AJ Bowen is a gem. I will seek out films he is in, even if it’s just the smallest part, because he is so much fun to watch. He doesn’t charge for his autograph, adores his fans, and genuinely loves horror. That’s pretty fucking awesome. To celebrate the release of his film, Night Drive, in theaters and On Demand, I chatted with AJ about, well, everything. He is seriously delightful.
PopHorror: I watched Night Drive last night, and it was really awesome! I wasn’t expecting it to be so hilarious. It was definitely different, and I appreciate that. So, what intrigued you about Night Drive and made you want to be a part of it?
AJ Bowen: Well, what intrigued me about it was that… That’s always an interesting question. I guess I need to give you a little bit of background. I’m not really a traditional actor. Most of the work that I’ve done is with people that I’m very usually like, “I don’t know this person,” or “I’ve never met this person.” And then I get hired. I’ve actually not gone on many auditions in my career, because before I was making movies I was a writer. I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always been a producer as well as an actor. And so, how I came up in this sort of DIY sort of punk rock sensibility of my friends outside of Atlanta was that everybody wore a lot of hats and we all got together and told the story.
And while we were all together doing this, how my career got started was doing exactly that with a group of people I went to college with. We were doing a little no budget movie we made in 10 days called The Signal. Those are all people that I went to college with, and while we were in college, somebody decided they wanted to do music or someone was really proficient with cameras, somebody else was great with editing. And so we just sort of fell into these jobs that we would do more frequently than not, and for me, it was being in front of a camera. And that leads to seeing your work on the festival circuit with these other filmmakers, and you get along, and that’s how I met Ti West. You sort of find each other and find that you share similar sensibility, and you collaborate that way.
That’s what happened with the previous movie, that Meghan [Leon] and Brad [Baruh] and Sophie [Dalah] and I worked on together called Dead Night. I had met Brad, through our mutual friend, Don Coscarelli, and Don had mentioned that this guy had helped produce John Dies at the End, which is a movie I love. I got together with Brad, and we discussed working on something and that ended up being Dead Night. And we had a really good time working together, and Meghan was the editor of that movie. We shot that up in Lake Tahoe, like in the winter so all of the snow was really, really real. We got knocked out a few times from really bad storms.
But Meghan was up there. That doesn’t happen all the time, to have an editor on set for pretty much the duration of the shoot. So we got to know each other, and it was around that time that Meghan was also a writer. And so all of us wanted to make another movie. And we really got along and wanted to work together, so Meghan went off and wrote it. I’m really privileged that she went off and wrote a script with the idea of me playing Russell, and she already knew me. It’s probably—of the movies that I’ve done—the one that’s close in terms of my manner of diction and my natural personality so it was pretty much put on a jean jacket and show up. And getting to work with people that I would hang out with anyway, to tell a story. That’s really all that’s driving it. Someone’s going to write a great role for you, that you know is excellent at their job, and people that you know are really good at what they do and that you guys share sort of the same brain creatively. It’s a no brainer.
PopHorror: That’s really awesome! I love that. So, if you could go back in time, what date would you return to and why?
AJ Bowen: I guess it depends, right? This is actually something that I probably thought too much about because at 43, I have so many, so many regrets. So many things that I would try to do differently but then I, my brain—my OCD brain—gets into the problems of, “Okay wait. Am I going back in my body? Am I going back to view a time as a tourist? What am I doing? Am I just jumping back into my body? Because if that’s the case, I don’t want to go back to 1984.” But if I can just go back… I mean, like I said I’m 43 so I’m probably going to the 80s. It’s weird, too, because we’re talking like all recorded time as an option, right?
AJ Bowen: In the early to mid 80s, I can still survive being a weird progressive. I just have to find my niche. But anytime further back than that, we’re getting into stuff that I just can’t tolerate like fashion. You could still go eat pizza. Pizza Huts were still sit down restaurants in the 80s. So I’m definitely going to go back to the 80s.
PopHorror: That would be my choice as well. And you’re a fan favorite in the horror genre. You do conventions and just whenever your name is mentioned people are like, “OMG! I love that guy!” What continues to bring you back to horror?
AJ Bowen: Well, I’ve always found it interesting. I did a couple of conventions and for a while, for a very long time—it’s been like six, seven years—I did two of them, and they were like the only two I did and I did them back to back. I had avoided it up until that point for one really specific reason. And it’s because I think it becomes abundantly clear to any of us that really love horror, what people find themselves in it, at least in terms of, like… really we’re talking about actors probably. Like actors that find themselves in it. This is what they ended up getting known as, and so they sort of plumb that well, whereas for me, my ambition was always to make horror, because that’s what I watched growing up. That’s what I always wanted to do.
I have very strong memories of my childhood. I grew up in Georgia, and we went to a scout camp in 85 or 86. And where we went was a place called Camp Daniel Morgan. They had wrapped out—like a week before—shooting Jason Lives there, so they hadn’t totally broken everything down, and it looked exactly like that movie. So there were counselors at this camp, this three day Scout camp, that were running around in hockey masks, which is pretty fucking terrifying when you’re eight, nine years old. It was a thing that I wasn’t allowed to watch. Now my friend, who I was at Scout camp with, he was allowed to. We had very different types of parents. Mine wanted me to probably be a conservative Christian, and I’m what they got. So, haha. But I wanted to watch these things, and I wasn’t allowed, so I would have a spend the night party over at my friend Chris’ house, and his mom was like, “Sure you can watch Halloween.” So a lot of movies that I got to see, I saw with my friend for the first time. And while that was happening, I also saw other things that could be considered horror films with my dad who, as long as it seems patriotic, and if it didn’t have naked boobs in it, they didn’t care about the violence for whatever reason. So like I would get to see Aliens, and I would get to see movies like that. And then I would take over my friend Chris’s house and watch like Friday the 13th movies.
