TONY TODD: Tall, Dark, and Cursed For Eternity
by Michelle Erica Green
Tony Todd - horror icon, immortal pirate, Klingon warrior, mysterious soldier - is afraid of the L.A. Freeway. "Nothing scares me more than California," the actor declares, citing earthquakes, enraged drivers, and pompous young Hollywood executives. Though he has appeared in such horror features as both Candyman films, the remake of Night of the Living Dead, The Crow, and Wes Craven's Wishmaster which opens this weekend, he doesn't walk under ladders.
"Night of the Living Dead scared the shit out of me!" exclaims Todd, adding that Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist had the same effect on him. Though he has played the tough guy far more often than the victim, in his newest film the roles get reversed. Todd's character in Wishmaster, a security guard, meets a gruesome demise.
He's in good company. Wishmaster accomplished a great feat in cameo casting: it features Robert Englund from the Nightmare on Elm Street films and Kane Hodder from the last several Friday the 13th movies as normal guys who die at the wish of the evil Djinn.
"I was in England for a Star Trek convention when I got a call out of the blue from a company called Live Entertainment," Todd explains. "They said that they were doing a new Wes Craven film, and that some current horror movie stars were appearing in cameo roles. I held out because I didn't just want to do a cameo." While his part in Wishmaster is still limited to one scene, Todd got much more out of the connection: he got a production deal with Live Entertainment.
Todd has written scripts, and would eventually like to direct. "I'm forty years old now, and I won't be able to act forever, though I would like to try," he admits. "I've studied as a writer, and I'm working on several scripts right now, actually. It's part of my whole deal with Live."
Excited as his fans may be for him, there is an even more pressing question which comes up for many of them: will there be a Candyman 3?
Candyman speaks: "All I can say is that it will be made. I can't say what it's about, I can't say in what form it will be done, I just know that it will be done. Coincidentally, Live is going to be co-producing it. I did get a good deal after all!"
An icon in the horror genre, according to Wishmaster director Bob Kurtzman, Todd is well-known to science fiction audiences as well for his roles on Hercules and Xena and his appearance on The X Files. But it's his recurring role on Star Trek as Worf's brother Kurn, which has spanned two series, that earned him a place in the pantheon of desired convention guests. And his appearance as the adult Jake Sisko in the highly acclaimed Deep Space Nine episode "The Visitor" won him accolades from beyond the fan community.
Todd was not a Trekkie - though familiar with the show, he confesses that he ran home during college to watch Tarzan or Wolfman films instead. He auditioned several times for assorted parts on The Next Generation before being cast as Kurn, the brother Lieutenant Worf never knew until adulthood. Though the two had many powerful moments together defending their family's honor, Kurn balked at sharing Worf's disgrace and asked for a ritual execution, finally accepting a new identity which makes his return to the series unlikely. Does that upset Todd?
"It bothered me a lot, because I thought he was a great character, and they were just pushing buttons," the actor admits. "It further homogenized [Worf] that he was being modified - not just me, but his sisters, and his wife, and his son. There must be some sort of backhanded logic to all that, I just don't know what it is yet."
That final appearance of Kurn on Deep Space Nine was upstaged by Todd's portrayal of adult Jake in "The Visitor," a deeply tragic episode in which Jake gives up an entire life in an attempt to save his father, years before. Says Todd, "I got the script the night before the audition and I couldn't put it down. I was really connected to it. It was like catharsis for me, a release - I had just gone through a personal loss on my own. It was sort of a tribute."
Todd requested tapes of Cirroc Lofton's performance of young Jake to study in preparation for the role, and aimed for a performance that combined elements of Lofton's and Avery Brooks' portrayals of the junior and senior Siskos. A big fan of Lofton as an actor and a person, Todd was delighted that the fans found his performance convincing. "It was around the time when I was first dabbling with internet stuff, and it was important to me the way the fans responded to it," he says of the episode.
In fact, Todd had auditioned for the role of Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine, and got pretty close. "I know that I was a favorite among fifty percent of the producers, but they didn't go with me," he says, explaining that he went through three auditions before the network decided they wanted someone with a bigger name. Even so, a syndicated show like Deep Space Nine has a less arduous audition process than the big network series. "When you get into the conglomerates, like, ABC is owned by Disney, so you've got two sets of executives, you just have to be the right flavor. They tell you it's like going to work for the government. They do fact-finding, they check you out, they do drug testing, there's all kinds of things. If you're working for Disney, which has its own slew of troubles, they want to make sure that you're not going to be a live wire." Todd pauses. "I guess I'm still a bit of a live wire."
