Fan Expo 2015 kicked off with a Q&A from a beloved actor from the 1980s. Although he has a diverse enough career behind him, he is best known for his lead role in the movie Gremlins. He joined a moderator to discuss his career, some forgotten movies and what the future might hold for the iconic franchise.
Moderator: The world came to know you through the role of Billy Peltzer in 1984, but who was Zach Galligan before that? What are the things that went into you that made you into the person that got that role?
Zach Galligan: Well I was basically just a kid living in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and I had done a bunch of school plays, and plays at camp. The usual stuff, kind of like musicals. I had done Jesus in Godspell, Danny Zucco in Grease, stuff like that. The basic kind of musicals that everyone does. I was just going to school and minding my own business when a casting director came in looking for actors for a film that a director named Paul Mazursky was doing called Tempest which was obviously based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it was kind of a modern adaptation of it, with John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, and they were looking for a couple of young teenagers to be the young lovers. And so I came in and I read for that and ironically I actually read for that with Phoebe Cates, which is how I met her the first time, so that is part of the reason why I felt that we had a bit of an advantage trying out for Gremlins together as we had read together on other projects before as New York based actors.
So I tried out for that and clearly I didn’t get it but I got very close, when the experience was over, the casting director, who I didn’t really realize how legendary she was, her name is Juliet Taylor, she has basically been Woody Allen’s casting director since his very first movie “Take the Money and Run.” She said “You did a very nice job, and you came very close to booking this part, and I was wondering if you would be interested in getting more auditions?” I was seventeen at the time and I was like “Yeah, I would like to get more auditions I just don’t really know how you do that, how you get more auditions.” She said “you get an agent.” I said “what’s an agent?” She said “well that’s someone who send you out and get more auditions.” And I said “how do you get an agent? Becuase that is something that I would be interested in.” She said “the first thing that you have to do is let me talk to your mom, so put her on the phone.” So I put my mom on the phone and my mom basically put the receiver up to her ear, and I still can close my eyes and see her do this. She goes “yes, uh huh” she looks at me and furrows her brow “I see, um hm, all right, well if you say so, ok.” She handed the phone back to me and said “you have one year.” I grab the phone and Juliet Taylor said “I’m going to set you up on a few appointments” and what I didn’t realize at the time was that she was setting me up with the three most powerful agents in New York City. And basically I could go in and meet them and pick whichever one I liked the best, whichever one I clicked with the best. When you’re seventeen you don’t know what’s going on in general, much less in show business. Years later I ran into her and I said “By the way I never asked you what you did you say to these agents on the phone, so that even they had never met me, they all wanted to sign me?” I was hoping that she was going to say “this young man is blindlingly talented” or I was hoping to get some gushy compliment from her, and she said “If you want to make tonnes of money, sign this kid.” So that’s how I got an agent. I knew that there was a time pressure and that really helped because it lit a fire underneath me. I booked my first part in thirty days and I got my first lead in a film in ten months, and my mom was like “color me impressed.”
In fairness for anyone out there who does want to become an actor – I can’t imagine why you would want to because it is an insane lifestyle with incredible highs and lows – but if you do want to be an actor my one piece of advice for you, is start before you are 22. When you get to be 22, every single person who is in a college program studying acting, they all come flooding out to the market at the exact same time. I started at 17 so I had a half decade before I met any of my real competition. So I went up again the same 7 or 8 people for 5 years. I was like “this is easy (laughs), booking this job, booking that job.” And then in the summer of 1986 when I was 22, I’m lookign around and I say “hey there’s all the people … who’s that guy over there?” By the end of the summer I was like “who are all these people?” And it was all my competition getting out of college ready to make my life much more difficult.
M: What are some of the early things in your life that influence and inspired you as a creative artist?
