Exterminator extraordinaire Greg Grunberg contends with Big Ass Spider!

by Mark Burger

Alex Mathis is a neighborhood exterminator with a very large problem — and it’s getting bigger all the time.

Having faced his fair share of strange phenomena as telepathic policeman Matt Parkman on the award-winning series “Heroes,” Greg Grunberg this time comes face to face and eye to eye(s) with Big Ass Spider!, a cult-friendly sci-fi send-up now available on home-video from Epic Releasing (see page 37 for review).

The titular creature, the result of a botched military experiment, terrorizes Los Angeles while Alex and his sidekick, Latino security guard Jose (Lombardo Boyar), try to best the beast — often clashing with the military authorities that caused the problem in the first place.

Not only does Alex possess the most professional expertise in a situation like this — because, after all, there’s never been a situation like this — but he also dispenses witticisms and wisecracks while also flirting with Lt. Karly Brandt (Clare Kramer), one those aforementioned military authorities constantly at odds with Alex.

When the project first came Grunberg’s way, it was titled Mega-Spider and was, he says, “much more straightforward.” The Alex Mathis character was still an exterminator and still the hero, and did have a sense of humor. Immediately, says Grunberg, he saw the project’s potential, particularly if it were played for laughs as much for scares. “If there’s something that draws your attention, and there was something there — I found the character relate-able and funny. But I wanted to do something different.”

He relayed his enthusiasm and his opinion to the producers at Epic Pictures and director Mike Mendez, and found both willing to listen and approach the story in a more comedic way. “Everything clicked,” Grunberg recalls. “Everyone saw the potential. We knew this could be something special. This is a really talented director — and I can’t stress this enough: Mike had a singular vision that he really brought to this. He just had his homework done.”

Grunberg came aboard the project as both leading man and co-producer. “I’d worked with Lombardo before on a film I’d written, Group Sex, and I knew he’d be perfect for this.

The film is peppered with in-jokes and cameo appearances, including Troma Films founder Lloyd Kaufman, Fangoria creator Kerry O’Quinn and genre favorite Lin Shaye (Insidious, Snakes on a Plane), as well as Wise, himself an icon due to his roles in Swamp Thing (1982), RoboCop (1987), Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003) and David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”

Although he doesn’t consider himself a traditional method actor, Grunberg found an easy way to glean research. As a long-term customer of Western Exterminators, “I asked my guy ‘Can I go along?’ — I actually did. He said ‘Sure,’ and we went to a couple of houses. I learned how to use the hose properly. Now most audiences watching those scenes won’t know that, but I know it.”

Many creature features premiere on home-video or cable (Syfy, anyone?), but Big-Ass Spider! earned good advance word at film festivals, including SXSW, and received a limited theatrical release in major markets just before Halloween, where it found favor with critics and audiences alike.

Grunberg grew up a genre fan. One of his closest friends is filmmaker JJ Abrams, with whom he’s worked on “Felicity,” “Alias” and “Lost,” as well as Abrams’ feature films Mission: Impossible III (2006) and Star Trek (2009).

“We’ve known each other since we were four years old,” Grunberg says. “We’re practically brothers. JJ’s been a filmmaker since he was born.”

Now that Abrams has taken the helm of the upcoming Star Wars films, might Grunberg appear as a Jedi, a Wookie, a Droid… ?

“I’ll be doing craft services,” he jokes.

“Whatever he asks me — and I hope he asks me — I will do!” Not surprisingly, there’s a twist at the end of Big Ass Spider! that amusingly portends a possible follow-up. Grunberg confirms it as “a definite possibility.”

Given the constraints of time and budget, the film required extensive CGI affects, and a fledgling Pakistani effects house (Ice Animations), took up the task. But because of the film’s word-of-mouth, the company’s schedule is now filled.

“We basically helped price them out of our range,” Grunberg notes with a laugh. !