Halloween movies are supposed to be terrifying. Gory. Filled with blood-curdling screams and face-eating zombies and hatchet-wielding villains played by Hollywood’s most menacing actors. They’re not, traditionally, supposed to feature a choreographed musical number, endear audiences to a precocious talking cat, or star a villain played by…Bette Midler.
Yet Hocus Pocus, which was released twenty years ago this year, features all of those things and has, implausibly, become a cherished entry in the Halloween-movie canon. (Just ask Buzzfeed...)
It’s an utterly silly movie, which should surprise no one who learns that it stars Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker. They’re sister witches by way of Larry, Curly, and Moe—decked in hideously fun costumes, campy personalities, and, on Midler at least, glorious fake teeth. (All the better to chew scenery with.) There’s an endearingly complicated mythology to track, with the sisters on a mission to devour the souls of children—only after performing a production number, naturally—as an intrepid teen (Omri Katz), his crush (Vinessa Shaw), his sister (Thora Birch), and a talking cat named Thackery Binx team up to stop them.
There’s a lot of things to love about Hocus Pocus. The talking cat may be the thing to love the most.
On the occasion of Hocus Pocus’s 20th anniversary (which was, absurdly, not on Halloween but actually in oh-so-haunted July), we called up the voice of said talking cat, Jason Marsden to talk about the film’s shoot and lasting popularity. While you would definitely recognize Marsden’s voice, you would be surprised by how often you’d recognize his face—especially if you’re a nostalgia-loving millennial.
In addition to voicing Binx, Marsden played Eric’s best friend on Boy Meets World, D.J.’s rich boyfriend on Full House, and J.T.’s friend on Step By Step. He also voiced Max in A Goofy Movie. In other words, millennials, he was your childhood. Here’s what he had to say about starring as a talking cat in Hocus Pocus…and, you know, all your favorite shows.
Were you aware that 20 years had passed since the movie came out?
I can’t believe it. I didn’t realize it until you let me know! But, wow, 20 years. I was—I must’ve been 18? My gosh.
So how did 18-year-old Jason Marsden get cast as the voice of a talking cat in Hocus Pocus?
It’s funny. I actually read for the role of Max, which was cast as the awesome Omri Katz, who I worked with when I was 17 on Eerie, Indiana. And then I was working on a show called Boy Meets World…
Oh, I’m very familiar.
…and we worked on the Disney lot in Burbank, California. They were also shooting Hocus Pocus on the Disney lot. So I would go over all the time to visit Omri and hang out. I’d sneak a peek and see the witches and hang on the set. Then several months later I get a call to audition for Binx. I went in and I got a call back with director Kenny Ortega. Shortly after that, I was booked. I spent about two or three ADR sessions doing it.
What did you think when you saw the actual cat, Binx, with the animatronics?
It was great. At the time, it was animatronic and also CG. It was very primitive CG. It looked astounding. I just watched the film a couple of weeks ago. Compared to what we see today it’s a little dated (laughs). But at the time, it was the most amazing thing. As I was recording, the animation wasn’t quite finished yet. And Sean Murray, who plays the human version of Thackery Binx in the film, was the voice first. They were using him first and animating his performance.
Do you know why they decided to dub over Sean’s voice?
It’s absolutely no detriment to Sean, who’s a friend and fantastic actor. It’s one of those things that happen in movies all the time. Movies are shot, written, go into production, and then take on a voice of their own. Sean has a very contemporary sound. After it was all said and done, they—and I’m sure they worked with him on this—after the movie evolved they thought it would be more realistic, since the witches come from this time period, that Binx should also have an affected accent.
I think that a lot of people—because I’m certainly one of them—never knew that another actor did the cat’s voice, because when Sean plays human Binx it’s still your voice that we hear.
Right. So not only did I have to do Binx, I had to lip Sean as well. (Laughs.) I’m sure he loved that.
What was your impression of the film the first time you saw it?
I loved it. First off, I love Halloween. This is, like, my month. It was so vibrant and colorful. And, you know, Bette Midler and Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker are just amazing in it. It’s got a family-friendly feel, but it’s a little bit menacing at times. It’s a little bit scary! I was showing it to my three-and-a-half year old son and some parts were a little much. What astounded me—I don’t know if you remember—but it wasn’t released on Halloween.
I know! It was released in July. So, so strange.
It was very crazy. That staggered me. I was like, “This is a Halloween movie! It takes place on Halloween! Release it on Halloween!” The whole business of when you release movies still staggers me. But I’m so pleased that it—and I’ve only realized it the past couple of years—that people watch it every Halloween like they watch A Christmas Story every Christmas.
Do you have a favorite scene?
