ESQUIRE – He talks about researching cults, perfecting his American accent, and, yes, Jon Snow’s fate.
To gaze upon Michiel Huisman’s IMDB page is to feel a deep shame for all the moments you waste during your brief time on this earth.
In the past five years alone, the Netherlands-born actor has romanced Khaleesi on Game of Thrones, Rayna Jaymes on Nashville, and Cheryl Strayed in the film adaptation of Wild. (OK, that last one may stretch the definition of romance a tad, but the point still stands.) He’s also hung out with the clones on Orphan Black, helped Brad Pitt fight zombies in World War Z and struggled with addiction and jazz on his breakthrough role in Treme.
When Esquire called him on location in Bucharest, he was hard at work on a new miniseries. But he nonetheless took some time to talk about The Invitation, the twisty and tense psychological thriller from Girlfight director Karyn Kusama, in which a small California dinner party slowly reveals itself to be something a bit more sinister. Huisman has plays his fair share of charming rogues before, but as David he gets to be both unnervingly polite and—spoiler alert—a touch evil. Esquire talked with him about cults, grief, and mastering an American accent—and he was also gracious enough to answer a Game of Thrones question. (There are some light spoilers for The Invitation in this interview, but anyone who has ever seen a film could figure out that the something crazy has to happen at the dinner party—otherwise no one would bother showing up on set.)
What attracted you to this project?
Well, a couple of things. We shot this movie right after I had done The Age of Adaline, which is this very romantic movie that came out last year. I was really up for doing the opposite: something dark and with an ensemble cast. I also liked the idea of Karyn Kusama returning to more of an independent movie like the one she started out with, Girlfight, which was really strong. That, and a couple of things about the story: the understandable philosophy of letting go of your grief, but then taking that way too far, which actually is kind of dangerous.
The movie presents a dichotomy in which your character purges guilt and regret and it makes him murderous, while the protagonist can’t let go at all and he can’t move forward in life.
Yeah, exactly. So what is the answer to the healthy state of mind? It’s probably somewhere in the middle, yeah?
You’ve been working a great deal in the last several years, in lots of different roles. Is this your first time playing…if not the villain, then the antagonist?
Yeah, actually. I think so. I’ve played bad boys on multiple occasions, but never the one that goes this far—without spoiling anything, of course. But that was also interesting about the project and the character for me.
Was that something you were attracted to, to be not morally ambiguous but…
Yeah, to a certain extent I was. But I think what attracted me to David’s evilness was the fact that he doesn’t really show that. He tries to be the opposite. He tries to be very understandable and very gentle to the other people, so he’s not the baddie, and it’s not necessarily like we see it coming. I thought it was going to be fun and a challenge to portray that, and go against what you expect from the bad guy in the movie.
It’s funny, you’re so nice and understanding in this that it becomes unsettling. How do you hit that precise tone?
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know. I think… by just trying to be really nice, really friendly, because I knew what was coming, so I just thought if I try to be as nice as possible, it’ll have the biggest impact to pay off in the end.
Why do you think your character does what he does? We get a little bit of his backstory, we know something happened to his wife, and he had to join this Invitation group. In your mind, what do you think drove him to this?
Well, so, it’s not explained in the movie, right? So it’s one of those things that you have to create for yourself. He does say that he used to be some sort of music producer, and I think at some point in his life he went down a path of some sort of self-destruction, and maybe he lost someone who went down that path with him, a close friend or a partner, maybe. And that left such a big hole in his heart, that he didn’t find a way of dealing with that grief. The only way for him to deal with it, basically, is by following whatever it is that the cult is preaching, this idea of letting everything go. And of course, at this point when our movie takes place, he’s already so deep into that and he’s never felt better, and he’s convinced that’s because he’s letting go. The ultimate way of letting go is by letting go of life.
Did you do any research into grief or coping mechanisms to get into the role?
No, more into cults and stuff like that. I didn’t really know that much about them, so whenever I could, I’d try to read whatever books I found, or go online and [read about] even, what’s his name… Charles Manson. I didn’t really know what had happened there, so it was more about [learning about] that. Grief, I don’t know… Like most of us, I kind of have an idea of what that means.
You shot in one house for basically the entire movie. Did it get claustrophobic with that many people in one small location?
Well, it didn’t really get claustrophobic, but it was really intense, because it was all in this house, and the house was actually also… I don’t know, it just felt heavy. Maybe that’s because of the story we were telling there, but it really worked as a location to our movie. It was one of the reasons why I thought it would be fun to be part of it, because there’s no sweeping shots and nature. It’s basically all in these two or three rooms, so it would all come down to the director and the ensemble, which I thought was exciting.
Speaking of directors, were you a big fan of Karyn’s film Girlfight?
Yeah, I was. I thought it was super cool and super powerful, and after that Karyn has gone on to do several different things, and I thought the idea of her going back to her roots, so to speak—a smaller, independent movie, that is very heavy on the acting and the performances—would be interesting. It would be fun to be part of that process.
And the film was funded by this company called Gamechanger, which is trying to get more movies by women made, correct?
Yes, it is. Which is obviously a great thing. But it really was about Karyn, because I think she’s very talented. However, I think Gamechanger is a very cool production company. I think it will be great if we have more female directors in the world.
So you’re working on a miniseries, you’re on Game of Thrones, you drop by Orphan Black, and you’ve got a bunch of films out, it looks like you’re just constantly working. How do you not get burned out from doing too much stuff?
Well, I sometimes have a little bit of time between projects. But I also think… I’m so thankful for the opportunity, and I guess it gives me so much energy to get those opportunities. I feel like right now, this is not the time for me to take a break, at all.
What was it like when you first started doing American TV shows and movies? Was it an adjustment for you, coming from the Netherlands?
Yeah, that was huge. It felt like there was a disconnect between myself and everything I was saying, just because the language was not my mother tongue, and it took me years to get over that. Now, sometimes I just realize, “Wow, it just flows.” And I’m not thinking about that anymore, at all.
How long do you think it took you before you felt comfortable?
I would say four years, I was working in the states, working on Treme, and in the meantime really working on my dialect with a great dialect coach in New York.
OK, last question. I’m not asking because I know you can’t say, but how many people in your day to day life come up to you and ask you about Jon Snow or what is happening next on Game of Thrones?
[Laughs] Um, you know… A lot of people. But [I’ll say], “OK, so you really want to know? So this is what happens…” Then people look at me in shock. Like, I was just joking. I think at the end of the day, people also don’t want me to spoil it.
So you have your answer down?
I think I’ve done pretty well, trying my best not to spoil anything. Thank God we don’t have to wait much longer anymore.