Surf’s Up! John Philbin Remembers North Shore & Point Break
A few years ago I was thinking of doing the second wave to my book Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969. I conducted a really good interview with actor John Philbin, but then lost steam in the project before abandoning it. Below is an edited version of my interview with him.
“Stay loose, Howlie” was just one of the many slang expressions expertly uttered by actor John Philbin in the role of surfer and board shaper Turtle in North Shore. Though his resume includes over thirty movies including Children of the Corn (1984); The Return of the Living Dead (1985) playing the dorky Chuck complete with the Miami Vice wannabe wardrobe: and Tombstone (1993), the talented Philbin is best known to audiences worldwide for his appearances in the Hollywood surf movies North Shore (1987) and Point Break (1991). North Shore in particular has become part of the lexicon of surfing movies so most fans have it in their film library and have watched it over and over. Almost twenty years later, John Philbin still gets recognized as Turtle. He says, “Sometimes I think, ‘Wow, how could that guy have recognized me when I don’t look anything like that?’ Then I realize—it’s because they just saw the movie the night before!”
An avid surfer since he was a child, the California native gave the sport up for a period of time during the eighties when his love of acting took hold of him. While living in Los Angeles and traveling to locations around the country for film projects there was just no time for the aspiring newcomer to surf. Then in 1987, a script for North Shore passed the desk of his agent who asked John if he knew how to surf. The answer was a resounding yes, but Philbin had to audition seven times to convince director Randal Kleiser that he could morph from a dark-haired actor with a lithe Southern California accent into the blonde, bushy-haired, surf-slang speaking Turtle.
North Shore starred Matt Adler as Rick, the winner of a wave pool surfing contest in his home state of Arizona who uses his prize money to come to Hawaii to surf the big waves of the North Shore. After being ripped off by some of the local surfers, the naive Rick is befriended by surfer and board sander Turtle who feels sorry for the “Barney.” Their friendship turns to jealousy when Rick insinuates himself with Turtle’s employer Chandler, “a soul surfer,” played by Gregory Harrison who takes Rick under his wing and teaches him the fundamentals of surfing. Turtle is the film’s odd man out as Rick is forever leaving him to cozy up with his lovely island girl Kiani or to go surfing with Chandler. Philbin gives an excellent performance and never has surfer-speak sounded so alien and so believable. Turtle is no stereotypical Hollywood dumb wave rider, but more of a sympathetic lost soul who has secretly shaped his own surfboard but lacks the confidence to show anyone.
The movie was a chance of a lifetime for Philbin to act and surf on film and to work with legends Gerry Lopez and Laird Hamilton. John would get the chance to surf on film once again in the hit movie Point Break (1991) starring Keanu Reeves as a rookie FBI agent who is assigned to penetrate the Southern California surfing community to uncover a gang of surfers who have been robbing banks across LA county. Philbin played the intense, distrusting Nathaniel one of the surfing, skydiving, and bank-robbing followers of Patrick Swayze’s mystical Bodhi.
Though Point Break, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, was one of the year’s top moneymakers, it did not do much for Philbin’s career. He took a respite from acting when he began teaching surfing in the late nineties receiving endorsements from some of the top surfers including Laird Hamilton who remarked, “John knows the ocean, and that’s what it is all about.” His clientele really picked up after he was hired by director John Stockwell to evaluate the surfing abilities of the prospective actresses up for the female lead in Blue Crush. Kate Bosworth got the part and trained with John before going to Hawaii for filming.
In 2003 while in Hawaii with his surfing clients, Philbin’s acting hiatus came to an end when he was cast as the drug-dealing heavy in the unsold TV pilot entitled The Break from the team that worked on Blue Crush—producer Brian Grazer and director John Stockwell. This revitalized his acting career and he has gone on to appear as surfers in the short films Riptide (2006), Vida (2011), and Hipster (2012), and is scheduled to play the lead as an alcoholic surfer opposite Joan Jett in Updateable John scheduled for release in 2014.
Sixties Cinema: When did you begin surfing?
