Say what you will about the films of Stephen Sommers: the guy has the good sense to keep casting Kevin J O’Connor, one of the coolest character actors in the business. O’Connor’s cool because he’s a real movie fan – especially genre movies – and he loves his position in the Hollywood food chain, where he gets to do horror movies as well as big prestige films like There Will Be Blood.
In There Will Be Blood O’Connor plays Henry, the con man who convinces Daniel Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview that he’s his long-lost half brother. That means O’Connor goes toe to toe with our greatest living actor, and not only lives to tell the tale, he keeps up scene for scene. It’s a terrific performance and one, that in the wrong hands, could have killed the whole second half of the film.
I had a chance to get on the phone with O’Connor recently, and when we weren’t bullshitting about old monster movies, we talked about There Will Be Blood and his career.
There Will Be Blood is on DVD now. Read my review of it right here.
You are an avowed fan of horror films. Do you think that it’s possible
to look at There Will Be Blood, with that Jonny Greenwood score and its
downward spiral of Plainview, as a horror film?
I would like to! There are horror elements, I think. The mood and the
lead character being somewhat of a black and white, grey, type of
person. But no more than that.
It has some pretty terrifying things to say about the human condition.
It does. What do you think it has to say about the human condition?
Watching the movie, at the end I feel like we’re all condemned to be
venal and looking out for our own best interests at the expense of each
other… except for HW, who does manage to go off and make something
better with his life.
That’s an important factor – that person has walked away from it, and you have the choice of doing that.
Your character is someone who begins in a scam position, you’re there
to con Plainview. But at the end of your arc I feel for your character.
I feel like maybe you’ve come to understand Plainview in ways no one
else has. Do you agree with that?
Yes, I do. I said to Paul (Thomas Anderson) one time, ‘Boy, did this guy pick the wrong guy to con.’ That was his dilemma.
We hear a lot of things about Daniel Day Lewis and how he can stay in
character and be very intimidating. What was your experience like
working opposite him in all of your scenes in the film?
It was great. You know, it was the quietest set that I’ve ever been on.
And that had to do with Daniel and Paul, they were very concentrated. I
was being very quiet too, either being worried or concentrating on what
the character should be doing. That set lent itself to that perfectly.
I wouldn’t call it a fun set, but you felt like you’d done some good
work. Work was being done, and you didn’t need your hand held all the
Did you talk to Daniel Day Lewis about your characters relationships, or did you find it organically?
I think we found it organically. I talked to Daniel on the set before
we started filming, and I used a higher register to my voice, and when
I heard his voice I thought ‘Oh this is perfect.’ I don’t know if I
consciously thought this then, but I thought of this after I finished
filming in that part of me wanted to be the weaker gene in the family.
Daniel got all the ballsy fire and I was weaker. It kept growing like
that, this lost animal in the desert that is just following Daniel
wherever he goes and listening to whatever he has to say. It just
Your character Henry is so interesting because while your character is
so integral to the story, if you told someone the plot of the movie he
would sound like a tangent. But when you look at the whole thing, Henry
is part of what breaks Daniel.
I think it has strongly to do with HW. I think Henry’s arrival has
something to do with the relationship of Daniel and HW. HW hasn’t left
yet, but he’s about to leave, and [Henry] fills this spot in Daniel
that needs somebody; HW is not quite working out at the moment, and now
he has Henry. That doesn’t work either because I don’t know if Daniel
is capable of having what it takes to teach somebody – or me, for that
matter. It just doesn’t quite work for Daniel.
Is there something about your career that keeps attracting you to characters named Henry?
You know, I’ve noticed that too [laughs]. I have no idea. I think in
Seraphim Falls they don’t even call me Henry in the film, so I don’t
even remember that. But yeah, I’ve had much sillier names in films than
Henry, so Henry is a relief.
You have films like There Will Be Blood and Seraphim Falls… and then
you have Flight of the Living Dead. Is that a film that you approach
very differently than you approach There Will Be Blood? Do you go in
lightly, or do you put the same work into that character?
That’s a good question. I happen to love the great B horror movies –
Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead stuff, John Carpenter’s They Live – the great
modern B horror movies which, as you probably know, they don’t quite
make them that much anymore, and they’re not quite the same. When I
read that script it was actually a pretty funny script and a pretty
funny character. I had never met the people, so I was a little bit
apprehensive about doing it. Obviously I didn’t have the same amount of
time to develop that I did with Henry, but in the same way I don’t want
a lot of time for Flight of the Living Dead. I’m not going to say one
of the charms, but one of the great things about working on a film like
that is that you have to work fast. It’s a roll of the dice – stuff
like The Mummy and stuff that’s bigger budgeted is more character
driven. But I wish they had left the name Plane Dead. That was
hilarious to me. My friend said, ‘I saw in your recent films you’re
working with Daniel Day Lewis. I see that you have There Will Be Blood
and Flight of the Living Dead – which one is Daniel Day Lewis in?’ But
I was approaching it where I wanted to have the fun of making a B, spur
of the moment, silly horror film.
How did you get involved with There Will Be Blood? I’m sort of hoping that Paul Thomas Anderson is a huge Deep Rising fan.
Somebody else on the crew – I can’t remember who it was – was sort of
obsessed with that film. Paul loves pretty much all genres. In fact, I
was doing Flight of the Living Dead when I met with him for There Will
Be Blood and I was a little nervous telling him what I was doing. Then
I thought, ‘That’s so pretentious, I’m going to tell him what I’m
doing.’ And he said, ‘What are you working on right now,’ and I said,
‘A movie about zombies on a plane,’ and he said, ‘Yes!’ He has a love
for pretty much all kinds of genre films, and he’s a huge movie lover,
so we got along instantly on that.
Stephen Sommers is filming GI Joe right now… what’s the story? Is there a role for you in this one?
I did a brief appearance in a flashback scene. To be honest, it’s so
brief… he has several other people he worked with in there. He asked
me to do it, and he’s a nice man, so I said of course. I worked just a
few days – I don’t even know what’s fully going on with that.
But the streak is not broken.
No, I guess it isn’t. He’s a very nice guy. A pleasure to work with.
Are you a military guy?
No, I’m a scientist. It’s a brief little thing to the point that I didn’t even know why he wanted me to do it.
It’s cool for the fans.
Yeah, I don’t want to compare myself to Bruce Campbell, but in the Spider-Man films it would be a loss not to have him there.
And as soon as he’s on screen, the real fans get it.
Yeah, like Lance Henriksen, someone who pops into a film and it’s great.
You have a career as a character actor – do you look to the great character actors of the past?
I get asked this so many times. I truly wanted to be a character actor.
People ask me, ‘When are you going to get the lead?’ and I say, ‘I
don’t want the lead.’ I always use John Carradine – I don’t know why –
but John Carradine to me was more of the classic character actor who
would literally show up and do three lines in a big Hollywood movie and
then have a bigger part in the sequel to The Invisible Man. That career
is so great. That is part of my… I don’t know if it’s a set plan, but
I always seem to follow that course.