His name might not immediately come to mind, but you know that face. Immediately and forever. To be sure, Daniel Roebuck is one of the great “That Guy” actors of the past 30 years. That means that when he comes up on screen, you automatically say, “Oh… That Guy!”
Still, as teenage killer Samson “John” Tullet in RIVER’S EDGE (1986), Roebuck created one of the screen’s most indelible embodiments of adolescent sadness and numbed rage turned, at least once, tragically outward.
Roebuck immediately followed RIVER’S EDGE by co-starring as Biscuit alongside Jon Cryer in Penelope Spheeris’s “punk western,” DUDES (1987) — thereby scoring back-to-back cult classics that continue to endure and inspire.
Since then, Roebuck has never stopped working, both as an actor — notably in THE FUGITIVE (1993), FINAL DESTINATION (2000), BUBBA HO-TEP (2002) and an array of Rob Zombie titles — and also as a filmmaker with a particular passion for documenting his beloved “Monster Kid” culture.
Most recently, Roebuck wrote, directed and co-stars in GETTING GRACE (2018). The surprising, faith-based indie film shot in Roebuck’s Pennsylvania hometown chronicles what happens when a brashly funny, terminally ill teenager Grace (newcomer Marilyn Dundon) crashes a funeral home and demands that lonely undertaker Bill (Roebuck) explain what she’s destined at her big send-off.
Daniel Roebuck is a not only a tremendous talent and warm, witty guy, he was an absolute blast to talk to. Here’s our conversation. Rest assured though, this is only the first in a series — Daniel agreed to a follow-up where we will just talk about CAVEGIRL!
Congratulations on GETTING GRACE. Can you talk a bit about how the movie came to be?
Of course! First off, it’s a beautiful day here in Los Angeles. I’m about to leave for the set of the new Rob Zombie movie. So, yes, I have just made this nice movie about faith, and now I’m off to be in 3 FROM HELL! [Laughs]
In terms of GETTING GRACE, I wish I could take all credit for it, but it started with a script called BENDING SPOONS by Jeff Lewis and I just fell in love with it. I wanted to act in it, and then I asked — “Can I direct it?”
The funny thing is that I play a funeral director in the movie, and I almost became a funeral director in real life. When I was a teenager, a woman came up to me in a grocery store and, out of nowhere, she just says, “You would make a great funeral director!”
I have been a horror movie fan my entire life, so this intrigued me, but still, I was a little put off, so I said, “Well, what do you mean?” And she said, “I just mean you’re good with people!”
At this point, Hollywood acting wasn’t even on my radar. I’m in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. So when career day came around in high school, where you interview somebody in the field you want to go into, I went and talked to a funeral director!
So, in high school, I really seriously thought about being a funeral director in Lehigh Valley and now I’m in a movie playing a funeral director in Lehigh Valley! It’s so weird!
Life is all about that, I think. One opportunity connects you to something else later in life.
Some fans, especially among our readers, might be surprised to learn that you’ve made a faith-based film.
Well, I’m a faithful person. But I never want to impose my faith. I try to live it. That’s what I’ve seen is the best way to do it. I don’t want to want to scare people away with my faith. It’s just a key element of my life and what I do.
I’m always astounded at when movies push an agenda so hard. They risk losing their greatest gift — which is to surprise!
We live in such a fractured time — and it’s getting worse. We all fall short in our daily mission, all of us, which I believe is to be a good person and to try to leave the world a better place for having been here. But now we’re so fractured.
It really is: united we stand, divided we fall. Time and again, the ultimate outcome of our being divided has only been failure.
Faith to me means trying to connect and heal. I went to Catholic school and that’s a big part of who I am. I even host a movie series on the Catholic Channel called “Classic With Daniel Roebuck.” I’m not sure anybody’s seen it.
My mother in Brooklyn gets the Catholic Channel.
Well, then your mom might be our one viewer! Tell her I said hi — and thanks! It’s wild, I shoot the intros for the movies in these long sessions. We show everything from Dick Tracy vs. Cueball to A Christmas Carol. We once shot 50 intros in four days!
Madelyn Dundon as Grace in GETTING GRACE is quite the discovery. How did she come into the project?
She is … astounding! Isn’t she? Maddy has never acted before, never been on camera. She just showed up and there she was — that’s Grace! It’s a star-making role, and Maddy gives a movie star performance. She’s now a star for life! When I told my friend [PULP FICTION actor] Duane Whitaker we were going to shoot in Lehigh Valley and cast local talent, he just said, “You’re a moron!”
So any day I can prove Duane Whitaker wrong is a good day for me, and we just had the most amazing luck with casting the kids. They were all so great! But Maddy just walked in and she was it. She’s Grace!
Not to take anything away from professional actors, but the idea that the best people out there are always the ones doing it for a living and getting paid for — no way. We’re all very lucky!
Here’s an amazing thing: I directed Maddy’s father in a play when he was 13! We went to high school together. Just imagine telling somebody, a 13-year-old, “Okay, we’re doing this play, and 40 years from now, I’m going to direct your daughter in a movie!”
I truly believe everything that’s placed in my life is put there for reasons that will come to be [known] later on.
You’ve produced and directed numerous documentaries about horror fan culture. What’s your connection to that world?
