Thomas G. Waites on The Thing, Shakespeare and directing his own short film
Thomas G. Waites, star of The Warriors and John Carpenter's The Thing, talks to us about his acting school TGW Acting Studio, the Shakespearean inspiration in his teachings, and directing his 2012 short film Pandora's Box.
Waking up one morning last week, I could not have predicted that by the end of the day I'd be talking to Thomas G. Waites about, among other things, William Shakespeare, John Carpenter and Homeland.
It began with an email introduction by way of a mutual acquaintance, followed up with an email of my own, asking Thomas if he might be interested in a chat for the Exit 6 blog some time in future.
“Hi Mark. Sure. I’m in LA so it’s 5am. Perhaps about 11am my time?”
Bloody hell! No hanging around then. Fortunately, there is a stand-out role in Thomas’ extensive career that’s an obvious place to start – and that is playing Windows in John Carpenter’s The Thing. I begin by asking what it was like to work with the practical special effects so synonymous with the film.
“Well, truth be told, John Carpenter creates an atmosphere on the set which is really such fun. It's not even like working, it's like, I don't know, it's something completely different. You can't believe you're actually getting paid to do this. The special effects took a long time. There certainly was a lot of sitting around on the set, a lot of actors chattering back and forth about the state of the world at the time and who was going to be the next president, I think it was Reagan, and whether or not we liked him. Actors often get a lot of time to sit around and shoot the breeze which is why we're so good at bullshitting [laughs]! But the special effects really took a long time. Rob Bottin, as far as that goes, he's probably the best there is. John Carpenter is one of my favourite directors. He doesn't claim to be an actor's director, but he really is an actor's director. He really does care about the acting, and he's directed some great films like Starman. John is one of the best.”
He agrees with me that the work of Rob Bottin in that film is yet to be beaten by any other in the 36 years since it was made. On the subject of directing, we move onto Thomas’ own acting school, the TWG Acting Studio in New York City. He will be bringing his teaching to London in the coming weeks, with England being the birthplace of one of his own spiritual teachers – William Shakespeare.
“I would say that I've learned; to teach is to learn. I'm not sure if Shakespeare said that or I said that, but I think I did actually [laughs]. Sounds like something Shakespeare would say. It comes from having read so much Shakespeare. I'm a big Shakespeare guy. That's my forte. His verse, sound, language. I start everybody off with a Shakespeare monologue. That's your first four weeks of classes. It's just that monologue. By the end of the first month, you have that in your back pocket, hopefully.”
A baptism of fire for many actors. With so many monologues to choose from, I’m curious as to how he decides which to offer each actor.
“That's a very interesting question. I usually try to assess the person in terms of what their strengths and weaknesses are. So that if a fellow is demure and shy and reticent, I'll give him something wild and crazy like King Lear's speech, "Blow, winds, rage, crack your cheeks." Oftentimes, I'll go against the grain to try to touch off a nerve in someone. If someone is really... let’s just say, not cerebral, I’ll give them something difficult like speaker's speech by Hamlet. It really pushes them out of their comfort zone, but I teach it to them the way it’s supposed to be done. I know how it is supposed to sound.”
At this point there is a brief interlude while Thomas stops to order a much needed and deserved cappuccino. He’s only just arrived in LA and is still running on New York time – hence the 5am reply to my email that morning. Now refreshed, he returns to what he loves about Shakespeare and using it as a starting place for his students.
“There’s no bullshit. It’s the real thing. Strict attention to the verse, to the meter. What words exactly need to be stressed in order for it to be best understood. Once you see people derive the deeper meaning from Shakespeare, it really opens them up as actors because with Shakespeare all you have to do is say the words correctly. He’s sort of actor-proof.”
Despite launching his own acting career starring in cult hits such as The Warriors and The Thing, his desire to teach and to direct has always been with him.
“It’s always been in my soul, ever since I was a kid. Even when I was a young, little baby movie star, I would say to my agent, “Listen, I want to go off to teach somewhere," and he’d be like, “Are you crazy? Studio executives are flying here to meet you and you want to go to Pennsylvania to teach an acting class? Are you out of your mind?” It’s a calling. Film would not exist were it not for theatre, and theatre would not exist were it not for drama, and drama is in our lives just about every minute of every day. To examine drama is therefore to examine yourself, isn’t it? They sit, they see themselves, they identify with the character, and they go, “oh, that’s me, that’s me falling in love with that girl that won’t look at me, that doesn’t know I’m alive. That’s me that is experiencing unrequited love, whatever the circumstances. What is more interesting to people than themselves?"
