Jeffrey Combs Interview on NEVERMORE: An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe
Iconic actor Jeffrey Combs is known for his roles in Re-Animator, and appearances playing a number of characters in the Star Trek and the DC Animated Universe television franchises. He also performs a one man show where he plays Edgar Allan Poe entitled NEVERMORE An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe; he will be at the Sleepy Hollow International Film Fest October 10-13, 2019. We got to chat with Jeffrey about the festival and his love for the works of Poe.
What made you want to do Nevermore and how did it all come about?
It’s kind of unformed and organic but also purposeful at the same time. I guess it started with me reading his historical biography; I had this formless idea of portraying someone from history. I came across this biography of Poe and at first I was resistant; one of the reasons why I was doing this was I wanted to spread my wings and do something other than what would be thought of as horror. That didn’t quite work out because Mr. Poe himself just fascinated me. Once I started reading about his life, trials, tribulations and genius I was captivated as an actor is by a person and how they operate. It was dynamic and sad and soaring all at the same time; I said to Stuart Gordon “why has nobody ever made a movie about this?” and I kinda forgot about it. Then a year later he sends me a script of The Black Cat (a Masters of Horror episode) and he asked if I wanted to play Poe. He had sprinkled through the story making Poe the main character while incorporating biographical details. While we were shooting that he said “you ought to do a one man show!” I did not want to. I was like “no, that’s not gonna happen” but time and persuasion had me wonder “what would that be like then…”
Next thing I knew we had a structure, we had a theatre and we had a four week run that turned into a long time. Over two years periodically I would do this show in LA and toured around all over the country. It just sort of blossomed all on its own and I don’t do it as much as I used to but people invite me to do it and I’m always happy to.
You’ve been doing the show for a few years now; how do you keep it fresh and exciting for yourself?
That’s the biggest part and the biggest challenge, going from zero to sixty, right? That’s the hard part. I’m fairly confident about remembering it and knowing it but it’s not just that. It’s the whole gamut about getting ready for the thing. But I’ve done it before and I know how to do that so here we go.
Have you had any plans to expand the show by maybe bringing in more people?
I suppose but the conceit of the story is that Poe is having a recital; authors did that. I do have other people in the show but they’re kind of imaginary. So it’s a bit of a dream within a dream to quote Poe (laughs). So it’s a suggestive, imaginary recital that allows us to see the all the colours of Poe. He was a very witty guy, a rapier wit to his soaring poetry and his dark tales. So I hope people can like it. It’s for me a very meaningful hour and a half.
I really want to see the show; I know you’ve been in Canada with it before in Montreal so hopefully we’ll see you again soon…
I did two performances to packed houses and it was one of my favourite crowds, the Montreal crowd. They were so in tune and enthusiastic and just good will. I always had a good time doing the show there.
Why do you think Poe still endures with modern audiences?
Because he speaks universal truth. He is a wordsmith. Why does Shakespeare endure? Or Dickens? I think it’s because they are all top of the game. He was also incredibly accessible.
I’m just curious; you grew up in Scotland. Were you taught Poe in school?
No, in Scotland we were all about Robert Burns in school. We were aware of him but never studied him.
Exactly! So in America it’s basically part of the curriculum; you will touch upon Poe at some point to perhaps a lesser degree as with every school curriculum. I mean we had a couple of Mark Twain stories but we also had Poe as he was one of the pre-eminent great American writers. No one knows how diverse he was; we know him for spooky stories but most of the stories weren’t in that realm at all. They were imaginary or H.G Wells-ish, some of them were hoaxes; he was playful. The thing that’s so amazing is he is so fast. A lot of his most famous tales were written over a very short period of time. He was editor of a magazine; he needed to fill space and had to come up with something. He was kind of like a session musician who creates a riff where you go “Wow! He just pulled that out of nowhere.”
The Telltale Heart is your favourite of his works, isn’t it?
I would say because I worked on it the most and I am consistently and constantly amazed at the things I discover about the story. His ability to draw you in and pull back, raise tension and then pull back again. It’s just a constant rollercoaster of amping up and amping up. It’s just a very clever, well-constructed telling of a story around a campfire.
I recently picked up his complete works but have barely scratched the surface however, one piece is just one sentence but it’s devastating: Deep in Earth where he says “Deep in Earth my love is lying and I must weep alone”. I thought that was the saddest thing I had ever read.
He had a lot of sadness in his life; he lost his mother at 3. He had a friend whose mother he adored; a young beautiful woman who died. He lost her and then he lost his adoptive mother and then his wife died very young. His life was basically young woman being cut down in their prime. It’s a theme of his. I say it in my show; poetry in whatever form excites the sensitive soul to tears so the tone of purest poetry has to be melancholy. That’s the highest kind of beauty – something that makes you smile and cry all at once. It touches you and he always tried to achieve that.
