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From Anthropology to Exorcisms:
Television Workhorse Patrick Fabian Becomes Horror Film Leading Man

DVDizzy.com Presents: An Interview with Patrick Fabian, the star of "The Last Exorcism"

Veteran actor discusses his long journey to movie stardom

If you were to see every bit of acting that Patrick Fabian has done in his nineteen years in show business, you would come away with a thorough knowledge of modern television. Think of any American TV show from the 1990s to present day and there's a good chance Fabian has appeared on it. "Friends", "24", "Beverly Hills, 90210", "Will & Grace", "Murder, She Wrote", "Star Trek: Voyager", "Pushing Daisies", "Xena: Warrior Princess", and "Just Shoot Me!"
are just a few of the dozens of noteworthy programs he has guest-starred on. Furthermore, Fabian, who recently turned 46, has held recurring roles on series including "Big Love", "Veronica Mars", "Providence", "Joan of Arcadia", and "Saved by the Bell: The College Years." There have also been holiday TV movies for cable (Snow, Twitches) and their sequels, some supporting roles in feature films, stage work on both coasts, and numerous TV and radio commercials.

It is easy to classify one of Fabian's latest gigs as his highest-profile credit to date. In the horror film The Last Exorcism, he stars as Reverend Cotton Marcus, a family man who has supplemented his preaching as a respected exorcist. In the midst of a faith crisis, Cotton agrees to document one final exorcism on a supposedly possessed rural teenaged girl (Ashley Bell), revealing to us (but not his client) the tricks of his phony trade. Produced by Hostel creator Eli Roth, The Last Exorcism earned favorable reviews and did good business in its late-summer opening, earning back its tiny $1.8 million budget more than twenty times over.

In conjunction with the film's DVD and Blu-ray combo pack release this week, we recently interviewed Fabian about this mockumentary thriller and his career.

DVDizzy.com: Prior to this film, you worked almost exclusively in television for nearly twenty years. Is that by design or have those just been the more interesting projects to you?

Patrick Fabian: It's funny, I get asked that question a lot and I don't think of an actor's career as being something that's often designed. I think you find opportunities as they come and they take you to the next thing. Somebody asked me if I didn't want to be in the movies and I thought that was a funny question, because my assumption is that everybody wants to be in the movies! It's just a hard nut to crack is what that is. And it's funny, twenty years just passed really quickly all of a sudden and it's been mostly television, which has been great, and a couple of little films here and there, but this is certainly the biggest and highest-profile thing. No, it's not by design, but careers are funny things. I had somebody point out that maybe I needed twenty years of experience to be able to pull off the role of Cotton Marcus. I'll take that, that's how you could maybe look at it.

How did you get cast in The Last Exorcism?

Lauren Bass at casting is the office here in Los Angeles. I've known them for a while. She's had me in for a number of things. It came across her desk, they needed somebody who could improvise, think on his feet, be charismatic, be a preacher. So, she had me come in for the audition, which was unusual in that we didn't have a script to begin with. We were just asked to come in and do some improv. I met [director] Daniel Stamm and [co-star] Ashley Bell that way.

And then Daniel had me come for a callback and he asked me to create a ten-minute sermon. Our auditions are on the Blu-ray package, which I'm of two minds of. Part of me is very curious and then part of me is very cringey, going "Oh, what exactly did I do?" There's no light, no costume, just me sort of winging it. I'll be very curious to see what it looks like.

Patrick Fabian looks directly into the camera, as Rev. Cotton Marcus tries to console the tormented rural teen girl he's hired to perform an exorcism on.

The film is in the form of a documentary. As an actor, how different was it for you to perform in this way?

I've been trained for twenty years to not look at the camera, to pretend the camera is not there. This was the exact opposite. So, it took a little bit, but it was surprising how quickly I was able to adjust. The whole premise ultimately swings on me using the camera and the documentary filmmaker played by Iris Bahr. They're my scene partners. Those are the people who I'm really talking to. I just transferred the idea of looking into the lens as being my scene partner. And that made it much easier.

Was the film very scripted out or did you have room to improvise?

We did have room to improvise, which is nice. The writers and the director Daniel Stamm were generous about letting us go off-script every now and then. I like to say that the highway was the script that we were traveling down and then we would take exit ramps every now and then. Some of them would be inspired and some of them not so inspired. So, the stuff that worked, we kept. The stuff that didn't, we let go by.

On a movie like this, it seems more about embodying a character than playing a part. Did you find it easy to turn it on and off being Cotton Marcus or did you try to stay in character at all?

I think you get cast sometimes close to the bone. They needed someone who could sustain a lot of verbage and be able to talk and talk and talk. Since I'm half-Irish, there's not a good conversation I'm not willing to take over. So that played to my strengths. Playing a preacher is great because preachers do have the gift of gab. I think a good preacher is very much like a good actor. They both have similar qualities to be successful, the ability to stand up and speak, the ability to say "Follow me, I know what I'm doing", and the ability to get money from people and make it seem like it's their idea. All of those qualities came to bear in playing Cotton.

Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) proudly displays the powerful crucifix he uses during exorcisms.

What is your take on Cotton Marcus? Do you believe he's essentially a good person?

I think the whole film is a grand confessional. It's Cotton being able to confess, to say "I've done wrong, I want to try and make amends." He invites the audience in to watch this amends process. He really is blowing up his livelihood in front of you as he's doing this. He's had a mid-life crisis both of faith and work. So, the fact that he is willing to go ahead and tear it all down makes him a good person.
Like the church guys who are out there -- the Jimmy Swaggarts, the Jim Bakkers and whatnot -- I think Cotton is a couple of steps away from being that self-absorbed. He sees where it can go and he's taking the opportunity to dismantle that before he becomes completely unrecognizable.

Religion seems to be one of those topics that Hollywood doesn't touch. Did its treatment in the film give you reservations or did it add to its appeal?

I think as an actor, you're just looking at your character and at his world view, you know what I mean? If you're playing a religious person, or a Mormon, as I've done, playing Ted Price on HBO's "Big Love" for the past two seasons, your world view is merely skewed by your beliefs. Just like if you're a doctor and you don't believe in God, you're more skewed by science.

I wasn't so much afraid about the reaction, because I honestly thought, "An exorcism movie, who's going to take this too seriously?" But I forget, people take it very, very seriously. What's interesting is that the religious community liked the film very much because in the end, it reinforces the Biblical interpretation of good versus evil. Louis, the father, seems to be the one who's spot on about everything from the get-go, that there is good, there is evil, you need the word of God to help you out. So, religious people actually like the film very much in its outcome. Although, I didn't do a megachurch fundraiser or anything like that.

As Reverend Cotton Marcus, Patrick Fabian gives an impassioned sermon about, among other things, his mother's banana bread recipe.

What went into playing a preacher? Did you watch some in action or was it something you were able to come up with on your own?

The preachers I mentioned before -- Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard -- I looked at some of those things. I also watched Elmer Gantry, Burt Lancaster's famous film. And in the end, I thought Cotton has to be somebody who's likable. The first half of the film is pretty heavy with me looking right at the camera talking and bringing you in. And if I'm unsuccessful at that, we have a problem. I also wanted to make sure he was serious about his business.

We preached for like three days in this church down there in New Orleans. It was quite an experience. It was twelve hours a day of preaching. I lost my voice as a matter of fact. We had background artists who were sweating and you know, "the blood of Jesus", and they were all whooping and hollering. When I started to preach, I said, "I'm an actor, I'm not a preacher. I don't mean to abuse or offend anybody in the word of God or whatnot, but I need your help." And they helped me out. "Can I get an Amen?" and all of a sudden, they'd go "AMEN!" It was so totally fun.

Your character makes a reference to The Exorcist. Obviously, this movie had to be in mind due to the subject matter. Did it inspire the production or perhaps inspire it to do things differently?

Daniel Stamm the director said "Go watch all the exorcism movies. Watch them all. And then just forget about them. 'Cause we're not making those films." And that really is the case. You're not going to go up against the granddaddy of them all. That film still packs a wallop and a punch that is undeniable. It's still one of the scariest films, if not the scariest film, of all time. I have no problem saying that. Because we weren't trying to remake that Exorcist or make Exorcist 2. This is an exorcism story, but really it's a story about losing faith and trying to figure out what is real and what is not real.

And the way it's shot, I think it's a real updated, fresh take on how to tell a story in this day and age, in 2010. A handheld camera, that confessional aspect, everybody puts themselves up on YouTube. I don't know if a film like The Exorcist would still work today filming it that way, only because the audience has changed and their expectations of storytelling have changed. I think us being able to make a nod to the movie within the movie is an acknowledgement that there is something else out there and that we're not in a horse race with that by any stretch.

For her performance as supposedly possessed teenager Nell Sweetzer, Ashley Bell has been nominated for the Independent Spirit Awards' Best Supporting Female honor.

You mentioned the style with the handheld camera and the mockumentary format. Were there documentaries that you looked at to bring that kind of filmed realism?

The great conceit of it is our cameraman Zoltán Honti is really, really good. And what was wonderful was since the conceit is we have hired a film crew, we don't have to have the camera sneak shots. We get to say, "Now we're walking into the living room, does the camera get this? Great, let's watch this scene." Zoltan had a great restraint of hand while shooting it, so he was able to really lay into a scene and show us stuff without having that sort of herky-jerky "I'm sneaking my iPhone around the camera to get a shot" feel. Later on in the film, when things get a little frantic, I think the camera work reflects that things are becoming unhinged. So I can't thank him enough.

The Last Exorcism is said to have had a budget of under $2 million, which is basically unheard of these days. What effect did that have on the experience?

