Phil Brooks spent years in the WWE as CM Punk, where he told a weekly TV audience he was the “Best in the World.” Now, he tells me he’s bad at something. “I don’t know how to take compliments,” Brooks says, taking a seat in a hotel lobby in New York. “I say, ‘Thank you,’ and move on. I’m bad at it.”
Brooks, an ex-professional wrestler and UFC competitor who retired from both before age 40, hasn’t gone by “CM Punk” in years, until recently. In a surprise appearance on the Fox Sports 1 show WWE Backstage this week, he’s CM Punk. But on the poster of his horror film The Girl on the Third Floor, available now on demand, the former champ is credited as “Phil Brooks.”
Seated before me in quiet lobby of a midtown New York City hotel, I ask Brooks if his days as CM Punk are over. He demurs. “No,” tells Inverse. “They asked what I wanted on the poster. I was just like, just put my name.”
It’s been more than five years since Brooks appeared in a WWE ring as CM Punk, a tattooed rebel who championed, and sometimes forced on others, a clean lifestyle. Pro wrestling is fiction, but as revealed in the 2013 documentary Best in the World, Brooks’ adherence to straight-edge principles is real. The words “Drug Free” are tattooed on his knuckles.
Which makes The Girl on the Third Floor novel viewing for fans. From director Travis Stevens, Don (Brooks) is a booze-drinking, drug-using, former white collar criminal trying to settle down as a married homeowner. Things go awry during the renovation, when Don slowly discovers he’s not alone in the house.
In an interview with Inverse, Brooks/Punk unpacks his first acting role, his love of horror movies, and what he’d play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
It’s funny that in your first role you play a guy who drinks beer and smokes like a chimney. What was that like for you, as someone who’s abstained for life?
I felt like an imposter. What a funny thing to have the most difficult thing for me to do. Literally, how do you hold a beer? I felt like a narc. Like Steve Buschemi dressing up like a kid on the skateboard. Everybody’s like, ‘No, you’re fine,’ but I watch that and it’s so awkward for me. Smoking was especially difficult. I would instinctively know based on seeing it done, but I was still questioning in between takes.
Did you go on YouTube and search, like, “How to drink a beer?”
No, I didn’t go that far, but that probably isn’t a bad idea.
Don is a way different character than the CM Punk persona you played on TV for years. Who is “Don” and what do you make of him?
I think he represents toxic masculinity. There’s a lot of white privilege in Don. Somebody who isn’t so nice to his wife, gets away with it, isn’t so nice to his clients and gets a sweetheart deal out of it. He seems to fail upwards. Whether that’s fair or not is to be interpreted by the audience. I think those are the best horror movies. Horror movies tackle social issues. There’s parables in there, you know? I think those are the best movies.
You’ve previously mentioned your love of horror movies elsewhere, and now your first role is in one. What is it about horror movies that speak to you?
Even a bad horror movie is good. You still have a good time watching it. There’s a lot of shitty horror movies I will regularly watch. But the best ones, I think, are entertaining in a way they stay with you. I think people are attracted to [dark] subject matter. I was when I was a little kid, because they scared me. These things are supposed to be terrifying, death, murder, aliens, the unknown. Watching a horror movie is to me like therapy. It’s therapeutic. You get to conquer your fears and get over something.
I think horror movies can help people. They’re the only genre that tackles social issues head on. Look at Night of the Living Dead. That movie came out in the ‘60s and you can still watch it today. That resonates.
What did you find therapeutic making The Girl on the Third Floor?
Talk about being afraid of something. I’m not a classically trained actor. This is a new career for me. There’s a lot of parallels to careers I’ve had. I’ve dabbled in acting before. But this being a feature and me being in 85 percent of the movie, I wonder, am I gonna pull this off? Two weeks in, are they gonna come to me and be like, “You’re the wrong guy for this”?
But trying to be the best at what I’m doing at the moment is therapeutic for me. To learn and to grow. One of my favorite quotes in the world is Picasso: I’m constantly doing things I don’t know how to do so I can learn how to do them. That, to me, was doing this [movie].
I’ve read that the film was shot in a haunted house. How haunted was it?
You were never alone. You walk in and you’re pretty sure you’re alone. But it always feels like there’s a pair of eyes on you.
That house really is haunted. 100 percent. The house was purchased by the studio’s parent company, just to flip as a financial thing. But you can’t walk in that neighborhood, Frankfort, Illinois, without someone talking about the haunted house. The lore is two girls were killed in there a hundred years ago. It was a brothel. All the elements in the movie are real. Travis built his story off that.
Are you looking to do horror movies exclusively?
I’m not averse to anything. As long as the role fits, and the content is quality and the people I work with are A-plus people, I think that would attract me to the project. Comedy, rom-com, action, horror, whatever. I just love horror so much. Being covered in blood and slime is a good day for me.
There’s parallels to acting and wrestling, but the big difference is that movies don’t have a live crowd. How much does that actually play a difference from the performance perspective?
Wrestling, you get instant gratification. You know when something stinks. With acting, I leaned on my director, Travis. I told him, “If something stinks, let’s fix it.” That’s the luxury of acting as opposed to live television. Live TV, you got one shot, and it’s good or it’s not.
Acting, you have multiple takes. You can tweak. You can do your spin. But it’s the director who is gonna take what they think he’s looking for. I trusted Travis what direction to go and whether it’s good or not.
I think wrestling is acting. People flip out when you call it fake but you’re playing a role. You play the same character for years and you’re in people’s living rooms for a decade. Sometimes you’re good, sometimes you’re bad, but you’re that character. CM Punk is not Phil Brooks. I’m not running around fighting people in the streets, doing Straight Edge Society shaving people’s heads.
What other skills from wrestling have translated to acting that you didn’t expect?
The benefit of working with WWE, it makes everything else easy. It’s an exhausting schedule. So to be on a movie set where there’s a lot of “Hurry up and wait,” I was comfortable. But when it was time to go and I was covered in blood, there were instances where it had to be one take. Prosthetics only had one shot. But that was a dream, writhing around covered in blood with a box cutter in my hand. It’s one of those pinch me moments. Someone is paying me for this? What suckers.
A lot of your peers in WWE have transitioned to acting. Who have you spoken with and what have you learned from them?
I’ve talked to Dave [Bautista] but it wasn’t talking shop. I just asked him his process. “What are you trying to do? What are your goals?” I’m not trying to follow Dave’s footsteps. Those are big shoes to fill. He has different obstacles in his way than I do. It’s harder for him to shed the “goonish wrestler” because he’s a giant, recognizable guy. I can blend in better than he does just because I’m not 300 pounds. But he’s always there to help out.
I know you’re a Marvel fan. Do you have a dream character you’d play in a Marvel movie?
Whatever they want to pay me to portray. I get asked this question in every interview and I wish I had a different answer. But the last movie I saw was the new Spider-Man. I thought it was so well done and what they did with Mysterio was excellent. I think can be a good Kraven. Update Kraven for 2019.
Can you do a Russian accent?
Fuck I don’t know. I don’t know if I could pull that off. I’m going based on what I think I would fit into. I think I would be a great Casey Jones in a Ninja Turtles movie. That’s just me based on my appearances acting is trying to shed all of that and become someone else. I’m up for challenges.
The Girl on the Third Floor is available now on demand.