Press > Exclusive
Interviews > Joel Bennett (Gypsy #4: Escape From New York)
How did you end up being an actor?
lived from birth
until ten in Appalachia - near the western foothills of the great Smokey
Mountains. My "Gomer Pyle" accent was thick as cold molasses. Moving to the Midwest was a
shock. I had to fix my pronunciation to the horrid and flat sounds heard in the
wonderful Coen Brother's movie Fargo.
I had to adapt as soon as possible or face the
taunts and physical abuse of neighborhood bullies. This was a tough blue collar
area of North St. Louis County about a mile and a half from the notorious
I guess that was a forced lesson,
but it got me interested in pretending to be someone I was not. My
fascination with accents, but mostly my desire to fit in, led me to being a
comical extrovert and that led to high school acting.
I did high school and college plays and got hired
professionally by the seminal Theatre Project Company at 23. I did non-union
roles and local TV and radio and at 24 got cast in Escape From New York.
The first college I
attended had a vicious instructor who reviewed my 18 year old attempt in a scene
from The Lion in Winter by telling me in front of the class that her
kindest advice was to quit acting. She was fired that year and I attended
another school with classmates like John Goodman, Kathleen Turner and other
How did you get cast
as Gypsy #4 in Escape From New York?
I had an agent as I was
working a lot in professional theatre and in St. Louis I rehearsed both Gypsy
parts in the scene. When I got called in to read, it was just a small room with
long haired and a very calm yet powerfully intense John Carpenter. He looked at
me the way a few other creative geniuses have looked at me. Completely taking
what I brought into the little room in a calm focused and positive manner. Most
actors don't account for this, but casting people really really want you to
succeed. Then they can go home for the day. To calm myself, I remembered what
local acting legend Bobby Miller told me. Picture them in their underwear... it
is much less intimidating. I read the scene, taking extra time for the death
shot and slumped down in submission to Snake Plissken's prowess. Mr. Carpenter
was happy and shook my hand. I got a call from my agent a week later and the
I got a call the afternoon of my
25th birthday to be on the set the next several days as John Carpenter wisely
used me as a double, an extra and a few small roles without lines. I missed my
birthday party but WHO CARED?
How did you prepare for the role and how was the experience filming your scenes?
I arrived at the set - the old Chain
of Rocks Bridge where my high school graduation party had ended 8 years before.
I learned that August 20 was also Isaac Hayes' (The Duke) birthday and he generously gave
me a slice of his birthday cake. That night I was one of the cops on top of the
wall that are trying to help Snake back to safety at the end. It was my first
experience with razor wire and got a nice little cut on my finger.
The following two nights I doubled for the extraordinary Frank Doubleday
(Romero) - no pun intended. Night one was simple exterior shot of the Duke's
pimpmobile pulling up to Brain's library lair. That car was... memorable... to
ride in. I merely wore a similar wig and was at most a silhouette as we were
shot from a distance. That night I got a treat, as Carpenter wisely gave me as
much experience as I could get before my "big" scene. I stood directly behind
the camera operator as Mr. Carpenter explained the shot where Cabbie and Snake
make their separate arrival to the lair. He explained where he wanted Mr.
Borgnine (Ernest) (Cabbie) to park the cab, where he was to say his first line and that he was to
finish his last line just as he passed the camera. Mr. Russell and Mr. Borgnine
got into the cab as the crew sprayed the street with water and drove around the
block just out of sight waiting to hear "Action" via a radio. I watched in the
awe of youth as Mr. Borgnine parked perfectly, said his first line perfectly and
finished his last line EXACTLY as he passed the camera. As he passed the camera
"Cut! Print!" was announced and he noticed me wide-eyed a few steps behind the
camera and gave me a big wink, as if to say, "THAT's how ya do it, Kid!"
