(This interview was originally published on August 5, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
Tony Todd’s film career is so expansive that it almost possesses its own bloodline, drawing from “Platoon” in 1986 to “Candyman” in 1992 and the upcoming “Final Destination 5“. He’s a horror icon to many, but his artistic soul is rooted in the theatre with performances from August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” and “Fences” to Shakespeare’s “Othello”. His television credits appear endless, spanning from “Star Trek:The Next Generation” to “24” and “Smallville”. But iconic roles and theatre performances aside, Tony is a man who speaks his mind, mild-mannered and personal with an uncluttered frankness that is as refreshing as it is interesting. His demeanor is suited to the relaxed atmosphere of the suite where I’ve been fortunate enough to sit down with him to talk a little about his life, passion for writing and his role in “Final Destination 5”.
Tony Todd: “Final Destination 5” is as good as the first movie in terms of story and construction. I have a small role, I’m just a little guy…. I’m like the salt and pepper. But what I got paid for “Final Destination 5” allows me to do little independent films that don’t have much of a budget, and I’m drawn to the character they’re giving me, so everything balances out. I think that the mystery of the Bludworth character in the “Final Destination” series is something that can’t be answered, it is whatever it is to everybody. Personally I like the idea that maybe he cheated death himself once. He has first hand experience and his task is to help whoever he can.
Tony says that his world opened up when his high school English teacher handed him the script to Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus”.
Michael Parsons: I’ve heard you talk a little about stage performance and your affinity for it, I think most recently in “The Island”. How does the intensity of live stage acting affect you in subsequent movie roles?
TT: Every time an actor gets a chance to be on stage for like a two month period, you’re going to be informed by their work. Theatre is language rich, and unfortunately most films are short on language. The last play I did was actually not “The Island”. I did “The Captain’s Tiger” at the Kennedy Center, which got me nominated for a Helen Hayes Award. August Wilson’s “Fences”, it took me two months to shake that…. and it was living with me. It makes you richer because every ‘and’, ‘if’ and ‘but’ is magnified by what’s going on, what your objective is, who you are and where you’re from. You can’t get that same kind of fulfillment out of most movies. But I’ve been lucky because my first movie was “Platoon”. Who knew that it would win four Academy Awards. I was bar tending in New York at the time.
MP: What kind of impact did that initially have on you? I couldn’t imagine suddenly being thrown into an Oliver Stone Vietnam war epic.
TT: Oliver Stone is a passionate director, and look at that cast. Almost 70% of that cast are still working. I was just thrilled to have any job. It was the first time anyone said “yes”. Most people in the film either had only one film under their belt or no films at all. They took us to the Philippines when Marcos was just leaving the country and there were AK47s everywhere… my aunt who raised me didn’t want me to go. I said I have to go, this is the first time someone has said “yes”! And I’m glad I did. We went through four weeks of boot camp training which felt like theatre. On the very first day of shooting, Oliver said to me, “Tony, stop ‘John Wayneing’”! And I felt like a little tiny insect, cause I was just eager. He kept saying, “stop acting, just be!” He hurt me by insulting me in front of everybody in the platoon, but he also taught me my most valuable lesson, which is ‘less is more’…. and just believe it and the cinematographer will pick up what’s in your eyes.
Tony had some interesting stories about the 1990 remake of “Night of the Living Dead”, directed by legendary FX and makeup artist Tom Savini. He played the lead role of Ben, originally portrayed by Duane Jones in the 1968 George A. Romero classic.
TT: Tom Savini had already infamously made his [casting] decision, but I was in Pittsburgh making another film when I heard about it. When I saw the original “Night of the Living Dead” it was in a drive-in theater in black-and-white, it was [George] Romero, it was capturing civil rights and it also captured the apocalyptic possibility of us eating ourselves, you know, so I knew I wanted it. I literally jacked [Tom] up and said “you have to see me!” and he said “okay”. It was one of those Chutzpah moments. I think he just wanted to hustle me out but I was so connected. My son was born during “Night of the Living Dead”, so that was obviously important to me. I had a choice between a couple films at the time, and that’s the one I wanted to do. We shot six weeks of nights in Washington, PA which was one of the most racist cities in America at the time, aside maybe from Birmingham. But… it was also a great unifier because we had active clansmen on the set playing zombies… true story.
MP: Throughout your career you’ve developed relationships with Kane Hodder, Robert Englund, those guys. I would imagine that you guys are all pretty close. How much influence do you have on one another with project ideas and upcoming films?
TT: With Kane in particular, I’m trying to develop a story about bounty hunters chasing a serial killer who is an ex-horror movie star. That’s our spin on it. Kane is a big guy, and I’m a big guy…. and I want to play a bounty hunter at some point. I keep telling Kane that less is more… fortunately for him he’s got the “Hatchet” franchise and of course they’re getting ready to do “Hatchet 3“….
MP: I’m assuming Adam Green will be directing?
TT: Well that’s up in the air… I love Adam. Did you see “Frozen”?
MP: Not yet, but I want to.
TT: Adam’s great. I think he’s worried about directing “Hatchet” again because he doesn’t want to get pigeonholed, even though Kane wants him to [direct]. So we’ll see. I’m not going to be in it because my character[Reverend Zombie] is dead.
MP: Very, very dead.
TT: (Laughing )You never know though. Knowing them they might approach me and say “would you be interested in playing a spinal cord?”
MP: You guys must have had a blast doing those two movies.
TT: Yeah, it was great. Particularly being down in Louisiana. And with Robert [Englund], there’s another project out there about the two of us playing aliens that land on some guys farm… (laughing) that’s about all I’ve got on that one!
MP: How much do you draw from “Candyman” when portraying other sinister characters?
TT: I try not to. But ultimately it’s me, Tony, the actor who’s playing the role – so the audience is going to draw whatever they want to draw from it. The interesting thing with the role in “Final Destination” is that I don’t really see any link between the two characters. And when I was doing the “Star Trek” stuff there was definitely no connection.
We asked Tony about his hiatus from the “Final Destination” franchise:
TT: It’s called negotiations. There is a ‘business’ side to show business… fortunately New Line realized my value and they brought me back. I like it when the suits say “yeah”. It’s a big group decision (laughing)…. since when is Warner Bros. broke?
Tony says that his success as a screen actor is the icing on the cake that allows him to pursue theatre and smaller independent projects, but he also endeavors to make a significant impact with his writing, in which he has a master’s degree. The multiple projects he has in the pipeline now includes his writer/directorial debut in the upcoming thriller “Eerie, PA” in which he also stars. He’s excited about his portrayal of Duke in Kern Saxton’s “Sushi Girl“, due in spring 2012, which boasts an all-star cast including Mark Hamill, Andy Mackenzie, Noah Hathaway, James Duval, Danny Trejo, Sonny Chiba, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, and Courtney Palm. Tony’s newest film, “Final Destination 5”, is in theaters August 12th.
My deepest appreciation goes to the great and amicable Tony Todd for allowing me the time to pick his brain.
TRR Intervue by Michael Parsons