IN CONVERSATION WITH DAVID HOWARD THORNTON
“Art is black and white, with an occasional red splattered over him of the blood from his victims” says actor David Howard Thornton of TERRIFIER’S maniacal clown, who terrorises three young women on Halloween night. In conversation with FrightFest, the actor spoke of how evoking comedy and terror through silence presented an opportunity to connect with his own comedic influences.
Why a career in acting? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I came out the womb an actor. My parents were very involved with church theatre and such, so they had me doing choir and church plays very early on. I was very shy in my school years and I was bullied, and wanting to help me break out of my shell, my mother got me involved in auditioning for community theatre, and it just snowballed from there. All of those years I had people making fun of me, I discovered I had a knack for making people laugh with me on stage, and I think that's when everything clicked in my head: Oh wow, I enjoy this! There was this sense of joy I got from entertaining people and so it just snowballed from there. I'd say that's when I first realised that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
How have your experiences as an actor influenced the way you watch films as a spectator? Are you still able to lose yourself within the magic of film?
Oh, I can still easily get lost in the magic; I know how to turn that part off in my brain if I want to [laughs]. When I am re-watching a film is when I'll turn on the other switch and think: Okay, let's figure out how they did everything here. And especially with films that use a lot of practical effects over CG because I enjoy those. But usually when I go to a film, I go with the mindset that I am here to be entertained, not to try to figure out how anything is done, so entertain me.
It is a reciprocative respect from one performer to another?
It's a symbiotic relationship I guess you could say. I feed off the energy I get and the more I can tell they're enjoying what's going on, the more it feeds me, and the more I end up putting out to the audience. And that’s the one thing I miss in film versus stage. With stage work you get that instant feedback, and so you know if something is working or not, whereas with film you go ahead and film it, and you have to wait to see how it is received.
Stage is the actor’s medium, whereas in film the actor places their performance in the hands of the director and editor. There is a significant requirement for trust within this collaborative relationship, yet equally, how important is it to embrace instinct within the moment of the performance?
There really is and there are times when you think: Why did they use that take? Oh well! [laughs]. Sometimes it is the only usable shot they'll have had to use, and you'll never know what may have happened. There could have been some weird sound glitch or something else that occurred, and so you do have to put a lot of trust into your director to put out the best quality product.
I usually rely on instinct, and especially with comedy what I think is funny, hopefully other people will think is funny. Or what I think is scary, hopefully other people will think is scary. You have to rely on your instincts as an actor because you are supposed to be portraying emotions, which are a very human quality.
How did you come to play Art in TERRIFIER, and how did the expectations of the experience compare to the realities?
Well where to begin. I was first introduced to the character in the original film ALL HALLOW'S EVE, and I found the character very intriguing and fun. I've always been drawn to villains, especially villains that have an element of humour to them, like The Joker or Pennywise, or a monster like Freddy Krueger, as well and Chucky. There’s something interesting about a villain that can be funny and scary at the same time, and they are just a lot more dynamic that way.
When I saw the audition notice on an actor web site I thought: Oh wow, this is perfect because they were looking for a tall skinny actor with a background in physical comedy or clowning. That was totally me, so I contacted my agents and had them submit me. Luckily I got an audition, went in there and I had to improv a scene off the top of my head, which was a lot of fun, and because he doesn't talk, there was no script. It was a nice exercise and I apparently floored them enough that they asked me in the room if I was willing to come in for make-up tests…I guess I did good [laughs].
Art is definitely a fun character to play because he’s just so evil and he enjoys what he does, and I find that to be so delicious [laughs]. I was excited about tackling this character because he’s unique as he doesn't talk, and so all his desires and emotions have to be portrayed through physical and facial movement. Your main skill set as an actor is your voice and that was taken away from me here, so I enjoyed this challenge and more so because you don't see that a lot in this day and age. You saw that a lot back in the silent film days with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton who I grew up watching, and I always wanted to have an opportunity to tackle something like that, especially like what Rowan Atkinson would do with MR BEAN. I loved his work growing up and I never thought I'd have that opportunity to take on such a challenge as that, and so I felt very fortunate with this role, and especially because I got to blend physical comedy into horror, which I think is unique in itself.
Art like The Joker opens up the discussion of cinema as a playground in which we can shed our moral sensibilities, allowing ourselves to delight in characters the context of reality does not permit. This speaks to how we vicariously experience our darker and more primitive natures through the safety of storytelling?
Oh yeah, I totally agree. It’s a little bit of escapism too in that regard. I don't think a lot of people would really want to meet Art in real life [laughs], especially with our film, which is this game of cat and mouse that makes it fun to watch.
TERRIFIER moves at a brisk pace and the half way point is typically the three quarters mark for a lot of these types of films. As you say, it is a game that keeps on unravelling?
It really does and not to spoil too much, but there is a nice twist in the middle where you think this is where the film could have ended, and it’s only the half way point. It is a huge roller coaster ride for an audience and I guess that's what makes it more fun because in a lot of horror films I have been watching recently, that element of the chase is not really present. Most of the film is a build-up to the chase, which comes when there is about maybe ten minutes left, and then it’s over. Here, there is a little bit of build up and then it’s chase…a little bit of a break and more chase...a little bit of a break and then more chase….it doesn’t let up.
This presents a challenge in that a chase is sheer suspense, which naturally benefits from an engagement with the audience by other narrative or structural means?
What helps with some of that is Damien injects a lot of humour into it because you have to have a little bit of a relief to keep the audience engaged. If it is constantly violent and dark then it will get to you, and so you have to have those moments that allow you breathe. Whether it's a little bit of laughter here and there or you have silent moments where somebody is just walking around or trying to flee, you need those small breaks and Damien was smart in how he went about doing that.
Aside from pacing, the juxtaposition of the silent Art with the vocal protagonists creates an effective opposition?
Oh yeah, I think that is a nice juxtaposition or parallel, and especially Catherine Corcoran’s character who just never shuts up; she’s constantly trying to crack jokes or egg Art on. It's also a nice parallel to clowns in other films that are always talking, like Joker or Pennywise, especially the Joker; the guy never shuts up [laughs]. He's known for monologuing and this film is fun because those characters are so colourful, and Art is black and white, with an occasional red splattered over him of the blood from his victims.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and does the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience through reflection?
I've been transformed in a lot of ways by this film. Firstly, it has given me a lot more confidence in myself, but I have also discovered some darker aspects too…Oh, wow [laughs]. I’ve found myself now occasionally sitting around in my living room thinking: Erm, I wonder if I could use this to kill someone? I'm like: Oh, I shouldn’t be thinking like this! And then I call Damien up: “Hey, I've an idea for a fun kill.” So it has changed me in that way…maybe I should go to therapy [laughs]. But in some ways I definitely take a lot less crap off people now, so it has got me to be a little bit more gutsy in my day to day life.
As an audience and going back to the humour in the film, you are sometimes laughing at things you probably shouldn’t be laughing at. I think that’s a great way for the audience to reflect on themselves too: Wow, why am I laughing at this? I shouldn’t be laughing at this, but I find this funny. What does that say about me? And I hope some audience members might walk away thinking that.
Read the FrightFest Gore in the Store In Conversion article with TERRIFIER director Damien Leone HERE
Read the FrightFest Gore in the Store review of TERRIFIER from Paul Worts HERE
TERRIFIER is available now on Digital HD and DVD from 9th April 2018 in the UK courtesy of Signature Entertainment.
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