A Q&A WITH COURTNEY GAINS
OUTLANDER : A Q+A WITH COURTNEY GAINS
From Children of the Corn to The ‘Burbs and Memphis Belle, we talk to one of the most iconic screen faces of the 80s
For those who’ve heard me wax on endlessly about the character actors I love from the 60s and 70s, it might come as a surprise to learn that one of my hands-down favourite character actors first came to prominence in the 1980s: Courtney Gains, the sometimes nerdy, sometimes obnoxious red-headed scene-stealer who seemed to be ever-present throughout that strange era of fast, cheap and neon-embossed filmmaking known as the 1980s. Having an uncommon physical distinction (like red hair) immediately makes you a candidate for character actor status, but otherwise the 80s was a time when it was – oddly – hard to stand out in the crowd. Actors in popular cinema were divided mostly into three camps: the muscle-bound action hero (Lundgren, Schwarzenegger), the chiselled collar-up/collar-down Ken Dolls (Scott McGinnis, Ted McGinley, Peter Barton), and the spazzed-out freakazoids based on over-the-top stereotypes of math geeks, quincy punks and metalheads (Jon Gries, Curtis Armstrong, Marc Price). Being good looking or being weird wasn’t enough to get noticed in this sea of overbearing ‘types’; one had to have a special brand of charisma to stand out repeatedly in a multi-faceted roster of roles. Courtney Gains may be most well-known to genre fans as the terrifying cult-killer Malachai from Children of the Corn, but he turned in equally memorable performances in Hardbodies, The Orkly Kid, Back to the Future, Can’t Buy Me Love and countless others that have cemented his esteemed place in film history.
You were born and raised in Los Angeles – when did you first know you wanted to pursue an acting career?
Well, I certainly didn’t think of it as a career, I was too young, But I got the bug when I was six years old, I did my first play in first grade and I was hooked.
Did you have an ‘in’, in the form of family involved in the industry?
My mom was an entertainer when she was young – like 13 or 14 – in the USO. She was in a fame school out here in LA, and would travel around entertaining troops during WWII. She had a strange take on it, she didn’t want me to be a child actor. She felt like she lost her childhood, but I could never understand that, because she did that willingly. So I kept pursuing her, ,and bugging her and bugging her to go to acting classes, and at 13 she finally put me in this class and I didn’t really like it. It was…well, I grew up in a tough neighbourhood and this was a place where people were wearing tights and tap dancing, and it didn’t really jive with me. But when I was getting close to quitting the class, this guy stopped me on the street. This guy named Virgil Frye, who is Soleil Moon-Frye’s – Punky Brewster’s – father. She was like two at the time. And he just really liked my look. And at first I wasn’t really sure about this guy, but he also had a son – Sean Frye – who was at that time working quite a bit. They were at a commercial audition right next door, and his son came out and I recognized him, and I thought wow, OK, this guy must be legit. I started studying with him at 13, I ended up studying with him for like a decade, he became my manager for a number of years, and basically that’s how I got in the business.
One of your most distinguishing characteristics is your vocal delivery and accent. Usually actors are encouraged to play down regional accents, but in your case was this something you made an effort to cultivate from the beginning?
What kind of accent do you think I have?
Like a surfer accent!
Ha ha ha ha! And where do you live?
OK I get where you’re coming from. I would say having grown up in Los Angeles that there’s that ‘lazy Californian’ sound, but my mentor was also from the Midwest, and I think that had an influence on me too. A lot of times people are really surprised to hear I’m from Los Angeles because they usually think I sound Midwestern. I think I also look it, so I think I’ve done a bunch of roles that are California surfer types, I’ve also done a bunch of roles where I played Midwesterners or southerners, those are the accents that all kinda come easy to me. And I didn’t try to lose it, no one really put that on me. And maybe, from what you’re saying, maybe it actually helped. I didn’t go to college where they kinda try to beat some things out of you.
Yeah I just notice a lot of actors, they tend to homogenize their voices.
Yeah, especially if you start to learn the classics and stuff – they call it ‘mid-Atlantic’, and they really try to neutralize your regional accents.
It’s funny that you say your mentor was from the Midwest and that it’s one of the accents you do well, because that certainly got called into play with Malachai in Children of the Corn.
Yeah, absolutely. And ironically with Malachai – we shot that in Sioux City Iowa. The first gig I ever got was shot in his home state.
Was that your first time outside of California?
I’d been pretty much always on the west coast – the first thing I ever did was a Safeguard soap commercial in New York, so me and my mom flew out for that. And that was about four months before I did Children of the Corn. But yeah, it was the first time I’d been out of Cali for that long, I was gone for like six weeks or something.
So was it culture shock to be shooting in Iowa?