John Philbin: My family moved to Palos Verdes when I was a kid and that’s where I started surfing. I first saw surfing in Carmel Valley when I was a little kid. I watched guys riding waves diagonally on long boards. Even though I was just a child, I thought, ‘Wow, they’re riding diagonally and getting a better ride.’ But I didn’t surf for another five years after we had moved.
SC: How did the acting bug grab you?
JP: I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara. I was on the surf team while I was there majoring in Economics. But then I decided that I wanted to become an actor, so I transferred to USC into the Bachelor of Fine Arts program. I thought if I was going to be an actor that I should move to Los Angeles since I had never lived in a city before. I graduated in three years and by that time I had become completely citified—even stopped surfing for about six years because I was working as an actor. I didn’t start surfing again until I got a part in the North Shore.
SC: Do you have any quick words about your cult horror movies Children of the Corn, based on the Stephen King short story, or The Return of the Living Dead?
JP: Children of the Corn was the first movie I ever did. This is how I got my SAG card. I was thrilled to work with Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton. I didn’t know anything and here I was out in the cornfields of Sioux City. It was the eighties so I was wearing my shirt over my shoulder like in Flashdance. My character kills himself. It was fun! I didn’t have a clue to what was going on and I just had this dumb glazed look. It worked out just fine and did really okay at the box office. It spawned a bunch of sequels.
Return of the Living Dead was a really funny spoof on a horror genre film. It was so much fun working on this. I love Zombie movies! It too made a lot of money and it too launched sequels. But the North Shore that is set up like ‘I’ll be back’ and is a cult classic didn’t.
SC: You played varied roles prior to North Shore so what was it about Turtle that made you want to play it so intensely?
JP: I never had read a surf script until my agent sent me a copy of the North Shore screenplay to read. I thought here’s a guy that surfs Pipeline, is totally cool, lives on the North Shore, and I would give anything to be in this picture. Surfing is my favorite thing to do and acting was my other favorite thing to do at that time. Here was an opportunity to work as an actor and go surfing. I just thought this would be a dream come true job.
SC: You weren’t immediately cast. Why do you think they didn’t see you were perfect for the right away?
JP: First off, I don’t have blonde hair. I had been in the Mid-West working as an actor. It was very difficult for me to convince them that I understood Hawaii since I had been going there for a long time and more importantly that I understood surfing. The producers were used to looking at Hollywood images of what surfing is, which is not accurate usually. When they see a real surfer who is trying to explain it to them, they don’t know what the reality of surfing is. I really had to convince them that what I could bring to the role is far beyond what they ever could imagine or come up without using a real surfer. I auditioned for this movie seven times! I kept telling them you have to see me again and that I can play this part. Finally, they offered it to me.
SC: Is it true the part of Turtle was based on a real surfer?
JP: After getting the part I went over to Hawaii a little bit early and was met at the airport by a PA named Brian King who was the person that my character was based on. I found that out about ten minutes after meeting him. This is the guy I was actually playing. He was an artist and a surfer. Brian didn’t get the part because the studio wouldn’t approve him. That happens all the time in Hollywood. He helped them research the movie and they based Turtle on him. Since he didn’t get the role they asked him if he wanted to work on the film. After speaking with Brian for awhile, I said, ‘Dude, will you live with me and just talk to me and be my friend and help me with this part?’ He said sure so instead of staying at the hotel with the cast and SCew, I rented a house at Pipeline near a park on the North Shore in front of the best surf in the world.
SC: In what way did Brian King help you?
JP: Brian King stayed with me and we basically went over that script word for word. He invented so many of the surf jargon used like “Barney,’ ‘Not’ and that long sentence at the end of the movie. We lived together. He fed me lines. He explained things to me. Brian really handed it to me. He was cool, funky, and had a lot of soul. I tried to get as much of that as I could into the character. When I wasn’t with him, I’d be hanging out at the park with other Hawaiians or out surfing. I only had to work three days a week. All the other time I got to surf Pipeline and eat off the trailer. It was really so much fun.
