Grateful Web Interview with C. Thomas Howell

Article Contributed by Candice Dollar | Published on Monday, December 5, 2022

Known for bringing one of film’s most legendary characters to life (“Ponyboy” from The Outsiders) Tommy (C. Thomas) Howell is thrilled to debut his third single “Pony Girl” on December 9, 2022. The song is based on “My Pony Boy” by Bobby Heath and Charley O’Donnell. It is Tommy’s lullaby version of a story about a cowboy searching for the love of his life.

Read on for an in-depth interview with Tommy (C. Thomas) Howell, as we discuss the release of his new single, “Pony Girl,” the debut of his upcoming Netflix series, Obliterated, and so much more.

This conversation has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

GW: You have a new show coming out on Netflix. Can you tell me about that?

TH: “I am on a new comedy show called Obliterated, from the creators of Cobra Kai. Sony and Netflix are producing it. It's like The 24th meets The Hangover. I play a member of an elite group of soldiers who have been rallied together in order to locate a nuclear bomb. It is a dirty bomb, and the government has tracked it to Las Vegas. I am the guy who takes the bomb apart. We did eight episodes. In episode one we find the bomb halfway through the episode, and I dismantle it. Then we party like we've never partied before. Everybody gets annihilated, only to get a call two hours later to be told that it was a decoy bomb, and we have five hours to find the real bomb. Everybody is totally destroyed. That’s the premise of the show. It was one of the best experiences I've ever had with some great actors and actresses. The writing was phenomenal. We did about five months in Albuquerque at Netflix Studios, and about a month in Las Vegas where we got all the exterior shots. I don't want to give everything away, but my character is the most free character I've ever played. He is the least judgmental and loving guy. This role really challenged me. I'm at the age now where I don't want to do stuff that doesn't challenge me. I've been turning down a lot of work because I'm focusing a lot on my music career, and that has given me purpose, reason, and artistic satisfaction outside of Hollywood.”

GW: You’ve done other television shows before this one, right? What was it like to be a part of Southland?

TH: “I did a show called Southland for five years. Playing that same role for that amount of time was the first time I'd ever done that. There's a certain comfort that happens between an actor and a writer when you start to really get to know each other and trust each other. They start to write for your voice, and you start to get things that are easy for you to do and say. Things that make sense for your character. It becomes like a tennis match. You can really grow. Until you hit the end and you're like, ‘Well, shit. We're done. What are we going to do now? Time to kill Walter White’”.

C. Thomas Howell

GW: What was it like to be in a comedy series? Have you done that before?

TH: “It has been a long time since I have tried comedy. When I was younger, everything seemed like a shot in the dark. Now, having experienced pain and agony, I can understand irony. There is something about irony that really plays to one's favor in comedy, when done right. Being older gives me an edge. I used to be the youngest in everything, but now I am the patriarch of the cast. I embrace it because my history opens the arms to a lot of artists who grew up with The Outsiders, or Red Dawn, or however else I may have crossed their path. It’s always fun to see where the reference comes from after spending a lifetime in film, whether I’m a kid, or an adult actor. It could be Criminal Minds, Southland, or The Walking Dead. I'm certainly not that guy from The Walking Dead, but some people see that, or feel that. There's something to be said about having your life documented on film.”

GW: What is the best part about not being as involved in Hollywood as you once were?

TH: “I'm a guy who likes to joke. I made a living saying the wrong thing at the right time, just to get us through. There is none of that anymore. You have to really mind yourself, and not really say much, or else somebody will get offended and call somebody else, and you'll have to explain yourself to complete strangers over the phone. That hasn't happened to me yet, but I know people who it has happened to. Some probably warranted, but many were not. A lot of people who spend a great deal of time in Hollywood become jaded, which is a tough spot to be in. That doesn't really happen to me. I have a policy that if I take a gig, I give the performance as if I am being directed by Steven Spielberg doing E.T. II. I don’t half step anything. I go all in on everything, and because of that, I'm careful now about what I commit to. I don't want to work with people who don't do the same thing. It gets frustrating, but I do like being a team member, and I do like being on a series.”