His drive to explore human drama lead him to direct his first short film Pandora’s Box in 2012, where he worked with veteran performers Joe Mantegna and Frances Fisher. The film is a drama about a desperate husband (Mantegna) trying to cure his cancer-stricken wife (Fisher) by using a controversial Rife machine. It must have been a joy to work with such accomplished actors.
“Joe Mantegna is one of the great human beings on planet earth. He’s as great a guy as he is an actor. I approached him out of nowhere. I called him and he’s like, “Yes, Tom, I know who you are. Sure, I’ll talk to you about it.” With the guy whose schedule is like… he doesn’t have five minutes, he’s so busy with one thing and another, and he has a lot of causes, the veterans for our country, giving back to them and so forth, aside from a full-time job and a TV show. And he found 10 days or 11 days in his schedule to do this film. Frances Fisher played his wife. Frances, I’d known for many, many years. We were friends at the Actors Studio back in the 1980s. We also shot an episode of the The Equalizer together. We did a production of Orpheus Descending, where she played Carol Cutrere at Actors Studio back in 1988/89, and we’ve remained friends throughout all these years."
With the chance to direct two veteran actors, I ask about his experience shooting the film.
“It was heaven on earth. First of all, I worked really fast. It’s an optical illusion because I seem like I’m taking forever because I’m really methodical and specific and detailed about every fucking thing you can imagine. This goes with stage too. And yet, because I know what I’m doing, it just seems to go very fast. We had an entire cast one day with absolutely nothing to do because we were so far ahead of schedule. That’s how thorough and well-planned it was. It’s a good little movie. I think you can find it online somewhere.”
Despite having the opportunity to work with two wonderful actors on a smooth shoot, the film would have its own drama during post-production, after a falling out with the writer/producer.
“I lost touch after she took away the cut. They always do that to you, don’t they? I cut the movie, and it was really good, and it was really interesting, I thought. The camera was telling a story, and then she took it away from me, and she cut it like a TV movie. Everything was close up, close up, and close up. You know what I mean? Although she didn’t do much to propagate the film, the one or two festivals that she did show in, I won Best Director and Frances Fisher won Best Actress. Joe was so thrilled for us.”
It is clearly a subject of some frustration for him after the work invested into the project, but one the teacher has certainly learned from. I change topic to something much more recent, and that is his appearance in this series of Homeland – which coincidentally I saw right before our chat. Is he a fan of the show or was his guest role his first experience of it?
“Yes, I really like the show. I like Claire Danes very much and Mandy Patinkin. I think they're very talented people. I hadn't watched it for a while, then I got the call about the audition, and went in and got lucky enough to get it. I had a great time on the show, and it turned out pretty well. Although I lost my best scene, I must say.”
I agree that this is terrible, but confirm that his appearance (SPOILER ALERT) completes my 100% record of seeing his character die in everything I’ve seen him in. He laughs.
“Just about everything I do, I get killed! I don't know what that's about, really. There must be some meaning behind it. I haven't quite figured it out. People like watching me die. I do play a lot of villains, and I have a theory that because I'm such a good and sweet man, that when I play villains, the audience senses there's something underneath what they're seeing and that's why they know that he's not all that bad of a guy. I don't know.”
(I can confirm the man I am chatting with is both sweet and good, while he confirms his personal favourite onscreen death is that of Windows in The Thing.)
With a wealth of experience performing in productions of all sizes in both TV and film, and now having made his own, I ask what reward he feels can come from making short films.
“Sometimes it can lead to something. Isn’t it always a risk? Aren’t we always out there just taking chance, after chance in the hope against hope that maybe someone will get this and give us a chance to tell the whole story? Some stories are meant to be told in a brief format, and that can be rewarding, in and of itself. A lot of times, it’s really meant to be a paradigm for something that’s obviously meant to be longer and more meaningful. If you can prove yourself with a short, then you can find somebody that’s willing to pony up the money and let you take a risk and shoot the whole thing, but short films can be fun. Work is work. I don’t care whether it’s in a loft building in downtown Brooklyn or if it’s on Broadway, or it’s a new feature film with Al Pacino or if it’s a short film that you shoot with your friends on a rented camera. Work is still just work, isn’t it? It’s our ability to find the truth.”
If that doesn't have you ready to grab a camera and create, I don't know what will.
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