We talk with David Howard Thornton about his evolution from cosplayer and comedian into one of the most terrifying silent villains in modern horror.
It’s a funny thing what you will come across Internet surfing at the early morning hours as a distraction from writer’s block, avoiding a fight with your significant other, or just dealing with stress-driven insomnia. All the above is exactly what prompted me to scroll through Instagram a few years ago at said hour of morning, when I came across this cosplayer performing as my favorite comic book villain (arguable my favorite character of any genre), The Joker.
He was advertising Winter-Con 2017. I scrolled the performers’ Instagram profile, liked nearly anything Joker related since it was so well executed, and the following day found I was now being followed by that performer: David Howard Thornton.
David portrayed the Joker so well that I looked him up on other social media outlets, locating him on YouTube. His Joker monologue performance from The Killing Joke is dead on, delivering each punch line with a cheerful chill.
Little did I know, this would be just the beginning of greater things for David Howard Thornton, as in 2016, he would stop clowning around and start terrifying everyone around as Art the Clown in the Damien Leone film, Terrifier.
Terrifier is an award-winning independent slasher horror starring David Howard Thornton as Art the Clown, a murderous mime committing cruelties in a pizzeria and the bowels of a dive apartment building on Halloween night. The role earned David the Fright Meter-Best Actor Award. The film was a success outshining its predecessor All Hallow’s Eve and origin of Art the Clown, a short film also titled Terrifier.
Terrifier 2016, is a throwback to jump scares and practical effects which rely on the actor’s performance to convey fright to the viewer. The kill scenes in the film are brutal, reminding me of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in shock value. Upon my first viewing of the film, I found Terrifier good, but not great. It was Art the Clown I grew to enjoy, for the character was so outlandish, I had to cheer for his villainous ways.
Art the Clown reminded me of the Joker. In Art is a psychopath with extreme homicidal tendencies. And similar to the Joker (prior to DC ruining the concept), Art the Clown lacked a clear origin or name to place with the painted face, and his motivation for such atrocities a mystery. From the moment Art sits down in the pizzeria towards the opening of TERRIFIER, it is clear the character will create slasher-horror film history.
With my return to my original writing passion of journalism, I reached out to David Howard Thornton for an interview regarding his works. I wanted to know how a fun,-loving cosplayer and comedian transformed into arguably the most brutal horror film villain in three decades.
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID HOWARD THORNTON
Boris Lee: Welcome David. Thank you for joining me. You came across an on-line advertisement for somebody tall and thin, having experience with physical comedy or clown work, to portray Art the Clown. When you auditioned for the role, what was the competition like? Was it an instant, “You’re the guy” answer after your audition?
David Howard Thornton: I have no idea what the actual competition was like since the other actors that were there auditioning when I was there were after different roles. However, it was practically an instant “You’re the man for the part!”, answer since they asked me to come in for a makeup test before I left the room. I left there basically knowing I had the part, which is very unusual in this industry when you face so much rejection! LOL! I hope to have more of those types of moments!
BL: What is your preparation for transforming yourself mentally to become Art the Clown?
DHT: I can pretty much turn a character on and off easily once I have an idea in my head of who the character is, etc. I just do a lot of research beforehand to get to that point. For Art, I wanted to add more of a physical clowning nature to the character. I dug into my extensive knowledge of the great silent film and physical actors and great villains, took bits of those that I thought worked well for Art and built upon the foundation that the original Art, Mike Giannelli, had set in All Hallow’s Eve.
BL: Terrifier has some of the most brutal scenes of any slasher film today. What was going through your mind during some of those scenes? How difficult was it to be mentally in the role of Art the Clown, while being concerned for Catherine Corcoran’s safety and comfort hanging upside down, in the now infamous hacksaw kill scene?
DHT: Once I am in character, I’m in character. Though I can turn it off just as quickly, so that is not the difficult part for me at least. However, that scene was difficult to do because of the physical demands it meant for her. Plus, the room had no heat, and it was twenty degrees that night! We’d only let her hang upside down for thirty seconds and we would swing her back up and try to keep her warm. So it was difficult to film since we could only get a few seconds at a time. I felt so sorry for her that night! She is definitely the MVP of the film!
BL: The role of Art the Clown is a silent role. How difficult was it to portray a murderous mime, as opposed the Joker who is nearly as twisted yet used his voice to instill fear into his victims and physical aspects? Was there anytime you felt Art should have a voice?
DHT: No, I never felt that Art should have a voice. I think that makes him unique. It would be against character for him to speak. It definitely was different though for me not to speak, especially since my greatest tool I have in my actor box is my voice. I do over two-hundred voices and do a lot of voice over work, so I have always relied on my voice for character work. I did not have that luxury this time and had to purely rely on my physicality to convey meaning, etc. It was a fun challenge!
