I was first introduced to my next interview subject on Facebook. My friend Lisa was a big J.J. Cohen fan from his work in the film, “Fire With Fire” where he played Myron “The Mapmaker” Hampmacher, the second male lead. She also knew that I was a “Back To The Future” fan so she connected me with J.J., who had played Skinhead in the first 2 BTTF movies and a member of Needles’ gang in the 3rd. Over the course of several years, we got to know each other, and in 2013, we had a series of conversations on the phone about his life and career. At first, I only associated J.J with the “Back To The Future” trilogy, but as we had our conversations, I discovered there was much more to him, not only as an actor, but also as a man. He’s had an extremely full and eventful life so far, with many high points and some low ones, but something tells me with as much as he’s done, there’s still a lot more that lies ahead. He was kind enough to open himself up and share much of it with me over the course of 3 long phone calls (and a few shorter ones,as well). I hope you will all enjoy getting to know J.J as I did.
Without further ado, here’s the Flashback Interview With J.J Cohen!
Caps: Can you hear me?
J.J: Yes, I can.
Caps: Alright, let me just bring up my questions.
J.J: Alright, shoot.
Caps: I always start off with these 2 questions. Number 1: What were your pop-cultural likes growing up, like favorite movies and music?
J.J: Oh, I thought you were going to start off with a song we could actually sing together. No, I’m just kidding. Well, let’s see. The first thing I really want to say is thank you for taking the time to talk to me. Secondly, my pop-culture likes: You know, I was big into Friday night TV. “The Brady Bunch”, “The Incredible Hulk”, there’s probably many more I can’t remember now, but like, “The A-Team”. I used to love to watch the boxing matches with my dad. Muhammad Ali late Friday night. I used to fall asleep whenever those fights came on, but I loved that. I watched a lot of TV. I went to the movies a lot when I was a kid. Some of my favorite movies when I was a kid growing up were “The Warriors” and I watched a lot of Saturday morning cartoons. I loved Batman and Robin. In fact, my first agent represented Adam West, and so it was kind of cool being able to go in there and see pictures of Adam West on his desk. I never met him, but it was very surreal. I come from Maryland, which is a very sheltered lifestyle compared to California. I always make the joke that California is much more hip than Maryland. “You go back to someone in Maryland and say ‘Hey, I’m gay’, and they say ‘Yeah, I’m happy, too”. I don’t know if you get that or not.
Caps: Oh, no, I get it. It’s funny.
J.J: Okay. You’re a quiet laugher. Did you smile at least? I can’t tell.
Caps: I smiled.
J.J: Okay, very good. In terms of music, growing up, I was very impessioned by black culture. I listened to a lot of Cameo and Parliament and Funkadelic, and a lot of black soul groups. You know, “Rapper’s Delight” was very big as a kid for me then, and of course, it’s turned into something much bigger and different now than what it was, but black music was a very heavy influence in my life. Earth, Wind and Fire, The Commodores, you know, black music of that kind.
Caps: I know what you’re talking about. I grew to enjoy that in my late teens and early 20s when I purchased some old school funk CDs.
J.J: Yeah. See, I moved to California when I was 15, and so when I moved to California, it was a totally different thing. I kind of got away from that soul and funk and disco-type music and that’s when I really started digging The Doors and Led Zeppelin and The Who and all that kind of much different type of music. My world started opening up a lot more when I moved to California.
Caps: That actually sort of leads into my next question. Before you’d gotten to California, what were your school days like?
J.J: Oh, God. I was a bad kid in school. I mean, when I was in elementary school, I’d be sent down to the principal’s office on a regular basis…Really regular basis. Even in junior high, I was sent down to the principal’s office quite a bit. I would get into fights sometimes, but the real reason I was always sent down was because I was always talking in class. I was always trying to make jokes and I guess you could say the teachers and I came at it from a different angle. You know, they were trying to teach the class, hence the name “teachers”, but I was trying to just entertain. That was really all it was. Looking back now, I can see how irritating it would probably be, interrupting and making jokes when I’m trying to teach a class, when the teacher’s trying to teach a class, but back then, it seemed harmless and I couldn’t understand why that was such a big deal. I actually have 4 sisters, and I really wanted to be a magician when I was younger, but I gave that up when I found I couldn’t make them disappear, so I went into doing other things. I played a lot of ball when I was younger, too. I really wanted to be a pro baseball player. That was my thing, and then when I was 15, I tore all my ligaments in my elbow and had a real difficult time throwing the ball, so I kind of gave that up. I played high school basketball, and I did some musicals when I was little, but it wasn’t really until after I couldn’t play ball anymore that I started taking acting classes. I was one of those June babies, so I was always the youngest in my class. I wouldn’t turn the age that everyone else was until after the end of the school year. It wasn’t until I turned, I believe, 16, fresh 16, I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, that I started studying acting, and I studied at the Estelle Harmon Actor’s Workshop on La Brea in Hollywood. Renny Roker, a friend of my father’s from the music business, and I think his sister was Roxie Roker (Lenny Kravitz’s real-life mother), who was an actress on “The Jeffersons”; Anyway, he recommended that acting school to my father for me and that’s when my professional training began…By the way, my father was a huge influence on me growing up as a kid. Both my parents were, but my father was, in respect to the black music and playing ball, because that’s what he dug. As a matter of fact, you know Peaches and Herb. You’ve heard of Peaches and Herb, right?
Caps: Yes, I have. “Reunited”.
J.J: “Shake Your Groove Thing”, “Reunited”…Herb used to work for my dad in one of the record stores that he owned. My father, whose name was also Herb (“Herbie” as he was called), owned a chain of 17 record stores called Waxie Maxie’s back in Maryland, D.C and Virginia. And my dad was the coolest cat!! I mean, he was super-cool!! He was known as “the blackest white man on the East Coast” with a heart of gold. And he was a hard worker, he worked 7 days a week but the weekends were not full days. In fact, I remember as a kid, I would go with him to work on Saturday mornings. I would bring my little TV and watch cartoons while dad would work until 12:00 noon, a half day…But it was so cool, because I always felt like I had a job, too, and plus, I was with my dad, which was cool just in itself. We were always best friends growing up. I’m not kidding, he was my absolute best friend!! And the best thing about that was I learned a great work ethic. I learned the value of getting up early in the morning. It was great. Still to this day, I’m an early riser and I couldn’t really get that kind of motivation from any school. But “working” with my Dad made me feel like I too, was a “working man”…I forgot what the original question was, but this has been captivating so far, hasn’t it? (Laughing)
Caps: Yes, it is. I’m listening…I’m just letting it all soak in…
JJ: Oh good!! So yeah, he was in the music business for 30 years, all his life, and I remember as a kid being backstage at a James Brown concert at Wolftrap in Virginia. When my sister and I walked into James Brown’s dressing room, he said to my dad “Hey, Herbie, is dat my kidz? Where my kidz at?”. He came to us and hugged us. It was a sweet “magic” moment, and I’ve been lucky and blessed to have had many “magic” moments like that. One time, my dad and I took the train from D.C to New York. We were going for a karate tournament that people from my dojo were participating in. I went up there, and my dad took me around to the record companies. I’ll never forget going to Atlantic and meeting Ahmet Ertegun in New York. Atlantic Records was really cool. Looking back now, it all seems surreal. Of course, at that time, I didn’t know who Ahmet Ertegun was, other than the guy who gave us free Broadway tickets to “A Chorus Line”, and “Annie”, which was amazing. I sung those songs for weeks after, which of course reminds me of so many stories. I mean, there’s so many stories to tell about my dad. That would be a whole interview in itself, but the one I must share is the day my dad proved to me what a survivor he was. Now, you have to understand, my dad was my hero in many ways, but when we moved out to California, I was a teenager, and so it was such a shame how the people from the music industry stonewalled him when we moved out here. Capitol Records, A&M, Warner Brothers, all of them…He went looking for jobs and they all wanted younger people. They all gave him lines like that. “Well, we’d love to hire you, but we couldn’t pay you what you’re worth, so it just wouldn’t be fair to you”, as if they were really looking out for my dad. (Btw, I would hear this line later in life at certain agencies so I could smell the bullshit long before I ever had a chance to believe it), BUT my dad would say “It’s okay, I’ll take it. I really need the job.”, and they still said no. For a frame of reference it’s important to point out that back in the 70s, my dad was making $70,000 a year as an executive, which would be like $400,000 today (I’m guessing here with inflation). So my dad took that rejection and he left the music business, and he opened up a restaurant called the Maryland Crab House. It was an instant success from day one, the day we opened the doors, and we had it for about 13 years. Now here’s the icing on the cake, remember when I just said my dad was making $70,000 a year? Well, for those 13 years at the restaurant, he was netting, netting, mind you, about $700,000 a year!! SCREW YOU MUSIC INDUSTRY!!
Caps: Great story…That actually brings me to my next question. What was your favorite role from your theater days?
