Born to a family immersed in the entertainment field, it was probably fated that C. Thomas Howell would have a special place in his heart for keeping others entertained. And that he has done in spades over the past 50 years! Tommy’s father was a stuntman, so a certain degree of physicality marked his earlier forays into show business (dating from the age of four). Eventually, the acting bug bit hard, and today he is best known for stellar appearances in films and television. Adding to his acting chops, Tommy decided to hone his skills in live theater; and his debut on stage was scheduled for the middle of March 2020. Unfortunately, fate intervened with a certain corona virus which led to the theater world going dark. Given his sudden “vacation” from Worst-Case Scenario, C. Thomas Howell consented to an interview probing his feelings about acting, taking the theater plunge, and entertainment changes in general over the years.
How did you first enter show business?
C. Thomas Howell: My father and most of my relatives were stunt people, and I was raised in the film industry. I have a stunt background with a lot of athleticism in my early years. When I was a kid, I rode horses in commercials and a bicycle in ET. That’s how I started my career. Later on, I became more creative. I’ve been in acting my entire life. I’ve had my ups and downs, but I always stayed with acting.
What were some of your favorite roles in film and television?
CTH: I think that “Criminal Minds” was a turning point for me. It changed my perspective on my roles. I played a serial killer, and that changed my career. In “Southland,” I played a hard-edged, old-school cop. That was also an important role for me. It showed another side to me.
Do you see any changes in films and television over the years?
CTH: I had the chance to work with greats in films like Elizabeth Taylor, Ann Margret, and Richard Chamberlin - those old-school stars. It was a different experience then. Back in the day, every movie was big - the red carpet and all the glamorous extras. The industry is so different from before. Now it’s all Amazon and Hulu. Social media is also giving people a way to be heard. It’s a challenge for all of us – pushing for gender equality and the #MeToo movement. The rules of the game have changed, and people can have a voice and expose things. Now people have to be responsible.
On top of that, show business can be unpredictable and unexpected with no guarantees. I spent the last six weeks preparing to open a show…and, all of a sudden, things changed.
With such a long career in films and television, why did you decide to do a play?
CTH: There were really a couple of motives behind it. Timing is everything. That’s a line in Worst-Case Scenario. It turned into a perfect storm. To be honest, the producers weren’t requiring a long run, and the play was so good. It was so well written. It had comedy, and it was poignant too. It’s an odd couple situation. Two people who are so different, but it only takes a short period of time for them to realize that they’re the same in the ways that matter. It seemed real and attractive, and it made sense. I also get to work with a great team. We all worked so hard trying to figure out what to do.
I think that a big reason for me to do a play was because I hadn’t done it before. I even told everybody I’d never done this. I had no experience to draw from. I came from a more film-like approach that forced everybody to break down things into small acts. For me, that was the way to do it. We had to take a short amount of time to digest a tremendous amount of dialog. It was challenging to bite off larger chunks, and there was a certain amount of stress. I put pressure on myself, the director, the producer, and my cast mates told me it’s always like this. Suddenly all of us can speak the language. Now I’m discovering points and having a good time. The process of being in a play is painful at first. It’s hard work making sure that the last guy in the last row can hear you. It’s the difference between projection and intimacy. Sometimes you can tell things form the actor’s body language. In films, I could use my eyes, but that doesn’t work on stage. It’s been a big learning curve, but it made me a better artist. I think that was my main motivation. I got to smash old habits to grow. There’s a moment when you can celebrate. I couldn’t have asked for more. Without question, I’d do another stage production.
As it turned out, Worst Case Scenario, an apocalyptic romance, is inspired by a real event where an actual apocalypse could have happened. Now we are dealing with a global pandemic - a real, nearly-apocalyptic event unfolding as we speak. How do you make sense of this? How is the real news affecting your role in the play?
CTH: The irony isn’t lost on any of us. It’s a weird thing, like something we see in the movies or in our dreams. To some degree, we’ve ignored the impact of things like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes. They happen so quickly. Now people are getting sick, and the government didn’t take it seriously. It was a disconnect. It was so strange, and we’re so vulnerable. We kept our heads in the sand and just went along paying our bills and staying on the treadmill of life. This was a wake-up call. In the play, my character decided to live his life and to quit a job he didn’t believe in. He kept searching, traveling. Some of us don’t have the luxury of doing that. It was sort of a wake-up call.
I have a home in the mountains of Georgia where people are hunters and farmers. The concerns in the city are so different. I was watching everybody’s reaction to this, particularly in LA. This is not where I want to be at a time like this. A huge deal is up to the individual to be prepared. When I was growing up, my family had food and lots of things in the closet ready for something bad. In the past, I thought it would never happen to me, but that’s what’s happening right now. In the play, my character is living his pandemic internally. People do different things: some cry; some pray. There are an infinite amount of choices about how we face a challenge like this. We have been talking about this in our group, about feeling disconnected. It definitely affected how I saw my character.
Without a doubt, it certainly felt that Tommy saw the challenge as an opportunity for growth as an artist. Playwright/producer Darlene Conte remarked:
“Tommy has given so much life to the role of Ethan, so much of himself to the role. Ethan is a complex character. He is going through his own personal apocalypse of the ego. You must surrender some of your own wants to have a chance at mending two lives together. Tommy walked the line so beautifully, really bringing humanity to every word. It’s such a brave performance. He was so courageous to take on this play. It’s a beast! It’s comedic, tragic, cerebral, and physical. He’s onstage every second. I don’t know too many actors who come up in film and television and tackle a two-hour play flawlessly. I’ve been so impressed by him, both as an artist and as a person. We have had a great experience, and we are all looking forward to getting back to it.”
Worst-Case Scenario was scheduled to continue through April but has been on hold since the COVID-19 lockdown was put into place. D.M. Conte added: “We will be putting this up when we get the all clear…now more than ever, this is the play we need.”
This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.