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Patrick Wilson on The Conjuring, Exorcisms, and Opening Your Mind to Ghosts

Patrick Wilson. Photo: Getty Images

In The Conjuring, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life occult experts who investigated potentially paranormal cases, including the Amityville one made famous by the horror film. Before Amityville put the controversial team on the map, they investigated the Perron family home in Rhode Island for an alleged haunting by the ghost of a witch and the ghosts of everyone murdered on the property. Farmiga’s character is the clairvoyant who senses the presence of spirits, while Wilson’s character is tasked with expelling them. Wilson chatted with Vulture about being open to the spirit world, performing an exorcism (onscreen), and his take on the debate about his Girls episode.

You met Lorraine Warren for this. What was that like? Because she has a priest living at her house to do mass every day …
That’s exactly right, yeah! It’s funny: For someone who has seen some very dark things, she’s very wry and very light and very open. Vera and I went there, and it’s her, the priest, her daughter, and her son-in-law, in rural Connecticut, chickens running around in the house. Lorraine would be telling some story about some demonic thing she had witnessed, and in the same breath, turn to tell a rooster to shut up. What I walked away with is the real supreme faith that she has, not only in God, but in her husband. That was something Vera and I wanted to capture in the film, playing that couple, to give a glimmer of that relationship.

Did she let you inside the occult museum at her house?
She did. Vera didn’t want to go; I did. [Laughs.] I was reading The Demonologist, so I was pretty well-versed on it. I just walked in going, “Okay. This is what they strongly believe in. Let’s see it.” So I saw a lot of strange artifacts and relics, and even though I feel like I had a pretty good handle on myself and my aura, my psyche, I didn’t want to touch anything. It just wasn’t worth it. For what? For my ego, to say I touched the [allegedly possessed] Annabelle doll? Nah, it’s okay.

In the real-life haunting that The Conjuring depicts, it took place over ten years and the Warrens ultimately were not successful. Did you talk to Lorraine about that incident? About what happened? Or what the skeptics said?
Yeah, maybe she did say that, that it didn’t finish with them, that they left or they were kicked off. And in House of Darkness, House of Light, which was written by Andrea Perron [one of the daughters in the house], that went into more detail. The things that they claim to have seen far surpass anything in the movie. Of course there are skeptics. Ed Warren  loved the heckler, you know? If somebody spoke up, he would say, “You can’t tell me what I didn’t see. I saw it.” It’s like the people who think the moon landing didn’t happen, who think it was on a soundstage in L.A. But Buzz Aldrin says, “You cannot tell me I didn’t go to the moon.” How are you going to argue with that? If you never want to see a ghost, you’re not going to see a ghost. If you want to lead a miserable life and never fall in love, that’s probably going to happen, too. You have to be open. How free is your mind? How able are you to be open to any circumstance? I think that’s usually why it’s signified in movies that children seem to be a conduit, because it’s a pure mind. Animals, too. I haven’t seen a ghost, but my dog knows when I come home. Why? How many times have you thought about somebody who you haven’t talked to in forever and then they randomly call you? “I was just thinking about you.” There’s another force at play, whether you call it lady luck, a miracle, fate, coincidence, whatever. It’s something we can’t figure out, generations, cultures, religions all try to figure it out, and in this case, from a devout Catholic’s point of view, they’re God and the Devil. You know?

I always found it fascinating, in horror films, the differences between Catholic and Jewish exorcisms. And in extremely rare cases, a Protestant one or a multi-faith one, such as the Episcopalian priest with a rabbi in The Unborn.
With the Warrens, yeah, they’re devout Catholics, but they worked with rabbis, shamans, and everybody. So it’s sort of proving the point, no matter what God you pray to, it’s all the same. It was really strange doing the exorcism scene. I don’t know if it’s growing up Episcopalian, so I have this very old relationship with the Church — I spent a lot of time in church choir — but as far as practicality, I learned Latin. I had a Latin scholar come to me and sort of explain things. And it was a beast. We almost shot it in sequence, and this came towards the end of the shoot, which rarely happens. So you’re exhausted and all your emotions are on edge. I got to be honest with you, because you’re holding the book that the exorcism is done with, and you’re holding a cross — and it’s not a prop cross, it’s a real cross — and it hits you on levels that you don’t really expect it to. It was freaky.

I was surprised to learn that Scott Foley is your brother-in-law and that you’re doing a movie with him, with your wives who are sisters [Dagmara Dominczyk and Marika Dominczyk].
Yeah! We just finished Ward’s Wife. It’s a dark and funny story that Scott wrote and directed, and our friends, like Donald Faison and Amy Acker, are in it. We decided to just do it ourselves. Scott and Marika have been together longer than my wife [Dagmara] and I have, but we’ve been married longer. I just pulled the trigger sooner. [Laughs.]

Dagmara had the greatest response to all that Girls hullabaloo over your episode: “Funny, his wife is a size 10, muffin top and all, and he does her just fine.”
Yeah, that was pretty fantastic. She knows how to silence people, if need be. That’s a rare skill. [Laughs.] I really wasn’t expecting so much response to that episode. I didn’t think it hit the Zeitgeist in that manner. I saw it like this little French film that we shot, for five days, and I loved that. And then when it came out, when I saw how it didn’t fit into the season — didn’t fit in linearly, but did fit in other ways — I didn’t expect people to have such an opinion on my taste. As a person, not just a character. That was really strange and invasive and weird. People thought they had any clue about me. You can judge my acting all you want, but it’s really interesting when people were like, “Patrick Wilson would never do that.” What? Who are you? [Laughs.] You have no idea. You don’t even know my middle name. And here’s the thing: A lot of people can’t separate Lena Dunham from that character, so therefore they judge me as Patrick, because they’re judging Lena as her character. But both characters are damaged. People talked about Joshua like he had his stuff together and I was like, “What are you talking about? He’s as much as a train wreck as she is!” She’s just more vocal about it.

Patrick Wilson Says Open Your Mind to Ghosts