Every so often in Hollywood, the stars align just long enough to deliver something truly unique. Sometimes it’s the work of a young director with a unparalleled vision, while other times it’s a revolutionary concept delivered in a magnificent script, or even a groundbreaking film fueled by the undeniable chemistry of its cast. In the case of my generation, it’s the work of an actor whose raw talent and authenticity, both on-screen and off, have become ingrained in the fabric of our pop culture landscape. Enter Devon Sawa. His work as an actor has touched people in so many different ways. To some, he’s instantly recognizable as a teen idol they had pasted to their bedroom walls. To others he’s beloved for the personality he brought to the characters he embodied in iconic cult films like “Slackers” and “SLC Punk.” Then there are the die-hards – the souls who have haunting images forever imprinted in their memories of his battle against Death’s design in one of horror cinema’s most beloved franchises, “Final Destination.” Truth be told, we are lucky to have him still in the mix after three decades in the entertainment industry. Believe it or not, near the top of his game, he literally walked away from it all and it may just have saved his life. That much needed time away from the spotlight allowed him to recenter himself and prioritize the things in life that were most important to him. When he emerged from his hiatus, his journey would ultimately lead him back to Hollywood. Armed with a renewed passion for his craft and pursuing the material that speaks to him, he’s managed to kick open the doors to some of the most captivating projects of his ever-evolving career. Most importantly, he’s having a blast!
His latest project is a testament to his creative spirit. Director Casey Tebo’s “Black Friday,” pairs Sawa with an eclectic cast featuring the talents of Ivana Baquero, Ryan Lee, Stephen Peck, Michael Jai White and the legendary Bruce Campell. Set on Thanksgiving night, the film centers around a group of disgruntled toy store employees that begrudgingly arrive for work to open the store at midnight for the busiest shopping day of the year, but it doesn’t take long before things take a sinister turn! The group of misfits, led by longtime employee Ken (Devon Sawa), soon find themselves battling against hordes of holiday shoppers who have been turned into monstrous creatures, hellbent on a murderous rampage on Black Friday. Set to release just in time for the holiday season, “Black Friday” is the old-school thrill ride you need to shake the holiday blues.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Devon Sawa to get a glimpse into his unique career, his creative process, and his passion for his craft. Along the way he offers insight into the making of “Black Friday,” and what the future holds for him as he looks to the year ahead!
Many of us are from the generation who watched you grow up on screen and couldn’t be more excited when we see your name attached to a new project. You’ve been on quite a roll lately! I wanted to start by going back to the beginning. What spoke to you about acting early on and how that compares to the way you approach your craft today?
Man, it’s been such a journey! First of all, I got into acting by way of a punishment. That’s how I landed in acting! I was in Grade 5 and my parents had to go to one of those parent-teacher meetings. The teacher suggested that if I wanted to be the center of attention or the class clown that maybe I should join the theater. So, they all thought they were being smart by putting me in this theater company and it kind of went from there! I ended up going to a different theater company and they had an agency that dealt with commercials and small TV shows. Before you know it, I ended up on “21 Jump Street,” back in the 80s. Everything just snowballed from there! Until the age of 14 or 15, I did it simply because it was a lot of fun. It was so much fun getting to work with other kids and play all these different parts. It was a really fun world. At the age of 15, I saw “Pulp Fiction” in the theater. I don’t know if it was the age and that movie at the same time but that kind of changed my journey. All of a sudden I was an artist! [laughs] I went back and watched “Awakenings,” “Raging Bull,” “Rain Man” and all these other movies with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. I started to recognize that there was more to this and there was a craft to it. That’s kind of the beginning of the evolution and it’s continued to evolve from there!
You don’t get to the point you have in a career without a solid work ethic and creative drive. Was that something you had to work at or was it something that was already in your DNA?
My father was a mechanic. He kind of instilled that in me a little bit. I remember there wasn’t a day that he wasn’t up at 6 AM and then out the door at 6:30 with his thermos and lunchbox in hand. He’d be home by 4 and would tackle whatever else he had to do. He was a hard working man. My mother is a hard worker as well. My mother has drive! My father had the same job for many years but my mother was always striving for the next thing. My mother is a producer now in the film business. When I was a child actor, she left her job to come on set with me. When I was 18, I was like, “I don’t want you here anymore, Mom! I don’t need my parents!” [laughs] So, she got into the film business too. She started low on the totem pole but now she is producing! I really have to give my parents credit for my work ethic!
You started your journey as an actor at a very young age. Was there a moment when your focus changed in regard to what you wanted to achieve as an actor?
