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Photos Brad Balfour
Actor, teacher and now director Thomas G. Waites doesn’t shy away from taking chances or courting controversy. For his first directorial outing, he pushed the envelope creating “Target” — a gender-bending, sexually provocative dark comedy which doesn’t shy away from challenging audiences with extreme language or suggestive scenes (though there’s no nudity).
Born January 8, 1955 in Philadelphia, Waites ultimately found himself in New York City. A member of the Actors Studio since 1984, the upper eastside resident runs his own acting studio in New York City which is named after him. The son of Michael and Anne Waites, this Philly native completed grade school at Immaculate Conception and then high school at Bishop Egan in Fairless Hills, PA. After a year at Bucks County Community College, he received a full scholarship for acting at New York City’s Juilliard School. Once he had a B.A. degree in Writing from The New School, he got a Masters of Fine Arts in Playwriting from the University of Iowa.
Then the 21-year-old Waites was offered two movies simultaneously: “Snowbound” and “Pity the Poor Soldier” (the title has subsequently changed). Despite being offered twice the money for the former, Waites chose the latter because it was celebrating the American Revolutionary War centennial. He’s inevitably a man driven by ideas, not necessarily money.
Waites then played Oliver Treefe in Simon Gray’s world premiere of “Molly” -- at the First Annual Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. After this acclaimed performance, he returned to NYC to be cast in the Joan Micklin Silver-produced “On the Yard” (1978), co-starring John Heard. Subsequently, he was offered a three-picture option deal with Paramount Pictures.
After strong critical notices the rambunctious actor auditioned for and got a part in Walter Hill’s “The Warriors" (1979) playing the character Fox. After disputes with the director, he was fired. When the studio asked him where he wanted for his billing he told them to remove his name completely, a decision Waites now regrets. He has since reconciled with Walter Hill.
Bouncing back, Waites auditioned with Al Pacino, and was cast in Norman Jewison’s “...And Justice for All” (1979). This began a long relationship with Pacino — the two worked together again in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and he got strong notices again. Waites originated the role of Mitchell in Alan Bowne’s “Forty-Deuce” Off-Broadway at the Perry Street Theatre. In 1982, Waites competed with Matt Dillon and Kevin Bacon before landing the role of Bobby in David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “American Buffalo.” Kurt Russell and John Carpenter saw his performance and cast him as Windows in “The Thing” (1982).
It was during this time that Tom met his namesake, singer Tom Waits, who generously taught Tom the song “Jersey Girl.” Out of deference to musician Waits, Tom added the G. to his professional name to offset any confusion between the two talented artists. Waits even played the bass drum on a demo tape of G. Waites’ music. Tom G. began writing music and formed a band called The Push Ups, playing gigs around NYC in clubs such as CBGB’s, Limelight, Trax, The Bitter End and even opening for The Smithereens.
And that’s just a part of the first couple of decades in his long career. There is much more, but now, he grapples with the next big challenge — releasing his directorial debut.
Q: How did we land here? What are you doing, what are you going to do and what have you done?
TW: Well, that’s a loaded question for me because I’ve done quite a lot. But the most important thing I’ve done [lately] dropped April 18 on all the video platforms -- Amazon, Apple, Google, VUDU. It’s called “Target” — a playful sex comedy. I wrote it during the pandemic when we were trapped inside here. I am sure you were trapped inside your crib too. I just said, “You know what? I want to make a movie, Goddamn it, and I’m gonna fuckin’ make a movie.” So I proceeded to write 27 drafts.
Q: Wow, 27 drafts — and do you have them all [laughs]?
TW: No. They’re somewhere I guess. But then I found a great script doctor who really whipped it into shape and I got a shooting script. Then, of course, when you get there everything changes because — that’s the Movies! It’s sort of a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” meets “The Big Lebowski.” It’s wacky.
Q: You wrote the story during the pandemic shutdown. But did you shoot some of it during the pandemic, or was that after?
