Long-time horror fan Derek Mears is likely best known to most genre fans for his turn as Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th reboot. Away from the hockey mask, Mears has appeared in a plethora of genre efforts over the years, such as The Hills Have Eyes, Predators, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Hatchet III, Sleepy Hollow, as Bullseye in the widely-acclaimed Truth in Journalism, and more recently on television screens in Sleepy Hollow. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A prolific talent, this hulking horror nerd can be next seen in Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead, released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday. We were lucky enough to grab over an hour with this genuine, humble, funny, knowledgeable and engaging fanboy-done-good to discuss Dead Snow 2, go way in-depth on all things Jason and Friday the 13th, chat about action figures, meeting horror icons, and a whole host more.
STARBURST: Dead Snow proved to be a big hit with horror fans when it debuted back in 2009. Had you seen the first film and, if so, were you a fan?
Derek Mears: For sure. It’s a crazy story how I got involved. I’m a huge horror nerd myself, in the most loving way. I was watching something else when I saw that there was a film called Dead Snow, so I thought I’d check it out. And after watching it, I loved it. They understood the balance between horror and comedy, and it didn’t become so violent that it became slapsticky. These guys really had it going on – they get it! Not 3 months later I get approached for a film called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and it turns out to be the same director as Dead Snow, Tommy Wirkola. I went, “Are you kidding me? I’m a huge fan of his work.” Then a few months later, I’m there shooting Hansel & Gretel. And while I was there, a lot of the guys from the Dead Snow film, the actors had small parts in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and the producers from that film were also there. They were like, “He actually wrote you a part for a sequel to Dead Snow, if you ever wanted to be a part of that?” Being a fanboy, I totally lost my mind and was like, “Are you kidding me?” So I’m very, very proud to be a part of it.
And what can you tell us about your role in Dead Snow 2?
In Dead Snow 2 I play a character called Stavarin, who is the leader of the Russian zombies. He’s kind of the opposite of Herzog, who is the leader of the German zombies. And we go head-to-head in a little bit of zombie war. It’s pretty cool. I’m a huge horror fan and it’s so much fun to work with a director who understands the balance between violence and comedy; the marriage point between the two of those things. And also being a huge fan of horror in general, I was just so happy to work on the film.
Very few films get the balance right between horror and comedy, but the original Dead Snow was pretty much pitch-perfect on that front. The story of Dead Snow 2 is a direct continuation from the first film, but is the tone the same as well?
It picks up right where the first one left off, giving a little bit of a recap. The tone is the same but Tommy has really established his own style where, as the director, he knows how a scene plays, he knows that if it’s serious then we’re playing it dead serious. To me, that’s part of the style that I like, of a wacky situation taken dead serious. The flip side is a serious situation taken in a wacky sense. But I really like what we’re doing with this. I’m super, super proud to be a part of it.
And how much fun was it to be involved with the shoot? There was the heavy prosthetics work, and was this film shot on location in Norway again?
We actually shot in Iceland this time around because the summer time in Iceland was still so super cold. I’m from a desert community in the US, in California, and I’m like, “Wait, how much cold is this? I don’t know what survives this! I’m bald, right, so this is gonna be rough.” But it was great, it was really a passion project; a bunch of people coming together to make the best film possible. Mike Elizalde, who runs Spectral Motion, did the make-up effects for my character, for Stavarin, because he worked together with Tommy on Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Tommy is such a talented, down-to-earth guy that most of the people he meets are like, “What can I do for you, because you were so humble and great?” So Mike said he’d come out and do my make-up. It was so amazing of him to do it, to travel halfway across the world and to not worry about the studio politics, to just make a good story.
There was some impressive splatter on display for gore-hounds in the first Dead Snow, but how much violence and gore can we expect in the sequel and for your character in particular?
