Tony Todd on Frankenstein, Candyman and the art of creating characters

The brilliant Tony Todd talks Frankenstein, The Crow and more!

We’re huge fans of Tony Todd at SciFiNow. From his landmark title role performance in Candyman, he’s shown an incredible range in his career as a character actor, hopping between genres and roles with a list of fan-favourites and undisputed masterpieces too long to go into here (The Crow, Chuck, The Rock, Final DestinationThe X-Files, Platoon, 24, Star Trek: TNG, Homicide: Life On The Street, Hatchet, The Flash…)

Now, Todd shows his versatility yet again with a beautifully sensitive turn as the blind beggar Eddie in Bernard Rose’s excellent Frankenstein update. Eddie is the homeless man who takes Xavier Samuel’s outcast creation under his wing, showing him his first example of human kindness. Of course, this being Frankenstein, that’s not going to go well…

We got the chance to talk to Todd about working with his Candyman director again after all this time, his process of creating a character, some of his career highlights, and why independent films are where the characters live.

How did you come to be involved with Frankenstein?

Bernard and I worked together on Candyman 23 years ago and we’ve remained friends. Life has taken us on different journeys, and out of the blue my manager saw a casting call. I was a bit hesitant because of the frequency of the Frankenstein reboots, unfortunately most of them bad, but I took a meeting with Bernard and he laid it out for me and by the time we were done with our tea, he said “Do you want to play or not?” and I said “For you, because you asked me, yes.”

I even did it below scale and I don’t do that for a lot of people, but as an actor, and particularly where I am in my career, the repeat work is what’s most important. When you get to work with a director more than once you form a shorthand. A creative connection that’s important.

There are so many distractions when making a film, from the size of the crew, what you’re eating for lunch, what happened the night before, arguments with a mate, etc, that the fewer obstacles, the better clarity you have in finding your character and how your character fits within the larger story.

Did you find that connection again pretty quickly?

Oh yeah. We were just happy to reunite, we both knew that win or lose this would be good for the fans of both Bernard and myself, and it was just…this business is a joy. Some people claim that it’s not, if it’s not, I don’t know what they’re still doing in it, but I really love this. To me it’s like playing solitaire but with a perfect hand. Win or lose, it’s expressive, it’s creative, we’re fortunate that we have this luxury of storytelling, and I’d do it again and again.

You mentioned the bad reboots, was there any trepidation about taking on a book that’s such a landmark?

No, Bernard is one of the most confident without being overly egotistical directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s a very assured individual, he writes meticulously, he does his research, and in this case he worked with a handheld camera, so he was not only the director, the writer and a friend, but he was right there, front and centre behind a lens. So everything that happened in the film was conversational, intimate. In a story like this, which is big in scale and complexity, intimacy is important.

Tony Todd as Eddie in Bernard Rose's Frankenstein
Tony Todd as Eddie in Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein

Did you have much time to prepare your character?

Yeah, I didn’t get the chance to meet Xavier until the first day of shooting, but I was aware of his work and I knew that Bernard had total confidence in his choice, and I trust Bernard. We had three weeks between when I agreed to do it and when we shot. So my first week was spending time with costume designer coming up with the right look for Eddie. We have a huge homeless population here, I used to live in downtown LA and one of my routes home was through an area called Sixth Street, which is four or five blocks of people who make the street their home.

So I spent some time going back to that, and looking at costumes and finding the right suit, because we felt that this man would wear a suit. Even though he was at this condition of his life, this one thing that he held with pride whether it was clean or not, and the right hat and the right shoes. And then it was just going on set and playing. There was a lot of preparation time because I’m not a singer by nature and I had to feel confident singing Mannish Boy, and I fortunately have a lot of blues musician friends, and they were able to help me.

His relationship with Adam is lovely, that he’s really the first person who can show him some human kindness.

Absolutely. There’s something about the insane or the underprivileged that have a clarity of vision regardless of whatever happened and that’s what we wanted to do. My character’s beyond down and out, so sometimes I just wanted to explore being stripped of artifice so you’re just left with pure humanity, which is what all of us need no matter whether you’re Adam, Eddie, Mr Trump, whoever! A little civility does not hurt.

Xavier Samuel as Adam, who finds Eddie on the streets of LA
Xavier Samuel as Adam, who finds Eddie on the streets of LA

Did you look at any of the Frankenstein movies at all?

No, I didn’t. I’m a huge fan of the James Whale version, and once I got it I was torn. Part of me wanted to go to Bride Of Frankenstein where the hermit character actually is, but I remember it from memory and I wanted to make it a fresh take. It’s hard when you try to do something that’s been done, but I’m aware of it. I remember seeing the James Whale version when I was nine, but I was never threatened by it. I felt like the monster was a friend of mine, an imaginary playmate that maybe had been too strong for his own good, but definitely misunderstood as opposed to being overtly evil. Unfortunately a lot of modern horror films miss the point. A good horror film has to have humanity at its centre and if it doesn’t then it’s just blood and gore.

How have you found the reaction to the film?

