Chicago-born actor Pat Healy has been a welcome presence in horror films over the years, including memorable turns in Compliance, Cheap Thrills, The Innkeepers, The Pale Door and Velvet Buzzsaw. The 50-year stage-trained performer frequently plays excitable, edgy characters, both on big screen and small. In We Need to Do Something, Healy dials that persona up to an 11 as the father of a dysfunctional family trapped inside their bathroom while some unseen cataclysmic horror unfolds outside their door.
In this exclusive interview, Healy, calling in from the Oklahoma set of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, talks about the making of his latest horror flick. Following its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, We Need to Do Something opens in theaters, digital and VOD on September 3 from IFC Midnight.
Tell me about Robert, the character you play in We Need to Do Something.
Robert is, first and foremost, an alcoholic, and he’s a father and a husband, but not much of one. And everything seems to be falling apart as we enter this dire situation of some sort of apocalyptic malfeasance out in the world. His family goes to hide in the bathroom of their house. Robert rather quickly runs out of booze, and it’s all downhill from there when withdrawal kicks in.
What appealed to you about the character?
Starting at the beginning with my stage acting in Chicago with the Steppenwolf Company and Chicago theater in general, it’s really about leaving it all out on the stage and taking hold of the bone and not letting go of it. We Need to Do Something certainly had that aspect to it. We were shooting in September and October when there were no vaccines, and the election hadn’t happened yet. So, this idea of uncertainty and not knowing if everything was going to be OK. This was the first time we all really had felt that in our adult lives. It always seems like, as bad as things get, it’ll eventually be OK. And at that point, I was like, “I don’t know.” So, it wasn’t much of a stretch to get to that place. I also appreciated that despite what that character is and the plot can sound like it’s depressing, it is a fun movie too. It’s funny. I liked that about it.
Was this movie born out of the pandemic?
Yeah, [screenwriter] Max Booth had a situation where he lives down in Texas. There was a tornado watch, and his family was stuck in the bathroom for some time, and at the beginning of the pandemic or just before it. And certainly, when that happened, it fed all these worst-case scenario ideas. And then he wrote the script based on his novella. It was very quick. The script was written in March or May, and we were shooting in September. [The movie] has an immediacy to it that people can appreciate because we’ve all just been through the same thing.
What was it like shooting during the pandemic?
Well, there wasn’t much shooting during that time. You had to be tested three times a week. Everyone had to be masked, and in our case, we were all staying in the same hotel, which was in the same parking lot as the stage where we were shooting. I’m talking about a hundred feet door to door. You can’t have any life outside of that. We had a couple of positive tests the first day, and the way this system works, those people had to leave and anyone that was around them for more than 15 minutes during the day was also quarantined for two weeks. And we were only shooting for 18 days. It was all very immediate and in a confined space. You become very focused on just doing the work every day, which I liked. I don’t like having a lot of distractions when I’m doing something, especially something that’s intense.
Your director, Sean King O’Grady, comes from a documentary background. Did that bring a different sensibility to a horror film?
The way that he approached working with the actors was very collaborative and down to earth in a way. We’re all starting from a base level of reality in this movie, but things are so crazy and not documentary-like. It leaps off from there. Playing real people comes from that sensibility. And then if someone’s put in such an extreme situation, “What would happen to you?” All of my work, I approach like, “OK, how would I react if I were in that situation?” This character is not me per se, and I’m also not an alcoholic who’s going through withdrawals and whose wife is leaving him and his kids don’t want anything to do with him. So, you can imagine that would be anxiety- and anger-inducing.
You seem to be the go-to guy when it comes to playing uptight, angry characters. Do these guys appeal to you?
I suppose I was probably an uptight person who held his anger in for a long time, and years of doing this work is very cathartic for me, as well as years of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis were very illuminating. Acting is a way to express myself that has helped me, and nobody gets hurt. You get this sandbox in which to just yell and scream and rant and rave and act out as much as you want. And no one’s the target of it. Nobody takes it personally, no one gets hurt from it. I get that catharsis, and then people get to laugh at me or join me or be scared of me or whatever. And as the extra added bonus of having some entertainment value for people who aren’t me. I’ve done it enough and I’m comfortable with doing it, that people will ask me to do it more because a lot of actors are afraid to do it or don’t want to see that part of themselves, or maybe they don’t want to be seen in that light. I don’t mind. If people don’t know the difference between movies and TV and real life, then I don’t have a lot of time for those people [laughs].
This film is so grim at times. Was it difficult to find humor and lightness in the material?
