It takes something truly special for a new character to take the horror world by storm, but Art the Clown is special personified. From stark makeup that demands your attention to the dichotomy of silly and sinister, writer / director Damien Leone’s creation has quickly become the latest obsession of the clown subgenre.
Though TERRIFIER (2016) wasn’t the first time we’d set eyes on Art, it was an experience that won’t soon be forgotten. David Howard Thornton has cemented himself as one of the most indelible villains in recent memory, and with TERRIFIER 2 looming, the eagerness of its star to get back into character is palpable.
“It kills me that I can’t tell people about some of the kill scenes that we have because they’re going to be so much fun to film.”
Nightmare Nostalgia caught up with the 40-year old actor for a telephone interview to discuss what makes Art so unique, filming that scene, the sequel’s challenge and hope to up the ante (keep the word Empire in mind), that Art (like the Joker) needs his Batman, and just where Thornton believes his prankster ranks among the pantheon of horror clowns.
NIGHTMARE NOSTALGIA: Following the TERRIFIER short (2011) and ALL HALLOW’S EVE (2013), Damien Leone needed a replacement for Mike Giannelli, so tell us how you came to land the role of Art the Clown.
DAVID HOWARD THORNTON: I randomly came across a casting notice online, a website called Actor’s Access looking for a tall, skinny guy who had clowning or physical comedy experience for the “role of a lifetime.” (Laughs) I noticed it was Art the Clown and I had seen ALL HALLOW’S EVE a year or so before, so I was familiar with the character and already liked the character. I was like “Oh my God, I can totally play that role.” (Laughs) So I told my agents to contact them and get me an audition, I’m like “I can knock this one out of the park, guys. Please send me in.” And that’s what happened, so I went in there, knocked it out of the park, had probably one of the weirdest auditions I’ve ever had because they didn’t give me a script because Art doesn’t talk and I didn’t realize that I was not going to have a script. So I get in there and I was expecting to be there for me, and I’m like “There’s no script. Uhhh.” All these other people had scripts and I’m like “Oh nooo. (Laughs) I came unprepared. Oh shit.” (Laughs) I go in the room “I’m so sorry, but I don’t have a script” and they said “Oh, you don’t need one,” and I’m like “Oh?”
“Yeah, Art doesn’t talk. You don’t need a script,” I’m like “Sooo, what do you want me to do?” (Laughs) They said “Just come up with a scene where you stalk a guy and decapitate him.” I’m like “Okay, cool. I can do that. Can I have a few minutes to think it out?” and they said “No, just go ahead and do it off the top of your head, we want to see what you come up with.” So I just came up with this scene where I snuck up behind the guy very cartoonishly, knocked him out, then cut off his head, tasted the blood from the head, didn’t like the taste of the blood so I salted it. You gotta add seasoning, ya know? Enter Julia Child. Then I liked it and skipped out on my way and that’s what got me the part. I think they could see that I was just playing around and doing all this crazy stuff just right off the top of my head and they’re like “We want him.” So they asked me right there in the room “Can you come in for a makeup test?” and the rest is history.
NN: Art has really taken on a life of his own since TERRIFIER dropped. Have you been at all taken aback at the we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore reaction to your character?
DHT: It’s starting to slowly sink in. (Director) Damien (Leone) and I talk about that all the time because we’re at these conventions together, because if I do a photo op he comes and does my makeup and he’ll sign autographs, too. We get to experience a lot of this together and it’s pretty surreal still for us. I was down in Orlando and had a girl come up and she had a tattoo of me on her leg and she wanted me to sign the bottom of the tattoo so she could get my signature tattooed on her leg, too. I was like “Wowww!” (Laughs) It’s pretty surreal walking around and seeing the different vendors that have unofficial merchandise that they’ve made themselves that they’re selling. It’s bizarre for a little independent film that was only the first real big film in the franchise and it’s already exploded like that, we did not expect this at all.