GW: Is there anything else that frustrates you about Hollywood?

TH: “Being an actor full time when you're not a bonafide superstar can be tough. You go through peaks and valleys. Even the biggest stars go through that though. Look at what Johnny Depp has gone through. One would think if you did fifteen Pirates of the Caribbean movies, one might be alright, but that guy is suffering just like the rest of us. It's funny what we go through both personally and publicly. And now with the internet, nothing is private. And with this new generation, everybody wants everybody to know everything. I come from a generation where privacy was valued. We didn't want you to know who we were voting for, or our sexual preferences, or whatever the hell. It's a very different world now. I'm just sitting back like that popcorn eating emoji, just watching all of this, and trying to learn and grow. Letting everybody be who they want to be.”

GW: What other changes have you noticed in the entertainment business?

TH: “I grew up in the business. I've spent forty years doing this. I have been a part of Hollywood during the Golden Age. I did a film with Elizabeth Taylor, I did a film with Anne Margaret. I worked with a lot of greats like Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, and people who came from the gilded age, when it was still special. We shot on film, and there were red carpet events for everything. When you got hired for something, it was a big deal, and it was expensive. Now there are movies made on iPhones for five bucks, and there's never enough money for anything on sets anymore. It's really changed a lot. I think people have a lot more opportunity. There's a lot more talent that can step up and make a movie. They could put it out on YouTube, and there's something to be said about that. I don't know how many good films are made that way.”

C. Thomas Howell

GW: How do you determine whether or not art is good?

TH: “It's a weird thing. Talent and taste. What makes something good? I don't know. For the first time in my life, I am feeling poised for a new level of work, and I don't know why I'm feeling this way, but the music has given me a sense of value that I haven't had working solely as a performer. Back in the day, everybody had to be a triple threat. You had to be a great dancer, singer, and an actor to be anything. Now it's like if you have a sex tape, you're in. It's challenging when you have spent forty years in the business, and you have one hundred thousand followers on Instagram, and somebody shakes their ass on Tik Tok, and they have a million followers. What the hell! Where are we? What's going on? People are struggling because there is a new sense of values, and change is in the air, and that's challenging people who want to hold on to their old sense of values.”

GW: Do people want to be famous more than they want to create art these days?

TH: “I go to a lot of seventh and eighth grade classes to speak about The Outsiders, and every single time I get a kid who inevitably holds his hand up, and the first thing out of his mouth is, ‘How can I become famous quickly?’ It always sets me back, because not a single kid will raise their hand and say, ‘How can I do the work that will lead me to the path of success?’ And my next question to them is, ‘Why do you want to become famous?’ And there's a pause, and they all say, ‘I don't know’. They just know that they want to have a million followers and all the likes. They don't even know who they are as people. They just want to get to the end of it. Nobody wants to go through the journey. And that's a really great example of how my music experience differs. It is all done in house. My girlfriend takes all the photos. My buddy does all the artwork. I write all the songs. We do everything. We distribute them ourselves. We record them ourselves. We do everything ourselves.”

C. Tommy Howell

GW: So what are the benefits of that?

TH: “Well, it allows me to maintain ownership of all my masters. It gives me real insight, firsthand experience, and education on all aspects of it. I'm not just bubbled and clueless. I know every aspect of the business. I feel like we're in a tiny bit of control of our own destiny. If you like it, it's our fault. If you hate it, it's our fault. I'm not blaming another company because they didn't promote something. I'm not mad because I didn't get put on the bill with Tim McGraw and blah blah blah. The real truth is that It's been a beautiful experience. I never intended on having an album. I never intended on touring. So, everything is a gift, and in approaching it from that aspect, I cannot lose. Even if I get a billion bad reviews, and I am booed off the stage, I cannot lose. I'm not looking to make my money here, and I am not looking to become famous. I am not looking to please people. I am looking to connect with people.”

GW: How have you grown as a person over the course of your career?

