Even if you're not an 80s kid, you're probably familiar with Thomas F. Wilson – aka Tom – who could deservedly be dubbed as one of the most significant villains in the history of the big screen. Why?
For his impeccable role of Biff Tannen (as well as Griff Tannen and Bufford 'Mad Dog' Tannen) in the trilogy Back to the Future, of course!
While some of his fellows from Back To The Future exploit shamelessly every single atom of the inexhaustible nostalgia existing around the trilogy, Tom for his part refuses to live only in the past. He’s been adding strings to his bow (painting, music) and still appears on the screen occasionally.
Today, the actor looks back on the mania caused by the trilogy and disagrees with the current allusions and assimilations to Donald Trump nowadays.
Tom explains how he became some sort of jack of all trades constantly seeking new ideas. On the phone, he appears relaxed, open-minded and humorous: the antichrist of his character, in fact...
Before starting your acting career, you studied International Politics. At that time, what did you aspire to be?
The plan at the time was to be a lawyer. I was on the debating team, I was good at standing on my feet and speaking. Over here they call it "the oral interpretation of prose." I wasn’t much of an athlete – what I did in school was stand and deliver prose and poetry. My father was a lawyer and it seemed like a reasonable path to pursue...
I was always involved with art, I was involved very much in music, theatre. It was very attractive to me but being from Philadelphia, a career in art seemed impossible. Increasingly it became very appealing to me, though, and ultimately I saw that is really where my talent lies.
Was there a specific actor that inspired you to the point where you wanted to follow his footsteps ?
It wasn’t movies at that time, it was really my experiences on stage. I was acting in plays and doing music a lot when I was a teenager, not professionally, but as a part of school plays and things like that. It just seemed like my performances got a lot of reactions from people. People kept telling me how talented I was which was honestly a surprise to me.
Finally, a teacher of mine suggested that I become a professional actor. I was at the time 18 or 17 years old. I thought, "That’s far beyond what I could do." But the teacher was very supportive and told me I could study and act professionally. So I decided to do that.
The iconic character you portrayed made you a coveted actor in the wake of the trilogy. Nevertheless, have you ever felt Biff as a burden in your career?
I don’t concentrate on that at all. I concentrate on going forward.
The things that I have to say about BTTF, I have said artistically and not in interviews for the most part. I’ve painted a number of paintings. I did a short film about that called "I Am Pop Art" that is available on Youtube.
For the 30th anniversary of BTTF, many people had questions about the movies, my roles in the movies, what I thought about the movies, the movies’ position on popular culture. But instead of going to events where I would've been photographed on red carpet waving at people, I decided to create paintings.
I created about 20 very large works that echo the beginnings of pop art. Yeah, pop does eat itself, pop is a cannibal: it is voracious. And these images just get more and more frequent, on every screen, in internet memes and everywhere.
Bob Gale recently told in an interview that Donald Trump inspired Biff. Were you actually influenced by Trump when preparing the role?
When I was preparing the role for BTTF, Donald Trump was not on the radar of culture. Donald Trump was a real estate model, he was doing things like fixing skating rinks in order to get famous... He wasn’t close to being the business or political or cultural figure that he is today.
I must say I had everything to do with the characterisation of Biff, Griff and Bufford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen in the BTTF movies 1, 2 & 3. I never had a conversation with anyone about Donald Trump at the time. Theses characters are original and they originate with me and words on the page.
Bob Gale wrote the words on the page and if he thought of Donald Trump, it would be a miracle to me since Trump wasn't a cultural figure when the movie was being written.
The only comparison conversation that I had about the characterisation of Biff – who owns the casino and everything in BTTF 2 – was with Robert Zemeckis, the director, that deals with a billionaire in Los Angeles named Marvin Davis.
Marvin Davis was very famous, a central and business figure in Los Angeles. We talked about a comparison in that way. I understand that once an internet meme becomes popular, there’s nothing I can say to dissuade people from believing that and they believe what they want, but Donald Trump had nothing to do with Biff.
What does your daily life look like now? Given the amount and variety of your activities, I’m pretty sure you don’t have many 'typical days' per se...
Well, I don’t have typical days really because I still work as an actor frequently.
For the past week and a half, I’ve been working very hard on a TV show here in the United States with Bill Paxton, an old friend of mine. That just finished yesterday so today I did some video editing for YouTube to connect with people, to make short films.
I paint, I still perform live. I’m preparing to travel and perform live: stand-up comedy and music. In a couple of days, I’m going back in the recording studio because I do recordings for animation, voice-over animation. I’m a regular on a Nickelodeon Cartoon right now called "Pig Goat Banana Cricket."
How would you describe your style, your trademark, as a painter ?
My paintings are unapologetically colorful. They’re not ironic, they are – to me – honest and reflecting, I hope, the best parts of my life: the joyful parts, the positive parts… There’s enough negativity everywhere: in politics, in culture and in art.
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