Before we announce the winners of the 2012 My Cinema Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.
The lovably scatterbrained Fran Kranz has quickly become the great Joss Whedon’s go-to guy for casual genius characters like Dollhouse‘s futuristic tech whiz Topher and The Cabin in the Woods‘ stoner philosopher Marty. He’s a Yale grad who is crazy smart, smartly funny, uber talented and- as you’ll all learn when Much Ado About Nothing hits wide release in June- a pretty dreamy romantic lead.
A 2012 My Cinema Award nominee as Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy for his work in The Cabin in the Woods, Fran managed to find a few minutes in his crazy-busy life to talk to us about horror movies, Shakespeare, and life in the Whedonverse.
Let’s start with Cabin In the Woods because that’s what your My Cinema Award nomination is for. Are you a horror movie fan?
I am. I’m a big horror film fan. I used to make my own little horror films as a kid. I used to go to the video store, go to the horror films section and look at the backs of the movies, like the VHS box, and I’d just look for the goriest most ridiculous photos on the back of the box and that’s how I decided what to rent. I probably saw hundreds of terrible movies, but I was just really into the special effects and gore and violence. But I’m not a troubled person, I assure you.
The movie’s basically a collection of horror movie tropes. What was the scariest or weirdest beast that you encountered?
It is sort of like a dream come true for a horror film fan, or an ordinary kind of sick nightmare. I’ve always been a big zombie fan, I like Romero films, and Dawn of the Dead I just think is one of the best movies, you know, period. It was really fun to work with zombies, and I thought we did a really great job. I’m forgetting the name of him, I think it was Matthew, the character, the zombie—the big zombie—our most, sort of, menacing zombie—this great actor, Dan Payne, played him. And he got the movements down so well. When you’re filming a horror film it’s hard to actually be scared, you know what I mean? Cause you’ve got all the down time and you can see the monsters smoking cigarettes or getting food so, you know, it takes you out a bit. It really is a challenge, I think, for actors. I have a whole new respect for actors in horror films who make that fear and terror believable in the context of the actual set situation. But Dan Payne did a really amazing job, so working with Matthew, some of the scenes in the cabin when he shows up with Jules’s head—Anna Hutchison’s head—and throws it at us, in the tone of the scene, yeah he really was intimidating. He really is a big guy, and he was excellent at doing the kind of slow zombie walk, all while still being terrifying. So that was really cool for me. And then I guess also the end, that sort of last 20 minutes, everything that takes place underground to me kind of transcended the genre, and sort of became an action movie, or sort of a science-fiction movie, and it was just so out there that I was like a kid in a candy store, I never wanted to leave that set. Oh, it was so much fun to run around and hold a gun, shoot weird toxic mutants and stuff. That would be hard to top as a filming experience for me.
Be honest: when you first read the script, did you think Marty was dead and want to put it down?
I did. I did. And you know, I guess to be totally honest— I got the script, and I was sort of just flipping through it; I was so excited to read it, but I happened to notice a Marty line, towards the end of the script. It wasn’t like I was reading the ending first. I never do that. But I just happened to—on the way, you know, I opened or flipped—I noticed it. But as I was reading it, and once he dies, I thought, “Okay, that’s weird. I’m pretty sure I saw him later.” So I hadn’t decided either way, but I will say that I was completely on board with playing the role just if he died. At that point the movie was so cool to me that I was fine with him dying, you know what I mean? I would’ve killed to play the part. So when he came back, I figured out, “ok, he was not dead after all, and that line I saw was in fact a Marty line”—when he came back then it was all bonus time, you know? At that point it was gratuitous, it was just ridiculous [that the part could be that awesome]. I already thought the role was great, but at that point it was kind of a joke, you know? And in fact it was almost a little painful, ‘cause I knew if I didn’t get the role it would just bother me forever because the script was so damn good. The script is almost designed to make you love the role [of Marty], you know what I mean? It’s so funny, and cool, and he’s the only guy that gets it early, that you really are rooting for him. So for him to come on and be teased that way, and then for him to come back it’s just so satisfying. I knew that he would be an audience favorite, as long as I didn’t completely screw it up.