J.J: You know, I loved doing musicals. I don’t think there was a musical that I didn’t enjoy. Just to back up one second, when things changed for me was, when I said, I stopped playing ball and then I started the acting classes, and I started doing some theater, like more theater outside of my high school. I remember I was always kind of the outsider – moving to California, playing ball, acting, etc. I remember doing this part in “Guys And Dolls”, and when I went to audition for it. It was this theater school for young teens. They did “Guys And Dolls” every year, so they already had it cast. Well they were casting this one role, because the kid who was playing it, moved, so they needed somebody to come in and play this role. I saw it in Dramalogue Magazine, and I went to audition for it. It was for the role of Benny Southstreet. So I got the part, and the mother of one of the actors in the show said “You have a pretty good voice, why don’t you be the understudy for Sky Masterson?”. So I said “Okay”, not knowing any better, and so I sang the song that he sings in front of everybody.
Caps: I believe that’s “Luck Be A Lady”.
J.J: Yes, that’s one, but the other is “I’ll Know”, and I sang it better than the guy who had the role. At that point, she announced I would be his understudy. Of course, I never was called on to be his understudy during the run of the show, mostly because when she made the announcement, all the other kids turned against me, and none of them would ever talk to me because they thought I was taking the role away from their buddy. It was a horrible experience, but it was cool because I was good at it. I was being recognized for that and that felt good. In terms of my absolute favorite theater role, I don’t think that came until much later. I did this one play that I just loved. I’ve done it probably too many times. I’ve done 3 different productions of it, and the first time I did it, I produced it. It was so alive and fresh that I think that was probably my favorite production, but my second favorite production was a much more homegrown, or natural production, because I wasn’t involved in the producing of it. I was just there as an actor, and somebody had seen me in the play and called me a couple of years later and said “Hey, would you like to do this play again, but I’ll produce it and direct it at my theater”, and I said “Yeah, man, that’d be great”, so we did it again and I really loved that production as well. Any time you do something the first time, your heart goes out. It was a great piece called “A Bench At The Edge” by Luigi Jannuzzi.. As the play opens, I’m already on-stage as the audience is walking in, and so it creates kind of a sense of theatricality. It was a 2 character play – There’s Man 1, that’s me, and Man 2 and it takes place in the mind…Specifically that part of your mind where you go when you contemplate suicide, hence the name “A Bench At The Edge”. So what happens is I live there…It’s established that I live there because I’m onstage when everybody walks in. I don’t want to give too much of the play away, but I live there and the opening line of the play is the other guy walking on the stage, saying “I knew it. I knew it. I knew he was going to be up there with her. I shouldn’t have gone up there. Why did I go up there? I knew he would be up there. I knew it. I knew it.”. And he’s saying this as he’s walking along the edge. The edge of the abyss, which is the front of the stage. So in short, we meet there and there’s an exchange. It’s a very powerful piece. What you come to see in it is that physically…Remember, it takes place in the mind…Physically where I am is in a hospital. I have this red rope tied around my waist and it’s off to the back of the stage…towards “life” if you will. So where I am physically is, I’m in a hospital, and I’m on life support. Unconscious and on life support, hence the red rope…my lifeline, so to speak. That’s tied back towards life. You with me?
Caps: Oh, yeah.
J.J: And throughout the play, it seems like I’m egging him on. “Go man, go! Oh, yeah, man, go! She cheated on you? Oh, you don’t deserve that. Go ahead, I’ll understand, you deserve better.” Towards the end of the play, he calls me on it and there’s this huge conflict where at some point he says, “Well, why don’t you go?” And I say “Well, I can’t. I have the rope. I’m still attached”. “Yeah, but I could cut the rope for you”. I say “I don’t want to do that”, and then there’s this tug of war over the rope, and a big dramatic climax. The point of the play however, is that even if given the choice, it’s better to live than to die.
Caps: That’s a message I can definitely agree with.
J.J: Yeah. I don’t know if you want to segue into suicide or not, because I know a lot about that. I think everybody at some point wonders what that’s like, and I think if you ever suffer from any kind of depression…It wasn’t until I got into drugs and alcohol that I really started exploring that stuff, but it was more so in the recovery from drugs and alcohol. I’m sober now 17 years, and today, I go into jails and hospitals and talk about alcoholism and drug addition and recovery from it, because jails were a part of my story. You know, Johnny, I found that I wasn’t a very good prisoner, I’m not good at jail (laughing), and so I just try and do things I’m good at. I tried to capitalize on my strengths. By the way, I found that I wasn’t a really good homeless person either, and so I kind of gave that up too, because I was homeless for a while. I was bankrupt and in foreclosure, and I lost 2 fiancees. When I say lost them, I meant they left me. I didn’t misplace them. That always gets a big laugh when I speak, but anyway, it’s true. It’s very true, and I try to take a much more open-minded approach to it all, but getting back to the whole concept of suicide…When you are an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic or have any kind of mental illness, from the studies that are being done now, it’s clear that we all suffer from some degree of mental illness. Because of that, we do what we do to recover from that. The recovery methods that we use aren’t always the best. I didn’t realize I was an alcoholic, until you took the alcohol away, and then I saw what really happened to me, and then you could understand people saying “Oh, my God. Give him a drink for God’s sake. Give him a drug for God’s sake. Take your medicine. Make sure you take your medicine”. Whatever the medicine is, whether it’s food or…You look at addiction in itself, right, and the easiest addiction that you can come by…It all stems from a malady. It all stems from some sort of mental illness. It’s not often a choice. It’s not like once you have this thing you can say “Okay, if you have a problem drinking, just don’t drink”. It’s not that simple, and it’s always someone who’s not an alcoholic or hasn’t been diagnosed with any kind of mental illness or hasn’t been an admitted drug addict that thinks they can relate to it, but they can’t. 90% of the population is not alcoholic or addicts. Personally I think we’re all addicted to something, to some degree… But the studies say 90% of the population, and again, that doesn’t mean they’re well. I want to make that point very clear. It just means they’re not addicted to those 2 chemicals. The easiest addiction there is, is food. You go into a restaurant. You hear a baby cry, and what does the mother do? Feed it. So what’s the message you learn early on? Eat your feelings. Eat your pain, eat your anger, eat your happiness. How many times does something great happen in our lives and we go “Hey, let’s go out and go have a great meal?”, and you eat to excess and the next day you have leftovers, and you keep eating it. Being in movies, the message we get from movies. In most movies when the girl gets dumped by the guy, what’s the next scene? She’s in her bedroom or in her PJs, with the Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream and a spoon.
Caps: Yeah, a lot of that makes sense.
J.J: So, the message once again is to eat your pain, and it’s not like she’s eating a salad. “Oh, well, I’ll show him. I’m gonna eat this salad, and take care of myself, and I’ll go get a good guy who’s healthy”. No, she’s eating ice cream, she’s eating cake, she’s eating comfort food, because that’s part of our programming, because of what we see on TV and at the movies, and also because of our upbringing. You know, being raised Jewish, it’s always “You can eat a little more. I know you’re full, but there’s always room for dessert.”It’s not just being Jewish, I know a lot of cultures, that enjoy eating, shall we say, but it’s like that kind of mentality, and it breeds addiction.
Caps: I see what you’re saying…My next question is: You’re credited on the IMDB with having an unidentified role on “Santa Barbara”. Since that was your first acting gig on-screen, who was your character and what was it like working on that show?
J.J: I played the role of Disc. I had like, maybe, 1 or 2 lines per episode. It was a soap opera, and I think I was on 2 episodes. Before that, I was an extra on “Meatballs II”, with John Mengatti, and that was an experience in itself. My mom came with me because I was a minor and we were fed lobster tails…and I love lobster tails so I thought this movie thing is pretty great. (laughing) My mom loves when I tell that story. My first actual speaking role was “Paradise Motel”, where I played Shooter Spinelli. “Santa Barbara” was the first soap opera and it was also my first official union job. I think the big kick on that, really, was I had my name on a dressing room door, and I think that was what I remember most.
Caps: I can only imagine how much of an accomplishment that must feel like.
J.J: It was. It was really cool. Of course, as I started working more after that, I wasn’t so concerned about the dressing room anymore. It was more about the work, but I still did the same amount of preparation for it. I remember my character Disc. He was this nerdy little computer guy. We were out at the beach. There were beach scenes. It was “Santa Barbara”. All I kept thinking was every time I’d go to the beach as a little kid, my Mom would put that white zinc oxide on my nose.
Caps: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen that in movies.
J.J: Well at the time, I had never seen anyone do that – And so, I remember just putting white zinc oxide on my nose to play the role, to develop this kind of character. That, and I might have worn glasses. I don’t remember.
Caps: And now we come to the question that you were kind of expecting me to ask: You played Skinhead in “Back To The Future”. What was your favorite part of working on the “Back To The Future” trilogy?
