Joe Mazzello Plays Bass …
Handles Snakes & Ran From Dinosaurs
Photography by Tom Wool
Styled by Julianna Alabado
Written by David Bedwell
Grooming by Christine Nelli
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When I was in college, I wrote an epic-length poem about a snake handling preacher I’d read about in the New York Times. I set out for the hills of West Virginia, where the church was located, and arrived on a quiet dirt road leading to what seemed to be nowhere and was met by one of the strangest experiences of my life: rattlesnakes everywhere, and people hollering and falling in the aisles as they were “touched” by god. I was, to say the least, scared and full of anxiety… it was awesome.
Years later, in 2013, I was watching the television show Justified, adapted from the flawlessly written Elmore Leonard short story, Fire in the Hole. It was the fourth season when the character Reverend Billy St. Cyr appeared. St. Cyr is a snake handling, traveling evangelical preacher who delivers one of the most memorable lines in TV history: “Are you all here to see the hillbilly with the snake, or are you here to be saved?” I will forever remember that line and the performance of the actor who played St. Cyr and delivered it: Joe Mazzello.
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Fast forward to November 2, 2018. Mazzello is having a quiet early lunch with a friend in the San Fernando Valley, enjoying his afternoon despite it being the opening day of his latest film, the highly anticipated biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, in which he plays John Deacon, the iconic bassist for the even more iconic band Queen. It’s not often actors get an opportunity to play historical characters who’ve touched so many lives as Queen, and Mazzello described it as simply, “An honor.” I jumped quickly into the question of whether he played bass before for landing his role as Deacon. “I’d played a little guitar in the past, but never the bass. A musician friend showed me the ropes before the audition. I thought it would be helpful and I like to be prepared. But when I showed up they only asked me to speak. They only wanted to see if I could hit the accent.” Mazzello got the part and learned the bass but, “Not as good as Queen.” He went on to say, “We played all the music in the movie. Paul Westwood [of David Bowie fame] helped me tremendously throughout the filming.”
It’s hard for actors to play such iconic figures in films. And there are critics who will judge, not to mention the fans who will judge harder. In the case of Deacon (known as the quiet one in the band), there was far less to draw from than the other members, especially Freddie Mercury. “I was jealous of the other [actors]. They had Brian [May] and Roger [Taylor], who both were very involved in the filming as advisors, and obviously there is plenty of footage of Freddie. I didn’t have that as much, given John’s sensitivity to the public and his private life. But I knew I could use that; his absence would help my role. At the premier, one of John’s kids told me I looked like his youngest son, Luke, on bass. Knowing the moves for Luke would be natural, I took it a complement and reward for the hard work I’d put in.”
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Prior to talking to Mazzello, I read several articles that referred to Bohemian Rhapsody as his return to the red carpet. Obviously the reference is to his first big acting role as Tim Murphy in the original Jurassic Park. The funny thing is, for acting, this isn’t a return to anything. He never stopped working, even while getting his film degree from The University of Southern California. He gravitates to complex roles and thoughtfully conquers them. Eugene Sledge, his character in the HBO series The Pacific, was a real-life complicated man and no less a complicated character to play. And, of course, there is the aforementioned Reverend St. Cyr, and I could not let the conversation end without asking about the snake handling. “I had never worked with a snake and never even touched one. I asked the [snake] trainer if there was anything I should be afraid of. He said yes, hurting the snake.”