Press > Escape From L.A. > Exclusive Interviews > John Sencio (Extra)




How did you end up being a TV producer, director, host and actor?

Like most American kids growing up in suburbia, I was fascinated with pop-culture: Rock & Roll, movies, TV, radio, and comic books. As I got older I realized it was the content that grabbed me: Mad Max, Led Zeppelin, The Twilight Zone, Batman, you name it. I couldn't just "stare at a TV" it had to be compelling.

I remember on a road trip from Boston to Florida listening to the radio for hours on end — Shock Jocks to Fire & Brimstone Pastors - love it or hate it I couldn’t turn it off.

In junior high school my father introduced me to the idea that it was the director & producer (along with the writer & "talent") who brought the media to life. It wasn't just De Niro - it was Scorsese.

My dad bought me a big VHS camcorder and I started shooting music videos of our band, movies, and wrestling matches. It was absolutely crazy - my brother & I almost destroyed my parent's basement.

"Pro-Wrestling" video, High School.

In high school I became obsessed with the David Letterman show. It was a bonkers addiction (but safer than others). I was late virtually everyday my senior year because I stayed up so late watching his show. I remember thinking - I can do that.

When it was time for college my parents sat me down and said (I'm paraphrasing): trust us, you should not be a scientist - you should go to film school. I chose Emerson College in my hometown of Boston. I studied TV, Radio, and Film - all aspects, of each discipline. It was great.

John Sencio co-hosting his college talk show.

So how did I become a "professional" producer, director, host, and sometime actor? It was the accumulation of all those experiences… and luck. I put myself out there and thankfully I got responses. I've been fortunate enough to occasionally make a living doing not only what I actually studied in college (and I use the word "studied" loosely) but also what I'm passionate about.

How did you get cast as "Skinhead in Alley" in Escape From L.A.?

I graduated from college and landed a dream job on MTV. It was an extraordinary twist of fate. I shot a VHS audition tape at my apartment and mailed it to MTV. A few weeks later I got a call that I was being flown to New York for a screen test (which I thought was a prank - seriously, I almost hung up).

Long story short, I got the gig and within a year I was interviewing some of the biggest stars of the 90's: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, John Travolta, Halle Berry, the cast of Friends, and hundreds more.

One day the talent coordinator came in and told me I was going to interview the star of the new movie Stargate: Kurt Russell. I freaked out. Snake Plissken! Escape From New York rocked. I saw it as a kid and it blew my mind.

When Kurt came in for the interview I was ecstatic, peppering him with detailed questions about every aspect of Escape From New York. When you watch that interview you can see Kurt wasn't sure what to make of me at first. I was this longhaired rocker, rattling off Escape From New York factoids, like an over-caffeinated film freak.

Kurt Russell Interviewed by John Sencio, October 1994.

Clearly, at some point in the interview, Kurt realized I was the real deal. Kurt actually said on air, "You are a REAL fan". He went on to reveal that he and the director John Carpenter, were in serious talks about a sequel: Escape From L.A. Then - and this was magic for a fan - he said, "If we actually make it you can be in it."

Wow.

Then Kurt and his team left the MTV studio. I remember thinking that was an excellent interview - but I had no expectation that if Escape From L.A. were made that I would actually get a phone call.

Almost a year later my talent coordinator came to my dressing room and said guess what? Paramount Pictures just called - they've invited you to be a part of Escape From L.A. "When.", I asked? Answer: "This week." I was beyond psyched!

Obviously there was a quid pro quo here that I was excited to be a part of. I would help promote the movie. I'd shoot spots on the set, interviewing Kurt and John Carpenter that would air before the premiere. It was a blast - a little adventure - we had a fantastic time. Those promotional spots look great.

How was the experience filming your scene?

As for my "role" in the movie - well, I was really more of an extra with some additional screen time. We did talk about me having some more lines but all of this was extremely last minute. That said, even the smallest details are taken seriously at that level. That was a big-budget, Paramount Pictures production. We went through my little scene over & over with Kurt and John Carpenter. It was crazy having a stare down with Snake Plissken!



We nailed the scene - at first.



Then he started laughing.



Then I started laughing!

