Actor/Director Jon Abrahams
Jon Abrahams is a New York born and bred actor and director whose career spans four decades. A featured player in modern classics including 'Kids', 'Scary Movie', and 'Meet the Parents', Abrahams has now stepped behind the camera. His second directorial effort, 'Clover', is out April 3. Cell Vision co-founder Prince Terrence spoke to Abrahams about growing up in NYC, his experiences as an actor, and his hands-on approach to filmmaking.
Jon Abrahams is “that guy” from all the movies that you see while flipping through cable TV channels on a chill Sunday afternoon. Abrahams resides in Los Angeles, but in his heart, he still remains a New Yorker. His persistence and grind are the result of growing up in a gritty 1990s version of New York that the city’s current transplanted residents would be terrified of.
Abrahams’ latest movie is Clover. Like so many upcoming films, Clover had its theatrical release stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the show must go on, as they say, and audiences will instead be able to catch the film when it his streaming platforms on April 3. Abrahams’ handled directing duties on the dark comedy crime film, featuring Mark Webber, Ron Perlman, Chazz Palminteri, Erika Christensen, Tichina Arnold, and Nicole Elizabeth Berger in the title role. The soundtrack was curated by Leon Michels of El Michel’s affair and will be released by Diplo’s Mad Decent record label.
The story of Jon Abrahams is inspiring—He embodies the DIY ethic. DIY comes in many forms. For me, I grew up in the hardcore and punk music scene. DIY meant booking your own shows, recording your own demos and screen printing your own t-shirts in your parents’ basement. Abrahams come from a different world—He grew up as a club kid in downtown Manhattan—but brings a similar approach to his work. Abrahams not only directed Clover, but was heavily involved in other aspects of the production: including casting, music direction, set design, and more. This way of working started out of necessity while working on his directorial debut All At Once, but has since become the protocol for all of his projects. Not everyone is equipped to invite all of these responsibilities onto themselves, but for Abrahams it is a necessary part of his creative process and a reflection of the passion he brings to his art. He is in the driver's seat, navigating the journey from the moment of inception until the closing credits.
I spoke on the phone with Jon Abrahams in early February. We talked about his first, life altering role in the classic, twisted, coming of age film KIDS, starring in the late 90s early aughts horror/comedy films Scary Movie, House of Wax and The Faculty, his role as Robert De Niro's mischievous son, Denny Byrnes in the classic Meet The Parents, and of course his latest movie, Clover.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CELL VISION: What are you up to right now?
JON ABRAHAMS: I’m in post for a new movie called Exploited that we shot in Kentucky. That'll be finished in about a month.
CELL VISION: Wow, you’re really popping them out.
JON ABRAHAMS: You know what? It's kind of crazy, man. It definitely feels that way, but I'm such a maniac that I'm already wondering when the next job is going to be. So, I’m finishing that up, working on music for it right now and then dealing with a whole bunch of stuff for my second movie, Clover which comes out April 3.
CELL VISION: What does the music aspect entail?
JON ABRAHAMS: Well, Mad Decent is going to release the soundtrack, which is pretty cool. Do you know El Michel's Affair? Leon Michels?
CELL VISION: Yes I’m familiar, big fan of his work. I play it when I DJ at Soho House.
JON ABRAHAMS: Yeah so Leon did the whole score for Clover. I would say about 75 percent of the source cue music in Clover is music licensed from Big Crown, which is his label. So like Lee Fields & The Expressions and it's all that kind of music—new soul, R&B.
CELL VISION: That music occupies this space where you can’t really tell what era it’s from. It sounds old and vintage but then in context you realize it’s actually new.
JON ABRAHAMS: Yeah exactly, and although Clover has cell phones in it, I tried to make it feel like it could be a movie from the ‘70s, ‘80s, the ‘90s or the aughts. You just don't really know where it fits in in time. That's why I like that music and that's what we did with the soundtrack, we wanted to make it feel like it's a lost classic. Like if you found it in the street you'd be like “Whoa I’ve never heard of this movie.”