Many fans believe Todd deserved an Emmy nomination for his performance in "The Visitor." Todd dismisses the possibility, "Star Trek isn't considered by the mainstream," he notes. "The people who rule Hollywood right now think it's stupid. Although traditionally, it has always been sci-fi and horror that has rescued Hollywood from the doldrums, it's a bastard stepchild, it always has been."
Todd also made an appearance on what has become the most legitimate science fiction show ever, The X Files, in an episode about a government experiment to create a perfect soldier. "I would have preferred to be on it before it became a phenomenon - I'd like to think that actors like myself helped make it popular," he says of the show. While he agrees that the crew is dedicated, he adds that he's been lucky to work on other excellent shows - N.Y.P.D. Blue, Law and Order, Homicide. "[On] all the really good shows, the crews are connected to the action," he says. "It's when the crew is just doing it for a job, like I had the misfortune of doing Jake and the Fatman, where it was a completely opposite experience. It all starts at the top, whether it be the star or the producer - if the producer has a strong vision like Chris Carter did, it transcends."
The climate on Star Trek changed in the time Todd worked on the series. At the time he appeared on Next Generation, the show was extremely successful, and Todd suspects that the producers were also a bit jaded; they took their fans for granted. "I was amazed that they weren't as impressed as I thought they might be with how popular they were," he shakes his head. Deep Space Nine had real problems in the ratings, however, so there wasn't as much complacency. "It's always surprised me that there are people in the office who don't care about the following," the actor reveals. "I thought that if they could reach an audience and create a character that really affects people, they should be happy.
Todd loves conventions and usually enjoys being recognized, though it can get rather disconcerting when he's out with his children. "Candyman, everybody's seen that film," he groans. "I'm glad, I mean, but in New York I can be walking down the street, and truck drivers and cab drivers will go 'Yo, Candyman!' And that's good sometimes, if I'm feeling down, or it can be, like, 'Jesus!'" He likes the permanence and scope of film, however, recalling that when he was a kid, the old guard of actors seemed immortal to him because they had been preserved in black and white. "I would like to think that maybe Mother Teresa caught a glimpse of 'The Visitor,'" he says of what that legacy could mean.
A shy only child who was more interested in books than sports, Todd started acting when an English class play attracted his attention. "This may sound stupid but for the first time, there was an acceptance that up until then I never, ever received," he says of his high school experiences. A graduate of Trinity Rep Conservatory in Providence, Todd organized a theater program for inner-city kids in his native Hartford, Connecticut. Primarily a stage actor, he was "discovered" for film by director Oliver Stone, who saw him in the one-man piece Johnny Got His Gun in the West Bank Theater Bar, and asked him to audition for Platoon.
"It was really the worst contract of my life, but it was my second film, first mainstream film, and the film just took off. And Oliver is a very passionate person, very creative," Todd notes of the experience. Though he's proud of the recognition which TV has brought him, he cites several films as his favorite roles, such as The Last Elephant, filmed in Africa over three months, and The Black Fox, a Canadian film directed by Christopher Reeve and delayed by Reeve's paralyzing injury. "They didn't give us the exposure it deserved," complains the actor. "I played the first black marshal, it was a role that I was very proud of."
Todd has played a number of tormented hero-figures - he assumes that "like-minded directors see certain projects and then give me an opportunity," but adds that he's been fortunate, since he loves the archetype. One such character is Cecrops, the cursed immortal from Xena. "They had wanted me to do the original Hercules TV movie, and I passed on that for some reason," Todd reveals. "Fortunately, they didn't resent that. They're great producers, they don't bullshit, when they know an actor they don't necessarily bring him in to read. [Cecrops] was, I thought, a very interesting role. My daughter loves the show and that's sort of allowed me to do it because it's a hard flight - it's a 21-hour flight." Seafood, scenery, and his daughter's affection for the show made it worthwhile to stand on a pirate ship all day while "idiots" threw water over him. Since Cecrops is immortal, Todd and the fans have high hopes that he will return - the episode's good ratings would seem to be a positive sign.
