IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: John Schneider Talks 'October Baby,' 'Smallville' and 'The Dukes of Hazzard'

Tuesday, 11 September 2012 15:58 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: John Schneider Talks 'October Baby,' 'Smallville' and 'The Dukes of Hazzard'

One of the perks of my job is that every so often I have the opportunity to speak with one of my childhood heroes such as Jeremy "Boba Fett" Bulloch (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), Adam West (Batman) or Kermit the Frog (The Muppets). So you can imagine my delight when I recently had a chance to talk with the great John Schneider.

Schneider first gained attention for his legendary role as Bo Duke on the classic television series The Dukes of Hazzard. He would later go on to play another iconic role on television when he was cast as Jonathan Kent, the adoptive father of the boy who-would-be Superman, on the long-running series Smallville. Since then, the actor has appeared on several popular TV series such as Nip/Tuck, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Leverage, Desperate Housewives, and most recently Glee. But now Schneider can once again be seen playing an adoptive father in the new movie October Baby, which will be available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning September 11th.

October Baby was written and directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin and tells the story of Hannah (newcomer Rachel Hendrix), a college freshman who’s world is rocked when she discovers that she is the adopted survivor of an attempted abortion. When Hannah sets out on a road-trip to find her birth mother, it’s up to her adoptive father Jacob (Schneider) to try and protect her from being rejected for a second time. In addition to strong performances from Schneider and Hendrix, the film also features actress Jasmine Guy (Harlem Nights) in a very powerful role.

As I previously mentioned, I recently had the thrill of a life-time speaking with John Schneider about his work on October Baby, as well as Smallville and The Dukes of Hazzard. The iconic actor discussed his new movie, its difficult subject matter, what attracted him to the project, the abortion debate, Rachel Hendrix’s performance, his faith, his friendship with legendary musician Johnny Cash, the legacy of Jonathan Kent, his advice to Kevin Costner (Man of Steel), his disappointment over The Dukes of Hazzard movie, and owning his own General Lee.

Here is what the legendary TV actor had to say:

IAR: It’s a great pleasure to speak with you Mr. Schneider. I’ve been a big fan of your work for many years.

John Schneider: Well thank you very much. I appreciate that.

I love Smallville and The Dukes of Hazzard and in fact, Bo Duke was always my favorite Duke.

Schneider: Mine too. (Laughs) But the older I get the more I love Uncle Jessie.

To begin with, October Baby deals with some heavy themes such as forgiveness, the abortion issue, adoption, and Christianity, just to name a few. As a human being and also as an actor, which of those themes really spoke to you when you first read the script and made you want to be a part of this project?

Schneider: The biggest for me is the adoption issue. It’s a choice. I think we’re in such a black and white society, people want to say you’re either pro-choice or pro-life, but what about pro-adoption? So when I read that part of the script particularly because when my wife was sixteen she was pregnant and she had the opportunity to have an abortion, or have the child and keep it, or have the child and give it up for adoption. She had the child, she gave it up for adoption, and just this last January that child gave us our first grandbaby. So there are long term repercussions, good and bad through all of our choices whether they are good or bad choices. When I read it I thought it was a wonderful story giving people the other choice, which is to adopt or give your child up for adoption.

Do you find that a lot at times your own personal history helps inform you when you are choosing film and TV projects to be a part of?

Schneider: Good choice of words: inform. Yes, because your experiences make you what you are and they change. As an actor you don’t really have to look in your soul to try to find something to play off of. There’s an old school of actor thought that says, “Find a time when your dog was hit by a car.” You don’t have to do that. It’s in there. It’s in your soul. If the script is good and the people you’re working with are on their game, then all of those layers will leap out at you especially in this digital world we live in. They’ll leap out of you and be very obvious on the screen. That’s a year’s worth of acting for you right there. I love what they used to say, “Don’t act; just be!” There you go. There’s another year. But it’s easier said than done. 