It’s really weird because we don’t just get adults, but we get little kids who’ve seen the film and they love the film and we’re like “What?!” (Laughs) It dawned on me, I turned to Damien at one of these conventions after one of these kids left and I said “Damien? Dude, I think I’m going to be this generation’s Freddy Krueger.” And he’s like “Oh wow, you’re right.” When we were kids, that’s when Freddy and Jason and Mike Myers were big, and these kids don’t have that right now, and I’m like “Oh wow, maybe that’s what we’re going to be.” That was a weird thing, so basically how Freddy and Jason and all those guys were the new Wolf Man and Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster, that’s kind of what Art might be, a new generation of horror starting, I hope.
NN: As opposed to Tim Curry and Bill Skarsgard with Pennywise and Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding, your makeup conceals your face to the extent that it doesn’t look like you at all. Outside of conventions, can you walk around and go relatively unrecognized?
DHT: For the most part, but people are now starting to know what I actually look like, but I don’t mind, it’s kind of cool having a little bit of anonymity, but it’s often cool being recognized, too. I went to a preview of PET SEMATARY last week in New York and I’m out at the concession line and some people actually recognized me from TERRIFIER in the line and I was like “Holy crap!”
NN: Though Art the Clown is very expressive in a mime-like way, the character is completely bereft of dialogue as you talked about. As someone who’s done extensive voice work, how challenging was it to attack that role, and how much of Art’s personality came from you as opposed to the page?
DHT: It definitely was challenging, especially being a voice over guy because all the characters I’d ever played before, even on stage, I would use a totally different voice, I just never wanted to use the same voice twice if I could help it. That helps me become the character is the voice, I guess that’s my process is first discovering the voice and then everything builds itself off of that. With Art I was like “Oh, Jesus. (Laughs) This is more complex.” So I basically tapped into my extensive knowledge of great physical comedians and actors from cinema going all the way back to the silent film age of (Buster) Keaton, (Charlie) Chaplin, all the way through (Jim) Carrey and Doug Jones and my good friend Stefan Karl who was Robbie Rotten in LAZYTOWN.
I was his understudy for five years on the national tour of (Dr. Seuss’) How the Grinch Stole Christmas The Musical, and he kind of took me under his wing and helped me fine tune physical comedy abilities because he was a trained clown and all that kind of stuff, so he really helped mentor me. So, I put that into Art and for what was mine and what was on the page, I would say about 50 /50 because Damien, of course there was no dialogue written, so most of it was just descriptions of what was going on in the scene. So, there would be times when Damien knew exactly what he wanted me to do down to what angle I would cock my head at or what expression I had on my face, and other times he would just say “Go ahead and play.” Like the diner scene, he said “Just play around and see what you come up with.” It was really nice having that collaborative relationship with the director where we had a lot of give-and-take with each other, it was fun.
So writing the script for the sequel, now he knows what my style is like so we kind of collaborated together and came up with some fun ideas. There are a lot of moments in this new script where he’s like “Okay, I’ve given you some ideas, but this is a scene were I just want you to go crazy again and play, and play, and play, and see what you come up with.” And I’m just like “Awesome!”
NN: Talk to us about that scene. Catherine Corcoran and the saw. For shock value, that may be the most intense kill of the flick. What were your initial thoughts when you read that scene, and then while filming it?
DHT: When I first read the scene I was like “Holy crap. (Laughs) I’m going to do this?! To wha? Wowww! Okayyy. Wow, what am I getting myself into here? This is dark.” I was expecting also your typical horror film where they kind of cut away from the violence, but nooo they don’t. (Laughs) Not at all, you see all of it happen. So, I was like “Geez, that’s brutal.”
When it came to the night of filming, that was probably the most serious night we had on set because that was such a dangerous stunt we were pulling, because that was very dangerous for Catherine hanging upside down like that, that’s not good for the body. We would only let her hang upside down for 30 seconds at a time, we had this apparatus that was built to swing her back up so she wouldn’t have to lay upside down for that long. Still she even got sick after all that, she had some inner ear problems for a little while.
Plus, it was 20 degrees in that room that night, too. It was cold. I was cold, so she was definitely cold covered in all that fake blood and hung upside down like that in a very uncomfortable position. Sometimes the blood would go in her eyes or in her nose and it was hard to breathe because her mouth was duct taped shut, but she never complained except like “Ow, it’s in my eye,” typical stuff that of course you’re going to complain about.
