amazing job with the makeup in Van Helsing.”
Shuler Hensley: “I kept the hands and some of the props from that movie, just because they were so extraordinary.”
Horror Fuel: “That is awesome! I don’t blame you. I would have kept them too. And Hugh Jackman has an incredible voice. I was unaware of his musical talent until I saw him in Les Miserables.”
Shuler Hensely: “That’s because everyone in Hollywood sees him as a movie star, but he started in musical theater. When I met him, it was before he auditioned for Wolverine. He’s always been a part of the theater.”
Horror Fuel: “He’s incredibly talented. Speaking of Hollywood, tell us about the movie Cruiser?”
Shuler Hensley: “Cruiser is the product of my brother, Sam Hensley Jr.’s imagination. He wrote the screenplay. I don’t want to miss quote him but he said that he was inspired by some news story at the time that reported about a guy running around in a police officer’s uniform. Sam has always been interested in horror and of course. It’s interesting now with all the issues we are facing right now. It’s just one of those found footage films. I think found footage connects with people. Are you a fan of found footage?”
Horror Fuel: “I am when they are done right, like the first Paranormal Activity, but I hate shaky cam, it never fails to make me nauseous. But there are many found footage flicks that just wouldn’t be right if they were filmed in a normal way.
In Cruiser, you play the bad guy, which is hard for me to picture after talking with you.”
Shuler Hensley: “I do. And it’s interesting, in terms of the character, talking about music as a mood setter, all the songs that he sings are a variety and I was trained as an opera singer and I wanted to use that element and my brother was wanting to as well. We wanted to use that to bring a bit of confusion to the audience. Who is this? What does the singing represent? I just love the character. Most of the action takes place inside this car. It’s a cramped space between Cruiser and his victim Tara. The intimacy of those moments are great. It was a hard thing to come out of because his violence is so horrific. We shot it in just over two weeks, so what was great about that is I could just stay in that frame of mind rather than try to come in and out of it.”
Horror Fuel: “When you’re in that mode, how does it affect your everyday life?”
Shuler Hensley: “It completely affected it. That’s what was so great about it only being two weeks. I did quarantine myself. I feel like there is an element of a monster in all of us. I’ve done a lot of research on psychopaths and people with that mentality. A true psychopath is not thinking, ‘I’m evil.’ What they are really thinking is that ‘I’m right and everyone else is wrong.’ It’s a delusion the ability to justify what they do. Taking it that way was really helpful, so was being isolated.”
Horror Fuel: “What was it like to work with your brother on Cruiser?”
Shuler Hensley: “It was great. It was exciting. It’s good any time you can feel that it’s a true collaboration and I felt that. I’ve been really very lucky because in my career I can only think of one director that I didn’t really feel like I could collaborate with. That just happens. Knowing my brother literally my whole life, he was willing to creating this with me. We had always talked about doing something together. It was great, and it was a local shoot around where we live. Everything was familiar which made it easy to do.
Randy Ser directed. He’s out of L.A. and is mostly known for being a production designer on several big shows. He also directed another movie my brother wrote called All You Need. Randy and Sam wanted to do another project together so they did Cruiser. Randy is a really good director with actors. With Cruiser it was really great because he had a calming presence on set. It was the right scenario for the crew and the cast.”
Horror Fuel: “What was your favorite part of filming Cruiser?”
Shuler Hensley: “It sounds morbid, but it’s always great when you’re fighting and causing mayhem. In terms of acting, I loved the real isolating moments like the scenes in the squad car, the conversation back and forth. The cameras in the squad cars, that they really have, are exactly what you would find in the real squad cars. We were just driving down roads that I was familiar with. Lori Beth Sikes who plays Tara was in the back seat. We were rolling but we had these conversations that were terrifying. I loved that.”
Horror Fuel: “Where can our readers see Cruiser?”
Shuler Hensley: “It’s out on all the direct to video, it’s on Amazon. It’s on like twelve different platforms.”
Horror Fuel: “Awesome! What do you have coming up?”
There’s a revival of Music Man coming to Broadway, and of course we were supposed to open this month, but it’s been delayed until next October. That’s a revival coming to Broadway with – of course you guessed it – Hugh Jackman. It’s a really amazing cast. It’s going to be a throwback to one of those classic musical everyone knows. It’s going to be a really important musical to help reopen Broadway.
I’m doing a lot of independent films, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I haven’t had a lot of time to do it. A lot of studios are trying to figure out how to reopen.”
Horror Fuel: “Music Man is great. But here’s an important question, do you think you’ll ever do another horror movie?”
Shuler Hensley: “Of course! Are you kidding? I love horror movies! What I really like are the movies where you don’t really see the monsters. Sometimes it’s more frightening when the monster is just off the screen. The opening of Jaws is one of my favorites. When the girl was swimming and you knew something was there but couldn’t see what it was. I think as a viewer with movies like that I kind of fill in the gaps. When you do that you fill in the gaps with what you’re afraid of. It makes it even scarier. In other words, I’m a sucker for horror movies.”
Horror Fuel: “I understand exactly what you’re getting out, Jaws is one of my all time favorites.”
Shuler Hensley: “It’s just got everything. There hasn’t been a moment since I saw that movie where I go into the ocean and not think about that movie. All these years later I’m still scanning the horizon for fins.”
Shuler Hensley has left a mark on some of the most incredible stages on earth and starred in many great films, as well as having an award named after him. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to talk with him and pick his brain. I can’t wait to see the revival of The Music Man next year and I look forward to seeing what comes next for him.