If you know anything about Barry Bostwick, you probably know about his underwear. In the mid-’70s, Bostwick starred in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as Brad Majors, a young man who wanders into a dilapidated mansion, square and confused, and discovers “transvestites” and fishnets. In the shorthand of “Rocky Horror” fans, Brad is underwear. Over the course of the film, he slowly loses everything — his girl, his rigid moral code, his polyester sweater — everything but his briefs. Bostwick began signing pairs a few years after the film’s release, and on Saturday, Sept. 21, he’ll be bringing his sharpie to Arkansas for Spa-Con.
I recently found an interview you gave about George Washington’s teeth for a part you were playing in a miniseries. I’m sure you didn’t have to do that kind of research when you were getting ready to play Brad in the “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but I’m wondering if you did anything else to prepare.
I just sort of channeled my cousin’s husband. He was tall, and he was an accountant, and he was very straight-laced, a real sort of ’50s man’s man, you know? Who would fight for his gal, but very conservative, very Republican. That’s sort of who I was thinking of when I was playing Brad, and that’s where the character starts. Then he ends up being incredibly confused at the end.
What kind of instructions did you get for playing Brad?
The instructions I got were the instructions everybody got, and that was to keep a sense of heightened reality grounded in a normalcy, whereby these people are real people who have entered into an extraordinary world. They told us not to play it like a comic book, but to play the characters genuinely and grounded, which is one of the problems with subsequent products. The casts have a tendency to get very cartoony. They play the obvious character hooks, and I think what we tried to do is not make fun of it, but just to be it.
I did the original company of “Grease” on Broadway in 1971, and that same thing held true. I think we tried to be as honest and as real in those characters when we did them. I get it, it’s theatrical, but I think future casts went way too far with the eccentricities of those characters, and made them very cartoony, and I always tell people if they’re going to do these kinds of shows, they should just go back to the heart of the character and play them very real and very sincere, and let the circumstances be what’s funny about it or interesting about it. But make sure to not overplay it.
Is that the thing that pulls you into stories, seeing the thing you recognize as real life?
Yeah, that’s why I’m not a big fan of superhero movies, because I can’t relate to a superhero. I relate more to the superhero’s brother or cousin, or someone that may be confused by that whole world. I think I’m a bit more grounded in my taste and I think I see through it. Because I make movies for a living, I see through the manipulation of the audience. And that doesn’t interest me. It just doesn’t interest me.
Do you think that’s the reason people really connect with “Rocky Horror,” that there’s a real person at the bottom of it?
Yeah, I think so. I like to think that there’s a little bit of Brad inside all of us. We all had to lose our innocence if we ever had any. He just loses his in more of a bizarre way.
It’s so interesting that you talk about “Rocky” as a story about losing something, because I’ve always thought about it from the viewpoint of the audience. When you’re watching it, you’re seeing all these boundaries broken and you’re awakening to new things. It’s more about discovery.
That’s right. It’s sex, drugs and rock and roll. I don’t think anybody when we were doing it thought it was going to be some sort of social message. It was just a fun fairytale told from the genius mind of Richard O’Brien, who was — in a way — living his life in that kind of a world. He lived in a world of cartoons and in a world of horror movies and in a world of kitsch and sexual ambiguity. I think he was able to translate that into something incredibly entertaining, and then the audience over the years have seen it as a way to gnaw their way into their own needs, whether it’s just to come out of their shell or explore who or what they are socially or sexually. I think it just became a party, and I’m happy to have come to it.
Were you in that party before you started filming, or were you the square on-set?
I’ve always been somewhat conservative, but I came from the New York stage where I was playing all different sorts of young guys, and they weren’t all Brad Majors. I mean Danny Zuko in “Grease” is not that. But then again, Danny Zuko also had a growing up period. I had a tendency to play people who were on the cusp of maturity, whether it’s finding a love or finding a passion for something in their life that spurs them forward into adulthood. I think I was playing a character, and if anyone saw me as Brad, as the stick-in-the-mud guy, it was the people there who we met very briefly before we started shooting because we didn’t really have a chance to socialize and get to know them, so all they saw from me was this character I was bringing because that was basically what I was there. We didn’t party, and we didn’t go out, so they didn’t see another side of me.
