Sunday, August 7, 2011

An Interview With Robert Prichard, Part 1: The Toxic Avenger



In part one of this two-part interview, actor Robert Prichard recalls the making of The Toxic Avenger.

Check back soon for part two, which will be posted in conjunction with Cinemachine's Class of Nuke 'Em High retrospective essay. The Toxic Avenger essay may be read here.

You can visit Robert's website at Surf Reality.com

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How'd you start acting?

Probably in grade school. I think the first thing I ever did was in French class, in grade school. It was to get us to learn French and that was fun. And then later in high school more. I came of age in the 70s, I was in high school in the 70s, college in the 70s, sort of too young to be a hippie, a little before punk rock, I was sort of in between the two things. So there was a whole "do-it-yourself" kind of thing about acting that I liked. I didn't want to work for the man, you know? In my young crazy way I saw it as a way to be self-employed in a creative way and be master of my own destiny.

I sort of saw it as a way to travel a lot, meet girls, be creative. Also I thought if I could really just learn how to act well, and be in control of my expressions, my body, in touch with my emotions, then no matter what else I wanted to do, if acting didn't work out for me I'd have a good base as a human being. So that was attractive to me. Didn't really work out for me though. (LAUGHS)

How'd you hear about the casting of "Health Club Horror" and what was the audition process like at Troma?

I think it was called "Health Club Superhero" or something like that? You're right it wasn't "The Toxic Avenger" initially. And I read about it in Backstage magazine, which was the sort-of trade paper for all the wannabe actors. People who are really working, they don't read Backstage magazine. But everyone who doesn't have a job, that's what they read every week. People trying to sell you acting classes and rehearsal space. And then there's a lot of audition notices for stuff that doesn't pay.


In the backseat with Jennifer Babtist as Wanda Zilch,
recusing himself from thrill killing to get up early for church

I auditioned I think four or five times and each time from the first time on - 'cause they liked the chemistry - it was with Jennifer Babtist, who became my wife. We actually married a couple years after Toxic Avenger. We auditioned together the first time, and then they called us back and called us back, and the first couple times we read scenes from the movie. But after that they started having us do as "auditions" promo material for other films that they did, which they then turned into a commercial. For our auditions we were giving them free commercials! For like, Stuck On You! and I forget what the other one was.

Do you remember your first reaction to the extreme material?

I was actually pretty cool with it. I thought this was sort of punk rock, a punk rock approach to movie making, and a comedy. Like "splatter comedy" was the phrase that came to my mind. There was already stuff like that happening in underground comics like Squeak the Mouse, which was the forerunner to Itchy & Scratchy on The Simpsons where it's a cat and a mouse and they go after each other with chainsaws. Or they'd become zombies or there'd be X-rated sex. That was in the early 80s too.


Spanish cartoonist Massimo Mattioli's Squeak the Mouse

And there was also RanXerox and Judge Dredd and all these other underground comics that had a lot of violence and sort of irreverent humor. I was actually pretty cool with the material, to me it sort of came off as Mad Magazine with blood and gore. You know, they're working out in the gym, then using the equipment as devices of death. I remember going, "This could work."


More cartoon violence in a similar hit-and-run scenario
by J.D. King in Robert Crumb's anthology series Weirdo, 1983

Was there time for rehearsals or discussions about the tone of the film?

Actually we did have rehearsals, we had a few. And though they didn't say "this is punk rock" they did say "this is over the top." They wanted humor, they wanted action, they wanted blood. And they wanted sex. They wanted everything. And they wanted it to be as hip as possible too, they wanted to go for a youth audience.

At the beginning of the rehearsal process I maybe had six or seven lines in the whole script. And it was out of rehearsal that my character grew. And if you look at the early scenes in the movie where I first appear, I'm basically repeating what other characters say. And that's how I grew my part. That wasn't originally in the script. We rehearsed with Mark Torgl, who played the "mop kid," and so the idea of it was to create a claustrophobic atmosphere for him. No room to get a word in edgewise, he would just be able to whine a little bit. So Gary and Cindy had the lines and I would just repeat what they said, you know? He'd go "Hey asshole, watch it!" And I'd go "Yeah asshole, watch it!" And my part kept getting bigger! And Lloyd loved that!


Tag-tormenting Mark Torgl as Melvin Ferd the nerd

It also created more energy because if one person says something, it's at one level, but if another person repeats it, it amps. Then we're pushing him back and forth between ourselves as we're saying this stuff. We shot that part fairly early on and we rehearsed it early. That's when Lloyd said to me, "Keep doing what you're doing" and my part started getting bigger from there. I started getting more lines, most of them I wrote myself.

Was there any improvisation?

Most of what we did was kind of improvised. The script was really a jumping off point. We would rehearse, and then shoot it, rehearse, and then shoot it. The dialogue around "I gotta go to church tomorrow," that was improvised. One idea of mine they liked and used was the silhouettes on the side of the car marking victims, that was my idea 'cause I thought of World War II fighter aces having those on their planes. I thought, "Well we should have that on our car." Their art department did it. I would've liked a tiger mouth on the front of the car, too.


