At nineteen, Zach Galligan went from being a virtually unknown young actor to one of the most recognizable faces on the big screen, not only in the United States but around the globe. With his terrific performance as Billy Peltzer in ‘Gremlins’ he instantly became one of the most beloved characters of the 1980s. His work as an actor didn’t end there as he continued on to star in projects ranging from film to to television to the stage. Even after many years in the industry, Galligan is not one to shy away from challenges. His latest role lands him smack dab in the middle of one of horror’s most talked about cult movie franchises and pairs him with some of the horror genre’s most iconic names!
‘Hatchet III’ continues the tale of the now-iconic villain Victor Crowley, played by genre favorite Kane Hodder, and ramps up the action to bring this epic tale of terror to a close. The film As a search and recovery team heads into the haunted swamp to pick up the pieces and carnage left behind from the first two films, Marybeth (Danielle Harris) hunts down the true secret to ending the voodoo curse that has left the ghost of Victor Crowley haunting and terrorizing Honey Island Swamp for decades.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Zach Galligan to discuss who he got his start as an actor, becoming a film icon almost overnight, the challenges of his latest tole in ‘Hatchet III’ and what projects he has in store for us for the 30th Anniversary of ‘Gremlins’!
Many people of my generation instantly recognize you from your role in ‘Gremlins’. I wanted to go back a little further than that and learn what got you started as an actor.
I had done a number of plays and musicals in high school and summer camps. They were your obligatory ‘Pippin,’ Grease’ and ‘Godspell’ productions. I went to school in Manhattan at 75th and Broadway. I didn’t really know it at the time but that was a place where casting directors would go and scout young talent. A couple of casting directors swung by and saw me in the plays that I did. They called me in to try out for some very, very early 80s movies. I think the first movie I ever tried out for was ‘Taps’ with Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn and Tom Cruise, so I was in that generation of actors. The role I went in for, I got beaten out for by Sean Penn, which I never really feel that bad about in retrospect! [laughs] Long story short, after I started trying out for these movies, I stumbled into getting an agent and I was pretty much off and running by the time I was seventeen.
Who would you cite as some of your biggest influences in your early years?
I would say the two actors who really influenced me are so different from me, I was never really able to use their thing. I loved Steve McQueen and his kind of quiet thoughtfulness. I also loved Malcolm McDowell. I loved his intensity of his eyes. I love the opening shot of “A Clockwork Orange” where it pulls back from him and he has that look on his face. I remember seeing that for the first time and thinking “What is that!” It is that kind of mischievous, demonic, evil glint in his eye as Alex. I still think that is one of the most underrated film performances of the last fifty years! I think Malcolm McDowell is flawless in that movie.
Your career path lead you to one of the most beloved movies of my generation, ‘Gremlins’. When you took that role, I doubt you had any idea it would become the phenomena it did. How did that effect you as a young actor?
I have to contradict you. I think both Steven [Spielberg] and I both knew how huge the movie was going to be and we were kinda freaked out by it! Spielberg had just done “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” and it quickly became the biggest movie in the world, now he was doing sort of an “E.T.” on it’s head followup and was very enthusiastic about it. He was really going to push it and was going to open it a week or two after his own movie, “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.” We knew if it even did a quarter of what “E.T.” did, we would instantly be thrown into the forefront of popular culture at the time. To answer the second part of your question, how did it affect me? It changed my entire life forever! Basically, the film opened 29 years ago yesterday. I would say within two weeks, a maximum of three weeks but by the first of July, everywhere I went all around America and a year later, all around the world, I was recognized everywhere I went. In every shop or restaurant, I was recognized! It was this crazy thing — a sudden impact! I didn’t realize the scope of it until I went down to South Africa in 1988. As you can imagine, South Africa is about as far away from New York City as you can get! On a map, it is all the way over and then all the way down. I was walking down the street in Johannesburg and these kids came running up to me saying “Gremlins! Gremlins!” I thought to myself “Holy shit! I could be at the South Pole and people would still know me!” [laughs] It boggles your mind! It is still very strange. I have had so many strange things happen to me in life! You don’t realize what it is like to be in a hit movie until you are in one because the breadth and scope of the number of people it reaches is really hard to imagine.