ZG: A beautiful thing is that one of my biggest influences is [here at FanExpo], Malcolm McDowell. It is hard to put what the impact that he had on me was, but I can just say that there is something about the opening shot of Clockwork Orange. Even though he is great in If and he is great in A Lucky Man and great in all these other movies. The way that his head is tilted and that he is completely still, and he is radiating this feral animal menace. He is not even talking because it is voiceover. He is just leering at the camera as the camera slowly pulls back and shows him with his droogs at the Korova Milk Bar. That opening closeup pullback shot and the swagger that he does with that part, it just blew my mind … as a 16 year old. I know you’re probably saying why was I seeing Clockwork Orange when I was 16.
M: We all kind of saw it.
ZG: “It was rated X in England! It’s banned you got to see it.” I was like “I totally have to see it!” He really blew my mind. Steve McQueen blew my mind. Redford and Newman blew my mind. I was really an early 70s kid. I think that the big influences on people happen early than you think, when you are 6, 7, 8, ,9, 10 years old. Those really formative years when you are watching popular culture and your brain is so raw and open to any kind of suggestion and experience and so you are just open to anything and so the influences that come in just hit you in an amazing way. The thing about McQueen that I sensed, I didn’t think of myself as an actor when I was ten, there was something in what he did when he was not speaking. He did not speak a lot of the time. It was his non-verbal communication that made him intensely watchable and glue my eyes to him. He and McDowell had the same thing where you couldn’t pull your eyes off of them if they were cast correctly.
M: Was there pressure on you to pursue a more conventional career?
ZG: Oh my gosh, yeah! It’s funny, a few years ago my mom turned to me and she said “Honey, when are you going to stop all of this?” I said “Mom are you out of your mind?” She said “You haven’t booked anything in a couple of years.” I said “This is a marathon not a sprint.” Actors have ups and downs and bad periods and you can count probably 20 people for whom they become successful and they have a non-stop rocket riding career that never ends. Perfect example … Tom Hanks. You think “Tom Hanks, two time Oscar winner, he hasn’t had a down period.” Well tell that to him when he was making Turner and Hooch and Joe vs. The Volcano. He fired his agent because he hated the movies that he was doing. He got a new agent who promptly put him in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Kind of a good switch and it worked for him. I did a tv movie about thirty years ago called Surviving with Molly Ringwald and the woman that played my mom was Oscar Winner Ellen Burstyn. If you look at Ellen Burstyn’s career, she went through a period where she said to me ” I didn’t work much here because I was transitioning into becoming a mom.” She wins an Oscar and doesn’t work for a couple of years. That is the business that you’re in and you have to realize that. There are some people that are relentlessly hot and watchable and fantastic forever and god bless them, I have nothing against that, but if you are a working actor then you have ups and downs, hills and valleys and every other cliche that you can think of, but it tends not to be something that is as consistent as you the actor might like it to be. But if you give up and you quit then you are left with nothing. Look at what Quentin Tarantino has made a cottage industry out of every movie basically resuscitating some character actors career. Michael Parks is doing cartwheels right now because of Quentin Tarantino. Robert Forster is doing cartwheels. John Travolta is obviously the greatest example where he resuscitate his career from almost nothing into $20 million per picture bankable star. You can’t quit, you have to keep going, because if it is what you do and who you and what you love, then you have to keep going and going and going, and reinventing yourself and finding out new ways to express yourself and taking chances, getting scripts and saying “I don’t want to play that, I want to play this!” Someone sends you Hatchet 3 and you say “I don’t want to play it like a sheriff, you say [in a heavy Texas accent] I want to play it like a sheriff.” You make different choices in things and you find out different ways to connect with new audience all the time and you are constantly in a situation where you are reinventing yourself while you simultaneously believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself then no one is ever going to. So you got to believe that you got the goods and you have to never quit. If you look at the number of people that just carried on and had dead periods and then exploded in the later half of their life, particularly men, not trying to be sexist, but its just a tougher business for women. If you are a man just hang in there and you will probably get another chance. Just thought about Martin Landau. Martin Landau, ten to fifteen years in the wilderness then he does Ed Wood … Oscar. Then he is doing everything. He is on Entourage, he’s hot, I run into him at the Playboy Mansion. The guy’s doing movies in South Africa in 1987, and then he is collecting his Oscar nine years later. Why? Because he was an actor. He never gave up. Why should he give up he studied with Lee Strasberg and he gave James Dean acting lessons.