You were talking just now about “Rocky Horror” as a coming of age story. I think it’s true for the audience, too. You can grow up watching it, and I was wondering if there’s a character or a scene that you connect with in that way.
Well, I always wanted to play Frankenfurter. But I think everybody does because he’s such a combination of masculinity and surety, meanness. He was compassionless. He was selfish. He was all about him. Basically, he was Donald Trump. It was always, “I’m the greatest, look at me.”
What made you want to play a character like that?
Just to explore those sides of me that I don’t normally show. I think that’s why fans dress up like him or do the shadow cast like him. It’s all about playing something that they see, but it’s not part of who they are intrinsically. It’s like high school. When I was in theater in high school, the girls always wanted to play hookers. The young innocent girls always loved playing hookers. It’s like the last scene in “Grease” where Sandy comes out in that black leather outfit and sort of sashays around. You know that’s not the real her. That’s her just acting out what she thinks everyone around her wants to be. I think we have all those characters in us, and we just explore them throughout our lives, singularly, for short periods of time. I would have liked to spend more time in high heels.
Do you think you still carry a little bit of Brad with you?
Everything I do, there’s a little bit of Brad in it. Whether I’m doing a Lifetime movie or a Hallmark movie or a stage thing, you know I can’t get away from it. It’s my voice, my height, a strength and vulnerability that I have. I think we all committed ourselves to those characters, and by doing that you can’t get that far away from who you really are.
You shot “Rocky” over 40 years ago. Has the film changed at all for you since then?
I find new things in the film every time I see it because I think it’s a brilliant piece of work. I think that all of the artists who put it together were at the top of their game. Whether it’s the sort of kitschy background, where I’ll see something on a chair or a desk or something in the dinner scene that I hadn’t noticed before. Visually, it’s just so interesting and rich, and I think that’s one of the reasons — not only because of the themes — that it lasted so long. It has a bright texture to it.
I think the density you were just mentioning is part of what makes “Rocky” so amazing. The first time you watch it, you get maybe 30 percent of the film.
That’s right. The people who see it for the first time and don’t get it, they either have to come back and explore it again, or they walk away. I’ve met people who say, “I just don’t get it. It wasn’t my world.” Or they felt threatened by it and don’t want to talk about it.
It’s such a one-off. You can’t redo it. The scenes of it are so dark, on many levels. When they did it on Fox, they had to clean it up so much. They tried so hard to bring that world to life, and they just couldn’t do it, because they were making it for general audiences. They had to sort of soft pedal so much of what I think is interesting about the piece, whether it is the cannibalism or the murder or the S&M, the dark side of humanity. They couldn’t really put their fingers on that because it was for a general audience.
Earlier you were talking about how revivals of “Grease” get sanitized. Do you think people have less tolerance for the things that make these older shows weird?
I think we’ve sort of wearied ourselves out. I think the world is such a dangerous place now and so anxious-making. I’m not quite sure where the escape valve is. I don’t know where the pause button is. How do you stimulate an audience who are overstimulated as it is? There is so much product on the air, how do you surprise them with anything? It’s got to be something so outrageous. … I think people are falling back into their comfort zones and escaping, in a way, into these Hallmark movies and Lifetime movies and some of the late-night soap-opera-y stuff. You know, “Don’t challenge me with the real-life aspects of my life.”
I know you have to go in a moment, so I’m going to jump to my final question. You’re coming to Arkansas for a screening of “Rocky Horror” at Spa-Con. What words of wisdom would you give to people seeing it for the first time?
I would say come with an open mind. Don’t dream about what it’s going to be. Just be there.