Gavin Schmitt Interviews Ted Raimi
Usually the opening paragraphs are where I explain who a subject is. But in the case of Ted Raimi, this seems completely unnecessary. Any horror fan will know he was part of that group from Michigan, including Bruce Campbell and his brother Sam Raimi, who made it big with ‘The Evil Dead’ (affiliate link) and never stopped. Bruce Campbell is a legend, Sam Raimi is directing some of the biggest Hollywood films , and Ted is no slouch — his distinct look and voice have had him appearing in just about every horror franchise out there, as well as countless other projects. He also happens to be incredibly funny and an expert showman.
Ted was kind enough to chat for a while on June 21, 2017 about various projects over the years, as well as his latest (‘Darkness Rising’ (affiliate link)) and a very early sneak peak at his feature film directorial debut, “The Seventh Floor”. (I have also incorporated a few questions / answers from a Flashback Weekend Q&A I attended in order to give a fuller context.)
GS: The first thing people will notice when they meet you is that you’re an incredible dresser. You always wear a suit.
TR: That’s very nice of you. Yes, it’s true.
GS: So what do you wear on a day off, when you don’t feel like going out?
TR: A tuxedo. (laughs) Actually, I collect vintage clothing and I always have. This started in high school and now I probably have 150 different suits that I’ve bought at resale shops since I was a kid. I just like to wear them. One of my brothers once told me that I’m the only guy who would put on a tie to go to 7-11. And he’s probably right.
Q: You knew Bruce Campbell before he was Bruce Campbell. What was it like being kids together?
TR: Bruce was just my older brother’s pal. So Bruce would come over to our house all the time just to hang out with Sam. When I met Bruce, he was 18. He’d come over to our house a lot, and always managed to come over around dinner time so he would eat dinner at our house a lot. Eventually, my dad got mad about that. He wanted to know why Bruce was always coming over for dinner but Sam never went to the Campbell house for dinner. And the reason is simple: my dad made really great steaks like every night. So my dad made a bargain with Bruce, and said if we was going to keep eating those steaks, he had to work for them. He had to bring me, my dad’s youngest son, to acting and cello lessons. So I got to know Bruce as my chauffeur, I guess. And I still play cello to this day.
Q: You also worked with Liam Neeson before he was Liam Neeson on “Darkman” (1990).
TR: Yeah, Liam was great. He’s a Shakespearean-trained actor, though I don’t think he went to the RSA. You know, those fancy-pants la-de-da actors. But he was great and he’s sort of enigmatic like he belongs in a classic western. There is one sticking point, though, and if you can say anything bad about his acting, it is that he has never quite learned the American accent. He didn’t have it then and he still doesn’t have it today. So he might be playing a Chicago guy, but his accent gives him away. Anyway, the scene we had together in “Darkman” has him holding me up out of a manhole cover. The dialogue is supposed to be very emotional, with me saying, “I told you everything I know!” His line is supposed to be, “I know you did, but let’s pretend you didn’t.” And we had to do it over and over because he sounded like the Lucky Charms guy.
GS: In your long list of credits, one of these things is not like the other. You did an episode of “Baywatch” (1992).
TR: That was so long ago. It was one of my first jobs. Nothing unusual. I just came in and read for the part. If I recall correctly, the director (Gus Trikonis) had seen me in a play. This is the classic, traditional way it happens. You start out doing a lot of theater and then transition into TV and movies and other stuff.
Q: Broad question: any recollections of “Skinner” (1993)?
TR: That piece of shit? What can I tell you? I was living in a crappy apartment and I needed to pay the $90 rent. It was fine. It was just one of a myriad of “Silence of the Lambs” rip-offs. I don’t know why “Skinner” has cult status. It shouldn’t. It’s crap. The movie has a weird staying power, and I guess it’s better than I think it is, because people do bring a lot of “Skinner” stuff to me for me to sign. The best part of the shoot was that I got to be friends with Ricki Lake on that film and she’s a pretty cool girl. Traci Lords was awesome, too. They were both really into it, which is a good thing.
