Big Gay Horror Fan’s lone summer camp experience involved stolen candy money, a rampaging pony and a cabin mate who wanted to push our beds together at night. (Why I didn’t take him up on that I’ll never know!) As the volatile Ricky in the cult classic Sleepaway Camp, Jonathan Tiersten’s experience was a lot – well, bloodier. Tiersten, though, has survived that deadly familial onslaught to forge a successfully vibrant career as an independent musician and has recently returned to the acting scene with a vengeance. Thoughtful, passionate and committed to his art, Tiersten recently took a few moments to answer some questions about music, life, film (including bone chilling projects like The Perfect House and The Drive-in Massacre), life – and well, life!
BGHF: So, Jonathan, who were your first artistic inspirations as a child – Bill Bixby morphing into Lou Ferrigno and getting his green on – A favorite ukulele strumming uncle who used to regal you with folk tales – David Bowie waxing alien philosophies on the Late Night Show – other (real ones)?
JT: There were two inspirations that immediately come to mind with regard to music. The first was my Aunt Irene Corman (The late mother of my cousin (actress) Maddie Corman). We would go to their summer house in a town called Shady in upstate New York. It is just outside of Woodstock. They would have these huge family gatherings and afterwards we would stay at the house. We would sit around the campfire and Irene would play songs on her guitar. Those were magical times. I saw the effect that music could have. Even if my parents weren’t getting along (which was often) the music made everyone happy and loving. That was true power, the power to make people get outside of their own petty differences.
The second inspiration was (believe it or not) a Sleepaway Camp counselor I had when I was 7 or 8 years old. Looking back on it, I am not sure he was a very nice guy or even cared about kids that much, but every night before we went to sleep he would play Cat Steven’s Moonshadow. It was so beautiful. I knew I had to learn how to do that. I don’t remember his name or if he became famous or anything, but that memory is burned into my consciousness. I could not imagine life without having what he possessed.
BGHF: Morning has broken, my man! Sleepaway Camp has had a deserved following for years. What is the most indelible memory that you have taken from the whole Sleepaway Camp experience?
JT: The most indelible memory I have from Sleepaway Camp? I honestly can say that is one that keeps changing. It is a constant living thing. Sleepaway Camp will outlive me. I must say that I always thought I was something special. I know that sounds pompous, but I always felt like something big was right around the corner. I still do. I have gone through some tough times. I have worked at jobs I hated. I have owned a bar. I look back and say, “How did I ever think things would get better?” I guess I am an eternal optimist. Maybe that is what I have learned from Sleepaway Camp. You never know what life has in store for you. You just have to be open to it.
BGHF: So, do you find that the spunkiness of Ricky informs your everyday life?
JT: Ricky definitely has informed my daily life. I am far more patient than he is, but sometimes I acquiesce too easily and that is where Ricky enables me to stand up for myself. Some people don’t react well to reason. Ricky is pure emotion. I like that.
BGHF: Sleepaway Camp has a large gay following, but I have often wondered how the transgendered community views Angela. She is a sympathetic character, but also a vicious killer. In light of the uproar over films like Ticked off Trannies with Knives I imagine that would be bothersome to some in an underrepresented faction in cinema, but also feel you have to take the film at face value, as well. Do you have any thoughts on that?
JT: I have several transgender fans. They love Angela. As for the reason, you would have to ask them. I think anytime things are brought out of the closet they are less likely to be demonized.
BGHF: Well, I’m always up for kicking things out of the closet! Onto more recent projects! Ricky was tough, but John Doesy seems maniacal. Since you seem to have a very humanistic, spiritual side, especially evidenced by your CD Heaven, is it tough for you to dig down and create the psychosis beneath a character like Doesy in The Perfect House?
JT: I was reading a short story in The New Yorker today. The character was talking about how he went ‘off the rails’ when his wife died. He hired prostitutes and the like. I find horror fans to be much more in touch with the animalistic nature that is at our core. We spend a lifetime learning how to repress every natural instinct that we have. Letting those out is therapeutic. There is a very fine line between affection and violence. You can’t have one without the other. Psychosis is just another label for someone who doesn’t live by our societal norms. John Doesy has his own code of ethics.
BGHF: Just not the ones you learn in kindergarten, I suppose. (On second thought…) – You have done everything from soap operas to after school specials to horror films. Do you have a particular favorite on set moment or memory from your various experiences?
JT: I am very intense when I am working. I don’t enjoy it much. That isn’t to say that I don’t like it. I just don’t look at it the same way as playing music where there is instant gratification. My favorite moments on set are when I know I am locked in to my character. Recently I shot a film called Redemption. We were doing a night shoot. We shot my entire scene (including close-ups) and the sound man said, “Oops.” He had messed up the audio and we had to do the whole thing over again. Then someone yelled, “Dinner break!” I was furious. I walked around the whole park we were shooting in to get myself settled and refocused, (at 3AM). I came back to do the scene and it was better than the first time. I overheard the 1st AD whisper, “That dude is a serious pro.” That was a pretty nice moment.
BGHF: Totally! (I think we just had a PJ Soles moment together!) Your life has been juicily eclectic, as well, with actor, musician, father and businessman on your resume. What has been your favorite accomplishment thus far and is there anything you want to tackle in the future?
JT: My favorite accomplishment personally has been getting better as a person and being known as someone people can count on, especially my family. My favorite professional accomplishment would have to be the library of music I have written and recorded. That is my legacy. What I want in the future is to continue all of my pursuits with the same energy that I do now. Whether it is writing a score or performing or acting or running a marathon (I have done three) it doesn’t matter. I just want to do projects that I care about. I don’t want to half ass anything ever.
BGHF: Speaking of your legacy then. If you had to pick one of your CD’s to recommend to someone, what would it be and why?
JT: I can’t really recommend one CD in particular. That is a personal decision for the listener. On different days I am in the mood for different music. I always think that what I am writing now is better than what I have written in the past, but then I go back and listen to it and enjoy some of its naiveté and honesty and realize I can never be the person I was. Each and every day we reinvent who we are. That is so cool if you embrace it.
BGHF: Got my arms wide open on that one, my friend! Lastly, any words of advice (IE: Never let your flamboyant aunt dress you in girl’s clothing) or projects that you’d like to push! And thanks this has been almost as fun as hanging with the brilliant Michele Tatosian (Sleepaway Camp‘s beyond awesome producer) any day of the week!
JT: I will give the same advice that I gave an actor when he asked me at a convention. Forget the backup plan. It is a waste of time. Acting, performing, writing etc. has to be a need. It can’t be a want. Understand that you will have to sacrifice a lot to pursue it and you may still fail in the eyes of your family and peers. You can never fail if you realize it is about the journey and not the destination. – I am working on so many things right now. The next thing coming out is Redemption at The Tribeca Film Festival next year. The Perfect House should be out on DVD and Netflix this winter. I just signed on to do The Drive In Massacre this winter. I am co-producing a film for Brittany House Pictures called Good Ol Boy. It features a score by Andy Summers (The Police) and several A-List actors. I am hoping to tour the east coast in April highlighted by a house concert at Drew Eckmann’s. You can read about him in The New Yorker. Lastly I am doing soundtrack work for my friend Sean Crouch’s (writer/producer for Numb3rs and Veronica Mars) TV projects. http://jonathantiersten.com/
BGHF: Thanks again, Jonathan!
You can, also, keep up with all the bloody activity at The Perfect House @ http://www.facebook.com/ThePerfectHouseMovie.
And until next time – Sweet love and pink Grue, Big Gay Horror Fan