The following night I was a stand-in
actually for Mr. Doubleday. It was a scene at Union Train Station where the
Theatre Project Company was located - another coincidence as much of the movie
took place there as the then almost abandoned and enormous building "doubled"
for an abandoned Grand Central Station in an awful future time. Stand-ins
literally assume the position of the actual actors or "first team" as they are
sometimes called, while the tedious process of getting the lighting just right
is performed. I was astonished when they had me leaning against a statue with
its hand on my face - one of the many bold, bizarre, and wonderful choices Mr.
Doubleday made. When the lights were right, the stand-ins left and the first
team came back from their "break" to shoot the scene.
I was in several crowd scenes and
saw Ox Baker (Slag) accidentally bash Kurt Russell with his bat. The bats are rubber
but he caught him pretty hard and there was a brief time out as Snake got his
composure back. Kurt Russell had been 100% professional since childhood and I am
sure he was pissed at the pro wrestler's disregard for combat acting.
One other thing. I always felt kinda
sorry for the stupendously sexy Adrienne Barbeau (Maggie). She was almost ALWAYS the ONLY
woman on set and her outfit brought about continued and helpless stares. She was
a pro as well and could kill anyone's too lustful ideas with a single ice-cold
I got all the
"extra" work because John Carpenter knew it was a big scene and that, although I
had maybe ten professional theatre gigs and a few local TV commercials... I had
a lot to learn and needed to get used to the process of making a major motion
picture. BTW (By the Way), only on the day of my big scene did I receive SAG
(Screen Actors Guild) scale - which
was 330 dollars for "under fives" in those days. All of the other days I got the
same 40 bucks cash that the other extras got. Hell, I would have done it for
free. That day, I got permission for my best friend to visit the set. His name
was Lance Cleveland and he died of liver cancer three and a half years ago.
Permission was granted by relatively new producers Debra Hill and Larry Franco.
They were both as gracious as could be. Ms. Hill doled out all the extra pay
every dawn and Mr. Franco made a point of speaking to Lance and making him feel
welcome. Lance got to meet Donald Pleasence (The President) and Kurt Russell, who were
professional and courteous. So much happened in that one night it is hard to
remember it all.
The first shot was easy as I worked the hacksaw blade and delivered my first
line. The second shot was from behind Mr. Pleasence's back as Snake snuck in to
break my fellow Gypsy's neck and I was told not to say my second line, "What are
you lookin' at?" until Carpenter cued me from behind the camera, which was maybe
8 feet behind Mr. Pleasance. I heard the direction clearly, but when Mr.
Pleasance's eyes grew wide (invisible on this shot) I reacted and said my line.
"Cut!!" was called and I was gently reminded that even though I was watching the
President as I used my hacksaw on his mysterious undoubtedly valuable briefcase
- I was to wait for Mr. Carpenter's cue. "Action!" was called. I did it again.
"Cut!!!" was shouted and I was not so gently reminded again. Carpenter hated to
do three takes and God forbid you needed any more. Third time was a a charm and
I rose and turned, dropped the hacksaw and got off a hurried left headed shot
with my crossbow.
You would have laughed to see the actual crossbow shot - it went about all of
six feet. Not to worry, it was planned that way as they edited just as soon as
the trigger was pulled and the bolt began to "fly". There followed a setup where
a thin fishing line was run from the Snake's leg (actually a thin piece of
styrofoam inside his pants leg) and run all the way past my hip to an effects
guy behind me. He had a half-arrow, hollowed out to slide along the line, pulled
back with a damn slingshot. The camera was placed just behind my knee so when
"Action!" was called, the angle looked real as the slingshot whipped the hollow
half-arrow into the styrofoam in Snake's pants leg and STUCK. Then, stud that he
was (and Still IS) the wounded Plissken hurled a ninja star into my forehead...
kinda. When we first met earlier that night, Kurt carefully explained that he
was trained and had practiced diligently and would miss me by a good three feet.
He was as good as his word and the actual star hit a big plywood target just
about where he said it would. Since the shot was from behind my knee, you only
saw him let fly at an angle that suggested it would strike me up high.
