Debbie Rochon is the definition of the word survivor. While the deck has always been stacked against her, she continues to defy the odds and blaze a unique path as an artist. Through determination, she pulled herself from the depths of life on the streets as a homeless youth at 17 years old, to a promising new life as an actress in the ultra-competitive New York City scene.
Her journey began by cutting her teeth on numerous off-off Broadway theater companies, performing in more than 25 stage productions and taking on some of the most memorable exploitation films of the era. Her iconic appearances in cult films such as “Tromeo & Juliet,” “Terror Firmer” and “Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV,” solidified her as a fan favorite and elevated her to Scream Queen status. However, as die-hard fans of her work know, Debbie Rochon is much more than a pretty face (coupled with a killer rack!). While that might have been what got her in the door, what kept her in the room was an undying devotion to her craft. Her ever-evolving skill-set never fails to elevate the material of each project she takes on. Through the years, she continued to defy the odds, while challenging herself and her audiences with complicated characters and ambitious material. Her latest project, Jon Keeyes’s “Doom Room,” is no exception to that rule.
Based on a horrifyingly true story, “Doom Room” centers around a woman who wakes up locked in a small room with no memory of how she arrived there. Unable to escape, and tormented by a series of paranormal entities, she must uncover the riddle of who she is and how she got here. Scripted by Keeyes and Carl Kirshner, the film also stars Nicholas Ball (“Red Dwarf”), Johanna Stanton, Hayden Tweedie (“The Harrowing”) and Matthew Tompkins (“Prison Break”). The riveting tale comes to digital January 15, 2019 from Wild Eye Releasing.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down for a chat with Debbie Rochon to discuss her amazing journey in the film industry. Along the way, her evolution as an artist, the making of Jon Keeyes’ “Doom Room,” her plans for a revealing autobiography and stepping behind the camera for her next directorial undertaking, “Torment Road.”
You’ve been a staple in genre films for decades. What intrigued you about acting and made you pursue your passion professionally? It’s not the easiest route to go when it comes to having a career.
No, it’s a hell of a slog! [laughs] You have to love it more than any other aspect of your life to really want to do it. Today, there is a much larger volume of projects being done and there is much more capacity for a person to spearhead their own starring role, if you will. All of that stuff is so much more accessible now and doable. Whether it’s good or bad is a whole other ballgame but it is a lot easier nowadays, in certain aspects. The drawback is that because it’s so accessible and so much of it, now you have to really stand out in the crowd which is comprised of a whole lot more people. It’s not as though, when I started, that there were any less people wanting to do it. What made me want to get into it was, simply, salvation. Really, it was salvation for me. I was a street kid and I worked for three months as an extra on a movie. It was a punk rock/rock ‘n’ roll movie with Diane Lane, Sex Pistols, The Clash and all these great people were in it, that I had no idea about at the time. Of course, Diane Lane wasn’t even famous then. This was 1980, so you had barely heard of some of these people at that point. Certainly, being a street kid, I definitely hadn’t heard about a lot of this stuff and I definitely wasn’t what was going on at the time because I was just worrying about surviving. I spent three months on that set and I really threw myself into it. No matter how minuscule the thing was that was asked of me, I did it 110%. I was totally into it and thought it was pretty amazing to have feedback. So many people were there who were like, “Eh, yeah, this is boring.” It was all this kind of crap. I thought, “OK. Whatever for you!” [laughs] Of course, I’m thinking it but barely spoke back then because that was just the way it was back then. You had to hold everything close to your vest back then to survive the streets. That was the first thing and it was really cool, important and meaningful. It gave me direction and whole lot of other things! It gave me a little bit of self-esteem and that blew my mind open to the art world, if you will. I said, “OK. I want to go study acting. I want to study it because it’s what I want to do, and I want to recreate this experience over and over again.” Of course, I didn’t know any better back then! [laughs] I just knew that I needed training, so I saved up, went to New York City and that’s what I did.
Tell us about those early years. What went into finding your creative voice and when did you come into your own as an actor?
