[Interview] Unmasking ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’s Damian Maffei

A decade after the masked trio first terrorized theaters, The Strangers are back in the most shocking sequel in years, with a new man behind the “sack head” mask, and we recently caught up with Damian Maffei to talk about becoming a horror icon and how to Prey at Night.

A well trained actor with a true appreciation for the classics of the genre and a wicked sense of humor, Maffei also gives us a preview of his next killer role in the upcoming Halloween horror film Haunt.

Read on for our full interview with Damian Maffei.

Damian Maffei is The Man in the Mask in 'The Strangers: Prey at Night'
Damian Maffei is The Man in the Mask in ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’

Can you tell me about what led you to be the new Man in the Mask in The Strangers: Prey at Night?

I was born and raised and lived in New York all my life until the last couple of years, when I escaped from New York. I guess I was always a big fan of movies and theater, and that really came from my mother, who would always be watching movies. She would know about these actors. I remember when I started to get into horror movies as a young child that shouldn’t be watching these horrible things, she would walk by and she would recognize some actor and she would tell me about them. That was great. It really kind of connected me to more to the movie, and I wanted to see more from those actors.

So in high school, I took an acting class, because it was there. It seemed like a pretty easy thing to do, you know, just sit in the back and get an A, but I was into it. And they made you audition for the school musical, so I had to do that. My second year, I got the part of Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. I did the voice of the plant. I wasn’t on the stage, I was in the pit doing her voice, but I just loved it. And I just stuck with that.

After high school I went to college, and they had a great acting program. I had a mentor, and he shoved me off to this acting school in New York City, the William Esper Studio. Then I headed out into the world and stumbled around trying to get paid.

In 2008, I was cast as one of the leads in this movie called Closed for the Season. It was shot at an abandoned amusement park in Ohio. One of the producers on that was Jon Wagner. Jon is great, very personable guy, and we got along instantly. And we kind of kept in touch. He directed a short film called Wildfires, and he wanted me to play the lead in that, so I did. He’s gone on to quite a bit of success. He’s a producer on Bone Tomahawk, Cheap Thrills, Starry Eyes.

He called me up one day and said, ‘We’re going to do the Strangers movie.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s awesome. A lot of people have been wondering and waiting for this sequel. That’s really cool.’ And he said, ‘What do you think about playing The Man in the Mask?’

I was in a dark place then, and had kind of hung up the acting cleats. I didn’t want to be a part of that anymore. But I thought (The Strangers) would be something cool to be a part of, and to play sort of an iconic killer or villain. Initially I didn’t think I was the right guy for it. (I didn’t know if) my ego could take having a sack on my head for two months while these other people are acting, and I was just like killing them.

Then I got the script. I read it and I was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ I got to one scene in particular, and I thought this is something that I can bring something to and make my own, a really chilling moment. And then throughout the script there were these moments where I could bring behavior and make it my own.

I went down to Michaels craft store and bought a canvas tote bag, and I just cut eye holes out of it and put a smiley face on it. I put it on my head and did a screen test audition type of thing and sent it over there, and I was skyping with Johannes (Roberts, director) not too long after. And that was it. I was in.

What was that scene that first piqued your interest?

  It’s the scene where I get into the van with Martin Henderson’s character.

I love that scene.

No lines obviously, but it’s really messed up.

[*SPOILERS AHEAD!*]

I guess it’s alright to talk about some specifics now, since it’s out and people have seen it. [Do not read further if you have not yet seen Prey at Night, as there are SPOILERS discussed.] That’s actually one of my favorite scenes in the film. It is brutal and heartbreaking. I love the soundtrack, and I love when you turn up the radio. I felt like in the 10 years from the first film to this film, in my own mind anyway, The Man in the Mask has learned that he likes having some theme music playing when he’s doing his thing, and I like it.