Yeah, but in a good way. I found people there were, you know, less ‘affected’. You know what I mean? Like people here are…well, there’s a lot of poseurs here, you know? In lots of different ways too. There, people were wearing denim jackets and jeans and T-shirts, very down to earth. So I found it really refreshing.
Do you get to meet RG Armstrong?
We really didn’t have any scenes together – I was on the set the day that he was working, and I have one moment where I show up – but I did get to meet him, and he was a real nice guy. And I was certainly aware of his reputation, I’d seen him as a kid growing up. I mean the guy was in a ton of shit; he’s got over a hundred credits.
Hardbodies came in at the height of the 80s teen sex comedy, and you have a memorable role in that as well, allowing you to play a party guy about as far from Malachai as you can get. I have such a soft spot for this movie, and it’s so politically incorrect, I shouldn’t like it as much as I do, but your role in that film is incredible, just the weird sign language flipping-people-off thing…
Well there’s some of my Californian right there.
Yeah for sure. Was the lifestyle and the distinctive lingo (“dialoguing” women, “the BBD” etc) a reflection or a parody of what beach culture was like at the time?
I think that when Sean Penn did Fast Times he really hit that culture dead-on. You know, because he grew up in Malibu, so he’d kinda been there-done that, and I didn’t think anybody could do it better. So what I did was my California experience, which, more than just a surfer experience was also the whole skateboard experience. Which now people are much more familiar with thanks to movies like Dogtown and Z-Boys and all that, but that was a big part of the culture out here too. And so I knew lots of guys from when I grew up who were skateboarders. And why I’m explaining all this is that, when we went to do the wardrobe, the wardrobe person had very different ideas than I did. And her ideas were based on the fact that she was living in Hermosa Beach, and her son was a surfer. And it was a different kind of shorts, different kind of shirts, and I didn’t want that. I don’t know if you know Hermosa Beach, but it’s like the Orange County beaches.
Oh, okay. Yeah.
Very white, upper middle class vibe. That’s not who my guy was. My guy was like Venice Beach. And that’s what I knew. So most of the stuff I actually wore, I either went and bought myself, or I already had. Most of those T-shirts that were cut up, they were all shirts I really wore growing up. You know, OP, Hang Ten, when that stuff was a popular brand. And the Vans, you know that’s the stuff we wore. I went and got the checkered hat, I found the shades, and I put that whole look together. I knew the director, he used to teach in this other class I used to go to, that my acting coach used to take me to, with this casting director named Gino Havens[i], who was actually the guy who cast Hardbodies. The director Mark Griffiths used to come and critique in that class and he became a big fan, and so when he did a rewrite on the movie he kind of tailor-made that role for me. And he was the one who came up with that ‘flipping-off in forty languages’; I had a good month or more to prepare, to think of ideas for that. He knew my work, he trusted me, and he said ‘make something happen there’. So I choreographed a routine. It worked out pretty well!
The dialogue in the movie, did it actually influence the way people spoke in real life?
Well, particularly the word ‘hardbodies’, which was not a word in the lexicon of American language. You couldn’t find the word hardbodies in the dictionary. You can now! I mean that’s pretty amazing, that’s some serious pop culture right there.
Yeah! And you ended up working with Hardbodies director Mark Griffiths again over a decade later in Behind Enemy Lines. Did you have a good relationship with him?
Yeah, we became friends and worked together a few times. We did Behind Enemy Lines in the Philippines. That was wild.
What was it like shooting over there? Was it like ‘the lawless land’?
No, we were in more safe areas, I think it’s the south that is the scary part. We were basically near Manila, everywhere we went was within an hour of Manila. But that being said, we always had military guys with us, it was really kinda weird. Whenever we shot, there would be like four or five army dudes with M-16s on their shoulders like it was just nothing. I remember once we went and shot where their barracks were, and that was really bizarre because they were living with their families in there, and there were just like guns on the wall, you know, like an M-16 just leaning up against the wall. And there are kids running around. An accident waiting to happen, was how it looked to me!
It’s funny that earlier you were talking about Sean Penn doing Spiccoli in Fast Times, because I think his character in that movie is really channelling the guy who is the core subject of the movie The Orkly Kid that you were later in with Crispin Glover. I don’t know if you ever saw the original movie that The Orkly Kid is based on? It’s called The Beaver Kid.
No, I knew it was based on a true story but I didn’t know there was some filming of the actual guy.
Yeah. Yeah Trent Harris who made The Orkly Kid made this documentary called The Beaver Kid about this guy ‘Groovin’ Gary’, and then he remade the film as a dramatization with Sean Penn playing that character, that was apparently shot during lunch breaks on Fast Times or something.
And he’s just acting out verbatim the role of the guy in the documentary. And then The Orkly Kid is the third part of that, where it’s the same story told again but as more of a narrative film. You can get them all together under the name The Beaver Trilogy. And if you see this kid, the original Groovin Gary, it’s the exact mannerisms of Spiccoli. It’s uncanny.