TW: No, we didn’t start shooting until May, 2021. Then we spent a year editing and scoring. I wrote almost all of the music along with my producer, Tony Daniels — who is par excellence. I think the music really helps the film a great deal. It helps to pull people in, at least that’s what some people feel. They like to get a soundtrack of just the music. So we are going to try to work that out. We are being distributed by Deadtalk Live Films on Deadtalk Live Media. It’s a chance to laugh at ourselves. I think it’s important that we get to have a good laugh at ourselves, at our sexual idiosyncrasies shall we say.
Q: You have a special position in the cinematic universe having been in “The Warriors” — a cult classic. You can do a lot of movies, but a film that helps define an era –– a movie where you’re a character in a film that plows through genres –– that’s rare. “The Big Lebowski” is one that has and certainly, so does “Taxi Driver.”
TW: Or, in doing John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” I may have made just as much money signing autographs for John Carpenter’s remake. It is still terrific — and still holds up. [When I was doing] “The Warriors” was an interesting time period in my life. I was 23 and had just signed a three-picture deal with Paramount. It was supposed to be my name above the title — “Thomas Waites in ‘The Warriors’” — but I pissed off the director so badly that he fired me after seven weeks. And I deserved it. I was a bit of an angry young rebellious ... you know. “What are you rebelling against, Johnny? Well, what have you got?” That was my story. I stepped over the line and paid quite a price for that erroneous behavior. Since then, I’ve been able to make amends to Walter [Hill] and make things right which is really good. It was hard kicking back. After that, almost two months after I got fired, I booked “And Justice For All” with Al Pacino which didn’t hurt my stage career because I went on to do “American Buffalo.” You can see the poster over there ....
Q: You are a little more chastened....
TW: I was immediately chastened, went into therapy and studied karate for discipline. I really put myself under the knife so to speak.
Q: At what point in the script of “The Thing” did you die?TW: I guess about halfway through... No, a little more than half, make it 3/4th of the way. Q: Oh, that’s good. That helped your therapy. [You remember] the blood test thing [where they expose the alien].Q: Your therapy, could you apply it more effectively then?
TW: I’ve gotten along great with every director since. It was just that one false step. You know we all make mistakes but I happen to have made a pretty big one at a young age. The good thing about that is, I am also an acting teacher — TGW Acting Studios. One of the beneTts of that is that I can help young people not to step into the same bear trap that I did.
Q: Young people that are actors — they get the idea in their head that “Yes, you’ve got to have It, that motivation and energy” but you also have to get rid of yourself, let go of your ego. That has to be one of the biggest lessons you have to teach.
TW: To be of service to the story and the director is the conduit to the story. He/she takes the writer — and sometimes that’s the same person — but it’s their job to convey the writer’s intent and it’s your job [as the actor] to follow that. I guess I just asked far too many questions. I think subconsciously I wanted to be making my own movies [laughs]. So I stepped out of bounds. But I’ve been able to bounce back and have made 30 Tlms. I’ve done seven “Law & Orders.” I was on “Oz” for six years. And I have been on Broadway five times. It didn’t stop me.
Q: In being an actor or musician, you can go back and forth but they are very much two sides of the same coin. Yet they still are these very different sides. A musician has to articulate some vision of themself whether it’s “I am the rockstar” or “I am the gritty underground guy” while the actor has to let go of articulating that. They have to get out of themselves.
TW: Yeah, I’ve never thought about that. That’s true.
Q: It’s a great exercise for a musician to do acting and vice versa. Look at David Bowie. What made him successful was he could move from one to the other. You’re a musician as well ....
TW: That’s right, he absolutely could. When he did “The Elephant Man” on Broadway, The New York Times said, “Bowie Is Splendid.” You know how often that happens. Very Rarely. It is an interesting shedding of the skin in order to be subsumed by the character and allow it to come from your subconscious mind. Whereas a stage performer / musician / songwriter / singer, which is basically what I am. I’m more the storyteller — the Irish storyteller with a tale to tell. There is suffering involved in that, as well. And redemption. And love and children and romance and all the great wonderful things worth living for.