These are great questions! Nowadays, we all know how people tend to just poo-poo things. A lot of people don’t realize that everyone’s journey and path is completely different. It’s apple and oranges. It’s whatever extreme examples you can give. That’s the difference between one person’s journey and someone else’s journey. Mine was, coming up when I came up, you had to do a lot of studying. You had to audition for everything, including extra work. Then you were given a word before a line. Then you were given a couple of words and then maybe a line. You would graduate from there. The early work, it’s interesting. I’ve been trying to get Media Blasters to release “Banned,” which is a movie I did with Roberta Findlay. We did it in 1988 in New York City. She gave the OK to Media Blasters to release it but, as a company, they didn’t go away completely but they did go dead silent. It was the first time since it was made in 1988 that she gave the OK. That was in the past few years. She finally said yes after decades! She just didn’t like it. I think it’s such a time capsule of a movie and it’s so much fun! I think it captures the punk/new wave era or feeling in New York City. Before that, besides her porn stuff, she was doing a lot of horror movies and they did fairly well. For some reason, she didn’t like this movie. It was probably because it was the only comedy that she made. It’s kind of a supernatural comedy, if you had to label it. I certainly wouldn’t say that it is any worse to put it that way than some of her other movies. It’s of my opinion that it’s far superior but it’s because it lands in my tastes. Anyway, that’s going back and slightly off-topic but hopefully that will get released soon. After all these years, it at least deserves that, right?! [laughs] It needs to be let go to the public but whatever will happen, we don’t know.
From there, I did a couple movies with Chuck Vincent, who much like Roberta Findlay, when he stopped making porn movies and transitioned into the T & A Cinemax movies. The last couple comedies he made for Cinemax, I was in them, before he passed away. Anyway, that was my start in the New York scene when there was this exploitation stuff going on. If you were working really hard, auditioning for a lot of stuff and not being cast in some of the really, really bland but very well-paying type of regular stuff and you were offbeat like I was then you would get work in the underground. It turns out that those are the films I like best anyway as a viewer, so there are certainly no complaints. I went through the ‘90s and tried to find my footing. Once in a while I would and then I wouldn’t but then I would. By 2000, that’s when I truly found my footing. You can sort of split it from “American Nightmare” forward. It was at that point that I understood, even with all the training and working hard on all the films, that people either have the talent or luck to click very soon after they begin, and some people have to study or work for a long time. You have to be really dedicated and then something will click for them. I think it’s a combination of all of those things coupled with being resistant to certain emotions because I had to be cut off when I was a kid to protect myself. Again, my journey or process was just so different. In 2000, when I made “American Nightmare,” I think that is the separation movie and date for me.
What lessons did you learn early on that impacted the course of your career?
There were many lessons! As savvy as I was on one hand, I was very naive on the other. By that I mean, I had this weird notion in my mind, due to this amazing world that I first experienced through the movie Paramount Pictures made and I was an extra on, of how films worked. I didn’t realize that [on these smaller films] you weren’t necessarily going to get paid, that it was going to be a safe set or that you wouldn’t be manhandled when you shouldn’t have been during a certain scene. That was my naivety. I thought all I had to get into this world that I really wanted to be in for the rest of my life, and everything would be OK. Whatever that means! [laughs] It was just a dream or fantasy. That was my naivety. These are the things that I learned. Even being savvy, you encounter all of these things from sexual harassment to getting blackballed because you wouldn’t do blankety blank with so and so and all of these other things that you don’t see coming. That’s the interesting difference about coming from the world of a street kid and working in an industry. Being a street kid, at least you knew straight-up what everyone was about. Being in the film industry, you don’t always know the truth of what people are about. That is the lesson that I personally learned.
No one can deny your longevity in the entertainment business. What does it take to keep a career like yours growing but still creatively satisfying to you as an artist?
It takes quite a bit! I think you really have to understand that there are going to be waxes and wanes or ebbs and flows. You go with those ebbs and flows, and you have to understand that you can do really well for a stretch of time, although it may not be on the tippy-top of the echelon. People can fatigue, and I’ve experienced this, and you will go through a period of time where it’s fashionable to be bashed. You just have to understand that this is just kind of how it works and that there will be another cycle of people digging the work and everything being great.
I think the best example I can give is someone like Lloyd Kaufman from Troma. When I started working with him, it was more sort of on the low swing. It was just prior to when we made “Tromeo & Juliet.” We were on an upswing through “Terror Firmer” and probably “Citizen Toxie 4.” Then there was a little bit of a downswing again. It’s hard to describe. It’s about how people talk from “These guys are great … “ or “These guys are garbage. Rip those titles off your resume because they will do nothing but destroy your career … “ to Lloyd as an icon and legend. Being in the business so long, he’s just gotten to the point where he is just legendary. He’s really not going to go through one of those major, decades long ebbs and flows again because he’s just at that point. He may very well direct another movie. He did say, this past summer, when we made “Shakespeare Shitstorm” that it could be the last movie he would be directing.