Oh man, it’s just over the top. I would compare it with Dead Alive. There’s some over-the-top gore that is also politically incorrect in spots. I thought it was very noble of Tommy, because Tommy did Dead Snow then did Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, the big studio project, and then he kind of had his choice to do what he wanted to do because Hansel & Gretel was a successful film. To have him go, “You know what, I wanna go back and do Dead Snow 2 with my friends before I go on and do another big studio project,” I admire that. But the over-the-top violence and gore, there is a scene where I’m just shaking my head and saying, “This is so wrong. Tommy, are you doing this because the studio controlled you a little bit on the violence and gore for Hansel & Gretel?” He goes, “Maybe…” There’s a scene with zombie intestines which is just brilliant. And it’s such a difficult thing in the horror genre to add new bits and new ways to kill or a new look on zombies, and I think he, in my opinion, not because I’m part of the film but because I’m a fan, he executes it perfectly.
When it was first announced that there would be a Dead Snow sequel, with Tommy at that time doing Hansel & Gretel, there was the question of whether he would be back to direct the second movie. With you having met some of the Dead Snow cast and crew on Hansel & Gretel, were you just generally welcomed into the fold for Dead Snow 2?
When we were doing Hansel & Gretel, we were hanging out in a pub. Tommy being the loyal, good guy that he is, he brought in a lot of the guys from Dead Snow in for parts in Hansel & Gretel. And we’re all hanging out and I thought, “If I lived in Norway, you’d be the guys I’d be hanging out with all the time because you’re talented, funny, super down to earth, into heavy metal.” There’s no pretentiousness to them whatsoever; they just want to create. I love telling stories, getting all the bullshit out the way and just create. So when they asked me if I wanted to be a part of it, I was like a high school cheerleader. I got so excited! I was like, “Are you kidding me? I would love to do that! Let me clear my schedule.”
That’s one big burly high school cheerleader…
Yeah, right! I go against my tough guy persona by saying that, but I really loved being part of the film. I’m gonna end every question with that… that I was very proud to be a part of the picture and that I had a super fun time .
From having seen previous interviews with yourself and some of the Friday the 13th documentaries and the like, you come across as a huge horror fan and as one of those guys who just loves everything about horror. We take it you’re a long-time fan of the genre?
Oh completely true! Growing up down here in California, I was the different kid. I have a disorder called alopecia so my hair would fall out. At the time in the early ‘80s, it wasn’t cool to be bald and white. If you were bald and white, either you had cancer or they thought you were a skinhead. I loved comic books and sci-fi, and a lot of fans now presume I was captain of the football team because I’m a big dude and do martial arts. I’m like, “No, no, no, no. I couldn’t do a pull-up in high school.” I got into acting because I loved Dungeons and Dragons. I was like, “How do I do this for the rest of my life, play with my friends and tell stories?” I realised, wait, if I worked out then I could be the big bad guy in TV and film, and I started doing improv comedy also at the age of 17 professionally. So I moved to L.A. to do acting and comedy, then it just started taking off because I looked like a murderer. Literally, if everything ended today, career-wise, it’s been an amazing run. The different people I get to meet, different artists, different mediums, hearing stories – as a horror fan, travelling around the world and meeting people that I’m a fan of, that I grew up loving their work, and having them… like Lance Henriksen at an autograph signing saying, “Hey Derek, you wanna go to dinner and I can tell you stories about what happened on Aliens?” That Robert Englund’s a friend of mine, if you’d have told an 8-year-old Derek that I’d be in a limousine with Robert Englund and we’d be talking about relationships, I would’ve lost my mind!
From having spoken to Robert a few times, he’s one of the guys who the inner-child in you can’t believe you’re talking to…
Dude, that’s the whole thing. A lot of times, like myself you’re playing that geek card, you’re trying to keep your cards close to your chest. Just thinking to yourself, “Am I freaking out too much? Do they know that I’m freaking out?” But yeah, it’s an amazing thing. I feel like it’s the cliché of living the dream but I am living my dream.
You’ve mentioned Lance Henriksen and Robert Englund already, but what were the things that grabbed your attention as a kid? Was it the stuff like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Aliens that you found yourself gravitating towards?