Yeah, you need that. The movies I enjoy the least are the ones that don’t recognize that all movies need some sense of levity, even if just for a moment. This movie has a lot of very dark, disturbing things, but it also has just crazy, absurd situations. There’s a moment, later on in the film, where three things happen in quick succession. And when I was watching it for the first time at Tribeca, I had my hands in the air, “What?!” Even though I was there when we did it, I felt that it was so crazy. You have to go with it and enjoy it.
We Need to Do Something takes place all on one set. Did shooting get claustrophobic at all?
No, because it’s a really good trick of the director and the production designer, because you’re always having to take walls away to have a place to put the camera. So, you could certainly imagine that it’s claustrophobic, but there’s always enough space to breathe. Wherever the camera is, that wall is gone, and you could see the back of the stage. But having said that, when you really commit to something like this, you do get super hyper-focused and feel like you’re in that room too. And then they yell “Cut!” and you walk into another room and take a breath.
Considering your background with Steppenwolf and all the Chicago stage work you’ve done, did this read like a play?
Yeah. That was part of the appeal. It’s been a long time since I’ve done theater and especially the Chicago-style theater, which is come out like a mad dog and destroy everything on stage. And this had all of the hallmarks of that, and so did Cheap Thrills to a certain degree. That appeals to me, that’s like my core roots as a Chicago actor.
Did you and the other actors do much rehearsing?
Yeah, we had a full week of rehearsal, which is unheard of even on big movies, much less small ones. It was a really smart investment because it costs more money to have actors in there longer. It was really smart because we knew what we were doing when we got to the set. We all knew each other. We were a tight-knit group, and we knew how to interact with each other and how to act with each other. That was great. That was so, so valuable.
Did you develop a good camaraderie with your costars?
Very much. I love them all very much, which also is rare too, that you all get along, that you’re on the same page. Vinessa Shaw is somebody who I’ve known, whose work I’ve known, for a long time, but we’ve only ever met in passing, many years ago. So, it was no surprise that as soon as we met, we were very much on the same page about things in life and with the work too. She’s great. Sierra McCormick’s great, John James Cronin’s great… everybody was great! I love this this cast a lot.
Where was We Need to Do Something filmed?
Suburban Detroit, Southfield, Michigan. It was all on that stage except for a couple of establishing shots of the house. It was fun. It was weird because we were all wearing masks, getting tested and all that stuff, but we were all in the same hotel, and the stage was right next door. It was a very focused time; everyone had to be there and no one could spend time with their families or anything like that. We were all just there for a short period of concentrated time to do the work and then get out of there.
Was this your usual down-and-dirty, quickie indie film shoot?
Yeah. And it’s usually about 18 days, but that’s pretty bare minimum. You’ve got a lot to do every day. It’s pretty exhausting. I wouldn’t be able to do something like this for four or five months. I don’t know how I’d keep up the energy because basically after a month of this, I go sleep for 14 hours a night for two weeks. I’ve left it all out there on the floor. I gave it everything I had and put it all out there. I didn’t hold back at all, and that’s satisfying.
You’ve made a number of horror films. Are you a fan of the genre?
Yeah, of course. I love movies. I love all genres as long as they’re good. There’s something about horror where you make very personal statements about where we are. Like, for example, this film, where we’re all stuck together in a time when the future of the world is uncertain. But if you mask it in a genre and you make it fun in some way, it doesn’t feel like a message movie and it doesn’t feel like a lecture to people. It’s a fun escape, but it also talks about what’s going on in the world, what people are like. Starting probably with George Romero, horror movies have always been able to be a great source of social commentary without being boring. You don’t feel like you’re being lectured to.
What’s up with the ghost story you did recently, Not Alone?
That was a few years ago. I don’t know what’s happening with it. It’s about a family that moves into a haunted house, kind of like Poltergeist. A paranormal investigator comes in to see what’s going on. We shot it down in Tampa, Florida. It seems like so long ago. We shot it in 2018!
How’s your screenwriting coming along?
Good. I did a rewrite of an older script that we’re trying to get going, and then I’m working on something to hopefully direct, maybe next year, with this team who did We Need to Do Something. I’d like to get that going. I’ve been really busy with the acting, so I’m hoping that I’ll have time to write and direct it.
Are your screenplays in the genre?
They are all kinds of different things. One is a Western. They’re all absurdly funny, maybe gallows humor. I like humorous crime movies. That’s my sweet spot, movies like Out of Sight, Pulp Fiction or The Hot Rock. Something like that. I love crime fiction books, so I am trying to do something in that genre. But the scripts I’ve written are all kinds of genre.
What else do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
I have one other thing after this that I actually can’t talk about, but it is very exciting and everyone will be super-excited about it. Maybe not as excited as I am to be able to do it, but, yeah, it’s going to be a big deal. I’m going to do that as soon as I leave here.