That’s a really good example to give where you don’t have the titles or the career that men have. Sometimes that’s an easier example because I can point to it quicker. Take for example someone like Bruce Campbell. He’s been idolized by both men and women since day zero! Not even day one! [laughs] Since day zero! It’s well-deserved! But when you’ve sort of broken in by way of exploitation, you’ll always have those people who want to have a certain opinion or think they can say a certain thing about you, which is just not true. Times change and so do people’s choices in what they do. While I can’t stop them [from saying things] … I mean, hey, I made “Broadcast Bombshells.” Who gives a shit! [laughs] To some people, that disqualifies me from ever being a serious artist. If that’s how narrow minded they are, I just can’t help that. That’s their problem, not mine! [laughs]
What I’m saying in such a long, blown out way is that I love to mix things up. I love to write. I love to write articles. I love to write about things. I love to create projects. I like to do roles that are very different — roles that are evolving with my age. That’s something a lot of people don’t like to do or are uncomfortable doing but I like doing that! The rest is just, “Thank God there’s an interest!” Longevity is just being able to go through the ebbs and flows and realizing nothing comes easy. You have to work for everything! You have to work! It’s not just going to magically happen if you don’t put the work in. If you just keep working, you’re not as obsessed, if you will, with what’s going on within pop culture. Just keep your head down and keep working!
How do you view your evolution as an artist with so many different creative outlets?
It’s pretty massive! Pretty massive, I would say! [laughs] It’s pretty incredible! I can honestly say that I’ve done everything from exploitation-sleaze to some really cool, artistic, damn challenging, fucking hard roles! Now, I’m about to direct my second feature and I know I’m trying to say and touch on with this work. It’s like, “Thank God I’ve gone through all of that!” While everything I did may not be popular with everyone, I’m so glad that I did it! I have to tell you, I came up in a world that was not super-PC. I’m saying that’s a good thing, but I experienced that. Coming into the world that we are in today, the difference is that there is so much to draw from. There are certain parts where I might think, “God, I wish it was like this … “ With other parts, I might say, “Oh, I’m so happy it’s like this now.” It’s sort of mix-and-match. That all kind of funnels into your art — what you want to do versus what you can do. There are a lot of hands tied today, right in this moment. Again, it’s like a pendulum. It swings so far back! It has to go to extremes. Even back in the day with Women’s Lib, it had to be really obnoxious and extreme to catch on before it eventually balanced out. That’s how I look at the times we are in now. We are on a swing and it will eventually balance out. As far as artistic stuff, that’s only the stuff I’m interested in now. I mean, when I started out, I just wanted to get work. It was study, audition, study, audition. It was decades of doing that relentlessly. Once I had enough work, I could say, “OK, that was cool. I totally enjoyed that stuff but now I’m really at the point where I have something to say!” That’s kind of where I am now!
With that said, it has to be an exciting time for you as an artist. What can you tell us about your second feature as a director?
“Torment Road” is very different from “Mortal Hunger” in so many ways. However, the basic ways it differs is that it’s a lot more paired down. It’s not simpler as far as saying something or story. It’s simpler in the sense that “Mortal Hunger” was very ambitious. I’m so proud of it but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it has flaws, but I am very proud of it. Going into “Torment Road,” I came up with the idea and then contacted James Morgart because I love his writing. I said, “I really, really, really want to do a road movie!” I love road movies and it doesn’t matter if they are horror, noir, comedy or whatever! I also love the indie ones! I love “U-Turn” as well, which was a big budget road movie, but I just love them all! I said, “Style-wise, let’s go road movie and layer on the story from there.” Although you are dealing with weather and all these other elements that weren’t as much of a factor with the first film, this is a little more fluid. We’re also going to be doing it in a lot less time because the budget is going to be smaller. That is going to give us the ability to do and say what we want to say because it is funded by many people and there is no one person or company that is worried about if it’s going to get play or not. That is very freeing, yet very difficult. When you have a small budget, it’s not a bad thing, but it’s always a challenge! While I have a smaller budget, I have the most amazing crew! It’s incredible and it’s going to be a really special movie. The basic story is that a woman gets out of jail and she’s in search of her child that was taken up by nefarious, drug dealer/pimp type of guys. It’s about all of the different situations, people and insanity that she has to go through to find out what happened to her kid. There are a lot of horror elements in it. That’s coming up in the spring!
