HDTGM: A Conversation With Nic Cowan (Co-Star Of Surf Ninjas)

What ever happened to the little brother from Surf Ninjas? Is he still acting? Still surfing? Still using martial arts to make the world a safer place? I sat down with Nic Cowan, who played little brother Adam in Surf Ninjas, to find out...

How Did This Get Made

Synopsis: When surf-lovin' brothers Adam (Nic Cowan) and Johnny (Ernie Reyes Jr.) discover that they are actually long-lost princes from a small China Sea Island, they set out on a combat-filled adventure to save their birthplace from an power-hungry tyrant.

Tagline: Surf's up! Time to save the world!

Yesterday, Howl launched a new podcast called How Did This Get Made: Origin Stories, where listeners can go behind-the-scenes to learn about the making of cult films like Surf Ninjas. How Did This Get Made: Origin Stories will be exclusively available on Howl (discount code "Bonkers" gets one month free), starting with these six Surf-Ninja-themed episodes:

  • Dan Gordon: Surf Ninjas scribe Dan Gordon talks about breaking into the business, getting blackballed by Hollywood and the unique horror of slowly discovering that his directorial debut was actually a meant-to-fail, money-laundering scheme for the mob.
  • Dan Gordon II: In Part II, Dan talks about how Passenger 57 taught him to always bet on black, how Wyatt Earp spawned a vengeful copycat and how after years of struggle, all it took to get The Hurricane made was a three-word realization.
  • Dan Gordon III: In Part III, Dan reveals what his misadventures with the mob taught him about who really killed JFK.
  • Yoni Gordon: Dan's son Yoni who laughs his way to an all-star cameo in Surf Ninjas, shares behind-the-scenes scoops and talks about the endearing quirks of Rob Schneider.
  • Nic Cowan: Actor Nic Cowan, who plays little brother Adam in Surf Ninjas, talks about the odd life of being a child actor, his strange bond with Tone Loc and whether or not he'd be willing to pick up the proverbial surfboard if he were called upon to reprise his role for a Surf Ninjassequel role.
  • Ernie Reyes, Jr.: Actor Ernie Reyes Jr., who stars as Johnny in Surf Ninjas, talks about his background in martial arts, scoring a breakout role in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and the strangely powerful legacy of a little film called Surf Ninjas...

Today, it's my pleasure to share an interview with Nic Cowan, who co-starred in the movie as one of the aforementioned (and incorrigible) surf ninjas.

It's been a few years since Nic last acted, so in addition to talking about his breakout role in Surf Ninjas and what it was like to film his first movie in Thailand, we also discussed the ups and downs of Hollywood and the unusual life of being a child actor.

Below is a copy of our conversation...

suft ninjas poster

Blake J. Harris: Hey Nic?

Nic Cowan: Yes.

Blake J. Harris: Hey, it's Blake Harris. How are you?

Nic Cowan: Hey, Blake. It is good. How are you?

Blake J. Harris: I'm good. Are you still at work?

Nic Cowan: Nah, I'm free as a bird.

Blake J. Harris: Excellent. So what do you do these days? Where is work?

Nic Cowan: I am a graphic designer and illustrator. I work for a company that does accessories currently. Like licensed stuff. So like Star Wars, Disney, Hello Kitty, Pokémon. That kind of thing.

Blake J. Harris: How did you get into that?

Nic Cowan: You know what, I've gotten into such weird jobs just by word of mouth...Like I didn't try to be an accessory designer, but I had a friend working at the company and I needed a job so that's where I ended up.

Blake J. Harris: Nice.

Nic Cowan: I've worked in animation. All kinds of random stuff.

Blake J. Harris: Did you ever at some point think that you were going to be a professional Surf Ninja?

Nic Cowan: Ha, no. I didn't even know that was a job, to be honest.

Blake J. Harris: Well you gotta start the market for that...

Nic Cowan: I think so, yeah!

surf ninjas

Blake J. Harris: Tell me about Saturday night [the live How Did This Get Made? show that covered Surf Ninjas]. How'd it go?

