“Barbarian,” now playing exclusively in theaters, is one of those movies that is best experienced knowing precious little about the actual plot, beyond the fact that it’s centered around the Airbnb from hell.
This is a horror movie that constantly surprises; you rarely know where it’s headed next and even if you had a guess of where it’ll go, you’re probably wrong. But one thing you can absolutely know beforehand is that Justin Long is one of the stars. And he plays one of cinema’s most odious douchebags. Long’s character isn’t an outright villain, per se, but he frequently makes terrible, morally questionable decisions that will make you want to throw a tomato at the screen (but only if it’ll reach through the screen and hit him). It’s a remarkable performance and one that Long pulls off with aplomb.
TheWrap spoke with Long about what it was like crafting such a weaselly character and where he garnered unexpected insight.
As it turns out, when Long was first given the script for “Barbarian” (by writer/director Zach Cregger of comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U Know) he had to stop – he was too frightened, something he fully admits. (What’s remarkable is that, given Long’s long and storied history in horror movies like “Jeepers Creepers,” “Drag Me to Hell” and “Tusk,” he can even get scared by screenplays.)
“I was in an RV. I have a van that’s like was converted to a little RV and I was traveling across country. And I was at a truck stop in rural Louisiana. It was an RV park, but it was mostly just truck drivers there. It was like a setting for a horror movie. And I started reading the script. I knew that it was time sensitive because they were shooting pretty soon. And so I started reading it. And I swear to God, I got too scared to finish it,” Long said. “I had to wait till the morning. I had to wait till the sun came up, which was really tough, because it’s totally unique and I was so engaged by the story. I really wanted to know what was happening, because I never read anything like that, and I couldn’t. I was just too afraid.”
Cregger later told Long that he had pursued another actor for the role, who passed (“he also said it was like a hunky guy”), leaving Long with the chance to play AJ Gilbride, our douchebag-in-chief. “I’m just so grateful that whoever that was passed because it was such a cool opportunity to play a very flawed person, a real despicable douche-y human being,” Long said.
In order to perfect the character, Long went to a familiar source – ABC’s long-running, casually loathsome dating show “The Bachelor.” “I notice on those shows that, they’re some obviously very nice people and very, they’re all different types of people on that, but there’s a type of guy that presents very obviously. And they perform whether they think it’s cool or romantic, they’re performing. I like the idea that this guy doesn’t really know who he is.”
Long described the character as “a narcissist,” someone who behaves differently depending on who he is talking with. (This is exemplified by a scene in the movie where he reconnects with a high-school friend after being publicly shamed.) “That was fun to play around with, a guy who’s always shape-shifting and different douche-y versions of himself,” Long said.
“Barbarian” – and Long’s performance – reach a comic/horror height during a sequence where his character, returning to the house where something very bad has obviously happened, isn’t terrified but is, instead, amazed at the additional square footage that he can add to the house’s real estate listing. (This house, it can be noted without giving anything away, has some very questionable subterranean lairs.) I saw the movie at a screening that coincided with San Diego Comic-Con and the entire audience was losing it. (Long was in the audience.) The sequence is absolutely brilliant and Long is brilliant in it.
For his part, Long said that he wasn’t playing the scene for laughs. “I just commit to whatever the scene is, whatever the character’s intentions are,” Long explained. “He finds this awful thing in these underground tunnels. The audience is aware of what’s in the tunnels, but my character just sees it as an opportunity for himself, which is how he sees the world. He’s a true narcissist. He’s measuring these tunnels in this house he owns, and he’s thinking, Oh, I’m going to make more money and it’s going to work out well for me. The juxtaposition of that was unexpectedly funny.”
While filming the sequence, Long remembers being confused as to why Cregger was making him do so much of it. “I remember filming it and thinking, I wonder why Zach needs so much footage of me measuring. We’ve got a lot of it,” Long said. Ultimately, Cregger used “almost all” of what they had shot. And the way that the sequence is stretched, nearly to the breaking point, is part of what makes it so special. “I didn’t consider, psychologically, where the audience would be at that point in the movie. They just knew what was down there and that this unaware despicable guy was so close to something horrible,” Long said. “There was something fun about it.”
“Barbarian” is a movie designed for a packed, sweaty movie theater audience. And Long revels in the response the movie elicits from the viewer. “It sounds arrogant, but I love watching it with an audience because they have such a visceral reaction,” Long said. “You can feel whether it’s people actually saying things or just a collective shudder when bad things happen to me, like a celebration. It’s really wild. It’s so fun to see. I can’t wait to see it with more people.” He’ll will get his chance soon enough.
“Barbarian” is now playing only in theaters.