You’ll be hard-pressed to find a horror fan who has not at least heard of the ’90s cult classic horror films The Slumber Party Massacre III and Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Yan Birch, a man whose career in American film was launched by these two memorable titles. Yan discusses how it all started venturing from Sweden to Hollywood in pursuit of his dreams, his work with horror legend Wes Craven and his more recent work in the indie horror scene!
PopHorror: Hi, Yan! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
Yan Birch: My pleasure!
PopHorror: I’m aware that you grew up around the arts, appearing in Swedish television programs and you even saw some success as a musician. However, you decided to study Mechanical Engineering and Mathematics for your higher education. What made you decide to take your education this direction? Was it your intention to pursue a career in something besides the arts?
Yan Birch: Actually, my father, who was an entertainer his whole life, got an Engineering degree as a backup plan. So, when it was time for me to go to college, I really just followed in his footsteps and chose to get an Engineering degree. Then, because numbers always came really easily to me and math was, fortunately, a breeze, I decided to study some more mathematics. It was always only meant to be my backup in case things didn’t go as well as I was hoping.
PopHorror: That’s not a bad idea. Fortunately, things worked out pretty favorably, though! What reignited your interest in the arts, and what made you decide to make the big move to Hollywood?
Yan Birch: My interest in the arts, my hopes and dreams never really changed. But after school, I decided to travel and see the world. When I came to Hollywood during my initial travels, I was fortunate enough to meet a few people who were very interested in me as an actor and model. So, this helped when I decided to make the big move after my travels ended. After the initial time spent in Los Angeles, I continued my travels to do the full 360 around the world as I had originally planned. To my mother’s dismay, when I finally came back home after a long time abroad, I only stayed home in Sweden for three weeks. After that, I jumped back on a plane and moved to Hollywood to follow my dreams.
PopHorror: That’s a great leap, but I’m sure there’s no regrets! I’m aware that after moving to Hollywood, you found your way into the horror scene with a role in the 1990 feature film, Slumber Party Massacre III. Soon after, you received a major role in Wes Craven’s ’91 cult horror flick, The People Under the Stairs. How did you become involved with each of these productions?
Yan Birch: Well, I received an invitation to go to Roger Corman’s production company, Concorde Horizons, and meet the filmmakers for Slumber Party Massacre III. The working title was actually Night Light. I had a great meeting, and it was very exciting because I still had not made an American feature film. I booked the role of Weirdo, which is the actual twist in the story as he’s the character that everyone believes is the killer. I was dressed all in black and followed the kids in the movie around, being spooky. It was great fun, and very exciting to be in a Roger Corman film!
In regards to The People Under the Stairs, I went to Eileen Knight’s office to audition. We ended up having a very long, awesome talk about the film and the character, and I found out that Wes really liked my look for one of the bigger roles in the film. I didn’t really realize how big Wes was. All I knew was that my manager at the time was beyond excited… so I knew it was something special. The next day, I got the call that Wes wanted to meet me for a callback. I went to see Wes and, at that time, he had not finished the development of my character yet. So, he had me audition for the part of Roach, knowing that if I booked it, I would be playing a different character.
We had so much fun. I was crawling around on the floor following Wes’ directions. It was pure pleasure to meet this man in person. He immediately gave me such warm vibes and it was so easy to be relaxed and comfortable around him. That was one of the best things about Wes. He was such a humble and genuine human being. The next day, I found out I booked it. And, one day later, I was already on my way to KNB Efx to get my casts done. It was an amazing feeling!
PopHorror: That sounds like an experience of a lifetime! Has horror always been the direction you wanted to take with your acting career?
Yan Birch: Not necessarily. I just love to perform. I never really decided on any particular direction or genre. I was just fortunate to start working with Roger Corman, then Wes Craven and then Chuck Russell, all of whom are quite established in the horror genre. I do like these darker characters and enjoy playing them, but I believe I am actually quite a nice guy. (laughs) I also love the amazing support from the horror community, and the commitment and love that the horror fans have for these films. It’s very gratifying and appreciated for an actor.
PopHorror: What was it like working with Wes Craven, one many people consider to be a master of horror?
Yan Birch: To date, it has been the best acting experiences of my life. Wes, as a person, was quite the opposite of the sometimes bloody and dark subject material in his films. He was very deep, loving and compassionate. On set, he was a really good friend, caring as much about your comfort as he did about getting a great performance out of you in every scene. We became good friends after filming The People Under the Stairs. All these qualities made him a great Actors’ Director, and he pulled relaxed, enjoyable and great performances out of his talent.
PopHorror: What is your favorite memory from working on a film that has found such a cult following over the years?
