Space Camp, Tubas & Animal Masks: A Conversation With ‘You’re Next’ Star AJ Bowen

By August 22, 2013
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It’s one of those brutally hot August mornings in the San Fernando Valley. One of those mornings where it’s already almost unbearable to sit outside before 10am. Yet, here I am sitting at an outside table at my favorite neighborhood coffee house. I’m here to meet friend and actor AJ Bowen.

I’ve known AJ for roughly three years, having met the man at the Hatchet 2 panel during 2010’s San Diego Comic-Con. Since then, he and I have become casual friends, randomly seeing each other at certain karaoke events every couple of months. Through the conversations I’ve had with Bowen, I’ve quickly deduced that he’s one of the most humble, no-nonsense actors I’ve ever met. On a number of occasions, I’ve explained to him that I live vicariously through the work he does since my work as an actor always presented itself in a more quirky commercial manner. His work holds weight. His work gets sh*t done.

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He arrives soon enough and gets an iced coffee. He proceeds to tell me it’s his fifth cup of coffee as he’s been up since 5am. I’m only on my first cup and desperately need to play catch up. I asked him here to talk about acting and movies. His new film You’re Next hits theaters Friday. There are things I want to know!

(Unfortunately for us, it’s August in the San Fernando Valley and the heat is a ninja. More on that later…)

Every actor has that moment where they realize they’ve been “bit” by the acting bug, so to speak. When did that happen for you?

Do you mean when I started deciding to do it or when I first wanted to?

When you first wanted to. Because for me, there was a vast difference from when I first wanted to and when I finally decided to act on that.

Yeah, but you were a kid so that was probably a 3 month window.

I was 18!

Like I said, a kid. That was half your life ago!

This is about you, not me.

As a child, you know, looking back and that kinda sh*t, it’s real easy to recall post script how you were raised. My mom was really into movies and I can’t recall there being a time when I wasn’t watching things voraciously. That was a result of my grandfather. And my mom didn’t work when I was a kid, or she would stay home. And during kindergarten back then…back in the 20s…you recall this.

Yes. The glory days before Herbert Hoover.

So, they would do half days. I would take these half days and every day I would go home and mom and I would have lunch together and she was raising me on a steady dose of Danny Kaye and Jimmy Stewart. My dad started working nights and back then, different things would play in the evening and my mom would let me watch them since they were older so by the time I was ten years old, I had watched every episode of “The Twilight Zone.” She controlled what I was able to watch which further sparked my interest in counter culture because I wasn’t allowed to have any of it and in my mind, counter culture back then was horror movies. So, as long as I can remember, my favorite thing to do was to watch movies with my mom or just in general. When I was 8, I met my best friend who is still my best friend now. His parents allowed him to watch the movies I wasn’t allowed to watch. So I would go over to his house and we were allowed to watch all of the rated R horror films that I wasn’t allowed to watch at home and they frightened me terribly. Around then, I knew that I wanted to…in some fantasy world…be an actor. But it never clicked for me as something people do as a job.

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Did you ever participate in school plays?

I did all through my childhood but it didn’t get serious until the end of high school for me. I recall I wanted to be an astronaut.

My fiancée was lucky enough to go to Space Camp.

I went to Space Camp. Yeah, but after The Challenger exploded, which I saw happen – I was at home with chicken pox – I immediately decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. Then randomly, like 9 months after that, my parents took me to see Space Camp, which I guess now as an adult I realized they kinda dumped because they had this big movie they were trying to promote. I think it was set to come out like a month after The Challenger ordeal and they kept putting it off and just dumped it in theaters with little fanfare. But I saw it. It was the first time I recall, in the Fall of ’86, being aware that people, as a job, got paid to pretend to do really interesting things and were, for the most part, not in mortal peril over it. And I saw them at Space Camp, I saw them get in the suits, I saw them being weightless and I knew that it was a fantasy. But I also knew, all that I wanted was to be able to do what they were doing. I didn’t actually need to go to space. I had already been in my first movie by then as an extra in a Kenny Rogers movie they filmed in Georgia called Six Pack. He’s a stock car racer in the movie and I’m in the background. I guess I got really into it. I had a cowboy hat on for the thing and I took my hat off and threw it  and then rolled down the hill towards the drag way. I got into a world of sh*t from my father for it because I lost the hat. But I knew right then that this is what I was born to do.
kenny-rogers-six-packThat was your watershed moment. 

Yeah right. So, I ended up doing classical music because the program that I went into in high school was the best in America.

Wait, you’re a musician?

I used to be.

What did you play?

I played the tuba and I did it professionally. It’s always weird to hear people talking about band, or the sort of outcasts, I know that’s how it was at other high schools, but mine was the best in the country. It was really serious and there were 300 of them. So if we were ostracized, they’d have to do it behind our backs because there was so many of us. We were so serious and so good that people didn’t shun us too much. I was band President.

