Actor David Howard Thornton is quickly gaining a cult following of horror movie fans for his performance in the independent horror film, Terrifier. Thornton plays Art the Clown, a sadistic killer clown who stalks and torments his victims in a twisted, prolonged game of cat and mouse.
Scoop recently talked to Thornton about the movie, how it pushed boundaries with some graphic violence, and what made his performance so memorable. Thornton talked about the differences between indie horror and mainstream theatrical releases, the impact of social media, and plans for being a guest at upcoming horror cons.
Note, this interview contains minor spoilers for Terrifier.
Scoop: How did you get into acting and what drew you to the profession?
David Howard Thornton (DHT): I got into it basically because my parents were involved in church theater back when I was a kid. I got involved in that. I did tons of other things when I was little, like sports and stuff like that. When I got in middle school I was bullied a lot and I was really shy because of it. I’d be really funny and crazy around the house and my mom said, ‘Why don’t we get you involved in local community theater to get you to come out of your shell.’ She had me first audition for some shows, I didn’t get cast a few times, and finally I did get cast and I discovered a new love. I was like, oh, wow, I can make people laugh and it feels great to make people laugh instead of having people laughing at me. I found something I liked and it just snowballed from there.
I went to school to get a teaching degree, because I was trying to be practical with my career so I could support a family, have a stable job, income, blah, blah, blah. Then I lost my mom to cancer about a year before my internship in the school systems and it set the ball rolling in my head. Our final conversation was about how life is and don’t waste what time you have here on Earth doing things you think you have to do with your life. That changed my whole perspective. I was not happy when I was doing my internship in the school systems and I was dealing with a lot of pressure at the time. I called my dad and said what I think would make me happy is acting and not teaching. He was like, “Yeah, go ahead, do it.” I said, “I thought you were going to give me the whole lecture about all this time and effort and money into going in this profession.” And he said, “Well, your mom and I always thought you should do that instead, but we didn’t want to tell you what to do with your life.” I was like, “Wow, thanks.” I finished my degree and said bye to Alabama and moved up to New York City. Been working at it ever since.
Scoop: That’s a heck of a transition.
DHT: Oh yeah, just a little bit. [laughs] I had to get used to not waving and saying hi to everybody I walked past on the street. My first few months here people were just like, “What is wrong with you?”
Scoop: [Laughs] Are you a fan of horror?
DHT: Oh yeah, yeah. I didn’t really watch it growing up because my mom was so afraid of horror films that it kind of impacted me. So it wasn’t until my senior year of high school when my friends dragged me out to see Scream 2. They were like, “Come on man, you have to see it, don’t be a chicken.” I was like, “Okay, fine.” And I thought, this is so much fun, what was wrong with my mom? [laughs] So it kind of snowballed after that. Especially when I went to college I would go to the movie gallery and get a huge pile of tapes of horror films and sit and watch them all night.
Scoop: Have you found a favorite horror movie?
DHT: I would say my favorites are classics from the ’70s and ’80s. I love The Omen and The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Scoop: From what I’ve seen, a lot of people really liked Terrifier. What kind of feedback are you getting from the horror community since the movie was released?
DHT: It’s been, for the most part, really great feedback. There are a few small nitpicks with the film that I didn’t think there were problems with. Yeah, there wasn’t a whole lot of story and stuff like that. But if you look at a lot of horror films from back in the day, there wasn’t a lot of story in those either. Especially the Friday the 13th movies, Jason just goes and kills people. Other than that, it’s been really great responses.
It’s actually amazed me how popular it’s gotten because we’ve gotten next to no press coverage from mainstream media like Entertainment Weekly, IGN, The Hollywood Reporter, all that kind of stuff. It’s picked up steam just from the fan community getting the word out. It’s been phenomenal.
Scoop: Since watching Terrifier I’ve been thinking about what I found to be most frightening. A major factor is your expressions and the way you moved. Was Art’s physicality important to you and how did you come up with it?