BL: Though you are a fan of the horror genre, you were not after making horror films. If you did not answer the ad for Art the Clown, do you think you would have taken a stab at making a horror film?
DHT: You’re right. I have always done comedy. The thought never crossed my mind that I would be in a horror film, let alone the main villain, unless I was the smart ass that got killed off halfway through! I was just being honest with myself because of my thin frame, which is usually not the build directors are looking for in their horror villains. I definitely lucked out!
BL: Having a comedic acting background, how much of that was used in creating the chilling demeanor to Art?
DHT: A lot, actually. As I stated earlier, I wanted to add more of a clowning aspect to the character than what was previously seen in AHE. I mean, he IS a clown after all! I thought this would make him stand out more from your typical silent horror villains. Luckily, I’ve been a life-long student of physical comedy and had a great mentor in the wonderfully talented Stefan Karl (Robbie Rotten from Lazy Town). I was his understudy for five tours on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical”. He really helped me fine tune my abilities and taught me a lot. I brought a lot of that into Art.
BL: Do you think actors with comedic backgrounds such as yourself, or the late Robin Williams for example, have more shock value with audiences than an actor already expected to scare the shit out of you from a history in horror acting?
DHT: It’s possible. I think that is because we don’t necessarily look or act like what you picture a horror monster/villain to be. Also, comedy can be very disarming and can put people at ease, which makes them more susceptible to a good scare that they don’t expect.
BL: At one point, you were doing some killer portrayals of The Joker at comic cons. Your portrayal of the Killing Joke tourist look is awesome. What’s it like to have the roles reversed and work conventions having Art the Clown cosplayers come see you?
DHT: It’s so awesome! I love it! I love cosplay and know that it all comes from a place of love for the character. So, knowing that someone has taken the time to cosplay as my character is truly an honor.
BL: What were your earliest influences in acting? Do you prefer stage or film, or does it not matter, as long as you get to perform?
DHT: I grew up on the stage. I’m relatively new with film work. They are both so different from each other in so many ways. On stage, your actions are usually bigger because of the proximity of the audience and you have the luxury of being able to get instant feedback from the audience and feed off of the energy from that feedback. Though with films, you can do much bigger and grander things than you can do on stage, etc. I really don’t know which I prefer.
BL: Life as an actor can be a struggle to get your talents standing out above so many others. What are the most difficult challenges you overcame in acting? How would you describe the feeling of overcoming these challenges for aspiring actors to keep believing in their craft?
DHT: The biggest challenge was dealing with constant rejection. Actors are told “No thank you!”, far more times than we are told, “You have the part!”. We have to deal with rejection regularly. To deal with that rejection and to not take it to heart is rough. You have to build a thick skin and realize that there are SO many equally, if not more, talented individuals like yourself out there as well that face the same struggle. It’s all about believing in yourself and persevering if you are passionate about doing this. You have to genuinely love what you do and be determined to pursue that love.
BL: Terrifier 2 is coming. With the success of the funding campaign for the film, is there a temptation to use more CGI effects, or can fans look forward to more excellent and refreshing practical effects in Terrifier 2?
DHT: No. We want to keep things in the realm of practical effects as much as possible. I think practical effects just look better and are more believable in the long run. It also causes you to become more creative in your endeavors to pull them off and gives you something to act off of that is tangible. I will take practical effects over CGI any day!
BL: Books, music, films or other, what do you do for a reprieve from an actor’s life?
DHT: All the above and video games! I am an entertainment junkie!
BL: What are your top three horror films to watch?
DHT: In no particular order: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors, and Halloween.
BL: If there was ever to be an Art the Clown versus other horror icon film made, which character would you want Art to do a death dance with? Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, Leatherface, or other?
DHT: Freddy. I like to think of Art as the bastard child of Freddy and Harpo Marx, so going up against Freddy would be a blast! I also think Bee from “The Babysitter” would be a fun foil for him.
BL: As a voice over actor, what has been your favorite part played and do you have any voice over role you would like to portray? Have you ever auditioned for the Joker in the DC animated universe?
DHT: There was this one character called Gormless the Giant I played for an animated film that has been in development for years called “The Champion”. He is this big lumbering oaf with the mindset of a child. The voice I do for him is just so silly. I had a blast doing that.
As for what role I want to play, that is easy… Joker for sure! I have not auditioned for him yet for DC. Perhaps one day! That would put a smile on my face! Haaaaa ha ha ha ha ha ha haaa! In the meantime, you can watch me play him on the fan made web series Nightwing: Escalation in season three.
BL: David, thank you for giving your fans a chance to listen to the silence behind the violence.