In James Franco’s latest directorial effort, Child of God, Scott Haze plays a psycho killer who has sex with dead bodies, talks to stuffed animals, and descends into madness in the backwoods of Tennessee. Based on a 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel, the movie tells a bleak and gruesome story of isolation—so to prepare for the role, Haze took off from L.A. to the wilderness of Tennessee, where he spent nearly four months living alone in caves and a cabin and subsisting on a diet of fish and apples with nothing from civilization to keep him company save for an iPod loaded with Eminem.
Haze likens the experience to being in a doctor’s office, where a really boring painting on the wall “all of a sudden becomes fascinating” because there’s nothing better to do. By the time he showed up on set, he’d lost 45 pounds and fully inhabited the mindset of Lester Ballard, McCarthy’s twisted creation based on the real 1950s serial killer Ed Gein (who famously served as the inspiration for Norman Bates in Psycho, Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface).
Intense, right? Not according to Haze, who is decidedly Zen about his Method approach to Ballard. “There’s this thing I kept saying when I was by myself in Tennessee and it made its way into the movie a lot,” he says. “‘If that’s the way it is, then that’s the way it’s gonna be.’ Like, okay, there are a lot of bats in the cave tonight. It’s cold tonight. If that’s the way it is, then that’s the way it’s gonna be. It’s simple life, you know? Just simple existing.”
Haze, a native of Dallas, Texas, and Franco also collaborated on last year’s As I Lay Dying and will take on Faulkner again in next year’s screen adaptation of The Sound and the Fury. He talked to The Daily Beast about cave life, his soft spot for Lester Ballard (“He just wants friends!”), and going paintballing with his “brother” James Franco. Naked, that is.
You’ve said before that you feel you owe James your life. What did you mean by that?
When I came out to Hollywood, I was a crazy young kid who didn’t have a lot of direction. James was a very disciplined guy at the time and he was an acquaintance of mine. We’ve become like brothers over the past six years, but we’ve known each other for ten. I went through a very crazy time, whether it was at the Chateau, running wild in Malibu, I just went through it. He was able to sneak into my life and give me guidance, basically, when I was going through a hard time. He was there for me.
How did you come to spend three months in a cave?
I didn’t know that that was the deal. I read the book and I said, “There’s no way I can prepare for this in L.A.” I have a theater in L.A., the Sherry Theater, which I built, but I was like, there’s no way. I don’t know the accent, I don’t know this, I don’t know that. I had a friend who lived in Sevierville from high school, who was the town historian of where the novel takes place. I hit him up on the Internet, I was like, “Can I come visit?” He’s like, “I have a cabin.” So I went there and he showed me everything. I got to meet everybody in the town, we filmed a lot of it, and it was a great experience. I did everything Lester did in the novel—what I mean by that is I really got to experience what it was like to live there on an intimate level.
And then there was the option to go back to L.A. before the movie starts, after I’ve done my work, or stay. So I said, “I’ll stay.” Then they showed me the caves and it just kept evolving from there, and I stayed with the diet ‘cause I knew I had to lose all that weight. So the next thing you know, I’m living in a cave with my rifle—my .33, I had to learn how to shoot that thing when I went there—I went through my training and I had it. I kept remembering something my favorite athletes say when they work really hard in their profession, like Kobe being from L.A., my favorite guy, he stays with it, you know? So I just stayed with it.
Did you learn anything about yourself while you were out there?
Yeah. I learned that if we set our mind to things, we can accomplish almost anything no matter what the circumstances are. And it’s okay to be alone. I thought I would go stir-crazy and I did go crazy, but I didn’t go like, “I gotta see people!” It was a more serene feeling. You get up, you eat, you do fun stuff like entertain yourself—which is why the stuffed animal thing came into play—you talk to yourself a lot. So you’re just living life and there’s not this [picks up his cellphone]. Like if I look at my phone right now, there’s a million things. You know how it is. None of that! I did have Eminem with me, the music. I don’t know why that happened. That’s a whole other weird thing.
When Lester is by himself, his loneliness manifests itself in these stuffed animals that he talks to and fights with. Did you make up any imaginary friends while you were in the caves?
Yeah, I did, actually. I drew on the cave walls a lot. You take rocks and the wall turns white. [I would draw] pictures of scenes.
Had you heard of Child of God before shooting? Was it daunting to realize you’d be playing an insane, murderous necrophiliac?
I hadn’t heard of it. I got a text from James saying “go buy this book today.” Like, “okay.” I read the book that night. ‘Cause normally when James sends me a message, like “check this out,” there’s a good chance it’s worth doing it. I’ve figured this much out. So when I realized I was playing Lester, I read the book in one night. Literally, just straight through. It was like 3 in the morning, I finished. I just sat there for twenty minutes and I said, “Whoa.”
I was really strong, I had put on all this muscle for this movie I did and I had a shaved head. And I was just like, “What? How the hell am I gonna do this? What the fuck is this?” But the more I got into it, the more I realized it’s not about necrophilia. That’s a result of being extremely lonely. [Lester] just wants friends, he wants a girlfriend. He wants to be loved, he wants to connect with people. If there was Instagram back then, or Twitter, or whatever these other dating sites are, I don’t even know, he could go on there and be like, “I like to live in caves.” Then this girl would be like, “I live in caves too!” And then Mr. and Mrs. Lester Ballard could get together. But he didn’t have that option. In the 1950s, it was, “You’re not welcome in society, we don’t like you. Boom.”
On the other hand, it does seem like playing someone who gives in to their most base impulses and desires could be kind of fun.
That’s the other thing about being isolated for so long. In life, there are a lot of expectations. I see why in the South especially, there’s a simple existence. People, whether they’re cowboys or farmers or ranchers, you just get up, you do your job, you have a family, you come home. So for me, I liked working on that one role for so long because I got to really go so far in, to where when I showed up on set, I was down for whatever. I knew everything about that world so that I got to really be free. There was something very visceral and invigorating to where you know you’re ready.
What was your take on the ending? In the film, [SPOILER ALERT] there’s this expectation of a big payoff at the end with consequences raining down on Lester for all the murders he’s committed—but instead, he escapes an asylum and walks free.
We shot a different ending of the movie. [It was originally] the one that’s in the book. So when I get caught and they take me out from the asylum to lynch me, I check myself back into the asylum. I say “I’m supposed to be here” and there’s a scene where I’m sobbing and then they find the cavern with the bodies.
Which ending do you prefer?
(Laughs.) Well as an actor, if you’re shooting a scene and sobbing, going, “I’m supposed to be here,” you know, there’s a feeling of like, that’s the ending. And then you watch the movie and it’s like, “Hey!” I guess the feeling was that it’s a different experience [to wonder], “Oh, is he still out there?” You’re kind of like, “He got away.” It’s a different kind of triumphant thing than just having him go to an asylum, die, and years later they find a cavern full of bodies. They liked the way [the alternate ending] made the audience feel rather than just having a big payoff.
What do you and Franco do together when you’re not working?
James and I are both really workaholics, so normally we do projects that are fun that involve work. So we’ll throw events at my theater, we’ll go do a play together, we’ll go play paintball naked with real paint.