C. Thomas Howell Interview: From Ponyboy to "American Storyteller"
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Musicians
Image attributed to C. Thomas Howell
C. Thomas (Tommy) Howell is known for portraying Ponyboy in the teen coming-of-age epic The Outsiders, Officer Bill “Dewey” Dudek in the TNT drama series Southland and as the sadistic serial killer, the Reaper, on CBS’s Criminal Minds. He also appeared in Red Dawn, Grandview: U.S.A., The Land That Time Forgot, The Amazing Spider-Man and LBJ.
Howell is starring in the upcoming Netflix action dramedy series Obliterated from the creators of Cobra Kai. He made his musical debut with his first single “Rose Hill,” which dropped on September 16, 2022. Going back to his cowboy roots, Howell has written several more original songs, and the album called American Storyteller will be released February 3, 2023.
"The thing that I’ve learned through country music is it’s given me the opportunity to perform as myself, as Tommy Howell. That’s not something I’ve done before."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Hi Tommy, we last spoke in 2011, so it’s been a while!
C. Thomas Howell: Wow!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It was during the time you were on Southland.
C. Thomas Howell: That’s going back a minute. It’s good to see you again. I’m glad we got to get back in touch.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Absolutely. I believe you’re very busy these days.
C. Thomas Howell: Yeah. We just wrapped up a new series for Netflix. I did a Christmas tour. I’ve just got my hands full. But I’m just loving life.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I love the music. Should we call it Southern rock?
C. Thomas Howell: You know what? I’m sort of stumped as anyone. I don’t really know yet. I mean, it’s been called Americana. It’s been called country. It’s been called Southern rock. It’s been called mountain music. It’s been called a lot of things. My album comes out February 3rd. I’ve got a lullaby on there called “Ponygirl.”
I’ve got a couple of other songs that don’t quite have as much punch from the sound of them, but they carry a lot of weight story wise. That’s what I love about this genre of music. I was able to go from a two-hour platform telling stories to a two-minute platform, and once I started to understand how one could really find an authentic way to tell a story in that format, I fell in love with it. I just really did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You grew up in a rural area?
C. Thomas Howell: I come from a rural background. My father rode bulls professionally for 10 years. In 1979, 1980 and 1981, I was California State all round junior champion in the Junior Rodeo Association out there. I was planning on being a cowboy. That’s what I wanted to do. My father became a stuntman, and that’s how all stuntmen did back in the day. They were all in westerns. If they needed cowboys to jump on the horses and do a barroom brawl, they used stuntmen. My dad spent a lot of time doing stunts, and he still coordinates today. He was the reason why I got into the business as an actor. But I was raised as a cowboy by cowboys. We still have a ranch and horses.
Although I wasn’t really raised in a musical home, there were a lot of stories told, and there are a lot of stories shared on ranches around a campfire. It used to be a very valued time in one’s life when you’d sit around the campfire and listen to your elders tell you stories, and they were a device. They were your iPhone and your television. So you really worshipped those moments that are now lost because we have every answer on the planet in our front pockets now, which gives us this fake sense of wisdom and experience and entitlement that, I think, challenges character today. So we’re going through a different time right now. We used to be able to make mistakes and grow and learn and learn from them, rise from the ashes and to become better people from that, too.
You make a mistake now, you get cancelled, and you’re off the team. So that creates a sense of anxiety in all these youngsters who are afraid to make a mistake, who aren’t allowed to make mistakes. You have a lot of what I would call timid people that creatively, emotionally are just not wanting to expose themselves because they don’t want to be caught doing anything wrong.
County music, I think, gives me a platform to reach out to people that I have similar values with. We’re in a real interesting crossroads right now where people who want to hold onto their old values are being challenged. Really, we just need to live and let live because just like the evolution of everything, the old does off, and the new blossoms. You know what I mean? There’s no reason for me to force your values and experiences upon mine.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What else has country music taught you?
C. Thomas Howell: The thing that I’ve learned through country music is it’s given me the opportunity to perform as myself, as Tommy Howell. That’s not something I’ve done before. I’ve played a lot of roles. I’ve hidden behind makeup, characters, wardrobes and lenses and all kinds of things. Of course, there’s a piece of me in all that. But when you’re up there with your guitar and with a microphone, and you’re looking at the audience, you open up and share a piece of your heart. There is nothing to protect you anymore. There’s not an out that says “written” by someone else. There’s not an out that says “produced and directed” by someone else. It’s you. It’s written, directed, produced and starring you. If you like it, it’s my fault. If you don’t, it’s my fault.
