[Originally published in the December 2014 issue of DEADLY Magazine] A little over thirty years ago, an inventor named Randall Peltzer walked into a tucked away antique shop in Chinatown in search of a memorable present for his son, Billy. Amidst the store’s candlelit relics, Randall discovered a cute critter known as a Mogwai. Against the owner’s wishes, he bought the Mogwai and later named him Gizmo, bringing him home to become a part of the family.

When Billy unwrapped Gizmo in the glow of the fireplace’s flickering flames, he became fast friends with the furry brown-and-white creature. Gizmo provided escapism to Billy, an aspiring cartoonist working at the local bank to help support his mom and dad. But the creature would unintentionally unleash manic mayhem on the tiny town of Kingston Falls, leading to a Christmas Eve nobody would forget… if they survived.

The star of the dark comedy creature feature, Zach Galligan, chatted with us at Crypticon Minneapolis about being in California for the first time while shooting Gremlins, learning from his veteran co-stars, the movie’s growing Christmas tradition status, and more.

When you shot Gremlins, you were a 19-year-old in California for the first time, acting in a movie produced by Steven Spielberg. What was going through your head?

“A bunch of things were going through my head. First of all, I didn’t know anybody in California so I was alone in the city and I didn’t drive because I was a New Yorker, so I didn’t even have my driver’s license even though I was 19. So I was kind of stuck, basically, from where I could walk. And they knew that, so they put me in Westwood, which is the UCLA campus, so I was maybe a five-minute walk away from all of the shops and the restaurants and everything like that, so that worked out really great for somebody who couldn’t drive.

But it was a 17-week shoot, and after about week six, I’d pretty much done all the shops and everything down there, so I was a little stir crazy. Luckily, Phoebe [Cates] would show up in the mornings in her little white Toyota Cressida and drive me around to places and we’d go and see movies in Westwood—double features and things like that.

The other thing I was thinking was, ‘They must have made a mistake in hiring me. It can’t possibly be true. I’m not a great actor. I’ve only done a couple of credits.’ So I was waiting for someone to come along and go, ‘Hey, you know, we’re really sorry, but we kind of blundered. We actually meant to hire Ralph Macchio. We actually meant to hire C. Thomas Howell and we made a mistake so you can get back on the plane and go home.’

I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence then because I was only 19 and had probably done three or four things, so I was just kind of scared that I was going to screw it up. I didn’t realize that basically around the two-week mark, if you don’t get fired then you’re probably fine.

So I was sweating all the way through ten weeks and I finally turned to someone who was sitting there and they said, ‘What’s the matter with you? You seem a little jumpy.’ I was like, ‘I’m just afraid that I’m going to get fired.’ And they said, ‘Dude, they’ve shot ten weeks, it would cost them $7 million to fire you. You’re fine.’ And after that I was completely relaxed and probably did my best work on the film because I wasn’t looking over my shoulder.”

As a young actor on the set of Gremlins, you were surrounded by veteran actors like Dick Miller, Hoyt Axton, and Frances Lee McCain. What did you learn from them?

“The thing I learned the most was from Hoyt Axton—he would ad lib a little bit when he did his lines. Instead of saying, ‘There are three rules that you have to remember. Rule number one…’, he would go, ‘There are some things I forgot to tell you guys, and they’re really important. Number one, he hates bright lights, we know that…’

He would make it his own and at first I thought, ‘He’s terrible! He’s not saying the lines the way he’s supposed to.’ And then I started to realize that it didn’t look like he was acting. He just looked like he was existing on film.  And then I thought to myself, ‘Don’t look like you’re acting… I think I’m going to try that.’

There’s a shot where he’s telling the rules and there’s a slow push into me listening and I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to take a risk. I’m just going to listen and think about what he’s saying. That’s it. Just like a human. I’m not going to act anything. I’m just going to listen and react.’ And that’s probably one of my best shots in the movie. Just me sort of going, ‘Huh.’ Just listening and reacting like a real human. And it works. That Christmas box scene of me getting Gizmo for the first time really worked, that scene’s really solid.”

Gremlins has become a go-to Christmas movie for many viewers. What are your thoughts on it becoming an unconventional holiday tradition?

