Justin Long defends Canadian accents in horror comedy ‘Tusk’

Justin Long, left, and director Kevin Smith, pictured on Sept. 16. Kevin Winter / Getty Images

TORONTO – During Justin Long’s recent visit to Toronto to promote his new horror comedy Tusk, he kept hearing one thing from Canadians: “We don’t really talk like that.”

In the Manitoba-set film, a couple of supposed Winnipeg locals say “aboot” and “sore-ee” with an inflection sure to make Canucks cringe. But Long says he’s shocked that anyone would be offended — in fact, when he was growing up he faked a Canadian accent to be cool.

“I grew up saying ‘sore-ee’ and ‘aboot’ because I was such a huge Michael J. Fox fan. He was my hero when I was growing up so I just thought that was the cool way to say ‘sorry,'” said Long during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I never understood how it was making fun of them. I prefer the way Canadians say it.”

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The bizarre flick opening Friday stars Long as a wise-cracking podcast host who travels to Manitoba and finds himself trapped in a serial killer’s home. But the killer, played by Michael Parks, isn’t a run-of-the-mill murderer: he favours turning his victims into creepy humanoid walruses.

Director Kevin Smith has said he set the movie in Canada because of his long-standing “love affair” with the country. The premise for the flick famously emerged on his own podcast, when he riffed on a rental listing he had seen in which a homeowner was seeking a tenant willing to dress up like a walrus. The ad turned out to be a hoax, but the idea persisted, and Smith (Clerks, Mallrats) set out to make the low-budget horror film.

When Long — a 36-year-old actor known for comedies like Dodgeball, as well as offbeat thrillers Jeepers Creepers and Drag Me to Hell — received the script, he was flattered but skeptical.

“When I first read it, I was definitely nervous about it. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a no brainer. This is going to work,'” he said. “My agent did not want me to do it, so that gave me pause. But there was never a moment where I wasn’t going to do it.”

He was curious to see whether the director could pull off the wild premise — and as it turned out, that was a motivating factor for many on set. (The film was not shot in Canada, but in North Carolina and California.)

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“I talked to these guys (on the crew), many of whom were coming from or had gotten offered bigger jobs. They were all, like, ‘I just kind of wanted to see if this could happen,'” said Long. “Everybody was there with this sense of curiosity and it created a great atmosphere.”

Makeup designer Robert Kurtzman developed the horrifying look of the walrus. Long spent about five hours being transformed through cosmetics, a “cowl” that he wore over his face and a “walrus suit” that he had to squeeze into with his arms splayed out like a sea creature.

“It actually helped with some of the fear and the claustrophobia. It made me so uncomfortable. Anything I could use to approximate that kind of — you know, that feeling of when you’re a walrus,” he said with a laugh. “I had no frame of reference, obviously, for that.”

Long had watched YouTube videos of walruses and learned they have a wide vocal range. But once he was inside the suit, his “primal” side took over and he was able to let out a guttural scream: “I found it incredibly liberating doing that,” he said.

Haley Joel Osment and Genesis Rodriguez also star in the film as friends who go in search of Long’s character in the Great White North. They meet up with a Quebecois detective named Guy LaPointe — played by Johnny Depp with a questionable accent and a prosthetic nose.

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But Parks is already being hailed as the standout performer since the film’s premiere at the Toronto fest. His serial killer character is a civilized, erudite man named Howard Howe, who initially charms Long’s character by telling tales of going to war with Ernest Hemingway.

Long admitted that before making Tusk he wasn’t familiar with Parks, an actor whose appearances in B-movies and shlock over the years propelled him to become a favourite of Quentin Tarantino, who cast him in both volumes of Kill Bill.

“That’s how Kevin discovered him, was through Quentin Tarantino,” said Long. “Quentin was such a fan that he started making a mix tape, a VHS tape. Whenever he knew a Michael Parks movie was coming out, he would record his scenes from it. He had a mixtape that he passed around to all these great directors, like (Robert) Rodriguez and so on.”

Once Long realized who Parks was, he began to piece together all of the incredible performances of his he had seen. He first recognized the actor from a 1990 TV movie called Caged Fury, which he described as a “Skinemax sexploitation movie.”

He said Parks, much like his character in Tusk, would regale him with incredible stories between takes — like the time he was in the recording studio with Johnny Cash while he sang “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

“He would just bust out with these stories, not in any way boastful. He doesn’t even understand how great they were, I don’t think. It was just his life,” said Long. “These pearls would come out of his mouth. I relished every minute of it. I loved working with him.

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“He’s getting a lot of good reviews and couldn’t be more deserving. I’m excited for more people to discover him.”

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