Matthew Lillard on “Humbling and Exciting” ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ Success and Creating Authentic Experiences for Fans

Matthew Lillard on “Humbling and Exciting” ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ Success and Creating Authentic Experiences for Fans

Logo text

Matthew Lillard is in his Renaissance era.

His latest film, Five Nights at Freddy’s, is smashing box office and streaming records, he has a new improv show premiering on Amazon’s Freevee next week, his Quest’s End whiskey sold out its first drop, and he runs a luxury gaming company, Beadle & Grimm’s.

“This is a really lovely little comeback moment for me,” Lillard tells The Hollywood Reporter, before reconsidering that sentiment. “I sort of want to quote LL (Cool J), ‘Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.’”

Related Stories

Lillard is no stranger to a successful franchise, of course, having starred in Scream and Scooby Doo — but the overwhelming success of the film adaptation of a popular video game about a haunted restaurant called Freddy Fazbear’s isn’t lost on him.

Freddy’s scared up an astounding $80 million at the domestic box office in its opening weekend — even with a day-and-date release on Peacock. The film from Universal and Blumhouse set an all-time record for Halloween weekend, is the biggest horror opening so far in 2023, and is the third highest ever for the genre (behind only New Line’s It films). It has passed $220 million globally — and in the first five days of its release became the most-watched Peacock title ever.

“It’s exciting to be a part of this thing that has become an international sensation,” Lillard says. “I realize that these opportunities don’t come around that often. It’s been a really rich, joyful moment because I can sort of sit back and appreciate it on a deeper level.”

In his first interview about the film post-strike, Lillard spoke with THR about the pressure of playing an iconic monster and explained Faster, Purple Worm! Kill! Kill! in a way even D&D newbies can understand.

(The following Q&A contains spoilers for Five Nights at Freddy’s.)

Matthew Lillard as Steve Raglan in Five Nights at Freddy's.

Lillard in Five Nights at Freddy’s.

Did you expect this kind of reaction to Five Nights at Freddy’s?

When I got the offer to do the movie, it was an incoming call. Basically, the proposition was go sit with (director) Emma Tammi, and if you guys get along, and you want to do the movie, you’ll get the offer. Every time that happens in my life, it usually means the movie’s pretty bad. At this point in my career, it’s not like I’m out there just getting Academy Award opportunities. I have to fight for those great roles. We me, and she explained the character, and he’s the Voldemort in the Five Nights at Freddy’s universe.

I came home, and I was talking to my wife about it, and my middle child was sitting there, and they heard me say Five Nights of Freddy’s and were like, “Wait, who are you playing?” I said, “William Afton and some rabbit.” And they were like, “Dad. That is going to be huge!” Then, my son came in, and he affirmed the exact same thing. The fact that the two of them agreed on something was crazy.

Scott Cawthon, the game designer, said to me at some point, “In a year or two, nobody’s going to be able to picture this character without it being related to you.” I kind of brushed that off as hyperbole. I took the job — and at conventions I immediately I saw my line triple in size. Every third kid would come up saying, “I cannot wait for you to be a part of this movie and this franchise. We’ve been waiting eight years for the film.” They were so excited. You start seeing projections coming out for the movie — and, in the back of my mind, I was like, “I think it’s going to be way bigger.” I’m in the trenches at these conventions. Kids come up to me all the time. Cut to early projections being $40 million and then doing $80 million on the first weekend. It was remarkable and super exciting.

I went into it cold. I knew it was based on a video game, but I didn’t know anything other than that. Finding out you were the villain was a fun twist for people who were not familiar with the game.

It’s really interesting. Jason Blum said multiple times that this is a movie that is built for the fans. I think he’s right. They weren’t that concerned with whether (other) people like the movie, and I think they were right with the idea of like, “Hey man, this isn’t a movie for everyone. This is a movie for this fan base, and we are going to bet that they’re going to come out and support it.” Their bet was 100 percent on the mark, and I think that they did a great job appealing to that community in an authentic way.

For people who are not familiar with the game, how would you describe your character?

I play a character that is living in plain sight in the world, and he is a horrible monster. Toward the end of the film, when my daughter can’t handle a situation, I have to step in and take over. I do not accomplish that goal and end up meeting my demise. It’s the first step in a journey that has this rich canon that spans multiple video games. I play a monster who, at the end of the day, gets his comeuppance and is thrown into this horror realm that he created.

The hard part about playing this part is the pressure I put on myself to honor the fans, to deliver a great performance in an iconic role. There are millions of kids worldwide, and people that started playing as kids and are now adults, that have an expectation that this film will deliver on a really great level. So, being this iconic bad guy, the amount of pressure I put on myself to not suck is pretty extraordinary. That’s the hardest part.

What did you think of it being PG-13? I think it was very, very smart. A PG-13 scary movie on Halloween weekend that’s based on an extremely popular video game.

Yeah, it turns out that’s a recipe for success. I think it’s on-brand for what the game is. There’s a tension to it. There is a jump scare factor to it. It doesn’t have to be violent to be scary. So, I think the PG-13 is right. I’m going to give all the credit to Scott and to Emma. Most other people would try to get away from the IP and make something more scary, and look for a more traditional road to success. In a movie like this, they’d push the horror, they’d push the gore, they’d push the violence. To both of their credits, they adhered to what was needed for this community. It’s not very often that you get to hold onto your North Star in the creative process, and I think they did a good job of establishing a goal and successfully delivering on what they wanted to do.

What did your kids say?

