Interview -- Courtney Gains (Actor, Singer-Songwriter)
this point. People scream
that to me still to this day."
~Courtney Gains ~
We've all seen the original "Children Of The Corn." (1984) Many, like myself, watch it whenever it pops up on the TV. The redheaded horror icon, Courtney Gains, is known to fans everywhere as Malachai...one of the young leaders in charge of killing any adults who happen through their town. Sure, it's a guilty pleasure, but what can you do except grab a box of Pepper Jack Cheez-itz, pull up a nice piece of chair, and give in to the quirky horror fun. We'll soon be coming up on the 40th anniversary of "Children Of The Corn" and October is nearly in our pocket. The perfect time to revisit the friendly kids from the cornfield.
However, if you thought that Courtney Gains was merely a one-and-done actor, better think again. Gains has been working in this medium for decades and has racked up nearly 150 film and television credits since debuting in this cultish film. Courtney Gains is what I like to call a "working man's actor." He's not afraid to get his hands dirty. He just does it. And sometimes it's not just about what you have done, but what you're doing now.
Courtney Gains has been hard at work recording his brand new EP..."Safe Haven"...due to drop October 2nd. With his new band, The Courtney Gains Group, this square is filled with six original songs that bark at the sun and grin at the moon. The album is much like the man himself. No doubt, a man for all seasons. Courtney Gains. Go get you some.
Courtney Gains Interview -- September 2023
Casey Chambers: Next year is gonna be the 40th anniversary of "Children Of The Corn." The year of Isaac and Malachai. And of course...you were Malachai. The film grabbed the cult ring and guilty pleasure or not, has never looked back. It's a quirky horror story that's always fun to watch. Never gets old. And a pretty cool biscuit to carry in your pocket, this being your very first movie, right?
Courtney Gains: It's true, my friend. Yeah, it was my first film. Linda Francis, the casting director, had seen me in a showcase. This was a thing that got popular in the '80s. People would come in and read scenes on stage for casting directors. And if they liked you, they'd bring you in. And she became a bit of a fan. But I was just one on her list. When people ask for advice, that's one of the things to try to do. If you can get two or three casting directors in Hollywood to believe in you...you can work. Casting directors are the gatekeepers of opportunity. (laughs) Very important. Anyway, she brought me in to read for this movie, and I famously pulled a fake knife on the other reader who, by the way, went on to become a very, big casting director himself. Later, he would tell people to never ever do that. (laughs) And was absolutely right. It might have helped me get that part...perhaps...but that other guy never cast me in anything, ever. (laughs) It's a double-edged sword.
And when John Franklin was getting cast as Isaac, they brought in three guys to finish reading with him for the final thing. And I remember grabbing him by his lapels and yanking him off his feet. And he said that I was by far the scariest guy out of the three auditioners. (laughs) And the rest is history. It was John Franklin's first film, as well, and it made a huge impact on our careers.
Casey Chambers: It's funny how one thing can sometimes change the entire direction of your life. What do you recall about your first days shooting on the set?
Courtney Gains: We actually shot the film in Sioux City, Iowa. We were near Nebraska. The first shot I ever did was the scene when I came out of the cornfield. I didn't have any dialogue so it was a nice, easy way to ease into it for my first day. It also ended up being one of the best practical jokes I've ever seen on a movie set. It was the scene when Linda Hamilton was dreaming. In her dream, she walks up to the kid who was hit by the car. He's lying on the road under a blanket and the kid suddenly jumps up and scares her. Well, she was really not expecting that. They had put a real kid underneath the blanket. And it really did scare her. (laughs) She was pranked pretty good. And I'm thinking, 'Oh, this is just normal. This is how they do it in the movies.' (laughs) Linda was really a great sport about it. She couldn't have been a nicer person. Very, very sweet.
Malachai (Courtney Gains) - "Children Of The Corn"
Casey Chambers: Were you familiar with Stephen King's work at this point?
