Bastards, tramps, bloodsuckers, road trash, and vamps find a home on Syfy and Universal Cable Productions’ grindhouse series Blood Drive. Standing center stage at Club Mayhem, where the underground race kicks off, is Julian Slink, the mischievous master of ceremonies. The friend to the violent and the malevolent is played by stage, screen, and TV actor and sometimes musical and magical performer Colin Cunningham.
Cunningham is best known as John Pope in TNT’s Falling Skies, and for his lead turns in The Collector, Da Vinci’s Inquest, and films like The Sixth Day, Elektra and the ensemble-driven Best In Show, but he is also an Academy Award nominated director. His film Centigrade was the first short film to crack the Feature Downloads Top Ten on iTunes. An underground star in above-ground projects who became an actor on a dare, the magnetic character Slink could be his Frank N. Furter.
Colin Cunningham spoke exclusively with Den of Geek about Blood Drive’s dark escapism, production notes, and what happens when he puts on his top hat.
Den of Geek: Hello Colin
Colin Cunningham: How are you, brother?
I’m doing great. Having a great time watching you, as a matter of fact.
I’ve yet to see some of it myself. It’s been a while. I know it just gets better and better as it goes along, so I’m happy about it. It’s crazy.
Is there anything you see on screen that grosses you out even though you played it?
Nah, we had so much fun, man. It was just bonkers. It’s so difficult to describe this show, this experience. Honestly, I’m often speechless when I think that we even pulled off an eighth of what we went for. I never read anything like it. When I first met James Roland, he was in a strait jacket and they didn’t know whether to send him to the building of the criminally insane or give him a TV show on Syfy. I’m glad they gave him the show.
It was completely over the top and yet there really was an intelligence to it. It’s a show about cars that are fueled by human blood and you flip open the hood and it’ll eat ya. But there was an intelligence I found in it that I find lacking from so many shows. It was incredibly refreshing to read. What in god’s name is this? Because there is a brilliance to it, but it’s utterly bonkers.
You were in a standup series Living in Your Car, do cars play a big part in your life?
I’m living in New York right now. It’s mainly trains and buses.
How many times did you have to take the driving test before you got your license?
I think I had to take the written one three times. No, it was twice. She let me go. That was a long time ago, buddy.
Do you remember your first car?
My first car was a 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. That was my first car. A big gas-sucking bomber.
Do you remember your fastest car?
Yeah, and I’d rather not get into that. That one was very fast and so many seconds later, it was not moving at all. No more fast cars for me, buddy, no more fast cars for me.
I would imagine Slink would aspire to having a chauffeur. Do you prefer driving yourself?
I don’t know what Slink would prefer. Slink would prefer riding in the back of a hearse.
So, is Slink out for himself, or is he the ultimate company man?
Slink is definitely not a company man. That’s an interesting question. There were a lot of questions on the set when we were doing it. Exactly what is this guy? He’s a master of mayhem. He’s absolutely the master of mayhem, but he’s also a very much an artist, or he fancies himself an artist and takes it very, very seriously. So he’s got his own twisted, warped way of going about what the Blood Drive is. What it means to him, and it’s his art and his own twisted reality.
In my spoiler free review I said that you talk like Marilyn Manson sings. What inspirations did you take from outside sources to build this think called Slink?
Oh my god, many, absolutely many. Slink is an amalgamation of everything from Joel Grey to Tim Curry to Gene Wilder. Also, very much, a lot of Slink, at least in terms of the way he sounds, is a complete and total homage or rip-off of a great character actor of the ’40s and ’50s by the name of Frank Nelson.
Nelson used to do a lot of the Jack Benny Shows. His catch phrase was “why yes.” Somebody would ask something like, “are you the manager?” and he would say “why yeeeeeeeeeeessss.” That was Frank Nelson. I’m a big fan of his work, so I went back and studied a lot of the stuff that he did. I think the last person who was an inspiration was an actor out of Vancouver by the name of Heron Odeshay. He’s got a band, a very goth, steampunk band called The Vaudeville Vagabonds. If you look them up, his character is Reverend Heathen Strangefellow. Heron is just amazing, a wonderful artist in his own right. So I borrowed from a lot of people to pull this thing off.
You’re clearly having a blast, but the production notes are becoming my favorite scenes. What kind of input did you get from suits on how to play the character?