Speaking of movies that have reached people, ‘Hatchet III’ is your latest project. This franchise has an incredible fan base. How did you initially become involved with the project?
I opened up my email one day and in front of me was an email who’s subject read “Hatchet III Offer”. At first, I thought it was from Amazon.com or Best Buy. I thought “I don’t know if I really want a ‘Hatchet III’ DVD. Thank you very much!” I was about to delete it when I saw it was from my agent. I was like ” Wait. What?” because most actors, unless you are one of the top thirty actors in the world, you don’t get a lot of offers all the time. Offers are few and far between. You have to work to get a part. They were like “Hey, we are going to be doing this movie down in New Orleans!” I took notice of that right away because New Orleans is one of my favorite cities. They said “There is a really cool part in the film, not sure if you would be interested in doing it but if you want to, give us a ring!” I read the script and it has hilarious. The part was huge, it was awesome and I could do anything I wanted to with it. I basically signed right up!
That is very cool. What did you bring to the character that might not have been on the written page originally?
They wanted me to play a Northern who was down south, who had relocated to Louisiana and spoke normally. I know my persona and I thought people would be like “What would a guy like him be doing down in a Louisiana Parish as a sheriff?” I just kinda decided to make him what I imagined a southern sheriff to be, whether they are from Louisiana and spoke with a Cajun accent or like my character who has transferred from the Houston branch. If you listen closely, you will hear a reference to that. He is just a guy who is bored to shit with his job which is basically arresting drunks for Mardi Gras. That is what his life has been like until the second the movie opens and he is thrust into the most nightmarish twelve hours of his life. I liked the idea of someone who was a bit more laid back and lazy. He is let go and developed a little bit of a beer belly and is just counting the years until his retirement while arresting drunks and stopping domestic squabbles like you see on ‘Cops’! He is just that guy! Now all of a sudden, he has to go fight a swamp monster! I thought “You know what? That might be a lot more interesting!”
Speaking of being thrown into things, I imagine you had to feel that way about filming in the swamp! What was that experience like for you and what was the biggest challenge you encountered while there?
The experience was basically hell on Earth! [laughs] It was incredibly hot and sweaty! If I never see an insect again it will be too soon! I guess the biggest challenge was willing myself to get back in the van to go back to the set to get eaten alive eight nights in a row! [laughs] It was a very weird thing because once I was on the set, the people were so great, I had a fantastic time shooting it and laughed my ass off. It was a weird thing because I would be having a great time, laughing my ass off and then I would look down and see I had been bitten seven times on the palm of my hand in the last ten minutes! [laughs] Prior to this, I had never even been bitten once on the palm of my hand. I never even knew mosquitos would find the palm of your hand tasty! [laughs] When my girlfriend came to visit me on the set, she took a look at my hands and said “What are they doing to you?!” [laughs] I said “They are not doing anything to me sweetheart! It’s the bayou! It’s alive! The whole thing is alive and it wants to eat you!” [laughs]
They say you always take a little something away from each project as an actor. What did you take away from you time on the set with this amazing cast and crew?
That is a good question. I will tell you what I took away from this experience. It really reenergized and reinvigorated my passion for filmmaking because everyone on the set was having so much fun making the movie. It had been a long time since I had been on a set where everyone was filled with an almost child-like enthusiasm. It was the innocence of “Hey man, we are making a movie!” It was a great thing to feel. I have been on a lot of sets where people are like “Let’s just get the shot and go home.” There are a lot of jaded professionals out there. It was totally different with this project. It was more like “Can you believe it! We got the money and we are doing a swamp monster movie! Isn’t it awesome!” It really was awesome!