Courtney Gains: I wasn't super familiar, but I knew he was starting to break out big, doing movies and stuff. I did get the book, "Night Shift" which had "Children Of The Corn" in it, and read the story. And later, they ended up reissuing the book with photos of all of us in it which was pretty cool. We've clearly ridden on Stephen King's coattails. No doubt about that. (laughs) Actually, Stephen King had sold that story way before it became successful. One of the producers of the film was a guy named Mark Lipson. And I think his father or his cousin or some uncle owned the rights, but never got it done. So Mark Lipson bought the rights and got the movie made immediately. And that was how that happened. People always ask, 'Did Stephen King come onto the set?' And I'm like, 'No, cause he didn't get paid.'
Casey Chambers: I didn't know that. "Children Of The Corn" also has the distinction of being Stephen King's very first short story developed into a movie which is the kind of trivia flibbety-floo stuff I like. Seeing the movie for the first time must have been a trip.
"Children Of The Corn" (1984) - Official Trailer
Courtney Gains: Well, they didn't have a screening...a premiere, because it was a low-budget feature. So my friends and family all came down to Hollywood Boulevard with me on opening night to watch the movie. Everyone had come to see me and I can remember just being terrified. And it's always terrifying the first time you see yourself in something. At least it is for me. Later, we had a party at my place and my mother was a little wigged out about the whole thing. My father made the statement, 'I had no idea you had so much anger in you.' And I thought he meant I was a good actor, but years later, I knew what he really meant.
Casey Chambers: Malachai and Isaac. Your characters are what keep fans returning to this film. It's just quirky, horror movie fun. And like it or not, "Outlander!" will forever be your catchphrase.
Courtney Gains: It's an iconic line at this point. People scream that to me still to this day. (laughs) It's kind of interesting because I was never thinking I was doing a special line. In some of those movies like "...Corn" and "The Burbs" (1989) and others, I didn't have a tremendous amount of dialogue. But for some reason, what I did have...I guess the delivery or whatever...they stuck. Which is kind of cool.
Casey Chambers: You mentioned "The Burbs" with Tom Hanks and Bruce Dern. And I remember you had a few cool scenes with Bruce Dern.
Courtney Gains: Bruce was awesome. He took me under his wing after the first scene. And he was very supportive of my work which really meant a lot to me because I was already a big Bruce Dern fan. A couple years ago, I got to do another movie with him called, "Hellblazers." (2022) I hadn't seen him in a long time and it was so great to have the chance to tell him again how much his encouragement had meant to me. And of course, Tom Hanks. He's about the most down-to-earth A-list actor that you're ever gonna meet. Tom Hanks is so Americana, man. He would sit on set with a transistor radio listening to baseball games and smoking a cigar. That's kind of how he rolls. Very Americana.
Courtney Gains and Bruce Dern - "The Burbs" (1989)
Casey Chambers: Do you have a favorite horror film of your own?
Courtney Gains: I'm not a huge horror fan, that's for sure. I do like a good story though. But as far as horror goes, and it's rather cliche to choose it, I think "The Exorcist" is probably the best horror film ever made. I saw it as a child in a theater and it really scared the crap out of me. The special effects at that time were unbelievable. They were so modern. But I don't like the gory horror films generally. Things that glorify violence. That really bothers me. It puts me in a bad mood so I don't watch that stuff.
Casey Chambers: And you make a good point, I think, about actors and their films. Starring in a horror film doesn't necessarily mean that's your cup of tea. I'm pretty particular about what films I like when it comes to that kind of genre, too. Now on to a completely different kind of role. I'm gonna cherry-pick a few of your movies, but I recently watched "Can't Buy Me Love" again and that's still a fun movie.
Courtney Gains: "Can't Buy Me Love" and "Sweet Home Alabama." Those are my chick flicks. (laughs) "Can't Buy Me Love" was an indie film that got picked up. And I've had a lot of luck with films that were actually independent. I mean, "Hardbodies" got picked up by Columbia for the summer...and to have a huge studio pick up that little Roger Corman film, well, we got pretty lucky there. Roger made plenty of films that were never picked up by big studios.
