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Personality Complex is a regular feature of Complex's Pop Culture channel, where you'll be introduced to rising stars of film and television.
The modern young actor, constantly zooming through scripts and auditions, finds comfort in the dream of one day attending his/her own silver screen premiere. Yet a current generation of Internet-savvy media consumers continues to raise the bar when it comes to the progress of television programming and the TV culture new media has spawned, adding a whole new level of prestige and competition to the industry. One modern young actor in particular has found his dream TV opportunity, working with one of his all-time favorite filmmakers.
D.J. Cotrona (Detroit 1-8-7, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), a self-proclaimed "nerd" from New Haven, Connecticut, has always had an affinity for horror films with plenty of action and adventure. Which is why his latest project, El Rey Network's small-screen re-imagining of the 1996 cult classic, From Dusk Till Dawn, directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring George Clooney, is a fitting role.
Currently based in Austin, TX, home to Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios, Cotrona likes to spend his time reading, catching up on Game of Thrones, and avoiding George Clooney (more on that to come). We sat down with Cotrona to discuss all of that, as well as working with Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, and From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, the first season finale of which airing tonight at 9 p.m. EST on El Rey.
Interview by Ramy Zabarah (@ramyzab)
Is it true that, once upon a time, you wanted to be a lawyer?
Jesus, you’re digging like a decade back. It’s funny, when you first get to college you’re 17 years old and somebody says, “Pick the path of your career,” and at the time you just kind of grab whatever looks good on paper, and that’s what I did.
Did you actually see yourself becoming a lawyer?
Absolutely not. I liked to argue points and listen to myself talk, and that’s literally why I took it. I just found a much better version of that with acting. It's a pretty simple story; I feel like my priorities haven't shifted since I was nine. I grew up loving films and making stupid movies with a good friend of mine, who now actually has a career in a really prominent special effects house, so he's still doing it. We just started messing around with a camera. I stole some auditions and made some friends with casting directors. I started doing small jobs out in New York, then booking pilots, then it kind of took on a life of its own.
What are your top five favorite horror films?
Oh, dude, that’s so hard. It always changes depending on what I’ve seen last, but top five? I’m going to have to go Return of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, The Exorcist, and this is going to make no sense but there was this one called Ghoulies. It's an old-school '80s cheesy horror movie where these little creatures jump out of the toilet and attack people. I saw that very young and it scarred me. I think about that every time I go use the restroom.
You’ve probably seen John Carpenter's The Thing, right?
Oh, yeah, John Carpenter. I love everything John Carpenter's ever done. Robert [Rodriguez] has, on El Rey—the network he started—this show called The Director's Chair, where Robert interviews other directors. It's like Inside the Actor's Studio, but for directors. The first thing he's doing is a block with John Carpenter, where he's playing all of Carpenter's movies in between interviews asking him about the process. Carpenter is amazing. They Live is amazing. The Thing is definitely one of my favorites, though.
Carpenter, man... Escape from New York is the reason Robert wanted to become a director. He saw that, and he was convinced.
You still have one film left…
Let's go with The Shining.
Absolutely. It's horrifying.
What is on your DVR right now?
My DVR right now? From Dusk Till Dawn; Vice is fucking crazy; obviously Game of Thrones; I just started True Detective. I know I'm way behind but I'm fucking obsessed.
Not a Mad Men guy. Never got into it. I'm kind of a contrarian that way. If something gets too popular too fast before I can get on it, I just get really annoyed. Everybody tells me I'm an idiot; it's supposed to be amazing. I saw some of the second season, I loved it but I was just detached. I didn't get into it. But what I love that about the culture of TV now is the many ways that we take in content. Any time you want, you can watch—like Mad Men for example, at some point I'll be able to take that entire show, and I'll get to binge-watch them. It's fantastic.
What's something that you're passionate about, other than acting, that most people don't know about?
Skateboarding was the only thing I was ever good at. Growing up, I was doing that from like dusk till dawn. [Laughs.] It's funny because I grew up skating all over the east coast, and then acting started taking off for me, so I put that down and went this way, but a lot of my friends that I grew up skating with in this area are now huge—they're pros. They all moved out to LA. And when we were skating, the industry was just starting to blow up, so all these guys that had small shop sponsorships now have Nike contracts. It's been amazing to watch that sport blow up and finally get the credibility it deserves, but, you know, I went to work too, just at something else.
On From Dusk Till Dawn, you play Seth Gecko, an anti-hero bank robber. Did you grow up watching films or reading stories about bank robbers, like Jesse James or Bonnie & Clyde?
Yeah, it's one of the classic American film genres, like heists. The crime genre is so good, and that's why we see it so many times over and over again, but I think the tough thing is it's getting harder and harder to see it in an innovative way. It's becoming saturated, so every time we see one come up that’s successful with a creative style, we celebrate it, whether it's all of Quentin's stuff or all of Robert's stuff, which is obviously so iconic. We love to see that genre be reinvented and watch it flourish.
We see it more and more these days, where we want to revisit iconic characters; that's why every two or three or four years we see a new Batman, Superman. Every DC or Marvel property is constantly getting reinvented because we love these characters. They're so iconic, and we want to watch them over and over again.