DHT: Oh yeah, very much so. First and foremost, it’s part of his name – Art the Clown. That’s what clowns do, they’re known for the physical expression, they’re supposed to be very animated. They have to get so much across with physical gestures, especially for silent clowns like Art. That’s what you have to rely on to get your message across. That’s why I went in from the get-go thinking, he’s a clown. Always remember he’s a clown. I basically just pulled from my vast knowledge of older silent films. I grew up watching all the Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Marx Brothers movies. I love those. Also, when I was 12 years old for Christmas, my aunt gave me the whole collection of Mr. Bean movies. He’s been a huge influence of my view and how I did physical comedy growing up in theater. I wanted to play a character kind of like Mr. Bean who was silent and very mischievous and is always just messing with people. Mr. Bean was a big influence with Art. Of course Jim Carrey, big influence on me. Doug Jones, especially. I love Doug Jones.
Also my really good friend and I think of him as my mentor, Stefan Karl, who is known as Robbie Rotten from LazyTown. I toured for about five years on the national tour of How the Grinch Stole Christmas the musical, and he was our Grinch. Stefan is like a master class in physical comedy. He’s unbelievable, he does his own sound effects. He’s like a human cartoon character. So, I had five years of watching a master and learning from a master on how to approach this character. You don’t see this kind of character much anymore. There were several times on set that I’d think about how to approach something and I’d think, what would Stefan do in this kind of incident. I kind of mashed all of that together. Also, I took a lot of influence from old slashers. Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy Krueger because he understood how to mix humor in horror very well together. I mashed all that together. I think of Art as the love child of Harpo Marx and Freddy Krueger.
Scoop: That really makes sense. I thought of Doug Jones and Freddy Krueger while watching the movie. Art really toys with people and draws out the suspense, which really adds to the scariness of the movie. Moments like when the one character hides in a closet and Art just points and laughs at her. How did you and director Damien Leone determine the different ways of toying with the victims and drawing out the suspense?
DHT: Most of the time Damien would let me play around. Especially with the closet scene. We actually did two versions of that scene. Of course, there’s the one you saw with me toying around and pretending I was a woman. The other one I had the baby doll suckling and then the baby was the one that found her and I was doing puppetry with the baby like it was whispering to me, like oh she’s over there. I had the baby point the little hand. It was a lot of playing around. That’s Art’s nature. He’s doing all of this for his own amusement, he’s just sick and demented like that. He likes to mentally just mess with people. That’s his goal is to drive people a little bit crazy. So that’s what we had in mind. He’s doing it for his amusement so, of course, he sees a little bicycle and thinks, let’s go for a ride.
Scoop: Art broke a major slasher rule by using a gun. What’s the response been like to that?
DHT: We’ve gotten so many different types of responses. Some people hate that and are like, “A slasher villain isn’t supposed to use a gun! That’s a cop out.” Other people are like, “Wow, that’s new. We’ve never seen that before, I did not see that coming.” That was a debate we actually had too. When I first read the script I was surprised. But that’s the thing, no one is going to expect that. I always tell people, look how he reacts to using the gun as opposed to all the other ways of killing people. He’s not having fun using that gun, he’s actually disappointed. That’s his contingency plan. He only uses that when his back’s up against the wall and he has no other recourse. He’s in it to win it and that’s what he has there just in case. I also think, in some way it speaks to the culture we’re in in the U.S. right now. All the gun violence that’s going on and guns are really scary to people right now. As we’re speaking, there’s another school shooting in Indiana – two in a week. In a way we’re addressing gun violence.
Scoop: It was definitely a surprise. I saw a video on YouTube where you did, like 110 impressions in under 10 minutes, so obviously your voice game is strong. And then you play Art who doesn’t speak. Was that a fun challenge, did you figure out ways to utilize those voice skills in other ways?
DHT: That was definitely a fun challenge. I love the irony in that. I originally came up here to get into voiceover acting and I do a lot of that. It’s kind of funny that the character I’m probably going to be most well known for in my life is a silent character. [laughs] Here I do, like, 200 voices and the character I’m known for is famous for not talking! Life is funny that way.
It was a challenge, though, because that’s always been my greatest tool set as an actor. Every character I’ve ever played on stage, in film, and everything like that, I consciously made an effort to do a different voice for every single character I play. I don’t like repeating a voice if I can help it. Damian took away my biggest skill set, so I had to think of other ways to get intent across. So it was a fun challenge, I loved it.
Scoop: Tell me about the makeup process for Art.