On the horror side of things, it sounds a little cliché because I got to play the role, but before I got hired or did anything in the film, I loved the whole Friday the 13th series and I loved the Jason character. He was my favourite horror character, that was my favourite horror series. When I was a child, two things gave me nightmares: one was the big foot from The Six Million Dollar Man TV series, the other was the Jason Voorhees character. It’s very surreal, now as an adult, I have an opportunity, the character that gave me nightmares as a child, to take the character and to give a whole new generation nightmares. It’s come full circle for me. For films and whatnot, my ultimate film of all-time is The Empire Strikes Back. That was a huge influence on me as a child. On the horror side, there’s so many films I love – I love The Thing, I love Aliens. At one point, it doesn’t have to be an Alien movie, but I would love to be a space marine. I told a story to a friend recently where I was watching TV. At the time I was married. CSI: Miami came on, my wife said, “Oh, you should do something like that.” I said, “Actually, I have. I’m guest-starring on it.” So I said, “You know what I’d really like to do? I’m more like a ‘hulking werewolf in space’ kinda guy.” She started laughing, then that really excited me and got me thinking, “Is that what I wanna do? Have I just defined my career in what I wanna do? Werewolves in space?”
On the Jason front, so many people grew up with horror franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Personally, my favourite was always Michael Myers and the Halloween series. Do you think that somebody can equally appreciate Jason, Michael and Freddy, or do you feel that everybody has to have their own favourite standout villain?
I think instinctively we can love horror in general. Deep within us as human beings, we love stories in general where there’s a part of us that relates to it or it strikes us to our core or what we’re going to in our lives. With our own lives, outside of TV and film, when we watch a film we really, really enjoy or connect to, it’s because it somehow parallels our own personal life. So yeah, I think it’s totally okay for someone to love one more than anything else. I think it’s funny, because Tyler Mane, who played the new Michael Myers in Halloween, is one of my best friends. We were friends before the whole Jason and Michael thing. He lived a block away from my house. Fans will see us together and be like, “Oh my God! What are Jason and Michael doing together?” We’re like, “We’re just friends.” Either that or, because we look like bikers, people get really afraid when we go for sandwiches or whatever.
With you clearly such a fan of Jason and Friday the 13th, when the Jason role came along for the 2009 remake, was there any part of you that was worried about taking the part due to the stigma that is often attached to remakes?
No, actually there wasn’t. It was a strange thing when I knew they were going to do the relaunch. I’d never tried to pursue a role before but it was a very metaphysical experience where I’m, like, I don’t know why but I feel like I have this role. And I had no ties to it, I didn’t know anything about it. I started physically training ahead of time, like 6 months out, for the part because I didn’t feel like it was right. It was very strange that when I actually got tapped, then it kinda of of all came to fruition, that inner gut feeling. There were hundreds of dudes auditioning for it, tons and tons of people, and the reason I was brought in for the role was that Brad Fuller and Andrew Form from Platinum Dunes would ask around to people if there was a professional who they thought would be right for this part. They wanted a professional actor, not just a big guy in a mask. My name kept popping up in different circles and I ended up meeting with them. I thought there’d be hundreds of people there for the meeting but they only brought two of us in to meet for the role. When I met with them, they’re like, “There’s no dialogue for the character and we want a professional actor. Why do we think you should do this?” I started talking about theories and having a background in theatre, of being a fan of the series, and I explained to them that the role is language without language, that language is only 7% of communication, that we should approach the script the same exact way whether you have a mask on or not. As long as you connect sincerely to the emotion of what’s happening in that particular scene, you have to trust that the energy that comes from the mask can be captured on camera. I’m not gonna act with my body or act with my eyeballs in a scene. If you can see it then you can understand what’s going on. They were like, “Err, okay…” A couple of hours later they called me and said, “You’re the guy we need, man.” I remember sitting at the top of my stairs and just shaking with goosebumps all over my arms, thinking, “This is insane! I get to play Jason?” You talk about the circle of remakes and whatnot. My opinion of remakes is that we always have the original but as an artist you’re always willing to take a risk with something new. When you do a remake, in my opinion, you have to be respectful of the past but take a risk with stuff to add for a new generation. There are chances that it could be good or it might not work out. I felt, not a lot of pressure to do good, but there was a loyalty as a horror fan where I really wanted this to be the best thing possible. Much like you have an iconic character like Frankenstein and Dracula, or more modern you have Freddy and Jason and Michael, the character’s still going strong and is going to be around forever. But you wanna be the one who keeps the character going for the next generation, so that you can see more episodes. You never wanna be the guy, like the James Bond who comes in and does the bad job, then you hear, “Remember that guy? He was the worst!” You want to keep going so more sequels come around and more stories for the character are told.
