Red, white and askew: Actor Barry Watson sees the present in ‘THE CURRENT OCCUPANT’

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

Long associated with mysteries and horror, mental hospitals have been a locale for evil happenings in psychological narratives fit for midnight terror. These institutions’ reality is bleak and controversial – and horror, when done right, uses this setting as an opportunity to capture broader social concerns. 

In Into the Dark’s new entry on Hulu, titled “The Current Occupant,” a patient named Henry Cameron (Barry Watson) believes he is the President of the United States wrapped up in an evil plot. Directed by Julius Ramsay (The Walking Dead), the horror movie anthology episode digs into many thought-provoking themes. It also eerily has a lot in common with the state of the world today.

Fresh Fiction recently spoke with actor Barry Watson (7th Heaven and Showtime’s The Loudest Voice) about the odd parallels and how he tried to supply his own light during the show’s darkness.

Preston Barta: The first question that comes to mind after watching this film is, are you OK?

Barry Watson: “What’s interesting is, usually after you do something as dark as this episode was, you have time to detox out of that world you put yourself in. But because of the whole pandemic, we stopped production, and everything got pretty much shut down a week later. So, I didn’t really have time to let go of this. I think with the circumstances, I just went from that to a similar dark place that we all are kind of in.”

“I guess I’m doing OK. I need to have some light, fuzzy job for my next gig, something a little more comedic. But it was challenging. Everybody always asks my wife, ‘How was he when he came home from work at night?’ I guess I was OK. She’s been with me on so many different projects, so I’m usually always focused, whatever the genre or material. It’s sort of all a dream to me in some weird way.”

Yeah. There’s that line early on in the movie where you say, “My life has become a series of endless routines.” When I hear that, I’m like, “This is literally what we’re all going through right now.”

“I know. It’s eerie how precedent this is at this time in this world we’re in right now. I was talking to Julius Ramsay, the director, about it. I was like, ‘This is just so bizarre that we did this movie, and then this is the aftermath of us finishing production and airing it around the same time.’”

Would you say that the story has taken on new meaning since reading the original script? How do you think you would perceive the script now reading it from when you first read it?

“That’s a really good question because I haven’t really thought about it in that way. I probably would approach it differently, and I don’t think that would necessarily benefit the movie. I’m not even sure how I would approach it differently, but I know my mindset is different right now than when I first started the project. I’m not sure I would take on the same tone that we did then, but I don’t know. I mean, I can’t really say that. I definitely would probably read it a little bit differently, and I’m sure there would probably be some things changed within the script as well, possibly, I don’t know, with the higher-ups, the big bosses.”

INTO THE DARK — “The Current Occupant” – Episode 210 — Trapped in a mysterious psychiatric ward, a man with no memory comes to believe that he’s the President of the United States and the subject of a diabolical political conspiracy. As the asylum’s soul-crushing forces bear down on him, he fights to preserve his sanity and escape so that he can return to power. Dr. Larsen (Sonita Henry) and Henry (Barry Watson), shown. (Photo by: Patrick Wymore/Hulu)

Seeing how this film walks the line between fantasy and reality, what did the reality of Henry Cameron teach you about your own reality?

“There’s a part of me that’s a part of Henry. I’m an actor, I get to play make-believe all the time. For Henry’s reality, or what he perceives is his reality, I approached it the same way I approach my own reality. When I approached playing Henry, there was no way I could play that role without being convinced that I really am the President of the United States. So, every time I went into work, I was Mr. President. I mean, that was stuck in my mind.”

“Once he hears that he’s possibly the President of the United States, he’s going to take on that role from there on out. I think that was the only way I could actually pull it off, as an actor, is to really, truly believe that I’m the President of the United States. If I question that, then I don’t know. I think it’s not going to play as well throughout the film, and it’s not going to be able to make the audience do the back and forth that I hope that we were able to accomplish with going, ‘Is he? Is he not? What is going on here?’”

“I think that Henry’s reality is that he’s not crazy, that he is what he is. I like to think that our realities are similar in some way. Obviously not, as I’m not locked up and licking people’s boots and cleaning toilets and all that. I think that that’s the only way I could’ve approached it. It’s not this dream, but I wanted it to feel like it was a dream or like it could have been.”

I hope they put some sweet flavor on that boot for you to lick.

“[Laughs] By the way, everybody who’s seen that was like, ‘You could never do that during our times right now.’ That was my first day of work, too – that day of cleaning toilets and licking boots. That was my very first day on the show. Then, it just went on from there, going, ‘OK. We’re going to try to make this as raw and gritty as possible.’ But no, they didn’t put any flavoring or anything like that on the boots. I just made sure I watched the props clean it very, very well before I did it, and they were a brand-new pair of boots as well.”

Well, that’s good. When you’re dealing with a character that’s as complex as this, is it difficult to map that headspace out if it’s not shot in chronological order?

“It is. It’s really difficult. With these, you don’t have the amount of prep time as you’d like to have, obviously, and maybe that’s a good thing. I researched people with amnesia, but that’s as far as I really went with it, just to see how their ups and downs go. So, I was like, ‘Oh, OK. I just need to bring some ups and downs of just not knowing who I am, and that frustration that people must feel, and try to put myself in that situation.’”

“So, yeah, that first day of shooting, for me, on anything I’m working on, because you’re not shooting the first scene of anything, that’s the night I don’t sleep. I come back home from work, and I’m like, ‘Did I do any of this right? Is this going to work through here, here, and how I’m trying to build this part of the character up and where he’s at?’ Starting that far into it is not easy to do, but it helps you. I put my stamp on it that first day, and then this is how I have to go about it, and I’m sort of stuck with it at that point.”