M: He reminded me of that once. It is a very good segue way into Nothing Lasts Forever because there is a line in that film which says “you will get what you want just not necessarily the way that you want it.”
ZG: That’s very true!
M: Let’s spend a moment with Nothing Lasts Forever, this was the Tom Schiller movie, he made the SNL short films. This is a rare piece of film.
ZG: It is very difficult to see, and the reason it is very difficult to see, there were all sorts of problems with rights clearances, because a lot of stock footage was used in it from other films. So they have little pieces from Birth of a Nation and Intolerance and all these D.W. Griffith silent movies kind of woven into the fabric of the film. They have been showing it on Turner Classic Movies. it is a very very strange surreal story about my character whoever wants to become an artist at any price. He comes to New York after spending some time in Europe, meets unbeknownst to him what he thinks of as a group of homeless people, but they turn out not to be homeless people but rather actually a secret society that lives underneath in the bowels of Manhattan and they are secret secret masters and I go down there and they say that if I can go to the moon and I spread light and love there that they will make me an artist as if by magic. And I say “what are you talking about? There is nothing on the moon.” And Sam Jaffe, the late great Sam Jaffe who played Professor Barhardt in the Day The Earth Stood Still, he turns to me and says “you’d be surprised.” It turns out that Bill Murray has started a supermarket mall on the moon and they take old people and fly them in a bus up to the moon and put a little chip in their head so that when they try to explain it to people that they change the word moon to Miami. I fly up to the moon and hopefully I meet my soulmate there and learn to bring light and love and to the moon and escape from the evil clutches of Bill Murray. Dan Aykroyd was in it as well, and Lauren Tom from Futurama plays my love interest. I thought “this is it! I’m working with Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd.” The movie was so surreal and bizarre. When it was cut together the studio executives were like “Huh? This makes no sense at all. It is like David Lynch meets Saturday Night Live.” The rights to the footage was going to cost 1.5 million and the movie cost 2 million. So they stuck it in this vault so no one has really seen it until this year.
M: Another interesting thing is that Belushi was supposed to be in the film, and he passed away about six weeks before the filming began, so how much did that hang over the production?
ZG: He was supposed to be the lead homeless person in it, there’s a character in it called Hugo and he was supposed to be the lead homeless guy who leads me down into what’s called the phenomenon that is New York City as Sam Jeffrey, and introduces me to my spiritual master, so like I said, its a very peculiar film. He passed away on March 6 of 1982, and the filming started on April 15, so he missed it by about 6 weeks and there was a definite pall over the movie because he was a very very well loved person amongst those people. He was one of Tom Schiller’s best friends, he was obviously Dan Aykroyd’s best friend and great friends with Bill Murray too. It was terrible because Tom was showing me pictures of them on vacation earlier that year. So it was very brutal, and everyone just put on their happy face and tried to smile and make a comedy in spite of it and its really kind of fascinating when you see the film that you can’t tell. We just toughed it out. You can’t tell that there is this horrible sadness hanging over it. It was a huge bummer for me because I was 18 and I was so happy and I was like “Hey everyone let’s have fun!” Everyone’s like “we’re sad, we lost our friend.” It was very sad.
M: What do you think that Schiller was trying to say with the film?
