It’s been nearly six years since Phil “CM Punk” Brooks parted ways with WWE. He’s certainly made the most of his time outside the squared circle, having competed in UFC, written or co-written numerous titles for Marvel, appeared on an MTV reality show, hosted a Netflix game show… Literally, the list goes on and on. While rumors continue to swirl regarding Brooks’ potential return to the ring, he’s clearly focused on pursuing new, unique opportunities that push him in unexpected ways.
Case in point: Girl On The Third Floor, the new horror movie directed by Travis Stevens, in theaters and on VOD October 25. Brooks plays “King” Don Koch, a slimy corporate type who is looking to rehab his marriage and rehab an old mansion at the same time, in hopes to distance himself from his former life. Of course, there’s more to the house than it seems — including an unwelcome house guest, Sarah (Sarah Brooks from NBC’s Chicago Med) who Don can’t seem to shake. Don’s pregnant wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn of Cinemax’s Banshee) tries to keep tabs on his progress via video chats, but she can tell something’s up — and a surprise visit is when all hell breaks loose. It’s a fresh update on the classic haunted house movie idea, and it reminds you time and time again that actions have consequences.
We caught up with Brooks to discuss his debut role as a leading man, how his dog motivated him for certain scenes, and whether or not we’ll ever see him in a rom-com.
Note: This interview features some light-to-moderate spoilers for Girl On The Third Floor, which is out on VOD as of today (October 25), so if you’re worried about that kind of thing, make sure to check out the film first. You’ve been warned!
With Spandex: It’s always nice to see someone come out of the pro wrestling world and go into acting without having to be billed as, “This is what a pro wrestler looks like when he’s a nanny!” or something. Girl On The Third Floor doesn’t feel like stunt casting. I’m sure you’ve had many roles offered to you over the past few years. What was it that drew you to this project?
I think it’s easy to avoid stuff based on the description you just gave. I never wanted to do a movie just to do a movie, and just have it be a straight-to-video, C-level Expendables. Could I have done that? Sure. Would it have been fun? Probably. Would it have been challenging? No, absolutely not. I still base most everything I do off of whether it’s a challenge to me, because I feel you don’t learn anything in any particular craft and you don’t grow as a human being if you’re always comfortable. There’s a lot of times in this movie here I was very uncomfortable, and I think that will in turn make me a better human being but a better actor. That’s definitely what I want to do. I think challenging yourself is always important, and everything attached to this movie was super-great, and everyone was so super-talented that I was like, “How do I say no to this?”
The movie seems to me to be about the power of choices, and how easy it is to make the wrong choice. You have this slippery slope represented in the movie visually by marbles rolling down the stairs. It doesn’t take much for a lot of bad things to happen from one bad decision. So what was the last wrong choice you made?
That’s easy — I didn’t go to bed in a timely manner last night, and now I’m tired. [Laughs.]
Your character Don is not really a good guy. You learn early in the movie that he defrauded people for millions of dollars, he’s probably an alcoholic, and he’s a serial philanderer. Do you think he’s the film’s protagonist?
That’s an interesting question. I think this is one of those movies where the less you know about it going in, the better the experience will be for you. I said in the past, when you watch a movie, the first person you see onscreen is normally the hero. The first person you see in Girl On The Third Floor is me. I’m the one you spend the most time with. But as you get to know this character Don, it’s an onion — you peel back layers and realize maybe Don’s not a good guy. But that’s one of the reasons I was attracted to this role, because Don needed to not be a good guy but he also needed to be so charismatic that you didn’t care. I think we all have friends like that. He’s like a bad penny. After a while, you’re like, “I’ve been friends with this guy for 15 years but why? This guy sucks!”
But he’s still at the end of the day trying to do the right thing, by restoring this house for his wife and future child, and trying to get this other woman out of his life. He has his heart in the right place but he just can’t make the right decisions.
While there were plenty of moments in the film that had me cringing or yelling at the TV, nothing got me more than the scene involving Don’s German Shepherd Cooper in the laundry room. How did you prepare yourself mentally for what your character had to react to in that scene? It was pretty horrific.
That was a pretty emotionally draining day for me, because I’m a sadist. All I did was think about my dog, and how I live in fear that someday, something bad’s gonna happen to little Larry. I don’t know how people have children! Obviously it’s different, because you’re not supposed to outlive your children but you know you’re going to outlive your dog. To get myself in the right mindset for the scene, I just sat there and thought about Larry.
The scene is shot so deliberately, there’s almost a point where you think maybe it’s going to be a fakeout. And then… it’s not. And I felt the same way your character felt. I wanted to throw up.
Oh yeah, I was crying all day.
The other scene that sticks out in my mind is when Don is attacked by a marble. Was that all practical effects?
Everything you see in this movie is practical effects. Dan Martin did it, and he’s a genius. I can’t talk enough about how great Dan is. He’s a wizard. I got to know Dan a lot, because I’d be sitting in a chair for 10 or 12 hours getting different prosthetics attached to me. It’s weird, because when something like that takes so long for shooting, then it’s only onscreen for three seconds, you’re kinda like, “Oh. Great.” But it looked so good, I was thrilled when I saw this movie for the first time. That marble scene is so gnarly, I love it.
That scene becomes a big pivot point in the film — you become a supporting character in your own story, as your wife becomes the protagonist. Did that perspective shift catch you off-guard?
