You know his name: Michael Myers, the unstoppable suburban menace of John Carpenter’s iconic proto-slasher Halloween. Among the horror franchise’s 40-year lineage of actors who’ve squeezed under the rubber mask, only one’s name is still inextricable from Myers: Nick Castle, the original Shape.
Castle’s looming presence on his old USC film school buddy Carpenter’s set gave physical form to a cinematic definition of evil: slow, strangely graceful, unknowable in its single-minded bloodlust. James Jude Courtney, the actor under the mask in David Gordon Green’s new Halloween sequel, is the first Michael Myers to share screen time with Castle, who turned to directing (The Last Starfighter, The Boy Who Could Fly) after his debut in the blue jumpsuit. It’s an appropriate handing of the torch for a new Halloween canon: Green’s film, co-written with Danny McBride and starring the OG scream queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis as a hardened, ever-vigilant Laurie Strode, supplants every Halloween sequel to date, providing a fresh start in a spirit faithful to the original.
For his part, Castle is endeared, if slightly flummoxed by the deeply-felt significance Halloween-heads still project onto Myers. “I can’t even say mine was a performance,” he chuckles. “It was as simple as putting on a rubber mask and John telling me which way to turn.”
The Daily Beast caught Castle and Courtney in conversation about their shared time in Haddonfield, the evolving legacy of their character, and whether—for real this time!—Michael’s really dead.
Did you two meet or exchange notes at all before this new Halloween sequel?
James: No, we actually met on the set. When did you show up, Nick, about two to three weeks in?
Nick: Yeah I think so, something like that. I spoke to David [Gordon Green] early on but we didn’t get to talk to each other until Jim had already started the show. So whatever inspiration he took from me had to be done from a long distance. Real long distance. Like, 40 years.
James: (Laughs) Well it’s true, but I captured Nick’s essence as The Shape watching the film again right before I went down to audition. There’s a specific moment when Nick crosses from camera left to camera right in the backyard, just a very short shot of him walking. And that was like my epiphany moment. That was like, “I’ve got it.” I just embraced his energy, what he created, the way he moved.
Is the first Halloween as far as you looked for inspiration?
James: Yes. I did watch the second one, only because I know [director] Rick Rosenthal and [actress] Nancy Stephens. I play tennis at their house. So I just wanted to refresh my mind. But I only watched that once and then I watched the original, just a couple of times, just to feel my way into it. After that, it's all internal work. I saw the way Nick moved and the way he tilted his head and his cadence and carriage. But I just clocked that in my brain and didn't really think about it. It was really more of energetically embracing what Nick had created.
What did you make of James’ performance as The Shape, Nick, now that you’ve seen the movie?
Nick: First of all, it’s such a different approach. Principally, Jim’s an accomplished actor and takes his work very seriously and you could tell by the great performance he gave in this one. For me, walking into that original film, first of all, I had no intention of being an actor. So I had none of those skills. I was really on the set just to learn how to direct in the future—which was really very helpful, incidentally. And here’s poor Jim, who had to deal with the fact that this is an iconic film now. I had none of those problems. So I tip my hat to Jim for coming up with it. Someone asked me the other day, “How would you describe the difference between you two?” And I said, well, OK, let’s use the cat metaphor because I think David had said something about how The Shape was cat-like. He said if I was a panther—which, I think, that’s not bad for me—Jim is a lion. I mean this guy is brutal! His walk is just a little different than mine but maybe that’s because Michael’s 40 years older, too. It’s fun to read between the lines there. I’m sure the fans will do a lot of that, they’ll have a ball with this.
Were there bits of yourself or your old performance that you recognized onscreen in James’?
Nick: You know, it’s funny, I can’t even say mine was a performance. I appreciate Jim’s looking at this and, of course, once you’ve done something like that, it does take on its own shape and its own world and its own reality. But it was as simple as putting on a rubber mask and John [Carpenter] telling me which way to turn. People read a lot into it and maybe that’s just because of the nature of what a great idea it was: This kind of faceless person that you could put into it anything you wanted to put into it. How I walked and moved and stuff like that was very instinctual and unplanned, so you could take that for what it’s worth. But what I saw in Jim’s work was a sense of a continuation of the character. Like I said, there’s something even darker and more brutal. Maybe it’s because of the nature of what David and the writers add to this sequel and updating it to a new era. I mean, that’s real. That’s real violence going on back there. Thank God Jim was doing all that, by the way.
