Jello Biafra first found pop culture prominence as the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, and while he’s also carved out a reputation as a top-notch spoken word artist, he’s continued to write and record new music, most recently fronting a band called the Guantanamo School of Medicine. (Their most recent album, “White People and the Damage Done,” hit stores last year.) Every once in awhile, though, Biafra enjoys the opportunity to step away from the microphone and step in front of the camera to show off his acting chops. Indiewire spoke to Biafra about his guest spot on tonight’s episode of “Portlandia” and why he needn’t have bothered to memorize his lines. Then we took a deeper look into some of the other entries in his decidedly eccentric filmography.
So what part do you play on “Portlandia”?
Well, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, I guess: they cast me an ’80s punk rock singer who wakes up after a 20+ year coma and goes outside and sees how gentrified Portland’s become and starts running around attacking people. [laughs] And Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth had shown up in town to visit and hang out with Carrie, so they just threw her into the shoot, too, as one of the yuppies I insult.
What you’re saying is that the role wasn’t entirely a stretch for you.
I’m hoping they had fun and enjoyed my work, and maybe I can come back and play a completely different character next time… something that isn’t quite so obviously me. They even wanted the character to wear my trademark belt buckle, but I talked them out of it. It can get confusing, because to some degree “Jello Biafra” is another character. I obviously wasn’t born with that name. So to have somebody on a TV or movie set address me as “Jello,” that can sometimes really cross the wires in my brain when I’m trying to become someone else!
Your first on-camera work as an actor, at least if IMDb can be trusted, seems to have been playing the President in 1986’s “Lovedoll Superstar.”
There were some movies some of my friends made as teenagers. There was “Attack of the Invisible Rednecks,” although I’m only in the sequel to that, when the ghost of Fritz the Freak comes back and attacks a new redneck. And “Trout Madness” was another one. Those were fun. One-take silent films that John Greenway was making… who, of course, was the co-writer of “California Über Alles,” too. But I guess “Lovedoll Superstar” was the first camera acting I did.
They cast me as the President, on the phone to the Lovedolls as they’re floating around up in space in their tie-dyed Space Shuttle. They just powdered my hair white and put a white ’70s detective-villain suit on me — the President as the Pimp in Chief… and this was years before Bill Clinton! [laughs] The funniest part was that Dave Markey — whose band at the time, Painted Willie, was on SST — we went to the SST office and couldn’t figure out a place to shoot, so either Dave or Chuck Dukowski went next door to an insurance office and asked if they could borrow their office to shoot this movie. “Oh, you’re shooting a movie? Our office? Great! Here, go ahead!”
From there, you were in the film that’s arguably the most high-profile project you’ve done: 1988’s “Tapeheads.”
That was my baptism into Tinseltown, I guess. Tim Robbins and John Cusack were not nearly as big names as they were a year or two later, and luckily they were very down to earth, very helpful. They both knew who I was and were fans of my work, so that all went pretty well. I think [the part] might’ve come from [co-writer] Peter McCarthy, or [associate producer] Eric Barrett. I can’t remember who exactly contacted me. That was a pretty big budget shoot, so there was a large food chain to navigate.
Your appearance in the film was a nice wink to those who were aware of your legal battles from a few years earlier, particularly your parting line — “Remember what we did to Jello Biafra?”
I put that line in… and they kept it! Ironically, it was the same suit I wore to my obscenity trial, too. They had a different one ready for me in costume, but I figured I’d better bring my own, just in case. Sure enough, it fit better and looked more like an old-school nasty narc in a suit. [laughs] Of course, it was also a slap at Tipper Gore and her religious right friends and whole anti-music agenda that got me busted in the first place.
[“Tapeheads”] is pretty amusing. It’s Mike Nesmith of the Monkees’ revenge on MTV for what they did with his invention, the rock video. The last time I ever saw Stiv Bators was at a dinner I went to with McCarthy and the others, to try and wangle my way into the film after they approached me. It was a sushi restaurant, and I don’t really like sushi at all, but I kept eating it like a cooperative little poodle, to make sure I could get into “Tapeheads.” And Stiv was hanging out at the dinner, too. Stiv, of course, was cast as this super-bratty primadonna hair-metal rock star who sang in the Blender Children. [laughs]
Next up was “Terminal City Ricochet” in 1990, which you’ve since reissued through Alternative Tentacles as a CD/DVD combo that includes the soundtrack you did for the film.
That’s the most substantial film I’ve done, and there were some really good actors, including Peter Breck, who was the lead character in Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor,” the film noir classic about the mental hospital. By then, he had moved to Vancouver and ran a high-powered acting school, so the agreement was that he would appear in the film if some of the students got principal roles, too, which they did. That was quite a wild ride.
