Remember way back when six-year-old you said he or she wanted to be a cowboy or a ballerina or an accountant? Andrew Bowen remembers what six-year-old him wanted to be. Mainly because he’s actually living that little guy’s dream right now.
Andrew’s done a lot more than just swap coasts since heading to Hollywood. From his first listed credit as Matt Wilson on Saved by the Bell to writing, directing and staring in his own science fiction series, Mr. Bowen has amassed a resume worth being jealous over. From comedy to drama to video game voice over, there’s a really good chance you’ve seen his face or know the voice.
What you might not know is what an engaging, thoughtful and down to earth type of person he is, and that’s why we’re here. I recently had the chance to sit and talk with Andrew about his current projects – A Boy Called Po and The N.A.M. 716TH – and what it took to get a kid from Vermont all the way to Hollywood. So without more rambling from me, here’s one of my absolute favorite interviews with the very awesome Andrew Bowen.
onFiction: You’ve covered a lot in your career. Literally from Saved by the Bell to writing and directing your own material, how does a guy raised in Vermont end up doing this in Hollywood?
Andrew Bowen: Certifiable insanity? I don’t know, I really don’t know. At a very young age, I think I was six, I kind of really got that I wanted to perform. Growing up reading comics, with those stories and with 80s movies too, I wanted to be Indiana Jones, I wanted to be Wolverine. I remember when I had kids, when we first started my wife sat me down and said, “Andrew, I want to have this conversation just so you understand most kids don’t know what they want to do at six. So I don’t want you to freak out if our kids don’t know what they want to be when they’re six.” It was like blinders, there was no backup plan. I just kept doing the work, you know? Thinking positively, taking the hits and it’s just been a crazy adventure. I think your life is never quite what you expect, but I think when you can find a way to embrace what it becomes, even if it’s a little different, you’re getting more in touch with the underlying rhythm of what you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to do.
Especially on the acting side, you’re just a whore, you’ll take a paycheck, so it’s not like you’re picking and choosing. Every once in a while you’ll get some good stuff, along the way I’ve gotten to work with some fantastically amazing masters. I emailed Gale Ann Hurd the other day just to show her my proof of concept and it’s so cool that I can email her and that she looks at stuff and calls back and is engaged. That’s so rare and a lot of time you think these big people are unreachable or unacceptable and most of the time it’s the complete opposite. They’re the nicest, coolest people in the world and really supportive of creative endeavors. It’s just been wild and it’s funny, I consider myself someone who likes having a schedule – I love schedules – and I picked a career that basically will almost never have a schedule. It’s been an adjustment period for a very long, long time.
oF: There has to be at least a little surreal that at six you wanted to do this very specific thing and now, all these years later, you’re actually doing that very thing.
AB: It’s funny, I’ve always been so focused on doing the work, that I don’t think I step back that often and look back at the broader picture. I should probably do that more often, but it is kind of surreal. It’s the time machine, it would be really cool to go back and see my eight, nine-year old self and be able to say, “By the way, you’re gonna do it. It’s gonna work out.” It’s still a tough gig, it’s still a hard job but I try to be very thankful and just live in as much gratitude as I can. I’m just working hard to continue to create those opportunities and stay in a craft that still excites me. I think a lot of us, a lot of people out there – I think Jim Carrey penned this once, “You can go and get a job as a CEO at some bank, a steady job that you hate and still get fired from it. So why not just go after something that you love?” You could lose something you hate, so you might as well put your effort into something that you care about and just leap. I’ve found that if you focus on doing things that you love and make you feel happy you can get through the sticky bogs in-between.
oF: That’s a great point. And I think a mistake a lot of people make when they’re chasing something they love is thinking that it’s not going to be hard. Of course it’s gonna be fun because you like it, but that’s not the case.
AB: Right. If more people got that you’re gonna have to work. It’s not getting handed to you on a sliver platter. Everybody’s path is different, but I guarantee you every single person out there that’s a star or a huge success busted their fucking ass and fell on their face many, many, many times. They just kept getting back up. I try to tell that as much as I can whenever I meet young actors or young people, not that I’m old but I remember how dumb I was at twenty-one, so I try to say, “OK, you don’t get it yet, but let me just give you a couple pieces.” And it’s always about stay focused and live your life, don’t be afraid to live your life. Don’t wait for your life to start when you have success because it’s never gonna look the way you think it’s gonna look.