Nic Cowan: It was great. Yeah, it was such a random thing. You know, I'm a huge fan of the podcast and since day one I was kind of thinking maybe they should do Surf Ninjas. And you know, I've tried to message it to the message boards. I have friends who were saying that stuff long before I started listening. But then I saw the post about it being the live show, of all things, and I live in Los Angeles. So I've been to the live show. But of course it was sold out. So I hopped o Twitter, which I'm not very active on, but I think I should become more active on because clearly it gets the job done. But yeah, I messaged Paul and he got back pretty quickly. And the rest is history.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah. Paul's really the best. I've been, you know, lucky enough to hobnob with a bunch of, you know, pretty successful people, and Paul is really the nicest and most genuine of all the celebrities I've ever met and known.

Nic Cowan: You can really tell. Yeah. It comes across even on the pod or when he's on TV or whatnot. And then now that I've chatted with him, just the little bit that I did, I can just totally feel it.

Blake J. Harris: Good. I'm glad it comes through.

Nic Cowan: Yeah.

Blake J. Harris: But let's talk about you, let's go back in time.

Nic Cowan: Okay.

Blake J. Harris: How did you get involved with Surf Ninjas?

Nic Cowan: Well, you know, I was doing the actor kid thing. I had done some commercials, you know, some one-off television episodes. The usual thing. And then this audition comes along called Surf Ninjas and I was like: uh, what's that? The rundown says it's kind of like Ninja Turtles (it was in the middle of all that whole boom), I don't remember if I knew that Ernie Jr. was in it yet, but of course he was from Ninja Turtles and Ninja Turtles 2, especially, because you know he had a speaking role.

Blake J. Harris: Yup.

Nic Cowan: So I was a fan of that. I kind of got pretty excited pretty early on about what that could be. And started going through the audition process.

Blake J. Harris: And what do you remember about the audition? I know it was a long time ago, by the way.

Nic Cowan: [laughs] Yeah, it's coming on 24 years now. Long time ago. It's weird to think the 90s were that long ago.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah, very weird.

Nic Cowan: But I remember at some point I got a little bit more of a script so I could kind of feel it out. There was a couple things I remember about the audition process. One was that in the script it was heavily featuring a "Game Boy." As opposed to Game Gear). I don't know if that was just a placeholder or what (because I know eventually I found out that Sega was a financier on the project.

Blake J. Harris: Yup.

surf ninjas

Nic Cowan: So they had a huge stake with their Game Gear and everything. But I remember because Game Boy was in the script I would bring a Game Boy with me and wait in the hall for my call. To kind of be like: hey, look, I'm that guy! I'm already him! Which is pretty...I think that worked. Because I remember a casting agent walking by and noticing that I had in and chuckling to themselves. So maybe that worked. Maybe that was all it took to get the job.

Blake J. Harris: Ha.

Nic Cowan: I remember also in the process there was a point where I was pretty sure I didn't get the film.

Blake J. Harris: How come?

Nic Cowan: It was two or three callbacks down the line, getting closer to narrowing it down, and this was the one where those of us reading for the part were reading opposite Ernie Jr. for the first time...I went to read with him, but in the waiting room there was this kid who looked like spot-on him. It looked just like Ernie, but younger. So for me I thought: there goes my chances, he got the role for sure. And I kind of...I don't know if that effected my audition, but I remember feeling rejected by the time I left. Without even being told, I just kind of felt: well, that was that, onto the next thing. But eventually I got another call back.

Blake J. Harris: What happened?

Nic Cowan: It turns out that Ernie liked me and my performance and that I reminded him of one of his actual younger brothers. Who I actually kind of do look like. I look more like his little brother than this other kid looked like earn. So I guess he kind of felt that and we vibed...and he had a big say, I think, because the brothers had so many scenes together; so I think he wanted to pick someone who wasn't a diva and who couldn't, you know, act his way out of a paper bag.

Blake J. Harris: Ha, yeah...even before that, you said you were doing the "child actor thing." Was that a choice on your part? Was that a choice on your parents' part? And what are the memories...I imagine it's pretty brutal, lots of rejections for a young kid. What was that like for you?

Nic Cowan: Yeah, well it was absolutely something I wanted to do. It was never put on me, it was never brought up. I started officially when I was 8. I was raised by my grandma and my mom, so my grandma was always home. And I told her one day, "I think I want to do that." I was watching some kids on television and I asked her "could I do that." And she's like, "Well, if that's something you really want to do, what you do like to try it?" And I said, "Yeah, I'd love to." So she got on it. Did the research and figured out how to get agents. I don't know. She figured out and I figured out how to get me in front of agents and pretty quickly I was on a roll with auditioning.

surf ninjas

Blake J. Harris: What was your favorite part prior to Surf Ninjas? And what was your favorite part of the process?

