The actor: Elias Koteas, a Canadian actor who moved to New York to study at the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts, then slaved away as a dishwasher on immigrant wages for several years before landing his breakout role as the world’s friendliest skinhead in Some Kind Of Wonderful. Though Koteas went on to contribute that same soft-spoken intensity to a wide range of characters both good and evil, he is probably most recognized for his roles as the leader of a cult obsessed with auto accidents in David Cronenberg’s Crash, the hockey stick-wielding vigilante Casey Jones in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or the morally conflicted soldier who butts heads with Nick Nolte in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Throughout his 30-plus years in the business, Koteas has worked opposite many of film’s biggest stars and with some of cinema’s greatest directors, everyone from Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese to Atom Egoyan and David Fincher. Most recently, Koteas starred in Let Me In and the small-budget indie 3 Backyards, and his always-diverse slate continues later this year with the Mandela biopic Winnie, the James Franco-starring contract-killer drama The Iceman, and A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas.
Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987)—“Duncan”
Elias Koteas: That was the summer of 1986. I was 25-years-old, fresh out of acting school, exhilarated, living in Los Angeles for the summer. The joy of being in Hollywood—everything was new. John Hughes, I had auditioned for him for She’s Having A Baby, and he liked me enough and was interested in me enough to set me up with the director, Howard Deutch. I remember auditioning a couple of times, and each time felt more fun and improvisational. They just let me improvise, and I felt so free and uninhibited.
The character on the page was this huge, burly-type guy and they saw this little glint in the eye—this joie de vivre—and they let me play. There was just so much joy in playing that part. I felt like there was no wrong way of playing it, as long as you were just committed and had fun with it. The freedom that I felt doing that part, I long for that. If I could go back to that… There was no fear involved. There was just a complete unabashed, free, moment-to-moment joy.
The A.V. Club: So the scene where you’re intimidating Craig Sheffer, and you finish by putting your head on Lea Thompson’s shoulder, and she starts to crack up—that was made up on the spot?
EK: I just made that up, yeah. Howard, God bless him, he did so many takes, and I kept thinking to myself, “Hey man, however many times you want to do it, I’m here.” To me it was just all about not being self-conscious in front of the camera, making choices off the cuff, living in instincts, and having a good time. It sounds very simple, but it felt just free. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve somehow been there. There was an openness to the whole thing. They really let me go. I thought, “My God, this is great!” Whenever I come upon that movie on TV I think, “My God, I’m just a baby. A 25-year-old baby.”
Knightwatch (1989)—“Skinhead Leader”
EK: You know what? That’s on my IMDb page, but that is wrong! That’s not me! I tried to get it off there, but there’s no response. It’s like, “No, no you were in it.” I’m like, “Show me where I was in it! Give me the proof!” [Laughs.] I don’t know what happened.
AVC: I thought it was strange that you would go back to playing a skinhead, which is why I brought it up. Maybe this will fix it.
EK: Maybe they were confusing me with someone else. But I never was in Knightwatch.
Gardens Of Stone (1987)—“Pete Deveber”
EK: We filmed that a month prior to getting the job on Some Kind Of Wonderful. We shot that in Arlington [Virginia]. What I remember from that was tragedy. It was painful. The way I got that part, unfortunately, was due to the tragedy that happened to Francis Ford Coppola losing his son [Gian-Carlo] in a boating accident. My whole presence there was the replacement of that actor. I’m getting nauseous just thinking about it, how painful it must have been for Francis. He was living in a Greek tragedy. So much support around him, and so much pain in his losing his eldest son. I couldn’t help but feel that every time he saw me that the reason I was there were these horrible circumstances. For me it was a blessing—having a job, meeting all these different people. But obviously, I would totally erase the movie from my mind if I could take back the reason I was there.
AVC: Did having that hanging over the production make you shy away from asking him for direction?
EK: He pretty much let me go. He didn’t really direct me. I showed up, and from the bits that I’ve seen—and I try not to see too much—but what I saw was unbridled enthusiasm, again, for being in front of the camera, and acting, and doing what I love. I don’t know how much character development there was other than complete energy on my part. That’s who I was at the time. I remember shaving my head. I had shoulder-length hair at the time. It was very visceral. I had never been in a uniform or anything like that, so you’d try and pretend the best you can in the moment. Francis put his arm around me. He made me feel welcome as best he could under the horrible circumstances. Then he cast me in Tucker years later.
Tucker: The Man And His Dream (1988)—“Alex Tremulis”
AVC: And how was that experience different?