J.J: Well, working on the “Back To The Future” trilogy is different from working on “Back To The Future”. I think working on the very, very first one…I had a blast. It was an incredible time. Many people know I was originally up for the role of Biff, and on the DVD commentary, Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis both talk about how I was their first choice for Biff. The way I remember the story, and it was a long time ago, was that Sid Sheinberg was the head of Universal, and it was down between me and one other person, and Eric Stoltz had the role of Marty McFly at the time. So Eric and I were the same height. Apparently, they wanted Michael J. Fox originally, but the producers wouldn’t let Michael out of his contract on “Family Ties” to do the movie. Eric Stoltz and I were the same height, and as a result, they didn’t think I was big enough or towered over Eric enough to play the bad guy. The other guy, apparently, they said was too old, and that actually turned out to be Tim Robbins, I found out later. So they kept recasting and eventually, they found Tom Wilson, but had Michael been cast originally, I probably would’ve been Biff. I’ll take the humble way out of this and say, now that I’ve seen the movie, I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role, but I can tell you this: I really wanted that role. As an actor, you know, it’s always heart-breaking when you lose any role, even if you’re given another role in the same project. I loved the relationship that I had with Robert Zemeckis in that first movie.
J.J: In “Part II”, it was a little bit different because I had gone off and done “Fire With Fire”, and “The Principal”, and “976-Evil”, and a bunch of other TV. Casey (Siesmako) had gone off and done a few flicks, and Billy (Zane) had gone off and done a couple of flicks, and so when we all came back, here we had now done a few things, and so it was just a little different atmosphere. The same thrill of being on that early set wasn’t the same….And then (“Back To The Future, Part) III”, I’m really grateful for. It was one day, and I was playing part of Flea’s gang. I’m the only one of the 3 original guys that was asked to be in that, and that’s cool. Unfortunately, it was about a month after my father died, and so it was a really, really sad time for me. It’s funny, because I’ve really had a great time with life, and I feel like this interview is turning into something so tragic, but there has been a lot of tragedy and trauma in my life as well, but I’m sorry if it’s turning into that. I really didn’t mean it to be that.
Caps: Oh, no, no, it’s absolutely fine…Well, I mean, not for you obviously, but it’s…
J.J: (Laughing) That’s funny.
Caps: I understand what that’s like, though. I mean, I lost my father as well when I was 12.
J.J: Oh, really.
J.J: Wow, I can’t even imagine. I lost my Dad when I was 24, and I can’t even imagine what that would be like to lose your dad at 12. Let me ask you: Did any people step in for you, like grandfathers or uncles or anything like that?
Caps: Well, really, all my grandparents were dead before I was born, and I did have aunts and uncles helping me, although I rarely saw them. It was more of my Mom’s friends who stepped in to fill in the gap.
J.J: Were you close with your dad?
Caps: Yeah, I was.
J.J: Yeah, as I said before, I was really close with my Dad, and you know, what happened was that’s kind of a sad situation, too, because I wanted to work as an actor but I wanted to study. I wanted to be a really good actor is what it was, and I didn’t just want to be a flash in the pan, I was being compared as a cross between Sean Penn and Anthony Michael Hall, and perhaps the next Richard Dreyfus, which was very unique. I had just seen the film, Whose Life Is It Anyway, and I thought, “Yeah, Richard Dreyfus”!! So when I was the most hot, right after I was the second male lead in Paramount’s Fire With Fire, I took myself out of the industry to study. My agent was obviously not happy about the decision. My father was not happy about the decision, because he was like “Can’t you do both?”, and I was like, “No, I’m learning these things in class, and I’m learning them, and they take time”. When I go on a movie set, you don’t have the time to learn. You know, “We’re losing light. We need to shoot this scene.”, and so I couldn’t do both. I tried to explain that to my father, and he couldn’t get it. We sort of had a little bit of a falling-out over that. There were other things that came up to, like most people in their late teens and early 20s, or people trying to find their own independence at an early age, you know, they separate from their parents. Unfortunately, at a time when he and I were kind of separating from each other, and I was trying to grow up and be a man, and learn about what that meant, he died. That was kind of a sad story, too. My father never really took great care of himself health-wise. He went to this local market called Bob’s Market on 17th and Ocean Park, and he went inside for 10 minutes. He came back outside…He had a brown bag with him, opened up the passenger’s door, put the bag in the door, went over to the driver’s side, and had a spell. He fell backwards, hit his head on the pylon and died. It was ruled a heart attack, and what was in the bag was 5 packs of cigarettes and 6 candy bars. I forget what the word is, but it’s when something makes total sense in hindsight…
J.J: In retrospect, maybe there’s another word, too, for it, but it was very telling that this man died, and those things that were in the bag were probably a direct link to exactly what killed him. You know, having the cigarettes and having the candy bars. After he died, that was when I officially started losing it for acting. You know, when I took my first big official break, I had already learned my technique, and came back to acting, but at this point, I felt like I had given everything to acting, and I started to question what was really important to me. I realized how much I had been neglecting the people I loved. It wasn’t like I was mean or rude or shitty to them, not intentionally. It’s just that I was so focused on being a good actor, and that’s all that really mattered to me, you know, was my craft, my art. I wanted to win Academy Awards…That was it. I remember talking to other actors about this, and saying “Hey, guys. We could take this really seriously, and we could raise the standard of Hollywood”. I wanted to revolutionize the whole industry. I said “We could raise the standard of this craft”, and all the people I was talking to, they would cheer me. “Yeah, J.J, that’s great. Let’s do it”, and the next sentence, they’d say “Well, I really just want to work”, and that wasn’t my feeling about it. When my father died, I kind of had to do a little personal check, and it was at that point that I started living my life a little bit more that wasn’t so centered around the entertainment industry and I took my 2nd break from it in a very short time. I traveled to Europe and fell in love in Europe
J.J:…That in itself is a whole other story, but I met this girl in Belgium from Finland, and fell in love and we carried on for about a year.
.J.J: We met up in Paris for a week, and I remember we had lunch in the Eiffel Tower at Jules Verne. It was awesome, man. I mean, I’ve lived a really great life, and done some really cool things. It was all about just trying to find myself, and that happened once I took myself out of the industry.
Caps: That’s very interesting. My next question: Was working on “Back To The Future” how you got your role as Jake in the “Amazing Stories” pilot “The Mission”?
J.J: I imagine it probably helped, but it was 2 totally different casting directors. I think Joanna Ray was the casting director on that, if I remember correctly. I might be wrong on that. But I was going through this phase because that was actually during that Summer when I was supposedly not working and just taking time off yet my agent had called me and said “Yeah, they want you for that role”. I don’t think I had to read for that. I think I was just given that part, so I guess in answer to your question, that was that. I think that’s exactly how I got it, or because I was hot at that time, and they were looking for the up-and-coming guys to be in that ensemble piece.
Caps: What was Kevin Costner like to work with?
J.J: Well, let me put it this way: I really liked Kevin on a personal level. You know, I always get nervous whenever people ask what people are like to work with because I always want to give the honest answer, and I know that’s often not what people really want. They really want a nice cheery answer, and the reality is that I really liked Kevin. At the time, he was going through some personal things that he had shared with me…Basically, he was involved in a relationship, a long-term relationship. I don’t remember if he was married or if it was a girlfriend. But I could tell when I went to his dressing room to rehearse, something was wrong, and he was having a bad day. He didn’t know me that well and he just kind of opened up to me, that he would be very disappointed if that relationship didn’t work out. I was very touched by that and felt close to him during the shooting, a kind of a bond. I had more interaction in those two sentences with him than I ever did on the actual set. But we actually created our moments. I mean, if you see “Amazing Stories”, there’s this scene where we definitely created some tension in the cockpit during the climax of that episode. I really don’t have anything bad to say about him at all. He yelled for Steven quite a bit, I remember that, but I think that might have been he was just trying to communicate with the director, but that’s it.
Caps: Going on to my next question: You played Myron The Mapmaker in “Fire With Fire”. What was your favorite part of working on that movie?
J.J: Oh, God, there were so many great things about that movie. I loved working with Craig Sheffer. Craig and I were really close. I learned a lot from Craig during that. Virginia Madsen, who I had known from hanging out with Billy Zane and our friend Jen Greenwald…They all grew up together. Michael Madsen, Virginia, Billy Zane, Jen and their circle of friends, and Billy Campbell. At the time, Billy Campbell was going out with Virginia Madsen, and so whenever we’d get together, they would all be together. It was always cool hanging out with all those guys because they were really cool, friendly.
J.J: None of us looked at each other like “Hey, you know we’re actors that are doing well right now” or anything like that. We were all just kind of buddies, and so it was really cool when Virginia got the part. So the day I saw her up there in Canada where we were shooting, it was, like, “just love”. It was good. It was a very positive thing seeing Gina (Virginia), getting to meet Sheff.
J.J: Jean Smart, who I met on the set of that film, was very, very sweet and kind. Working with Jon Polito, he’s just a trip in itself. and then the late Kate Reid, she was very sweet. That was a great movie. I remember I got laid quite a bit during that movie.
Caps: I have another question related to that.
J.J: Me getting laid?
Caps: No. (Laughing)
J.J: O.K, shoot!
