Starring as an iconic character can be both a blessing and a curse—but if one of the original creators of the original cult classic signs you up, well, what’s there to lose?
It took a lot of starts and stops for DJ Cotrona to get here. He stars as Seth Gecko in the Robert Rodriguez television adaptation of the director’s beloved cult classic film, From Dusk Till Dawn. This isn’t the first time he was asked to take on a special role: Cotrona was casted as Superman in George Miller’s Justice League, a film that was canceled due to the Writers Guild strike of 2008. The actor is now known for his role in films like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Dear John, and a few shows (like Skin) and pilots that didn’t quite take off—until now.
Playing one-half of the criminal team The Gecko Brothers could have been a nightmare in terms of the inevitable comparisons. Seth was originally played by George Clooney in his first film role, but Robert Rodriguez asked Cotrona to create a new interpretation of the character, which includes a bigger focus on the vampire mythology. This all leads to the separation of the two brothers as Richie (Zane Holtz) is now a culebra, or vampire. Fans of the film shouldn’t worry; Cotrona as Seth is just as quick-witted by way of mouth and his gun draw.
Paste caught up with the actor in time for tonight’s premiere to talk about Season Two, how his character is being reframed, and what he learned from two acclaimed directors, Robert Rodriguez and George Miller.
Paste Magazine: Congratulations! How does it feel to have a second season?
DJ Cotrona: Thank you. It feels great. I’m really proud of the project, and I love our whole cast and crew—Robert and everybody on our creative team. I’m very happy to get to keep working with these guys, and I’m excited for the fans to see what we’ve been up to.
Paste: Have you thought about long this show might last?
Cotrona: That is up to Robert. I know Robert and our showrunner [Carlos Coto] have some big plans to go five seasons, but again, there are a lot of factors involved in those type of decisions. I hope we get to continue for a long time to come, we’re having a great time.
Paste: From what I hear, the cast and crew have a collaborative rapport and you’re like family. What’s a typical day on set like?
Cotrona: It’s very much like a family. That’s the best way I can put it. In all the best ways, in all the frustrating ways, but I think we really benefit, creatively, from a having such a tight-knit group. First and foremost, that’s a testament to Robert and the environment of his studio that he created down in Austin. We’re far away from Hollywood, we’re not near New York or any of the filming hubs. It’s just known from different actors, and throughout the years, anyone that’s had the opportunity to work with Robert—he’s just this touchstone for getting your creative juices flowing again. Any actors I spoke to when I was considering this project, they told me to ‘Go. It doesn’t matter what the role is, it doesn’t matter if it’s a show or movie, just go to Austin and shoot with Robert and you’ll get invigorated, creatively.’
That bleeds into our relationships. The fact that we’re down there [together]—it’s the same crew that Robert uses for the majority of his career; they’re all very familiar with each other and work really quickly as a tight-knit group. The same goes for the cast. For the first two seasons, we all lived in the same place in Austin while shooting. We truly are lucky in a sense that we all do really get along and have a great time.
Paste: You and Zane Holtz seem to have a great relationship.
Cotrona: I love Zane to death and we get along great. We’re very fortunate to get along off camera, and we love working together. I think we have a similar approach to our work and a similar attitude about this industry and about being actors. We realize how lucky we are and appreciate this opportunity. I really mean it, regardless if you’re working on a big film, or you’re working on a television series, it’s very, very rare to get the amount of creative freedom we are afforded by Robert and our showrunner, Carlos. Especially when you’re dealing with such iconic characters that Robert and Quentin [Tarantino] created. When you get to work on characters so beloved and well-known, you expect to get the minimum amount of creative control, but it’s truly the opposite of it. We’re in the trenches everyday trying to do the best we can.
Paste: The second season doesn’t have a rubric, or anything to really connect the plot with the first movie. Was there a particular idea of your character you were excited to explore?
Cotrona: Completely. I’ll be honest with you—obviously by design, the first season was weaving in and out of the original film’s storyline. The film is from almost 20 years ago, so Robert wanted to remind people of these characters and the world. It was fun, but it comes with the obvious comparisons, which can be tough sometimes. You have to understand, I’m just as much as a fan of the film as anyone else, so I was holding Zane and myself up to the harshest light. These characters are so cool and we’re lucky to do them with the original creator and director himself. We’re not doing it with anyone else, so that gives us a lot of confidence.
