The son of actor and madcap TV personality Gary Busey, Jake Busey spent his childhood on film and television sets in Los Angeles. While he was introduced to the entertainment industry at a young age, the younger Busey’s own acting career began as a glimmer of inspiration in a Santa Barbara City College acting class. From SBCC to professional actors’ training, his career blossomed in the 1990s with roles in films such as Twister, Starship Troopers, and Enemy of the State. Addiction and eventual sobriety led Busey through a period of turbulence, but the last five years have shown an uptick in his artistic productivity. Busey is poised for a big year, with roles in television shows Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the third installment of Stranger Things), as well as a role in the film The Predator, in theaters September 14. I recently spoke with Busey over the phone about his life and work.
Tell me about your experience in Santa Barbara. I went to Santa Barbara City College …. I took an acting class, and it was one of the oddest experiences I’ve had in my life. The entire class, we’d crawl on the floor, pretending we were a snake or a cat in the jungle. We did all this silly stuff through the whole semester, but at the end, [the instructor] said, “Here’s your final exam … it’s a performance.” She hands everyone a full-page monologue …. We hadn’t done any work with words, or standing movement, or vocalization, or anything! We’d only crawled on the floor! It was insanity! I was scared to death.
Do you spend time here now? I haven’t been up there in a while. I lived in Ventura from 2002 to 2007. It wasn’t as cool as Santa Barbara, and it was too far from L.A. I had to move back to L.A. to get my career back on track. It’s been a long road back, but now I’m on Stranger Things and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and The Predator movie is coming out this fall.
How was working on Stranger Things? It was a trip. … I had already seen two seasons of it, was already a fan, and so therefore was quite intimidated by the whole notion of it. Everyone’s super cool. It’s a young crew, and they’re on the forefront of the entertainment industry at this point — they’re having to write the book on how things are done. Like, we had a two-hour-long meeting with the Netflix human resources department that described how to behave on a film set.
Have you ever had a meeting like that before? No … but in light of the #MeToo movement and everything that’s going on politically and socially, they want to make sure nobody feels abused or marginalized or anything like that while at work. And we’ve got kids on the set. We gotta keep things PG for the folks who are in the PG age range.
Movie sets are a tough environment, and people make jokes because they’re going through stressful, tumultuous experiences together, and jokes keep the mood up. … But this is a work environment, not summer camp. It’s really good that Netflix is bringing in HR to make sure everyone knows the rules of the game.
Tell me about the new Predator movie. The Predator comes out September 14. It’s the first A-list film I’ve done in quite some time, and it’s really the first time I’ve done a movie that’s full-blown nepotism. It’s entirely because of my dad [Gary Busey, who starred in Predator 2]. I owe a big thanks to him and a big thanks to the writer/director, Shane Black. It’s going to be a fantastic iteration of the Predator franchise. It harkens back to the original two movies. I’m really thankful to have been a part of this movie. There was a while in the ’90s when I had a #1 movie at the box office every summer for about five years; then things changed.
What changed? Ventura happened. That distracted me. It was like being retired at 32. I remember walking around my backyard: gardening, puttering. Just trying to fill my days. Who was to know that 2008 would come, the economy would crash, and I’d lose everything, even the shirt off my back? I moved back to L.A.— I was homeless, living out of a Honda Element …. Then I quit drinking, and a lot of things changed. I became a dad, and that really changed everything.
How did you come back from this low point? My lowest point was spring 2011. That was a case of beer a day, homeless, and without a penny in the bank. Then I found sobriety, and everything started changing. A lot slower than I’d anticipated, but things turned around. I spent a couple of years trying to get back into respectable, dignified projects. Then Robert Rodriguez and [the TV series] From Dusk Till Dawn came along. It was a really good show, but nobody saw it; it was right in the middle of the changeover in the entertainment industry from movie theaters and television to streaming and downloading …. It wound up in a spot where nobody really saw it. But it was great work and a great environment to get back on my feet and work with some great people. And to have the feeling of being an actor again.
Some of your projects — such as Stranger Things — are part of the new on-demand, bingeable-media model. How do you feel about this shift in the industry? I think there’s good and bad to everything. Now you can stream everything right where you are. It’s great for convenience, but you lose the experience of the theater, where 100 percent of your attention is on the film. If you watch The Matrix in a movie theater with the big sound, you’re in The Matrix. If you watch it on your phone on the subway, it’s a different experience.
Now that everyone’s watching on their phones, we’re shooting differently. We’re going to the close-up way earlier. If you watch an old movie on your phone, it gets frustrating because everyone is far away and tiny. Since everything’s made for the phone now, it’s a cut-to-the-chase mentality. We want to see the people, see their faces.
Also, there’re so many venues and so many shows that it’s all saturated and watered down. On the production side, the budget gets cut to hell. It used to be that you’d do a movie, and it would cost $100 million to make. Now they make that movie over at Netflix for $10 million, and nobody gets paid enough to live, everybody has to have a second job, no one is getting comfortable royalties. Everybody on the production side is getting cut to shreds, unless you’re in the top .00001 percent in the industry. We’re all becoming starving artists again.
In terms of public persona, you’re recognizable, but not so famous that everything you do is scrutinized — like those people in that .00001 percent of the industry. It used to be that you could pick and choose those moments. Now, if you’re at that level, you’re somewhat required to have a lot of followers and interact with those followers to be accessible, so you really can’t have that Elvis-has-left-the-building thing. You can’t leave the building. You’re always there.
For young performers trying to break into the industry, a large social media following is a big selling point. Do you have a social media presence? I’m on social media, and I really do try. Unfortunately, I’m old enough that it’s just not in my bloodstream; it’s not second nature. I’m also fairly private. I don’t need the world to know about everything I’m doing. I’d rather focus on the work and the acting and the performance. I’m stone-cold lucky that I’m already established in the industry, because I’d never make it today if casting directors asked me how many followers I had. I’ve always been about the work, not about the glitz.