After a career of notable feature roles in such movies as Untraceable, The Feast of Love, Ladder 49 and Along Came a Spider, Billy Burke is probably most recognized for his performance as Bella’s father, Charlie Swan, in The Twilight Saga.
That might change with his new movie Drive Angry. In it he portrays the charismatic cult leader, Jonah King, whose villainy knows no bounds. He has murdered John Milton’s (Nicolas Cage) daughter in order to steal her baby, so it can be sacrificed to the devil at a midnight ceremony. But Milton, literally from depths of hell, is coming for him.
What was your reaction when you read the screenplay for Drive Angry?
‘Are they really making this movie?’ It read like an awesome comic book, but it wasn’t based on a comic book, and as I read more, it kept getting more awesome. It goes way beyond the boundaries of most movies made today.
How did you get the role?
It didn’t come automatically. I went into first meet with [director] Patrick Lussier and we talked about it a little bit and then I came back and showed him my ideas. I guess he seemed to like them, which was good because I didn’t have any other ones. (he laughs) Once having read this, I couldn’t imagine not doing it. Everything about why I got into making movies is in this movie, it’s about having that sort of fun with abandon, and that’s why I wanted to do it.
Did you base Jonah King on anyone specific?
When I started to think about who guy Jonah was, I thought about real people I could take bits and pieces from. Right off the top I thought of the cult leader, Jim Jones, because he had the ability to get people to trust him no matter what he said. Then, along with that, this guy believes that he’s a rock star in his own right – so I threw in a little Jim Morrison as well. The two Jim’s were big influences and luckily Patrick has the same thing in mind. So we put that in a blender with people like Jimmy Swaggart.
What kind of mindset and preparation went into creating such an evil character and was it enjoyable?
The enjoyment factor, I haven’t had this much fun in a long, long time. I had a great time doing this. As far as preparation goes, I’m not really a research or preparation kind of guy. I get an idea, I try to find where the center of it is, and I just let it grow from there. So essentially it is me making it up as I go along.
I work primarily on instinct, but in terms of getting the initial shape of this guy, I did go and listen to some of the old Jonestown tapes, and I did take bits and pieces of varies rock stars’ swagger.
When playing someone like Jonah do you find it hard to turn it off and on?
No, I’m not one of those guys who takes the work home from the set. Part of the fun of doing this stuff as the character is that you would never get to do it in real life. You get to do that and you get to walk away and kiss your baby at night. I don’t find myself getting stuck in it. The evil stuff is just pure imagination, because I can’t fight!
When you saw what Nic was doing, was there ever a question of going too big?
In an animal like this I think given the parameters, I just don’t think there is that possibility of going too big. There are a lot of times in some of the other things I’ve done where I feel like I’m walking the line quite a bit, but with this I felt pretty safe that I could try some things, and if they didn’t work out they’d get cut anyway.
The fight scene you and Amber Heard have in the RV is very rough, how much of it did you do, and did you get hurt?
Yeah, I did get hurt. I didn’t get crippled or anything, but by the end of the sequence, we shot that over three days, and I was hurting afterwards. I did a hundred percent of that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love doing that stuff.
Which scene was your favorite to do?
Two scenes actually, the scene in the church where Nic’s character and my character meet up for the first time, that little encounter was a lot of fun. There was a lot of cerebral mental play going on in that scene that both Nic and I enjoyed quite a bit. We sat and talked about it afterwards and he likened it to jazz, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ There’s a reason people love Nic Cage.
And then the big showdown at the end was a lot of fun, because that’s where all the mania really comes out of Jonah. I had a good time with that.
Have you finished shooting Twilight: Breaking Dawn?
No, we’re right in the middle actually. I go back this week to continue my work on that in Vancouver.
Was one of the reasons you did this movie because you don’t get to stretch a lot as an actor in the Twilight franchise?
No. Thankfully it’s a continuing story and levels do develop as we go along, and in these next two installments Charlie’s world gets turned upside down and everything gets revealed. So it’s going to get fun.