I loved it. I thought it was so interesting. The horror genre has tropes. The women in horror movies, let’s be honest, aren’t strong. I love the fact that we got to turn everything on its side and I got to be a blubbering bitch near the end of the movie, and it was the women who were the strong ones. Sarah Brooks, who plays Sarah in the movie, is Michael Myers, and she’s stalking me. I thought it was brilliant role reversal and it was great to be a part of that.
This film involves your character doing a number of things you’re not known to have done before, primarily drinking and smoking. How did that work?
They have prop cigarettes. I didn’t even know those existed! Shooting that scene, I felt like such a narc, like Steve Buscemi: “What’s up, fellow kids?” I didn’t even know how to hold a beer bottle! What looks right? It was fucking goofy.
Was there any discussion on-set whether or not your straight-edge tattoos should be covered up?
No, that’s what Travis wanted. Travis wanted that punk-rock dad vibe. I can tell you Dan Martin wishes I would’ve covered them up. [Laughs.] He had to trace them all, draw them all out because he had to recreate my tattoos on top of my prosthetics. It was pain-staking for him and me. Mostly for him. It’s so strange too, because going into shooting, I thought, “Man, I wish they would cover up my tattoos so I could get lost more in the character,” and then watching it back, I don’t even feel like I’m watching myself, even though there are my tattoos, that’s me. I feel like I got lost in the character regardless.
So much of your career up until now has been built on real-time response, whether it’s wrestling, UFC or commentating on something. Obviously, a movie is a much longer time commitment with a delayed feedback process. Was it difficult having to wait this long to start getting responses from an audience?
Yeah. It’s not easy. But I trusted Travis so much to let me know when we had a scene in the can. Obviously, I’m so used to instant gratification. But I was so good at being a one-take wonder from doing live television for so many years that I was over-prepared. But it was also such a luxury to be able to re-shoot scenes and have multiple takes that I was like, “Wow, I’ve never experienced this before!”
How much of a say did you have in your character’s script? Were you able to improv anything?
No, it’s very close to the page. This was Travis Steven’s baby, and I didn’t want to change anything. There were a few tweaks here and there, but nothing drastic.
I felt like the most realistic line in the whole film is when you said to your dog, “Don’t shit in the house.” Because I say that to my dog literally every day.
I say the same thing to Larry when I leave the house too!
The movie was filmed in the small Chicago suburb of Frankfort, Illinois. Had you been there before?
Oh yeah. I grew up in Lockport, which is not that far away. I had a ton of friends who lived around there who went to their high school, Lincoln Way.
Did having it in that location make it easier for you to accept the project?
I think having it there helped, for sure. I would’ve signed up regardless of where it was being filmed, but one of the biggest things for me was I didn’t have to travel, which was magical.
What has been more mentally taxing for you: Starring in a movie or going the distance in a UFC fight?
Mentally taxing? Oh man, doing a movie. That’s four weeks as opposed to three rounds. Physically, obviously, fighting is way more physical. But mentally, the movie. There were easy days and there were super-difficult days. You go to bed reading the script for tomorrow, and you’re saying to yourself, “Tomorrow’s the big day, am I going to be able to do this?” I was surrounded by super-talented people and everybody lifted everybody else up, but it was definitely more mentally taxing.
Legendary Chicago musician and audio engineer Steve Albini scored the film; was he ever on-set?
He wasn’t, but he came to the screening in Chicago the other week and I was like, “Dude…” I’d never been in a room with Steve Albini before. I was doing everything to calm myself. At the end of the night, I told him that if he ever wanted to grab coffee, I’d love to pick his brain. He’s just such a talented guy and fascinating dude.
The Girl On The Third Floor hits theaters and VOD this Friday, October 25, and your 41st birthday is this Saturday. How are you celebrating?
Me and my wife are going to go carve pumpkins, then we’re screening the movie at Soho House in Chicago, then the Blackhawks are playing the Kings. So I’ll be spending my birthday watching that.
What do you want to accomplish next in film?
I just want to do different stuff. If you think of Phil Brooks, I want to try and tackle roles you think would be the furthest thing in your head when you thought of me. I wanna do everything, selfishly. But being outside my comfort zone is where I grow. If you wanna put me in a rom-com, put me in a rom-com. I’m open to it. I think action films could be easy. I think they could be tremendous fun, don’t get me wrong, but I am very much looking for projects that can put me outside my comfort zone by directors that think outside of the box, and somewhere I can learn and grow on the job.
Since we are in the spooky season right now, if you had to pick: Freddy or Jason?
Jason. Always. I grew up watching anything and everything, and I always enjoyed the Nightmare On Elm Street films, but I was always a Jason guy, 100 percent.
Alien or Predator?
Oh geez… Wow. That one’s harder. Oh my gosh. [Long pause.] Alien. If you ask me that tomorrow, it would change, but today, it’s Alien.
What are you listening to right now?
I’m so patiently waiting for Run The Jewels 4, so to tide me over, I’ve been listening to the new Danny Brown album, uknowhatimsayin¿, because Run The Jewels are all over that. The last couple workouts I’ve had here in New York, I’ve just been listening to Pantera on a loop. I’m usually always late to the game when it comes to new music, unfortunately. One of my favorite bands will put out an album and I’ll hear it six months after everybody else.
Well I can recommend the new Bad Religion album, Age Of Unreason, which came out earlier this year. It’s a straight ripper.
That’s a great point — I haven’t gotten the new Bad Religion album yet, but I probably will now!