So from a fan’s point of view on the remake/redo/reboot/relaunch/reimagining or whatever it’s officially classified as, how happy were you with the final product of your Friday the 13th and how happy were you with your performance?
I’m always discrediting myself, I’m never happy with myself, which is I think a good thing as it makes you strive to get better at most things. I was happy how the film turns out. There were a couple of changes that had to be made, things that you loved in the original script but didn’t make it to the final cut that you see on film. But you also have to understand that there’s so much going on behind the scenes when a film gets made, so many ups and down. You never know until the final cut. I was impressed with Platinum Dunes because, as a horror fan, they would actually go on to different fan pages, like IMDb, and read people’s comments about what they wanted or expected from the film. They would take in what people’s requests were. They may not always respond to people, but they would take on their opinion. I was really happy that they were doing that, seeing that they actually listened to what the fans want. For myself, there were four of us who were completely in love with the whole series of Friday the 13th, and there’d be certain times or scenes that were going against character and we’d stand our ground and go, “Hey, I know it’s your film, I know we’re trying to make it together, but in the mythology of the character this just wouldn’t happen.” And they would listen to everyone then make a decision. I was very happy that they would do that.
Taking your Friday the 13th out of the equation, what’s your favourite film in the series?
My favourite of the series is Part IV, with Ted White, with Corey Feldman. Also, we talked about that mythology parallel with our own personal life, I think what really tied me into Part IV is the part where Corey Feldman comes downstairs and his head’s shaved. He’s got little tufts of hair sticking out to look like a younger version of Jason. At the time, that’s what my hair looked like. Because I have alopecia, I had little tufts here and there but I was majority bald. And pale. So when I watched, I went, “Oh, so that looks like me. I guess I’m just a little version of Jason.” It’s so strange as an adult, the whole full circle and playing the character. That’s why I really like Part IV more than the other ones. Don’t get me wrong, I like them all.
We enjoy them all in various ways, but there are certainly some that are worse than others. Jason Goes to Hell, for instance, where there’s basically no Jason in it. You can see why that killed the franchise for a while…
I got so mad watching that as a kid. I got so excited at the whole beginning, like, “Oh, what a great idea, bringing Special Forces in, it’s all a set-up… What? Where’s Jason? Oh, come on! Really?!” I remember trying to sit there as a kid and go, “Okay, I’ll be on board.” Then by the end, all the references, the Necronomicon, the box from Creepshow … I felt betrayed.
In fairness, though, Jason X is a massive guilty pleasure of many at STARBURST and there’s even one of our favourite kills of the series in that film, when Uber Jason starts smashing imaginary campers against an imaginary tree…
Oh man, that’s a great kill. Such a good kill. It’s so funny, the writer, Todd Farmer, is a friend of mine. There’s the three of us, there’s me, Todd Farmer and Tyler Mane. We all hang out and whatnot. It’s always funny hearing what went down on Jason X. Todd will tell a story about the film – he’s a good dude. I love hearing the stories of all behind the scenes stuff, things that went wrong. That’s really also where being a fan, going to horror conventions, hanging out with people who are in horror films, it’s like getting that personal audio commentary, like, “Here’s something I can’t say publicly, but here’s really what went down.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”
And as a fan, how cool was it to get your own Jason Voorhees action figure?
Oh, it’s incredible! Career-wise, I have four – I’m not bragging, just expressing – but I have four or five different action figures of myself as different characters. It’s the coolest thing in the world. I did an interview before the first season of The Walking Dead happened for the AMC television network. They did an Inside the Actor’s Studio thing with the movers and shakers of horror, with a few directors and two or three of us who were actors. They were all acting really serious, asking deeply articulate questions about acting and horror and whatnot. One of the questions was, “So Derek, when a script comes across your desk, what do you look for in a character? What excites you and motivates you to say yes to that project?” I’m like, “Well, I really love Joseph Campbell and the journey of the hero, then what causes the character to have not only an outward journey but an inward journey.” Then I go, “What I really like the most is the possibility of an action figure. If there’s an action figure, I’m sold.” They were really quiet and then they went, “Yeah, yeah that’s deep. I understand the… Wait! Oh, ok, ok…” I’m just like, ”Yeah, I’m a giant nerd. An action figure? That’s success, the best thing in the world!”
