If you’ve got a question, Leeman Kessler has an answer in the web-series, Ask Lovecraft.
A blend of Q and A, TEDtalk, AMA, and Sally Jesse Raphael, the series has seen the otherwise mild-mannered actor manning a macabre mailbag of queries addressed to the infamous and posthumous writer himself, H. P. Lovecraft, as channeled through Kessler.
“People email or tweet questions and I try to answer them,” Kessler explains. “I knew I wanted to do something with Lovecraft and because I was such a fan of this comedy advice show I thought, well, people sending in advice questions to H.P. Lovecraft and him providing not very good responses; there’s heat there.” In terms of content, it’s truly in the hands of his audience. “I was thinking it was going to be like ‘oh, my girlfriend did this, I’m trying to figure out what college courses to take’, and I get some of that. And I do get some like ‘when you were writing Mountains of Madness on page forty-seven you said this…’ I get those questions but the vast majority of what I get is ‘dear Mr. Lovecraft what do you think about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the new Star Wars?’ Or ‘what do you think about this very specific anime?’ So it’s a lot of what H.P. Lovecraft thinks about pop culture.”
Kessler’s entry into Lovecraft was not found in a youth of beloved paperbacks but more circumstantial after a friend cast him in the role for a local play. The conflicted Lovecraft proved a deep well of pathos for a young actor looking for a platform to draw from. “It’s a comedy show. I’m not trying to do a pitch perfect Lovecraft impression. I think that would be…” Kessler considers the scenario and laughs, “unwatchable.”
Much of Lovecraft’s nuance to which Kessler found so endearing initially was steeped in the horror author’s personal correspondences often with other up and coming literary contemporaries. “His letters are where you really see him come alive. If you read his letters, what you find is a man who is incredibly effusive, incredible generous with his time and his praise.” Kessler would later expand on their importance in our interview, adding, “I’m not a writer. I don’t write for the show. It’s improv. I’ll prepare beats and notes ahead of time but when I get in front of the camera I go off the top of my head. So I had to create a framework which has changed. If you go back to my early episodes before I discovered the letters you can see a stark difference. I’m creating a caricature more than I’m creating a mirror image.”
Kessler is quick to underscore the notion that while he may portray Lovecraft, it is not without its own distinct patois that is eccentrically subdued and subtly self aware. He adds on that notion, claiming his Lovecraft is, “a strange homunculus, really it’s own thing. It has its own sort of mythology too. It’s an H.P. Lovecraft that was reanimated in 2012 in Canada and has a weird doppelganger brother and small children in the house. It’s really become its own thing.”
Kessler deflects the growing popularity of the show, joking, “I make art that I like. We’ll see if people follow along. It’s largely worked. I mean, I don’t have the massive YouTube following of folks playing MineCraft or unboxing Happy Meals, but what I have is a really dedicated fan base that is kind and pleasant and I get almost zero Nazis on my YouTube comments, which, for a Lovecraft comedy show, I think is pretty good.”
“You never want to go full Lovecraft,” Kessler warns. “I try to do what is honest of the concept of the character, not necessarily the historic figure.”
The “historic figure” of Lovecraft is one that is known just as famously for his racism as he was his prose. The loaded reality of the man is not lost on the actor.
“That’s something I try to be very up front about, but of course I’m not going to start ranting on my shows. I don’t want my show to be only enjoyable by Stormfront. That’s kind of a policy I made very early on. But it’s there and you can’t ignore it and I don’t want to be like ‘I, H.P. Lovecraft of the 21st century have decided that racism is the worst and I’m going to eschew it all and I love everyone.’ because that’s not honest either. That’s whitewashing, a copout.” Kessler adds “I don’t get too many questions on racism but there is one episode where I address it. I had his doppelganger, P.H. Lovecraft, on who allows me to play around and have him comment on the racism in a way that I hope is honest and respectful.”
Kessler has since navigated the portrayal well enough to find himself requested to perform on a bill he would have never dreamed of. Kessler reflects, “The real summit of my career was being invited by George R.R. Martin to Santa Fe and being able to perform at the Jean Cocteau theatre for him and his friends. It was like being invited to perform like a jester before the king. It was so much fun.” At first, he considered it too good to be true, noting at the time, “I was really concerned that spammers had become so specific. I got this Facebook message starting like ‘Hi, I represent George R.R. Martin and we’d love to have you come out and perform…’ and I thought, ‘Okay, this is good, this is how you get my social security number.’ But no, it was actually the manager of the Cocteau Cinema and they brought me out and put me up. I got perform and go on the radio and do all this fun stuff. It was an absolute blast.”
George R.R. Martin was so enamored with Kessler’s performance that the Song of Ice and Fire author made a special appearance in an Ask Lovecraft episode and later added on his eponymous grrm.livejournal.com, “If you ever get a chance to see Leeman Kessler perform as HPL, do catch him. It’s the next best thing to a shuggoth on your doorstep.”
With live performances at numerous Lovecraft film festivals, Cthulu-Con, and the Necronomic-con, Leeman Kessler continues to own the role with a timing and personal wit that allows his idiosyncratic portrayal the crossover success it enjoys. When confronted with the trick question to which member of the Breakfast Club Lovecraft best portrays, Kessler doesn’t even have to think. “You know, I think a lot of folks would confuse him for Alison Sheedy, the kind of weirdo in the corner, but ultimately I think he is a bit more like Molly Ringwald; overlooked, taken for granted, a lot of assumptions made about exterior appearances but having a razor sharpness beneath.”
You can check Leeman Kessler’s Ask Lovecraft series on YouTube and at asklovecraft.com