ZG: I don’t really know exactly what he was trying to say in it. There are a lot of experiences in my career where people are like “What’s this movie about?” and I’m like “Dude I’m in it, I have no idea, not the foggiest idea.” I think that basically what he was trying to say is that it is about people’s desire to be an artist and in order if you really want to be an artist in today’s society – it’s almost like [artist] is a dirty word – you have to be relentless and you have to just really really want it from the depth of your heart if you are going to do something which is financially difficult. It is hard to support yourself today if you are a painter, or a poet or a writer or a sculptor or a photographer. It’s kind of hard to do.
M: So, Nothing Lasts Forever gets put away on a shelf and then Gremlins rolls along.
ZG: I would have probably been distraught, had I known it was going to be shelved, but I got Gremlins about three or four months before I found out that it wasn’t coming out. So at that point I was really feeling on a roll, doing an SNL movie then doing a Spielberg movie. Really? Again I was like “This is easy! This is going to be happening forever!” And then right after that Neil Simon cast me in a play on Broadway, replacing Matthew Broderick, so I was like “this is unbelievably easy!” But again it is all when you are going up against limited competition that it is a lot easier. If I could run a sprint and not have Usain Bolt in it, I would probably win a lot of the sprints, but eventually you have to run against Usain Bolt and he is going to beat you. A lot of it was the competition. But anyway, what was it about Gremlins specifically?
M: Let’s start with the casting process. The legend is that you were seen with Phoebe, you sort had your head on Phoebe Cates’ shoulder, and see Spielberg saw this and said “Look it! These two are in love, they’re the ones!”
ZG: That’s close to it. I don’t believe that he said “these two are in love.” I believe that he looked at us and said “He’s totally in love with her!” Which was a much more accurate observation. In fairness, I recently did an interview which I thought was the same interview that I have done over the last thirty years where people ask me the basic Gremlins questions. I did it for a publication called the Daily Mail in London, what I said was the truth, which was that I thought that she was very beautiful, as did the rest of the nation that I lived in, thought that she was really great looking, and that I thought that she was really sweet and that I had a crush on her. The headline was like “Galligan Totally In Live With His Co-Star!” “I was like whoah, we are talking about degrees here.” Saying that you have a crush on someone is not the same as saying that you are in love with them. It’s nuance there Daily Mail.
M: Every young man who saw himself as Billy Peltzer loved Phoebe Cates and had a crush on her.
ZG: One of the great things about being an actor, over thirty four years of being an actor, I have met, without question, some of the most astoundingly beautiful women on the planet. Like just you just don’t know what to say sometimes. Even if you have seen a tonne of them, you walk in the door and someone says “This is Shante!” and you are like “Whoah!” They are like bending time in the room. Reality is warping as you walk in the room, that is how attractive they are. It is one of the perks of the business, meeting attractive people. Of course, one of the things that you realize is that a lot of times that it is about a lot more than simply being physically attractive too. So you meet some of the physically attractive people, and maybe they’re not so nice. And then you meet some of the less physically attractive people, and maybe they are really nice and great people and so you tend to value them a little bit more than just the great looking people.
The thing that was devastating about Phoebe is that she is the nicest person and she really doesn’t think that she is all that beautiful, and she never wears makeup, and throws her hair back in a ponytail, and she wears a baseball shirt. And she is really cute, and she wears Reeboks. And I was like “What are those?” “Reeboks” “What are those I have never heard of them?” Everything that she had was new and cutting edge and cool and she was sophisticated. And she hung out with Warhol. And she was on the cover of Interview magazine and the cover of Seventeen, and I was like this “gu-hu-guh-wol-gu-hu-guh-hol” And there she was, she was the nicest person. She was so kind to me. I was from Manhattan, I didn’t have my driver’s license, couldn’t drive. Now I am in Los Angeles for the first time. If you have ever been to Los Angeles it is like someone took New York and squashed it flat, it is just enormous. Everything is two stories, and you have to drive miles and miles to get anywhere and I couldn’t drive. She’s like “That’s ok,” bouncy and chewing gum “I will pick you up in my Toyota.” She would pick me up and she would take me places and she was super nice. She was living with her boyfriend at the time, she was 19, her boyfriend was 30. I was 19 also. So I was like “I’ve got a shot” “My boyfriend’s 30” “I’ve got no shot”.
