Every October, I do Drive-In of Terror, where I review horror-related games and movies. I've been doing this for three years now. For this year's Drive-In of Terror, I wanted to mix things up and interview an actor known for starring in horror movies. So, I reached out to Thom Mathews.
For horror fans, the actor is best known for playing Freddy in The Return of the Living Dead, Joey in Return of the Living Dead Part II, and Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. He's also starred in his fair share of non-horror titles, such as Alien from LA, Nemesis, and Down Twisted.
Thom is still acting, having recently starred in a western called Warpath, and he even reprised the role of Tommy Jarvis for the fan film Never Hike Alone and Friday the 13th: The Game.
In this interview, I ask him about how he got his start in acting, working on the likes of Return of the Living Dead and its sequel, his roles outside of horror, and construction, especially construction.
It was an honor to speak with Thom. If you want to listen to the audio interview, the video will be embedded below. Check out the channel "Will and Matt's Excellent Podcast" for commentaries on the first two Return of the Living Dead movies.
Without further ado, here's the interview.
1. How did you get into acting?
I was out of high school and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I kept myself busy doing stuff. My family comes from a construction background and so I did that for a while, but for a lifelong goal I didn’t have anything. When I was in my early 20s, I was seeing this girl and she suggested, “Why don’t you become an actor?” And a lightning bolt went off my head like, “That’s it!”
So, I started studying and gearing myself towards that. I didn’t call myself an actor for the longest time because I was studying, practicing, and not getting paid for it. I had a plan to get my SAG card which involved working at Lorimar Productions on shows such as “Dallas” and the like. It took me about a year, but the casting department eventually gave me a walk-on role on one of their shows, and it was off to the races.
2. How did you come to learn about casting for Return of the Living Dead and what did you do to prepare?
I came to learn about it through my agent and they sent me the script, which I thought was cool, but it was a horror film, yet I prepared for the audition. I worked on it and went into the audition for Stanzi Stokes and thought I kicked ass at the audition, but I didn’t hear back from them, thinking I had lost the part.
Nine months later, I get a callback. The reason for the nine months was they were having legal troubles with the title. They call me back, I’m the only one of the guys there, a couple of girls were there too, and I was thinking, “This is weird, there’s usually a lot more people around for callbacks.”
It turns out I had already been cast and I was there to read lines with one of the girls, Beverly Randolph. And then from there the cast rehearsed a couple of weeks before principle photography.
3. What was it like working with James Karen on the film? I know you two became good friends during production.
We did, we did. You know, we found out during the making of Return Part II we had the same birthday, which was November 28. He was amazing. Most of my scenes were with him so we spent a lot of time together in the mornings as the make-up and costumes were put on us. He had all of these great stories from his time in the industry, and as a young actor, I was just eating them up.
He’s a veteran. He was on Broadway in stuff like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and really good friends with a lot of actors and again, he had these really great stories to share and we did become friends after filming.
4. What about Dan O’Bannon? This was his first time directing a film so I assume it must have been challenging for him trying to keep the cast and production in line.
It was challenging, but from my experience it was great but then again, he didn’t have a lot of criticisms with me. In my mind, if he was one of the young ones, he would have been my character. As such, I think he was kinder to me versus what he was like around some of the other actors.
For a first-time director, he did things a bit differently because he was open to suggestions, which allowed for a little improvisation. One of the lines, “Like this job?!” is something we came up with. Jimmy (James Karen) came up with the sacrifice scene in the crematorium and stuff like putting the wedding ring on the incinerator switch in that scene. It was really a collaboration and kudos to Dan for allowing us to collaborate, which again, is something a bit unusual for someone who’s both the writer and director on a film.
5. It’s been nearly 35 years since the movie came out. Why do you think the movie has held up and is still regarded as a classic in the horror genre?
Who knew, right? I think it’s because it’s got a lot of heart and the soundtrack really propelled it and added to the flavor of the movie. It truly is a dark comedy and we acted our asses off. What makes it so genius is the situation, it’s so ridiculous, so hysterical, that’s what makes it so funny. You can watch it today and the make-up and stuff holds up since there’s no CGI or anything like that.
It’s part of pop-culture as well. Ask anybody what zombies eat and they say, “Brains!” But when you ask them if they knew where it came from, they say no. It struck a chord with everybody what with the humor, one-liners, and the stuff we get ourselves into.
6. It’s definitely a “lightning-in-a-bottle” type of movie.
It is. It is, and when you watch it it’s like getting on a freight train at a hundred miles per hour. You can watch it and it just takes off.
7. Was the fact you starred in ROTLD part of the reason you were cast as Tommy Jarvis in “Jason Lives”?
That’s a good question, and I don’t have the answer to it. Tom McLoughlin (the director), who I’m actually going to see in a couple of weeks at a convention, HamiltonCon in Canada, will have the answer to that. I think it was because I looked very similar to John Shepard and maybe also because I had “Return” under my belt had something to do with it, but I’ll find out and let you know.
(Editor’s Note: As of this writing, I have not gotten permanent confirmation from Thom regarding why he was casted. This article will be updated when said info comes in.)
