C. Thomas Howell Interview: 80s Movie Icon Returns to the Spotlight in TNT's 'Southland'
Image attributed to C. Thomas Howell
Born December 7, 1966, actor/director Christopher Thomas Howell, usually credited as C. Thomas Howell, was earmarked as one of the promising young actors in the mid 1980s after his performance in the teen coming-of-age film The Outsiders.
Other films followed including a role in Tank portraying the son of James Garner and Shirley Jones and Howell reunited with The Outsiders’ co-star Patrick Swayze in Grandview, U.S.A. and Red Dawn in 1984. He again starred as the lead role in Secret Admirer, The Hitcher, and Soul Man.
“People, thank God, are wiling to take a risk on me as a performer. That might not have necessarily happened five years ago, but I’ve been having the time of my life discovering that playing flawed characters is so much more fun.”
Howell also appeared in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Return of the Musketeers, Side Out, Gettysburg, Payback, The Hillside Strangler, and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. His television credits include Moonlighting, The Outer Limits, Amazon, The District, ER, 24, Criminal Minds, and Psych.
The actor currently plays Billy Dewey, a police officer struggling with alcohol addiction, in the drama series Southland. The show premiered on NBC in April 2009 and was cancelled October 2009. Southland began airing on TNT on January 4, 2011 and can be seen on that channel Tuesdays at 10:00 Eastern.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): First, let me ask, do I call you C. T., Chris, or Tommy?
C. Thomas Howell: Everyone calls me Tommy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tommy, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. I’m a fan of your work on Southland. It’s one of my favorite shows.
C. Thomas Howell: Well, thank you very much. It’s one of my favorite shows, too, regardless of whether I’m on it or not. I’m a huge fan.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I was disappointed when NBC cancelled the show, but delighted when TNT picked it up.
C. Thomas Howell: TNT had the nerve and the smarts to roll the dice on it. We got caught up in that “Jay Leno drama” because we’re a 10:00 show. Once NBC decided to move Leno to the 10:00 hour there was no room for us.
It was frustrating because over on NBC we had the highest rating for a drama since 2005. We thought we had a home over there and then we got caught up in the political drama of the Leno mess. NBC let us go, then they moved Leno back to 11:00 and they started searching for a great drama again. What a bunch of knuckleheads!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will your character (Officer Billy Dewey) be a regular this season?
C. Thomas Howell: I’ll be in six of the ten episodes this season. It’s kind of funny because originally I was only supposed to be in the pilot. I think the writers of the show just enjoyed the direction they were able to take my character so I’ve sort of become the permanent guest star right now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, I enjoy the comic relief that you bring to an otherwise gritty cop drama. Dewey has just recently returned from rehab. Will he always struggle with alcohol addiction or remain sober for the rest of the season?
C. Thomas Howell: I think it’s important for him to stay sober. In episode two when he comes back from rehab he’s still not the most politically correct character on the show even though he’s sober. Dewey’s got his own viewpoints as far as being the voice that says all the right or all the wrong things. He doesn’t have the capability to censor his thoughts.
Many fans that I speak with say they appreciate the color that my character brings. I hear some people say he’s their favorite character. Just the other day I was in Whole Foods standing in line and a lady was staring at me. She said, “Oh, you’re on Southland.” I sort of puffed up for a second and said, “Yes I am.” She immediately replied, “I really hate you!”
I get people who enjoy the humor and the chaos that Dewey stirs up and people who really despise his choices. I think that’s important for the show because, quite frankly, there are many cops who are exactly like Dewey. They struggle with addiction or have, for whatever reason, been forced into racial choices (the Mark Fuhrman types), and I really think it gives the writers an opportunity to not water the show down with all “superheroes” who always make the right choices.
That’s what I love about Michael Cudlitz’s character. Here is this guy that is secretly in the closet and is battling a pain pill addiction and he is the lead of the show. That’s a real risk, as far as I’m concerned, that the writers have taken. Being a part of that has become amazing. I spent six episodes on Criminal Minds last year and played a character called “The Reaper.” He was a serial killer.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, I saw those episodes and you were creepy.