We know you aren’t one to shy away from a challenge! It’s sounds like it’s bringing the best out in you!
Yes, it is! Luckily, I know other people who love a challenge too! It takes a village to make a movie — a really amazing village! I’m blessed to have one so I’m very happy about what’s on the horizon!
Your latest role is in a film called “Doom Room.” What spoke to you about the project and made it one you wanted to pursue?
Well, it was directed by Jon Keeyes, so no matter what, the answer was going to be “Yes!” That’s even before you read the script! As you know, we had done “American Nightmare” together in 2000. I know this film was going to be something really special. When I read the script, I was like, “Oh my god! This is nuts! This is absolutely fucked up!” It’s based on the true story of a women here in America, even though we shot in Manchester in the UK. The film features an almost exclusively English cast, except for Matthew Tompkins and I, who play the husband and wife. It was based on the story of a woman who was kidnapped by a couple and was put in a box under their bed for seven years. She was only let out for an hour a day! It’s a really horrible story but luckily, in real-life, the woman got away and was able to reclaim her life. She’s a stable as one could ever be after something like that occurs. That’s the basis and jumping off point of this film. It’s the way the story is told, how it’s told and from what perspective that makes it so unique. It’s such a head-trip! I’ve never done a movie like this before and I’m so excited for people to see it! I really mean that! I cannot wait for people to experience this movie and talk about it. It’s horror because it has to be. It’s not like it’s blood from beginning to end but it’s horrific. It’s absolutely horrific yet artistically trippy. Everybody, in front of and behind the camera, was great. It was another joy! A special joy for me was working with the makeup and hair department on this film. This is a pretty rare thing in indie filmmaking, but they understood the importance of developing the look of the character and development of the look as the story progresses. Since this is such a trippy movie, they understood that the look can alter as things progress to reflect how insane things are getting. This happens without explanation as the film takes a lot of artistic liberties, let’s say. It was just a joy to be a part of. I’m so proud of Jon for making such a kickass movie! I think people are really going to love it!
What does director Jon Keeyes bring out in you creatively?
First of all, he’s just flat out great. He contacted me after seeing “Hellblock 13.” I play a serial killer in that movie. When he was making his first movie, he wanted me to play the serial killer in “American Nightmare.” At the time, I was at a point where the synapses were firing and the angst in my life was just perfect. The timing was perfect, the collaboration was perfect, and Jon was the type of guy who really trusted me. There was a scene where I just have a shovel and someone is supposed to be buried alive many, many feet below. He said, “Tonight, we are shooting the scene with you and the shovel. We’re going to light it. There will be lots of dirt. Improvise!” [laughs] This is the type of stuff I had studied to do for so long but also the stuff that I am so into and love to do! I was in the perfect headspace where I could just go. I didn’t even need words. Words are great but the life of the character is so much more than the words. He trusted me and just let me go on the scenes where he could. There were a few of them. He would just say, “OK, go!” It was great because it was his first time doing it, so he was enjoying it and understanding that you could bring the right people on to do really cool things with your characters if you are willing to let them go because they know what they’re doing and are fully committed. The nice thing about doing “Doom Room” was really the same thing. It was very scripted because the lines are very important in a movie like that where it’s all over the place. The dialogue must tie everything together. With that said, there was still a lot of improvisation! A lot of these characters are very expressive physically, mine included, and that was very important. He would just say, “Go!” I love that because, like I said, I’d trained so long to do that kind of thing but it’s so rare when you get that! I love that about him. He enjoys that process! You both agree on where the starting point is, but he wants to see what happens if he lets you go. You don’t get that opportunity all that often, so that is one of the many reasons I love working with Jon.
What can you tell us about your process for getting into the headspace of any given character? Has it changed much through the years?
