[Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Channel Zero: The Dream Door.”]
Pretzel Jack doesn’t speak, and Troy James is totally fine with that. In fact, when James auditioned to play the breakout character in the current season of Syfy horror anthology “Channel Zero,” he thought he might have blown the opportunity right at the start.
“They had asked for contortionist dancers and I thought, ‘Oh, dear. I don’t really dance.’ When I walked into the audition, I accidentally called the character ‘Pretzel Pete.’ I thought, ‘Great. I’m not going to get this role! It’s over,'” said James.
What mattered more to the “Channel Zero” team was James’ ability to move, which helped created an antagonist for “The Dream Door” that’s as unpredictable as he is flexible. When Pretzel Jack appears as a conjuring from main character Jillian’s (Maria Sten) subconscious, he leaves a violent path in his wake. James doesn’t see this otherworldly creation of “Channel Zero” as a brutal killer or a cold, unfeeling villain. For him, there’s just as much love in it.
“He’s really a simple character. He’s not complicated at all. He loves Jillian, he wants to make her happy, and when problems arise, he wants to make the problem go away, usually with a blunt object,” James said with a laugh. “Here’s one scene I wish would have made it to the final cut: Both of us playing patty cake, but me upside down using my feet instead of my hands. Everything he does is to just to make her happy. It’s almost like an obedient dog. He wants to make her smile. When she cries, he wants to cheer her up.”
In fact, for all the wild constrictions and jelly-limbed nightmare sequences, the simplest Pretzel Jack moments add a dimension beyond the ways he can bend.
“Sometimes less is more. There’s a tender moment where I hug Jillian and I just kind of fold my arms behind my back and give her a hug backwards. Very small. That’s like two percent, but I found it very effective,” James said.
James got his start at Canada’s Wonderland, an amusement park north of Toronto. He later got a corporate job, but found an agent and nabbed roles on shows like FX’s “The Strain” and CW’s current season of “The Flash,” as Rag Doll. He also appeared on the current season of “America’s Got Talent.”
However, “Channel Zero” represents his biggest role to date, and creator Nick Antosca placed a lot of faith in James’ interpretations. Antosca left James’ movement cues vague, and season director E.L. Katz had James try a number of options for each sequence. “I used to work in human resources, so little performances like these are just something that I would do at a work function. After drinking too much wine, I’d show everyone that I could do the splits,” he said. “Pretzel Jack, his face is white. It doesn’t look like me at all. You can’t recognize me. It definitely makes it easier to perform because I’m not Troy doing a cool thing, I’m Pretzel Jack. But as I do it more and more, I’m getting more comfortable.”
James said he often didn’t have to be told whether or not a scene worked. “If I could hear just from the sounds of the people watching the monitors like little screams, or yelps or ‘Oh my gosh, what was that?!’ that made me feel pretty good.”
The form of Pretzel Jack shifted through pre-production. Before the signature red accents were added, James said he character was simply black and white. In some iterations, Pretzel Jack’s clothing was actually his skin. When James donned the final version of the Pretzel Jack suit, the face mask required three hours in the makeup chair.
“There’s a lot going on that you don’t see. It’s a testament to my amazing prosthetics team at Mindwarp FX that put on Pretzel Jack’s face every day,” James said. “You think it’s just makeup, but there are no fewer than six appliances on my face at any given time.”
Now that he’s gotten a taste of life playing a creature, he’s ready for more. “I actually have done a few other projects,” he said. “I don’t know if I can talk about them just yet, but the horror world hasn’t seen the last of me. You might see me on the big screen next year.”
In the meantime, less than a week after making his debut, Pretzel Jack has already inspired plenty of Halloween costumes. For James, that brought a sense of relief.
“I must admit, I was really worried about Pretzel Jack because you think, ‘Oh, this is a terrifying villain. He’s really flexible and he’s really scary.’ But he changes, and I didn’t know if people would accept that change in a horror TV show,” he said. “I’m really glad they did, showing that you can be terrifying, also slightly misunderstood and kind of adorable. Seeing people dressing up as him for Halloween, it makes me so happy. My phone is always dying because I’m going through social media, reading people saying nice things about Pretzel Jack.”
“Channel Zero” is now available to stream on the Syfy app. Previous seasons are also available on Shudder.