Interview – Chris Sarandon

Who you are today may not be who you are tomorrow. As people we are ever evolving, and through that evolution we are continuously learning something new about ourselves. While a college student, Chris Sarandon thought he had already chosen his path, but then merely out of nowhere, acting took him in an entirely different direction. A blessing in disguise, Sarandon would go on to build an amazing career in film and television starring in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, 1985’s Fright Night, 1987’s The Princess Bride, as well as taking on the voice of Jack Skellington in Tim Burton’s 1993 classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. Versatile and unique, Sarandon has amassed a career in acting to be quite proud of. Still actively taking roles when time allows, recently the talented Sarandon sat down to talk his career, the roles he has played, writing a book, plus more.

Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in film and television over four decades now. Starring in a list of memorable films and portraying equally memorable characters, first briefly tell us, what inspired you to pursue a career as an actor?

Chris Sarandon – When I was in college I was involved in a number of other things including campus politics and academics. I was on an academic and political track, but I had been in an outdoor drama near my hometown a couple of years before that because I could live at home and make money. I enjoyed it immensely; I loved the people I was working with, I loved the atmosphere of being on stage in the theater, but I didn’t think of it as a career.

Then when I was in college, a couple of years later, as another lark, I took an acting class. The professor in the acting class said to me, “You know you are really good at this, would you be in a show?” I said, “I don’t have time, I have to do this and that.” He told me it was a small part that won’t take much of my time, so I did it. After that production, which I enjoyed immensely, he said, “I’m doing another production, a small stage, but I want you to play the lead.” I just said, “Oh god, I can’t do that. I have this and that going on.” He said, “Look, you’re good at this. You’ll kick yourself in the ass and everywhere else if you don’t take advantage of it and take a stab at it.” I said, “Oh, what the hell! I’ll do it.” That was it, I was hooked. That was the beginning of my complete and utter capitulation to the theater and being an actor.

Warner Bros.
Paramount Pictures

Cryptic Rock – That is really fascinating how you could be on one path and then something takes you in a completely different direction. As mentioned, through the years you have played a very diverse mix of characters in various genres ranging from Drama to Horror and everything in between. You have played doctors, police officers, the villain, etc. Do you enjoy the ability to challenge yourself to take on different roles?

Chris Sarandon – Absolutely. I consider myself very lucky in a lot of ways, including the fact that I didn’t get pigeonholed. I was kind of typecast with my first movie which was one called Dog Day Afternoon (1975) where I played a would-be transsexual. So the next movie I did, Lipstick (1976), I played a rapist – a polar opposite. From then on, I thought let’s just find the greatest variety that I can; a variety that would give me, rather than a fixed public persona, it would give me a career.

I considered myself from the very beginning a character actor. In some respects, I think I could have gone the other way. I could have gotten on a television series and become the cop that everyone loves to hate or the lawyer everyone loves to love or whatever, been on a show for 10-12 years, and that is how I would have been seen from then on.

It’s fortunate that I’ve been able to do all these different kinds of roles and it has given me a kind of carte blanche to do whatever I want to do. That doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it, because as actors we are hired hands – we do what the work is that comes along. Fortunately I’ve had a nice variety.

Cryptic Rock – You certainly have. Of the many genres you have worked in, you have done a good deal of Horror films and been very successful in those roles. One such role many Horror lovers often refer is that of Jerry Dandrige in 1985’s Fright Night. What was it like working on that film?

Chris Sarandon – That was a real joy. It was a wonderful cast – in fact we are all still close friends. We see each other occasionally at Horror conventions, and when we do, we always go out to dinner to hang out. The process itself was wonderful. Tom Holland has remained a good friend; he and I have worked together a couple of times – Fright Night and then Child’s Play (1988), as well. Tom’s process is very much keeping the way I like to work, which is character preparation and rehearsal. That way you know where you are headed and know what you’re doing when you start shooting, so you don’t waste time on the set. It was a real joy, I had a great time, and still think back very fondly – except for the long makeup sessions, it was great fun.