Alone I think is another favourite of mine and of course a real sad one was Annabel Lee; that will break your heart. He considered himself first and foremost a poet and indeed he was. One of my dreams is to actually go to the UK and they’ll know the name (laughs). Poe is on the cover of Sgt. Peppers after all. I always looked at him more as America’s Van Gogh because he was a troubled soul and he never had as much of the fame; he had some but it came posthumously. It’s a shame but he lived in a lot of desperate poverty a lot of the time. Part of it is his own fault to a degree but he never really had a support system or family because he was adopted and his brother died so he just had no support system around. It was a desperate situation for him. Then he sits down and writes glorious things.
That’s usually the way; great pain can inspire great art…
That’s right; great compression or great stress really pushes that out. I can see that but it can be agonizing creating. It’s a shame he couldn’t care for his wife who was sick; he didn’t have the money to get her the care she needed. There was nothing you could do in those days with tuberculosis. This is probably one of the things that drove him nuts; spending years worrying about her where she is better, then she’s worse and so on. Here he is with a day job and trying to create. He is one of our greats and what he left behind was rich and deep.
I used to live in Westchester and it feels like it will be perfect for the Sleepy Hollow Festival which you’re performing at; how are you feeling about doing the show there?
Oh I’m so thrilled to do it; especially the theatre which I hear is a gorgeous thing. I saw it on Skype video and was like “oh boy, this is a perfect venue for my show.”
A lot of the time it’s not an architecturally harmonious spot but it’s fine; the lights are down so it doesn’t really matter but this is just the full on package here so I’m excited.
Before you go on stage how do you get into character as Poe?
Drugs. Lots of drugs. Just whatever I can find (laughs). No seriously it’s sort of a guestimation as it’s got to be part me so I am already in character. The prep is technical, spiritual and physical. I’ve got to get on a treadmill; I need to run the lines and set the pace. I listen to music often; the more I do it the more I get steeped in it. At this point I just enjoy getting in there as it’s such beautiful language; love to just rap through it and live it. He’s so above and beyond. Unlike a lot of poetry he’s very accessible but I think that’s why when a lot of kids in America do come across Poe in their English classes (I certainly did) they are like “Woah, wait a second! Here’s a voice that I can really zone in on. This is good. This is pure and true right here and I get it. Even if I don’t get it, I get it.”
I think also if you’re younger possibly in the teens then the loneliness and melancholy may appeal…
I do think that in adolescence they’re dealing with the transience and realities of life; what they’re going to do and all the angst, asking questions like who am I and who will I be? So this is something that is a touch tone for them. You’re not alone even if you haven’t gone through this before. Everyone feels this way and it’s universal.
You’ve had a great career in film and theatre; do you have a preference?
Well for different reasons, different things. I do love the theatre because it’s a communion between an actor or actors on stage and an audience. Of a moment it’s transient; there are no reruns and in a moment we are not gonna be here anymore. There’s maybe going to be another show tomorrow night but it’s not going to be the same show. It’s going to be something like it, maybe very much like it but something may even happen tonight that may never happen again. It may be good, or bad or maybe inspired but it will just be in that show. Some of the best performances I’ve ever seen you will never see. They’ve evaporated into the air and they are nothing more than memory at this point. Whereas with film you’re capturing; there’s a whole bunch of techniques and collaboration of that world that really appeals to me. It takes so many people with so many skillsets to keep things in harmony and it’s hard. It’s hard to get it right and it’s so weird because there’s not tomorrow night to get it right. You might get another take but by tomorrow we’re going to be down at the warehouse or in another location so this is it. It’s the only time you’re ever going to do this. There’s something kinda final about it but in a different way. It’s captured though. There’s no communion there with an audience for sure so they are both different mediums but they both have their rewards.
Finally, what do you want audiences to take away from Nevermore.
Hopefully a profound, deeper understanding of Poe’s genius and his sad journey but also his humour. I have a lot of humour in my show and people may not think that. I feel also as a performer I’ve gotta find humour because I’ve gotta counterpoint some of the darker things that go with Poe. It can’t be that all the time; you’ve got to find relief in there somewhere. It’s there in his writing; some of it is shocking for effect but he knew what he was doing (laughs). I’ve had the honour to talk with a lot of people after shows and I’m always so grateful that they’re moved by what they’ve experienced and learned. It’s hard to describe where the show goes but I know that people enjoy it. I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t think the promoters hadn’t seen the show so that’s why I’m there.
Basically everyone go see the Sleepy Hollow Festival and check it out for yourselves!
Absolutely! I want you to go and check it out for yourself, Eoin!
I would love to and will do my best to be there. Thanks for taking the time to chat and best of luck with the show.