I have to say this has been an unbelievably unique show. At least in terms of me on the floor, on the set. We were ten thousand miles away from the nearest suit. That said, what I think really made Blood Drive unique is everybody got it. They kind of got it. There were always some notes but it wasn’t a battle. They really did get us. They gave James and David and John their blessing: “Go. Make this insane show.” There are a lot of inside jokes because they literally used the characters of a lot of the executives at Syfy and they killed them off in the show. It was this tongue in cheek thing, but there was no animosity.
It gave us such tremendous license to create and just go. Because nobody had ever done anything like this before. So the people who were doing it, they would trust us. It was great and I’ve never had such creative freedom, and I owe a lot to Roland and Straiton and Hlavin for allowing me to do what I do. Sometimes I’m going out on a limb. I don’t know, either this is going to work or I’m gonna get fired. I’ll be here for a couple of weeks and they’ll be sending me back to LA.
James and John told me about the producers being used, and I was wondering is there a kind of catharsis that comes from that?
Yeah. So often we work on shows and my job as an actor is to dignify crappy material. To trick the audience into thinking that what they’re watching isn’t crap. So you come up with different ways to kind of hide bad writing. Whereas, in Blood Drive, we can really get into it and explore it. So it wasn’t so much, we have to fix this, it was more “wow, let’s explore this.” It was just a completely different way of working. Like I said, a lot of times my job is to bring credibility to scripts that should never have seen the light of day. This is just a very, very different kind of project.
You also did the show The Magicians and you went to a stage magician for advice in the short The Matter of Magic. Do you have an interest in mystical things?
Oh absolutely. I love going to the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Basically, I’ve been a student of magic for a long, long time. My teacher was Gerard, the very famous Gerard, who was a consultant for Criss Angel on Mindfreak for three or four years, and he worked with David Blaine. He worked with some of the very best alive. Gerard is a good friend of mine and he’s been a wonderful teacher. I am an ambassador to magic and mentalism and all things eclectic and strange. It’s lovely.
And I noticed that you have a tendency to play otherworldly characters, in one way or another, where are you from?
I am a stage guy. I’m an old school, Arthur Miller kinda guy. The first thing I ever saw was the play A View from the Bridge at the Lee Strasberg Theater in Hollywood. I think I was maybe eight or nine years old, and I was convinced then, I was like “what the hell is this?” And my father was a big fan of old movies, so he basically introduced me to every bit of black and white anything that’s ever been shot. I just became a fanatic for it. I’m a bit of an old-school guy. I’m an analog guy. I don’t live my life with my thumbs. I prefer to talk with people instead of text. I prefer the real reality versus the virtual one.
The way you’re acting is more theatrical than a lot of TV series, what is it about the stage acting mentality that you don’t normally get to play with on TV?
It may be theatrical, as in big, but that’s just a style of theater in itself, you can pare things down, you can go crazy. But to be a master of ceremonies on a death race usually means you’re going to be scratching your head like a method actor, internalizing everything. You’re going to have to be out there and create entertainment, even though it’s bloody entertainment.
What was interesting on Blood Drive was, because of the budget and because things had to move so quickly, we often didn’t get anything more than one or two takes. That’s all you got. And, coming from the theater, you only get one. So it’s not like television where you get to do it 10, 20, 30 times and they pick the best one. You get one shot.
I remember when I was in Cape Town, all I did watch the Golden Age of Television. That’s when they were doing live television to kinescope. All the actors got one take, and when you finished a scene you had to run to the next set and pray to God you god there before the camera did. There were no second takes, no second chances. You made it or you didn’t. That’s how I approached Blood Drive. Everything for me was: get it in one take, or try and get it in one take.
Is Heart Enterprises a good company to work for? I know the dental coverage leaves a little to be desired.
Heart is not a company you want to be a career employee with, not me anyway.
So are you a fan of exploitation films?
I’m a fan of all films. I never liked the term exploitation. It never made any sense to me. I always found it to be a silly kind of term. What is it that you’re exploiting? Action movies? I thought that was a bit of a slag to black filmmakers who would take the initiative, go out, raise the money and shoot a movie of their own. Somehow that was deemed exploitation. It’s not. It’s a movie. They wrote the scripts, they shot it, they acted and they did the stunts, and they were great movies. They were low-budget movies. Like Billy Jack, Tom Laughlin, he’s one of my favorite filmmakers because he was totally independent. Robert Townshend, he did Hollywood Shuffle.
