“It’s Fun Being An Asshole!”: An Interview with Fran Kranz on Joss Whedon


If you’re a fan of writer/director Joss Whedon, you are probably familiar with actor Fran Kranz. Kranz starred as hyper-intelligent and emotionally stunted Topher Brink on Whedon’s short-lived but much-loved series Dollhouse, airing on Fox from 2009-2010.

While working on Dollhouse, Kranz was invited to audition for a role in a horror movie Whedon co-wrote with Cloverfield director Drew Goddard: The Cabin in the Woods. Originally scheduled for release in February 2010, Cabin was bogged down by delays due to interest in converting the film into 3D and MGM, its studio, declaring bankruptcy. Cabin was eventually sold to Lion’s Gate Entertainment, reaching cinemas in April of 2012 — more than two years after its initial release date.

Cabin was a critical and commercial success, and Kranz’s portrayal of Marty, an unexpectedly perceptive stoner, was singled out by fans and critics alike. CNN went so far as to suggest that “Kranz’s witty pot-head conspiracy theorist is such an engaging personality the movie risks deflating without him.”

Following the release of The Cabin in the Woods, Kranz reunited with Dollhouse alum including Felicia Day, Dinchen Lachman, and Enver Gjok in Lust for Love, a feature length film. The romantic comedy, written and directed by Anton King, was funded by Kickstarter donations and is currently in post-production.

Kranz’s most recent credit is Much Ado About Nothing, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic, written and directed by Whedon. The film was shot in just 12 days at Whedon’s house, and had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival September 8th of last year. On the afternoon of the premiere, I met with Kranz over lunch to discuss his role Much Ado, going to Stoner Camp in preparation for Cabin, his narrative arc in Dollhouse, the horror movie he’s writing, and being Joss Whedon’s BFF.

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When Joss Whedon offered you the part of Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, you “jumped at it,” explaining that “everything he does is going to have his original stamp on it.” Did his original stamp surprise you when you watched the film for the first time, or could you clearly identify it in the script and in the process of filming?

When I saw the film, a lot of things surprised me. When I say jumped at it, I was excited to work with Joss again, of course, but also to have the opportunity to do Shakespeare.

Did you have prior experience performing Shakespeare?

That’s how I got into acting in high school: performing Shakespeare plays. That’s when I really started falling in love [with acting.] In college, I did King Lear, Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra, Henry IV, Part 1 and Twelfth Night. That was as a student, though. When I got into acting professionally, all of a sudden I was playing stoners or nerdy guys. Anyway, I heard Joss would do these little Shakespeare readings at his house, and I shamelessly asked [to participate.] For Much Ado, I didn’t even care what he did; I just wanted to be there. Part of his original stamp — and I might be speaking out of turn — was that the reality of the situation was that we had no money: [we] were shooting at his house and wearing our own clothes. The suit I’m wearing right now, I wore in Much Ado. I saw Reed Diamond on the plane yesterday, who plays Don Pedro, and he asked if I was wearing a suit to the premiere. He said he didn’t want to wear his suit because he already wore it in the movie. [laughs] I think that a lot of the originality came from the fact that, you know, necessity is the mother of invention, but we knew it was going really well. The film noir style was something that I heard mentioned on set, but it was certainly another thing to see it on the screen. I was just reminded of how good of a director Joss is. You know he’s “The Writer Guy,” but you forget that he also directs; he directed many episodes of Dollhouse. Cabin in the Woods, he just wrote and produced, so I kind of ignorantly and naively forgot what a talent he was behind the camera.

You acknowledged that some people think of Shakespeare as being stuffy, and may assume the film will be stuffy as well, that the language in particular might scare them off. If people are intimidated by the language in this movie, why should they see it anyway?

Some really great performances. Reed Diamond, for example. When someone’s doing a Shakespeare play, you always ask how they’re doing it. Unlike anything else, it’s “Which play?” and then [also] “How?” This is such a fun and interesting [version], that I think that alone makes it entertaining. You’re constantly wondering what the characters are going to do next, and how it’s going to unfold, whether you know the story or not. I think that makes the experience of watching it really exciting and different, and if you have that [stuffy] version in your head, even more so. I’ve only seen the film once. I was sort of hyper-critical and watching myself, and also remembering the experience we had. Today I’ll be able to watch as much more of an audience member, and that will be enjoyable. I think [the film’s] ingenuity, or inventiveness — watching how we pulled this off, and Joss in particular — makes this [version] exciting. If you’re a film lover, you’ll want to see how we pulled these moments off with the low budget and lack of time that we had.

Whedon asked you to play Claudio as a “temperamental jock”. You ran with it to the extent that he was “pulling [you] back”, insisting that “we have to like this guy!” Why do we have to like Claudio, and why should we like him?