C. Thomas Howell: Well, these were turning points in my career … “The Reaper” and Dewey. Playing these characters that have real flaws have opened many doors for me in Hollywood, but more importantly, have really allowed a specific audience out there that has been dormant for years to tap into me. You know, I played Ponyboy and it was tough to shake that.
People, thank God, are wiling to take a risk on me as a performer. That might not have necessarily happened five years ago, but I’ve been having the time of my life discovering that playing flawed characters is so much more fun. It’s so much more accepted by the public instead of just playing the safe roles, you know, the leading man who doesn’t do anything wrong that’s just trying to carry the show. Of course you have much more fun playing the bad guy than the good guy, too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I can certainly see that playing the bad guy truly exercises the acting chops. Is there more creative control now that Southland is on TNT?
C. Thomas Howell: Much more. Thank God for TNT because it has really allowed us to become the show that we always intended to be. Believe me, our show’s creators were in constant battle with NBC and were constantly getting phone calls about how to shoot the show, how to write the show, the dos and don’ts that go along with being on a network. I think TNT has given the creative freedom, not only to the writers, but also to the actors and allowed us all to just come out of our shell and really take the risks that a show like this should take.
With all due respect, we had a change over in writers and the writers this season have really nailed all of the characters and really elevated the content and the quality of the show. The episode where we lost Kevin Alejandro’s character was such a powerful show. There was a moment in episode two right after Dewey’s fight with Regina King’s character. I’m in the car with Michael Cudlitz complaining about what just happened and he asks me if I want coffee so we go to a 7-Eleven.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where he leaves you (laughs).
C. Thomas Howell: Exactly. Well, the average viewer wouldn’t pay attention to this, but that entire scene starting from the back of the car watching the argument, driving to the 7-Eleven, exiting the car, picking up Ben (McKenzie), getting back in the car, and leaving was all done in one shot with one camera.
When we pulled into the 7-Eleven parking lot the camera operator handed the camera out the window to the next operator who took it and followed the other characters. After they leave the parking lot they whip over to us coming out of the 7-Eleven. It was all done so flawlessly and all done in one take with one camera, which is an extremely risky thing to do. The traditional way to cover scenes, especially in network television, is to do additional wide shots, then over the shoulder and the close-ups, and they have control of it.
Chris Chulack, the show’s creator and amazing director, constructs these very complicated sequences that can be covered in one take. One of the things that I learned by being with these people is that it’s not about what you know as a filmmaker, but sometimes it’s about what you don’t know. That’s the really important part of filmmaking and I hope I’ve grown tremendously in that area. I’m a budding filmmaker myself and I take all these ideas and plans and just file them away. I look forward one day to pulling them back out.
With all due respect again, I was watching an episode of Blue Bloods. Southland is the antithesis of that show. Blue Bloods is a sort of brightly lit traditionally covered show with some fine actors and decent writing, but I don’t feel like I’m experiencing something along with these characters. The thing about our show is that it has the quality of a reality show. It’s almost like you’re watching an episode of Cops with money.
I look forward to going to work every day. I’ve worked with Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola and I’ve worked with some of the worst directors as well, me being one of them, but this is truly my favorite job. This character has opened up doors for me that I’ve been trying to open up for many years and I’m just so thankful to be a part of Southland.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned the character, Ponyboy, from the 1983 film The Outsiders. How old were you when you got the part in the movie?
C. Thomas Howell: I was 15.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I heard the audition process was different to say the least. What was that experience like?
C. Thomas Howell: There’s never enough money in the budget these days to go through a process like that again. They auditioned thousands of actors in probably eight to ten different cities. Once they got closer to the core of their cast they started sending a few of us around to these cities so we auditioned with hundreds of actors to come up with the cast. I spent weeks auditioning before I was ever hired. None of us were hired until the last possible second. It’s not like we were given jobs first and then went out to find the other players.
