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Interview: Thom Mathews

From Pitching Tostito’s to Dealing With a Might Perturbed Jason Vorhees and a Zombie Tussle, the Unique Ride to Horror Movie Fame of Thom Mathews

I must make an honest admission before I begin this piece. I was late to warm to the slasher rage taking over the 80s. Sure, I was bowled over by Carpenter’s initial 1978 sojourn Halloween, and enjoyed the likes of Prom Night and, to a lesser extent, Terror Train. But I yawned when others extolled the virtues of New Year’s Evil or Mountaintop Motel Massacre. I learned the error of my ways, somewhat, when Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives movie poster caught my eye for some reason.

The one with the simple image of Jason in hockey mask front and center and the words under the title: “Nothing this evil ever dies!” I had never seen the previous entries but really wanted to check this one out. So I binged watched 1-5 in an all-night horror-thon and my first reaction as the final credits rolled on part 5 was one of pure riveted excitement. I was hooked for certain, although still objective enough to realize the sequels to that point were not without major flaws. Yeah, my film criticism tendencies were starting to kick in even then. Then, part 6 came along. I’d read as much as I could in Fangoria magazine and other periodicals about it beforehand and was intrigued by the approach that director Tom McLaughlin was going with of having previous Jason killer Tommy Jarvis return as an adult hero (maintaining continuity with parts 4 and 5), but having him a mentally-fractured guy so tormented still by the masked one that he’s compelled to exhume his body and make sure the maniac is still not breathing. This sets into motion a chain of events with Jason’s accidental revival and more slaughter. For McLaughlin to pull this off with any amount of sense he would need an actor with enough of the skills and charisma to carry the story. Fortunately, he had Thom Mathews in the fold, who was no stranger to either b-horror pictures or playing the good guy in them.

See, Mathews became something of a cult star immediately with the classic zombie gore/comic fest a year earlier The Return of the Living Dead and the right mix of boy-next-door appeal and thespian chops to step into things as Jarvis. His back to back turns impressed me to the point where I knew I had to follow his work from then on. Understand my unabashed glee when, 32 years later, I would have the opportunity presented to interview this magnificent star via email. Of course, I lept at it and, without further adieu, I bring to you:

KN: Growing up in Los Angeles, California and attending Fairfax High School, replete with that gorgeous D.S. Swan Auditorium and Rotunda (yeah, too many visits to Melrose Avenue for my wallet!), were you the typical “I always wanted to be an actor” kid growing up or did it come later? Fairfax High is one of the leading entertainment high schools.

TM:I was floundering after High School. Not sure of the direction I wanted my life to go. I discovered acting a few years after High School when a girlfriend suggested I study acting. It intrigued me so I started studying and got my first gig 3 years later.

KN: Some actors have admitted that it’s more grueling to do weekly television if you’ve already started in film. You had it the other way around, doing commercials (including for my favorite snack chip Tostitos!) and moving onto guesting work in tv primetime soaps like Dynasty and Falcon Crest (with a break to do an uncredited role in the Gene Wilder feature Woman in Red. Can you talk about the experience of 12 hour plus day shoots and if that grind helped you when you segued to film?

TM: Typically productions have a 12 hour turnaround for actors. The big difference between the two is when doing TV you’ll shoot 10-16 pages a day whereas Film you shoot 1-8 pages a day depending on what’s on the page. When doing a Film there’s a lot of down time if there is different locations because the whole company has to relocate and set up. TV usually has sets in place so the pace is much faster.

KN: Your first lead role came in the horror feature that became a nice success at the box office and has become a cult classic over the years, The Return of the Living Dead. A lot of actors do not care to discuss their career beginnings if it involves a horror film. Yet, your career resume suggests that you fully embrace the genre. Talk about working on this film, with wonderful character vets like James Karen, Clu Gulager and Don Calfa, about the impact it had on your career, and your opinions of the genre overall.

TM: I had a GREAT experience working on ROTLD! Not only was it my first big part in a feature film but the arch of the character, Freddy was an amazing opportunity to play. Most of my scenes were with the legendary actor James Karen. What a joy it was to spend time with him during the production. His love of acting and fantastic acting stories were endless and an inspiration for all of us young actors. As I worked more and more in film I came to realize how special of a time it would become. It was a true collaboration. Working out every scene with the generous writer director the late Dan O’Bannon. I’ll never forget the experience. Having Clu & Don on board made it even more special. I’m not sure of the impact it had on my career but I always say work begets work. ROTLD still holds up today finding new fans along the way. The genre is strong and I believe I read a few years ago that the Academy Awards was considering having its own category for Horror’’’.