At the end of the day, you want to care that Hero and Claudio get together. You want to feel good about it. It’s not that important — you’re going to care about Benedick and Beatrice more — so we can have some bumps along the way, but I think Joss felt like I was taking every opportunity I could to be an asshole, so he kind of pulled me away from that. I liked to be rude to the help, for example. [laughs] I think it’s there in the play: the kind of things that Claudio does are kind of unforgiveable. I think Joss felt like this was in the text already, so I could relax a bit. It was fun for me because I don’t get to play that kind of guy a lot. I wanted to [be] hot-headed, [and] impetuous; I wanted several layers of jerk. We’ll see if people care. I, as Claudio, am remorseful for what I do, and hopefully there’s a turn, so you do feel for him, and believe his remorse is sincere. Hopefully that’s in there; I played it, but I also tried to get in as much jerk as possible. It’s fun being an asshole!

Fran Kranz in The Cabin in the Woods

In preparation for your role as Marty in Cabin in the Woods, you went to Stoner Camp. While your co-stars learned to ride motorcycles and scuba dive, you were off sampling fake marijuana, practicing rolling joints, and getting acquainted with your bong weapon. What was the best and worst part of this training?

Well, I’m terrible at rolling joints.

You must have gotten better at it, so that could be the best part.

The sad thing was finally getting to set. We shot the scene where I’m rolling the joint in the van and we’re on the way to the cabin — where I’m like “Yeah, get off the grid man and fill in the cracks” — that was actually one of the last days of the shoot. It was the last day the five of us were together: it was like a nice little going away party. You’d think that by then I’d be amazing. It was 3 months in; I’d had a long time.

As a self-proclaimed horror nerd, you loved where Cabin went, and said you hoped it changed the standard for horror films. For you, what does horror look like at its worst and at its finest? In other words, what do you see as some of the major problems in the genre, and, on a more positive note, its potential or power?

Well, it’s not like I categorically hate torture porn or something. I liked Hostel, but I also like movies like The Shining. I think at its finest, it can be a lot of different things — just like movies in general. Within horror, there’s a lot of different angles to go. I like gory, bloody movies, but as long as [it scares me, I like it.] That movie Open Water with the sharks — I could not handle that. I wanted to leave! I don’t think anything even happens until the very end, but the suspense of it killed me. The Descent: the scariest part of that movie was just them in the caves, the claustrophobia of it. Playing on people’s fears in a cool and inventive way, as long as that’s done well, [is horror at its best]. At its worst I wonder why it was made in the first place: what the person is like, where they’re coming from. Violence for violence[‘s] sake. You can kind of sense an enjoyment in something terrible as opposed to a fascination with what makes us afraid. I think sometimes you can feel that from behind the camera, that you discern the storyteller’s intention. If it’s musing on what makes us scared, that’s interesting and I’m into it. Sometimes it feels like almost a juvenile sense of “I want to rip this person apart and that’s it.”

Kill as many people in as grotesque a way as I can.

Yeah. It’s a good question. I like a horror film that takes itself seriously, but I also like campy ones. I love the Friday the 13th movies. I’m [actually] writing a horror film.

Tell us about it!

Mine has no blood at all. It’s about three girls. I think women in horror is an interesting place to start; that’s what I love about The Descent, that it’s all girls. I like the strong female heroine in a horror movie, and when you get multiple ones, I like that they can kind of duke it out together and figure out who is sort of your..

Alpha female?

Yeah, your Sigourney Weaver or whatever. There are three girls on a road trip and they stop to check out a house — there you go, it sounds very Cabin in the Woods-y.

Was there a particular experience you had, scene you were watching, or something that inspired this idea?

It was a dream I had. I was a girl in the dream and not myself […]. Anyway, these girls start checking out a house and one by one they kind of lose track of each other. One of them encounters some people in the house who claim that she’s always been there, and in fact lives there. I don’t want to give it away! I’m writing it, and I want to direct it.

How far along are you?

Pretty far. I want to film it in Georgia. I think that’s the right place. I have some friends down there and think I can do it on the cheap.

You’ve expressed an interest in writing and directing before, and now you have a specific project in mind with the horror film. The money for [the Kranz vehicle] Lust for Love was raised through Kickstarter. Having experience as an actor on films with larger budgets and major distribution, and much smaller indie ones, I’m wondering which outlet you’ll pursue in your own filmmaking? You’ll obviously have a much more direct role.

I don’t want to do any Kickstarter with my own thing. I don’t want to be beholden to anyone[…]. I’m totally fine with being involved [with Kickstarter], but I don’t want to be the one who has my own Kickstarter campaign — unless it’s like paying for lunch, or my parking tickets, which I think more people should do! Yeah, [I’d want to do the project] on my own and not have that kind of pressure. I would put enough pressure on myself. You know if [my movie] sucks, I can just keep it quiet! “Yep. Nothing happened. I just went on vacation for a few months.” I would feel like I had a thousand producers. I think [Kickstarter] works for some people and it’s a great thing, but for me personally, I’m too selfish and megalomaniacal: you know, “Hands off. It’s mine.”