EK: I was different. Unfortunately, I was at a place in my life with a lot of chaos, a lot of distractions. It was a couple of years later, I think. I was playing Alex Tremulis, who was a real guy, who designs the car. [Coppola] seems to bring people together that he’s worked with before—a lot of family, closeness, togetherness, a lot of love, lot of support. He was very nurturing. He wanted me to do the best I could, but I’m sure that because of where I was in my life at the time… When I was off, when I wasn’t working, I tended to want to get on a flight and go visit my girlfriend at the time. Which caused a lot of problems, unfortunately, in retrospect. The petulance of youth and being in love at the time—or at least, deep in dysfunction. [Laughs.]
But I cherished that time for a lot of things, and that he gave me another shot on a film with him. The next time I saw him was at the Cannes Film Festival for Crash and he was very sweet to me, but I haven’t seen him since. Jeff Bridges was great. Lovely people—Joan Allen, Christian Slater, who I knew was going to be a big star when I saw him. He was 17 at the time and just reeked of potential. Nina Siemaszko, Frederic Forrest. All great.
AVC: Tremulis worked as a consultant on the film. Did you get to meet him?
EK: I did, actually. Lovely man. Up in age, but still full of passion. He had that glint in his eye.
The Prophecy (1995)—“Thomas Dagget”
EK: I was given an opportunity, a great character, but I just felt like I missed the boat on that one. But it was just brilliant the way Greg [Widen] put it together—great actors all around, man. I felt like I had a front-row seat at some great performances. Eric Stoltz came in, did his stuff. He was very focused. Great working alongside Christopher Walken; he was very supportive. Everyone was just great. It was just beautiful. But it was a tough ride, because it was one of my first opportunities as a major role, and it was a tough one. It was on TV recently, and I was looking at it and was like, “What was I thinking?”
AVC: What is it about your performance that you wish you could do differently?
EK: Look, it’s 20 years later. You grow. I consider myself a late bloomer—and again, you don’t really realize the enormity of the gift that sometimes is in front of you. Sometimes there are certain things that you gotta grow into. Sometimes, for some actors, they know it spiritually at a young age. Others need to grow into it. The idea of that character having lost his faith, having to go through life without it, and what that crisis of faith means—and somehow being confronted with a war in heaven with angels, what does that do? That’s just a concept that boggles my mind. If it came around to me at this point in my life, it would have a different resonance. But you could say that about everything. At the same time, I’m not the person to ask. I can’t stand to watch anything that I’m in. I tear it apart. The worst thing you can do is leave me alone and let me watch what I’m in. It’s abusive.
AVC: So would that be a personal hell for you—a screening room stocked with nothing but your own movies?
EK: [Laughs.] That would be hell. If you’re looking for self-abuse without drugs or drinking, that would be one way to do it. You just totally abuse yourself spiritually by watching yourself.
AVC: That particular premise—about dealing with fallen angels and biblical horrors and so on—you’ve actually done that a few times, with Fallen and Lost Souls and the like. Why do you think you’re drawn to those movies, or that those movies come to you?
EK: No idea. Fallen was the next movie after Crash for me, and in some ways the single-mindedness of the character was similar to me. And I remember calling David Cronenberg when I was doing Fallen and I said, “In some odd way, this is perhaps what Vaughan would have done, if he went off the deep end completely in a different direction.” It has nothing to do with the film Fallen and what it’s about, but more to do with spiritual content. Because one informs the other, informs the other, informs the other. So in some way, it was an exaggerated off-the-deep-end—if you could call it that—ending for Vaughan, if you’ve seen Crash. And for me, Fallen was a guy who was more extreme then Vaughan was. Which is bizarre to hear, but it’s one and the same thing in terms of single-mindedness, focus. Like there’s nothing that’s going to deter you from your mission. And there’s something about that that resonates with me. To devote your life to a cause that’s bigger than yourself. I know that’s stretching it a bit, but when you find something that’s meaningful, that transcends your own journey… In some way it’s connected. [Pauses.] It makes sense on the day, but trying to explain it now sounds absurd.
AVC: The Prophecy spawned a bunch of sequels. Were you ever asked to be in any of those?
EK: Yeah, I was. I don’t know where they were taking the character. I think he had gone berserk and was in some asylum. But I couldn’t see myself going through that journey. If they had presented the character, how he evolved, but the movie wasn’t about Thomas Daggett. Thomas Daggett was an afterthought. It was more about tying in the two movies. It really didn’t have anything to do with the continuum of the journey. As it was presented, it didn’t seem interesting for me. Onward and forward, you know.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)—“Casey Jones”
EK: Ah, 1989, the summer of, 28-years-old, hair was flowing. I felt healthy, strong.
