Exclusive In-Depth Chat with C. Thomas Howell Regarding MoniKa and More!
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.”