We talk with talented actor and horror icon Courtney Gains about the state of horror and his impressive career spanning more than 30 years
Courtney Gains is best known it seems, for his role as Malachai in the 1984 horror classic Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. One person shouldn’t be known for just a single moment in time, so I was excited to meet and talk to Courtney at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland recently, and found out so much more about the busy actor!
INTERVIEW WITH COURTNEY GAINS
Los Angeles Zombie Girl: Thank you Courtney! I guess I’ll just start from the beginning. How did you get into acting in the first place?
Courtney Gains: “So, the first play I ever did was at like 10 years old, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and I started out a dwarf and ended up playing the prince. When I went out there and kissed her, the crowd applauded and I was hooked, you know? Hit the boards running and I was hooked. According to my father, though, I stated it at 6 years old. Somebody said, ‘Oh are you gonna be a fireman when you grow up?’ And he said I looked him in the eye and said ‘No, I’m gonna be an actor.’ Not ‘I want to be an actor’, but ‘I’m gonna be’. And he said it really stuck with him and he always thought he would do whatever he could do to make that happen.
So, I consciously remember being hooked by 10, and I kept bugging my mom to do it and finally she took me to a workshop. Coming out of the second class this guy stopped me on the street, his name was Virgil Frye and he was a working actor at the shop I was at, and he just started talking to my mom, saying ‘I like your son’s look, is he an actor, is he studying anywhere?’ After that, I saw his son in a commercial, and in the original Fun with Dick and Jane and he was in all these other movies, so I thought, this guy must know what he’s doing, you know, because his son is working. So, I started studying with him. Long story short, I studied with him for 10 years and he became my manager and really was the one who broke me into the business.”
LAZG: Was Children of the Corn your first movie, and how did you get it and what did you do to prepare for the character of Malachai?
CG: “Yeah, it was. Linda Francis was the main casting director, and she was probably the first person who believed in me as far as in casting, and she brought me into it. I had been studying for 5 years in professional workshops, and I felt like I was ready to go, so I went in there with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I felt like I had something to prove, and I was gonna prove it.
But the real story is the reader, who was also our dialect coach, was Jeff Goldberg, who went on to be a big casting director in Wings, and Cheers. Well, I had one of those fake knives where you can look like you’re stabbing yourself, and I pulled it on him, put it under his throat, and he about wet himself. But I think that’s what sealed the deal! He goes on to tell the story at many lectures to never do that to somebody, but I was too young to know better, and too desperate to care. So that’s how I got the job.
As far as doing the job, I had been studying two, three times a week, I was serious about what I was doing, and I needed to prove to myself that I belonged, that I could do it. That’s what was really at stake for me. I can’t remember all the details, it was 33 years ago, but what I do remember is this: As I mentally and physically prepared (don’t do this yourself, it’s a bad acting thing to do), but when I felt I had myself in the mental state I would go and run in the bathroom and look in the mirror.”
“What I was looking for was a glare from within. When I finally, looked into that mirror and saw a glare that was real, I knew I had done enough work, if that makes sense. I’m a method actor. I was trained in all the methods to be honest, but with Virgil I did very deep emotional work, psychodrama, psychotherapy stuff. So it was coming from within. But I wanted to make sure I could see it.”
LAZG: You’ve been doing this for a long time. Do you have a favorite film from the past?
CG: “Yeah, that’s always a tough question, I always say it’s like trying to pick your favorite child or something. It’s not even, was the film great or not, it’s the experience you had, or that particular character you identified with. I usually end up going to Memphis Belle, and it’s because the quality level of everything was so high and we got to shoot in the UK for 3 months. It was, the movie to get that year as a teen actor. The cinematographer, the production designer, the editor, and the producer had all won Oscars, shooting at Pinewood Studios… it was just everything an actor could dream of. You sort of, at that point thought you arrived, and as many of us have said when we’ve run into each other over our lives, we’ve been chasing that movie ever since!”
LAZG: You have a wonderful horror short, Goodnight Gracie, out in festivals now. Can you tell me more about that?
CG: “I was contacted by this young filmmaker named Stellen Kendrick, who is a fan of mine, and he had this little four minute short he wanted to do, called Goodnight Gracie. I had one line, and I was the villain, with a little girl. We had a very interesting conversation about good and evil and how he’d grown up really hardcore Christian and was no longer that. He took 2 days to shoot a 4 minute short, which to me was a long time. I mean I’ve shot, you know, 10 pages in a day. But his attention to detail was amazing, and he was very very clear about what he wanted and what festivals he wanted.
He had a real vision, and he’s been very successful with it. It just premiered at Sitges Film Festival in Spain, which is like one of the biggest sci-fi film/horror festivals in the world. It premiered last night, and he just sent me a text saying it did really well! I ended up having no lines in it, the line I had got cut. But it’s a very intense, heavy character, sort of a full circle back to the Malachi character, who also didn’t have a lot of dialogue, and was very intense. It’s a great example that you don’t have to have lines to be interesting, you must have an inner life to be interesting.”