AVC: You did have awesome hair in that movie.
EK: Awesome hair. I don’t know what happened. You just felt alive. My one attempt at being a hero—a vigilante in the park, looking for bad guys. It was fun. Especially with Jim Henson and the puppets. It was cutting-edge technology at the time. It was a magical summer in Wilmington, North Carolina. I get stopped by kids—not kids anymore; they’re 25, 30—saying, “There’s Casey Jones!” There are worse things in the world. It brings a smile to my face.
AVC: I’m glad to hear you say that. I’m 32, so when I told my friends who I was talking to today, I had to say, “You know: Casey Jones.” But then I mentioned you were in Crash—
EK: And they’re like, “It’s that same guy? What the heck?!”
AVC: Yep. I think a lot of my friends learned for the first time that it was the same guy.
EK: Man, right now while we’re talking I’ve got a huge smile on my face. Casey Jones just was what he was. There was no gray, and I loved that about him. So I’m very gracious about it. It was a beautiful time. It was surreal working with puppets.
AVC: And you liked it enough to come back for Turtles In Time.
EK: Yeah, I wasn’t in the second one. I think, financially, they would have had to pay me a good amount of money. I think it was a big financial savings for them. But the third one, I needed desperately to work, and I was grateful that they came around. The universe brought it back to my lap, and I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” Sometimes you need to work. Sometimes you become invisible, and you gotta ply your trade.
Look Who’s Talking Too (1990)—“Stuart”
EK: [Laughs.] I had no connection to that, man. To me it was very cut and dry. Amy Heckerling and the actors—a good bunch of wonderful people. What brought me there was… I don’t know. I met some really lovely people. The gal who was my love interest in it, Twink Caplan, she had lovely energy. I enjoyed meeting her. I remember pulling my back on that movie and having to shut down for four weeks. I had a Great Dane at the time—Beckett—he was about 9 months old. I tried to lift him, and I hurt my back so I couldn’t work for about five days. He developed sympathetic back pain.
AVC: Your dog had sympathetic back pain?
EK: My dog did too, man. It was so bonding. So to me, that’s what came out of that movie: I bonded with a 9-month-old Great Dane who lived to be 12. I cherished that moment. It’s odd to say: You take for granted going to the bathroom, but when you can’t, life stops in some way. You need a lot of help. That’s what I remember from that movie. In a lot of ways, spiritually, it connected me a lot deeper to my dog. [Laughs.]
Cyborg 2 (1993)—“Colson ‘Colt’ Ricks”
EK: That’s another movie I wish I had a chance to go back and redo. Angelina Jolie came in, she was 17-years-old, just beautiful and so raw and open to anything and trying different things. Smart. You never can tell where someone’s gonna go, but she did have this energy around her which was pretty magical. Making that movie for me was six weeks of nights filming in San Pedro—shipping yards, where ships go to die. It was grim. I hated it. But I thought Michael Schroeder had a great vision. It sometimes comes across as fully as you want it to, sometimes it doesn’t. But I thought he made a great, valiant effort at something. But again, I’m gonna knock myself on that, because I missed the boat emotionally.
AVC: A lot of people reading this will probably find it strange that you wish you’d emotionally invested more in Cyborg 2.
EK: [Laughs.] No matter what it is, it takes a lot. I live it, I breathe it, I sleep with it—it runs my life. And sometimes you connect to it and sometimes you don’t, but the energy behind it is always the same, and you always want to give of yourself. And if you don’t, you feel blocked, and my life somehow suffers for it, because you don’t get to let it go. You don’t get to leave it. And by leaving it, you’re opening up for other experiences to fill your soul. But if somehow you’re blocked and you’re not letting it all out, then you’re all cramped up and you carry that, and it’s a big knot that fills your soul. [Laughs.] So I do the best I can to get rid of it, but sometimes it doesn’t come out. It sounds kind of weird, but it’s the only way I know how.
Malarek (1989)—“Victor Malarek”
EK: Yeah man, wow! Malarek. Back in 1988, May/June. First starring role. I had a blast! It was six weeks, a fast shoot, and Roger Cardinal, the director, trusted me, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with that part. I met the real Victor Malarek—just single-mindedness again, passionate. Filming in my hometown of Montreal. I just saw a couple of scenes recently, and aside from spending some time tearing it up, there was a rawness, a fearlessness, a youthfulness. It felt a little dated. After that movie was over, I remember walking down the street thinking, “Yeah, I could do this. I can carry a film.”
