The actor: Miguel Ferrer, who didn’t begin acting until his mid-20s, despite growing up in a showbiz family as the son of José Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney. Ferrer became a familiar face in the ’80s and ’90s in offbeat fare like RoboCop and Twin Peaks, and in the ’00s became a regular on Crossing Jordan. Ferrer can currently be seen playing a complicated criminal in Wrong Turn At Tahoe, now available on DVD for rental and soon available for sale.
Wrong Turn At Tahoe (2009)—“Vincent”
Miguel Ferrer: Last holiday over Christmas, right before I left on vacation, I was given this script to read and during the course of the holiday I read it and just absolutely loved it. After everyone was back in the office, I immediately called my representative and said, “Is this really the part you guys want me to play? Because if not, I’m really pissed, because I love, love this part and I really want to play it.” I thought the script moved like a freight train, was unpredictable and extremely compelling. And I loved the character. I was just thrilled for the opportunity to play it.
The A.V. Club: What appealed to you about the character?
MF: I just thought he was a very, very interesting guy who was multi-faceted. It wasn’t just another gun-toting bad guy who shoots a lot of people, but a complex individual with his own strange, unconventional code of ethics and behavior, and a wonderful relationship with the people he cares about. It was just a beautifully unpredictable, well-written, sort of fleshed-out guy that was so attractive.
AVC: What do you draw on from your own past to play a role like that?
MF: Y’know, I’m not really a guy who draws on things from my own past. I think if you’re a competent actor with a good imagination, and if it’s on the page, it makes your job a lot easier. If it’s well written, it allows your imagination to run wild and draw inspiration from that. I’m not one of those people who writes a biography or tries to figure out what kind of ice cream the character liked when he was 10. If your attention is on something like that, I just think it’s a bit of a wank. If your attention is on superfluous aspects that are not part of the story, then you can’t be concentrating on the human realities of the piece.
Magnum P.I. (1981)—“Ensign Bobby Wickes”
MF: I think I got my SAG card on that one.
AVC: What took you so long to get into the family business?
MF: I don’t know. Maybe I was intimidated by my father’s talent and success. I also had a previous career. I was a musician, and did moderately well at that. I made an enjoyable living as a very young man, but I think as I became more comfortable and knowledgeable about myself and what I wanted, I moved into acting. I came to it rather late—later than most. I just really wanted to try my hand, and thankfully it worked out for the most part.
AVC: Do you have any memories of Magnum P.I.?
MF: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, you’re in Hawaii. How bad does that suck? That was number one. And number two it was an interesting character. It was a period piece, and the stakes of the situation and the character—the background of wartime and all that stuff—it was all interesting, and a lot of fun. It was one of the early things that I did outside of acting class, and it was just one of the best times I’ve ever, ever had, before or since.
AVC: Did your parents get to see it?
MF: I’m sure they did—I can’t remember what they said, but yeah. [Laughs.]
The Man Who Wasn’t There (1983)—“Waiter”
MF: Yeah, that was really a big, interesting, deep part. [Laughs.] No, it was absolutely nothing. It was tossed to me as a favor by a guy that I knew from acting class. The director kindly took the opportunity to help out those of his friends who were struggling to make the rent, in one of those sort of smaller, unimportant parts that I didn’t have to jump through too many hoops to obtain. So it was something for which I was extremely grateful at the time, but I wouldn’t say it was any large artistic stretch.
AVC: Have you ever told people you were in The Man Who Wasn’t There and waited for them to think it was the Coen brothers’ film?
MF: No, you’re the first person who’s brought up that picture, I think, ever. I can’t even believe you found that anywhere.
AVC: The IMDb has everything.
MF: You just dig deep, don’t you? I can’t believe IMDb would bother with it. Starring Steve Guttenberg, wow! You just put me in the wayback machine and I got lost.
AVC: It was a different time back in 1983, or whatever year it was.
