Apparently basing an entire television series on the horrors of 17th century witch trials wasn’t disturbing enough. So when “Salem” returns for a third season on Wednesday, it will do so with macabre rocker Marilyn Manson playing a sadistic barber/surgeon/butcher.
“He likes to serve up Sweeney Todd-style sausages for snacks,” says Manson, a.k.a. Brian Warner, of his character Thomas Dinley on the WGN series. “He’s also a childish sociopath who’s curious about what’s inside a human. His way of finding out is cutting them open, and sometimes before they’re dead.”
Manson, who’s spent much of his career peddling similarly squeamish themes in his music, appears regularly throughout “Salem’s” new season. But when not playing a sociopathic butcher, Manson still makes music under the banner of a parental warning sticker.
The Los Angeles-based singer, who’s finishing up his 10th album, “Say10,” spoke over the phone about what it’s like to shed the makeup and play someone other than Marilyn Manson.
You’ve done a fair amount of film and TV work, including David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” and Showtime’s “Californication.” But it sounds as if this “Salem” role was tailor-made for you.
After the first day, the show’s [co-]creator, Brannon [Braga] said, “Just be yourself.” I said, “What are you trying to say?” He said, “Well, there are a lot of elements in you and Dinley that are the same.” “You mean, I have a completely laissez-faire attitude when serving people sausages that are made out of other people?”
In the trailer for the new season, it looks like you’re sucking on a leech. Please tell me it was fake.
It was not fake.
Great. I can’t ever unsee that.
Well, they were real. We even had a leech wrangler. He was concerned I was going to hurt them, but I was under the impression they have no nerve system, so I tried to reason with the guy. Then I told him about how I used to pour salt on slugs when I was a kid, and he seemed very dissatisfied with me. I just found it funny that this guy had a job as a leech wrangler, but maybe it’s not as funny as a guy who sucks leeches in his mouth for entertainment.
“Salem” is based in the 1600s. What’s it like to be a “surgeon” in that era?
Interesting [laughs]. Science wasn’t really something that was understood, so this character is the go-to person if you wanted something done that wasn’t curable by religion, medicine or the puritanical [remedy] of hangings. If someone comes to his place of business, it provides an array of services from haircuts to tooth-pulling. It’s a 1600s version of a strip mall where they have a donut shop next to an orthodontist.
Ironically, he has a lot of things in his office that I have [as decor] in my home.
I’m afraid to ask, but what type of things?
Old medical equipment, apothecary [jars]. I collect a lot of prosthetic limbs, some dating as far back as the Civil War. A lot of [medical] devices, charts and diagrams. A lot of people think looking at death, or those kinds of instruments, is morbid and what you’d expect to see in Marilyn Manson’s house. It is what you’d expect, but way worse.
Are the film and TV roles you’ve been offered always on the creepy side?
There are some people who offer me the ironic role, straight-edged or romantic-comedy roles. As far as comedy goes I can be as funny as I need to be in the right circumstance. But I’m not going to tell you I’m funny now because that makes me obligated to be funny. The pressure. But I like the concept of being a character actor. And I like the careers of Gary Oldman, Tom Waits and Dwight Yoakam.
You look relatively normal in “Salem.” By that, I mean you’re not wearing Marilyn Manson makeup. Same goes for your role in “Sons of Anarchy.” It’s like you’re in disguise.
I normally shave my eyebrows and don’t have facial hair, so if you put in facial hair and eyebrows, suddenly I don’t look the same. If I ever decide to rob banks, I would be good at avoiding criminal prosecution. I just take off the makeup, grow eyebrows and I’m incognito. The beard is a little more work. It took me a week just to grow stubble [for the Dinley character].
You’re also still making albums and touring.
Yes, my next album’s called “Say10,” like Satan. I found that title in my 12th-grade yearbook at Christian school. It goes back that far. The record is very political, socially and sexually. It deals with things I’ve talked about a lot but may not have sung enough. I work best when I combine imagery and words, rather than just words alone. Acting reminded me of that.
Is it specifically about the upcoming election?
It’s lyrically ambiguous. I wanted it to be something anyone could interpret. People hear songs that I think are angry as sexy. Or weird songs that I think are sexy as violent. This album, if it were blamed for any problems on life, I intentionally am asking for it because I think art needs to shake ...[stuff] up. That’s what I‘ve always thought. I just needed a little reminder, and that was this [election].
Any other upcoming films or TV roles?
I may be doing something next year in a major motion picture; a major superhero film that I can’t mention.
And you’d be playing…
A villain, of course.
On Twitter: @LorraineAli