KN: Your next work, Dangerously Close, came under the guidance of a man that I feel is terribly under-recognized and appreciated, as well as a true maverick in every sense, and that is Albert Pyun. A man who practically invented the Cyborg film formula. The fact that you ended up cast in eleven of his films would seem to indicate a good working partnership. How did that come about and can you pinpoint why the relationship works so well between you two?

TM: I remember my callback for my first film with Albert. He called all the Actors back to read with each other. All the scenes mixing and matching over and over. We were there for hours! I asked him later why he did that. He said he wanted to see how the young actors responded to the long hours, ie: getting upset, walking out, taking direction, etc. as it would be during principle photography. He also got in a free rehearsal by doing that! Albert liked Actors that brought something to the table. Their opinions, ideas, wardrobe, background for the characters they were going to play. He encouraged it and I think fed off it creatively. Some of my funniest roles have been working with Albert Pyun.

KN: The Friday the 13th film series came calling next for you with the 6th entry, Jason Lives. Now, occasionally an actor feels trepidation at coming into a highly successful tv show or film series. The whole idea of not being the torchbearer when the flame goes out. Did you have concerns about jumping on board? Having an Emmy-nominated and horror vet talent like Tom McLoughin at the helm had to have made the task very easy for you. Secondly, did you do any preparation for the role like re-watch the earlier films or talk to John Shepard?

TM: Honestly I never thought about trying to fill another actors shoes. I was just glad to have a job and given the opportunity to work! I did do some research and watched Part 5 to see if I needed to instill any particular mannerism that John Shepard may had had playing Tommy Jarvis. But overall I was thrilled to be working. I thought the script was good being confined with what is a given for the franchise. Tom McLoughin brought his script it to life! It’s a fan favorite for good reason. The fans finally had a character to cheer for. Tom and I are still friends today.

KN: Jason Lives was the first in the series to have no nudity. Were you aware if this was a conscious effort by McLoughlin and the producers or was it merely an incidental happenstance?

TM: Knowing Tom as I do now I’m sure he just wanted to make a good ole fashion horror movie!

KN: With a 40 day film schedule seems very short, all things considered, and would indicate long, long individual shooting days. And on top of it, your filming on location at an actual campground, Camp Daniel Morgan in Covington, Georgia. Any stories of hot, sweaty, arduous days in front of the camera?

TM: Overall the weather was accommodating. I do remember one particular day when we were filming. One of the local camera guys looked up. The Sun was out, there was a breeze, 78 degrees. He said it was going to rain. He proceeded to cover the 35mm camera on tracks with plastic. This being my first time in the south I thought he was nuts. The sun was out with a nice breeze, yep he’s crazy. Five minutes later it poured rain like I had never seen it rain before. Huge drops of rain for about ten minutes then it stopped! I had never experienced that type of rain with it being so warm out.

KN: Your 1965 Ford F-100 you got to use in the movie is one of the coolest classic trucks I’ve seen, with that distinctive I-Beam emblem on the front fender. How much fun did you have behind the wheel on that?

TM: We had Ford trucks growing up. My Dad was a Ford man all the way. So it was cool that they had picked that truck for TJ. It was fun driving it. Not enough scenes behind the wheel.

KN: You came back to tv after Jason for director Lee Katzin (a long-time tv and film helmer, including several of my favorite Mission: Impossible series episodes) and The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission, a sequel to one of the great war adventures of all time. Surrounded by a pretty much who’s who of vets like Vince Edwards, Ernest Borgnine, and Telly Savalas. Any remembrances of working with such icons?

TM: I grew up watching “Kojak” with Telly Savalas. I couldn’t wait to meet him, along with Vince Edwards and if you had a TV you knew Ernest Borgnine. Telly Savalas was a gentleman through and through. Class act during the production as I remember.

KN: In the 1990s you had quite the prolific run with some solid straight-to-video efforts like Bloodmatch (where your character name was one Albert Pyun loved to use, Brick Bardo (which sounds like a tv game show host), the kinetic Nemesis with Olivier Gruner, and Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor, all three for Pyun. Then, your old Fairfax days friend George Clooney comes calling with the role of Major Numbers for you in 1997’s The Peacemaker. A-budget production, high octane action set pieces and the like. A nearly four month shooting schedule primarily on location in Macedonia and Slovakia, and being the first feature for Dreamworks, this had to have been a bit of an intense experience for you or was it just another gig in your mind?

TM: Films are basically made the same way. Bigger budget more stuff! An actors process remains pretty much the same no matter how big the budget is. Don’t get me wrong it was great shooting in Europe, flying helicopters, it being Dreamworks first movie, and hanging out with friends. Mimi Leader directed Peacemaker and she also directed the episode of ER that I guest starred in so it was good to she her as well.

