More than 30 years after his iconic appearance in the Stephen King movie Children of the Corn, Courtney Gains has become a go-to actor, appearing in such popular classics as Back to the Future and The ‘Burbs.
He makes a key appearance in the new film Queen Bees, with Hollywood heroes like Ellen Burstyn, Jane Curtain, Ann-Margret and James Caan.
He sat down with 519 to discuss his classic movie roles, working with legendary stars, and just how his Children of the Corn character Malachai landing him on stage with classic rockers Phish.
Your newest movie is “Queen Bees”, tell me about that film.
The director, Michael Lembeck, who’s done a ton of comedy films and television. I took a class that he and his sister Helaine teach the Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop their father originally taught it and they’ve taken over. When I found out he was doing a project in Atlanta, I talked him about hey, you know, I’m out there part time, what do you got going and he offered me a small part. It’s a cameo, but it was a chance to work with Ann-Margret, Ellen Burstyn, Loretta Devine and Jane Curtin, so I was like, absolutely. Then I was really surprised it made the trailer and it turned out to be a really funny scene in the movie. So I couldn’t be happier.
This one reunites you in the same film as Christopher Lloyd, once again.
That’s true. And that one, I didn’t work with him either, so I’ve been in two movies with Christopher Lloyd, but I haven’t actually had the pleasure of working directly with Christopher Lloyd, which would be great. I’m a fan all the way back to the “Taxi” days, some of the funniest television ever him in “Taxi”.
I find it really interesting when you see people that kind of go from film to film, almost as if they’re a team, even though they’re not. It’s probably because the casting directors kind of recognize faces together. Do you think that might be the case?
I think sometimes – for instance having done “Can’t Buy Me Love” with Patrick Dempsey, which was picked up by Touchstone Pictures, which is Disney. Then when they did “Sweet Home Alabama”, and they cast him, that might have been a bit of a tipping point for me to get that Sheriff, because it was like, well, he’s been part of our family before and Patrick’s in this one. So that’s a good sign. Let’s put them together again. So I think sometimes things like that happen.
What did “Back to the Future” bring to the table for you?
Well, I was on my 80s role at that time, I was just booking and working. I went on a five, six year run. I was excited about it because I knew that Spielberg was involved. I really didn’t know Zemeckis was going to turn out to be Robert Zemeckis, right. The biggest connection to that project for me was that I had worked with Crispin Glover before in the first thing I ever did. It was an American Film Institute project, and I always forget the title I should figure it back out but it’s interesting since there was three versions of this short done one by Crispin and one by Sean Penn. It’s called “The Beaver Trilogy” which you can still actually get to this day. It’s always nice to come on a set and you’ve actually worked with somebody before especially if they’re now a lead in it and they come and greet your trailer, it makes you feel welcome.
I’m sure “Back to the Future” is probably one of the reasons why you get to go to Motor City Comic Con and events like that.
Mainly it’s the horror stuff, mainly it’s “Children of the Corn” but I certainly do sign “Back to the Future” posters at every convention. Somebody is always bring up posters, they want every single person on there if they can get on, but to be part of the biggest trilogies of all time, I’m thankful and I tell this story that financially it’s been one of the bigger blessings in my career because I was on the movie before Eric Stoltz got let go. So when they did reshoots, they’d already know I was on payroll for five weeks where they did reshoots for a job that I probably shouldn’t work three days on. So the residual income from it has been a blessing in my career. It’s helped me pay the bills many times, so I’m very thankful.
I had a minor experience like that. I was a background actor in “Jennifer’s Body” with Megan Fox, and there was supposed to be a two hour scene that ended up being a week. It carried over and at that point in time I needed the money. So it was great.
Yeah, every once in a while some of those things fall in place. But nothing’s been a big windfall in that regard as “Back to the Future”. As much as I ended up working with Eric Stoltz in “Memphis Belle”, great guy and great actor, it was a very tough thing for him to have gone through, it was a blessing for me.
In “Back to the Future” you have a small part, but it’s a very pivotal part because the whole thing kind of climaxes right at your scene.