AVC: I imagine that has to be a real “top of the world, Ma” moment: You’re in your 20s, playing the lead in a movie being shot in your hometown, and even getting a Genie Award nomination for it.
EK: Oh God, yeah. It was a dream come true. And yeah, I got a nomination. And later I actually got a Genie award for Ararat, the third movie I did with Atom Egoyan.
The Adjuster (1991)—“Noah”
EK: I just saw a special screening of that again recently at the Toronto Film Festival—not this year, the year before—and there seems to be a wonderfully strong following for that film. I feel like I’m watching someone else when I see it. I almost felt like I don’t really know how to talk about that film. It seems like an out-of-body experience. What people take from that is completely different than what I could possibly say about it. And it makes my heart smile when people respond to that film, because it’s so quirky and odd.
Sometimes being so controlled as an actor and knowing everything you want to do can serve it. Sometimes not knowing on the day what you’re going to do may be the best remedy for that part. Sometimes the actor’s confusion might translate into the character’s confusion for the viewer. And Atom Egoyan, he said in passing recently that you probably can’t make that kind of movie now. It’s just not possible. When you look at it, it’s like a capsule of the potential of independent filmmaking at its rawest. And Atom has such a passionate view of how he looks at the world and how people relate to each other. And any time he has a story that he thinks I can help him tell, I’ll be there.
AVC: The way that Atom Egoyan keeps the storylines compartmentalized in his films—in Exotica as well as The Adjuster—does that play into how he shoots them? Does he keep things intentionally separate and disjointed for the actors?
EK: I don’t know if consciously he does that. Maybe it’s just in the order that he puts the narrative together. To me it just feels like we’re making a movie. I don’t know. But I love that you said that—compartmentalize. Sometimes my life is very much like that, so that’s why maybe I respond to his films. Everybody is in their own little world. Separated. But I don’t know if he consciously thinks that. His mind works in ways that I could only dream about. He’s a genius.
Desperate Hours (1990)—“Wally Bosworth”
AVC: Speaking of unusual, maverick directors you’ve worked with, what was it like working with Michael Cimino?
EK: I don’t remember that experience. I don’t know what happened. I was a huge fan of Thunderbolt And Lightfoot. It was a phenomenal movie. I thought that Michael was very passionate, too, about trying to make a film. He hadn’t made a film in a while. Again, taking all that aside, I had no idea what I was doing when I went to do that movie. I had no clue how to approach that character.
AVC: It was based on a classic Bogart movie, though. Didn’t that help?
EK: There was a Bogart movie, yeah, but as far as what I should be playing and how I should play being Mickey Rourke’s brother, I was in over my head. I had no idea. I didn’t particularly care in any way what I did in that movie. It seemed light and irrelevant. [Laughs.]
AVC: That was kind of the tail end before Mickey Rourke more or less put his acting career on hold to be a boxer. Did you get any hints of restlessness from him?
EK: He’s a very intense individual. Very passionate soul, very restless heart. I don’t know what would lead… We all have our demons, and what led him to go take a beating and give a beating to feel alive that way, I don’t know what the psychology would be. I get a punch in the head, I freak. I don’t know. We all have our journey, and I guess that’s what he chose. I sometimes have blinders on. I can’t see. I’m just so involved in what I’m doing.
He’s been lovely over the years when I run into him. He’s been very lovely and supportive, and he’s been very gracious toward me. I don’t know why. The performance he did in The Wrestler blew my mind. That movie was so moving, and it was great to see him do what he does. Much success to him.
Collateral Damage (2002)—“Peter Brandt”
AVC: You also worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger on Collateral Damage right before he left for politics.
EK: I had no idea what I was doing in that movie either. The director, Andrew Davis, he was lovely. He wanted me to be in the movie, and I was going to be in the movie. Who was I to say? I have no idea what any of this political stuff means. I could sit here and tear it apart—tear myself apart mostly—but Andrew is a great filmmaker and he does great stuff. He shows great stories. Sometimes, the journey could be fun and informative, other times it’s over your head. You’re playing roles that emotionally you may not be connecting with, but you do the best you can to tell the story.