Caps: We see that Craig Sheffer’s Joe and Virginia Madsen’s Lisa escape from their respective prisons at the end of the movie. What do you suppose happened to Myron?
J.J: Myron? Well, they cut that out. Basically, Myron got more time for aiding and abetting their escape.
Caps: That’s one of those things where I really wish that they had decided to include deleted scenes on the DVD. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that a lot of Paramount releases don’t even have as much as a theatrical trailer, let alone anything in the way of bonuses. It would’ve been really interesting to see that.
J.J: You know, I’ll tell you. I have a couple of pictures of me with a black eye, and of me where at the very end, I have 2 guards on either side of me holding my arms and the boss has me by my hair. If you want, I can try and find them and scan them for you so you can see, but those were all centered around basically what happened to me as a result of aiding and abetting Joe’s escape. Remember, in the movie, I’m supposed to escape with them, and then in the last minute, I basically chicken out.
Caps: The last I can recall from seeing the movie is you’re basically being interrogated about the escape.
J.J: Oh, I am?
J.J: I should probably watch that movie again. Is there a shot where I’m in the back of the patrol car?
Caps: I’m not quite sure. I can look it up on Google or go to YouTube and see if they have any scenes from the movie on there.
J.J: Okay. Yeah, it’s probably not that big a deal.
Caps: This leads to my next question: Although Myron was serving time in a juvenile prison in “Fire With Fire”, he was basically a good guy. The following year, in 1987, you played White Zac, the beyond-redemption villain in “The Principal”. You had played some mildly bad guys before, but what was it like to play an all-out evil character?
J.J: Well, as an artist, I think when you play any role, you can’t look at him outside of yourself. “You can’t play a character, you are the character,” Sandy Meisner, my acting teacher always said. And you never look at any character as good versus evil because evil people don’t see themselves as evil, usually. I think you have to find the good in the evil, and you have to find the evil in the good, in order to play a 3-dimensional character.
J.J: For example, if I were to play Hitler, especially being Jewish, it would be a difficult role to do. However, one of the things that historians have learned about Hitler was that apparently he was a great father. He was a very doting father. Now that’s something that’s certainly admirable. You with me?
Caps: Yeah, I’m with you.
J.J: And so, the same thing with White Zac. You know, sometimes we’re just a victim of circumstances. We get caught up in our life, and we do things and we say things that later we can regret with age, with time, with experience. The short answer is, really, I loved playing him. I thought it was awesome. It was really cool, because I did that right after I did a TV movie called “Daddy” with Dermot Mulroney and Patricia Arquette. And Danny Aiello was in that, too, and that was really cool working with those 3 people. I loved working with Dermot. In fact, Dermot was probably one of the best actors I ever worked with, I would have to say. Lou Gossett from “The Principal” too, a real pro. I wish we would’ve had more scenes together, but he was, without a doubt, just a prince on so many levels. You know, just a really talented actor. Remember, I worked with him after he did Officer and a Gentleman. He really understood the give and the take of the artist. It wasn’t about any names. You know, “I’m Lou”. Maybe there were some other people in that film that we had problems, you could say, and then you find out other people have had problems with that same person, but Lou and I, we got along great. I just loved working with him…I mean, I really did.
J.J: I remember we were doing a scene, and he grabbed me, and I went to push him. He’s, like, twice my size. Back then, I was 21 years old, but he was twice my size. Big guy, strong guy, I think he was trained in martial arts, too. So he grabbed me…I tried to get away and he grabbed me harder. When they yelled “cut”, the make-up person said something like “Hey, why don’t you guys calm down? And so Lou looked at me, pointing and he said, “Well, he did it. He tried to get away”. I just started laughing and I thought “This is great”, and that’s really what the craft’s about. It all boils down to that moment! Being in it. When you go over your dialogue, you go over your character. That’s all the homework stuff. But when you come on the set, and you have that interaction with those other actors, you’re connected, and there’s that connection which can be quite strong. When you’re really talking to each other, and not just reciting lines. I mean, this is why coming from the theater, it was so awesome, but you can find that moment on film where you’re not just reciting lines, but you’re talking to that person and they’re talking to you, and you’re working off of each other. You’re working off the way you’re saying the lines, the subtext, I get excited just thinking about those make-believe moments that you’ve made real.
J.J: That’s why I took myself out of the industry to understand that more clearly. You’re working off the mannerisms, the behavior that each of you is doing. When all of it comes together, man, I’m telling you it’s one of the most powerful feelings in the world. That’s why, for me, acting, the craft of it, was so special. It was so important to me to be good. It was so important to me, and what does that mean to be good as an actor? It means to be believable. The best actors are the ones that are most believable, and the more outrageous the circumstances are, and the more believable they are in those outrageous circumstances, the better the actor they are I feel. I mean, my favorite actors were all the other young guys’ favorite actors at that time…Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, but then people started coming up that did real character work like William Hurt in “Kiss Of The Spider Woman”, and then you saw people like Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot”, and you thought “Yeah, man. That’s the stuff”. Remember, I started out in musicals. I saw “West Side Story” when I was a kid, and that’s the thing that made me want to be an actor, but what made me want to keep being an actor was when I saw these guys on film, and I thought “That would be great”. Al Pacino in “Serpico”, and Brando in “The Godfather”, really took me over the top, where that’s when I knew what I wanted to do the rest of my life, and then I felt like I belonged. Remember, we’re talking a lot about the successes, and the parts I played, but the first year I was an actor, that I actually decided to be an actor, 15, 16, like I was telling you earlier…I went to Estelle Harmon Actor’s Workshop. I got an agent. Nobody was banging down my door. I got a list from the Screen Actor’s Guild of who the agents were. I mailed out 50 pictures, and I think I had maybe 3 responses out of those 50. I went and met with those, and I signed with one. By the way, my very first audition I ever went on was “WarGames”. You know, that movie with Matthew Broderick. I wasn’t reading any lines. It was just a meet. I was meeting with the casting director, and it was so uncomfortable and so awkward that I won’t even go into what the discussion was. I went on 30 auditions that year, my first year. I not only didn’t get a job, but I didn’t even get one callback, you know. That next year, I sent out 50 pictures to agents again, and I figured I’d see who called me in again, but during that first year, I had met some people, some other actors on auditions, and so we became friends, and I would ask them who their agent was, and so I would maybe get a referral like that. It wasn’t that strong, coming from someone in the industry, but it would come from maybe another one of their clients, so I got another agent and that’s when I started getting other stuff, but I always believed that the actor is their own best agent, and I’ll talk more about that in a moment. The actor has to continually keep growing and keep pushing, and it’s a ruthless business, but I’ve come to see now that most businesses are ruthless, and there’s a sense of ruthlessness about getting anything done of quality. I mean, look at you. You asked me to do this interview 2 years ago, and I said “Yeah, definitely. I’ll do it”, and I had every intention of doing it sooner. As you know, I run several businesses now, and I take care of my mother, and so my time is often stretched. You think “How hard could it be to set aside a couple of hours to do this interview?”. Well, remember, at the time, you were sending me questions, and you wanted me to write the answers to them.
Caps: Exactly, and that would’ve been even more time-consuming.
J.J: Right, and that’s why I suggested “Hey, let’s do something”…An interview like this, and so it’ll go faster, and I won’t have to think as much. My point is you never gave up, and a lot of people would’ve said “Oh, screw this guy”. Whether you would think “Oh, he’s just pulling a star trip” or “He’s too busy. He’s really not interested, but he doesn’t want to tell me”. None of that stuff was true. I was really just busy. There were other projects and priorities at the time, and you didn’t give up, and so that’s why I say there’s a sense of ruthlessness about getting anything done of quality in life. With entertainment in particular, there’s so many odds going against you that, ultimately, the point of me telling you this is that that first year I got nothing, and the second year, I was my best agent. As I mentioned earlier, even though I had an agent, I was the one still submitting to Dramalogue. That’s how I got my first film “Paradise Motel”. The first time I went in for “Paradise Motel”, they hadn’t finished the script yet. I remember meeting with the director, Cary Medoway. “Well, we’re casting the characters, but we don’t really know what we’re looking for”. We talked for a little bit. At the end of the conversation, he said “Thank you for coming in”, and that was that. A couple of months later, I saw it again in Dramalogue, and I sent out my picture and resume. A couple of months later, I saw it again in Dramalogue. Apparently, they STILL hadn’t cast it so I sent another picture and resume…Never heard back. Then my 2nd agent sends me in on the call. On this interview, however, I met this other actor, Jamie Bozian. Later on, we would become not only really good friends, but roommates. We were cracking up in the outer office, just making each other laugh, making all the other actors laugh, even making the secretary laugh. So the director comes out of the office and we all get very quiet and he looks around the room at the actors waiting. We make brief eye contact before he heads back inside and I can tell he’s trying to place me. So after he heads back inside the office, the secretary says “You know, you two guys should audition for the obnoxious guy in the script”, and we all just started cracking up again. It was a very playful comment. We were really a good team together in so many ways. So the next time the director comes out of the office, he looks straight at me and says, “Hey, weren’t you already in here? Didn’t I meet you once?”, and I said “Yes, but at the time, you didn’t have the characters developed, but now I hear there’s a really obnoxious guy in the script, and I’d be perfect for that part!” And everybody including the director started laughing. So I went in and read for him and he said “That was the best reading that I’ve ever seen for this role…but I’m just not sure if you’re the right height because of the other actors but we’ll get back to you in a couple of weeks”. Being somewhat cynical at this point, having never gotten another callback or a part, I just looked at him and said “Yeah, sure, no problem I’ll wait for that phone to ring…2 weeks now, don’t forget!!”. He said, laughing “No really, we’re definitely going to call you back” and I said “Okay” sarcastically. “I’ll wait for that phone to ring”. Sure enough, 2 weeks went by and I never heard from them. But get this – I was going to college at the time, as a pre-med major, but college wasn’t for me. However, they said I couldn’t get my tuition back unless I was moving out of state to pursue another college or work. So I lied to them and told them that I was moving to New York to do this movie called “Growing UP” (as it was called at that time). And like I said 2 weeks later, they never called me back, but a month later, they did… and I wound up getting that part. My first non-union acting role in a film, I was 18. I remember when the director called me to tell me what they were paying, he said, “Well it’s not a lot but we really want you for the part.” And when he said $100 a day, I tried my best to contain my excitement. Ya see, at the time, I was making $30 a day at my parent’s restaurant as a busboy, so at $100 a day, I felt like I was millionaire!!