DHT: That was about a 3 to 4-hour makeup process. Sometimes it went longer because it was Damian doing all the makeup as well, so sometimes he would have to leave me to go setup shots or film shots and then come back. At least a few times I would be in the chair at 4 in the afternoon starting out and I wouldn’t get out of the chair and on set until about midnight or after midnight.
Scoop: Looks like it was cheek, nose, and chin pieces?
DHT: Yeah, he made a whole mold of my face so it’s a whole mask, one piece, that he just glues to my face. But it’s thin enough to show every move I make. I’d forget and scare myself sometimes, looking in the mirror in the bathroom.
Scoop: And scare other people when you go out to get coffee or something. [laughs]
DHT: One of the funniest stories that happened onset was this one night I was just waiting to go on set because they were filming another scene. I already had blood on me. There was this argument happening on the street. Two women were out there just having a big argument, and I just go over because I’m bored so I go to the window to watch the argument. One of them looks up at me and I just wave at her. [laughs] They screamed and go running off. I started laughing because I forgot about the makeup. So they see this bloody clown staring at them from a window.
It gets better, though. About 15 minutes later Damian and our producers come up and are like, “Dave, don’t come out yet, but when we tell you to come on outside.” There was this big, huge garage door. They said, “Come out when we tell you to, we have some people to introduce you to.” I thought, oh cool, who wants to see me at this hour of the night? So they tell me to come out and I roll up the garage door and I’m greeted by like 10 to 15 cops in full riot gear. So I said, “What’s up guys?” and they responded, “Oh, we would’ve shot you on sight. You better be glad they came out first.” They said that they’d gotten a report that there was some demonic clown. They came to do battle! I took pictures with them then, but there was this one cop who wouldn’t come near me. He said, “You seem like the nicest guy but I can’t do it, man, I hate clowns.” I said, “Dude, you have a grenade launcher! I think you’re okay.” [laughs]
Scoop: [laughs] What was your reaction the first time you saw yourself in full makeup?
DHT: I loved it. I actually stood in front of the mirror for 15 minutes making faces. I always do that when I have new makeup because I want to see how everything reads. I was like a little kid [mimics making faces].
Scoop: The quick transitions in your expression were really scary. At the beginning in the pizza shop when Art has the serious expression and then flips on the smile I thought, ya’ll better run. This isn’t going to end well.
DHT: [laughs] The funny thing is those moments look so serious but every time we would film, especially that scene, we would be giggling.
Scoop: Terrifier used crowdfunding and is an indie horror movie. Do you feel that indie movies give actors/writers/directors more freedom to realize their visions versus a big studio taking control of the story?
DHT: Oh definitely. I’m still just absolutely amazed at what we accomplished with the limited budget we had for this. It’s amazing what we accomplished but it just shows the talent of the people we had working on this film. It definitely gave us a lot more freedom because that was one of the issues we had trying to shop this out to distributors. We had some bigger distributors who wanted to put this in theaters nationwide, but their one caveat was that we had to make some big, huge cuts. Especially the main kill sequence. They wanted to cut a lot of that and Damian was like, “No, no, no you’re not going to do that because that’s what’s going to make this film. That’s what everyone is going to be talking about.” Removing the kills in this film – you can’t neuter it that way. He was about to self-distribute because he was getting so fed up with it. It wasn’t until the people at Epic Pictures and Dread Central, especially Uncle Creepy, he had seen the film and said it was amazing and that it has to get out to the public. So, he contacted Damian and said that he wanted to release it uncut. That’s how we got it out there, all because Uncle Creepy liked it.
We were able to take bigger risks with this and it’s paying off. This is what horror fans have been wanting. I’ve been watching a lot of horror films in the past decade or so that are not nearly as intense and suspenseful as they used to be and the kills are nowhere near as fun. It’s lost a lot of the fun, I would say. They’ve become more concerned with confusing plotlines. I look at the Saw series – it started off amazing. The first one was so big, but that was also an independent film. But then the series got so bogged down in crazy plots and stuff like that and it lost the focus of what people enjoyed so much about the original. That’s what’s been going on in horror films. I hate saying it because Jenna [Kanell, Tara in Terrifier] was in it, but she was in The Bye Bye Man and I remember her talking about the script and it sounded so great. It had so much potential but when I went to see it there were so many unanswered questions. It seemed like it was lacking so much. I expected so much more out of it. I asked her about it and she said they filmed a rated R version but the studios wanted to put more butts in the seats so they cut a lot of the bigger kills and stuff like that, and also explained a lot more of the storyline and the character of the Bye Bye Man. That’s what’s going on, studios are too afraid of taking risks anymore because they’re trying to put more butts in the seats so they try to get a younger crowd. But they don’t understand, that’s what made horror films so successful back in the day. Those films were risky. Especially when we were growing up. You watched these late at night when mom and dad were asleep. That was part of the fun.