SC: In the DVD interview, you explained that you felt like the odd man out as Matt Adler was either working with Nia Peeples or Gregory Harrison. The character of Turtle is also in a way the odd man out in the movie.
JP: Life kind of paralleled my role in the movie in a sense. I didn’t really realize it at the time but when I look back on it even in my real life I am so similar to the character and the way that he is kind of outside of it. That’s why I think that sometimes those actions come together and you get something that works.
SC: You didn’t get to surf much in North Shore as Turtle was either working as the sanding hut or watching from the beach.
JP: I know he only caught one wave! Bummer!
SC: Since neither surfers Gerry Lopez or Laird Hamilton were professional actors did either of them have any problems playing their roles?
JP: No. Gerry Lopez had acted before in Big Wednesday. He’s a natural and is like a guru. Gerry and Laird are not normal human beings. They are super athletes and beyond that. They transcend a lot of things. Laird could do anything he wanted to do. He played his role well and is so physically imposing. Both of them were perfectly cast in those roles. They were a pleasure to watch and be around. They still are.
SC: You have mentioned in the past that Gregory Harrison intimidated you. Why was that?
JP: He was older. He had a beard. He was playing this Chandler person who was a grumpy and Skanky guy. I was just all stoked to be over there. I don’t know but I just allowed myself to look at him in awe because that’s how my character looked at him. Chandler intimidated Turtle so I allowed myself to be intimidated by Gregory Harrison to try to understand the sentiment behind that type of relationship.
SC: Did you eventually overcome this feeling of awe?
JP: Yes, Gregory Harrison is great! He is a simple, clean, pure man and I just respect him. He has a nice family and a wonderful place up in Oregon where he surfs in really cold water with sharks. He is just a rugged, hearty, macho, hard working guy, from Catalina, who’s really made an incredible life for himself and his family.
SC: How did you get along with the film’s star, Matt Adler?
JP: I love Matt Adler, man, but I felt so sorry for him. He had a hard job on this, he really did. I only had to work three days a week. That guy was in the water all day long working. I had not known Matt Adler previous to making the movie and met him in Hawaii for the first time. We became best friends since he is a great guy. I never laughed so hard in my life while shooting a film. Making a really good friend like that doesn’t happen often working in movies. After doing North Shore, we started traveling around the world. We had a great time surfing Fiji, Bali, Indonesia, and Mexico together.
SC: Why do you think North Shore has developed such a cult following?
JP: I don’t know for sure what makes a movie a cult film but for me it is a series of beautiful accidents. I don’t think a director sets out to make a cult film—they try to make the best movie they can to appeal to the broadest audience possible. That’s mass media entertainment. In my opinion, we got lucky with North Shore and hit a cult target—surfers. Surfing is a cult sport. The percentage of people that really surf is smaller than the percentage of people who have pure green eyes. It is an incredibly tiny portion of the population. This movie reaches those people. Anyone who really gets into the film has to go to Hawaii. It’s a dream-come-true to go and surf the north shore of Oahu.
It’s ironic. Two of my earlier movies Children of the Corn and Return of the Living Dead spawned a bunch of sequels. But North Shore, which was set up like ‘I’ll be back’ and is a cult classic, didn’t.
SC: What attracted you to the part of Nathaniel in Point Break?
JP: I auditioned for the movie when it was at a different studio with Ridley Scott directing. I wanted to play Bodhi. I tested for it but didn’t get it. I certainly wasn’t a big enough star. I think they went with Jeff Bridges, but then the film went into turnaround. That happens all the time with movies.
SC: Was the role of Nathaniel yours still after it changed studios?
