Thomas F. Wilson
Actor Thomas F. Wilson struck it big in his first feature, playing Biff Tannen in Back to the Future. The immediate fame enabled Wilson to gain instant perspective on both stardom and the type of career he wanted. Chris Neumer chats with Wilson to get insight into what success really is.
CHRIS NEUMER: Hi Tom, what’s going on?
THOMAS F. WILSON: Not much. Is this still a good time?
CHRIS NEUMER: Yup, I’m just sitting here looking at your web-site actually.
THOMAS F. WILSON: As well you should be.
CHRIS NEUMER: I just read the bit about your April Fool’s Day story where they tried to get you to hang upside down and have the snake bite you.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Yeah, that’s true.
CHRIS NEUMER: I think that’s hysterical in a sick way.
THOMAS F. WILSON: My experiences with acting in movies are like that. Generally someone will come up to you and say, “We’re really going to do it.” But I didn’t actually end up hanging upside down with the snake. I did end up hanging upside down, for way too long of a time, but no snake. They actually got a guy though. We filmed it up in Canada and they got a young aggressive, go-forth stuntman. They said, “Hey, do you want to be in a movie? You just have to hang upside down trying to dodge this snake that’s trying to bite you.” He said ‘Okay.’
CHRIS NEUMER: It never ceases to amaze me what they can get stuntmen and women to do. It’s not like they’re phrasing it wrong. You can’t really spin, we need you to hang upside down while a snake tries to bite you.
THOMAS F. WILSON: You can’t. It’s just a matter of getting a young enough person who wants it enough and they’ll do it. Do I have in there that the snake bit the trainer?
CHRIS NEUMER: You did. They were trying to prove to you how safe it was.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Oh, man. (laughs) Rarely have I laughed that hard. He opens the bag and, bang, the snake goes right for the guy’s hand. He’s bleeding all over the place STILL trying to sell me how safe it’s going to be.
CHRIS NEUMER: What kind of snake was it? A boa or something?
THOMAS F. WILSON: A big, scary, threatening looking snake that was not venomous, but, hey, I watched it bite the guy and the hand. It wasn’t kidding around.
CHRIS NEUMER: So, that’s what you caught me doing. I just wanted to tell you ahead of time, I appreciate the time you’re giving me. I’ve been really looking forward to this interview the more we’ve e-mailed and talked. The more you tell me that you’re not interested in talking about certain things, the more intrigued I’ve been getting. I’m looking at it like a challenge; an obstacle to work around and I’m really looking forward to it. I am going to go on record here and say that we are going conduct this entire interview without mentioning the name of the trilogy you were in, or anything about your co-stars in that trilogy. We’re going to talk about it that little.
THOMAS F. WILSON: I challenge you. And then at the end of the interview, Chris, I’ll give you the gold medal. And then, you can ask me anything about it you want.
CHRIS NEUMER: The truth of the matter is though, I just don’t know what I’d want from that.
THOMAS F. WILSON: I’m starting to like you more and more. No, the thing is that it’s not like–now I’m talking about it–it’s not like I’m the bitter guy who wants to turn his back on this thing. I’m just truly out of things to say.
CHRIS NEUMER: Well, I mean you’ve probably done 50 interviews a year about it for, what, since 1986? That’s what?
THOMAS F. WILSON: Exactly. It’s like, you know what guys? I just don’t have anything more to say that interests me in the least. I’m on the record on everything.
CHRIS NEUMER: It’s interesting you mention that because a while back I did an interview with Michael Madsen, the guy in Reservoir Dogs who cut the cops ear off. And I saw a quote of his where he went off on the press for just constantly questioning him about that role and that scene. Expletives were flying. He hated the fact that that was all people wanted was to talk about that. And that very day I read this quote in one of the Chicago newspapers, I got a call from a publicist promoting the DVD of Reservoir Dogs who wanted me to interview Michael Madsen. Do they even listen to what these people are saying? At first I turned it down out of respect for the guy, but then I realized, why not talk to him about not talking to him. It made for a pretty cool interview I have to say.
THOMAS F. WILSON: I get around that sort of thing living here as I do. I’m a movie fan, I want to ask people questions about the stuff they did. I know a few guys who were in Field of Dreams and I go up to them and ask them, “How was it doing this?” And I’m an actor, so I understand what it’s like for people. And people come up to me all the time and tell me about how they went to a drive in with their dad that night and how the moment is frozen in time. It’s just tiring. It’s not an excuse for me to be a jerk to anyone.