Scoop: I remember in ’96 when Scream came out and I saw it in the theater after the first ten minutes I thought, what did I just watch? Was that seriously just the beginning of the movie? I agree with you on some of the newer movies, there are pockets of scary stuff then the rest stretches out a story.
DHT: Yeah, there’s too much exposition and not enough fun. That’s the total opposite of what we did with Terrifier, there’s very little exposition, very little story. It’s just one basic, huge, long cat and mouse game.
Scoop: Crowdfunding opportunities and social media have become good sources for horror. During the filmmaking process did you and the rest of the Terrifier cast and crew stay in touch with fans?
DHT: Oh yeah. That’s actually why I got on Instagram because I didn’t know what it was when we started filming. It was a great way of connecting with fans during filming. I tried my best to do it. It’s the fans that made this movie popular too. I got home last night and I had 60-odd new Facebook friend requests. I get messages. I try my best to at least give a thumbs up and respond to everybody because it is the fans that have made us a success and I want to show at least some kind of appreciation for it.
Scoop: I’ve seen some artwork and shirts with Art the Clown on them. Do you know if there will be other collectibles – action figures or masks, for instance?
DHT: We’re hoping to. Man, I’m hoping. I’d love that. I’m such a big action figure guy. I would love NECA to do a toy. My inner 5-year-old would be happy for the rest of my life. Same thing with Funko Pop. That would make me so happy. I love this kind of stuff. I think they’re trying to work something out. This is new to all of us, especially the merchandise. I know Damian wants to work something out.
Scoop: Have you attended any horror cons yet? If so, what’s it been like meeting fans?
DHT: Not yet, but I’m doing my first one in July – Mad Monster Party in Arizona. I’m frickin’ stoked about it because that’s the one I’m appearing in character for photo ops. Most of the time, Damian doesn’t want me appearing in character because he doesn’t want to break the image of the character. He wants the fans to be able to dress up. But, they really wanted me to appear in character for photo ops so I told them to talk to Damian. They told him they were bringing in horror legends – Tom Savini is going to do makeup for Kane Hodder as Jason, they’re bringing in Robert Englund and Tyler Mane. They said they’d fly us out there so Damian could do my makeup and he said okay. After he saw who was going to be there he said we have to do it. I’m so stoked because these are the guys we grew up watching and now we get to hang out with them – are you kidding me? It’s an honor. They want to bring the two of us from this small, little independent horror film and I thought, what an honor.
Scoop: Yeah, but if you think about how many indie horror films have been huge successes. Halloween was indie, Saw was indie.
DHT: Texas Chainsaw Massacre was indie.
Scoop: Lots of great horror movies are indie. Will there be a sequel?
DHT: Oh yeah. I think Damian is about to start working on the rough draft. Just yesterday we were texting back and forth fun ideas.
Scoop: What conventions will you be attending?
DHT: Mad Monster Party is going to be July 13-15 in Arizona. The one in August is Parahorror in Buffalo, New York. The third one is Cult Classic Convention in Bastrop, Texas in late September. That one is where they filmed Texas Chainsaw Massacre so they have a lot of people from that plus they have a clown theme. The other one is in the last weekend of October in Birmingham, in the U.K. for Birmingham Horror Con.
I’m also in the third season of filming Nightwing: Escalation, it’s a webseries, fan-made. It’s a bunch of Batman fans who wanted to make a series together. I play the Joker on that. So that’s a lot of fun. I’m also working on voice acting projects, including a series that’s going to be on Hulu.
Scoop: Where can interested horror fans find you on social media?
DHT: You can find me on Facebook and Instagram under David Howard Thornton. On YouTube, I think I’m also under David Howard Thornton. And Twitter I’m @DavidHThornton.
Scoop: Well, thank you so much for letting me pick your brain about the movie.
DHT: Thank you, this was fun!