"Can't Buy Me Love" (1987)
And it was the same thing with "Can't Buy Me Love." It was made by a tiny company called Apollo Pictures and got picked up by Touchstone, which was the offshoot of Disney that had just started. They had just picked up a movie called, "Stakeout" and they picked up our movie. "Stakeout" was the number one movie of the summer, and ours..."Can't Buy Me Love"...was the number three movie of the summer. They really put some money into it. They bought the soundtrack to "Can't Buy Me Love" and that was a huge expense. It wasn't called "Can't Buy Me Love" initially. The movie was originally to be called, "Boy Rents Girl." And what a great move it was by the studio to go with "Can't Buy Me Love" as the title. We went back and did some reshoots. Took out some of the tasteless humor. Cleaned it up a little bit. And when it came out, it did super well. It made Patrick Dempsey a star, that's for sure.
Reese Witherspoon and Courtney Gains in "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002)
(courtesy Chris Roe Management)
Casey Chambers: I wasn't aware until much later that you were also in the blockbuster "Back To the Future."
Courtney Gains: It's good to be part of one of the most successful trilogies in Hollywood history. (laughs) And, certainly, nobody knew...I didn't know...who the hell Robert Zemeckis was at that time. But I'd say he went on to become a pretty good director, huh? (laughs)
Casey Chambers: Oh, maybe just a smidge. (laughs) And he hadn't even made "...Roger Rabbit" yet.
Courtney Gains: Yeah, but Spielberg knew he was good because he hired him. And having Spielberg involved as executive producer was something that everybody was excited about. If Spielberg was onboard, we knew it had a shot at doing something.
Casey Chambers: How was your experience working on "Back to the Future?"
Courtney Gains: There are a couple of things about that film I'll share. First, it was very comfortable for me doing the film on one level because the first film I ever did was a short called..."The Beaver Trilogy." And that was also the first film that Crispin Glover ever did. So knowing the guy who I had most of my interactions with in the film helped a lot going on the set. He was one of the leads in the movie and was great. I think Crispin's a very unique and interesting talent myself. Have you ever seen Glover not be interesting? (laughs) I don't think so.
Casey Chambers: Oh, I dig Crispin Glover. He always seems to be walking a thin line between Sid Vicious and Syd Barrett.
Courtney Gains: He is just so interesting. And then there's another little story. I've told it before, but, here goes. In your contract, you can be working and then they can release you for a certain amount of time and hire you back again. So they don't have to keep paying you. I forget what it's called, but basically, they can only do that once. And they had already done that with me. I'm sure you know the story about Eric Stoltz originally being the lead, and then let go. When that happened, they had to do a whole giant reshoot, and they forgot about me for about five weeks on payroll. So we ended up having to negotiate and they flipped out. And so with that payday, plus "Back To The Future" obviously becoming one of the most successful franchises of all time, the residual income on that film alone has always been a real blessing in my life and in my career. And with this thing going on with the strikes, actors may never have a residual check looking like that in their life again.
Crispin Glover and Courtney Gains - "Back To The Future" (1985)
Casey Chambers: Along with the numerous films you've been involved with, you've done a beaucoup amount of television as well. How do the two compare?
Courtney Gains: I enjoy making films more. I enjoy going on location and the filming. It's like the circus comes to town and everybody kind of bonds and focuses to make this thing and then goes back on their merry way. But television's been very good to me. It's kept me working. Especially through the '90s and the early 2000s. Television is a faster process, though. They're making an hour-long show in a week. Now granted, they already have their sets and everything's already pre-lit and the team's been working together for a while. But there's still a lot to accomplish. When you're making a film, you're there four, five, six, or seven weeks, ya know? But with television, when you audition for something, you get maybe 24 hours to show up, turn something around and do your thing.
You get hired within a few days and you're usually on the set in less than a week. So it's not about...exploring the process. It's about going in with your big guns and getting it done. You know what I mean? It's about delivering immediately. If you get it right once or twice, they move on. It's not like in a big movie, where they might shoot three and a half pages or four pages a day. You're talking about shooting an hour or 45 minutes worth of actual product within six or seven days. It's a much different animal.
But like I said, I've been afforded some great roles on TV. There was a role I did for "Diagnosis: Murder" playing a guy who pretended to have cerebral palsy but was really paralyzed on one side of his body. That's not something you get every day. With the role I had in "My Name Is Earl"...I really got to play the nerdy side, but also play the angry, edgy side, which I've done plenty of both, but never both together. And so I've been given some really good opportunities on television to explore some very interesting characters.
