"From Dusk Till Dawn" Star DJ Cotrona is Living Every Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino Fan's Dream
D.J. Cotrona (Detroit 1-8-7, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), a self-proclaimed "nerd" from New Haven, Connecticut, has always had an affinity for horror films with plenty of action and adventure. Which is why his latest project, El Rey Network's small-screen re-imagining of the 1996 cult classic,From Dusk Till Dawn, directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring George Clooney, is a fitting role.
Currently based in Austin, TX, home to Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios, Cotrona likes to spend his time reading, catching up on Game of Thrones, and avoiding George Clooney (more on that to come). We sat down with Cotrona to discuss all of that, as well as working with Robert Rodriguez,Quentin Tarantino, and From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.
Is it true that, once upon a time, you wanted to be a lawyer?
Jesus, you’re digging like a decade back. It’s funny, when you first get to college you’re 17 years old and somebody says, “Pick the path of your career,” and at the time you just kind of grab whatever looks good on paper, and that’s what I did.
Did you actually see yourself becoming a lawyer?
Absolutely not. I liked to argue points and listen to myself talk, and that’s literally why I took it. I just found a much better version of that with acting. It's a pretty simple story; I feel like my priorities haven't shifted since I was nine. I grew up loving films and making stupid movies with a good friend of mine, who now actually has a career in a really prominent special effects house, so he's still doing it. We just started messing around with a camera. I stole some auditions and made some friends with casting directors. I started doing small jobs out in New York, then booking pilots, then it kind of took on a life of its own.
What are your top five favorite horror films?
Oh, dude, that’s so hard. It always changes depending on what I’ve seen last, but top five? I’m going to have to go Return of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, The Exorcist, and this is going to make no sense but there was this one called Ghoulies. It's an old-school '80s cheesy horror movie where these little creatures jump out of the toilet and attack people. I saw that very young and it scarred me. I think about that every time I go use the restroom.
You’ve probably seen John Carpenter's The Thing, right?
Oh, yeah, John Carpenter. I love everything John Carpenter's ever done. Robert [Rodriguez] has, on El Rey—the network he started—this show called The Director's Chair, where Robert interviews other directors. It's like Inside the Actor's Studio, but for directors. The first thing he's doing is a block with John Carpenter, where he's playing all of Carpenter's movies in between interviews asking him about the process. Carpenter is amazing. They Live is amazing. The Thing is definitely one of my favorites, though.
Carpenter, man... Escape from New York is the reason Robert wanted to become a director. He saw that, and he was convinced.
You still have one film left…
Let's go with The Shining.
Absolutely. It's horrifying.
What is on your DVR right now?
My DVR right now? From Dusk Till Dawn; Vice is fucking crazy; obviously Game of Thrones; I just started True Detective. I know I'm way behind but I'm fucking obsessed.
What's something that you're passionate about, other than acting, that most people don't know about?
Skateboarding was the only thing I was ever good at. Growing up, I was doing that from like dusk till dawn. [Laughs.] It's funny because I grew up skating all over the east coast, and then acting started taking off for me, so I put that down and went this way, but a lot of my friends that I grew up skating with in this area are now huge—they're pros. They all moved out to LA. And when we were skating, the industry was just starting to blow up, so all these guys that had small shop sponsorships now have Nike contracts. It's been amazing to watch that sport blow up and finally get the credibility it deserves, but, you know, I went to work too, just at something else.
On From Dusk Till Dawn, you play Seth Gecko, an anti-hero bank robber. Did you grow up watching films or reading stories about bank robbers, like Jesse James or Bonnie & Clyde?
Yeah, it's one of the classic American film genres, like heists. The crime genre is so good, and that's why we see it so many times over and over again, but I think the tough thing is it's getting harder and harder to see it in an innovative way. It's becoming saturated, so every time we see one come up that’s successful with a creative style, we celebrate it, whether it's all of Quentin's stuff or all of Robert's stuff, which is obviously so iconic. We love to see that genre be reinvented and watch it flourish.
