Nathan Baesel is a drug dealer. Not the bad kind, but rather a medical courier who works for his father, a pharmacist. He’s also a movie star — a job that doesn’t, as yet, pay his bills, though that should change once Hollywood gets a gander at Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. An intelligent slasher-movie satire, it’s been a hit at film festivals (including Gen Art, South by Southwest and Screamfest L.A.), thanks in no small part to Baesel’s titular performance as a supposed bogeyman in the Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees mold who lets a documentary crew in on the tricks of his trade. Far from being a lumbering, deformed creature, Leslie is spry, handsome, erudite and instantly likable whenever he isn’t donning a mask and offing horny teens.

In person, over a few beers, Baesel, a graduate of Juilliard and current member of South Coast Repertory who’s been mistaken for Ethan Hawke on at least one occasion, is equally charismatic. If he has a secret dark side, it isn’t immediately apparent. “People always tell me that I’m intense when they meet me, which I’ve never understood,” he says. “I’ve always felt like a pretty mellow guy, but I make choices as an actor that verge on intense, so I guess that’s what they’re talking about. I just really get turned on by stuff that’s on the more dramatic side of nature.”

Indeed. Chances are that if you already know Baesel’s name, it’s from his recurring role in the short-lived ABC sci-fi series Invasion, in which his character eventually chain-sawed his own arm off. Yet when it comes to watching violent movies, Baesel cops to being a bit of a wuss. “I have a great reverence for horror films, but I think it’s almost too much reverence,” he says. “It’s like people who live inland who have never gone to the ocean because they’re afraid of the power of the waves. That’s kind of me with horror films.” It was Baesel, however, who moved Behind the Mask in a darker direction than was originally intended. When he conceived the film, director Scott Glosserman was thinking in terms of a Christopher Guest–style mockumentary, but decided to make things scarier when he saw Baesel audition. “I remember telling [Glosserman], ‘I think that this movie can be really, really scary, and I think it should be really, really scary, but that it should also be funny, that with the right sensibility it could straddle both of those worlds.’?”

If that sounds a lot like Scream, don’t be alarmed. Unlike Wes Craven’s lucrative but shallow attempt at cinematic auto-critique, Behind the Mask doesn’t merely point out horror-movie clichés; it also subverts and deconstructs them, demonstrating, for example, the kind of cardio workout any successful killer needs in order to move really fast while appearing to slowly stalk. Another touch that horror fans will appreciate is Leslie’s mentoring by an older, retired killer of the grindhouse era, played by veteran character actor Scott Wilson, who was equally inspirational off-camera. “Scott’s . . . uh . . . I wanna fuck Scott!” exclaims Baesel, before quickly adding, “No, I just said that because I drank beer. But he’s really an incredible guy. He could have phoned in something really solid — a good, well-rounded performance. But this is a guy who flew thousands of miles to do a film, plugged himself into a group that had been working for a couple of weeks on a project that was already hitting its groove, and he threw himself into that current with such gusto that I realized this is what I want to be like when I’m 50 years old, 60 years old, 70 years old, 80 years old as an actor.”

For now, though, Baesel is still looking for work (and periodically blogging at nbaesel.blogsome.com). He recently shot an independent feature called Like Moles Like Rats, which he describes as being similar in premise to Children of Men, though he has no idea how it will turn out or when it might be seen. “It could have been over the top, just bullshit, but I put myself into it,” he says. Meanwhile, “I’ll audition for Bozo the Clown; I don’t give a shit, y’know. I love stuff that’s challenging, I love stuff that pushes myself to the extent that I am capable. I hope I always stay that way. I hope I always keep the desire to be uncomfortable.”

See “Opening This Week” for a review of Behind the Mask.

LA Weekly