Every horror fan instantly knows Tony Todd — most famous for playing the malevolent yet elegant title character in 1992’s Candyman, but also the star of the Final Destination series, Tom Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead, and dozens of other films. He’s also had numerous TV roles, including appearances on The X-Files, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the CW’s The Flash.
With Nia DaCosta’s Candyman arriving on digital and Blu-ray this month, and the recent releases of Shudder documentary series Behind the Monsters and narrative film Horror Noire, Todd is having yet another moment in the spotlight. Gizmodo interviewed the veteran actor over video, looking back at the role that enshrined him as one of the great horror villains, as well as his more recent projects.
Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: I wanted to start off by asking you about Horror Noire, the anthology film — your character, Reverend Pike, is so mysterious. We get a sense of him before he appears and we hear your unmistakable voice, obviously. But did you draw on anyone real or fictional for that portrayal?
Tony Todd: Well, I think he was rooted in ministries gone wrong, you know, and the power of collective hypnotism. I grew up in a religious household — my mother is a minister. She’s not like he was. But, you know, having attended enough Tuesday night Sunday services and Thursday night Sunday services and Women’s Auxiliary meetings, I had a lot of fun with the extras they surrounded me with in that. I was able to personalise who I was directing my [energy toward] — obviously, Malcolm Barrett, the lead actor, was my current, how can I say, persuader.
Gizmodo: When you’re in an anthology like that and only on screen for a little while, is it harder to craft your character?
Todd: No. Well, I had these incredible voiceovers and the snippets of sermons, so that helped build it. Once we were [filming] on the day and I had those actual parishioners in front of me, it was easy to make that connection. I mean, it was all about mass hypnotism and believing too much in a Pied Piper, I believe.
Gizmodo: Do you think Reverend Pike thought he was doing the right thing?
Todd: He believed it. You can’t play a villain. He absolutely believed he was doing the right thing, you know? I think that anything horrific that occurs because of that isn’t necessarily his fault. Horror is thrust upon this situation.
Gizmodo: Backtracking a little bit, how did you come to be involved with Horror Noire, the documentary? And is that what led to being in the narrative film?
Todd: Yeah, I believe so. I mean, Tananarive [Due] and her husband, Steven Barnes, wrote that particular episode, and we’ve known each other for several years now, starting with the whole Horror Noire documentary, which I think made an everlasting impact on horror fans. I mean, it had never been discussed how often Blacks were involved in horror films. Starting with Birth of a Nation, right? And it has evolved step by step through the decades. And of course, my own personal recollection was Duane Jones, from the original Night of the Living Dead. I remember seeing it in the drive-in around the time I was deciding or questioning whether there was validity of being an actor and an actor of colour. And I saw him on screen, I said, “That’s it, I can do this. I have a hero now to emulate.”
Gizmodo: And you couldn’t have known at the time that you would end up playing that character in the remake!
Todd: Not at all. I just knew that [there was] this magnificent, tall Black man on screen that wasn’t calling attention to this colour. He was just involved in the situation. I remember asking George [Romero], “How did you end up casting Duane?” And he said he just happened to be the best actor to come into the room — white, Black, whatever race. I thought that was astounding. It also, I don’t think he intended it, but he’s taken credit for it, you know, that it was a great choice in 1968, in the middle of all of the assassinations and racial and political turmoil that was going on. Kind of like today, you know?
Gizmodo: Were you big fan of the drive-in, a horror fan growing up?
Todd: Yeah, I grew up in New England, so we had tons of drive-in theatres. I was in high school and that’s what we did. Some people would be hidden in the trunk and then escape once the cartoons of the great and wonderful food at the drive-in started. [Laughs]
Gizmodo: Do you remember any other favourites from that time?
Todd: I was a huge fan of Rosemary’s Baby when I first saw it, also at a drive-in, because it was horror without emphasis on the scares. It was much more layered than that. It really struck me, particularly John Cassavetes’ role as a struggling actor — what would happen if an actor had a choice of just giving up everything to secure a role? So those images resonated with me.
Gizmodo: It’s psychological horror, but also just horror horror.
Todd: Yeah, and using New York as an iconic background, the historic Dakota building — which ultimately, well, was a background for taking John Lennon’s life. Also, Ruth Gordon with her incredible interpretation that was just fantastic. I thought it was great.
Gizmodo: Going back to Horror Noire, the documentary — it really called attention to the fact that African Americans have long been underrepresented, but also sometimes misrepresented, in the horror genre.
Todd: And usually presented as cartoon caricatures — and usually, you knew if you followed a Black person in the first couple of frames in a horror film, they were going to be one of the first to go. That’s subtly changed over the last 10 years, I think, [since] when I started, which was 25, 30 years ago.
