Back in 2009, I checked out a film on a recommendation. I was told, “Get this watched NOW. It’s right up your street”. That film, as it turned out, was Ti West’s The House Of The Devil, a fantastic, slow-burning homage to 80′s genre pics.
One of the most memorable scenes involves a young woman having her head blasted to smithereens by a bearded stranger, played by AJ Bowen.
In the years since, his is a name that I have seen cropping up repeatedly. I have personally typed it several times in the 9 and a bit months that AndyErupts has been running. Bowen has appeared in some of the most impressive American indie films in the past few years, while his CV includes such titles as Hatchet II, Chillerama and the upcoming home invasion comedy, You’re Next.
Myself and the AE team recently caught Padraig Reynolds’ Rites Of Spring at Glasgow Frightfest and I was again impressed by Bowen’s performance, with Reynolds himself hailing Bowen as being, “fucking awesome”. So with that in mind, and the imminent UK DVD release of Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way To Die on the horizon, I sought out AJ Bowen to get a little bit more on this much sought after actor.
I am happy to say, that I succeeded. AJ Bowen, as it turns out, IS pretty awesome, and a pleasure to interview. He is passionate about his work, funny and offered honest answers with real depth, well beyond the brief soundbites of some of his contemporaries.
So I sat down for a Skype chat with AJ and was immediately greeted by the sight of the man himself, wearing one of the masks that we in the UK will eventually see on display in You’re Next.
AJ Bowen – Hello, hello.
(Laughter. AJ removes the mask, revealing a beardless, man-boy face)
AJ – Sorry man, I had to. “You’re Next” hasn’t played there yet, has it? That was a spoiler. My apologies. Are you in Glasgow?
AndyErupts – I am indeed. I was actually talking about you at Frightfest Glasgow a couple of weeks back with Padraig Reynolds.
AJ – My apologies for that.
AE – Aw, he had nothing but nice things to say about you.
AJ – Hes trying to get me to be in his new movie for free. He doesn’t like to pay actors.
(He sips from a cup of coffee…)
AE – While you enjoy your coffee, I’ll enjoy my beer.
(I sip from a Budweiser)
AJ – Oh! You’re drinking American beer!
AE – Of course, it’s 6.30 on a Friday night!
(He proceeds to show me his Anheuser-Busch tattoo)
AJ – Thats how white trash I am.
AE – Let’s get going. Can you start by giving me a little bit of background on how you got into acting?
AJ – Actually, before I was an actor, I was a professional musician but I wasn’t a cool musician. I was a tubist and I went to college originally to play in an orchestra. I always wanted to do acting so when I got to college and I learnt very quickly that I wasn’t going to be a professional tubist and if I was, I certainly wasn’t going to get laid as a result of it.
I had some friends that were acting and I had done a little bit and I always wanted to do it so I thought, fuck it, I was gonna go ahead and try. So I ended up at the University of Georgia which at the time, seemed like a pretty poor choice because it wasn’t a very good school for that but it ended up putting me in contact with people that a decade later ended up being really instrumental in my career, because those guys that I went to college with, about 6-7 years ago, we got back together and made a movie called the Signal and I guess that was kind of the thing that got me going professionally.
I moved out to LA at the end of 2004, so I have been out here 7 and a half years. I was lucky as I started doing theatre and on my first play I got asked to audition for this movie that I knew nothing about and they said it was horror and I grew up watching horror so I was kind of excited by that. So I auditioned for it, got cast in it and we were shooting at Universal like 3 weeks later and that was when I found out that the movie was “Creepshow 3″ and it had no George Romero or Stephen King involved and it was pretty righteously shit.
That got things going and then a few months later we made “The Signal” and based on them having no awareness that “Creepshow 3″ was going to be a total pile of shit, they tricked an investor by saying “oh this guy makes horror movies, so we are going to make one”, so I wound up doing “The Signal” and from there, I have been really fortunate in getting to continue to work and have had the good fortune that some of the people that I have worked with are very talented filmmakers and getting some good attention for their work.
Uusally if an actor can get one, maybe two films that they are not totally embarrassed to have been involved with, then thats a good run, but I have been fortunate in that there’s only really a couple that I have to wear my embarrassment openly about. I have been lucky to work with talented people like Ti West and Adam Wingard so it’s been good for me. I have no complaints.
AE – So you did The Signal and your character gets a fair amount of screentime, and then went on to Ti West’s House Of The Devil, where although you didn’t really enjoy much screentime at all, you received quite a bit of recognition as a result. How did your involvement in that come about?