“I think it’s great, because now that it’s sort of become a Christmas movie, its longevity is pretty much ensured. It may have been ensured already because a lot of people like it, but now it’s totally ensured. I’ve had people over the last five to seven years come up to me and say, ‘We watch your movie every Christmas. We sit mom and dad and grandma down and we watch it.’ Every Christmas Eve, every Christmas, families will sit down and watch Gremlins. That to me is awesome because it will keep the film around for maybe another 30 years or longer.”

With a talented cast and a bold dark comedy tone, it seems like there was a flexible atmosphere on the set of Gremlins. Were there any improvisational moments that made it into the film?

“We did a little improvisation, like in the scene with myself and Phoebe and Judge Reinhold when Gerald asks Kate to go to the apartment. He says, ‘Hey, Kate, you haven’t seen my new apartment.’ And she says, ‘I haven’t seen your old apartment.’ That was in the script, but in a break I said to Judge, ‘Hey man, you should tell her, ‘We’re talking cable.’’ Cable TV was big at the time. It was kind of a new thing. And Joe Dante said, ‘That’s fun. That’s really funny. Judge, say that.’ So when he says, ‘Come on, we’re talking cable,’ that was my ad lib.

And you know how there was a piece of sawdust on my shoulder? It’s very subtle, you know, when Kate reaches over and picks it off my shoulder and I look at her and you can tell that there’s a connection between her and I—she came up with that. She said, ‘I want there to be a little physical, wordless ‘something’ that shows that Billy and I have a connection and Gerald and I do not.’

There was all this sawdust on the floor because it was a bar and she said, ‘What if I just pick that up and put it right here [on Zach’s shoulder] and I talk to Gerald and he’s a dick and then I talk to Billy and he’s a sweetheart, and when I look at him I kind of smile and groom him a little bit, sort of like your future mate would—just a little subliminal thing. So she does it, and I look down and I notice it and I give her a little smile and it’s a moment between us, and that’s all her—at 19. I thought that was pretty clever. It really works.”

Gremlins 2: The New Batch is finally being vindicated as a smart sequel. What is it like to hear the long overdue accolades?

“When it came out, people said, ‘Okay, let’s see Gremlins version two: bigger with the same tone and everything. We threw them a curveball because we did a movie that completely satirizes and makes fun of the first movie, which really, if you think about it, still hasn’t been done since. There hasn’t been a sequel where they’ve said, ‘Now we’re just going to destroy the first movie.’ It was very subversive. And I think people were thinking, ‘What? Huh? This is not what we expect at all.’

But now when people see it, they don’t have the weight of those expectations. They’re just like, ‘You’ve got to see the second one. It rags on the first one.’ And people say, ‘Really?’ And they see it and go, ‘Oh, that’s awesome,’ because now they expect it a little bit more. It’s a really brilliantly constructed movie. Charles S. Haas’ script is great. Joe Dante fills every frame, just crammed it with stuff. I see an occasional new thing every now and then when I see it, too. And I’m in it, so it’s a very, very dense movie. Parts of it are just hilarious. I think it’s really funny.”

What was your involvement in Warner Bros.’ 30th anniversary edition Blu-ray release of Gremlins?

“The only thing that I did for this one was I sat down—there’s a 30-minute documentary on the making of the film—and I gave about an 80-minute interview—the longest interview I’ve ever given. The guy just asked every single thing he could and I just went off and they cut everybody else’s stuff down into a nice 30-minute thing, so apparently it’s pretty good.”

If you’re one of the growing number of people who pop Gremlins in the DVD or Blu-ray player around the holidays, then you might want to add Warner Bros.’ 30th anniversary edition Blu-ray of the film to your Christmas list. Who knows, Santa might stuff your stocking with it. Or maybe he’ll leave you a wrapped box under the tree that emits muffled noises… Whatever presents await you this month, here’s hoping you celebrate the season with family and friends as tightly knit and loving as the Peltzers, a family that stayed strong through financial troubles, busy work schedules, and an army of Gremlins.

  • Derek Anderson
    About the Author - Derek Anderson

    Raised on a steady diet of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Derek has been fascinated with fear since he first saw ForeverWare being used on an episode of Eerie, Indiana.

    When he’s not writing about horror as the Senior News Reporter for Daily Dead, Derek can be found daydreaming about the Santa Carla Boardwalk from The Lost Boys or reading Stephen King and Brian Keene novels.