That’s pretty funny, wow.
Have you watched it recently?
No, I have a copy but I haven’t sat down and watched it. I saw it at the original AFI screening, and I thought it was pretty interesting, and it gets kind of heavy at the end of course. But mainly the impression that was left on me was just in that scene with Crispin. We walk in to do a rehearsal and I have no idea what’s going on, but Trent Harris is like, ‘Okay you’re smoking in the boys’ room. Okay, go.’ And then Crispin came out in the Olivia Newton John outfit, out of the bathroom stall – they didn’t tell us he was going to be there. And so that, number one, was shocking, but just his work was so interesting on top of it. And I was just like ‘who in the hell is this guy?’ His inner life, his ‘subtext’ they call it, with Crispin just really runs rampant. You just see so many thoughts going across that guy’s eyes when he’s working. He left an impression on me, you know?
And so that was actually your first time seeing or knowing about Crispin Glover, was him coming out of that bathroom stall with that outfit on?
Yeah. At that point I realized this guy was one of the more interesting young actors I’d ever seen. I’m not surprised that he went on to do well. Such an interesting, eccentric guy.
And then you worked with him again on Back to the Future.
Yeah and he was super cool. It wasn’t going to his head.
What kind of competitiveness was there among the teen actors your age? Teenagers and movie stardom always seems like a dangerous combination to me, in terms of healthy socialization.
Yeah – it’s an awkward age, and to be on the big screen at the same time made me hyper-aware of myself at times; it was overwhelming. I can’t speak for anyone else, but what keep me grounded was just doing the work and not getting too caught up in the hype.
Do you remember anything about Eric Stoltz having Michael J. Fox’s role in Back to the Future?
Yeah, one of the reasons that movie was a very nice payday for me was that I worked before Eric got fired. So in their scrambling to reshoot everything, my agents said, ‘you know, Courtney’s still on payroll’, and they were like ‘yeah yeah, whatever’ and then they realized ten weeks later that I was still on payroll and they flipped out. So we made a deal but I still did really well for a character that really should have worked about a week. But yeah, I was around a bit when Eric was working, and I think the deal was – as much as I like Eric’s work and I obviously got to work with him on Memphis Belle – he was being kind of really serious. Asking to be called by his character’s name, and people found it off-putting and I guess the word was, they didn’t feel he was funny. So they let him go. And that was a huge blow for him. It was probably the toughest moment in his career.
Yeah, it seems like people never really got into or caught onto Eric Stoltz until the 90s. It seems like in the 90s he had this run with tons of really interesting indie films, but it took audiences a while to figure out where he fit.
He’s been pretty quiet as of late. I wonder about that; with him, I could see that being a choice.
When you did Memphis Belle did you have a lot of interaction with the producer, David Puttnam? [ii]
Yeah, he was really hands-on. Obviously he was a big-time producer, one of the biggest in England, not to mention he was head of the studio here for a minute – Warner Brothers – and the film was very important to him, he was a little kid during WWII and remembers running around, having to sleep in the subways at night. So it was real for him. And he really created a great environment, he put a great team together to make a really quality movie.
Did you have to undergo any special training for filming?
[In addition to the research requirements], we did a ten-day boot camp that was the ten longest days of my life. Day two or three in, we had a 24-hour day, they woke us up at 3am and we didn’t get to bed again til 3am. And the whole time we were doing drills. And we had to do tasks that had to be done in a short period of time, and they just kept the pressure on us, to break us, basically. At least three times I had to ask “Is this the same day? Is this the same day?” It was unbelievable. We were trained by ex-SAS agents, the guys that – I don’t know if you remember – in the 80s in England when that Embassy got taken over? [Referring to the Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980][iii] They had like eight guys parachute on top of the building and swing down with ropes and smash through and take it back over. Three of the guys who trained us were the guys who did that mission. They were the real deal. And they put us through the paces to get us to bond under pressure, because that’s what these guys had to do. And it worked. It brought out all the personalities and idiosyncrasies when you go through ten days like that. You kinda find out who’s made of what and who cracks where.
Speaking of ‘who cracks where’, tell me about working with Bruce Dern on The ‘Burbs. I have this theory that Bruce Dern can’t be trusted. He is very suspicious to me.
Ha ha – Bruce Dern was really a super nice guy! First off I think he’s a really good actor and he plays edgy characters beautifully. But the way he conducted himself on set was fantastic – the first thing he did was put a betting pool of some sort together for the crew, putting the money out of his pocket so that they would win something. I don’t know if it was baseball, I don’t even remember what it was, but just right away he was endearing himself to the crew. And then me personally, he really took me under his wing on that shoot. One of the first things I did was the first time I go to the mailbox and they see me for the first time, and he watched that work and came up to me – and he called me by my character’s name, Hans – he said [insert startling Bruce Dern imitation]: “That’s some really nice work, Hans.” And we started talking, and he started giving me advice about the business and stuff. Stuff that I was really able to use. And he really gave me some wonderful complements about my work. And he’s a guy I really respected, so to have that for the 8 weeks we worked on that movie was really good. I would love to work with the guy again.