Each of those main five characters was informed by a specific archetype. Marty was “the jester”. How did you approach playing and subverting that?
Honestly, they wrote such a good script—Joss and Drew—it wasn’t really hard. They put it out there. It’s rare, but that’s a script that barely changed. The only thing that changed about it was little cuts. They lost a line or two here and there, but in terms of script-to-screen, Cabin in the Woods stayed true more so than a lot of films. So my job, in many ways, was done for me. I will say, though, that I like those guys. Without incriminating myself, I like hanging out with Marty types, you know? They’re fun. They like to have fun. So, I knew people like him, and I even had an ex-girlfriend that I [used as a model for Marty]. When a script is really great, the characters are made very clear. I can see the characterization on the page as it sort of leaps up out at me. So with Marty, as I was reading- in my mind- a voice, and a mannerism, and a body language were developing page by page. So when I came in for my first audition, after the script, I kind of had that whole character already in me. It was already something that was pretty fleshed-out early on. If anything, I had to pull back as we got to set; the challenge was making him not too much of a cartoon. But in a way, I think we all agreed that he was kind of the wild card, because he’s not just the funny wild man, the jester, but he’s also the one that’s seeing things for what they are. So we felt—we agreed that I could be a little bit more cartoonish than the others—that it was okay— ‘cause he was tempered by his intelligence. So it was a kind of fine line to navigate but in terms of subverting the archetype, he—Drew [Goddard, the director]—told us to play it as real as possible. I obviously got away with being a little silly, but he basically told us early on that he’ll do that for us. That if we could play five friends—a group of friends that really love each other and are put in a terrible position, where they really fear for each other’s lives and safety- that he would do the dirty work for us, of subverting the genre. He wanted us to come off as a really good, tight ensemble. Which is why I appreciate that you nominated us for Best Ensemble. I appreciate that because, I thought, for young actors,- horror films are always silly- but I thought we did a really good job of walking that line. Of being truthful to the situation and the terror, while knowing when to be tongue-in-cheek without actually winking.
Marty’s talking the whole movie about how humanity is horrible, and deserves to die, and then you—Spoiler Alert—trigger the apocalypse. Is there a not-horribly-depressing way to see that ending?
[Laughs] I guess it’s like “if the system doesn’t work…”, you know what I mean? Marty sees real flaws in the system, but it’s sort of nihilistic and cynical for what appears to be a kind of happy-go-lucky guy. It doesn’t bother him that it’s genocidal sacrifice to hopefully put things in the right direction next time. I guess he sees the bigger picture. But it is intense. People’ve asked about a message in that, all kinds of questions- and not just about Marty’s character, but about the sort of twisted minds of Joss and Drew. To me, I always just sort of found it fun. How else are you going to end a completely bonkers movie? But I guess it keeps you thinking, and that’s nice.
Cabin in the Woods was a film with what you could call a secret identity. What was it like keeping quiet about the twists and details of the frame device in the long space between filming in 2009 and the release in 2012?
Pretty tough. Because I was so endgame about the movie, and the role- it was such a big opportunity for me; I think it’s the best role I’ve had in film- it was definitely a challenge. But I also think that there’s so much good stuff in Cabin in the Woods—there’s so many twists and turns that I sometimes, to be completely honest, leaked the details here and there to friends, just because I was so damn excited about it. But, if anything, telling them one thing just makes it all the more intriguing. It’s such a crazy movie that to mention one aspect of it doesn’t completely ruin everything, you know what I mean? It’s such a tangled knot of twists and turns that I think you can get away with telling one thing without spoiling it all. It escalates really well; it’s not—and I love this movie, I’m not knocking it—but it’s not like The Sixth Sense, or The Usual Suspects, where one twist spoils things. If I told you there were giant eagle gods in Cabin In the Woods, I don’t see how that ruins anything, I just think that makes you really sort of intrigued and excited to figure out how the hell that fits into the context of what appears to be a tried and true horror film situation.