For years I would be in the car by myself, and I’m sure other people, actors, directors do it, you’re playing out some scene in some movie that you hope to get made or that you’re trying to creatively get done, and you put on the music and you’re playing a fake trailer in your head. I thought of that, and it hit me in that scene, ‘Oh, this is just like when I’m driving in the car by myself and I turn on some Goblin or whatever.’ I didn’t know what song was going to be (playing on the radio in the scene). It knew it was like a rap song, a country song, and a baseball game, but I didn’t have any specifics there.

The way Johannes always worked with me, he’d say, ‘Just play it up, play with it,’ and just unleash me into the playing field. A lot of that (scene) was from Johannes. When I get in the car – I’m not even sure it’s in the theatrical cut – but I wiped glass off the dashboard. I would sit down and just sort of gently wipe glass and blood off the dashboard, while he (Henderson’s character) is writhing in pain and trying to get out of this insane situation. I forgot if that was Johannes or me.

I did literally bleed for that moment. It’s all safety glass there, but with all of Martin’s moving around, the piece of wood shaved off like a sliver of glass that just landed in the pile I found it.

Johannes would say, ‘Why don’t you do this’ or ‘Why don’t you do that,’ but the pacing of it, me just kind of playing around with the ice pick, that was all us, that was me and Martin. We were in that van for a long time.

There are so many things about this movie that doesn’t go the way that we as horror fans are kind of trained to expect from a typical slasher sequel, and obviously I think it’s better for it. And I think one of the things that set the original Strangers apart was that it also went against a lot of the things that we had come to expect from slashers at that point.

Sure, the bad guys win.

That alone rarely ever happens. And then of course the way this new one goes, it totally plays out not the way we are expecting it to. I feel like the first half of the movie, when each of the killers is reintroduced, it’s in a way that really kind of puts them on this iconic level. I felt the camera linger on each of their masks just a little extra second to give everybody that moment of, ‘Oh man, they’re back.’ Let’s talk about the pool scene. Again, it doesn’t play out the way we’re expecting at all. When Pin-Up Girl runs out there and gets knocked out, that’s shocking enough, but then when she starts getting stabbed, I half expected him (Lewis Pullman’s character) to lift the mask and it be his sister somehow, because that’s what we’re conditioned to expect in a film like this, like there’s no way he’s actually stabbing one of the Strangers. And then his death is just so drawn out and torturous.

The whole pool sequence was probably my favorite day, just because it was all day. We’re doing this cool kind of fight sequence and they’re choreographing that, and then night came and they lit up the trees and everything. There were about three cameras going at that time. The stunt people were all there. Cal (Johnson) is a wonderful coordinator. He was the stunt coordinator on the original movie too. He choreographed that fight between me and Lewis.

Lewis and I really had a good thing going timing wise and trust wise, so we could feel when something was working. There was a point there in between setups where I just looked around and was like, ‘This is pretty cool.’ It was exhausting too.

I fell once. I took a swing at him and kind of swung so hard that I lifted myself up into the air and fell on my back. I had the sack on my head, so everyone just thought I knocked myself out, because I didn’t move because I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so embarrassing.’

Everyone was expecting it to be the hardest thing to film on the shoot, but I don’t think it was. It was tough, but I think it went well for everyone.

When I got in the water, and he breaks free and he’s running away, there no way without movie magic that I’m ever catching him with boots filled with water. I mean he was just gone every time. He made it to the end of the level, he won the game. So we needed to slow him down a little there.

 In the press materials they sent us, Johannes talks a lot about the influence of John Carpenter on this film and specifically Carpenter’s Stephen King adaptation Christine, obviously with the flaming truck and I think with the use of music too.

Well he (Roberts) loves Christine. He told us with the truck stuff he was remaking Christine because they wouldn’t let him. Maybe they will now.

To me it just felt really good and refreshing to be legitimately shocked at the way things play out. After what happens with Pin-Up at the pool, you’re thinking there is no way that’s going to possibly happen to the other two, and so when it does, it’s like the only way to properly follow up what the first film did by letting all the bad guys win and get away. This was the perfect answer to that.