It is really cool to hear that as a fan of the franchise. I know everyone is working hard to bring these films to life.
Did you have a chance to see ‘Hatchet III’ yet?
What were your thoughts. You can tell me the honest truth, everyone is going to have different opinions.
As I mentioned, I am definitely a fan of the franchise. We actually went to see the first film in theaters the night it opened. The latest film was great. I felt the pacing was terrific and it was definitely action packed. As I mentioned to Adam Green and BJ McDonnell, I am sure it was a big challenge to move the series forward and keep the balance they were looking for. I feel like they did a tremendous job in doing so. The performances in the film were great as well.
Did you notice that the film looked larger in terms of scope and size, the whole look of it?
Absolutely. BJ and I were discussing that in our interview yesterday.
To me, as a filmmaker, I felt the second film in the series looked like it was shot at a studio. It just seems smaller and compressed. With ‘Hatchet III,’ the swamp itself is so beautiful, it just looks like a swamp instead of sets because it was.
I totally agree and coupled with the fact the entire cast and crew is so into making the film happen, it gives it a certain life of it’s own. I think it really jumps of the screen because of that.
Yeah. I can imagine some fans might be disappointed because it isn’t as scary with stuff jumping out at you as in the previous films. I don’t know. I thought it was interesting to try and go in more of a slightly different direction yet still maintain a lot of the carnage.
Definitely. I felt the slight shift in direction was a welcome one and was a bit of an evolution.
That is a great way to put it. I did feel like it kind of evolved with this.
That leads into my next question for you, Zach. How do you feel you have evolved as an actor through the years?
Oh good lord! [laughs] I think the real question you would ask of any actor, and I am not trying to correct you but I am just saying the big picture is “How have you evolved as a human being?” That is going to inevitably and inexorably bleed into some of your performances. The fact of the matter is when I started as an actor, I was a senior in high school. I was a kid, ya know. Basically, I was one year removed from losing my virginity! [laughs] Now, I will be fifty next February, which probably makes you feel old too! So, I am a middle aged man who has traveled all over the world, seen all sorts of things and learned all sorts of lesson. One of the things I liken it to, and these is not that much of it in the movie, but you do kinda get a little sense of my world weariness. I carry that around with me a little bit here and there! [laughs] That was a little bit by design. There are elements in my performance, for example in the ambulance boat sequence where I am trying to get help. The person on the other end of the radio is saying “What’s your twenty? What is your location. Where are you?” The frustration of even then having to deal with the bureaucracy explodes at him and he is like “Where the fuck do you think we are!!!” [laughs] That is totally how I think most adults feel by the time they are fifty! There is so much frustration that comes from existing and the layers of layers of crap you sometimes have to navigate just to live! So, I don’ know, maybe I brought some of that world weariness to the character.
My last question is an important one for pop culture fans around the world. Do you have any special plans to ring in the 30th anniversary of ‘Gremlins’ in 2014?
Well, I have started writing what I hope will be the definitive “Making of” book for the “Gremlins” films. Wether I get it together, finished and published by the 30th anniversary, I don’t know but I guarantee you I will work really hard. I think it is a story I think a lot of people would like to know — what it is like to be nineteen years old and as a nineteen year old kid be thrust into this amazing piece of machinery and then have this amazing film that people are still talking about thirty years later. The fact of the matter is, “Gremlins” is just as big today as it was when it came out. When I go to the conventions, I am stunned by the eight, nine and ten year old kids who have seen it with their parents and how many people watch it at Christmas. I am still amazed by how many people get in contact with me. I still get probably fifty to sixty fan letters and requests per month. It just never stops! It is amazing and very gratifying, so hopefully I will be able to get that book out on time.
The book sounds terrific! I want to thank you again for you time today, Zach. We look forward to spreading the word on ‘Hatchet III’ and hope to see you again soon!
Thank you, man! I appreciate it. Take care, Jason!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.