Interview by Dan Kinem
David Henry Sterry is an author, comedian, and actor, who has written thirteen acclaimed books and been acting since the 1980s. He has acted in everything from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to the VHShitfest favorite, Hellroller, where he played two roles, Dr. Kosloff and the King of the Bums. I was lucky enough to conduct a phone interview with the man about his entire career, but focusing mostly on the obscure trash classic, Hellroller! Thanks again to David for letting us interview him and for shedding some light on a movie that sadly very little is known about.
For starters, to end all the debates between me and my friends, what year was Hellroller actually filmed in?
1989 and 1990. It took a while from scene to scene. You would do one scene, then wait a couple weeks, then get a call to come to a weird rooftop in Hollywood to do the next scene.
How did you get involved in acting?
When I was in 8th grade me and my family moved to Dallas, Texas. Our English teacher at my new school said she wanted to do a play, a dramatic interpretation of the Anne Frank story. All the pretty girls in class perked up, but all the guys could care less. I was very interested in girls at the time so I got the idea to be in the play, and I peeked into the audition room and saw all the girls. I was like a rooster in a hen house, and all the hens, the chickadees, came to me ‘cause I was the only guy there. I ended up playing Anne Frank’s father. During the play, out of nowhere, I broke into a Greek dance that I had seen on some TV show. Everyone in the audience broke out in laughter and it was the greatest high I’ve ever felt. I’ve done every drug ever and still no high has come close to that. I don’t know how I managed to turn the tragedy of Anne Frank into my own personal comedy, but I did.
How did you get involved in Hellroller?
I was living in L.A. looking for acting roles. There was an auditions paper in Hollywood with all these low budget films, students films, and all the weird roles that no one wanted to play, like sexual assaulters. That’s where I saw the ad for the movie, which, I believe, already had the name Hellroller. The audition was in Gary’s [J. Levinson] seedy apartment, like in Boogie Nights, but even more low end, nothing fancy. I love to act and Gary was very laid back and easy-going and I loved working with him. He would let me try whatever I wanted. It was one of the most fun experiences of my career. Better than working with [John] Carpenter and better than Fresh Prince [of Bel-Air], but I got no money. [Gary] couldn’t cast the role of the doctor so he cast me as the evil doctor, too. I just kept getting random calls, “Show up here. Show up there.” You started to know to bring a thick book ‘cause it took very long to set up. But I got my eyes gouged out in the movie, so that was amazing.
The conjoined twins in the movie were really bouncy. They were really twins, but they’d just throw a big shirt on and that’d make them conjoined. It was ridiculous. I mean, even on the set we all knew it was lame, but there was a liberation in the lameness.
Do you have any behind the scenes stories?
Yes! Ron, the guy in the wheelchair, was a really nice and normal guy off set, but as soon as he sat in the wheelchair it was like the Exorcist chick. He would start twitching and shaking all over. He must have been working some shit out. You didn’t want to put a weapon in his hands, he could have snapped at any moment.
There was a guy who was doing the lighting on the movie, and again, like something out of Boogie Nights, he said, “There’s shadows in the shot” and Gary said, “There’s shadows in real life, man. Let’s shoot!” It was that kind of production. The whole time, though, I kept thinking someone will see this movie, like John Waters, and he’ll cast me in one of his weird movies and then Scorsese will see that movie and cast me in one of his movies and soon I’ll be working with [Robert] DeNiro!
When we finally finished the movie Gary had a screening of it in the seediest theater in L.A.. I decided to take my wife at the time and her British diplomat father to impress him. To impress a diplomat I took him to a screening of the worst movie ever! It was in that same area of L.A. where Eddie Murphy picked up that tranny prostitute. We are driving up to the theater and trannies are everywhere. Huge black trannies. And I’m walking in with a diplomat. It was all bottom of the food chain people inside, too. I mean, we get inside and you see the twins, more trannies, some dude who looked like he had been fucked up on crystal meth for a month, some women with horrible skin and nasty bare midriff guts showing. It was insane. Gary was loving it, though. During the movie my wife said, “I can’t believe we brought the diplomat to this. Let’s leave.” And I said, “No, it’s my part!” Then next there’s a girl showering and rubbing soap on her tits forever for no reason! [The diplomat’s] face never moved even a muscle the entire movie. I gained a lot of respect for him that night. When it was finally over, the only response he had was, “It was very in-ter-est-ing.” He dragged it out and turned it into like four syllables. That was all he had to say.
Did you keep in touch with anyone involved with the film? G.J. Levinson or Stuart Wall?
No. I tried to get in touch with Gary for like two years, but I couldn’t find him. Nothing. I couldn’t even find a number or anything. I really wanted to talk to him and maybe get a copy of the movie so I could see it again. Then I heard he died, which is very sad. I mean, he made this movie, it’s like psycho sexual sleaziness, but you can’t look away.
Do you know anything about the release of the film? Did you get a copy of the movie? Did you ever see it in any video stores?
We were promised a copy, but we never got one. Gary kept saying, “I’ll get you a copy” and he never did. I kept calling and calling and soon his number was disconnected. It did play in a theater, actually, more like a big space, five movies played, each one worse than the next. Hellroller was of course the worst and played last. It was like a sleazy movie fest. I did see it in a video store at one point, a store with a huge selection, in a bin, but that was a long time ago, never more recently.
It’s quite a rare VHS actually. I’ve seen copies sell for over $60. What do you think about that?
Yeah, I saw that! That’s crazy. It’s so weird and surreal to know it has some crazy value. It’s the most bizarre thing that’s ever happened to me, well, in my professional career at least.
Were you interested in horror when you started out?
Yeah, I have a love of horror and B-movies. They used to crank them out at the drive-ins and I’d watch them. All those Bride of Frankenstein-type movies I love. You could almost say Hellroller was an experimental film, though, because of just how crazy and surreal it is.
I see you worked on a few horror/cult soundtracks like Once Bitten, Savage Streets, and Voyage of the Rock Aliens. What’d you do on those movies exactly and how did you get involved?
I was doing voice stuff on those and working on voice stuff for the soundtracks, but not much to do with the productions.
What did you do after Hellroller?
I did a pilot for Eddie Murphy, originally called Bust the Move, then changed to Move the Crowd. It was like a black Saturday Night Live. But that was around the same time the L.A. race riots broke out so NBC got scared and didn’t make it. But that launched me into the black sitcoms like Sister, Sister. You remember that one? I’d play the dick white guy. It all culminated with Fresh Prince. After that I sold a few scripts but they never got made, which was very frustrating. I mean, I got paid pretty well, but I wanted to see the movies get made. I was sick of the bit parts, too, so I decided to write a book. I was the tiny cog in a machine I thought was entirely corrupt so I stopped acting to write.
That book I wrote landed in the lap of an agent in New York City and she loved it, she actually eventually became my wife. I told her about myself and she was the one who got me to write a book about my life, which was called Chicken [:Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent]. It told of me when I was a male hustler, servicing old rich ladies in the nights and going to an all-nun-taught school in the day. The rights to make that book into a show were tossed around to HBO and Showtime, but now the head writer for the show Dexter has written the screenplay for it, he just finished, and that will hopefully go into production next year. I’ve written thirteen novels since then. I’m writing a novel right now, a ghost story about a boy who is haunted in boarding school. It’s half modern day, and half takes place during the time of the Shakers. The Shakers was a religion of people who didn’t believe in sex. It’s 80% done.
Anything you’d like to promote?
Yes, I’d like to promote my website, http://davidhenrysterry.com/, and my book Confessions of a Sex Maniac, which you can order on my site or Amazon.