Also that whole thing about doing Toyota's "Oh what a feeling," that was totally improvised too. There was a commercial in those days, "Oh what a feeling, Toyota!" It was their catch phrase.


The Clockwork Orange / "Singin' In The Rain" homage to Toyota

When we were actually shooting the movie I thought it was going to look pretty good because they covered a lot of it really well. They took their time. We shot that whole film in about three weeks but we had long days! They were 18 - 20 hour days. I remember it wasn't one-take stuff. They would do three, four, five, then they'd move the camera and do another four or five. They got a lot of coverage. I think that's one of the reasons it works better than a lot of the other films. I think the other films, they weren't as meticulous with.

Who directed your scenes, Lloyd Kaufman or Michael Herz?

It was mostly Lloyd. I would call Michael more of a producer, but they both gave each other credit. I remember when I first walked into their building in Hell's Kitchen, they had this office with desks on either side of the room, and they put you in the middle. And so one guy would talk and you'd have to look back, so they'd get you back and forth like a ping pong game! It was such an obvious kind of power trip ploy, in a way. And they were both really aggressive and barking and then they'd have fun and start laughing! Michael was younger and he did less stuff behind the camera, it was more Lloyd behind the camera. He was there on set but I remember talking more to Lloyd.

I remember when we were doing that scene in the backseat, at one point it was the four actors talking to each other while Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz are talking nearby and then around the set is the rest of the crew talking. Everybody's talking, and then all of a sudden Lloyd can't hear himself think. He turns around and he just goes "SHUT UP! SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP! Everybody SHUT UP!" Then to the four actors; "EXCEPT YOU! YOU keep talking!" (LAUGHS)


The cooler of the two heads: with Gary Schneider as the highly stressed Bozo.

What was it like working with Jennifer Babtist, Cindy Manion, Gary Schneider and Mark Torgl?

Well I started going out with Jennifer, so that went well! (LAUGHS) Mark was a lot of fun, he was great, I thought he was a nice kid. I really enjoyed Gary's company, we had fun together. Cindy was also really cool. It was a good relationship between the four of us. We also had the scene with Mitch Cohen, he had the most work to do because he had to wear all that latex stuff over him in the heat and do all that action stuff as well. Like the scene where he's strangling me on the roof of the Toyota.


Receiving toxic vengeance from Mitch Cohen as The Toxic Avenger

I actually thought of the four of us, Jennifer probably did the best job, in terms of being sort of believable in this world. I think the other three of us are sort of over-the-top. We're just in another dimension, but Jennifer, you could actually take her as she was, and as twisted and demented as it was, it would still work on this planet too. I think she sort of made it kind of credible, which makes it even creepier! We're obviously not real people, but she sort-of almost is!

Did Jennifer have any problems with her masturbation scene?

She had problems with them taking five hours to shoot it. It wasn't that private, either. I was off-set waiting to do the "Elephant Man" imitation that same night, that's how I remember it took a long time. They took a break and came back, it was creepy.


"I am not an animal, I'm Melvin the mop boy!"

Was it fun making the hit-and-run head crushing scene or was that just acting?

Well almost everything with a Troma shoot is going to be acting! (LAUGHS) The fun part is actually the rehearsal, 'cause they did give us an awful lot of freedom. They're encouraging us to be as over-the-top as we can, and that scene in particular was over-the-top. So it was like "Let's do this, let's not apologize for one second of this moment. This is what's going on, and this is what we do. We stencil our victims on the side of our car! We're proud of this shit! What's more, we're going to go to church tomorrow and pray about it!" (LAUGHS)

Was it weird for the kid on the bicycle, D.J. Calvitto?

That was really odd because he was a really sweet kid, and we were just being so over-the-top in our acting. But he didn't really interact with us while we were doing that, except that one point where we're driving by and waving, going "Heeeey," and it's just really really creepy! And his parents were there the whole time! I remember the parents not wanting him to interact with the shoot once he had been "hit." They didn't want him anywhere around us, doing that part of the scene.

What reactions did you get from people who saw The Toxic Avenger?

Lotta eye rolls. (LAUGHS) "Oh yeah, Toxic Avenger!"

I don't remember Toxic Avenger being all that successful immediately. It sort of grew and took a couple years for it to really infect the culture. When I went to see it within two or three days of its opening, there weren't that many people there. We got really bad reviews in all the papers too. They hated it.

Was anyone upset with you for doing such a movie?

No. Well, maybe my mom! (LAUGHS) My mom was embarrassed. She didn't see it but she heard about it, like "What are you doing this for?" But now my girlfriend's brother has a copy of it, and they're threatening a party, so we're going to see it sometime in the next couple months again. I actually couldn't watch either Toxic or Nuke 'Em High for the longest while, but now I've got my sense of humor back about it. (LAUGHS)


End of Part One.

Many thanks to Robert Prichard for this interview. You can learn about his current projects at Surf Reality.

Check back soon for an essay on Class of Nuke 'Em High and Part Two of the interview, featuring more behind-the-scenes stories from Robert and an amazing history of his post-Troma adventures in New York's avant-garde theater and underground video scene.