Since making his feature film debut in the 1985 flick Runaway Train, Tommy “Tiny” Lister has worked on over 160 projects, quickly becoming one of the most recognizable character actors of modern cinema.
This Friday, March 8th, Lister’s latest film, K-11, will be arriving at limited theaters nationwide. Helmed by first-time director Jules Stewart (Crank: High Voltage, XXX), K-11 also stars Goran Visnjic (“ER,” The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Kate del Castillo (“Weeds”), D.B. Sweeney (The Cutting Edge, Fire in the Sky), Jason Mewes (Clerks I & II) and Portia Doubleday (the upcoming Carrie) and follows what happens inside a troubled portion of a Los Angeles correctional facility reserved for the homosexual and transgender inmates. In the film Lister plays Detroit, and while it’s certainly not the first time we’ve ever seen the seasoned actor as a convict, it’s perhaps his most nuanced performance to date.
As someone who grew up on a steady diet of both professional wrestling and horror movies, this writer jumped at the opportunity to chat extensively with Lister about his latest work in K-11 in honor of Indie Horror Month as well as a myriad of his other memorable roles throughout his career, including several other independent projects like Prison, No Holds Barred and even Friday, which made him a cult icon after taking on the role of a bicycle-riding thug by the name of Deebo.
Lister also discussed his involvement with the WWF (now WWE) in the late 1980’s and his minor role in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which ended up being far more pivotal to the flick’s overall story than the actor could have ever imagined when he showed up to shoot his scenes for only a handful of days. Check out all the highlights from our exclusive interview below, and look for more on K-11 this week as we’ll hear from director Stewart, too.
Dread Central: Tiny, thank you so much for taking time to speak with me today; I grew up a huge wrestling fan and made my mom take me to the drive-in twice to see No Holds Barred when it came out, and I remember when you showed up in WWF, it absolutely terrified me as a child. I had seen wrestlers in movies but had never seen anyone in the movies except Mr. T in a ring so I was convinced Zeus was real and he was really going to kill (Hulk) Hogan (laughs).
Tiny Lister: Oh, that’s hilarious- thank you (laughs). No Holds Barred really made me a household name which was just something truly remarkable to happen to a guy like me. I don’t think anyone at that time had ever seen a guy like Zeus step into the ring so yeah, there was an intensity to what Hogan and I did at some of those events unlike anything fans had ever witnessed. I think I scared a lot of children actually (laughs).
Dread Central: I also rediscovered another movie from early in your career – Prison (Blu-ray review) – which you did with Renny Harlin. I think that may have been the first time you played a convict so it kind of feels like we’re going full-circle here by also talking about K-11, where you’re also playing a criminal, but it’s an entirely different performance just the same.
Tiny Lister: Oh wow- I hadn’t thought about Prison in such a long time. Wow. That was such a crazy shoot, too; I remember working with Renny and we shot that in this city in Wyoming which at that time was the number one place for suicide in the US; because there wasn’t much to do – the city was a ghost town after its local mills closed down – it forced us cast members to really band together. I remember we even watched the playoffs together. It was the Lakers versus the Celtics that year so those were some fun games to watch with the guys.
But yeah- it was just an amazing experience making Prison because at that point, it was probably the biggest production I had been involved with. It was also Renny’s first American film so I could tell he was a little nervous at first but settled into everything later after getting that first day of shooting under his belt. But what was crazy about Prison is that we shot the movie using real inmates, which meant there had to be real prison guards on the premises with very, very real guns, too. That made going to the bathroom very interesting for a guy like me because I look like I should be a prisoner; I always had to make sure to change into my normal clothes first because I definitely didn’t need some prison guard mistaking me for an escaping prisoner when I all I needed to use the bathroom (laughs).
Dread Central: Now you’ve enjoyed a lengthy career playing imposing characters, including in K-11, but that all pretty much began with No Holds Barred- could you ever have imagined just how much your life was going to change after playing Zeus? How much training did you have to do for the movie?
Tiny Lister: Oh wow, yeah- everything changed. My career changed and my life changed- people knew me after that. And No Holds Barred was definitely the most intense training I ever did: I was a national shot put champ and I trained harder for that movie than I ever did as an athlete. I went in at 282 pounds and after three or four months, I was at 305. I trained like an animal for that movie; we shot No Holds Barred in Atlanta and I have to say that as a 20-year-old just really starting out in the business, it was pretty incredible to get to work out and train with both Hulk and Lee Haney during production. When you have those guys there to spot you…wow.
So I felt like I was half-human, half-animal by the time we finished working on No Holds Barred and I think I brought a lot of that with me into the WWF. I definitely think that scared a lot of people- they thought I was a monster, no joke. I had three Pay-Per-View matches at WWF and they were all incredible. I was actually supposed to wrestle at a WrestleMania against Hulk but they pulled the plug because I was getting real death threats; people thought this big, black dude from Compton was going to beat down the great, white Hulk. We both had the same management at the time so Hulk and I just milked it (laughs).
