As a young man, he assisted a cross-dressing alien in evading the feds in Spielberg’s 1982 smash-hit E.T. The Extraterrestrial and was told to “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” in Coppola’s 1983 drama The Outsiders. He made famous the battle-cry ‘Wolverines!’ in John Milius’ 1984 Cold War flick Red Dawn and as ‘Jim Halsey’ nearly ate a french-fried finger in director Robert Harmon’s 1986 horror classic The Hitcher. Years later, and with nearly 150 titles to his credit, C. Thomas Howell sat down with us to discuss with candor his varied career as well as his role in Steven R. Monroe’s upcoming feature MoniKa. Read on!
“It’s sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, that sort of thing,” the forty-four-year-old Howell told us of his role last June on the Big Picture Soundstage, Burbank, California, set of MoniKa (then titled Hole in the Desert), which is co-executive produced by lead actress Cerina Vincent (who appears in the titular role) with Monroe and producers Anthony Fankhauser and Corey A. Jackson.
“My character is a small part,” Howell continued of his role of ‘Double’ in MoniKa, “and I only have a couple of days on this movie, but I basically play the best friend (of actor Jason Wiles), who gets talked into coming to Vegas on a whim, and who stumbles into a murder, so it’s basically kind of a ‘whodunit’ with a bit of a The Sixth Sense twist, but I can’t reveal it. It’s not what you think you are watching though. It definitely has some thinking involved; you know, ‘Is it a dream? Is it a nightmare? Is it a ghost story? What is it?’ So you’re just trying to figure it all out, and it’s interesting.”
The revenge-thriller MoniKa co-stars Jeff Branson, Chad Lindberg and Andrew Howard (the three also appeared in Monroe’s I Spit on Your Grave redux) and actors Lew Temple (The Devil’s Rejects), Shayla Beesley (Spreading Darkness), Raffaello Degruttola, Elisa Donovan and genre vet Tim Thomerson; and Los Angeles-native Howell told us of his inclusion, “Actually a friend of mine is one of the producers, which is what happens when you grow up in the business. For me about seventy percent of my work comes from re-hires, and it’s always great to maintain the relationships and see people that you enjoy working with and go back and hook up with them again and just continue the process.”
On working with Monroe, “He’s really cool, man,” offered Howell of the director, whose other genre films have included the Cerina Vincent-starrer It Waits and House of 9, among others. “He’s a really good writer and a good director, and he comes from a camera background, so he understands the process really well, and he laughs at my jokes, and I think that’s really important, so I get along with him well.”
Howell continued, “Steven’s just kind of let me bring to the table kind of my own thing, really. He’s not really precious with his words, which for a writer and a director is unusual actually. Most writer/directors want you to say (exactly) what they wrote, so Steven’s a bit more open to suggestions. I mean, I’m not coming in and re-writing anything, but at the same time he’s not coming up to me and saying things like, ‘You know, you left out the word “but” here; can we go again?’ and making me insane, which if it were Tarantino directing (Note: the latter is notorious for his actors’ strict adherence to scripted dialogue), I’d probably kill him myself and bury him,” said Howell with a laugh.
“But that’s my process, you know,” expounded the actor on his approach to his craft. “I like to explore when I’m working; otherwise what’s the point? You might as well have puppets do it (otherwise). I mean, a writer creates the space, and then it grows from there. It’s not a finished product on the page, and there’s room for improvement if you allow it to grow, and that’s been my approach to film, and you know, a lot of times I understand that some actors will come in and bastardize the words, and can ruin a scene, but that’s what a good director will do. He’ll go back to the words if things aren’t going so well, but generally in my experience good actors tend to bring an ego to the role, and the writer and director is looking at the big picture, and they are not just looking at this three-day part, and they can then look at the actor’s perspective and say, ‘You know, you are absolutely right,’ and go ahead and make that change, and that makes it fun. It’s kind of like Bono going into the studio: He just starts singing shit, and he doesn’t write a poem and then go sing the poem. There’s a discovery process that makes it exciting, and that takes the tedium out of it.”
