Tom Towles is one of those actors that will leave you with a lasting impression. Known for mostly playing villains and less than charming characters, Towles’s career has spanned over forty years, with roles in memorable movies such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Halloween, Night of the Living Dead and all of the movies Rob Zombie has directed, not to mention his theatre work and his involvement with fan favourites: Star Trek: Voyager or Firefly. Given his versatility and the uncanny ability to make each role different from the last one, I can’t say I’m surprised.
We were lucky enough to get to ask him a few questions, which makes you doubly lucky since you get to read the answers, which offer a great insight in the inner workings of the man’s mind, not to mention a lot of valuable lessons about the movie and theatre industry.
Acting is something that attracts a lot of people, each with a different story of what made them try it out. How did you start and how did you make it, given that a lot of those that set their hopes on this career end up returning to whatever they used to do before.
I have been incredibly lucky and tenacious by default. I started out as a photography student at Columbia College in Chicago after my discharge from the Marine Corps. I had been a photographer in the Corps and managed to convince the admissions people that I was worthy of a scholarship, but after my first semester I was side tracked into acting (a much higher ratio of women to men). The dumb luck part is that the head of the department thought I had some talent and they transferred my scholarship to the theatre department and that got me my first job with Paul Sills and his Story theatre Company. That got me my Actors Equity card, which gave me my first two Broadway shows. The tenacious by default came with the realization that I was emotionally unsuited to standard forms of employment. That severely limited my options to some form of institutional care or the entertainment industry. Having suffered that epiphany my choice became clear: I was an actor for life or some such nonsense. The moral of all that is: Relentless tenacity – or severely limited options – trumps talent every time.
In terms of acting, do you think anyone has influenced your style or the choices you’ve made throughout your career? Any favourite actors or actresses that impacted you one way or the other?
The deeper truth of my story is that I, at a level I did not comprehend early on, had wanted to be an actor from the moment I saw Ernest Borgnine in “Marty” when I was really to young to completely understand it. Something inside me lit up when I realized you didn’t have to be beautiful to be an actor. From that point on I followed the character guys – the one’s too ugly to be leads but supremely talented – Jack Klugman, Strother Martin, L. Q. Jones. Just as an aside: My hero Ernie beat James Dean, Marlon Brando and Spencer Tracy to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1955. In that moment he broke the mold and changed my world. But as much as I loved the character guy I was enraptured by the great stage actors: Lawrence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Christopher Walken and Anthony Hopkins. I never saw Olivier on stage but I did see Hopkins, Walken and Plummer on Broadway and they were stunning. As far as actress go I always loved Lillian Gish in “Night of the Hunter”, Piper Laurie in “Carrie”, Kathleen Turner in “Body Heat” (brilliant writing and directing by Lawrence Kasdan). All of these men and women have added something, not only to my awareness of the acting process but to the compendium of the craft itself.
Out of all the roles that you played so far, which one do you consider your favourite and why?
I can’t honestly say there is a favourite role because any given piece of work is a uniquely synergistic journey that revolves around a collective focus to bring to life the written word, as the foundation of the Directors vision. So individual parts are elevated or submerged based on who I worked with vs. what I played. All that is to say I had as spectacular a time working with Robert DeNiro, Richard Dreyfuss and William Forsythe as I did with Rob Zombie, John McNaughton and William Shatner. They were all great working events. But there is one moment that I do love in the movie “The Borrower” when I eat a rat. I see that scene and I still laugh.
Has there ever been a role that you passed on, only to regret it later? Could you tell us what it was?
If I passed on it I never regret it. That’s second-guessing myself and that only leads to madness. The projects I have passed on had some, usually, horrible writing or the people involved seemed entirely too strange and undependable to work with. I don’t remember any of their names but nobody else does either.
You’ve starred in quite a few sci-fi shows: Star Trek: Voyager, Firefly and the more humorous 3rd Rock from the Sun, as well as a lot of horror films: Night of the Living Dead and Halloween to name only a few. Do you count yourself among the fans of these genres? (You’re getting a Geek Pride cupcake if you do.)
I am a major sci-fi geek! I love the genre and loved all of the shows you listed long before they put me to work. That goes back to the dumb luck reality. I grew up on Star Trek and was heart broken when it (the original) was cancelled so it naturally followed that I would be devoted to the returns. Third Rock was a huge fave of mine from the first episode. I thought it was brilliant and working on it was a joy. Joss Whedon is one of the truly great creative minds around I followed his work from the moment I saw the Buffy the movie. Experience told me the movie was barely the surface of what he had to offer. I was right! Have you seen his “Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog”?
