In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Kenn Scott, a former Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about his experience on set and the lasting appeal of the TMNT franchise.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Marcheta Fornoff: I thought it was interesting that part of your path to becoming a ninja turtle, of course, involves pizza delivery. Can you talk about how leveraging your part-time job as a Domino’s delivery person helped get you on set?
Kenn Scott: Pizza has always played a strong role in my life. I have a tattoo, a slice of pizza on my leg. It’s my favorite food.
As I was pursuing my career in acting, I eventually moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, where they built a movie studio. I knew as I was pursuing my acting dreams, I was just a neophyte. I knew nothing. I knew that somehow my goals and my aspirations, all my dreams, were waiting to be answered inside the walls of that studio. There was just some sort of feeling.
But just like any movie studio, it was surrounded by high walls and you can’t just walk up and walk in. One of my many part-time jobs was delivering pizzas as a lot of people do, and I loved it. I learned that everybody opens the door for the pizza guy. Everybody welcomes the pizza guy because obviously somebody ordered this hot, delicious food. And, if it’s not you, you don’t want to stop the person who did order it.
So I decided to put on my Domino’s Pizza delivery uniform. I got a couple of pizza boxes and I drove up to the security guard at the movie studio backlot. This was pre-9/11, so it was simply a guard shack and a part-time retiree sitting in there. I drove up and I was like, ‘I’ve got a delivery for production.’ He just kind of looked at me. I knew production was the word for whatever movie was being made on the movie lot. He checked his clipboard and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not on the clipboard. Nothing’s going to happen here.’ And I was really, really nervous and he pointed and he said, ‘All right, just follow the yellow line.’ So, he raised the gate and I drove in.
I wasn’t on the list. But maybe the director of a movie ordered a pizza, and here it was at the gates. There was no way that the security guard was going to stand in the way of that, so I got right through.
I ended up parking on the backlot and I got out of my car. They were shooting a movie and there were stunt guys there and they were driving cars and shooting guns. And I mean, it was a whole lot going on. And I kind of faded into the background and watched.
And anyway, that was the beginning. I met some people who could get me involved with movies, but just understanding the power of the pizza was a way that helped get me to where I needed to be.
Fornoff: At some point you were able to give your headshots over to an agent who was able to alert you about auditions happening.
Scott: Basically, I was fortunate enough in my travels around the city of Wilmington trying to learn about movies and movie sets. I ultimately met the people who were in charge of casting the extras on movies. I just got to talking to them a little bit. And they ultimately clued me into the fact that some mystery martial arts movie was going to be coming soon to shoot in North Carolina.
And, for me, growing up there and wanting to pursue my goals and dreams of being a martial arts movie star, the fact that it was coming in my backyard in North Carolina was like, ‘Man, this is too perfect.’
I met them, sent them my materials, and then stayed in touch with them for so long. ‘Hey, is that secret movie coming?’
‘No, it’s not coming yet. We’ll let you know when it is.’ Time went on.
Finally, I called one time and I said, ‘Hey, is that movie coming?’ And they’re like, ‘Unfortunately, no, it’s going to go to Canada because there are tax incentives that Canada can offer that we can’t.’
Within a couple of weeks, though, they actually called me back and said, ‘Hey, that movie is back in town. It’s going to shoot in North Carolina. We’d like you to come audition to be one of the martial arts extras in the movie. The movie’s called “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” ’
I didn’t know a whole hell of a lot about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” I knew about the comic book, but I hadn’t read it or anything like that. To me, it was a martial arts movie, (and) I was like, I’m all over this. So it was great.
Fornoff: So you auditioned and you were able to impress them with your martial arts skills. This is something you had been training at for many years. At what point did you realize, this isn’t just a movie that is going to be like a blip on the radar, but something that has real potential to reach people?
Scott: That’s a question a lot of people have been asked associated with the movie. Nobody knows anything’s going to be something. You can’t make a viral video. Right? I work in marketing (now) and people always say, make us a viral video. I’m like, that misses the point. You know, you make something and you see what happens. Nobody knew what this movie was going to be, even up until the opening date.