You first entered the Whedonverse in 2009 with Dollhouse. Can you give me some insight into playing Topher?
Yeah. I mean it was so long ago, but television—it’s funny—it develops with you. You don’t know your arc. At least, a lot of the time. On network television, they’re writing it as they go. Joss obviously gave me some ideas, but when I first approached it, he was kind of a snarky wise-ass. Brilliant kid, but, you know, a wise-ass, and I played into that. I wasn’t hesitating to be disliked by the other characters, or potentially the audiences, because he was on “the bad side”, so to speak. He was the mastermind in the dollhouse, which is morally completely sort of upside down—it’s kind of a topsy turvy place. So I relished the opportunity to be an antagonist to Echo, Eliza’s character. But as it went on, the writers were really generous and gave him three dimensions and he became a much more complicated character. And it was such a gift because his arc—looking back, I don’t think anyone would predict where Topher would end, from the first few episodes when you meet him. So it was really, really a wonderful role to play because he sort of grows his conscience and at the end I think he’s sort of a tragic character, and it’s a pretty heartbreaking story, following from the beginning to end. So that—that was a gift. Each script would come—I remember Joss would email me saying, “You’re gonna owe me money after this,” ’cause a scene would be so great with Amy Acker or somebody and the character would be just so fleshed-out and complicated and interesting that I was lucking out. So it’s all great.
Speaking of Amy, when I interviewed her back in 2010, I asked her, “Who’s smarter: Topher or Fred (her character on Angel)?” And she said that for sure Fred could easily take Topher. Thoughts?
[Laughs]. You know, I think it’s safe to say Topher’s like the smartest person in television. So the next time you talk to her—or the next time I see her- I’ll tell her I think that’s way off.
Were you a fan of series like Buffy, Angel and Firefly before joining Dollhouse?
I shouldn’t play favorites, but Firefly—Firefly’s definitely my number one. I hadn’t seen any of it before I met Joss. When I first read for him, I hadn’t seen his shows. Obviously, I knew who he was, but after I got Dollhouse, I went back to watch something, and I’m a big sci-fi fan, so I figured Firefly would be the best thing to watch and I loved it. I did Firefly and then Serenity, and I was completely in love with the show and the movie, so by the time I went to film Dollhouse, I was this complete, you know, Whedonite–total total fanboy for him. So I was actually far more star struck the second or third time meeting him than I was the first time. Which was probably helpful getting the part—that I just came in with my take and he liked it. But had I already seen Firefly, I might have come in all sorts of informed but also, you know, misinformed because I was such a geek. [Laughs].
What was it like then joining the Whedon-All-Star cast of Much Ado About Nothing that had a bunch of the Firefly actors?
It was amazing. It’s probably my greatest honor- in terms of a career, or I’d like to think ‘young career’; in terms of everything I’ve done- to be included in that project is such a huge honor because I guess it means he likes me [laughs]. And to be included in that group was just really an honor. But his family of friends are so tight that I’d actually already met pretty much everyone in that movie before, because you know the people that work with Joss love him, and it sort of trickles down and they begin to love each other. A lot of those casts stay very tight, the casts and crews remain friends, and hang out. The Dollhouse group is still some of my best friends. Joss is such a great host, he’ll have parties, and so we spend a lot of time together outside of work, so I’d met Nathan [Fillion] before, I’d met Sean [Maher] before—I knew some of these people, just hanging out, just as friends. So, though it was a huge honor, it was probably helpful that I wasn’t, again, totally star struck. [Beat]. Although, actually, I will always be star struck at Nathan Fillion, he’s just the coolest guy in the world. My one scene I have with Nathan—we don’t even really talk, he’s just there and I happen to be there- I could not keep a straight face. If the camera was not on me, I was laughing. And when the camera was on me, I was laughing. I couldn’t—I can’t—he’s so good in Much Ado About Nothing. He steals the movie. It was impossible to keep a straight face, so it was a lot of fun.