MF: I was a lot younger, I had more hair.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)—“First Officer”
MF: That’s another one of my early things, but that was a lot more fun. Being a Star Trek fan from the beginning, it was such a thrill. I read for Leonard Nimoy, who was one of my big childhood heroes, and he gave me the role. I got to wear the Starfleet uniform, and there was Mr. Spock directing the picture. I remember when he directed my scene, he didn’t even have time to take off his ears, so there he was with his pointy ears behind the camera, telling us what to do. It was a small part, but one of the great, great thrills of my life. Something that I’ll never forget. It was just a great day.
AVC: You have a reputation as something of a sci-fi/fantasy/superhero fan.
MF: Oh, who isn’t? Absolutely. I don’t know a boy my age who wasn’t.
RoboCop (1987)—“Robert Morton”
MF: You know, I hate to keep saying all these good things, because it must be pretty boring to write about, but RoboCop was maybe the best summer of my entire life. It was the summer of 1986, and it was the best part I’d been asked to do at the time, and working with an amazing director, Paul Verhoeven. The writer Ed Neumeier and I became great friends, and he gave me just so much to work with. I woke up every day and when I was looking at myself in the mirror shaving, I just couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was the happiest guy probably in the state during that time.
AVC: RoboCop is one of those stealthy movies that on the surface seems like a big, dopey action picture but is actually subversive and satirical. When you told people you were working on it, were you able to explain that RoboCop wasn’t as silly as it sounded?
MF: To tell you the truth, while we were doing it, I had no idea that it wouldn’t be silly. I had no idea if it was going to be a good movie or a bad movie, or what it was going to be. I knew that it was great fun to make, but while you’re in the middle of these things, you just don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It has to pass through so many hands—editing, the music, the sound design, how it’s marketed, and all the rest of it. You just don’t know. And sometimes the RoboCop suit itself looked absolutely laughable. And they struggled to find angles in which it didn’t look silly, so to tell you the truth, at the time, many of us, myself especially, had no idea if it was going to be any good. Then I saw a screening of the finished product before it came out and I knew it was a really wonderful, different kind of picture, with sophisticated humor and yet good action and compelling characters and something that was really special. I remember the first time sitting in the movie theater and watching a trailer, and the audience absolutely laughed at it in the worst way possible. Which was, to say the least, disheartening. Then I remember the first night the movie came out and I think I drove around to every theatre in Los Angeles in which it was playing and kind of stood in the back and watched the reaction, and that was one of the great thrills of my life.
Shannon’s Deal (1990-91)—“D.A. Todd Spurrier”
MF: I think I had a recurring in that, which again was something I really appreciated, something that was a lot of fun. We shot the pilot in Philadelphia and I got along beautifully with Jamey Sheridan, the guy who was the lead. I can’t remember how many episodes I did, but I loved that one too. But again, I was a young actor, and just thrilled to be asked to do anything. I don’t think I had to audition for that one either; I think they’d seen RoboCop or something. It’s always fun when you don’t have to trot your stuff out, especially as a young guy.
AVC: Wasn’t John Sayles involved with Shannon’s Deal?
MF: I spoke to John Sayles on the phone before I started work, and it was a very brief, abbreviated conversation. He went, “Okay, well, the guy’s like this, and he does this, and I don’t want him to be like this, and there it is, okay? Okay, all right, good to talk to you. Bye.” It was about that long. [Laughs.] Then I just got off the phone saying, “Okay, I’m not really sure what he said, but I’ll try to do it.” We had an extremely brief conversation. I’ve since gone on to make two movies with John, and he’s one of the most impressive guys walking the planet. They call him “The Martian,” just because he’s so beyond bright. He’s conversant in any subject you could possibly bring up. But he wasn’t very conversant on that day, as I recall.
Twin Peaks (1990-91)—“FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield”
MF: I could talk about that all day. David Lynch and I had talked about doing something I think the year before, but that movie went into turnaround and was never made, so then when this show came along, I think he said, “This is someone I wanna work with.” I was not in the pilot, but I was in the first show after that, and I remember getting the first two scripts after the pilot, and I tried to read them and I couldn’t follow them. I tried to read them a second time, and I still had no idea what was going on. And then I kind of gave up. I didn’t know who the hell… Laura Palmer, what? She’s dead, but nobody… I was completely confused.
