Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Time isn’t always generous to child actors. They can age poorly, develop drug habits, or become über-Christian. Fortunately for Devon Sawa, time—and Hollywood—was kind to him; he’s doing well and has remained a working actor. As Owen Elliot on Nikita, Sawa gets to be a general badass, going rogue and killing his way through Division with the help of the title character. As a younger actor, though, Sawa was a bit of a lightweight, making tween girls scream and earning heartthrob status in the mid-’90s. He recently spoke to The A.V. Club about trying to break away from that image as well as embracing it.
Devon Sawa: I love being a series regular. The first two seasons they’d fly me in, beat me up for an episode, then send me home. Now they’ve got me living up here in Toronto for good and beating me up for good, so I’m happy about that.
The A.V. Club: Does being a series regular feel different? Are you more relaxed, more involved with the scripts?
DS: It’s a little more relaxing. I’m definitely going to be in a lot more episodes this year. I get to put my feet down and make Toronto home. And I feel a little bit more part of the crew and the cast.
Kerrisdale High (1992)—himself
AVC: Was Kerrisdale High the first show you were ever on?
DS: The first thing I ever did on TV was this show called The Odyssey. And before that, the first thing I ever did was to be the national spokes-kid for Nerf toys. That was done here in Toronto, too.
AVC: How did you get into acting?
DS: It was punishment. In grade five I was really hyper in class, and I always wanted attention. So the teacher suggested that if I wanted to be the center of attention all the time, maybe I should join some sort of a theater group. So my parents put me in this little back-alley theater for kids, and it just snowballed from there. I just loved it. It didn’t help me in school. I still continued to act out, but now I was making a career out of it.
AVC: When you were the Nerf spokesperson, did you get free Nerf toys?
DS: I got boxes and boxes and boxes. And here’s the thing: These weren’t just regular Nerf guns. The prop guys and the special-effects guys would put bigger springs in them. They were these hyped-up Nerf toys for the commercials. I hope I’m not going to get in trouble for saying that. But they were altered to shoot farther and harder, and I would come home with boxes of them. Boxes of footballs, boxes of these Nerf guns. I was the cool kid on the block. We’d actually have Nerf battles in the old neighborhood that looked like the commercials, with all the kids flying around shooting guns. It was pretty epic.
AVC: How did your friends react to your acting and becoming famous?
DS: My popularity didn’t really spill into Canada that much. We didn’t get a lot of those teen magazines or anything like that up where I was from, so I just didn’t talk about it. I would just go off for a few months, shoot a movie, and then come back and drop right back into regular school and just try not to talk about it as much as I could and be a regular kid. And it worked.
Casper (1995)—“Casper” as a boy
AVC: Casper came out when you were almost 17. How did that work if you were playing a boy?
DS: Casper took a few years to come out because, like Jurassic Park, that was the first CGI stuff. It took a long time for it to come out. I think I was like 13 or 14 when we shot it. It was a long wait for them do all those CGI drawings. It was still pretty new. So I wasn’t Casper the little boy at 17 years old.
It was crazy, because they didn’t know whether that was going to be the ending or not. I think [executive producer] Steven Spielberg decided in the last couple of weeks of shooting to shoot an alternate ending of Casper coming back as a real boy. And then they went with that ending.
AVC: Were you cast in those last few weeks of shooting?
DS: They did an open nationwide casting call in something like two weeks, and I’m sure a billion VHS tapes were sent in. My tape was on the right desk at the right time, and the rest is history. I got real lucky.
Now And Then (1995)—“Scott Wormer”
DS: I did Casper and I did Little Giants back-to-back. Those are both Spielberg things. And then I went off and worked again with Christina [Ricci] on Now And Then about year later.
Now And Then was a really fun shoot to be on, because all the women that were in the movie had really cool, famous husbands. At least that was my view. Demi [Moore] was with Bruce [Willis], Rita Wilson was with Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith was with Antonio Banderas. So the première of the movie was awesome. And then, I think from Demi, I got to go to all the Planet Hollywood things, so I met [Arnold] Schwarzenegger and [Sylvester] Stallone when I was 15. It was big.
All the girls were great, too. Thora [Birch] and Christina and Gaby [Hoffmann]. They were amazing. It was an amazing shoot to be on from what I remember.
