INTERVIEW: Genre Vet Tony Todd Talks His Career, Zoom and Returning to Theater

Tony Todd is an actor that science fiction, fantasy and animation know well. If his name isn’t familiar, his face or his voice will be. In recent years he's voiced Zoom on "The Flash" -- and even though he wasn’t credited, his voice was widely recognized by fans from the very first time the character spoke. In recent years, he’s appeared in the series “Dead of Summer” and HBO’s upcoming “Room 104.” He starred in and produced the feature “Sushi Girl,” among other films, and voiced Darkseid in a couple of "LEGO DC Comics Super Heroes" animated features, Dreadwing on “Transformers: Prime” and Icon on “Young Justice.”

Todd is likely best known for starring in horror films like “Candyman” and “Final Destination,” in addition to 1990’s “Night of the Living Dead.” He also played multiple roles in the Star Trek franchise, including an older Jake Sisko in “The Visitor,” one of the best episodes of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” and Worf’s brother Kurn on “Star Trek The Next Generation." Todd starred with Christopher Reeve in a series of TV films, “Black Fox,” and has been in films ranging from “Platoon” to “The Crow,” “Lean On Me’ to “The Rock."

His first love, though, is theater, and like a lot of actors he comes from a stage background. He played the titular role in August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” for nearly two years in the play’s developmental process and had a similar experience with Athol Fugard and his play, “The Captain’s Tiger.” Now through Feb. 19, Todd is appearing at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT, where he grew up, in Dominique Morisseau's play “Sunset Baby” where he plays an activist just released from prison trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Todd sat down with CBR to talk about theater, his life, and more.

CBR: You’re known for horror and science fiction and voiceover projects, do you think having theater training and a theater background helps?

I think any kind of training helps most actors a), get into the room and b), stay in the room. All of my contemporaries in LA are all graduates of either Yale, Julliard, Trinity. The best of the bunch come from that. I remember when I did “Platoon” half the cast – Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe -- all had training of some kind. I had no idea the impact the film was going to make. It put everybody that was in it on a list, which I didn’t really appreciate at the time but looking back it was one of the most magical things that can happen to an actor. All of sudden you’re considered for a lot of things. Somehow I’ve survived and been able to get into niche projects.

I just think about voiceover or acting in front of a green screen and being told, a monster will be there.

To me the monster is just like any dramatic element in any room. You have to solve it.

Zoom in "The Flash."

Recently you voiced Zoom in “The Flash” and you were never credited, but in that first episode, people knew it was you.

We deliberately didn’t take a credit. That was a choice. I mean they still pay me residuals. And he’s coming back. Slightly mutated perhaps -- but he’s coming back. Voiceover is probably the toughest of all the markets to get into. Everybody wants to do it because it’s again three to five hours work. You can roll in there with your bedroom slippers and robe on if you wanted to. And it’s fun. Every kid watched cartoons at some point. It’s going back to that.

I’ve gotten to work with some of the best. People like Frank Welker, who did “Scooby-Doo” and “Transformers,” and I learn from these guys. They tell me stories about how when the union hadn’t been developed yet and people were ruining their throats because Warner Brothers was sending them making them do every single cartoon possible and not sharing in the residuals. I’m a huge union guy as well. You’ve got to get your due and pay your dues. Residuals for a lot of actors are 25 percent of their life blood.

I first knew who you were in the early-mid '90s with “Candyman,” on “Star Trek” you played Kurn and then you played an older Jake Sisko on one of the best episodes of “DS9,” but I also remember this series of westerns you did, “Black Fox,” with Christopher Reeve.

That was a great time. We shot it in Calgary. It took eight months to shoot the three TV movies. It was going to be a TV series, but during our break Chris had his accident.

I try to learn something from each experience. I remember being in a barn and Chris was particularly depressed that day. He was going on about the cost of playing Superman and how it caused conflict because men were always challenged by him and women were always fascinated by him. I just broke it down and said, think about the kids what it meant for them. Just understanding somebody not being happy in their own skin -- even though you would think playing Superman was a good thing. Actors are a funny lot. Sometimes they’re not satisfied with where they are. I include myself. [Laughs]

I was raised by my aunt and she had never been on a plane before. I flew her first class to Calgary. She got off shaking like a leaf. For two weeks the crew took care of her. They put her in lawn chair. Westerns were her favorites genre and she got to see her baby boy driving a stagecoach and riding horses and being brotherly with Christopher Reeve. We both knew I was going to be all right at that point. That was an important moment. I wish she was here for this -- but I know somewhere she is.

Like most people, I know you from your film and television work, but I know you’ve done theater over the years. You were originally playing the titular “King Hedley II” in the August Wilson play, for example.

I spent two years with that.

Wilson is known for starting with a huge script and very slowly whittling it down in this development process at different theaters across the country.

Yeah, but it never whittled. [Laughs] When we opened at Pittsburgh Public it was four hours. It was an epic thing. Those two years were very important. [Wilson] was in the room during the whole process. Max Roach, the famous jazz drummer, was there because he was going to compose our score. When you work more than three months with a cast it’s another level of bonding that goes on. It was all about trying to tell the story. I had a similar experience when I worked with Athol Fugard on “Captains Tiger.”

Tony Todd in "Candyman."

It sounds like a very different experience than film or television work.