JP: At first I wasn’t sure. My agent called and told me they wanted to meet with me. I was almost nervous because I wanted this so badly and I had it but it disappeared. Now I was making a TV-movie called Dillinger in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was covered with tattoos and my skin was pale. My character was part of the gang robbing banks. I decided that I was going to fly into LA and tell Kathryn Bigelow the honest truth. I took with me pictures of myself skydiving and surfing Pipeline. I walked into her office and said, ‘Congratulations, this is a great movie and you’re a wonderful director. I think I was born to play Nathaniel. Here’s a picture of me surfing. Here’s a picture of me jumping out of an airplane. I’m robbing banks right now in a movie I’m making. I would love to be in this film.’ She said, ‘Oh, you’re in it. You don’t even have to read. Thanks for coming in.’ I was so excited because Nathaniel was a really serious gnarly character who’s a heavy and very different from Turtle.
SC: That’s funny you said that because you were quoted a few years ago as saying that you felt like a “glorified extra” in this film. Why?
JP: I know—I really shouldn’t have said that. Point Break was a great opportunity and a really fantastic job. At the time that I got that part I was a spoiled actor. I was doing more principal roles elsewhere, but still happy to get the role of Nathaniel and stoked to work with those people. It was another dream-come-true job, but if you notice I’m wearing a mask most of the time. We’re standing in the background and we’re literally supportive players. I just wanted it to be more. I think I had an ego problem at the time and didn’t understand my true role and how lucky I was to be there.
SC: So overall you were not disappointed with playing Nathaniel?
JP: No! If I look at the work, it was some of my best and I worked hard—six days a week on an insanely rigid diet. We worked out and we surfed constantly. We did a lot of tow in surfing with Brian Keaulana and Terry Ahui. I surfed Pipeline even though it didn’t end up in the movie. I really played the part. My character was dark and angry.
SC: What was the motivation behind the role of Nathaniel? He was not Turtle.
JP: No, he wasn’t. In the original script he was resentful that Johnny Dallas was accepted into our group. He was against it from the beginning. He was very suspicious, bitter and angry and I think that bled into my personality at the time. I just became really hard and just a tough asshole—just like my character. That happens with acting. It’s just the nature of the beast. If someone interviewed me about this as I was doing it I would have been arrogant and cocky and probably would have given some kind of answer other than ‘this is just so much fun.’
SC: Your character’s distrust of Johnny Utah does not come off as forcefully as you described above. Were scenes cut from the final print?
JP: They cut the scenes from the original screenplay! There were scenes with Nathaniel having conversations with Bodhi telling him not to trust Utah. In one scene Nathaniel actually commits suicide while skydiving as protest for the inclusion of this guy who I believe is going to destroy everything we’ve worked for. I think I just retained all this for the script that was actually shot.
The director came up to us and said, ‘Hey, there are too many actors in this movie. We have to focus on three people.’ They cut lines for Bill Paxton, Sam Elliot, and Stephen Lang into nothing. They were supporting players and they weren’t used to that. You only get a tip of the iceberg of what they prepared for. As actors they are attached to that material and it does serve the piece. I think I’ve learned that in time. But a lot of actors—and I was myself—are egotistical and self-important. You think your role and your lines are the most important thing in the film. You take offense when someone orders you to ‘Don’t say anything and go sit down and we’ll call you when we want you to run by.’ The truth be told that you are lucky to get the chance to run by.
SC: Was the cast fun to work with?
JP: I love Keanu Reeves—he’s great. I’d work out everyday at the gym with him. James LeGros was my buddy and we got to hang out and surf. I got to skydive. It was awesome!
It was fantastic to work with Patrick Swayze who was a workhorse. It was interesting what happened to him on this movie. Careers go in cycles and he had been a movie star with Dirty Dancing, but his films after that did not do so well. Point Break was sort of a comeback for him. Six months after principal photography wrapped on Point Break, Ghost was released with him and Demi Moore. That made Patrick a hot movie star again. Suddenly, they have Point Break in the can with Patrick Swayze who was in a down cycle playing a weird character and now he is a big movie star again. They had to re-shoot scenes and I think his salary went up about ten times. He was getting around $60,000 to $80,000 a day.
SC: Did they add new scenes for Patrick Swayze because his celebrity factor had risen due to Ghost?