CHRIS NEUMER: I’m sure on certain days though it would be easy to cross that line if you’re pushed too hard.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Um, only occasionally. You run into rude people. You run into rude people. Everyone runs into rude people.
CHRIS NEUMER: Yes, I call them publicists.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Sometimes they just won’t take the hint and they just don’t get it. I tried, I made up this whole thing. How am I going to get out of the situation and not filled with that recrimination of “Now you’re just a mean celebrity guy.” I kept saying, “That stuff is in the past and I just don’t talk about it that much anyone more.” Then I ask the people what they’re doing.
CHRIS NEUMER: You can steal that technique that Jerry Seinfeld used on his show. When someone asked him something he didn’t want to divulge, he merely said that he got it while looking for his speedboat. People would go, “Speedboat?” and boom, off topic.
THOMAS F. WILSON: (laughs) That’s good, Of course, when I try that, I’m sure people would say, “You’re not big enough to afford a speedboat.”
CHRIS NEUMER: you’re off-topic already. That’s the beauty of it.
THOMAS F. WILSON: We’ll get back to the highway then.
CHRIS NEUMER: The reason I first called you was after I saw you in Freaks & Geeks back when it came out on DVD. I saw your role and it was a great role. Prior to that I’d only seen your performances in the trilogy, but I though that you did a really good job conveying a compassionate yet realistic gym teacher. So then I looked at your web-site and was genuinely surprised at how much I didn’t know about you. It seems almost as though acting is just a small portion of what you do.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Well, yeah. Acting is just a small portion of what I do creatively. Acting is what I do for a living. Acting as I do, to be perfectly honest, I had to come up with some other creative expressions to keep myself.
CHRIS NEUMER: When you say “as you do” what do you mean?
THOMAS F. WILSON: Acting as I do as a supporting actor. Basically, what it’s about is getting a job and performing in that job the best that I can. Sometimes it’s in a job that I really care about and am very proud of and very pleased with and have a great time with a bunch of terrific actors that turns out to be excellent.
CHRIS NEUMER: For example?
THOMAS F. WILSON: Andersonville. The Civil War movie about the only concentration camp in America history. My great-great grandfather was actually a prisoner in the camp, where I got to play a Union prisoner. That meant a lot to my dad and my family. It was a difficult yet really rewarding experience. I got to work with a director like John Frankenheimer and it ended up being a very positive experience. No names, but sometimes, Chris, we’re just paying the bills. We’re showing up and doing our job as the cop or the jock or whatever that day on a sit-com, on a movie, a one-hour police show, whatever it is. We’re doing our job, we’re going home and we’re having dinner with the family.
CHRIS NEUMER: So your painting and other things came about as a hobby to your acting?
THOMAS F. WILSON: Mmm. I suppose so… I was an artistic dilettante for a while, in photography and collage and the visual arts. Ten years ago though it was one of those early mid-life crises. I asked myself, are you just going to dabble in this for the rest of your life? Do nice little paintings of ponds and duckies? Or am I actually going to learn how to do this. So I started going to the Art Academy of Los Angeles for a while. I studied privately with artists so I could learn what I was doing as a painter. I think with the studies I’ve done I could describe myself as a painter as well as an actor.
CHRIS NEUMER: Let me ask you this. You said that you learned what you were doing as a painter. What is it that are you doing as a painter?
THOMAS F. WILSON: Both learning about art history and the foundation of what painters do, as well as some technical aspects of painting. Painting what they call classical realism. Learning value, color, and drawing. I thought in order to–no matter what kind of painting I wanted to do–I had to go, like so many generations before me, to a school and start drawing the figure.
CHRIS NEUMER: Almost paying your dues.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Exactly.
CHRIS NEUMER: This seems like it would make for some great lying awake at night moments. It’s three o’clock in the morning and you’re thinking, “I had to pay my dues with acting, I had to pay my dues with stand-up, I shouldn’t have to keep doing this.”
THOMAS F. WILSON: As I told you, fortunately, I just don’t watch a lot of TV. I like to do things, I’m interested in a lot of things. I make no bones about being a dedicated amateur at some of them and being a serious professional at some of them but I’m always pursuing improvement and getting into things up to my elbows. I’ve worked hard in it and I take pride in the work that I’ve done as an artist, in many different fields. And by the same token, I appreciate math, because I can’t do math. If I have to read a map or figure out the tip on a restaurant bill, I might start to tear up a little bit.
