This interview was conducted back in October of 2008, at the Cinema Wasteland show.
Kitley’s Krypt: How did you get into acting?
John Amplas: Oh, that was a long time ago. I was ten years old and my uncle used to do community theater and they needed a kid in a play. So I did a lot of community theater when I was kid and I just kind of got the bug early on from there. In 1963, when I was a teenager, I attended the Playhouse School in Pittsburgh and did that for about 3 years. I spent 3 years in the Army after I graduated from high school, then I studied theater at the same university, then college, to become an actor. In fact, the interesting thing about that, the last production in my senior year is when George Romero came to see it, which is how I got the job to play Martin two or three months later – we started shooting in the fall of 1976.
KK: Had you known who George Romero was from his film Night of the Living Dead?
JA: I absolutely had no idea who he was. I had never seen Night of the Living Dead. It wasn’t a genre that I particularly interested in at that time. As a kid, I went to the Saturday matinees and saw a lot of the B-movies and that kind of stuff, but I never really followed it. So I didn’t really know who George was until I met him for the first time. We also had some mutual friends, so that was kind of helpful too.
KK: What was your first impression of Romero?
JA: I loved him. The story I got, or the story he told me, was that he originally had [in mind] the role of Martin for an older actor. But after seeing me in that play, he changed his mind about it. He went away and rewrote it for this younger man that we now know.
KK: Since the movie Martin is very ambiguous as far as what is real or not, did you play Martin as if he was real or not?
JA: I think so. I think what I played him as was that he believed that he was. He didn’t seem to have any compulsion about saying he wasn’t a vampire. Obviously he had a blood lust. Obviously he had a routine. So I think Martin believed it. But I think the ambiguity; the question that is left unopened is what makes the film so interesting. The viewer has the opportunity to think about it and make their own mind one way or another. Or not.
KK: Plus the irony of the ending too.
JA: Exactly. That’s the other thing that I like about George, not just with Martin, but all of his films, is his humor. He’s always able to find the irony and the humor in the human condition. I think that’s what makes him great. Also working with him as an actor to director, his sense of humor is what keeps the set comfortable and makes it a pleasure to work with.
KK: Did you ever think that a movie that you did over 30 years ago would still be that popular?
JA: No, I was absolutely amazed. When I was urged to do a convention like this the first time, I was floored by the fact that there are so many people out there that know this film, that follow the genre and have such an appreciation for it. They know more about these films that I was in than I do! So I’m once again getting an education here. And a very pleasurable one, I might add.
KK: Horror fans are very dedicated and passionate and keep these films alive.
JA: Absolutely. If it weren’t for the fans, there would be no reason for me being here having this conversation with you now.
KK: Your next film that you worked on was again with Romero, Dawn of the Dead. And other than a little bit part, you worked as the casting director.
JA: Well, yes, I helped with a couple of the principals. I helped with finding David Emge, who had been a friend of mine from the Playhouse days. But primarily what I did was (again, it wasn’t hard) help to cast zombies so that we had a good background when necessary, which was not a difficult task because the word went out that George needed zombies for his film, they came in droves. They were more than happy to be a zombie in a George Romero film. It was not a difficult task.
KK: How does one cast a zombie?
JA: You pretty much sit them down in a chair, get some makeup on them, get the appropriate costume on them and send them on their way. They came and they were more than happy to volunteer. It was really a lot of fun.
KK: Was there the opportunity to have a bigger role in the film?
JA: I don’t know. We never talked about having anything larger in the film.
KK: Was there any sense of “history-in-the-making” since they were making the sequel to the original Night of the Living Dead?
JA: There may have been, but I wasn’t really fully aware of it. The only connection that I had was that I had done Martin, and I wanted to be part of whatever was going to happen next. But then I soon discovered that there was history being made. Especially shortly after it came out.
KK: When you worked on Creepshow, was that your first experience with extensive makeup effects?
JA: Yes, I think so. Again, that wasn’t terribly difficult. The hardest part was getting a face cast from Savini, sitting under plaster for a day. After that, he just created the mask. All it was just putting it on and creating a suit, almost like getting dressed in the morning. But we had to make sure the jaw worked so that I could open my mouth. I think there were several different masks; one where the mouth didn’t have to open and one where it did have to open, so we could dub sound in later on.
KK: And you had real worms on you, right?
JA: Well… I was supposed to have real worms, but the honest truth of it is that I chickened out. They actually put a P.A. in the costume. Because they wanted to put them in the mouth and I was a bit of a chicken. I have to admit that.
KK: I wouldn’t have done it either.
JA: Well, thank goodness. Good, good.
KK: So now you work as a director of a theater?
JA: Yes, yes. In fact I’m directing for a conservatory right now a production called No Place To Be Somebody. It’s a Charles Gordone play that received a Pulitzer Prize in 1969. He was the first black American playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize. So I teach theater and acting at Point Park University and I’ve been doing that for 26 years. I’ve kept busy in the world of theater and the arts. I don’t have the opportunity to work in film as much. This was a wonderful part of my life for a while. But primarily I’m an actor and director and do lots and lots of plays.
KK: What do you see as the differences between film and theater?
JA: With film, I don’t have any experience as a director. But as an actor, I think the work is very similar in that you have to do some research. You have to concentrate. You have to focus. You have to know who you are, where you are, and what you’re supposed to do in both instances. The difference is on stage you have to maintain that kind of concentration for a 2-2 ½ hour period. In film, because of the technology, things can be broken up and you do things in 2-minute stretches. But in terms of characterizations, you still have to carry the life of a character over a period of time. But that’s primarily the difference in terms of the way I look at.
KK: Do you have any preference of what you like to do best?
JA: Right now, I really love directing. I love directing. I’m getting older now and acting is hard, believe it or not, if you’re going to do it right. With directing, I have a little more control over things in terms of what I want to see and what I think the play means. I have the ability to have a vision for the whole. So I enjoy that very much, having that kind of freedom to envision everything and be able to put it on stage. I also like the immediate connect with actors and designers and all of that.
KK: I know you mentioned that you’re not a huge fan of the horror genre, but are there any films that you are a fan of or that made an impact?
JA: Like a Psycho or an Alfred Hitchcock. I’m kind of prone to that kind of classic type of film. I admire Hitchcock’s work a great deal. I enjoy the psychological side of horror and terror a little more than the gory stuff.
KK: You’re relatively new to these conventions. How are you enjoying them?
JA: This is the fourth one that I’ve done and is by far the most comfortable and the most relaxed, the least amount of tension and stress. As for the fans, I am truly grateful. I had no idea. I had no idea that there was this kind of appreciation out there, and it’s really gratifying to see. All of my fears about making a personal appearance such as this have melted away, because the fans are so appreciative, so kind, so generous. I’m thinking, what the hell have I have been doing for the last 30+ years? I’m having a great time, really, a great time.
KK: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
JA: My pleasure and nice talking with you.