James: (Laughs) Yeah, there were definitely a few bruises, so...
Nick: Someone asked, “Didn’t you want to do the whole thing?” I said no, thank you! Let Jim do all that! He knows how to take a punch.
But you did film one scene for the new Halloween. What was that day on set like?
Nick: Oh yeah, this was my last day. I was there for about a week. David and I were talking about what I might want to do or what would work. And it wound up that on my last day there, that was the scene. I remember them discussing with me that this would be the perfect time to have the pass-the-torch moment between me and Jim, because we were going to be in the same scene, basically, within a cut. So that was kind of neat.
Of course, it was the last shot of the night—it always seems like it has to be something unnecessarily complicated. (Laughs) Like, two or three in the morning, and it’s the scene where Laurie first sees Michael in the flesh, so to speak, although it's a reflection in the mirror up on the second floor of the house where she shoots at him and it crashes through the mirror. So I’m the one in the long shot and then when they get to the close-up—you don’t see it in the movie, now that I think of it, but I think there’s a closer shot where it’s you, Jim, when it actually goes through the mirror itself.
James: Yeah, they actually shot that projectile about two inches from my head, from downward.
Nick: (Laughs) That’s right!
James: It’s better that I took that one.
Nick: That’s when you take the old guy out and put the young guy in.
James: Yeah, the young stupid guy. (Laughs) We did talk about that. We were hoping that we would get to share the same space, because we thought that would be just a really beautiful transition and we got our wish. I didn’t mention that to David, maybe you did, Nick, but I was just interested to see how they were going to make this transition and where they were going to put him and where they were going to put me. And for my money, I got exactly what I wanted. It’s so beautiful the way you say that, Nick, “passing the torch,” because it really felt like that.
It’s the first time since the original Halloween that you’ve worn the rubber mask onscreen, Nick. Did it take time to warm up to the idea?
Nick: Well, it was a process. I heard from my agent there might be some interest in me doing the new one way back in the summer of last year. And so I said, “Huh. OK, let’s see what they have to say.” I had a meeting with David first on Skype. I think he wanted to make sure that I wasn’t, like, decrepit. By then, I’d kind of thought it through. If he was offering to do The Shape for the whole movie, that just wasn’t going to work for me, for time and health reasons and things like that. I didn’t see myself at four in the morning in a rubber mask waiting for the next take. So I told him and he said, “Oh, I figured, we’ll figure out something where you come in and do some scenes or a shot or something like that.” I said, “You just figure it out and I’ll be there. I just think it’ll be fun to be part of the thing.” I was always open to whatever he wanted to do.
And I think once Jim was involved, we’re different heights, first of all, and noticeably so. I think that made it easier for David because I wasn’t going to be walking around and suddenly you have the short guy in one scene and then the tall guy in the next. But I love where we wound up with this, with the one shot, because the fans all want to know, “What are you in? What are you in?” And I make it like a mystery, I go, “The first time Laurie sees The Shape, that’ll be me.” And they get all excited. (Laughs) I have fun with that. So it’s been a blast. And it was the perfect time, like I said, I got to be there for a week. I got to be there for a wrap party—what was it for, Jim? The Super Bowl or something like that.
James: Oh, yeah.
Nick: And I got to meet all the young people in the cast, got to see John, he was down there that same week, got to do a lot of press. It’s been so much fun. So I got to do that and not have to do all the work! One thing that Jim and I, early on in this process, decided to do post-shooting was to make sure people knew that I didn’t do more than what I did. Because this is Jim’s ballgame this time. This is his time to shine, and he really shines. So I’m happy that word got out.
Do each of you remember your first time putting on the mask?
Nick: I remember the new one of course, that was only a few months ago. It was kind of fun! We did it in the trailer. I’ve actually tweeted a couple of pictures of both me and Jim in the same mask, but how different we look. It’s interesting how face structure can change the look of this kind of blank, evil thing. I remember thinking, “Oh this is tighter than the original one.” Jim, didn’t they use you as a bust, actually form it to your face?
