It's impossible to talk to or about Matt Winston without ever mentioning his father, the master of special effects Stan Winston. However, Matt has pursued a very successful career in the film industry himself, although that's often unfairly overshadowed by people who talk about him as if he were simply another creature created by Stan, just like Godzilla, the Terminator, or Edward Scissorhands. So here's an interview with, yes, the son of Stan Winston, but also just a talented actor and screenwriter named Matt, who will be a guest speaker at THU 2016.
Would you say you had an average childhood growing up?
My sister Debbie and I grew up with a good mix of extraordinary and "normal" childhood experiences. Although Stan supported the family by creating magic and playing make-believe, he and my mom Karen always kept us grounded in reality. Making movies was Dad's job, but what mattered most to them was spending time with family, friends and loved ones.
What were the perks of being the son of Stan Winston as a child?
One of the best perks of growing up with Stan Winston as a father is that I had a backstage pass to Hollywood history in the making. From the Terminator films, Aliens, Predator, the Jurassic Park franchise, and so many other groundbreaking films, Dad invited me to participate and watch it all happen. But by far, the most wonderful thing about having Stan as a father is the access it gave us to the world's most brilliant artists and mechanical wizards. We were constantly surrounded by creative geniuses, and being around them is something that still inspires and thrills me to this day.
And the downsides?
The only downside to growing up Winston was the expectation by my young peers that I show up in the coolest costume every Halloween. Dad felt this pressure too. When I was 5, he made me up as one of the apes from the Planet of the Apes, using appliances made for its original star, Roddy McDowall. When I was 9, he transformed me into a 100-year old gnome, complete with custom facial prosthetics, a costume sewn by my mom, and a hand-tied wig and beard. Finally, by the time I turned 12, neither Dad or I could stand the pressure, and I stopped dressing up for the holiday after that – which was okay with me because every day was Halloween at Dad's office.
What are they today in the professional world?
When I graduated from Yale University to pursue my own career, having Stan Winston as my Dad was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many people in the entertainment industry knew him on a personal level, had worked with him, or were aware of him and were big fans of the characters that came out of his shop, so that gave me a conversation starter in many professional situations. On the other hand, I had to overcome the perception of just being "Stan's kid," born into the entertainment industry, but unproven on his own merits. I remember Dad telling me that being his son would open a lot of doors for me, but once I was in the room, I'd have to prove myself to get the job. He was right.
How do you/did you cope with the pressure to live up to expectations?
My mom and dad always had high expectations for my sister and me, but they never demanded perfection, just that we try our best in anything we pursued. There were two mantras around our house: 1) "Be creative every day," and 2) "Do what you love and success will come." We both took those philosophies to heart, and we've focused more on finding pleasure in the creative process and living in the moment, rather than being paralyzed by the fear of failing to live up to someone's expectations. For as many blockbuster successes in Dad's career, he worked on an equal number of projects that he wasn't as satisfied with, but those temporary disappointments never shook him up. He knew that in life and art, the result is rarely what you envisioned it would be, so you have to find your joy in the journey. I try and do the same.
When did you decide to focus on acting and screenwriting rather than Special Effects? What was it that triggered your interest in these fields?
Although I was always (and still am) Dad's biggest fan and loved my time working at Stan Winston Studio, I never aspired to a career in makeup effects. My childhood dream was to become an actor/writer. I remember being on movie sets with Dad and thinking that while the rest of the crew were working their butts off, the actors were having all the fun, and the writers got to tell them what to say. Most people don't know this, but acting and storytelling were Dad's first passions, too. That's why he came out to Hollywood. But when things didn't happen for him right away, and with a young family to support, he began to pursue his other passion, makeup effects. He would eventually return to writing and producing later in life, but he never got to fulfill his acting dreams. Sometimes I wonder if I chose acting to fulfill that dream for him, but that's a question best left to a psychiatrist. :)
What was the role you most enjoyed playing?
I learned from Stan to find a way to enjoy every job, and to feel thankful for getting paid to play. But there are a few acting roles that stand out for me: playing the host of the "Little Miss Sunshine" pageant was hilarious fun; working with Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt" was a dream come true; and portraying the time-traveling Crewman Daniels on all four seasons of "Star Trek: Enterprise" was a sci-fi blast. But by far my most enjoyable acting job was as a regular cast member on HBO's short-lived "John From Cincinnati." The show was almost "too original" and it only lasted a season, but I got the opportunity to work with the brilliant David Milch, arguably the greatest TV writer in history, and a spectacular cast of actors. My character was Barry Cunningham, a gay, suicidal, epileptic, lottery-winner who sees ghosts. Tough to top a role like that!
What is the project are you most proud of?
While the vast majority of my career in Hollywood has been as an actor, I'm probably most proud of having co-written the feature film, "Thanks for Sharing," which starred Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Alecia Moore (aka Pink). To watch talented actors and a dedicated film crew bring your story to life is beyond magical.
What was your inspiration for opening the Stan Winston School of Characters Arts?
When Stan passed away in 2008, we lost our main man. He was our family leader and our pied piper. We were devastated. After about a year and half of grieving, we decided to get pro-active and find a way to bring his creative spirit into our daily lives. We mulled over what to do for quite a while and finally settled on education. Dad had always dreamed of one-day traveling the world to lecture at art schools and universities and inspire the next generation of character creators. But his illness took him before he had a chance to do it. Founding a school in his name seemed like the best way for us to honor him and we know he would love it.
Do you involve your children with any of the creative work you do?
My kids are like I was growing up. They're very interested in what I'm doing and will occasionally come and help out. But they have their own dreams. My son Rowan is an animal and nature lover, and I think he'll wind up pursuing a career that keeps him outdoors. My daughter Georgia is a singer/actress with dreams of performing on Broadway one day. My job is to encourage them to follow their hearts, just like Stan did with me.
What are your plans for the future?
As much as I've enjoyed acting and writing, Stan Winston School has become my primary focus over the last seven years, and I'm more creatively fulfilled than I've ever been before. It's the first time I've been involved with something that's having a daily impact on artists around the world. The entire family has found a way to pay forward the creative inspiration we got from Stan, and it feels great.