Back in the day, they called it grindhouse because they’d grind ‘em out, they’d knock ‘em off in twelve, 14 days. You worked with whatever you had. You got some motorcycles, you had some guys in leather jackets, you had some corn syrup and red food coloring and away you went. George Romero had zombies and it was great. It was imagination run wild. You were able to tell stories and get it up there on the screen.
A lot of these guys, they’d make their movies, and they’d have the film cans, and they’d drive the movie in the trunk of their car. They’d take it to this drive-in, and when it finished they’d take it to another drive-in, and they’d drive across the United States with the same film print. I’m a big fan of all independent film, especially the grindhouse, the genre, because there were no rules. They were able to just do it, without the studio’s backing. I tip my hat to all those guys and gals who did it.
The series itself moves from one style of grindhouse to another from episode to episode.
Yes, it’s fantastic. It pays tribute to many of the genres, which just makes the show so difficult, so challenging, because it does not resemble the week previous. It’s completely different. We weren’t doing the TV show with the regular plot on the same kind of set. We didn’t repeat anything. We never went back to the same set. The genius that was our production designer, who would design, build, tear down, design and build another thing all over again. I’ve never worked on a show like this.
Peter Falk said in Wings of Desire that he got his character from his hat, like he did from the overcoat in Colombo. Are you a different person without your hat?
I worked with Peter, god rest his soul. I’m such a huge [director John] Cassavetes fan. I got to work with Peter Falk [2003’s Wilder Days], it’s one of the highlights of my life. I’ll tell you, there would be no Slink without the absolute genius of Danielle Knox. She designed the wardrobe. She supervised. She showed me all the sketches. We worked together. Unbelievable talent. And also Kerry [Skelton], our key makeup, our entire makeup department was just second to none. But Danielle Knox came up with all that wardrobe, all those costumes and it is some of the most exquisite garments I’ve ever seen, let alone been gifted to wear.
Danielle Knox, if I wish anything from this show it’s for her to be buried under a mountain of trophies for her work.
So the clothes make the man, when you’re putting on your wardrobe and preparing, but you’re still looking out of your eyes, you don’t see that. You only know that you look that way.
To tell you the truth, Tony, when you get the perfect piece of wardrobe, you have to do less. There’s less to do, because it’s already doing it for you. Like when I wanted to do John Pope on Falling Skies, the look was everything. Once I had the hair, the leather jacket, once I had it all together, now all I have to do is just breathe. I just talk. The work’s already done. It’ll do all the work for me. It’s huge. It’s really important. Then you can stop doing stuff and just start thinking and reacting and getting into the story. The picture’s been created. It’s done.
There’s a lot of choreography. You don’t have a specific fight scene in the episodes I’ve seen so far, but you do have a way of moving up in the company. Tell me a little bit about the stunts and choreography and how you make your move in Heart Enterprises.
It’s interesting, because I know that, we had a fantastic stunt coordinator, Terry Greg. But Slink has such unique skills, and he’s more of a cerebral kind of guy. Although he’s quick to throw a knife and slit your throat, he’s also very delicate and particular, so he won’t murder someone if he likes the shirt he’s wearing. It’s this weird mix of psychotic killer and dandy, with a handkerchief. It’s just such a twisted character.
What would be his recreational drug of choice, Red Rapture or episode 4’s Halloween candy?
Nah, he’s purely a sales guy. He gets off on watching what happens when people take that crazy stuff.
Do you have a favorite locale? Every episode has a different set and has different population. Where does Slink fit in most?
I don’t know if it’s in any of the episodes you’ve seen yet, Tony, but backstage of the Mayhem party is one of the most incredible sets I’ve ever seen, and that’s where I think Slink is most at home.
You’ve done a lot of stage work, you’ve done a lot of stage magic work. Are there certain places you’re more comfortable as a performer? If you’ve done a lot of stage work and you’re playing on a similar set, is there a nostalgia?