CELL VISION: Since we're on the topic of music, you’re a DJ as well; is that why you’re so involved with the music in your films?
JON ABRAHAMS: Definitely. On my first film All At Once it was out of necessity, but it's also a control thing for me and because I am a DJ I have a good ear for that. When I was the DJ on the Ellen DeGeneres show that was really more of a music supervision job. So yeah for sure I'm very hands on. I try to be at as many of the sessions as I can be and I'm totally in on the process the whole way through.
CELL VISION: Wait, you were the DJ on the Ellen DeGeneres show?
JON ABRAHAMS: Yeah I was her DJ for the 2006/2007 season. That was a cool gig and like I said it was really more of a music supervision gig than anything. We only taped the show for an hour a day, but I had to be in at 9am and I didn’t usually get to leave until 7pm. A lot of it was about figuring out what music we were playing, and I would have to go clear it with a lawyer before we shot, all that kind of stuff.
CELL VISION: A lot of things that we cover in Cell Vision are these sort of DIY ‘create your own world’ type of subjects similar to what you were saying about having absolute control over your own works of art. You're directing the films, you’re acting in them, you're involved in the music, just heavily involved in the whole process. I feel as artists that we wear lots of hats, but it’s often difficult to put all of those skills to task in a way that is conducive to creating a full body of work.
JON ABRAHAMS: People ask me a lot why I wanted to go into directing, or if I like directing more than acting—I’ve never been a singularly focused artist. Acting is just as important to me as music, painting is as important to me as all the other arts. Directing indie films I can incorporate all of the facets of the arts that I’m interested in: music, visual art, art direction, set design, production design. Film incorporates everything. and you're exactly right, this came after years of being like “Ah, I want to put all of these things to use somehow.”
People ask me a lot why I wanted to go into directing, or if I like directing more than acting—I’ve never been a singularly focused artist. Acting is just as important to me as music, painting is as important to me as all the other arts. Directing indie films I can incorporate all of the facets of the arts that I’m interested in: music, visual art, art direction, set design, production design.
CELL VISION: So, I just want to go back to how you got your start. You’re a born and bred New Yorker is that correct?
JON ABRAHAMS: Yeah, born and raised. Born in Tribeca, back when Tribeca was just desolate warehouses with artists, and that’s it. Battery Park City didn't exist yet, that land was a beach with sculptures on it. So yeah, born and raised in downtown New York City and spent the first 25 years of my life there. I never really hung out uptown, always hung out downtown. When you grow up downtown, at least back then, you rarely had a reason to go above 23rd St. So for a lot of us, as we got to high school, we started hanging out in Washington Square Park. Every downtown kid, from the east side to the west side, that's where you met, and that's where you hung out. You had all these different sort of cliques, but everybody knew each other and hung out. You had club kids, you had punk kids, you had skater kids, all that shit.
I started working in clubs as a promoter. I worked at this club called NASA for a year which was a big rave club in like ‘92, me and all my buddies. It was a legendary party, an all ages rave, there's all kinds of stuff about it online. The Today Show did a whole thing on it.
JON ABRAHAMS: So I was a club kid, kind of a whatever kid, and hung out in the park and like you know, you bop around The Village every weekend, that's what you did. One day I’m bopping around The Village, hanging out, and Larry Clark and Harmony Korine are like “Hey, you know, we're making this movie and it's like about all the people you know, do you want to come in and read for it?” I was like, “Ok sure.” So I went in to read for it with my best friend James. We both went in together and James ended up getting a bigger part than me. I just got a small part in a club scene. It’s supposed to be the club NASA that I worked at, but it was actually shot at a club called Tunnel. So my part is that I’m a kid making out with 2 girls, and I was like “okay cool, I get to make out with 2 girls? Sure!” Then the summer came along and I went up to Vermont to do this pre-college program, a photography course. They called me while I was there and they were like “Hey, this kid Steven went to jail for armed robbery or something, do you want a bigger part in the movie?” and I was like “Okay, sure.” They were like “you're going to have to come down to the city”. I was like “Well, if you get me a bus ticket I'll come down.” That's all that I cared about. I just didn't want to be up in Vermont, I wanted to be in the city with my friends. It wasn't like “I wanna be an actor or I want to be in movies” you know, I really didn’t. I was more interested in fine arts at that time.
