Interview: Peter Jason Talks Acting, ‘The Assent’October 29, 2019
With 260 acting credits to his name, including They Live, 48 Hours and Deadwood, it’s safe to say that you’ve probably seen Peter Jason on film or television at one time or another. Recently, we had the chance to talk to Peter about his love affair with acting and his new film, The Assent, which recently played at The Toronto After Dark Film Festival
You started acting in high school. What piqued your interest then and still interests you to this day?
Peter: Walking out for my curtain call and they exploded into applause, I was like, I think I like this. (Laughs) It was a different kind of applause, it really was. I was an athlete and my father was a PE teacher and he brought home all the equipment, played with his kids, and I was really good. I’d hit the home run, score the touchdown to win the game, won a tennis tournament, been in a diving meet so I’ve been applauded, I did all that, and it was fine. But when I walked out for that curtain call I don’t know, it was a different kind of applause, it was like oh my god, how do I do this again? That moment changed my entire life, December 1st, 1961.
You’ve been in this business for a while now. How have things changed from when you started to where we stand now?
Peter: Well, the computer was a big change. The secretaries, strangely enough, they used to be in charge. They used to have phone services and you’d call ‘Milly’ at the phone service, any messages, nope, ok then. If there was an emergency, something like that, she’d call you. Then the beepers came in but before that you’d have to call your messages service, find out your agent called, call him back and he’d say ok, meet me over at Paramount at 10:30 and they would meet you at the front gate and walk you in, so your agent was basically your pass into the studio. You’d walk in, go to the casting department and there were a series of secretaries and there was a pecking order, which was great because you worked your way up. There was under five lines, co-star, guest star, a pilot star and then the leads so to get to the casting director you had to go through the pecking order of the casting department. You worked your way up, you worked your money up, and it was great, I loved that. There was that apprentice feel to it, you had to earn your wings, and if you showed up on time and knew your lines you got to move up.
I always say there are only two things you need to do to be an actor: you have to show up on time and you have to know your lines, you don’t even have to be good (laughs), but those two things you have to do and it seems not everyone gets that. Then along came the computer and the agents didn’t have to leave their office, they could send you a text or an email. Twenty years ago, there was this one agency I was with, and I was at a Christmas party and my agent came up to me and said, hi Pete, how are you doing? I had no idea who he was. (Laughs) I’d only met him once or twice, so I really didn’t know who he was…I was a little embarrassed but it was hysterical.
You’ve done a lot of work in both film and television. Do you have a favorite medium to work in or do you simply go where the work takes you?
Peter: Actually, the stage, believe it or not. For me, that’s the most fun for an actor because you’re in charge and you get to read the audience immediately. If they are missing everything you can slow down for them if they’re not getting it you find out immediately and you can change the routine. I mean, stuff happens and you have to deal with it as it happens but you know, I just try to have a good time. I try to have a good time on stage, at rehearsal, on film, on TV, at the audition, in my life, everywhere I go I try to have fun. It’s catching, people like to have fun, it’s called a play and that’s what I do, I play, and some people don’t like that but hey, I’ll go play with the next person. The things I used to get in trouble for in school they now pay me for. (Laughs)
Now you’ve done a lot of work with directors John Carpenter and Walter Hill, obviously, they like what you bring to the table as an actor. What is it you like about working with those two directors?
Peter: I love both of them to death. They allow the fun to take place and they’re very loyal, both of them. They are in charge of their ships and when they are not, they’re uncomfortable. They’ve both asked me, why don’t you direct, and I’d tell them because you need a point of view and I don’t have a point of view. I’ve taken orders for fifty years, I like someone telling me what to do, even in the audition process. I do voice-overs and they’ve changed things now with the MP3 deal, everyone’s doing it at home. I loved the whole process when it used to be we all show up at the office at our call times, we’d all get the scripts and wait to go in the booth to do the audition, which is then sent away to the client. Now I’m alone in the lobby because I don’t like going into my closet at home and doing it alone, I can’t direct myself…I can but I don’t like to. I like the feedback from somebody who’s watching me, slow it down, speed it up, I like taking direction and I take direction very well. I think that’s one of the reasons they keep calling me back to play with them some more, and I’m a team player. I was a team player in all the sports I played in, I never tried to be the star, the play is the thing, I like to be a worker among workers. I like supporting my fellow actors, both on and off the stage because really, we’re all in this together.
You’ve done a lot of work on television, many different characters on different shows. Do you enjoy that or something more consistent, like the work you did on Deadwood?
Peter: You know, Deadwood, that character was just so much fun. I mean jeez, talking to breasts? What’s more fun than that? (Laughs) Anytime you can do a Western and not get on a horse, I’m there! Horses, unpredictable beasts that they are, I’ve had to ride a lot of them over the years, because I started off in Gunsmoke, Cimarron Strip, The Blue and the Grey, stuff like that and I can ride them, I just don’t like to. I was always hurting at the end of the week, so damn sore.
Let’s talk about The Assent. How did you get involved with this film?
Peter: You know, I’m not really sure. I think they just called and asked for me. My agent called and said, do you want to do an exorcist movie, and I’d never made an exorcist movie so I said yes, I mean who wouldn’t? So I asked what part I’d be playing she said I sent them your picture, and I’d just come off the Deadwood movie, and I had this full beard and they loved it, wanted me to keep the beard. This was great because I had wanted to keep it for at least one more job before I got rid of it, and before my wife killed me. (Laughs) So I said yes and went down, didn’t know anyone, actually. Pearry (the director) had a little lunch for all the actors, we went down, we all met each other, I read the script, found out Douglas Spain was my sidekick so we got to know each other, fell in love immediately (laughs), he was a kid who liked to play, so that was great. I didn’t realize how hard it was though, oh my god, it was exhausting. It was probably one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done, it was so intense, especially when we got to the bedroom scenes, those are really tough movies to make.