He was also riffing on his Coming Home character. And he was clear about that. He knew he was mocking that whole thing, you know what I mean? And you know, a lot of the best lines in the movie that he did were improv; that line “Hey Pinocchio, where you goin’?” that was all him. And that’s a great line. But it wasn’t though he did that stuff in any overbearing or dominant way, but when he did do something, it was really funny. Like peeling the wallpaper, that was his idea too. Just weird stuff that he would come up with.
You said that Henry Silva was really funny on the set of Lust in the Dust too, which is also something that I wouldn’t expect.
Oh, absolutely. Not only funny, but incredibly open. I mean, especially considering the amount of work that guy had done, going all the way back to Viva Zapata. I mean, this guy was in the studio system and did a truckload of work. And he was really cool with me. There was a line where he calls a girl a “pinche puta”, that wasn’t in the script but he wanted to come up with something to all her. And I grew up in Chicano neighbourhoods, and I said, you know, this would be pretty nasty, and he laughed, he goes, “that’s really funny!” And he used it! I mean a guy who’s been in the business maybe 30 years at that point listening to some kid who was in his third film?
What was it like being in an overtly gay movie during a very conservative period of history where people in real life were so antagonistic toward gays?
Well, number one, I think I was too young to know that or think about that, number two, I grew up in California which is obviously pretty progressive. But the funniest thing – or the scariest thing depending on how you look at it – is that the casting agent said before I left: “If you have any trouble, the first AD is straight.” That really scared me, I was like, why did they say that? But in fact that was the furthest thing from the truth – everybody was great, and I mean, I worked two weeks on that film, and I stayed another two weeks. Partially because Santa Fe, New Mexico was an amazing place, but also I felt there was such a rich variety of veteran actors – I mean, Cesar Romero, man! At that point, he may be forgotten by a lot of people, but my god, that guy was a major, major movie star in his time. And Tab Hunter, and Geoffrey Lewis was hilarious in that thing. Lainie Kazan was on Broadway… I just knew that I was in with a bunch of really good veteran character actors. So it just seemed to me that the smart thing to do was hang out. So that’s what I did, and I would go watch as much work as I could watch.
How did you end up being the only white guy in a Latino gang in Dennis Hopper’s Colors?
Four reasons: one, a white boy was written into the script – ‘Whitey’. Two, my acting mentor Virgil Frye knew Dennis well, and had helped him make Easy Rider.[iv] Three, I grew up in gang neighbourhoods in LA. Four, Gurrado Mejia and I were doing Can’t Buy me Love at the time and when he read the script he told me about the role. Meant to be, I guess!
You’re also a musician, and wrote and starred in the 2009 film Benny Bliss and the Disciples of Greatness, in which the titular Evil Knievel-eque musical preacher aims to rid the word of electronic devices. Tell me a bit about what led you to write this character.
Benny Bliss started out as a frontman idea for a band. While recording an EP I met the director Martin Guigui, turns out he was an accomplished keyboard player, he came in to lay down some tracks for us and the movie idea evolved from there. I personally have always been a little untrusting of technology and its effects on us humans; Martin picked up on that and we ran with it. It was great fun making that film.
So after everything, what would you consider your favourite role?
That’s impossible to answer. To me it’s really more about the experience of making the film. It’s not just a character, it’s the whole project, and how did it go. You could have the greatest character in the world but if the people you work with suck, it really puts a sour note on it. But that being said, I’d probably have to say Memphis Belle ranks as one of the top experiences, because I got to go to England, because we got to fly in a real B-17 bomber, because they flew out the real guys the movie was about and we had dinner with them and their wives, and Harry Connick gets on the piano and they’re dancing with their wives. Just unbelievable. Priceless stuff, you know?
[i] While Gino Havens’ current credits may not be very well known films, he cast some very important films in the 70s and 80s that showed his predilection for spotting talent and putting together some heavy-hitting ensembles. Among his credits are Phantom of the Paradise, Friday Foster, The Jerk, Alligator, Thrashin’ and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.
[ii] David Puttnam not only made some of the biggest Oscar winners of the 80s, but also had a hell of a track record for cult musical films in the 70s – things like Stardust and That’ll Be The Day, Lisztomania, Bugsy Malone and one of my favourite films ever – Melody starring Jack Wild.
[iii] Read the full story HERE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Embassy_siege
[iv] Virgil Frye was a makeup artist on Easy Rider.