How to Succeed as a Character Actor in Hollywood with Sean Whalen

Remember that guy in the famous Got Milk commercial in the 90s who couldn’t say Aaron Burr? How about the kid with no tongue in Wes Craven’s People Under the Stairs. That’s just two of the 116 acting credits for a guy who face you’d likely recognize before his name. Today we had a great talk with character actor Sean Whalen who gets mistaken for Steve Buscemi more often than himself.

Sean told us about his upcoming role as Satan in Harrison Smith’s Death House, how Drew Barrymore stuck up for him on the set of Never Been Kissed and rubbing elbows with other talented actors as the Comedy & Improv teacher at James Francos Acting School in Los Angeles. Plus, we got to hear about his latest feature film now crowdfunding on IndieGoGo called Crust.

We hope you enjoy our interview with That Guy Sean Whalen on How to Succeed as a Character Actor in Hollywood. Be sure to leave us a review on iTunes to help get the word out and

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Sean Whalen Interview Highlights

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Maryland right between Washington DC & Baltimore. It was kind of rural and I loved it there.

Were you a theater kid growing up?

I did a lot of plays but 5th grade was a turning point. They said I could do a class project so I directed and starred in Rumpelstiltskin. I’ll never forget doing it and then at the very end when I ran out on stage I slid across for my curtain call and got a huge round of applause from the whole school. Not only did I have fun doing the show but I also got huge accolades for it. In high school I was active in community and school theater.

When did you move to Hollywood?

I received a scholarship from my high school when I was accepted into the UCLA theater program. A lot of people have lived in different places. I basically grew up in Maryland for 18 years and then came out here. I didn’t get to do Chicago, New York and London like some other actors but I like it here.

I always tell actors, give it two years and 100% of your time and energy. If after two years you can say things are proceeding, that doesn’t even mean you’re getting a paid gig. It means you’re doing well in acting school or things are going well, then stick around. After two years things were going well for me. I was performing in the Groundlings and thought things were going okay. In the summer of 1987 I started to pursue things again and I recorded my first commercial in the fall of 1988. I just kept going and kept at it.

Alan Ruck & Sean WhalenI had Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Buller’s Day Off) in my acting class recently. He told me he had done Ferris Bueller and moved to LA and it wasn’t really going that well and was working in a factory. It goes to show you the ups and downs out here. I can’t imagine being in such a huge movie and then lugging boxes in a factory.

What was your first paid acting gig?

My first commercial was for Kaboodles that ran on MTV. It was a makeup fishing tackle box that you could keep makeup in. It got me my SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card and it got me my first car after driving around on a Vespa out here. After that I started doing a lot of Little Caesar’s commercials. Then I got People Under the Stairs in 1991.

Watch People Under Stairs on iTunes & Amazon Prime

What was it about the character Roach that stuck with audiences?

It took me a long time to figure out why. They used me in the publicity for People Under the Stairs with these weird pictures they took before we shot the movie. It was me with long spikey hair and I never really looked like that. Recently I was asked which character would you like to be in real life? I thought I don’t even know and then I thought Roach.

Now I understand why people like Roach so much. It’s because he was smart enough to leave the basement as a 15 year old kid and not be caught. Obviously if he was smart enough to get out and be behind the walls, he was smart enough to leave. He stuck around to not only give shit to the people that put him there but also to make sure that little girl was going to be okay. He was a martyr, dying to save Fool so he could help Alice get out of the house and have a new life. Roach did it all with an innocence.  I actually wasn’t that young. I was 27 playing a 15 year old.

What was working with Wes Craven like?

I always say he’s like the favorite uncle at the BBQ. Not the one that’s behind the thing grill screaming but the one who hands you the hot dog and takes it from the loud guy. Wes Craven is so mellow and nice and very nurturing. He wanted us to do good acting work and really cared about that. Wes was protective of that and it made you want to do a good job. You could tell he was so nice and wanted it to be good that you instinctively wanted it to be better. You just didn’t want to suck for him.

It’s a weird twisted movie but he made it so safe. I thought if I’m going to be in this movie I may as well play and give 100%. At the time I was very lucky to be with a coach, Mark Speigel and I was also at Playhouse West with Robert Carnegie and they taught me to act act. I had come out of the Groundlings with comedy. So I was at the right place to be able to say I want to create this character and play this real. Wes let me go for it.

When I had my death scene I sat in the corner for over an hour by myself and he kept everyone away and let me prepare for it. I said I’m going to be over there getting ready while you guys setup the lights. Wes Craven was very sweet, nurturing and mellow but obviously a very dark twisted imagination.

Recently I feel like Rob Zombie is the same way. Super nice, mellow and kind of dorky. If you sat down to talk to him you’d realize he’s a cinephile. Same with Guillermo Del Toro. He was giddy when I met him on the set of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He remembered me as Roach from People Under the Stairs. You realize those are the best kind of people because they are fans of good work and the genre.

How important was studying acting to your success?

Definitely. I feel like an acting teacher said it to me best. You don’t walk into a hospital and go, “I wanna do a brain surgery.” It doesn’t work that way. You put in hours and hours and become a doctor. You put in hours and hours and become a lawyer. And we put in hours and hours and you don’t even know if we’ll succeed. At least they know they’ll have a job when they finish school. Actors don’t.

My acting coach told us we better know plays and movies. I loved movies and entertainment anyways. When I was working with my class and said we need to do a film noir thing, they said what’s film noir? My students think being good and putting out some videos on YouTube, that’s not what it is. Every meeting you have someone will it’s just like Repo Man meets Edward Scissorhands and you better know what that means.