Casey Chambers: I was binging on some "Criminal Minds" a while back and thought it was very cool to catch you in a serial killer episode. And I thought you were terrific in it.
"Criminal Minds" - ("Keeper" S12.E4 - 2016)
Courtney Gains: Thank you. That was a great experience. And that was the only time in my career where I just got offered the role. I didn't have to audition for a guest star spot on that show. That just doesn't happen often...unless you're a big name. They thought I could do that character and it was a tough role. I'd never been more confused about a character. What was real and what wasn't. When I talked to the director and writers, they were like...'I don't know, either.' (laughs) So I had a lot to figure out. But everybody was very supportive and they allowed me a lot of room to make my own choices and show them what I needed to do to make things work. And it came out really great. That was the last really, really good guest star I did in Los Angeles.
Casey Chambers: And if I can cherry-pick just one more. Being cast in an episode of what possibly was the best television show ever..."Seinfeld"...well, that's a triple punch on anybody's pizza card.
Courtney Gains: "Seinfeld" was just on a whole other level. They shot on film, number one. Like "Cheers" did. And they'd have a person...what they call the warm-up person...keeping the audiences' energy up. Telling jokes and stuff. Jerry did that himself. They even had a band there, too. And when the show was in between shots, the band would play. It was a really, really class act. And it was a great show to get to work on. It was "The Smelly Car" episode. To be associated with one of the greatest television comedies in history, and for that episode to be considered one of the better ones is pretty amazing.
"Seinfeld" ("The Smelly Car" S4.E21 - 1993)
Casey Chambers: Many fans of "Children Of The Corn" may not be aware that you're also a musician. I mean, you're doing it all, man. You even had the opportunity to play on stage with Phish one time. How did that happen?
Courtney Gains: Okay, so this is a bit of a story. (laughs) Right before "Can't Buy Me Love" came out, a friend of mine got married in Nova Scotia, Canada. It's a long story, but afterward, I hitchhiked from Nova Scotia to Michigan to see this girl. (laughs) Day two, this guy named Mike Gordon, who was playing in this band nobody ever heard of called Phish, picked me up and told me they were playing in a small town where they were from at a place called Nectars. And the next thing you know, a year later, they're coming to L.A. and opening for Santana. The next thing you know, they're on Rolling Stone magazine. (laughs) They became the second-greatest jam band behind the Grateful Dead.
Casey Chambers: All very cool. Very cool. But how did you end up getting to perform on stage with these guys?
Courtney Gains: It was in Vegas a few years later. How the whole thing went down was...Phish had a friend who was like the King Prankster. Always pulling pranks on them. And he was deathly afraid of Malachai! So the guys kept trying to figure out a way to set up a prank. None of them were any good. Too much hassle. But they finally came up with a way to prank him while in Vegas. The idea was to fly me up there. They were going to have a little fun with their friend by having a party up in the penthouse of one of the hotels. They got him high on shrooms and then took him out gambling. When they got back to the penthouse, everybody from the party was gone. It was dark, and they were all sitting around watching "Children Of The Corn."
But then one by one, the guys peeled off. And I was waiting in one of the bedrooms. And Trey (Anastasio), you know, who's another redhead, switched his jacket with me and I went and sat down beside this guy. Everyone was expecting a big scream. They even had girls in the background singing the theme song. (laughs) But instead, he freaked out. They didn't realize how bad he freaked out because there was never a scream! He was scared shitless. And when they went in to talk to him, he literally couldn't utter a syllable for 45 minutes. (laughs) And that, my friend, was when they realized it was the greatest prank ever.
Casey Chambers: That had him "Bouncing Around The Room" literally. (laughs) Some serious corn on the macabre shit going on that night.
Courtney Gains: (laughs) Yeah, man. And they were like, stoked at this point. It was like, whatever I want. And I was like, 'Well, how about letting me come on stage and play a song with you guys while you're in Vegas?' Now Larry (LaLonde) and Les (Claypool) with Primus were already there, so I couldn't play guitar. So I just came out and played some percussion... and it was really awesome! It was on "Suzy Greenberg" and "Susie Q." I've seen Phish, I don't know, at least eight, ten times. And I've seen Trey by himself and I've seen Mike by himself. They're just a great band, man. They can really elevate a room. Like the Grateful Dead, their music just keeps building and it takes you to a place of euphoria. Just fantastic.
