Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
When Frank Whaley first stepped in front of the camera for a TV gig, he was in his 20s, but he looked like he was in his teens, which turned out to be a very good thing for his career. From the late ’80s onward, Whaley has been a regular presence on television and in motion pictures, including leading roles in Career Opportunities, The Doors, and the short-lived CBS series Buddy Faro as well as smaller but still highly memorable appearances in films like Field Of Dreams, Pulp Fiction, and Vacancy. In addition to his work in front of the camera, Whaley is also an accomplished writer and director, talents that are currently on display in his fourth film, Like Sunday, Like Rain.
Joe The King (1999)—“Angry Man Bob Owes” (uncredited), director, writer
The Jimmy Show (2001)—“Jimmy O’Brien,” director, writer
New York City Serenade (2007)—“Les,” director, writer
Like Sunday, Like Rain (2014)—director, writer
A.V. Club: Like Sunday, Like Rain certainly isn’t your first effort as a writer/director, but how did this particular film come about? Was it an idea that had been germinating for awhile, or was it something spontaneous?
Frank Whaley: Well, I finished my third feature film, which was called New York City Serenade, and… I had a real hard time with it. I’m very proud of it and love it, but it got lousy reviews. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and it got picked up by Anchor Bay, and they just kind of threw it out, essentially. I mean, you can find it, and you can order it and everything, but generally speaking, I was really kind of down in the dumps. I loved the script that I wrote, maybe a few things I would’ve done differently in terms of the casting, but whatever: It put me into a funk. But I’m always trying to make movies. It’s what I love to do more than anything. I love to write and direct.
Around 2007, I was walking through Manhattan—I lived there for 30 years, and then three years ago I moved to Connecticut—and my wife and I had gone to see a movie. As writers will do, I was looking anywhere for some kind of idea to write about. And I heard somebody call my name, and I turned around, and at first I didn’t recognize him, but it turned out it was somebody I had known in the early ’80s, when I first moved to New York to be an actor. He and I were room-service waiters together at the Helmsley Palace Hotel. There was a hotel-workers strike, so they hired en masse, like, anybody to take over, and they were paying $15 an hour plus tips whether you had experience or not, as long as you gave a decent interview. And there was a line a mile long, I remember, for these jobs. Anyway, I got hired to do overnight room-service waiting, and… I had no idea how to do it. [Laughs.] No experience whatsoever. They said, “We’ll craft that.” It was taking an order, getting it on the table, and getting it up to these rooms, but it was not easy.
But this fellow and I were, for two months, working together and doing this, and I hadn’t seen him in 22 years, but at the time we became really tight, really good friends. We were both broke; we were both in the same boat, trying to be actors. He lived in Queens; I was living in an illegal sublet in the East Village of Manhattan, but we really encouraged each other. Not monumental, but we helped each other through a very difficult period of time. And I think that time we spent together had a great impact—at least on my life—going forward, whether consciously or unconsciously. I bumped into him, and we talked for 15 minutes on the street, and we said “Goodbye” and exchanged email addresses, and when I walked home, I thought, “There might be something. Maybe that’s the idea I’m looking for: a story about two people who are sort of randomly thrown together, spend a brief period of time with each other, and then, just like that, it’s over.”
I ended up getting fired from the job. I spilled a glass of tomato juice all over Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini’s shoes.
AVC: Well, if you’re gonna go, you might as well make it memorable.
FW: Yeah, at the time Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini was a famous fighter, and he screamed and yelled, and I went down to the kitchen, and the guy said, “Get out. Just go. Get out of here!” So I said, “Goodbye.” And I never saw my friend again. It wasn’t like these days, with Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, and all that. I got kicked out of my sublet, so he had no way of getting in touch with me, and we just lost touch. So long story short… [Laughs.] That’s where the idea came from. This idea which may or may not be unique to New York, where you can be really close to somebody in such a transient city, in a transient world, one day, and have great meaning to someone’s life, and then after a spilled glass of tomato juice, you never see them again! So I thought, “I’m gonna write a story about two people who meet, affect each other greatly, and then just kind of fade from each other’s lives.”
It’s a very simple concept, but it’s character-driven, which I like to do. I invented these two characters, and one is a child cello prodigy, a brilliant mathematician… He’s 12 and he’s about to graduate from high school and [go to] M.I.T., but he lives an independent existence. His mother’s kind of absentee, his father’s in China doing business, and one of his caretakers, his nanny, leaves suddenly, so they need to hire somebody else on the spot. So they hire this young woman who comes in for an interview, played by Leighton Meester. She’s an upstate New York girl, broke, comes from the opposite end of the socioeconomic stratosphere as this kid, and knows nothing about taking care of him. But they end up spending the summer together in this opulent, enormous mansion that he lives in, and they just become friends. It’s very simple, and I think it’s lovely and human, sort of a comment on the way we live.
AVC: Of the other names in the cast, the one that particularly stands out is Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day, if only because he’s not a hugely known quantity as an actor. What led you to cast him in the role?
FW: It was my casting director’s idea, really. At the beginning of the story, Leighton Meester’s character breaks up with her boyfriend, who doesn’t come home one night, and he plays in a band, but he’s a wannabe musician. He actually works at the UPS store, and… he’s really kind of a prick. [Laughs.] And he ends up throwing his guitar out the window. So my casting director suggested, “Maybe we should get a real musician to play this role.” And she sent me a tape of a recent episode of Nurse Jackie that Billie had done, and I thought he was really great. And he looked the part.
He’d done Nurse Jackie, and he had played in his show on Broadway, American Idiot, but this was his first feature film. The character I’d written, it was a very menacing kind of guy. She breaks up with him, and he begins to stalk her and follow her around and show up places. It was written with kind of a menacing tone, kind of a scary guy. That’s what I had in mind. But Billie brought his own tone to it, and it changed the whole nature of the character and, as a result, kind of changed the whole feel and vibe of that section of the movie, which I love. So he did a really good thing that experienced actors are able to do: to bring their own thing and invent the character. Once I saw where he was going with it, I jumped right in and we worked it out together. I’m really proud of it.
AVC: Like Sunday, Like Rain would appear to be the first time you’ve written and directed a film without actually appearing in it.
FW: Yes! You’re right!
AVC: Was that a conscious choice, or was there just not any role that particularly fit you?
FW: Yeah, there wasn’t a role for me, but… I feel like that’s a horrible idea. In my first film, that was just kind of a walk-on. And then The Jimmy Show, obviously, I was the main character, and that was a horrible mistake. [Laughs.] It’s just not a good idea to do that. I don’t think anybody should do that, because you have to be outside of the realm of the characters on the screen, I think. As the director, you really have to be objective… [Hesitates.] I’m really proud of The Jimmy Show, but I think if I could do it again I’d probably either get somebody else to direct or get somebody else to play the role, one or the other. You know, in a small dose, like in New York City Serenade, yeah, sure, why not? Do a little cameo, play around. But I decided to stay out of the picture on this one. It’s just much easier. When you’re doing a movie in 20 days, directing’s hard enough!
AVC: Have you ever contemplated helming something that you didn’t write yourself?