Obviously we’re in the midst of a political season right now and the abortion issue inevitably always seems to get brought up. I think the film shows a different side of the issue that we don’t always hear about and now that the movie is going to be on home media, do you think it’ll help shine a light on this issue and the overall debate?

I hope so. I hope it helps to educate people on both sides of the issue. It’s an issue that people have been divided on forever, honestly until they have to deal with it in their own household and then it becomes a different story. It’s like a car accident. It’s always something that happens to somebody else. My hope is that October Baby will educate people. The movie never says, “Hey this is right, and this is wrong.” The movie just says, “Hey, have you ever just considered the following?” So my hope is that October Baby will cause people like me, like you, like anybody, to consider that issue from a perspective that they perhaps hadn’t considered before. Then, we live in a free country so you’re free to make up your mind from that point forward. But it’s silly to make up your mind without being as fully educated as you can on the subject.

The film’s director, Jon Erwin, was recently discussing the differences between film critics and the average moviegoer and was quoted as saying, “There’s a gap in values. There’s a large group of people who don’t see their values reflected in most movies.” What do you think about that comment and do you agree with that statement?

Schneider: I think their starting to see their values reflected more in film because, and I don’t want to say that it’s easier to make a movie now, but it’s more possible for a passionate person with a passionate idea to make a film these days than it ever has been before. So because of that, more people who are of the socio-economic background and the educational background that used to be considered part of the audience are making films today. So naturally if the audience demographic is making films, then they’re going to make films that are more palatable and speak more to their own demographic and to their own history. A committee does not make those types of movies and stockholders do not make them. They’re made by people who say, “Hey, I’ve got to tell this story because it’s burning a whole in my gut and Charlie has a camera, Billy has some lights and I’ve got a bar, so let’s put on a musical.” Occasionally, you’ll get movies like October Baby out of that. Jon (Erwin) and Andrew (Erwin) did a phenomenal job from beginning to end with this film. It’s beautifully shot, it’s beautifully edited, and the music is fantastic. It’s a wonderful piece of cinema made by people who ten years ago never could have made a movie. 

First time actress Rachel Hendrick gives a very impressive performance in the film as your daughter, what was your experience like acting opposite her?

Schneider: It was great. It was like working with somebody who is completely natural, no apparent process, and no bad habits. No habits at all. It was like working with a completely fresh, uninhibited, beautiful human being, which usually takes years of corruption to achieve. (Laughs) Meryl Streep could not have given the performance that Rachel gave. 

During the end credits of the movie, actress Shari Rigby bravely shares her own personal story of abortion and it is shockingly similar to the character she portrays in October Baby. Did the directors know Rigby’s personal history before they cast her in the film?

Schneider: No, they did not know her story at all. They did not know my story at all. It’s quite possible, and not to go all Christian on you, but it’s quite possible that God might have wanted this film to be made. There are just too many things that get in the way that can make movies bad. October Baby … I mean the first five minutes of it look like $800,000 was spent. The whole movie cost less than the coffee budget on Snow White and the Huntsman.       

Since you just brought it up, and it is a theme of this film, I understand that the way you became a devote Christian involved your friendship with Johnny and June Carter Cash, is that correct?

Schneider: Yeah, I lived with John and June for about a year and some change, way back when. I was what you would consider a Christian before that, but the great thing about living with them was that Johnny exemplified a Christian-man who was still a MAN! He was a guy with scars, issues, problems and integrity but who happened to believe in Jesus. So it was a wonderful example because most of the examples I’ve seen prior to that kind of indicated that you had to check your masculinity at the door. Not so with Johnny Cash! Hopefully not so with anybody I’ve played since. I tried to bring some of him, in my own personal understanding of Johnny Cash and my friendship with Johnny, to who Jonathan Kent was (on Smallville). I wanted him to be strong, and full of integrity. If he’s going to make a mistake it’s going to be a big one because he thinks it’s the right thing to do and he’s going to be the first person to admit he was wrong. To me that is who we are supposed to be as parents and that’s what we’re supposed to be as children of God. That’s what I think God is to us. God is full of integrity and big. All I can say is God is Johnny Cash! In part of my mind God is Johnny Cash and Heaven is a better place for having Johnny in it.  