You play a lot of geniuses. And then there’s Claudio, who’s not… quite as much of a genius. He’s very gullible, has anger issues, and he doesn’t have a lot in common with say, Topher or Marty. What did you think when you were offered that specific role?
[Laughs]. Well, I loved it. I mean, I’m so thankful for Joss that he appears to appreciate my talents. His encouragement of my work is inspiring. The fact that he gives me these opportunities is sort of what keeps me going. I mean, honestly, to have that kind of encouragement and support from him, it goes such a long way. And Claudio, yes, to be offered such a different kind of role is very meaningful to me. When [Joss] first emailed me, he said: “I want you to play him as a temperamental jock, and not the wet he is usually played as”. And that’s pretty much the only direction I got before getting to set. That was it. And I really ran with it. I tried—in fact I tried to make him such a dumb jerk that Joss was pulling me back. He was like, “Come on, you know you gotta be happy about him and Hero, you can’t completely hate this guy.” So there were moments where I was just trying to make this guy so unlikeable, but Joss was able to temper it [laughs] and be like, “easy there.” But I still think it comes off.
Claudio screams and yells and ends up accidentally- at least in his mind- killing Hero, based on false information. Is that a hard part to humanize? I didn’t feel like I hated your Claudio at all, and I always hate Claudio.
You know, Shakespeare is the best because he sort of does that work for you, you know what I mean? You just have to deliver the lines. To give you an example- Shylock [in The Merchant of Venice] is the villain of the play; he is traditionally that manipulative character in a comedy. But through the dialogue Shakespeare makes him one of the most sympathetic characters in theatre, regardless of people who think that’s just our interpretation of it now. I say that Claudio’s sort of similar. It’s not a great example, but Claudio’s similar in the sense that, you know, Shakespeare knows what he’s doing. He can make this guy a jerk, but he also knows how to sweeten him. And also you believe Claudio definitely is truly remorseful. He truly feels awful about what he’s done; he learns his lesson. But he’s a simple-minded guy, and so I think he feels betrayed and he just runs with it. And when he knows he’s wrong, he runs the other way. And he is—I think—very sincerely grateful when he gets the opportunity to have her back. And Joss does a wonderful beautiful job with the visual; it’s beautifully shot—and his music’s beautiful, so he helps us—he helps us feel what we need to feel to get there at the end and root for these guys. So a lot of people are doing the work for me. [Laughs].
Every time I talk to an actor from Much Ado I continue lobbying for a full, Whedon-directed Shakespeare adaptation series—
Out of the entire canon, is there a character that you would really want to play?
King Lear is my favorite play, and I would love to play Edgar one day. Let me see what else—you know, Joss once mentioned that he’d love to do Hamlet. He even mentioned the idea of having two actors play it. God knows what he would do with that, but I’m sure it’d be pretty brilliant. But no, I think Edgar. I think Edgar’s one of the hardest roles in all of theatre and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a really great one. It’s so difficult. So just as a challenge I’d love to play him. I’m also thinking of the beautiful story, because he plays so many different parts within a part, because he pretends then actually goes mad. And he’s in the best scene in, like, all of theatre—Act IV. Scene vi. in King Lear. I think that’s the greatest writing in the English language right there.
Tell me something people don’t know about you.
Tell you something people don’t know? I uh, well, I’m very bad at organizing my time. [Laughs, because he’s double-booked himself and has to rush off the phone]. I love food. I’m a big foodie. And it’s the only reason I exercise, you know? [Laughs]. I have a problem. I think I have an addiction to it.