Even though I’ve only been doing this for a short time musically, I’ve had a lot of experiences in 40 years that I feel has trained me to a certain degree to get there, and I have something to offer you. I caught the last bit of the Golden Age of Hollywood, meaning I worked with Elizabeth Taylor and Ann-Margret. I worked with the greats like Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton, Roddy McDowell, Malcolm McDowell, people that experienced Hollywood when it was special. What do I mean by that? There weren’t movies made for five bucks and iPhones back then. They were all Red Carpet events, and they were all multi-million dollar extravaganzas, and it was a big deal to be a part of that at the time. That was our royalty, that beautiful time that we got to experience before TikTok was invented when whoever has the funniest video became the big star.
It’s just a different world now. So being able to sit down and have experienced those moments with people like that and share them with people that have interest in that, is a big deal. There’s still a large group of audiences that appreciate a good story. Most people want to go to a show and hear good music, and that is great because I understand that. When I go see some of my favorite artists, I really appreciate listening to what they have to say and what they’ve gone through. I think about it, and I respect it.
There are a lot of people that still look up to me from the old Ponyboy and The Outsiders. I get a lot of letters and a lot of messages from kids that are struggling today on levels that I didn’t recognize when I was a child. We didn’t have all the heartache, the headache, the pain and struggle and the labels that they all have now. Those were simpler times back then, too. Country music lends to that simpler time that I appreciate and want to maintain in my life a little bit, if I can.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Back then, you also had the distinction of perhaps being early members of what was called the Brat Pack, a name for a group of actors who appeared together in teen-oriented coming-of-age films.
C. Thomas Howell: Well, yeah. I was a little young, but I was kind of in there. I guess I was a part of what people deemed the “entitled” group then, which is funny because I’m looking at that life now, right? That’s hilarious about life. It’s always just a big circle, isn’t it? That’s why I can’t even sit back and judge because the wheel of growth just goes to show that when you’re young, you should be marching in the streets and demonstrating, and when you get a little bit older, you should be a little more conservative.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: To be in that group of up and coming actors was special back then.
C. Thomas Howell: Yeah. It was definitely new. I’m not saying The Outsiders started anything, but it was at the forefront of those young teen films that became a big part of a lot of people’s lives, whether it was a John Hughes movie or Stand by Me, which is a great film in its own right. There were these coming-of-age movies that really helped us grow because that’s what we watched.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That may be one of the reasons why you still receive so many letters. Those types of films have a tendency to live on forever.
C. Thomas Howell: Yeah. I also get letters from these kids today saying, “Is that country music you’re playing? I like that.” I get, “Thank you for letting me feel comfortable by sharing that you live on a ranch, ride horses and like country music because I’ve never felt like I could do that.” Kids at school don’t want to say, “Yah, man, I’m country,” when everybody’s listening to whatever is hip at the moment. I get that. I had somany people that said to me, “Wait a minute. Why do I hear a little bit of an accent? What’s going on with you?” I said, “Look. My life changed when I became comfortable with not hiding that I come from a rural environment or that my family’s cowboys,” or whatever I didn’t feel comfortable with as a young person.
I changed the way I spoke, what I said and did and how I did it, and I didn’t tell people what I was or how I lived. But again, part of country music and this platform appreciates that a lot, and we’re able to connect on it. So on stage, the more personal I can become, the more universal the moment is for all of us. Then we all connect to it on a level because what I’ve experienced is that as humans, we all experience the same ups and downs through life, and it’s those moments of agony and defeat that really forge our characters. As a young person, you don’t have that yet. You haven’t lost in love or a loved one.
When you go through those moments, when you go through those heartaches and pains, and you come out the other side of it, and you manage to feel compassion, and you manage to grow as a person and want to help others because of that, there’s nothing better, as far as I’m concerned, that thatmoment. That’s truth. That’s when we get real. It’s sad that we’ve got to go through what might be deemed a tragedy to learn this, but in disguise, it’s the greatest thing ever because it sets you on a different course that changes lives.
Music has given me that opportunity. I felt hollow to some degree. I always gravitated toward some musicians and always wanted to do it, but I never let myself do it because I never felt I was good enough or I wasn’t really clear on what I wanted to do until it became clear on who I really was at my core and stopped wanting to hide that.
I spent a lifetime exploring other characters, and then I started exploring myself. That’s when I became a better artist, and that’s when I allowed myself to not live in the land of fear because let’s face it, nobody wants to hear you’re only been doing music two years. If you’re putting an album out, and you’re up on stage, apologies don’t work. When you’re messing around with the big dogs, they don’t care. There are no apologies allowed, and you better show up and know what you’re doing.
I love setting the bar high for myself, and I love rising to the occasion. There’s something to be said about that, and I did a lot as a child in the rodeo arena. I was able to transfer that into casting offices and then worked for a lot of pretty good directors at a young age. So my self-confidence wasn’t lacking in terms of setting the bar high and trying to achieve that goal, as opposed to failing or giving up. That’s something that wasn’t allowed in my house where I was raised. So I still carry that with me. Music was something that I was afraid of, and performing in front of people takes a lot of time and a lot of training. Nobody would ever be so stupid as to do what I’m doing. But it’s been the greatest thing ever, to be honest. It really has made me a better actor, and it’s made me a better performer all around.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That really is wonderful. Is there any trace of art imitating life in the song “Whiskey Demon?”
