Jeff Medley is a Missoula celebrity in theater and film. He’s known for performing as Riff Raff every year since 2009 in the Montana Actors Theatre’s Rocky Horror Show. He’s played Fagin in Oliver and Uncle Drosselmeyer in the Nutcracker ballet. He often shows up in Montana-made short and feature films and he graces the stage at benefits as an eccentric emcee or auctioneer. This week, Medley stars in Loon, a horror film by directors Lilian Langston and Andrew Bassett, in which he plays a creepy neighbor on a lake in Montana—a role for which he just won the Best Actor award at the Unrestricted View Film Festival in London. In advance of the film’s Missoula screening, we spoke with Medley about his acting past and predilections.
Tell me about Chuck, the character you play in Loon.
Jeff Medley: He chops wood. He loves to chop wood. He likes to use his ax and he’s taken it upon himself to maintain this area on the lake, and then this couple shows up. I shouldn’t give any spoilers away about the film, right? The filmmakers were going to call the movie Chuck. We filmed it on a little lake in the Seeley-Swan. There are a lot of loons up there, so we’d be shooting and all of a sudden, “Wooooo!” You could hear them. And so they changed the name to Loon, which I think is a good name.
What are some of your other favorite villainous characters you’ve played?
JM: I don’t know if Riff Raff [from Rocky Horror Show] is a villain, but everybody loves Frank N. Furter, and Riff Raff ends up killing him at the end, so I guess that makes Riff Raff a villain. Also Fagin, in Oliver. He’s borderline villain. He’s giving these kids shelter and food, but also teaching them to survive on the streets. He’s basically turning kids into criminals. In that movie Timber the Treasure Dog, I played a dimwitted, Home-Alone-style bumbling fool. A henchman. And Thenardier! Loved that guy. I got to be a slimeball on the surface, then rage with desperation in the sewers.
Did you do any acting as a child?
JM: I had incredible stage fright. I was in this gifted program in late elementary school through middle school and they did Shakespeare’s Macbeth and they might have modified the script. They said, “Everybody’s gonna be in this.” And I freaked out. Just the idea of being on stage with people—I lost my shit. So they let me be the guy who pulled the curtain rope and flipped the light switches. And then, years later, in 2000, I moved to Japan to teach English. While I was over there, I was just acting like an idiot in front of a bunch of Japanese kids, and I think that helped loosen me up. And then also karaoke. I discovered karaoke over there.
What was your first acting experience in Missoula?
JM: I saw an audition poster for Jesus Christ Superstar … I was like, “I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to get over this stage fright,” because I got a flashback right when I saw the poster to 1991, when I went with my cross-country coach to a running camp in Anderson, Indiana. And somewhere along the way he pops in a cassette for Jesus Christ Superstar. It was like slow motion watching his index finger press the button, and then the opening song. That music became important to me
What characters did you play?
JM: I was “Adult Male Crowd” and “Leper.” So, the leper—I was really excited about that. And then during the first musical rehearsal, [director] Jim Caron was like, “OK, we have seven lepers, we need one of them who’s really got it.” Because the first five or six lepers are all just moaning. But the final one, he’s very passionate. And he’s like: [singing] “See my purse, I’m a poor, poor man!” And I got that part, so from then on, I was the aggressive leper.
What do you like about playing Riff Raff?
JM: Well, that’s something I researched when they asked me to do the role. Richard O’ Brien of course played Riff Raff and wrote Rocky Horror Show. And he was apparently in the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar. And he was the leper.
JM: He was the same leper. Yeah. I looked it up. He was in the original London cast. And he was the aggressive leper who says, “See my purse, I’m a poor, poor man.” [Editor’s note: Fact checked and true.] Isn’t it great? That really was something cosmic that got me excited about Riff Raff. And “Over at the Frankenstein Place,” that little song gives me chills every time I get to do it. The first year we did it, in 2009, I just remember the screams. I couldn’t even hear myself on the monitors, because the audience was so loud. And that was like, “Whoa. That’s what it feels like to be a rock and roll star.”
What are some of your favorite characters you’ve played?
JM: Estragon in Waiting for Godot was probably right up there—that Beckett language is just poetic and absurd. Riff Raff is so dear to my heart. I’m kind of excited about this nightmare creature that I’m going to play in [Missoula playwright] Kate Morris’ upcoming play.
What was a difficult role you played?
JM: Atticus Finch, [with Montana Repertory Theatre] in China, was the biggest pain in my ass. It was a fabulous experience, but not in my comfort zone. If you asked [director] Greg Johnson, he’d probably say he tried to rein me in, but cut me loose. And I ended up, in the final plea to the jury—the audience—more like an evangelical preacher. A little more fire and brimstone than the typical Mockingbird.
What sorts of roles do you prefer?
JM: Eccentric ones. The roles have to have some special significance, such as a connection to my past, or expose some darker side of humanity, or just be random enough that, if it were a strange sound, it would make a dog’s head tilt for at least a second and a half. I have so many friends who have studied theater who say, “I would love to see you do something normal.” But why would I want to be normal? I need the fantastical, because I can see pained, realistic characters everywhere I go.
Loon screens at the Roxy Sat., Jan. 6, at 7 PM, followed by a Q&A.