FW: In terms of the films I make, I’m just more excited about it if I’ve written it, you know? It’s like living in a house that you’ve built rather than a rental. That’s how I look at it, anyway. I love building it from the ground up and knowing the characters through each phase of the interpretation of them. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been sent scripts to direct, and I always end up becoming very controlling and wanting to rewrite it to fit what I think it should say, and it just usually doesn’t work.
With that said, I would love to be able to direct episodic television, because it’s a great way to make a living, and it’s something where I think I could utilize my talents as well as my ability to work fast. So, yeah, that’s something I would like: to be a director for hire, so to speak, for episodic television. But feature films are a different thing, because they take so long. But it would all depend on how much money they offered me. [Laughs.] If they offered me the right amount of money, I’d direct an adaptation of the phone book! But we all have to make a living. I’ve got kids, you know? You have to think about those things, too.
AVC: You mentioned that New York City Serenade wasn’t received or distributed well, but you still managed to get a great performance out of Chris Klein in that film.
FW: That I would agree with, yeah… Usually when I finish filming, I go into the editing room, and it’s just me and my editor until we’re done editing. It’s a very personal and private thing for me that I need to just be with the editor and the footage, and nobody sees it but us. And then we start to screen it for people, just to get people’s reactions to it. We bring it to five or 10 people, but they’re completely objective strangers. We try to get students or friends of people, whatever, but nobody associated with the film. But when I finished the film, I thought, “This is really good.”
I love what it says. I think it’s unique. It says something about male friendship in a real thick way. I like to make movies about how people actually live, realistically, and I thought I achieved all that. And then… [Sighs.] It’s hard, because you do listen to how people respond, and the criticism to the film was so harsh that I think a lot of that seeped into my own feelings. I hate to say it, and I’m ashamed to admit it, but I think those remarks have made me feel bad about it. But I believe time heals all that, and I always hope that in time all the films that I make—because they’re so small and obscure, so to speak—that people will discover them and not be swayed by what the critics thought… But I agree: Chris Klein was fantastic. Just really good. I think he understood it. And I think a lot of the trouble he was having in his own personal life at the time or whatever, not to go into too much detail, kind of bled into his performance, which I think is kind of cool to watch.
AVC: Speaking of cool, it’s very cool that you got Ed Harcourt to do the music for the film.
FW: Me, too! [Laughs.] He’s amazing, that guy. Here’s how that happened: I was driving around California when I working out there or something, and I was listened to public radio, and he was a guest on some public radio show and was singing a song. I wasn’t familiar with Ed’s music, but this song… I had just finished the script and was trying to get financing together for it, and he was playing a song called “Watching The Sun Come Up,” and I said, “That song has to be in the movie!” That song goes with the movie: It’s all about waking up in the morning, watching the sun come up, and coming to the realization that the time has come to grow up and be an adult. And that’s really what New York City Serenade is about, ultimately. It’s two late bloomers trying to figure out how to become adults and where they’re going to go with their lives. So I called Ed… Maybe I emailed him. But I told him, “You don’t know me, but I wrote a script, and I love that song, and I would love to use it in the movie.” And he said, “Yeah!” And he ended up writing the whole score, which is gorgeous.
And then for Like Sunday, Like Rain, when I got that together, I called him and said, “If you would, I would love for you to do that again for me.” [Laughs.] And Like Sunday, Like Rain is so much about music. Both of the main characters are musicians, and there’s an all-important scene where Leighton Meester’s character, when she first meets the young boy, he’s rehearsing with his quartet and he’s playing a song that stops her in her tracks. In the script, and I’m paraphrasing, but it says something like how it stops her from being able to move, it’s so beautiful. So I said to Ed, “Would you please write that piece?” And I just prayed that he could do it. And he sent me a demo, an MP3, maybe a week later, and… it was amazing. It works so well that the melody from that piece of music that Ed wrote—it’s called “Like Sunday, Like Rain Theme”—plays throughout the film. It’s in different arrangements with different instruments and in different ways, but it’s essentially the one piece of music that’s the through-line through the entire movie. It’s beautiful. Ed‘s really one of those unsung heroes. He actually just did something for a Burberry ad a few months ago—it’s called “The Way That I Live”—and it’s a great song. I’m always checking his website, because sometime he’ll put new music up there. He’s great.
The Sid Caesar Show (1986)—actor
Spenser: For Hire (1987)—“Tommy”
AVC: In trying to find your first on-camera role, it’s hard to tell which came first: an episode of Spenser: For Hire or your work in Ironweed.
FW: My first on-camera role—excluding commercials—I would say was… [Long pause, then starts to laugh.] I had one line in this Sid Caesar pilot, which I think was unaired… I was 23 or 24 years old or something. I was cast as a guy on a hansom cab with a girl, and Sid Caesar is running by, running from somebody, and he asks if he can get on the hansom cab, and I throw an apple core at him. But like I said, I’m not sure if it ever aired. Other than that, though, Spenser: For Hire was my first on-camera role, as an evicted boy.
AVC: So how did you find your way into acting in the first place?
FW: Well, that’s a good question. It’s unlikely that it happened for me. I was born and raised in Syracuse, New York, to a very un-showbiz background, grew up very, very poor, and I ended up getting involved in a program called the Educational Opportunity Program, which was for disadvantaged youth. To this day, it’s still a really good program for inner-city kids who can’t afford college. So I was lucky to get that program and get kind of a free ride to college, all expenses paid, at SUNY Albany. I’d always loved to perform, and I’d done a couple of things in high school in the drama program, but on a small scale. When I got up there, I went to all the departments, and when I went to the theater department, I started talking to them, and… I just kind of fell in love with it.
So I did plays and workshops and one-acts, and I started to write at that time. It was really fortunate that I got into that program, because I was on the wrong path. The guidance counselor at my high school actually suggested that I do drama, because I was in a lot of trouble when I was 17 and 18, and I was actually arrested several times for petty stuff. But this changed everything. So that’s what really started it for me as an actor: stepping foot into that theater at SUNY Albany. It was like I’d had a hood over my face and somebody pulled it off. I said, “Oh, this is it!” I just loved everything about it. It was four years of learning it, and I had this little capsule to learn and to play on the stage and discover theater history and learn stagecraft and all that stuff. And then when I finished my last final, I got on the bus from Albany with my drums—I had a set of drums that were in Hefty garbage bags, because I didn’t have cases for them—and my duffle bag, and I had, like, $500 in my pocket that I borrowed, and I moved to New York. And that was it.
That was the spring of ’84, and… it was a very difficult time. [Laughs.] Because the $500 went fast. I was lucky because I knew a couple of people in New York, so I was able to get a place to live. Remember I mentioned that illegal sublet earlier? At that time, it was really, really super dangerous. Manhattan now is like Disneyworld, but in the ’80s it was a mess. And it was expensive. So I was sharing an apartment with—no exaggeration—nine other people, and I was sleeping on a small ottoman between the kitchen and the front breezeway. Looking back, I’m not sure how it worked. But I did it.
I just started living hand to mouth, and I had a succession of horrible jobs. I was waiting tables, and… well, you know, I did all kinds of crazy stuff, like most actors can talk about. I wasn’t really great at waiting tables, although I did it a lot, but it’s a lousy job. So this guy hired me to sell tube socks on the street, which I did for a couple of months. [Laughs.] And I got robbed selling tube stocks on the street, so I quit that. I sold blood. I actually sold my sperm, believe it or not, at a sperm bank. I did that twice. But then I got lucky. Really lucky.
