Interview: Phil ‘CM Punk’ Brooks’ Leading Man Moment in ‘Girl on the Third Floor’
Even though the highest-paid movie star the world is a former professional wrestler, Phil Brooks — better known to WWE fans as CM Punk — says that the positive reviews he’s received for his first leading role in Girl on the Third Floor are usually tempered with a little surprise.
“They always go. ‘And you know what? Phil’s not that bad!’” Brooks told me during our conversation at a Manhattan hotel earlier this week. “It’s easy to be dismissive. You hear pro wrestler and acting, you’re expecting, I don’t know, Suburban Commando.”
Brooks deserves every bit of praise he gets for his impressive performance in director Travis Stevens’ new horror indie. Ironically, though, Girl on the Third Floor does feature suburban warfare of a sort, with Brooks’ Don battling demons of both the supernatural and emotional varieties. As the film begins, Don and his wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) are preparing for the birth of their first child. They buy a ramshackle old house in the ’burbs, and Don gives himself the daunting task of renovating the home all by himself. While he fills the holes in the walls and unclogs the kitchen sink, Don also has to contend with all sorts of earthly temptations, along with a ghost that seems intent on getting rid of the new homeowner and his loyal dog.
As a wrestling fan myself, I was curious to talk to Brooks about the transition from that world into this one, and about whether his extensive skills in one arena translated to another. During our conversation, we also discussed whether his character’s wardrobe was modeled on any famous horror icons of the past, the creative challenges he still wants to tackle, and the lack of great movies about the world of wrestling — something he says he’s thinking about correcting at some point in the future.
As a relatively inexperienced actor, this is a pretty challenging role to take on. Not only are you the lead, for long stretches of the movie you’re the only person onscreen.
Yeah, spoiler alert: If you hate my face, don’t see this movie.
[laughs] Was that aspect something that made you hesitant to take on the project, or was that what you liked about the role?
It made me nervous, and if you know me, that’s my bag. I’ll run directly at the s— that makes me feel uncomfortable. That’s where you grow as an artist, as a human being. If you’re comfortable, you’re not growing. You need to be out of your comfort zone.
From the first moment you walk onscreen, you’ve got this blue work shirt and these khaki pants. Immediately, I was reminded of Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead movies. Was that a coincidence or a deliberate choice?
I think it was a happy accident.
Yes. The wardrobe choice was more about it being the furthest thing from what I would wear in real life. And it just so happens that whoops, it looks like Ash.
In fairness, later in the movie, you will be covered with a large amount of goop and slime, and you’re being tortured alone in this house, so that’s why I thought it might be a deliberate homage.
Having seen the movie in a theater with audiences three separate times now, I can draw parallels to so many other different horror movies. There’s some Shining in there, there’s some Amityville Horror in there. I think my co-star Sarah Brooks, who plays Sarah, said it reminded her of Fatal Attraction. There’s so many. One of the reviews I read said it was like Tom Hanks in The Money Pit as directed by Clive Barker.
Any time you’re being compared to Tom Hanks, you’re doing something right. Now, there are a lot of goops and slimes that you’re getting covered with in this movie.
But there’s one I found extremely troubling, purely as a germaphobe, and that’s when you’re trying to fix a sink and you get this disgusting black gunk all over your face. What’s in that stuff?
I have no idea.
Does it have a flavor? Does it have a taste? Because it’s getting in your mouth and your eyes. That was upsetting to me.
It was everywhere. Two weeks after the shoot was over I was still picking s— out of my ears. The production designers were the Andujar twins, Courtney and Hillary, and they’re brilliant. They made everything. I remember some scenes where they’d have these giant buckets of goo, and they would show them to Travis, and Travis would look and go “Mmmm, a little bit more red.” Then they would disappear for a half hour and come back and he’d go “Good.” I never got in their way; I just let them do their thing. They’d explain to me before the gag was going to go down, like “You’re okay with being covered with slime?”
I was thinking a little about your wrestling career after I watched this movie. And as a wrestler, you were both a great good guy and a great bad guy. You played heel and face equally well, and you could switch back and forth easily. And that skill comes in handy in this movie, because your character is the protagonist, but as it goes on, we start to see these darker sides to him. Is there a secret to your being able to play the same character as both hero and villain?