KN: Have to ask about doing what many actors consider the most challenging of projects this side of live theatre and that is, the live television film, which became something of a thing in the new millennium. You did a live (east coast feed) dramatization remake of the 1964 classic Fail-Safe. On the one hand you have experienced artists like Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Dennehy, Sam Elliott and James Cromwell with Stephen Frears overseeing. But it allows for no missed line or mis-layed prop. How intense and challenging was that for you?

TM: Great question. It was very intense knowing that it was a live production. We did 2 shows. One for the east coast then another for the west coast. We rehearsed it like a play. When I say we I mean everyone, the camera dept, lighting dept, prop dept, make up dept and so on. It was an incredible experience.

KN: You seem to kind of step away from filming for a time between 2001 and last year. Was this intended, with you pursuing other ventures, or just a period where few offers were being forwarded? I know that you helped form the construction company Hammer and Trowel (which could double as a title for a horror pic certainly) and had Rock icons Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne as clients. Is this a passion of yours as well?

TM: I had my first son in 1999. So there was that responsibility and at some point my construction business was keeping me busy to the point that it was costing me money to go on the dreaded auditions. So I made a decision to focus all of my attention on my that which kept me close to home. My father was in construction and my grandfather as well. My grandfather built sets for the studios. I remember as a young child, maybe 9-12, on any Saturday he would bring me to John Forsythe house. My grandfather had been working with him on some production and asked for his help around his house on their days off. I would eventually work on his little hit TV show called “Dynasty”. I reminded him of who I was all those years ago. Construction has always been in my life so it was a natural progression for me to be involved in it. I had some talented show biz clients along the way. It still gets me out the door in the morning to this day.

KN: The chiller realm once again came knocking on your door and you continue to answer. Can you discuss briefly Friday the 13th: the Game, lending your voice and likeness as Tommy Jarvis once more?

TM: The horror fans are amazing! They are the most dedicated hardcore fan base I have ever seen. So why not give them a video game! The folks at Gun Media reached out to me and asked if I would like to reprise my roll as Tommy Jarvis in the Friday the 13th the Game. I said yes. We went back and forth getting the image right then I laid down some tracks of my voice. It’s creating a whole new fan base for the franchise. Kids that shouldn’t see the movies, because their to young and that would be bad parenting, are playing the game and having a blast.

KN: It must have come as little surprise to you that the Friday the 13th series would blossom to such proportions that fan films are now being made. I see that you were involved in one last year called Never Hike Alone. Can you elaborate on your involvement with that piece?

TM: Well it is a surprise! After all these years Friday the 13th fans can’t get enough! I did do a fan film and I’ll tell you how I got involved. A good friend of mine asked me to do him a HUGH favor and have dinner with a friend of his who is a HUGH horror fan. I said I’d be happy to do it. So we all met for dinner. The four of us, my wife Karla, my friend and his friend and myself. During the course of the dinner he mentioned he was involved as a producer of a fan film for Friday the 13th called “Never Hike Alone”. Barry, thats the guys name, said they had shot over half of it and would I like to see and he thought it might be fun for me to be involved. I didn’t have the same thought but agree to see what they had not to be rude. So Barry had Vincente, the “director” send me over what he had. I watched it and IT WAS GREAT! I was impressed with the story, the acting, the locations, the camera work, the lighting, Jason looked good, WOW! Vincente DiSanti, the director and I reworked the ending that made sense for Tommy Jarvis then we shot it. We had the worldwide premiere in Telluride on Friday October 13, 2017 at the Telluride Horror Film Festival. The critics who saw a prescreening of the 53 minute short were nice enough to keep my name out of their reviews per Vincentes’ request so the fans would be surprised. They literally jump out of their seats when Tommy Jarvis appeared. It was a fun night!

KN: What does the future hold for Thom Mathews whether in the blood and gore arena or elsewhere?

TM: Work wise I’m doing 2 films this year. “KILLER THERAPY” starting principle photography September 2018 and “WARPATH” October 2018. I’ll continue meeting the fans at horror conventions and running my construction company.

KN: As we wrap the interview, are there any bits of wisdom that you could impart on the aspiring young actor who may be reading this interview, perhaps something like don’t be quick to turn down stalk and slash films because you still get paid?

TM: Actors need to act. Work begets work and you won’t know where it will take you!

Many thanks to Thom Mathews for taking the time to create such wonderful answers for the interview. An amazing star who is busier now, perhaps, than ever before! I’ve no doubt, considering his versatility and talent, that he will remain quite the working actor for many years to come. As for construction, I am getting thoughts about a new log cabin-like house being built near a lake and a signpost constructed with the words “Welcome to Camp Crystal Lake” implanted into the ground nearby! Maybe I’ll call him as client!

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