There's a new Friday the 13th on the horizon, with various stories saying it’ll be a found-footage movie or that it’ll be a completely different story to what we've seen before. Have you had any talks for this mystery Friday the 13th movie at all?
I have personal thoughts that I can’t express publicly because I don’t wanna say anything that could influence it. Also, I’m not on the inside, I’m not in the loop. I don’t know what’s actually going on with the film. As to my involvement with the new Friday, I don’t know if I’ll be a part of it. I know that Platinum Dunes like me very much, but the script hasn’t been finalised and they haven’t gone into production yet so they can’t offer any roles. Before Paramount had all the rights to the new Friday, they were saying that if they did another one then they’d want me to be their guy. But things in Hollywood change. I called them and went, “Look, I’ve been told I’m the guy so many times on different projects and then it changed at the last second. It’s not a negative thing, I’m not upset by it, it’s just how things work. Even if I’m not the guy, I’m a fan of the series. I just wanna see a good story with Jason in it. I just wanna see the mythology continue for the character, whether it’s me or not.” And I honestly do. I just hope they make a good story that all of us are going to enjoy.
So the deal that you signed back for the 2009 movie, was that just a one-shot deal or was there an option in place for you to be brought back if the studio wanted it?
The option was for sequels, but there was a timeframe on that because I had other projects and other parts. It was funny. At one point, people were like, “You probably don’t wanna do it because you have to wear a mask. As an actor, it’s all make-up and masks.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? Yes, if I’m free I would love to do the character because it was such an influential character for me growing up.”
You come across as very respectful to what’s come before you in the genre, so are you and the other actors to play Jason all pals at this stage? And who was your personal favourite Jason?
Well we’re all friends now. We met before, then me and Kane did Hatchet III together. Performance-wise, because I love Part IV so much, I still go for Ted White. I speak to fans from time to time and they’ll say one of us is the best, but I just say to them, “Like who you like.” If you and I were to play an iconic character, like Peter Pan or something, we’re both going to bring something different to the character because of our experiences. So I say whatever you like, you like.
As well as Jason Voorhees, another icon of the genre that you got to play was the Predator. How cool was that to do and how did that gig come up?
Greg Nicotero is the nicest man in the world, from the KNB Efx Group. I’d heard that Robert Rodriguez was going to do Predators, then there was a little joke thing going down, as Greg and I were friends. He called me and I answered my cell phone, then before he even said anything I said, “I know what you’re calling about. I saw that it was announced. Yeah, fine Greg, I’ll be the Predator.” He sort of laughed and said, “Yeah, right. You wish. I’m calling about something else.” So we started talking about a different project. Then a couple of months later he called up. I’d forgotten about it all, so he goes, “Alright, you wanna be the classic Predator in the new Predator movie?” I was like, “What? Yeah! Yeah!” So they asked me to a meeting and that’s kind of how it went down. Then I said, “Thank you very much for another action figure, Greg Nicotero.”
And what’s your favourite action figure?
My favourite action figure? Oh my God. I have like a bunch of different ones. I used to collect action figures, but now it’s tough because working with different make-up artists and sculptors and seeing what they make compared to action figures, it’s like why am I looking at action figures when they can make me into an action figure and create art on me? My favourite action, that’s a real tough question. That’s like saying what is your favourite type of air! I don’t know. I have the new Luke Skywalker, the high-end one that just came out, him in the Bespin gear. There’s so many, man.
So what’s your favourite action figure of yourself?
I have a really cool one – there’s two different ones from Pirates of the Caribbean 4 which look like me only with a Mohawk, though. Then there was a build-a-figure, where you get five of the figures in the series and you get a part of me in each one of them. So I built myself from that. I liked that a lot. So yeah, probably that one.