It only took me a couple of years before I lucked into an agent. I didn’t have money for headshots, so I had my brother take a snapshot of me in front of Ray’s Pizza, and then I went to Rexall and had a hundred copies made, and I typed up a résumé with—because I had no real credits—a whole bunch of phony credits on it. [Laughs.] And I sent it to every agent in town. I just badgered these agents, and then I finally got a call. I was working in a law office, updating the law books, and I’d have to take out pages and put new pages in every day… and I would often throw the pages out. I set this law office back 20 years singlehandedly.
While I was working at that place, I got a call from this agency. It was called the J. Michael Bloom Agency, and they handled kids. But I looked very young—I was in my mid-20s, but I looked like I was 15—so they brought me in, saying, “Come in and prepare a monologue.” This was on a Saturday morning. And I remember because I was up Friday night at some club with some girl I’d met, and I was exhausted. But I went in and I did a Sam Shepard monologue, and they said, “How old are you?” And I said, “I’m 16,” because they only handled kids. [Laughs.] So they said, “Well, take this home and have your mother sign it.” And it was a contract! So I forged my mother’s signature on it, I went back in there, and they started to send me out on commercial auditions… and I started getting these commercials.
I did five commercials in the span of six months, and I made a shitload of money. Suddenly all these residual checks were in my mailbox. Every day I would open the mailbox to another residual check. I did a Montgomery Ward commercial, I did a Pizza Hut commercial… I don’t even remember them all. Somewhere there’s a bunch of VHS tapes of these commercials I did. But I made so much money. And all my friends were jealous because I didn’t have to go to work! [Laughs.] But the agency, because they’d signed me as a commercial client, they sent me down the hall to the legit people, and they said they wanted me, too. And that’s when I got the Spenser: For Hire, I did a ABC Afterschool Special and a CBS Schoolbreak Special, and then the Ironweed thing came along… and that’s a funny story.
Ironweed (1987)—“Young Francis Phelan”
FW: The casting director wouldn’t even see me. I waited for 45 minutes in the waiting room, and the casting director said when I came in, “Oh, you’re not right for this at all.” And I said, “Can’t I at least do the audition?” And she said, “I can tell you right now, you’re just not right for it. They’re not going to respond to you, and I don’t want to waste everybody’s time.” I said, “But I’ve been here for… You’ve already wasted 45 minutes of my time! Just let me do it!” And she said, “No.”
And then I got an audition for Hairspray—the original Hairspray movie—and the casting director for that movie was named Marion Dougherty. They made a documentary about her recently: Casting By. She started my whole career. She’s responsible for my whole film career, because I went in for Hairspray, and I met John Waters and auditioned and everything, but they said, “You know what? You’re great, but you’re not right for this.” Well, actually, what they said was, “You’re not good-looking enough.” [Laughs.] But she said, “But you should be in Ironweed, because you look the part.” And I said, “Well, they wouldn’t let me audition.” And Marion Dougherty said, “Well, let me get on the phone.”
Essentially Marion Dougherty went over the head of this casting director—who has never spoken to me since!—and called the producer of Ironweed and said, “You’ve gotta see this guy. He’s perfect for the role.” Because they’d been searching for someone to play the young Jack Nicholson in this movie. And then she came back to me and she said, “Okay, the day after tomorrow, you get on the train and go up to Albany, and you’re gonna audition for the director.” And I went up to Albany, I went in and auditioned for the director—Hector Babenco was his name—and he said, “You’re hired!” Right then and there! And while I was up there, I met Jack Nicholson, I met Meryl Streep… I met Tom Waits! So I sent Marion Dougherty a bouquet of roses, saying, “Thank you! Thank you so much!”
ABC Afterschool Special (1987)—“Jeff Dillon”
CBS Schoolbreak Special (1987)—“Scott McNichol”
AVC: Not to dwell on things you did in 1987, but that ABC Afterschool Special also starred Uta Hagen.
FW: It did! I had had a brief class with Uta Hagen some years earlier, and… she was in that Afterschool Special, as was Melba Moore, and I loved Melba Moore. I love ’60s but mostly ’70s soul music, and I had a Melba Moore album, if not two, so I was really happy to meet her. And I did have scenes with her, because she played a teacher, and I played this really bad guy—like, an anti-Semitic guy, who… actually, I don’t remember too many of the plot points anymore. But there was another semi-famous person in that, as I recall: Megan Follows, a Canadian actress who did Anne Of Green Gables. And then the CBS Schoolbreak Special I did was with James Earl Jones.
It was actually James Earl Jones and Dylan Walsh, but I think he was going by a different name then. He was going by Charlie Walsh, and then he changed it to Dylan and, of course, he went on to be on Nip/Tuck. And so was William O’Leary, who was in Bull Durham.
The Equalizer (1988)—“Press”
FW: One other thing I did right around that same time that may trump any of those other TV things was an episode of The Equalizer. It’s kind of an interesting footnote because it’s got some people of note in the cast along with me. I mean, there were a lot of people! Jerry O’Connell was in it, and he was just coming off of Stand By Me. And… who else? Sam Rockwell! Sammy Rock. That’s where I first met him. He and I became pretty good friends, but that’s where we first met. We were all waiters. Every one of us except for Jerry O’Connell. Max Casella, from Doogie Howser, he was in it. Max is a great actor, and he’s still doing great work. He was, like, in his 40s when he was on Doogie Howser. [Laughs.] I remember we were hanging out, and we were both still working waiting tables at the time, I believe. Or he was, anyway. I might’ve been out of it by then.
AVC: On IMDB, it looks like Anthony LaPaglia had a small role in it, too.
FW: LaPaglia, yeah! And so was a guy named Thomas G. Waites. [Laughs.] I forget what movie he was in, but at the time, I was really excited to be on the set with him. Also, the woman in the episode [Frances Ruffelle] went on to be in Les Misérables. So I was knocking knees with some pretty bigwigs at the time. It was exciting.
Buddy Faro (1998)—“Bob Jones”
FW: Well, I have some mixed emotions about that whole thing. I’d just finished Joe The King, and I was kind of in a very tight situation financially, because I’d sunk a lot of my own money into that movie. And my manager at the time called and said, “They want you for a straight-to-series Aaron Spelling show. The network has committed to 13 episodes, so you’re on the air, and you’re gonna get this amount of money per episode.” And the amount for me was, like, “What? Are you crazy? Of course I’ll do it! Say no more!” [Laughs.] Plus, it was with Dennis Farina, God rest his soul. So I say, “Yes! Absolutely! I’ll do it!”
In retrospect, though… It was a really great pilot script, and the guy who wrote it [Mark Frost] co-wrote Twin Peaks, and he was the show runner, and he’s a very funny, smart guy. It was a great idea, but… all the pieces didn’t come together, you know? I had a really good take on that character, and it was a really interesting character, this private eye set against this kind of swashbuckling, swingin’ Rat Pack kind of guy from the ’50s, played by Dennis. But conceptually the show just didn’t come together. If they did that show today, it would be really funny and irreverent and great. But I don’t think Aaron Spelling was the right fit, and the hours were incredibly crazy. It was, like, a 20-hour day situation for me. And Dennis Farina had a thing on Fridays: By 3 p.m., he was out. But the funny thing was, he never left his dressing room. He would just sit and drink in there with his friends. What they would do was, they’d bank all my scenes and all my coverage for Friday after 3 p.m., so I’d end up being at work on Friday ’til, like, six in the morning doing all that stuff.