For me, as an actor, I know nobody thinks their movie is going to be a blip on the radar. So I don’t think that’s a consideration. But everybody hopes for the greatest homerun you can hit and then you see what happens.
And the movie came out and they did that old clichéd thing where they got in their car in New York and they drove to the theater on opening day, and they saw a line around the block for people to see this movie. It was a huge thing. They never counted on it being as big as it was.
Fornoff: So you got cast initially as a soldier (for the Foot Clan), and then one of the actors portraying Raphael got injured. And because you had this relationship with the stunt coordinator, it sounded like that enabled you to fill in.
Scott: I was originally hired because of my martial arts ability to play one of the bad guys, the ninja foot soldiers that work for Shredder. And basically the foot soldier’s job is to get beat up by the Ninja Turtles. They hired a lot of local martial artists. They paid them all $75 a day before taxes. You were considered what was called a special abilities extra.
What was interesting about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was there are really four people that play each turtle.
There’s an actor who wears a suit that has a mechanized head that can do all the emotions and the facial movements. Then off camera, there’s a puppeteer from the Henson organization, (of the Muppets and all that) who controls motors in that head. So those two make up what’s called the acting turtle. And then you have a third guy who’s the stunt or action performer. And then when the movie’s done, a fourth guy comes in and lays down the voice.
So really, four people at one time can say they were Raphael or Leonardo or whatever.
As a foot soldier, we were interacting with all the stunt turtle performers and ninja turtles. Most of those guys were all from Hong Kong, straight out of the Jackie Chan movie stunt school.
In one scene in the movie where Raphael meets Casey Jones, Casey Jones hits Raphael with a cricket bat and sails through the air and he lands in a trash can on his head. In order to shoot that they took Nam, a stunt man from Hong Kong, they hung him by his ankles (and) they literally dropped him headfirst into the trash can. When they did (that) the turtle head and the contraption that makes up its support systems came down on his nose and broke his nose. After that he could not wear the Raphael turtle head and there was nobody available to do any action or fighting for Raphael.
Every time they can’t shoot something, they’re losing money. So they immediately go to the stunt coordinator, Pat Johnson, and they say, ‘What do we do?’
And after having worked with Pat as a foot soldier and being escalated from just sort of a background foot soldier to (doing) more stunts. Pat recognized me and said, ‘Kenn, come over here. Now, if you can fit into the Raphael suit, you’re going to be the new Raphael.’
This is like my dream coming true at that very moment, but it’s all contingent upon me fitting in a suit made for a guy who’s smaller than me and a lot lighter and skinnier.
I was determined to make it happen, and fortunately, so were the people that worked on the movie.
When I first tried on the Raphael costume, many of the parts didn’t fit, and then ultimately they had to go get parts from other turtles: Donatello, Leonardo, whatever. They put together this Frankenstein like costume for me and put the Raphael head on me, and I became the new Raphael at that point.
I was in the right place, right time, had the right abilities, and I was the right height.
Fornoff: By pure happenstance. Had that one stunt not gone that way, it might not have been until the second movie where you actually got to be Raphael.
Scott: Yeah, there’s no telling. I may not have been Raphael at that point. My life might have taken a whole other trajectory.
So, yeah, one pivotal moment and the guy who (that) happened to was a friend of mine. We were spending time together, and so it was my friend’s misfortune, but it was my good fortune. He was happy for me, so it all worked out.
Fornoff: You got to become Raphael for the first film for the remaining things that needed to be shot. But then when the second film came around, you initially were hired to do the stunts for Raphael. Can you talk about how you finessed that situation?
Scott: After the success of the first Ninja Turtle movie, they knew they were going to launch into a sequel.
They immediately turned to Pat Johnson, the legendary stunt coordinator and martial artist, to once again create the stunt team for the movie. Pat immediately called me and said, ‘Kenn, I want to hire you to do the stunts for Raphael again in the next movie.’