C. Thomas Howell: You know what? I come from a family of addicts. My grandparents were all drinkers. My daddy was an alcoholic. He’s been sober for 40 years. I like to swill one back and have a good time. I’ve never gotten lost in anything to the point to where it effected anybody’s lives or it was a bad thing. I like to have a good time like the next guy. Trust me. I’ve got cowboy genes in me. I’m not an every day drinker, but if we have something planned, and we want to go out and have one, oh, man, I will tie it on with you! We’ll have a damn good time. But I never have gotten to the point where I was an angry drinker or I wanted to fight somebody.
“Whiskey Demon” is an interesting song because it started out as something completely different, and then it became sort of an exercise in trying to find a way to bury these brand titles into the song without it really overwhelming the story or becoming a nuisance. I found that to be fun. Then there was sort of a dual element that I discovered. If you don’t really examine the song, and you just like how it sounds, it’s a really great barroom brawl of a song. But if you really break it down and look into it, it’s a sad song.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. I love the music even though at the core, it is a sad song.
C. Thomas Howell: It’s about a guy that clearly has a drinking problem. His best friends are bottles. He buries his troubles in them and says they’re always there for him. He says that he’d rather go to a hole in the wall and drink than deal with life. There’s something really heartbreaking about that because whether it’s the opiate epidemic or alcohol, society is serving the people what they want in that moment. It reflects all of that. It reflects cocaine in the ‘70s and ‘80s and crack in the ‘90s, alcohol in the ‘50s and ‘60s and marijuana today. All these things that, I think, really reflect who we are as a society because we do try to bury any sense of feeling. We bury our pain and sorrows with alcohol. We also celebrate our achievements with alcohol. So it’s a funny thing.
There are different ways to look at that song. I can look at them from both ways and have experienced all of it. I’ve had problems. I’ve faced them. I’ve had other people in my family have problems, and they’ve faced them. I’ll tell you one thing. Drugs and alcohol have never fixed anything for anybody in my family. I’ve watched a lot of people, cousins and uncles, and a lot of people battle. It’s a really good reminder when you see that up close. I was a child with some examples of what not to do as opposed to what to do, and I could’ve gone another way. I’m here to tell the story now, which is what matters now for me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It’s very clear that you’re happy writing songs and that you have a passion for performing them.
C. Thomas Howell: Yes!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you have more passion for music than you do for acting?
C. Thomas Howell: Well, I’ll tell you. I have more passion for acting in the things that I wantto act in. I don’t have to do parts now to pay bills. I haven’t done that in a long time. But I don’t care who you are. I don’t care if you’re Tom Cruise. Look at Johnny Depp. That poor kid. He’s been in how many of those Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He’s struggling.
I’ve got gray hair. I’m 56. I’m not saying it’s over. But it’s like, “How long do I want to be banging out movies in Hollywood”? I’d rather be a little bit older strumming a guitar and telling y’all about it and sharing something with value and maybe imparting some wisdom or some life experiences on some youngsters that might need it rather than running from aliens trying to get paid.
I watch these gentlemen who become bitter and jaded, who at one time had spectacular careers in Hollywood, and now they’re reduced to being a father on some children’s show on cable. There’s something that I respect about that. But I know when they’re going home, they’re probably blessed they have a job, but they’re searching creatively. Music really gave me an outlet that I needed. Writing my own songs has done a lot of things. It’s led me to some historical experiences that I’ve written songs about that made me appreciate where I come from and who I am on many levels, and it’s giving me this overwhelming sense of purpose and value that I took for granted as an actor because it came so easy for me as a child.
Songwriting is something I worked hard for, and to have somebody listen to something that I have written and recorded and say, “Hey man, I’ve got you on my playlist. I hear what you’re saying, and I like it,” was never something I intended when I started because in my mind, it was going to take years to ever reach that level. So the fact that it happened in a year’s time, for me personally, it’s just shocking because I didn’t intend for that to happen.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So it’s a very nice surprise.
C. Thomas Howell: Yeah. As I submerge into Nashville and into this business, I see that I have a significant place here in the role that will have great value to other artists as well. I’m not here to try and be the most popular singer. I want to write songs for people. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I can’t wait for that to happen, to write something for somebody that matters and that has weight. That would just blow my mind! So that’s what is driving me right now.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you working on new songs?