But it’s a strange movie with an awesomely sordid history. The director was Ivan Nagy, boyfriend to “Hollywood madam” Heidi Fleiss. After she was busted in one of the largest prostitution stings in American history, it was alleged that Nagy had been her pimp. It’s true. So, in the movie, I’m a serial killer who kills prostitutes and skins them. It’s a movie that should not exist and should not be discussed and yet here we are. At the time, I couldn’t understand how they were able to get dozens and dozens of extras to dress up as hookers. It’s usually pretty hard to find one or two. After everything was done filming and I thought about it a little bit, I was like, “Oh! I get it now. That happened.”
GS: On the flip side, is there a film that you think is really good but never quite found a home with fans?
TR: Yeah, actually there is one. I did one called “Stuart Saves His Family” (1995), considered one of the biggest bombs of all time. Literally one of the worst-grossing movies I’ve ever made, at least from a major studio. It really did belly-flop. But I thought it was very, very good. I really did. It was just a silly “Saturday Night Live” skit brought to the silver screen. Harold Ramis directed it and I thought he did a great job with it. It’s easy to forget that it was a “Saturday Night Live” skit, and you’d think people would be more forgiving of that. My guess is people, the critics, just saw it as the producers trying to make a quick buck and slammed it under that assumption. But it’s quite good, actually.
Q: When your character debuted on “Xena” (1996), did he just sort of take off with fans?
TR: No, it didn’t happen that way. They almost fired me. When the show started out, it was supposed to be female-centric only. It was appealing to people who wanted to see strong, female characters. Along comes the comic relief guy… but the show wasn’t a comedy. Despite this, I’m doing huge, broad, goofy shit. At this time, e-mail has just sort of started becoming a thing. There’s no text or instant message, but e-mail is around. People were e-mailing the producers at Renaissance and USA Network and the messages were all the same: “Get that imbecile out of my girl show.” Hundreds and hundreds of these e-mails came in, and the producers were furious.
Well, in an attempt to avoid any bloodshed, I went to one of the producers who was a long-time friend, Rob Tapert. He’s my buddy, and I said, “Let’s still be pals. If you have to fire me, go ahead, I get it. I don’t want to ruin your show.” There was a big long pause. Then Rob said, “Uhhhhh… I think you’re funny. And that’s all I care about.” Essentially, he just told me he didn’t care what the fans thought, which I thought was pretty bold for a producer to say. Especially such an expensive show. After about a year, things starting working out. But at that time, I never got a death threat but I got everything else. So I was hanging by the skin of my teeth.
Q (sarcastic): So, how’d you get the part in “Ash vs. Evil Dead”?
TR: Well, as you might know, I’m in all three of the original movies. In “Army of Darkness” (affiliate link), I play four different parts. It’s crazy. Basically, the reason is because I work cheap. I really do. And I like working with Bruce Campbell so much that I agreed to do four parts for the price of one. I’m not even sure if the Screen Actors Guild allows that anymore, but in those days it did. In “Evil Dead 2” (affiliate link), I played two parts. And keeping with that tradition, in “Ash vs. Evil Dead” (affiliate link), I play multiple parts again. So you’ll see me in several different parts, but if you can spot them all, you probably need a hobby.
Q: “Ash” has you back in New Zealand, which is where “Hercules” and “Xena” were shot…
TR: Yes, but it was a much different working environment when we had “Xena”. Back years and years ago, we shot on film. There was actually such a thing as film, and it was rolled in the camera, and all that stuff. Today it’s digital. And it was a much more insulated thing. “Xena” was the most popular syndicated show during those years, but it actually never played in New Zealand. So while I was there, I was seen as the weird, ugly American and not a TV star. Which is fine. My buddies in LA are getting nice tables at restaurants, but that didn’t happen for me. Also, it was pre-Internet.
New Zealand has “tea time” around four o’clock, but nobody there drinks tea. It’s just more snacks that come out. On Hollywood productions, we have craft services, which is an awesome bunch of crap all day long. Mars bars all day long. Good stuff. New Zealand doesn’t have that… they don’t have it at all.
Let’s backtrack a bit about the film and digital thing. They’re different, but really they’re identical. And if you go back 70 or 80 years, you’ll find that films back them were still made the same way. So little has changed. The cameras were Mitchell cameras, the lights were arc lights rather than incandescent, but they still have studios. There are still assistant directors, script supervisors and so on. All the same. The producer is still biting his fingernails off in the corner, yelling at the director because he’s wasting time.