I think it was sometime after seeing “Pulp Fiction” and when I didn’t want to be in the teen magazines anymore. That was the point where I started wanting to do things that really interested me. That’s how “Idle Hands” came down the pipe, then the “Stan” video and “SLC Punk.” I was fearless! I just wanted to have a good time and do things that I wanted to watch. Ya know, there was a lot of pushback on me doing the “Stan” video. The agents and managers I had at the time didn’t think it was a good idea. They were like, “No one does music videos!” I did it anyway and then “SLC Punk.” That’s really when I started doing my own thing and doing the things that I wanted to do. At the age of 25, I was burnt out. I had been working since the age of 8 and I left the business. I left for 5 years. Then I came back at the age of 30 and I was a whole new person. I had been doing martial arts and went to Thailand and was doing it there. When I came back, I quickly landed on “Nikita” because I wanted to do martial arts and action stuff. That’s how I ended up on “Nikita” and I did that for 4 years. Then I got back into horror and things were really falling into place. Then “Chucky” landed on my plate and I thought, “God! This is the perfect thing to get back into!”
What lessons did you learn along the way that have continued to have an impact on the way you approach your career?
In my early 20s, I struggled a little bit with alcohol and partying. That played a part in me leaving the business at 25. At some point in my early 20s, what party or what club became more important to me than the work. This was a little bit after “Final Destination.” I quit doing all that and got sober. I’ve been sober for 15 years. It was really a fluke that I got back into it. My old agency, who is still my agency, sent me a script via snail mail for the movie “Max Payne.” I auditioned for it, didn’t get the part, but all of a sudden I was back in Hollywood. I was giving it another try and I realized that I missed this, I loved it and I wanted to do it again!
What do you look for in the projects you are taking on today?
It’s really hard because my agency and my managers, we butt heads all the time about what they think is the right road and what I want to actually do. There are some projects out there, particularly the procedural stuff that you see on television, where I’m not sure if it’s really for me. I want to do things that are going to make me want to go to set and be happy. Of course, we both agreed with “Chucky” that it was the right thing to do.
Your latest film, “Black Friday,” definitely takes the viewer on a wild ride! Tell us a little bit about what went into bringing your character to life?
So, I did a movie called “Slackers” a little while after “Final Destination.” That was my last stab at comedy, primarily because I worked with Jason Segel and Jason Schwartzman and those guys were so good at improv and what they did that I felt intimidated. I just kind of felt like that was it when it came to comedy for me. Then I got this script and it felt a lot like “Idle Hands,” where I was the straight man. Obviously, I’m a little snarky and there’s a heightened reality involved but I’m more or less the straight man in this whacky, bizarre world. It was just the right fit! It made sense to try the comedy again and try to live in this horror comedy world again!
How hard is it to pull off a horror comedy and when do you know what you are doing is clicking?
I read the script and the first thing I did was research the director, Casey Tebo, because you want to know who’s running the ship. He did a movie called “Happy Birthday,” which was his first film. He had done a bunch of videos with Aerosmith that he’d won some awards for and those are great but the style and comedy of “Happy Birthday” fit perfectly with the script that I had read. I thought it was a perfect match and I was the first one cast. It all started to fall in place a little further down the road when Ivana Baquero, Ryan Lee, Steven Peck, Michael Jai White and the great Bruce Campbell joined the cast. All the stars aligned and the pieces fit together so perfectly!
What do you remember about meeting Casey Tebo for the first time?
We didn’t meet in person until the first day of the shoot. We had spoken on the phone but that was it. We both walked onto set that day with the same red flannel shirt! [laughs] We clicked instantly and it was smiles and laughs from there on in. It was definitely a good working relationship!
As you mentioned, “Black Friday” features an awesome cast. What did they bring out in you creatively?
You relax into your part a lot more when you are dealing with a talented cast. The nice thing about this movie is that, from the main cast on down to the characters with only a few lines, there was no weak link in the chain. You get to ease into your character much more easily when everybody else is so realistic. When everybody has their own thing going, you feed off each other. You bounce things off each other, the chemistry is great and there are no egos. The whole thing is jiving and that’s exactly what we had with this project!
What were the biggest challenges you faced with the role?
Covid was the biggest of the challenges; particularly doing a comedy during Covid. For me, you do a movie like “Slackers” or “Idle Hands,” you do a take and when the director yells, “Cut!” Then you look around to gauge the scene/performance and the way it’s going by the crew members. Normally, you can see if they are smiling, laughing or if they are moved by the scene. On this set, you didn’t get a lot of that. First of all, half of the crew has to leave when the other has to come on because of the restrictions in place. On top of that, everybody is wearing a mask. At night, people also have hoods on because it’s cold. I really missed seeing the faces and the smiles. So, that was the hardest part of working on it. The other thing was that we, as a cast, didn’t really get to hang out off the set because we all had to stay in our rooms. We missed out on being able to bond more during the shooting of the film because of Covid.
Was there much improv when it came to the scenes you shot?