Nic Cowan: I did an episode of a TV show called Paradise. This is a western. I've always really liked the behind the scenes aspects of filmmaking, especially the costume design, makeup design that whole thing. So to be in a period piece and play a Native American, that was pretty cool. Because, you know, you get to go to a special costume warehouse and try on all these things and then go on out to a ranch; that was pretty exciting. For me, personally. Just because that's kind of one of the best things for me as an actor. To think that you can be anything from any time period.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah.

Nic Cowan: Even things that are made up. So I was pretty exited by that whole process. That was pretty awesome.

Blake J. Harris: What was your least favorite part?

Nic Cowan: You kind of brought it up earlier; just the rejection aspect of it. It's not, like, devastating, but when you go out for something and you don't hear back and then you see who got it and think: aw man, I couldn't done that!

Blake J. Harris: Yeah.

Nic Cowan: Every once in a while too you find out certain things you didn't get later on. So here's a story: I found out relatively recently that I was actually offered the part of the kid in Til Dusk Til Dawn.

Blake J. Harris: Really?

Nic Cowan: Yeah, but my family opted out because it was kind of a little blue, a little rated-R. But I had no knowledge of this until a year or two ago. That's a major movie to have been in, had I been in it. I'd have gotten to work with Robert Rodriguez, Harvey Keitel, Quentin Tarantino. All the big guys. So that's kind of a sad thing that I look back at and say, "Aw, that's too bad."

Blake J. Harris: It sounds like your family—your mother, your grandmother—were such a big part of this, such a great support system...

Nic Cowan: Oh, absolutely.

surf ninjas

Blake J. Harris: They made it happen for you. What do you remember about finding out that you were cast in Surf Ninjas? Do you remember sharing that news with them?

Nic Cowan: I want to say I found out on a Friday. And that particular Friday was a Boy Scout meeting I was in. One of the big ones with the potluck where all the patrols would come together. So I was pretty psyched to tell my friends I was going to do a movie. With Leslie Nielsen and whoever. And that I was going to get to go to Thailand.

Blake J. Harris: what were those net few weeks and months like for you?

Nic Cowan: So there's a lot of prep. Wardrobe fitting. I remember having a hard tie finding a wet suit; because I'm pretty small now, and I was extremely small then. So trying to find a wetsuit that fit was a huge process. We had some rehearsals; not a ton, but enough to try and get Ernie and I familiar as brothers...I had to get shots which I hated, because I'm deathly afraid of needles (still).

Blake J. Harris: Haha.

Nic Cowan: But it was one of those things where: well, you're gonna be in a movie and you're gonna go to another country, so you kinda gotta suck it up. Then we were off; we were off to Thailand!

Blake J. Harris: Were you nervous at all? Or all just kind of excitement, being a kid?

Nic Cowan: Yeah, I think it was all just kind of excitement. I think if it were now I'd be way more in my head about it. You know, it's like when you're a kid it doesn't even phase you...I just kind of took it for granted in a weird way. I'm here, I'm just having a good time! ...it was a whirlwind, you know? Making a film let alone being in another country. Doing that whole thing. I had to do school while I was there for a little bit so there was a lot going on.

Blake J. Harris: And how close were you with Ernie? Was he like a big brother to you offset as well?

Nic Cowan: It was pretty good. I mean, I still kinda talk to him still.

Blake J. Harris: Oh? That's great.

Nic Cowan: Through the magic of the internet we reconnected a little bit. Also I was working a retail job a while back on Melrose and he used to live near there. And on one of my off days he came into the shop, and my coworkers recognized him. But didn't put two and two together that we knew each other.

Blake J. Harris: [laughs]

Nic Cowan: So then another day, my coworker actually saw him walking down the street and chased him down. "Hey Ernie, Ernie! You came by the shop the other day, I don't know if you recognize me." "Yeah, I remember you." "Uh, well your co-star works with us." So then a week later Ernie comes into the shop and we kind of reconnected a little bit. And since then, off and on, we've just chatted.

Blake J. Harris: That's great.

Nic Cowan: The invention of Instagram and Twitter has made, like, a big difference. Because you can just talk to anybody. And find anybody, it feels like.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah, it's often my job to track people down. Thanks for actually tracking me down. That made my life easier.

Nic Cowan: Yeah, well I mean I was so psyched that this was being talked about on this podcast. That I was like: I'm in it, because I'm a fan.

