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Interview: Actor Tomas Arana talks ‘The Possession of Michael King’

Tomas Arana
Tomas Arana
Photo by Frazer Harrison

Actor Tomas Arana recently spoke to the Chico Movie Examiner about his new film, “The Possession of Michael King,” which releases to limited theaters on Aug. 22 and VOD and iTunes on Aug. 26. Arana is best known for his role as Quintus in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” and for his role Martin Marshall in Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Supremacy.”

In “The Possession of Michael King,” Michael King (Shane Johnson) is a man who doesn’t believe in God, but he also doesn’t believe in the devil, either. After the tragic and unexpected death of his wife, Michael decides to make a documentary film about his search for the existence of the supernatural.

He interviews demonologists and other kinds of psychics in the hopes that whatever trickery they use on him will fail, and he will prove that religion and the paranormal are lies. What Michael doesn’t expect is when some strange demon begins to take over his body, and it’s not letting him go.

Arana talks about his character in the film; what kind of research he had to do, even for a role that is minor; and what he would do if he had psychic powers. Check out the full interview below.

David Wangberg: Before I get to talking about the film, I saw that you were born in Auburn. And I’m going to be actually heading down toward Grass Valley here soon.

Tomas Arana: Oh, cool.

DW: So, even though you were raised in San Francisco, did you ever visit Auburn after being born there?

TA: Yeah, I used to spend every summer there because my grandmother had a fruit farm in Auburn. So my brother, David, and I… I have two brothers and two sisters. He and I were the closest in age; we were the youngest, and he’s slightly older than I am.

We would go up there the day that school went out in June, and we’d go up and spend the summer there, and my brother would help my step-grandfather with the fruit and the orchard trees and everything. And then I would do a little bit of help and then hang out with my grandmother and do whatever I could to help out. I went there every summer.

DW: Oh, very cool. Yeah, I’m from Chico; it’s about an hour and 15 minutes or so away from Auburn. But I’m going to Grass Valley later today.

TA: Oh, good. I had friends go to Chico State. I had three scholarship offers for football coming out of high school in San Francisco. One was Chico State; one was Saint Mary’s; and one was somewhere else, I can’t remember – Idaho or something. I ended up not playing, but I like that area of California.

DW: Yeah, it’s a very cool area.

About the film, over the past 15 years or so, we’ve seen many films do this documentary style approach or found footage approach – “Blair Witch Project”; “Paranormal Activity”; and now “The Possession of Michael King.” If this method of filmmaking came out 30 years ago or 40 years ago, what classic film do you think might also work in this style?

TA: Wow! That’s interesting. Well, how old is “The Shining?” [laughs]

DW: 1980, so more than 30 years ago.

TA: I would say “The Shining” is a classic, and if you saw it today, you’d go crazy, too. [laughs] No one can touch Kubrick, and no one can touch Nicholson and all of them. When I did “Gladiator,” they had assistant directors that worked on “The Shining,” and they would tell us the behind-the-scenes stuff, which is always interesting. I think that’s a wonderful thing.

And then Dario Argento out of Italy, in the 70s especially and 80s – and I even did a few films produced by him and directed by Michele Soavi in the 90s – he used to do some great work that were all about getting inside the head of the main character and were very provoking. There was a film called “Deep Red” (“Profondo Rosso” in Italian) with David Hemmings – a wonderful actor – and that’s an extraordinary film. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s really creepy.

I think “The Possession of Michael King” has that same element of really drawing you into the brain to where you’re sort of losing your mind as he’s losing his mind. And you’re trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not real, and I think the bravura and the quality of what David [Jung] did and what Shane [Johnson] did. I mean, I think they found a great balance to really grab people and bring them in.

DW: Essentially, this is a one-man show. A lot of it revolves around Michael King and how he’s possessed. Your character is only in it for a few minutes. Did you have to some research on demonology or anything before playing this character?

TA: I did; I try to do as much research as I can on anything. I certainly read up on all the demons and all of that and it’s so creepy. I’m not necessarily a believer in all of that, but at the same time, it’s a little creepy. But it’s interesting and it’s also fascinating, because I like to compare horror movies and science fiction movies to Shakespeare or to the abstract, because there’s so much imagination there.

And you certainly go back into history and look at all the witch trials of Salem and many of the other types of things that happened in history, and you can see where people just sort of get possessed in a certain way. Obviously, in the movies, it’s done in a very slow way, a very kind of seductive way.

Also, you can’t take out the concept of the psychedelic aspect of it and the LSD aspect of it. I’m from San Francisco, and, certainly, LSD was very prominent then, and I know people that have severe reactions to LSD. And the thing with San Francisco, as you are probably aware, it’s filled with 100 million types of cultures and strange things. Jim Jones comes from that area. A lot of these crazy cults… the Mansons spent some time there, although they ended up in Los Angeles.

