First off, James Landry Hébert is sensitive, articulate and incredibly polite. Watching him on the big screen, though, you’d never know it. In his Twitter bio, he assures you he’s “the nicest bad guy you’ll ever meet!” because ever since his break in the 2010 film Skateland, Landry Hébert has been portraying coldblooded villains—like the smarmy gangster Mitch Racine in Gangster Squad, the knife wielding “Killer” in Seven Psychopaths and more recently, a hitman named ‘The Wraith’ on CW’s sci-fi series The Tomorrow People. His role in the forthcoming film Two Step is no different, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“Being such a level-headed guy, it’s fun for me to scream and yell and do all these things that I would never do,” the 30-year-old actor says with a sweet Southern drawl. “When I first started acting, I sort of found a niche in playing the bad guy. I think a big part of it is my look. I have very intense facial features.”
In Two Step, “bad guy” is putting it gently. Landry Hébert plays Webb, a deeply flawed violent criminal who’s just been released from prison and willing to take extreme measures in order to pay back an old debt. The fast-paced thriller was filmed entirely in Austin, which makes its March 9 premiere at Austin’s South by Southwest festival the perfect venue for its debut. “Austin was like a character in the film and I think audiences at SXSW will appreciate that,” he says. “From the locations to the music, there’s an authenticity that true locals will see.”
Audiences will also find an uncanny authenticity in Landry Hébert’s portrayal of Webb. While the villainous aspect of the role is a departure from his own personality, he did identify with the character in a profound way. “When I first read the script, I had just gone through a big break up after a five-year relationship, and a lot of the things that happened to Webb in this film sort of happened to me. There were similar feelings of betrayal,” he explains. “I wanted to use the circumstances in my own life to play Webb—to turn a bad experience into a good experience. It was like art meeting life in ways that I really never knew possible. It just felt kismet.”
Landry Hébert has become somewhat of an expert in making his misfortune work to his advantage. As a child growing up in Louisiana, he describes himself as “an orphan from the swamp.” “I overcame a lot of adversity as a young man. I’ve lived a lot of different lives,” he says. He eventually went on to study at Louisiana State University, where he took a theater elective that incited a lightbulb moment. “I realized that everything I’ve ever been through has set me up to quite possibly be a great actor. It’s almost like art therapy for me.”
The ease with which Landry Hébert commands the role of Webb roots back to his childhood. “Webb is almost like a stray dog, an orphan, in the sense that he gets out of prison and find himself all alone. I think that when you get out of jail you probably want everything to go back to the way it was, but for Webb, it’s not. And that abandonment sends him into this spiral of circumstances that leads down a very, very dark path.”
Despite the unsavory individuals he plays, the Louisiana-born actor says he always tries to find a tragic character’s softer side. And while he’s open to the idea of portraying a “nice, laid-back person” like himself, Landry Hébert also isn’t afraid of being typecast. “There are a lot of great characters being written and put onto the screen lately… a lot of opportunities to root for the bad guy. And it’s fun to play the bad guy.”
Watch a clip from Two Step with James Landry Hérbert here: