Sleepaway Camp's Jonathan Tiersten on the film's lasting appeal

Jonathan Tiersten today.
Jonathan Tiersten today.

The summer-slasher Sleepaway Camp has been slowly amassing a cult audience over the past thirty years. In many ways it's a standard slasher, built on a series of gruesome murder set pieces, but its odd moments and bizarre-twist ending go a long way to set it apart from its more generic ilk. On the cusp of the film's thirtieth anniversary, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is having a special presentation of Sleepaway Camp on Wednesday, August 21, with star Jonathan Tiersten, who played Ricky, in attendance to emcee camp-themed games and do a Q&A with fans. In advance of that event, we caught up with Tiersten to talk about what to expect from the screening and what makes Sleepaway Camp so special. (Spoiler Alert: If you've never seen the movie, this Q&A will spoil the twist, so read on at your own risk.)

See also: - Event: Sleepaway Camp with Jonathan Tiersten in person - Corporate America meets the undead in Dave Flomberg's Management for Zombies - Director Franck Khalfoun on updating slasher classic Maniac for modern audiences

Westword: Can you tell us about this Sleepaway Camp event at the Alamo?

Jonathan Tiersten:This is the thirtieth anniversary of Sleepaway Camp. I don't know if you know anything about my story, dropping out of the business for twenty years. I feel like Al Pacino in the Godfather 3: "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in!" I sort of was launched back into this thing partially due to the increasing popularity of Sleepaway Camp. What's crazy is Sleepaway Camp's cult status gets bigger as it gets further out. I never thought that would be the case. It's on all these lists, like "Best Summer Slashers," and I keep getting older but my fans stay the same age.

Having the Alamo come to Denver was so awesome because back in...I think it was like 2001 or 2002...Tim League, who's the founder of the Alamo Drafthouse, got in touch with me when I was working retail in Denver. He wanted to fly me out to a Sleepaway Camp screening. I went out there and we had an absolutely packed house. I maintained a loose friendship with him over the years and the Alamo Drafthouse has flourished, so when I found out they were putting a Drafthouse in our [area], I was over the moon. I was so excited to be able to do an event close to home. It's not something I get to do often.

You're based in Fort Collins, right?

I am. It's kind of an odd situation. I have to travel a lot, but I love Colorado.

So yeah, we got it here, and then Tom [DeFrancia, Alamo Drafthouse Denver partner] got in touch with me. Now I'm back in the business -- I just had a film that went into wide release called The Perfect House. It was the first film outside of the Sleepaway Camp franchise that had me and Felissa [Rose, Tiersten's Camp co-star] in it. She's been an actress for years, but for me it was great.

If you had told me five years ago that this would be happening now, I would have said, "Please, god! It would make my life much more bearable!" I was in retail hell and I hated my job. It's so much more fun this time around for me, because I have a wife and a child. It's not the end of the world when a job falls through. I've been dabbling in producing. That's, I hope, the logical next step, to do some producing. What I like about it is it's really similar to a lot of work that I did in sales and retail. It's about relationships and finding people you can trust and you have a good vibe from. As I get into this world, [people] go, "Oh, what a rat race!" Everything's a rat race! Retail is a rat race! We had to go through endless, stupid sales seminars that were a joke. They would force-feed you this nonsense!

I'm actually reading my friend Dave Flomberg's Management for Zombies, and I'm just laughing hysterically. This was my life for six years. First I was a zombie, then they promoted me. Then I was a mid-level zombie. The constant flow of paperwork... the irony was, all those "zombies," so many of them, have gone on to do so many spectacular, successful things. And we were the zombies, right? I get the irony of the book. Anyway, everywhere is a rat race. To say that Hollywood is more of a rat race than anything else? No, it's all about money.

The thing about Hollywood is it's like Washington. People don't realize how small a community it is. There's so much nepotism, because people just want to work with who they're comfortable with. When you got a thousand-square-mile stretch of land that's filled with 80 percent narcissists, it makes for an interesting situation. That's why I didn't want to work there. Have you ever gone to an L.A. bar and met someone who didn't say, "Well, I'm in the business"? I'm like, "Who digs ditches here? Is there anybody here who has a real job?"

As far as the actual event goes, there's a Q&A and some games themed to the film, right?

