One of the first things anyone notices about shock rocker Marilyn Manson, once you’ve moved past the anarchic antics and myriad layers of makeup, is just how articulate he is. Perhaps it’s part of the act: spoiling any and all preconceptions you may have had of a man who, in the halcyon ’90s, was the subject of a notorious internet rumor that he’d removed several ribs in order to suck his own penis. Instead of music’s version of The Joker, an agent of chaos, you get Brian Hugh Warner: incisive critic. This gulf between expectation and reality certainly threw Fox News host Bill O’Reilly for a loop, with Manson thoroughly outmatching him on the air in a clip that’s since gone viral (now, the network has far bigger problems). And it’s a large part of what makes Manson such a compelling acting presence, too.
Manson’s latest foray into acting is on the upcoming third season of WGN’s Salem, premiering Nov. 2. He plays Thomas Dinley, a mysterious Sweeney Todd-esque barber/surgeon who consumes leeches and may or may not leave you with a slashed throat. The role comes on the heels of Manson’s acclaimed turn as a white supremacist on FX’s Sons of Anarchy, and just prior to the release of his 10th studio album Say10, which will drop early next year.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Manson, who recently defended his best mate Johnny Depp against the abuse allegations levied by ex-wife Amber Heard, opened up about the supernatural, politics, and much, much more.
Tell me about your character in Salem, Thomas Dinley. I read that he’s in league with the devil.
I’m not sure if I would say he’s in league with the devil. When they asked me to do the show, they described him as a barber-surgeon in the vein of the characters of that era that inspired Sweeney Todd. He’s an alchemist, and a person in a world at a time when religion, sorcery, science, and medicine is all uncertain, and people don’t know where to go or who to believe, and his character is someone you can take money to in order to take care of a problem—or if you need something kept secret. He doesn’t seem to have much of a moral compass, or is one to take sides. He’s a psychopath and, in his head, he wants to discover what’s inside of man. Does he have a soul? So he just carves them up and looks inside. Throughout the course of the show, he starts to figure out that it’s more than skin deep.
You don’t wear your trademark makeup on Salem. Have you started to feel more comfortable without it? And why did you start wearing it in the first place?
I think I started wearing it in the first place simply out of using my inspiration from pop—Alice Cooper, David Bowie. I was just drawn to that. I feel very comfortable not wearing it, though. I enjoy acting because I can take on a different shape, different form. I don’t have eyebrows because I shave them off by choice, so when I grow eyebrows or facial hair people don’t recognize me and that gives me an advantage when I act—that I can be a chameleon. I’m more comfortable in the more masculine element, although I never felt that I was all that feminine even when I wore lipstick, strangely.
Still pretty androgynous though, no?
I agree that it was androgynous. But people always speculated about my sexuality, and I’m not closed-minded or one-sided, but this past year, playing a more masculine role on Sons of Anarchy and now this, it’s given me the ability to see a different side of myself. And it’s been a year of having a lot of guy friends, so now I have “guy nights” and have beers sometimes, which is something I never used to do. [Laughs] I was always more closed-off and by myself.
Salem, of course, centers on the Salem Witch Trials. Do you see any modern-day equivalents?
I think it’s the same story then as it is now: Politicians use [media] as a platform to make themselves look better, so they find someone who’s doing something bad. But I believe there is the supernatural, there is sorcery, there are things that are unexplained, and these are things that I surround my entire life with. I’m sitting on the couch from Rosemary’s Baby and have a lot of taxidermy. Things that people might imagine are in my house are in my house. It’s not for the sake of pomp and circumstance or showboating—just that these are the things that fascinate me, and always have.
Are you getting a perverse sense of satisfaction out of seeing Fox News—and its former chief Roger Ailes—get its comeuppance? They really made a name for themselves unfairly castigating you for the Columbine massacre. And then there was that time you famously got the better of Bill O’Reilly on-air.
Yes, indeed I am. Fox News was just starting up and Columbine was really their platform that launched them. They used me and I enjoyed going up against Bill O’Reilly. I remember being in their building and walking right past Shepard Smith, and he was the one who’d reported on Columbine inaccurately. He was the one saying [the shooters] were wearing Marilyn Manson makeup and shirts—which none of that was true—and I walked right past him and gave him the fuckin’ dead eye. And Bill O’Reilly was so ill-prepared, I loved handing him his ass. So, yeah, it’s been fun watching them go down.
What are your thoughts on Fox News, and the way they report the news?
[Laughs] It’s like the movie Anchorman. It really is. All news is debatable. You guys are good at exposing elements—which is why I look at your website often—as well as humorous stuff, but you can’t really rely much on anything. It really makes me think of the era that Salem takes place in. I honestly can’t say for sure that, other than the photographs, because I’ve never been up into the sky and looked at the Earth, so I could never say that I know with full certainty that the Earth that we see in photographs is what it looks like. I will believe it—I’m not trying to doubt that; at the same time, it’s difficult to believe anything these days unless you see it right in front of you. Even photographs can be altered now, though they’ve always been able to be altered, and that in and of itself is a form of witchcraft.
What are your thoughts on the 2016 presidential election here? It is quite the shitshow.