But she was totally gung-ho for the scene. She knew what scene was going to become, she knew. She was like “This is going to be the scene that everybody talks about.” I think she was excited to do it because of that, she said “This is going to be one of those scenes in movies that people are going to talk about for years to come.” She was just happy to be part of it.
NN: You touched on the set, and every picture has behind the scenes tales worth telling, so give us a hilarious or even poignant moment from your time filming TERRIFIER.
DHT: Oh yeah. The one I love to tell was this one night when we were filming the scene with Jenna (Kanell) and I with the gun, and she was on set filming one of her reaction shots or something like that, so I’m waiting in the waiting / makeup room. And it was in this very dangerous part of Trenton, New Jersey where we were filming, it’s late at night and I hear these two women have an argument on the street below me. I’m bored so I was like I might as well go watch what’s going on over here, and I forgot I had all my makeup on, I had blood all over me, so I’m just watching this argument happening about 10 feet below me (laughs), and one of the women looks up and sees me looking down at her from the window and I just did a little wave, totally forgetting how I look and was like “Hi!” (Laughs) They freak out and go running off screaming and about 10-15 minutes later our producer Phil (Falcone) and Damien and our Director of Photography (George Steuber) come in like “Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave. We’ve got some people out here who want to meet you, just don’t come out till we tell you to.” I was like “Okay, cool. I wonder who’s here to meet me? Cool, I’ve got fans!”
There was this roll-up garage door where we were filming and I’m on the other side of the door and I hear “Dave, come out!” So I roll up the door, go under and I look up and there were like 10-15 of New Jersey’s finest in full riot gear. I mean they’ve got the shields, the grenade launchers, all that kind of stuff and I’m like “Ohhh.” I just felt my ass tighten up (laughs) and my voice just squeaked out (high pitched) “‘Sup guys?” (Laughs) And there’s this pause and then they all just start laughing their heads off. I was like “Oh, my Goddd” And one of them said “Dude, be glad you didn’t come out here first because we would have shot you on sight.” And I was like “I. Believe. You. (Laughs) Oh, my God, I think you just took five years off of my life.” (Laughs) Because we didn’t have running water in the building so we had a porta potty out there, so if I had been out there taking a leak when they first arrived I would have been dead. (Laughs)
They were in really good humor about it, taking pictures with me and stuff, except there was this one cop who was deathly afraid of me, which I found funny because he has an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. I was like “Dude, you’ve got the gun!” And he said “You’re probably the nicest guy, but no, no I can’t get near you, man.” (Laughs) And I was like “I will let you do you.” Of course all of his buddies are just raggin’ on him “Oh, you can shake hands.” And I don’t know if they were joking or not, but they said “Hey, if you need any bodies we’ve got one down at the precinct right now you can use.” And we were like “Ohhh, no we’re fine. We’re fine.” We were like “Was he joking?” and I said “I don’t know!” (Laughs)
NN: So you’re sitting in a chair prepping for full Art makeup at Mad Monster Party in Charlotte, North Carolina this past February while Sid Haig was getting the Spaulding treatment just feet away. How surreal was that experience?
DHT: That was extremely surreal. Damien and I are just geeking out the entire time like “Yee yee yee!” (Laughs) And one random part of it was when Sergeant Slaughter just walks through the room to get to the back hallway to get to his table, and it was just like “And there goes Sergeant Slaughter.” Didn’t bat an eye. So you have two clowns getting made up and he just looks at us and nods his head and keeps walking (laughs). We were like “This is so bizarre what’s going on over here right now.” And then Bruce Campbell’s about to do his photo op in the next room and we actually had to vacate my photo op because we had something smoking in the light fixture for a second, so I was able to poke my head into his photo op and photo bomb him for a second, so that was kind of fun. I’m like “This is weird. This is my life right now. I’m photo bombing Bruce Campbell.” (Laughs) I didn’t just jump in front of the camera or anything like that, but I was just poking my head into the room, messing around with people. I didn’t want my first experience with Bruce Campbell to be me just being a total asshole and jumping into a photo and him being “What the hell are you doin’, man?” (Laughs)
NN: Every character and performance are different, but in terms of sheer terror, where would you rank Art the Clown among horror’s beloved jesters?