Blake J. Harris: So what do you think of the movie? Do you think it's a good movie? It's definitely a perfect How Did This Get made movie...

Nic Cowan: It's hard because I've seen it so many times and I'm so close to it. But I can also look at it third-party at this point. Especially now that I'm older. So when I look at the screen I don't see myself, I just see a kid. I know that it's maybe not the best movie in the world. And I kind of knew that since I was a teenager, pretty much. Because that's when you start getting cynical about things; that's when you say: oh, okay, I realize what this was. But it was just so much fun, it's hard for me to think about it as anything other than an amazing experience in my life. Like I don't even think of it as a movie, I think of it as something I got to do that was once in a lifetime.

Blake J. Harris: There's a lot of people who love it...

Nic Cowan: That's the thing too. I didn't realize that there were fans until, again, until the internet. Because...I think it had a moderate success, but I didn't really run into a lot of people who were aware of it. [talks about checking hashtags on Instagram] It's awesome that there's fandom and I like to give that back...

Blake J. Harris: What kinds of things do people say? Why do they still love it?

Nic Cowan: I've found a lot of people would watch it a lot. Like not just a few times but like a lot! Over and over on repeated viewing. I've had a lot of people say, "Oh, my family hated me that summer because I watched it every day." ...it just fits into that kind of culture; it fits into that surfer, goofy kind of...it's just a silly movie. At the end o the day, it's silly. Starting with the title and going on from there. It's just a silly thing, but I think people like it because of that.

Blake J. Harris: Definitely...

Nic Cowan: That was a weird time period for kids movies too. Especially New Line was doing a bunch of weird things, like Suburban Commando and Monkey Trouble. This weird movies that seemed like they were just throwing darts at a board with words. So that was kind of like the genre for kids at the time.

Rob Schneider surf ninjas

Blake J. Harris: Favorite or most challenging moments from production?

Nic Cowan: I got really sick for a while. Aside from it being really hot and humid, pretty nasty weather. I ended up getting sick just because I didn't really like the food they had for us. I went and thought it would be okay: I like pad thai, you know. But when you go there, pad thai is not the paid thai you expect it to be. It's a lot different. And especially the catering aspect. Thailand wasn't a big movie-making country, so like the caterers weren't professional caterers for movies. The trailers were literally just tour buses that they gutted and put dividers in. So the food was...not great. And when you're having it every single day—same thing, same thing—huge vat of rice and some vegetables and meats (and you're not sure what meats they are), I'm sure it's fine, but when you're 12 and eating it every single day, I got sick of it. So I stopped eating for a while and kind of got sick cause of that.

Blake J. Harris: That's not good.

Nic Cowan: Yeah, so...I ended up getting a special meal every day. Which was just mashed potatoes and garlic bread. It was the closest approximation to something from home that they could whip up with what they had. So I ate that for a good couple of weeks and then warmed back up to what else was on set. Tone Loc actually got really sick. I don't think he was feeling the food either. He'd come to the set in the morning and there'd be materials to make Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches. And he'd make maybe between 5 and 10 of them and then go back to his trailer. That was what he ate. So, yeah, the catering was not great. Let's just put it that way.

Blake J. Harris: What were some of those other actors like to work with?

Nic Cowan: Rob Schneider was actually...I know he gets a lot of flak nowadays, but as a person...I don't know him now and I've never interacted with him as an adult, but as a kid he was pretty great. Because I think he aw in me a built-in audience as a comedian. Because he could always do something to make me laugh. So I think he gravitated to me because of that. I actually spent a pretty good chunk of time with him on our off-time. "hey, let me take you to dinner!" He was like a big kid and he cold make me laugh; just someone to goof around with. And I was the only kid there...so that was actually a struggle for me a bit too. Because there's only so much you can do by yourself.

Blake J. Harris: Who did you interact with?

Nic Cowan: Yeah, so Rob Schneider. And then on set I actually got really familiar with the make-up artists and the costume designers. Special effects people...I got to know them really well. Because you can just hang out and kind of watch what they're doing, which was pretty great to learn...it was a good vibe on that set. Everybody seemed to be pretty chill. I didn't notice anybody with attitude as far as I can tell.

Blake J. Harris: What was the director like?

Nic Cowan: He was pretty cool. I liked him a lot. He too had a big kid mentality, which kind of worked for this movie and kept that kind of energy up o the set. He would goof around and had that jovial quality to him. And we had Leslie Nielsen, who was always messing around...