TH: “I am far more patient. That's the one thing I didn't have when I was younger is patience. Now, when I work with other people who don't have the experience I’ve had, I allow them to go through their own process in a way that is beneficial for the art at hand. That has become a little easier for me. When you are young, you haven't experienced the agony of defeat in life. You haven't gone through a break up. You haven't been fired. You haven't owed money. You haven't lost a loved one. Those experiences, when we go through them, throw us into this hyperspace. It's like a quick link to the truth. When we survive something like that, suddenly we are ready to get real. It’s sad that it sometimes takes life experience to that degree for it to happen. Hopefully we're conscious enough, and it doesn’t take a near-death experience to realize we need to make changes. The truth is, we can all be what we want to be. We don't have to force it on anybody else. We don't have to get caught up in the fight. We just live our lives. The only thing we can do is work on ourselves, because we have to be that beacon for ourselves and for those around us. With my music career, I don't have any pressure, because I'm not trying to become a superstar musician. I am just writing songs and telling stories that make me happy, and some people are reacting to that in a positive way. I really have nothing to lose like one does at twenty-five years old, trying to please everybody, and “make it”. I don't care what other people think. I care about what I think, and I have much higher standards than most other people when it comes to this stuff that I am doing. Once I figured that out, and I stopped trying to please other people artistically and professionally, my life got a lot better, and my work got a lot better, and I started to grow as a person, and as a performer at a much quicker rate. And that's what changed my life for the better.”

C. Thomas Howell

GW: So, is change something you tend to embrace?

TH: “For me, as an artist, change is the most incredible thing. My greatest life experiences have come when I finally just step through the threshold of fear that I was not wanting to go through, only to walk into a room of amazing brilliance. Once you realize the benefit of leaping into the void, and trusting the process, you do it first as an artist, and then it becomes a life tool. It can be scary because we don't ‘have control,’ which is all fake bullshit anyway. People who think they have control don't have control. They're just wasting a lot more time doing shit that doesn't matter. I'd rather just make myself a better person, and whatever happens happens.  If we take care of the here and now, the future has a way of working itself out. The past is gone; the future will sort itself out. Many people have a hard time with change. They’d rather be— even if it's just a tiny bit miserable— it’s better than being alone. Well, I don't know, is it? I really learned to love myself and love my life and treat myself right when I was alone. Instead of skipping out on a meal, I take that extra step and take care of myself. I try to live a little better, and make people's lives around me better, and that has led to a more authentic self that can talk to a group of people, and tell a story in a way that is more honest. I've never done that before, mind you, because I've always hidden behind a role, or a camera lens, or makeup, or whatever, and now as a singer, or a storyteller, I am on stage with no cloak. It's me, and so the reaction is immediate. It’s a two-way street most of the time. I’m there to see the audience, just as they are there to see me. It's the exchange that feeds my soul, and that's what keeps me going. Not the money, or the fame. It's the connection with people, and the ability to write something that people relate and connect to.”

GW: How did you break into music and what has that experience been like?

TH: “I have only been doing music for a year and a half. I'm in a professional league where apologies are not accepted. I can't release a song, and say, ‘Hey guys, I've only been doing it for a year, so cut me some breaks’. No. If you are going to mess around with the big boys, then you get punched down by a big boy. So that was a big step for me. I grew up in a home without music. My father and mother weren't musical people. They didn't listen to the radio much. When Covid hit, I knew I didn't want to get on the other side of that with a degree in drinking. I grabbed the guitar when the world started to shut down, and I started playing for the first time. I started with G, then I learned a couple of chords, and the next thing I knew, I hadn't put it down for months. I was in Atlanta working on The Walking Dead for a few months, and this super cool friend of mine, a great singer and songwriter named Kurt Thomas, he and I started working a little bit together. He started showing me how to play, and how to write songs, and what the parameters of songwriting are. It takes a while, but when you start to hang around really good songwriters— for example, Dave Kennedy who I have written with— these guys who all had big songs, number one songs, and songs of the year, they have a scientific approach to it. It's not just grabbing a guitar, and blurting out some lines, and seeing if something rhymes. These people taught me how to write songs that have a real emotional and psychological aspect to them. Not just trying to make something rhyme, but make something rhyme with a consonant that will make you subconsciously want to sing. These guys are alchemists. They still have heart and soul, but there's a formulaic routine that they understand. It’s like mom’s secret recipe. It's not something they want people to know, and to experience that first hand— my mind is blown. With that said, I have spent forty years in the storytelling business, so it felt like I've been training for this for forty years. It was so natural and unforced. When I picked up the guitar, it wasn’t like I was looking to put together a boy band. I just started playing and writing from my heart.”