PopHorror: That’s awesome!
AJ Bowen: So for me, instead of it being like, “This is the thing that I’m doing right now,” the reason that I jump out and do other things are one. Improv comedy always interests me, but home for me, home base is always going to be horror. So, you know, even if I jump out and go do a family movie, I’m going to come back once I’ve done that and make horror.
PopHorror: Well, good. We appreciate having you in the genre. We actually met at one of the conventions that you did so I feel very lucky.
AJ Bowen: Was it Horrorhound or Texas Frightmare?
PopHorror: Horrorhound in Cincinnati. I feel very lucky that we got to meet there since you didn’t do many.
AJ Bowen: Just those two! That’s why I didn’t want to do those, because I used to go to them all the time. I don’t want to go be a person there, and I also had a problem with the culture. Like, I knew how much those things cost to go to, because I paid to go to them. I could not stomach standing there if somebody was nice enough to want to meet me or say, “Hi…” I’m not trying to shit on anybody else but for me, I can tolerate a lot of things, but I just couldn’t stomach the idea of charging people when all they wanted to do was say, “Hi,” and maybe talk about movies that I’ve worked on that they liked.
I’d had experiences with people that I idolized that were on the negative spectrum of that. There were several times that I said, “Yes,” to going to a convention, but I always gave them the rule that I’m not charging anybody for anything that they want from me, and that would come into conflict with some of the other actors. And fair enough because there were a lot of people at the time that made their living that way because making movies can be so sporadic financially. But I just can’t do it. I’d rather just wait tables. I can’t charge. And it wasn’t until Horrorhound… Also, I don’t want to be kicking people out of here if they’re trying to talk to me. I apologize for whatever line you had to wait in, because I had a really bad habit that if someone sat down and wanted to talk about some movie from the 80s, we would talk for 30 minutes until that conversation was over.
PopHorror: I got really lucky and didn’t have to wait in the line. It was a lot of fun. I liked that you brought up that your parents wouldn’t let you watch a lot of horror. It was my older sister who had already moved out by the time I came along that let me watch them at her house. So, I get that, having to go somewhere else to experience it. Then as I got older, my mom was like, whatever.
AJ Bowen: It becomes this sort of counterculture thing where even if it’s mainstream, you’re like, “Here’s this dirty, naughty thing that we do over here.” It’s just creative fulfillment. I didn’t have any really weird kinks. My kinks were going and watching rated R horror movies.
PopHorror: Exactly! And she doesn’t understand my love of horror now, and I just tell her, “You started this. You’re the one that showed me my first horror movie.”
AJ Bowen: I told my parents the same thing. When I say I grew up in a religious house, I mean I grew up in Georgia. My family’s not from Georgia. I’m a military brat. So my dad was a Marine, and he was stationed at one of the biggest air bases in the country just north of Atlanta, so that’s why my family lived there. I have two much older sisters, and they were stationed there when I was born, so I’m the only one that’s technically white trash. I’m the only one that is technically from Georgia. I’m the only country person, but I’m also the only one that doesn’t have a southern accent. Now everybody else is from California, and they all have Southern accents.
But not only that, it was a very Christian upbringing. If I ever wanted to go do anything, I had to go to church. So before I even had the cognitive skills to start asking some questions, I equated going to church with being punished. That probably impacted a lot, and I’m never going to forget when I ended up doing House of the Devil, I was so stoked because that was the title of the movie from the jump. I was very disappointed that there weren’t spells and stuff. I was like, “This is just doing your own thing.” I was already living this way. And I just remember I was so excited to tell my mom that I played a Satanist that was trying to get a lady impregnated with the Devil on the night of a full moon and that I had to get the Satanic Bible, which technically means that I got to write off the purchase of the Satanic Bible as a tax write-off, and that’s really bothered her. It made me happy.
PopHorror: Did she watch it?
AJ Bowen: Oh yeah, she watches everything. And they always say the same thing, “Oh, that’s nice.”
PopHorror: What’s up next for you, AJ? Is there anything that you’re currently working on?
AJ Bowen: I ended up taking a sort of step back. I don’t even know how much of it was my choice or out of necessity. But I became a father.
AJ Bowen: I mean, I don’t know about that. I appreciate it, but it’s a lot of work. The rest of the dark in my hair has been gone for a while now. But that was sort of taking over for a minute there. And then when that stuff started getting to a place where I could even entertain the idea of going places to work on movies again, COVID happens. And right before COVID happens, I’d been working on a movie that I was supposed to shoot another full week on. And that movie got shut down. We were shooting it during it, and it’s actually coming out a day before. It’s just a small cameo, and it’s called The Old Ways. My buddy Chris Alender directed that movie, and it’s really cool. A cool folk horror kind of thing. But for me, I’ve always been dancing around. So much has changed in terms of how we do this stuff.
PopHorror: One last question for you, AJ. What is your favorite scary movie?
AJ Bowen: That’s just an awful question. It’s terrible, right? Because no matter what I tell you, when we get off the phone, and I walk back inside, the very first thing I’m going to say is, I’m going to tell my wife, “Aw fuck, I said this movie when I should have said this movie.” It’s tough. I end up—more times than not—going back to 80s horror. There’s two that I always list. The first one is going to be Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. That movie changed my life. So I would give that one as one that I absolutely adore. But if we’re talking movies that I have watched more than any other, my number one comfort movie in the world is Jason Lives. I’m sure it has something to do with I went to the camp they shot it at, but to me, that movie has so much going on for it. The sixth movie in that franchise has no business being the quality that it is.
Thank you so much, AJ, for chatting with us. Be sure to check out Night Drive, on On Demand now.