Interview – Sean Whalen

sean-promo_edited-1Anyone who pursues a career in acting would be lying if they said they did not want to be recognized for their work. Many work years taking on various roles to build that name and character. Actor Sean Whalen is more than comfortable with being recognized by casual movie/television consumers as “That Guy.” Beginning his career in film as the lovable, mute character Roach in Wes Craven’s 1991 film The People Under the Stairs, Whalen has gone on to an impressive career starring in everything from 1996’s Twister to the hit television series Lost. Mixing and matching other roles everywhere along the way, it is safe to say being recognized as “That Guy” is an extremely positive thing. Recently we caught up with the busy actor to talk his career in the arts, his love for Comedy, future projects, and much more. – You have been involved in film/television for over 25 years now. In that time you have had a list of diverse roles. First, tell us, what inspired you to get involved in acting?

Sean Whalen – I was the youngest of four kids. As the youngest, you either get babied or you try and find your place within the pecking order. My place was to entertain all my brothers and sisters while they did all the housework, so I didn’t have to (laughs). They caught onto me pretty quick, so that ended. I just loved performing and got involved with it at my elementary. I did puppeteering and school plays. I really enjoyed it, and in fifth grade, I wrote and directed a version of Rumpelstiltskin that I starred in and I got the bug.

I pursued it through high school and into UCLA for acting school. I did drop out of that program because I didn’t really enjoy it much. You have to be ready for the life of an actor, and I just wasn’t ready at that young age. Then I went to The Groundlings school and fell in love with Comedy and improv. I did so well there I got to become a member of their Sunday show and perform regularly. I found agents there, commercial and theatrical, they signed me, and that was it. It went from there. – Very cool. Your first major film came in 1991 when you started as Roach in Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. How did this role come about for you, and what was your experience like working with Wes?

Sean Whalen – Just like all auditions, we just get a phone call. You just get auditions and you just have to be prepared for what genre it will be. You actually just never know what genre it will be. That was another audition for a movie and it had no lines. I was getting coached, as I still do today. I didn’t for a while, but I really realized the value of having a coach. My coach is my best friend for 30 years. Before that, I had a coach who said the easy way to do this is scream, yell, and be crazy. Although, the depth of this character is that he is sweet, kind, and he wants to help everyone, but he also wants to screw with the bad guys. He could have left, but he wants to stay around just to mess with them. That is kind of how it went about. I went into his office, Wes was very calm, I crawled on the floor, screamed, cried, laughed, peeked from behind chairs, and died on his carpet (laughs). Then I got the call that I made the film.

Working with Wes was fantastic. He was completely neutering, very sweet, and he wanted to make sure we felt safe to explore. He wanted us to be the best actors we could, he really loved actors and wanted us to do our best, which is important. He didn’t want us to play it goofy or anything, he wanted us to play the realistic circumstances that we were placed under. He was just so nice, calm, and sweet. For my first film, I don’t think I could have asked for a better experience because I didn’t have any lines in it to worry about and Wes was so calm. He had to work with Brandon, who was only 11, and me, it was my first film, that can be very harrowing. He made sure there was no big divide between us the actors, the creative process, and the director. He did not hide behind a wall, or video screens, or anything. It was great, he made everyone feel safe and comfortable, that is the best thing you can do for an actor. He really allowed us to find these characters on our own.

When I worked with Clint Eastwood a couple of years ago, it reminded me of the same thing. It was almost the same thing, these two mellow guys who really trust the people they hired. He didn’t micromanage or anything, it was awesome. 

Universal Pictures
Warner Bros – It sounds like a wonderful experience. What a great first film experience. The People Under the Stairs was quite a unique Horror film, balancing Horror and Comedy, and now, in 2016, it celebrates its 25th anniversary. What do you think made the film so successful and one fans still turn to all these years later?

Sean Whalen – First of all, it was out of his wheel house. I was talking to Brandon Trost, Rob Zombie’s director of photography, he was saying it was kind of out of Wes wheelhouse a little. The film was a little odd, first of all, Brandon Adams who starred in it said, “How many times do you see a little black kid from the hood saving the day?” I never thought of it like that until we were doing interviews for the 25th anniversary and he said that. That is true, plus it has a happy ending. He picked Wendy Robie and Everett McGill from Twin Peaks, which added a campiness to it. It made them villains we hate, but they were also kind of comedical, weird, and oddly fascinating. 

