Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities


How much influence can one piece of art hold over a person? This is the question at the heart of “Pickman’s Model” in Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, the plot chronicles the life of a young artist as he encounters the titular tortured artist and find his world upended multiple times in his life by his grotesque art.

Ben Barnes and Crispin Glover lead the cast of “Pickman’s Model” in Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, with The Vigil director Keith Thomas at the helm of the installment. Much like the other shorts in the Netflix horror anthology, “Pickman’s Model” proves to be an unnerving and thoroughly haunting tale for horror genre fans.


Related: Cabinet Of Curiosities: Pickman’s Model Cast & Character Guide

In honor of the show’s premiere, Screen Rant spoke exclusively with star Ben Barnes to discuss Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, his installment “Pickman’s Model,” his initial hesitation to join the Netflix horror anthology, how his director scared him on set, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more.

Ben Barnes on Cabinet of Curiosities

Screen Rant: I loved Cabinet of Curiosities, and “Pickman’s Model” was a wonderful installment. What about the material really caught your interest?

Ben Barnes: I think it was a combination of things, because actually, my first thought about it was I’ve played before period artists, and I just wrapped another movie where I play a sort of 1900s artist, and I thought, “I’ve done this.” Even the thing that’s closest to horror that I’ve done I would say is Dorian Gray, which is a Gothic thriller-y thing, I would say. He’s not an artist, but he’s having his portrait painted, at least, and it felt sort of similar, thematically, so I sort of shied away from it initially. Then, by the time I got to the last few pages, I was so invested in the connection between these characters, and the journey this Thurber character had been on, and the very last page I had this visceral reaction of — I remember taking a breath and making that sort of inhaling horrified noise by the time I realized what had happened.

I had to read the stage directions about three times to realize what had happened in the story, and it was so horrifying to me that I then sort of found it a bit unavoidable. I think then finding out that it was part of this anthology series which Guillermo del Toro would be curating, I’ve loved his movies, I love his allegory [approach to] the way he tells stories, the way he finds the pain in beauty, and the beauty in things that are horrifying, and the things that are horrifying sometimes is what’s beautiful. Just all that kind of gray area, an interesting kind of curiosity, I just find that very compelling. Then, the story being set, I think, over that 25-year period, playing him from a very young man and a student, all the way through to a kind of protective father.

It was very appealing to me getting to play somebody in three distinct stages of life going through a war that you never see on screen. Doing a few of these interviews this morning, I’m trying not to repeat myself, so what I realize, as well, in this moment is somebody who believes it’s in his mind, and as somebody doesn’t watch a lot of horror, the things that I think that are most scary are when your thoughts turn on you and attack you, that I find very distressing in life, and that’s not something I’ve talked about in other interviews. But I realized that was a huge part of what it was that this character believes.

It’s his experience, and it’s the things that have happened, that are happening, to him in his life, and the choices he’s making, which are breaking him down, whereas actually it’s something, in the end, external. On the very surface, the power that the art has, the power that we have at the end of our pens or the end of our fingers on a piano or with a film camera in our hands, the power that you have to make someone have faith in something, feel passionate about something, fear something, I just thought all of those things were so interesting.

And that’s what I love about Lovecraft, as well as del Toro. They both find those layers in those stories to really terrify the reader or the audience. With this one specifically, I love that the art is such a huge external factor in Thurber’s descent into madness, and the art itself is pretty horrifying to look at. What was your first reaction when you saw some of the artwork?

Ben Barnes: I remember actually being in Keith’s office looking at some of this stuff, just kind of drinking in that imagery, and I was worried it would feel staid and period and not uneasy, but the paintings were horrifying. To me, it was very important that it would marry with the story, and with Thurber’s psychological journey, so it would be great if this painting has a child in it, because at this point in the story, [fatherhood is] what his biggest fear is, so I think this one should have a child, and this one should have a woman in it, because this is the part of the loving [fears]. So, we would slightly manipulate some of the paintings to kind of take the journey with him, even though they were Pickman’s paintings.

The demonic side of things is more representative of the darkness that exists in the world. They obviously use some effects to make the paintings move, as well, but the actual paintings themselves were pretty distressing. I remember not wanting to look at them after the sketches, and after the original version. The ones I would look at on the day, I remember not wanting to look at them until we were rolling on me looking at them, so you could see me miserably drinking in all the details of it, but not being able to not do it. I think that character can’t resist, because he’s been in the art world, and this character represents someone who’s gone and done that, where he didn’t have the skill or didn’t have the drive to do that. So, he’s sort of fascinated and compelled by it, it has this spell over him, but he’s also the one character that it doesn’t affect instantly how it affects other people, in terms of wanting to scratch their eyes out, or wanting to cut symbols into themselves, or drown themselves, or whatever it is.

So, I think trying to work out what’s special about him, and his connection, his hopefulness, and his drive, and his strength that allows him to not be the victim, but then you realize that the thing that he fears the most, which is the loss of the things which are most important to him, and his family, is the way to crush him the most, which is eventually what happens to him. So, I think that it’s about seeking out what your greatest fear is, which is probably the scariest thing. But then also, I made the mistake of telling Keith, our director, that one of the films that had really turned me off of scary films was Return to Oz, and actually, I can see that you have Oz right behind you, I can see the legs of the characters from The Wizard of Oz. I remember watching it too young and being very afraid of the Wheelers characters, and they would have this sort of squeaky soundtrack when they would enter, and I told him, I just thought that was the most horrifying thing.

