AN INTERVIEW WITH GREG TRAVIS (PART 1 OF 2)

Greg Travis has had a wide and varied career. Starting off with an interest in magic, he then became a successful stand-up comedian. After that he decided to forge a career as an actor, appearing in such high profile films as SHOWGIRLS (1995), STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997), LOST HIGHWAY (1997), POODLE SPRINGS (1998), MAN ON THE MOON (1999), HALLOWEEN II (2009) and WATCHMEN (2009). Greg also developed his directing skills, working on various short films and videos, and writing and directing the films DARK SEDUCTION (filmed in 1984, released 2015), NIGHTCREEP (2003) and MIDLIFE (2015). In part one of our interview, we talk about his early years, his time as a stand-up comedian, and acting in some of the high-profile films he has appeared in.

Part two can be read here.

Your started your career as a magician. Can you talk about how that began? 
When I was 11, I got a magic kit for Christmas from my parents. I started doing magic shows for my friends and people in the neighborhood. That led to doing birthday parties. I became fascinated by Houdini and magic in general. I've got all these pictures of me in the tails, tux and the top hat doing magic for all the kiddies. That led me to get interested in filmmaking at an early age and I segued from that into making movies.

 How did you start making movies? 
I made little short films on my Super 8. They were very light parodies. I did one called Hippy Jack, which was a parody of BILLY JACK (1971). I did another one that was quite ambitious called Young Dracula, which was a parody of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). This was my Junior year in High School. In my Senior year in High School I made a feature-length film called Joe Dynamite. They had come out with the sound stripe on the film, so now I could actually shoot with sound. It worked pretty well. You had to be real careful editing it because you didn't want to clip the sound too bad. I showed it over three nights at my high school and I turned a profit. I thought ''Wow, this is great. I can do this!'' And then I came out to Hollywood and I realised you needed a million dollars to make a movie! 

What brought you to Hollywood? 
I came out to go to film school. I went to film school at a place called Sherwood Oaks Exprimental College for about a year and a half. I started doing stand-up while I was there at the Comedy Store and the Improv, just on audition night. About six months into that I got a shot on a TV show and that sort of launched my stand-up career. I started doing more work at the Comedy Store and the Improv, and after I finished up at film school, I kind of just fell into the stand-up world right away. I had already gotten a few TV shows, and William Morris signed me right out of the gate. I was only 19 or 20 years old. It was all happening really quickly, and comedy was just taking off then with people like Richard Pryor and Steve Martin. I pursued this career for about eighteen years, and I did it all over the world.

You've been acclaimed for having chameleon-like abilities as a comedian. Where did this skill come from? 
I was always the class clown, pushing the envelope with the teachers and cutting up. When you get laughs, it's like a drug, you know. When you get laughs, you just want to get more and more. I fell in love with all the attention and getting the laughs. It became part of wanting to be an entertainer but also part of my physical being. I saw the world in an absurd and silly way, so everything was always funny. 

What were some of the highlights for you working as a comedian? 
When I got to a certain point in my career where my abilities were pretty well-honed and I really knew what I was doing, I felt like I could pretty much hold my own in any kind of performance situation. I could get it over to any audience and I was proud of that ability. I developed an act that could work mostly everywhere. I was doing The Punk Magician, which was assaultive and dirty, but I did it for military brass, religious groups, and Christmas parties, and they all went nuts for it. 

Do you think it's easy for comedians to become effective dramatic actors? 
I don't know. It's very hard to cross over. Once you've established yourself as a comedian, it's very hard to buy someone like Steve Martin or Jerry Lewis in a serious part. Jerry Lewis can play a talk show host in THE KING OF COMEDY (1983) and people will buy that hook, line, and sinker but if he was playing a mortician and had to be super serious in a movie like THE GODFATHER (1972), it wouldn't work. It would take you out of the movie. A lot of comedians want to do dramatic work later on but it's hard to break their image. Some comedians can do it. Louis CK can do it because he's not a cartoony kind of comedian and his act is more human and from the heart. He was good in the Woody Allen film BLUE JASMINE (2013), as was Andrew Dice Clay. But it's difficult for someone like Peewee Herman, for example. 