CHRIS NEUMER: Fortunately they have calculators for that.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Exactly.
CHRIS NEUMER: you can scrimp on that one. Going back to your acting career. You have an interesting quote on your bio page. You said, that you were interested in acting and that “led to starvation and an opportunity to the stages of comedy clubs.” I found it interesting because I’d never heard starvation and opportunity so close to each other in one sentence. Could you expand on that?
THOMAS F. WILSON: The starvation that led to opportunity was–I was studying acting in New York. and I was doing some summer stock Shakespeare plays, but for all intents and purposes, I wasn’t getting any jobs. I was simply not being hired by anyone to do anything for money other than working in an Oriental Rug Warehouse or other things where I used my back. That led to looking around and a friend of mine did stand up comedy and took my to the Improv in New York. At the time, I was nineteen, I didn’t have any money and my friend had to pay for everything. He had to buy my drinks and everything. I didn’t have a dime. I saw Gilbert Gottfried, Joe Piscopo, Rick Overton–who’s become a friend of mine–I saw a show that night and I was like, “These guys make money for this? For getting up on stage and doing a show?” At that time, I befriended Rich Hall, very early on in my budding comedy career. Rich was very helpful to me. He told me, “You’re trying to be an actor, you’re trying to get on episodes of television shows, in comedy you do a show every night. Every night you’re up on stage in front of an audience. Actors who are waiting to get on the next cop show can’t say that. So, for my acting training and trying to get cast in plays, I just started showing up at comedy clubs every night.
CHRIS NEUMER: Did you adopt a persona?
THOMAS F. WILSON: At first I didn’t and so I was very bad. The first number of times I went on, I was very bad. The first time I was on, it was that thing were I thought, “I’ll go back to the acting and I can always tell my grand children that I did stand up comedy once.” A couple nights later there was an opening at a show. A friend of mine said, “Look, nobody gets paid unless four people show. I don’t care what you do.” So I worked it out and I was pretty bad. As soon as I took it as a play, I got better quickly. I said, I’m doing a show as myself, when I’m tired I’m tired on stage, when I’m in a bad mood, I’m in a bad mood on stage. I said, it’s a solo performance, it’s a play, but I’m a character in a play playing a stand up comedian. So I started looking at it that way, invested a lot of energy on stage and started writing and started improvising. Now I’m a comedy dinosaur, but at the time, it was a much more free form thing. Smaller nightclubs, not the comedy industry we have now. You could actually get up several times a night at different nightclubs and just riff on them. Have some fun and improvise. I had a ball. Taking it as the play I did, I improved quickly.
CHRIS NEUMER: Do you try to approach all your roles with that same as just a one person performance does it open the same kind of enlightening doors?
THOMAS F. WILSON: I most definitely think it does. If you watch those stand up films of Richard Pryor–when I first moved to LA, I got accepted as a regular at the comedy store and they said, “You’re a big guy. If you want to get more spots, it would behoove you to be a bouncer here because you’ll be standing around and if guys don’t show, you’ll get their spots.” So I got to watch the great comedians perform every night. And the greatest of those was Richard Pryor. He was doing a series of theater pieces every night. He doesn’t tell jokes, he does monologues based in reality that he’s acting out for you. It’s not a situation comedy with quotation marks, it’s incredible comedy that comes out of the situation that he’s acting out. When he talks about the dog next door that used to torture him, he’s acting out the role of the dog as himself having the conversation. That impressed me a lot. I try to do that a lot in my act. I’m both saying things that hopefully are funny, but mostly I’m acting out scenes both from my past, my present, as a father, I’m doing material on having kids, going to restaurants. You’re doing a theater piece on taking your family to a restaurant. So that to me is what the great comedians have done.
CHRIS NEUMER: It also seems like it would give your kids reason to act up even more.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Yeah. I hope they do.
CHRIS NEUMER: Boy I’m giving daddy some solid gold today.
THOMAS F. WILSON: (laughs) Exactly. Does that make sense to you?
CHRIS NEUMER: To a degree, yes.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Sometimes when you try to explore this stuff, in the middle of a sentence you think, “Is this gobbledygook?” It makes sense to me, but I’m not sure how clearly I express it.