In terms of the horror genre, you’re making quite the name for yourself and becoming quite the modern-day icon. How does it feel to have fans come up to you and approach you in the same way that you viewed so many previous icons of the genre in years gone by?
Weirrrrrd. Flattering and weird. It's very weird. Did I say weird yet?
Any interesting, crazy or rewarding fan experiences that come to mind?
I had a fan recently recognise me at a urinal in a hotel restroom. He asked for a picture. I asked if he could wait until my pants were up.
You had a small part in Adi Shankar’s brilliant Truth in Journalism short, where you play Marvel’s Bullseye. Growing up, were you a big comic book fan?
Oh completely. I learned to read with comic books. I’ve been collecting since I was 4 years old, I believe. I learned using pictures of Batman and Spider-Man, recognising certain words, recognising what was going on. It’s weird now that high school girls know who The Avengers are and the smaller off-shoot things, and they know vampires are cool. At the time, nobody knew who The Avengers were. People would make fun of you for liking that stuff. Now it’s all mainstream.
After your appearance as Bullseye, what have you made of the fan reaction to that short and to your brief appearance as one of Marvel’s most beloved rogues?
I'm thrilled that people enjoyed the short. Joe Lynch, the director, did a killer job on it. When Joe asked if I would like to do a tiny cameo in it, I don't think he got the entire sentence out of his mouth before I said yes. All I heard was, "Do you, blah, blah, blah Bullseye?" - “YES!!!”
Would you like to be involved in one of the big superhero movies at some point if possible then?
Yeah, man. That would be cool. Certainly there’s a superhero thing going on. I’ve had meetings for some things I can’t talk about, parts that are so cool, and you’re just trying to keep it together and be professional. I’ve gotten second place a lot on a couple of these different heroes and villains. We’ll see in the future, though. I’ll cross my fingers for the chance to be a part of a superhero franchise.
You're currently on screens in Sleepy Hollow, which has been well received by audiences. Genre TV is in a brilliant place right now, with networks actually investing serious budgets in shows. For you, how does it compare to be involved in such an SFX-heavy show in comparison to a movie role? And how rewarding is to play a recurring character rather than standalone movie appearances?
Honestly, film and TV roles are the same to me. The only difference is that when you're doing a film you know the full story arc of your character, and having a recurring role on a TV show you only know what happens on that particular episode and are chomping at the bit to see what happens in the next episode's script. It's both fun & maddening.
What’s up next for you, and have you thought at all about moving towards directing?
What I’m working on right now – I’ve been doing improv comedy since I was 17 – is The Resistance. We’re actually putting pictures together for a TV show. There’s interest in that. That show is just so rewarding to me. We improvise an action movies on stage, live, for an hour. We have to improvise everything, the sound effects, with some stuffed bags and some giant padded LEGO blocks. Then we build scenes out of nothing. You’re doing full improvised fights, full improvised explosions, the lighting. You’re telling a full story. All of us just wanna entertain, we wanna keep the humility. We just wanna make people happy and laugh, to forget about the stress in their lives, to be a kid and come play with us. We interact with the audience, and it’s the most rewarding thing in the world. It’s like Who’s Line Is It Anyway? but with a story made point-blank right in front of you. We’ve done all horror, then a bunch of horror fans turned up. Some people were going, “Do you ever write that down? Because you could sell that as a script.” I guess so, it’s a good point.
And anything else on the horizon?
I think I have a couple more episodes of Sleepy Hollow to do. The beginning of the year, I’ve got a couple of possibilities. I’m just seeing what goes through and how that works out. In the meantime, I’m just creating and writing.
If you did happen to come back as Mr. Voorhees for one time only in the future at some point, what would your ideal Jason story be? The final movie of the whole series EVER, what would you want to see?
A good story.
Dead Snow 2 is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday, January 12th. To keep up with Derek’s projects, be sure to follow him on Twitter @DerekMears, check out his Facebook page, and also keep up to date with the brilliant Resistance action-heavy improv group. Speaking of which, here’s a sample of The Resistance at work:
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