Then there was a break where I marched over to make-up and they glued a silver
painted piece of balsa wood that had been cut in half - into the middle of my
forehead. Putty and a few other tricks were also applied. Now I walk back to the
set with the ninja star stuck in my head feeling very strange. Back in the
railroad car the effects guy ran a small hose under the back of my shirt and hid
that end in my bushy dirty hair, about two inches above my forehead. The other
end of the hose ran to something like a large enema bag completely filled with
stage blood. On "Action!" I flipped my head back as if receiving the blow and
started to "die"... "Cut! Where's the blood?" asked Carpenter. The effects guy
said my hair was thicker than he thought so we went for take two. Same problem.
Again, third time was a charm and as soon as I flipped my head back, the blood
began to flow and I "died", taking my time as Carpenter advised and, since it
was my only close-up... it worked out well for me. I used to joke with fellow
actors that if you REALLY watch me... I go through all five stages of death...
ha ha. One regret is, the close-up was deemed gory enough to be cut whenever it
was shown on non-premium cable. Oh, well.
How was the experience working with the cast and crew and what went on behind
Kurt Russell was a great guy, had dumbbells
just out of sight so he could pump his Plissken guns when he felt the need. He
was "tryin' to quit" but he owes me about half a pack of Marlboro reds. If you
run into him, tell him they were my treat.
What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the movie?
My favorite moment was that magical,
knowing "wink" from the enormously talented Ernest Borgnine. Shooting the big
scene is a close second.
What do you think of the movie personally?
I liked the movie. The story was great and
the casting was phenomenal. I think I got around fourteenth credit as Gypsy #4,
but, Jesus - the first 8 or so names were Oscar and Emmy winners or nominees. I
am glad that it is still popular and still occasionally remind folks that I am
the only character who seriously hurt Snake Plissken. How the Duke missed him
with his Uzi I will never know.
What are you currently doing and
what do you enjoy
doing in your spare time?
I found myself unemployed last month
after five great years with a poorly run company. I performed well but
downsizing from fifteen to two locations was too much. I outlasted almost
I am seriously seeing this is as an opportunity to pursue acting professionally
again. The crazy highs and lows are both unhealthy unless you have "The soul of
a rose and the hide of a rhinoceros."
I got talked into doing a union waiver show a few years ago and I wound up
co-starring in a scandalously hilarious political operetta called The Beastly
Bombing. We won LA Weekly's MUSICAL OF THE YEAR and got to perform it two
weeks OFF-BROADWAY in Manhattan.
We will see...
For the past several years, I have
satisfied my creative itch by sitting in with local bands who know me. I usually
sit in with bands around my age and do old-school country - Hank Sr., Cash, Buck
and classic rock. The crowds know me and demand White Lightning by George
Jones and Crocodile Rock, from Elton John.
Last summer I finally decided I wanted to do my own thing. The part
owner/musical genius Cody Bryant runs the shows at Viva Fresh Cantina in
Burbank. It was voted BEST PLACE TO HEAR LIVE MUSIC, by the LA Weekly. Being old
and wise enough not to argue with a guy like Cody, I heeded his advice and found
my sound and style AND repertoire with only a solo acoustic guitar. It was quite
the learning curve as I insist on the finest local players and they get late
calls for tours and huge paying gigs. As Cody explained, "Finding good sidemen
at the last minute is a valuable skill."
After a few months, I got promoted to a later slot and finally got paid enough
to hire a top guitarist AND bass and... break even. Last gig I raked in over a
hundred in tips, so... I am seeing bigger and better gigs. Paying my own band, I
get to do fantastic and unheard new "Americana" songs by geniuses like Ryan (not
Bryan) Adams, Jason Isbell, Guy Clark and the late great Townes Van Zandt. We
also KILL with our duet of harmonies in The Sound of Silence.
My next gig is in two weeks and I have a decent amount of hardcore fans. I sing
soul music that tells deep stories and I do my best to go there. The rest is
I have a successful wife and two fine sons and a very cute home in Encino.
Thank you for your time, Joel.