Caps: A very interesting story. Moving on to later in your career: You played Seth Stein in the soap opera “Valley Of The Dolls”. Was that an American or European soap opera?
J.J: You know, I’m glad you asked. It was an American version.
Caps: I’m guessing it was syndicated?
J.J: It was syndicated. As you know, it was based on the Jacqueline Suzanne novel, and they did a film on it. I believe it was Patty Duke who starred in it years ago.
Caps: That was 1967.
J.J: They then did a version of that called “Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls”, which was a TV series with Lisa Hartman. This was a late-night soap opera that they based it on, and like all projects, there was good and bad. The good was that I got to work with some fairly decent people. The character of Seth Stein was written as a young hot-shot record producer mogul type, and he was modeled after Rick Rubin. Same number of letters in the first and last name, and what happened was it was really disheartening when the writers came up to me at the end of the first week. I think we were having some kind of party or first week celebration, and they said “Your character is not really thought out. It’s an added version to this story, and we really don’t know how to write for this character”. I didn’t know what to do because, quite frankly, the writing for my character wasn’t that great. I come from the theater, where you work 6 weeks on a play and then you perform it for 6 weeks. If you do a movie, you can work on a movie for up to 3 to 6 months. Again, it’s just a long period of time. When you do a TV show, typically episodic, it’s a week, but when you do a soap opera, they’re shooting an episode a day. That format and I just don’t get along, I guess you could say. It’s a very difficult medium to do, and the people that are good at it, these soap stars that have been doing it for 10 years and 15 years and 20 years…They’re phenomenal in the way that they can take a script, immediately memorize the stuff and then do it the best way they can. It’s also part of the reason why the acting isn’t always at the peak level. It’s not that the actors are bad actors…It’s just there’s only so much time to prepare and really put into it.
Caps: My next question is: Had you read the book “The Valley Of The Dolls” before you started work on the show, and did it influence your work on the program?
J.J: No and no.
Caps: You say your character was based on Rick Rubin. Have you ever actually met Mr. Rubin?
J.J: I’ve never met Rick Rubin, but I’ve met lots of people like Rick Rubin. You know, my father was actually a manager of soul groups. The closest that I came on a regular basis was my Dad, but I also met a number of them when I was doing “Almost Famous”. I think his name was Kelly Conrad, the manager of Pearl Jam. Peter Frampton was also in the movie, very down to earth…He was also a technical adviser on the film, like Kelly but Kelly didn’t seem like the most friendly guy. Maybe he was just focused. (laughing) He just kind of ignored me and I, him.
Caps: Moving on to my next question, you’re very good with financial matters. Has it been hard for you in the economy we’ve had these past few years?
J.J: You know, I don’t really subscribe to the theory that the state of the economy will depict my financial success or my success in any other area. I think the big mistake that a lot of people make is blaming too many outside conditions as the source of failure in their life. That’s not to say that outside forces and conditions don’t influence us…They do. I just don’t believe it was the economy that was so much in a recession as much as it was people’s thinking that became recessionary. Then add to that, the media and the hysteria they often cause and it becomes contagious and snowballs. I think to succeed in business for the longer term, you have to change your thinking. I think you have to continually be willing to adapt and be flexible to new conditions. And this is whether it’s in the artist arena, as an actor, creator or filmmaker, or as someone in business. I think you always have to keep innovating. By the way, when I say change as an artist, a lot of people say “You have to be true to yourself”. You do need to be true to yourself, but you need to also adapt. I’m not talking about the craft or the level of work an actor wants to attain. I’m talking about the business side of it. When I started, we didn’t have the internet, you had to go on auditions with picture and resumes…Today, every actor has a website and they’re doing live auditions on SKYPE now or you can email your audition in…It’s weird really but if you don’t adapt to that, you get left behind. So did the recession hurt my real estate business? Really, no, but to say that I didn’t get hurt at all? People stopped spending and stopped buying houses and stopped investing as much as they were. but like I said, one has to adapt to changing markets. For example, in terms of businesses, if I had an investment in, let’s say, Sears because of the housing industry and a lot of people were buying washers and dryers, and now all of a sudden, people were losing their houses, so I might want to consider changing my thinking. Instead of maybe investing in Sears for their washers and dryers, I might go and invest in laundromats because now, people might be more apt to take their clothing to laundromats since they could no longer afford afford to buy washers and dryers. I just think you have to continually adapt to the current conditions, seeing things as they are, not how I think they are or how I think they should be. A lot of people got very wealthy during this recession, and they didn’t do it by taking advantage of people. They did it off of good common sense business practice, and I think it’s important to know that exists in recessions and all conditions.
Caps: To go on to my next question, you’re also an accomplished poker player. What drew you to that game?
J.J: Well, you know, I happened to have a lot of money at the time I first got into it. I started off really terrible. I was a bad player, but I loved playing the game, and so I would play online. That’s how I first got started like most everyone else, I guess, in the U.S here. I started playing online. It was easy…It was in my home. But I was horrible…I’d be going all in with pocket fives, and hoping that it would hold up. I just didn’t really know the game that well, the odds, the numbers, the other player’s tells, etc.. What happened was I really started liking the game, but I wasn’t playing to win. I was playing because I liked the game. As a result, when people say “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” or “as long as you’re having fun, that matters”, you know, I don’t agree with that thinking. I lived in a very competitive world for a long time, you know, in the entertainment industry, and even in investing and real estate. It’s very competitive. I mean, if you come in second place as an actor, you don’t get the part, you don’t work, you don’t get paid, you don’t feed yourself. So it’s first place and then there’s everybody else, to quote Will Ferrell in “Talladega Nights”. I think that’s right.
Caps: I actually haven’t seen that movie.
