It’s still one of the most quoted lines in surf movie history. In the cult classic feature film, The North Shore, John Philbin’s character ‘Turtle’ is giving wave pool transplant, Rick Kane, (Matt Adler) some straight-talking advice on surfing Pipe. “When the wave breaks here don’t be there or you’re gonna get drilled!”

Rick Kane may emerge as the hero of the story, but Turtle was the favourite character for many fans. Philbin went on to enjoy a long list of film credits, including Tombstone and Point Break, but also did a brief stint in prison in 2015 after a drug-induced episode saw him arrested for wielding a firearm and outrunning the cops in an exclusive LA suburb. These days he is alcohol and drug-free and is still a regular fixture on the North Shore every winter, where he works as a surf coach between acting gigs. Philbin recently revived his acting career by scoring the lead role in a new film Undateable John made for Amazon prime. Below he talks about the new role, life on the North Shore and randomly, what it was like to be in G-land when the Tsunami hit in 1994. (Philbin also features in Monty Webber’s recent Tracks special, Tsunami Brothers about the survivors of the 1994 G-land Tsunami.)  

Tell us a little bit about the new movie?

Amazon prime has just released a new movie I’m in called Undateable John. I play john. It’s the first lead in a feature film I’ve done in 20 years, and it stars the beautiful Estella Warren, Daryl Hannah, Tom Arnold, and Joan Jett. It’s hilarious. It started as a short film about dating in AA but grew to a full-length feature with interesting actors. Cynthia Posner wrote the script and produced it, she is a major talent. I’m proud of it and hope it gets some advertising help.

Where was the film made?

We shot it in Los Angeles and did the second unit surfing on the North Shore with Chad Thurman as the second unit water photographer. He did a great job! I also have a small but important part in the award-winning short, White Wolves, which is doing well in film festivals now. And a hopefully funny cameo in the soon to be released Ghost Babe. So, I’ve had a fun year for films, because I’ve been mostly teaching surfing for the past twenty years, mostly in Malibu and Hawaii.

Acting can be like pro surfing. A lot of people want to do it but it’s dam hard to get a good-paying gig? 

I agree about the similarities between acting and professional surfing, both are performed on an elevated stage, judged and exhilarating.
Thank god surfing as a recreational activity can be an individualistic pursuit, for fun and for free, for pleasure and health!

You have actually been coaching surfing on the North Shore for a number of years? What sort of clients? Any funny experiences?
I love teaching surfing to interesting and interested people. I worked for a super-powerful Russian Oligarch, and his beautiful girlfriend for a while and learned a lot about secret surveillance and judgment, as in, it’s a mistake to make presumptions about human beings based on prejudices and limited knowledge. We are all in this together doing the best we can with what we have, and I’d rather be a positive helpful person in any and all human interactions than a hater and a negative thinker.

What’s your favourite wave to surf on the Nth Shore?

I have always loved to surf small Pipeline, when it’s not too crowded, which is rare these days.
I was spoiled early on, working on films in which we actors had line-up control from the Hui or later, the Hawaiian water patrol. To be a surfer and working as an actor in a film that shoots at Pipeline, with all that entails, may have been the most privileged experience of my life, and I am forever grateful to Eddie Rothman, Terry Ahui and Brian Keaulana and all the boys on the North Shore for their work in making dreams come true, Respect.

 A lot of local guys were involved in the making of 'The North Shore'.

We made the North Shore on the North Shore with writing acting and surfing by people who love the North Shore! No one knew the movie would become a cult classic but we knew we were lucky to be working on a film about a special place.

John Philbin enjoying some tube time on a recent mission to G-land.

You were always a big G-land fan also?

I was a surfer before I was a professional actor, and surfed G- Land in the early 80s. My nickname in the camp back then was Hollywood because I was studying acting at USC. I loved G-Land so much I would go back every year and spend months in Bobby’s camp. Camel was the man back then – great times – then super Dave Thomas, Scardy, and Matt Dibble. I took a little break from the camp and surfing when I started working in movies, in fact I hadn’t been surfing for years when I got North Shore but Gerry Lopez told me to get back into it and never quit, cuz it’s so healthy and free and you can do it all over the world and for the rest of your life, and so I did!

I’ve surfed G-land with Gerry Lopez and with Peter McCabe and a holy crew of pirates and pranksters. It’s been a huge part of my life.

Philbin (third from left) with Rob Bain, Monty Webber and Simon Law at G-land for the 25 year reunion of the 1994 Tsunami.

A lot of people don’t realise you were in G-land when the Tsunami hit in 1994. Did you feel lucky to survive that experience? 

When I was sleeping out on the point one night and a tsunami rolled over us, I actually felt lucky! Lucky to survive an experience like that and lucky to share such a radical event at such a radical place. I stayed for weeks after searching the beaches and jungle for items, it was wild!

When you got the part in Point Break you managed to convince the director and wardrobe that a particular surf shirt would give your character authenticity.

When I got cast in Point Break I got to play a travelling surfer and convinced wardrobe that a bobby Radiassa G-land surf combat T-shirt was the ultimate insider swag for my character and they were cool with it. Nathanial gets shot by the masochist, in Point Break, wearing a G-land shirt. Once in camp Bobby Radiassa came in for dinner and he’d just come from Singapore or Kuala Lumpar and saw a bank-robbing movie and said to the table he saw an actor in a G-land shirt and I said, ‘That was me Bobby!’ that was an unforgettable moment for me.