Low-budget, big-budget, in the end, you gotta show up and do your scene. We knew it was a low budget and all that really affected was the fact that we didn't have six changes of wardrobe and we didn't have these giant trailers. But we had great food; catering down in New Orleans was fantastic. We were a great little bunch. We didn't have a lot of the extras that sometimes you get on films, where there are guys and girls standing around and you go "What are they doing here? What's their job?" So, it was pretty lean and it was good that way. We didn't have like six and seven cameras. We had a camera. So that lent itself to the sense that we were making a documentary and we were doing this on a shoestring budget. The fact that we were able to make it for so little is a testament to the filmmakers and the guys upstairs. Strike Entertainment and Eli Roth said we can do this, we can make this happen. It became a very surprise hit. I think it's made almost $75 million worldwide at this point. It's just now opening in Australia. It was really a wonderful, sweet surprise. I got to be a movie star last year for a little while.

Do you see yourself pursuing more film work in the future?

Oh, if they would continue to like to make me a lead actor in movies, I would have no problem with that (laughs).
Browse Patrick Fabian
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It's a crazy business, though. That worked out great. I've got some projects that I'm debating about what's going to be happening in the spring. But meanwhile, immediately, I just finished doing twelve episodes of a half-hour sitcom on Country Music Television called "Working Class" and that premieres January 28th. So, I couldn't be more 180 degrees different from playing an exorcist in a horror movie than doing a traditional, classic sitcom with Melissa Peterman, Ed Asner, and myself. I play the love interest. We just had a blast and we think it's going to be received really well. But in terms of films, I don't know what's next. We'll see.

That raises a question. You've worked in such a wide range of genres, I'm wondering where your tastes lie. Are you a fan of horror movies? More of a TV watcher?

You know, I grew up watching the horror films and I really, really dig that. Somebody asked me if I would mind doing a "Cotton 2" and I said "Absolutely not." You know, it was really fun, it'd be great to revisit that role. I want to be in good things. That's the deal. When you look back at your career a little bit, I'd like to have four or five things at least that you go like "Oh yeah, really proud of that and that was a really fun experience as well."

And like you said, from looking at my résumé, I've done a whole bunch of different things. I got to work with Richard Dreyfuss on a television show [2001's "The Education of Max Bickford"], I got to work with Xena on a television show and that was equally fun in different ways. So, would I like to do more genre films? Absolutely! Would I like to do an action film? Absolutely! Would I like to do a sweet romantic comedy? Absolutely! I'm a working stiff, I'm game to work wherever work is.

You've been on a lot of TV shows, but as someone who doesn't watch too much, the one credit that really stands out for me and with which I've always associated you is "Saved by the Bell: The College Years." Could you talk about that experience?

That reminds me of the power of television. I shot that back in '92 and '93 and I didn't realize how popular the show was at the time. I only did the nine episodes. God bless TNT and TBS because they rerun that stuff. That's still on every morning before high school and after high school and that's sort of the sweet spot. Every generation grows up hoping they can date Tiffani-Amber Thiessen. I think the show is really sweet because it's got some good lessons. It's gentle humor. It's a great thing to watch after school when you're eating a bag of potato chips and you don't want to think too much.

But I get recognized for all it the time, because people recognize my voice. More often than not, when people stop me in an airport, and go "Don't I know you?", they think I went to high school with them and then they figure out that I'm Professor Lasky. Which, by the way, is still good for getting an upgrade in First Class and a nice table at a restaurant, depending on what city you're in.

Long before he was preacher/exorcist Cotton Marcus, Patrick Fabian played Cal U cultural anthropology professor Jeremiah Lasky in the primetime NBC sitcom "Saved by the Bell: The College Years." Professor Lasky came between longtime sweethearts Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Kelly (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen), prompting this Student Union espionage in the episode "Kelly and the Professor."

The show was cancelled while you were in the process of becoming a regular. Was that surprising or disappointing?

It was so early in my career, I didn't really know exactly how that all worked. You just sort of assume "Oh, you'll become a regular next season." And ironically, of course, that hasn't happened until just now on "Working Class." I've jobbed-to-jobbed and become a recurring on a lot of stuff.

But those kids -- I'm calling them kids, they're all in their thirties now, but they were kids when I met them -- they were so sweet. They could have been assholes, because they were popular and very famous and they were young kids. But instead, they were professional and really nice and made me feel welcome. So my experience with them has always been great and I'm always glad to run into them when I do.

Last question on that: Professor Lasky never showed up at Zack and Kelly's wedding in Las Vegas.

How about that?! (laughs)

He was kind of the one that brought them together in the end.

Yeah, that's what I thought! Like, what's the deal?! Honestly, at the time, I can't quite remember, either I was busy or they didn't write me in, but either way I was sorry I didn't get to kind of wrap it up for them. But that's okay, because in the end, the series sort of lives and dies off of Zack and Kelly from the very beginning, so it ought to just end with them. They didn't need me.

Congratulations on the movie and the new CMT show. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

Thanks, man. You know, The Last Exorcism is the perfect Valentine's Day gift for anybody. You can put that in the article!

The Last Exorcism DVD cover art -- click to read our review.
The Last Exorcism is now available on DVD and Blu-ray Combo Pack. Read our review.
Buy from Amazon.com: DVD • Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy

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Published January 5, 2011. Interview conducted December 17, 2010.

Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2010-11 Lionsgate, Strike, and Studio Canal. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.