All the mediums are different. Voice-over is completely different medium from television, which is different from movies. I’ve tried to pick and choose. Sometimes not so much, but you’re only as good as your weakest link. Theater for me is the heart and soul. It saved my life. I was going to Hartford High School and when the theater bug hit, it hit hard and it saved my life. It gave me focus, direction and purpose. I went to UConn for a year and then dropped out because the program was music theater oriented and that’s not my forte.

I was in that listless 20s period wondering what’s next, and then somebody handed a brochure and said to apply for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. That changed and focused my life. The professors that we had up there were all top notch. It started with getting fencing lessons at five in the morning and ended well after midnight with whatever romantic dalliances were going on -- along with the work. [Laughs] The drama teacher said, I’m starting a conservatory program and I need you in the program. I said, I don’t have any money, and he said, just pay it back when you can pay it back.

I got a full ride to what became Trinity Rep Conservatory in Providence. That was my training along with the training of actually working professionally. I taught a little theater group here in Connecticut with my ex-wife and then one day the funding had run out and I realized, why am I procrastinating, I need to go to New York. We got into a broken down Saab and crashed at her cousin’s place. I picked up the Village Voice and got my equity card in two weeks. That’s the short version. Young actors say, "How do you do it?" You have to do either New York or Chicago. You start in your home base like I did in Hartford but you have to go to one of those two cities. You’ve got to know what it takes to go from one end of a city to the other end of a city and still want what you came there for.

New York or Chicago? Not Los Angeles?

No, LA is another animal. That’s a film and TV thing. But everybody’s got a different path. Some people wake up one day and want to be an actor and the next thing you know, they’re in a movie. I personally think training is the way to go because you can always fall back on training. Then it’s a matter of perseverance. There’s no time limit for when you make it. You have to believe. You have to have chutzpah. You have to know that you’re good enough and there’s no expiration date.

What has it been like working with younger playwrights like Dominique Morisseau, working with a young cast like you are here?

I learn something from everybody. This is a tight show, three characters, and it's all family dynamics. I think they’re both fantastic young actors. Our director Reginald Douglas, who runs City Theatre in Pittsburgh, is very intelligent and insightful. Of course there are frustrations sometimes, but overall it’s about the bigger picture and we’re getting it done, hopefully. I was surprised at the responses from the preview audiences. They’re listening and they seem to enjoy it. We’ll see what the critics think.

You’re also doing some performances for high school students, as well.

Hopefully if you touch one of them who thinks, this is something I may have an interest in -- whether it’s on stage or behind the scenes, then all power to that. It’s important. That’s how I got the bug. Then we have a couple talkback sessions every Tuesday night and that’s going to be fun to hear what people say. Sometimes actors are in a void. We hear the applause we go back and change and we come out people have gone, but in this case people are lingering around. That’s something. It’s better than boos and hisses and walkouts. [Laughs]

I’m in my 30s like the younger characters and I could really relate to being at that point of not wanting to do what you’ve been doing, but struggling to find a new path.

You’re finding your identity. Both of the younger characters are on the cusp of change. Damon says, I’m in my 30s, I don’t want to do this forever. Nina clearly is at the end of her wits end about what’s going to happen next. Even though they need each other and they depend on each other, we know they’re not with each other forever. This is a way station–and into this turmoil comes this dad figure who is not the perfect dad figure. He’s been in jail for 25 years. I think Ms. Morrisseau has set up an interesting dynamic. I love the fact that the it features and focuses on Nina Simone and her music. Did you see the documentary on her? One of my favorite Kenyatta lines is, it’s not a quietness, it’s a madness raging inside of you. I think everybody goes through it. Everybody was in their thirties once, everybody was in their twenties once, and remembers what that feels like.

Tony Todd in "Sunset Baby."

I read that you’re writing a film as well.

The weird thing is that when I went and got my masters I was a writing major. When I went to New York, acting roles came. In another life I would have been pushing the writing side. I’m working on a couple of scripts. The powers that be want me to do a horror project, but I don’t want to do that as my first writing project. I went to school in Providence and there’s something about the Providence lifestyle with its old school mafioso leanings that’s very interesting to me. I have this buddy project called Providence that focuses on a white character who adopts a black lifestyle and similarly a black character who explores another side of life. They’re both people who are not comfortable with who they are and it’s a test of loyalty. I’ve got some interesting actors lined up so we’ll see. I want to make my film directing debut with that.

What’s next for you?

Now that our rehearsal period is over I’m going to do some outreach in the community. Visit my old high school, hang out at Artists Collective. Try to rally up some people to let them know that they can afford theater. I’m supposed to have coffee with the mayor at some point. Just be a Hartford citizen. Visit the museum. The Wadsworth was the first museum I ever went to so you’ll catch me roaming the hallways around there. Maybe do some antiquing along Route 5. And missing our cats.

I got a new script last night. There’s two new play opportunities, but I haven’t made up my mind yet whether I want to rest or not. I just did a pilot with Kevin Smith. We’re waiting to see if that gets picked up.

I have to tell you about one recent disappointment. I almost did “Doctor Strange.” I went in to do a session to play Dormammu. Benedict [Cumberbatch] had already recorded it but the producers wanted another voice just as an alternative. We did a six-hour session and then two weeks before the movie came out they let me know that they went back to the original choice. I say this just to point out to everybody that you’ve got to roll and sway with all these punches and waves that come at you. Did I cry? No. I understood. I was disappointed at the value that I lost -- people going, “Dude, are you Dormammu?” [Laughs] But there’ll be another Dormammu.

“Sunset Baby” plays at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Feb. 19.

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