I had to be up in Vancouver for over a month in the end, and… I might’ve been trying to wear too many hats. Here I was in these scenes with Peter Breck, this master actor who knows exactly where to position his eyes depending on what he senses from the lighting, not to mention how to build a character, and I was this rank amateur trying to do a good job acting and writing music for the soundtrack and wangling the soundtrack rights for my label, all at the same time!
Unfortunately, the film was barely seen at all until, like you said, Alternative Tentacles managed to get the DVD rights to it. It’s kind of confusing to watch, because there were five different screenwriters, plus a director imposed on the project by the financial backers at Cineplex Odeon up in Canada. But I stand by the movie, and I think it rocks. Terminal City is one of the last livable places on Earth — it was also Vancouver’s original name — and it’s run by a dictator. It’s less like Vladimir Putin than what Rick Perry might be if he ever came to power.
Breck even looks like Perry in the movie, and he seems to be having the time of his life playing this guy, who became the mayor because he had a popular evening talk show and owned the hockey team. He’s staging an election to keep himself in power, and to invent an issue, he frames a musician as a terrorist and goes to town with tabloid media, courtesy of yours truly. I play his Oliver North, G. Gordon Liddy and Karl Rove, all rolled into one. The way the election is stage-managed reminds me of how American elections are stage-managed. Every time the White House is up for grabs, the elections are more like “Terminal City Ricochet.”
You had a decidedly memorable look in 1994’s “Skulhedface,” otherwise known as Gwar’s second film.
I go way back with Gwar — before Oderus (Urungus) got the mask over his face. [laughs] The first time I saw them was in Richmond, Virginia, opening for the Butthole Surfers, and it was their Christmas show. Hunter Jackson, one of the principal early architects and illustrations for Gwar, came out as Jesus Christ. They tied him up to a cross with Christmas tree lights and heaped their homemade blood and jism all over him for the rest of the show. Hunter’s parents were in the audience that night. From what I was told, they were so upset that he got kicked out of the family. I’m sure they let him back in after awhile. I hope so, anyway! Anyway, let’s just say that Gwar is not for everybody… but it’s certainly for me!
I was supposed to be in their first feature, “Phallus in Wonderland,” as a judge and play it much more like if Jerry Falwell was sitting on the bench. But there was a schedule conflict with my spoken word tour, so I thought I’d try it again with Boss Glom. The makeup took eight hours to apply. Having heard the same thing about Boris Karloff and “Frankenstein,” I really felt for him.
We had one crack at the final scene, where Gwar crash through the ceiling and they’re chopping my board of directors to pieces before my eyes. I own all the media in the world — kind of the Gwar version of Roger Ailes. And the only thing I can’t control is Gwar. So I push a button on my office chair, get back into an elevator, the doors close, and I’m gone. I was supposed to tear off the prosthetic skin that they’d spent eight hours putting on me, so we could only shoot it once, and they put some of their hoses underneath my suit — the kind that shoot the fake blood into the audience and all? The problem is that they filled it with, I think, French dressing and rotten cottage cheese. You could smell it. And they used way more than they should have, and more and more of it was going up into my nostrils, and there was nowhere else for it to go…so right when Boss Glom was about to explode, I think mine practically did, too! [laughs]
In “The Widower” (1999) you had actually had two roles. The first time you turn up, it’s as a guy named Vance, but when we next see you, it’s in the role you were born to play: Satan.
That was another great Vancouver project. A trickle of the budget of “Terminal City Ricochet,” but Marcus Rogers, the director, really knew how to get the most of what he had. I think of it as “Eraserhead Goes to Mortonville,” where the widower in question is so distraught that his wife has died that he doesn’t get rid of the body. He keeps her in his apartment, he takes her to a bar, he takes her out for yoga… And, of course, the police are suspicious — one of them was played by Joey from D.O.A. As the walls close in, of course eventually the Widower melts down. But he tries to do the right thing early on. He goes to a mortuary, but the funeral director is… guess who? [laughs] So he flees in horror, only to be haunted in his dreams by the devil himself, also played by me!
There’s a still from the movie on the back of the DVD box with Satan laughing, and that’s what Shepard Fairey used as my face for the cover of the first Guantanamo School of Medicine album, “The Audacity of Hype.” I’d never had him do an album cover for me before, but we were friends, and I felt I should at least tell him that I was going to make fun of his most artwork, the Obama Hope poster. He said, “Oh, that’s cool! I want to do it!” So he got to parody his own artwork, which I suppose he’s really glad he did today, considering what happened to all those people who had the audacity to hope and wound up getting used, getting just another corporate Clinton clone instead… but don’t get me started on that one!
From there, you took the next logical step from playing Satan and turned up as an evil porn director in “Bikini Bandits” (2002).