I think they’re more chuffed that I’m in the movie than with the performance in the movie. My middle kid called me crying because they were so happy for me when the movie came out. They went to the movie with all their friends, and I think they were very proud of me being a part of it. It was important to me, and I think it was fun for my family. I haven’t been in a movie that’s appeared in a movie theater since they can remember. For me, personally, it has been a very humbling moment in my career. I’m 53, and I’ve had a couple franchises in my career that have been successful. I (had thought) maybe that part of my career is dead and over, and that’s fine. I’m still doing all kinds of fun stuff, and I’m really excited about the things I’m doing. To get this opportunity out of the blue to have another franchise that could make a real impact on my career is humbling and exciting, and my kids are thrilled.

The strike’s been over for like 36 hours, so I’m sure they’re already talking to you about a sequel.

This is the first conversation I’ve had about the movie ever. We couldn’t do press the entire time. So, the idea that we’re sitting here having this conversation is amazing because that movie opened day-and-date with Peacock, which didn’t hurt the opening, but it certainly hurt the second weekend, and I’m sure it’s going to hurt this weekend. We weren’t able to support it. All those traditional avenues of publicity weren’t available to us. I’m excited to see when they greenlight the second movie, the plan we put together to make it even bigger and even more successful.

What was it like for you to not be able to talk about something you’re excited about? I saw the video that you made on Instagram for your fans where you’re like “I can’t talk about this thing, but thank you for your support.

I have so many more things going on in my life right now than I’ve ever had, and the good news is that I’ve learned not to seek out validation from this godforsaken industry. It feels great, but the reality is I have a Dungeons & Dragons company that’s launching a new TV show on Freevee that I am just as excited about. I just launched my own whiskey company on Oct. 8, and it was so successful we’re reissuing the first drop. We just did a poetry slam for kids living at Five Acres, an event that my wife and I created together. Those are the things that I put my energy into. Those are the things that I seek satisfaction from. I don’t think you can survive in this industry looking for validation from film and television because it’s just too fickle. If I was depending on that sort of affirmation, I wouldn’t still be acting. I would be doing something else.

Being 53 years old — and being around the block a couple times — I have a much deeper sense of appreciation in this moment than I probably have ever had because I didn’t expect it. I realize that these opportunities don’t come around that often. It’s been a really rich, joyful moment because I can sort of sit back and appreciate it on a deeper level.

Tell me about the Freevee show and explain it to me as someone who has never played Dungeon & Dragons.

Here’s the good news: We are the onboarding show for everyone who’s never played D&D, who is D&D curious. I have a Dungeon & Dragons company that I started five years ago with my four best friends called Beadle & Grimm’s. We make high-end box editions for games like Dungeons & Dragons or Critical Role or Pathfinder or Magic: The Gathering. We created this niche of luxury game accessories for ultimate geeks. That company is thriving. We came up with an idea called Faster, Purple Worm! Kill! Kill! It’s very rules-light, and we pitched it as Whose Line is it Anyway? meets Dungeons & Dragons. It’s an improv comedy show that is a one-hour D&D love letter.

Matthew Lillard in Faster, Purple Worm! Kill! Kill!.

Lillard in Faster, Purple Worm! Kill! Kill!.

What does the title mean?

It’s a riff off of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which is the Russ Meyer movie from the ’60s. It’s campy, it’s silly, and that’s kind of the tone of the show. Every episode is the story of four first-level characters, which is the basic level, very newbie characters. It’s a story of these four heroes going off into the world and, unfortunately for them, they run into a legendary Dungeons & Dragons monster like Tiamat the Dragon, or like a purple worm, and get completely obliterated.

I know it sounds really weird, but the show is super funny. At the end of the day, it’s about what people do when faced with their ultimate demise. What does a hero look like? Every episode has moments of people having real human connection points. One of the last episodes we did, the conceit of the show is a family is trying to resurrect a father, and they want him to sign off on this will. My dad is very sick with dementia. It’s horrible, a horrible experience and, in the show, I was playing this character who’s desperate to hug his father one more time. As we were going through the game, I was getting deeply connected to my own experience with my own dad.

At the end of the show, we do this thing called the epitaph. These characters get wiped out. What are the things your friends say about you on the day of your death? People get connected to their characters, and they have this really sweet moment at the end of these shows. Anyway, at the end of the show where I was trying to hug my dad, I couldn’t get a word out. I was sobbing. Everyone ended up in tears. The incredible thing about Dungeons & Dragons is that it’s a game that is really about sitting around a table and telling stories, and you end up connecting to that story. In this moment, I had this deep connection to what was happening and I had a real reaction that was cathartic and emotional. I think that sort of encapsulates the beauty of the game and the beauty of the show.

Is there anything else that you especially want people to know about right now?

I would love to talk about my whiskey company. We created this company called Find Familiar Spirits, and the idea is that we are building high-end whiskey experiences around fandoms. We just dropped something called Quest’s End, and it’s a gaming whiskey. Each box comes with a story. We drop four different bottles every year and each bottle has the continuation of the story. The idea of building something high-end and luxury for fans, not appealing to all four quadrants, but going after hyper-specific communities and speaking to them in an authentic way, I think is super powerful. We do that with Beadle & Grimm’s. We’re doing that with the whiskey company. I think it relates to why Scott and Five Nights has been so successful. When you give a community that feels like they are outsiders something special, something curated, that community will come out and support it. I think that’s a really powerful lesson.

Interview edited for length and clarity.