For actor Dave Davis, the process of making The Vigil was almost as scary as the horror film itself.
Yakov (Dave Davis), a former member of an Orthodox Jewish community, is recruited by his Rabbi to watch over a deceased man overnight with only his demented widow for company. While he’d rather be texting with a girl, Yakov instead finds himself battling a malevolent entity in writer-director Keith Thomas’ terrifying feature debut.
Shot on location in Brooklyn, principal filming took place in a house where the occupant had also recently died, echoing the script and putting everyone on edge. “The woman had recently passed away in the house so it was very spooky. We definitely felt her presence,” says Davis, 30, talking from his home in Los Angeles.
Adding to the sense of foreboding is the bizarre fact that the cast and crew of this low budget indie lost four different grandparents over the course of a two-month shoot, including Davis’s own grandfather. “The film is dedicated to all our grandparents we lost,” he says. “My Grandfather lived in New York, so I was lucky to be the last family member to see him and to attend his funeral.”
Impossible not to feel like their film was cursed, Davis was sad to learn that his co-star Lynn Cohen – who plays the widow Mrs. Litvak in The Vigil – passed away after shooting. “This was her last film,” he laments of the actress who also starred as Mags in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
Admittedly, Davis himself spooked the cast and crew after he began talking to himself on the set. “Yakov has so many fears, he creates a terrifying environment for himself. I wanted to recreate that faithfully, so for six weeks – much to the chagrin of my girlfriend – I attempted to summon demons all around me by only using my mind. The problem is that it worked and I actually saw demons. They looked like terror in its most pure form.
“I also managed to summon a wolf spider. It just appeared on the ceiling – the biggest spider I have ever seen and, on the very next page of the script, it read ‘a wolf spider climbs over Yakov’s foot’. After that, I started to creep myself out – and my girlfriend banned me from having the script in the bedroom or even looking at it after dark.”
No stranger to death, Davis was 17 when a childhood friend passed away and he saw his body in an open casket. “I remember reaching into the casket to put my hand on his chest to say goodbye to my friend. I’ll never forget how inhuman he felt. It was very disturbing, so that was at the forefront of my mind when I repeated that on film. It’s not fun seeing a dead body for the first time, but it’s also a part of life.
“Interestingly enough, the body is the least of Yakov’s problems in The Vigil, where his fears come from his own psyche,” says Davis, who was raised in the Jewish faith; The Vigil actually shooting during Hanukkah.
A Shakespearean-trained actor, he has worked with many A-listers including Hugh Jackman in Logan. “Hugh was one of the loveliest actors I’ve ever worked with, just so friendly. He went out of his way to make everyone on set feel seen and appreciated – from the crew and background actors, to the director. He made sure everybody felt respected and wanted everybody to have a good time. We personally spoke at length about acting, theatre and musicals – a real cool guy.”
More recently, Davis worked with Tom Hanks on the new World War II naval drama Greyhound. “I was with Tom in a 15ft x 10ft room every day for three months. We became very friendly; a true talent and the most professional guy I’ve ever worked with.
“Filmmaking is an exercise in Murphy’s Law – what can go wrong, will go wrong. It’s a constant act of problem solving. Some people, when faced with a problem, can freak out but other people, when faced with a problem, remain calm and fix the problem – and that was Tom. He’s a great leader and, Tom Hanks playing the captain, he really was the captain of that set. We looked to him to set the example and followed his lead. We were solid seamen and I took my role as a Navy man very seriously and learned a lot about military service,” adds Davis, who also played Christian Bale’s assistant in The Big Short.
A New Orleans native, Davis relished his childhood growing up in The Big Easy, one of three kids raised by an entrepreneur father and civil rights activist mum. “It’s a fun place to live and you do as much partying as the visitors. The New Orleans life involves food, dance and music, as well as drinking and mayhem.”
Carving out a solid career in film, comedy and music, Davis is proud he’s never had to wait on tables. “I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller and acting has forever been my passion so, when work has been slim, I’m always happy to find work teaching drama to kids. I’m passionate about how drama is so helpful for children. My love of the arts was fostered as a kid, giving me the idea that anything is possible. I’m sure my parents would have liked it if I chose to be a doctor or a lawyer but they just wanted me to be happy and saw how acting gave me joy.”
He admits to a sneaking envy of Aussie actors. “I’m really jealous of the Australian actors who have such wonderful training. Good training is so important. The Australians come with so much dedication and dialect work. It’s really impressive.”
Indeed, one of his best friends is Aussie actor Logan Huffman, whom he met while making 2017 crime thriller Bomb City. “Logan’s wife Lisa is in Australian pop duo The Veronicas. I’m hoping they will invite me to visit when our world gets a little more relaxed.”
The Vigil is in cinemas now (excluding metropolitan Melbourne).