Tony Goldwyn on How 'The Belko Experiment' Speaks to Trump's America

The 'Scandal' star tells THR what terrified him about the James Gunn-penned horror film and what he imagines Trump would tweet about his TV president.
Courtesy of Hector Alvarez
Tony Goldwyn in 'The Belko Experiment'

In the new psychological thriller The Belko Experiment, Tony Goldwyn is the boss of 79 employees who are tasked with killing each other in order to survive.

Trapped inside the steel walls of their corporate outpost in Colombia, the staff of Belko Industries is instructed by a voice on the intercom to kill two people in the next 30 minutes, or more will die. The "game" only escalates from there, as Goldwyn's COO, Special Forces-trained Barry Norris, is called upon to step up and take charge.

Directed by Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) and penned by writer-producer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) — who conceived the dark premise from a dream — Belko's social experiment shows what people are capable of when pushed to extremes, resulting in a level of violence that scared even the seasoned Goldwyn (1990's Ghost, 1997's Kiss the Girls, 2009's The Last House on the Left) when he first read the script.

But the actor, who has played President Fitzgerald Grant on ABC's Scandal for six seasons and counting, says the moral dilemma at the heart of the black-humored office thriller (not to mention the topical question it raises of surveillance) resonates amid today's political landscape, making the bloody gore all the more palatable to a general audience. The ending even beckons a sequel, something Goldwyn calls "a setup for the future mayhem."

Goldwyn talked to The Hollywood Reporter about leaving his TV set behind to spend seven weeks in the outskirts of Bogota, the relatable divide Belko explores amid Trump's America and what the Twitter-happy president would have to say about his fictional commander-in-chief.

Scandal deals with murder — but not like this. What made you want to jump back into horror?

When I got sent a script with James Gunn's name on it, that got my interest because I was a big fan of his. When I read it, I couldn’t believe someone was making this movie, that MGM had the balls to make this. I thought it was really well-written as long as it was going to feel real. [Director] Greg [McLean]’s Wolf Creek is a harrowing film because it feels so real. As operatic as this movie is, James — who wrote it in a week — has that tongue-in-cheek kind of humor and Greg really wanted to make sure it felt very human, and that really appealed to me. The violence of the film and what it says about what people will do under stress is unusually bold, and it's still said with a sense of humor.

How was the shoot different than what you're used to, coming from TV?

It's such a different animal from doing a television show. The thing about this is that it’s a pressure-cooker story and the extreme violence of it, not even how graphic the film is, but the violence of the situation was very different. I've done some violent movies, but this one? With lots of people dying? I've never done anything like this.

What's your opinion of Barry Norris and how were you able to relate to him and get into character?

When you meet him, he's a regular, normal, decent dude. He has a military and Special Forces background quite a ways in his past, but when put into this situation and crisis, his whole goal is to minimize the damage. He's presented with two horrible alternatives. He's thinking, "We need to preserve as much life as we can," and he's willing to make the hard choices in order to do that. Then he loses his mind and it becomes really dark. When I play villains, I always try to take their point of view, but this is pretty extreme. Years ago, I did Kiss the Girls, and that character was such a sociopath. It was easier because he was completely departing from any kind of normal reality. Whereas this guy, Norris, is a regular person who's trying to do what he thinks is going to help.

Were you surprised by the ending and how far things went?

Yeah, I was. There is a climactic scene in the movie involving my character that was really tough, and it was really important to me that the audience feel that it's incredibly difficult for Norris to do, and that he's not just taking glee in doing it, somehow. And after that, he kind of loses his mind. That shocked me when I read that. It actually scared me. I thought, "I don’t know if I want to do this. This is really some dark shit!" But I just did it.

There's an element to The Belko Experiment that makes you think: This could, maybe, happen. Is that what makes it even more terrifying? 

That’s what's cool about it — is this could, sort of, kind of, happen. It’s possible. You don’t know who is behind this and if it were possible to run an experiment like this, and that’s what made the movie. It's a psychological thriller and the question is: Where’s my moral compass, and how far will my moral compass stretch? I'd like to believe I'm the type of guy who would take my life over others, but that's the fun of the film. There's a real cost to being the moral puritan.

How do you live with such a violent story for those seven weeks?

That one scene in particular was really harrowing to do. It stayed with me in that it was very thought-provoking. Often when you're shooting on location, everyone goes their separate ways, and that would have been tough to shake on my own. But we had a real social outlet with this cast, and luckily I had fun folks around. There was a lot of recovery that we had to do at clubs in Bogota! James has this group of actors he works with over and over again, [his brother] Sean Gunn and Michael Rooker are his best friends, and they form this sort of nucleus and family environment. We'd go out together all the time as this sort of tribe to have some fun.

Do you think our current political climate makes a movie like Belko more appealing? 

I do. I was a little worried when we made this movie. I didn't know if the world could take it. And a year and a half later, we find ourselves in a political environment where there's this divide where there are people who want to solve our impractical problems with blunt force. The appeal of Trump in America is: "These problems, were gonna fix 'em. Some people are gonna get hurt but we're tired of being politically correct and empathetic to everyone — we're going to fix this and get this done." There are people on the other side saying, "Wait a minute, what about the people who are going to suffer?" We're in this dialectic in the Western World between these extreme approaches to problem-solving. It's like watching Jordan Peele's Get Out, which is totally different because it's a real horror movie, but again has a political and social commentary that is deeply suited with what we're living in and really resonated. Jordan had his finger on the pulse, and I don’t know that it would have [resonated as much] two years ago.

Scandal, which is a political drama, is also airing parallel to the intense real-life climate. Is there anything you took from playing Norris in Belko that your bring to Fitz?  

They're so different, every job is different. But no, I wouldn’t say there's any kind of correlation. The only one I can draw that is similar is the moral quandaries. The moral dilemma at the center of Belko that’s taken to the extreme. Shonda [Rhimes] very much does that on Scandal, where we're all pushed to our moral boundaries and we're all crossing them. Shonda plays with the audience's sympathies back and forth in a skillful way where we're always confronting those boundaries.

What do you think Trump would have to say, or tweet, about Fitz as president?

"Sad! But he's got a hot girlfriend, so you know. What can I say?" (Laughs.)

Is there any advice you would give to other actors when it comes to playing in the horror genre? 

The kind of horror that I like, or the great horror films, are thrillers that feel very real and are very human and have characters with real human complexity. Where you feel like you're in it, as opposed to bloodfests or twist plots for the sake of entertainment value. Those never appeal to me much or engage me. The great psychological thrillers are the ones where the people and the situation they're in feel so real — The Shining or The Exorcist or Clockwork Orange — where you can feel the tension or how harrowing the situation is. In terms of talking to other actors, find dimension in what you're doing and if you're the good guy, find the darkness and if you're the bad guy, find the heart and nuance because that can be very effective.

The Belko Experiment is in theaters now. 

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