Gizmodo: In what ways have you seen it change, like you said, over the past 10 years?
Todd: Well, I can remember when I started in Hollywood, I would get a role and I’d go on a set which had 125 people, and not only would I be the only African American in the story, but I wouldn’t see anybody in the crew. I wouldn’t see anybody behind the scenes. And I’m going, “Why? Why isn’t there more encouragement for that?” Lately, if you shoot in Atlanta, the crews are half and half, which is wonderful, and more people are getting an opportunity to tell their stories, whether it be as writers or directors or ultimately in the most important job as producers. So hats off to [Jordan Peele’s company] Monkeypaw for that. Hats off to all the young voices out there that have stories to tell and maybe for the first time, be given that opportunity.
Gizmodo: Get Out was definitely a big game-changer.
Todd: I think you can put a hanger on that. And if you look at the Horror Noire anthology film that we just shot, you got six new voices that are showing their skill set. I think things may have really started changing with the original Tales From the Hood, made by my friends Darin Scott and Rusty Cundieff. I mean, that was your first example. You go to a horror anthology and present it with contemporary themes.
Gizmodo: Your other Shudder project, Behind the Monsters, offers such a thoughtful look at the Candyman film series. You’ve obviously had a really long and varied career at this point. Do you mind that people still zero in on Candyman, that it’s the main thing that people want to talk to you about?
Todd: You know what, they can talk about whatever they want. Candyman is one of the proud film accomplishments of my life, and I’ll probably talk about it until I run out of breath. But there are 220 other films out there. Some are related to horror, and some are not. So no, if it keeps the legacy alive [I don’t mind talking about it]. And I think I have, and I carried [the legacy] around for 29, 28 years until finally, someone like Jordan Peele thought it was worthy enough to have a second cinematic look — I’m so happy for that. There’s a whole new generation now being introduced to the legacy and the character, which is fantastic.
Gizmodo: How would you say the character has evolved since that first film?
Todd: Well, I think it’s summed up in Nia DaCosta’s brilliant interpretation and Colman Domingo’s line that “Candyman is not a ‘he,’ Candyman’s the whole damn hive.” And I think that’s the newest [take], that it’s not an isolated incident of only one Black man being unfairly ridiculed and tortured and lynched and vilified, castigated. It can happen to anybody, it doesn’t have to be an African American. It can be any person that is ostracised and struck down before they’re able to reach their full potential, whether it be artistically, intellectually, or whatever. And I think that’s fantastic.
Gizmodo: When you first heard about the new movie, did you wonder what your role would be in it? It ended up being more of a cameo — what was that filming experience like?
Todd: Well, I was trained that there is no such thing as a small moment. Whatever moment you have, [make it] have a hammer-like impact. So I was shooting something else in South Africa and I got a call from Jordan. We talked at length and he explained his vision to me, and I totally agreed with it.
Gizmodo: The moment is so worth it, because the whole movie you’re like, “Where’s Tony Todd?” “Where’s Tony Todd?”
Todd: “Where’s Tony?” “Where is he?” People were sitting on the edge of their seats [going] “What’s happening?” And I’ve heard collectively throughout most theatres in the United States that it’s accepted with a scream of delight and weighted anticipation. So that’s great! And it’s the last image in the movie. So what are people going to talk about? [Laughs]
Gizmodo: It’s so good. Do you think there’s going to be any more Candyman stories?
Todd: Well, I think it was successful. And Hollywood likes success, so why wouldn’t they?
Gizmodo: Are there other parts of the character that you would want to explore?
Todd: Yeah, I would love to see him in a modern context. I think all films look for the solution as opposed to the dilemma. So I would love to see some sort of — I don’t want to kill the suspense, and you’ve got to have some sort of tension, but I would like to see what would happen if he was allowed to be normal. You know? [Original Candyman director] Bernard Rose, who gave me the original job, and I have been friends for decades and we just finished a film called Travelling Light. It’s a beautiful film. Danny Huston, myself, Stephen Dorff, Olivia d’Abo, and it’s great to be reunited with Bernard, so that could be possibly a continuation of the character in some aspects.
Gizmodo: What are your personal hopes for the future of the horror genre as a whole?
Todd: I’d want writers to take more time creating stories that are grounded in reality. We have enough things going on in our world in a country that’s frightening enough.
Both Horror Noire and the Candyman episode of Behind the Monsters are now streaming on Shudder. Nia DaCosta’s Candyman is now available on digital, and hits 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on November 16.
Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.