In an understated yet still legendary acting career, Canadian-born Stephen McHattie is known worldwide for the diverse roles he’s amassed over fifty years in the business. McHattie is the kind of workhorse actor that can disappear into a character but he has a presence that demands attention. He’s worked with iconic directors like Roger Corman (who almost killed him), Walter Hill, John Landis, David Cronenberg, Tarsem, Zack Snyder and Darren Aronofsky.
His genre career ranges from the 1982 slasher Death Valley all the way up to Come to Daddy alongside Elijah Wood earlier this year. But most horror fans will recognize him as shock jock Grant Mazzy in the zombie hit Pontypool. In Dreamland, McHattie reteams with director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess, who he’s also worked with on Weirdos and the slime drenched festival favorite Septic Man. Delivering not one but two memorable performances as a hitman and a junkie trumpet player in Dreamland, McHattie is quietly intimidating and heroine sheik all in the same scene.
In the below interview, we spoke about his early career playing James Dean, acting opposite Janet Leigh in The Twilight Zone, channeling Chet Baker and singing Alice Cooper.
A hitman is ordered to cut off the finger of a jazz trumpeter before a gig at the palace of the local crime queen. A handful of severed fingers and a ballroom full of music, machine gun fire and mayhem…it’s just another night in Dreamland.
Dread Central: I was preparing for this interview…and I wound up watching pretty much all of James Dean, the 1976 film you were in. It was my first time seeing it and you were great in that role. That must have been a huge acting job for you to get at the time.
Stephen McHattie: Yeah, it was, it was. But I knew it had its hazards, you know? It wasn’t too acceptable for actors to play actors. You kind of got labeled. Everybody saw you as imitating James Dean and that kind of happened to me for three or four years after that. But it was a blast doing it. It’s funny because that wasn’t that long after he died. What a weird explosion he made in movies.
DC: You might not want to play an actor anymore, but I’m glad you’re playing musicians. I also watched The Deaths of Chet Baker, the short film. I’ve watched the Bruce Weber documentary about him so many times. You did such a great job in it. When did you first discover Chet Baker? Did you ever see him live?
SM: No, never did. I think it was that Bruce Weber movie. It was a knockout movie.
DC: I liked the scene at the end of Dreamland where you sing the Eurythmics song “I Saved the World Today.” I talked to Bruce [McDonald] the other day and he said that originally that he wanted an Alice Cooper song for that. You thought the Eurythmics song was a better idea?
SM: I was kind of intent on having a song that I could slow down and yet it would still hold together. You know, in Chet Baker’s style as much as I could manage it. And I liked the song in terms of the movie. It has the same kind of irony to it, I think.
DC: Can you talk a little about the double performance and playing two roles at once? Did you shoot your scenes with a double doing one character and then the next?
SM: Yeah, I play one character and then go change and do the other one. But we had a stand in, another actor, to do me on the other side. Actors are actors, they always want to do it better than you did it.
DC: So, did the double actually up your game a little bit?
SM: No, he pissed me off. (laughs) It was great fun trying to figure it out…to get them both in that interesting relationship to each other.
DC: Yeah, you have that mirror dream logic stuff going on. Talk about Henry Rollins a little bit. I know you had some really physical scenes with him. What’s your history with Henry? I know Bruce had worked with him before.
SM: Bruce knew him real well, I didn’t know him at all. He turned out to be a very sweet, agreeable guy. It’s funny, I was looking at Juliette and her band. I wasn’t aware. It’s funny, the more outlandish performers always turn out to be the sweetest ones.
DC: They get it all out on the stage. You’ve had such a great career. I started watching The Twilight Zone episode you were in. I guess you were playing Death, you were with Janet Leigh. I think it was “Rendezvous in a Dark Place.” Do you remember anything about working with Janet Leigh and did you guys talk about Hitchcock?
SM: I was so in awe of working with Janet Leigh, I didn’t know what to say to her! She was a character from my childhood. I tend to get kind of…
DC: I would be a little shy around her, too. How’s quarantine been for you? As an artist, has the time been creative for you?
SM: I’d like to think it has been but I’m not sure. It’s hard to follow through on things, I find, when you’re not sure which way things are gonna go.
Dreamland is available On Demand and Digital June 5. Hopefully, in theaters, too, so check your local listings!