Exclusive interview with Courtney Gains, star of Children of the Corn, The Burbs and the new Queen Bees

With thirty years of being in the movies, Courtney Gains’ career is so much more than Children of the Corn. His resume is packed with plenty of classic films and TV shows — 132 and counting — including Sweet Home AlabamaColorsCan’t Buy Me LoveHardbodiesBack to the FutureThe BurbsLust in the DustSecret Admirer — and a memorable appearance on Seinfeld.

We were beyond lucky to get the chance to speak with him and learn what experiences have meant the most to him as an actor, what he gets recognized for the most, how he found his way on stage with Phish and what he’s up to right now.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: Our experience with pop culture is to absorb it and discuss it, so your experience fascinates me. What’s it like to be part of so many different strains of pop culture?

COURTNEY GAINS: Because of all my 80s projects, right? Yeah, that’s something I’m proud of. As an actor at the time, once I did a horror film, my next goal was to not do the same thing twice — not just genre, but type of role. And I was able to accomplish that in the 80s obviously doing everything from like Malachi to Can’t Buy Me Love to Hans in The Burbs and even Colors. They were all very different types of roles, which was my goal.

B&S: When we brought up that we were interviewing you, everyone mentioned a different thing that they knew you from. Seinfeld came up a lot*.

CG: The smelly car! Apparently one of the top-rated shows of all time. I mean, what a great thing. What a great show.

B&S: Does what you get noticed for fluctuate all the time?

CG: For sure. Because what happens is you start getting recognized on the street again for a particular thing, right? Like you can all of a sudden it’s like The Burbs. Or like three people in a row say Seinfeld. Hmm, that must have been on TV recently. The things that get played the most nowadays are Back to the Future and Sweet Home Alabama seems like it’s on all the time.

Courtney as Sheriff Wade in Sweet Home Alabama.

B&S: Is it amazing to just flip on the channel and there you are?

CG: Yeah, I’ve managed to be on TV every week. It’s nice. Overall the most recognizable role would probably be Children of the Corn and particularly that’s what I’m known for at conventions. But sometimes. people come up to me with pictures from Can’t Buy Me Love.

B&S: And then people want you to say the big line.

CG: Yeah. A lot of people want me to videochat with their mother. And they’re always asking me to shout “Outlander!” But that’s a lot of work to do over and over.

B&S: That’s extra if you want that.

CG: (laughs) I will flip you off in forty languages like Hardbodies, though, if you ask.

B&S: You hit the teen movie genre from both angles, the sweetness of Can’t Buy Me Love and the raunch of Hardbodies.

CG: Back when you know, seeing boobs in a movie was was was a thing. You know, pre-pre-internet porn.

B&S: It’s a different world now. We had to hunt for nudity.

CG: Skinemax! I got Hardbodies through the director Mark Griffiths. I was in an acting class and he and Geno Havens were casting the movie. They were running the class, so when Mark got that movie, he always asked for a chance to rewrite the script. He tailor-made that role for me. I still had to come in and audition, but it was kind of a done deal. So that was really nice for him to give me that opportunity.

B&S: What’s a movie that you’re really proud of that people may not think of?

CG: Lust in the Dust is a pretty cool film. A lot of people don’t know it, unless they’re Divine fans, but I just think it’s so many good performances and so many wonderful veteran actors. I stayed another two weeks just to watch everybody work because I was just, you know, getting a chance to Cesar Romero work. I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance like that again.

There’s a movie that I produced it that I’m proud of — I also do a lot of music in it — called Benny Bliss and the Disciples of Greatness. It’s an anti-technology, rock ‘n’ roll road comedy and I play the lead in it. I wrote four or five of the songs for that, too. It’s a movie I stand by and I think people would enjoy it.

B&S: You just put out a new album out…

CG: Yeah, got a couple things going on. So I have a solo project called Acoustic Gains. That’s just all acoustic songs I put out, we’ve released our first single called “There was a Time” and the second single “Cherish” is coming out.

EDITOR’S NOTE: You can listen to this song on Spotify.

I also have a band called Ripple Street. We’ve put out three singles this year. My bands are on opposite sides of the spectrum because the acoustic stuff is very mellow and then the other stuff is very heavy, like Black Sabbath.

B&S: You played with Phish, right?