Q: Which one takes the most pain? You exemplify somebody else’s pain or your own pain? At the end of the day, a song isn’t great if it only respects one state of mind.
TW: If it’s not universal ... It’s like poetry, what makes Walt Whitman so brilliant, what makes Shakespeare so brilliant, what makes Hart Crane so brilliant is their capacity to reach the universal man and that’s art.
Q: They are also reaching into their own inner pain. Where do you think an actor has to go to reach into the character’s inner pain — to understand it and such? In Method acting they pull something out of themselves ....
TW: Lee Strasberg definitely stressed using oneself whereas Stella Adler stressed using the imagination. I was trained at Juilliard which didn’t stress either of them. I picked them up along the way and became a member of The Actor’s Studio in ‘85.
Q: Did you get a chance to join in with the reunion recently? With Al Pacino?
TW: No. I didn’t make it but a friend of mine did. He took a picture with Al and said, ‘I studied with Tommy Waites’ [imitating Al’s voice.] ”Tommy, How’s he doing? He’s a great actor. Give him my love.” We keep in touch. He was very helpful to me as a young actor. He was not just great on stage every night but we became very, very close as friends. We shared the same dressing room for a year. My God, you really get to know somebody [that way] ....
Q: Yet it’s funny. The acting and rock ‘n roll worlds are so strange. Everything you do is new — a movie, a play, or in going on tour — even in joining a different band — it’s like being reborn into a new life each time. It’s not like you have a consistent day-to-day thing. You might if you had a regular TV series or theatrical production, but, at the end of the day, you know at some time or another, it’s going to end.
TW: You’ve got to reinvent yourself every time out. You’ve got to sing for your supper — you know this. I mean, every time out you’ve got to outdo yourself from the last time or you aren’t really an artist, are you? You must be allowed to fail and, as Samuel Beckett has said, “If you fail, next time fail better.” And if you don’t adopt that kind of reckless attitude toward creating then you’ll never be any good.
Q: You’ve finally done this feature. Has it been a while since you last worked on a film? You’ve kept it relatively self-contained. What did it take to get it done and find the actors? Now it’s all the process afterwards. A lot of actors and directors don’t realize that if you are not involved with the production all the way through, you’ve given up a part of it. You’ve got to stay engaged in a way that you don’t realize till you are into the next phase.
TW: Yeah, it’s a lot more work than I had anticipated. First of all, I raised the money myself which is quite a challenging exercise. When you go to people and say, “Excuse me, can I ask you for help” and they say, “Sure.” Then you say, “I need money,” they change rather on a dime. But I was fortunate enough to be able to find, I guess, about seven or eight people who chipped in, and smaller amounts in exchange for points in the film.
Q: You didn’t go the social media route?
TW: No. I tried to do that. We raised $2000 and that wasn’t going to do me any good. I knew $2000 was nothing. I needed to get more. So I just went to fans that I knew who had money and friends that had money — people that believed in me — people that knew me well enough to know that if Tom does this he’ll do it right. And I feel that I did. Guess the audience will be the judge of that, won’t they?
Q: It’s a pretty provocative subject. You’ve got a couple who are opening up their marriage and are going to have sex with other people. And it doesn’t quite end up the way it sounds like.
TW: Right, we don’t want to give away the ending. Let’s just say It’s that five-year hitch [point]. After five years — as anybody that’s married can tell you — things hit a wall and people tend to either have affairs or try to spice things up. So the characters I created chose to spice things up and there are moral consequences.
Q: How did you find those two actors?