I think maybe one of the reasons why they chose me for this role is because the character needed to be s—y but sympathetic; almost charismatic to the point that you forgive him for all of his transgressions. And what you just said, that’s what I did my entire wrestling career. I can be the good guy and I can be the bad guy, and I can switch them on and off like that. There’s a healthy balance of that in this movie.
Tell me about working with that dog. He’s kind of of a scene stealer.
Kind of a scene stealer?
Was that a concern? He is a very charismatic dog!
So they tell you don’t do scenes with kids and animals, because they will steal your scenes. And I just resigned myself to the fact that that was very much going to happen; there was actually nothing i could do about it. The first two weeks of shooting was just me and the dog. I didn’t have anyone else to play with except the dog. There’s a lot of moments where he absolutely killed it. His name is Riker; he plays Cooper. I can’t remember if he was a retired police dog or military dog, but Riker was legit.
He was great. Always on set; just belly rubs all day. Couldn’t have asked for a better co-star.
Since you retired from wrestling you’ve done mixed martial arts, you’ve hosted TV shows, you’ve written comics for Marvel, and now you’re moving into acting. Is the list of things you still want to try getting smaller? Or are there still a bunch of things left to do?
I think maybe the next thing I need to do is, uh, something ... something musically, I think.
Yeah. Then after that, I don’t know. Then I have to get my pilot’s license, or do something completely off the wall. But yeah, in the spirit of being uncomfortable and conquering things, and just doing things I think would be fun, I think that might be something I would try next.
And you want to sing? You want to perform? All of the above?
Yeah, why not?
I did not expect you to say that.
I’ve got a ton of friends in bands, and we always joke about “Let’s just get together, write a bunch of songs, get in the studio, record them, see what happens.” I just want to have fun with cool people.
In terms of music, if you’re in a place like this and “Cult of Personality” comes on the stereo, what happens inside your brain?
I immediately pick up the closest piece of furniture and I just smash somebody in the back with it.
The funny thing about that song is I used it as ring music prior to being in WWE, when I was on the indies. And when I played baseball in 1989 when that song came out, that was my Little League team’s theme song. It’s literally just me reaching back and kind of doing the same old stuff that I’ve always done and liked.
You’ve talked about how you like being uncomfortable and trying new things, and I’ve read you say elsewhere that you often pick jobs because you hope you will learn new things when you do. So I’m curious what you specifically learned making Girl on the Third Floor.
Just little acting tricks, and realizing that I can tone down what I would normally do in the ring. If I’m in the ring, I’m trying to play to the cheap seats. I would always ignore cameras for television, because the cameraman will pick up what they pick up and the people sitting at home will see it. I was always playing to the people in the 300 level. So you’ve got to be huge, you’ve got to be big. With movies, you don’t have to be that big. So I learned less is more.
I had all these tools in my toolbox, from pro wrestling and writing and all that stuff, and it was fun to be able to see which ones apply and which ones didn’t for acting and making a movie. I was kind of blown away when I did episodes of Maron and Bobcat Goldthwait was my director. It’s literally kind of foolproof if you have a great director and he goes “Okay, this is what I want you to do,” and you do it.
Based on the first couple of movies you’ve made, it’s pretty clear you’re a big horror fan.
On that list of things you still want to do, are there other genres you’d want to star in?
All of them. I think it goes back to me being uncomfortable. Acting is make believe. It’s what you do when you’re five years old playing cops and robbers or whatever it is. You get lost in a make-believe world. So it doesn’t matter what the role is; if it’s quality and it’s with good people, sign me up. I won’t run away if somebody offers me a rom-com or something like that.
As a guy who loves movies and wrestling, I have thought a lot about the fact that there are very few good movies about the world of pro wrestling. It seems like a subject that’s begging for more great movies.
My favorite movie in the world is Slap Shot. I’m a huge hockey guy, and Slap Shot just nails everything; the dialogue, the characters. You give me a few good days to put pen to paper and I could write you the wrestling version of Slap Shot, and I for sure think that is something that will happen down the line, without a doubt.
I feel like that needs to happen.
It’s a gimme. I’ve got the real life stories just like [Slap Shot screenwriter] Nancy Dowd had real life stories of minor league hockey. It could be that outrageous and funny.
Girl on the Third Floor is in theaters and on digital platforms on October 25.
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