His contentment with guest spots stems from the fact that there haven't been many series which really interested Todd, who's only gone on a few network auditions. "I've actually gotten some that just didn't go; Beastmaster was actually going to be a series, The Black Fox was supposed to be a series and Christopher Reeve backed out. I would really have liked to have done that one." He worked on UPN's Them, but advertisers did not back the series.
Though television would guarantee a steady income, Todd doesn't want to get locked into a role he considers "boring." Still, he admits, he may have made some mistakes. "Like this new Michael Hayes show, for example - I don't want to be a second banana playing just a bureaucrat. I could have done that with my life, and I didn't. But if it's something like, well, they offered me the role in Final Conflict, based on one of Gene [Roddenberry]'s scripts - but the conditions were intolerable, they wanted to shoot in Canada and the pay scale was dismal and there was no residuals. I can't do that, considering the amount of money they're going to make from it."
Todd is also not interested in playing token characters. "I've turned down quite a few things," he says when asked about the plethora of minor roles for black actors in movies with a white action hero. He also passed on a very successful film which he declines to name, "because I didn't want to play a drug dealer, my son was just born and I didn't want to glorify drug dealing. My home town was going through a very bad phase, and I know I'm right about that, though [the actor who took the role] went on to become a major star." He's not entirely certain that he should have taken Beastmaster, though he thought, again, that that would appeal to his children. "I represent a race that is only less than twenty percent, and I happen to be a very tall person. So they're not going to give me everything. I think I've been fortunate, considering those constraints," he says.
One of Todd's upcoming movies, a highly acclaimed film festival release called Driven has been held back, Todd believes, because of a sort of reverse discrimination. "Hollywood distributors balked because it didn't have the gay love angle in it - the current flavor," he complains, ironically, it seems, because ten years ago, they would have balked for precisely the opposite reason. Does tokenism bother Todd more than no representation at all?
"I'd rather just be part of telling the truth of that particular experience - that's what we're supposed to be doing," he asserts. "That's why the business side of this whole thing has always amazed me. I have faith, I know the film will see the light of day because we got a foreign distributor, but the thing is, it might surface in France and England before it surfaces here. Things go in waves, you know? I'm being slightly facetious, but that's it. It's a good film, people who have seen it love it. And they're keeping it from the people. That's art, that's the story of art."
In addition to Wishmaster, Todd has five other films coming up, plus an episode of Soldier of Fortune within the next couple of weeks. The Real, which the actor speaks of with great enthusiasm, is "my first quote-on-quote 'black' film," in which he plays "a hard-nosed parole officer who doesn't take any shit." Another "black" film, called Butter, is about the R&B music business. Todd is featured prominently in the credits, which "is significant for me." Another genre film, a Bram Stoker piece called Shadowbuilder, is also in the can.
Todd does a play every year and would like to get back to teaching. "When I was in theater conservatory, it was the best time in my life," he recalls. "We just ate, lived, and breathed theater. But this is a tough business, and sometimes you work in that laboratory and then you come to the real world - they're not jumping all over you." The current studio system, controlled mostly by very young men, bothers Todd. "We all have favorite flavors, and when you're in front of the ice cream selection in the supermarket, there's a lot of them, but you're in the mood for...whatever. It should be like that. All the ice creams are good," he analogizes. "[But] there's a lot of 25-year-old casting directors right now, and if I said The Godfather, they wouldn't know what I was talking about. They're all green, man, and they know Pulp Fiction."
This is a big reason that Todd is interested in writing and directing his own material, which he is very enthusiastic about. "There's one piece I'm working on about a blind cartoonist who's accused of child molestation. Inner Vision. And then there's another more commercial piece about two brothers, one is a professional wrestler and the other is a down on his luck detective. And the wrestler is accused of murdering someone in the ring. But it's a comedy," he warns. "It's not like they've granted me the auteur-ship yet. But I want to produce, which is important, which gives me more power."
Well aware that Star Trek fans are not the most marketable fan base around, Todd says nevertheless, "I wouldn't change it." Grateful for the support he receives, he adds that he doesn't feel compelled to be a multimillionaire; he wants to be comfortable without losing the hunger that drives him. Hours of makeup which distress a lot of Trek actors exhilarate him: "It's part of the transformation," he says, likening the process to doing puppet shows for the neighborhood in his youth.
"When I'm acting is when I'm happiest because of my psychological upbringing," he concludes. "I have a lot of hobbies, from going on my computer to fishing to playing guitar. But if I've acted during that day, I can do those things with even more of a smile. I adore what I do."