John Ashton has been acting in movies and TV for nearly 50 years. During that time, he’s acted with really the biggest names in films such as De Niro, Bronson, Anthony Hopkins, Eddie Murphy, and many more. Audiences are probably most familiar with him as Sergeant John Taggart in Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop and Beverly Hills Cop II opposite Judge Reinhold in 1984 and 1988. And as Marvin Dorfler in Robert De Niro’s Midnight Run in 1988. John’s also an award-winning stage actor winning the Los Angeles Drama Critics award twice, a much bigger deal than the El Paso Drama Critics award, and a Los Angeles Drama-Logue award with co-star Ed Harris in Sam Shepard’s True West. His recent work independent films have also been critically recognized, including the best actor award at the Hells Half Mile Film Festival for his eponymous role in 2015s, Uncle John, and best-supporting actor award at the Los Angeles Method Fest for his character Smoke, in the 2019 film festival darling, Once Upon a River.
Allen Gilmer: John, sure good to see you here and hope you don’t mind 10 questions.
John Ashton: No, not at all. I’m looking forward to it, Allen, it could be fun.
Allen: Question number one. How did a tough guy from the mean streets of Connecticut end up an acclaimed actor?
John Ashton: Well, I was pretty much a juvenile delinquent. I grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood in between Springfield, Mass and Hartford. I was pretty much of a juvenile delinquent.
I got in with a bad crowd. We were robbing cars and doing stuff, stupid stuff, and actually my mom took me down to Staunton Military Academy of Virginia and was going to enroll me in the military academy for high school. I said, “No, I want to play football.” And anyway, I was walking down the hallway in high school and the drama teacher came up to me and said, “Would you like to be in this play?” And I said, “Sure,” and it was Oklahoma, and I played Jud Fry, and ended up winning best actor that year for it. And I just loved the theater. I just fell in love with it.
I gave the advice at a speech at my high school and it was the middle of the Vietnam War, and it’s a funny speech. And I looked out over the audience and everyone was laughing. And I thought to myself, I could take these people away from all the crap that’s going on in a world. It was in the middle of Vietnam and stuff. And I said, this is what I want to do. I want to contribute to society that way.
And we did 15 plays in a repertory. And I came back from that, and I joined the Company of Angels in Hollywood, which was a small theater. And I did A Flea in Her Ear, a French farce. And I won the Drama Critics Circle Award for that in 1973. And the funny thing is, I know there’s a question later on Alan, but I graduated from USC in ’73 and got my degree in theater. I won the Drama Critics Circle award for best supporting actor.
Allen: Questions 2, So what attracted you to the role of Detective JW Asher in Death in Texas? Were you drinking? What caused that?
John Ashton: Well, Ronnie and I did Uncle John together and got to be really good friends on that film together. And then Ronnie got ahold of me a few months later and said, “Hey, I’m putting together this film, and I really would like to have you in it.” So I went out and had dinner with Scott, the director, and Ronnie, and we talked about it, and they explained the character to me, and I loved it. And then I read the script after that, but it was mainly because Ronnie wanted me to do it. And I loved Ronnie and loved working with him. And I said, “Anything you want to do, man, let’s do it.”
Allen: Question 3, Well, you’ve had quite a run here with critics these… In the last few years in these Indie run. And I know that this is probably a golden age of indie movies, as opposed to how you came into the industry, but what do you like best about making these kinds of films?
John Ashton: The thing I really love about indie films is the young talent that you get to work with. They’re not jaded, old Hollywood people. They’re young, eager, talented kids, and I just get refreshed by that. And it gives me new life, and I feel like I’m doing a play with them. It’s just I love their energy and their go-get-it-ness. And they’re not jaded and negative. And Hollywood’s got its good points, but you run into a lot of people, and I don’t like negativity around me. I like positivity around me, and I just get a good, positive vibe from the young kids. And Once Upon a River, I just loved doing that character, and the crew and the cast were great. And Death in Texas, I just loved being around young, enthusiastic, creative people.
Allen: Question 4, Let the joy out. You talked a little bit about being opposite Ronnie Blevins in Uncle John. And so this was Death in Texas reunion for you two. Uncle John got a lot of interesting notes, notations. What did you think about what director… David Lynch’s comments on that film? And I have to say that if people haven’t seen Uncle John, they need to go see it. It really is a master class of what is not said, but just in acting.
John Ashton: Well, thank you, Allen. But I found that that was the intriguing part, when they sent me the script, and we’d talk to each other. That was the intriguing part of that role for me, was there was a lot more going on that was unsaid than was said. The undercurrent of that character, there was a million lines going on inside of him. And that’s what I found so interesting about the character. And when I read the script, I went, “Man, this guy’s got so much crap going on him, but what he says, very little of what he says, there’s more going on inside than outside.”
Allen: Master class. And David Lynch is one of the great directors, and his comment was… Didn’t he say that was his favorite movie of the year, or the one that he couldn’t stop thinking about?
John Ashton: Yeah. David Lynch gave it a great review, and coming from David Lynch, I thought that was pretty amazing. And I was very proud of that.
Allen: Question 5, Back in the movie you did for Smoke, you pulled off a toothless character. Now, I know you. You seem to have all your teeth, the times that I’ve known you.
John Ashton: Well, interesting story. I read the script, and then I read the book. And I happened to be going through some dental procedure at the time. I was getting an implant put in, in the front, and I had a bone thing, and a bunch of other stuff. I don’t want to get into it. But I had a temporary plate there, while they were preparing my implant. So I read the script, and they wanted to do the implant. And I said, “Can you hold off? Because I want to use this for the film.”
