I know AJ Bowen a little bit. We're Twitter friends. Last year AJ and I had a very heated conversation about film at Fantastic Fest that made some people think a fight was about to go down but that actually sort of cemented a cool understanding between us. Thankfully, since AJ would have wiped the floor with me.
You may have seen AJ in films like The Signal or House of the Devil or A Horrible Way to Die. He's one of the great new name-brand actors in the horror genre, but I tihnk he's going to find himself recognized outside of the niche soon enough. AJ's one of the more interesting talents to come out of indie film in a long time, and while I think the work he's doing in genre is terrific I believe he's still got a lot ahead of him.
AJ's new film, Rites of Spring, is now available on VOD and is playing at select theaters. When I was offered a phoner with AJ I jumped at the chance. What I find interesting about him is that he's very candid, very approachable and very real. I knew that talking to him about the life of a working actor wouldn't get me bullshit soundbites and well-rehearsed nonsense. I wasn't disappointed.
You’re what they call a working actor. On Twitter I see you say things like you won’t ever do a found footage movie; how hard is it for you to draw those sorts of lines in your career?
It’s funny you brought that up, and I’m glad you did. Most of the movies I’ve been in up until now there’s been no financial responsibility on me - it might go VOD, or people might find it on Netflix Instant two years later. The money comes from the script, and the money is so small that I just enjoy it as a storyteller, and my role in telling that story. They can’t focus on having big spectacle in a movie that size, but they can focus on the story and figure out an interesting way to tell that. Up until now I’ve been fortunate that when the budget is small I get to play a character who is interesting - or I have the opportunity, I get to fuck that up on my own.
So going back to the found footage thing, when I went to SXSW this year I hadn’t seen the first two [REC] films. I had heard they were found footage and so I skipped them, I had already seen Blair Witch, blah blah blah. But what I wasn’t aware was that found footage was changing. I had these long talks with Eric Vespe and Drew McWeeny about what exactly is found footage. And I was like, I guess I don’t know. To me it seemed like the low-fi Von Trier Dogme kind of thing, reductive with all these rules. I could enjoy watching some of them, but then I would be like ‘Why did this guy set the camera down at such a perfect Dutch angle? And it’s got a rack focus across to another skyscraper, it’s ridiculous.’
Then I saw [REC] 3 and enjoyed a lot of that, especially when they put the camera down. Then I watched Chronicle and I enjoyed that and I wondered, is that found footage? Because there’s editing in it, and I didn’t know there could be. Then I began wondering is District 9 found footage? So when it started to change into an aesthetic choice, or an aesthetic tool to tell the story, I don’t have a problem with that at all. It becomes interesting to me.
With the hard line that I’ve taken with found footage, I can pretty much guarantee I’ll do a found footage movie. It’ll probably be the next one, so I’ll really seem like a hypocritical asshole.
It sounds like you’re just having an evolving outlook.
It’s fascinating to be in this world we’re in to see things changing in the industry and for you to be able to grow with it. I got so shit on for saying I really enjoyed Project X. I wasn’t trying to say it was good, but I was saying it’s found footage I guess, but whatever I had a good time with it.
Where do you draw the line between taking the job you need and creating the filmography you want?
The only thing I would say right now I wouldn’t do... no, that’s not true, I would do a Kirk Cameron movie too! I grew up in the Deep South. I want to do a film version of that Bibleman character that Willie Aames from Charles in Charge played.
I had a conversation a few years back with my dad, and he’s an ex-Marine, a hardcore dude, and he asked if I was worried about being stereotyped into this one kid of role. And I said, ‘Stereotyped into being a paid actor? Yeah I can deal with that.’ What a terrible problem to have.
I don’t know if it’s because I came out to LA later than other actors I know, but I feel like worrying too much about a perceived image based on your work... I get that some of that has to exist, because I look at some of the movies I’ve been in and think ‘Well, maybe I don’t need to do one like that anymore.’ There’s pros and cons to it. I’ve gotten to play interesting characters. Do I get tired of some of the stuff I’ve done? Yeah, that’s why I haven’t played a guy who chokes a girl out in a while. But I try not to worry about that shit. I think it takes care of itself. For me, in terms of diversity of content, I think a lot about what’s the most different thing I can do. And for my next film I want to do something my nephews and nieces could actually watch.
But I try not to think about what the filmography is going to be. I finally took management, and it’s been very different for the last six months. Maybe that’s why I haven’t made any movies! I’ve been going in to meetings with people like Clint Eastwood, and I think ‘There’s no way this is going to happen, I’m sure he’s a big fan of The Signal.’ In those meetings I’m a kid with a dream, but at Weekend of Horrors they know who I am. Everything’s relative. I just know that I want to do things that are interesting to me, and to do that I sometimes have to step out and start doing different things.
Speaking of Weekend of Horrors, one of the coolest things I discovered when I moved out here is that there’s a serious horror community - fans, journalists and filmmakers - in LA. I’m assuming as an actor that’s a great thing to have this community around you.
I did a movie a bunch of years back called The Signal. Magnolia picked it up and had no experience outside of festivals. Traveling with that movie for a year before it came out I started meeting other filmmakers and I started meeting journalists. I saw we were wearing the same t-shirts and we liked to do the same things. Traveling with that movie had a bigger impact on me being a working actor than anything else. Because certainly nobody’s watching the movies I’m in - for the most part most people who watch movies have never heard of mine. But there’s that community of people you can go to the movies with and argue about the movies with and write about the movies and read about the movies. It’s a great community for that.
I kept running into the same filmmakers. That’s how I ended up in one of Ti West’s movies, we discovered we pretty much live across the street from each other. He said, ‘I have this really boring part in this shitty movie I’m doing and I was going to do it but I don’t have time to do it, but you can do it if you want.’ And I was like, ‘Wow Ti, that sounds fascinating. I’d love to do it based on the way you sold it.’
But you look up and it’s been a few years and then you’ve been working with these guys for a while. So what happens is it’s important, especially for these guys that I know, that these filmmakers have their identity as a storyteller. So I make a couple of movies with Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett and they need to go on to do stuff I’m not involved with. It’s not ‘Oh it’s the next year, so Toronto is going to have the annual Simon/Adam/AJ picture.’ I’ve been through these cycles with people I worked with and we realize we can’t make a movie together for a little while so they have the opportunity to grow and I have the opportunity to grow. It creates a community I appreciate.
For all the negative that can come from people arguing about movies, or people deciding ‘I’m going to fuck up Faraci in the debates at Fantastic Fest!’ there’s this thing about standing outside the Drafthouse at 3:30 in the morning just talking about movies. Sharing a meal with these people. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. It was a life changing moment for me to meet Eric Vespe. I knew him as Quint and now he’s one of my best friends. It’s weird sometimes if people want to let it get weird - now you have to review a movie and we know each other, and now I read it. But I don’t give a shit about that. I think in terms of the family in genre in general, it’s a big circle and the important thing is that we have each other. That I can watch these movies with these people and have these conversations. And they don’t always have to be a winner.