CELL VISION: You know that's funny, I also interviewed Leo Fitzpatrick [who played the role of Telly in KIDS] and he said the same thing about not really seeking out the whole actor thing.
JON ABRAHAMS: Yeah exactly, I think that’s partly why people think that movie is a documentary. Even though everything in the movie is scripted, there are really no kids in that movie that were already actors or were looking at that as a career path. It was more like a fun thing to do, there was no Hollywood side to it at all.
I think that’s partly why people think that movie is a documentary. Even though everything in the movie is scripted, there are really no kids in that movie that were already actors or were looking at that as a career path. It was more like a fun thing to do, there was no Hollywood side to it at all.
CELL VISION: So that was your launch pad?
JON ABRAHAMS: Sort of. It's funny because I went to an art high school.
CELL VISION: Did you go to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts?
JON ABRAHAMS: Well, I got into LaGuardia and then I got a scholarship to go to Saint Ann's and my mom made me go to Saint Ann's. All my friends went to LaGuardia and I wanted to go to LaGuardia for fine arts—I really was headed in the visual arts direction you know. But anyway Saint Ann’s had all these really good art things and a really amazing theater program. I started taking an improv class there and I really got into it.
CELL VISION: So you were in school, just a regular kid when KIDS was out?
JON ABRAHAMS: Yeah I was 16 years old, it's pretty crazy. They had to come around to my house to get my mom's permission for me to be in the movie. But Larry had been hanging out with all those people for a while so he knew how to be around kids. They just treated us like the kids we were, these wild street kids. I wasn't even that wild–I wasn't homeless or anything–but that's just what you did, you hung out in the streets. I don't know if it's like that in New York anymore. I was promoting in nightclubs when I was 15 years old. I didn't look like an adult at all. I looked like a 13 year old, I could fit in the palm of your hand. I was a tiny little kid, working in night clubs and sneaking into clubs like Limelight. My dad was a big night club guy, and he went out all the time. He kind of put me into the night club world, in a way. My parents were cool, they were like, whatever, go out do your thing and be home by two in the morning, and if you're not going to be home by two you have to call. They were like “we'll treat you like an adult, but you gotta act like one.”
CELL VISION: Do you think that having that freedom and those experiences at such a young age has an influence on your craft?
JON ABRAHAMS: Definitely. I think in order to be a good director, or even a good actor, it's all about having life experiences that you can call upon. Having the references for things, moments in time, emotional states. There are all kinds of situations I was put in that 've been able to call upon in acting. Also, cultural influences; New York City was such a different place back then, especially downtown Manhattan, growing up around all the artists and everything. There’s a lot of culture. You walk out on the street and you're getting smacked in the face with all these different cultures so it definitely influences me in doing what I do.
CELL VISION: Being in LA now do you find it easier to access those experiences? I often find that I get most inspired by New York when I leave the city and truly have a chance to miss it and appreciate it for what it is.
JON ABRAHAMS: I've been in LA for 18 years now, but it took me 11 of those years to even admit that I lived in LA. It was really hard for me to separate from New York. When I came out to LA I wasn't planning to stay out here. I came here for a job and thought “okay when this job ends I'll just go back to New York” but I ended up staying and that's somehow turned into 18 years. I think being here absolutely has kept up my appreciation for New York. I really don't think I would love New York the way I do if I still lived there.
CELL VISION: So when we first met I knew you looked familiar, but it wasn't until our mutual friend Blu Jemz (rest in peace) said something to me like “you know, he's in those movies” and I went home and looked you up on the internet was like “Oh shit!” You're in all of the horror/comedy movies that I watched coming out of high school. Scary Movie was my shit! Me and my little brother have this super random lifelong inside joke about that movie that no one will ever understand except for us. Scary Movie, House Of Wax, The Faculty and of course Meet The Parents.