Yan Birch: I have so many great memories from this film and the time spent with Wes and the rest of the cast and crew. It was an amazing experience. One of the moments that stick out is when Brandon Adams and myself were filming the scene right before we escape, and he was explaining the wonderful outside world for me. Wes did not feel the emotions he wanted from Brandon on the first few takes. Remember, he was only 11-years-old at this time, and this was at the end of a long day. Wes told us all to just stay ready while he took Brandon for a walk. Wes ended up jogging on the sidewalk with Brandon twice around the studio before they came running back in. They both came in slightly out of breath. Wes stopped at the camera and called, “Action!” while Brandon ran back into position, and we shot right away. That was the take you see in the finished film. That was Wes in a nutshell, always caring and coming up with unconventional ideas so we would get it right and make the best film possible.
PopHorror: Wes sounds like he was as much an incredible guy as he was a director. It makes sense that we was able to create such memorable films! Eventually, you explored projects from the other side of the camera by launching your own production company, Pure Entertainment. Which side of the camera do you prefer to be on and why?
Yan Birch: I love the entertainment industry as a whole, and I love making movies and TV. I really enjoy the creative process in producing as well as acting and making entertainment for all to enjoy and experience. All that said, my true passion is, and will always be, acting. I love creating and sculpting my idea of the character and exploring different ways and different takes on each role. I feel alive when I act. Simply said, I LOVE IT!
PopHorror: You certainly do have a talent for it! More recently, you appeared in Jimmy Lee Combs’ anthology, Terror Tales (revisit review here) and Harley Wallen’s paranormal film, Agramon’s Gate (revisit review here). In both features, you play an evil entity. And you are excellent in both roles! Do these types of characters just come naturally to you?
Yan Birch: Yes, in a way, I guess they kind of do. (laughs) But jokes aside, I love the preparation for each role, and for me, I try to do everything I can to make the best of whatever role I play.
PopHorror: How did you become involved with these two productions?
Yan Birch: For Terror Tales, I was actually contacted on Twitter. They told me that they loved my work, that it would be so awesome if I could be in a film called Terror Tales, and if I was interested, to get back to them. I did so, and I was put in touch with the director, Jimmy Lee Combs. My tale, called “Epidemic,” had still not been written at that time. So I was fortunate enough to be able to work with Jimmy from the beginning on the development of my character, which is always great. Jimmy and I had a blast! He is a true visionary, and I really enjoyed working with him.
In regards to Agramon’s Gate, this was the second film I did with the award-winning director Harley Wallen. Harley first contacted me through a mutual contact for his crime thriller, Betrayed, which we shot in 2017 and released last October. Harley and I ended up working really well together, so Harley asked me to work with him on his next film, which would be the supernatural horror, Agramon’s Gate. It was a great experience. We have since done a third film together called Abeyance, and I am looking forward to my working relationship with Harley in the future. He’s fantastic!
PopHorror: What was the most challenging part of filming Terror Tales?
Yan Birch: I must say that it was when they covered my entire body with blood. The scene where I am coming out of a nun’s stomach was definitely challenging, and I could not get the fake blood off of me afterwards. I believe I washed my hair and showered eight or nine times before I could see my skin. And yet, it was still through a rosy tint. (laughs)
PopHorror: (laughs) That would be challenge! What was your favorite part?
Yan Birch: I would have to say the scene at the steps of the church when I tell Pastor James (Thomas Fears) that it doesn’t matter what he does, he can’t stop me. That scene was incredibly intense and a lot of fun to shoot.
PopHorror: What was the most challenging part of filming Agramon’s Gate?
Yan Birch: Well, this might sound weird coming from a Swede, but on my first day, it was so freakin’ cold, and I had most of my scenes outside. I couldn’t feel my nose or fingers. (laughs)
PopHorror: You’re too used to California weather now! (laughs) What was your favorite part?
Yan Birch: I believe that would be the scenes in the hospital with the talented and lovely Laurene Landon [read the PopHorror interview with her here]. There was so much creative energy going on among everyone that day. It was awesome!
PopHorror: I remember that scene very well. Incredible performances by both of you! Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to discuss?
Yan Birch: Yes, I am very excited about more than a few things coming up! I am doing another great anthology film called Don’t Let Them In based on Elizabeth Fields’ novel and screenplay. I’ll be working alongside Tiffany Shepis with the director Kevin Tenney. I have a great role in that, which I’m looking forward to. Later this year, I will be shooting an amazing international Viking film in my home land, Sweden, called Dead Man’s Mound. My production company, Pure Entertainment, is co-producing this as well. This may become the highlight of my year. I also have some more films coming out this year to watch out, for including Sky Sharks, Waking Nightmare, Killer Rose and Abeyance. 2019 is going to be a great year with a lot for my fans to enjoy! I appreciate you guys and the community so much.
PopHorror: This sounds like a very exciting year for you! Thank you, Yan, for your time.
Yan Birch: Thank you for the opportunity!
With a busy year of filming ahead of him, we’re sure to see more of Yan as he continues to dominate every role he takes. He surely is a talent who is not going anywhere soon. We look forward to seeing his ongoing work and highlighting his future endeavors!