It was very surreal. You’re part of a big-budget film, traveling to Mexico, downtown Los Angeles. I mean, you pinch yourself. It’s a blessing. But, do I relate personally to the politics of this kind of thing? I probably don’t. But if I had the chance to play it over again? I’m a little bit more informed by it. I’ve lived a little bit longer. I think I’ve grown a little bit. I know how to work a little bit more deeply. I don’t know. [Laughs.]
I know I first met Arnold Schwarzenegger during the rehearsal, and we were introduced each other and he’s like [adopts accent], “Ahhh, the weasel.” He referred to my character as “the weasel.” I thought he was so professional, and knew his lines, and he cared. All the energy in the world. I take my hat off to that guy. He was great, and he wanted you to be at your best, too. He wanted to keep up. He was very humble. He knew what his strengths were, and he knew what everyone else’s strengths were. He tried to bring it on at the day, at the moment. You know what? I was in a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger. That kind of brings a smile to my face.
EK: I think it’s a gem of a film. James Gray is brilliant. If I could be in James Gray movies for the rest of my days, I’d be a lucky man. He shoots on location. Everything is real. It’s gritty. It’s personal. And he allows you to play. He doesn’t care too much about continuity from take to take. He just wants you to make it your own. What a lovely soul to work for—to work with, alongside.
And yeah, I think the movie, like you said, got shafted by a lot of distraction. I think it deserves a lot more than what it got. Ultimately, it’ll stand the test of time. For the lucky people who come upon it, they will see what a gift it is, what a great movie. And Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant in it and so is Vinessa Shaw. She was great in that. I was moved by her character, by how she played it. So, yeah, I think the movie definitely deserved more publicity. It’s the kind of story that requires you to actually sit and be drawn in and sucked into the plight of an individual torn between loves and his own personal demons. It’s not an easy film, but I think that it’s really life-affirming and inspirational. And painful. Sometimes life is painful. There aren’t any easy choices. You do the best you can.
The Thin Red Line (1998)—“Capt. James ‘Bugger’ Staros”
EK: With Terrence Malick, the landscape is poetry. I remember being out there in the field, John Toll shooting the film, having Terry Malick direct you. There you are after lunch with a full belly, pretending you’re being shelled. Not to be glib but really, for all the actors involved, we all went on our own personal Heart Of Darkness sort of journey. Terrence Malick got to know each one of us, got to know our sensibility, and he wrote to that effect for each one of us. He had the time. Whatever the characters were going through was a parallel journey for each actor, for themselves personally. For me it was not the easiest experience, but sometimes great things aren’t the most pleasant to go through. I cherish it.
For me sometimes it feels like “life before Thin Red Line“ and “life after.” That definitely was a high mark, something to definitely aspire to in anything that I do—to be able to tap into my soul the way that Terry demands of it. And that’s not easy. So I take my hat off to actors who are able to do that consistently in a short amount of time. It was an incredible, life-changing experience making that film. It definitely will stand the test of time. I saw parts of it the other day. I just put it on. I wanted to see that scene—Nick Nolte to me was like an idol growing up. He’s the reason I chose to be an actor, and suddenly I found myself working with him. And he couldn’t have been more gracious and giving and loving—if I could put it that way—and supportive. And there we were in combat with each other, and I think it’s great, man. We did some good stuff. Everybody did brilliant work. Some actors got cut out in the final thing that you’ll never see. That’s unfortunate. There was just some humbling work from everybody.
Zodiac (2007)—“Sgt. Jack Mulanax”
EK: I loved working with David [Fincher]. David pushes you in a way that will test your resolve and your own character. Him and Terry, the similarities… He’s focused, knows what he wants. He keeps doing it, keeps honing it. Sometimes you do a lot of takes, and I love that. You get the chance to relax into it.
AVC: Did you see that interview with Robert Duvall where he took David Fincher to task, and said that multiple takes were the “enemy of acting”?
EK: You know, to a degree, I believe that. Sometimes it works in your favor. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes doing 40 takes flattens you out. Sometimes it takes a certain kind of actor and a certain kind of talent to maintain a spark after 40 takes. Sometimes actors are at their best after three takes and you move on. I didn’t actually read that, but I can see the point. But, you know, it depends on the situation.
There was one scene where I was so nervous. I mean, I was nervous. I couldn’t function. Sometimes being the instrument, you’re at the mercy of the day and how you wake up in the morning. Sometimes you’re nervous, and it gets in the way. The fact that there were 40 takes to relax me was comforting. [Laughs.] The fact that we didn’t only have three took a lot of pressure off me. But I could understand how it could flatten you out. If you’re really operating on all cylinders, doing a lot of takes could be exhausting. But that’s its own challenge. You gotta take it as it comes. But I could also see the value of doing a couple of takes. You have to bring your game right off the top, and that’s its own thing. You know, it’s challenging either way. Who’s to say?