No, I’m comfortable on any kind of stage, a sound stage, in front of a camera or in front of people. I’m usually uncomfortable if I’m not up there. I feel odd. I’m most at peace between the words “speed” and “cut.” I don’t know if your readers will get that but it’s the truth.
Have you seen anything on screen that’s grossed you out even though you were in the scene doing it?
No, we’re having a blast. Everything we’re doing it looks nothing like what you see. It’s fun. We’re laughing our asses off. There’s no danger. The blood’s not real. It’s ridiculous silliness. We laugh. We’re laughing all the time. There’s nothing scary. It’s a TV show.
But when you’re watching it on the couch?
Certainly not Blood Drive. Because I know how it was all done, so I’m not looking at it the way anybody else would be looking at it. I’m looking at, oh that cut together well, oh fantastic mix, for the sound. Wow, the lighting is great in that shot. We’re able to enjoy what we created.
I was also going to ask about the social commentary. Do you see the implications of the fracking on the Scar or, and I know you weren’t in the scene, but the cops making quotas off jars of teeth?
I wouldn’t look at any of that stuff too seriously. It’s a show about engines that eat people. I wouldn’t read in too much zeitgeist. Certain things are in the news, and you have some fun with them. I don’t see Blood Drive as anything like that. It’s an artistic bit of fun. We all draw upon current events. God knows there’s enough politics and bullshit and separation going on right now. The last thing I want to do is add more fuel to that shit.
I wanted to ask a little bit of Roger Corman, he’s kind of an artistic godfather to this.
Oh man, who isn’t a fan of Corman? I’m still a fan of Corman. The sacrifices, it’s really tough, what they did, to work outside of a studio system and leave a legacy and inspire so many filmmakers to do different stuff. These guys and gals, their contribution to cinema is significant. Big fan of all that kind of stuff. Growing up and beyond. It’s a great inspiration. It’s so much fun, also, to go back, and watch a lot of these things. To look at a Russ Meyer movie. To look at Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill or Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens and see what inspiration might be had for a particular episode of Blood Drive. It’s a lot of fun.
Did you watch the movies as part of preparation?
No, like I said, I knew what we were doing and the twists that I wanted to put on it was to approach it from a completely different- See, here’s the thing: When you’re doing a B-movie, the thing that makes it so good is that you don’t make a B-movie. You make an A-movie that turns out to be not that great. The best B-movies have really, really bad actors that are really, really trying to make it great. So, there’s this weird line to talk. Nobody sets out to make something crappy. They just didn’t necessarily have the money, the time, the whatever, the this, the that, and so it takes on a particular quality to it that makes it really novel, and different and refreshing. Because it’s trying to do something but not entirely succeeding, but there’s a quality to that that’s endearing and cool.
Not that that’s what Blood Drive is, but Blood Drive is inspired by those kinds of films.
I love the very subtle comedy in it, actually, there is some very artistic use of censorship. How much playing around was there to catch the right tone?
Well, you’re not supposed to take it seriously. I mean, the characters can take it seriously. There’s also some flexibility and freedom there. It’s kind of like watching a live action Bugs Bunny cartoon. It’s ultra-violent. It’s ridiculously over-the-top, sexual, disgusting sometimes. So gory, but it’s also utterly ridiculous. You can’t take it seriously. It’s popcorn, and it’s the best kind of popcorn. What I’m kind of happy about is, the world can be a very, very dark place and it’s nice to have this crazy Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoon kind of thing that is Blood Drive. It’s a bit of escapism. It’s a bit of insanity. You get to have a bit of fun with. It’s not for everybody. It’s certainly not for everybody, but those who get it, I think they’ll really dig it.
I am so glad you brought up Bugs Bunny. I see this as living a cartoon. What did Slink get from Bugs Bunny?
He loves mischief. He loves mayhem. He’s Bugs Bunny, Groucho Marx, he’s anti-conformity. He’ll pluck a hair and put it in your caviar. That’s what Blood Drive is, It’s a pubic hair in your caviar. That’s what makes it nuts and fun, and very irreverent. It kind of takes the piss out of everything and everyone, and itself. It’s interesting that the show is aware of what it is, and makes a joke out of its own audience. It’s aware that it’s doing it, and you’re aware that you’re part of the joke, and it’s somehow okay. We’re all just kind getting a little crazy, and it’s great.
Blood Drive premieres on Syfy on June 14th.