Ansel Smith, the character Thomas Haden Church plays in William Friedkin’s filmization of Tracy Letts’s violent, sexually provocative play “Killer Joe,” might be the scraggly epitome of trailer-trash life, but as the actor suggested during a recent Dallas interview, there’s more to him than meets the eye.
“I don’t think he’s stupid,” Church said of the rumpled, bleary-eyed welder who’s talked by his son Chris (Emile Hirsch) into a “Double Indemnity”-style scheme to kill his ex-wife for an insurance payoff (but winds up having to hand over his young daughter to the Dallas cop, played by Matthew McConaughey, that they hire to do the deed). “A lot of the reviews say he’s dumb. I just don’t think he cares. He’s one of those guys, middle-aged, who has just for forty years had this very ritualized ‘I drink beer, because it numbs me out, I watch this, because it numbs me out’ [attitude]. And the only other things left to do, if they happen to cross my path, [are] food, sex and sleep—because I’m an animal, and an animal with a very small brain.
“But he is capable of a very fundamental kind of existence. He’s got chopped-off, nasty-looking underwear on, and Billy asked me at one point, ‘What do you think he’d sleep in? Would he have pajamas?’ And I said, ‘God, no. The long johns that he works in. Whatever he has underneath—he just strips it off and gets in bed. And after as long as she can endure it, Sharla [his present wife, played by Gina Gershon] tells him he needs to change his underwear. I think he’s that kind of an animal…that just exists. As dysfunctional as the family is, and the squalor that they live in, he’s fine with it, doesn’t find it that objectionable.
“I got into the mind of the guy as much as I could with Tracy’s and Billy’s assistance. But ultimately I’m nothing like him. I’ve had education, and a good life, and ambition, and on some level success. So on some level I’m still left to my imagination. How do I make this guy authentic?”
As to the shoot, Church said, “It was intense. And Billy really pushes the pace—he wants to keep the energy really moving, and the last scene is thirty pages long. He wants it in real human time, as much as the process of making movies can allow for that. And we really had to build that whole scene, up to the very end. Billy wanted it to play in real human time. We served that as best we could.”
There’s a good deal of dark comedy in the piece, though—including a hilarious moment involving Ansel, Sharla and a wayward thread on the elbow of a tattered old sportscoat. Church recalled it was a hard scene to make work. “They had to rig at least a half-dozen of those jackets with the sleeve, and we couldn’t get it right,” he laughed. “When Gina would reach over and just nonchalantly [tug]—what’s funny is that the whole set-up is that I’m looking at it, and looking at it, and it’s an irritant, and she is sort of chastising me and yanks it, and the whole thing falls down—it took a lot of rigging, and there was a guy that had like a fish-line. We kept doing it. It would flop down and looked too stagy. I could just see it peripherally, but when it happened very naturally, everybody in the room knew that was the one. And they checked the camera right away to make sure that we had it. Those things, when they happen in life, they happen organically. But when you’re trying to manufacture it, you’ve got everything working against you.”
And despite all the nastiness in the NC-17-rated picture, Church said, “There’s a certain filthy innocence to it, to all of it. What Tracy always strives for in his writing, including ‘Bug,’ no matter what the circumstances—I think that there’s still some faint destination of innocence. It’s a very psychologically complex script…[that confronts] an age-old question: what is the crime, and what punishment does it deserve?”
The Dallas connection was, Church noted, an important element of the script. “Tracy…lived in Dallas for awhile,” he said. “And the origins of the story are absolutely from Dallas. I think he did live in a very bad hotel or motel over on Harry Hines. And trust me, whenever we went to the locations in New Orleans—and I lived in Dallas for a number of years, and in Fort Worth—and Billy would ask, ‘What do you think?’ I’d go, ‘There’s plenty of places like this on the real Harry Hines, trust me.’ I know…they’re trying to rebuild and renovate, but Harry Hines was a pretty desperate spur when I was roaming Dallas in the eighties.”
Church had attended a screening of the film, sponsored by the Dallas Film Institute, the previous evening—the first time he’d seen it with an audience—and said, “It was very, very revitalizing to see [the audience] react the way they did.”
He added, “I had really hoped we were going to get to shoot here. My parents live outside of Denton, and I have a brother that lives in Dallas. But it’s always about the filthy lucre. Texas just doesn’t compete with a lot of the other states” in providing subsidies for local productions. While in Austin, he recalled, he visited legislators and “spent twenty minutes filibustering about how non-competitive Texas is, with so many other places in the United States and Canada. It’s particularly lamentable for me, a Texan, that a movie that’s set in Texas, that could easily have been shot in Dallas, we ended up having to shoot in New Orleans. I have family here—I have two sisters that live in Austin, and I live between Kerrville and Uvalde. I would have loved to work in Dallas.”