Her husband is 15 years older than her. She has always been more sophisticated than her age lets on. When she was 20 she essentially 35. She grew up in Manhattan and she was a model and she did the whole scene thing while I was still a knucklehead in high school. So she was miles ahead of me in terms of sophistication and knowledge and people skills and everything skills. But the great thing about it was that she was never snobby about it or condescending about it. She was always just a really nice person who seemed to be grateful for everything that was coming her way and she would just show up at 9 o’clock in the morning and I would look like hell even though I was 19 years old and she would look like perfection. It was just ridiculous.
So we have the combination of someone who is an incredibly nice person, and nice to you, and really attractive. It is a pretty devastating combination. I definitely had a crush on her, but apparently no more than anyone else who was on the cast and crew of the shoot. I have spoken to people since and they were always like “Oh my God, Phoebe!” If you had a pulse you had a crush on Phoebe.
M: In the first Gremlins, you are this novice actor and having to focus so much as to what you are doing as an actor, but you also frequently have Gizmo with you and you’re doing all these hand-offs to crew members and pulling the old switcheroo, and you have all these other things to keep in mind and all these puppeteers around you, just out of the frame, that you also have to keep in mind as you are working. It is a much larger dimension of the work. How much harder is that or did it become natural?
ZG: People ask me all the time “Was it hard to work with Gizmo?’ To me people don’t stop and think about the suspension of disbelief that you need in general. For example, it is no more difficult working with Gizmo – because the animatronic thing is actually in my hand, and it is moving exactly like you see it in the movie – so the only difference between it and a real pet is that instead of making of making cute Howie Mandel inspired noises like what eventually happen in the movie, it kind of went like “Gzzt, gzzt, gzzt, gzzt, gzzt.” It is a lot easier to pretend that this is a pet sitting in my hand than it is to pretend that some actress that I met ten minutes ago is my wife. As a film actor you make all of those imaginative leaps. You take all of them for granted. The creature is real, that person is not your brother, now he’s your brother. This [other] person is your wife. Ellen Burstyn, who I loved in The Exorcist, now she’s my mom! Those things are more difficult. Having this amazing animatronic thing strapped to me and acting in tandem with all of these special effects people, and looking like an amazing illusion – it is a phenomenal illusion for its time – it stands up reasonably well even today. It wasn’t difficult. The only that was difficult was that I was wired and had wires all up and down my body underneath my clothing, you can’t really see them in the film which is good, because they would be distracting if you could. But I could feel them because the wires had little slats all along them and when they would pull on the joystick wires the slats would close, and they would close on my skin. So you were basically getting pinched anywhere from your ankle to your armpit and anywhere in between at any moment depending on which joystick they pulled. You had to act and do that performance at the same time that ten little gnomes are pinching various parts of your body. It was strange but after the first few takes you just go “OK I get it, I am just going to get pinched a lot, and I have to ignore.” It is no different than ignoring police sirens on the streets of New York when you are trying to do lines, or people shouting people at you when you are trying to block them out when you are shooting outdoors or simply trying to ignore the plane that is flying over your head ruining your take as you’re crying for the fourth take in a row.
M: What is your story for Gremlins 3?