8. Were you ever approached to reprise the role of Tommy Jarvis in any of the later sequels? I know you'd eventually come back to the role for the fan film "Never Hike Alone" and the video game.
In “Part VII” they used my likeness and some quips from “Part VI,” but that’s as far as it went. Wasn’t asked to be in “Jason X” or “Jason Takes Manhattan.”
“Friday the 13th” at the time was kind of the red-headed stepchild for Paramount. It was there and it was a moneymaker, but no one was proud of it. So, what they did was treat it like a flavor of the year, adding in psychic powers for one installment and sending him into space for the next.
9. It’s ironic you starred in three horror movies within the span of three years. Did you find this unexpected?
Totally. I was just a young actor looking for a job, so I got lucky with “Return” and “Friday the 13th Part VI.”
10. You and James Karen came back to star in ROTLD Part II, what I’ve always wondered is did they ever shoot additional scenes with the two of you as zombies since you both sort of disappear from the movie after turning?
They didn’t. Do you know how we came back as different characters?
Wasn’t it something like Tom Fox requested to the director or something like that?
No. When the producers got the script, they went overseas to the foreign distributors to get money for the movie. As you know, they sell the rights to films to foreign countries like Norway, Sweden, and Japan. Well, “Return 1” was a huge hit in Japan so the company asked a studio in Tokyo for money. However, they wanted us in the sequel, so that’s how we came back.
11. Although Part II has its fans, a lot of people say it isn’t as good as the first, as someone who starred in the movie, why do you think this is the case?
It’s easy because “Return 1” was a dark comedy and you laughed at the situations the characters got themselves into. With “Part 2,” they tried to play up the comedy, which is why it wasn’t as good as the original.
They went for the comedy, it was very tongue-in-cheek, but a lot of it didn’t work in my opinion. It wasn’t as grounded as “Part 1.”
12. If a studio announced they were doing an ROTLD movie, remake or otherwise, and wanted you and some of the other cast members to appear in it, would you accept the offer?
I’m not sure, given how all the characters from the original died. That’s a tough question. Ultimately, I think what it boils down to is if the script is good.
13. Besides starring in horror movies, you’ve done a bunch of other types of movies and even television shows, including “Alien from LA”. What was it like working on that particular film?
“Alien from LA” was originally called “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”
Why the name change?
I’m not sure. That was either Albert (Pyun)’s doing or the studios. I was added after the fact because originally Bill Moseley had been casted, and I replaced him as Kathy Ireland’s love interest in that movie. The audience really liked my character, so he upgraded my billing on the movie.
She (Kathy Ireland) was great to work with. This was before she did voice work and we ironically make a joke about her voice in the movie. She great, very professional, and it was a fun, little script.
|Fans of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" will recognize|
Mathews from the film "Alien from LA,"
which was riffed on season five of the series.
14. You also starred in one of “The Dirty Dozen” sequels, how did that come about?
It was a “Movie of the Week” for CBS if I recall. I auditioned for it and we, the cast, had a great time doing it. I was a big fan of Telly Savalas, so it was fun to work with him even though it was so cold out there in Europe. We tried to stay inside as much as possible. Telly likes to play poker, so it became more of a poker game than an actual movie shoot.
15. To deviate a little bit, what’s your favorite aspect of acting?
My favorite aspect, which doesn’t really come up a lot, is having a great scene and getting lost in it. As an actor, you can look at a movie and be like, “Oh, that was the audition scene.” When you’re spending a lot of time running around, getting the scenes done, it’s whatever, it’s moving the story along.
There are maybe one to three scenes where you can really sink your teeth into and have a great scene that you get lost in. Nothing exists around you in moments like these. The camera guy doesn’t exist, the make-up guy doesn’t exist, you’re just doing your thing.
16. Going back to “Alien from LA,” this wasn’t the only time you’ve worked with director Albert Pyun, as you would go on to appear in other films of his like “Nemesis” and “Kickboxer 4.” What’s it like working with Albert?
I’ve been in 11 movies for Albert. Right now, he’s living in Nevada and I was approached about a month ago to appear in a documentary about his life. He’s an indie film director and producer still going at it even though he’s got some medical issues going on right now. He’s worked with some amazing people and they’re trying to get them all on the documentary.
Albert is a sweet person, which is funny because I realize having worked with him that the sweeter the person the more outlandish the films are. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, yet his movies are filled with all sorts of mayhem and death. He gave me a lot of great parts in films like “Down Twisted” and I had a lot of fun with the characters he’s let me play as.
For example, with “Down Twisted,” the character I was casted as was supposed to be 6’4” and 225 pounds so I started working out and dyed my hair dark. The dark hair didn’t mix well with my skin so I ended up bleaching it white and then went down and arrived on location in Mexico. Albert didn’t recognize me at first, but when he did, he said he loved what I had done.
The only problem was that we had a reshoot a few months later so I had to re-dye my hair for one day. Regardless, it was fun, and Albert was great and always open to suggestion.
17. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you do a movie that didn’t see the light of day for like 15 years or something like that?