J.J: It’s a funny movie. You’ve got to see it. The point is, when you’re in a competitive industry, you get in a certain frame of mind. As a kid, I was very competitive. I played a lot of sports, and I was always competing in some way. I had four sisters, so I was always kind of competing, even if it was for a piece of chicken at dinner. I was always competing, and so I liked the competition of this thing, but I just wasn’t very good at it. I kept playing because it was fun, and after a while, it wasn’t fun anymore because I was losing all the time and poker players can be brutal with their comments, which is also part of the game, to get into the other guy’s head. It got to a point where I had lost several thousand dollars. And someone said sarcastically, after beating me “Why don’t you go read a book?” Now because I’m a real big “student”. Even when I was an actor, as you know, I really wanted to study. It’s the same thing with real estate. You know, I went and got my real estate license, not because I wanted to be a real estate agent, but because I wanted to know the language of real estate from an agent’s perspective, so I went and got my license. I spent a lot of my time, when I wasn’t rehabbing houses and looking at properties, down at Borders’ Bookstore. Remember, I started with really nothing, no money, so I couldn’t afford to buy all these books that I wanted. I would drive down to the bookstore, and I would literally stay there all day. I did this for several days, weeks, sometimes months at a time, where that’s all I would do. I would just read these books and just take notes. I would just become a sponge for information and became a student of real estate. I became a student of credit repair. I became a student of financial matters and corporate entities, and how to mingle them together. Not commingle, that’s something illegal, that’s not a good thing, but intermingling the entities to get better tax advantages, and I became really good at it. As a result of that, I became successful. I wanted to be that successful playing poker, so I went and I started reading books. The great thing about this was, at the time I started getting into playing poker, I’d actually had a bit of success in real estate, and so I could now actually buy the books and bring them home and read them in the comfort of my own home. You don’t really realize your strength until it’s constantly tested, and so I never knew the limits of how far I was actually willing to go to be successful, I just did all I could. Even as I’m telling you this now, it becomes kind of nostalgic for me because when I think about that, and I think of how dedicated I was to go down to a bookstore day in and day out…People always ask me for consultations and my advice on certain things, and I start to tell them stuff like this, and they don’t want to hear it. They want to be successful, but they don’t want to do what’s necessary to become successful from where they’re at, like a person who doesn’t have a lot of money. I say “go to a bookstore”. They say, “It’s too much trouble to just hang out there all day?”. There’s got to be an underlying motivation for a person to succeed anyway, and if they don’t have that, I usually don’t take the consultations further after the initial as I only want to work with the winners. With the people that want to succeed. But anyway, if it wasn’t for these books…I highly recommend “Harrington On Hold ‘Em”, written by Dan Harrington, which is for tournaments. I don’t know if you know, but I only really play tournaments. I don’t play cash games, and the reason why is for anybody whose played cash games, I’m not good at it and almost always lose…I don’t like losing. I’ve tried setting limits so for example, I just play for 2 hours. If I’m up, I’ll leave. If I’m down, I’ll leave. But at the end of the 2 hours, that’s it…It never works so I’ve tried cash limits – I’ll go there with a couple hundred dollars and my goal is to either double my money or just make a hundred (50% return in an hour is not bad). So I’ll be there with 200 dollars, and then I’ll win 160 dollars, so now I got $360. I’m waiting for that extra 40 dollars, and in waiting for that extra 40 dollars, I wind up losing all of it. I’m just not good with cash games. When you play tournament poker, you pay one fixed price up front, and so you already know what you’re going to lose. That’s it…That’s your stake. I like those kinds of stakes. So after I read a lot of books, I started getting good at it, and before I knew it, I started winning in Vegas at the casinos and cashing in some bigger events. I actually got 1st place in a WSOP Circuit event after getting 3rd place 2 years before in another WSOP Circuit event. You can actually look up “J.J Cohen, Poker Player” and see that I wasranked by ESPN. It’s kind of ridiculous, but I say that, proud and humble at the same time. It’s kind of embarrassing…I’m not really known as a poker player, but I love the game, and I would love to be known as a poker player, don’t get me wrong.
J.J: Truth be told, it doesn’t mean much. I think I’m like…Well, before you “Wow!”, I’m like 300,000th in the world, but those 299,000 in front of me better watch out. That’s all I’m going to say.
Caps: Sounds good. Moving on to my next question, you’ve been keeping busy with finance, and you’re getting back into the movie industry, both as an actor and working behind the scenes, what can you tell me about that?
J.J: What I’m actually doing is I’m trying to put together a 3-picture deal, all in the horror genre. I got people like Robert Kurtzman, who did my special effects make-up on “976-EVIL” back in 1987. He’s since gone on to write “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn” with Quentin Tarantino and directed “Wishmaster”, which was a huge hit. They went and did “Wishmaster” 2, 3, 4, 5, after that, which were not, in my opinion, nearly as good as the original that Bob directed. So Bob’s involved in this. Funny thing is, I hadn’t talked to Bob for over 20 years and when we first spoke again after all those years, it was like we never lost any time…Whether this happens or not, I love that guy and really hope this happens!! I also had tea with Christine McCarthy who played the lead in “Chucky 2”. I don’t know if that’s the name of the movie but I first met Christine at a convention in London where we were both signing photos…She’s funny and has tremendous depth.
Caps: It’s called “Child’s Play 2”.
J.J: There you go. “Child’s Play 2”. Chucky’s Revenge, or something like that?
Caps: No, just “Child’s Play 2”. I can understand the confusion, though. I can understand why a lot of people call it the Chucky series.
J.J: Because Chucky’s the man.
J.J: I’ve been talking to other people as well, so we’ll see what happens.
J.J: Bob Englund might have a role in this…Freddy Krueger himself. Bob was the one who directed “976-EVIL”.
Caps: That actually reminds me. I forgot to ask you the question about “976-EVIL”. If we could jump back to that?
Caps: Okay. You played Marcus in “976-EVIL”. What was your favorite part of working on that movie?
J.J: My favorite part of that was probably creating the character. At the time, I remember using animals as imagery for an example of how you saw your character. It was prevalent in my mind as I remember reading articles about Marlon Brando picking an ape or a gorilla when he played Stanley Kowalski. When he ate and when he walked, you kind of got this image of this big gorilla, and I thought, “Well, what could I do with that”? I started thinking about this when I read the script. This was going to Bob’s directorial debut so it was special for me to be a part of that. He had already done the Freddy Krueger movies, so he already had a bit of a name at that point. I had worked with Bob on the TV series “V” years before that. We had the same agent, but we were friends and colleagues, too. He had introduced me to his sister, Roxanne Rogers who was a theatre director and was dating Sam Shepard at the time. I read for Roxanne a few times, but both plays wound up getting scrapped. Anyway, he called me in on this, and asked me if I would do it, and I wanted to do it, so I said “How much creativity could I have?”. He said “Read the part, come in and we’ll talk about it”. I read the part and came in, and I had all these ideas. One of these ideas was to model the character as a skunk, because if you’ve seen the movie, there’s a real big scene that got cut out with me and Lezlie Deane. By the way, Lezlie Deane, she’s another person who’ll be in on this 3-picture deal. I spoke to her about 2 weeks ago. It was about several hours before she was to go on-stage. She’s a member of Scary Cherry and the Bang Bangs, who are on tour right now.
Caps: I’ll have to look them up on Facebook.
J.J: Oh, yeah. They have a fan page. You should definitely check them out and like their page. Send Lezlie a friend request…Tell her that I sent you. You’ll love Lezlie and she’ll love you, too, so it works out great. A lot of love going around. So anyway, Lezlie and I had this scene. It got cut from the movie. Basically, we’re in a car and she wants to be taken home. I try to kiss her. She pushes me away, and I do some things that aren’t very nice to her at that point. I think I slapped her on her head really hard. I threw her out of the car. I call her the C word and I think I spit on her also. In that film, I’m definitely not the kind of guy you’d like to take home to your Mom.
J.J: When I read that scene, and when I saw some of the other things he did throughout the movie, I thought “What a skunk! What a sleazy guy”. I had just finished doing “Daddy” with Dermot Mulroney in January of that year, and then moving on to “The Principal” in February and March. I already had long hair, but I was getting tired of it, so at that point, I thought, “Well, how can I incorporate the long hair? What can we do to create this thing?”. So, the idea of a skunk came in my head, and if you saw the movie, you saw that I dyed my hair black, and I had a little bleached blonde patch in the front, representing a skunk, and in the back, I kept some of my long hair by keeping 3 long braids, so I had that as kind of like a tail. That was one of my favorite parts about playing that role, and doing the scene with Lezlie. I think that was probably the highlight of it.
Caps: Yeah. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t a Special Edition DVD of “976-EVIL”. That’s something I’ve noticed, that with the exception of the “Back To The Future” movies, a lot of the movies you’ve starred in either haven’t made it to DVD, or they have made it to DVD, but not with all the special features one would expect, like…
J.J: Behind-the-scenes stuff and things like that.
Caps: Yeah, like deleted scenes, for example. The scene you mentioned with Lezlie…It would’ve been interesting to see that as a deleted scene.
J.J: Well, I have a copy of that, so I’d be more than happy to send that to you, so you could see it, as soon as I can get it in digital format. The other thing is I didn’t know they don’t do that, but I’ve had a lot of people ask me that regarding “976-EVIL” and “Fire With Fire”. By the way, “976-EVIL”…It gets panned a lot. It gets a bad rap by a lot of people. I mean, if you’re into the horror genre, and you really love Stephen Geoffreys, and you like any of the other people in the movie, then you’ll probably enjoy the movie, but if you’re a real stickler, you might not enjoy it, let’s just say. But to answer the question, I don’t know why they don’t do those.
Caps: Well, I think maybe one of the reasons is because the market for DVD kind of dried up in recent years and Blu-Ray hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire, either.
J.J: I think with the advent of Netflix and subscription services like that…I mean, why go and buy a DVD when you can get it another way?
Caps: That makes sense. Okay, here’s another question. “976-EVIL” was a very entertaining horror movie. Does horror appeal to you, or do you prefer relatively down to earth material?