So, he would play that sometimes while I was looking at the paintings in the scenes, just to like unsettle me, because I said, “Trick me as much as you want.” He would have these clapper boards of wood that he would smack together to make get shocked reactions out of me sometimes. I gave him full permission to just try and creep me out as much as he wanted to. I said, “You’re the horror master, you and Guillermo are going to make this thing, so I’m gonna go on this journey, and you abuse me as you see fit to try and get these organic reactions out of me.”

How often did they work? Were they very effective?

Ben Barnes: Almost always, yes, almost always. [Laughs] That sound makes my eyes water, that squeaky Return to Oz sound, and then the clapper boards would always kind of take me out of whatever, because you’re hyper focused, usually, when you’re rolling on a particular take of something, so if someone is distracting like that, you’re very aware of it.

I guess that that helps, since that’s what you wanted.

Ben Barnes: I was begging for like, in the end, I sort of got used to the clapper sound. So, I was like, “You’re going to have to do something else.” I was like, “Can we have someone screaming,” and so he would get some poor AD on set to run around the set screaming, or whatever it was. [Laughs] Whatever it took, basically.

What was it like developing a rapport with Crispin Glover for this? Because the dynamic between your characters is very important for the story.

Ben Barnes: I think we sort of realized when we first walked around the sets together, and Crispin and Keith, our director, were so fascinated by all of this art, and just staring at these things, and these pieces and talking about that they were both very wealthy and their knowledge of the history of art, and I had felt very left behind, in terms of that. But also, these discussions about dark and light, and why someone would want to paint something like this, and that actually sometimes it’s sort of dark and gray areas being channeled through you rather than you trying to evoke any particular reaction. I think he just found it all so interesting, and they were taking, I think — there’s a certain glee in the macabre for Crispin, he obviously finds that joy in some of that stuff in a way that I don’t fully understand.

Keith, I think, also found some glee, which I do understand, in my discomfort, and my sort of hopefulness, I’m like, “Don’t you want to look at something beautiful instead?” [Chuckles] He sort of, by mistake, cast two people who have opposing approaches to this stuff, but understand exactly where the other is coming from, so I think that connection, plus we both have a real passion for detail, and a passion for character, and a passion for developing that relationship, so I think we very much bonded over that. There was a sort of a mutual respect of how important the little things are to each other, down to which hand I’m gonna open the door with to let him through, or how long he would stand there before leaving, those kinds of things we would discuss at length.

I think, to some people, that can be fairly nauseating, but to us, it was really exciting, or interesting, to find the relationship between them, that connection, the things they agreed on, their shared passions, the status shifts that happen, the outsider quality of his character, and then to discover why one of them needed the other, because it’s sort of that thing of is art art until it’s consumed by somebody, and Pickman needs Thurber to be his audience. So, we were both really interested and compelled by those things. Plus, I was just giddy to have a Back to the Future cast member on set, I think, most of the time.

Do I see Marty and the DeLorean back there on the shelf?

Ben Barnes: You absolutely do, and then an original cell from the movie. I got to meet Michael J. Fox last week, as well, the New York Comic-Con, and it was so exciting. But, you know, I think that sort of gave him a bit of a mystical quality to me, which I think was also important for the story. So, it all just kind of slotted in a useful way that allowed us to investigate the gray areas of the relationship, in terms of why one of them would really need the other.

I’m glad it worked out the way it did, because it plays so well on screen.

Ben Barnes: Aww, thank you. I wish I had seen it!

That’s what I keep hearing for everybody is, “I haven’t seen it yet,” and I’m like, “Oh, you are in for a treat.” We’ve lately been able to see a lot of the Netflix Marvel characters coming back. I know Jigsaw met his end in The Punisher season 2, but now that we are seeing Charlie Cox and others coming back, is there a small part of you that’s a bit jealous that you can’t be part of the bigger MCU?

Ben Barnes: Why can’t I? [Chuckles]

I guess there’s the multiverse!

Ben Barnes: It’s very sad that my character is, in terms of canon at least, dead, because I loved playing that character. I loved the lost little boy inside the raging psychopath Marine, brutal.

Bigger universe, it would have been nice to come back and play him with an even more destroyed face, I think that would have been great fun. Charlie’s one of my oldest pals, and I know he’s going to just flourish in his own show. But yeah, I did love playing that character, and I’m a big fan of that whole universe, I’m a big consumer of it. So yeah, maybe there’s a way back in one day, who knows? Probably not as that character, he’s very dead.

About Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities

In CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, acclaimed Academy Award-winning filmmaker and creator, executive producer and co-showrunner Guillermo del Toro has curated a collection of unprecedented and genre-defining stories meant to challenge our traditional notions of horror. From macabre to magical, gothic to grotesque or classically creepy, these eight equally sophisticated and sinister tales (including two original stories by del Toro) are brought to life by a team of writers and directors personally chosen by del Toro.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES is created and executive produced by Guillermo del Toro; executive produced by Academy Award winner J. Miles Dale (The Shape of Water; Sex/Life), who also serves as co-showrunner; and executive produced by Gary Ungar. Regina Corrado serves as co-executive producer. Del Toro also serves as host.

Check out our other Cabinet of Curiosities interviews here:

Next: Every Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities Episode And Their Film CounterpartGuillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is now streaming on Netflix.

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Denis Ava
Denis Ava
Denis Ava is mainly a business blogger who writes for Biz Grows. Rather than business blogs he loves to write and explore his talents in other niches such as fashion, technology, travelling,finance,etc.

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