On the Drunk Bus With Pineapple Tangaroa
The Austin body modification artist isn’t playing around in his surprise new comedy
"If I saw my guidance counselor I would kick him in the nuts."
Pineapple Tangaroa laughed. It's not that the Austinite wasn't fascinated with anthropology enough to study it at Kent State University. He just didn't realize that an undergraduate degree alone in that discipline would be a professional dead end ... something his advisor clearly forgot to mention. "He knew I didn't want to go for my master's degree and not once did he bring up that if you don't get a master's, there really isn't a career for you in anthropology."
So, upon graduating in 2004, Tangaroa did what people with useless bachelor's diplomas do: entry level work in an unrelated field. Abhorring the frigid Ohio winters, he returned to his previous stomping grounds of San Marcos and worked a couple of lousy piercing gigs and a warehouse job. After repeated rejection, he made an inroad into Austin's body art scene, being hired at Mercy Piercing Studios. Concurrently, he found a mentor in late local legend Daryl "Bear" Belmares, who – despite working at a competing business – took Tangaroa under his wing and taught him how to approach the craft with integrity. When Mercy abruptly shuttered in 2006, Tangaroa sold his motorcycle, bed, and TV to scrape together funds to start his own studio in that there Seventh Street space: Shaman Modifications.
In the ensuing 15 years, Tangaroa's built a body modification empire with two studios in Austin, plus a location in Dallas, and become a recognizable figure around town: Partly because he's a locally ingrained businessman, and partly due to his unique appearance. A head that's heavily scarified and tattooed. Ear lobes gauged to fit gleaming jewelry. Arms inked in blackwork, under-skin implants, including a prominent Wu-Tang Clan symbol on the back of his hand.
And now, in a most unexpected way, Tangaroa's college experiences have resurfaced and yielded a life-changing experience. The mellow father of four – and grandfather of two – has a major role in the critically praised new coming-of-age comedy Drunk Bus.
The film, a SXSW 2020 selection hitting on demand services and select theatres via FilmRise this week, zeroes in on the depressing postcollegiate existence of Michael (Ozark's Charlie Tahan), who shuttles around wasted coeds via the late night campus loop bus at Kent Institute of Technology. He's a lost soul – virginal, spineless, unmotivated, and caught up in purgatorial past relationships. When he's cold-cocked by an unruly passenger, the bus company hires the protagonist a security guard, played by Tangaroa, who takes an interest in shaking his new co-worker out of his stalled-out sufferance.
That campus transit backdrop's familiar to Tangaroa who, along with Drunk Bus co-director Brandon LaGanke, worked as a nocturnal college-route bus driver at Kent State in the early 2000s.
It had been years since Tangaroa had heard from his former co-worker and neighbor when LaGanke reached out to him about the film. He recalled his reaction after reading an early version of the script: "Holy shit, you're writing a movie about us!" Initially, LaGanke invited Tangaroa to be an advisor. A couple months later, the filmmaker contacted his old friend with a surprising development: "We can't get anyone to play you [so] you are gonna play you."
Many circumstances and characters in the movie are pulled directly from their experiences. That, unfortunately, includes the scene in which an intoxicated passenger simultaneously vomits and defecates on the bus. "That was a rough day because it was in our job description as bus drivers that we had to clean up any bodily fluids," Tangaroa sighed, standing behind the counter of his pristine East Seventh Street studio. "The story got passed around the students and the campus loop became the 'campus poop.'"
Given that the surrogate character shares a name with the real-life piercer, it begs the question: How similar is Drunk Bus' Pineapple to Pineapple Tangaroa? "Oh man – very different," attested Tangaroa. "When my wife watched the movie she said, 'I can see you, I can hear you, but what you are saying is not you and it freaks me out.' The character is so expressive and outgoing. In real life, I'm very monotone and my demeanor's very steady, very slow – that's something my customers appreciate, because I can calmly walk them through uncomfortable situations like piercings. I'm not the person to go to a party and take over the room. That character in Drunk Bus definitely is."
Tangaroa admitted Movie-Pineapple resembles how he acted before giving up alcohol. Movie-Pineapple's a head-butt enthusiast with a serious don't-fuck-with-me stare, and presents an intimidating presence antithetical to the piercer's tranquil nature. "I can't be intimidating," he explained. "If someone cuts me off, I can't give them the finger because I'm also the face of my business. I don't blend in – I stick out in a lineup."
All that's to say that Tangaroa's performance in Drunk Bus can't be characterized as somebody playing themself, but a legitimate feat of acting. In preparation, he trained under Marco Perella, the veteran character actor best known as the stepfather in Boyhood, who kept telling his soft-spoken student one thing: "'Go bigger.' ... He taught me to retain the lines and put them in a way only I could. It's not regurgitation. It has to feel natural and be unique to the character. That's what he impressed on me."
Still, as he prepped for filming in March of 2019, self-doubt hounded Tangaroa, whose film experience was limited to a few small background roles (look for him briefly in Terrence Malick's Song to Song). What if he was in over his head? What if he was the weakest link on set? His legs shook the entire flight up to upstate New York, where Drunk Bus was shot. Upon his arrival to the production, he visited Tahan's hotel room, introduced himself, and told the much-younger actor, "'I'm freaking out. I think I bit off more than I can chew!' ... He told me, 'Just do what comes natural.' He was extremely supportive and put me at ease. So we had a personal connection that I think translated into the film."
It did. In a film that thrives on strong casting, the least experienced actor turned in a memorable performance of a character both fun and complex. "The nice thing about this role is I wasn't 'Thug No. 1.' I wasn't a bodyguard, and I wasn't a drug dealer ... that's awesome," he exclaimed joyfully. "I got a real, true role for someone as modified as I am. I thought that was a step forward for people who embrace the body modification subculture. It made me proud."
Drunk Bus is available now on VOD and in theatres. Read our review here.