And time is going to pass, I didn’t expect that I would start having children when I was twenty-six or end up having three kids by the time I was twenty-eight, but you just go, you adapt. That wasn’t on my preplanned list of things to do, but that has been one of the greatest and most fulfilling journeys of my whole life. I was doing this while I was still banging around trying to get jobs as an actor here and there. It sort of puts it in perspective, “I have a life outside of the dreams and the passions and the desires.” If you can meld those things then you truly are very lucky because work becomes much more of something you’re appreciative of. Ego’s a very dangerous animal and it’s like being doused with gasoline and someone’s gonna light you on fire and you’re going to burn the place to the ground, or someone’s going to light you and it’s, “OK, how can I turn this into more things?” And use each piece to learn and keep pushing yourself.
oF: Getting into some of the projects you’ve got going now, you’re playing Jack in A Boy Called Po, introduce us to him and his role in the story.
AB: Po’s a film about a young boy with autism who loses his mother, and his father has to take on the duties of raising him. It’s a very, very realistic story of those challenges that you face. My eldest son has autism, so it was all very familiar to me. John [Asher] had been working on this film for years and he wouldn’t let me read the script for years cause he knew it’d hit close to home, and then he finally did and I was, “I’ll do anything in it. I’ll grip for you I don’t care. I just want to help get the movie made.” They made this really cool choice in the film, for kids in the spectrum a lot of times they’ll sort of zone off or check out and they made this choice creatively that when Po in the film does it, he actually drifting off to this world that he’s created through his imagination called The Land of Color where he’s normal. He can communicate and none of the stresses of the world are there. I play a character who’s sort of his guide in The Land of Color.
When John told me about the part he said, “I’m writing something, I’m gonna send it to you in two weeks but you’re gonna be in it.” He had created Jack to be in these different moments which, because they were all coming from Po’s imagination, each one was different. I got a chance to be a pirate king and a cowboy and a astronaut and a knight, it was crazy. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time and it was really a gift. I got to check off like five boxes off my actor’s bucket list. At the same point it was a really important part of the story. A lot of times with stories about autism they tend to be really heavy, which they should, it’s a very heavy subject matter, but children with autism it’s not all heavy. There’s a lot of love and magic and a lot of life. These kids may not be social or have difficulties in social situations but they can build a computer from scratch at the age of thirteen. They’re kind of in a way these hidden superheroes. What’s so great about Po is that there’s a lot life in the movie. Even at the end, there’s no way you can watch the end of this movie and literally not clap and throw your fists in the air. It’s very different from what’s been done before. Again, John’s been with the project – it took seven years for him to finally make it and we were all there to support his vision and try to make the best film possible. I’m thrilled that it’s finally getting out there and people get to see it because it’s a wonderful movie.
oF: When the subject matter is this socially relevant or this poignant, does your preparation change, especially when it’s based on a true story?
AB: Absolutely. John’s son Evan has autism and Christopher Gorham, who plays the lead character, his son also has autism so the main, core people in the cast we’re all very familiar with the material. I think that that was really a great move on John’s part giving it a certain level of authenticity that we didn’t have to play because we understood it. I think when you’re doing something like that, I think it’s very important to have a first person reference point. That’s where research and really understanding the subject matter is really important because our job as actors is to create characters that you believe to help facilitate telling a story. And the more that you can come from a place of truth, even if you’re doing comedy or something fanatical, the more it’s going to be believable to the audience. You definitely do, you definitely approach it differently. With this one we all approached it with tender loving care because it was important for us to get it right.
oF: You mentioned it can be a take-what-you-can-get industry at times, but when you can pick what you’re working on, what do you personally look for when trying to select a role?
AB: First off I love writers, and for me I like being able to get my teeth into a character that’s well developed and well written. For me I tend to disappear when I work and I look for roles that give me a chance to do things I haven’t done before, push me out of my comfort zone and ultimately give me a chance to play. I think if you’re not having fun doing it, you shouldn’t be doing it at all. I gravitate towards the left of center characters, I would say. Even the villains, you can have a little bit more fun with them because of the range and with how far you can push things. So for me when I’m lucky, it’s nice when I find things that allow me to dive into something that allows me to submerge myself underwater.
It’s not so much about – It’s not about you anyways, but even when you’re done people ask, “What do you think when you see yourself on screen?” And I’ve always said, “It’s really weird because when I don’t see me, I always just watch the character.” If I’m seeing me, I’ve fucked up horribly. The more I can immerse myself in something and kind of disappear, not in a method way, I don’t consider myself a method actor, but just being able to find something complicated enough it can keep me busy. Those are the best roles.
oF: Thanks for another segue! You mentioned loving writers and you’re currently writing, directing and acting in The N.A.M. 716th, what’s the genesis of that? When you’re working on your own creation in between all the other work, what are some of the challenges of a passion project?