But was cool to sort of have my own show, because it was based around me and Dennis, and the critics loved it. But they put it on Friday nights, and we got beat out by Sabrina The Teenage Witch every single week. So I think after, like, episode four, they preempted us for Dick Clark’s Bloopers And Practical Jokes or something. And the bitch of it was that we had to keep shooting the show, because we were committed to it, so there we were, making shows that nobody would ever see. So somewhere floating around out there are seven unseen episodes of Buddy Faro. And some of them are pretty cool. I remember they had Rosemary Clooney come on one episode—it was a Christmas episode—and they had some weird, obscure guest stars come in.
AVC: Online, there are airdates listed for the episodes that never actually aired on CBS, so presumably they got an airing somewhere overseas.
FW: Yeah, I think that’s what happened. I think they continued to air in Australia or somewhere like that, so that’s why we had to keep doing the episodes. But in the States they never aired, and as a result we just stopped caring. We just fucked around. [Laughs.] And Dennis basically checked out. He didn’t give a shit, really, to begin with. He just wanted to get paid and wear nice suits. Dennis was a very, very great guy, but he went by his own rules. We had a really nice chemistry together, though, and from what I remember of what I saw, it was a funny show. But I’m sure if I saw it now I’d think, “What a piece of shit!”
It wasn’t like television today. Television today is much higher quality than some movies, and they get good directors, and the scripts are great because they bring in really good, talented writers. But this was still in the days when they would just bring in hack directors for hire. That’s not to say that we didn’t have a couple of good directors. I think Allen Coulter might’ve directed one of those, and if I’m not mistaken, I think D.J. Caruso, who’s kind of a big-time action guy, he did one. But the point is, it was, like, five different directors for five different episodes, whereas nowadays you’d have just a couple of directors on a show, and they’re also working on the creative side of things, writing and stuff. That’s what Buddy Faro needed.
FW: That was one of my favorite parts that I’ve played. I didn’t know it at the time. But after I saw it, I thought, “This is really cool!” It was very interesting the way the film was made on one set. Basically, the whole Vacancy film takes place in this motel. It’s really a creepy, scary movie. I remember when my wife and I went to the opening, we saw it and she was freaked out! A lot of people who love those movies think of it as kind of a classic of the horror genre.
I was in L.A., and I was cutting New York City Serenade while I was doing that movie. I got offered that role, and it was a period of my life where I was starting a family and I couldn’t afford to turn anything down, so I said, “Yes! Absolutely!” It was one of the main parts in the movie, and it was a studio movie, for Sony Films. And I was going to cut New York City Serenade in New York, but I said, “Well, we’ll move everything out there.” My cutting room was about half a mile away from the Sony lot, but when I was on the set, all I could think about was getting back to my cutting room. Because, you know, time was money, and my editor’s sitting there by himself, and I just wanted to get back there. So it was splitting my focus, but maybe that was good, because I really love how that character turned out: scary, creepy, and very strange. I particularly love how his introduction came out. So I was really happy with it.
It was directed by this guy Nimród Antal, and… I haven’t really followed his career, but I think it was his first feature. Definitely his first American feature, anyway. He might’ve done a short before that. But the cinematographer was the same guy who did Pulp Fiction [Andrzej Sekula], and he lit everything really brightly overhead, so I looked like I was 65 years old. And when I direct films, I tend to forget to eat, so being just on the heels of New York City Serenade, I was, like, 15 pounds underweight at that point. I weighed about 127 pounds. [Laughs.] So I looked like hell… which worked really well for the character! So, yeah, I liked that part. They made a Vacancy 2, a straight-to-video sequel, and they asked if I would come and reprise my role, but I said “No,” because they didn’t pay me enough money. Plain and simple. If they’d paid me some more money, I would’ve gone.
To Dance With The White Dog (1993)—“James”
Pulp Fiction (1994)—“Brett”
FW: You know, they just aired a scene from Pulp Fiction in a Samsung commercial during the Oscars… and I should’ve gotten paid a lot more money. This is how little I pay attention to things: I thought it was just going to be my voice, not my face, so I thought, “Oh, it’s just my voice and they’ll pay me that much? Sure!” And my wife nearly threw her vodka at me. She said, “What the fuck, man? You could’ve gotten five times that much!” [Laughs.]
I met Quentin [Tarantino] a couple of years before that. We both went up to the Sundance lab. The Sundance lab is in the spring, and directors are invited to shoot scenes from their upcoming films, sort of as a practice, to help develop it a little bit. I met him when he was doing that with Reservoir Dogs, and I was up there acting in some other director’s thing. I don’t remember what that was, to be honest with you. Apparently it was unremarkable! [Laughs.] But we ended up meeting and spending time together, and I liked him, so I was really happy when he asked me to be in this movie. But I certainly didn’t think it was going to turn into the phenomenon that it did.
In fact, when they were making Pulp Fiction, I was down in Georgia, doing a Hallmark Hall Of Fame movie with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy called To Dance With The White Dog, and we got delayed down there because it was two weeks straight of rain and the set got flooded, so I kind of got stuck down there. I almost didn’t get to do my part because filming of that got so delayed, and I basically had to threaten to sue the people that were producing the movie if they didn’t let me out. But there was a moment there where my lawyers and agents said, “You committed to them. You can’t go do Pulp Fiction because you have to finish To Dance With The White Dog.” And that would’ve been tragic for me, because then I wouldn’t have been in a Samsung ad on the fucking Oscars. [Laughs.]
But I finally got there. It somehow worked out. I don’t remember the details, but I was lucky to get there and to get to work with Quentin and to get to work with [John] Travolta and Sam Jackson. You know, it was three or four days of filming that scene, and I thought, “Oh, it’s one scene.” But I had no idea it would become sort of the iconic thing that it is, you know? And I was away overseas when the film was released, but when I came home, I was walking on the streets of Manhattan, and people were just screaming, “Check out the big brain on Brett!” And I was, like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” But to this day, that’s what people remember. I’m sure that’ll be the thing that people will remember me for after I’m long gone. [Laughs.] If they remember me at all, that’s what they’ll remember me for: the big brain on Brett. And I’m proud of it!
AVC: So how many times have you been asked to “say ‘what’ again”?
FW: [Laughs.] Too many. I live in kind of a rural place, in small town Connecticut, and kids will come up right up to me in the mall and they’ll say, “Say what? What? WHAT?!?” I feel like I’m being threatened! Or they’ll say—and they tend to come right up into your face when they do—“What’s in the case? What’s in the case?” And my 10-year-old daughter is, like, “Daddy? Daddy, is everything okay?” And I usually give my stock answer: a light with a gel over it. That’s exactly what was in that case. And they walk away looking very deflated.
AVC: What’s it like to be on the receiving end of a tirade by Samuel L. Jackson?