DHT: (Long exhale followed by a laugh) I think he’s probably at the very top if not right under Pennywise. And I’m talking about the Tim Curry version.
NN: Not as big a fan of the Skarsgard version?
DHT: No, I liked Skarsgard’s, too (laughs). Tim’s is the one everybody thinks of, the one everybody thinks of first, I think. That was my introduction to the character. And Art was kind of born off of Pennywise, the antithesis of Pennywise. Damien created him to be the total opposite of him–he’s bald, he’s silent, he’s black and white, not colorful at all.
NN: We know your hands are tied, but what can you tell us about TERRIFIER 2. And perhaps the better question, how can you up the ante?
DHT: That’s the real challenge there, upping the ante, especially with the hacksaw scene. We realized that and we’re like “We’ve got to write the sequel now. Oh God, how are we going to top that scene? (Laughs) Oh crap, did we set the bar too high?” We have some ideas that we hope will be on-par with that one, we don’t know if they’ll surpass it but I think some of these kills will be right up there with it.
As for the sequel, I like to say that TERRIFIER, the first one’s kind of the audience’s introduction to Art the Clown as well as the universe he inhabits, so everything happens in real time in that movie. No one knows what’s going on, they just know there’s this clown killing people. Now this one we get to explore more of what’s really going on with him. We’re not giving everything away, but you’re seeing a little more machinations behind the clown in this one, I would say, and we’re building the world around him more. We wanted to bring in a really good protagonist, so now we’re introducing this character into this one that we want to build more on top of.
I remember talking to Damien and saying “Art needs his Batman, the Joker needs his Batman. Someone who can actually go up against him.” So, we’ll see how that plays out, but it’s definitely going to be a bigger movie in scale, too.
NN: You probably can’t answer this but I’m going to ask it anyway, you talk about a protagonist–do you have someone who’s accepted that part or do you have someone that you’re looking at for that role?
DHT: Ohhh, we don’t have anybody that’s accepted it yet, but we have someone we’re thinking about at least for the role. We met this person at a recent convention and we were like “Oh, this person might work.” We’ll see how things are negotiated and stuff like that, but if we can get this person that might help us get more money (laughs). We’ll see. That’s what we’re doing right now, we’re looking for backers and stuff like that. I don’t know if we’re going to get big studio support or anything like that, we hope so, but at the same time there’s that fear that if a big studio took us on they would make us pull back on things that we want to do, and we don’t want to do that, I don’t think that would be fair to the audience to pull back from what we did in the first one. We want to keep going forward, we want to keep pushing boundaries, we don’t want to play it safe.
I think that’s the big problem with a lot of horror films right now, trying to play it safe instead of taking risks. They’re more worried about being PG-13 than rated R because they want to put more butts in seats. Especially with slashers, it’s kind of weakened the genre in that regard. I remember seeing HELLFEST (2018) recently and it had such promise because it’s a slasher film set in an amusement park that’s all horror oriented and that sets it up for some awesome kills, and they just kind of poo-pooed them, they didn’t really show anything. They showed a head being smashed in but that was about it, everything else just showed the stab and then cut away, it’s like “Ahhh!” Especially when you say that the villain disembowels people, then show it don’t tell. If you say that, I want to see Drew Barrymore hanging from a tree with her intestines hanging out, not just someone getting stabbed and you see a little blood go around the wound and you cut away immediately, like “Grrr!”
NN: Sounds like a third is also in the works?
DHT: It’s in the very, very, very, very beginning stage (laughs), because we haven’t even started filming the second one yet. Damien this whole entire time has had in his mind at least a trilogy, especially the second one setting stuff up for what’s going to happen in third, so it’s a continuous thing. I guess he’s taking the George Lucas approach, he wanted to see if his NEW HOPE worked first and he’s like “Okay, we got NEW HOPE, so let’s do EMPIRE and JEDI now.” (Laughs) Hopefully TERRIFIER 2 is going to be the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (laughs) of horror. Who knows, that’s a high bar to set for ourselves. Oh God!
NN: It is, but we’re hopeful that’ll be the case.
