The video starts as a tall, spindly figure in a faded dress, dark hair slumped across the front of its face, takes one slow, jittery step forward onto the far-end of a small carpet, unnaturally long limbs swinging as it does so. Quickly, it cuts to the same figure, much closer to the camera, contorting elongated fingers into eerie, impossible formations that threaten to reach through the lens and seize those watching behind the safety of their computer screens.
It’s not difficult to understand why the creature in that 2013 clip — a movement test tied to the horror hit “Mama” — was assumed to be just another puppet or souped-up CGI creation when the film first opened. After all, the days of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi — when real, flesh-and-blood, capital-A actors inhabited movie monsters, their dramatic acumen and imposing physical presence informing every unnerving stare and menacing motion — are long over.
Or are they?
If anyone’s primed to spearhead a retreat from effects-driven horror back to more performer-driven fare, it’s Spanish actor Javier Botet, the very human star of that aforementioned movement test, who’s spent the last decade embodying some of the genre's most notable new nightmares, from the Gothic specters of “Crimson Peak” to the leering Crooked Man of “The Conjuring 2.”
With his skeletal frame and unusually flexible joints — both the result of Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that impacts connective tissue — the 40-year-old performer (6-foot-7 and around 120 pounds) has cornered the market on creature creations, bringing an emotional physicality to his characters that’s evident even beneath elaborate masks and extensive makeup. Ahead of the latest adaptation (opening Friday) of Stephen King’s “It,” which reunites Botet with “Mama” director Andrés Muschietti,the actor spoke from his home in Madrid about scares, success, and — surprisingly — “Star Wars.”
Q. You studied fine arts in school and worked as a cartoonist and illustrator for years before becoming an actor. Were you interested in film back then?
A. I’ve always been interested in being a part of the movies — but not only as an actor. Ever since I had enough money to buy my own [camera], I was writing, directing, acting, creating animations by myself. . . . Since I was a child, my mind had been flowing with my first movies [“Bambi” and “Star Wars”] and after that I was always, all the time, drawing and shaping.
Q. How did you make the jump to movies?
A. In my free time, I was always doing these shorts with my friends and going to different short competitions. One day, in the street, I found a piece of paper promoting a FX/makeup workshop. I was very clear in my mind about a workshop being a good opportunity to show my body to somebody who works in the field, to show someone that my body was very special, very peculiar and perfect for a specific kind of role. I spoke with the teacher and showed my shorts, and I asked him, “What do you think of my body? I think it’s perfect.” He said, “Yes, from the very first moment you walked into my workshop, I thought that, but I never told you because I wasn’t sure if you’d feel comfortable using your body for these kinds of roles.”
Q. And it went from there?
A. In that moment, I knew very easily that was the beginning of a long-time career as an actor. A few weeks later, the guy set up a meeting with Brian Yuzna, producer of “Re-Animator,” who was directing in Spain a movie called “Beneath Still Waters.” The teacher showed my pictures to Brian and proposed to use me as one of the creatures, and he agreed. After that, the snowball started rolling.
Q. “Mama” is widely considered your breakout work.
A. One of the producers on board was Guillermo del Toro. And after the movie came out, Guillermo was talking with some people who were like, “Well, it’s just another creature, another CGI creature.” And he said, “No, no, it’s actually 90 percent human, with only the hair digital.” That [YouTube] video was the real change-point in my career.
Q. What’s the hardest part of playing monsters?
A. In some roles, I can see and breathe well, with the design of the mask, even if it might cover my eyes, my nose, and part of my mouth. Sometimes, I can hear almost nothing.
Q. In “It,” you’re playing the Leper, who’s terrifying in King’s novel. How did you get involved?
A. I’d been in contact with Andy Muschietti, who was trying to get “Shadow of Colossus,” a video-game movie, made, and he was also close to making “The Mummy,” with Tom Cruise [and Botet, who played the Egyptian god Set]. But after he left that, he started working on “It” and got a green-light, and he called me. “It” is something everyone my age remembers from a long time ago, with the book, and with Tim Curry playing Pennywise [in the TV version]. It’s amazing no one had remade it earlier, because there are a lot of scary things inside this story. I love Stephen King’s stories. His monsters are amazing, so I feel so, so glad to be the Leper. It’s a little part, but it’s enough.
Q. Do you still get scared by horror movies?
A. I started out getting scared with movies but not so much anymore. And I try to scare myself, watching alone at night with the lights out, to create an atmosphere. But it is, I think, the trickiest genre to make, to make a truly scary horror movie. In the past 20 years, I was scared by tiny moments in “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Conjuring.”
Q. What’s your dream project?
A. Because “Star Wars” was the start of my love of film and all its worlds, my final dream is to one day be part of, no matter how little, maybe even in the background, of “Star Wars.” That’s my big dream, and I always say that in interviews, because who knows what could happen?Interview was edited and condensed. Isaac Feldberg can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.