Cooper Huckabee might not be a household name, but I guarantee you would recognize the veteran character actor if you saw him. He’s usually playing the grizzled old villain in things like HBO’s True Blood and TNT’s Major Crimes nowadays, but it wasn’t always that way. Way back in 1981, Cooper Huckabee got a chance to play the muscular male star, Buzz, in Tobe Hooper’s horror classic The Funhouse. Not only is Huckabee one of the kindest and most gracious actors to ever grace the screen, but his role in the cult classic film also caught the eye of Quentin Tarantino, landing him a gig in the director’s upcoming film Django Unchained.
With Shout! Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of The Funhouse hitting stores on October 16, FEARnet sat down with the actor to discuss his fond memories of the film, his role on True Blood, and working with Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained.
FEARNET: It’s been over two decades since The Funhouse hit theaters. How do you feel about the film after all these years?
COOPER HUCKABEE: Oh my gosh. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen it. (Laughs) I’d say fond memories. I think the film stands up. Oddly enough, Quentin Tarantino just cast me in Django Unchained because he’s a fan of the film. He’s heard someone is going to remake it and he thinks I should do a role in it.
FEARNET: I wouldn’t be surprised at all. They’re remaking everything these days.
CH: Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know what role I would do, but he still thinks I should be in it. That’s what he said. (Laughs)
FEARNET: I’d love to see you play the carnival barker.
CH: Oh, yeah! I would love to do that.
FEARNET: Are you surprised that it’s had this much staying power – enough to even get this new special edition Blu-ray release?
CH: I don’t know if I’m surprised. I always thought it was pretty good. It sort of grew on people. Mace Neufeld was disappointed that Universal didn’t push it when it first came out. But I always had confidence in Tobe and what he tried to do and say. I was always proud of it.
FEARNET: Had you heard of Tobe and seen his work prior to landing the role in The Funhouse?
CH: Yeah, I knew he’d done The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and he had just done Salem’s Lot with David Soul, which was a series with James Mason on television. But his real claim to fame was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So, yeah, I knew Tobe and when I went in the meeting it was definitely a high.
FEARNET: How did you end up getting the role of Buzz?
CH: I went in and met Tobe. Then I came back a few days later and I read a scene with him and a few other people, and pretty much got the offer. Pretty standard stuff. At the time, Charlene Tilton was offered the part of Amy in the movie and she was tied up so it was going through that whole period where I remember going down and looking at screen tests of other actresses. They just wanted my opinion or whatever. There was Beth Berridge and there was a girl named Ellen Barkin. (Laughs)
FEARNET: Oh, no one has ever heard of her since. (Laughs)
CH: (Laughs) No, and that was before Diner came out too. Anyway, that’s just a little history. That’s kind of how I got it.
FEARNET: Tell me a little bit about working with Elizabeth. This was her first screen role and she’s actually really convincing.
CH: She was great. I mean, I loved working with her. She was very professional. She was very young. This was the first movie she was in from New York. We had one of these memorable working situations where it’s always sort of etched in your mind as a memorable, fun, creative experience.
FEARNET: You play this kind of tough guy and you were obviously in shape for the role. How was it playing that macho, hero type character and still not making it out alive?
CH: (Laughs) Well, thanks to the screenwriter that’s the way they wrote it, I guess. We don’t always have choices over our fate in life or screen acting. I just tried to play him as a real human being and let it spontaneously unfold. We just try to live and react to what’s going on.
FEARNET: I actually feel like Buzz is one of the most human and relatable characters in the film because he’s really multi-dimensional. He’s very macho and he’s a hero type but he’s also kind of a sarcastic dick. He’s always picking on the other characters and he’s always trying to push Amy into doing something she probably doesn’t want to do. How hard was it to walk that line between being the good guy and being the sarcastic jerk?