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008) — “Monsieur Gateau”
AVC: You’ve done a lot of one-shot-wonder scenes—or like with Benjamin Button, where it’s not necessarily one scene, but you’re very isolated from what’s going on in the rest of the film.
EK: Yeah, I thought it was its own little movie for five minutes. [Laughs.] You know, [Fincher] thought of me. I know Laray Mayfield, who’s his casting director, so she brought me into his line of vision. So there I was suddenly. Everything went really quickly, so you got to put it on fast. Again, with a lot of takes. I believe with David Fincher—I could be wrong—but I believe that a lot of it has to do with the rhythm of the scene, and it’s about him feeling it. So he keeps watching it, over and over again, just feeling. It’s an instinct. So once he feels everything is moving together in a kind of dance, he moves on. I don’t know. I love that movie, man.
Shutter Island (2010)—“Laeddis”
EK: God, man! I was working with Marty Scorsese! It was the quietest set I’ve ever been on. It was almost reverential. I felt like I went home. He made me feel like I belonged. It was a magical time. It was only a week of my life in Boston. I grew up watching stuff that he did. Suddenly, to be on set with him, working together, you gotta pinch yourself. It was very intimidating and nervous. Suddenly you’re there, in the middle of the scene. You gotta make it happen. You hope to God that you’re present enough to try a lot of different things.
Oh, and I remember one day, I was sitting in a trailer putting on the makeup, and in comes Max von Sydow. And on my cell phone, my ringtone is “Tubular Bells” [“Theme From The Exorcist”]. Here comes this very elegant, quiet gentleman, and he comes in and he sits right next to me so he could have his makeup put on. We say hello to each other, and it’s all very nice. Then it occurred to me, if someone were to call me, there would be “Tubular Bells” ringing, and I thought that would be a great icebreaker. But nobody called! [Laughs.] It didn’t occur to me to call up my girlfriend and say, “Hey, babe, could you call me right now?” I would have had her call me, and I would have let it ring. It would have cracked everybody up. [Laughs.]
The Fourth Kind (2009)—“Abel Campos”
EK: I liked the idea, man. The script was brilliant. Honestly, I’ve only seen parts of it. It looked interesting. They did a good job. But I didn’t really see the whole thing. Got the chance to go to Bulgaria. It was great. I had a fun time. I’m going to eventually see the movie. I feel kind of embarrassed that I haven’t seen it.
AVC: Then I don’t know if you know this, but some people were angered by it because it pretended to be a true story.
EK: Yeah. Yeah! What’s the big deal? What is the friggin’ big deal? Remember that radio show with Orson Welles, The War Of The Worlds? How he freaked everybody out on the radio, thinking it’s true? Some people went crazy. What’s the big deal, man? We’re going to say this is real, so just suspend your belief a little bit. Go on this ride. It’s all entertainment. If it’s going to elicit some thinking on your part, if it’s going to get you talking, that’s great. To dismiss a movie, to be appalled, to be pissed off—“How dare a filmmaker say this is based on a true story?”—to me it misses the point.
I mean, first of all—I’m just venturing a guess—if these actual shots took place with the actual doctor, and actual this and that, don’t you think that perhaps it would be impossible to obtain? Don’t you think there would be degree of privacy issues? I mean, I don’t know. How they got [the tapes], what caused these mysterious disappearances in Alaska—who’s to say? I don’t know. I certainly have my ideas of extraterrestrial energy, so I buy into a lot of it to a degree.
AVC: What are your ideas about extraterrestrials?
EK: There was a period of time, man, when I was convinced. I had moments where you don’t know if you’re sleeping, or if you’re in the middle of sleep, or if you’ve actually woken up, and you think you see people in the room. Without getting into detail, you’re consumed by it. Your life changes. You can no longer live in this moment, in this life. You’re going to completely feel freaked out daily that you’re going to be visited by alien beings, and there goes your life. There goes your belief system. So you either choose to believe it or you choose to live a different reality away from that. I choose to live like there’s always this possibility that anything is out there that could exist.
I don’t know. I don’t discount it, but I chose not to be obsessed by it, because it could consume you. It could completely eat you up. And that’s just my opinion. That’s why that movie itself resonates with me. That’s why I wanted to be a part of it. In some way, it was a part of a time in my life where I was like, “Oh my God, I want to be taken. Someone reach in and take me to some spaceship.” It’s a psychology. It’s pathological, know what I mean? [Laughs.] Oh my God, what am I saying?