“The first scene we did, I thought everybody was just kinda blowing smoke up my ass. They were like ‘dude, you’re so intense, you’re so intense’, and then I looked at the little still they had where I’m looking up at the girl from the stairs, and I was like Holy Shit! When I was working, I was working with this kind of animal essence thing, like a dragon actually. It was just coming off me, so I was like ‘oh, I’m onto something’, whatever I’m doing here is working, because it even shocked me.”
“So, at first, they were just young film students blowing smoke up my ass, but I was actually happy with what I saw. It’s a good little film, on its way to the San Antonio film festival, the New York horror film festival and lots of others; it’s just making the rounds. It’s been really a great calling card for this young director, and now he’s poised to do a feature, not this film but another film. So, hopefully, we continue to work together. I like him a lot and I think he’s got great ideas and a great vision of what he’s doing.”
LAZG: Awesome! Do you have any other projects right now?
CG: “Yeah! You go through these runs. You think you know what’s going on, but you don’t really know. So for the last few years, I was on westerns, a civil war movie. I did cool movie about the kids at the Virginia Military Institute who were brought into the last battle of the civil war. I did Texas Rising, which is this big miniseries on History Channel, so sort of in that group for a while. I thought, ok at this age I’m in the western group now, and I like doing period stuff.
But that sort of dried up and all of a sudden, it’s been a horror run, kinda out of nowhere. Maybe because of the resurgence of the 80s and horror, I don’t know. So one of them is Goodnight Gracie, some others are Camp Cold Brook, Haunted 333 and Corbin Nash. I did a cameo for The FunHouse Massacre, and it’s a pretty good film. Then that producer, Warner Davis, attached himself to this other project that I was already approached to do called Candy Corn, which I think, is the little indie movie that could, I really do.
The director, his name is Josh Hasty, he did a teaser, he did one scene from the movie with this guy Poncho Moler who was in Rob Zombie’s 31. Josh Hastings did the behind the scenes on 31 and, so he wrote this movie for Poncho, who is a little person, and he’s a really good actor. He’s also with my manager. So, they threw my name out there to play the sheriff, and then that happened. Warner Davis saw the teaser and was so blown away by it that he flew to Texas to Frightmare week to meet this director, even though this guy had never done a film before, said ‘I want to produce your film’, and that has kinda helped endorse it already. So he’s attached now, which is great, because it’ll help with distribution.”
“Poncho plays the leader of this traveling freak show, and I’m the sheriff in the small town. We are the two leads. It’s a very clever film, definitely an 80s throw back, all the way. We shot some in LA, and are still shooting, some crucial fall stuff in Ohio in November, and then hopefully we’ll be able to figure out the funding and be able to finish it.”
“I’m not sure when it will be out, but it’s the first indie film that’s come along, in a long time, where I feel the director is really on the pulse of the 80s vibe, and I think he really gets what’s going on.”
“He’s really hands on; he shoots, he writes, he directs, I’m excited about that. Oh, and there is another horror film I’m supposed to do in Serbia with Patrick Reynolds, who I’ve known forever, called Open 24 Hours. I play the lead girl’s serial killer boyfriend, who just gets out of jail. So I’m on a horror binge all of a sudden, and I’m just rolling with it.”
LAZG: How do you think horror films have changed since you did Children of the Corn?
CG: “In Children of the Corn, there are a lot of things that you think you see, but you don’t. You think you see the guys hand go through the meat grinder, but you don’t. You just see some blood splatter on the kids face. In your mind you see it. That how horror was done back then. We’ve gone through a whole, “show ‘em everything”, gore whore, torture porn, and all that, which I’m not really a fan of. Now it seems like we are throwing back, going full circle, and I think that’s for the best. That’s my arc of the whole deal.”
LAZG: What would be your advice for a kid going into acting now?
CG: “Well, I think my first advice would be that doors open easy the first time, but if you’re not ready, they won’t open so easily the second time. Meaning, if you go into a casting office and you don’t deliver, they’re not going to bring you back. It’s a long-term game. I auditioned for four seasons before I got a part on My Name is Earl, and I ended up getting the best audition. They kept bringing me back because they liked what I was doing and wanted to find me something. You have to keep doing good work.”
“Go study, prepare, take classes, learn, It’s a lifetime pursuit. As far as a craft, it doesn’t happen in a day or a year even. From a pure acting point of view, that’s my advice. The difference for young actors today, is it’s not enough to be an actor anymore, you need to be making content, you need to be a writer, you need to know how to edit, because anybody can shoot with a camera nowadays. You need to learn it all and buddy up with people and develop things. That’s your way in nowadays. The internet is the testing ground now, it’s the way to get out there and be seen. You have to tackle it.”