Interview by John Wisniewski
John Wisniewski: Stephen, your very first film appearance was in John Waters’ original comedy feature motion picture Hairspray. Can you tell us about this?
Stephen Wozniak: It’s a funny story. I was about 15 years old at the time. My friends and I used to use fake IDs to get into this 18+ new wave dance club in Baltimore called Cignel, so we could essentially dance the night away and meet girls. Since I was such a furious foot worker, I never left the dance floor. One night, the unmistakable red-haired casting director Pat Moran (from NBC’s Homicide and all John Waters films) was scouring the place for teen dancers. She quickly picked me and a few of my friends, like Chad White and Chris Rich, to dance in a “new John Waters movie.” We soon learned it was a “dance” movie – not a musical – set in early 60s Baltimore, but didn’t learn much else. We all somehow got a ride to the only soundstage in Baltimore, called Flight 3 Studios and met with a choreographer named Kiki, a real whip cracker and great dancer. We rehearsed dances like the “Mashed Potato” for hours and shot the opening Corny Collins Show dance sequences the following day. In the interim, I got a hip 60s haircut – to adapt my 80s bi-color hair – from the hair and make-up department. I met Divine that same day. He was such a nice, low-key guy – nothing like the sweaty drag queen persona we all know and love in 70s John Waters movies. He was wearing loose white linen pants and Espadrilles shoes, sort of gazing out at the kids dancing. We had a lot of fun in the scene the next day. I first saw John Waters when he drove into the studio parking lot in a dark blue 1986 Plymouth Reliant K car, which, at the time, I thought was hilarious. John is a true director – in every sense of the word. Bright, focused, driven. I can see in retrospect that he had to move fast and get coverage of these scenes, since the schedule was so short. New Line Cinema only provided a million or so dollar budget, so time was of the essence. I had a blast on it – it was like nothing I had ever done at that point in my life. It certainly inspired me to pursue acting later on.
John Wisniewski: A few years ago, you appeared as a glam rocker in an Apple Music commercial, directed by John Hillcoat. Can you tell us about this?
Stephen Wozniak:Yes – it was such a good time! I played a principal role as a classic glam rocker for the singular John Hillcoat, who directed features like The Road and The Proposition. Such a smart, interesting guy. Very funny and has such a refined way of rendering last-gasp performances from actors. I auditioned a few times for the role and both times John directed the scene like he was on set, which always makes actors give more of themselves – it’s like we’re working already. After I booked it, I met him with the costume designer for fittings on set ahead of my shooting schedule. A few days later, we met again on location in downtown Los Angeles at the big, beautiful, artful historic Los Angeles Theatre on Broadway. There was so much going on. Set ups for every piece of the epic commercial, “The History of Sound,” were coming together in and around the building. In my scene, I was dressed in silver laced boots, a shimmery shirt and tight slacks, dancing and lip-syncing to T-Rex’s classic song “Jeepster.” I sort of traded lascivious looks with passerby club goers, hoping to lure one my way. It was dark, sexy and actually pretty funny, too. I got the dance workout of a lifetime. That’s when the real sweat pours and those were the moments John used in the commercial. I hope to work with John again, but on a feature motion picture.
John Wisniewski:. What was it like acting on the televisions series NCIS: Los Angeles?
Stephen Wozniak:Great – across the board. First of all, I love that cast and crew. They work hard. They also truly know how to have fun. You know, it’s tough for series regulars to keep the energy up every week, season after season and they somehow know how to do it in spades. For me, as a guest star, it was a blast. Since my character, ‘Tyler Brunson’, was such a fringy drug lord kinda’ guy, I got be outrageous, dangerous and mix up the dynamic on the show. The director, a friend of mine, Diana Valentine – a really lively veteran of TV directing – was great to work with. Great directors consistently go for the essentials: they cover critical action, they point performers along the right trajectory and let the rest happen. Maybe that’s an oversimplification, but you get my point. That’s what she does and I love it. I had a really good time. On location, alone, I sort of pour over my thoughts on the scene and review the script between takes, but I got to hang with Todd (LL Cool J) and talk about the old days of the Bronx, New York (I lived in nearby Brooklyn for a while) and funny, rascally shit. On set, he’s always on the go, cracking deals on the phone or rehearsing lines. He expends more energy in a day than I think most people do in a week!
John Wisniewski: You are an artist, as well as an actor, Stephen. How did your career in art begin?
My interest in art started years ago in high school, even before. I was an artsy dude with a geometric new wave haircut, loved alternative English music, and went to local art museums, like the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing. I also drew in my spare time, copied great masters’ sketches for my portfolio to get into art school. I got into a few good ones, like Parsons School of Design in New York, but stayed close to home at Maryland Institute College of Art and Design, which is an amazing school.
After that, to get my art career going, I lived in New York for a while in the 90s in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill on Pacific Street. I made and showed art a few times in galleries, like Ward-Nasse: mostly video work, some limited edition prints, an in-gallery mural – conceptual stuff, really, when it definitely wasn’t that cool. I left New York a few years later and took a detour into the motion picture and television world to become an actor, but kept sketching and taking notes on works I wanted to make.
John Wisniewski: What artists have inspired you?
Stephen Wozniak: It’s a pretty long list, but I’ve always loved artists like Yayoi Kusama, Craig Kauffman, Yoko Ono, Eva Hesse, Frank Stella, Gerhard Richter and Donald Judd. There are many others, of course. I appreciate many of the 60s Minimalists artists for their refined or obsessive treatment of form and finish and the art occupancy of an exhibition space, providing existential moments for viewers. I want those existential moments for my viewers, too, but my work differs in that I utilize home interior design elements that sometime transform or dispel meaning we affix to our formative domestic lives.
John Wisniewski: Are there any current or future exhibitions of your artwork?
Stephen Wozniak:Yes, there are. One just wrapped up in Hawaii called Abstract Only! where my piece What’s Right With This Picture? won an award, which is cool, of course. I’m grateful for that. It was exhibited in this great daylight-saturated rotunda-style building called the Wailoa Center. I just finished another light-based wall work called Boon and Bane for a group exhibition at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina that starts on November 20 and goes through early 2021. A lot of great artists are showing work in that one! I’m thrilled there are more and more safe brick-and-mortar exhibitions happening during the time of Covid-19. People truly need art in all of its forms right now.
John Wisniewski: You are also a screenwriter and producer. Any film projects coming up?
Stephen Wozniak: I am developing a screenplay with a writing partner that initially seems like a genre horror movie, but dives deeply into the complex Me Too movement and the real lives that have been affected by sexual assault. I can’t say much about it right now before we pitch it to studios, but I’m certain it provides surprises in some unexpected places.