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James Ransone on how Chaplin influenced his 'Sinister 2' character

"Sinister 2" actor James Ransone says the real horror movies aren't about ghosts but about illness and encroaching death.

James Ransone didn’t expect to be the lead in “Sinister 2.” In the first movie, from 2012, he was the funny guy — the bumbling deputy who serves to temper the sadistic grind going on elsewhere. But he was one of the few survivors, and he wound up reviving his character in the sequel, now proving more helpful than distracting to a mother (Shannyn Sossamon) trying to fend off both an abusive husband and a ghost after her kids. Still most famous for playing Ziggy on the second season of “The Wire,” and recently seen in “Tangerine,” Ransone is chatty and open to talk about horror and the unusual influences on his “Sinister” franchise character.

You actually spend most of “Sinister 2” away from the horror, engaged in a domestic disturbance drama. Particularly with genre films, do you need something real to get you interested?

Unless I can find something I can relate to, I’m just going to be wandering around like a lost idiot. So far as the supernatural element, as an adult that doesn’t freak me out. Real horror movies to me are Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” because that could totally happen. An Alzheimer’s documentary — now that’s terrifying.

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I’ve read you’re picky about studio films…

That’s not true. I am, totally. I am not on the studio list. Studios want nothing to do with me. They won’t hire me, for some reason. The first one I ended up doing because the character in that movie is the comic relief. I would go into work and it wasn’t like I was in a horror movie. I would just do the funny scenes and go home.

What were you drawing from?

This sounds so ridiculous, but in the first one the influence on the character came from “The Chris Farley Show.” [Ed. The sketch where Chris Farley would be a nervous interviewer who would ask people, like Paul McCartney, painfully dumb questions.] Everything I’m doing in the first “Sinister” is a straight ripoff of that. It’s 100 percent me trying to do Chris Farley. I grew up on Theater of the Absurd comedy, like “Mr. Show” and Louis C.K., when he was a fill-in guest on “Conan.” All of a sudden they make me the lead in the second one, and I think, “Oh god, there’s no way I have enough gas to keep that going for an entire movie.” What I’m doing in “Sinister 2” is my version of the Tramp from “City Lights.” I know it’s weird to pull from Chaplin to put in a horror movie. I just happened to be watching that movie before we started filming, and I was like, “He’s a sweet guy being ostracized and cast out, and all he wants to do is help this woman.”

Just like your character! Is that something you talked over with director Ciaran Foy?

I’ve been doing this long enough to know how annoying actors can be. If I went up to the director and said, “Hey, listen, man, let’s talk about me doing [Chaplin]!” he would say, “Dude, I fired three people, my d.p. is about to have a nervous breakdown. I don’t give a s— what you’re doing. Just make sure you know your lines.” My hope is if I’m wrong they’ll at least say, “What are you doing? Stop that.” Then I’ll have to re-tool my original approach.

It doesn’t seem like a lot of Chaplinesque work made the cut. What were you doing?

There’s a lot of stuff I did on the day that was much bigger, comedically, than ended up in the film. It makes sense to me. They still made a genre movie. I don’t feel slighted by that, because it would look weird. Like, “Why is this idiot ruining this scare scene?” I had a couple pratfalls that didn’t make it and some other dumb things. There’s a scene where I had these gas cans and ran back to my car to put them in. I did a couple versions where I’m really ridiculous in the way I’m doing it. Things like that.

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Speaking of genre films, you’re in Ti West’s Western “In a Valley of Violence,” where you play evil. You don’t often do that. How did you find it?

It’s cool at first, because you’re free to do things in a performative aspect that you might not otherwise have the license to do. But it just gets old after awhile. You feel gross; you feel like a jerk. I never believed that people had a hard time playing villains. I always thought that was bulls—, actors being wimps about it. On Ti’s movie I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore, I just want to go home.”

“Sinister 2” doesn’t have a particularly larger budget than the first one, even though it made almost $100 million. That seems to happen with horror movies — that the studios don’t put much money into films that became hits if they didn’t cost too much.

That will be [“Tangerine” director] Sean Baker’s problem when he goes to make his next movie. He’ll say, “Can we shoot on 35?” And they’ll say, “Didn’t you shoot your last movie on an iPhone?” They won’t let him. Once you’ve proven to people you can make work for cheap, they don’t want to give you more money. It’s total, disgusting, end-game, 21st century capitalist greed.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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