I remember one of the scariest movies I ever saw was The Exorcist. I was in New York, I saw it at 57th Street, in that big Columbus Circle theater there, and I came out and thought oh my god, this movie, it terrified me. I don’t like to watch horror movies, probably because I’m too affected by them but that one, The Exorcist, it really blew me away. So when I heard about The Assent I thought man if it’s anything like that I’m in, and it was kind of like that.
You mentioned the intense scenes in the bedroom. The Assent has a great overall feel of dread hanging over it from start to finish. As an actor, do you rely on the director to create that atmosphere?
Peter: Oh yeah, I think you can blame the director for that in this movie, it’s totally his fault. (Laughs) He had a dream, a vision, and we did it his way. I didn’t really get what he was doing, I kind of did, but that’s ok because I can take direction and I got it through his interpretation, and the cameraman, Jonathan Hall, who’d I worked with before. Jonathan is the guy you want on your team because he did five-minute setups and with a low budget film like this, with a lot of scenes, you have to move along. You have to trust your actors, your cinematographer, and your director, not to mention the crew. We had two houses, the filming house and the one next door we were in to get hair and makeup and then just went next door to work, it was great. There was a third house, where you used it for the big living room and other things, then there was another location in Lancaster for me coming out of jail, which was really fun. Anytime you can leave jail it’s a good day. (Laughs)
You mentioned you didn’t like watching horror movies. Do you enjoy working in the horror genre?
Peter: I love working in them, don’t like watching them. Working in them is so much fun, the first one I ever worked on was John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. His wife, Sandy King Carpenter, we met on The Long Riders, which was a Walter Hill movie, and she was the script supervisor. I helped her out with some problem and she never forgot it, she told John about it when they met on Starman. My agent called me and said, John would like to see you, and I said ok, I had no idea they were together, so I went out to meet John. I got there and John said, Sandy told me about you, I looked at your work, you’re a very realistic kind of an actor and that’s what I need. My stories are kind of out there and the believability factor is kind of important, and you’re performances seem very stable and solid. So then he said, I’d like you to read the script and tell me what you want to do with it. No one had ever said that to me before, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I had my actor friend David Warner, a great British actor, was in Titanic, The Omen, I had him look at it and he gave me an idea, I presented it to John and he said, yeah, do that, that’s good. That was really fun, and John saw me on the set, saw how my personality helped everyone work on the same team, cast and crew. There is no division between cast and crew with me, I have a sense of humor that kind of shoots all that down, as David Warner would say, it’s anti-British. (Laughs)
The movie business seems split in two these days, with indie films at one end, blockbusters at the other, with the movies in-between kind of disappearing. Does this trouble you as an actor, or has the influx of streaming services kind of filled that void?
Peter: Yeah, there is a lot of product out there these days, coming from those big companies like Amazon, Netflix but it does trouble me that they’re asking you to bang it out as fast as you can, make money as fast as they can. I don’t like the big blockbusters, I mean, I like the paychecks for working on the big blockbusters, but I don’t like watching them. I don’t like the magical/mystical story, I’m not a fan of Game of Thrones, I like small movies and The Assent is about as far out as I like to go. I don’t like The Walking Dead stuff, I like playing zombies, I don’t like seeing them, and I wish there was more listening and talking and more redemption movies. I like movies where the company is so small, that you know everyone working on it. You sit down and have lunch thirty times with every one of them and by the time the movie is over you know everybody’s life story. It’s a family, you create a family and I love that, I really do. What I don’t like is big, gigantic movies like Transformers. I was hired to do Transformers 2, I never made the final cut, but I played the head of the company that built these things. I was there for one day, one scene, but for that one day I had to eat lunch with 1500 people, they had all these tents set up and rolled us all in there to eat lunch. The only thing more ridiculous than that was the actual movie about cars turning into robots. (Laughs)
So what projects do you have coming up next?
Peter: Well I just finished one with Billy Zane called The Downside of Bliss, it’s an alcoholic recovery story, Billy Zane is in and out of rehab and I play the alcoholic counselor and I had a blast with Billy, he’s so much fun to work with. We did a movie together in Texas a few years ago called The Man Who Came Back, with Eric Braeden, George Kennedy, and Armand Assante. I played the Warden and he’s kind of the sleazebag, carpetbagger and we kind of bonded, had a great time, playing down there. He’s a funny guy, lots of fun to work with and I’m anxious to work with him again, which is hopefully a movie in March in Oklahoma, it’s a Western. This guy I know who makes short films, Jeremey Laney, he’s got a full-length feature that he’s going to do in January that I’m going to be in. It’s about the division of America, how a civil war takes place and we all end up in a cabin in the woods, I think it’s even called In the Woods and it’s kind of Liberals versus the Conservatives, and somehow we all end up in the same place.
You never know what you’re going to do next, maybe I’ll do a play. I love plays but my wife doesn’t like me doing plays, can’t make any money. I love acting though, I love being part of the whole process, I love doing auditions. People ask me, how can you love auditions, and for me that’s the fun part, hanging out with all the other actors waiting to go in, lying to each other and all that. (Laughs)
I want to thank Peter for taking the time to talk with us