Yeah, I'm trying to figure out what the themed games are going to be. Maybe who can wear the shortest shorts -- my shorts that I wore in Sleepaway Camp are back in fashion for women. I think I was a trendsetter. That's what I'm thinking. I set the basis for the short jean shorts. I remember I played a concert for Halloween where I dressed as Ricky, as zombie Ricky, and these girls actually cut my jeans off while I was onstage.

I think short-shorts will be one. Maybe we can have a swear-off to see who can rip each other the hardest. There also has to be the obligatory cowboy hat. I would not be averse at all to people doing a little transgenderism -- not to give it away to anybody! [Laughs.] A little homage to Aunt Martha, who actually was a woman, but many were not sure.


Johnathan Tiersten as Ricky.
Johnathan Tiersten as Ricky.

She definitely had a weird vibe going on, for sure.

Can you imagine the expression on my face that day? That was the first day of shooting, and she walked out of makeup and I'm like, "What?" I'd never acted in anything, and here I am and this thing straight out of hell comes up and starts calling me her son. I'm like, "Oh, my god..."

Sounds like a great first day on the job...

Yeah. There are so many camp things... we can do leg wrestling. I don't know if you ever went to camp, but I did. There's a million different games you can play. There won't be a speed boat.

Then afterward, there's a Q&A as well?

Yeah, there's a Q&A. It's always a lot of fun. You start out with similar questions, but somebody always has some weird questions. The Q&A, generally there's some stuff where they're like, "Really?" Both Felissa and I tend to be pretty open about this stuff. You only get to live once.

What's a question you get every time, without fail?

Let me think ... they always ask, "Are those your hands [in the kill scenes]?" And they were. I did all the killing scenes. Felissa's hand's were too feminine. You can look for a mole on my right hand, that I still have. That's the tell. That's the question that I always, always get. That's generally followed by, "Were those your clothes?" [Laughs.] The third one is, "Are you gay?" That's one of the the first things that comes up on a Google search: Is Jonathan Tiersten gay? Which I think is hysterical, I love it. I have many, many delightful gay friends and I'm totally happy with that. I like to consider myself an honorary gay, at least in my fashion.

There's certainly some fashion-forward looks in the film that wouldn't look out of place in a pride parade.

No, not at all. That mostly was my wardrobe, I'll have you know. My mom used to warn me that I was going to get raped in New York City, because I would wear those denim jeans. People would ask me, "Was the ending freaking you out?" and I'm like, "My mother told me I was going to get raped. You can't weird when you already have weird." My life was insane. You're going to get raped? That's what she said, not like sugar-coating it or anything. I'm like, "Hey, good morning."

You mentioned that you used to be down on the film, but it seems like now you're much more enthusiastic about your involvement in the film. Is that correct?

Oh, yeah. It's such a good thing. It's so silly, because I was so prideful for so many years that I would basically denied being in it. I would lie about it and say I wasn't in it. I feel absolutely lucky to be involved in something that continues to grow. The thing I would say about Sleepaway Camp is that if it were about the shocking ending, you wouldn't have people who've watched it bunches of times. The thing about it, that makes any good movie, is relationships. Ricky and Angela are interesting characters and people love them.

I always say, "How many horror films have such a benevolent antagonist as Angela?" That's what's so phenomenal about it, and I think that's the allure of it. It's really what camp is like. I went to summer camp. There's that whole Lord of the Flies thing. I've gone from being the Ricky-type kid to being the Mozart-type kid in a year -- puberty will do that to you.

I'm honored to be known for it, and I understand that I have a certain responsibility to it. It's so fun and I'm just enjoying it.

As a character question for you, does Ricky know that Angela is actually a boy? It seems like he'd have to...

My honest answer is, I think so, but I'm not sure. I think he knows. It doesn't matter that he knows, his whole life is based on protecting Angela, which is what came back in Return to Sleepaway Camp. The rest of his life is a crumbling POS. They show that in Return to Sleepaway Camp. His anger issues are so out of control he has zero quality of life. Can you imagine being married to Ricky? It's cute when you're a little kid, but as you get older that's not so cute.

I think Ricky knows whatever ends up being the bizarre truth. I think he's in love with his cousin, and he doesn't care if she's a boy or a girl. That's also one of the more positive messages of the film. It's why so many LGBT people flock to it.

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