Fran Kranz in Dollhouse

When asked if you considered Topher in Dollhouse likeable, you referred to him as an “annoying, cocky, nerdy kid,” explaining that these qualities “aren’t appealing.” And yet Topher was definitely a fan favorite among Dollhouse viewers. How do you account for this “unlikeable” character being not only liked, but loved?

Well, I think he grew and evolved. I want to say that he develops a conscience and a heart. I mean obviously it’s always sort of going to be there. The events in the show sort of lead to a change of heart, or an understanding, an awareness of what he is doing, and [what] the Dollhouse is doing. A sense of figuring out who he is. I always saw him as kind of a child, so he was exempt from judgement, like “Oh he’s a little kid. You can’t get that mad at him.”

So his behavior is more excusable?

Yeah, exactly. He’s like a puppy or something. He grows up with the Dollhouse. I think the scene with Amy Acker (Dr. Saunders), when he says, “I didn’t make you hate me. You chose to” is him sort of facing himself in the mirror, a really big turning point for the character. Bottom line is, the writers were really nice to me. They were generous. The character ends up having this incredible arc. At the beginning, that wasn’t necessarily there; I’m not saying that he was two dimensional at the beginning. You know, human beings aren’t perfect; they’re fallible. I just thought there was a lot of cockiness and smugness to Topher which was fun to play. You want to love your character, but I don’t think you necessarily need the audience to.

So you just described Topher as child-like, and I wanted to ask about the role that Bennett, (Summer Glau) plays [in his arc]. Did you see the introduction of this love interest as a means to humanize Topher, and also to make him more adult?

Yeah, it’s a good point. I don’t think that Topher makes any comment about a woman one way or another.

Yeah, he’s surrounded by all of these beautiful women. I think that there’s a kind of doctor’s surgical coldness to him that prevents him from being attracted the way that a regular [heterosexual] male would be in that situation.

And it’s interesting because it seems like it’s really Bennett’s mind that he’s initially drawn to.

Well, also Summer Glau is gorgeous, so… [laughs]

Dollhouse incited a lot of debate, public and interpersonal, about sex, sex work, objectification, agency, and a number of other topics. People really engaged, and continue to engage, with the series. Did the series spark interesting debates or conversations with cast mates, fans, or in your personal life?

While I was driving in yesterday, the driver was asking if he would know me from anything, and Dollhouse came up. He was really funny. I mentioned Much Ado, Cabin in the Woods, Dollhouse, and Joss Whedon, and he said “Well I don’t like horror films, I don’t like Shakespeare, and ‘Doll’s House’ sounds like it’s for girls.” [Laughs.] Yeah, there was like no way he would know who I was. Anyway, I started explaining Dollhouse to him, what it was about, and he got really into it.

How did you pitch it?

Well I always say it’s a futuristic brothel [laughs] because that’s what it is. I think the reality is that there would be a lot more sex on that show [if it were more realistic.] Anyway, he got into that and was like, “I need to check that out.” There’s a base need and desire that the idea [of Dollhouse] fulfills […]. I think it’s always kind of fun to think about what your doll would be like, and how you would use it. Or what you would want to do to yourself — like what your own doll version would be. I guess these aren’t necessarily highly intellectual trains of thoughts, but I think that’s what it is — at the heart of it, there’s a kind of… primal sex and violence desire and fulfillment that the dollhouse provides. […]. I love the episode [about] the idea of immortality. It’s in the first season. The woman dies, but she has herself imprinted so she can figure out who murdered her. That just blew my mind. I loved that idea […] and we sort of expanded on it when Clive Ambrose, whose being played by Enver Gjokak, says that he’s in 10 different dollhouses at the moment. It’s obviously science fiction, but there’s a really subtle and scary way that it seems around the corner. I think that Joss and all of the writers created this world where it’s science fiction but it never really looked like it.

You’ve claimed that Joss Whedon has the best fans in the world, and of course many of his fans have become your fans. You encourage fans to say hello, and not to be afraid to do so. After Cabin was released, I’m sure that you’ve become more recognizable, and more people approach you. Have you had any especially memorable encounters?

Certainly it happens. You know, the difference [in the amount of attention I receive] between Cabin and Dollhouse is not that much; it’s that now I get the mainstream fans. I always got the Joss Whedon and Dollhouse fans, but now I’ll get the random frat guy. I was walking near Time Square when I was doing a play in New York and on my phone, and some guy grabbed me.

He grabbed you?!

[Laughs.] Yeah, I think he might have been a little drunk or something. I don’t know. There was no sense of personal space; he just completely….

Gave you a bear hug or something?

Kind of. He grabbed my shoulders and was really intense about it, and said how he loved the movie. He was asking me if I smoked pot and I was on the phone, you know? It was really bizarre.