AJ – It was great. Ti and I met because he had “Trigger Man”, another movie he did, and I had “The Signal” at SXSW 5 years ago now. Much like the same way that I wound up meeting Joe Lynch and Adam Green. We were all travelling to these different festivals together and getting to know each other and Joe and Adam saw the signal, and Ti was there.
Ti and I found out when we got back to LA that we lived like half a mile from each other, so we started hanging out and we were at a bar one night with Jacob (Gentry) one of the directors of “The Signal” and Jacob was trying to talk to us but it became clear pretty quickly that Ti and I shared a similar brain, in terms of the movies that we like, which is a pretty healthy diet of 80′s movies, especially, genre cinema.
It was like the strangest heterosexual date ever for two dudes and we became pretty good friends and he ended up asking me if I wanted to do that part. He really undersold it too. He said it was terrible and that the script was bad, that the character I was playing was just like Lewis in “The Signal”. He said that I would have to grow a beard for 3 months and would that be all right and I was like, “well, if I get to buy the Satanic Bible and then write it off on my taxes, then I’m down”.
AE – How was House Of The Devil to work on?
AJ – We shot “House of the Devil” in Connecticut like, 4 years ago now, and it was a great experience because I am used to having a lot of weight to carry in terms of performance and size of role for movies and Im used to being around and shooting every day. I like the pressure of, if I’m bad in the movie then the movie is probably not going to be very good.
But in this film, I just had to show up, shoot a pretty girl in the face, attack another one and just be kind of weird and smoke cigarettes, which I would probably have done anyway, but this way I got paid for it and I got to hang out with Tom Noonan (Manhunter) and Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000, Warlock), playing their satanic son, so it was great.
It was a great experience and we all stayed in the same hotel in the middle of nowhere. It got a little weird. People had such a strong response to the hotel that we were staying at that Ti made his next movie, “The Innkeepers”, there. They shot it at the hotel we stayed at because everyone believed that it was haunted, except for me. I just thought everyone was really drunk.
I stole a lot of stuff from that movie that I have around my house.
AE – Hang on, between that revelation and the mask, it seems you steal a lot. Are you stealing from all the films you work on?
AJ – I got this mask as a Christmas present. I didn’t get a bonus cheque. They just sent me this mask in the mail. You get the strangest things when you make horror movies. This wasn’t even weird. Before I worked on “A Horrible Way To Die” with Wingard, I got a DVD in the mail that said “Date Rape Movie” in Sharpie on it. My wife checked the mail, opened it up and told me “Your date rape movie is here” and as soon as I saw it I thought, “Yeah, I gotta work with Wingard”.
AE – How was Ti to work with?
AJ – Ti’s great. He’s very specific about what he wants. He’s a very good director. I think a lot of directors who receive a lot of credit don’t actually know how to work with actors and sort of keep everything going in the same direction but Ti is very deliberate about what he wants and how he wants it. He already knows how he is going to cut the movie together in his mind, so as long as you agree with him, things are great.
Luckily, he and I agree on lots of stuff. He understands how to communicate with actors. I’m probably not the best person to ask because, like I said, Ti and I are very similar, and instead of traditional conversations, actor to director, it would be more like we’d be standing in a corner, maybe about to shoot and maybe having a hard time getting a shot and how it was going to line up, and I’d go up to Ti and be like, “Hey, what do you think? Johnny, Karate Kid, right here?” and he’d know exactly what I was talking about.
It would end up being, when Jocelin gouged me in the eye, I would know that what Ti wanted me to do is act like Daniel Larusso had just kicked me in the face and broken my nose and I’d fall on the ground and sort of roll back and forth like William Zabka did in “The Karate Kid”.
Our working relationship together was largely based on 80’s cinema dialogue.
AE – You mentioned Adam Green earlier and you worked with him on Hatchet 2. Your character’s death is interesting, to say the least. That must have been fun…?
AJ – I got paid to do that.
AE – You got paid to have simulated sex before being decapitated. You’re living the dream, man.
AJ – Yeah. I got paid to have sex for 14 hours while Kane Hodder ducked down behind me. By the way, while we were shooting that scene, all the really fun stuff up to me losing my head mid-thrust, Kane was behind me.
Kane was behind me, crouched down behind a log and he was making all these terrible sounds, it didn’t work on me. Kane and I are friends and I kept telling him that he was only turning me on which was making things tougher for my co-star. He was making her very uncomfortable and then Kane would stand up, of course, in all of that gear, in all of the make-up and practical effects, and swing an actual hatchet at my head.
