Brian Thompson’s played an unlucky punk terminated and stripped by Schwarzenegger. A raging psychopath impaled and burned to a crisp by Stallone. Even a trigger-happy German shot by Steve Martin.
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Some actors rise to fame by essentially playing themselves in the majority of their movies. Others, however, do so by taking on roles that are vastly different from who they are. This can (thankfully) be said for Brian Thompson.
Typically known for taking on the role as a heavy in films, we often recognize Thompson as a vile villain. Off-screen, he hasn’t got a mean bone in his body. Thompson is a classically trained actor with a passion for DIY projects, the environment, music, and wing foiling.
Thompson discovered his love for acting during his senior year in high school after a friend convinced him to audition for a school play. After attending Central Washington University and earning a degree in business management, his love for acting brought him to sunny Southern California, where he enrolled in a three-year acting program at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).
Up until his college years, Thompson surprisingly hadn’t watched many action movies. In his second year at UCI, he began driving to Hollywood to audition for the roles of that genre.
“I really was kind of unaware of the Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson movies at the time. This whole genre — I didn’t know that it was awaiting,” Thompson tells Dread Central. “Believe me, when I’m in Irvine and you’re studying Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, and Sam Shepard, no one ever said, ‘Brian, you might be okay for these action movies.’ It’s not even on the radar.”
Despite Thompson’s grueling schedule, he made time to get closer to making his vision of becoming a successful actor a reality.
“I looked at the barriers to entry to the entertainment business,” Thompson says. “I wanted to succeed as an actor so much that auditions were my whole life. I looked at an audition like an 18-year-old looks at the girl that he falls in love with; this passion that you got to get that job.”
Thompson put his business management degree to good use before going into his final year at UCI. Using a word processor, Thompson typed and sent letters to 37 of the best agents in Hollywood with his resume and headshots. To his astonishment, he ended up getting nine interviews with all nine agents offering to sign him.
He decided to sign with a small agency, Herb Tobias & Associates, that represented about 10 actors at the time. Some of the actors included Michael Ironside, Sam and Joseph Bottoms as well as pre-fame Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, Sean and Chris Penn.
Thompson had big plans he was determined to make happen. By the time he graduated from UCI, he had his Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card and five SAG jobs. No one in his program had taken the route he had, and to the best of his knowledge, no one has done so since.
Thompson made his film debut as a punk thug in the opening scene of The Terminator while still in school. Shortly after, he got an audition for Cobra, an action film filled with horror elements starring Sylvester Stallone.
Little did Thompson know he’d have to complete six auditions and a screen test to finally land the role of the sadistic “Night Slasher”. (Based on, of course, the infamous “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez.)
Thompson read the script for Abaddon — the initial working name for the Night Slasher — with the famous monologue at the end of the movie. He noticed there weren’t many clues to where the character’s philosophy came from. So, he wrote an entire credo.
“I had this two page manifesto for the organization; why we were doing what we were doing, why we needed to create the New World, why people needed to die. That was the bulk of my preparation,” Thompson says. “I gave him [Abaddon] a very hurt soul, an event that he knew he didn’t feel he could recover from. He could start righting the wrongs by causing the world to indiscriminately wreak havoc on other people as it had been done to him and his family.”
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Although Thompson left his audition feeling uncertain, he got a callback and read in front of director George Cosmatos.
Then came the third audition.
Thompson walked into the room. And there, unbeknownst to him, was Sylvester Stallone.
“My nerves just maxed out. The theme from Rocky is the last song I ever played on my bass clarinet in high school,” Thompson says. “I was really starstruck and nervous as hell.”
But Stallone didn’t ask Thompson to read. Instead, he wanted to talk to Thompson about the role.
“I remember a couple of the questions he asked me. He just looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Brian, are you ready to play a feature role in a feature film?’” Thompson says. “And I didn’t flinch. I said, ‘This is what I’ve been studying for most of my life.’”
Following his meeting with Stallone was an interview with Cosmatos, Cosmato’s assistant and the casting director. They expressed their concern with Thompson’s ability to play the Night Slasher.
“They said, ‘We don’t think you’re mean enough to play this part. We think you’re a nice kid from a small town,’” Thompson says. “They asked me some questions about aggression, if I was angry — kind of like psychotherapy.”
Thompson worked the scene several times proving his acting chops by portraying his character in every variation of psychotic he could think of, ranging from subtle to over-the-top. (Please excuse the unintentional Stallone reference.) He displayed exactly what the crew needed to see to convince them he was the right actor for the part.
“I had to marry a soul to this man’s distorted, cold view of the world,” Thompson says.
The Night Slasher was not only a nightmare-inducing character for viewers, but for Thompson as well. So much so that he says he won’t play roles like that anymore.
“You’re doing everything that these people did except have the initial thought to do it. Your body has blood on the hands. You have somebody looking at you like you’re the devil,” Thompson says. “I don’t have the defenses to keep those actions from sticking to me a little bit. I had nightmares and still do sometimes. Not every year, but it’s a horrible place. It’s hell to have a soul that tormented.”
Thompson explains the depth of his character’s motives left much to be desired.
“I was disillusioned by how they really didn’t care to give the character and movie substance. ‘Oh, let’s just get a bunch of guys on motorcycles riding into a small town and clank a bunch of axes together,’” he says. “That part wasn’t important [to them], and I think ultimately harmed the movie for people that wanted more substance.”
While there were a plethora of unfavorable situations for the actor, Thompson admits it was evident Stallone was talented when it came to his ideas, camera angles and preparation for the film.
“Stallone would walk on the set and go, ‘I want a shot right there. I want a single there. I want a 50 millimeter lens on this one. I want you to backlight Brian,’” Thompson says. “The famous shot from the movie with the one I said the word ‘pig’ and the spit came flying out, he completely set that up.”
Thompson continues, “Without a doubt, it was a gigantic break. That was the movie that started it. And I didn’t know that there would be an onslaught of action and adventure offers after that.”
Cobra was released on May 23, 1986. Although it was heavily criticized by reviewers, the film debuted at number one at the U.S. box office and earned $49 million in the U.S.
Brian Thompson talks about the hero knife:
Following Cobra, Thompson went on to appear in dozens of series and films, such as ¡Three Amigos!, Fright Night Part 2, Lionheart, Dragonheart, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files and even Joe Dirt.
His most recent role is one that he says he loved every minute of working on it.
Joel Coen’s upcoming black-and-white thriller, The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. In it, Thompson plays a serial killer, and all of his scenes are with Washington. The film is expected to be released later this year.
“I [seek out] roles that I enjoy; roles that are fun, that have more heart and more inspiration that is in a role or the project. I’ll do some evil things in a production that has merit. I conspire with Macbeth to kill his best friend in The Tragedy of Macbeth. But it’s Macbeth. It’s Shakespeare,” Thompson says. “When the movie or television show ultimately has a good lesson about it, I’ll participate in being some of the nefarious parts.”
When Thompson started acting at UCI, he thought his best shot at making a living as an actor was to be in musical theater. Now that he’s made his mark on the silver screen, he would like to take on more parts in musical theater since he’s old enough for certain roles — particularly, Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
The intense antagonist we see Thompson play couldn’t be further from the gentle giant he truly is. His sturdy stature and Shakespearean spirit have acted as the perfect combination for his career path.
Thompson concludes his interview with Dread with a positive message for readers: “The way you do the greatest good is if everybody does a little bit…Let’s all do our little bit. ”
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