Entertainment

We Asked the Guy Dressed as a Giant Rat in NYC: Why?

"I leap up onto trash cans, I chase people around."
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
November 18, 2020, 10:37pm
Man dressed as a giant rat
Photo courtesy of Jonothon Lyons

After ridership on the New York City subway plummeted at the outset of the pandemic, more and more people are finally starting to head back underground—and as they've returned, so, too, have the strange characters who like to Do Their Thing down there. People are walking ducks on leashes, twirling around in tutus, and—perhaps most notably—scampering through subway stations in elaborate rat costumes again. Footage of that last entry in the "weird shit you see on the MTA" canon has gone viral over the past week, earning both praise and scorn from the millions of people who've watched it. Some see a rat-man dragging a gigantic piece of pizza up a set of subway stairs as peak New York, and something to be celebrated. Others found him kind of obnoxious, vowing that if they ever actually encountered him, they'd kick him in the teeth on sight. Love him or hate him, you can't help but wonder: Who is this man, and why is he doing this?

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His name, it turns out, is Jonothon Lyons, and he's an actor and performance artist who's lived in New York since 2005. VICE spoke to him about where he came up with the idea to romp around the subway in a giant rat costume, what kind of reactions he tends to get from the people he scurries up to, and how, at the end of the day, all he's trying to do is "make people happy for a moment."

VICE: Could you tell me about your background in theater, and how your experience there played into your decision to do this?
Jonothon Lyons: The real origin of the character came from working with Imago Theater in Portland, Oregon. They have a show called Frogs, where we play big animal characters with masks like this. So I was a frog, I was a penguin, I was an alligator, I was a polar bear. But we never had a rat. And for some reason, that character came to mind back in 2009. So I made it, and I did it a little bit then. I went out into Times Square, and people freaked out. We put [a video of] it on YouTube, and it got 70,000 views over time, or something like that. Then [the rat] just sat on my shelf for a decade 

This year, I started doing a show called Eschaton that's broadcast on Zoom every Saturday night. A theater company came to New York and wanted to open a new immersive theater show, like Sleep No More—a late-night cabaret type of thing—and then we suddenly all quarantined, so they just transferred it over to a virtual show. My friend was directing and he reached out and he said, "Let's do something with the rat." So every Saturday night since the beginning of May, I've been doing stuff for this Zoom broadcast with the rat. And then about six weeks ago, my friend Todd Strauss-Schulson, who's a Hollywood film director, was like, "I'm bored, I've got time on my hands, I'm gonna be in SoHo for a couple weeks—let's shoot something." And I said, "OK. I've got this rat—can we do something with that?" So we shot this three-and-a-half minute short. The furthest thing from my mind was the potential for this character to go viral. But after the first night of shooting in Washington Square Park, somebody posted a video of us on Instagram through Barstool Sports, and it got 1.7 million views by the end of the day or something. And another girl posted [a video] on TikTok; that got 2 million views. As soon as we stopped shooting the movie, I started taking the rat out into public, and it's just kind of blown up from there.

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How did you make the mask, and what's it like to wear it? 
It's a clay mold, and I did a papier-mâché cast over it, which is just brown paper bags and wood glue. It's big enough to fit around my head; I have two big pieces of foam in there that keep it secure. The eyes are actually puppet mechanisms; they're rigged to blink. There's a mechanism in the mouth that allows me to drink water from a bowl and squirt it out. The whiskers are fiber-optic cables, so they light up.

That's surprisingly high-tech.
There's a lot more going on with it than most people realize at first glance.

How often how do you take the rat out in public, and where exactly do you go?
I've probably gone out half a dozen times in the last two weeks. I'm getting a lot of requests for collaborations with people; yesterday I did a post with New York Nico. Right now, I'm kind of just going out when people are asking me to. As far as where I go, the character can show up anywhere. The subway is great, because—as New Yorkers understand—you're waiting for your train watching rats all the time. 

How hard do you commit to the character? Like, are you making noises? Do you spend all of your time on all fours?
I've experimented with noises over time—like squeaks or grunts—but it just doesn't make sense for the character. He's a silent character, so all the communication and expression comes from my body. I have to give it 100 percent energy when I get down into it, because it won't translate if I don't. The actual performance is a pretty rigorous and exhausting thing to do. I'm bear-crawling; it's like a CrossFit exercise. I am noticing that the more I do it, the easier it gets. I get pretty excited when I'm out in public. When I pop the mask on my head and I get down, it's like, I am starting to get a rush of energy. I leap up onto trash cans, I chase people around.

What's going through your head when you're doing this?
At this point, I'm not thinking when I'm in it. It's really a flow state. I have about 50 percent [of my] vision and 30 percent [of my hearing]. The big foam pallets are covering my ears. So I really have to trust my sense of where I am in my environment. I can kind of peek ahead and see, like, there's a trashcan five feet in front of me, let me not crash into it. 

How do people react when they come across you in this thing?
The responses that people have to it, it's either joy, fear, or indifference. There's mostly laughter and joy. Sometimes there's a scream; sometimes people jump back. I can be mischievous, but I don't want to be disruptive. I'm not a prankster trying to try to get a rise out of people. So if it's indicated that someone doesn't want me near them, I walk away. I also love it when people have kind of a "cute pet" reaction. He's a friendly rat, he's not looking to hurt anybody, so I do get people who want to pet him on the head, and that's nice. And then the only other response is an absolute lack of care.

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What is it about doing this that you enjoy?
It's really, really fun. Especially now that people are sharing with me that it is delighting them, now it's like, I have an audience, and I'm doing a show that people like. And it's something I came up with: I designed the costume, I conceived of the scenarios in which he might appear. When people are writing, like, "The guy in the rat suit is bringing New York together," that's the most amazing and satisfying result of this project. If it makes people happy for a moment, I'll spend as much of my time doing it as I can. 

I think many people do enjoy the rat, but there are a fair share who, frankly, hate it. What would you say to the folks who are essentially like, "Fuck this thing."
When people say something like, "If I saw that I'd kick it," it's less than like a half of a percent of the comments online. Overwhelmingly, the [response has been] in the direction of, "This is bringing people together, people are into it." Some of the comments have been like, "Anybody can put a rat costume on and run around." And it's like, I guess—but this isn't just any rat costume. I've had a thriving career in physical theater performance. Last year, I was on stage at the Metropolitan Opera doing puppeteering in one of the biggest productions of Madama Butterfly. This is street performance, but I bring every bit of attention and focus and conscious thought to what I'm doing here as I did on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. That sounds a little arrogant—I don't want to tout those accolades too much. It doesn't really matter where it came from, or where I came from. What matters the most is that I'm making a lot of people happy. 

Riding the subway during a pandemic is already pretty stressful. I can imagine that, for some people, adding a man in a giant rat costume to that experience could be a bit unpleasant. Do you ever worry about making folks uncomfortable?
I don't think that that's happening. I think if anything, encountering me running through your subway car can get your mind off of [your] anxiety for a split second. I do wear a mask on my own face underneath the rat mask. That's important to note. 

Do you feel like you're contributing something to New York through this character—and, if so, what would you say that is?
I really, really love New York. To get to be a part of the landscape now, in a way, is really a dream come true. There was a tweet someone put up with a video of me that said, "Oh, NYC is dead? Explain this." I would like to think that I'm reminding people that New York is still totally vital, and it is the world capital of live performance. And there are a lot of talented artists who are just waiting for the doors to open back up, and to start creating and bringing people the joy of live performance. I'm just bringing it out to the street because we can't go inside a theater right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.