Columbia Pictures
20th Century Fox

Cryptic Rock – That is great to hear. There was something very eloquent yet frightening about that character. Now over three decades removed, to what do you attribute that film’s effective longevity with audiences of all ages?

Chris Sarandon- First of all, the script. It’s a great script, it’s beautifully constructed, and Tom knew exactly what he wanted to do when he was shooting it. He also allowed for some collaboration; we had some character ideas that Tom ended up using in the movie because he thought they were great ideas. He was not at all reluctant to share the limelight of what he created and having it augmented by actor’s ideas. That is always a great way to work.

I think, first and foremost, as stated, it’s a terrific script. It’s really well-written, it’s beautifully constructed, it’s funny and it’s scary at the same time. It has fun with the Vampire and Horror genre, without making fun of it. It doesn’t send it up. We didn’t look at the audience every once in a while and wink going, “Hey, we’re having a good time here because this is a tired genre.” Tom felt from the very beginning this was an important genre that had been ignored for a while.

In a way, I think Fright Night kind of ushered in the period of revival for the Vampire genre. That culminated in shows like True Blood on television and the Vampire movies that came out after Fright Night. Before that, the movies that were being made about vampires were satires – Love at First Bite (1979), etc. I think that it’s beautifully written, as well as an affectionate and true homage to great Vampire movies of the past such as Dracula (1931), Nosferatu (1922), Vampira (1956).

Cryptic Rock – Agreed completely. After your role in Fright Night you would continue to be a part of a wide range of films and television. Seeing you have done your share of television, how would you compare the two mediums?

Chris Sarandon – Generally, with movies you have more time. You have more time to explore, more time to light, more time to shoot; you’re working in a longer form over a longer period of time. Television is much more compressed. Especially if you’re on a series – you are getting the script, you’re sitting down reading it, and the next day, you are starting to shoot it. If you are a guest star, same thing: you go through a read through with the cast, and you are basically creating a character out of nowhere.

Television is a much more compressed kind of medium. At the same time what that does, conversely, is it allows a kind of spontaneity that you tend to forget about when you are shooting a movie because you have more time. They are two sides to the coin. They are both enjoyable, I love working in TV and film. They’ve both been good to me.

L to R – Amanda Bearse as Amy Peterson and Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandrige in Fright Night (1985). © Columbia Pictures

Cryptic Rock – It also gives you even more diversity. You have remained active through recent years taking on roles including voice work. Perhaps one of your most famous voiceovers is that of Jack Skellington in 1993’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. What was that experience like for you?

Chris Sarandon – Basically, I went in and auditioned. They had already done Danny Elfman’s singing and they wanted a voice that would compliment Danny’s singing voice as a speaking voice, I guess mine was the closest.

The process is very different. You are in the studio, in this case it was Henry Selick, who also directed Coraline (2009) and James and the Giant Peach (1996); he is a wonderful animation director. Essentially you’re just standing in a studio with a piece of paper in your hand with a scene on it and you’re doing the lines over and over again in different ways, then they decide which version to use. You are almost never working with other actors. I had one session with Catherine O’Hara where we did the Jack and Sally scenes. Other than that, I was by myself in the studio with Henry.

Through the whole process I would fly in the morning from Los Angeles to San Francisco where Henry and I would work in the studio in San Francisco. I would go home, and they would animate what I’d done that week from the choices Henry made from the work I’d done. I would come back 3-4 months later after they animated those scenes, we’d do another few scenes and they would animate those. That was over a period of year and a half to two years.

Cryptic Rock – Wow, that is a very different experience. It sounds like it could be very challenging because as an actor you would usually feed off the other cast and the environment. With this, you are reading off a piece of paper, and that has to be very challenging.

Chris Sarandon – It is challenging. In this case you had the advantage of not only the storyboards, but some of the scenes that had already been animated of Danny Elfman singing the songs. I had a pretty good idea of what the visuals of what the character were and how far I could go in terms of interpretation. Of course, Henry Selick had the whole movie in his head, so he was guiding me in terms of the kinds of directions I can go in as far who the character was and where he was headed at various times in the script. Henry was a great help.