GS: As of 2017, you’ve been able to lend your distinct voice to “Buddy Thunderstruck” on Netflix where you play a ferret.
TR: I am the voice of Darnell on “Buddy Thunderstruck”, who is a white ferret. It’s about farm animals in the south who race trucks. Which is hilarious. Most of the characters are supposed to be from the south, but Darnell is a transplant from Detroit, Michigan, much like myself. It’s a lot of fun, and it was nice to do something positive and geared towards kids. I like that.
GS: If I’m not mistaken, it’s from the same creators as “Robot Chicken”.
TR: Yeah, that’s right. It’s Seth Green’s company, Stoopid Monkey, through their Stoopid Buddy Stoodios division. Everything is shot stop-motion, like “Robot Chicken”. And one of the cool things is that it’s all done in-house. As you might know, most cartoons these days are outsourced to India or China, but “Buddy” is all done right here in Burbank, California. So it’s old-fashioned in the sense that it’s animated not far from the same place that Walt Disney hand-drew his cartoon creations.
GS: Having seen “Darkness Rising” (2017), I’m under the impression that the film was mostly done and you came on towards the end of the shoot. Would that be accurate?
TR: Yeah, I think so. My role really amounts to little more than a cameo, and it was very last minute. We shot it here in L.A. all in one day, and if I’m not mistaken it bookends the film, with me being at the top and bottom. Without giving anything away. But it was fun, a nice period piece. Mostly I wanted to work with Austin Reading, who is a friend of mine and a good director, too. I’m really looking forward to seeing the thing finally. It’s going to be a good, spooky picture. And actually, I have an indirect connection with star Katrina Law, too. She was on “Spartacus: War of the Damned”, which was produced by my buddy Rob Tapert. So it’s a small world.
GS: In this case, you did “Darkness Rising” because you knew Austin Reading. But assuming you get 100 scripts sent to you every year, how do you decide what to do?
TR: That’s a good question. First of all, you have to be fully funded. That’s number one. I won’t even bother looking at a script unless you have the money to make it. That shows me that a filmmaker who wants to make their movie is ready and responsible and motivated. A million people have a script, but very few of them go beyond that point. Most of them just don’t. Sometimes they might try to get a name attached in order to help raise the money, but I have to really, really believe in something if you don’t have the money. It’s pretty rare, and that criteria cuts out about 95% of the scripts that I receive.
In the case of “Darkness Rising” (affiliate link), another thing that drew me to it was that it was a horror picture. I haven’t actually done a horror picture in quite some time. Fans mostly know me for horror, so it’s nice to meet people’s expectations as well as surprise them.
GS: I’d definitely agree you’re mostly known for what we call “genre” films. Do you ever long for a romantic comedy?
TR: (laughs heartily) It’s a funny question. Yes, I do. I do. I like them. Many, many years ago, one of the first features I ever did was called “Lunatics: A Love Story” (1991). A little, indie romantic comedy. It’s a strange little film with a shoestring budget, but somehow it still has resonance to this day. Fans still bring their damn VHS copies to my table for me to sign. I’m always blown away that people remember this movie. But it has a resonance with fans, and oddly enough they’ve never released the film on DVD. If you look on eBay, VHS copies of this movie will sell for over $100. It’s insane. It’s a weird little cult film. I tend to gravitate towards horror and thrillers more, but I don’t know. Honestly, I used to think that when I got older I’d want to do more sweet and life-affirming movies, but just the opposite has happened. (laughs) I don’t know why.
GS: Looking ahead to the future… at Flashback Weekend in August 2016, you told the crowd that you were writing and directing a thriller. Are there any updates on that project?
TR: The film you’re referring to has been temporarily shelved. But there is a new one currently in pre-production called “The Seventh Floor”. It was written by this guy named Noel Orwood (sp?). I never thought that my first feature as a director would be something I didn’t write, but his script is so alluring that I agreed to do it. We’re in pre-production and working with Veva Entertainment. We’re in the very early stages, but I’m hoping that we’ll be rolling cameras on a sound stage in about three or four months. I guess we’ll find out. But last year’s project is shelved and this is the new one.
GS: We’ll be eagerly looking forward to it.
TR: Oh, thank you. Great questions. We’ll talk soon, my friend.
GS: Thanks, Ted.