dozen years after he had his breakthrough role in the Eli Roth horror flick “Cabin Fever,” Kentucky-born actor Joey Kern returns to the genre, this time stuck underground in a coal mine shaft rather than a remote rental in the woods.
In the film, directed by Ben Ketai, who directed two “30 Days of Night” sequels and “Chosen,” Kern plays a coal miner, who is one of the few survivors of a collapse, only to face some evil presence that seems bent on keeping the group from being rescued.
The 37-year-old, who is engaged to be married next month, recently spoke by phone about returning to the genre and what scares him in real life.
Q: What made you want to do this film?
Kern: I wanted to do it because I love the concept. The reason I gravitated to “Cabin Fever” and “Beneath” was because I felt like they were not so much about the horror elements, but they was more about the people. It’s a character piece: let’s put these people in a situation and what’s going to happen. In “Cabin Fever,” they put us in a cabin and they said, there’s a flesh-eating virus out there. Nobody knows where it’s coming from. What would these humans do? Will they turn on each other? Will they help each other? I felt like with “Beneath,” that’s what attracted it to me as well. These people are in a situation. We don’t really know what’s going on. What’s interesting is the ambiguity of the horror. At the end it says maybe this whole thing is in her mind, and maybe this is human nature if we put people in this stressful, condensed situation. Maybe we can’t even trust ourselves to see what we’re seeing. That’s what drew me to it. It’s not like there’s a killer on the loose so how are we going to get away from him. It’s more like there’s a killer inside, how do we deal with that?
Q: There is a core group of six survivors. Did your director, Ben Ketai, create a claustrophobic environment for you to get into that fearful mindset? How did you feel while you were shooting it?
Kern: We shot on a set similar to the way they made the (horror) movie “The Descent,” which did such a great job of making you feel so claustrophobic. I was surprised that they shot it on a set as well. So, when we started shooting on a set, they made it so well. They made it so that once you walked on the set, you were hunched over the entire time. We had all this gear on. As an actor, you love those kinds of things because the last thing you want to do is act. The more of the reality that’s created, the easier your job is, really. They didn’t go overboard. They didn’t say, “You’ve got to stay in this cave all 12 hours that we’re shooting today.” They let us be real people and they trusted us as actors.
Q: Can you talk about working with your co-stars in this? Was there camaraderie on the set?
Kern: You never know when you go to a set how everyone’s going to mesh together but I felt like we meshed together really well really quick. Professional actors know that’s their job. Sometimes directors or producers think they have to get us together so we can bond. I think that’s great; sometimes it’s needed. But actors know our job is to bond instantly with the other people. Everyone was professional on the set. It was easy to jump into this from go and be together. That stems from having real pros like Jeff Fahey and Brent Briscoe, to name those older actors that I look up to very much. We had a great experience.
Q: How did co-star Kelly Noonan, who played the only female in the mine, do with all you guys around? Did you treat her like one of the guys?
Kern: Kelly’s a very strong actress and she’s a very strong woman. She had no problems jumping into that role. If anything, because she is such a strong, confident woman, she had to pare that back a little bit because her character is not as confident as I am in this situation. I think she did a great job with it.
Q: For her character, it’s the first time down in the mines, 600 feet below the surface. For a lot of people, that’s the ultimate fear, just to be underground and something like that happens. Do you have any particular phobias?
Kern: What scares me and maybe it’s something I saw as a kid, but the idea of falling into a frozen lake and being trapped under the ice, and trying to find your way out. That just horrifies me, the idea of drowning in a frozen lake.
Q: After you starred in “Cabin Fever,” did you get a lot of other offers for other horror movies. What was it about this film that stood out from the rest?
Kern: The horror genre can be great but it also can be very much a trap for some actors. I studied in New York and did a lot of Shakespeare, and I studied in London, so I did a lot of off-Broadway plays (after “Cabin Fever”). I didn’t want my career to be just horror movies, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but personally, I didn’t want that to be my path. So I did turn down and shy away from other movies that were horror. I feel like enough time has passed that I’m going to get trapped in that world. I trusted the producers. I think they’re great as is the cast they put together. The concept of the film, to me, it’s not a horror concept, it’s more a dramatic concept in a horror atmosphere.