FW: You know, I was just thinking about that scene after the Oscars—I hadn’t thought about it in awhile—and how, when we got into it, there was not a lot of rehearsal. Because I flew in, like, the day before, and I got on that set and everybody was really excited, because everybody was really excited about getting to that scene. It’s a big scene for Sam, you know, that monologue. That’s a big-ass monologue, and if you’re an actor going into that scene, you know this is going to be one of the big scenes of the film. I mean, Sam had some moments in that film, but the Ezekiel thing is the big, big number.
And, man, he was prepared. A scene like that, you’ve got to be training for it like a 15-round heavyweight fight. You’ve gotta get plenty of rest, you’ve gotta know your shit, and the first take—I think Sam and I are similar in this way—you nail that, and the rest of the day can be fun. I just remember sitting there, and the cameras are on him, kind of over the top of my head, so I was just watching. [Laughs.] And the guy just… I mean, it was riveting. You know, I’ve worked with some great actors in my life, luckily, from Marlon Brando to Burt Lancaster, Meryl Streep, and Jessica Tandy. But seeing that was something that, to this day, I remember clearly. That was pretty brilliant. It was great.
Little Monsters (1989)—“Boy”
Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)—“Timmy”
World Trade Center (2006)—“Chuck Sereika”
AVC: You’ve worked with Oliver Stone several times in your career, but it started with Born On The Fourth Of July. How did you find your way into his camp?
FW: I remember that so clearly. They used to do casting in New York a lot for features. They don’t do that a lot anymore, especially for unknown people. Nowadays, that role would be played by somebody famous, somebody already established. They would never go with an unknown. It’s just the nature of the movies, because they make so few studio movies now, and all of those roles are so sought after. And that was a cool role! But I just went in there and he actually had me read for the role of Tom Cruise’s little brother first, which was played by Josh Evans in the film, who’s the son of Robert Evans and Ali McGraw and who kind of looks like Tom. So he ended up playing that role, but they said, “Take a look at this.” And they gave me the pages for the role of Timmy, and they said, “Go outside and come back in five minutes.” So I went outside and I quickly memorized it, and I came back in and I did it. And I got the call later that day that they wanted me to do this part.
Another funny thing about that, though, that’s kind of similar to the Pulp Fiction thing… About a week before that, I auditioned for a role in a movie called Little Monsters, with Howie Mandel and Fred Savage. [Laughs.] And it was to play a monster. And I got the part, so I committed to that, and that was filming in North Carolina. But then I got the part in Born On The Fourth Of July, and my agent said, “Uh, yeah, you’ve got to make a decision. What are you gonna do?”
It turned out that I somehow got to do both, but my big scene in Born On The Fourth Of July, with Tom Cruise and I sitting in the backyard talking… It was a big scene for both of us in the movie, but I got stuck in Carolina. And I had to be in Dallas the next day! I ended up getting the last flight out to Dallas, but I should’ve been on the set that morning, and it was my first day working on that movie. So we went in for rehearsal and… I didn’t know my lines! The opposite of what Sam Jackson did that day on Pulp Fiction. [Laughs.] I did the complete opposite. I was exhausted, and I didn’t prepare. The scene turned out great, and I love that scene, but first thing, man, I came in, and it was just the blocking rehearsal, just the two of us sitting in chairs, but… I had my sides, as they call them, in my hand. And Oliver Stone freaked out.
This is my first day with Oliver Stone on this set, sitting next to Tom Cruise, and we get about halfway through the scene. Oliver usually sits off the set—like, in a tent, with a monitor—and watches. And I just hear him say, “Cut! We’re cutting on the rehearsal!” And he stomps out, and he goes, “What the fuck are you doing?” And he knocks the sides out of my hand, and he says, “You don’t know these lines?” And he points at Tom Cruise, and he says, “He knows his lines! Why the fuck don’t you know your lines? I know why! Because you were on a plane last night, doing some piece of shit movie in Carolina when you’re supposed to be here, getting a fucking costume fitting!” He’s screaming at me!
And… I peed in my pants. I mean, I was so frightened that I lost control of my bladder. And I said—and this was the only thing I did right—was to respond correctly and kind of meekly and say, “You’re right. I’m sorry. Give me 10 minutes, and I will know the lines. I’m sorry for what I caused to you and to the crew…” [Laughs.] But it was the most mortifying moment of my life. Oliver said, “All right, get out of here and come back and know your shit!” and I was walking out, Tom Cruise kind of rubbed me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about. It’s gonna be okay. You’ll be fine.” Which didn’t make me feel any better. In fact, it may have made me feel worse. But by an hour later, it was all forgotten, and fortunately I did a good job in that movie, because he brought me back to do The Doors, and then he brought me in for JFK, and then World Trade Center. And I was gonna do Pinkville, but then that fell apart at the last minute.
The Doors (1991)—“Robby Krieger”
AVC: You got to spend some time with Robby Krieger in advance of making the film, right?
FW: Oh, yeah. I spent months with Robby. I stayed at his house, I spent time with him and his wife and his kids. I’m a drummer, so I would go out and play drums with him and his son and his band. We used to do gigs over at the Central, which I think turned into the Viper Room, in Los Angeles. But I got close to all of them. That movie was, like, a five-month situation, and much of that time was spent with Robby. He was all around the set, and he was there, along with [Doors drummer John] Densmore. They were very much involved in the making of that film.
I think of that movie as kind of a roving circus carnival. There were so many people involved in day-to-day filming. I can’t imagine any movies like that anymore. They spent so much money, and… I’d turn around, and there would be, like, Billy Idol standing on the set. And I’d be, like, “What part is he playing?” “Oh, I don’t know, he’s just here.” And then we see Billy Idol on crutches and in a cast and wearing a ’60s outfit. And Billy Vera was on the set one day! Just all these weird people, like the guy who was the singer of The Animals, Eric Burdon. And we were in California—we’re out in the desert, we’re up in San Francisco, we were all over the Bay Area filming—and then we were in New York. It was a wild time. It was really wild.
So I spent a great deal of time with Robby, and even more time with Val [Kilmer] and Kyle [MacLachlan] and Kevin [Dillon]. We probably spent too much time together. [Laughs.] I think we were together longer than The Doors were together, for God’s sake. So it was cool, but it was definitely an experience.
AVC: By the end of it, were you tired of listening to The Doors’ music?
FW: Oh, man. To this day, I can’t listen to The Doors’ music. If it’s on the radio, it’s like Name That Tune: I hear one beat of a Doors song, I switch it off. I can’t take it. I mean, with all due respect, because those guys were brilliant, but The Doors were never really in my top 10 music. [Laughs.] But I had to listen, because I don’t play the guitar and I had to pretend I was playing the guitar, so I had to learn, because Oliver was very adamant that we all obviously looked like we were playing.
Clearly we had to, so I spent hours and hours and hours with Robby, and I had another guitar coach by the name of Elliott Randall, who was in Steely Dan. He was a complete nut. But I had to spend hours and hours and hours of sessions with both of them, figuring out the fingering of all these songs. And that’s actually me playing “Light My Fire” in the movie. I actually played that and sang that, because Oliver wanted it to look real or be real. So I spent every free moment listening to fucking… [Long pause.] I don’t even remember the names of the songs anymore! I’ve blocked them out! By the end, I just couldn’t stand them! And Val… God love Val Kilmer, he was in my first film, and he’s a great guy, but, uh, yeah, he was totally into that character, man.
AVC: By all reports, he was pretty method about it.