Nerd! 

Yeah, totally. I was in The Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra for the last 3 years of high school and I was the substitute tubist for the actual Atlanta Symphony for the last 2 years. So, I was on this track. I had a full scholarship at a few places and I chose to go to the best school in the country, Indiana University, for tuba performance right before the Olympics came through Atlanta. And because of that, I got to perform with Michael Kamen. I got to go into the big trailer that they had, where they were working on the music and mixing it, and I got to record the Centennial Theme with John Williams. That’s a big deal for me because –

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That’s a big deal for a lot of people!

Yes, a big deal. So The Olympics happened and then I went off to Indiana and at the end of high school for me, my closest friends were in The Thespian Society at the high school. On a lark, I decided to audition for one of the plays which was an anthology play and I ended up doing three characters. It was really interesting to me and I got into a world of sh*t from my band director who thought that I wasn’t taking music seriously enough. I did another play and then I left for Indiana and the second I got there, I realized I was never really going to be a professional and that I wasn’t good enough. Everybody there had a recording contract already! That’s how serious it was. I couldn’t handle all the theory and I was talking to these friends that I had done plays with that were now in Conservatory programs at Boston University or Carnegie Mellon and I decided I wanted to change my major to Theater. Kevin Kline went to Indiana so I was like, ‘Oh if he went, I can go!’ But then the Dean at the music school got pissed off and changed my scholarship from a Creative Arts Scholarship to a Tuba Performance one. So, they took all my money away and I had to drop out after one semester.

Is that even legal?

Yeah. I guess. I don’t know. They did it and it happened back in ’96. So I had to drop out and I went back home to Georgia and I auditioned for every one of the schools that my friends were at and I was awful. I tanked miserably and I still have the rejection letter from Boston University framed. So I ended up at The University Of Georgia because back then they had a thing called The Hope Scholarship. They created The Lottery just to pay for it. If you had like a 3.0 GPA and a 1400 on the SATs, were from Georgia and decided to go to school in state, they paid for your school. So I got to go to Georgia basically for free. I hated it. I wanted to leave.

Why?

Just because I was snotty and didn’t know a lot. I thought, ‘This isn’t where legit performers go. It’s The University Of Georgia. It’s nothing!’ So I decided I was going to transfer to USC and I visited and I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like where it was because I had never been to L.A. before. My parents helped decide for me that we couldn’t afford to go because my dad was a truck driver and my mom was an accountant so we never had any money so a big factor to staying in Georgia was I just couldn’t afford to be anywhere else. I didn’t want to drop out a second time and do construction which was what I was doing before I got into Georgia.

Remind me to ask you later to help me fix my bathroom door. Just sayin’…

Around that time, I met a group of friends and we started making movies. The Journalism School at Georgia is the best in the country, it’s where The Peabodies come from. They had all this amazing equipment and we didn’t have anyone training us but we had all this equipment at our disposal. We would do theater all through college but at the same time, my friends and I started learning how to edit and played with cameras. We made a bunch of shorts. We made a feature before any of us had graduated.

So that was pretty much where you started learning your craft.

Yeah and I was really, really bad too. One of the professors failed my friend in Directing Class because he cast me. I walked up to hear the conversation, “AJ will never be an actor. He’s the worst to ever come through The University Of Georgia.”

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Geez, how professorial!

Yeah. But it was fair because I was pretty bad and also he was a professor at The University Of Georgia. So then I decided f**k him, I’m going to keep doing it. At that time, I had decided I wanted to do this for a living. I did everything wrong physically when it came to tuba. Like my embouchure and aperture were all incorrect but I played well and when I got to Indiana, they tried to change me and it ruined my playing because I listened to them.

Yeah, I have no idea what you just said to me. 

Well, basically I did everything technically wrong but the results were still positive. That sounds like an insignificant thing to mention but it was fundamental in shaping how I do things as an actor. When I started training and studying, I instantly became aware when I was being forced to do these trust games, or you know, throw the imaginary ball back and forth, that I didn’t buy into any of that. But after having been burned the way I was in music, I decided I was just going to pretend like I am and not tell these professors that I don’t buy it. And I’m gonna figure out on my own how to do it and how to make it work. So I studied really hard, and a lot, mostly on my own.

Yeah, that tends to be the norm. Because if Uta Hagen disagrees with your method, then good luck!

Yeah and the reason I mentioned Georgia is because those are the guys I ended up having a career with to start off because all of those guys made a movie called The Signal.

We got back together after we were all professionals and made a movie.

And it’s a badass movie!