The problem was that it was covered in blood, so I started to get a little anxious because, we had a dummy of me and I would sit there humping for a few minutes, and they would pull the dummy up at the side of me and I would duck down and Kane would swing and literally knock the head off. The hatchet was sharp enough to knock a real head off. Then blood would spray everywhere. Magically, it was the only movie I have ever worked on where I didn’t get blood on me. It sprayed everyone around me, but I guess it was shooting up so high in the air that it just kind of missed me.
“Hatchet 2″ was great. I hadn’t made a movie in a while, and like I said, I know that a lot of actors sort of bullshit when they talk about genre work and pretend that they like it but i really did grow up on it, so when Adam called me and I had the opportunity to work with Kane and with Tony Todd (Candyman), and Tom Holland (Fright Night) and R.A. (Mihailoff – Leatherface) and especially Danielle (Harris – Stake Land) which was a funny thing because Danni is one of my best friends, and we met on that movie, and to know that shes the same age as me and that I have been watching her since in films since I was ten years old, was a little weird. We made a movie together last summer, that she directed.
AE – Ah…Among Friends!
AJ – Yeah and one day she wore the little clown suit to set from “Halloween 4″.
AE – She’s tiny, isn’t she?
AJ – She’s not grown. She’s just gotten nastier since 1988 and “Halloween 4″. She’s still almost exactly the same size, which is creepy.
AE – You said you were a horror fan. When you got into acting, did you always see yourself working in horror, or did you envision yourself doing dramas, romantic comedies?
AJ – No, I don’t have a face for romantic comedy. When I was starting out acting, I was just trying to get work and it was just fortunate that the first opportunity I had was in genre stuff. As a writer or doing things that no-one would ever see when I was in college, or when I was a kid, that was all genre stuff, all horror.
So, yeah, I was just lucky that it wound up being genre. As an actor, you really just want to do interesting work, and I’m fortunate that a lot of the work that I have gotten to do has been a lot more complex and much richer for me as a story teller than if I was playing some dumbass in a minor role in a studio picture that has nothing interesting going on so, it was great for me.
I always wanted to do, and I know it’s not really a genre, but I just wanted to make 80’s movies. I just wanted to be in Walter Hill movies. Wanted to be in John Hughes movies. I really wanted to be in every Golan-Globus movie, that’s what I wanted to do and my goal now is just to own all of them since I’m not going to get to do them.
AE – You also popped up in Chillerama.
AE – I guess that was as a favour to Joe Lynch…?
AJ – Yeah, that was a favour for Joe. I’m friends with his wife and I know his son and since Joe was directing, the part was very clearly meant to be Joe.
So I had to be Joe Lynch, which is a terrible thing and I feel very sorry for anyone else who ever has to be Joe Lynch. It’s actually Joe’s birthday today. I feel terrible for his son that he has to come from Joe Lynch. I feel sorry for his wife Briana (MacKay) for being married to Joe Lynch. It was a very unpleasant acting experience to try to be Joe Lynch.
(For the benefit of anyone reading this and maybe thinking its harsh, the huge smile on AJ’s face during this character assassination would indicate that it’s not an ENTIRELY truthful representation of his feelings towards Mr. Lynch)
AJ – I was like one and a half days on that movie. I got a call from Joe and he asked me “Would you mind coming and playing with my wife’s boobs, turning into a zombie and getting your dick ripped off?” and I was like “Well, its sounds like it’s in line with the rest of the work that I’ve done, why not?” So thats how that wound up happening.
AE – You have done a lot of work recently with Adam Wingard and A Horrible Way To Die finally received a UK DVD release last Monday. Personally, I loved it. Can you give us a little bit how you got involved and about the film?
AJ – Yeah. The genre film community is very tight knit so I actually feel like I know everybody. everybody in LA that makes genre pictures and everybody in the UK who makes genre pictures. We all meet in Austin at FantasticFest every year and I have been supposed to be meeting up with everybody at Frightfest but it keeps not working out but I know all those guys and to that end, we all hang out together when we’re not working.
I was hanging out with Ti and we were watching Paul Davis’ documentary “Beware the Moon”, his doc on “An American Werewolf In London”, and this guy that I casually know started talking to me and told me that his friends were trying to finish this movie about date rape, and asked if I would be willing to take a look at it, and I was like “Of course, it sounds like it sells itself. I want to see it.”