J.J: Horror scares the Hell out of me, which is interesting, because I just told you I’m doing a 3-picture deal in the horror genre, but horror, in general, scares the Hell out of me…Good horror. I’m the guy that when it gets to that point in the movie, where something bad’s going to happen, I’m the guy that creeps down in my seat and covers my ears. I’m a total wuss when it comes to the horror movies…A very traumatic childhood, I guess you could say. When I think of a movie like “The Exorcist”, the little girl with the deep voice and the spinning head, that’s where I draw the line. I can’t handle that…That’s nightmare stuff. I loved “Wishmaster”. I loved the first Freddy movie. It was really entertaining. I even liked the first Chucky movie. I like horror movies where you like the bad guy. I think that’s a very difficult thing to do in films or in stories, and the people that have done it obviously get every single pat on the back they should. I actually read a woman on Facebook the other day where she said Jason Voorhees was not such a bad guy because he was only trying to emulate his mother and do what his mother did in killing people. She went on and added “After all, how many people listen to their parents and take after what their parents do?”. I thought “This is a very interesting analysis this person is doing where they’re comparing children listening to their parents with a son emulating his psychotic killer mother. Not exactly what we want our children to be doing…
Caps: Definitely not, but you know what they say…A boy’s best friend is his mother.
J.J: That’s true. Be careful if you’ve got a mother like that.
Caps: Another one of the additional questions I had is: Besides your acting and your financial work, you’re also an author. Does non-fiction or fiction appeal to you more?
J.J: You know, I enjoy writing. I’m pretty good at it. It’s probably one of the things I love doing, whether I’m paid for it or not, and the fact that I have actually gotten paid for it, like so many other things that I’ve done that I’ve gotten paid to do, is such a gift for me. I mean, I’m so grateful and so appreciative that they actually paid me to do something I love to do. I love it all. I love fiction, non-fiction…I have several writing projects in the works. This very first one was kind of like “Chicken Soup For The Soul”. It’s called “Jump-Start Your Success: 23 Top Speakers Share Their Insights For Creating More Success, Wealth And Happiness”. I’m hadn’t met all of the other 22 co-authors but the one thing that really made me excited about the project was that it was being called a “Chicken Soup For The Soul”-type book, and I love the “Chicken Soup For The Soul” series. I thought, “Man, if an opportunity like that comes along, I definitely want to be a part of it”, and this opportunity came along. The one writer that really just thrills me because I was a big fan of his before this…Remember when I told you I was down there, reading those books in those bookstores when I couldn’t afford it?
J.J: Well, this author was one of those guys that I read. His name is Brian Tracy, and he’s very well-known in business circles. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He wrote a book called “Eat That Frog”, and it was all about doing the thing that’s the most difficult first, and then everything else would be a piece of cake. I mean, I bought this guy’s tapes through the years. I bought books from him…Really just a fan, but when I found out he was actually going to be a part of this project, when I actually got to hear him speak…I took a picture with Brian also. Unfortunately, my computer skills aren’t great, and so as I was trying to crop the photo, I wound up cropping Brian totally out of the picture, so it’s just a picture of me, and it’s on a particularly bad hair day, so if I ever see him again, I’ll certainly be sure to take a better picture, and not crop him out this time. (laughing) Brian is just wonderful. I tell everyone I swear by my chapter in the book, but definitely read Brian’s. There’s a number of other good people. I mean, I get e-mails and Facebook messages all the time about what they liked about the book, and who in particular they liked. I’m very gracious, of course, when they mention me, but it’s not really about me. It’s really about them. I think that any time I buy a book, it’s an investment in me. That’s what I tell other people…If you buy this book, it’s an investment in you, not in me. I’ve already been paid for it. I’ve already made the money. It’s an investment, really, in you, and it goes back to…Just something I want to touch on here is about investing in ourselves. You know, even though I had an agent, I was most successful because my thinking was always, and still is that “I am my best agent.” I’m going to be the one that’s looking out for me the best”. I think that people really have to take a certain responsibility and accountability for themselves and their own success. I posted this quote today on Facebook by Abraham Hicks that goes “Your life is right now! It’s not later! It’s not in that time of retirement. It’s not when the lover gets here. It’s not when you’ve moved into the new house. It’s not when you get the better job. Your life is right now. It will always be right now. You might as well decide to start enjoying your life right now, because it’s not ever going to get better than right now-until it gets better right now!” So if this quote is true, and I believe it is, then this moment right now is all we have, and I think when people go and they’re short-sighted, and say that right now, they can’t afford the time or the money to buy a book or something that’s going to elevate them, or take the time to go to a bookstore even if you don’t buy the book, they are seeling themselves short. Go to the bookstore, do research, go to a play, get some culture, travel, go somewhere, get in the car, fill up a tank of gas and go. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions…Don’t wait for the opportunities. You know, I’ve had so many friends and family die in the last 10 years of my life. And as I get older, that’s only going to increase. 2 good friends killed themselves last year, and all I can say is…I’m 48. I’m on the back 9. You know what I’m saying?
J.J: It’s like right now is all you have, and so this is the moment you live for, and if it’s not favorable, you can worry about it or you can find a way to enjoy it. You can find the good or you can find the bad, but I guarantee you that whatever you’re looking for, that’s what you’re going to find, so if what you keep finding is bad, you need to change what you’re looking for.
Caps: This is very good advice. You’ve definitely thought this out. It’s definitely food for thought. For the next question, we return to the main list, and that would be this: What would be the perfect day off for you?
J.J: I want to think this through, because it’s an important question. It’s an important question because I really don’t know what a day off means. To me, I don’t know if there are days off. I think the work that I do or want to do or want to be known for is not the parts I played in movies, in “Back To The Future” or playing poker. What I really want to be known for is “How did I help someone else? How did I serve someone else?”. I know it sounds corny, and even as I say it, I’m rolling my own eyes at it, but that’s the work that I do and want to be known for. So why would I ever want to take a day off from that? In terms of getting peace and quiet and rejuvenating, I love taking drives down the coast. I’m very fortunate to live here in California, but even if I wasn’t in California, I just love taking long drives. I remember when I lived up in the desert I couldn’t drive down the Coast. I just remember wanting to go for a drive, to take an hour drive somewhere, stop off and get a cup of coffee. You have to understand, because I own my own business, and I encourage other people to own their own business, and because I’ve achieved a certain amount of financial intelligence, we’ll say, I can basically do what I want almost every day. I pretty much have that luxury. If my mother is not needing something (As you know, I’m my Mom’s caretaker), I can pretty much do whatever I want because I’ve worked really hard to get to this point. And because I can do whatever I want, I’m not really beholden to a boss, so in that sense, when you say a day off, I don’t know if I’ve had a day off because I’m not sure if there are days on. They’re just days. Know what I mean? In terms of fun, I love going to the movies. I haven’t been to a play in a long time, but some are good, most are not so good, kind of like movies. I love the experience of going to a movie. I enjoy just going to a coffee shop and just reading or writing. The thing I’ve come to understand, and I guess I was real fortunate at an early age because of the people who inspired me, where they say “If you love what you do, then you never work a day in your life”. When I was an actor, I loved what I did, so it never really felt like work. I loved going to the theater when I was doing a play or going to an acting class or going to an audition, as nerve-wracking as those were. I loved those things. I thrived on that challenge, going into that room and making that room mine. I loved that. Same thing with real estate…I would get up at 5:30 in the morning and go to the job site by 6:00 AM, and I would be there until 4 or 5:00 at night. I’d go home and I’d check mail and write checks and answer phone calls from 5:00 to 7:00, and by 7:00, I was headed off to Home Depot. It was an hour drive from where I lived. Every night I did this, and I went and shopped at Home Depot until they closed at 10:00, and then I’d drive back up. At 11:00, I’d be home and be so wired, and by 12:00 or 1:00 am, I’d go to bed, and at 5:00 or 5:30, I’d get up the next day and I’d do the same thing over and over and over again. People want to say “How do you get rich? What’s the secret? What do you do?”. I don’t know that people are willing to go through that process, but I loved it. That was a day for me. I didn’t hate that. At the end of 5 or 6 years, I was a little burned out, but when I was in it, it was good. I really dug it, and the fact that I was rewarded financially for it certainly helped, but I really dug it, man. I had a certain sense of accomplishment, which probably goes back to my Dad and his work ethic.
Caps: How did you transition from acting to real estate?