I’d be staring at many kids reading for the role of Ponyboy, but at that time I felt pretty confident that I had the role. I still had to sit there, though, in the same room and watch them recite Robert Frost poetry and do scenes with other characters. I remember our final stop was in New York City and I pretty much felt that I had the role wrapped up.
There was a big deal made out of Norman Mailer’s son who was coming in to read with Ralph Macchio. Francis spent a lot of time, probably half a day with this kid, and that was the first time I thought, “Well, maybe it’s not mine. Maybe it’s going to go to this kid.” It was an amazing process to go through.
We all had to suffer the blows as they came along, but at 15 years old you don’t really have anything at stake. Of course, I didn’t have a mortgage or a family I had to feed. I was a rodeo cowboy. My father rode bulls for 12 years for a living and I was as interested in continuing down that path, as I was being an actor so I really didn’t have anything to lose.
That gave me a leg up because I think that’s what Francis was attracted to. I wasn’t enamored by who he was nor did I care. I’d never seen The Godfather and couldn’t care less who had won the Oscar in ’74. At that point it was a chance for Francis to connect with a kid that was real and wasn’t a Hollywood kid. Even though my father was a stuntman he knew nothing about preparing scenes for an actor or breaking down a character or anything like that. In fact, I was self-taught. It was an opportunity for both Francis and I to connect on a very real place.
Even today, it’s difficult to walk into an audition and not show that you really don’t care that much. If people sense you really want the job sometimes it turns them off. When you go in and act like you don’t care you’re able to do better work. You leave and let it go at that, and then sometimes the phone will ring before you get in your car. It’s like that nine times out of ten. It’s a tough thing in this business to be 100% committed but also to be 100% detached from the opening process because auditioning has nothing to do with actually putting a character together.
Auditioning is its own beast and it’s very difficult. I still get the sweats and my mouth still gets dry when it’s something that I really care about, but when I was 15 years old that never happened to me. I didn’t care to that extent. I think that’s what helped me get that part.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were only a little older when you got the part of Robert in Red Dawn.
C. Thomas Howell: Exactly. Once I did The Outsiders I pretty much … that opened the door. Basically, if I was good enough for Coppola I was good enough for John Milius, you know? I think John, God Bless him, is not really an actor’s director. There were about eight of us on the Red Dawn set including two females, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey.
John called us all up to his room, lined us up, walked down the line, looked at us and said, “Men, when I hired you I didn’t hire any sissies so let’s spend the next ten minutes talking about your character and after that I don’t want to hear another word about it.” We did. We talked for about ten minutes apiece, he broke it down, and after that we were on our own.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazines): Ten minutes is certainly not a long time for direction.
C. Thomas Howell: That was it. Francis was the opposite of that. We shot the entire film on videotape of The Outsiders at location for about three or four weeks before we rolled film and auditioning was a huge part of his process. That gave us some anchor points and references to being lifetime friends instead of just showing up on the set as you do today introducing yourself and pretending to be married for ten years. That’s very difficult to do.
You have no problems laughing and carrying on with your friends but when you just meet someone for the first time it’s very difficult to create that feeling. That’s what Francis was smart enough to do by allowing us the freedom of all those rehearsals. By the time we shot that movie we were all best friends.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tommy, how do you prepare for the evil characters, such as serial killers?
C. Thomas Howell: In The Hillside Strangler playing Kenneth Bianchi, there were many books written about him, but at the end of the day you pull all of that through your own filter and you have to present it on the day as your own. One of the films I made when I was 17 was called The Hitcher that starred Rutger Hauer. Rutger, still to this day, is my favorite bad guy in the history of films. He just did it so well.