We love the first film. I see that’s a common complaint, ‘Oh, it’s too different.’ But why do you want the same movie? It’s in the same world, but you know, it’s like a little different flavor. They’re both ice cream, but this is rocky road. If you don’t like the movie, that’s totally cool. But if you’re just like, ‘It’s just not The Strangers,’ if you refuse to let it in and have fun with it, I think you’re missing out. It might be one of those things where 20 years down the road it wins people over, like Halloween III, where people finally got over that isn’t the Michael Myers thing, and now it’s very warmly embraced.

It’s a fun, heightened, fever dream slasher movie, but even in that, I think it’s a bit different.

That’s what I love is that it does hit similar beats from the first movie in the first half, but starting with that pool scene then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh shit, this is something else totally.’

Well, the game changes there. That’s where the game changes for them, right there. It was there business, you know, playing with their food, and that’s not supposed to happen. You’re not supposed to do that. So it changes it up for them, and they have to adapt.

And when that happened, I also almost expected The Man in the Mask to rip off his mask and go running over there to Pin-Up freaking out.

I did do that. One take I just ripped my mask off and ran over there, and Johannes asked me to go back over there and put the mask back on. That’s something that we played around with, not too much, but there’s kind of a subtle thing. With the pool scene, we definitely took our time with it, and you could see through my body language the moment between me and Lewis that Pin-Up meant something to me. We don’t know what that relationship was, but there was something there. That’s what drives him to start swinging away wildly. He loses his cool. The game is out of his head now.

That’s what I found pretty interesting, is that there’s kind of a little bit of an arch there, this psychopath monster who has his thing and then just completely loses it in the moment.  

Damian Maffei and Lewis Pullman star in 'The Strangers: Prey at Night'.
Damian Maffei and Lewis Pullman star in ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’.

There is so much subtlety with your body movements. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of that and how you went about it?

It’s tough. You go up through your acting life and when you’re doing stage, you use your full body, you’re playing to the audience. And then when you get on film, if you continue to do what you did on stage, it looks hammy, you’re overacting. So you’ve got to walk that line. When you’re doing a film, you want to be truthful to the moment, but you have to be wary of what you’re doing with your face, your voice. And then with this movie, all that shit is gone. The challenge is your ego. Actors want all the attention for themselves and now you put me in a bag.

But seriously, I wanted to bring some menace and terror to this guy, and also take advantage of those moments within the script to make it my own, like it wasn’t just anybody that did this. This was Damian’s version of it. I thought about it a lot. I tried out different postures for him and ways of walking, and it’s different throughout the movie too.

There’s the fun and games Strangers, when they first arrive to their victims and they’re playing their games, they have their movements and they take their time. They’re arrogant. And in Prey at Night, it changes on them. All that stuff is out the window. But you still have to keep the character, even though he’s lost his mind.

There was a day on that movie where I literally just sat in the truck and gave Bailee (Madison) dirty looks (behind the mask). That was what I did for that day. At some point I was just like completely still, like really going to do some serious eye acting here, I’m trying to set her on fire with my eyes.

It was just fun. It was a very different experience from what I’ve ever done. It’s stifling at points, if you’re an actor, to have to kind of navigate your way through there. It has its own challenges, but I took it completely seriously and had a ball with it.

I’ve seen some fan comments worried that the producers have backed themselves into a corner and can’t do any more Strangers movies, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true at all, especially considering that there are 10 years between the first film and now that could hypothetically be explored. If you heard that they were going to make another one, would be interested in coming back to play The Man in the Mask again?

I think there’s a lot to explore in this world of the franchise. I had a lot of fun with it, and I would love to get back in there and help this guy grow or evolve or just take another crack there, although some people don’t want to see him grow or evolve, they just want a monster. I can do that too.

But you’d rather see it progress a little bit.

He’s not going to take off the mask and go to rehab, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about seeing the movie’s world continue to grow.

I think that Prey at Night is a wonderful companion piece to the first film. And think that there’s a place for the next version of that. I’m not saying a comedy, but maybe go to the city or something. Maybe the Strangers are in Manhattan or Cincinnati, or space or the hood.