CG: I met Mike Gordon hitchhiking in the mid-80s right before Can’t Buy Me Love came out. We hit it off and I kept in touch with them as they grew into this big band. They had this friend that they were always pranking who was deathly afraid of Malachi. They had an idea for a great prank and it was never the right time and place, but they were coming to Vegas and it was the perfect scenario.

They had been trying to do this for years. When it finally happened, they acted like they were just going to watch the movie while he was on mushrooms and then one by one, everyone else left the room. So I snuck in and put on Trey’s (Trey Anastasio, lead singer and guitarist of Phish) jacket and sat down next to the guy. I didn’t even have to be Malachi that much because the guy’s mind was just blown.

After that, they said any time I wanted something, it was like whatever I want. And I said, “Well, let me come up and play.” They said, “Done.” Got to play in front of 8,000 people in Vegas**. That was pretty amazing.

B&S: Now, you’re in Queen Bees. That has an amazing cast too, almost on par with Lust in the Dust.

CG: Yeah, on par with and then some. I only do a cameo in it, but I was surprised my cameo made the trailer so that’s been really cool. I got a chance to work with Ellen Burstyn, Jane Curtain, Ann-Margret and Loretta Divine and I was like, I’m not gonna pass this up. To get to watch those iconic ladies and work with them was great.

Jane Curtain was really sweet. You know, you get on a set, especially when it’s just for a day. And so often, how the movie feels depends on the vibe of the people right? There’s some of them that are like, “I’m not gonna see you tomorrow. I’m not even gonna bother to get to know you.”

Right. And others go out of their way. But she was so great. When I got introduced to all of them. She was like,” I’ve seen you” and everything like that. Wow, Jane Curtain just said that to me. How cool is that?

B&S: What else are you working on?

CG: I’m in a really dramatic horror movie called The Bleeding Dark that is coming out soon and just finished Tales season 3 for BET. It’s a ten episode anthology and I play a bad cop and it was really interesting.

I have another movie called River that comes out July 13 and it’s a real independent sci-fi type movie. When I say sci-fi that I don’t mean with a lot of special effects. But it’s got sort of alien undertones to it.

It’s a cool project. I play an interesting role — Dr. Michael Glenn — and he’s this small town antique store curator, but he’s also the local psychologist. So he works with this girl because she’s having time lapses. You know, she disappeared for like a week and doesn’t remember how and why. And so I work with her and it’s just a different role for me.

I had a nice long COVID beard for it. It wasn’t a normal role, not a bad guy role, somethingvery mature and a very loving role. And it’s nice to do something different like that.

I’ve never played a shrink before. I’ve always thought that it was something that I could do. Because I teach acting and have taught a lot of psychodrama, drama therapy, you know, where you get into people’s heads and how you can open up the floodgates for them emotionally.

I think actors are — we have to be — psychologists to ourselves, we have to know what pushes our buttons what we’re passionate about and what we’re not passionate about.

I’ve always found psychology interesting. As a matter of fact, if I hadn’t become an actor, I might have become a child psychologist. So that’s probably what I would have gone to school for, because I found it interesting.

B&S: You find yourself bouncing all of those emotions off one another in scenes…

CG: But you need to know people’s different styles I’m a method actor. And so I’m looking, you know, from the inside out. As I say, you have to know what’s gonna push your buttons.

When I taught acting, it’s about if a character has some type of loss, it can be something simple. Yet in a scene, you’re acting but the other actor isn’t connected.  So I find that it helps to talk to them about something they’ve lost. Let’s talk about something in their life and create that mood, right? And they can see that, they can feel that, it’s generating in themselves. And like that’s what I’m talking about. Now, let’s drop into the scene. Sll of a sudden the scene clicks, right? Does that make sense?

B&S: It totally does. Because it’s like creating an emotional language that people may not be able to fully tap into…

CG: Or do they even know how to go about getting that right? So once you start to show them some ways to get access, then they can start applying that to other stuff.

This is huge because as you audition, you have to prove to people you can do the part even though you don’t know the dialogue very well. You have maybe 24 hours to work on it, so it can feel like a cold reading. So you have to find some way to lock into the scene emotionally and bring that with you. And that’s the truth that you carry with you.

Eric Stoltz in one of the few shots of his brief time as Marty McFly.

B&S: I have a weird method question for you. Were you involved in any of scenes in Back to the Future when Eric Stoltz was still in it?