Well, as we’re talking, I’m looking at a six-foot-eight Creature From the Black Lagoon statue, and on the wall behind me, I’ve got life masks of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and Maria from METROPOLIS. So it’s a huge part of who I am.
My life as a horror fan began with Dr. Shock, the horror host out of Philadelphia when I was a kid. His real name was Joseph Zawislak. Dr. Shock was my buddy. He was the one guy who understood me. He loved monster movies like me, he had my sense of humor — he was Polish! Everything.
And Dr. Shock would show the classic Frankensteins, Draculas, Mummies, Wolfmans, and that’s where I first realized as a kid — “Oh! These are actors! This is how acting works!”
Boris Karloff would transform into Frankenstein after putting on that makeup. Then he could be the Mummy with different makeup. And they didn’t just look different, they’d be completely different characters — even though they were played by the same guy!
So that’s what first really made me aware of acting and made me think maybe some day I could do that. Monsters also made me aware of the human condition. Especially Gothic horror.
Frankenstein didn’t want to be the way he was. He hated the life that was forced on him. The Wolfman was cursed and wanted to break free. These characters had to deal with the tragedies of their own existence. Dracula was different. He liked it. He represents the malevolent in life.
In terms of the monster documentaries, I basically never grew up. I’m still a kid when it comes to classic horror — a Monster Kid for life! As we’re talking — this is funny — I’m walking by the skeleton that sits out on my front porch and I see that somebody stuck a flier in its hand!
You’ve also become a big part of modern horror by way of your work with Rob Zombie.
I love Rob. He is a true artist. In some ways, he is our modern Dr. Shock, except he is an artist who creates original art for fans of his interests and his takes on life. Rob creates a whole world of his own making and shows you what he sees inside it.
I try to do that, too, for fans or my take on life. It’s good to have nihilism. We need to have the dark. I think the world is full of all kinds of things, though, and I like to explore the positive.
So let’s talk about your cult classics. RIVER’S EDGE still packs as powerful a wallop as it did 30 years ago, and a lot of that has to do with your performance. Can you talk about creating the character of Samson Tullet?
Once again, I wish I could take all the credit, but I can’t. Neal Jimenez wrote that script and created that great character. Did you know that we shot the first draft of the script? Neal wrote it as a school project! And then Tim Hunter did such an amazing job directing it.
In terms of developing the character, I will claim that I tried to make him lumbering and lurching. I played it like Karloff in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN — he’s sad, he’s lonely, no one understands him. He comes from a place of such sadness. So once again, that’s me benefiting from the work of someone who came before me — it’s not “me.”
When I auditioned, I lived in Hollywood and walked there. It was at Warner Brothers. I dressed like the character and greased my hair with K-Y Jelly. Right outside the studio, stopped by a 7-Eleven and bought two cans of beer. I put them in my pocket.
Once I went in, Tim and the casting director were sitting there and there was a chair in the center of the room. I just walked past it, sat down in the corner, cracked open one of the beers, took a gulp, and said, “G’head.”
For a while, there was a lot of talk that Chris Penn was going to play Samson. So when I was trying to win the part, I went to bring Tim Hunter a bottle of wine to say thank you. I’m wearing glasses and a suit-coat and I have my lovely wife with me. I just look like this upstanding young gentleman from Catholic school.
So I give Tim the wine and he thanks me and says, “Who’s it from?” And I say, “Me! Danny! I auditioned to play Samson Tullet!” And after that, I was like — how stupid could I be? They thought they were getting this lumbering lurch and here I come in all clean-cut. If I was ever in danger of losing that part, I have to think it was then.
In addition to Neal and Tim, I also have to credit the other actors for helping me on RIVER’S EDGE. Especially Dennis Hopper. He was only 53 at the time. I thought he was a 70-year-old man! I realized last year that I was now older than Dennis Hopper was back then.
RIVER’S EDGE seemed to attract a cult following fairly quickly. DUDES took a bit longer, but any time I mentioned I was doing this interview, it was the first title that came up. Can you talk about your DUDES experience, as well as the movie’s sort of “slow burn” appeal?
Well, RIVER’S EDGE seemed like a documentary. It’s just so real. You’d watch that and think, “I know people like this” or maybe, “I am a person like this.” In fact, if you watch GETTING GRACE, you’ll see that I shot it very similarly to RIVER’S EDGE for that reason.
DUDES, on the other hand, is a fantasy. You could watch it and think, “Yeah, I’m similar to those guys” — but not really. Not like a documentary. It’s a fable.
To this day, Jon Cryer is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. Still. And we hit it off immediately and had such camaraderie. So that feels real. But I’ve got to tell you, I was about as much of a punk rocker as I was a teenage killer! That was all the character and working with Jon and Flea and Penelope Spheeris.
So I think, in terms of why DUDES took a while to catch on, it was just ahead of its time. It was too way-out for audiences at first. Now people can look at it and get it right away — “This is a fantasy. It’s a fable.”
It’s a very sophisticated movie and I think it took just maybe took some time for people to start seeing five things where, maybe at first, they only saw one. I love DUDES!
Our thanks to the great Daniel Roebuck!
Please visit GETTING GRACE‘s official website here: https://www.gettinggracethemovie.com/