How was the experience working with the cast and crew and what went on behind the scenes? Is it true that each group that was similarly dressed started to hang out together and really got into their characters for instance?

I love being on movie sets. John Carpenter is the consummate professional and Kurt Russell was absolutely tremendous - both men are incredibly talented. I'm not just saying that. As anyone who has ever worked in show business will tell you - there can be a lot of egos and drama. There was nothing but creativity and generosity the few days I was there - it was a great memory.

Discussing the scene with Director John Carpenter.

The cast and crew were also fantastic. Your question "did each group that was similarly dressed start to hang out together" is interesting. I recently watched a behind the scenes documentary on the original Planet of the Apes. That exact dynamic occurred on that set. They showed behind the scenes footage from craft-services (the actors eating lunch) and at one table you had the chimps, at another the apes, and at another the orangutans. Crazy.

I seem to remember some of that dynamic on the Escape From L.A. set… but I was actually assigned to interview everyone while I was there so I had to mingle as much as possible.

How long did it take to film the scene?

More often than not, if you do it right - shooting a movie takes a long time. Escape From L.A. was no exception. "Hurry Up and Wait" is an axiom during production. We shot extremely late at night - around 1 am, and we would wrap at sunrise.

Kurt Russell and John Sencio on the set of Escape From L.A.

At one point, at the end of my time there, just before dawn Kurt looked over at me and said, with a dry sense of humor, "Making movies is not all cocaine and sunglasses". I'd never heard that before. I always remembered that line.

What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the movie?

My favorite memory of working on that movie? Honestly it was the overall experience.

I was born in Boston then grew up outside the city. The idea of Hollywood was magic - especially to a kid in suburban Massachusetts. As a child, watching a movie like Escape From New York was a true "experience". My Dad had (and still has) an extensive record collection - close to 5000 vinyl albums. One of them was the soundtrack to Escape From New York. After we'd watch the movie we'd put on that record and reenact scenes straight from the script. As kids, we took our Escape From New York seriously.

When I graduated from High School I moved back into Boston, then after college I moved to New York for MTV. So, when I was called for Escape From L.A. it was like a brief "Escape From New York" - kind of funny in that sense.

Kurt Russell and John Sencio

The overall adventure of my personal Escape From L.A. experience (in its entirety) is my favorite memory of the movie. To this day, I still have that excitement when I work on something I’m passionate about.

What do you think of the movie personally?

Like many film fans - my range in movie taste is massive. For me it starts with the classics: Citizen Cane, Rebel Without A Cause, The Wizard Of Oz, The Godfather, Blade Runner, To Kill A Mocking Bird, Taxi Driver - it's a long list. I think Escape From New York is a dystopian classic. Depending on the reviewer, the film is described as Action, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, or Post-Apocalyptic. The feel of those movies - Mad Max, Planet of the Apes, The Warriors, Logan's Run, resonates deeply with my psyche… and clearly the collective subconscious of millions of movie fans.

The arch of those stories strikes a deep universal nerve: when the serious crap hits the fan - how does the hero (or anti-hero) survive? That is the journey of Snake Plissken.

John Carpenter and John Sencio

As a director John Carpenter has done some amazing work. Halloween set the template for an entire genre. The Thing is a sci-fi horror masterpiece. The suspense is insane - like the Agatha Christie murder mystery 10 Little Indians.

Then, at the other end of the sci-fi spectrum you have Carpenter's Starman. In comparison it's incredibly understated yet wildly insightful.

If you watch Escape From L.A. closely - it has some biting satire. It reminds me of one of Carpenter's smart cult classics They Live.

What many fans don't realize is that John Carpenter composes the soundtrack to many of his movies - that is some serious talent. I actually have the theme of Escape From New York on my phone.

Kurt Russell Interviewed by John Sencio, Summer 1996.

I want to make another mention of Kurt Russell. I had the pleasure of interviewing him multiple times. Keep in mind - I have interviewed hundreds of celebrities - you can see a large sample on my website (johnsencio.com). Not that this makes me special - I don't deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for interviewing famous people - it just gives my opinion on the subject some veracity. Kurt was easily one of the coolest, most genuine interviews ever - and he just happens to be a movie star.

Kurt Russell Interviewed by John Sencio, Summer 1996.