That’s the thing is sometimes you could have a small part, but it has an impact, like in “Queen Bees”. It’s only one scene, but that scene is a real bonding moment for them when they all stand up against me and have a bonding moment for these women. It’s a very pivotal part in “Back to the Future” if that kiss doesn’t happen and the whole family disappears, right? So it’s a very pivotal moment, if you’re gonna have a small part, try to have one in a pivotal moment.
Do you like the small roles or do you prefer to dive into a character and just let ‘er rip?
I’m looking for a character with the biggest arc I can get. Of course, you know, whether that’s the lead or not, if you’re the lead then you’re in every scene and that’s a lot of work. My career has been essentially a supporting actor in terms of supportive cast and I think there’s a lot of value in that and I think nowadays with so many things being shot where they’re hiring locals and this and that or they don’t want to pay the money anymore I think that supporting casts are weakening and I don’t think they’re valued the way they used to be.
If you look at some of my favorite movies say like “Cool Hand Luke”, to me that’s got just an amazing supporting cast and it’s amazing how they were able to have so many people in that movie as a cast, an ensemble but you know everybody’s plotline story and who they are, I feel that art has gotten lost. Nowadays in TV, they used to be the guest stars were really a big deal and each episode kind of helped carry the show.
Now, it’s really about the cast that’s the series regulars and the guest stars are getting smaller and less significant and if they are very significant, they’re making offers to a big actor, so that helps them get a bump in the ratings.
In the 90s, I did a ton of guest stars and that was my bread and butter for a long time, I’m still doing them. I just did a show called “Tales” for BET. That’s a 10 episode in anthology and this is their third season so each episodes completely different, different get recast, but it’s gotten tougher, it’s turned into a lot of one day guest stars out there as opposed to getting paid for the whole week. It’s gotten a little tougher for actors out there that are not serious regulars.
You mentioned you were a part of some great TV shows like “CSI”, “NCIS”, “Bones” and the list goes on and on.
“Seinfeld” – Yeah, that was a great experience. I’ve had a very good run in guest stars, like I said, it was a time where I was getting on so easily after having established a film crew that I was sort of taking them for granted.
And now it’s at a point where you’ll come in a room, for example the “Bones” episode. I auditioned for “Bones” many times before I got it. It was a one day guest star on that show, one scene. When I walked in the room to audition, every guy in that room had a resume, they could have basically just walked in there, closed your eyes, spun around and picked one of us.
We all were more than capable of doing that role. But that’s the level of competition now, just to get a one day guest star. When I used to feel like I was taking jobs away from other actors, if I go in for a one day guest stars, I feel like my resume was bigger than theirs or whatever. But now it’s competitive just to get a damn show.
What’s it like being involved in those one day shoots as compared to movies? I know the timeframes are longer but there must be a different mindset.
It all depends on the tone of the show, some people in a series with a regular cast have the mentality of you’re only here a day or you’re only here a week. So, I don’t care about you, you’ll be gone. And then there are other people who go out of their way to make you feel welcome and it does make a big difference.
I gave an example of a one day guest star that was fun to do, “NCIS” Mark Harman, you got this guy’s just a class act. He had them wire them on the microphone and walkie talkie when I was coming up, he opened the van door to greet me and then took me out and introduced me the rest of the cast.
That’s unprecedented for a lead actor in a series do something like that. But it he shows you that he takes leadership and takes pride in his show, and he wants to make his actors feel welcome and psychologically it makes a big difference, you feel much more comfortable immediately, and you can just get to work.
So it really depends on the tone of the people on the show. The ones that make me feel welcome. Even on “Queen Bees”.
When I got introduced to the ladies, Jane Curtin going I know you, you’re in everything. It’s like, “Wow, Jane Curtin just said that to me, how sweet”. It just puts you at ease and makes you feel welcome, and that goes a long way.
Tell me about filming “Queen Bees”, how was that experience compared to some of the others you’ve had?
Like, I said, there was familiarity because I’d worked with Michael. I worked for Michael in a comedy class for two years. So I knew, essentially how he liked to work. It was interesting to take it from a class setting and apply it to a film. But to have already an established relationship with a director, that’s an obviously a distinct advantage.
