Reece Shearsmith is a quarter of the writing quartet that created some of the most gruesome and horrifying characters currently locked in the vault of British comedy. This month Reece teams up with cult director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers) for his latest horror, A Field In England.
Set during the English Civil war, A Field In England tells the story of a small group of deserters captured and forced to aid a psychotic alchemist in his search to find hidden treasure. Sounds like a suitable marriage of Wheatley’s usual horror and comedy weirdness. The civil war setting however, adds something a little different to this cocktail of horror and was one of the selling points for Reece who plays Whitehead, a spineless alchemist pivotal to finding the field’s hidden secrets.
“I think they actually wrote it with me in mind.” muses Shearsmith “I don’t know what it says about what they must think of me, but I was flattered to be asked. I’d had a meeting with Ben about the idea of it and when he described it to me initially it was slightly different to the way it was finished. It was a bit more linear and obvious at first. In a way, the story was clearer but the final product of makes so much more of the mushroom field and going into this magic circle. It feels more threatening. Also reading the script was quite dense, it’s language is so authentic and I remember thinking “oh god how is this going to be received?” but again in the final cut, it works perfectly.”
As established by the excellent Kill List, Wheatley is a master of the uncanny and his latest film often feels like an exploration of all the ways we can be unsettled as an audience. But it seems it wasn’t just his audience that was astonished by the unexpected. On one particularly harrowing scene, Whitehead is taken into a tent where something unspeakable happens to the sound of his shrieks. But it was Shearsmith’s emergence that truly terrified his director.
“It goes on and on and that’s what’s really horrible about it. All the script said was that he comes out like he’s seen something terrible. I think everyone just expected me to emerge like I’d seen a ghost or like a broken man that had just been tortured. But I just thought it would be far creepier to go the other way. It just came to me and i was like a man possessed.” Emerging weirdly euphoric and smiling wildly Shearsmith fulfilled his want. “I think it genuinely frightened everyone.” Director Ben apparently liked it so much that he roared “ OH F***ING HELL, THAT’S HORRIBLE!” rather than just the normal “Cut.”
Never one to shy away from the grizzly tales of the unexpected, Shearsmith rose to cult status with his dark comedy, The League of Gentlemen. With his writing pals Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson The League of Gentlemen provided a platform to let loose and let some of comedy’s darkest characters loose to critical acclaim and fanatical delight. So what is it that draws people to the dark side?
“It’s always delicious to watch something painful, you can look through your fingers and be thankful it’s not happening to you. Also, dark stuff is a kind of release. Some people can’t bare what we do and think it’s horrible and cruel and other people think it’s just really silly. It’s just the threshold of what you think is funny. You can’t ever really gauge it. We’ve always just done what we find funny and it’s great if you can take people along with you.”
So does the man that gave life to terrifying characters like the black faced, circus master Papa Lazarou and Royston Vasey enthusiast, Edward have any boundaries?
“There are things that I can’t bare to watch, Borat being one of them. It’s so excruciating. Don’t get me wrong. He’s the master of that and it’s delicious to see people being made fools of but at the same time it’s horrifying.”
With films like Shaun of The Dead and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy breaking the mold of box office hits both here and in the US, Reece has been a part of the invasion of the geeks taking over Hollywood over the last decade. Only in small roles he agrees, but with Edgar Wright’s Blood and Ice Cream trilogy taking one last lick at the box office, Reece was invited back for a role in The World’s End.
Simon and Edgar brought everyone back that was in either, Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since I was in that garden in East Finchley being attacked by zombies. I’m so excited for people to see World’s End, it’s really funny and a real spectacular finale.”
And if that doesn’t get the geek in you salivating, Reece has been busy filming the Dr. Who biopic, ‘An Adventure in Time and Space’ with his old League comrade, turned Whovian writer, Mark Gatiss.
“For many years Mark had the idea of doing a Dr Who drama and finally the perfect time to do it presented itself. It’s a very small part but i was honored to be asked. It’s a loving reproduction of the time and Mark’s attention to detail is impeccable so i think for fans of Dr Who, it’ll be a real treat.”
The “small” part is in fact second Doctor actor, Patrick Troughton. To the Whovian fan, this is no small fry and Reece assures me he knows the privileged position he was in, especially when it came to filming with the Doctor’s arch nemesis The Daleks.
“I did see some Daleks and was on set with the console, it was really exciting. I’m not a massive, uber fan like Mark is and I was standing there thinking god, people would give their right arm to be here.”
And he’s not just playing Dr on screen, The University of Hull awarded Reece with a doctorate last month so he’s officially Dr Shearsmith. When I congratulate and ask what it means to him, he coolly admits he’s very proud and jests “Yeah, now I can start injecting old people”
On that note….