Devon Sawa on New Film 'Hunter Hunter,' Taking Reviews Personally and 'SNL' Stan Spoof

Devon Sawa
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Devon Sawa's recent big-screen outings have found him hunting down Sylvester Stallone (Escape Plan: The Extractors) and tussling with John Travolta (The Fanatic). In his new film — IFC Midnight thriller Hunter Hunter, out Dec. 18 — Sawa squares off with a new kind of foe that is best described as, well, you'll have to see it to find out. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the 42-year-old on a break from his first COVID-19-era gig (and from posting electric tweets to his 200,000 followers) to talk about his love for horror films, how he feels about reading reviews and, yes, that Saturday Night Live spoof.

I know you're somewhere on the East Coast filming Black Friday — where exactly? How is filming amid COVID protocols?

I'm staying in Providence [Rhode Island] and we’re shooting just outside of Boston. As far as shooting with COVID rules, I'm not adjusting too well. The reason — and it might be selfish: I miss seeing people's faces. When a director yells cut, you can gauge how you did by looking at your crew, especially the people that you trust to see their reactions. You can see whether they're laughing, whether they look bored. I miss that as far as the performance.

Overall, when you’re with a great crew, you get to see the drive on their faces all day long. You can see the excitement of setting up a shot or a grip in the electrical department that has set up some interesting lighting effect. I didn't really appreciate that until I did this movie, because you don't see it anymore. You see blankness all day. It's an eerie feeling, especially at night with people in black masks on and face shields. It feels emotionless. I'm trying my best — and I'm fortunate to be working — but it is what it is.

I listened to your interview on Evan Ross Katz’s podcast and was struck by how thoughtful you are about the choices you've made in your career. On that note, why did you decide to do Hunter Hunter?

I absolutely love horror. I really want to be in Blumhouse-type movies like Don't Breathe that are smart, original and do something different. When I read the script for Hunter Hunter, it did something different. When it starts out, you think, “Ah, I know where this is going,” but it takes turns everywhere. When I watched Blair Witch in the theater by myself, I didn't know anything about it. When it ended, I sat in my seat for a while, thinking, “Wow. I don’t know how to feel.” That’s how Hunter Hunter ends. It’s moving and really well-done. That’s what drew me in along with the director and cast.

You retweeted a critic who called the film "deliciously grim AF, a horror flick worth seeking out this month." How much attention do you pay to reviews?

I just talked to Leonard Maltin on a call and I had to bite my tongue because all I wanted to do was bring up a bad review he gave me 15 years ago. (Laughs.) I just had to swallow it. That's how much I read reviews and look into them. It's horrible but I do.

How do you feel about watching your work? I know for some actors, it informs their process while others find self-criticism to be debilitating. Where do you stand?

I always watch once because I think it's important. Like fighters or basketball players, they watch certain plays or moves to find ways of improving their game, and that's what I do. I'll watch a movie once and maybe another time to see if I'm being too big in a specific scene, if I could bring it down. What am I doing differently than someone like Tom Hardy or other actors? I have no problem watching for the purpose of improving my game.

You’ve had a great run as of late working with Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, John Travolta, other big stars. You mentioned that working with Arnold Schwarzenegger is a dream still. Anyone else?

Obviously, someone like [Al] Pacino and [Robert] De Niro. I've always wanted to work with Jack Nicholson, but I think that that ship has sailed. I loved the era of movies from the '80s and '90s — films like Awakening and Rain Man — so I'm trying to check off all those people because I want to learn. I'd love to work with Guy Pearce to see what he does differently and how he preps. Does he run lines before scenes? Does he hit marks or just move around? That's what I enjoy most. As far as anybody else on the list, there's a lot of people. I want to work with Julia Roberts. She's been amazing for so long. I saw her at Barnes & Noble a couple of months ago.

Because you have a movie coming out this month at a time when everyone is so focused on streaming and the battle surrounding HBO Max, what is your take on a future where movies go directly to streaming, should that become a reality?

Listen, I was making streaming movies before it was popular. Warner is just jumping on this train, baby! (Laughs.) You hear people saying that this is the end of stubs, movie theaters and the moviegoing experience. For me, it's incredibly sad. I don't know. I try to put myself into the youngsters' shoes because that's who's buying tickets. They seem to want their stuff on devices now. It's a changing time, but there’s nothing like going to the AMC on a Friday night and watching a blockbuster on the big screen. I hope that's not a thing of the past.

You have a couple of children. As somebody who has a family, is it easier to rope them together and just plop them on the couch and watch something altogether than to go out to a theater?

No, I way prefer to go to a theater. That was absolutely the only way I'd want it to do it. Especially certain movies, like Wonder Woman or Godzilla vs. Kong. Those are movies that should be seen in the theater unless you have a gigantic theater at home. But there's also the experience of getting in the car, going there, getting your seat, getting the popcorn. It's just an experience. Hopefully, it doesn't disappear completely.

Saturday Night Live just spoofed Eminem’s “Stan” video in a skit with Pete Davidson called “Stu.” Seeing the clip, I was reminded of what a cultural phenomenon that music video was. We’re still talking about it 20 years later. How did you feel seeing that?

The first thing I thought is how incredibly ahead of his time Eminem was. To make a song and a music video 20 years ago, and for it still to have such an impact on pop culture today is phenomenal. It's Elvis Presley level. It's crazy. I don't want to give myself too much credit for the "Stan" video because that's all Eminem's head. I was fortunate enough to have played a small part in it. At the same time, I'm absolutely flattered. The thing, when I first heard that Saturday Night Live was spoofing it, I was petrified because I thought they were going to make fun of it, like how they make fun of Trump and everybody else. But [Pete] took it, copied some of the stuff that I did in the video but made it his own. It's funny and smart. I'm flattered it's still a thing.

I'm fascinated by people who can hold it together while combating trolls all day but do it in a way that's forceful yet playful. That really describes your tone. What's your strategy? 

You'll see me tweeting a lot more when I'm shooting something. Those hours you spend in your trailer, not doing anything, I used to read books in those hours. Now I tweet. Also during this quarantine, being alone here away from my family, it provides interaction with other humans. The director asked us all to be smart and when we weren't working, stay in our hotel rooms and tough it out because we want to keep this thing going.

I'm also fascinated by life after Hollywood, people who leave the business permanently or even temporarily. You took a long break, five years, and eventually came back to relaunch your career. How has that impacted you long-term? 

It definitely made me realize again why I was doing this whole thing in the first place. With the height of Final Destination and Stan and all that, I started to get a little too into my head. The celebrity was starting to become important, and it was never important to me, even in childhood. There are a lot of actors — even child actors — who are on set for all the wrong reasons. I was legitimately there to do a thing I loved. I started doing theater and just loved it. After all those movies toward the end, I was all about clubs, parties and the celebrity of it all. The material wasn't important anymore, and I didn't really care. They were throwing money at me and I showed up to work and phoned it in.

At that point, I knew that I was done. I was done with the business. I had been working since I was 8 years old. When I was 24 or 25, I went to Vancouver, I changed a little, met my wife. We went away to Southeast Asia, traveled around and came back. I started doing other stuff like real estate, and then, somehow, got back into the business. I always told myself that I'm now only going to do projects that I want to do with people I want to work with. For instance, it was a no-brainer to do a movie with Travolta. Am I going to spend a couple of months with Travolta and hear his stories? Of course. I've been a fan forever. That's where I am now. I'm just having a good time with it.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.