JON ABRAHAMS: Yeah I was in The Faculty. Me and Summer Phoenix, who is like one of my best friends, we are the “fuck you” couple. The way that went down was, I remember they had auditions, I went to audition for a larger part and I was like “I'm not going to get this, there's no way they're gonna give me this part.” but it was with Robert Rodriguez, so at the end of the audition I was like “Hey, I don't know if you like me for this part, but can I play the 'fuck you boy' and I think I he just liked the fact that I was asking to have any part in the movie, even a little part—that I didn't have an ego about it, I just wanted to be involved, so he hired me.
CELL VISION: Those movies kind of live in their own genre, it seems like there was a specific thing happening at that time.
JON ABRAHAMS: Yeah those two genres were so popular then. The high school movie had a resurgence like it hadn't had that since the ‘80s with all the John Hughes movies,
and then the horror thing. You have Dimension Films and Miramax to thank for that because Dimension, who made The Faculty and they made a lot of those horror movies back then, like From Dusk Till Dawn they did all the Robert Rodriguez stuff, and it was super successful. Miramax made art films and then Dimension made horror movies and the money that those horror movies made financed Miramax making the art films. So that whole early aughts horror and horror comedy thing, like Scary Movie, was Dimension Films.
CELL VISION: So how did Meet The Parents go down? What was it like working with Robert De Niro?
JON ABRAHAMS: I'm born and raised in Tribeca and I actually grew up across the street from Robert De Niro. When I say across the street I mean I could see into his window from my roof. So my first kind of pinpoint for a movie star growing up was Robert De Niro because I was aware of his fame even if at that young age I didn't know his movies. So obviously he had made a mark on me at an early age. As I got older I started to see those movies and I loved him as an actor.
I auditioned for Meet The Parents and they asked me to come back and read with Ben Stiller. So I read with Ben Stiller. When Bob De Niro is producing a film he gets the final say on whether you're going to be in it or not, so you have to meet him, and he signs off on you, or he doesn't. So they were like “Everyone's into you, but you have to go meet Bob.” They ask me to meet him at this restaurant called Bubby's. Ironically, I worked at Bubby's during High School in the Summer. It was down the block from where I grew up and where Di Niro lives.
He came in more nervous than I was, which was interesting and gave me my own feelings about what it's really like to be famous and that didn't seem so appealing to me. He seemed nervous because as soon he walked in the place everybody was aware of him being there and who he was.
CELL VISION: So what was that initial conversation between you and De Niro like?
JON ABRAHAMS: He was like "So, where did you grow up?” And I was like "right there", pointing at my apartment. He was very confused by that, like "How much of my life have you seen?" We had a good conversation and went for a walk and talked a lot about the neighborhood. This was a couple years after we had to move from Tribeca partially because of things he did there that led to the gentrification of the neighborhood. So I gave him a little bit of shit about that. It was very cool, not just in the acting sense but in a neighborhood sense to have this conversation with Robert De Niro. By the time I got back to my house like 15 minutes later he had already called and told me I had the part. It was an amazing day in my life, not only did I find out I get to work with somebody I respect, but also he’s my neighborhood hero and like it's just all very cyclical full circle for me, it was like a dream.
CELL VISION: What was the actual experience like shooting Meet The Parents? Did you have any feeling that it would be as impactful as it was?
JON ABRAHAMS: Sometimes when you work on movies and everything is just right and you know that it's going to be something special and something that people are universally going to love. No matter where I go in the world people are like "Oh my God, I love that movie!" You know, people from Nigeria or China or wherever. That's a wonderful thing.
Bob is a great guy and an amazing talent and so generous, so getting to watch him work was just amazing. There's a scene in the movie where he finds a pipe in my jacket and I pin it on Ben Stiller. So we're filming this scene and Robert De Niro asks me that and in that moment I literally felt like I was his child and that I was about to be in big trouble and grounded for life. I think it's the take they used in the movie. You can see my reaction is 100% authentic, like I'm scared shitless! That's just how he is as an actor, he just makes you forget that you're acting.
