Kevin Smith on Surviving a Heart Attack: ‘It’s Like I Got to Attend My Own Wake’
Two months after a massive heart attack, Smith talks about how his life has changed, his complicated relationships with Ben Affleck and Harvey Weinstein, and much more.
Kevin Smith didn’t think he was having a heart attack.
The writer-director of indie hits like Clerks and Chasing Amy had just stepped off stage after what was supposed to be the first of two stand-up shows at the Alex Theater in Glendale, California, when he started feeling out of breath and sweaty.
Smith ended up getting rushed to the hospital where a surgeon saved his life by opening the blockage in an artery, aptly nicknamed the “widow-maker.” Just over two months later, Smith has dropped a lot of weight and says he feels better than ever. This Friday night at 9 p.m., what could have been his final stand-up performance will air as a special on Showtime titled Kevin Smith: Silent But Deadly.
Speaking to The Daily Beast by phone, Smith says he it’s not hard for him to watch the special because in the moment when it was filmed, he had no idea what was about to happen. Acknowledging that he does look sweaty on stage, he says, “but I’m a fat guy, I sweat when I fucking breathe.” He jokes that fans can watch the special and play a game of “drink if you think he just had a spasm.”
Over the course of our wide-ranging and frank interview, Smith discusses how the heart attack has changed his life, from going vegan and losing more than 30 pounds to the old friends who reached out with their support—and those who didn’t.
What was going through your mind after the show backstage when you realized something was seriously wrong?
It wasn’t until I got into the E.R. that they told me I was having a massive heart attack. I was like, “Right now? I think I just smoked too much weed today.” I did not think it was a heart attack right up until I was in the O.R. and they were pumping fentanyl in me. And even then I was like, it can’t be a heart attack. I was arguing with the doctor. And he was like, “Yeah man, I’m looking at it right now. You got 100 percent occlusion in the L.A.D., that’s why you’re feeling the way you are right now.” And all I felt was out of breath. That was as uncomfortable as it ever really got. I was in and out of the hospital in 36 hours and I felt better than I’d ever felt in my adult life. I feel like I dodged a bullet and faced the fucking reaper but didn’t have the requisite agony that tends to go along with situations like that. But rather than come out of it like, “I’m not going to change anything,” I changed everything. And so I dropped like 32 pounds and I’m still dropping more. I went vegan. And it wasn’t difficult at all once they were like, “Well, the alternative to giving up meat is that maybe you come back here, or maybe you don’t ever come back here because we don’t catch it next time and you fucking die.” Look, I’m 47, I’ve eaten a fuck-ton of cows in my lifetime. I know what it tastes like, I’m fine to step aside. I got lucky this time. Eighty percent of the people who get a “widow-maker” heart attack die. So I was in the good 20 percent that made it through.
What kind of support have you received from fans? There are people who have been following your career for decades now.
It’s been beautiful. Honestly, it’s kind of like I got to attend my own wake, because I lived through it. People wrote the nicest things. I live on the internet. I’ve been a creature of the internet since like 1995. So I was always keeping an eye out for the people who were like, “The only sad part of this story is that he fucking survived.” But there wasn’t any of that. If I can just keep my nose clean until the day I die, this is a real preview of what it’ll be like. People weren’t dancing on my grave, there was genuine fucking concern. People always support you when you lose weight, because they’re like, “You look better, you look healthier.” But then there’s the other side of the equation where people are like, “You’ve lost too much weight, now you’re looking emaciated, stop it!” Look, I appreciate the kind sentiment, but I’ve seen myself with my clothes off, we’re nowhere near emaciation.
I’m telling you man, it’s crazy, but the heart attack is really the best thing that ever happened to me. It saved my life and put me on a healthier path. If you make so many things, you’re constantly moving forward and not really paying attention to the reaction. At the end of the day, the heart attack gave me this cosmic gut punch of like, you have no choice but to just sit here and reflect. They told me when I got out of the hospital that I had to be careful because heart attack victims sometimes fall into a state of depression. So I kept waiting for it, because I figured if it happens that will be part of the journey. I’ve never been depressed in my life, so this’ll be interesting. And it still hasn’t kicked in and I think that has everything to do with the wonderful support system that showed up. I heard from motherfuckers I hadn’t heard from in years. Chris Hardwick, god bless him, he wrote some lovely shit about how he was affected—more than I was affected—by my heart attack. So nice shit like that kept me from ever falling into a state of depression.
Did it cause you to reconnect with anyone from your past that you weren’t on such good terms with before that?
You know what was really nice? I hadn’t spoken to Linda Fiorentino, who was in Dogma, for years. Not because we had some sort of nasty falling out, we just hadn’t spoken. I remember on a commentary track on the DVD—Janeane Garofalo was in the movie and at one point I said it would have better if she played the lead, which was a really shitty and stupid thing to say. Thoughtless, considering that Linda was the lead and Linda did a great job. So it had been years since I had spoken with Linda and I got an email from her. And of course I was thankful to hear from her and it also gave me a chance to say I’m so sorry that I ever said that thing years ago. It gives you a chance to make amends. So that was my favorite one. I heard from so many people, but that one really stood out for me because, if somebody had said, “Oh, the movie would have been better if Ben Affleck directed it,” that would have hurt my feelings. I know it hurt her feelings and really unnecessarily because I always loved her performance in the movie.
Speaking of Ben Affleck, there’s a pretty harsh dig at his Batman performance in the special. I know you’ve been on not so great terms with him in the past, have you reconnected at all?