Not only do you study the craft but you have to study the industry and know movies. You don’t have to watch the shows but you can at least go on Wikipedia and read about it and watch a YouTube clip so you know. I’ve never watched all of Dexter but I know what it is. I met with a young set director for my new film Crust and I mentioned Repo Man and he was like oh yeah, not like an early Tim Burton movie.

What TV shows and movies influenced you?

I watched I love Lucy. That redefined comedy in the modern age. Desi Arnez was a pioneer, 3 cameras with the audience, it’s still done the same way because of him. I watched the Three Stooges and Warner Bros cartoons, Fantasy Island, 6 Million Dollar Man and Gilligan’s Island.
Saturday morning cartoons were the greatest thing ever. You’d get a huge preview on Friday for what’s coming on Saturday like HR PufnStuf.

How did the Aaron Burr Got Milk commercial boost your career?

People Under the Stairs was number 1 for six weeks and I thought my life was going to change and it didn’t which was interesting. All my guy friends that were character actors would all audition and we were all there for this one. They gave us bread and a big jar of peanut butter and said this is what’s going on, just go with it. The radio announcer lines were playing and I shoved a shit load of peanut butter in my mouth. What was told after I got the commercial was that they didn’t have an ending. Most actors were angry and throwing the phone and screaming. I was the only guy to just show he got screwed. I just did what I thought was funny at the time.

When I got there, Michael Bay, who directed the commercial said just do what you did in the audition. That was his last commercial before he broke into movies and got The Rock after that. The commercial blew up and won all kinds of awards and Michael Bay got a lot of accolades and a huge career. For me, I was in acting class and somebody said your life’s going to change. Steven Spieldberg saw that commercial and said he liked it. It’ll mean good things for you.

Sean Whalen in TwisterAfter that I got cast in Twister which Steven Spieldberg executive produced, Men in Black which he executive produced. His friend was Tom Hanks who put me in That Thing You Do and Drew Barrymore put me in Never Been Kissed.

I was working a ton in commercials, 5 or 6 per year and then it all ended. I think I’ve done 2 since then and that commercial is 20 years old. It was a huge campaign and I’m so associated with it. It started my theatrical career and ended my commercial career.

What are the similarities and differences of horror and comedy?

Comedy is just fun because when you say cut the crew laughs. If you can make the crew laugh you’re doing well. Horror is usually like drama, unless it’s a horror comedy which is rare. In drama, it’s more draining emotionally because of the intense circumstances. Usually in a horror, the circumstances are so intense that it’s exhausting to put yourself through it.

I did NYPD Blue with Dennis Franz in my face interrogating me thinking this is awesome but that was exhausting. I just like giving it 100% and getting a reaction.

How did you get involved with Death House?

My good friend Felissa Rose who’s a producer and I had worked with Harrison Smith before or we were trying to work together before. They wanted as many iconic horror people as possible. It was a fun part, playing Satan. I can’t talk about more than that but it was very cool. This is one they are trying to keep under wraps.

Check out our interview with Death House producer Harrison Smith

What actors have you worked with that were memorable?

One was Drew Barrymore, who fought for me because I wrote my part for Never Been Kissed. It was supposed to be one line and the director wanted to keep it that way. She thought what I created was funny and working and wanted to see it through. It was her first time as a producer and Drew wanted to let me do my thing because it was better and it was working.

The other that was Dennis Franz who stunned me. After we were done on NYPD Blue he said he was sorry. He had a bit of a cold and was worried he was giving as much as he should. I was like that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard in my life! He’s great, that’s how I want to be. I never forgot that and now on any set I try to introduce myself to the extras. He was so gracious and talented. I realized that you can be really good and still be super nice at the same time.

The biggest people I’ve worked with, Tim Burton, Tom Hanks, they were always the coolest people. It was the younger people who had attitudes. I never really understood that.

How important are relationships as an actor?

My daughters will laugh because I say it’s all about the hustle. Networking and then being really good when you get an opportunity is the most important thing. The more people you know, the bigger your funnel is and the more stuff that can come in. Relationships are key.

What is your latest film Crust about?

It’s about a former child star working in a laundry mat. All his co-stars have either killed themselves or are addicts. He collects the single socks from the dryers in the laundry machines and blows his nose in them, wipes his sweat off on them, bleeds on them and they are all in a little pile. One day he cries into the sock pile and it becomes Crust, the sock monster. It avenges and kills for him unbeknownst to him ala Little Shop of Horrors.

It’s fun, Felissa Rose is attached as my girlfriend and it’s on IndigeGoGo now: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/crust-movie-fun-horror. We are also taking meetings with other investors.

How long have you been an acting coach?

I started in August of 2016 but I’ve been teaching workshops for 3 or 4 years. We just had our new teacher meeting yesterday with James Caan. We spoke yesterday which was cool because I got a call from the supervisor at the school saying James Caan really likes what I’m doing and the way I think. Wow James Caan! I’m going to dinner with him next week which is cool. You come in and learn comedy and we put on shows regularly. I’m trying to build a comedy department that rivals the Groundlings or Upright Citizens Brigade. It’s every Tuesday night throughout the year.

I love teaching. It’s like giving back. All you want to do is teach them things I wish I knew.

Have more questions for Sean? Leave them in the comments below and we’ll make sure he gets them! Don’t forget to sign up for our weekly email and if you really love us, leave us a review on iTunes.

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