AB: There’s tons of challenges, this one was phenomenally difficult. I think it’s different for different people. For me personally, I’ve always had this underlying rhythm of wanting to be a filmmaker and tell the narrative. You do that as an actor to a certain degree, but ultimately you’re not involved with the crafting of the actual piece itself. My signature, my taste has always been science fiction and comedy and action/adventure and those are not the easiest of projects to get made. Specifically when it involves VFX because they’re very expensive. I think a lot of times there’s no way to mount the project so things would drift off, with the 716th it was one of those ideas that just hit me.
About two years ago I started really shifting my focus more on the creative, writing/directing side and it was a good idea and a practical approach to it that I thought was totally doable. I can pull this off, people are going to say I can’t but I know I can pull this off. It was making that decision to not focus on the how but just focus on the do, just do the work. Just start doing it. If I need someone to do C.A.D. or if I couldn’t find somebody I’d teach myself. Then sure enough somebody would show up, from a friend of a friend, that actually could do it. The whole process was just doing that, just going, “I’m just gonna focus on building and knowing where I’m going on my endgame. And about how it’s all going to come together, I’m not going to worry about that and just focus on the work.” It’s amazing how the “How” just takes care of itself. There’s so many serendipitous moments for me on this one that I couldn’t have planned for and they just happen because I was just doing. Like that young boy at six saying, “I’m gonna be an actor,” there was just no option other than to just do it and to do something fun. I really wanted to create something like that.
As far as how to balance it? That’s tricky but as an actor you do have downtime. It’s not necessarily like you’re working every week. You could have a job then not work for a month and a half or have ten auditions in a week then no auditions for three weeks. Instead of having that downtime and spinning my wheels, I just focused on using that downtime into actually making something. That turned out to be very effective.
oF: Does also being the writer and director, being on that side of the production, does that creep into you as an actor when you’re working on someone else’s project?
AB: It’s all project to project. Filmmaking is a collaborative process and if you get a piece of material and you and the producer click and you and the writer click I think it’s not so much of trying to get their vision on screen, their vision becomes your vision. It becomes everybody’s. I think when people have a great idea or a good project that’s the important part of finding your team. Because when you find the right director or the right actor, all of it, it’s all to help service the material. If you can separate ego from the equation, it’s working together to create something great.
oF: As a fellow comic reader and lover of sci-fi, how do you think the increase of geek-centric material has impacted the industry?
AB: I don’t know what the shift was, but you have this generation, generation X, that was raised on this really great pop culture. We were raised on just amazing films and that’s what laid the seeds for our imaginations and the things we wanted to do in our lives. And I think maybe it was an inevitability, but I think good material wether it’s comic books or video games or a good book, good material is aways gonna be good material.
I think Kevin Feige is brilliant, I put him on a different pedestal, but one of the reasons Kevin has been so successful with the MCU is because he’s treated that source material like gold. He’s treated it with such massive respect. You have amazing writers and amazing artists that pumped out incredible stories for many years that you don’t need to come up with something off the fly, you can just go to your source material and honor it and build it from there. I think the things out there that have been successful and have been able to do that have all done that, have really embraced the source material or the original idea for what it was. It’s nice to be in a time where you don’t have to open up the pages of a comic book to see something that’s out of the world. The evolution too of technology. It’s amazing how much you can do on your own now. And there’s so many people that are creative, I think anything that allows someone to be able to do it even if it’s just doing cosplay and building something terrific, it’s still being creative. It’s still doing something that makes you feel good and be able to take in that material and have it be a part of your life. I think we’re in a very special time in the history of entertainment. And a very transitional time too. It’s cool that it’s not just the big budget, it’s great that people are able to be smart, there’s ways of doing stuff that can look huge without it costing a fortune. If you have a really good perspective and storytelling point of view anything is possible.
oF: I can’t imagine how many of these little talks you’ve had to do, but is there anything you have never been asked that you’ve wanted to talk about?
AB: I’ve done a lot of indie films over the years and some things are hit or miss, sometimes the timing’s off, but I would have loved to have talked more about Rock Jocks. I think Rock Jocks is sort of this beautiful love letter to the geek community. Marketing a film and getting stuff out there is tough, but that was one of those movies I think people will eventually discover and start watching it yearly like Rocky Horror Picture Show. So yeah, Rock Jocks is something I’d have loved more questions about because there’s so much good, nerdy shit in there. I think we beat South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut for most “fucks” used in a film, so that alone is worth seeing it.
Huge thanks again to Mr. Bowen for his time. And make sure to check Andrew out in A Boy Called Po, which is out now, and keep a lookout for his upcoming sci-fi series The N.A.M. 716th! Now click on over to Facebook and tell us about your favorite sci-fi series!