Beyond the Pale: John Speredakos on his Career, Collaborators and Joe Begos’ The Mind’s Eye
With a career spanning nearly three decades, actor John Speredakos has worked on just about every platform an actor would want to find a creative home on. Beyond big blockbuster films, John has lent his voice talents to video games, radio theater like Tales Beyond the Pale. Recently he has worked with the likes of Ti West, Mickey Keating, Larry Fessenden and now Joe Begos. Finding drive, madness and intelligence in his latest role, as the heel character Dr. Michael Slovak, Speredakos took some time to talk to Diabolique about his role in The Mind’s Eye (2016) as well as his friendship with Larry Fessenden, working with a younger generation of actors and the pride he has for Tales Beyond the Pale.
Diabolique: Let me start by saying, The Mind’s Eye is a throwback to the great body horror/ TV thrillers of the eighties. When a filmmaker and his team recreate a sub-genre of horror and manage to evoke just the right sense of visual style and atmosphere, you go along for the ride as a cast, crew and viewer! What was the conversation like between you and Begos? What was it like on set for the film and working under Joe Begos; what kind of director is he?
John Speredakos: I hadn’t met Joe prior to The Mind’s Eye. First time we spoke was on the phone when he offered me Slovak. He had asked me to play a smaller role, which I was not overly excited about, having played similar roles before. I remember thinking Slovak was the part I’d like but they’d probably go after a name. Then when Joe actually offered it to me I was like “Uh…let me read it again…” I just knew between the make-up and the wires and the squibs and the blood it was going to be a hell of a physical shoot. But it was just too juicy to walk away from!
We had no meetings prior to my first day on set— just no time. And I hadn’t seen Almost Human (2013) so I waited till after I wrapped to watch it! That way if it sucked it’d be too late to back out. And… it didn’t suck. It was actually so well done it was hard to fathom that was his first real film. Joe of course is very hands-on on set. I loved that he was his own D. P.— really gave him the chance for spontaneity while filming. You know, he could call “Action”, then actually just film whatever captured his fancy in the scene. He also encouraged me to improv a lot and ad lib. No problem with that; and it’s always beneficial whether it stays in the film or not. Helps you carve away at the scene. Joe’s obvious passion and love for the project was contagious and inspiring. I just really wanted to bring Slovak to life for him.
Diabolique: What were your thoughts when you found out that Begos wanted you for Dr. Slovak? Was there a personal characteristic or connection you wanted to instill in the madness and charisma of Slovak?
John Speredakos:I sort of answered that already. But I’ll add that with Slovak it was clear to me that there was such a great arc to this guy. He really had to start at one level and wind up somewhere else. Of course the challenge was judging just where you were in that arc during any given scene— especially when you’re shooting out of sequence! You hope it all cuts together with the gradual unraveling that you’re going for. And you can’t be thinking about that stuff DURING the takes— that’s when you just have to make choices and commit to them.
Diabolique: You have played villains over the years in different projects for different directors. What do you think made Slovak such a fitting villain to Zack’s hero (played by Graham Skipper)? What was the dynamic like between the two of you in your contrasting roles?
John Speredakos: Graham and I balanced each other out well I thought. Physically we matched up well, and we work in similar ways. We each had a lot of screen time separately, and then together. Graham’s such a gentleman in person, and so focused on screen. We really built up a trust, had each other’s backs in the takes we did. Which was crucial because it got so intense and sometimes all you’ve got is that other actor’s eyes to lock onto and know you’re on the same page. That’s what’s so great about screen acting— you let it all hang out between “action” and “cut”. We had a chemistry I think conveyed to the screen.
Diabolique: Speaking of great characters, names like Graham Skipper, Lauren Ashley Carter, Jeremy Gardner, Noah Segan, and Matt Mercer (among others) showcase their talent on this project. Did you find working with such an infusion of young talent inspiring? Also, what was it like having another opportunity to work alongside Larry Fessenden and Lauren Ashley Carter?
John Speredakos: Well, here’s some impressions regarding those people:
Lauren and I met shooting Darling for Mickey Keating. I’d seen her in Jug faceand POD, so I knew what a talent she was. She’s just one of those gifted people that comes along way too infrequently. And if you’re smart, you’ll just work off what she’s giving you because it’ll be so full and pitched so beautifully. And we had a whole relationship to explore in the film but I knew the story was going to barrel along like gangbusters so we couldn’t really delve in as much as we’d have preferred. Ask Joe about the “gotch yer nose!” moment sometime. Lots of layers with Rachel and Slovak.