Horror is another story. I love the genre when it works. By that I mean really scares me, not gross me out. Horror should reduce you to your most childlike pee in your pants terror state. This means psychological terror, not dismembering mayhem. Real terror is something that allows the audience/reader to scare him/herself by filling in the spaces of what you don’t see, but imagine. Every member of the audience, every reader will selectively choose the exact fear that works for them. Most horror – this applies mostly to movies – is slasher bullshit. The great horror movies, in my arrogant opinion, are: the 1963 “The Haunting” with Julie Harris, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shinning” and the 1980 “The Changeling” with George C. Scott. These are the personification of “Holy Fuck!!!” Horror. The older ones that still hold up are almost all of universals horror list, but especially: “The Bride of Frankenstein” still radiant as a piece of film not so much horrifying as flat out great. “The Creature Form the Black Lagoon” and original “Body Snatchers”!
Theatre or film? Given your experience with both, could you ever make the choice or is it an impossible one? Since you did theatre for quite a while, do you have any favourite plays that you did or would like to do?
Theatre without a doubt! She was my first love and my most abiding, but it is so much work and so difficult to earn a living that, like most great lovers, she will always live in my memory, but we can’t be together. Film has made me indolent and frail, unable to muster the stamina for twelve hours of rehearsal and eight performances a week. So I must release her to younger lovers. The only play I really regret never having done is Shakespeare “Richard the Third”. C’est la vie.
Your career spans a few decades and you have starred in quite a lot of projects that resonate with people, films and series that stood the test of time. Is there a role that followed you throughout your career? One role that you feared you’ll never be able to shake, that made you fear that you might end up type-cast?
I have always been type cast. I have been a villain from my first show and I have loved it. I don’t think it’s possible to make a living in movies and not be “Type Cast” it is a profoundly modular business run more by money people with very little imagination who think, for the most part, in stereotypes. This is why real creativity seems so startling and is usually profoundly successful. But it’s completely understandable: the dollar amounts involved in making a movie are enormous.
You got the chance to work with quite a lot of actors and actresses. Is there anyone that you would’ve liked to star opposite, someone that you didn’t get the chance to act alongside of yet?
I would LOVED to have worked with Sir Laurence Olivier. He had something special I would like to have experienced in a shared performance.
Since we were on the topic of people you’d like to star opposite, what projects would you be interested in doing? There are quite a lot of “hot” things at the moment, from Game of Thrones to anything Marvel and more independent film scripts than ever.
I’m not sure I have the intense passion for acting I once had. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it. I enjoy writing these days with a passion that I had for acting. I preformed on stage and screen for forty years. I think it may be time to do something different. All that I loved about acting began with great stories and words; that love of words still burns brightly. I have had some success with writing and I’d like to expand on it.
On a less professional note, what are some of your hobbies? Some of the things you do when the cameras aren’t rolling?
My biggest hobby is reading. Frankly its passed hobby and entered into a full fledged addiction. Followed less addictively by bike riding.
Let’s get downright personal and live on the wild side with this next question: What’s your favourite Game of Thrones character. Based on silly internet testing, that will tell us everything there is to know about you. (assuming you watch it/read the books).
Tyrion Lannister, Arya Stark, Jon Snow. In that order. Of course I watch it!! Peter Dinklage rules!! (I can’t bring myself to start the books. I am to easily habituated to good stories so I’ll wait until he finishes the next book)
Since we already went to the dark side with the before question, could you tell us one fact about you that most people don’t know?
Probably not a good idea. What they don’t know can’t hurt me.
And given that this is the “hot” (ironically so) thing of the moment, what’s your opinion on the ice-bucket challenge? Would you do it if you were nominated?
I’m not completely sure what it is and what it’s for. I have only the slightest understanding that it may be for a reasonable, if not good, cause but beyond that I’m at a loss. I know it involves a bucket and ice. Would I do it if nominated? Depends on who nominated me and why.
Given your experience, what advice would you have for young, aspiring actors?
You must love it beyond rational thought. If you want to do it, it’s vanity; you can succeed but the ugly moments will kill you. If you need to do it, it’s art. But you must need it so badly that your head will explode if you don’t. This is the only thing that will allow you to survive the ugly parts. And always remember: tenacity overwhelms talent every time, but talent combined with tenacity is supreme.
Any messages for our Geek Pride fans out there?
Stand tall! Love what you love unabashedly! Love who you love unconditionally and don’t give a serious fuck about what somebody else thinks about any of it! And do no harm. There are no limits, YOU decide whether you succeed or fail NO ONE ELSE!!!!
Thank you very much for the opportunity to do this and I hope we’ll have the chance to talk again.