So I was very comfortable with that. I just didn’t want to let him down basically, was where I was coming from. We’ve worked together and he believes in me, I want to do a good job for him. But I also knew that if I needed another take or something like that, I could easily ask and will probably be granted that, where somebody else wouldn’t know him. It was a good experience, because of that and because I got to work with and watch these great ladies work in the scene.
The first part of it, I’m watching them at this coffee house having a conversation, because I’m looking for the moment like stealing Ellen Burstyn purse. So really, the first half of the day, I just get to watch these four great actresses work. And that was really cool, because they all have different methods and approaches, but they’re all very established and what they do in their own way.
So from just a purely acting point of view, I really enjoyed how each one worked differently, but how they all work together with their strong suits working off each other. It’s a really good experience.
When there is a role like the biker in “Queen Bees”, do you look forward to actually watching the whole movie later? Or is it just something that you’ve done?
It depends on the film. Certainly “Queen Bees” I was for various reasons. Michael directed it, great actresses to get to watch, a couple of great actors as well, James Caan and Christopher Lloyd, so I was looking forward to watching that. But it depends on the film. Sometimes it’s like, yeah, you’ve worked with the actors and may or may not have a good experience or maybe just not that big a fan of their work. It’s like Nah, I don’t see this guy the whole movie, or this lady?
But it depends, like I said, if you had a good experience, it’s the same like meeting an actor you admire. If you have a good experience, you take that with you every time, you watch their projects, and remember it. If you have a bad experience, I really don’t want to see them in anything ever again, because I just remember, they were a jerk. So the experience you have, dictates to me pretty much everything. You just don’t know how you get on a set and how that’s gonna go.
Tell me about the first time you ever saw yourself on screen.
Would it be Children of the Corn? I’m trying to remember, I think so. Either that or when it was an AFI film. But I remember, distinctly “Children of the Corn” because there was no premiere. It was an independent film. But back then everything was a theatrical release. I remember going on Hollywood Boulevard with my family and friends on opening night, and going to the movie.
I remember just being petrified. What its gonna look like and all your friends are there and your family. And I remember I was just overwhelmed. But really, it’s not that different to this day, the first time seeing myself on a film is always nerve racking. And I have a real hard time having any objectivity because I’m remembering everything we did that went into each one of those scenes.
It’s like I’m flashing back. I’m like, Oh, yeah, that was two in the morning, and I was freezing my ass off. So I have to watch your movie about three times before I can get any kind of objectivity to the performance. I’m a character person, hopefully my behaviors are different for my cadences, or my movements. And when I first see it, it looks very strange to me, because I’m moving and behaving differently than I know myself to move away, which is my job. But it’s still very weird to watch.
So I have to watch it a few times and remind myself – What were the choices I made and then see whether I executed those choices well or not. That’s at the end, how I would need to base it on, so it’s a very strange feeling. It still is after all these to see your head, two storey’s tall, you never really get used to it. It’s an amazing thing to see yourself on a big screen like that, but it’s also always very surreal.
I saw myself walking right beside Ben Stiller in “Night at the Museum”. I couldn’t believe how big my head was and I was like, I don’t look like that. Do I? (laughter)
(Laughter) Yeah, that’s the thing, you don’t realize and you don’t see yourself in 3D, even though it’s obviously 2D technically, but in the way that you see yourself on film, it’s definitely a different experience.
Cheers. from one big headed guy to another. (laughs)
What draws you to the roles that you’ve chosen?
It depends, right? Like I said, I’m looking for the best character I can find. And I’m looking for the best arc I can find. And I’m looking for the best story I can find. But sometimes I just gotta get back to work.
I’ll be honest, sometimes I haven’t worked for months, I need to pay the bills. When you’ve done it, 35 plus years, and this is how you make your living, sometimes you got to keep working, keep having current credits, keep being relevant because the industry is, very fickle that way.