James: Yeah, they did a life mask of me, made a bust and made the mask off it. And yeah, our faces are differently shaped.
Was that your first time putting on the mask in a while, Nick? Or do you keep a few lying around at home?
Nick: Yes, I mean, for any other reason than doing some jokes with it. (Laughs) I put on the mask and went in my backyard on my hammock and took some pictures for my Facebook and Twitter account. I do a lot of these horror conventions but that is the one thing I’ve stayed away from: putting on the mask. Not sure why. Just seems uncomfortable for some reason. I did have one of the original ones for a while until the sequel, Halloween II, when Debra Hill asked for it back because they were having trouble trying to make it as good as the first one, and I never got it back.
Aw, man. James, what about you? How did it feel to first try on the mask?
James: It was pretty amazing because it was the day before we started principal photography and we were rehearsing that very long tracking shot in the beginning. It was very complex, so we worked hours on getting that thing dialed in. And late in the night, [make-up department head] Chris Nelson showed up with a big leather Halliburton and we all kind of scurried off into a house, a back room. It was David and [stunt coordinator] Rawn Hutchinson and of course Chris, [co-producer] Ryan Turek, Danny [McBride], Jeff [Fradley, co-screenwriter], and Mike Simmonds, the director of photography. And Chris pulled the mask out and everybody kind of looked at it, speechless. No one said anything. He walked over and helped me fit the mask on and there was a collective, “Ohhhh.” It was just a nonverbal, guttural response. And right before he put the mask on, I sort of breathed in, and as he put it on, it was like the circle was complete. It’s a visceral feeling. I could feel it. It was like power. It was like a living thing that sort of animated me, you know? It was really powerful.
Most actors who occupy masked roles like this don’t become particularly well-known on their own for it. But Halloween movie fans have a real interest in knowing who's behind the mask in every sequel, and what kind of differences each actor brings to the role. What do you think it is about Michael Myers that encourages that?
Nick: I mean, it turns out my old buddy John made a classic horror movie. It’s really in the canon of great horror films, and he’s made a great, iconic character that lives on. That plus this amazing score that he did, I mean it’s just crazy. In any case, that precedes any discussion about this character and why it lives from year to year, even in this or that sequel, whether it's a great one or a stinking one. (Laughs) But all the guys that have done the character are very happy to have done it. They get to go to these conventions, meet the fans, make a few bucks. So that’s good on a practical level. And this is amazing. Beyond this interview that we’re having here, this has been absolutely mad how much the press has been interested in following up on this. It’s really hit the zeitgeist. With these three women taking charge and battling this crazed man, you can see how it’s part of the zeitgeist of the country, and the world possibly, at this moment.
James: I remember seeing this film in 1978 when I was still in undergrad. I don’t even remember my date but I remember the film. And I remember walking out knowing that this was a game-changer. And I think that's part of it. It was a perfect storm when John Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote this incredibly innovative script. John is such a talented filmmaker and then Nick walks in and creates this character. I think when you download that level of creativity, that just goes straight to the amygdala. It goes straight to the part of the brain that lives in fear. There’s been wonderful horror since then with wonderful characters with different masks and this or that, but I mean, Nick was the first. Horror films are really great because they, in a way, relieve a certain anxiety for the fans. They really enjoy being scared, but somehow there’s a release in that. And so to identify the person behind the mask, I think, personalizes it for them.
This will be my first convention, the Halloween 40th anniversary. But the fans that I’ve been communicating with through social media, the amount of love is just incredible. I’ve said this so many times to my family, to my friends, to Nick—I stop and go, wow, I just got to be a part of that person’s joy. Like, how good does that get? And it just keeps happening day after day after day after day. And you know the thing I love about this? The fans of Michael Myers and Halloween, man, you can erase everything: race and gender and economic levels and nationalities and every single thing that human beings would use to try to define themselves as different from other people. Nah, not the fans of this film, man. It doesn’t matter where they’re from. It doesn’t matter what they do. There’s this commonality, and this joy and this love that happens over the original, flashing forward to now. I think it’s really beautiful.