So I watched it, and called this guy and was like “I don’t know who this guy is but I will absolutely work with him on finishing this anthology about date rape”, and he was like “Oh cool. We are actually getting ready to start work on another movie now, would you be willing to take a look at this script” and I was like “Oh! You just asked me to do this one thing because you need an actor for this other thing”.
So I read it and it was “A Horrible Way To Die” and after playing like a heavy bad guy in both “The Signal” and “House Of The Devil”, I didn’t really want to do it again. It was starting to feel like I was the big, bearded crazy guy in horror movies, which is a really strange, niche market to be in but somehow I found myself there, and as I read the script, I just didn’t really know what I could do with it. It didn’t feel like I could bring anything to it, so i had to get on the phone with Wingard for the first time and I was getting ready to tell him no to AHWTD and yes to the date rape movie and while we were on the phone, we just started talking about random things.
He’ s from Birmingham, Alabama, which is about 3 hours away from where I grew up in Georgia and we talked for maybe 3 or 4 hours on the phone in what was supposed to be maybe a 15 minute conversation, and I was getting ready to tell him no when he told me that Amy Seimetz and Joe Swanberg were acting in the movie.
I know both of them and Amy is like my little sister, I know her very well so that I hadn’t heard about it yet from her was strange to me, I found out later on that she told them “Talk to AJ. He’d probably do it.” So I flipped and I was like “Yeah, I’d love to do this movie. That’s why I was calling you. I want to work on this any way that I can”.
And when we got down there to Missouri, which is like in the middle of the middle of the middle of America and not a very nice place, we started talking about switching up the tone from what it was. It was kind of over the top on paper. I wasn’t in tune with what I was reading on paper. It seemed to be different so I started talking to Simon (Barrett) and Adam along with Amy and we decided that we wanted to turn it into a really fucked up love story and kind of take the character of Garrick, who on paper was kind of perverse and getting off on abusing women and whoever else he could hurt, and we mirrored that with Sarah’s alcoholism.
I felt like we hadn’t seen too much of that in films, where you have a guy who knows that he is doing something bad and he keeps thinking he can stop so we kind of went with that angle and it ended up being what it was and I feel bad for a lot of people as the title would indicate that its something very different.
AE – That was something I mentioned in my review. I felt that the title was a bit of a misnomer and that in fact, this was a film with a whole lot more to say for itself than the title would suggest.
AJ – I was very, very happy with that movie. I think its my favourite one that I have worked on and I know for a lot of people, its not their thing, but I also know that we made exactly what we were trying to make, and thats great because we wouldn’t have changed it if we had more money and we would’ve still tried to do it if we had less. So I’m very happy with it and if ten people like it, great, and if more like it, great. It changed me a lot as a performer. Working with Amy and Joe. Working with Adam and Simon and having that whole group there together for a month, creatively trying to approach this story telling angle from a different way than I had done it before.
I felt so bad for Padraig (Reynolds, Rites of Spring), because the second I got done on AHWTD, I went down to Mississippi and started working on “Rites of Spring” and I know that I was a total pain in the ass for him because he would think that we were going to shoot it one way and I would be like “No, Im not going to say that” because I didn’t know before AHWTD that an actor could say “Nah, Im not going to say that”. So I would tell him, “What if we cut all the dialogue? What if Ben just doesn’t talk at all? What if he is silent for almost the whole movie?” Gladly, Padraig let me run with some stuff but it was strange to go from this art film to go right into making like a straightforward version of “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn”, where two different movies, clash in the middle and become a third movie.
We were lucky with AHWTD. I think it was just the right time for all of us to work together. We were really blessed to get to premiere it at Toronto, and have people see it and sort of identify with it, and then to have it go to FantasticFest, which is probably the only time that I will ever win an award for acting.
For the film to get a little bit of attention for the writing and the directing and the acting across the board was really fulfilling for me. I was really excited to hear that it was getting ready to come out over there because you make a movie, and then a year later it comes out and then a year after that, it actually comes out and you do a little bit of press and then it goes away. Having it come out, almost a full year after it came out in the States, is nice as we sort of get to re-live it again. I was just down in Austin with Joe, Amy, Adam and Simon and getting to talk to them about it again and sort of re-experience that stuff was great. I was hanging out with Travis Stevens who produced the movie and had another movie at SXSW but we just kept talking about AHWTD.
So if that was the last movie that I ever got to make or the only movie that anybody knew that I’d done, I’d be happy with that.