FW: Uh, yeah. You had to call him Jim. He insisted on it. And he never changed the pants. He wore these leather pants every day for five months. [Laughs.] But Val Kilmer is a hysterical man. I’m not sure if he knows how funny he is, but we had a great time. Somebody really should’ve made a documentary during that film, just with the four of us, because none of us were anything like our characters that we played. I mean, there’s nothing remotely relative between Kevin Dillon and John Densmore. I’m not even sure what Oliver Stone was thinking. Because Kevin’s, like, this… [Does a New York accent.] “Hey, I’m a guy from Larchmont!” And John Densmore’s the chillest, most California guy. And same thing with Robby. Robby barely said two words, and I’m this neurotic and—at the time—chain-smoking guy from New York City. So it was funny. If you had some footage of us during the endless hours of us sitting around, waiting to film these scenes in these ridiculous get-ups and wigs, it would’ve been a really funny reality show.
JFK (1991)—“Oswald Imposter”
Fatal Deception: Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald (1993)—“Lee Harvey Oswald”
FW: I say “supposed to” because these things happen, but I was supposed to play Oswald in JFK. It’s so funny, because I was told by Oliver, even though he denies it, that it was my role. And this is 1991 for you: I was sitting in a movie theater, waiting for a movie to start—and if you remember, they used to give out these free magazines at the movie theater about upcoming movies and stuff—and I read in the magazine that Gary Oldman had been cast to play Oswald. And I just was so fucking heartbroken, because I was really anxious to play that role and to work with Oliver again. And I called him, and I got in touch with him, and, you know, he apologized and he gave me that cameo. But then I ended up playing Lee Harvey Oswald in a TV movie a few years later, with Helena Bonham Carter.
But that movie was fun. I had done a lot of reading and research on that role, thinking I was going to be playing it in JFK. And, you know, in all sincerity, Oldman looks so much like Oswald in that movie, and he was so good in that movie. And it wasn’t like it was a thorough investigation of Oswald in JFK. My approach was markedly different in this TV movie I did. It played as a miniseries in Europe and aired as a TV movie here. But I didn’t try to look or sound like Oswald. I kind of created a character based on Oswald, in a strange way. And I liked it. I thought it was kind of cool. It was based on a book, Marina And Lee: A Love Story, and Helena played Marina. She was great.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2005)—“Peter Hagen”
FW: I was so happy to be on that show. It was at the time I was in California, and it was really good for me because at the time I’d hit… Well, you know how it is with peaks and valleys. But my oldest son was just a couple of years old, and my wife and I decided that maybe we’d head out west and see if I could stir up anything out there, because things were in a lull. So we went out to California and I tried to hire a new manager and stuff like that. So they said, “They want you to come in to audition for an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and I said, “Great! Just what I needed! This is perfect!”
So I went out there, and it’s completely improvised, the audition. They just give you an index card with this situation. I don’t even remember what it said, but it was, like, one sentence. But Larry Charles was sitting there, and I just started improvising away, and it was great! I think Larry David was in there, too, actually, because I was working opposite him. So they gave me the part, and I was so happy, because not only did I need a gig—I really needed a gig—but that was so different from anything I’d ever done. I’d done improv and stuff like that onstage, but in terms of that show and just completely improvising all that stuff in a comedic way… It was great. But it was really hard, because it was a night scene, and we didn’t start filming until, like, seven, and by 10 o’clock I was exhausted! But it was very cool, and it was really fun. Those guys are hysterical. We just did that for hours and hours and hours, sitting in that car and riffing.
FW: Again, I didn’t know what I was getting into, because I wasn’t really super-familiar with the superhero world or with comic-book stuff. I am now, and I love it, but when I found out what it was, I watched the pilot, which was fucking great, and now I watch it every week, and I was just, like, “This is awesome! I get to play a comic-book villain!” And then when I got there and saw out it was Lili [Taylor] playing my sister, it was, like, “This is even more awesome!” And I’m just waiting for them to figure out how to bring us back. Because in the first script I read, we both got killed in the end, but [Hesitates.] I don’t remember, does she get shot? I don’t think she got shot. I just got arrested, so I’m keeping a glimmer of hope that I’m going to get a call saying, “Yeah, we’re gonna bring you guys back.” And I’m going to keep hoping.
Chelsea Walls (2001)—“Lynny Barnum”
The Hottest State (2006)—“Harris”
FW: Ethan Hawke and I, we’ve kind of gone to do our own things these days, but he and I were very, very close for a long time, and we were frequently collaborating and working together. He was in my first film, and… well, actually, he was in both Joe The King and The Jimmy Show. But we met on a movie called A Midnight Clear, with Gary Sinese and Kevin Dillon and Pete Berg, and we just became immediately best friends. Even though I’m eight or 10 years older than he is, we just hit it off. And we finished that film up in Utah, and we said, “Let’s not lose touch.” Again, this is in the days before the easy access to people on the internet. So we exchanged phone numbers and said, “Let’s definitely talk.” And when we got back to New York, we called each other almost simultaneously. [Laughs.] So we decided to start a theater company with some other friends, including Robert Sean Leonard and some other people. Like, Calista Flockhart was a part of that group, and a lot of good writers, like Kenneth Lonergan. A lot of people came out of there. It was called the Malaparte Theater Company. I directed several plays that he acted in, and Ethan directed in many plays that I was in, and then we always tried to get each other involved in the movies we were making.
First was Chelsea Walls. I used to have an apartment two doors away from the Chelsea Hotel, so we just had a blast. Jimmy Scott was there, and the guys from Wilco, and we just hung out all day at the old Chelsea, in the basement of the old Chelsea Hotel, which is now a piece of history. That thing is gone now. Somebody bought it, and they’re gonna turn it into, like, a Super 8 or an EconoLodge or something like that. [Laughs.] But at the time it had so much character. I think he really caught that. He and Nicole Burdette, who wrote it with him. It’s a really cool movie. And I think time will rediscover that film as well. Kris Kristofferson is in that movie! But I love that he’s got Little Jimmy Scott singing “Jealous Guy.”
And as far as The Hottest State, one of the things about Ethan and I… When I wrote Joe The King, he wrote The Hottest State, which is based on his novel, which is a really, really amazing novel. We finished them around the same period of time. It was really monumental for both of us, because it was the first big thing that either of us had written. So we exchanged them—we kind of had this ceremonial exchanging of the writing—and I was so proud of him. I remember we sat and gave each other our impressions of each other’s writing, and we were just really encouraging of each other and helpful. It was a true friendship in that way. That guy’s a true artist, and he’s always done his own thing and been really smart about what’s done, and he does what he wants to do.
So The Hottest State, I was really happy to come and do that part. I wish a little bit less of it had ended up on the cutting-room floor. [Laughs.] The movie ran long, I guess. But I was happy just to be there. I got to be with Laura Linney. I think the character was supposed to be based on one of his mother’s ex-boyfriends or something like that. Like I said, at the time, we just tried to keep each other involved in each other’s lives and work. But I love that movie, and I’m really proud of him.
Back In The U.S.S.R. (1992)—“Archer”
House M.D. (2007)—“Robert Elliot”
AVC: Was it your connection with Robert Sean Leonard that led you to guest on House?