Conversation turned to Howell’s outlook on his varied filmography (while he’s appeared in numerous celebrated films, he’s also taken jobs in flicks not so well renowned, including such ‘B’ fare as The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting, Killer Bees!, Thirst: The Blood War and more), and he stated, “A lot of actors have their boundaries when it comes to a certain genre. I suffer from enjoyment of work. That’s my biggest issue really. I like the process of going to the set, and I like the challenge of trying to make something better. I’m not afraid to throw myself into the fire, and a lot of times you get burned by doing that. I mean, I’ve made a lot of shit that I probably shouldn’t have done, but at the same time I learned more from that stuff than I did the great things that I’ve been a part of. I mean, if I could have Johnny Depp’s career, I would take it, but I just feel that my process may have taught me a bit more than just working with Tim Burton over and over and over.”
“I just really like to travel, and I love acting, and I learn a lot when I do small pictures,” Howell mused, “and I take those experiences to the bigger pictures (I book), like the new The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, and I’m going into my fourth season on (the television series) “Southland”, which has just been an amazing experience, and I had a great run on “Criminal Minds”, and my career is just kind of turning into something lately that I didn’t really expect. I’ve played lately a lot of bad guys and a lot of darker roles. You know, I learned something from Rutger Hauer on The Hitcher, when I asked him, ‘Why are you so great at playing bad guys?’ He told me in that sort of scary voice of his, ‘I don’t play bad guys’. And what he meant by that was that he finds the goodness and the humanity in those roles, and he doesn’t walk around and twist his mustache and play the cliché sort of idea of what people think a bad guy is.”
“I’m older now, and I’m no longer playing the kid in the leather jacket,” continued Howell, “so you have to redefine what you are doing all of the time, like the good artists do. If you don’t do that, then you are left in the dust, so it’s been a real pleasure for me to grow in this business, and to dig deeper, and to try to find a way to stay rooted but still bring fresh stuff to the table. That’s not an easy task, and it’s difficult, but that’s what I’ve been aiming for.”
Commenting on his approach to the more complex individuals he’s been playing of late, and his affinity toward what some would deem ‘darker’ roles, “Part of the discovery for me is that people relate to flawed characters more than they do the hero,” he said. “For example, I play a reformed alcoholic on ‘Southland’, and he’s not necessarily politically correct. He doesn’t really know how to censor his thoughts so he says a lot of the wrong things, and I’ve had more people connect with that character on the street than any character I’ve ever done before, apart from Ponyboy (in The Outsiders). That role is the supreme opposite example, which was just pure goodness as a child, although I don’t think you can play that (latter) kind of role when you are forty-four years old. I mean, perhaps you can, but I haven’t found it yet, but playing the humanity and the struggle within ourselves, and sharing that with other people who can relate to that? When I started out in the first season, my character was a drunk, and now he’s gone through rehab and is on the other side but is struggling to stay sober, and I’ve had a lot of people from AA wrap their arms around me and say, ‘Thank you so much! I’ve been recovering, and I just want to tell you that you’ve done an amazing job, and I really enjoy watching you.’ They relate to that. They respond to it, more than watching the hero save the girl and kiss her at the end. That’s something that I’ve enjoyed more than anything else.”
Relating to Howell in this, this writer recalled his affinity at a young age for the Star Wars character of Han Solo, as opposed to the ‘gee golly’ nature of the wide-eyed Luke Skywalker.
“That’s right, man!” said Howell. “That’s a really good example. I’m the same way. I was a Han Solo fan myself, and those characters for me are a lot more fun to play. I’d rather play Han than Luke, but these days personally I’d rather play Darth and try to find some sense of goodness and humanity within that mask! Talk about a challenge. It’s an ever-changing and ever-growing, joyful effort, and I feel so blessed to be doing what I do, and like I said, that’s probably my biggest flaw, that I don’t like waiting between gigs.”
