If you don't recognise the name Roger L Jackson, you'll almost certainly remember something he asked a young Drew Barrymore in 1996: "Do you like scary movies?"
The voice behind Scream's iconic masked murderer Ghostface, Jackson terrorised teenagers over the phone in every one of Wes Craven's four subversive slasher films. Now 61, the voice actor – who most recently provided voices for Red Dead Redemption 2 and Minecraft: Story Mode – spends a good chunk of his time touring the United States with his wife Margaret, visiting horror conventions and recording creepy voicemails for Scream fans.
I caught up with Jackson ahead of Halloween to talk about his uniquely terrifying voice.
VICE: How does one end up being the voice of Ghostface?
Roger L Jackson: From a young age I was always into doing voices. When I was a little older, I attended Atlanta's Academy Theatre to study language recordings. I enjoyed learning all the different lingo and channeling people's voices, like a chameleon. One of my first big jobs was on Tim Burton's Mars Attacks, where I did the translator device voice, which converts the aliens' language into English. That led to an audition for Scream. Drew Barrymore wanted an actor to play the scene with, rather than a script person just reading her the killer's lines. The script was amazing. It wasn't just this monster maniac man, but a real game of cat-and-mouse.
It must have been strange voicing a serial killer, no?
Strange? No. It was a wonderful experience, and so much fun! I knew it had to be a sexy voice and something interesting enough to keep the girl on the phone, even though she clearly wants to hang up. He sounds interesting. There's this texture and erotic colour to his voice. It's like a cat that seems sweet and playful, but then all of a sudden the paw comes down onto the mouse's tail. I wanted the voice to change colour as Ghostface goes in for the kill, sort of like a cat does.
I think a lot of people would assume your voice was dubbed in later, but you were really on the set, right?
When you see the scene where Drew Barrymore gets murdered, picture the room. The boyfriend is tied up outside the French windows and there's windows either side of that room too, right? I was outside one of those windows, crouching in the shadows and taking shelter under a canopy because it was raining outside. I was watching Drew through the window while I was on this cell phone that was completely mic'd up. It was a live conversation. My view was what the killer's would have been. It was genius.
I never met any of the actors in the films, but they all knew I was watching them, hidden somewhere nearby. I guess that added this layer of mystery and voyeurism, and it really freaks them out. Remember, I am their biggest fear come to life. It's why they never introduced me to the rest of the cast when filming. They wanted to keep me away so the other actors didn't have a visual image to associate with this weird voice they were hearing.
It's like an old time radio; the most horrible image is the one you create in your own mind. That's part of the psychology of Ghostface. Michael is Michael, Jason is Jason, but Ghostface could be absolutely anyone.
What was it like working with Wes Craven?
Some people think voice actors aren't real actors, but Wes understood that they definitely are. You have to be a great actor to create a believable character just by using your voice. Like, it isn't easy! He let me improvise so I could be really creative. I remember I said something not in the script, like: "Have you ever felt a knife cut through human flesh and scrape the bone underneath." Another one I was proud of was when I told Neve [Campbell, who played Sidney Prescott] that I would cut out her eyelids so she couldn't blink while I stabbed her to death. If I could see the actors shaking I knew I was pushing the right buttons.
Drew was definitely terrified. I remember, when our scene was over, Wes had his hand on her shoulder and kept asking, "Are you OK?" The plan was for me to work with her during the scene and then they'd dub a different voice in the studio. However, Wes clearly liked what I was doing so kept me for all the films.
You go to a lot of conventions and meet Scream fans. Why do you think the films still resonate with them so deeply?
They all have a really interesting social message, which gives their actual horror this extra layer. Like, the underrated fourth film had something really interesting to say about the links between murder and the online world. If you really think about it, there's a lot of people right now doing horrible things but behind this mask. That taps into social media, where people say horrible things and can hide behind a mask. Ghostface could be anyone. It could be your brother, sister, mother or father. Even you! He is the monster that lurks behind the id. He speaks quite deeply to this generation.
What's it like having the scariest voice in horror? Like, do you ever feel boxed in? Have you been typecast as a result of Ghostface?
It's true that I’ve been offered more villain voice roles [Jackson voiced the villainous Mojo Jojo in The Powerpuff Girls] – I recently played this murderous kitten! But villains are the most interesting characters to play, so I can't complain. My career has been wonderful, and it's so nice to meet people and find out how your work has affected them. I've had people come up to me [at conventions] and ask me where I can buy the voice box that the Scream killer used, not realising it was all naturally from me. When they do that, it's like the ultimate compliment.
And you're never the least bit tempted to prank call someone as Ghostface and fuck up their whole day?
Not really. If I ever kill someone, I just want to kill them as me, not Ghostface. Sorry to disappoint you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.