CHRIS NEUMER: I have no training in acting of any kind, my opinion is much like Robert Altman’s. I’m not sure what you guys do exactly, I’m not sure how you do it, but the fact that you can do it amazes me. When you talk about getting into character or acting out a role as a stand up comedian, I’m not sure how to do it, or how you do it, but I understand the concept you’re trying to explain. So it does make some sense. Thinking about this now, you’ve done comedy, you paint, you do voice-over work, and you sing. Do any of these pursuits fulfill different needs for you than the others?
THOMAS F. WILSON: It’s interesting. Each of them fulfills a need that I have. I really enjoy doing all of them. Voice over work is, to me, sheer fun. It’s just a very relaxing thing. With the people that I’ve been so lucky to work with, on SpongeBob SquarePants for example, it’s just a wonderful group of people. Very creative artists in their own right. We actually talk about painting with the guys at Nickelodeon. We’re doing a silly cartoon that every one understands that we’re not creating some work of art but it’s a lot of fun and kids love it. It has it’s value. I enjoy doing stand up because of the utter freedom of being on stage.
CHRIS NEUMER: Are you still doing standup?
THOMAS F. WILSON: I am. Not like some of the guys who are out there seven days a week, but I still do it. I just did a weeklong gig at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa beach. Jay Leno does a show there Sunday nights, sometimes I’ll go down there and work with Jay.
CHRIS NEUMER: Is he funnier there than he is on TV?
THOMAS F. WILSON: Jay is very funny at the club.
CHRIS NEUMER: I, uh. Well watching…. How should I put this? I’m definitely a Letterman person. I’ll just be professional today and leave it at that.
THOMAS F. WILSON: I guess I will too.
CHRIS NEUMER: No, I’ll say this. I think he has a swagger about him that I think defeats even his best material. I think if another comedian were delivering his material with a different attitude the results would be a lot better. His on-screen persona just rubs me the wrong way.
off the record comments…
THOMAS F. WILSON: Sure. We’re back on the record. I think maybe I watch some comedian and some actor friends I have, people who are very successful and when you go to a bar-b-que at their house you go, “Wow, this wouldn’t be bad at all” But I think they have a way of understanding and servicing their audience–and I don’t mean it in a disparaging way, I mean it as a compliment–I don’t think I have that ability. I think maybe I’m too much of a wise guy or too independent and I just kind of end up doing whatever I feel like. Even if it costs me, and it certainly has. I really don’t mean that as that turned up nose, I pursue my own artistic pursuits. People are like, “Why are you painting, man? You should be out there with the people who are going to get you jobs and money.” And ultimately I go, I think I would live in a box and paint.
CHRIS NEUMER: It seems like–and I’m trying to say this without castigating the people with the really nice homes–it’s seems like you’re staying true to who you are and are following your inner voice, not other green incentives.
THOMAS F. WILSON: I think you can safely say that about me. And I say it with a certain amount of pride. Yes, I am certainly myself and have remained myself throughout this whole bumpy carnival.
CHRIS NEUMER: To what do you think you owe that? Awkwardly phrased, but I’m letting it stand.
THOMAS F. WILSON: I guess there are many factors, growing up in a solid family with great parents who screwed my head on straight. Secondly, working at the Comedy Store as I did, working for long watching all of these comedians and actors become huge and the kind situation that I watched them go into. It was a sobering and educational experience for me. Keep your head on straight, do the work and be who you are and you’ll be the happiest guy in the end. Thirdly and I don’t mean it in a prophletizing way, but I’m a man of private faith, but I’m a faithful person and my belief in something beyond us and that the things that we do actually matter is important. That keeps me straight.
CHRIS NEUMER: I saw the importance of your faith on your web-site. I understand how you say it keeps you on the straight and narrow in terms of who you are, but does it ever color your choice of roles or projects that you take?
THOMAS F. WILSON: Sure it does. If you going to live by a certain code–as Bob Dylan said, you gotta serve somebody. (laughs) Which ever code we decide to live by, hopefully, if we’re serious about it, it will color all our choices. No matter what code it is we’ve decided to live by.
CHRIS NEUMER: Hopefully you don’t change codes midlife. Just don’t get me started on Stephen Baldwin.
