Realism and Dark Humor in "A Thousand Junkies" at Tribeca

By Dorri Olds 05/08/17

“It’s not exactly method acting. I like to call it methadone acting.” — Tommy Swerdlow

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Three heroin addicts next to a car
Three friends make and star in a new film about their life pre-recovery. via A Thousand Junkies

Tommy Swerdlow, TJ Bowen, and Blake Heron are ex-dope fiends, which explains why A Thousand Junkies has an authentic feel. Both hilarious and horrifying, the film depicts a day in the life of three Los Angeles men strung out on heroin. Swerdlow, who directed, co-wrote the screenplay with Bowen. The trio star in the film. Their characters have the same names, which made sense. They are playing older versions of their former selves. Pushcart Prize winning author Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight) has a cameo.

Unpretentiously, the movie delivers drama plus two of the greatest elements of storytelling: comedy and tragedy. It is riddled with what I’ve loved about the recovery community all of these years—dark humor. The story kicks off with the drug-addled buddies finding out that their dealer can’t meet them. It’s the call to action for our protagonists’ journey. Their mission: find somebody quick to get heroin from.

Working out logistics, they realize they don’t have enough gas. But, if they pay for gas, they won’t have enough money for the dope. They’ve worn out and burned through all of the people in their lives that they used to hit up for cash. With druggie logic, they brainstorm to find someone who will front them smack. It’s not about getting high anymore, it is to stave off getting dope-sick.

The guys scour Los Angeles in Tommy’s beat-up Volvo. The stakes get higher with every failed plan. As they grow more desperate, they begin losing any moral or ethical compass. It’s a character-driven tale and we helplessly watch each man unravel. It was one of the finest offerings at Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) this year.

On the festival’s website, A Thousand Junkies is described aptly as “a drug movie that struggles to find any drugs and a road movie that drives in circles.” There’s no preaching here, no public service announcement. What the movie does so successfully is buzzkill any temptation to use. The inspirational part of the story is that these real-life, former grifters cleaned up, met in AA, and had their movie premiere at one of the most lauded film festivals in the world.

The Fix sat down with the three actors to discuss the real-life inspirations for the film.

Tommy Swerdlow

“I was successful and made a lot of money,” said Swerdlow. “That was a big problem. Money and heroin were a bad combination.”

At 12, Swerdlow’s family moved from Great Neck, L.I. to Manhattan. It was the 1970s and he was introduced to marijuana. While he smoked pot, one of his friends was buying pure heroin. Tommy’s love for opioids began with smoking the drug. “Some of my friends got kind of strung out but I never did.”

His next phase was freebasing. “I’d walk around with a BernzOmatic torch in a bag, and torch this thing, like when Richard Pryor blew himself up.” After high school, he left for L.A. to become an actor, telling himself, “I’m gonna get my shit together. I’m gonna be legit.” Things went fine for a while—he got married and landed acting roles. “It would’ve happened if I stuck with it,” he said. But in 1987, Swerdlow, then age 25, and his then-wife began smoking heroin together.

“By 1989, I was strung out,” he said. At that point, the couple switched from smoking to shooting it. “We used for like 20 years. In 2007, I did a bad shot, got a heart valve infection, had to have open heart surgery and that’s what it took to get me straightened out. I came out of the hospital on 180 milligrams of methadone [and] met these dudes. TJ has great stories about me nodding out at the meeting when I was leading it as the secretary.” [Bursts out laughing]

“Yeah,” said Bowen, “With his eyes half open he was telling me what to do!”

As for the film, Swerdlow said, “We didn’t want to say anything about heroin addiction, but invite you into that world, the feel of it, and we wanted to focus on the workday of it. Anyone who’s lived that life knows it’s a full-time job.”

Yes, and a grueling one.

TJ Bowen

Originally from Boston, Bowen moved to L.A. in 2001 to become an actor. “I acted on a show on Showtime,” he said, “and started doing standup comedy. I was doing well but I’d always been a big drinker and was drinking a lot.” Swerdlow chimed in: “You grew up in a bar, right?” “Yeah,” said TJ, “my father’s a bartender and alcohol is a big part of my family.”

Things in L.A. were going well but then Bowen was introduced to opioids. “An actress I knew got breast implants, and a bottle of 60 Vicodin in 2001. She took one and said ‘This stuff makes me sick, do you want it?’ And I said ‘Okay.’” He was hungover one morning and took two [Vicodin pills]. “That took the hangover away. I thought, ‘How do I get 1000 of these?’ That was the one time in my life, you know, when people say, ‘I always knew I wanted to be a doctor.’ For me that was, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do with my life.' I loved it.”

It wasn’t long before he ended up in downtown L.A. “There was a homeless guy named Dallas,” Bowen said. “He would take me around to get me OxyContin.” One day Dallas said to Bowen, “You’re spending 100 dollars on the pills and 10 dollars [gets me two balloons of heroin] and we’re both getting to the same place.” Bowen said to Dallas, “This sounds interesting. How do you do it?” Dallas demonstrated. “From there,” said Bowen, “that became my whole life. I started getting arrested and going to rehabs and sober livings—that whole cycle went on.… AA never got me clean no matter how many rehabs. I couldn’t get a day in AA for 20 years…. It was too painful physically and emotionally to stop.”

He said, “I thought about suicide many times but then somebody would call me and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you 20 dollars.’ Then I would go get loaded and think, ‘God, I can’t believe I was thinking of killing myself, that seems rash.’ By 2007 I wanted to stop but just couldn’t.” In 2009, he crawled into recovery and has been sober since.

Blake Heron

Like Tommy, Heron was from Long Island and moved to L.A. Heron had been acting since he was age nine. He came from a long line of drug addicts and alcoholics. “It’s in my genes. I grew up around it, so, it was the norm to me. I was always intrigued by the darker side of life. It seemed exciting and fun.” He enjoyed doing the things he was told not to do.

He began using drugs at age 12. “Typical smoking weed at first, and drinking, which quickly progressed to cocaine, speed, and ecstasy. Then I had my first taste of opiates with Vicodin. I found exactly what I was looking for. Opiates felt like I’d found home.”

The role he played in this movie is not far from where he used to be in 2008. “I’d reached a really low point and had a failed suicide attempt because I couldn’t see no way out of my addiction.” At the time, he was in a serious relationship with a woman who was also an addict. “I had an intervention pulled on me by some very close friends,” Heron said. “I was sent off to detox and rehab.” He got better and was allowed daytime excursions. On his first trip, he went to visit his girlfriend. “I found her dead from a drug overdose,” he said. “It is the most heartbreaking situation I’ve ever experienced.” That’s what it took for him to put down the drugs. “I immersed myself in recovery and met these guys at a meeting and we all became friends. I love these guys.”

Heron is covered in tattoos. The first one he showed me was on his finger. It was the name of the girlfriend who’d died. The next tat was a Motorhead lyric on his arm, “Win some lose some, it’s all the same to me.” He exposed the inner side of his other arm to show me a hypodermic needle on a bullseye.

As I headed home, I marveled how these three former screw-ups managed to pull their lives together and create a film that was so funny, and moving—and made it into the Tribeca Film Festival. Every day we hear about the shocking number of addicts overdosing during America’s drug crisis. It’s inspiring to see it’s never too late to get sober, no matter how low you go.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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