“One of the things that I admire about Jim Carrey is that he has evolved,” mused Howell of the actor, another man prone to taking artistic chances. “A lot of people who were his fans in the 80’s and 90’s when he was doing all of those silly movies might not be as attracted to what he does now, but he throws himself into the fire with every performance. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and I can appreciate that as an artist when I watch his work. I can appreciate that he tries something new. The other example is Matthew McConaughey, and he said in an article I read once, ‘You know, it takes me five months after I read a script to decide if I can do it or not,’ and I’m like, ‘Really? You need five fucking months to figure out whether or not you can play the surfer guy?’ I don’t get that. To me, within five months I’ll do five movies. I mean, I’m not necessarily playing the lead in an eighty-million-dollar movie. I’ll come in and I’ll play a smaller part, and I’ll play the bad guy – they just called me to play an assassin in a Bruce Willis film, and hopefully that’ll work out – but these are the types of gigs that I’m starting to get a lot of, and it’s kind of fun. I just keep on banging.”
As Howell’s prolific career has evolved, so has the world, particularly with the advent of the Internet and the focus on celebrity it re-ignited. I queried Howell the following hypothetical: If the ‘net and armchair bloggers were in existence during your youthful days of acting, would it have changed your outlook on the industry and the way you approached your craft?
“A lot of people take it too seriously,” Howell responded. “It’s only a movie. It’s only the movie business, and there are so many haters online, and everyone wants to weigh in with their two cents if they are a hater, but there’s a lot more lovers out there. It’s just that the lovers don’t post. So you just have to let it roll off of your back. You can’t please everyone.”
As for his outlook as a child actor, “I was too young,” said Howell. “I mean, I didn’t care. I was just a carefree dude just living in the moment. I was never really big on preparation as a kid because I didn’t know how to prepare. I just knew how to be in the moment and go for it and try my hardest. A lot of my work as a kid, you can see somebody trying a little too hard, and that’s because I didn’t have a director who was capable of teaching me or helping me. I had to learn the hard way, and I’m on the other side of it today, and when I watch young kids, I often see them working too hard on the set, and that’s just because they want to be good, and they want to be accepted and they are trying just a little bit too hard, instead of just realizing, ‘Hey man, just hit the fucking mark, and just hang out, and take a moment, and feel it and then just say the line.’ They don’t need to press it, but they are all so anxious. It’s like that Robert Duvall joke to Sean Penn in Colors, you know, ‘The Young Bull and the Old Bull?’ Where the young bull says, ‘Hey, let’s run down there and fuck us a cow,’ and the old bull says, ‘Hey, let’s walk down there and fuck them all,’ and there’s a lot of truth in that. I didn’t understand that until I was nearly forty. You just need to slow down a little bit and take a moment, and allow the process to take place, instead of trying to drive the process somewhere all of the time.”
“Sometimes you do get the occasional example of some genius kid like Dakota Fanning,” he continued, “who gets it at a young age, and I’m always amazed by that. I never find any false moments in her work, and how does she know that? And then you watch her sister (Elle Fanning) in Super 8, and she’s as equally amazing, if not even better, and I don’t understand where that comes from either. How is it that one family is so gifted? Those skills that she is working with are more along the lines of someone who has been doing the work for twenty years, and it’s a very difficult thing to teach a young kid, and a lot of actors struggle with it and will never get it. I struggled (with it) as a kid and became a much better actor as an adult, but most people don’t get that opportunity. Most often if you are a child actor, your career is done when you grow up, and for me I feel really blessed to have not crashed and burned, particularly in that I have some roles that I wish I could take back, but at the same time I have some roles I’m super proud of. You just have to take the good with the bad. You can’t take just one film and judge me for that. I mean, I’m a ‘lifer’, and when I die, you are going to see a body of work, and you are going to see where I’ve grown and where I was stunted, and to see where I have struggled and to see where I’ve grown. I feel really lucky, and you just keep on keeping on.”
The film is a violent, edgy ride focusing on the forlorn Reagan Tyler, a man who is troubled by visions and premonitions that ultimately lead him to Las Vegas. It’s there that Reagan meets the beautiful and mysterious Monika, a young woman who turns out to have been killed the night before he even met her. Reagan is then forced to put the puzzle together of what happened, how she is still present, and help Monika with her revenge on the killers of her younger sister.
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