Justin Long goes full walrus for ‘Tusk’

Justin Long spent 19 days shooting a low-budget horror movie in Charlotte last fall, and not for a single one did the film’s star believe it would wind up being even remotely close to a hit.

“I wasn’t prepared for people actually liking it,” Long says, laughing, “or for it even to be coming out in theaters. That’s more than we’d hoped for. I thought it would be a fun experience, that it would be memorable, but I never expected to be doing all this press for it. It’s just not that kind of movie. So I’m curious how the public will take it.”

He’ll find out this weekend, when 600 theaters nationwide roll out writer-director Kevin Smith’s darkly comic and wickedly gruesome “Tusk,” which centers on a brash American podcaster (Long) who is kidnapped in Canada by an old man (Michael Parks) and turned into – wait for it – a walrus.

The movie opens with a “Based on true events” title card, although this is the truth: Smith (best known for 1994’s “Clerks”) got the idea from a British personal ad offering free rent if the prospective tenant would agree to dress up in a “very realistic” walrus suit and “make walrus noises”; the ad turned out to be a hoax, but he had his wacky premise.

In an email he used to recruit Long, with whom Smith had shared a scene in 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard,” the filmmaker actually didn’t mention the word walrus.

“He described it as a character piece,” Long says, “a character study between these two people. He talked about Michael Parks and how it would be the two of us ... and I read the script and I was like, ‘Well, I did not see that coming.’

“I always saw it as that, as a character study. But in describing it to people, it was always a lot more fun and more efficient to just say, ‘Oh, it’s this movie where this guy turns another guy into a walrus.’ For efficiency’s sake. ‘I’m doing this walrus movie.’ ”

Last November – less than five months after the story was conceived by Smith and pal Scott Mosier as they joked around about the personal ad on their weekly podcast – principal photography commenced in the Charlotte suburbs, which stood in for Manitoba and Los Angeles. (Additionally, key scenes with an uncredited major film star were shot in L.A. over two days. We won’t spoil the surprise, although Web searching will quickly reveal his identity.)

Less than 10 months after shooting wrapped, “Tusk” got its world premiere Sept. 7 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Critics from Entertainment Weekly and Variety wrote positive reviews, and Long says “the audience that we saw it with seemed to predominantly get it and be into it, judging by just the sounds they were making.”

The movie’s reveal of him as the walrus, Long says, elicited the biggest response: gasps and nervous laughter.

The price for this reaction? During the Charlotte shoot, Long had to sit with special make-up supervisor/effects artist Robert Kurtzman through 31/2 hours of makeup and another 30 to 60 minutes getting into the suit. (“It certainly wasn’t designed for comfort, so it wasn’t the most fun being in there,” Long says. “And I went many hours without peeing.”)

It’s a diabolical sight indeed – one that’s sure to disturb the average moviegoer, but could cause particular distress to someone very dear to the actor.

“My mom had a really hard time when I did ‘Jeepers Creepers,’ ” says Long, 36, referring to the 2001 horror flick in which his character was terrorized by a flesh-eating monster. “At the end, the thing takes my eyes and she freaked out; she was sobbing, ‘My God, they took my baby’s eyes!’ That was just my eyes. I don’t know how she’s gonna handle this...”