DHT: That’d be a miracle. (Laughs) This script has got me so excited, the things that we’re going to be doing. It’s great because we’re adding more story to it this time, because that was one of the things that people had problems with, that there was very little story, it was basically just one big, huge cat-and-mouse game. Yeah, we did that on purpose, that’s how a lot of the original slashers were. Even look at the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, they had very little story, it was just Jason killing a bunch of counselors. (Laughs)
Like I said, we do want to flesh out the universe more and build more character development type of scenarios and stuff like that for this next one. It’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be fun, I can’t wait. (Laughs) It kills me that I can’t tell people about some of the kill scenes that we have because they’re going to be so much fun to film. (Laughs) That’s what I love about this character, he’s just fun. All his mischievousness that’s behind him, he loves what he does. He’s not like Jason where he just kills someone and he’s on to the next kill, Art revels in what he’s doing, he plays around with it all, he’s not just stab, okay moving on to the next, stab move on to the next one. That’s what I love about the character so much, he has fun.
NN: Whether it’s at a convention, a random encounter, fan mail or otherwise, what is the strangest request you’ve received from an Art the Clown fan?
DHT: Hmmm, I’m trying to think. I haven’t really gotten anything too strange yet. Yet. (Laughs) That’s the operative word, yet. (Laughs) It’s pretty much been pretty normal, “Hey, can you sign this” or “Hey, can you give a shout out” or do a birthday video, which I’m happy to do from time-to-time. I know even Mark Hamill can’t do all that stuff now (laughs), but I haven’t really gotten anything that’s too, too crazy yet. I’ve had some fans who have gotten a little obsessive but that goes with the territory. I’d say the craziest thing that’s happened so far was signing that girl’s leg and having my signature tattooed on it. That was a cool kind of crazy, like “Wow, someone really wants this on their body for the rest of their life, so okay wow, cool.” I’m sure given time there are going to be a lot crazier things. (Laughs)
NN: Finally, when Farsighted stated that “Art makes Pennywise look like Krusty” they spoke for horror fans everywhere. What does it mean to you that your character has become so exalted in such a short period of time?
DHT: Oh, it means the world to me, I mean we didn’t expect that at all. We thought we had something cool, but like I said we were just this small, little, independent, low budget film that not many people knew about. I mean, we didn’t really get any real press coverage from mainstream media–we still haven’t–it’s basically from all the horror websites that have been saying stuff about us. Stuff like IGN, Vanity Fair, Hollywood Reporter, none of them have said bupkis about us.
Buzzfeed has helped spread the word, which is great, and I think that’s what amazes me so much, the following that has come around this film that wasn’t even released in theatres is just astronomical. I think Netflix really helped us a whole lot, but it’s because the fans just keep on talking about this film, and they tell their friends about this film and it just kind of snowballs from there. It’s been absolutely fantastic, we didn’t imagine any of this was going to happen, we just thought we had a fun little film that we liked. We did this because we enjoy slashers and we want to make the type of slasher we wanted to see. We were like, “You know what, yeah, we think we have something cool but we’re being realistic.”
One of our producers came in one night, it was his first time seeing me in makeup, and he just stopped “That’s really cool. That’s something that’s going to stand out to people. You guys don’t realize it but you’ve got something special on your hands here. This is going to go somewhere.”
NN: You talked about the playfulness with the character, reveling in the kills and all he does, and that’s true, but it was those moments when you would stare. The scowl and the look in your eyes, that counterbalance to the goofiness, but it’s absolutely terrifying with the makeup and the look on your face when you stare someone down. It really has an effect.
DHT: That’s something I like about the character too, he shows his emotions. When he gets mad he gets mad and you can see it, when he’s disappointed with something you can see it. I love that the makeup gives me that ability to express as much as I want to. It’s not just somebody behind a mask and all you see is their eyes and no other expression on their face. I love having that ability to actually act. (Laughs)
You think about Robert Englund, he was able to actually act as Freddy, which I think is why Freddy stood out to so many people because you could kind of relate to the character in a way because you saw those emotions that he was going through. I think that’s why people relate to Art, like “Oh wow, there’s a human side to him.” He’s not just 100 percent kill, kill, kill / angry, angry, angry the whole entire time.