Well, I’m glad you brought up Smallville because I wanted to ask you about playing Jonathan Kent. As you know, the Kents were always depicted in the comics and in films prior to Smallville as Grandparent-types, and you and actress Annette O’Toole really brought a much-needed youthfulness to the characters that had not been displayed before, which is now reflected in the comics. I’m sure you are also aware that director Zack Snyder has cast Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent, respectively, in his upcoming Superman movie: Man of Steel. As a fan, I have to imagine that their casting is a reflection on the work you and Ms. O’Toole did on Smallville. So I’m curious how you feel about having such a large impact on an iconic character that has been around for the better part of seventy years, and also, do you have any advice for Mr. Costner now that he is stepping into your shoes?

Schneider: Yeah, Kevin’s going to call me and ask me all about that. (Laughs) I think Kevin’s going to be great. Honestly I wish it were me. I really do. I wish it were me because I loved playing Jonathan Kent so much. It’s a tremendous honor because I was a Superman fan of the television show when I was a kid and to be able to be the human being that handed Clark Kent, not only the suit and the cape, but his blessing so the boy could become Superman, in all of Comicdom what other place of honor could there be than that? So I’m humbled by it. And my advice for Kevin, you know the thing that Jonathan Kent did more than maybe even Michael Landon (Little House on the Prairie) was hug his child. Hug your child a lot! My favorite scenes from Smallville are where Jonathan is hugging Clark. It’s an important thing. I think in the 10th Season when I first came back, Jonathon hugged him and gave him a kiss on the head, which is what loving parents do. So hopefully there’s a little bit of that in the new movie and it’s not just, “You can do this, son.” I didn’t read the Man of Steel, but I’m hoping there is some opportunity for the transference of affection. Superman is a lot of things, but one of the biggest things he is, is compassionate and I think what Smallville says is that he got that from his parents. 

I mentioned earlier that in addition to being a big Smallville fan I also love The Dukes of Hazzard and I have to say that I was slightly disappointed by the recent movie version and the direction that they took with it …

Schneider: Only slightly?

Well, I was trying to be kind.

Schneider: Don’t be!

Then honestly, I was very disappointed in the film and I can tell you were too. Do you think that there’s life left in that franchise? Do you think its possible that they could make a better movie, or a revamp of the TV series that is closer to the spirit of the original?

Schneider: Oh sure! I mean they’ve done it with Dallas and that’s apparently doing okay. So yeah, there’s still life in it. Dukes is still a huge show on CMT. There are still seven-year olds who love to watch the Dukes and ride their bicycles around the house just like in ‘79. I think there’s life left in it, but I don’t know that the owners of the property realize that. I would think that had they realized that they couldn’t have made such an abysmal error when they made the movie. They went so far off track with regard to the relationships and again here’s that word, “integrity” of the characters. Uncle Jesse was an amazing man of integrity and playing him as a pot smoking old letch who grabs women’s butts and throws Molotov cocktails at the police was just a gross injustice as far as I’m concerned.   

Finally, is it true that until recently you actually owned a General Lee?

Oh yeah! I used to make them and then rent the cars back to Warner Bros. when we did the reunion movies. I’ve always loved cars. 

Well Mr. Schneider, I don't want to take up any more of your time. You've been very gracious with me and it's been a real honor to speak with you.

Schneider: You're a good man and I appreciate your knowledge. It's really terrific!

Thank you sir. 

Schneider: Thank you my friend!

October Baby will be available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning September 11th.

To watch John Schneider in a scene from October Baby, please click on the video player below.

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