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Ben Barnes on Why ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ Director Scared Him on Set

Acting in a horror show may not seem like it’d be as scary for actors as it is for the viewers watching the finished product. But for star Ben Barnes, making “Pickman’s Model” was, by his own request, an unsettling experience.

The newest episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, airing on Netflix, sees Barnes portray William Thurber, a talented artist who becomes tormented by the disturbing creations of fellow painter Richard Upton Pickman (Crispin Glover) after he enrolls at Miskatonic University.

Based on HP Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, “Pickman’s Model” is a disturbing tale that sees Barnes’ Thurber put through nightmarish scenario after nightmarish scenario until it reaches its shocking, gruesome conclusion.

While others might feel comfortable surrounded by such horrors, Barnes told Newsweek that he has “very little experience” with the genre. And though some actors might have wanted to anticipate scary moments, Barnes requested that director Keith Thomas try and frighten him as much as possible on set.

“Keith had these clapperboards that we sort of came up with together because I said to him on the phone the first time I chatted to him: ‘I want to be [scared]. I want you to unsettle me because I’d like to be tricked. I like these reactions to be organic, so if you want me to be scared like make a loud noise,'” Barnes explained.

“And in the end, we had this whole system. He had these two bits of wood that he would smack together sometimes when he wanted me to [look around and] be like, ‘What is happening?’

“And when he wanted to shock me and when he wanted me to feel creeped out, I foolishly told him how one of the things that stopped me watching movies that are creepy was when I was a kid, I watched that movie Return to Ozthe Wizard of Oz sequel. It had these characters the Wheelers and they’re horrifying.

“They’re like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They’re just awful and they make this squeaky wheel noise when they would arrive in scenes. I told him that I found that horrifying. So he found that noise and would be playing it over a speaker sometimes during scenes just to make me feel unease and it absolutely worked.”

Reflecting on if it was helpful to do so, Barnes added: “Yeah, we curated it that way. I was like, ‘Scare me absolutely,’ because you only have to do it for the day and then it’s gonna sort of live there [onscreen].

“And Keith was like, ‘Just trust Guillermo and I to make it awful. You just bring the human part and the real reactions to things, and let us do the rest.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t know anything about this genre, so yeah do it. Please do it.'”

Del Toro approached Barnes directly for the series. Though the actor admitted that he never really watches horror because he doesn’t “like feeling sweaty and uncomfortable,” he felt he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with the Pan’s Labyrinth director.

Barnes called del Toro “an extraordinary storyteller,” adding: “I think he always manages to find the beauty in something disgusting, or loving something painful.

“He’s interested, I think, in those shades, I think in the same way that I am. He’s also a very hands-on person in terms of wanting to design monsters himself and wanting to curate, just like the way he’s curated these stories and chosen these directors and actors and put it all together in a very, very creative [way]. I think that appealed to me.”

It wasn’t lost on the west world star, though, that the part of Thurber was similar to a previous tortured artist he’s played, Dorian Gray from the 2009 film of the same name: “I think initially when I read the script I thought ‘interesting, it’s a sort of a Dorian Gray 2.0, do I want to play another painter?’ I actually just played another period artist as well in another film, which hasn’t come out yet, and I was like, ‘What is it about my face that looks like an old-timey painter?'”

“I’ve played so many period painters I’m actually losing track. So honestly when I read it, I was like, ‘Do I want to do that? It feels like treading similar ground,'” Barnes added. “But then I loved that the story sort of spanned this 30- or 25-year period, and you got to really explore somebody who’s reacting to something.

“I think I’ve played a lot of characters who were the baddie or the villain in the last few years. And to sort of be on the opposite side of it, to be the person to whom things are happening, in that kind of a way seemed exciting to me.”

He then added: “If you’re going to do horror and you’ve got some people like Keith Thomas who is directing, who loves and knows this genre so well—and obviously Guillermo overseeing it and editing it, putting it together—why not work with masters of that kind of storytelling? I thought it’d be interesting to kind of learn from and it was.”

The 1985 classic Back to the future is a film that is close to Barnes’ heart; a DeLorean model and Marty McFly figure have pride of place on the bookshelf the actor sits in front of while speaking to Newsweek over zoom. Barnes explained in delight how wonderful it was to meet Futures star Michael J. Fox for the first time at New York Comic Con in early October. He also detailed how Fox’s son Sam once came to the rescue during the shoot for his music video “11:11” after a guitarist had to pull out last minute—a moment that brings to mind the way Fox’s Marty McFly stepped in to perform at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance in the film.

And in “Pickman’s Model,” Barnes was able to encounter another actor from the iconic movie: actor Crispin Glover. the Shadow and Bone star said he “was so excited” to work with Glover in Cabinet of Curiosities because of how much he loved Glover’s role as Marty’s dad George in the original back to the future, and their first meeting was certainly one to remember.

“When I turned up already he was so Pickman-y and him and the director were just waxing lyrical on their love of all things macabre and disgusting. They were both so curious and they found so much glee in all the disgusting things,” Barnes said of meeting his co-star for the first time.

“Actually, they took so much glee in how uncomfortable I was even sort of rehearsing, looking at the imagery or the pictures I’m like, ‘How are you guys still looking at that table? I’ll be over here, does anyone want tea?’

Acting in a horror show may not seem like it’d be as scary for actors as it is for the viewers watching the finished product. But for star Ben Barnes, making “Pickman’s Model” was, by his own request, an unsettling experience.

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