GW: So you are a very seasoned “newbie”?

C. Thomas Howell

TH: “Where I beat everybody to the punch is that I had already gone through this once, so there are some things I didn't have to go through, in terms of music. The need to please everybody musically to get on the other side of that five years later, just to realize that I shouldn’t have been doing that. I started there already. So you see, my year and a half in music has been like ten years of music. I've worked with people who have said, ‘My God, I feel like you've been doing this your whole life’. Well, I have been. It was just in a different area. It’s almost like I was training as an athlete. It's like when you get these Australian punters that come over to kick in the NFL. You're like, “Oh my God, you're going to be somebody!” Yet they were kicking in the Australian Football League for ten years. It's a similar concept. It's a different game, but I'm still kicking a ball, and for me that was an unexpected part of the journey that has been my saving grace, and has allowed me to be able to write things from my heart. To have so many people connected to that has been powerful. I have kids sending me versions of “Pony Girl” on the flute from band class. I have guys sending me versions of “Whiskey Demon” that they sing in their bar. It's those little moments.”

GW: What other memorable moments have you experienced so far?

TH: “My girlfriend was playing Spotify the other day, and a commercial came on. Then, they played ‘Rose Hill,’ which is my song. I literally stopped in my tracks.  That was really wild. I don't get impressed by my own experiences, but that moment, for myself, that was super cool. I can't explain it. I mean when you write something yourself, and you put it out there, and you’re thinking, I don’t know, I could be throwing myself to the wolves here, and people come back with ‘Good job!’ It's pretty remarkable. It is remarkable even when they say you suck.”

GW: Have you ever been met with harsh criticism before? How did you handle it?

TH: “I have made a lot of movies, so I have been through that. It hurts, but you grow from it. I'm sure that's going to happen in the music industry, but we learn from Mama Agony. Papa success doesn't teach us as much. I think we can learn from it, but it has its pitfalls. Papa success, man, I'll tell you what, we really gotta have our shit together to be able to experience success and handle it properly.”

GW: What kind of music do you prefer to listen to?

TH: “I am a southern rock enthusiast. I like that Lynyrd Skynyrd vibe, or even that Stevie Ray Vaughan sound out of Texas. That Texas Thunder Vibe. We don't have that anymore. We have a lot of bro-country, and you know, I can't write that stuff. Those guys are amazing at what they do. We have a lot of pop country, and again, that's not my bag. I can't do that. There's people that do that, and they're winning all the awards and making all the money. They're incredible, but there's a lot of people that miss that down-home storytelling country with a rock vibe.”

GW: What is it about country music that resonates with you?

C. Thomas Howell

TH: “I like stories, and I like country people. They like to be told stories, and they like to tell stories. That's still a big part of country culture. What I like about country music is that it is a melting pot of everybody who's come together. The banjo was made in Africa. The fiddles that we hear in country music came from Eastern Europe. The guitars that have a Latin vibe came up from the South, and we've really just made them our own. Whether it's some Marty Robbins song, or someone else, it’s just this incredible alchemy of sounds that have become what's known as American music, and it's based on storytelling. I submerged myself in Nashville, the people, and the history of it, and I want to continue sharing what that is to people.”

GW: Did you grow up rurally?

