Words cannot express the sadness in my heart for the loss of my friend and Priceless costar A.J. Pero. The world knew him best as the drummer of Twisted Sister and various other bands like Cities, Circle of Thorns, and Adrenaline Mob. I personally knew A.J. has not only a collaborator in my work but also a loving family man who always remained humble about his life.
The first time I met A.J. was when he was a co-host on the Staten Island cable access show, N.Y. Rocks. Back then, I had just graduated college and was knee-deep into pre-production on Priceless, my first independent film of feature length. A mutual friend of mine and A.J.’s invited me on the show and introduced us. A.J. was already aware of my project and expressed his interest in wanting to be involved. I took that as a shock. It was one of the first times in my life where a celebrity in my eyes wanted to work with me!
We were having issues casting the role of a Russian mobster who chases after my character in Priceless. A.J. was being considered as an accomplice until I went to his house one day and met his lovely wife, Michelle. I felt an instant sense of comfort around him and his family because A.J. was genuine and really wanted an opportunity to stretch beyond music. After the meeting, I decided to make him the Russian villain; however, there were people involved with my film who felt he was wrong for the part because of his look and lack of experience as an actor. At the end of the day though, it was my film and A.J. was my guy regardless of the critics. He took the role as seriously as any method actor in learning Russian language and doing his best to fill it physically.
Everyone on set took a liking to him right away and he showed the same respect to us. He even went as far as getting a birthday cake for my young actress Shelby Reitman when we shot the ending scene that summer. There were also times when A.J. gave his support when times were tough. There was one incident on the shoot where we lost a club location due to a miscommunication with the owner. I confided in A.J. about it and right away he helped us secure the old L’Amours club on the South Shore. He believed in the film that much to do anything to get it done.
A.J. and I grew as close friends after the movie. I attended one of his shows with Circle of Thorns, watched his radio show live once, and watched him record in the studio. He even came to my family’s Christmas party with Michelle the year after we made the movie. My family and their friends were shocked to see how this drummer from the rock music scene was such a positive guy. People do not know that much about his early days studying jazz and taking acting classes as a child. He was always a man of the arts.
Every now and then, A.J. and I would get together over hot tea to discuss script ideas. We managed to complete three of them and the others only got as far as the treatment phase. Even though the business of filmmaking has changed in recent years, A.J. believed we could make big things happen someday. We would dreamcast our stories and look into potential big names he could connect with to get them read. Those are days I’m going to miss the most.
The news of his passing was like a bad dream. Just as I was gearing up for my big premiere for the short film Tempted at the Garden State Film Festival, the news dropped on my Facebook feed. I could not shed the tears, but my heart did. Part of me would have wanted to drop everything and return home. But I could not let loss ruin such a meaningful time in my career. I tried to not only think of the star-reaching conversations that A.J. and I had in the past but also his warm smile. Those thoughts kept my head held high and I was determined to make the festival a success in his honor. When the screening ended and the Q&A session started, I chose to dedicate the night to him.
To me, A.J. Pero took pride in his work and his family. He provided incredible talent on the drums, but it was his warm and positive vibe that made us true friends in life. It’s difficult for me to imagine any other friend like him. Yet, I will cherish our friendship and always remember him as someone who influenced my career and my relations with people in the world. Heavenly Body Real Estate has finally booked their star attraction.