We see it more and more these days, where we want to revisit iconic characters; that's why every two or three or four years we see a new Batman, Superman. Every DC or Marvel property is constantly getting reinvented because we love these characters. They're so iconic, and we want to watch them over and over again.
Robert and Quentin have clearly held onto the rights for these characters for a long time. It must be thrilling to get to work with them on such a unique project.
I think that’s what made me feel safe about actually trying to take a swing at it, because this isn't some other director doing an interpretation of Quentin’s characters and Robert’s work. This is Robert and Quentin saying, “Alright, let's go back and do it again." It's a dream come true. These guys are larger than life.
Have you always been a Tarantino/Rodriguez fan?
Huge fan. Are you kidding me? Absolutely. There's a reason why these guys are cornerstones of the film industry. Robert is such an innovative guy. He’s a creative force. Every other director respects him for it.
This is a guy that revolutionized digital film, which is now the standard. He brought 3D back; he was one of the first guys to do that, and that’s now the standard. The things he was doing with green screen first are now becoming the standard. The great thing is he's now doing it again with his new network, El Rey, so it's great to be on his team.
Has this entire From Dusk Till Dawn experience turned out the way you expected when you first read the script?
Dude, I’ve got TV PTSD. I’ve shot a lot of pilots that have never seen the light of day, jobs that have fallen apart or gotten canceled, so I'm really weary about what contracts I sign and where I swear my loyalty to. Robert has this amazing scenario where we work out in Austin at Troublemaker Studios. There are no executives; it's just us and Robert. He’s writing, composing, camera-operating, editing. He is an auteur. It feels like we're making an independent movie with a huge budget and he trusts us as actors to kind of bring our own spin to it. Obviously we have a couple big shadows to walk out of with what those guys did with the original.
Which brings me to my next question. What is it like following in the footsteps of George Clooney?
If I thought about it too much it would be pretty daunting, but again, the thing is this is not someone else doing an interpretation of Robert’s work and George’s work and Quentin's characters. This is Robert going back and saying “I want to do it again,” and as an actor it's really empowering.
When Robert Rodriguez looks at you and says “You're my guy,” you believe him. It's only since I finished shooting and started doing interviews that people are kind of looking me in the face and going, "You should be terrified!” But no, we have a blast, and Robert said it best when he said that this show is an alternate universe. It's the same characters so there are going to be some similarities, but we take this, we go much further into the back-story and we go much further into the future, so it's a different version. I'm proud of what we're doing.
Have you been approached by George Clooney? Do you talk to him about it?
No, I hide. Quentin's all over it. Robert and Quentin get together and watch them at his place and he loves it, but I'm hiding. George Clooney probably has a large blacklist button he can push on people in Hollywood, so I'm just humbly trying to do my job as best I can.
How did you first get involved?
Robert's a guy that does everything from instinct. He's a really creative force and he always tries to encourage people to work from the gut, and that's how he works. He casts on instinct, and he shoots quick. He's always very quick, and the process of getting casted was exactly the same. I got a phone call at the very last minute, somebody asked me if I could be at the Four Seasons hotel in two hours to meet with Robert Rodriguez, so obviously I was psyched. I sat down with him, we talked for a couple hours about his idea for the network and the show and what he wanted to do. It sounded like a dream come true. It just sounded like such an amazing opportunity, to be a part of this creative playground he was building with no strings.
About a week later, we got together again and we started playing with some material with some of the other actors, and another week later I was in Austin putting the suit on. Everyone at Troublemaker laughs at the actors as they come in, because every single actor that works with Robert has the same experience. It's super fast. He just moves quick man and before you realize you're already in the project. He doesn't let you second-guess yourself. He teaches you to trust your instincts creatively so before you can think about it too much you just go with your gut. It's a great experience.
The rest at the Source~
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