FW: Not so much Bob, but a guy named Deran Sarafian. Deran is a director, and he was one of the producers and directors on House. His dad is Richard Sarafian, who’s also kind of an old-school Hollywood director. I met Deran back in the early ’90s. I did a movie called Back In The U.S.S.R., which was the first film co-production between MosFilm, which is the state film company in Moscow, and an American film company, which was 20th Century Fox. It was the first film to have complete access to Red Square, the Kremlin, and parts of the Soviet Union that were prior to that completely closed off to film. So I don’t know if it was part of the whole glasnost thing, but we were allowed to film inside these places. And I play the lead character, a guy who’s a tourist who goes to Russia after he finishes college for a graduation present that his parents give him. And he ends up with a Russian prostitute and… it’s a fish-out-of-water story. Roman Polanski’s in the film, and, uh… [Starts to laugh.] It was insane. It was just insane. If I ever write a book, it’s gonna be on the making of Back In The U.S.S.R. I nearly died 17 times during the making of that film. And Deran Sarafian, who nearly died 30 times on the film, because he was nuts, called and said, “Would you do an episode of House?” And I said, “Absolutely!” Little did I know how that was going to go down.
Here’s the funny thing about the House episode. I was playing a guy whose ailment is that he has a head-to-toe rash on his body, and the ailment causes him to expertly mimic the alpha personality of anyone who walks in the room. And I’d never seen the show before, so I had to do these impressions of everybody on the show. So, uh, yeah, that was fun. I knew Bob, though, so at least I could do him pretty well.
Swing Kids (1993)—“Arvid”
AVC: Presumably you got to know Robert Sean Leonard pretty well while working with him on Swing Kids.
FW: Oh, yeah, Bob and I go way back. Like I said, we met… Well, let’s see: he and Ethan were pretty good friends, so when Ethan and I came back to New York after filming A Midnight Clear, he introduced me to Bob, and we started doing a lot of theater together. And then, just by coincidence, we were both cast in the film Swing Kids…which they wanted Ethan to do! The studio really wanted Ethan to play Bob’s role. [Laughs.] And I was begging Ethan to do that role because, even though I liked Bob, I’d only just met him, whereas I knew that Ethan and I could have a great time, because we had to go to Prague. I was just trying to convince him that it would be the best movie that Disney ever made about dancing Nazis! [Laughs.] But I’m sure he regrets it now. I mean, are you kidding me? He could be famous if he’d only done that movie!
But we had a great time when we were there. For some reason, I was doing movies back to back in eastern Europe for months at a time. There was another actor in that movie called Jayce Bartok, and he and I ended up spending a lot of time together, just traveling on trains and going to, like, these weird underground clubs in Prague. Christian Bale was in that movie, too, and this was three or four months of epic games of Risk, where everybody would put two or three hundred bucks under the board, and whoever won got all the money under the board, so this would lead to fist fights and people screaming at each other. But also on our off-hours we were scouring the underbelly of Prague circa the early ’90s, going to mosh-pit clubs and drinking shit that you had no idea what was in the glass. People would just give it to you. [Yells.] “Drink this!” And you’d drink it, and you’d wake up four days later.
AVC: And you’d go, “Holy shit, I just made a movie about dancing Nazis”?
FW: That’s right! [Laughs.] The funny thing about Swing Kids is that the whole basis of my character was that I was supposed to have, like, this wooden leg. So I think they sent me to, like, a physical trainer to work on the limp, because I was supposed to be walking with a limp and all that stuff, but I didn’t give it one second thought. I got there, and my first scene was a scene where me and Christian Bale and Bob and Jayce were supposed to walk across this bridge, and we’re just talking, shooting the shit about how shitty the hotel was. And the guy said, “Action!” And I just started walking like LeBron James across the bridge. And the guy says, “Cut!” We’re, like, “Why’s he cutting? What’s the problem?” And the director comes over to me and says, “You’re supposed to have a limp!” And I go, “Oh. Oh! Well, that was it. That was the limp. You want more? I can do more!” But the truth is, I had just completely forgotten that I was supposed to have a limp.
Career Opportunities (1991)—“Jim Dodge”
FW: I think if they made that movie today it would be kind of cool, but it just lacked a little bit of the irreverence of other movies written by John Hughes. The soundtrack was certainly classic John Hughes fare. I mean, I happen to think it’s kind of a cool movie. I think it’s different than his other movies, and I think that casting me was a daring move. [Laughs.] Because I didn’t sort of fit into that mold. I played it a little bit different. I was just… slightly off. And I think that might’ve been part of the demise of the whole thing.
I’m not sure why we were shooting in Monroe, Georgia, at a Target store, but I know Targets weren’t as prevalent then as they are now, clearly. But the rules were, Target allowed us to shoot there, but we could only shoot after hours, so we ended up shooting all nights. We could only shoot from 9 p.m. until maybe 6 or 7 a.m., which does something to your psyche. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were you comfortable on roller skates before doing the film?
FW: Oh, yeah. In the ’70s, up in Syracuse, we’d hit the Sports-O-Rama Roller Rink pretty much every weekend. Saturday night, 7 to 11 p.m., $2.50. Couldn’t beat it. [Laughs.] So, yeah, I was well prepared for that. But in regards to some of the other things we did in the film, we could only use what was in the store, so the director and I—Bryan Gordon, a talented director—we went up there a couple of weeks early, and we just walked around the store, and I looked for bits. So all those little montages, that was stuff that we came up with. The part where I’m playing the drums. Well, as I said, I’m a drummer, so we put that in, and the scenes where Jim Dodge is dressing up in all these outfits and doing all this crazy shit in the store, that was stuff that wasn’t in the script but that we came up with, and I kind of like it. And J.C. and I, we got along really well and, people remember certain shots from that movie.
AVC: Like the horse ride.
FW: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s the shot. You know, I knew when I showed up on the set the first day and saw the outfit that they had chosen for her what kind of movie it was going to be. I said, “I see. So you’ve decided not to objectify her. Got it. Good choice!”
But, listen, I was young and starting out, and it was a lead role in a big Universal picture. I’ll preface this story by reiterating again that, before the internet, shit was all different. But I remember going out to California, and I’d been working on stuff, really revving up, and I’d been filming… I don’t know if it was Born On The Fourth of July or what it was. It might’ve been a TV movie. But they said, “Okay, Robert Redford wants you to come out and audition for him for A River Runs Through It.” And I said, ”Hell, yeah! I’ll be out there!”
So I got on a plane and went out there, and they put me at the Chateau Marmont. I pull into the Chateau Marmont, and there’s an enormous billboard for Career Opportunities outside my window. I’m not making this up: Right outside my window, there’s my huge face on a billboard, with J.C. over my shoulder. I was, like, “Oh, my… I can’t… What the…” And I didn’t have a camera, there were no cell phones yet, and I was just, like, pointing at it to myself, pointing out the window. It was surreal. And then I had to drive out to the beach to meet with Bob Redford, and those billboards were everywhere! And I didn’t even realize the movie was opening!
I was just so naive, I didn’t know anything about it. Maybe that’s good. But I didn’t have a publicist, I had the same child agent that I had from before, who still thought I was 17. They still didn’t know how old I was! [Laughs.] But it was, like, I was living in a fifth-floor studio walkup in New York, and now there’s my face all over California! And, of course, I stayed awake too late at the Roxbury, and I blew my audition with Robert Redford. But, you know, there was the billboard. But then that movie kind of tanked, and, uh, things progressed from there.