TW: My manager David Guss at Vanguard Management recommended them because I couldn’t afford a casting director. I had to just find actors. I’ve been working with actors for decades so I can read them pretty quickly. Then I found Jam Murphy. Jamie’s a lovely human being and an actress who’s great to work with. I found them and we did Zoom readings. It was [during] the pandemic. Although I had to meet Jamie in person before I could cast her. Her part was so integral — she is the fulcrum upon which the story turns. We met at Siena right here in the neighborhood. We sat outside wearing our masks and as far as I could tell I felt we had a great connection instantaneously. She’s proven to be not just an asset in terms of helping me get the film off the ground but on set, she was such fun. She was just like, “Let’s make a movie!” That’s the greatest attitude you could possibly dream of as a director. And there were tough conditions. We shot a 90-minute film. I had to go back and do a re-shoot, so it was really 15 days.
Q: You didn’t tap your students?
TW: I did not because none of them at the time were right for the roles that I was looking for. The vision changed through each rewrite. It kept on getting clearer and clearer. It was sort of like going to the eye doctor and they put on this fuzzy lens and it got clearer and clearer. Then finally I got into focus — “Oh I see, she has to be 30 years old; he has to be 50 years old” — in order for this story to work. I was lucky enough that I saw Jamie in a video, a video about dogs. I went, “There’s something about her that’s extraordinary.” She’s even more beautiful as a person – as a human – than she is physically. And she’s quite stunningly attractive, as you can see. But then I got the other two actors from David Guss and hired the rest. I did hire one student. Well, he was really a professional actor from Utah. Wilford Brimley had asked me to direct “Harvey” and he played the main character. Dr Lyman, I think that was his name. The doctor in the story of Harvey was this brilliant kid from St. George, Utah. He was a student of mine, and I cast him in the role of the cop.
Q: Is there a preference of doing theater, film or even TV for acting, but what do feel about directing?
TW: I have directed tons of theater. You see there on the wall — the poster of “Twelfth Night.” I’ve probably directed over 50 plays Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway and regionally. I’ve got a lot of experience directing plays which is quite challenging, You’re in one space. You can’t really change locations, but I’ve had some great set designers that have helped. I did a production of “As You Like It” where the set designer, a Japanese guy, painted the entire poor as the forest. The whole play is in different places but the forest is significant, the fulcrum! Directing theatre is exciting, challenging and motivating. People have to give the same performance night after night as opposed to film. There, it is really up to me where I put the camera, how I want this story to be told, who I want to focus on and why.
Q: Is it harder to find the right crew or the right actor?
TW: Finding the right actors is everything! And I had a great crew. A terrific crew –– Vinny Patricini, Steve Concha and Alyssa Rabinowitz. The three producers found the crew for me because I didn’t know where to find crews. I am an actor, for God’s sake. We’ve got great people and they worked long hours, under arduous conditions in the summer at night. But we had a great deal of fun which kinda makes up for it.
Q: You were 23 when you basically got this crucial role. Had you always known that you were going to be an actor?
TW: Actually, my first film was when I was 21. I did a film called “Pity the Poor Soldier” that had the actor William Sadler in it.
Q: Oh, I love Sadler.
TW: Yeah, Billy’s great. Then I did the lead in a movie with the great actor, John Heard. It was “On The Yard” produced by Joan Micklin Silver, whom you probably remember from “Hester Street.” Her husband directed this film. “On The Yard” was based on a book by Malcolm Braley who had spent 21 of his 47 years in prison. He wrote the book whilst Rafael Silver wrote the script. John and I starred in it. I had those two movies under my belt. “On The Yard” got great notices especially from The New York Times. So that got Paramount and Walter Hill’s attention. John Heard is the “Home Alone” dad. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us but he was a very underrated actor. As brilliant on stage as he was on film.
Q: Where did you grow up?
