LOS ANGELES — The entertainment of the eerie is everywhere and the paranormal has never been more active — the undead are ubiquitous, of course, but there’s also cursed creatures, sci-fi monstrosities, ghosts and, we are told, goblins are making a comeback. With all the contemporary emphasis on man versus monster, Bruce Greenwood might be an actor with special insight — he’s been on both sides of the fight.
On the creepy new ABC series “The River,” Greenwood portrays Emmet Cole, an explorer and TV personality who went missing in the Amazon rain forest during his (apparently successful) search for the supernatural. Last year, though, in the J.J. Abrams film “Super 8,” Greenwood was actually the thing going bump in the night himself — he played the sci-fi film’s otherworldly threat, a man-eating alien that escaped a secret military transport.
“It was a strange experience, wearing the (motion-capture) suit with all the dots and trying to figure how this creature should or shouldn’t move,” the 55-year-old actor said on a recent afternoon on the Sony lot in Culver City. “The goal was to not look like a big Muppet moving around. It’s a lot like doing mask work — you pull on a mask that suddenly makes a bunch of choices for you.”
Figurative masks and hard choices are elemental parts of the acting life and no one needs to explain that to Greenwood, who is celebrating his 35th anniversary as a screen actor. Through the years his work has veered from television and film to stage and now to voice work in animation (he’s the voice of Batman in “Young Justice”) and video games (he’s Overlord in bestselling Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3).
The Canadian native has played JFK in “Thirteen Days” and fictional commander-in-chief in “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” but in many films, as he points out, he is more likely to be elected the least friendly guy on screen. “I’ve played a lot of bastards,” Greenwood said, “which is why ‘The River’ has been a nice visit to a different place.”
Greenwood’s Cole is earnest and curious especially when engaging nature — in spirit he’s like one of those khaki-shorts, educate-and-inspire nature hosts from the 1970s and 1980s — but as his wife Tess (Leslie Hope) and son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) search for him, layers will peel and show other sides, says Oren Peli, the co-creator of “The River.”
“We felt from the very beginning that Bruce would be perfect for the role of Emmet Cole,” said Peli, also the writer-director of 2007’s hit “Paranormal Activity.” “He is a terrific actor that we all admire, and he has the natural charm that would make him believable as a universally beloved nature show host. He’s also the kind of actor that could really play the nuances of someone who might have a dark side and a secret agenda.”
Unanswered questions aren’t limited to the plot: The future of “The River,” which premiered in early February, is as a murky as an Amazon estuary — the show has not been lighting it up in the ratings and the search for Greenwood’s character might be called off.
Greenwood knows the cross-currents and riptides of television. As a cast member on “Knott’s Landing” and “St. Elsewhere” he knew what it was like to surf a hit, but in a leading role in HBO’s “John From Cincinnati” he saw that high hopes and eccentric ambitions can lead face first into the sand. With any series, he said, the most fascinating thing is watching the triangulation of a character that happens as the actor, the writers and the audience move forward.
“With the writers, they’ve got a brick and you’ve got mortar, and then you’ve got a brick and they’ve got the mortar,” Greenwood said. “Eventually a shape starts to emerge. That’s cool thing to see happen.”
Greenwood is pleased with the experimental approach of “The River” — in the story, the search for Cole is being filmed reality-television style and characters often talk directly to the screen. Greenwood’s missing man, meanwhile, has made video journals so the actor has delivered his lines to a camera very often he was holding. The effect is one Peli used to strong effect in his hit ghost movie.
“It’s scary as hell and it’s tight,” Greenwood said. “It’s in that ‘Paranormal’ vibe and everyone’s got a camera — half of my stuff in the pilot, I shot myself, holding the camera and looking at it and talking directly to the audience or, in my case, to the people you think are going to recover these tapes.”
If “The River” dries up, there are other projects ahead, notable among them a reunion with Abrams and a return to the role of Capt. Christopher Pike in “Star Trek.” Abrams made Greenwood part of his first Starfleet crew in 2009 and filming in now underway on the sequel, which reaches theaters next year. “It’s like a family,” Greenwood said of that ensemble, and he’s working long enough to know that success and enjoyment don’t always arrive on the same projects.
“The challenge is the same, just like it is for a musician; the more you know the more you realize that there’s more to find out,” Greenwood said. “The more you evolve, the more you understand about the places you haven’t been. It’s about going into the map — the discovery is whatever you find next but you know it’ll lead to the next search.”