People definitely respond to it. One person walked out during some moment of violence against Adam, I guess they were worried about what was coming! They ran out, and I looked at Bernard, and he said, “You’ve got to have one that runs out!” [laughs]

But I think Xavier’s performance is definitely the centre of this piece. The man put up with a lot and he had to be in prosthetics every day. Our visual effects team was excellent and created disturbing imagery that was lifted from pure medical records and stuff. We clicked instantly. As soon as I met him I saw that he was going to be fearless, and that he wasn’t looking for his best light, he was looking for the right light. Mr Samuel’s work is beyond admirable.

Tony Todd with Virginia Madsen in Bernard Rose's Candyman
Tony Todd with Virginia Madsen in Bernard Rose’s Candyman

Have you found that Bernard Rose has changed much as a filmmaker since you worked together on Candyman?

Well everybody changes, I’ve changed as an actor, we were kids then when we did Candyman. [laughs] One thing about Bernard then and now, he has ultimate belief in me. Candyman was one of the first things I ever got where I never had to audition. I got a call out of the blue saying “This gentleman Bernard wants you to be in this movie Candyman.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time. I thought it was Sammy Davis Jr, I wasn’t sure. I had meetings and he was adamant that not only I was the right person for the role, but that it would change my life. And I assured him that I would just do the best job I could do. Obviously that character is one of my highlights but I’m always searching for something to supersede that, and he knows that.

I’m sure you get asked about Candyman all the time, but it must be nice to see how it’s really regarded as a classic of modern horror now. Its critical reputation only gets stronger.

That’s fantastic, I’m happy. Over the years I’ve had people tell me that they have used it as their dissertations, and humanities studies and stuff, and certainly on the street level, every time I go to Chicago, it’s almost like he’s a local folk hero! With Candyman, we were trying to make something that was beyond a horror film and we were lucky with the great cast, Tony Richmond’s cinematography, Philip Glass’ score, Virginia Madsen with her presence, the entire supporting cast. It was fantastic. I’ll never forget it. It’s been good to me over the years.

Todd with Michael Wincott and Bai Ling in The Crow
Todd with Michael Wincott and Bai Ling in The Crow

I wanted to ask about your performance in The Crow as well. You’re part of an incredible rogue’s gallery of villains in that film with Michael Wincott, Bai Ling, Stephen Patrick Kelly…

I love The Crow! As soon as I get hired I do the research, I do the background, I try to find out where the director’s coming from in terms of visuals, and then costumes again. I created Grange with the costume person. Once we found he has a little finger ring, once we found that, we knew who he was. And then I had a dream that he had been struck by lightning and that’s why he has that little white streak in his hair.

It was an amazing cast. Starting at the top, obviously, again, with Brandon [Lee]. Fortunately I wasn’t there the day of the unfortunate accident, I literally left two days before, but the news…For a long time they weren’t even going to release it, and then his mother championed that it would be appropriate for his legacy. I’ve been approached to do some of the sequels; I’ve never wanted to touch it after that. I think the first one stands on its own. And again, Alex Proyas, the director, a visionary.

It feels like a testament to it that they’ve struggled so much to remake it!

Yeah, wasn’t there talk last year about a remake? Well, [dramatic voice] maybe it’s the curse of The Crow…[laughs]

It’s difficult to pick out a show from your list of credits, but you were a guest star in the second season of The X-Files [‘Sleepless’]. Was it a big deal to be starring on that show even at that early point?

Oh yeah! By the time I had done it, it had become a hit. A lot of things were good for me with The X-Files. Howard Gordon wrote the script and that was his first writing job, and I got to work with him again in 24. I had just come from doing Homicide: Life On The Street, then I went right to doing Candyman 2. That time period was one of my most busy, it was non-stop work. Which is great when you’re young and beautiful, and now it’s semi-non-stop work, which is even better because I get to smell the roses.

I was actually able to go to Italy this past winter for the first time! I get to travel all over the world, my work takes me to many, many beautiful places, but this is the first time I got to go somewhere and I wasn’t there for work!

Finally, is there a film on your credit list that you’d like to point people towards, that you think deserves more attention?

I’ve been able to be in big budget movies, which allows me to pick and choose among the independent work, and people should just look at my IMDB and look at the independent things. Everything was chosen for a reason. Every film I do is different from the one before, that’s been my motto and that’s been my creed. I’m not a personality-based actor; I’m a character actor.

I did a film called Driven, which is about LA cab drivers, which won a few awards, but didn’t get the distribution that it should have gotten. I did a film in Paris called The Secret which is about a choreographer from New York who has a breakdown and moves to Paris and immediately gets involved in a love affair with this encyclopaedia saleswoman. So the independent work is where the characters live.

I also do a lot of theatre, which keeps me sane. Right now I’m doing a play called Ghosts In The House, which is about Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight-boxing champion. Theatre is where it lives for me.

Frankenstein is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms from Signature Entertainment. Read our interview with Bernard Rose here and keep up with the latest horror news with the new issue of SciFiNow.