Phil Brooks is not CM Punk. He was, for 15 years, and still uses the name when it fits, but as he pointed out in a recent chat with Paste, CM Punk was a character that he played, and not the man himself. The former pro wrestler, retired since 2014, has branched out into acting, with a starring role in the recently released horror film Girl on the Third Floor, which is currently in theaters on a limited engagement, and available on demand. Brooks plays Don Koch, the cocksure new owner of an old house in the suburbs of Chicago, which he is fixing up in preparation for his wife and upcoming child to move in with him. The house isn’t exactly what it seems to be, though, and as Brooks’ character is forced to confront its mysteries, we realize that Don’s problems have more to do with his own actions and character flaws than with a haunted house.
Paste recently spoke to Brooks about Girl on the Third Floor, his transition into traditional acting, and the role legendary Chicago musician and engineer Steve Albini played in getting Brooks to sign up for this film.
Paste: This is sort of your first real acting gig. How did you get this role?
Phil Brooks: Oh, man. The movie’s set in a Chicago suburb, the lore of the movie is based on a real haunted house that we actually shot in. they wanted to use mostly Chicago-based actors and actresses. They got Steve Albini, who is a Chicago guy, to do the score.
Paste: Yeah, I want to talk about Albini.
Brooks: That’s one of the reasons I said yes to this, I knew if Albini was on board it had to be quality. And basically I think they… “settled” is the wrong word, but they realized that I was available and I was a Chicago guy. So they reached out in a couple different ways. We started talking and obviously I said yes.
Paste: You said the house itself was actually haunted? Did you notice anything yourself while you were shooting the film?
Brooks: The house has a very eerie tone to it. I walked through the house alone a couple times and it’s just one of those things—I didn’t see any poltergeists and nothing jumped out at me and there weren’t doors opening and closing. A few people from the set have stories like that. But me, it was more like an eerie feeling, like you know when you walk into a room and you swear you’re not alone? It was just like that, and it intensified as you went up levels in the house. Getting much, much worse on the third floor.
Paste: The closer to the girl the worst it got. So the exterior shots were of the same house as the interior?
Brooks: Yeah. It’s all the same house.
Paste: It is a very creepy looking house. So did you have any history of acting before you got into pro wrestling? Like high school drama or anything like that?
Brooks: Nope. Nothing like that. I think just all the acting I’ve done was in wrestling.
Paste: So there are no second takes in wrestling. What was it like adjusting to the schedule and process of making a film?
Brooks: Oh my God, it was like a luxury. The difference between doing live television and shooting a movie is so drastic. And it was great to be able to shoot something and be like “oh, I can do that again?” What a luxury, you know? What a comfort.
Paste: Was there ever a moment where you nailed it the first take, or where they kept going take after take, and you were getting frustrated with it?
Brooks: No, certainly not. I told Travis [Stevens], it being his directorial debut, I told him, I was like, as corny as it sounds, “I am clay. Mold me. I’ll sit here all night shooting one scene if you want. This is you baby, let’s make it the way you see it in your head.” I don’t think I nailed anything on one take, and we certainly didn’t ever shoot jus tone take. You’ve always got to shoot backups and get extra looks and stuff like, and I never minded it. It was a ton of fun, honestly.
Paste: There was one line of dialogue you have that really jumped out of me, near the end. “I felt so small, I just wanted to be the man one more time.” The movie is focused on masculinity, the need to be in control of your situation, and it definitely evokes a hypermasculine world similar to wrestling. Did you see a correlation between that when you were reading the script, and if so how did you feel about that?
Brooks: I didn’t make any correlation between wrestling and the script, and the character Don. I just think the character Don is somebody… we all know that guy. Some of us have been that guy. I think I related a lot of my real life experiences to Don. Whether it’s wrestling or not, there are plenty of Dons in wrestling.
Paste: What’s a moment from your real life where you realize you were acting like Don?
Brooks: I definitely think there are points in my life when I was being less than cool to people. I definitely think Younger Phil didn’t treat women the best all the time. So I drew from that when portraying Don. And that was easy to do. Once you realize you’ve been a shitty person, going forward you learn from your mistakes. I think the big key to Don is he never, ever learned from his mistakes.
Paste: That’s part of growing up, and obviously this guy didn’t grow up fast enough. So, why was it important for you to be billed by your real name instead of the name you’re more famous under?
Brooks: I don’t know if it was really a conscious decision. I think it was more like I just got an email one day because they were doing the titles and were, like, “what do you want to be?” Let’s just be Phil Brooks, know what I mean? Because I do very much feel like that C.M. Punk is a character. So to put C.M. Punk—a character playing a character—that’s a totally different movie. This is Phil playing Don, so I wanted to be Phil.
Paste: This isn’t like Paul Reubens playing Pee Wee Herman in a Pee Wee Herman movie, this is like Paul Reubens playing an entirely different character in another movie.
Brooks: Right. Precisely.
Paste: There are also a lot of weird, Z-grade horror films that go straight to video on demand that star pro wrestlers, and this seems like a good way to tell people that this is trying to be something more than a lot of those films.
Brooks: Yeah. I agree with that.
Paste: So what did they use for the goo in the movie? Especially when it drops all over your face.
Brooks: That is a question you’re gonna have to ask Travis. I really don’t know. I stayed out of the way, “you guys do your job and I’ll do mine.” And my job was when the cameras were rolling, so I stayed away. Some silicone based something or other, I’m sure, but I don’t exactly know.
Paste: In one scene it almost drops into your open mouth, and you’re just like “hey okay do it to me, I don’t want to know what it is.”
Brooks: Yeah! Out of sight, out of mind. The less I knew about it, the better off I was, I felt.
Paste: You mentioned Steve Albini. When I saw his name in the credits, and also Tim Midyett from Silkworm, I knew it was going to be a cool-sounding score. And it is. And then the movie ends with that Big Black song [“Bad Penny”], which is awesome and also fits the movie well, lyrically. That is, as you said, a very Chicago crew right there. How important was that in terms of selling you on the project?
Brooks: Very important. Not to make light of all of it, but one of the biggest things was I didn’t have to travel anywhere. Wow, sign me up. I was 45 minutes to an hour away from my house in Chicago, and I got to hang out with my wife and my dog every day. And that’s the most important thing going on in my life right now. It was paramount to me signing up for this. It was great. If I needed to run home for something, I never did, but I could have, you know what I mean? It was just a little adventure with my family, we were in a hotel for four weeks, and it was a blast.
Paste: Have you ever thought about moving out to the suburbs, like your character does?
Brooks: [emphatically] No.
Paste: Don’t do it.
Brooks: That is not for me.
Paste: I see on your IMDB page you have another horror movie that’s finished, Rabid. Have you landed any other roles, or have anything scheduled coming up?
Brooks: I haven’t signed up to do anything yet, but I’m talking to a few people. The best thing about having worked with [Jen and Sylvia Soska] on Rabid and Travis on Third Floor is they’re three amazingly talented writers and directors, and it’s nice to have great relationships with them, because I’m on call. If they have any kind of projects they want to put me in, I’ll just sign up immediately, sight unseen, because of who they are behind and in front of the camera. They’re all just tremendously talented people. I know they’ll be churning out movies in the future, so if nothing else comes along I’m probably going to be that guy who always pops up in their films.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.