Well, it’s like I said: If they were making that movie today, if I were a twentysomething actor in that movie, it’d be a whole different thing. It would send me into the stratosphere. But it was a different time.
Swimming With Sharks (1994)—“Guy”
FW: I met George Huang, the director, and he sent me the script when I was doing a play with Bob Leonard in New York. We were doing a revival of Good Evening, a Dudley Moore and Peter Cook play. George came to see the play, and he brought me the script and said, “Can you do this? We can get Kevin Spacey.” And I had known Kevin from New York, so we did a table reading of the script just to hear it, and Kevin and I really clicked on it. We got to California a month or so later to do the film, and three days into filming, the Northridge earthquake—one of the worst earthquakes of all time—hits California.
Kevin and I were both staying at the old Nikko Hotel on La Cienega Boulevard, and it was just a disaster. People couldn’t get to work the next day. We all met in the rubble of the hotel, and Kevin was freaked out. Even though the airports were shut down, he wanted to get back to New York. And we kind of had to convince him to stay, to do it for us, and I think we took three or four days off. People were afraid because there was supposed to be an aftershock that weekend. I wouldn’t even go to my room. I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel. [Laughs.] I was freaked out, man! It was scary! We finally got back to work, but there was a real sense there that we were not going to continue on. It did, though, and it’s become a real cult film, you know? Kevin gets a lot of attention on that film, but I’m really proud of the work that I did, because it’s a tough part! You’ve really got to root for that guy.
The Winner (1996)—“Joey”
FW: The only thing I can say about The Winner… [Starts to laugh.] You know, Alex Cox is the guy who did Sid And Nancy and Repo Man, and I loved both those films, which is why I wanted to do The Winner, but I’m not sure why that movie didn’t work. I’m not going to say it’s a bad movie; it’s based on a play by a woman named Wendy Riss, and it was a great cast. Rebecca De Mornay really did some interesting work in that movie, and Vincent D’Onofrio… It’s all about a guy who comes to Las Vegas and can’t lose on Sunday, so everybody’s trying to get to him. I play a gangster trying to con him out of his money. And I kind of end up falling in love with him a little bit.
I had a great time. Billy Bob Thornton is in the film, Mike Madsen is too, and so is Delroy Lindo. We had so much fun. We filmed in Las Vegas, and if you can get through three months in a hotel casino in Vegas with Alex Cox and that cast of characters and come out in one piece, that’s better than the movie. [Laughs.] I mean, it was wild. Richard Edson and I ended up spending a lot of time together, and that was a real trip. I wore a little mustache, and I loved the role. I loved the part. Again, maybe that’s one of those movies that people will rediscover someday. Or just plain discover, because it was never discovered to begin with! But, you know, sometimes movies work, sometimes they don’t, but I think there are elements of that film that are really cool.
Field Of Dreams (1989)—“Archie Graham”
FW: That was a period of time when I was walking into casting offices and walking out with the role. [Laughs.] I was astounded at my good luck. From booking to a Montgomery Ward commercial and getting residual checks to Career Opportunities… Things were just going my way. Field Of Dreams was a very sought-after role for a lot of actors my age and type, and I was just really lucky. I walked in there and did the scene, and maybe at the time I was a face or a type that was a little bit out of the box, one that they hadn’t kind of seen before, but they said, “Oh, wow, that’s interesting, yeah!” And I had so much confidence.
That’s really what it’s about, you know. If I had anything going in my favor, it was confidence. An abundance of confidence. I didn’t give a shit at the time. I was in that period of my life where I just did not care. I believed in myself and my abilities, and that’s really the key to the whole thing: how you walk in and present yourself. If you do it not in an obnoxious way but with confidence and calm, you can have a pretty good shot at it. And I got that part, and it was so fun, man. I got to go out to Iowa and spend three months hanging around, doing nothing. Playing baseball, sitting around, driving on golf carts, going to bars with Ray Liotta and hanging out with that guy and drinking. [Laughs.] So it was fun. As a kid, I loved baseball, watching it and playing it, so it was a dream come true. It was amazing.
The Freshman (1990)—“Steve Bushak”
FW: Same thing. [Laughs.] I think about these things all in the same period of time: I walked in, and there I am. There’s, like, 10 or 15 guys who I know who are wanting that role, and I’m just walking up to get it. Bruno Kirby and I became really close. I really miss him. He died a few years ago. We were filming that mostly in Toronto, with some exterior stuff in New York, but he and [Matthew] Broderick and I became really good friends, and I’m still really good friends with Matthew and we’ve worked together since. He directed a play that I was in, and I’ve directed stuff with him. But that movie was so fun. The most thrilling thing of my life, of course, was getting to be on a set with Marlon Brando. But I think that film’s hysterically funny and underrated and kind of forgotten, and it’s a shame, because it’s amazing. It really is.
AVC: What did you take away from your experience with Brando?
FW: [Starts to laugh.] The funny thing about Brando was, he couldn’t remember his lines at that time, so he had an assistant reading his lines to him off-camera. He had an earpiece. So there was sort of a delay with Marlon Brando at that time: you would say your line, and then a couple of seconds later, he would hear his line and then he’d say it. But he was still so fucking good. Even though he was hearing the line in his ear from his young assistant down the hall, who was reading it to him from some apparatus and feeding it into his ear, he’d hear it, he’d look at you, he’d deliver his line, and it was like that Sam Jackson thing: just getting to watch that, for me, was exemplary. It was amazing. I had a hard time believing I was there.
But Brando had this strict thing about no photos. He didn’t want any pictures taken of him that weren’t strictly sanctioned and set up and approved beforehand. He just didn’t want people coming up and going, “Hey, can I take a picture?” So it was strictly forbidden. You did not. “Mr. Brando does not want his picture taken.” Matthew and I had several dinners with Marlon, he’d invite us to the place he was staying at and we’d have dinner with him, but generally speaking—like, a top guy couldn’t just come up and strike up a conversation with Marlon. You couldn’t do that.
But on my last day at work, I really wanted a photo with Marlon. And again, this was before cell phones, so you had to get next to somebody and have somebody take your picture. Well, there was a still photographer on the set who was a friend of mine. So I asked this guy, “If I get next to Marlon, just take a bunch of pictures of just me and him, would you, please?” And he said, “I’m not even supposed to be shooting when he’s on the set!” I said, “Nobody’ll know. Just do it.” So I got next to Marlon, and this guy took a bunch of pictures, and I went up to him after, and I said, “Did you get it?” He said, “I got it. Don’t worry about it. Write down your address, I’ll get these done and send ’em to you.” So I did that, and I said, “Thanks so much, I really appreciate it.”
I show up on set the next day, and I’m looking for him, and I go up to the first A.D. and I say, “Hey, where’s Ray?” And he says, “Oh, he got fired!” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because he was shooting Marlon on the set yesterday!” [Laughs.] So a couple of weeks later, I’m back in New York, and I get an envelope in my mailbox, and it’s these beautiful printed photographs of me and Marlon, and a note from the guy saying, “Thanks for nothing!” So that was my takeaway from Marlon.