TW: I grew up outside of Philadelphia, a place called Levittown Bristol. I lived in a place they now call Crack City. It was a rough neighborhood and I knew that I wanted to get out. I was headed for trouble, myself, I was a member of a gang. I was not going anywhere but prison and I got hit by a car. In the hospital, I got addicted to Demerol. In those days you could lay in the hospital bed, light up a cigarette and just drift off to sleep.Then they stopped giving me Demerol because it was a week into this pretty serious accident and I wanted this pain medication. I pulled the chain for the nurse to come and would put on this big show of how much pain I was in. Then of course, they would give me the injection. A few days later, the doctors looking at my chart would be like, “Why are you giving him so much Demerol?” The nurse looked at me then at the doctor then back at me and she went “You ought to become an actor.” A light bulb went off over my head and I thought, “Well I can’t play sports anymore because I have no legs. I had gotten them both broken severely. So in the hospital, I started to read and watch films. I started to identify. Then when I came out of the hospital, I was in a high school play, then another. Then someone suggested I audition for Juilliard and I got a scholarship.
Q: Obviously, you got off the demerol.
TW: Obviously, yeah [laughs]. They took that away instantly — my addictive personality notwithstanding. But I also realized that Shakespeare — I’d seen [Franco] Zefferelli’s “Romeo & Juliet” — was God. I went to the library and memorized the entire balcony scene of both characters which, to this day, I can recite by rote. I knew Shakespeare would get me out of that neighborhood —it was my ticket out. I wasn’t particularly bright like my oldest brother with an IQ of 151. I didn’t have that going for me. I couldn’t play sports or fight or be in a gang anymore. I had to get out of this environment. It was bad for me. Sure enough, I dedicated myself to Shakespeare and still do. He is the greatest of all writers. There are a lot of us that have tried writing. He is God and we are all somewhere underneath.
Q: Sometimes I think Shakespeare is overrated and other times I go back to read it and find a particularly bizarre but logical turn of phrase. Then I say, “How did he come up with that?”
TW: And he did. 75% of it is iambic pentameter. He stuck to a very strict meter: beat stress beat stress beat stress beat stress beat stress. He made great characters and stories. He was a great comedian, philosopher and poet — all in one. Perhaps, he even invented us, I’m not sure. But he certainly stands out in the hierarchy of literature. Even Tolstoy tipped his hat to him. So did Faulkner. They were afraid of him. How could anyone be this brilliant and write 37 plays, two lyric poems, 146 sonnets and be dead by 52 — and do it all by hand?! If you go to England, and go to Strafford, there is an entire town that makes its living on his name. Shops, bars, stores, and clothing – the whole town would just be another small English nothin’ town except for the fact that he was born there in what appears to be the smallest bed I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s where his mom was. I guess people were really small back then. That’s why when you go to England the rooms are so tiny. They never expected us to grow up fat!
Q: I never understood how an actor can claim to be an introvert or shy because they have to be able to project beyond the stage. How does that work?
TW: Well, I am an introvert. In fact, I ACT. But truth be told, I am sort of a priest — really an introspective kind –– at least a Black Irish poet in my own mind. I spend a great deal of time alone, of course. To write songs, you have to be alone for long periods of time, or to write plays — of which I’ve written several — I got my MFA from the University of Iowa in writing.
Q: I think William Burroughs ended up out there...
TW: A lot of great people have gone through there. Some of our favorite writers have gone through there and taught there.[The school] teaches you craft and skill. Of course, nobody can teach you talent — that has to be born. Talent is work essentially. Because I spend so much time alone, when I have to be with people, like with you or out at a party, I just ACT.
Q: How much are you acting and how much are you giving me the real deal? TW: You’ll never know the real deal, will you? Having mentioned being Irish, tell me a little bit about your Irish experience. You’ve referenced it several times. What county is your family from?
TW: My family is from County Cork. My mother’s maiden name was Joyce. I came from an Irish Catholic family of seven. My oldest brother was a priest; my oldest sister was a nun. I went to 12 years of Catholic school and am grateful for the strict education I received there. I am still in touch with some of the priests and teachers from my high school days. But when I visited Ireland, I could feel that I’ve been there before. Crossing the Irish Sea, I stood on the bow of the boat with the Irish Sea spraying over my face and I just cried. Of course, I had a pint of Guinness in me. I’m Home. And I can’t wait to go back there. I’d love to go back there and perform. That’s my dream. Home is where you hang your hat. I want to note — I’m Thomas G Waites, not to be confused with the great musician, Tom Waits.