CH: Yeah, it’s sort of a fine line. It’s kind of hard. You just try to make the guy human. We all have the little yin and yang sides to us, I think. Not so much Jekyll and Hyde, but you’re one way this time and one way the next with someone.
FEARNET: From the opening scenes of the film, it’s clear that Tobe and the film are very heavily influenced by the horror genre. Were you a fan of horror before you worked on this film?
CH: Oh, yeah. I was a big fan of The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, but especially The Omen. And Mace Neufeld had produced that as well so that was kind of exciting coming onto this film. Yeah, I loved horror movies. Absolutely.
FEARNET: Would you go to the Drive-Ins on the weekends with friends to see the double features and things like that?
CH: I mean, I go way back in the Vincent Price days. When I was really young I used to love things like The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill. I kind of grew up with that. Actually, I got stuck in a funhouse one time when I was very young, at a fair, and I couldn’t get out.
FEARNET: So it’s kind of serendipity that you got this part.
CH: Exactly! It must be because I think I drew on that. I was about ten years old and I went up in this funhouse where you’d get to go up and play at the top when you make it up. But coming back down it’s a very claustrophobic, enclosing panic situation and I freaked out and panicked and they had to come up with a flashlight and lead me out. I was like nine or ten years old.
FEARNET: So were you having flashbacks while filming The Funhouse?
CH: I think so because it was very claustrophobic. I mean, this thing was at a carnival, but it was enclosed and it was just black. You couldn’t see anything. It was like you were blind and you were walking through this maze, bumping into walls. There were other people in there and it got crowded and I just charged and knocked them all down and ran back up on top. I didn’t want to go through the thing. I was real young, but it was more claustrophobia than anything. They had the things jumping out at you and all that, but it was the enclosed and the blackness and the entrapment that freaked me out. So I think you use all kinds of life experiences that come up subconsciously as an actor. Even if you’re not aware of it.
FEARNET: How many times do you think you guys had to ride around that funhouse until you got all the footage you needed?
CH: Oh, boy. That’s a good question. At least all day. (Laughs) All morning. All day. That was a long one. Getting those gondolas to work properly took a while.
FEARNET: The film does a really good job of translating the carnival atmosphere. Tell me a little bit about filming the outdoor carnival scenes because it had to be difficult with some many extras all over the place.
CH: Well, it was. It was just like being at the fair or the carnival all day long. We would come in maybe at noon and start shooting all the way until twelve or one o’clock in the morning. And it was just a carnival there. The extras would come and go. They would give them breaks. They would move them in because there were scenes where the carnival was on the verge of shutting down and quieting down. Then it was real busy and the rides were going. It was just an all day affair and a juggling act with extras. They had some of the real carnies that worked the rides and machines, and they’d have to get everything going at once to made the thing look vibrant and alive. It was a complete atmosphere. We were there. It was very impressive.
FEARNET: Did it turn you off from carnivals for a few years after you made the film?
CH: No! I’ve always loved carnivals. I was always fascinated with them. It’s one reason why I wanted to do this movie because, as a kid, I was totally really fascinated by carnivals and rides. My Aunt took me one time when I was about nine (before I got stuck) and I was going by the strip show. She was kidding me because she saw me looking and I was at that stage where I didn’t want to admit I liked girls or anything, but I had one eye cocked up and looking over there while acting like I was ignoring it, but I was looking. (Laughs) She was kidding me and I was so embarrassed. I just loved the carnivals.
FEARNET: Did you guys really have all these strange, freak animals to work with during those scenes?
CH: Yes they did and that was freaky. They had a lot of animals, too, that they didn’t even show. They had these deformed chickens with no feathers, half feathers, two beaks. It was some of the weirdest stuff I’ve ever seen. The two-headed cow. All that stuff was real. That was a freaky day.
FEARNET: Did it give you nightmares?
CH: (Laughs) I think so! I dreamed a lot during the making of that movie. Believe me. And they were weird dreams. Some of them were scary. But yes, absolutely.