ZG: They only really have a couple of ways that they can go. They can do one where I am older and I am the dad and I am a single parent – because Phoebe quit twenty years ago, and the odds of her doing another one are probably next to nil – I have a cute 14 year old girl, I have a daughter and let her have fun with the Gizmo this time, and things go wrong and we have Gremlins 3 that way. What I think would be the best solution to the situation is that you have another Mogwai – let’s make it a female Mogwai – another family that we haven’t met before stumbles upon it, in some different way, it doesn’t have to be a Chinese junk store this time, it could be … who knows what? They could find it on eBay. How about that? They could find it in an exotic pet store, they stumble on it. They break the rules really quickly, because they don’t know the rules about it. One of the kids goes online and does google searches and reads about something that happened in Kingston Falls in 1984, that is extremely similar, and possibly on conspiracies websites something that happened in 1990 in New York but that the New York Police Department now says was now a gas malfunction in 101 Park Avenue. They are certainly not going to admit that Gremlins almost took over New York and took over Clamp Tower. She notices that in both stories that somehow this William Peltzer is involved in both altercations, and so she goes on Whitepages.com and does a search for the person’s criminal record and contacts me and the Gizzer and like Max von Sydow in the Exorcist we pull up in shrouded taxi in the middle of the night and they answer the door and I am in the shadows, and I step forward and I say [Max von Sydow voice] “My name is Peltzer, Villiam Peltzer” and I come in like the Exorcist and I help save the day as it is rapidly spinning out of control. Maybe it is in London, maybe it is in Berlin, maybe it is in Tokyo, who knows? Maybe it is some other part of the world. They threaten to get out and destroy everything. Maybe there is a third change that we never knew about? They go from Mogwai to gremlins to something else? That would be interesting. Maybe they all group together and become one giant gremlin, like a fractal. They just pile all together. A godzilla like gremlin. At the end you have to have Gizmo and the girl Mogwai get together in a cage and they fall in love. That would be Gremlins 3.
M: Let’s kickstart that! I would like to go to the audience now.
Question From the Floor: Is Gremlins a summer or a Christmas film?
ZG: It has morphed into a Christmas film. I started out as a summer blockbuster, it was released the same day in America as Ghostbusters. June 8, 1984, How’s that for a one-two punch at your cineplex? We all thought of it as a summer movie. And people would be like “How come you didn’t release it at Christmas?” That’s the best thing, in June, you are dying for Christmas because it is so far away. At Christmas when it comes out at Christmas, your’re like “I am so Christmas-ed out, can we move on?” It was kind of refreshing doing the winter thing in the summer. Now there are all sorts of people that don’t remember that because it was 31 years ago, and now people just encounter it on television in December. And so it feels exactly like a Christmas movie for them, so now for them, the same way that Die Hard is now a Christmas movie, that is another summer movie that came out in July or August that now people think of as a Christmas movie because it has a Christmas theme. I would say that it is both, it is a summer movie and it is a Christmas movie. It is basically like Razzles, it is a candy and it is a gum.
QFF: Are there any developments for Gremlins 3?
ZG: So here is the good news, well it depends on your attitude. It will never be remade. It is not going to be Kingston Falls again with someone else playing Billy Peltzer and some body else playing Phoebe’s part. What Christopher Columbus said was that the first film was very near and dear to his heart, and was never going to be remade, and he slipped and referred to it not as a Gremlins reboot but as a Gremlins sequel. So I thought was king of a telling slip. The other thing which he said is was is that he has really been looking at J.J. Abrams work, specifically in the Star Trek series and now in the Star Wars series, and this interview happened the day after the first Star Wars trailer came out, the one that had had Han Solo and Chewie in it that we all looked at and went [in young child’s voice] “Oh my god! It’s Chewie, I love him so much” Didn’t we all think that? We can wait to see this movie. He claims that he had the same reaction, and he thought to himself that it is such a powerful pull, the nostalgia pull is so powerful. And he said that it was what he wanted to do with the new Gremlins film. And then the person asked him “So are there going to be new characters in the Gremlins film?” And this was very interesting he said “There are going to be some new characters.” That phrasing, I can’t say too much, it’s all very hush-hush. If you went to McDonalds and they said that there are going to be some new burgers, you can expect that there are going to some of the old burgers there. All I am just wondering is, if you look at the Gremlins franchise, who do you suppose the Han Solo and Chewbacca are? [holds up a Gizmo doll].