C. Thomas Howell: All the time. I have one called “Raised by Wolves” and one called “Hope I Ain’t Dead,” which is about a guy that wakes up with the most beautiful girl that he loves. He thinks he’s in heaven, but he hopes he ain’t dead. It’s a little love song. I’m very excited to release the album because I feel the album runs deep. I don’t feel our album has weak songs on it. I’ve got a song called “Hell of a Life” that reflects my own career. It starts out saying that I helped save an alien when I was just 13 (E.T.) and shot down a helicopter yelling “Wolverines!” in Red Dawn. I’m singing a song to the people that sort of chronicles my career.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That should bring back some memories to your many fans.
C. Thomas Howell: Brings back some memories, and we talk about that. People have seen those movies. They’re seen The Outsiders. They’ve seen Red Dawn. Maybe they didn’t see Grandview U.S.A., but a lot of people did. It’s fun to go through that. I played a killer on TV called the Reaper. We talk about that. Some of the people in my business have these rules that you can’t ask them about their career as an actor. I find that to be a missed opportunity for a lot of people. They miss the opportunity for having a good time with a really great exchange with their audience that would love to hear about it from them. What you get back in return from that is a lot of love. So I found it to be an incredible tool and a big part of my show.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Reaper (George Foyet) is ranked (by TV Insider) as the third most horrifying major UnSub on Criminal Minds.
C. Thomas Howell: I love that there are references to the Reaper all the time. I know that’s been a big part of the show over the years, and there’s something I just absolutely love about that! But at the same time, I love hearing people say, “My God, how did Ponyboy turn into the Reaper?” That’s the great thing about acting. For me, I really embraced that chameleon aspect of not wanting to be the same in every role, though I feel the most famous actors are those Clint Eastwood types that kind of play the same guy over and over. If you need to sell yourself like that, that’s the way to go because it makes life a lot easier.
It’s tough when you want to become something different every single time, and you’ve got to do that hard work to make that change. That’s what I found when I became a character actor. I did a movie called The Hitcher when I was 17 years old with an actor called Rutger Hauer. Rutger was an amazing actor at the time. He basically had the monopoly on all the villains throughout Hollywood, and he was the best bad guy ever whether it was Blade Runner or Soldier of Orange or Nighthawks or whatever.
We were all intimidated as hell by Rutger, and he really isolated himself away from everybody else and never really joined anybody in terms of a crew or a cast aspect. It wasn’t a free-for-all, let’s all eat together and have a good time. It was an “every man for himself” type of a feeling, but I think that was created intentionally because that was the type of film we were making.
One day, Rutger invited me into his trailer for lunch, and we sat there in stone silence for about 15 minutes as he was smoking a cigarette. Out of sheer terror, I mustered up a little bit of small talk and said, “Mr. Hauer, everybody says you’re just the best bad guy ever. What’s your secret to playing bad guys?” He picked the tobacco out of his teeth, and he hissed in that Dutch accent, “I don’t play bad guys.” Man, that put the fear of God into me, and I gathered up my tray and exited that trailer quicker than you can imagine. That rattled around my damn head for years and years.
I was cast 20-some-odd later in the role of George Foyet in Criminal Minds after auditioning for it. I started thinking about Rutger Hauer and my meeting with him and what made this character so special. It finally hit me. George found a way to express his humanity by not being a freaky psychopath but being a very grounded, artistic human with feelings that was behaving as such a sociopath, it brought the fear of God into everybody. If you have a bad guy thinking, “It’s just no way I’m going to be killed,” that behavior and that sensibility just makes me immediately dislike whatever I’m watching.
I was able to understand what Rutger meant when I embraced this role of George Foyet partly because of the way it was written. I’m introduced as a victim of the Reaper, which led to a very different approach to this character than if he had started out stabbing somebody as the bad guy. I was playing a weak, scared and fearful victim who had been stabbed 67 times. So Foyet was hiding in plain sight. But what it did to me psychologically is it allowed me to find the humanity in that character and immediately made me understand what Rutger Hauer has always done in his work. When you’re playing a bad guy that’s a larger than life character doing evil things, if you can find a way to be grounded and bring out the humanity of that character and not disassociate from your surroundings and not act like you’re invincible, there’s a real profound effect on the audience.
People come up to me and say, “Oh, my God, you’re so crazy and insane in Criminal Minds!” I said, “You’d better watch that again because he’s pretty grounded. He’s pretty not crazy. He’s pretty together. That’s what makes him scary.” That’s what Rutger meant. He wasn’t running around screaming, covered in blood with a chainsaw. He might have some sweat on his forehead and give you a smile or a twinkle in his eye before he clawed your eyeball out, and there was something holy crap scary about all of that. But it took me 20-some-odd years to really understand what he meant, and it took that long for somebody to give me a role like that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: An unforgettable role and a great story, Tommy! Good luck with the music!
C. Thomas Howell: Thank you. God bless. I appreciate you!
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