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Jackie Earle Haley on Dark Shadows, Character Acting, and Pre-Twilight Vampires

Jackie Earle Haley. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In Dark Shadows, Jackie Earle Haley plays Willie Loomis, a drunk and bitter butler for the Collins family, an old-money bunch that’s hit upon hard financial times. (Johnny Depp plays their newly awakened vampire relative, Barnabas.) It’s another quirky role for Haley, who was most recently an eccentric tech expert on Fox’s canceled Human Target and is also known for playing the town pedophile in Little Children and Freddie Krueger in the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Vulture spoke to Haley about the plus sides to being a character actor, developing this character with Tim Burton, and pre-Twilight vampires.

Your performance is very physical. How did Tim talk to you about playing Willie Loomis?
He definitely wanted to make sure that it didn’t turn into another — Hugo? You know who I’m talking about?

From which show?
From Frankenstein.

Oh, you mean Igor.
Yeah. We didn’t want the tone to get too slapstick-y. We wanted a tone that was kind of real but sort of comedic and a little dark when it needed to be. So we just searched together. One of the interesting things is I worked with him on the first day, and while Tim knows what direction he’s heading, you could definitely sense that he himself is finding the tone within the scene he’s directing. And as that search solidifies for him, he perpetuates it further. I think that was one of the things I was curious about, the tone of my character. Should it be big or pulled back? And I think we went with a less-is-more approach on Willie Loomis. It was really fun finding that tone with Tim. I was really excited about who the character was; it was a neat to play this drunken curmudgeon of a butler. This guy is basically the servant to the Collins, who are broke. He’s just going through the paces because the family’s broke while pretending to be rich nobility. Then Barnabas shows up and hypnotizes him and makes him his spellbound servant. So now all of a sudden, Willie has to work and it puts a crimp in his style.

And there’s a lot of humor in that, but as you said, it’s also dark.
When you’re talking about Tim Burton, you’re talking about a guy that has such a visual sense, an aesthetic, a storytelling style. It’s like he’s got his own genre. I really think that his sensibilities on this thing were brilliant in that its equal parts comedy and horror and melodrama. And I think audiences are ready for a nice classical vampire, a vampire that actually looks like a vampire.

As opposed to Twilight? Can I infer that’s what you mean?
In a sense, yeah. You’ve got a lot of modern-day vampire things ever since Twilight came out and I think this is real fresh, harkening back to what made vampires vampires.

Johnny likes to experiment with how he plays his roles, like how on Sleepy Hollow he played Ichabod Crane as if he were a 13-year-old girl. Did he do something similar on the Dark Shadows set?
He just seemed to be completely buttoned-down. First off, he’s a super-nice guy. He’s very friendly, fun to work with. He seemed to have a strong sense of who Barnabas was. He was pretty much spot-on throughout the entire shoot. He would attack this one long scene that would take a couple days to shoot and he would just have reams of dialogue in that scene and the guy, from take one to all the different angles, was completely spot-on. A real professional.

Are there challenges for you as a character actor?
I think being a character actor is exciting in that it allows you to embody completely different things, whether it’s through wild accents or a crazy bad guy or a drunken good guy. It’s neat that, as a character actor, I can increase the number of different types of characters I can sink my teeth into. And in so doing, find a different way to embrace, a different way to think, a different way to speak, to move — but to do it in such a way that you’re owning it and that it’s not just a caricature.

And because you’re in a lot of projects that are basically genre films, you have strong fan bases.
It’s been awesome. I love the Comic-Con world and the genre fans. And as an actor, it’s fun from a diversity standpoint because I get to work on Little Children and then play an iconic character in a horror film. One of the latest things I did was a little thing in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which is a drama. Each genre has its own sensibility and they all live in their own different world. It’s neat when you’re doing a drama, where you’re trying to do a slice of life and then you get into a comic-book movie where there’s a totally heightened sense of reality.

Your character on Human Target was a fan favorite. But that show never really got its footing. 
I dug that show and I really dug playing Guerrero.

By the time you were into season two, it was clear there might not be a third season. How did that affect the atmosphere on set?
I’m not sure how to answer that. I do know that in both the first season and the second season, we wanted to be picked up [for renewal]. And one of my concerns was, “If we don’t get picked up, what’s the arc of the season and what’s that last show?” We all loved being there. We really felt we were making a fun show. It was a show that didn’t take itself so seriously and it was just a good action romp each week.

What can you tell me about your role in Lincoln?
I’m playing vice-president Alexander Stephens of the Confederacy, this Georgian politician. So it was fun dealing with that accent and getting after that guy in a real way, even while wearing these ridiculous clothes, with the big, huge top hat and collars that come up to your nose.

Jackie Earle Haley on Dark Shadows