It has stayed the same to a certain degree. I have come to understand a lot more of the intricacies that I’ve always worked on but may not have mastered. The preparation itself has been the same over the past decade. I’m not a super social person when I’m working on a movie. I’m always thinking, preparing, going through my process and waiting for the word “action.” Something you will never see me do ever is talk about the weather, to use an example of something benign, or make jokes right up until the word “action.” I know a lot of great actors can do that but that’s not me. Like I have found with everything I do, I really have to put in the work and when I do it pays off. When I don’t, it’s like you have one foot in and one foot out. What’s the point in that!? There is no sense to it. When I’m making a movie, I’m somewhat anti-social in that at night I’m in the room preparing for the next day or in between scenes I’m preparing. This is something that happens to me all the time; people might say, “Yeah, she was just very quiet. She went to her room. She didn’t talk a lot on set.” Once the movie is cut together, they will be like, “Oh, this is what she was doing!” [laugh] Then they might see me at a screening, convention or whatever and will be very talkative with me because now they understand me a bit more. That’s more important to me than making new best friends. I’m not being glib about that because I know it’s all about making friendships, making connections and networking. I’m not the guy you get to make everyone laugh for two minutes. I’m the guy you get when you want someone to keep their head down, focus and work, as opposed to making everybody laugh for two minutes. If that’s what you want, I’m the guy for you!
What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
Oh boy! Well! [laughs] I think the best lesson someone could take from my journey is something I mentioned already — ebbs and flows. Really! Just let it happen, keep working, don’t let up and things will change. Things may seem thinner at a point, but they will come back again. Everything goes in cycles. Just keep the faith and keep working because the hard work will pay off. I had a good friend of mine, who is a young actor, message me recently saying, “I thought things were going so well but then they dried up. Is this normal? Should I quit?” I said, “Quitting is up to you but realize that if you’re a lifer, like me, there are ebbs and flows. You have to understand that it’s never going to stay the same.” That is the nature of life and it’s the nature of art, even more so. Just hang in there. If you know what you’re doing, then just let everyone else find out and catch up!
We are just scratching the surface of your career with this interview today. Do you have any desire to tell your life story in book form at some point?
Yeah, I definitely have the content! [laughs] It is something I really want to do. The funny thing is that I’ve had that same answer for quite a long time now, but the challenge has been dealing with all of the stuff that I’m writing about. It’s not like it’s an easy sit down and write session but it’s an important one. It’s that early stuff that’s so important to understand people or if someone wants to understand me. It’s about the human experience. That’s what it’s really all about. This is even before the film stuff! That turns it into “Alice In Wonderland” insanity once you introduce that into the story! [laughs] I think it’s so important to do it but also not to rush! It’s a scary but amazing experience. You have to go into it and not fake it. I’ve read some biographies, and I’m not going to name names, that were so weak or limp-wristed, meaning that I didn’t believe it. They were making statements that I didn’t believe to try and protect their brand name. Good for them if they sold some copies and I’m very happy for them but it was just weak! I want something that’s as biting as one of these rock ‘n’ roll, been to hell, died, been resuscitated and brought back tales! That’s the reality I want. One of my favorite books is “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.” It’s amazingly good and you can’t get more truthful and honest than that! That’s where I really want to go with this because, otherwise, why bother?
I know it will be one hell of a read, so I’m definitely rooting for you!
[laughs] Thank you!
We’re about to embark on a new year as 2019 is ushered in. What does the future hold for you?
2019 is going to be all about “Torment Road.” I don’t mean the whole year but that’s the biggest thing that is going on. There are two or three other projects that have been in the works for quite a while and are very exciting. They should be flying on in 2019 but ya never want to jinx it! [laughs] Whether they happen in 2019 or 2020, whatever! They are really cool projects with people I have worked with before. Speaking of Jon Keeyes, we are doing a 20th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray release of “American Nightmare.” We are doing some extras for the crowd that likes that movie. That will probably be coming out around Halloween of 2019, which seems to be the appropriate time. There will also be a lot of writing for all kinds of stuff. I have a column in a brand-new magazine called “Asylum,” which is out of Italy. I’m very proud of it and it’s inching forward with every issue, where every article is in both English and Italian. Anybody who wants to support physical media, please buy an issue or subscribe! That would be great. You can go to any one of my social media sites to see how. It’s a beautiful magazine out of Italy and, as you can imagine, it’s gorgeous. I’m really proud of it. And finally, the book! The book venture is on my radar. Maybe you can be my editor! [laughs]
Thank you so much for your time today, Debbie! I’m looking forward to catching up with you next year to hear all about the making of “Torment Road.” Until then, I wish you all the best!
Thank you, Jason! I appreciate your time. Thank you so much!
Visit Debbie Rochon’s official website at www.debbierochon.com. Follow her continuing adventures through social media via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. ‘Doom Room’ will be released on January 15, 2019 from Wild Eye Releasing.