Thank you. We made it for no money, in no time. We’ve been making movies since we were 20 so by the time we were 27, we knew how to work together and were able to do it pretty efficiently. But anyway, I graduated from college and then decided I was a New York stage actor and I moved to New York and starved for 2 years. I then moved back to Georgia and got married. I bar tended for a year back in Athens, which was home for me, and then I decided, ‘I’m in my mid 20s, I tried it and I’m now too old to be an actor’ so I went to L.A. for 2 years just to say I did it and avoid having a midlife crisis wondering why I didn’t try.

You had that moment in your mid 20s?!

Well yeah, it makes sense if you look at half of this industry which is driven on age and looks and all those things that you hear people complain about. And in my experience, once I started doing it, that just really didn’t exist. And we’re lucky that independent film has grown so much because I never engaged in that element of the film world. I just never experienced it. I avoid red carpets as much as possible. I haven’t done headshots in 10 years.

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BAM! Just when the conversation was going somewhere, the ninja that is the San Fernando Valley heat decided it was the perfect time to shut my iPhone down. I was recording this conversation on it and the sad thing is, we kept talking for another 15 minutes until both of us noticed. It was my stupid decision to sit outside! At any rate, in an attempt to salvage the remainder of our conversation, and with AJ’s blessing, I have summarized the rest of our talk below. Heat ninja, be damned!

Our conversation continued and I needed some clarification on this lack of headshots thing. This doesn’t compute with the actor side of me. Living in Los Angeles, it is ingrained into every actor’s head that they need good headshots. Casting, agents, managers – you hear it from every angle. AJ just shrugged at that; his argument is that none of those people tell you to just watch movies. That is his two cents, to just watch movies and do your homework. It’s what he did and how he’s gotten as far as he has in this career. He also doesn’t audition because, as he says so humbly, “I’m horrible at it.”

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Regardless of how horrible he thinks he is, Lionsgate has unleashed the You’re Next campaign unto the world. I get rather giddy every time I see a poster, bus bench or commercial on TV. Again, AJ sees it slightly differently. He explains to me in all seriousness that right now, things are very strange and surreal for him. He’s worked in the indie film world for so long and now it seems all eyes are on this new film of his. Speaking with some relief in his voice, he gives credit to Sharni Vinson and her performance in the film as most of the press attention has been paid to her. There’s this inner conflict he’s dealing with regarding the attention, though, as every time he sees a commercial or poster for the film, he feels obligated to apologize because, he explains, “No one should have to deal with that much Bowen.”

When I point out all the actors in this city that’d kill to be in his position, he nods. He is very aware of how he sounds and quickly sets me straight by telling me he’s not taking anything for granted. Knowing him, I know this to be true. He proceeds with his point that his love for film and good storytelling just makes him wish companies would take all the money they shovel into ad campaigns such as these and invest in making good movies instead. AJ recently watched the indie zombie film The Battery  and points that out as a great example of a movie made for little money that deserves just as much attention as those that have posters up everywhere in the city.

We move back to the subject of genre movies and his take on the role he has played in the…err….genre over the past 6 years. He restates his love for genre films but points out the many types of other films outside of horror that he’s interested in tackling. If he had his way, he’d be making wacky ’80s comedies. He mentions Paul Mazursky as a point of reference. This leads me to ask him what actor and director he’d love to work with.

His response still makes me chuckle as he pointed out that question is just about as difficult to answer as if I was asking a cinephile to name their top 10 favorite films from the past decade. He warns me today’s answer will be different than yesterday’s and tomorrow’s and I can only respect that.

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“I like to subscribe to the school of What Would Clooney Do,” he tells me. AJ explains that no matter how successful he feels George Clooney is, that he still finds him to be underrated and great at everything he does. Continuing, he asks if it’s at all possible to utilize time travel in this scenario because he’d love to work with William Devane circa 1977’s Rolling Thunder. And then with a final sense of certainty, he hits the table and mentions director Jeff Nichols (Mud).

At this point, we’re both sweating from the valley heat so I decide it’s best to wrap up the conversation with one last cliche question all journalists seem to ask in situations like these: “What’s next?” AJ tells me he’s never been more excited to see a movie he’s been involved with than with Ti West’s new film The Sacrament which is premiering at The Venice Film Festival next week and will soon be screening at TIFF. It’s the biggest film in scope that he has worked on, he tells me. Aside from that, he has finished writing a script with his writing partner Susan Burke (Smashed) called Panhandlers that they will co-direct and co-star in.

It’s been 2 years since You’re Next premiered in the festival circuit. At that time, Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment merged, causing confusion in when the film would get a theatrical release. Here we are now, on the eve of that day and it seems I’m the only one out of all my friends who have yet to see the film. That being said, I will be there opening day and may possibly wear a mask with the below image on it. Because contrary to what AJ says, you can never have too much Bowen.

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You’re Next was written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard (the team behind 2010’s A Horrible Way To Die). The film stars Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz. It hits theaters this Friday, August 23rd. Go watch it! Read our review here.

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.