CG: Yeah, so I so I didn’t actually work with Eric at the time. We did Memphis Belle together, so we got to talk about all of this then. But I did work during the time Eric was on the movie.

The story was that he was being super method and making everybody call him Marty. And I guess the dailies were coming back and they didn’t think he was funny enough.

I mean, I think Eric’s a fine actor, but I guess they didn’t think so and that’s when they dropped him. The good news for me was that you can only drop an actor once and then bring them back on a certain date. They’d already done that. So basically, they did the reshoot for five weeks. I was on payroll on a job that I was probably only going to work a week on. So for it to go on to be one of the top-grossing — maybe still the top-grossing trilogy of all time — it’s been the best residual checks I’ve ever had. So I’m very thankful for Back to the Future.

There’s Courtney as Mark Dixon in Back to the Future.He’s the guy who puts the kick me sign on George McFly and tries to cut in on his dance with Lorraine.

B&S: Any truth to the urban legend that when they fired him, Christopher Lloyd really thought his name was Marty and asked, “Did they fire Marty?”

CG: (laughs) Is that real? That’s really funny.

B&S: What actor have you learned from?

CG: That’s a tough question, because  I think it’s like you get little tidbits from everybody.

Here’s an example. Tom Hanks big monologue at the end of The Burbs, after he comes out of the burning house and says, “It’s not them. It’s us.” That was at like two or three o’clock in the morning. He could have just said, “Man, I’m tired. We’ve been up all night.”

But, you know, he did, he showed up. And that, that level of professionalism and commitment is what I got at that moment. and from him.

Another is Robert Duvall, one of my favorite actors. I got to work with him in Colors which was a big deal for me. I was watching him like a hawk. We had the last day of shooting which is also where he passes away after he gets shot. I was within four feet of the guy and they call him in to do the scene. This big death scene, they lay him down in the dirt and they’re not ready. And then Dennis Hopper comes in and says, “Hey, we have a lighting problem and it’s going to be 45 minutes.”

Now for an actor, you’re emotionally prepared for this scene and now, to have to sit there and wait 45 minutes is not easy. That can really throw your throw you off, you could burn out, you know?

He just laid there. Cool as a cucumber. And I was just sort of shocked they would do this to someone of the caliber of Robert Duvall.

They finally come in and ask, “Are you ready” And then he blew the lid off. It was the best performance I’ve personally seen. And I had to come up afterward and tell him — I’m one of the many actors on this set and he knows me but it’s not like we hang out — that it was awesome. And he said, “Well, I wish that was my close-up. Because I don’t have another one like that.”

He blew it out on the first one. And what they did, if you look at the film, you’ll see that the close-up of him is really kind of a little grainy. And kind of at a weird angle. I believe what they did was blow up the wide shot because the performance in that take was just exceptional.

What I learned from Robert Duvall was that he had humility. If he had let his ego get in the way at that moment, it would  have stopped the flow of that performance. He had to put his ego completely in check and just stay calm. And it allowed that performance to come through.

He taught me that you can get caught up in the BS, but if you do, it’s gonna cost you your work, you know? What a class act.

B&S: When I saw that scene in the theater, it destroyed the audience, who came in for an action movie and weren’t ready for that dramatic performance.

CG: If you watch it again, you’ll see he has three lines: “Let me catch my breath. I’ll get back on my feet. Call my wife, I’m going to be okay.”

Those are the three lines that were written, but what you watch happen as he keeps repeating them is that he’s sort of fading away, right? Well, he’s a Meisner guy, you know, Sanford Meisner technique. And one of the techniques they have is a thing called repetitions where people repeat back and forth to each other to in a listening/reacting drill. And that’s basically what he was doing.

He was doing  that repetition. He kept saying the same things over and over. It was genius that he did that because those, you sort of watch like this guy dying. He just kept saying the same things. But if you didn’t know that, if you didn’t know the technique — the Meisner technique — you wouldn’t realize what he was doing.

I studied all the methods. And so that was, you know, again, one of the things you file away and maybe you could use someday.

Thanks to Courtney for his time, energy and sharing in this interview. If you can’t tell, we had an absolutely incredible time. Also we really appreciate Rachel Michelle from October Coast for setting up the interview and, as with everyone there, being incredibly easy to work with.

*Gains appeared in the 1993 episode “The Smelly Car” as a video store clerk.

**Gains played on the song “Suzy Greenberg” on Phish’s 12/06/1996 Las Vegas show.

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