At first, the writers had this idea for Seth, in the beginning of the second season, to really fuck him up. To have him on heroine, completely despondent to the world—just a shell of his former self. When I first got there, it really surprised me, and I was at odds with it. I didn’t think it fit the character. But the more I read, the more I thought about it, I thought it was a great choice—a brilliant choice. When you see Seth in the first season, he’s this mouthpiece, he’s got everything under control. In the second season, they said, ‘Okay. We’re going to the absolute opposite, we’re going to break him down to his absolute lowest.’ That was really fun to explore, and I got to play a really cool arc of this underdog story of a man trying to rebuild himself. It was very much off the mark for the character of the film and the first season.
Paste: I wondered if we were going to get a deeper glimpse into Seth’s anti-hero status.
Cotrona: Oh, trust me, he runs the gamut! That arc he goes through is far and wide. He has a pretty extensive journey in this season. I think you’ll get a little bit of everything.
Paste: Seth and Kate are filled with guilt as they’re separated from both their brothers. Is there anything you can say about their impending journey together?
Cotrona: Madison [Davenport], in my opinion, is the most talented actor on the show. She’s a beast; she’s so good and effortless, so I have a lot of fun and learn a lot from working with her. We both enjoy the fact that we have such different characters. Seth’s a hardcore, career criminal. She’s a sixteen, seventeen year-old, church-going family girl. By the end of the season, these two polar opposite archetypes are stuck together, and they’re literally the ones who have the most in common. They’re stuck together on the run in Mexico.
We had a lot of really quirky, interesting things to play between the two. They’re dealing with extreme loss in different ways. When people go through real loss, some fold, and some galvanize and make themselves stronger. I think the two characters have very different ways of dealing and they help each other, or hurt each other, in the process.
Paste: Director George Miller is similar to Robert Rodriguez in terms of his ability to create these expansive worlds for his films and remolding the characters in new ways. Did working with him help prepare you for this role?
Cotrona: It did. It’s funny, George actually came to Austin a couple of times, while I was shooting with Robert. We got to reconnect and hang out, and he showed his original print for Mad Max and then afterwards, the release of the fantastic new one. George is one the greatest storytellers of our time, and I felt lucky to spend time with him in Sydney and just work on all the stuff we did in pre-production and pick his creative brain.
He gave me confidence as a performer in a time where I definitely needed it. George had a great idea of taking the mantle of an iconic character and using the best version that you can come up with. We had some conversations about it that I carry with me to this day and Robert was exactly the same. Between the two of those guys, I’m very humbly thankful to get to work with two amazing directors. They’re icons.
Paste: Was the road from film to a television series difficult?
Cotrona: For me, as an actor, work is work. Some of the best storytelling is on television these days. There’s not as a tight grip on what types of stories and characters you’re allowed to make on TV. I’m looking for very few things. I’m looking for a director that I respect and that I’m a fan of, that I want to work with. And I’m looking for a character that interests me, that is cool, that can be fun. With From Dusk Till Dawn, I got this in spades.
Paste: Are there any new projects knocking on your door at this moment?
Cotrona: I hope so! We’ll see. We just wrapped up and we’re doing some promotion. I’m back in California going to meetings, trying to find something before we go into a Season Three, if we get it.
Paste: I read that you wanted to be a writer and director. Certainly working with Miller and Rodriguez was a teaching experience. What genres can you see yourself getting into?
Cotrona: Oh, that’s endless. I don’t think of it in terms of genre, I think of it in terms of story. If there’s a story I find interesting, or a character, or certain relationships between characters that I find interesting—whatever genre that falls in to—I would love to take a swing at.
Learning to work with those two guys I learned how important it is with a visual medium to show it before you say it. Always try and remind yourself of that. I’m stealing as many little ideas from these guys as I can.
Season Two of From Dusk Till Dawn premieres tonight, Tuesday, August 25th at 9pm ET on the El Rey Network.
Iris A. Barreto is a writer for Fangirlish, freelance writer for Paste and social media intern for Pink is the New Blog. Heavily caffeinated. Forever lost in Westchester, NY & NYC; all GPS apps hate her. You can follow on Twitter.