Press > Escape From New York > Exclusive Interviews > Joel Bennett (Gypsy #4)

How did you end up being an actor?

lived from birth until 10 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 Ferguson.
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 future successes.

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 earth moved. 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 eight 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 glance.

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 eight 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 the scenes?

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 eight 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 everyone...

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 easy.

I have a successful wife and two fine sons and a very cute home in Encino.

Thank you for your time, Joel.