Jeremy Gardner— Pound for pound, maybe the most talented guy on the set! I’m a huge fan of Jeremy’s— but I hadn’t seen The Battery till AFTER we shot The Mind’s Eye. As I told him later, I’m so glad I hadn’t seen it first or it would have been impossible to treat him with suitable condescension! The guy is Orson Welles with better hair. He can do pretty much everything: act, write, direct. No stopping Mr. Gardner, and for the record, The Battery is about as good as independent filmmaking gets.
Noah Segan— Telegenic bastard! Noah’s another guy like Graham and Joe with an encyclopedic grasp of indie horror so it was great hanging out with him. And he brought that great stillness, that really compelling focus to Travis that is riveting. The eye patch didn’t hurt either.
Matt Mercer— I love this guy! We had such a great, fun relationship on screen. Pure disdain and contempt is always fun to play! Matt’s such a seemingly effortless actor that he managed to imbue Armstrong with an inner life despite relatively little screen time. Armstrong could easily have been dismissible— but Matt played him perfectly. A great side-kick. And a sniveling worm. Classic Armstrong!
Let’s not forget about Michael LoCicero— another gorgeous piece of understated work. Sharp as a dagger. And Josh Ethier has a ridiculously appealing screen presence. In Almost Human he was a certifiable chainsaw-wielding maniac— who you’d kind of like to have a beer with! Not a bad act to pull off!
As for Fessenden, what can you say? I’ve spoken about Larry before. I love the guy, I’m grateful to him, there’s a reason he’s a legend. There’s pretty much nothing he can’t do well. I’d love to see him go mano-a-mano with Gardner in a “Who’s the Bigger Genius Contest!” So, yeah… it’s slightly inspiring being surrounded by young(ish) talent! But I’ve also worked with Hal Holbrook, Alan Arkin, and Eileen Colgan— so I’ll take my talent any age I can get!
Diabolique: The weather in Rhode Island became a huge character in its own right and in The Mind’s Eye. I know you live in the northeast, was the snow a huge factor to you? Talk about how the cold and snow affected your performance? Did it add an edge to your character of Dr. Michael Slovak?
John Speredakos: Well, everyone’s talked about the weather because there was just no escaping it. It was a monumental two months, with a storm every few days. But we only actually lost one day of shooting. Yeah, there’s an isolation that creeps in when the weather is such an adversary. The motel we were staying in was up a really steep slope— and shrewdly we had drivers without four-wheel drive! So a few days/nights I remember Lauren and I having to walk up the hill to get to the motel because the cars couldn’t get up.
I also remember shooting in Slovak’s basement the scene where Matt and I have our little… falling out. A concrete floor. Cinderblock walls. Windows open because of cables and wires. Temperature well below zero. And we’re standing there for hours. I was just so cold I was shaking pretty much constantly. And you can’t ignore it; it won’t let you.
Likewise, when we shot the car flip/fire scene. On paper it sounds great. But then that night we had it all: freezing rain, heavy snow, wind. And I’m upside down inside the turned over car, crawling out onto the frozen blacktop. For a LONG time while they change camera set-ups. And that ground was just SO hard SO frozen SO unforgivingly unpleasant. That can’t help but feel you in the scene! Slovak’s body was pretty broken at that point so it all added to it. I remember sitting next to Graham in our “warming car” when I could, and again, I literally couldn’t stop shaking. Couldn’t talk. Couldn’t get rid of that chill.
Diabolique: Talk about the final showdown and what that experience was like? How much prep did you do for the stunt work? Did your makeup cause any sort of issue during the shoot?
John Speredakos: Well, depends what you mean by “final showdown”? Inside or out? Like I said, outside was miserable. But when I went up on the wire for the finale, the one thing there was plenty of was OXYGEN!! It was easier to breathe outside, even with the brutal cold. Not so inside…
The reality is you’re in a harness, like wearing a girdle. I’m sure you’re familiar with that Jay! It straps on between your ribs, so your ribs and lungs are constricted— and that’s before they hoist you! Then I’ve got 3 lbs. of latex makeup and veins all over my face, really hard to turn your head or nod. Then they put a blood tube up my back, over my ear on the down-camera side. So you can gargle and spew blood. Right before “Action!” Brian Spears puts blood drops in my eyes, so for a minute or so I can see absolutely nothing but hazy silhouettes. Even Graham’s face is just a blur. Then they smoke the set so we have that great grainy texture they like on screen. You’re breathing an acrid smoke that stings your eyes further. Finally— they hit you with a strobe light effect through the venetian blinds, so it truly becomes surreal. And the one thing you’re supposed to do— scream— you can’t do, because you can’t breathe. Then… they… hoist… you… And it tightens around your ribs like Jon Voight in Anaconda. My body chose to do the only logical thing— shut down. I was vaguely aware that everyone was focused on me and I was supposed to do… something. Graham said my head just kind of nodded off each time. Mini black-outs, oxygen deprivation. Scary, because you’re not used to the sensation. But we needed the money shot— both of us in the air at once. When I talk about relying on your fellow actor, that’s what I mean! Graham and I got each other through that scene.