Robert and Quentin have clearly held onto the rights for these characters for a long time. It must be thrilling to get to work with them on such a unique project.
I think that’s what made me feel safe about actually trying to take a swing at it, because this isn't some other director doing an interpretation of Quentin’s characters and Robert’s work. This is Robert and Quentin saying, “Alright, let's go back and do it again." It's a dream come true. These guys are larger than life.
Have you always been a Tarantino/Rodriguez fan?
Huge fan. Are you kidding me? Absolutely. There's a reason why these guys are cornerstones of the film industry. Robert is such an innovative guy. He’s a creative force. Every other director respects him for it.
There's a reason why Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are cornerstones of the film industry.
This is a guy that revolutionized digital film, which is now the standard. He brought 3D back; he was one of the first guys to do that, and that’s now the standard. The things he was doing with green screen first are now becoming the standard. The great thing is he's now doing it again with his new network, El Rey, so it's great to be on his team.
Has this entire From Dusk Till Dawn experience turned out the way you expected when you first read the script?
Dude, I’ve got TV PTSD. I’ve shot a lot of pilots that have never seen the light of day, jobs that have fallen apart or gotten canceled, so I'm really weary about what contracts I sign and where I swear my loyalty to. Robert has this amazing scenario where we work out in Austin at Troublemaker Studios. There are no executives; it's just us and Robert. He’s writing, composing, camera-operating, editing. He is an auteur. It feels like we're making an independent movie with a huge budget and he trusts us as actors to kind of bring our own spin to it. Obviously we have a couple big shadows to walk out of with what those guys did with the original.
Which brings me to my next question. What is it like following in the footsteps of George Clooney?
If I thought about it too much it would be pretty daunting, but again, the thing is this is not someone else doing an interpretation of Robert’s work and George’s work and Quentin's characters. This is Robert going back and saying “I want to do it again,” and as an actor it's really empowering.
When Robert Rodriguez looks at you and says “You're my guy,” you believe him. It's only since I finished shooting and started doing interviews that people are kind of looking me in the face and going, "You should be terrified!” But no, we have a blast, and Robert said it best when he said that this show is an alternate universe. It's the same characters so there are going to be some similarities, but we take this, we go much further into the back-story and we go much further into the future, so it's a different version. I'm proud of what we're doing.
Have you been approached by George Clooney? Do you talk to him about it?
No, I hide. Quentin's all over it. Robert and Quentin get together and watch them at his place and he loves it, but I'm hiding. George Clooney probably has a large blacklist button he can push on people in Hollywood, so I'm just humbly trying to do my job as best I can.
How did you first get involved?
Robert's a guy that does everything from instinct. He's a really creative force and he always tries to encourage people to work from the gut, and that's how he works. He casts on instinct, and he shoots quick.
He's always very quick, and the process of getting casted was exactly the same. I got a phone call at the very last minute, somebody asked me if I could be at the Four Seasons hotel in two hours to meet with Robert Rodriguez, so obviously I was psyched. I sat down with him, we talked for a couple hours about his idea for the network and the show and what he wanted to do. It sounded like a dream come true. It just sounded like such an amazing opportunity, to be a part of this creative playground he was building with no strings.
About a week later, we got together again and we started playing with some material with some of the other actors, and another week later I was in Austin putting the suit on. Everyone at Troublemaker laughs at the actors as they come in, because every single actor that works with Robert has the same experience. It's super fast.
He just moves quick man and before you realize you're already in the project. He doesn't let you second-guess yourself. He teaches you to trust your instincts creatively so before you can think about it too much you just go with your gut. It's a great experience.
What would be your ultimate role or project to work on?
It's tough because when it comes to actors, there's so many I would love to work with. Everybody has something different to offer, but I'm at this place now, and I've learned this from Robert, where it's really good and very important to try to work with the best directors that you can, especially at the stage of my career I'm in. I'm just a small ingredient in the process and whoever I hand my piece of it to, they're vision is going to dictate what my performance looks like.
I remember when Robert and I first started working together, we'd have an off-day or something and I'd say stuff like, “I'm not feeling it, I'm screwing up,” and he'd be like “No, you're doing just fine." He would show me what raw performance looks like through editing and what he could do with it. It's pretty amazing. At this point I think I'm just humbly trying to work with the best directors I can, and that list is endless. There are a lot of amazing directors, new and already established, that I'd love to work with. I’m just in the breadline trying to grab whatever I can.
Anything lined up for the future?
The ink has not dried on anything so I don't want to jinx any of the projects I'm working on. Trust me, I've had that experience many times. I've had quite a few big jobs fall apart so I don't want to curse anything just yet.
Any advice for our readers who are also aspiring actors?
People always ask you when they see you working, "How did you get in the business?" It's like there's some Want Ad and you just answer it and get a job.
In an interview Matt Damon said that any time anyone asks him "Should I be an actor?" he tells them, "You shouldn't—you should give up." I thought it was brilliant. His reasoning was that if him saying that to you is enough to dissuade you, than you shouldn't do it, because 95% of your professional experience is going to be disappointment and rejection, even at the top point of your game. You really have to love it and you really have to believe there's nothing else you can do.