I didn’t do a lot of improv with this and stuck pretty close to the script. There was a lot of good stuff in the script to work with. Usually, when the script is strong, you don’t have to worry about making it better. You’re able to trust the script. Stephen Peck did some improv but his character is one that needed to be fresh every take so we could react off of it. He’s so great, by the way. Stephen Peck is something special and he’s definitely someone you want to keep an eye on!
You’ve got some great film roles under your belt that forever tie you to horror. What is it about that genre that speaks to you?
I’ve been watching it since I was a kid! I love doing drama and serious stuff but, for me, reminds me of why I got into acting in the first place. In the beginning, I got into it to pretend I’m somebody else. I think the furthest away points away from what’s going on in the real world are horror and sci-fi. When you watch horror, it’s often to escape whatever is going on in your life, whether it’s good or bad. It just puts you in a different mindset! Remember I used to go to this video store, ABC Video, as a kid and the guy would let us rent whatever we wanted. We would rent nothing but horror and we’d stay up all night! There’s just something so fun about getting on the couch, having a blanket, and watching something really scary! My kids aren’t there yet but I can’t wait until they are a little older and we can binge watch the entire “Nightmare of Elm Street” collection or when my son is old enough to watch “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” You know, when he’s like 8 or something! [laughs]
I love to hear the passion in your voice about horror. Just this year alone you’ve been fortunate to work with two iconic figures from that world in the forms of the legendary Glenn Danzig and “Chucky” creator Dan Mancini. How does working with those two titans compare?
I’m a huge Rob Zombie fan; I was a huge Rob Zombie fan during “Idle Hands” and that was just the music. Then of course, it evolved and Rob went on to direct some iconic films. There is a certain energy to these rock stars and that’s what brought me to “The Fanatic” with Fred Durst. I just love their energy and feeling. That’s really what led me to Glenn Danzig and “Death Rider In The House of Vampires.” I mean, what is crazier than a spaghetti western directed by the lead singer of the Misfits? [laughs] Eli Roth and Danny Trejo are in it as well. It’s just wacky and bizarre and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of! It was so much fun!
As far as Don Mancini goes, now we’re in a whole different thing! He’s very talented. I mean, he’s this simple concept that he has made into a very special thing. It’s a killer doll but the “Chucky” series touches on so much more and hits so many more notes! It’s way smarter than just the concept of a killer toy. He really is a brilliant man in what he’s done with this series. I think there were a lot of people, when the series was first announced, that didn’t realize who good it was going to be. With that said, I think there are a lot of people out there who’ve been pleasantly surprised!
I whole-heartedly agree. I didn’t know what to expect going into it but “Chucky” has been an amazing ride so far. It’s one of those series that comes along that you don’t mind waiting for the next episode because each episode gives you so much to unpack. That’s saying something in the “must binge-watch” world we live in these days!
Yeah, but I have to be honest, I wish all 8 of them came out at once! When we started the project, he gave us the first 7 scripts right off the bat but he wouldn’t give us number 8. We had to go up to Canada to quarantine for 14 days before shooting, so in those 14 days, I read and started working on those first 7 scripts. When you read it all at once, it’s like a long movie. So, I hope people go back and watch it straight through because it works so well as a long film! I’m really glad people are enjoying it! We actually went up in viewers during Week 2 and Week 3, so people are coming back and it’s exciting!
Where do you look for inspiration these days and what’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
I try to watch my peers, people like Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio, and try to figure out why they are at the top of the food chain in my category. As far as learning from me, I’m not sure there is a lot to learn. I’m just having fun!
That’s so important and believe me when I say that your authenticity speaks volumes!
I’m trying to be real but I’m still highly flawed!
What do you have in store for us in the months to come?
I have “Gasoline Alley” coming out in the Spring. It hasn’t been talked about much because it’s still a ways away. That is with Luke Wilson, myself and Bruce Willis has a smaller part in it. I also just finished shooting “Consumed” in New Jersey. I don’t know how much to say about that but I really love it! It’s my next “Hunter Hunter.” When I got the script I said, “This is the next Hunter Hunter. It’s small, it’s got heart, it’s got a psychological mind thing with a crazy ending!” Of course, “Black Friday” comes out this weekend and we are all sitting here waiting to hear the inevitable Season 2 pickup of “Chucky”!
That’s so exciting! It’s great to have you out there pursuing projects like these and I can hear the excitement in your voice. Thanks for your time today, Devon. I’m looking forward to crossing paths with you again soon!
Thanks, Jason. I appreciate it!
Follow the continuing adventures of Devon Sawa on social media via Instagram and Twitter. ‘Black Friday’ hits theaters and On Demand on November 19th via Screen Media Films. To find a screening of the film near you — PRESS HERE!
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.