Do you believe comedy comes from a serious place? 
It comes from a little bit of a serious place, but it's also about seeing the absurdity in life, as well as the insanity of it. Seeing people who take themselves way too seriously is part of it too, and having the ability to spot that and make fun of it. Having a sense of humour and having the ability to laugh at oneself and other people is a sign of sanity and functionality I think. When you're egotistical and too serious that causes a lot of stress and anxiety than if you can laugh off things.

How did returning to acting and filmmaking come about? 
I had always intended to be an actor. Learning about filmmaking and about how to be a comedian was all part of my plan to be a good actor. At one point I decided that I was going to either put up or shut up, so I got off the road and tried to get my acting career going. I was lucky enough to get a couple of big breaks in some big films. I had a good ten or twelve year run. 

How was working on SHOWGIRLS with Paul Verhoeven? 
That was great. I remember watching Paul Verhoeven lick whipped cream of Elizabeth Berekeley's breasts one time as we were sitting there ready to do a scene. He had spilled the whipped cream off his coffee on her. Paul was really wonderful to work with. He's a master, and so creative. He was lots of fun, and he kept a very fast pace. He was very open to new ideas, and once he trusts you he encourages you to come up with things yourself. That makes it more fun for the actor. 

How about STARSHIP TROOPERS, also with Verhoeven? 
On that movie they had me tied to the jaws of a giant bug. I was bolted in, and the bug was on a rotating robot mechanism. At one point, the guy wasn't paying attention and the jaws literally started to clamp down on me and crush me, so I had to yell out. At another point they were going too close to the rocks that were sticking up out of the ground and they almost swiped my head on the rocks. They had to stop and dig me out. Nobody told me what was going on, and then at the cast party, one of the special effects guys told me ''Yeah, man. We almost killed you on that thing!'' It was a very dangerous movie we were making. A lot of guys got hurt. 

You got to work with David Lynch on LOST HIGHWAY. 
The scene where Robert Loggia is bringing a gun across my face and beating me up with it, and bouncing me off the concrete was pretty wild! David Lynch was yelling at the top of his lungs ''Robert, I can't hear you. You've got to be crazy with anger.'' By the end of the day, Robert Loggia was just exhausted after hours of screaming and yelling in my face and beating me up. It was really amazing. 

What was David like to work with? 
He's a real nice guy. So imaginative. He's another master. He really took his time. I was there for two or three days doing the car sequence. 

Did you enjoy working with Jim Carrey on MAN ON THE MOON? 
It was fun working with Jim. I had known him since he started out at the Improv. I thought he did a fantastic job as Andy Kaufman. He really nailed it. Milos Forman was a really interesting guy. He gave a lot of very good direction. Danny de Vito was wonderful to work with.

Was working on POODLE SPRINGS with Bob Rafelson a good experience? 
It was so cool to work with him. I came in to meet with him about that role and I had seen a little-known documentary of his about Jack Nicholson doing a love scene with Anjelica Huston in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981), so I spoke to him about that. I think I got the part because he was impressed that I had seen it! I tried to send him a copy of the film I directed, MIDLIFE, but he's retired and not living in Los Angeles anymore. 

What was the most memorable aspect of working on Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN II (2009)? 
When Rob liked a shot, he would get excited and put his hand up to the monitor screen with the devil horn fingers sign, heavy metal style, and he would say ''Now that shit is rock n' roll!''
 
How did you get to play Andy Warhol in WATCHMEN? 
I had met Andy Warhol a couple of times in New York and I did him in a play and a Saturday Night Live film called Andy Warhol's 15 Second Workout. For some reason I have always been able to do a really good Andy Warhol impression so when I heard about WATCHMEN I got my agents to get me in there. I shot more dialogue than they used. They cut it down to the bare minimum, but at least I made it into the film. 

I spoke to Greg by phone on 21st January 2014, and corresponded by email during January 2015. I would like to thank him for his time.   

All photographs are the property of Greg Travis and cannot be reproduced without his permission.

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.