By Dakota Parks for Downtown Crowd
Known far and wide for his roles in Starship Troopers and Frighteners, Busey got his start in the world of acting at age five on set with his father, Gary Busey in the 1978 film Straight Time. The younger crowds, however, probably recognize Busey for his most recent role in the Netflix Original series, Stranger Things. Busey premiered as the cast newbie in 2019 in season three, but quickly received an Internet outlash as the public reacted to his character, Bruce, a wise-crack journalist for The Hawkins Post known for giving women in the office a hard time, especially Nancy Wheeler.
You starred in your first film with your father as a young child, correct? Did you always want to get into acting?
I was actually five in that first movie. It was with my father, Gary Busey, Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates for the film Straight Time. The film was about Dustin Hoffman’s character Max Dembo, the jewelry thief getting out of jail and in the very 1970s vigilante way, cruising around town getting vengeance. My father’s character was the failed get-away driver that got busted. So, Max Dembo’s first stop out of jail is to basically go over and take out my dad’s character. So, the directors wanted to make my dad’s character more sympathetic so that the audience would feel a little more bummed out, so they gave him a wife and a kid— that's where I come in. Kathy Bates played the mother, and I played the child of the get-away driver. It was a great experience. But then my parents thought it was best not to subject me to the rigorous life of the entertainment industry. So, they steered me away from that as a kid.
As you got older though, is acting something you wanted to pursue again? Or was it just something your father happened to influence?
A little bit of both really. I spent my childhood on film sets. When I was about 17, I went off to college. My plan was that I was going to be a studio session drummer—the guys that get called in to do pop songs for young girls that are coming up through the ranks. But by then, it was the late 80s, and the drum machine had really exploded. I realized, while I was in college, that there really wasn’t a future in being a session drummer because it’s so cheap and easy to use a drum machine. Then, on a whim, I took an acting class in college. And really, I took the class for an easy credit, so that I could have something easier to do than chemistry. I wound up really taking to it and really liking it. I think it was a way for me to experience what I had seen so many people doing on set but to experience it in a non- consequential environment. I realized, “hey this is pretty fun,” so I moved back to Los Angeles to study acting.
Did your father influence any of your acting when you went to school?
My father just motivated me to keep going. When I first started going to acting classes, I would share breakthroughs with him. I would tell him, “guess what I learned today, Dad.” But, rather than him saying, “hey that’s great—good for you,” he would retort with “well you know, back in the day, when I studied with James Best, we used to do this and this.” He made it into kind of a pissing match. So, I ultimately went and studied with James Best, and the guys he studied with so that now I can agree with him and confirm his retorts.
What movie or show do fans recognize you the most for?
Starship Troopers and The Frighteners. Those are like a set of twins; usually they come out in the same breath together: “Hey I loved you in Starship Troopers and The Frighteners!” Interestingly enough, those movies were released back-to-back, so I guess I was just really doing something right in 1996.
Well, for the younger crowds that know you from your role in Stranger Things, what has that experience been like for you—working with such a young cast?
Oh, it was great. It was the kind of the thing I wanted to do for a long time—to get to work with people that are young and a part of the pop culture fabric. That’s something that actors always want to do, especially when they first start out. We all want to be in that project that everyone is talking about; the project that’s really shaping culture and fans. Stranger Things was like hoping on a train going 100 miles an hour. It was established and already very popular, and that’s not something that many people get to experience. It’s rare to experience being on a show that’s that phenomenally successful, but it’s also rare to just hop on midstream in season three. Especially, because I was already a fan of the show. I was thinking to myself, “man I would love to be a part of that show, but it’s already up and running.” To be brought on as a new character was very exciting.
Your character, Bruce was certainly a memorable character at that. You kind of played the role as almost a villain.
Yeah, I did, and I didn’t even realize it at the time. The role was more of a wisecracking dude that was maybe a little bit of a class clown making fun of people. But, in the way they put the show together and edited it with the music and scenes, it really made my character guy this awful villainous person—it was brilliant of them to do that. They never told me to act like this hateful guy that nobody can stand, they just said, “you’re this guy with a twisted sense of humor.” And, then to have the reactions we received on Twitter! People tweeting: “Oh my God, we must kill Jake Busey!” It was crazy! But then again, that’s what acting is. You’re just playing a character and serving the story, and that was fantastic.
Speaking of comedies, our art director here at Pensacola Magazine actually shared one of your sitcoms with me from the 90s: Shasta McNasty. Do you ever go back and watch those shows and movies?
You know, I haven’t, only because that’s a show that doesn’t have any real access. It’s only on VHS. The show premiered before digital, so it kind of got lost. I have some old tapes in boxes, but I don’t even have a VHS player anymore. Shasta McNasty was just guys being wacky and doing anything they could not to work, but still pay the rent. So, yeah, that was a fun show. I would say that those years were some of the best years of my career.
What would you say your biggest career highlight would be, or perhaps just a memorable moment in your career?
I’ve had a lot. Meeting some of the people I never thought I would meet in my life. I would say, oh, the year of doing Starship Troopers was very impactful on my career. It was an ensemble of a cast and a really rigorous shoot. Shooting Shasta McNasty and being nominated a People’s Choice Award for that was really exciting. Getting to go to awards show and do the whole tuxedo thing was fun. Meeting Jimmy Stewart on the MGM grand 737 airplane back in the 90s was incredible. He was in like a full-white tuxedo and a cowboy hat. Lots of very memorable moments over my career.