That was the name of my role: “Evil Porn Director.” Yeah, they gave me a blonde ’70s ‘do and a Fu Manchu mustache and shades and a leisure suit. Dee Dee Ramone played the Pope, Corey Feldman was the Angel Gabriel and Maynard James Keenan played the Devil. Very few of us were on the set at the same time, but I did meet Dee Dee while I was there.
Was that the first time you’d met him?
I’d met him one time before: as a wide-eyed teenage fan when the Ramones played their first show in Denver in early ’77.
2004’s “Death and Texas” seems like it’s right up your alley, given its political message.
That’s another one I wish had gotten a larger audience. It was a cool anti-death penalty statement film — I think Charles Durning is in it, too, but we never met — where you have a star NFL wide receiver who’s on death row because he was sitting in a car during a fatal armed robbery by the building and is scheduled for execution, but the fictional version of the Dallas Cowboys needs him for the Super Bowl. So they let him out of prison, he drops the pass at the end of the game, so they take him back and execute him. [laughs]
I was only set for a day. They cast me as the press spokesman for the Texas Department of Corrections, and on what I’m assuming was the last take, I didn’t hear them yell, “Cut,” so I had to keep on going, reading a statement until I’d run out of paper! I just made up more and more stuff, explaining exactly how lethal injection works, adding, “And then, should all that fail, we will fry his ass!” At that point, the cast and crew all cracked up, so I guess they couldn’t use it for the movie. I know the film industry is a different world and there’s too many people for everybody to keep track of later, but I’d kind of like to be informed when these things actually get released! I found “Death and Texas” at Atomic Records in Burbank, in the used bin. And I found a “Tapeheads” DVD in a gas station in Idaho!
After that, you returned to politics again to play a mayor in a 2008 zombie movie called “RetarDEAD.”
Yeah, that was a strange connection. I saw the previous movie those guys made: “Monsturd,” where a serial killer escapes from prison and tries to hide in a sewage plant, falls into a vat of radioactive sewage and turns into this giant piece of shit who begins mauling and eating people. [laughs] I saw the movie, and my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I realized that part of it had been shot on my block! I began to wonder, “Who are these people? One of them must be my fucking neighbor!”
I think the ex-wife actually has the house, but they all still work together on these projects. The two guys who make those, Dan West and Rick Popko, they may do commercial advertising for a living, because the production value on those movies is quite high, but they did both of them for tiny amounts of money. And the editing is very sharp and very crisp, unlike a lot of underground independent films.
For “RetarDEAD,” they had already shot it when they found out I was a fan, so they just added a scene and added a character. And there I was, yet again, at a press conference. This time, I was the mayor of Butte County, lying through my teeth — of course — trying to quell the hysteria about the mysterious developmentally disabled zombie murders which are going on. It was the drug that the same mad doctor who created the Monsturd was involved with. It was supposed to make developmentally disabled people rise up to more normal intelligence, but instead it turned them into rabid zombie geniuses.
These last few films you made weren’t full-length, but you’re actually in them longer than you’re in some of these other films we’ve talked about. The first one, from 2011, is called “I Love You… I Am the Porn Queen.”
I play a couple of roles in that one. The movie was written and directed by Ani Kyd, who I had first met on the set of “The Widower” years before. She handed me a demo of her music the next day, and I was absolutely floored, so Alternative Tentacles ended up releasing the album. She just put out an album of newer material that’s less heavy rock and more… voodoo torchy. She plays the disgruntled porn queen, obviously, and I am both her pimp-like agent and the reclusive Bukowski-looking sculptor that she falls in love with. She hadn’t made a film before, but she’s got some other irons in the fire now, so stay tuned!
And then Ani also turns up in 2013’s “The Hipster Games: Blowing Smoke,” where — to bring this thing full circle from “Lovedolls Superstar” — you play the President again.
She’d come down to California for a visit, and I needed to get that part done, so we just tossed her in. [laughs]
I can’t decide if your role makes you the Donald Sutherland of punk or not.
Well, I’d rather be Donald Sutherland than Kiefer Sutherland. I don’t know how anybody who tried to make a hero out of Jack Bauer in “24” could sleep at night!
Did you actually have any frame of reference to the “Hunger Games” films?
No, I’ve never seen them. I just kind of did what they wanted me to do. But at least there was an actual script this time! For “Portlandia,” I was told ahead of time to memorize my lines because there would be a lot of improvisation, then right before the first scene we shot, the director told me, “Oh, yeah — by the way, Carrie and Fred haven’t learned any of their lines. You’ve just got to go with the flow!” [laughs] But it’s actually a lot of fun to work that way. I think having those original lines as a guidepost was probably a good idea. And that formula really seems to work for them.
So if they called you back, you’d be ready to go again, then?
Well, especially if it’s all improv. How can I not be ready?