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Cryptic Rock – Very interesting. Once again, it has become a classic film. As you continue to work, what are some future projects you have coming up?

Chris Sarandon – The major upcoming project I am working on now is a book. I am writing a memoir, I guess you can say it’s a remembrance of, not only my work, but also my family and how my family got here. I’m the son of an immigrant father and mother who was born here, but who was the daughter of immigrants; so I am a first generation American. In a time when immigration is a subject that is very fraught, I’m writing about them, my life with them, and my life in the movies/television.

That’s the major thing I am working on at the moment. I’m not concentrating so much on acting as I am writing at the moment. Although, when acting things come up, I do them. I recently turned down a couple of things so I can continue to work on this though.

Cryptic Rock – It sounds like a compelling book. Do you have a publisher set up for it?

Chris Sarandon – We don’t have a publisher. I have an agent and we are working on getting what I have written so far out to publishers to see if someone is interested in publishing it.

Chris Sarandon as the voice of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas. © Disney.

Cryptic Rock – It sounds like it will be a very interesting story considering the life you have led and the work you have done. What is it like reflecting on everything when you are writing it all down?

Chris Sarandon – It’s very revelatory in a lot of ways. I will be lying in the bed, wake up at 3 in the morning, and go, “Oh, what about that thing that happened!” (Laughs) I will write a little note down on my pad and go back to sleep if I can. In my office I have a pad with reams of notes on it, plus notes I’ve went through. When I was talking to the agency that signed me, a wonderful woman at a place called Folio Literary, I made her up an outline of where I was going with this. The more stuff I thought of, the more I threw in.

How can I explain it… it’s a very self-revelatory, but at the same time gives you both a macro and micro view of how life has evolved, in this particular case, my life. It gives you a view of what has happened in the world during that time and how much has changed. I now have seven grandchildren, so that is certainly a factor. Seeing how my children have developed and become amazing human beings and how their children are developing and growing. It’s an exercise in nostalgia as much as it is one in revelation.

Cryptic Rock – It will be exciting to read once completed and released. Even though it is a very personal piece about your life, everyone can relate because we have all lived through the times you are reflecting on.

Chris Sarandon – Exactly. I had a conversation with the agent recently and I said, “I wasn’t beaten as a child or locked in a closest, but I did have experiences a lot people have had that they can identify with.” She said, “You wrote about something that happened with your father and I immediately saw my relationship with my mother in that incident you described.” So, hopefully it will go from the specific to the universal. That is one of the reasons why I am doing it, because I’m hoping people will think, “I’ve been through that, I know what that feels like.” Maybe in can be in some way instructive going forward and how you came out it. I’ve been through three marriages, I’ve been through bankruptcy; you learn as you go along. Hopefully people will read it and think there may be something for them that can be constructive and helpful in their lives.

Chris Sarandon as Leon in Dog Day Afternoon. © Warner Bros.

Cryptic Rock – No question. We are all learning to be the best version of ourselves as we go. Last question. If you are a fan of the Horror and Sci-Fi films, do you have any favorites?

Chris Sarandon – Absolutely. When I was younger I was a big Science Fiction fan, I read a lot of Robert Heinlein and a lot of Philip K. Dick. I’m a big fan of The Passage novels by Justin Cronin. It’s a vampire chronicle that is brilliantly written by a guy who was a serious novelist, but he couldn’t make any money writing serious novels. I’m also a big fan of the old Vampire movies such as Vampira (1956), the original Nosferatu, as well as Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).

Philip Pullman’s Dark Material books are great. I read a lot. I’m also a fan of a writer named Patrick O’Brian who wrote a series of 20 sea novels called the Aubrey–Maturin series. I’ve read all 20 of those book 3 times, that is how much I love those books.

Film Arts Guild
Ballantine Books

Purchase Chris Sarandon movies:

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Feature photo credit at top of article: Amy Arbus

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