On the first movie, I kept looking at the actor turtles, who were performing in all the dramatic scenes with the director, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘I could do that. I want to do that.’
I said, ‘Pat, I really appreciate it. I definitely want to do this. I’m looking forward to it. But if any other opportunities come up for any acting or the other guys don’t want to come back, I definitely want to be an actor. You know, my goals and dreams, so let me know.’ And he was like kind of like, just be happy with what you got and we’ll see what goes on.
And I was like, OK, whatever. But then wouldn’t you know it? Pat Johnson calls me a couple of weeks later in a very surreptitious kind of way. He goes, ‘I just wanted to let you know that Josh Pais, who played Raphael, is not coming back for this next movie. I don’t know why. And you didn’t hear from me.’ He hangs up the phone and I’m like, ‘Holy cow, he just let me know one of the actor Turtles is not coming back.’
So I put my wheels into motion and I find a call sheet from the movie. That’s the attendance sheet every day on the movie set, and it’s got every crew member’s contact information. And on the back is one of the producers, David Chan, from Golden Harvest.
So I find his phone number and I nervously call David Chan. Somehow I get through to him. I basically laid my stuff out to him. He said, ‘Well, Kenn, that’s fine if you want to do that. Here’s what I want you to do: Make a video of yourself acting out some scenes as if you were Raphael. Pick some scenes from the movie. Just do them, videotape it and send it back to us. And, you know, it’s got to be on my desk by Tuesday.’ And I was like, OK, all right, that’s super fantastic.
I got a buddy of mine. We got a video camera. I stood in the front yard in a green T-shirt, and I was trying to act like Raphael.
Well, within a few days, I get a call back and it’s the producer, and he says, ‘Congratulations, you’re the new Raphael.’ They decided my martial arts background and what I had done and my familiarity would give them an edge as the turtle, rather than hire somebody new.
I became the new Raphael, so all the dominoes kind of fell into place.
Fornoff: Yeah, and then you ended up in Fort Worth because you wanted to be close to your brother or what was the connection here?
Scott: What drew me to Fort Worth was I’d been in Los Angeles for 22 years, and I had achieved a certain level of what I like to call a minor league success in Hollywood. I had a sort of a major league sort of hit with “Ninja Turtles,” but that was the franchise, it wasn’t necessarily me. But I had a good, sustainable career. I always tell people I was like Bull Durham in the movie “Bull Durham.” After a while, I was ready for something else in my life.
In a city like Los Angeles, you become isolated from family and roots and things like that. And I really wanted to get back to my roots and my family and my brother had moved to Texas like 18 years previously. I was like, ‘Wow, Fort Worth is cool and there’s no state income tax.’ I wanted something smaller and I didn’t have to sit in traffic and things were accessible and all that. Fort Worth had a lot of appeal in that way, and I really liked it. It’s a big city in its own way, but it’s a small town when you really get down to the roots of it. And that’s so appealing and it’s been so great to me.
Fornoff: I’m curious what you feel the enduring power of “Ninja Turtles” is given that, you know, there is a new iteration out now (even though) the comics came out a very long time ago. What do you think keeps people connected to the franchise?
Scott: I think that’s a really great question, and the answer is very, very simple. I think “Ninja Turtles” subscribes to the mythological, heroic journey that we all crave. It’s all in our human nature to want to pursue myths, stories and inspiration of overcoming obstacles and challenges to unite with a certain spirit. All religions, all mythologies, all tell the story of people who are in a state that needs to change for some reason, and they’re able to find help and power to overcome obstacles.
“Ninja Turtles” is a mythology for a whole particular generation. It takes the four of them to really make one complete being. So there’s a mythological sort of DNA connection to humanity, and it hit at just the right time.
Fornoff: I thought you were going to talk about the pizza.
Scott: Pizza will be my last meal if I (get to decide) my last meal, it’s going to be pizza for sure.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.