J.J: I lost all my money in the stock market. I was about $20,000 in debt. I was 35 years old and sleeping on my mother’s sofa. A buddy of mine, I saw him in a coffee shop, and I told him “I’m $20,000 in debt and I’m not doing good, man”, but let me back up. I had just finished “Almost Famous”, and I told my agent at the time I was getting ready to become a millionaire. I was taking a step back because my other business was taking off. Ya see, I had $25,000 in my stock account on December 15th, 1999, and by February 15th of 2000, it was $198,000. I thought “This is my reward for right living” since I had just gotten sober about 2 years earlier. Well, everybody knows what happened next with the dotcom stock market crash, and for me it was devastating, and so I lost everything. I know a lot of other people did, too, but for me, it was everything. I kind of put the acting thing on hold. I didn’t quit it at that point. I just kind of put it on hold because I thought this stock thing was really going to take off. Well, it took off, but then it splashed down and landed horribly, and so, I came across my friend in this coffee shop. He was the owner of a gym, and he said “Do you want to come and work at the gym?”. They paid me 8 dollars an hour, and I had to get up in the fives. That was a funny story because I realized I never wanted to get up in the fives again unless I had my own business. I didn’t want to get up in the fives just to make 8 bucks an hour. I remember getting up at, like, 5:30 to be at this place by 6:00 to open the gym up, and it was 3 hours a day and then 3 hours at night. It was not even straight through, so I had to leave and come back. It was a terrible job, and eventually, they moved me up to trainer. I started training some people because I played some ball, so I kind of knew my way around a gym. I got better at it. I kind of became a student. I read some books, and I got certified as a trainer, and I came across this client, Edna. I hated this job. I’d been there about 6 months, and I literally hated it. I was ready to leave. The owner of the gym comes up to me and says “I have this lady here that I’d like you to meet and see if you want to take her as a client”. I’d seen Edna before in the gym. She was an older lady at 70 years old. She was short and she was really overweight. She was 242 pounds, and she was a diabetic. She could barely lift her leg up off the ground, and none of the other trainers wanted her. They all wanted the professional athletes or the minor-league ballplayers or the hot chicks, and I just hated this job. My friends at the time were all telling me “Hey, man. Just go there to serve. Don’t go there to collect a paycheck…Just go there to be of service”. And so when I came across Edna, I was in this thinking how much I just hated this job and that this would be be an opportunity to be of service. So I went over and I talked to her. Within 10 minutes, she started crying. I said “Why are you crying?”. She said “Because you’re the first person I had talked to that’s actually listened to me”. She had talked to most all the other trainers and done sessions with several of them, but no one wanted to take her on as a client because again, she was 70 years old and 242 pounds. She was a short little thing, and there was no benefit for anybody. For me, however, here was that opportunity to serve.
j.j: So at the point she started tearing up, then I started tearing up and said “Alright, hold on a second. Let me go talk to the owner of the gym”. I went to go talk to him, and I said “I’ll take her”. He says to me “You know, great! You can probably get her for a session a day”. But the way he was talking about her like I could “get her” just didn’t feel right. He said “You could get her for a session a day. It’ll be 60 dollars an hour, one-on-one sessions of which you’ll get 35 dollars an hour”. Now when you’re 35 years old, 20,000 dollars in debt, and sleeping on Mom’s sofa, 35 dollars seems like a good idea. You know, 35 dollars an hour is a good job. I went back to her, and there was something that just didn’t seem right about it, so I told her. I said, “Look, Edna. This is what the owner wants me to do”. I told her what his plan was, but I said “This is what I think would be good for you”. I said “I have this thing where I could put you in what’s called a class. I can put up to 2 other people in that class with you, and it will only cost you 30 dollars an hour instead of 60 dollars an hour”. I was only going to make 17 dollars out of that 30, and so, it wasn’t about the money at that point. I said “I’ll do it for 30, but here’s the thing. I won’t put anybody in the class with you, so it’ll just be one-on-one, but every now and then, if I have to put somebody in the class or if the owner of the gym gives me someone else to put in the class with you, my main focus will be on you”. She was happy with that…I was happy with that. Long story short, at the end of about a year, Edna went down to 170 pounds. Her doctor called me. She went down to 2 pills for her diabetes instead of 3 pills. Her blood pressure went down. She had to buy a whole new wardrobe, which she was delighted about. What women isn’t delighted about having to buy a whole new wardrobe? I say that having 4 sisters, by the way. It was at the end of that time period where I had made enough money to pay back that $20,000 I owed, you know, that I had lost in the stock market, and I just knew that it was time for me to move on. I came to Edna and I said to her “I want you to know that it’s been awesome being your trainer, but it’s time for me to move on”. She and everybody else was saying “Well, where are you going to go?”. I said “I don’t know”. I had just gotten sober a couple of years earlier, and I said “If this is what this is about, if this is the Game Of Life, then I don’t want to play”. I swear, this was my plan. I didn’t have much, but whatever I did have was in storage. I was going to sell everything I had in storage, and I was going to be like “Lucan” or “The Incredible Hulk” or “Kung Fu”, where he just goes from town to town and spreads wisdom and get a little job to make a little money and get by and that was it and on to the next town. That’s what I was going to do…I was just going to travel, a little wandering nomad, and that was my best thinking at the time. Edna came up to me and said “What do you really want to do?”. I said “All my life, I’ve always made big money for other people, whether I was in movies or even here at the gym. You know I’ve always made bigger money for other people, and so I would like to own my own business”. She said “What kind of business would you like to go into?”. Long story short, Edna said “I’ll let you borrow the money”. She let me borrow the money, and I opened up this real estate investment firm. She said “How much do you need?”, and I just threw a number out there. “$30,000”, I said. I thought that was how much my father used to start his restaurant, so I said $30,000. It turns out he actually needed $120,000 to start the restaurant, but I said $30,000. Well, I turned that $30,000 into $600,000 in just a few years in real estate investments, and the rest is kind of history. I’ve done really well since then. I’ve had a few personal setbacks, but I’ve also had some blessings along the way.
Caps: I bet some of those blessings helped you overcome some of those setbacks.
Caps: This leads me to my final question. This is the question I’ve ended every interview with going all the way back to when I was doing them through e-mail, and it’s this: If you could go back to your youth with the knowledge that you have now, would you do anything differently?
J.J: I don’t want to be so stereotypical, and make a statement like “I wouldn’t change a thing because it’s allowed me to be the person who I am today”. While there’s a part of me that feels that way, I think there’s a number of things that I would change, but for me, I think that kind of takes me to here, meaning that so much of my life has been about perception, and not just my life, but our lives. It’s about perception. Usually we see something as bad and we believe it to be that way. A girl or guy comes into our life, and we fall in love, and then that relationship breaks off and we’re hurt, we’re devastated. In retrospect, when we get a little bit of time away from that, we see that the break-up was probably one of the best things that could’ve happened for us. I’m not sure how much I would change, or that I even want to think about what I would go back and change. I think that what I would do from this day forward is just try to be the best and most kind that I could be. What I mean by that is, specifically…I think I’ve shared with you that I’m sober now 17 years. Well once upon a time, I had this girl that I was dating, and she was my agent, and we were together for 3 years, so when that relationship broke up, I took it very hard. I started drinking a lot and partying round the clock. In retrospect, that was the beginning of the end of my drinking. It was about 8 months after that that I got sober. When I was sitting in that jail cell, for the 2nd time, mind you, I thought “This is terrible. I’m arrested and I’m in jail”. Aside from all the fears of what’s going to happen to me in that moment…There were not the nicest characters in that jail cell with me. When I was thinking about that, it came down to being the best thing that ever happened to me, because it got me sober. That night, when I was let out of jail, that was it. I haven’t had a drink or a drug since. When I was sitting in that jail cell, I said to God, as most people say when they need help…We often use God as a last resort. It doesn’t often occur to us to go to God first, and maybe we won’t wind up in that situation to begin with, but there I am. I say, “God, if you ever let me out, I know I’ve come to you a ton of times before, but if you get me out of this situation, I’ll never drink or drug again”, and literally within seconds, the door opened and that guy came and said “Your sister’s here to pick you up”. Now maybe that’s coincidence, but since I’ve been sober, I don’t really believe in coincidence anymore. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in God…I believe in faith…I believe in destiny. All these things I believe in that I never believed in before because of what I experienced that night, and I haven’t had a drink or a drug since. I can’t say that my life’s been perfect, because I don’t want people to get that idea, that you get sober and everything gets good, but it certainly gets better than what it was. Because of that, it’s led me to today. It’s led me to Facebook, where I met you. I only met you because there was a fan on there who had seen “Fire With Fire” that recommended you to me or me to you. I forget exactly how that worked. She said “My friend wants to do an interview with you. Would you do it with him?” and I said “Yeah, great”. It took me a long time to do it, but I’m glad you were patient, and I’m really grateful. I hope you can hear it in my voice.
Caps: I can absolutely hear it.
J.J: I’m extremely grateful when somebody wants to interview me or just hear anything that I really have to say at this point, and is patient enough, like you’ve been patient. A lot of people who are hearing this don’t know that we tried to do this for about 2 years now, and when we finally did it, we were going to do it in 2 parts. We did it in 2 parts, but the 2nd part, you had some problems with the audio, and we had to do that part all over again…and so we had to reschedule. The 3rd time we rescheduled, we weren’t able to do it, and so we’re finally doing it again now…so we’ve come a long way Johnny but I’m glad I met you, and I’m happy that you’re taking the time to do what you love to do, which is to interview people and write and contribute. I just really want to thank you for the opportunity to share with you and anybody who’s going to read this my thoughts, and if it made anybody happy or smile or think something new that they didn’t think before, it was a 2-and-a-half year journey that was well worth the ride, and I’m glad I took it with you.
Caps: I’m glad about this too, and also, it’s been truly an honor to speak to you.
J.J: The honor’s been all mine.
If you’re interested in contacting J.J Cohen or getting to know more about him, check out his website: http://www.jjcoheninternational.com and visit his official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/JJ-Cohen/105191282883231
Once more, a tremendous thank you to J.J Cohen. Keep on and keep strong.