Sometimes when you work on movies and everything is just right and you know that it's going to be something special and something that people are universally going to love. No matter where I go in the world people are like "Oh my God, I love that movie!" You know, people from Nigeria or China or wherever. That's a wonderful thing.
CELL VISION: I stumbled across a fan theory on reddit and the theory is that De Niro actually kills you because in that scene he says "If I find out this pipe is yours I'll kill you" and then you weren't in the sequel.
JON ABRAHAMS: Laughs Amazing, I'm going to go with that for sure. There's a deleted scene where he's burying me in the backyard underneath the chuppah. Laughs
It's a trip. We all have people we idolize and wonder what it would be like if we ever met them. It's never so specific where you meet them at the restaurant you grew up working at in the neighborhood you grew up in.
CELL VISION: I've always been intrigued by your bedroom in that movie. When you catch Ben Stiller in your room and you say to him "Were you just sniffing my boxers dude?!" You get a glimpse of the posters on your wall; a Lil’ Kim poster, Sepultura, Chemical Brothers, Method Man did you have a hand in this?
JON ABRAHAMS: Yep! There's a poster for Sight Beyond Light, which was James's (Blu Jemz’s) rap group. Me and James had started an indie hip hop label called Low Tech Records. There's also a bunch of Zoo York stuff in there because my friend Eli Gesner owns Zoo York.
CELL VISION: So tell us about your new film Clover that’s coming out on April 3rd.
JON ABRAHAMS: Clover is a throwback kind of movie, not the kind of movie they make so much anymore. It runs a fine line between being a violent, scary film and a comedy. They used to make more of these back in the late seventies and I've always been a fan of those. Even the blaxploitation films back then always had a bit of a light edge to them. Clover is kind of like that, tonally. My friend called it Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as a mob movie. It's about these two idiot brothers who don't realize that their fate is being written for them. They own a bar and they owe a gambling debt to a loan shark and they agreed to do a job for him. They're not criminals, just 2 Irish brothers that own a bar and one of them has a gambling problem and he's gambled away the bar that has been in the family’s possession for a hundred years. Things go wrong and the loan shark’s son gets killed and a little girl, Clover, is a witness to the murder. She gets pinned as being the murderer and so now they have to get this young girl out of town safely, while trying to save their own asses too, because the loan shark and all of his henchmen are coming after them.
CELL VISION: What part do you play in Clover?
JON ABRAHAMS: I'm one of the idiot brothers, but I'm not the gambling brother, I'm the smarter of the two. Mark Webber, who is another big kind of DIY indie filmmaker/actor guy–We've both been doing it equally as long–he is my brother in the film. The young girl who is the namesake of the movie, Clover, played my younger daughter in my first film, All At Once. Her name is Nicole Berger, she's really great.
CELL VISION: Do you find yourself drawn to working with people that you have relationships with deeper than business to work on your projects? Like a musician choosing to start a band with their friends?
JON ABRAHAMS: Yes, I look at it like it's more than a professional relationship. Matthew Quinn, who is one of my best friends since I was 9 years old and is like my brother, has shot all three of my movies. We have a really amazing working relationship because he knows what I like and we speak each other's language, which is great. You know, we fight, we bicker, and we do all kinds of things that you don't normally get on a set. I think people find it amusing… I hope so, anyway.
CELL VISION: I feel that as artists we all strive to ultimately be able to create exactly what we want, surrounded by the people we want to be surrounded by, who inspire us and push us to new levels. It really seems like you have created that world. It’s a great thing.
JON ABRAHAMS: Yes, but I'm so fucking sick and crazy that it's never enough. I don't take it for granted, and it's amazing and I have so much gratitude, but it's never enough, I just want to do it again and again.
Jon Abrahams' latest movie 'Clover' is out now, you can purchase via the Apple or stream on the service of your choice. The soundtrack, by Leon Michels, is also out and available to stream on the service of your choice.