I’ve done a ton of guest stars, 60/50, something like that. But if I hadn’t done anything in a few years, which I kind of did go through a little TV drought after I did the best one of the best TV guest stars I’ve ever done, which was Criminal Minds, which was actually an offer and for television for guest stars, for me, is very rare. Usually, I have to audition. But they knew it was a very difficult role and they offered it up which was a great experience. But after that, you think, I’ll probably bag a few more and I went through a TV drought. I feel like a 50 year old, pasty white boy right now is not the du jour and most of the 50 year old actors I know are in LA struggling a bit which is part of why I made the pivot to come out to the southeast as well and open that door up. It’s worked out well for me. Not that it was easy. I had to do a lot of auditions out here before I booked stuff, but I’m just getting this “Tales” that I just got for BET that was a bitter drought. It’s been a few years since I’ve done a guest star, so it was really good to get back on it.
I was close on a pretty big show recently in New York, and that was a question, you know, what has he done? What has he done lately? Even though I had a long resume of guest stars, they want to know what the last two three years look like. It can be very tough that if you fall out of the loop a little bit, they may be like, Oh, yeah, well, that was the past, what have you done lately? That is always the question, so you’re trying to just keep finding work to stay busy. Then you just try to do the best job you can with the material you get.
Of everything you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite?
Yeah, I can’t. That’s like trying to name your favorite baby or something. I don’t know how to do that.
A film role that I had a lot of fun with that I talked about that’s not a very well known film was something I produced, as well as a movie called “Benny Bliss and the Disciples of Greatness”. It’s a rock and roll comedy with an anti-technology bent.
One of the things I love about it is that I wrote four of the songs in it, I perform all the songs live in it with a live band, no cut-in vocally or anything like that. It culminates with the concert in the desert, a 30 minute show that we do live. That was probably the most without a net as an actor, I’ve been in a movie before.
You’ve got 200 extras that have to come out, and you’ve got this band, you’ve rehearsed with some, but you’ve never done the whole set. You’re going to do not only the 30 minutes set, but you’re introducing other acts coming in and out and things for like 30 straight minutes, you’re just rolling like a real concert. That was a wild experience. We talked to some of the extras after too and we did that twice. They could not believe it was the first time that band ever performed.
There was some real pros in the band, don’t get me wrong, but still, I had you as the front man of this thing, deliver a performance, the movie all came down to that. And if I didn’t deliver, we had no movie, in my opinion. So that was pretty crazy fun. It was like doing a rock concert. I got to play a rock star for a minute.
I was gonna say that sounds like your rock star moment, right?
Yes. One of them. I got to go on stage and perform with Phish in Vegas once in front of 8,000 people. That was a crazy experience.
Wow. Tell me about that.
Well, the story is, I met Mike Gordon the bass player from Phish before they ever broke. He picked me up from hitchhiking. This was right before “Can’t Buy Me Love” came out, and I was hitchhiking across countries. A friend of mine got married in Nova Scotia and I was hitchhiking back to Detroit to see a girl and they were not established. They were just playing in Nectar’s in Burlington, Vermont, which is a great college jam, music jam town. That’s where they came out of that music, improv jam kind of thing.
We kept in touch and they obviously blew up to be Phish. And so during that time, they had this friend of theirs who was a real prankster who they wanted to get back and he was deathly afraid of Molokai, my character from “Children of the Corn” and they were trying to come up with a prank.
They kept coming with ideas that in locations things just weren’t working. So I guess they kept saying no and they finally came up with a good idea in Vegas, it wasn’t hard to get to from LA. They were going to throw this party up in a penthouse of one of the MGM’s so it was good. What they do is they threw this party. Then they took the guy out, they got him wasted, they took them out to go gamble, and they came back it was dark down there and they were playing “Children on the Corn”.
So it was just the band members and him watching the movie. And then one by one they peeled out, Trey being the guitar player being the last because he’s a redhead. He looks similar to me. I was waiting in the master bedroom, I put on his jacket, I come back and I sit next to the guy. And he turns and he sees me.
They’re hoping for a big scream or something, right? But you can just see the fear in his eyes, right? He’s like, hey, and he gets up and he walks away slowly in the next room. And they’re like, was he scared? Was he scared? Then they went to talk to him. And he literally could not utter a syllable for about 45 minutes. He was just like, yeah, and luckily the next day I saw that he was a great sport about it because he’s a prankster himself.
The band was ecstatic because they’ve been trying to set this guy up for years. So at that point, I could kind of call my shot and so I was like, Well, can I get up and do a song with you guys? They’re like.. done. So I got to go and play with them and Larry and Les than Primus and like I said, just in front of 8,000 people that’s the most I’ve ever been in front of by far as a musician, and it was really fun.