AVC: Was your mom coming with you to shoots?
DS: My mom went with me from the early ages up to 18, when I kind of begged her to leave. [Laughs.] It was a good thing.
AVC: What was it like being a teen heartthrob? Was it something you embraced or hated?
DS: Well, it was something that was really hard to break out of. As soon as I got to 17 and 18 years old and I wasn’t playing these teen roles anymore, it was hard to transition. So I thought I was going to do the weirdest stuff I could possibly do. Stuff that was edgier and alternative, like Idle Hands and SLC Punk! and the “Stan” video. I wanted to get out of that kind of teen-idol thing. So far it’s worked. Now I’m doing another transition from the college roles and all that to young doctor, young lawyer, young cop. It’s been quite a journey.
AVC: Were there other child actors who you tried to model your career after?
DS: A lot of the younger actors back then that I looked up to were people like Johnny Depp and [Leonardo] DiCaprio that were doing stuff that was different. Every role that DiCaprio and Depp took was different, and that was something that I always wanted to kind of follow.
SLC Punk! (1998)—“Sean”
DS: I met James Merendino, the director, and I just knew that the script was going to work out well. The cast was so stacked with great actors. And then the part itself was just a bizarre, weird guy and something I wanted to do. I knew in a second I had to do it.
Idle Hands (1999)—“Anton Tobias”
Final Destination (2000)—“Alex Browning?”
DS: Idle Hands was something I wanted to take just because it was also so weird. Final Destination was not so weird, but James Wong and Glen Morgan wrote an amazing script.
Eminem’s “Stan” music video (2000)—“Stan”
AVC: Is it true that you got the “Stan” video because Dr. Dre saw you in Final Destination?
DS: Yes. I had a friend who was a mutual friend. That friend called me up saying, “Hey, Dre’s a big fan of Final Destination. Would you come in and meet Eminem?” And I said, “In a heartbeat.” I went into the studio and I met him and he approved it. And the next week we were shooting.
It was a wild, wild shoot. Dido looked borderline-scared sometimes during that shoot. I was playing this crazy, obsessed lunatic fan, and this was her first acting thing. She’d look at me like, “Are you being serious right now?” It was pretty crazy. Dre co-directing it was huge for me. I’ve listened to his music from the time I was a young teenager all the way up until now. The guy’s a legend. He’s a genius.
AVC: Was he a good director?
DS: Amazing. You just feel the greatness around. He’s smart, and he knows what he’s doing. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re around Spielberg. You just know that they’re something special.
Slackers (2002)—“Dave Goodman”
AVC: Slackers has a surprisingly large cult following considering it wasn’t exactly a successful movie.
DS: It’s one of those movies where I’m surprised when people come up to me and go, “Oh, hey, Slackers! I love that movie.” Some of the people that come up and say that, you wouldn’t expect it out of them. Out of all the movies I’ve done, that one usually gets the weirdest responses.
But there are two guys that I really, really loved going to set with and those were Jason Schwartzman [on Slackers] and Seth Green [on Idle Hands], because all day long you’d be laughing. They’re the coolest, funniest guys ever. Your stomach would hurt from laughing so much.
AVC: Do you keep up with any of these guys? If you saw Spielberg, would he know you?
DS: No. The last time we were together, I was 14 or 15 years old. I’d recognize him, but I don’t know if he’d do the same.
Spider-Man: The New Animated Series (2003)—“Flash Thompson”
DS: That was on for, like, for a second.
DS: I think a lot of people came in for one episode here and there. I think I got a call from somebody I knew. She was the casting director for some of The Simpsons stuff and that show and she said, “Hey, will you come in and do an episode?” I just went in and banged it out.
AVC: Everybody wants to do voice stuff.
DS: It’s quick, and it’s easy. You can do an episode in, like, half an hour.
The Sibling (2012)—“Travis”
AVC: The Sibling is your latest movie, and you co-starred with the late Michael Clarke Duncan.
DS: Yeah, and I just saw the movie. I think it’s something that Michael would be proud of if he was still around. I got to work with him for about a week. And it’s so sad because he really was the nicest guy. Shitty things happen to good people, you know? He was really cool. He’s going to be missed.