Veteran stage/screen actor Tony Todd was recently in Philadelphia for the premiere of the locally shot dramatic thriller Changing the Game. Todd spoke to Cinedelphia about his new film, his upcoming projects, and the contrasting worlds of mainstream and independent film.
CINEDELPHIA: This wasn’t your first time shooting a film in Philly, right?
TONY TODD: I shot a bad film in Philly.
C: How long ago was that?
TT: About four or five years ago at a prison that will remain nameless. But I’ve had good luck at the other end of the state in Pittsburgh where I was in an August Wilson play, King Hedley II. Pittsburgh was where my son was born; I did a remake of Night of the Living Dead there. So I’ve had great fortune in Pennsylvania.
C: Do you have any impressions of Philadelphia based on your time spent around here?
TT: I don’t have the complete story on Philadelphia yet, but I know a lot about the history of Philadelphia. I’m a huge musicologist so I’m very proud of Philadelphia International [Records], that’s impressive. Philly seems to be a city of neighborhoods and a little bit of conflict, but I’ll reserve judgement. It’s an interesting place.
C: So you actually met director/Philly native Rel Dowdell a matter of years ago after seeing his first film Train Ride.
TT: Yeah, five years ago. I was interested in his filmmaking style and we stayed in touch over the years and finally he was able to come up with the funding for this film, and here I am.
C: Were you attracted to the script itself?
TT: Well, I’m attracted to independent filmmakers. I’m lucky to be able to do tentpole projects, big budget films, and that gives me the freedom to pick and choose roles that have some sort of depth, variety, contrast.
C: Aside from content, how does the indie movie experience differ from the big budget movie world?
TT: Usually the filmmaker comes from a passionate point of view, that drive is something that carries over to the set. Also, as an actor for hire, the roles tend to be more varied and complex. But I’m lucky since I get to go back and forth so I can always go back to my true love which is theater.
C: I speak to a lot of actors who prefer the indie work and they just do the mainstream work to get by, to make a living.
TT: Well, sometimes a good mainstream project comes along, there’s a Fargo every now and then. I was lucky because the first film I ever did was Platoon, that won four Academy Awards and everyone in that cast went on to do incredible things so thank goodness for that. Before that I had my master’s in theater, I taught, did everything sort of by the numbers, and never doubted for a second that I would eventually be right here talking to you, Eric. You have to have the preparation in terms of the study, be in the right place at the right time, have vision and perseverance.
C: With such a cultured background, how do you react to when you’re brought into that world of horror and fan conventions?
TT: When I was getting my master’s it wasn’t like there was a class for film acting, it was the luck of the draw. I fought very hard to not be pigeonholed in that world, I have five films in the can and each one is very different from the other. I have a film coming out in September called Sushi Girl, which is just about the best role I’ve ever had in my life. Mark Hamill is in it, Danny Trejo, Jeff Fahey, Noah Hathaway from Never Ending Story, it’s a Quentin Tarantino endorsed project so…hopefully that will be a whole sea change. And then I have my whole directing debut to look forward to.
C: Are you looking for a sea change at this point in your career?
TT: I always look for sea changes, I don’t want to be on the same boat. That’s uninteresting to me.
C: Your appreciation for the craft comes through in that attitude there’s a lot of people that seek stability.
TT: I come from CT, went to a great school, the Eugene O’Neill National Theatre Institute and then Hartman Conservatory, both of which have won Oscars and Tonys. Lived on $30 a week, you have to suffer before you can walk and you’ve gotta walk before you can run, right?
C: The struggle is necessary.
TT: It is, look at the great periods of history. A lot of great art came out of WWII, you need that, it gives artists a true voice.
C: Does the perseverance always pay off?
TT: Well you don’t necessarily have to suffer, but it makes you a sharper person and teaches you not to give into the hype. There’s a lot of hype in this industry. I’m a simple person, I’m not into limos or red carpets, I’m into the work. I have a difficult time watching myself on film.
C: Yet you feel comfortable when you’re doing the acting.
TT: Yes, that’s a gift that I discovered in high school, that’s my calling.
Changing the Game opens at the AMC Loews Cherry Hill on Friday, May 11.