The Strangers in Space.

Space Station Stranger. There’s a place for it to go. No, I don’t mean to get zany and wacky, but subtle differences that keep playing in the world, but make it menacing and scary.

To answer your question, yeah, I’d sack up again.

I’ve been contacted by so many awesome people over the last week (since the film’s opening), who just feel compelled to reach out to me and tell me what they thought and what they thought of me, and it’s really amazing. What I tell each one of them is that I really appreciate it and to make sure they tell the producers that they loved me and want me back. People can will a sequel into existence sometimes. The fans really control more than they think.

That’s cool that fans are reaching out positively. I was going to ask you if it has hit you yet that you are a horror icon now. You’re The Man in the Mask, and the horror community loves their killer icons.

It’s been crazy, but it’s been great. There’s just so many. I mean there are like 800 messages in my Instagram inbox. It is amazing, because I’m not reading the reviews, especially not mainstream reviews, but I know that there are obviously some people that don’t like it and just can’t separate it from the original. So, that there is so much love from fans of the new movie and people thinking that what I did was pretty cool, it’s amazing.

Damian Maffei unmasked.
Damian Maffei unmasked.

Now I want to talk a little about Haunt. It sounds like something that is right up our alley. Can you tell us anything about it and what we can look forward to with that one?

It’s an Eli Roth-produced movie, written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, two gents that also wrote A Quiet Place, which is going to be just incredible. These two are super talented guys, and they’re both one of us, horror fans.

A group of twenty-somethings are looking for an extreme haunt, and they find a pretty bad looking one, but they go in there, and it doesn’t go well for them. That doesn’t seem like the deepest of things, but it’s so much fun. It was just a blast to do that.

It’s super violent and super gory. There are a lot of people in it, so there are a lot of people to take care of. There are a handful of villains in it, and I can’t really talk about the specifics, but I am one of them.

Shooting that movie, waiting in between setups, I was just like, ‘This is more fun than a person should have.’ It doesn’t make me a sick bastard. I don’t do that at home, my kids don’t find me scary, I have a 10lb dog.

It takes place on Halloween. I think fans are really going to be just kind of giddy about this one. I know me and lot of people are always looking for Halloween-vibed movies to embrace come October, and I think this will be one of them. It’s pretty intense.

So this will be annual October viewing for me from now on, is that what you’re saying?

I hope so. I think I have carved out another cool villain.

I want an action figure really, is why I keep doing these movies. I think it’s time for Funko to put out a Sack Head line. We’ve got to get Jason from Friday the 13th Part II in there. He’s really the first Jason. And get me in there, come on. If you know anyone over there, just tell them. And I want to get in a video game, Dead by Daylight or whatever, I’m not picky, but I’ll do the motion capture for it. 

When you do those holiday movies, you’re taking a risk, and it’s a gift and a curse. If you do something people enjoy, they will embrace it during the holiday, but generally no other time of the year. No one’s watching Black Christmas in August – well, no one else.

So I hope this one hits well. The cast is great, and I really have a lot of love for those two directors. I think they’re going places. I think it will please the gore crowd. Sierra Affinity is the company releasing that. They’re pretty big and have some serious movies they’ve put out there, like I,Tonya.

Well hopefully we can have another conversation when we get closer to Haunt.

Absolutely, I’d be happy to. And I’ll work on my staying on topic skills. They had that bag on me for a long time and I couldn’t talk, so don’t ask me to speak now, because I can’t stop. I’m sure the other guys, Nick Castle and all of them, they’ve been through it. 

Well thank you so much for talking to me today.

You got it, my pleasure. And we’ll do it again.

The Strangers: Prey at Night is now in theaters, and available on Blu-ray here.

Lea Enslin, Damian Maffei, and Emma Bellomy are The Strangers in 'Prey at Night'.
Lea Enslin, Damian Maffei, and Emma Bellomy are The Strangers in ‘Prey at Night’.

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[Interview] Unmasking ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’s Damian Maffei