My character was fun and strange, he just created a really fun, strange world. At the end of the day, he also threw in some very comical portions, like Buster Keaton, slapstick humor, Three Stooges type company. At the same time, he had a happy ending where golden and money is raining down on poor people of the neighborhood. I think that is why it touched people in different ways.

That is a great observation you made about the comedy, because I have had people come up to me and tell me that movie scared the crap out of them. I think he really found a fun balance, that is why it has stuck with people. You just had not seen anything like that before. It is kind of a Horror Comedy. I think, more than anything, when people asking me about it, it wasn’t a straight Horror movie or a straight Comedy, I think it was a twisted movie. It was ahead of its time, it was before Twin Peaks and all the odd strange films that are fun and scary at the same time. That is what made it really good.

Sean Whalen as Roach in 1991’s The People Under the Stairs – Absolutely. It certainly is a unique film. Of your many roles, you have appeared in a list of comedic films/television series, as well as Horror films. Are these two genres you have an affinity for?

Sean Whalen – I do. My first love is Comedy, hands down. I started at The Groundlings, I am teaching comedy at Studio 4: James Franco’s Film & Acting School in North Hollywood, and I am running the Comedy department, building it from the ground floor. I love Comedy improv, doing Comedy, making the crew laugh, that has always been my favorite.

Although, there is something to be said about doing a very intense audition. There is a pleasure in that, but if you had to asked me what I rather do, it would be Comedy. I just love to make people laugh, that is what I did when I was the youngest of four kids. I just like fun, and Comedy is more fun. I like living out the experience of a Drama, but Comedy acting is more fun to me.

I am writing a Horror Comedy now, called Crust. It has some great people attached already, including Felissa Rose who is an amazing producer and one of my closest friends. We will have more on that soon. Just follow me on facebook. – That is exciting to hear. Seeing the film is still in development, what can you tell us about it?

Sean Whalen – I am very excited for the movie. I am writing and starring in it. It is a story about a guy who lives alone in a laundromat. He is kind of a hasbeen and collects all the dirty socks from the laundry machine, wipes his nose, blood, sweat, and other things on the socks. He keeps them in a pile in the corner and one day the pile comes to life, becoming a sock monster to avenge all his enemies. It is like Little Shop of Horrors (1986) meets The Godfather (1972) meets Charlotte’s Web (1973) and Willard (1971) all rolled into one. It is a lot of fun. As I said, Felissa Rose is attached as producer, she plays my ex-girlfriend in it. Jason Trost is in it. We have some really fun announcements to make cast wise. The special effects are going to be done by Erik Porn, who does the special effects for Teen Wolf. I am not allowed to say my lead actress, but she is very well known in Horror, fans will be excited.

Sean Whalen in Milk Commercial
Sean Whalen in 1993 Got Milk? commercial – It sounds like a very fun film. As you mentioned a love for Comedy, Mixing Horror with Comedy is a blast for viewers. Interestingly enough, your appearance in a 1993 Got Milk? commercial still reigns as something fans talk about all these years later. Are you often surprised at how many people associate you with this commercial?

Sean Whalen – I was just talking about this to my class, I was called the milk guy for about 10 years after that. People said, “Oh yea, he is the milk guy,” which killed my commercial career. I have never been hired for a commercial since, maybe 1 or 2, but generally, I have not been able to book another commercial. That is because people associated me with that spot and they thought I was part of a huge campaign, and it wasn’t, it was just one commercial.

On the flip side, Spielberg saw it and loved it, he put me in 1996’s Twister and wrote a cool part for me in 1997’s Men in Black, which unfortunately got cut out. His friends Tom Hanks and Drew Barrymore met me, and I did their movies; because of them I did a lot of other big movies. In the ’90s, that commercial launched my theatrical career, and it was fantastic.

Now, I don’t get it as much, people don’t associate me as “the milk guy.” They will say, I know you from several things, or I know from the milk commercial, but they do not say hey you are the milk guy. My goal was to do as many different genres as possible so I would be known as that actor, not the milk guy. I have succeeded, at this point, people will say they know me as an actor, but not what from, then sometimes I will bring it up. I was known as the milk guy for a long time. It is nice to be known as an actor after all this time. We work really hard, speaking about my friend Felicia, she doesn’t just want to be known as Angela from 1983’s Sleepaway Camp, now she is known as Felicia Rose, a great producer/actor who is a fun personality to meet at a Horror convention. – Exactly, completely understood. The Got Milk? is a generational thing. People growing watching television at that time, saw it a lot.

