Exclusive: Brett Rickaby On Being a Psychopath in 'Bereavement'

A follow-up to Stevan Mena's 2004 directorial debut Malevolence, Bereavement is actually a prequel. In it, we get a glimpse at how Martin became the depraved killer he was in Malevolence. Brett Rickaby plays Graham Sutter, the man who kidnapped young Martin. We spoke to Rickaby about how he handles such a dark role (he promises he isn't Method) and Sutter's own tortured childhood.

Bereavement is available on DVD and Blu-Ray today.

How did this role come about? What about you says, "I would make a good psychopath?"

I have an empathy for people who are not normal. Even when I was in school, I was always drawn to more "character roles" than the leading men roles. And back then, I was better looking! I embrace the way I look now because it matches my sensibilities. When Bereavement came about, the role was offered to me. That hasn't happened much in my career so that was a nice little ego boost. When I read the script, I knew I could do something with the role. I like to go big, emotionally, and the emotional palette here was huge.

Were you familiar with Malevolence? 

I hadn't seen it, no. Not until I read the script [for Bereavement]. On paper, it's one of those things where you read and and say, "I want to do that role." When I first looked at it, it was like, "Wow there is so much death. I killed so many people." The real challenge is to work against that, to not be one-dimensional. I had so many questions for Stevan Mena, and I knew I had to do some research. Some of those were answered when I watched Malevolence. Sutter is not in it all that much, which is kind of nice for me because I could create something that came from within me.

Bereavement hints at severe trauma in Sutter's life, but doesn't really go into the details. Is there any talk of a prequel to the prequel?

Stevan has talked about that. He's got the sequel to Malevolence lined up right now. I think [a prequel] depends on what happens with Bereavement - how it's received. I think if there is a desire to see more of Sutter, Stevan doesn't have a problem with the two of us getting together and making up more stuff. 

Some of that tortured [internal struggle] was what I had questions about. We see Sutter mumbling all this crazy stuff, and a lot of times, I would think, "I don't get this. This doesn't connect to anything." I would come up with a theory and ask Stevan about it, and often he would tell me it was deeper than that. As an actor, I want to get down to the truth. When your director tells you it's deeper, I think, "Good. I want to get down to the bottom of that." Personally, I think that it is for the best that it is not all spelled out in this movie. This movie has to lead up to the next one. It's more of an emotional feel than an intellectual understanding.

Did Stevan have Sutter's backstory all planned out, or did he let you add your own flavor?

It came from Stevan's brain, so he knew what he wanted. Stevan has strong ideas, but if you come up with something, you can still bring your understanding of a character to the role. Stevan is all about the work. If what you bring trumps what he had, he is totally into it. There is always room to create things you can relate to; you have to. In order for a role to be successful, you have to relate to it, find a way to get in there, say, "Here is what I have to bring to the role."

What was it like working with Spencer List, the child actor who played Martin?

Spencer is a total professional. More professional than a lot of adults. He's very smart. His parents are very savvy and progressive. They get it. He gets it. He understands the difference between acting and real life. He wanted to know all the gags; he wanted to see how all [the blood gags] worked. There was once scene where he gets a knife through the hand. He wanted to see how that worked. He thought it was cool because he understands there is a magic to it, in terms of how it works on camera. But when it was time to shoot, boom - he was on and he was there. He's a real pro. We got to be good buddies after a while, but the first scene we did together was the scene at the kitchen table where I put that knife through his hand. It's my favorite scene in the movie - there is a lot of tension there. He wasn't really sure if I was a little bit "kooky" or not, so that added a little extra tension.

So he wasn't traumatized by the experience?

Not at all. The one we had a little more concern for was Chase Pechacek, who played the young Martin. What's real and what's not real bled into each other a little more for him. He had a real difficult time. There is a scene where I bring a knife to his cheek and there is a little bit of blood there. He couldn't get over the blood. It wasn't the knife so much; it was the blood. You have to be sensitive and make him okay with it, but once he was okay, he would lose focus a little bit. So then you have to make it a little bit scary for him, but you don't want to scar him. It's an interesting balance, working with someone that young in this genre.

How do you approach such a heinous role? How do you find the crazy?

Seven years ago, I made a recommitment to my career as an actor. I opened myself up to learning again, and developing an open emotional channel that can go anywhere at a moment's notice. Acting is sometimes like landing a jet on the head of a pin. With this particular role, I had never read a more emotionally volatile character. I love emotionally volatile characters, but this was the most I had ever seen. I had never read anyone who was as reactionary as Sutter was. I knew this would ask a lot of me, but I had already been practicing. Part of that practice is learning to let go. Allowing that degree of commitment, then letting it go. You have to find things to relate to. Because of all the death, I had to find the other side of Sutter. I had to find the humanity of him. Whatever character I am playing, I like to look for the opposite of their predominant trait. Humans are multidimensional. I had to find Sutter's vulnerability.

What is coming up for you?

Just the other day I was offered the lead in a little indie called Tentacle 8, where I don't play a creep. Hard to believe, right? I play an NSA code breaker who gets entangled in this plot to reveal the existence of a covert unit within the intelligence community. I'm the lead, and I have a romantic interest. This is new territory for me!