Q: You know him though...
TW: I knew him and we spent time together. I guess the first time we met was back in 1977. We were both at a production of “West Side Story” and I saw this strange looking person in the lobby. He was standing there in his leather jacket kind of rocking back and forth. I went up to him and said “Excuse me. Are You Tom Waits?” He didn’t say anything but just shook his head, “Hmm.” I said, “So am I.” Then he looked at me and went [in Waits’ gravelly voice] “So you are the guy out there impersonating me?!" We had a good laugh and went out to have a pint at Jimmy Ray’s that night, the old one on 8th Avenue. He gave me his number and we kept in touch. He moved downtown in 1980 for a bit, when he married Kathleen and we saw each other several more times. We met at the Broome Street Bar where I’m like, “Tom what are we going to do about our names? I mean, I was in the business first but I used Thomas.” He said, “Well, if you ever get a deal, my record company will ask you to change your name.” We went back and forth.
Q: This was around the time after “In the Heart of Saturday Night.”
TW: Right around then. I love that album. I love those songs. He is an extraordinary individual, the kindest man [again in Waits' voice] “Well it’s not like my name is Bruce Spring-stein [both laugh]” He’s a very, very funny man. Then he was generous enough to come to a recording session. At the time I was doing a demo tape. I was signed to a letter of intent by a publishing company called CESAC. There’s ASCAP, BMI and CESAC. They usually do country artists and Europeans but they wanted to break in here. I had a new wave punk rock band called The Push Ups. They liked my songs. So I was signed to them and we did a demo. Tom agreed to come and sit in. He found a big, gigantic VFW bass drum hanging from the ceiling and took it down. He played on it and taught the bass player how to play the bass line to the song that I was doing. But it required double fingering on the big standup bass which you had to have huge hands for. The guy had a really hard time doing it but he, Tom, very patiently kept showing him. He very patiently taught me “Jersey Girl” — how to play it properly. He’s been nothing but kind. We used to exchange; I would give him acting tips and he would give me music tips. He was quite extraordinary in terms of his kindness and intelligence really. I would say he affected me and then I met Kathleen. I had a play published that I wrote when I was in Iowa about baseball — I played baseball when I was a kid. I wrote this play and it was published. They sent the play and the check to Kathleen and Tom [chuckles.] She wrote to me with the play, “Dear Tom, here’s your play. I read it. I liked it very much and hope you are doing well.” Tom gets stopped frequently in the place that used to rent movies all the time...
Q: You mean Blockbuster...
TW: People come up to Tom all the time in Blockbuster and tell him how great he was in “NYPD Blue” [laughs]. And rather than dispute he just stands there and shakes his head [laughs]. He’s never done “NYPD Blue” obviously. But I’ve done two of them.
Q: How many cop shows have you done?
TW: Oh God, I don’t know. I always play the bad guy. I played “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” with Vincent D’Onofrio. I played a guy who kneecapped old Jews even though his daughter was Jewish. But I’ve never done SVU. They’ve never brought me in. I don’t know why. Maybe they just don’t like me but I’ve done the other two. I think seven of them I’ve done and then you know tons of other TV shows. “The Punisher.” “Homeland.” When I lived in LA, I did a lot of TV.
Q: Thank God for TV and the streamers now. Everybody survives by that.
TW: It helps. The residual checks have kept me alive and my family too. And having health insurance all those years for the children was a big accomplishment. So I consider myself a successful actor [chuckles] because of that.
Q: I could consider myself successful on one front just because I’ve had my apartment for 45 years.
TW: There you go. That in New York is an accomplishment.
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