AVC: Do you not want this to get out there, that you believe in aliens?
EK: I probably don’t. Anything is possible, but I probably don’t want that. But I’m also not going to tell you what to do. I choose to live my life in a sort of… You choose your reality. You choose what’s gonna come at you, what you relate to. If you’re going to believe in all these things, if that’s gonna be your belief system, then that’s going to be your life. I’m not saying anything profound. It’s just common knowledge.
The Killer Inside Me (2010)—“Joe Rothman”
EK: I haven’t seen that movie.
AVC: Not many people have. But you heard about some of the controversy, right? About how a viewer at Sundance shouted, “How dare you!” at Michael Winterbottom?
EK: Yeah, I did. A lot of people were disturbed by the violence. I mean, it’s very much in the book. I am a huge fan of Michael Winterbottom. I wanted to be in his film. Casey [Affleck], everybody was just brilliant in it. I love everybody in the movie. But it’s not an easy experience to see someone get punched to death. It’s not for everybody.
But I know that the people who did make it are proud of the movie. There’s gonna be people who are going to be disgusted by it, and others are going to appreciate it for what it is. It’s kind of a psychology into this man’s screwed-up head. Sometimes there’s a part of me that thinks, you know, you see a lot of these killings and these terrible things that people do to each other, but you don’t actually see the horror. I don’t know how easy it is. I would imagine it’s very difficult to actually do someone in. To actually see the horror, the brutality of that is very realistic, and it touches chords in people’s psyche. It’s not going to be comfortable.
It’s not for everybody, but it does deserve to exist. I don’t know if you could just dismiss it because your way of looking at the world doesn’t fit into this story. I remember thinking, “Hey, man. I love the controversy. If you do anything that’s going to create a conversation, I think that’s great.” The worst thing that could happen is if you just walk out of the theater and you just go get lunch and you don’t think about it. But if it provokes strong emotions in you, good or bad, I think that’s legitimate. That’s what art’s all about, I think.
AVC: It seems like Crash provoked similarly strong emotions when it came out.
EK: Oh yeah, that’s right. Crash was done a disservice, because the powers that be that ran the studio—that owned the film, that distributed it—kind of held it up. And then they marketed it in a certain way that was not representative. It’s a very cerebral film, and it’s cold, and it gets under your skin, and it’s disturbing, and it’s methodical. It’s not like this fast-paced, high-voltage thing. It’s very cerebral. I thought that a lot of these trailers did it a disservice.
After all the commotion and controversy, when they actually saw it, I imagine there was a lot of disappointment, like, “What’s the big deal?” Well, what was the big deal? There is no big deal. They did a disservice to it by delaying it. To me, all the actors in that movie, we were all in the state of grace. We loved it. Every moment of it, we were supportive. David Cronenberg, we were in his little sandbox, and we were all willing to do whatever to bring it to life. We all had a blast. I felt like I was at the tip of an arrow, and it was just going forward, and I was just trying to stay out of the way. It was one of those moments in my life where I felt it was all left there [on the set], and I felt blessed by it. I felt renewed and reinvigorated. Now why did someone go and name their movie—well, I won’t go there.
AVC: Oh, you mean Paul Haggis’ Crash?
EK: I don’t understand that. You know?
AVC: Well, some people like to pretend that there only ever was one movie called Crash.
EK: Really? [Laughs.] That’s funny.
AVC: I’m already imagining one of our commenters asking why I didn’t ask you about kissing James Spader.
EK: It took a while to get to that scene, to understand the character’s need, to pass on the belief system, to pass the torch—and we could get into that deeply and specifically. But it took a while for me to completely get behind that scene, and to really know how necessary and vital that scene was in the development of his character and mine. I have no issue with it. I have no business accepting the job if it was going to be something I wasn’t going to be able to handle. [Pauses.] But on a superficial level, I thought he was a good kisser. [Laughs.]
AVC: He seems like he’s got a good pair of lips.