FEARNET: What was it like the first time you saw the creature? From what I gather from the Blu-ray, Tobe kind of held it a secret until you guys finally got to see it.
CH: It was hideous. It was odd, weird, scary, and hideous looking. It looked like that cleft-palette, two-headed creature. It looked like it was somehow mated with some strange, weird something.
FEARNET: So it was just as gross in person, with all the drooling?
CH: Oh, yeah. Definitely. A guy named Greg Reardon with Rick Baker that did all the Star Wars makeup did it. We had a mime from San Francisco named Wayne Doba who was the creature. He was a mime that made all these movements. A professional mime that did it, so he had to wear all this contraption.
FEARNET: How about the fight scene near the end. Was this your first fight scene?
CH: No, I’d had a few before. I remember after that scene I went to the hospital and had my hand x-rayed because I had a bruise on my inner hand down by the thumb area. It wasn’t broken. It was just a little contusion, but I had to get it checked out.
FEARNET: It had to be tough to do in such a small, confined space.
CH: Oh, yeah. I had to jump over those cars and charge him. Kevin was great. He was scary and weird.
FEARNET: How did you end up getting the role of Joe Lee Mickens on True Blood?
CH: About a year earlier, I’d come up for another part or something and I didn’t even know this but I went in to audition for the producers and my manager was actually hoping I wouldn’t get the part. For whatever reason. She just wanted me to meet Alan Ball and for him to get to know. So I went in and nine or ten months later I got a call to come in and audition for Joe Lee. I went in and auditioned and two days later I got a call and got offered the part. When I got on the set, Alan Ball came up to me and said, “I remembered you from when you came in almost a year ago. I remembered you and I told everyone that you would be right for this part.”
FEARNET: Did you enjoy your time on the show?
CH: Very much. It was a good show. They were great. Likable and friendly. Very affable.
FEARNET: Do you think we’ll see Joe Lee again at some point, maybe in a flashback or something?
CH: Well, Mark Hudis said the exact same thing to me the last night I was working. He asked me if I would come back in a flashback. I said, “Sure!” but I haven’t heard anything yet.
FEARNET: Anything you can tell me about your work in Django Unchained?
CH: I was down there almost a month – about three-and-a-half weeks. Working with Quentin was a delight and quite a treat. Definitely a high point. He’s a cinematic genius. I mean, he’s really creative. He’s funny. Most of my stuff was with Jamie Foxx and working with him was fun. I’m not playing a very likable guy – I’m one of the Brittle brothers. It was just a great time. I hope the movie’s going to be great. It felt like it. It feels like it.
FEARNET: Did it feel like you guys were paying homage to those original Django films?
CH: Yeah, pretty much. Quentin’s a huge fan of them, of course. He even cast Franco Nero. He’s got a small part in it. So yeah, I’m sure Quentin has borrowed from that and paid homage to all that. He just loves those spaghetti westerns.
FEARNET: Do you prefer playing these bad guys or did you prefer in the beginning of your career when you were playing roles like Buzz?
CH: When I was younger, it seems like those were the roles I got. Now as I’m older, I’m always the mean father or the loose-cannon bad guy. I did an episode of “Major Crimes” where I was just mean, awful guy. I’ve got this movie coming out with Kix Brooks of Brookes & Dunn in his first acting role. It’s called Thriftstore Cowboy and it’s a cross between Urban Cowboy and No Country for Old Men. I play a rich bad guy who owns the town and is trying to snuff out this bar. It just seems like that’s what I’m doing now, these jerky guys. I’d rather play a cop or a detective or something, you know? (Laughs)
FEARNET: It’s only a matter of time until someone finds a hero for you to play, I’m sure.
CH: Thank you! That gives me hope. (Laughs)
You can see Cooper Huckabee as “Buzz” in The Funhouse when the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray & DVD hit stores on October 16. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is in theaters everywhere on Christmas Day.