Unlike Sean, the green-haired hooligan he portrays in the 1998 cult classic SLC Punk!, Devon Sawa has never overdosed on acid. But like the reformed Sean — whom he plays in the film’s fast-approaching sequel, Punk’s Dead, in theaters February 12 — he has had to reinvent himself.
Two decades ago, Sawa was building his acting career via a string of wholesome roles: Christina Ricci’s bully-turned-love interest in Now and Then (1995); a corporeal Casper, again opposite Ricci (1995); and Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ girl-crazed older brother in the outdoorsy Wild America (1997). But he was sick of his innocent image. “I was in a lot of those teen magazines,” he tells SPIN over the phone. “Pop and TigerBeat and all that. There was a point in my life where I was kind of rebelling. When I was 17, 18 years old, I wanted to do everything that was totally the opposite of that good-boy image. It was the punk thing to do.”
And so Sawa pursued a series of disturbed and/or chronically unlucky characters: Eminem’s biggest (and most obsessive) fan, a stoner teen with a possessed right hand (Idle Hands, 1999), and a plane-crash survivor trying to stay one step ahead of death’s grasp in Final Destination (2000). He also did a memorable job as the panhandling Sean in SLC Punk!, a film that follows Steven “Stevo” Levy (Matthew Lillard), a Salt Lake City Reagan-era punk who craves authenticity and busies himself with a blend of shows, parties, and drugs.
In Punk’s Dead, Sawa is back to playing Sean, who, 19 years later, has shed his liberty spikes and taken a job in the Utah Senator’s office. But his past comes calling when he’s forced to help find the film’s main protagonist, Ross (son of SLC Punk!‘s straight-edge — and now-deceased — hero, Heroin Bob), who’s taking a boozy joyride around Salt Lake City. We called up Sawa to discuss Sean’s miraculous recovery, what drew him back to the world of SLC Punk!, and the time he attended a Green Day show with a then-unknown Jason Segel.
Why did you and director-screenwriter James Merendino decide to resurrect SLC Punk!?
When I first did [SLC Punk!], I never knew it would be as cool and as big as it would be. It was a great script. James Merendino is a phenomenal writer. But then it came out, it was something special, and it actually still to this day is one of my most favorite movies I’ve ever done. But I guess it kind of fizzled away over the years, [so] James and I connected via Twitter. He hit me up and said, “I’m thinking about writing the sequel.”
I mean, this was two to three years ago that he first told me the [Punk’s Dead] story, and it evolved in a lot of different ways. Matthew [Lillard] was involved at first and then he wasn’t, and then he was again, and then the story was totally different. And now it’s kind of a reboot, where we’re bringing a whole new generation of punks into the scene, but we’re also gonna sprinkle in some of the old ones. You know, for nostalgic reasons.
When you took on the role of Sean in 1997, were you into punk rock? Did you have to educate yourself?
Well, here’s the thing, I grew up on a lot of sets; I got a lot of per diem growing up as a kid. My parents made me save all of the money I made as an actor, but I was allowed to spend the per diem on whatever I wanted. I usually spent the lion’s share of it on a lot of different CDs, and I would buy everything. All sorts of genres of music, everything from punk to rock to old rock, to country, to primarily hip-hop, stuff like that. But SLC Punk! definitely got me more into that scene.
Did you end up getting a punk-rock education via the SLC Punk! cast and crew?
As an actor, every time you go onto a movie you get a whole new group of people and you see what they like, and they give you recommendations. There was this one movie called A Cool, Dry Place where me and Vince Vaughn traded CDs. I traded him Puff Daddy’s Greatest Hits and Wu-Tang’s double album [Wu-Tang Forever] for Dwight Yoakam and Rancid. That was my first Rancid CD, our trade. I had never heard Rancid, and I’d never heard Dwight Yoakam, and as bizarre as those two together are, it was the coolest trade.
Of all of those genres you mentioned, what did you end up listening to the most as a kid?
It’s definitely hip-hop by a landslide. I listened to everything from East Coast to West Coast, N.W.A to Geto Boys, to Biggie — all that stuff. But I liked a lot of the old rock as well; I liked a lot of Zeppelin, even Elvis and Sinatra. As a teenager I would go to CD stores and flip through things and just get a stack. I would be in my hotel room for hours and hours, and I had nothing else to do, either homework or CDs. And that’s what I did — I just listened to a lot of music.
What’s your taste in music like these days?
I haven’t left ’90s hip-hop. [Laughs.] I’m stuck there, I can’t get into the new stuff. You know, I like a little bit of Drake, I don’t like any of the Top 40 stuff that’s on the radio nowadays. You know who I started listening to a lot? Amy Winehouse. I bought all her jazzy stuff, and I’m really digging that right now.
You famously played Eminem’s biggest fan, Stan. Do you listen to him on your own time?
I love him. I buy all of his CDs. [Playing Stan is] still one of the best things I’ve done. I remember I had to beg and plead with my agents to let me do it, ’cause at the time Eminem wasn’t quite Eminem yet when we did the video. So for me to come off of Final Destination and go right on to a music video for an unknown white rapper, was a really hard sell. But Dre was directing it, and it was one of the best three-day experiences I’ve ever done. Dre is the smartest dude. And then of course Eminem and D12 were there — it was pretty bizarre.
What are your favorite memories of working on the SLC Punk! franchise?
We had a lot of downtime on the first movie. Me and Jason Segel didn’t work with each other on the movie at all, so the production office decided because we had so much downtime that they would send us to a concert together. We didn’t know each other, we had never met. So they sent us to see an unknown Green Day. We saw them in the gymnasium of a Mormon school. The place was definitely empty. We didn’t say two words to each other the whole night. It was a great, weird night.
It sounds like you were being set up on a date or something.
Yeah, it was a blind date. Me and Jason Segel went on a blind date. But then something must’ve worked, we liked each other so much we worked together again on Slackers.
Well, it looks like Sean’s made a miraculous recovery since accidentally ingesting all of that acid. Are we sure he’s 100 percent lucid in Punk’s Dead?
He’s not there. No one knows how he got the job in the senator’s office. But whatever, all the acid he did back when he did it, it affected him and it stayed with him. He’s got a heart of gold, but he’s just a little off… He marches to a different beat.
What do you envision him listening to? Does he even listen to punk rock?
I don’t think he listens to anything. I think he’s a punk without listening to punk music. He’s straight-up punk. He’s just hard to explain. He doesn’t go to the concerts — he’s off doing something bizarre and crazy. He’s too punk to listen to punk.
Punk’s Dead will be available for digital download on February 16.