Phish - "Vegas '96" (2007)
Casey Chambers: Performing with Phish has to be a great memory to carry around. And now you're coming out with some new music of your own...soon to drop in October. Tell us a little bit about that.
Courtney Gains: I have a six-song EP called "Safe Haven" coming out on an indie label called Fake Fangs Records. I had written three of the songs for a movie called "Benny Bliss and The Disciples of Greatness" that came out in 2009. If you wanna see a crazy rock and roll road comedy...check it out. I front a real band in the movie. We were supposed to do a record afterward, but it didn't happen. So it has those songs plus three new ones I've been working on. It's a bit of a social commentary on different things. The title track is one of the new ones...about needing a place to go to, a place to be, a place to have. "The Healer" is told from the point of view of an egomaniac plastic surgeon. I've just been writing about what I find upsetting or ridiculous and wanna talk about. "Safe Haven" is a bit angst-driven, but it's not an angry record. Hopefully, listeners will find the music fun, poignant, and clever.
The EP comes out on October 2nd. You can get it exclusively at Fake Fangs Records. Fans can go there and listen to the songs and download the whole record or buy the CD. There will also be an opportunity to buy signed CDs, as well. I have a band called the Courtney Gains Group. We've been playing in the Southeast for about nine months getting our chops together. I sing and play bass and have a terrific guitar player. We're getting it together and the tour is all gonna coincide with the 40th anniversary of "...Corn." So that's gonna be really cool. And I'm gonna try to tie-in some VIP stuff, as well. You can find us on Facebook and see what we're doing.
This whole thing has been a learning curve for me. Music's always been a hobby. I've always had bands in L.A. But in L.A., it's like a showcase where places turn over four or five bands a night. They get people in, and that's how they make their money. Down here, it's bars and tourists. So bands get paid to play. They're not looking to turn over bands. They're looking for a band to make it through the whole night. Finding a booking agent and getting gigs is new. I've never had that kind of support before. Now I've got some people behind me and it's happening. I found a label to pick it up. The EP is called "Safe Haven" and it's been fun. It's really forced me to get my chops together. It's something I've always wanted to do, and when we finally hit the road, I'm gonna be ready.
Casey Chambers: I'll leave a link for my readers. Before I let you go, how about recommending a couple of albums from other artists that we should check out or revisit?
Courtney Gains: I'm not gonna reinvent the wheel here, that's for sure. Well, maybe one. I wouldn't say it's underrated, but it's one I don't think people talk about a lot anymore. But Janis Ian's "Between the Lines" with her famous song, "At Seventeen"...I think that's one of the best albums ever made. I feel that record captured whatever teenage melancholy I felt better than anything else in my life.
She's teaching some writing classes, now. I've been thinking about checking into it. I heard she's like...tough...you know what I mean? I would hate to be bummed out after meeting her because I'm such a big fan. But she just might bring the best out of you when you write songs. I like writing. The moment of creativity that happens when you write a song is the joy for me. So that's one. And then again, not reinventing the wheel...I think Pink Floyd's..."The Dark Side Of The Moon" is the greatest concept album ever written. (laughs) And of course, every year it still sells. So obviously there's no surprise there.
Casey Chambers: And it's hard to believe that was Floyd's eighth album before they truly blew up.
Courtney Gains: Yeah, and think about it. Nowadays artists don't get that many chances. If you look at "Ummagumma" or something. (laughs) If you had judged them by just that one, you would've never thought they could've gotten to a "Dark Side of the Moon." But they were given that opportunity. I mean, it's not just the artists. It's also the people they get to work with. It's like having a great director for a film. It's only gonna benefit you as an actor. And for musicians, it's the same way, I think. I would love the chance to work with a great producer in music and see what they're able to bring out of me, you know? On my list. (laughs) Next round, maybe.
Casey Chambers: Indeed. Well, I really enjoyed talking with you, Courtney. Watching "Children Of The Corn" has become a regular deal. If it's on...I put the remote down. (laughs) And all the best with your new EP..."Safe Haven" coming out October 2nd. Thank you very much for your time.
Courtney Gains: All right, brother. I appreciate it. Thank you.