I wouldn’t call it not so great terms, but he hasn’t spoken to me in years. No, I didn’t hear from him after the heart attack. Of the Chasing Amy kids, I heard from Jason Lee, but I didn’t hear from Ben. Which is fine. Maybe he didn’t even hear about it. I think he probably plays a more prominent role in my mythology than I play in his mythology anymore. He was in some of my biggest movies, so in my world he’s still a figure. In his world, I haven’t factored in in god knows how fucking long. And he’s gone on to do tremendous, big fucking things. He’s become a massive movie star and a director in his own right. So I don’t think I pop up on his radar nearly as much he pops up on my radar. But I try honestly to—and it probably doesn’t seem that way because I literally make a joke about him in the special—to limit the amount that I do talk about him for that reason. Because I know it always brings him grief or heartache in some way.
The last time I talked about him, there was a Chasing Amy 20th anniversary retrospective screening at I think it was Out Fest in Los Angeles. So I went and did a Q&A afterwards and told what I thought was an adorable story about the young Ben Affleck. When I gave him the script, I said, “At one point in the movie you end up kissing Jason Lee.” And I contextualized it as I set up the story, you’ve got to remember this is 1996. And a young Ben Affleck said, “Kissing another man is the hardest acting challenge an actor will ever face” or something like that. And it was a true story about a young fucking kid in a completely different era. So I told that story and someone tweeted a headline that said something like, “Affleck Says Kissing a Man Is Hardest Challenge an Actor Can Face,” [making it seem] like he said it recently. Out of context, it’s a completely different sentiment. It got him into trouble. Evan Rachel Wood went after Ben on Twitter because of something Ben did not say. I told a story about something Ben said 20 years ago. [Wood’s tweet has since been deleted.] So if you’re Ben Affleck, the only time you probably see my name is in relation to how I make your life harder in some way. So I imagine, even if he did hear about the heart attack he was probably like, “Well, I’m glad he’s alive, moving on.” I’m too much trouble. I realize, even now as I’m saying this, I try not to talk about him and we just did for five minutes. He probably didn’t hear about the heart attack, but he’ll hear about this. “Why is this fucking fool still talking about me?”
Harvey Weinstein is another former collaborator of yours. You’ve said you are “ashamed” that he financed your early films, but is there an element of guilt about wishing you had known what was going on?
It makes you kind of go, I guess nobody really knows anybody. He never did that stuff in front of people. He certainly never did it in front of me. I mean, we all knew that he was a bully. He was your bully so that was OK, but you were also on the other side of that sometimes. That was the nature of the beast. There was a lot of forgiveness even just toward like, oh, that’s just Harvey’s way. He didn’t do those things out loud. So it was an eye-opener when all of that started to come out. And more continues to come out all the time. What I expressed on [my podcast] Hollywood Babble-On when it all broke was we just wanted to make movies. I just wanted to make people laugh and tell stories. I was always so proud of having been part of Miramax in that moment. They couldn’t miss and they were making indie film history and with our dopey little movies we were shoulder-to-shoulder with people like Quentin Tarantino or Anthony Minghella. We felt like the coach kids who snuck into first class. I always thought, hey man, whatever else happens for the rest of your career, you were at Miramax when the moment was happening. And thank the lord I went on to do some other things because those are the accomplishments that now make me feel better. Because the old accomplishments are tied into somebody who was creating a lot of suffering for other people.
There’s something tainted about it now.
Yeah, now suddenly you’re like it’s great that those movies were successful, but at what price? So it’s not even been a full year since all this information has broken. You talk to other Miramax people who were there at the company, there’s been a lot of, “Did you know? Did you know?” A lot of us who were male were completely caught off guard, because he didn’t do those things to us. I guess I did go to his hotel room, but he was fully dressed. The people who were victimized clearly knew, but he didn’t go around spreading it or talking about it. But yeah, I’m tied up with that. It used to be a proud thing and now I hopefully have other things to show for my career at the end of the day.
So going back to the special, there’s kind of this interesting disconnect, because we see you talk about the heart attack at the beginning and the end, but the guy on stage obviously doesn’t know what’s about to happen. I’m curious how this experience will affect your comedy moving forward. Does it make you want to talk about more life or death issues?
It’s been more of a personal change than a professional change. Professionally, I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve and talked about whatever interests me at that particular moment. So naturally, the heart attack has become part of the narrative because it happened and it’s an experience that I can share. I heard some people say, “Oh man, the next thing he makes is going to be amazing” and I’m like, probably not. It’s not like this brush with death has given me a greater insight into storytelling. I still want to tell the stories I want to tell. As I was laying there on the table, I felt like I was happy. I was like, I’m grateful for the life I’ve had. If I die, so be it. This was great, what an adventure. But my only one regret—professionally—was I wish we had made Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. A) It’s very funny. B) This means if I die, I go out on Yoga Hosers. Fuck, that’s not the way I wanted to go out. So I’m glad I got to live so we can at least get Jay and Silent Bob Reboot done, hopefully before I die.
What’s the origin story and concept behind this one?
Jason Mewes came to me and said, “We should make another Jay and Silent Bob movie.” I’m honestly shocked we got away with making one. No one was screaming for it. It’s kind of a minor miracle that we pulled it off. But for years Jason has been saying, “Let’s do another.” I don’t own Clerks, Mallrats is owned by Universal, but then I realized, nobody owns Jay and Silent Bob but you and Jason Mewes. So if you want to make a Jay and Silent Bob movie you can. Nobody will tie your hands. So clearly you want to play with your old toys. It didn’t work out with Clerks 3 or Mallrats 2, so do something fun with this. So I wrote Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, in which Jay and Silent Bob find out that Hollywood is doing a reboot of that old movie [Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back]. So they have to go to Hollywood and try to stop it again. It’s literally the same fucking movie all over again. It’s a movie that makes fun of sequels and remakes and reboots while being all three at the same time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.