I can remember asking Rutger as a young actor what his secret was and how he played bad guys so well. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I don’t play bad guys.” That rattled around in my head for years and still does. When I got the role on Criminal Minds it was really important to me that I didn’t force anything onto these people in terms of, “I’m scary and I’m dangerous.” I mean, let’s face it, I’m 5’10” 160 pounds. I’m not the most menacing, imposing figure.
If somebody is willing to do something as terrible as rape somebody or kill them, but not play the “boogieman,” there’s something much more menacing and chilling about that so I had to find a comfort level in the structure of what I was doing. That’s also what I had to do with Dewey as well. He says things that are not necessarily politically correct and he does things that pisses off many people but when you really get down to it he’s got a really good heart. He cares for other people.
I think it’s a real challenge when you play somebody that is a bad person to find the good things within those elements. I’m more interested in bringing out the good things in those bad characters than I am focusing on the bad things because that’s what makes something boring. I try to find the best qualities of those dark characters and bring that out of the performance and trust that the situation will be strong enough to portray me as someone that is bad, if you will, and not try to put that into my acting because that’s not my job.
When you watch bad television and a person playing the “bad guy” they have a different voice than they would normally and they have a scowl that they wear and there’s just something so uninteresting. But for me, that moment I had with Rutger Hauer really helped me. I’m playing a lot of bad guys lately and I don’t really know why (laughs). But I enjoy them tremendously and that’s my secret. I try to find the best qualities they have in those ugly situations.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were definitely interesting as “The Reaper” on Criminal Minds and excellent in the role.
C. Thomas Howell: Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a role or a film that you have not been pleased with over the course of your career?
C. Thomas Howell: Oh, so many, most of them!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that because you are overly critical of your own work?
C. Thomas Howell: Well, you know, the insipid crying I did as an actor in The Outsiders is something I would have loved to have had a second chance to do over. If I had known half of what I know now back then I would have been much better as that character. That’s a really good example of a young actor that didn’t have the tools that a trained actor has.
Generally why most young actors aren’t that connected is because they just want to be liked and accepted in the role so they end up trying extra hard when all they really have to do is hit the mark and say the line. As a young actor, you don’t need to force any of your choices upon anybody. I spent a lifetime doing that.
I remember when I was 20 years old I read an article that Jack Nicholson had done for Rolling Stone. One of the things he said was that it takes 20 years of acting before you start getting into the good stuff. Of course, having five years in and thinking I knew everything at that point I disagreed wholeheartedly with him. Well, flash forward 25 years later and I couldn’t agree more with him.
It takes a long time to be able to feel comfortable within yourself and safe enough to trust that you’re enough when you’re out there. I think we all try too hard as green actors to be liked and to be good and when you watch the performances that’s what you generally end up seeing. You see somebody trying too hard. I’ve got a heap of movies like that where I wished I had part of the knowledge I have today.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What attracted you to Soul Man?
C. Thomas Howell: It was a comedy. I had just come off of The Hitcher and that was a long dark three months. Soul Man was a very funny screenplay. I was surprised at the mixed reactions.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There was definitely some controversy surrounding the film.
C. Thomas Howell: Yeah, but it was a pretty harmless movie, especially by today’s standards. If you look on the Internet some people say, “Oh that’s the role that killed Tommy Howell’s career.”
The role that killed my career was a movie I did with Elizabeth Taylor, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, called Young Toscanini. It was supposed to be a six-month dream, but it turned into a twelve-month nightmare and it ended up going into litigation and never came out. When I accepted that role we thought it would be Oscar bound on many levels. Once you do a movie for $20 million and it’s unable to hit the screens, then people start to chalk you up as that.
Let’s face it, Soul Man cost $3 million and it made $50 million at the box office so it saved New World Pictures. That company was about to go under and the film made them a ton of money so from a financial aspect it was a huge hit. Of course, it was extremely controversial. It’s easy for people to look back today and try to pinpoint that as being the movie that “did me in,” but people have to understand that I’m a lifer.