Yes. It was called “A Letter to Dad.” That was an interesting story. The guy who wrote and directed it, no, the producer, it was his story and it was an homage to life. He did what I do which was work on houses, fix them up, and sell them, which was how he got the money to fund the movie.
We were 80 percent done and he ran out of money and then unfortunately committed suicide not long after. It went into arbitration and eventually the director did get it back. One of the last scenes shot was done 15 years later. John Ashton, who played my dad, was someone my character had issues with growing up and as such, he couldn’t commit to a relationship. It was hard for my character to commit to anyone due to the fighting between the two.
But yeah, we had it wrapped up 15 years later. You could say it was a movie 15 years in the making.
18. Besides acting, you also run a construction company. Is construction something that runs in the family?
As I said in the opening, my dad was in the construction business as was my grandfather, who did a lot of work for the studios. I always had it around me, I always had it part of my life. I took wood shop in high school and similar courses, so it was second nature to me. Eventually, my construction company (Hammer and Trowel) took off and at one point, we had 18 employees on staff.
We’ve done a bunch of housing projects including Ozzy Osbourne and Sharon Osbourne’s house. We did a bunch of interesting stuff with that place like take a cast of their daughter’s fist and made them into hinges for the front door. Sharon brought some stain glass from England of Moses coming down from the mountain with the tablets and I told her, “Let’s make them into doors.”
She also had these cool chandeliers that were shaped like boats and she asked what we could do with them. I told I’d think of something and after a few days I suggested taking them, putting them down this long hallway and calling them the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.
19. What movie projects are you working on now? I know you recently starred in a western.
We finished a western (“Warpath”) that I finished about a year ago and premiered in Detroit about a week ago. I did another movie a little bit before the western called “Killer Therapy,” which was shot here in Los Angeles. I finished that one on a Saturday, flew down on Sunday, and started shooting the western that Monday. This was the second time in my life I had something like that happen, the first was when after I did “Friday the 13th” I went down south to do “Down Twisted.”
In the western, I actually sing a couple of songs which I was a little embarrassed by and I actually asked the “Warpath” director, Josh Becker, “Can we cut the singing scenes? You don’t want me singing, it’s not the best,” but he told me it was integral to the movie, so we went from there. Luckily, they were folk songs, so it worked out well.
Now, in “Killer Therapy,” I play the father of a son who’s mentally off, he’s not quite there. We don’t know what it is. My wife in the movie was adopted so we don’t know her medical history and the other kid we have was adopted due to the condition of our son, who’s put in therapy. These therapists give him treatments which don’t help him and instead make him into a serial killer.
He does what the therapists did to him like electroshock therapy, so at one point, he gets a toaster, puts it in a car, and uses jumper cables to electrocute his mother like the therapists did to him. It’s pretty gruesome and will be a lot of fun for the horror community.
Next month, I’ll be shooting a teaser for a movie called “Stain Free” where I play a crime scene cleaner who’s hired by this mysterious group that turns out to be run by vampires to go out and clean up the murders committed by them.
20. How long have you been doing conventions?
It feels like six, but it’s really more like 10. I didn’t want to do it for a long time because I felt like I would just be selling my soul being there, signing autographs, and getting money for it. I tell you, though, it’s been so much fun going to them and hearing these stories from the fans about how they saw the movies I was in.
They’re dedicated and really passionate about horror. It’s so much fun to talk with them and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say they were like eight or nine when they saw these movies, which I’m totally against because kids will have nightmares at that age. It was always through an older brother or cousin that they saw a particular horror movie. I didn’t let my kids see the films I had been in till they were in their early teens.
It’s crazy seeing people with stuff like tattoos from “Return of the Living Dead” or “Friday the 13th” all over their arms, and again, hearing their stories. I’ve been all over the place to places like Germany and the UK. Soon, I’ll be going to HamiltonCon in Canada and then to Spooky Empire in Florida.
21. You should consider coming down to Mississippi next year. We have a comic convention we do every summer. That’s something you might want to consider looking in to.
Usually how it works is if you want me considered as a guest you hit up the promoters on Facebook that’s how I and others normally get asked to come to the conventions. I’ve been to the one in Canada a few times because the fans keep requesting, I come and C.J. and Tom McLoughlin will also be there at this year’s event.
I do a lot of the “Return of the Living Dead” cast reunions and everyone including Clu Gulager usually shows up. As you know, James Karen and Don Calfa are no longer with us, but they’re always watching over us in heaven.
22. Before I close the interview out, what advice would you give to those looking to get into acting?
Don’t do it, unless you really have to. It requires passion, because it is a very tough business. If you think about it, what it takes to cast a film is insane. The script has to be good, and it requires effort. The western I did, it took 20 years to make. I look at people who try to get cast and I notice they go through the same emotions I went through. They get nervous, get anxious, it’s mind-bending.
If you have the passion for it, do it. Live simple, have a routine you can fall back on, whether it’s going to the gym or learning a new language. It might end proving useful on a future project because when I was younger, I took karate because my older brother used to beat me up and I ended up using what I learned in the movies.
Keep it simple and keep your mind straight because it will get to you.