But look- I’ve been a part of a lot of great movies but there’s just nothing like being in front of 80,000 people; that energy- wow. There are just no words to even describe what that feels like. It was an incredible part of my life.
Dread Central: Well, let’s talk about your current project, K-11; I don’t think we have ever seen you quite like we do in this movie. Was that the appeal of taking on a character like Detroit, that it allowed you to do some different things as an actor?
Tiny Lister: Oh definitely, that’s why I wanted to do this first and foremost. I’ve had a lot of great roles, but you always want to do something different and challenge yourself in new ways which is just what I could do with a role like this. And Jules is such a beautiful soul; she really deserves to get recognition for the risks that she takes in this movie.
But I knew Detroit was a bad, bad man so I had to really commit to that in order to make that performance believable and it was hard to get inside the head of a guy like that. But if I’m going to play the devil, l’m going to play the best devil that I can. And this cast was so fantastic, too- I really loved working on this movie; Jules really did something incredible.
Dread Central: You mentioned that Detroit is a ‘bad, bad man’ but at certain points in K-11 we see a bit of humanity in him as well- was it hard finding that inside a character like this?
Tiny Lister: You know, that humanity- Portia’s character was the only one that could find it really; I don’t know if I necessarily did. In my mind, he was abused and spoke down to his entire life and the only time he’s heard the word love directed toward him is when Portia says it and so it releases all of his anger and emotion in some really scary and emotional ways. I knew this was going to be an intimate performance for me to try and pull off, but I wanted to try and not be the criminal you’d expect a guy like me to be.
Look, I’ve built a great career around being a bad guy but in reality, I’m just a big baby. When you grow up in Compton, you have to get that ‘look’ down- you know the look I’m talking about right? My look (laughs).
Dread Central: Oh yeah, I know it well (laughs).
Tiny Lister: Good, you understand then that I have a character look that’s become my trademark look and Jules just went for it in K-11 off of that look. Detroit is a very sick person and when he puts his will on you, it’s never a good thing.
You know, a lot of people can’t handle something this honest. Jules is a rebel and she’s just so out of the box and that’s what I’m looking for when taking on roles these days. More movies need to stir things up and I think we need more movies like K-11 being made. On the outside, our cast may look like a circus but we’re a family and that was all due to Jules. Somehow she knew this hodge-podge of actors would click as well as we did.
Dread Central: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but looking back at your lengthy career, what’s been the most surprising aspect of all your success?
Tiny Lister: I am just very blessed; a few years ago I was sitting at Michael Jackson’s funeral and someone pointed out that I was one of the few black heavies left working today. I think there’s just myself, Ving (Rhames), Tony Todd, Terry Crews- maybe a few more but we recently lost Michael Clarke Duncan, which was so incredibly sad for me. But it took someone saying that to me for me to realize just how truly blessed I am and have been throughout my career- I’ve worked with some of the greatest actors, directors, musicians and athletes throughout my career like Marlon Brando, Jon Voight, Christopher Walken, Faye Dunaway, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, Walter Hill, Jamie Foxx, Johnny Depp, Michael Jackson and even someone like Christopher Nolan who has come to mean so much to modern moviemaking, too.
Dread Central: I have to say I was pretty stoked to see you pop up in the final act of The Dark Knight.
Tiny Lister: Oh thank you- that was just one of those projects you get involved with that you have no idea just how huge it was going to end up at the time. I mean, I knew people were going to be excited for another Batman movie but it becoming one of the biggest movies of all time? No way. And I had no idea that my small role was really integral to The Dark Knight’s finale either.
So they flew me to London and we ended up shooting those scenes in London at the very same place we shot The Fifth Element so I felt right at home back in London. What’s really cool about that role is when you think about it, l saved Gotham from itself in the end. And to be part of a number one franchise too is incredible- plus what Heath (Ledger) did as Joker…man, I have never seen anything like what Heath did in that performance. I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like that again.
Dread Central: One last question- I grew up a fan of the original Friday and I know there’s been some talk about one last Friday movie- is that something you’ve been approached about?
Tiny Lister: Oh yeah! Ice (Cube) wants to get the whole gang back together again, and it looks he is going to get EVERYONE, even some of the people who maybe held out before (laughs). We’re supposed to start shooting in April and it’s going to be called Last Friday in fact. Terry Crews and I are gonna tear everyone up, he’s playing my brother in this and everybody better watch out for Deebo (laughs). I’m gonna bring the bike out of retirement for one last ride since Ice said this was going to be the very last Friday. I’m saying it now- we’re gonna put the house off on this one. Just wait and see (laughs).
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