You know who he is, even if you don’t immediately know his name. Tall, imposing, with a voice that’s sonorous, intimating and warm all at the same time. Now 61, Clancy Brown – born Clarence J Brown III – is one of those guys. An “oh him, he’s awesome, what’s he called again?” kind of actor. And even if the thing you’re watching him in is not that good, you know he’s going to be brilliant in it.
Luckily, he’s also been in some great stuff (Starship Troopers, Blue Steel, The Mandalorian, Highlander), some of them all-time great (The Shawshank Redemption, SpongeBob SquarePants). His latest is anthology horror flick The Mortuary Collection – a twisty four-part portmanteau that’s coming direct to scary streamer Shudder, in which he plays a mysterious mortician at a funeral parlour that’s not all it seems. “[The script] had me laughing out loud,” he says. “What [director] Ryan [Spindell] does is he takes expectations and makes you feel very smug and then completely flips it on its head two or three times.”
It’s his voice and stature that will alert you to Brown’s presence in the movie, since he’s buried under layers of make-up. It’s not something he loves all that much, ever since an unpleasant prosthetic experience playing the monster in 1985’s The Bride. “I find I try to avoid them if I can,” he admits. “Sometimes the scripts are just so good you have to do them. I did The Mandalorian and [his character, Burg] was a big, heavy make-up but that was just going to be fun. They’ve gotten so much better at it since The Bride when they hadn’t quite figured out all the chemistry.”
There can be only one reboot
Standing 6’3”, Brown has often played the heavy. As a young man on the big screen, he was part of cult fave The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984) before his breakout role as baddie the Kurgan in 1986’s Highlander. Even though he liked doing the latter, he wasn’t interested in sticking around for the sequels. “I didn’t want to participate in that franchise,” he says. “The producers, I wasn’t a big fan of. I think it was a successful franchise in spite of itself. They screwed up the movie franchise so massively.”
Still, a reboot has been in development for over a decade, most recently with John Wick director Chad Stahelski and Brown for one can’t wait. “I wonder what the problem is?” he says. “It seems to me it’s the perfect movie to remake. You look back on it and that stuff is so cheesy that we did. Reimagined with today’s digital technology? That would just be great. I can’t wait for it to be done.”
Post-Highlander, the 1990s were a fertile time for Brown. The start of the decade saw the underrated Kathryn Bigelow drama Blue Steel (“I don’t think Kathryn loves it that much”) before turns in two iconic films, both of which only got their due after their initial release.
Movies that were ignored and/or panned and then reevaluated later? “That’s the story of my career,” laughs the actor. As malevolent prison guard Captain Hadley in Best Movie Ever The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Brown caused angst and anger amongst a generation of movie-lovers. “I’m still very affectionate with Tim [Robbins],” he says. “Morgan I don’t see very often, but once he realises who I am…I don’t look like I did back then.” But does he get spat at in the street for everything he did to Andy Dufresne and co.? “If somebody recognises me from [Shawshank] then that’s the kind of thing they don’t come up and bother me about because they think they’re going to get hit in the head with a billy club,” he says.
Saving the world
Meanwhile, three years later, he got to save the universe from alien bugs as the magnificently-named Sergeant Zim in the much-maligned Starship Troopers. “It was panned horribly when it came out,” he remembers. “I was quite surprised by the universality of the critics’ disdain for that movie because I thought it was one of the most clever, deep-cut comments about media, society and politics.”
But while commentators have latterly acknowledged the satirical goals of writer and director Ed Neumeier and Paul Verhoeven – hiding an anti-war, anti-fascist, anti-corporate polemic in a big, silly blockbuster about giant insects – was anyone from the movie in on the joke at the time? “I don’t know and I don’t know if it was necessary for them to be,” says Brown. “I certainly was. I don’t know if Casper [Van Dien] knew the source material as well as I did. Or knew about Verhoeven’s history. It didn’t matter because he used them so well. He blew those little 90210 bodies to pieces!”
Sweet mother of Pearl
Of course, while you will recognise his face, Brown’s voice has also been one of his most valuable instruments. He’s a prolific voiceover performer in animated shows and videogames, starring as Lex Luthor and Red Hulk, featuring in Star Wars: Rebels, The Little Mermaid 2 and The Venture Bros. But his most enduring vocal performance has been as Mr Krabs, whom he has played for more than 20 years in Spongebob Squarepants.
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“My daughter was about 4 when we started that,” he says. “I used to take her and her kindergarten classmates to playdates to the sessions. They would sit there and they would colour in the storyboards as they watched us record. It was really fun. It was just an easy way to watch the kids and work at the same time.” Two decades on, he’s tickled when he’s told that people like basketball megastar LeBron James has said Mr Krabs is his favourite character. “I love that!” he laughs. “I think it’s strange he’s landed on Mr Krabs…that probably says more about Lebron than anybody. That’s kind of cool.”
(Not) working with Michael Jackson
But his packed CV does have a downside. He’s still befuddled by his 1998 IMDB entry as a policeman in Michael Jackson’s Speed Demon music video. “I didn’t do any Michael Jackson video,” he explains. “My son is a big Michael Jackson fan and he seems to think I’m in it. I think what happened is there was some footage of me in a cop uniform or something for some low-budget movie that I did and they were probably trying to figure out how to ‘liquidate’ it. Videos back in those days and maybe even now, they were so seat-of-the-pants.”
Jacko notwithstanding, it’s still something of a miracle to him that he’s made it this far. “As far as I’m concerned, this is all a big accident,” he says. “When I first started I was just going to take a shot at it. I knew the chances were slim you could actually make a living doing it. I thought if I could make a living doing it that would be awesome, but I probably won’t.”
Next up is Promising Young Woman alongside Carey Mulligan, written and directed by Killing Eve season two showrunner Emerald Fennell (“She named her baby Clarence, which is very bold. There ain’t a lot of us out there.”) He hopes it will come out on the big screen, though he’s not sure. Until then, there’s another credit to notch up. “There’s been no plan,” he explains. “I just have bills to pay.”
The Mortuary Collection is now available on Shudder.
Watch: Tim Robbins looks back on making The Shawshank Redemption