JP: No, there were no new scenes added. They didn’t have time to completely shoot some of the fight scenes because Patrick was committed to do a film in India [City of Joy] and Keanu was doing that film with River Phoenix [My Own Private Idaho]. When we came back, Keanu and I had different hair. Re-shoots happen often on films.
SC: What was wild man Gary Busey like to work with?
JP: Gary Busey was around all of the time. He was not as wild as his reputation leads one to believe. He was actually very professional and always on time. He had been in a bad motorcycle accident and he was healing from that. A guru accompanied him and he was focused on being spiritual and meditating to get healthy again. Gary was just grateful to be alive and that is a good time to get an actor. Grateful—that’s when you want’em!
SC: Did you do you own surfing stunts in this?
JP: Yes. I didn’t need a surfing double—and haven’t needed a surfing double yet. But you never know.
SC: Did Kathryn Bigelow have much surfing knowledge?
JP: By the end of if she did. She knew what she liked. Kathryn is a real visual director and great with action. She did a lot of research and we all did a lot of rehearsing. She did such a good job with the action in this movie and the same with the chases.
SC: Yes, those skydiving scenes were intense. Did you actually learn to skydive?
JP: We really did go skydiving a couple of times. Keanu, James Le Gros, and I would go up to Patrick’s place on the weekends and go skydiving. Patrick had hundreds of jumps under his belt, but then the producer found out what we were doing. They told us to cease and desist. It was illegal for us to go up in a private plane and jump because they are not insured. Actors are not allowed to take these kind of risks during filming because if we got hurt it could delay or close down production.
But Patrick being a movie star and a fearless guy just kept jumping. He got so good by the end of the film they took a second unit camera SCew up there and filmed him actually doing those stunts and jumping out of the plane—whereas the rest of us all had doubles. Even so I think those skydiving scenes look fantastic and are so great!
SC: In your opinion which movie captured the surfers’ world best, North Shore or Point Break?
JP: North Shore, without a doubt! Point Break is a buddy-cop movie with a villain who is the leader of this drug dealing, bank robbing gang who happen to surf. But you don’t really get into the real surfing lifestyle. We were adrenaline junkies and criminals. We’re bank robbers, man! They just put this cops and robbers story in a surfing milieu and got some beautiful visuals out of it. North Shore is about surfing. It’s a hero’s journey through a sports field and that sport is surfing. You really learn a lot about it.
SC: Moving inland, any memories of the western Tombstone?
JP: I played one of the cowboys—talk about a gloried extra! By that time I was so glad to be there. We worked on that for three months in Tucson, Arizona. That was the best cast I ever worked with in my life. I just went around and got all the actors’ autographs on a call sheet—Bill Paxton, Sam Elliott, Val Kilmer, Kurt Russell, Robert Patrick Burke, Stephen Lang, Jason Priestley, John Corbin. I was hanging out with these guys all day long. We were riding horses and shooting guns in about 115 degrees feeling wooly. They were great! If we didn’t have to work we’d play golf. They fired the director [Kevin Jarre], we all took a break. They replaced him [with George P. Cosmatos] and we came back to work. It was making a piece of history and it was really, really fun.
SC: Why did you stop acting in the late nineties?
JP: I couldn’t get the jobs I wanted, which frustrated me. I took too many vacations to get away—run away—from Hollywood. But that only hurt my career.
SC: You recently started acting again with a vengeance and seem to have the market cornered on older surfers. Is surfing on film making a comeback?
JP: I don’t know. It comes in cycles and it comes in waves. Blue Crush kind of hit the peak of this thing. When I taught Kate Bosworth how to surf out in Malibu it was just her and me out in the water. I never saw another surf instructor. Today there had to be close to one hundred kids in the water and six surf instructors in the same spot where I taught Kate. It’s a boom like I have never seen.
John Philbin is still teaching the tricks of catching a wave to all types of surfer wannabes at Malibu and he has faith that one day one of Brian Glazer’s surfing projects will make it as a TV series. If it does, John proclaims, “I intend to be a living participant!”