Sometimes actors who play villains keep their distance from other actors on set, to help foster a sense of isolation. But it doesn’t sound like that was the case on the original Halloween.
Nick: Oh, no. You know, this was John’s third movie. We were in our early 30s. He was putting together a crew that would stay with him for a long time, some of which were pals from film school. So it really felt like two or three steps away from film school. It had the same vibe, you know, young people doing a movie. What fun. You’d have the times where you’re just hanging around as the actor, which is interesting because it never happened to me again. There’s a lot of dead time, so you get to hang around, have fun, talk to Jamie Lee Curtis and make lifelong pals and it was a total blast.
And it was Jamie’s first movie, back in ’78. Like I said, it just felt like you were with a bunch of pals. She’s so approachable. Even back then, she was. It was just a lot of fun. I mean, you had John, we had Tommy Wallace, who I went to film school with, Tommy’s wife Nancy, who plays one of the girls in the original. It just was so simple. In this new one, well, this was hilarious because the first time I got on the set, I was walking across to the makeup trailer. It was the first day, and I looked across and there was Jamie and she looked at me and just screamed “Castle!” And we ran towards each other, we hugged, and she just looked at me wide-eyed and said, “Is this nuts or what?” It was exactly the perfect reaction. Forty years later, we’re still doing this? And people like it? And they’re looking forward to it? How crazy is this? (Laughs) We’d had some interaction between the first and this one, because of the horror conventions and signings, stuff like that. She’s just such a great person. Strong, opinionated but sweet as hell. Just a lovable person.
James: Initially, I kept my distance from Jamie. And I did that just to honor her process. I mean, she introduced herself when she came on set, and then we didn’t talk for a while. I don’t even remember how long it was, the days run together. I would just say hi to her or whatever, but I kept my distance because what she’s going through as a character is way more complex than what I’m going through. She’s got a multitude of emotions to deal with. But then all of a sudden, one day, she just got up out of her makeup chair and walked over to me to say, “Hey, let’s talk.” And then we got into a very good conversation, and from that point forward, she rocks, man. She is one of the most amazing women on the planet. I mean, in this age of empowering women, man, women need to look at Jamie Lee Curtis and see what kind of woman she is. She is like the poster child for an empowered woman. After that, it was just awesome and everybody there was awesome and had fun.
One of the bittersweet things about the new sequel is that Debra Hill, who co-wrote and produced the first two Halloween movies, along with The Fog and Escape from L.A., isn't here to see it. [Hill passed away in 2005.] Nick, what do you remember about her contributions?
Nick: She was in all circumstances John’s partner on this film. She was the co-writer on it and producer. You look at the credits for most movies these days and there’s 13 producers. It’s like, what the hell do they all do? But she produced this movie, a movie she wrote with her friend, companion, boyfriend, John Carpenter. She was just, early on, such a professional. It’s a tough world to be in vis-à-vis the actors, when you’re the person in charge of the money. You can get in a lot of arguments over the specifics of that kind of thing. But she had a wonderful way of approaching that job that I think everyone would do well to follow. It’s just such a damn shame, and it’s a sin, that we lost her so young, that she couldn't be a part of something like this. She’d have so much fun. And women all around the world should take note of, as you said, her contributions to film and to how women have unfairly not been a part of this medium for a very long time or have been put on the back of the bus for a lot of this. She broke through. That had a lot to do with her own strength. A tip of the hat to John, too. He saw her talent and didn’t have any problem having her be a very important part of this franchise.
OK, last question, guys. Be real with me. Is Michael is really dead this time?
James: [low, rumbling cackle] My dear.
Nick: What is it, Jim? You tell her.
James: Well, you know, my philosophy is, in our place in the universe, nothing ever dies. It just transforms. So it took 40 years to transform The Shape from Nick to Jim. And God knows what it will transform into after this.
Nick: And I’ll give you the Hollywood answer: No! He’s not dead! Not if it makes $50 million on the first weekend. Let’s just put it that way. (Laughs)
This interview has been edited and condensed.