In the horror movie “Annabelle,” actor Tony Amendola (TV’s “Once Upon a Time”) plays Father Pérez, a Catholic priest who explains to a family that the creepy-looking porcelain doll they’ve brought into their home is possessed with a demon and dead set on hurting their infant child. The film is a spin-off to the 2013 James Wan-directed horror movie “The Conjuring,” which features the same possessed doll known as Annabelle.
During an interview with me, Amendola, who has starred in such films as “The Legend of Zorro” and “Blow,” talked about how actors reacted to working with a doll as scary as Annabelle on the set and explained what happened to Annabelle every time they tried to board her on a flight for a press tour.
What attracted you to the role of Father Pérez and doing something in the horror genre?
I was draw to it because I’m Catholic. Growing up, I had a love for horror films. I got away from it for a long time, so when this came up and I saw that it was James Wan [producing] and that it was being directed by John Leonetti, who was the cinematographer for [“The Conjuring”], I thought it would be fun. Also, I have a tendency to play some dark characters. It’s been changing as I’ve gotten older, so I thought it would be fun to play a good man.
How important to do you think origin stories like this are for certain franchises? I know in your role as Geppetto on the TV show “Once Upon a Time,” you also get to work on a backstory for the character Pinocchio.
The prequels are always very interesting. “The Conjuring” really was about the couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). So, in this one you’re introduced more to Annabelle. It’s like a standalone origin film. I thought there was a lot of interest in Annabelle in the first movie.
What was it like being on a movie set with that doll? Does the doll’s presence on set help get everyone in the right mindset to shoot a horror film?
Well, I think of this movie as more of a psychological horror. It’s not just a slash and scare type movie, which is its own thing. If you get a prop in a film like a briefcase or a gun, the actors love to play with them. The prop people always have to round them up because actors will leave them anywhere. This is the only movie set I’ve been on where someone had a prop – in this case the doll Annabelle – and as soon as the director yelled, “Cut!” they passed her off. They didn’t want to hold it.
Why do you think people like horror films? What is it about being scared that interests audiences?
The spectrum of belief in terms of spirituality and spirits and demons is always gradual. But I do think there is a dark part in the back of our minds that explains why we need horror films. They are oddly enjoyable. There is nothing I love more than watching a horror film and hearing the fright or the gasp from the audience, which is always so satisfying. What I love most is the laugh after the gasp.
Growing up Catholic, were those ideas of evil presences in the world something you were told about as a child? Do you think that evil presence could, in fact, materialize in something like a doll or a game like the Ouija board?
You know, for this film I did talk to a priest. He told me a very interesting thing. He said, “To deny evil is to empower it.” I thought that was interesting. More importantly, as an actor we’re paid to be open with those things. If all your beliefs were present in every character you played, your characters wouldn’t be very interesting. So, you have to give yourself over to what is going on with a particular character. It helped me enormously in this role to be Catholic. I felt very comfortable in the church scenes where I have to recite a few sermons.
Can a film like this cross over to other religious beliefs or is it only meant to scare Catholics?
(Laughs) I think it will. A film like this can’t just be about an eternal war between good and evil, which, if you are religious, you do believe that exists in some form. It also has to be entertaining. A film like this has to work on so many levels; that includes being good entertainment. It has to be good for a date night when you get license to hug and hold. Also, Halloween is coming, so I think that’s a goal to hit those people who want to see something scary during October. I like when a horror film makes tingles go up my back without reverting to big wounds.
The lead actress in “Annabelle” is also named Annabelle. Did that get confusing on set?
Oh, yeah. She was great fun. Someone would say, “We need to do Annabelle’s hair…No, no, not Annabelle [Wallis], the doll!” It was wacky every time you heard that name and realized we had two different Annabelles on the set.
When I asked the PR guy if the doll had come on tour with you, I thought it was interesting that he said, “She’s not here.” Is that how you referred to her on the set – as a “she” and not an “it”?
Absolutely. We were very respectful. We’ve been all over Texas and in the airport she always gets stopped. TSA goes nuts. So, she never flies with us on the plane, which sort of makes me feel better. (Laughs) She’s never with us!
What does the TSA think is going on with the doll? Do they think you’re trying to smuggle drugs inside it?
Possibly! Well, also, the box she is in says “Positively Do Not Open” so that could be a problem. They always say, “Tell us what’s in it.” We explain that we’re on this tour for a movie, but they still insist on opening the box and inspecting her. You know, we were in Houston doing a TV interview the other day and it was me and Annabelle. During the interview, the doll fell over and the reporter took three steps back and her eyes got big! The entire control room was like, “Ahhhh!” Now, that was something.
How much would somebody have to pay you to take Annabelle in for the night at your own home?
I might do it. For today’s audience, you almost have to dare them to do something to get them to do it. And so they can brag like, “I spent the night with Annabelle” or “I spent the night in a graveyard, etc.” Bu, yeah, I think I would let Annabelle spend the night in my house. Unfortunately, it means my wife would leave. We saw “The Conjuring” together and she left after 25 minutes. I felt those chills going down my spine. It’s amazing because not much really happens during that time. It’s just great filmmaking. We hope “Annabelle” has that same effect.