“I’m sort of stuck with going, ‘Oh, OK. This is where I’ve got to be mean. This is how I played it here, so this is where I’ve got to build it up to this.’ So, it’s hard. But after that first day, Mr. President sort of gets in my body, and I roll with it. It almost becomes this weird dream sequence for myself, as a human being, outside of me being an actor, putting myself in this. It’s almost a dream state, for something like this, I put myself in. So, hopefully, that all paid off.”

Yeah, I would say so. And that’s interesting because one of the things I was going to ask you about is because this character is wrapped up in mystery, do you color in any of those gray areas that we may not necessarily see, but maybe can feel?

“Oh, yeah. That was the one thing I told Julius when we were working, I said, ‘Look, these little moments or these little things are big things. They’re always big things. Every little thing is something bigger than it says on the page.’ I think, at times, some of the producers were like, ‘What are these guys doing?’ Because we were not rewriting the script or anything like that, but just creating as much as we can out of moments. I don’t know if I can pick anything out because, as an actor, I always find the smaller moments are still the bigger moments in a performance. You see on a script it says, ‘Oh my God. This is going to be such a huge moment.’”

“Well, that’s what the writer was hoping for, but that might not be what the reality is of what you’re doing on that day of shooting. So, that was a great thing. You don’t always have the luxury of having that great connection with a director (and his brother, Alston, who was the writer), where we could talk to each other after work or in the middle of the night or email. We’d be shooting something the next day, but it would change. We would change it just to amp it up a little bit or make it work more for the whole story. It’s truly what filmmaking is supposed to be about when you have that connection and that back and forth with the other creative people in the process.”

“So, it was a short shoot. We definitely had our bumps and bruises, but then we got on a really good path of really all coming together and going, ‘We’re going to make this the best Into the Dark that they’ve ever seen, if we can, if at all possible.’ That’s always the goal with everything, and it’s nice when you come together with the filmmaker and the writers and the rest of the cast and producers, and the goal is just to make something the best it can be. I think we did that.”

Barry Watson in INTO THE DARK. (Photo by: Patrick Wymore/Hulu)

It’s nice that it was an organic process because I’m really invested in this journey as part of the audience. I really like institutional horror films. I’m constantly wondering where this is going to go, and I like where this one goes. But would you ever bail on a movie if you loved the journey, but didn’t love the ending?

“Hmm. You know what? There are so many powers in this business nowadays. I think every project I work on, I have that moment. I’m not an actor that’s trying to be difficult just to be difficult. I’ve worked with a lot of those actors that are just being difficult for no reason. It’s not creative. It’s not anything. But, for me, I don’t sit there and just go, ‘OK, give me the script. I’ll show up. I’ll say my words and go home.’ I’m invested. I don’t sign up for something just to half-ass anything. It’s my face up there, it’s my work. I want it to represent what I want to bring to it, and sometimes it always doesn’t go in my favor because the powers that be have other ideas of how it should play out.”

“I sometimes have a little more control over that, and sometimes I don’t. So, I just have to go, ‘OK. Do my part, let it go, and just let whoever’s in control of this to put out the best product possible.’ I will say the director’s cut of this was the best director’s cut I’ve ever seen of anything I’ve done. Usually, the very first cut of something I see, I’m like, ‘Oh, God. They need to put this back in. Why did they edit that so quickly?’ or, ‘Why didn’t they just let that play out a little slower?’”

“Julius, coming from an editing background, knows how to edit something. The way he was shooting it and the style and the vision that he had, he put together a really, really wonderful director’s cut. Unfortunately, it’s a time thing with so many of these things. So, things have to be trimmed down. What’s a drag about that is so many of these moments that need to take their time to play out end up getting cut on the editing room floor. It’s a shame, but that’s just how it goes. There’s a lot of really cool stuff from this movie that didn’t make it in. It really would’ve tripped people out. But you know what? I think it still turned out good. I think it plays.”

I hope that one day we get to see that cut. That’d be really cool.

“That would be pretty cool. They should do an Into the Dark director’s cut version.”

The Haunting of Hill House had a physical release where it had extended cuts of the episodes. Something like that would be really cool. Pricey, I’m sure, to do the entire Into the Dark collection, but I would pay for it.

“Yeah, of course. Right? I know. I think Into the Dark fans would get a big kick out of that, but I’m not a producer on it. I’m just a talkie, actor guy.”

For my last question, I’d like to ask you something that I asked the director when I interviewed him. I knew that he had a history of working with the Clinton family, and I asked him if he could share this film with any political figure, who would he pick? And he picked Bill Clinton. So, I’m going to toss that ball in your court: What political figure, living or dead, would you like to watch this film with?

“Well, I’d love to say Donald Trump, but I don’t think he has the patience to sit through it. I don’t think he’s there, but I would really love to sit in that theater with him, whether he’s watching the movie or not. I’ve got so many questions, but Gosh, I don’t know. Bill Clinton, that’s a good one.”

“I think I’d say Richard Nixon because he’d probably have the patience actually to watch it. You almost don’t even know what year the movie is set in. So, it could almost play in the ’70s or something like that, and that’s what I think is so cool, visually, about it.”

“The Current Occupant” is now available to watch on Hulu as part of the second season of Into the Dark.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.