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‘Feud’: John Waters on Becoming William Castle and His Love of Great Gimmicks

In the latest episode of the FX miniseries, Ryan Murphy gave the "Pink Flamingos" director a role he'd been preparing for since childhood.

John WatersNew Museum Annual Spring Gala, Cipriani Wall St, New York, USA - 04 Apr 2017

John Waters


A dream came true for John Waters in “Hagsploitation,” Episode 6 of FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan.” For decades, the iconic director has been a vocal fan of William Castle, the B-movie king of showmanship whose promotional stunts remain legendary. In fact, “I wish I were William Castle,” Waters wrote in the 1986 collection “Crackpot.”

And thus, Ryan Murphy asked Waters to appear in “Hagsploitation,” which opens with Waters as Castle, introducing an axe-wielding Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange) during a promotional tour for the 1964 film “Straight-Jacket.”

“It was an honor to be asked to do it, because I’m such a fan of William Castle,” Waters said about the unannounced cameo. “I had to keep the secret for so long because we shot it a long time ago. And the secret kept. I was surprised, because there were 100 extras there.”

READ MORE: ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’: Alison Wright On How Her Fictional Character May Fare Better Than Real Women in Film

While playing Castle on screen, Waters is still very recognizably Waters, which was by design. “When they asked me to do it, I was like, ‘Well, I’m not fat, should I wear a fat suit?’ and they were like, no, we just like the conceptual idea of you playing him,” he said.

But the reverse was true when it came to his co-star. Waters hadn’t met Lange before, but said he thoroughly enjoyed spending the day with her, “because she was dressed like Joan Crawford and so we’d be having a normal conversation — but she’d look like Joan Crawford.”

FEUD: Bette and Joan -- "Hagsploitation" -- Installment 1, Episode 6 (Airs Sunday, April 9, 10:00 p.m. e/p) -- Pictured: Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. CR: Prashant Gupta/FX

This wasn’t the first time Waters was approached to be in a Ryan Murphy series — according to the director, he was asked to appear in “American Horror Story,” but the schedule didn’t work out.

Waters doesn’t necessarily plan to do more acting work in the future. “Every once in a while when they ask me, I just do it because I like the whole project. I was in the ‘Alvin and the Chipmunk’ movie, which was a real bucket list item.”

The one acting job he really wants? “I want to be in a ‘Final Destination’ movie.” (He’s a fan of the franchise.)

He’s also a fan of what Murphy’s been doing lately on television: “The O.J. thing [‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’] was great. I mean, he’s the hardest working man. I don’t understand how he doesn’t just drop dead.”

READ MORE: ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Main Titles: How That Striking Vintage Opening Sequence Got Made

Beyond working with Murphy, playing Castle was also an opportunity to celebrate the classic theater gimmicks that Waters loved as a kid. “When I first saw ‘House on Haunted Hill’ as a kid in Baltimore and the skeleton went out on the wire and the thousand kids in the audience went crazy … My whole life, I’ve tried to at least equal that cinema anarchy,” he said. “I came close with the end of ‘Pink Flamingos,’ but I didn’t tie with it. He still beat me.”

Waters likes to incorporate gimmicks into his performances, remembering how “Divine and I used to go around to the theaters — we used to come out and Divine would rip a phone book in half.” In fact, at his recent Christmas show, he distributed eyebrow pencils and little packets of anal bleach.

To Waters, “there’s always gimmicks and I’ll go to every one of them. I was the last person watching ‘Piranha 3-D’ in 3-D glasses by myself, the last time it played in a suburban theater in Baltimore. I still will go for the gimmick.”

There’s one gimmick that doesn’t work for Waters — the way some theaters have begun to upgrade to luxury seating. “They have seats now that are like first class airline seats, which make you go to sleep,” he said. “If I’m seeing a three-hour foreign film, I don’t want to watch it in a bed.”

Waters’ favorite gimmick remains Castle’s invention of the Percepto, which attached buzzers to theater seats during screenings of 1959’s “The Tingler.” (The instructions for how to wire the seats for the Percepto is just one item in Waters’ collection of Castle memorabilia.)

But he also fondly remembers the distribution of vomit bags for certain films, a trend which remains common. “I read that ‘Raw’ is giving out vomit bags — which is hardly an original idea and ‘Raw’ is a good movie. So I don’t even think it needed that. But the vomit bag gets revived every decade at least.”

After all, a good gimmick can often enhance a film or TV show. A gimmick, for example, like making sure that a iconic director gets played on screen by his biggest fan.

“Feud: Bette and Joan” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX. 

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