Diabolique: Speaking of the “Godfather of Indie Filmmaking”, how has that relationship both personal and professional with Fessenden been? What makes him so connecting, visionary and humble?
John Speredakos: Ahh, a Fessenden question. At last! I literally don’t know how many times Larry and I have worked together, in various capacities. It’s just a great professional relationship. We met of course on Wendigo in 2000. Larry’s got you coming and going— he’s smarter than most folks, but also deeply sensitive. He’s a natural leader, but a born collaborator. He’s a showman with a hammy side, but capable of tremendously subtle, detailed work. He’s passionate about his causes and can articulate them better than anyone. He’s politically astute. He can act, write, direct, edit and play sax! He looks like the guy next door, if you live next to a Sanitarium. He’s riddled with fears, and turns those fears into action. He’s the living embodiment of an Artist.
Diabolique: Fessenden and Glenn McQuaid also; how has the radio theater Tales from Beyond the Pale been as a creative channel for you? How different is it to only be able to use the tools of your voice and personality to bring these characters to life? Was the live season more challenging then the studio sessions since you were a part of all three sessions to date? How was it working on The Ripple at Cedar Lake?
John Speredakos: Glenn and Larry created the Tales together, and it’s been a creative Godsend to many of us. I’ve always loved doing readings and workshops of new material, it’s pure performance without the anxiety of being off-book. And I was in the very first Tale with Larry, Vince D’Onofrio, Nick Damici— Man of the Ledge. We were finding our grove. But as Glenn will attest, it enabled a lot of writers with ideas to get their stories told without the usual hassle of years of fundraising to finance a movie. And yeah, it calls on some different skills as a performer. You’re not working off the other actors as readily, you’re forging a relationship with the listener THROUGH the microphone. It’s intimate. Which is what makes it such a great story-telling device. We did the whole second season live which was a blast. I played alongside James LeGros and Sean Young in Glenn’s The Crush and had great parts in Stranger and Larry’s Caper. The audience had as much fun as we did. Almost. But I wouldn’t say it was more challenging, just different. I hope we do more live Tales.
Season Three is another great one— I was in two Tales, including Glenn’s The Ripple at Cedar Lake . That was pure pulpy camp— which he happens to excel at. But it was also full of ideas, gorgeous language and imagery. And I played another mad scientist, come to think of it! We did a lot of improv on that, really letting us vamp at times. Of course then he cut it all back! Glenn is a magnificent writer— I always tell him he’s incapable of writing a boring character! It may be one line, but damn, that line will encapsulate an entire mindset and also advance the plot! Pretty nifty trick. So as long as Glenn keeps wanting to work with me I will gratefully say “Yes, Sir. Thank you Sir!”
Diabolique: Back to The Mind’s Eye, where do you think the strength lies in this film?
John Speredakos: The strength of The Mind’s Eye is simply Joe knows the story he’s telling and who he’s telling it to! And it succeeds beautifully at what he -and all of us- were trying to do: tell a ripping good yarn full of lots of nasty visuals. It’s over-the-top, campy fun. And it comes by its epic quality honestly. To analyze it, is sort of to miss the point. Let it cascade over you, like fine detritus! We all committed to it fully so it’d be easy for an audience to get behind it
Diabolique: What’s next for you filmwise? Where can we find out more?
John Speredakos: The thing I’m most excited about is a film I shot last summer with Larry, LeGros, Kevin Corrigan and Larry’s son Jack. Called Stray Bullets. Jack wrote it and directed it AND plays a lead role. Larry was D.P. It’s a caper film, not horror, but it’s got a wonderful poetic quality to it. I believe we’re premiering at Woodstock Film Festival in October. My role is sort of the anti-Slovak: the nicest of the bad guys! And I’m not too slick or confident. It was, again, pure joy to shoot— a real Fessenden Family affair. And Larry’s magnificent, he does noir better than anyone. Throw in LeGros and Corrigan and you’re talking about some of the most experienced and compelling actors out there. I really hope it finds and audience. It deserves one. More credit to Jack. I don’t really do the social media thing very much, so best place to look for info would be IMDB. Or you can always check the Glass Eye Pix site for updates. I show up there from time to time!