THOMAS F. WILSON: That’s–We’re going to have to go off the record again. Ultimately, I become a better artist by knowing myself well and knowing who I am and not trying to be wildly different in my personal life from that it gives me a strong foundation because I know where I’m going back to. I’m a strong person with a strong foundation. I think it’s helped me a lot as an artist. Does that makes sense?
CHRIS NEUMER: Yes. And we didn’t even have to touch on Stephen Baldwin.
THOMAS F. WILSON: I see people especially in a place like New York or Los Angeles who are so busy trying to be something so that people will give them a job that when they get the job they’ve confused, even to themselves, who they are. What do they have to draw from?
CHRIS NEUMER: So you become your persona or your pen name?
THOMAS F. WILSON: Aristotle said the mask an actor wears becomes his face.
CHRIS NEUMER: Oh, that does beg a Biff question, doesn’t it?
THOMAS F. WILSON: (laughs) You’re giving up the gold medal…
CHRIS NEUMER: I’m not mentioning the trilogy. I’m staying true to my word. Last question for you: You had an inordinate amount of success very early in your career, how did that shape your perspective on things?
THOMAS F. WILSON: I’ll tell you what I’ve come up with, and I’ll be honest with you, Chris, we can talk about it now, why not?–
CHRIS NEUMER: We don’t want to, that’s why not.
THOMAS F. WILSON: How it shaped my perception is this: I have become so indelibly identified as a character in pop culture that it has forced me to go deeply within myself to get a very very rock solid sense, to myself, of who I am. That has been a great, great gift to me. Being known as something else than what I am by everyone I come across in life has forced me to strengthen the sense that I have of myself. Now in this middle part of my life, I’ve got to tell you, winds come, storms blow, and I have problems, but I feel pretty rock solid. Does that make sense?
CHRIS NEUMER: Yeah. And I tell you this in the most non-strange way, given how many interviews I’ve done with people in Hollywood, there aren’t many people who look at things from a very grounded perspective. People who can look at the bad times they’ve had and draw positive things from them for when they’re up. Not many people are grounded. There aren’t very many people who think in terms of, let’s say, positive humanism. It makes perfect sense to me, it’s just amazing more people don’t feel the same way.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Honestly, Chris, the great part about me and I don’t mean it with any offense, I don’t care what people think of me. (laughs) People say, “How do you want to be remembered?” I tell them, I don’t care IF people remember me. I really don’t. I have every bit of confidence that my children will remember me with great love and charity–
CHRIS NEUMER: They better, or they’re out of the will.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Or my wife and friends. Some people like the way I work, others don’t. I wish them all well, but I don’t care.
CHRIS NEUMER: It seems freeing.
THOMAS F. WILSON: I think it is. It hasn’t come without cost, without the pain of being on the other side. Being a young man in my late twenties, thinking I’ll never escape this. Everywhere I go, every plane I’m on, every restaurant I’m in… but I really couldn’t care less.
CHRIS NEUMER: You should probably take comfort in the fact that you’re not on that WB reality show, [The Surreal Life] the one with Corey Feldman and the other passed their prime actors.
THOMAS F. WILSON: That’s exactly–that’s the opposite of what I’m about. Hey, you can do whatever you want. Sometimes I don’t even understand myself because so many other low level celebrities like myself will go around and embrace that as their identities. They’ll got to the restaurant and say, “Hey, does this face look familiar?”
CHRIS NEUMER: I’d like four reservations for Thomas F. Wilson, you may remember me from…
THOMAS F. WILSON: And that, wow (whistles) that makes my skin crawl. I prefer just being me and waiting an hour for a table if need be.
CHRIS NEUMER: Outside of the waiting part, it sounds good to me. Is there anything else you want to add, something else that’s important to get on tape?
THOMAS F. WILSON: I don’t think so… unless you have something else you’re interested in.
CHRIS NEUMER: Just photos of you.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Here’s the problem, I never do this stuff, I don’t have a publicist, I don’t go to photo shoots, I’m a very difficult person in this way. I’m not Greta Garbo, but I’m in the on-deck circle of that “who cares”–I don’t do it because everyone asks the same stuff–
CHRIS NEUMER: Not me.
THOMAS F. WILSON: Not you and, hey, it’s been a great interview. But I don’t have a press packet I can send you. I just kind of do my work and go home. I’ll look around and see what I can find.
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