A lot of these strange cults started in that area. And then there are these people that scam everybody. My character is, obviously, a scam artist, who just kind of gets kinky and sexy with his wife, and thinks, “Let’s do some LSD and have some crazy sex and that’s it.” Shane’s character, Michael King, is having some serious issues because of his wife, so he obviously believes it a little bit more and wants it to give him something that he’s not going to get, which is some type of rapport with his wife.

I love the scene when the fortune teller is confronted. I love that, and the actress who played her (Dale Dickey) was terrific, and that was a wonderful scene. It was just that classic scam. There is this old saying in a George C. Scott film called “The Flim Flam Man,” which I love, and he’s a hustler and he says, “There are some people who get hustled because they hear what they want to hear, and they want to believe something and they want to hustle you.”

DW: Have you had any psychic readings done at all before doing this film and are there any that stood out?

TA: Not recently. When I was young and in San Francisco, I had a friend who would read me tarot cards, which I found very interesting; some of the things seemed real. There’s even a “South Park” episode where Kyle or somebody tries to show how everybody’s a scam.

I don’t believe in malevolent stuff myself, but I think if you can compare it to religion, people can certainly say that religion is all fantasy. Whatever somebody wants to believe in, it’s OK with me as long as they’re not trying to bother me.

DW: One of the things that Beverly, the psychic, says in the beginning is: “Everyone’s born with psychic powers, but most folks don’t know how to develop them.” Going off that statement, if that’s true, if you figured out you had psychic powers and you were able to develop them, how would you present them to the world?

TA: Oh, my god. That’s an interesting question. If I had psychic powers, you’re saying?

DW: Yeah.

TA: [laughs] Well, I’d like to defend the memory of my mother and do something good with it, because my mother would want me to. I have three kids; I try to make their world better and try to understand certain aspects. And, certainly, I’ve had a few bad instances in my life with violence and guns and life-threatening situations – I’d certainly like to prevent those for myself and for the people I love and my girlfriend and all of that.

I would try to do that. I would try to do it in relation to just helping people. I think too many times, you think of those things as somebody is a fad, and they’re going to do make people do bad things and hear bad things, and stuff like that. It would be nice if you could use those things to do good things.

DW: Back in 1972, “The Exorcist” came out, and that was the one that kickstarted the whole sub-genre of demonic possession films and exorcism films in general. What do you think has been the biggest challenge for films today to be as scary as “The Exorcist” or even be scarier than that film?

TA: Well, here’s an interesting thing. In “The Possession of Michael King,” it’s the bravura of the acting. And if you look back at “The Exorcist,” the actors are terrific. The special effects weren’t that complicated. The spinning of the head and the vomit were old-time movie tricks that were really economical to move. You just had to film it well, and you had to have the right thumbs and all that stuff. It’s not that complicated.

Nowadays, you add in 500 million special effects and computers and all of that, and sometimes that has a great effect while other times the audience just doesn’t care. Whereas in the good horror films I’ve seen, and the ones I’ve participated in, I think it’s something that you do that will grab the audience; you have to make them feel something. And that will come more with the acting and the quality of the directing than the special effects.

Nowadays, they pump up the special effects. I think “Blair Witch” worked because of that. There are no special effects; there’s just good camera work and a good idea and a way to grab the audience and bring them in. Many of those movies are like that. You need some blood and gore and stuff like that in horror movies; people chop off heads and all that stuff. But that’s really not that complicated; they did that in silent movies in the 20s, and they did that in old horror movies of the 30s and 40s. They wouldn’t show the head flying off or anything, because most of the violence was off screen.

But it’s how someone gets the audience into it mentally – into the lead character’s mind and absorb it the way he or she is. In the case of “Michael King,” the way Shane is doing it, and there’s where I think I’m very proud to be a part of this, and it’s where I think they succeeded very well. And it’s not easy; it’s very difficult.

Shane’s work is remarkable; it’s really hard. It’s all staged in that he’s being possessed and he’s making you believe he is, and David’s right there with the camera right on top of him just absorbing it. And I always thought that was the quality of the film that I appreciated when I first read the script.

DW: Over the years, you’ve worked with many acclaimed directors, and, here, you’re working with someone who’s making his feature film debut. When you go into a film where the director is new to feature filmmaking, do you have the same level of confidence in the director as you do with someone like Ridley Scott, Edward Zwick, and Christopher Nolan?

TA: Obviously, you go in with a certain trepidation, because you’re worried… I’ve done first-time director films that were disasters where they obviously had no clue. But you can tell, usually, when they have a vision – granted the matter of just trying to understand their vision and giving them much help in realizing their vision. And, usually, good intelligent directors are very open to listening to your suggestions, even though they don’t want to waste hours and days on bulls*** actor suggestions.

But, if you have a reasonable mind, and you’re not just being some egotistical actor, you can do your work in a positive way and give the director choices. And that’s what you want do.

To conclude it, if a young director has a good quality and a good way of thinking, they have the strength best to do the film, and that you’ll find out as soon as you start working. And David had that.