Sean Whalen – Yes, and it is nice because the directors who are grown up now, grew up watching me in the ’90s. Which is good, because now they want to work with me again. You have to have perseverance to stick through the tough times to know it will come back around. That is why I think a lot of older actors have second careers. Quentin Tarantino loved John Travolta and put him Pulp Fiction, it changed his whole career.

Sean Whalen as Neal ‘Frogurt’ in Lost series – Very good point. Seeing that you have been in a balance of film and television shows. How would you compare working in television opposed to on full-length feature films?

Sean Whalen – The difference is truly just time. I would say in general you have more time on a movie. More time to setup shots, because this is it, it is these two hours and that is it. With TV, they have 13 to 24 hours to fill. If something does not go exactly perfectly, it is not a big deal, there will be another episode next week. In a film, it is your own shot, so they really want to get it right, so they take more time with things.

Now, with the advent of independent movies, people making their own movies, and being done for lower budgets, now film is becoming more similar to TV. Now films are being done in 3 or 4 weeks, you can get it all done quickly because people now know how to cut corners and move quickly in film. The size of the actual work, it is not that much different.

On a TV show, you are walking into something already established. If you are in a small part in a movie, and they have been working for 6 weeks before you get there, it is the same thing. TV shows are great, they re-run. They just move fast, the fastest is Soap Operas when I did that. When I did Lost, they were crunched for time and I was the last shot of the day, someone basically told me, “You have to nail this, otherwise you are going to screw up everyone’s work day tomorrow (laughs).” Ok, no pressure there, on the hottest show on television.

Now it is not as different, you just have to be flexible and go with the flow wherever you are. If you have a lot of lines and you can let stuff breath, then you do. When I worked with Clint Eastwood it moved like TV, he hired me for two days, but he shot everything I needed in one. He moves so quickly and smoothly. The only real difference now is if you do live television, three camera television, they are not as frequent as they used to be. That is the main difference to me. – Right, so it all is about time and the time you are given to work on a given project. 

Sean Whalen – In the three camera sitcom, it is way different. It is big and broad. It is not done too often anymore, there are not many of them. – Yes, they are not too common anymore. There is actually a film set for release in 2017 entitled Death House where you are part of an all-star cast including Sid Haig, Dee Wallace, Adrienne Barbeau, and Tony Todd, among many others. What can you tell us about this project?

Sean Whalen – It is almost like Jurassic Park set in a mental hospital with serial killers. Beyond that, I cannot tell you too much because we are pretty much sworn to secrecy. I can tell you I play Satan, but I cannot really expand on what that means (laughs). To be a part of that group is a blessing, you don’t always get these opportunities. It is very anticipated, one of the top anticipated Horror movies of the next year. I am very excited to be a part of it. I think it is going to be really fun for the fans to see all their favorites in one movie.

I also have another movie from David Labrava, who played Happy on Sons of Anarchy. He wrote and directed a film called Street Level. It is probably my best dramatic work I have ever done because I had one of my closests friends coach me. He just cut through my bag of tricks he has known for years. I play a serial killer, running into and meeting up with my old serial killer partner. That is our part of the movie, the other parts are about the streets of LA and the ravages of drug use. It has Marilyn Manson and Drea de Matteo, it has a great cast. 

Junkie Films
Junkie Films
Entertainment Factory – Very cool. It sounds very interesting. My last question is pertaining to movies. On we cover a broad range of music as well as, you guessed it, Horror movies. What are some of your personal favorites?

Sean Whalen – I think hands down is always The Exorcist (1973). It is the scariest thing I have ever seen, it still scares me. My favorite Horror probably of all-time is Sleepaway Camp. I just love it, it is just a cult classic. I was one of the few people in the theaters, not many had seen it in the theater. That is how I met Felissa to be honest, through that movie. I don’t really seek out Horror movies.

The Horror movies that don’t scare me are the ones with guys with knives, like Friday the 13th (1980). Things like The Conjuring (2013), even Paranormal Activity (2007), things that we can’t control, when it is the other world that is after us and angry at us, that freaks me out. I am a control person and that is a sense of feeling out of control because you have no control of this demon coming to get you. Before I go, I wanted to say I have Roach t-shirts, DVDS/Blu-ray, and photos, and anyone who mentions this interview on will get 10 dollars off any purchase.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

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