I’m in this for life. I’m not an actor that was and still is just looking for a couple of those roles in my life to do and have everybody appreciate like a Terrence Malick. He’s the guy that disappeared for 20 years then came back and did The Thin Red Line. I don’t want to be like that. I love being on the set. I love making movies and friends.
Today I’m caught between being known as a working actor and being known as a former star. It always frustrates me a little bit when this comes up because I just try to be as good as I can be in the project I’m doing in the moment I’m doing it. We’d all like to have the Johnny Depp career, but there’s only one Johnny Depp. There’s only one Brad Pitt. But if you had thrown me into the cast of Ocean’s Eleven, I would have fit in like a glove.
I’ve got to tell you, as frustrating as it may be for myself and for other people to look at my career and ask questions like, “Why isn’t he Tom Cruise?” I really don’t have an answer for that. I think I’m going to get an opportunity in the second stage of my career that will be far more important to the Hollywood community than when I was a child. I know what I’m doing now and I’m much more appreciative to be on the sets that I’m on now.
I think the work I’ve been doing the past two years has opened up doors for me that would never have been opened up. There was some extremely good work in The Hillside Strangler. It was a low budget movie that really didn’t get the accolades it should have gotten or that Nicholas Turturro and I possibly warranted, but at the same time, that’s not my job. I’m not there looking for the millions of dollars to invest in these projects. I’m there as an actor to do the best I can. The better I am the more open to the bigger projects I become. That’s my goal now, to do the best work that I can do to find some interesting characters.
We’re about to finish the third season of Southland and I feel like I’m one of the main components even though I’m not the star of the show. I can’t be a sourpuss because I’m not on the cover of Us magazine but I can do good work and be invited to other auditions and jobs and that’s what I’m focused on today. I feel more confident about my work today and look forward to the next phase. It’s just an exciting time to be me right now and I’m really thankful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re filming Spider-Man right now.
C. Thomas Howell: Yes, there you go, that’s another example. It’s not a lead role but it’s an important role. Mark Webb, the director of 500 Days of Summer saw my audition and cast me in this role. I don’t think I would have felt comfortable enough going into that audition if I hadn’t been doing the work on Southland and Criminal Minds and feeling comfortable with myself to go in, meet these types of people, and be in an $150 million movie like Spider-Man.
I was recently on the set and it was my first experience with a 3D camera. The thing is three times bigger than any camera I’ve ever worked with and there are 150 crewmembers on hand and I’m on the back lot at Universal pretending that we’re in downtown New York. I’ve got to tell you, if you had told me I was anyplace else I would have said you were lying! I’ve got a two-week span on it and it’s just fantastic.
When you do a movie like The Hillside Strangler only a small portion of people see it and you start to think, “What’s the point?” The point is to become a better actor and that’s why you do those types of movies. I’ve learned more on the bad movies than I ever did on the great ones. It’s up to me now to be much more careful with the type of product that I select so I don’t slip back into some old habits. That is really the challenge right now, but it’s always a scary decision to turn down work that would feed your family. This is what I do for a living. I don’t have another job, so you just have to be patient and good things will happen.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you enjoy in the hours after work?
C. Thomas Howell: I’ve got three kids and a wife that I’ve been happily married to for 20 years. They take up most of my time but I am an avid golfer. I love to travel and spend time with my father who’s still very involved in competing on horseback. He’s a team roper and a rodeo cowboy. That’s a big part of my life.
I also have been working with my partner, Darren Dalton, who was in The Outsiders and Red Dawn with me when we were 15 to 16 years old. We’ve started our own production company that is called Wolverine (for the high school football team in Red Dawn) Entertainment and we’re getting ready to embark on our own disasters (laughs).
My daughter’s turning 18 and has been accepted into Columbia University. I’m buying lots of lottery tickets these days so I can afford to put her in that school for four years (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tommy, continued success on Southland and all future projects.
C. Thomas Howell: Thank you very much and thanks for taking the time today.
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