I've read it's Kurt's iconic status from movies like Escape From New York and The Thing that drew Quentin Tarantino to cast Kurt in Grindhouse.

When an actor is a "star" their craftsmanship is sometimes overlooked. I suspect Quentin is not arguing these characters are Hamlet - but he is recognizing Kurt’s obvious talent. In addition to the iconic roles, Kurt has standout performances in understated films like Silkwood and The Mean Season as well big budget pictures like Tombstone. The trailer for Tarantino's The Hateful Eight looks very promising.

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

What do I enjoy? Number one, far and away my favorite thing in life is my family: my kids, my wife, and my parents.

Professionally I love being creative. Creating and consuming quality media content - music, books, movies, radio, TV, comics. Obviously I've made most of my living generating TV content - either in front of or behind the camera. This past year I've done some rewarding work on talk radio in Los Angeles.

John Sencio on-air at KFI-AM 640 Los Angeles - 2015

As to what I'm doing at this moment, I'm in pre-production on a documentary. What's it about? Not to be a buzz-kill but it's about Cancer Survival. I know… that's not hilarious - especially given much of my work gravitates to comedy. Follow me here, because this topic does have a real Escape From New York connection.

The first time I was diagnosed was in 1995, during my MTV days. I was treated with Chemotherapy and Radiation - it was challenging. In fact, months later, just as my hair was growing back, I did Escape From L.A. - as a Skin Head no less, ironic. In fact some people have seen photos from Escape From L.A. and have mistakenly (but understandably) thought those images were from my treatment.

John Sencio in Escape From L.A.

Back then I never publically mentioned my health. That was then. 17 years later, in 2012, now with a wife and children, I was diagnosed with an entirely different and deadlier form of cancer. This time I thought - I want to do something positive with this experience.

Both times I searched for a documentary that followed an actual patient who beat the disease. Seemed natural for a movie fan. Nothing complex: person gets cancer, person beats cancer, see the gritty journey - gain valuable insight, be inspired. I thought this would be a valuable weapon for survival. I couldn't find what I was looking so I’m making it - a documentary by a patient for patients called Thryvor.

Long story short, the 2012/2013 battle was hardcore, a far more challenging fight then 1995. The good news is I survived. I'm healthy.

So here's the Escape From New York connection! One of the ancillary side effects of treatment is PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One of the techniques we used in dealing with trauma is Movie Therapy. I would go into a session and recount my reactions to movies I watched during recovery: V for Vendetta, Marathon Man, Watchmen, The Tree Of Life, Lone Survivor, Into the Wild. A pattern emerges through this - recognition of what's lurking below the surface of the psyche, then a purging.

I came into one session and mentioned that Escape From New York popped up in a dream. It only took a few minutes to figure out the connection in my subconscious.

In Escape from New York, Snake Plissken is hesitant to accept the mission to rescue the President from the massive prison of New York City. Remember - Snake is an outlaw. However, Snake finally accepts the assignment - reluctantly. In preparation for the mission, Snake is injected with what he is told is a vaccine. Well, it turns out the government, as an insurance policy, has injected an explosive into Snakes neck! It has a 24-hour countdown to ensure that Snake actually rescues the President.

Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken having an explosive injected into his neck.

Here's the kicker, I had an explosive in my neck: stage-4 cancer. If you see the photos after my surgery I had a massive incision that starts behind my left ear and wraps downward to the center of my throat.

John Sencio, post surgery 2012.

No surprise Escape From New York surfaced from the depths of my psyche. We both had something deadly inside of us. I identified with that survivor archetype.

As a kid I remember thinking Escape From New York is almost a horror movie - the gang members are like relentless zombies, Snake has this explosive in his neck, the clock is ticking. I kept wondering: how the hell is Snake going to survive? But Snake does survive. Awesome.

Ideally, the energy of those cool movies I watched growing up, where the hero survives, comes through in my documentary. The mission of Thryvor is to have a positive impact on patients. You can check out the trailer here: thryvor.com.

Andreas, keep up the great work - movie fanatics like you and I are the fire that shines a light on the classics for the next generation.


- John Sencio 2015

Thank you for your time, John.

More about John Sencio here:

http://www.johnsencio.com/
http://www.thryvor.com/