What I’ve noticed is Children of the Corn always seems to come back. Would you say, that’s your most important film?
I don’t know if it’s my most important film, but I would say it’s the most recognizable role. I’d say it’s the most iconic character. And I think it’s crazy because it was my first, so who knew that this little horror film when horror was not the mainstream like it is now would go on to have such a lasting legacy and what they’ve made eight or nine plus a remake on Sci-Fi plus, now they’ve done a prequel.
I think, coming out later this year, they’re calling it “Children of the Corn” just like the original, not part 1, 2, 3, or 4. But it’s really a prequel they shot out in Australia during the pandemic, and it’s got some big producers involved, which makes me think it’s not going to be garbage. So we’ve made it all the way to the prequel.
Now we’ve done like eight or nine so, it’s been that gift, it’s kept on giving, I mean, I wouldn’t be able to do conventions all these years. Certainly, my reputation for playing bad guys was started there, without a doubt. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse, right? I’ve come to the understanding that there’s going to be no living it down. It has a life of its own.
It’s bigger than me, no doubt, kind of, like when you’re in a band and you try to break out of the band, but you’re never able to and the band’s bigger than you are, so it’s like, shorten the cord, and Malachai is bigger than me.
Is Malachai your first role? Has any of Malachai traits transferred to a different film or different character?
Yeah, a lot of the bad guys, I think is the reason that role is one of the more recognized roles, it’s also one of the better roles, I’ve had an opportunity to play. He had a really good arc and John Franklin, what he brought as Isaac, we were a very good team. Just the theme of that movie, particularly coming out in the 80s was metal angst out there for teenagers.
It transfers, like rock and roll transfers to every generation, the idea of these kids rebelling against their parents and killing them and taking over the town is going to appeal to certain portion of young individuals, teenagers, of every generation, just like people discover Led Zeppelin. I think people are going to discover “Children of the Corn”. So it was just a lot of themes laid out perfectly.
A lot of tough guys I’ve played it had similar ruthlessness and similar willingness to cross the boundaries. And what makes bad guys fun is that their rule breakers. They’re where you and I wouldn’t do it in real life because we know the consequences. These guys are not worried, I would say maybe the closest is “Killing Grounds”. It’s not a well known film did it in the 90s.
But actually, in fact, John Franklin is in it again, talking about looping around and I actually killed him in that one. He killed me in “Children of the Corn” and I get to kill him in “The Killing Grounds”. Even though it’s not a really well known film. It’s one of the better bad guys I’ve done.
I’m there to the end. I have this great fight scene with Priscilla Barnes and then I get blown away and I take five, six squibs I have to hit this mat falling back like six feet. If you missed the mat, you’re gonna crack your head and it’s one take and it’s a really nice piece of work
So if you’re looking for a decent indie film to see and you want to see me play a bad guy, I recommend “The Killing Grounds”.
Sounds like a good film to check out.
Now one of the films I really like is “The ‘Burbs”. That’s a wacky character.
Yes, and what I didn’t realize how much of a cult following that film had until I started doing conventions.
“Children of the Corn” has been a number one seller at the table, “The ‘Burbs” is number two. And there’s just a ton of diehard undefined fans out there.
I mean like diehard people who see it once a month, people who see it when they’re depressed, it’s their go to movie to feel good and laugh.
Is there a “Children of the Corn” story that you can close the interview with.
So the first scene I did in the movie was actually the first scene in the movie which is you see me come out of the cornfield for the first time and I start walking toward the car. So that’s kind of cool.
In the story, they had run over this kid, right? And then she has this dream sequence, because she was kind of knocked out and Burt’s looking for stuff. And the kid jumps up. Well, they actually snuck the real kid underneath the blanket and scared the crap out of her.
It’s still to this day, the best prank I’ve ever seen done in a film. I mean, she jumped like six feet back, Linda Hamilton is a great lady, good-natured. She was like “You sons of bitches!”. The whole crew was cracking up. So the first scene I ever did was the best prank I’ve ever been part of on a movie set.