TH: “My mother and father were divorced at a very young age, and I was raised by my father. I would go to work with him at the age of four, five and six. He was beginning his very young budding stunt career as well as riding bulls professionally. So that was my introduction into life: ‘Welcome to planet Earth! Your father is a tobacco spitting, hustling, bull riding cowboy that’s going to become a stuntman’. I have to figure this out pretty quickly. My father didn't suffer fools. He wasn't a real diaper changer. I grew up very quickly on the road with my father, which did a lot for me. It was heartbreaking, and I didn't understand why I didn't have the nurturing and cuddling, and the love of a mother, who certainly came back into my life. My mom is a sweetheart, and we're good friends now, but at the time, the two of them struggled, and they were young when they had me at nineteen. They were kids. They came from two different worlds. My father was a character. You didn't want to mess with him. He really instilled a sense of work in me that I don't think I could have received in any other place. There is a real “no quit” mentality that comes with rodeo, unlike anything I have ever witnessed. There's a sign over at my father's ranch that says, ‘We don't call 911,’ and we don't. It's either you get it or you don't, and that's the difference. When you're raised in a rural area you have a different mentality. You take care of yourself, and only the tough survive. So, having experienced that part of life gives me a leg up, when it comes to telling a story, or even sitting in front of a camera and playing a role, because I have what I call bass now. Most people are walking around trebled out of their mind. Art works when you are grounded and rooted. Whether you're acting, painting, singing, or any of it. The people we love are all rooted, and they don't give a shit what you think. They are trying to be their own master. And those are the people that we love. To be that way takes a lot of time, and it's unusual for me to even want to be that way in the music industry, but my life experience, and my work in Hollywood has given me a real head start, and I'm able to write things that come from my heart.”

GW: Is the song “Whiskey Demon” about alcoholism?

C. Thomas Howell: Whiskey Demon

TH: “It's funny, that song could be viewed as some fun bar song that rattles off a lot of brand name whiskies. If you're at a party, turn that thing up and sing your heart out, but that song is also heartbreaking if you really listen to it. The metaphor when he starts talking about fireball whiskey, when he starts talking about the woman with cinnamon lips and red hair: she will seduce you in the dark, and make you feel like you're getting lucky, but she's looking to make her mark. That's alcoholism wrecking your life, without coming out and saying that”.

GW: Do you ever watch your own movies?

TH: “I don’t really watch any of my work, but when I do, it's usually just a reminder of some fine memories, as well as a real understanding of the growth process that I've experienced. I can watch old projects and remember who I was, and the choices I was making at that time, and reflect upon that in an older, wiser and more experienced state of mind.”

Tommy (C. Thomas) Howell has starred in the films Soul Man, The Hitcher, Grandview U.S.A., Red Dawn, Secret Admirer and The Outsiders. He has also appeared in Gettysburg and Gods and Generals as Thomas Chamberlain, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Amazing Spider-Man, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox and Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay. He played unpredictable Officer Bill "Dewey" Dudek in the TNT drama series Southland (2009) and as the sadistic serial killer "The Reaper" on CBS's Criminal Minds (2005). More recent television appearances include The Glades (2010) (A&E) and Torchwood (2006) (Starz Channel). He has directed a number of films, including The Big Fall (1997), Pure Danger (1996), The Land That Time Forgot (2009), and The Day the Earth Stopped (2008).

Show dates:

DEC. 9, 2022

Nashville, TN

Tommy Howell's "Ponygirl" Release Show & Cowboy Christmas

DEC. 15, 2022

Memphis, TN

Tommy Howell's Cowboy Christmas

FREE to attend with toy donation

DEC. 22, 2022

Kansas City, MO

Tommy Howell's Cowboy Christmas

FREE to attend with toy donation

JAN. 12, 2023

Murfreesboro, TN

Hop Springs

JAN. 13, 2023

Macon, GA

Society Garden

JAN. 14, 2023

Jeffersonville, IN

Maxwell's House Of Music

FEB. 23, 2023

West Hollywood, CA

Whisky A Go Go

FEB. 24, 2023

Crystal Bay, NV

Crystal Bay Casino