It sounds like science-fiction come to life. It sounds a lot like the story of Holy Wood that I wrote, which is about a movie star becoming president, or like the movie Wild in the Streets. For me, I voted once the last time and I’m not going to vote this time because I don’t like either choice. That doesn’t make me a coward or make me a failure as an American because I don’t want to make a choice; I want to be a part of not choosing on this one. I just don’t agree with either pile of shit that’s on the menu. It’s cat shit and dog shit. I mean, I like cats, but one turns into white dog shit and one turns into cat litter. I’m going to go with no shits.
You’ve recently played a white nationalist on Sons of Anarchy, and it does feel like Trump’s alliance with elements of the alt-right—including his campaign CEO, Steve Bannon—has served as a dog whistle to white nationalists. You don’t think it’s important to potentially stop this man from assuming the highest office in the land?
I don’t think that, as an artist, I can make as much of a difference voting as I can the commentaries I make in music on my next record, Say10. I understand that you could say I’m not helping stop [Trump], but I think he’s going to help himself stop it. Obviously someone who’s more politically trained is a better choice, in theory, but it’s such a fuckfest. That’s the best description: it’s a fuckfest.
You’d mentioned your couch from Rosemary’s Baby and taxidermy before, and it’s well-known that you have a pretty rich collection of oddities. What are some of your favorite items?
Hmm… that’s hard to say. I have a one of a kind photograph of Salvador Dali that’s very beautiful, and very important to me. I did get something cool. Because I’m such a fan of cinema, or some TV shows like True Detective and Hannibal, I did get from Brooke Smith, the actress who played the girl in the well in Silence of the Lambs, she gave me the actual lotion bottle from it puts the lotion on its skin. That’s a very prized possession. I have a first edition signed Salvador Dali book that Johnny gave me as a Christmas gift—The Secret Death of Salvador Dali. I did trade my breasts from Mechanical Animals for Johnny’s wig from Blow, and I have that sitting here.
You also collect Nazi memorabilia. Why? What’s the fascination there?
Not Hitler—I thought he was an average watercolor artist. I like the occult aspect of it; it has nothing to do with the political element of it. If anything, they had the best uniforms because Hugo Boss designed them, but other than that, I also like my taxidermy collection. I have three baboons—they’re looking at me right now. One has a stern look, the other is growling—I usually try to figure out which one I am—and a third one is sitting naked with his dick out. I usually end up being that one.
You’ve spoken about your affinity for Satanism in the past. What attracts you to that philosophy, and what do you feel the biggest misconceptions are about it?
Well, the biggest misconception is that I’m a practicing—you know what, I don’t even like the word “practicing.” It sounds like rehearsing. It’s an honorary title from the Church of Satan, but the philosophy borders very closely on what I’ve always felt is my view on nature based on Darwin, the occult, and things I like about Aleister Crowley, as well as my desire to rebel from being in a Christian school. But I don’t think there really can be misconceptions. There’s no way to misunderstand me; you can only understand me differently, and that’s why I’ve always elected to be chaotic.
What I believe in doesn’t really have a word; there’s a spirituality. I feel good when I do something good, whether it’s doing a good show or writing a good song. If I do something that affects people—or the universe—in some way, it makes me feel good. People might not think I have a lot of positivity in me, or that I love cats, and people might think that it’s all darkness, but there’s just as much light in me as darkness. You can’t have one without the other. When people cross me it’s probably a bad idea, but I try to keep that out of the courtroom. [Laughs]
You’ve been a very vocal opponent of Christianity and its hold on America. How do you feel about the separation of church and state in America?
I think it’s losing its grip. They’re capitalizing, and trying, in a very subtle way and in both political arenas. It’s always about guns, religion, and terrorism. When they start attacking terrorism, which is obviously a radical offspring of whatever religion they’ll attach it to, that’s their way of saying stay with us. Since the very beginning, there’s been no separation of church and state in this country—even though people say there is. The very first example of that was when you had a village, you had a priest, and the head of that village—the mayor—goes to the priest and confesses to fucking his nanny, and the priest says, “I’m going to tell on you unless you pay me.” That’s how the whole church and state thing began. It is one. It’s one hand squeezing the other. And what a lot of people don’t understand is that if you pull right at the thumb, which is the weakest point of the hand, you’re gonna lose your grip. I love doing that. I do that to my strongest Marine friend and he can’t hold my arm down. It’s smart, it’s not trying to fight it; it’s being smarter than it. You can’t change it—just be smarter than it.
So you feel that, in being staunchly against radical Islamic terrorism, Christians are pitting themselves against Muslims, and therefore promoting Christianity by contrast?
If they don’t have a devil, god can’t exist. I’m not saying that they’re not right, that’s just Mass. That’s Bible 101: You gotta have a bad guy or you don’t have a story. See, what I like when it comes to me, when it comes to being a villain, is the villain is the best character because he’s the guy who is willing to bend and/or break the rules. The hero is just a straight fuckin’ line. The villain does it for romantic purposes, and the hero just does it because he doesn’t know any better. He’s also usually fuckin’ dumb, too.