So I flew to Chicago to film, and I met with Haroula, the director, and we were having dinner. And I said, “Would you excuse me for a minute?” And she said, “Sure.” And I went to the men’s room, and I took the plate out, and I went back in to the dinner table and I smiled. I go, “What do you think?” And she said, “Oh my God, how did you do that? Would you do that for the film?” And I said, ” That’s why I told them to hold off on the dental work, because I want to use it for the character.”
Allen: Question 6, Which role in your career did you really want, that you didn’t get?
John Ashton: I’ve been asked that before, and I can’t really think of one Allen, because everyone I really wanted, I got.
Allen: Good for you.
John Ashton: Honest to God. There are some, I haven’t gotten that I really didn’t care if I got them or not. It’s like, okay. If I get it great, if I don’t… But, there are other roles that I said, “I’m getting this role. Nobody’s taken it from me.” When I went in to read for Midnight Run, I called Marty. By the way, I was at a play with Joey Pants, Joey Pantoliano did a play. And I went to see it. And another actor friend of mine, Alan Vint, who’s now not with us, but he was a fantastic guy. At intermission, he said, “So you’re going to do Midnight Run? Right?” And I said, “I haven’t even heard about it.’ And he goes, “You’re perfect for it. You got to do it.” And, I found out Marty Brest was directing it.
So I called Marty and I said, “Marty, what’s the deal with Midnight Run?” He said, “Oh, you’d be great in it.” I go, “Well, yeah. Okay, Marty. So you want me to do it?” And he says, “Well, you’ve got to audition.” I said, “Marty, we did Beverly Hills Cop 2. What do I got to audition for?” And he said, “It’s not me. It’s Bobby. He wants to read with everybody.” So, I go into the audition with DeNiro and there’s a hallway. 50 guys are reading for the role and everybody’s pacing up and down. And Oh my God, I’ve got to go in and read with DeNiro. Oh my God. They’re all freaking out. And I was like going, yeah, baby. I couldn’t wait to get in that room. And, then I looked around, I said, “Nobody’s getting that freaking role, but me.”
So, I go into the audition and I’ll try to clean it up a little bit here. But so, Bob and I are sitting there and we’re doing the scene and he goes to hand me something and I reach to grab it. And, he threw it on the floor and stared at me. I looked down at it, I looked up at him and I said, “Fuck you.” And he said, “Fuck you to too.” And I said, “Fuck you.” We did it in character. And then I found out later from the writer, that as soon as I walked out, DeNiro said, “I want him
Allen: Questions 7, So, did you get tired of living in LA and hanging out at Hotel Marmont, drinking champagne cocktails? What took you out to Colorado?
John Ashton: Yeah. That was never my style, Allen. I went to work and went home and played golf. I was not a Hollywood guy. I grew up in the streets of Connecticut, man. And, I was just not a Hollywood guy ever. My son at the time was seven years old and some kid got killed on the end of our street. And, that was 1993. And, I had been there 25 years and felt I paid my dues. I said I don’t want my son to grow up here. And I had played a celebrity golf tournament in Colorado and found this town. And, I moved here and my son grew up here and he loved it. Now, he’s back in LA working for a video game company.
Allen: Question 9, Is there anyone on your bucket list left that you’d want to act with?
John Ashton: Well, there are some really good actors out there now. I like Ryan Gosling. I’d like to do something with him, maybe. And, I think Tom Hardy’s terrific. I’d love to work with Tom Hardy. I was going to answer this by saying, look behind me. I mean, I’ve worked with DeNiro Hopkins, Charles Bronson, Eddie Murphy, over in Paris was Gerard Depardieu.
Allen: All right. So, number nine, what is your favorite role? What’s your favorite role you’ve had from the beginning until now?
John Ashton: Well, there’s so many. On stage, it had to be True West with Ed Harris. And, that was a great experience and doing it in repertory down there and doing the Edinburgh Arts Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, that was… I did a lot of different… We did 15 different plays and I was in 13 of them. And, we did shows from noon to midnight every two hours, a different show every two hours. So, my dressing room had 13 different outfits in it and I would walk off the stage and change my wardrobe.
The set guys would change the set, the new audience would come in and we’d come out and do a different play at two o’clock. And then a four o’clock, the change… And at six o’clock and eight… It was the greatest experience and lesson.
Allen: Question 10, What do you miss the most?
John Ashton: I don’t miss anything about Hollywood to tell you the truth. I really don’t. But, I love my work. My business is crazy but, I love my work. What I feel bad for young kids now is everything is so technical. There’s such a lack of personal, getting to know one another. When I was back in 1972 or three, I won the Drama Critics Award, which we talked about. And, I was working at a bar making a buck and a quarter an hour at a pool hall in South Central LA. Okay? And living in a Murphy bed apartment for 85 bucks a week or a month. And I get this call to go read for… Right after I won the Drama Critics Award to go read for Police Story. And I went, here we go. Here we go. And, I thought my career was going to take off, I’m working. And so I go to this meeting, and it’s for two lines to play an ambulance attendant. And I looked at it and I go, “Is this it?” I just went to drama you want me to read… I said, “You can get a wino to do this. You don’t need an actor to do this.”
And so, I did that for a long time. My point was, when I went in that room, the director was there. This was for two lines, Alan. The director, the producer, the writer, everybody was in that room. And the kids don’t have that now.
These kids don’t have that opportunity. You go into a room now, there’s a little kid with a camera. And he films you, and he sends the film to the director and the producer. So you don’t have that personal contact with these people, and I think that’s a huge, huge mistake that Hollywood is making.