Blake J. Harris: What about the surfing and stunts?

Nic Cowan: There were fight scenes that were choreographed by Ernie and his dad (Ernie Sr.). So they had a lot of their people there, but they were also training a lot of extras that they picked up in Thailand. People off the street, it seemed like. A lot of the stunt guys...like actually in the background if you notice, a lot of the extras aren't just play fighting. It kind of adds to the exaggeration for the film itself.

Blake J. Harris: Yup.

Nic Cowan: As far as the surfing, all the surfing shots were shot by a unit in Hawaii. So we didn't really have to do that at all. I mean, I can't surf at all. And frankly, I'm afraid of the ocean. And especially being so small then; we tried to do a couple of shots of me coasting in, but I was not about it. So we didn't really get to do that.

Blake J. Harris: What was the most surprising part of doing the movie?

Nic Cowan: Wow, let's see. I think...well it seems pretty standard when you think about it now, but not really knowing how things were done back then, I was pretty shocked by how much was out of order...you'd think that you would film it in sequential order. But no, it's where you can get the lighting, where you can get the location, the weather changes or if there's a set being built. Like we filmed all the second half first because of weather; because Thailand was about to get monsooned...so that was pretty challenging in terms of trying to keep of what you were doing.

Blake J. Harris: What do you remember about the film coming out? Did it meet your expectations? What was that release time like? Was there a premiere?

Nic Cowan: Okay, so...it being not the best movie of all time, I think there was a little disappointment in it coming out for me. Only because I thought it was good. And I think a lot of the people making it thought it was good. There was even talk of a potential sequel or possibly like a cartoon...I think it suffered a bit in terms of promotion and marketing. Because there wasn't really any...they didn't really promote it well. And I think that was in a time period when New Line cinema was changing hands so it kind of fell through the cracks a little bit....I feel like it could have done better with better promotion; because there was that Ninja Turtles fan base built in. So...it is what it is, but at the time I kind of expected it to do better. But I think it was a sign that it maybe wasn't going to do well when the premiere was being put on by the Reyes' in their home town with their own money. And god bless them for doing that. That was pretty awesome for them to put it together. And that was cool because they have a huge chain of karate schools up in San Jose, where they're from. So people loved them in that town. So there was a great crowd of people coming to see this premiere. It felt really nice. They did it justice.

Blake J. Harris: Good, I'm glad they did. What did your friends think of all this?

Nic Cowan: I think they thought it was pretty cool...

Blake J. Harris: Disappointing for its time, but found its fan base. If you got a call right now from someone saying, "We're rebooting Surf Ninjas for a series, for Netflix. Are you in?" What would you response be?

Nic Cowan: Oh, absolutely. 100%. Like I said...I think there was a period, kind of in high school, where you get a little too cool for school. And that was a time when I kind of thought of it as embarrassing. I didn't really want to admit to it too much. But like I said, lately, seeing the fans, connecting with people who have watched it...I started realizing, I'm proud of it at the end of the day.

Blake J. Harris: You should totally be.

Nic Cowan: So yeah, if someone wanted to do something with it, I'd be in. I've actually written a treatment for a proposed sequel. Just for the hell of it. I mean these days, with the nostalgia that's going on with the reboot and the sequels, and because something like Netflix exists, which is actually opening the doors for a lot of creative filmmaking. You never know, man. You never know. 

Blake J. Harris: And to your point, with there being so much content being made nowadays, one of the hardest things is to stand out. And nostalgia, aside, Surf Ninjas is a title that, you know, it stands out. Just the name alone gives you a marketing advantage.

Nic Cowan: I mean, it's a foot in the door at the least.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah. So my last question for you is when did you decide to stop acting?

Nic Cowan: Well I don't know that I ever decided to stop, it just kind of ended. You know, I went through a phase where, you know, puberty hits and you get your awkward phase. And I being small, especially, it kind of made it tricky. Up until that point I was playing younger, which the film industry loved because I could work longer hours legally. But as soon as my voice started changing and hair started growing in my face, it kind of changed things a bit.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah.

Nic Cowan: And I also changed agents. Maybe they weren't working as hard. It kind of just kind of fizzled a little...I don't really consider myself that I stopped, I just haven't done it in a while. You never know. I think about it all the time. I love filmmaking. Whether I'd be in front of the camera or behind the camera, I just love that world.