I love the opening, the whole opening when we meet the witches and the kidnap Binx’s sister. I also love the musical sequence. I mean, it kind of breaks the thread of reality a little bit, but I’m a sucker for musical sequences, which is also Kenny Ortega’s forte. He’s a choreographer.
You can’t have Bette Midler in the movie without having her sing a campy song.
Right on. Exactly.
So 20 years later, the movie is so popular I think it’s safe to say there’s an obsession with. What is it about it that has kept everyone so excited about it for two decades now?
I think it’s just one of those lightning in a bottle kind of movies. It’s perfect for families. For those who are into Halloween, you can’t beat it. Now we’re all into, you know, Twilight and vampires and werewolves, and witches go along with that potpourri perfectly. It’s probably a hybrid of all that.
There’s also this whole obsession with nostalgia now among millennials. Now your early acting and voice credits is a list of, like, all the things that millennials are obsessed from growing up: Hocus Pocus. Voicing Max in A Goofy Movie. Starring on Boy Meets World, Step By Step, Full House. And now they’re all having a resurgence in popularity. Are you getting a sense…
That I’m getting old? (Laughs.)
...that these things are all becoming popular again?
I’m definitely getting a sense of that, especially now with social networking. In the digital age, we’re so aware of everything, and it’s in your face. Ever since I started my Twitter account, this has really come to the forefront. It feels good! I’m not Tom Cruise, man. I’m not a household name. But I’m proud that I worked on a bunch of stuff that people will remember, hopefully, or that they’ll share for years to come. There’s a little bit of a legacy going on. It feels great, man.
And now Boy Meets World is being rebooted. You and Will Friedle were actually good friends growing up, right?
We are besties! He was the best man at my wedding. We have traveled together. I don’t think he would be the man he is today without me.
What was it like being his best friend and playing his best friend on Boy Meets World.
We met when I auditioned for another Michael Jacobs show prior to Boy Meets World called Almost Home, which was originally named The Torkelsons. It was three guys then: me, Will, and Rider Strong’s older brother, Shiloh. I booked it and sent Will back to Connecticut crying. Then Almost Home did its run and after that I auditioned for Boy Meets World. I went with it. I went to network. I read and it was between me and Will. I was like, you know what? I can’t let this poor kid go back to Connecticut. I’ll let him have it. No, truth be told he won that fair and square. But luckily, Michael Jacobs still liked me. They wrote that part for me on Boy Meets World to play his friend, and Will and I instantly hit it off.
Actually, it’s a funny story—I haven’t told many people this. The night after the final network audition for Boy Meets World, I went to Universal Studios and Universal City Walk to blow off some steam—I knew I hadn’t booked it—and who do I see walking towards me but Will and his father. And I said, “Hey! Look! It’s the twerp who stole my job!”
It’s totally not earnest, but I’m a huge Will and Grace fan, so one of the guest roles I remember you best from is playing the “pocket gay” who goes on a date with Will.
That’s another Halloween-themed episode! “It’s the Gay Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” I think was the name of the episode.
You can’t escape Halloween. So how was shooting with those guys at Will and Grace?
It was great. I had just gotten off of Step By Step, which was a very nurturing family environment. I’m probably just talking shit, but when I came onto Will and Grace it was a different environment. The industry was shifting and writers were becoming predominant in the success of shows. So whereas, for example, on Step By Step we were free to ad-lib and try stuff that may not work, on Will and Grace, they made it very clear that I needed to stick to the script or try anything or you’ll be replaced. So that was not the most welcoming thing, and it was a little bit uncomfortable. But I have to say that the absolute nicest people were Sean Hayes, Megan Mullally, and Harry Connick Jr.
That’s good to hear.
They were. Absolutely hands down. It was supposed to be two episodes, but I think my uncomfortability and my tendency to run my mouth kept from me coming back for the second episode—as I’m doing right now—but I love it. I seem to get noticed for that more than anything else, recently. They did hundreds of episodes of that show, but that one seems to rerun the most.
I was looking at your IMDb credits. And you have an astounding 180 acting credits on your resume. That’s an insane number.
That feels great, Kevin. In this industry, it’s a business. It’s more business than it is show. There are thousands of actors in the union and a very small percentage of us can say we are working actors. Some of us book a job, get in the union, and never work again. I’m very fortunate and so lucky to be working still. It feels great. It feels good to know that I have the talent and the personality that people like me enough to keep hiring me. And I never take that for granted.
Finally, in the spirit of Hocus Pocus, what are your Halloween plans this year?
We just moved to Nashville, Tennessee. We just found out today that a huge storm is coming in tomorrow. Our plan was to take our son trick or treating. We still need to see if that will happen, or if we need to postpone it. But our plan is to dress our son up as a mummy and take him through the neighborhoods to do his thing.