EK: Yeah. On some level, it’s an odd thing that here we were kissing each other. I don’t know how comfortable or uncomfortable the guy on the set was, but we were doing a lot of odd things to begin with in the movie that were a little bit uncomfortable. But in a lot of ways, kissing another guy, you got nothing at stake. Your masculinity, in a lot of ways, your manhood, it didn’t seem to be at stake. So you’re able to really go for it. Sometimes, you know, when you’re in that situation with a woman [actor], and oh my God, you’re afraid to get turned on, and, “Oh my God, what is she going to think?” Or, “Is she going to think that I’m a good kisser?” Your mind is all over the place. But with this thing, it was sort of unselfconscious. It’s like, “I don’t give a shit if he thinks I’m a good kisser or not.” [Laughs.] It’s oddly liberating. But yeah, he’s a good kisser.
The Sopranos “The Strong, Silent Type” (2002)—“Dominic Palladino”
EK: I hadn’t worked in a year, and suddenly I’m in front of the whole cast that had been working with each other all this time. What I remember is how beautifully gracious and supportive the whole cast was. I had to be in front of all of them—all of them—and I had to be this drug interventionist guy. Not having worked for a year, it adds to the nervousness factor. So, I remember being in front of these wonderful, supportive actors and stumbling all over my words—cracking, nervous, sweating. But at the end of the day, I remember walking away, and I could not have prayed for a better bunch of individuals and group of people to have that happen, to sweat it out and be nervous in front of. I have nothing but praise. There’s no mystery to why they clicked. They had such great chemistry with each other. They cared about each other. They loved each other. Aside from having great dialogue and great situations, they actually deeply cared for the other to do the best they could. And that shows.
AVC: This is one of the very few TV roles on your résumé. Do you just generally not like to do television?
EK: No, I’d love to. For some reason, the energy, I haven’t been able to—I don’t know. I’d love to stay in New York City and go downtown or whatever and do a show and then come home. But it’s either you’re going to play a cop, be a lawyer, be a doctor. I don’t know how many times you get a chance, the different variations of that theme you’re going to play. So there’s a part of me that’s looking for something a little different. To be on TV, week in and week out, you’ve got to play to your sensibility. I know that I’m a quirky guy, to say the least. I don’t know how easy I am to cast for a network. It hasn’t been because I haven’t tried. But am I dying to be on a TV show? No. [Laughs.] But if someone presented me with something that turns me on, and they want to work with me, too, and they believe in me? Then I’m right there. Maybe someone’s going to read this and say, “Hey…”
Lights Out “Unaired Pilot” (2011)—“Clay Tarpin”
AVC: And you actually did try recently, since you were in the unaired pilot for Lights Out.
EK: I was, yeah. I was going to play his manager. After they tried to put the pilot together, it wasn’t working. There’s a lot of things that have to come together to make the thing work. Sometimes, individually you got great actors working together, and you put it in a pot, and somehow, for whatever reason, it’s not gelling. Then you’ve got to also think about where you want to take a show 13 episodes down the road with those particular actors. Although it hurt at the time—they changed a lot of actors—when I saw the show, I thought it was great. I thought the guy that they cast as his manager [Pablo Schreiber], which was the part I was playing, who’s now his brother—I wasn’t playing his brother. And now he’s got a sister. I think the dynamics, they gel better, ultimately, around Holt [McCallany]. I take my hat off to them. And I love the show. I’m a big fan. It’s nothing personal. Would it have been nice to get a phone call, “Hey, I’m sorry it didn’t work out”? Sure, that would have been nice. But I’ve been around a long time. I’m a big boy. I can handle my feelings. It’s all good. [Laughs.] Onward and forward. Hopefully you gel somewhere else.
Private Sessions (1985)—“Johnny O’Reilly”
AVC: Oddly enough, your very first screen credit actually was a TV pilot. Had it been picked up, you could have been locked into it for years. You could have had a whole different career.
EK: That’s right! That could have been the beginning of my career. That’s crazy. My mom [on the show] was Kim Hunter, man. Stella! And Tom Bosley, man. You know, we filmed that right here on 79th Street. I walk by that all the time. We shot that with Mike Farrell on 79th Street, on 81st Street, right near the museum. I took a subway ride from Boerum Hill in Brooklyn and I was walking by there the other day. It brought back some memories.
AVC: Are you glad, in some ways, that isn’t how your career went?
EK: It’s neither here nor there at this point, because I would have embraced it. In other ways, it probably would have helped me hone certain tools, perhaps. But that wasn’t the journey for me. Believe me, I wanted to work, and if that was going to be the situation, I would have been there 100 percent. I had no plan. It just kind of unfolds. Maybe I should have a plan? Yeah. Maybe that’s the thing. There’s no plan, and that’s the problem. Actually, I don’t even know if there is a problem. There is no problem. I feel blessed. To live an artistic life, it’s a blessing.