By the time Joshua John Miller was 12 years old, he had established himself as an actor able to play dark and intense children who were often in trouble. Then in 1991, he decided to quit acting to pursue a career in writing. I spoke to him about his...
Joshua John Miller
Actor / Writer
River’s Edge (1986), Near Dark (1987), Teen Witch (1989), The Mao Game (1991)
As yuppie dreams began to turn dystopian, 1986 saw the release of River’s Edge, a film about emotionally confused delinquents that resonated with American teenagers and soon became known as the Rebel Without a Cause of the 80s. River’s Edge sparked Joshua John Miller’s Hollywood legacy, thanks to his chilling portrayal of Tim, a 12-year-old pot smoker who pulls a gun on his own brother.
Born into the business, Joshua John Miller is the son of Susan Bernard, the kidnapped bikini babe in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and Jason Miller, the playwright and priest from The Exorcist. If that's not enough, his grandfather was Bernard of Hollywood, photographer to the stars and friend of Marilyn Monroe. Surprisingly, the pressure of that lineage never seemed to get in the way of Joshua John Miller’s own career or identity. By the time he was 12 years old, Joshua had established himself as an actor focused on playing dark and intense children who were often in trouble, giving stunning performances in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and the cult classic Teen Witch. He averaged a movie a year throughout the 80s, but by 1991, he decided to quit acting to pursue a career in writing. In 1997 he released his first novel, The Mao Game. The story follows a 15-year-old child actor's odyssey through the temptations of Hollywood and the emotional minefield of a broken family—a story very familiar to him.
Honoring the ghosts of showbiz, I met Joshua at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to discuss The Mao Game and how one’s life story is sometimes more truthful when told in fiction.
VICE: Why did you decide to stop acting and start writing?
Joshua: I had always dreamed of being on Broadway, but when Neil Simon fired me from Lost In Yonkers, I personalized it. There were far more complex reasons for my being replaced. Not to mention I was 16 and beginning to question my sexuality. I had to take a moment and ask myself what I was doing with my life. This is something most 30- or 40-year-olds deal with. But when you are a child actor, you go through it at 16. My grandparents, who raised me, had recently died, so I began writing as a way to process my grief. A few years later, I started writing fiction based on my childhood, and that’s how The Mao Game came about.
How much of The Mao Game is true to your life?
Not all of it. Maybe half. What most people wonder about is what goes on in the book with my father, but in real life, my father never touched me.
What did your father have to say about the fictionalized molestation in the book?
He knew about the creative process and my rage toward him. As a father and a writer himself, he understood that some people have to work it out on paper.
What made you turn your grandmother into the photographer, when in real life, it was your grandfather who shot pictures of movie stars and pinups?
I wanted to do a story about both of them, but combine them into one character. But also my grandmother was a showgirl, a director who worked in television, and she had her own photo studio—she was a real pioneer, especially for her time. Most women after the war got married and had children, but she started her own business. She was a character that deserved to be explored further.
How did Whoopi Goldberg become the executive producer of The Mao Game film?
She read the book and approached me about making it into a film. But when it comes to the movie, if I could, I would do it over again. It’s not always a good idea to direct and star in your first movie, and it was too much too soon.
Both of your parents were actors. As a child, did they force you into show business?
My goodness, no. I begged to be on camera. When I was seven years old, I was at a family friend’s house with a sweeping staircase. I carried a portable record player with me at the time, and I put on the soundtrack to Cabaret and sang, "Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome! Fremde, etranger, stranger,” while coming down the staircase in a cape. No one asks their child to do that.
By the time you were 12, you had established yourself as an actor best suited to play the bad kid.
I always wanted to be a serious young actor. I suppose I was also one of the only actors whose mother would allow them to play those roles. My mom was instrumental in guiding me to choose roles that were complex and to take my craft seriously. We sought out roles that were more than just a kid among the family. Often in movies, the child actor is just a prop.
Then in 1987, you played a sadistic child vampire in Near Dark.
One of my favorite roles. I remember Kathryn Bigelow was both graceful and powerful. She made sure the cast felt like a family, even off camera. She made sure we always ate our meals together, and she took me to Melrose Avenue to pick out my costume.
A kid wearing a William S. Burroughs T-Shirt is so dark and appropriate for your character. Did you have any issues playing a vampire?
Not really. You know, my father played the priest in The Exorcist, so growing up and seeing your father get possessed a lot... it didn’t feel unnatural for me to play a vampire.
How did you get a part in Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 movie?
Janet was a big fan of Near Dark. I was already walking around singing “Control” all the time, so I was really excited when Janet asked me to be in the movie.
You must have been the coolest kid in school after that.
Actually, I was picked on by the “improv bullies.” One day as I was walking into drama class, these two guys, who everyone thought were really funny, started doing a sketch about me and telling jokes about how I had a big lisp. I didn’t think it was funny at all. I wanted to be liked. I was constantly being bullied by these drama fags, which I also happened to be. [laughs]
In 1987, you appeared as the snarky and pestering little brother named Ritchie in Teen Witch, which went on to become a cult classic, due in part to its heavy rotation on cable television throughout the early 90s. Where did you draw your inspiration for Ritchie from?
It was so long ago, I feel like I’m talking about someone else. But when I look at it now, I see Richie as a young Bette Davis. I’m not comparing our talents, but he had the intonation and the broadness, the dramatic delivery, and her histrionics.
I must admit, I have probably seen Teen Witch 40 times, mainly because of Ritchie.
If you look at Teen Witch, it was a very campy performance. But it’s a really fun film and something I have grown to honor. It wasn’t until years later though, when a drag queen named Peaches Christ started hosting midnight screenings of Teen Witch in San Francisco that I began to appreciate it. He invited me to one, and prior to the screening, he sat me down and explained that as a teenager he could see that I was not like the other boys; that there was something sexually ambiguous about me that gave him a sense of comfort, especially in Teen Witch. That meant the world to me. From then on, I was proud. I don’t take compliments from drag queen’s lightly, because they have no problem telling you what time it is. There’s no fucking bullshit.
Never underestimate the power of camp—sometimes the best way to tell the truth is through humor.
I agree with that now. About a year ago, I studied with Werner Herzog for a week in London, and he told me very sternly that I had to return to acting, which is something I had not considered in ten years.
I had always been a bit leery of associating myself with camp before. I have always taken my craft very seriously. Then one afternoon, Werner gave a lecture on Russ Meyer and pointed out the significance of camp and its value as a pure American art form.
And there you are, Herzog’s student and the child of a classic Russ Meyer actress!
Yes, and recently my mom was just hanging out with John Waters—who collects a lot of my grandfather’s photography and thinks I have lived the life of B-movie royalty.
Well, you have. I can’t think of any actor who came near you as a kid.
Previously - David Worth