And then I went in and I met with Mark Frost for the first time, and he said, “Well, I’m really happy you’re part of this!” and I said, “Yeah, me too!” And he could tell by the perplexed look in my face and voice that I had no idea what the hell this thing was about. And he said, “Have you seen the pilot?” I said, “No, I haven’t.” And he said, “Well, that explains everything.” And he pressed the intercom and spoke to the receptionist and said, “Get Miguel a pilot,” and he said, “Okay, go home and watch the pilot, and call me afterwards.” So I went home with the pilot in hand, I popped it into the cassette player, watched it, and at the end I called up everyone I knew and told them to come to my house, and I played it again. And I couldn’t believe that they were going to put this thing on TV. I could not believe it.
No one ever had seen anything like this on television; it was absolutely unbelievable. The performances and the music and the writing, and just everything—I could not believe that they were going to put this crazy, unique piece of work on TV. And they did, and it’s something I was so thankful to be a part of, especially when the character of Albert took that crazy turn and confessed to Sheriff Truman that his motivation was the same as that of Gandhi and King, and that the reason he was so acerbic and difficult with people was motivated by love, and because he wanted to make the world a better place. And then he told Sheriff Truman that he loved him. It’s so out of the blue, yet believable. Had to take a sensibility such as David Lynch’s to create something like that. We all had the most fun. Nobody was getting paid, but I don’t think we cared.
AVC: And then you went on to do Frost and Lynch’s On The Air, which didn’t do quite as well.
MF: I think On The Air was a little too bizarre for TV. [Laughs.] I had a lot of fun doing it, but I think it was a little too outside for most people.
LateLine (1998-99)—“Vic Karp”
MF: LateLine was all Al Franken’s. Conceived and written by and executive produced. And he was the star of the show. It was remarkable. I think we did 19 episodes over the course of three years, which might be a record. We all grew old on that show. There were births and deaths and marriages and divorces, all kinds of stuff. But we kept getting cancelled and renewed and put on at midseason and in a different time slot, and people who might’ve become fans never had a chance to follow us or get in the habit. I think it was largely due to the fact that Al Franken’s uncompromising nature kept getting us notes from the network such as, “It’s too smart, make it more accessible to the masses.” And his response was, “You’re just stupid. That’s the problem.” And as you can probably imagine, that doesn’t go over too well with television executives. As a result, I think the show wasn’t given much of a chance.
This was my first and only experience with half-hour TV, and it’s the greatest schedule in the world. You have one long day, and that’s it. So that’s the good news. The bad news is most of it is unwatchable, due to the writing being so bad. It’s just people pulling faces, largely. But this was not that. This was substantive, interesting, compelling writing, which was topical. It was great to do it when we did it, but I think doomed from the beginning for a number of reasons.
AVC: When you’re contracted to a show that keeps getting canceled and renewed, how are you able to fit in other jobs?
MF: You talk to the boss and find out if they’ll let you go off to do different things. In most cases, I think most executive producers and studio executives really do their best to accommodate you. At least that’s been my experience in most cases. Sometimes—one time in particular that I really don’t want to get into—they just said, “No, we own you. Too bad.” Actually, twice that’s happened, where they just said, “Nope. We paid you, we own you, and we probably won’t even use you during this period, but we’re not going let you go, because we don’t have to.” But I think that’s the exception to the rule. Usually, the guys in charge really try to work hard to let you do other things if it’s possible.
The Stand (1994)—“Lloyd Henreid”
MF: The Stand was great. Adapted by Stephen King from his massive book. I think they tried to do it a number of times. They tried to do it as a feature; I think there were a number of scripts, like two-hour adaptations, and everyone found it impossible. You can’t tell a story that sweeping in two hours. So Stephen King finally said, “Screw it, I’ll write it myself.” I believe it was an eight-hour miniseries if I’m not mistaken. And sadly, that’s just a dinosaur. No one makes those anymore. Such a great gig. We shot for 100 days in Utah and Las Vegas and all over the place. It was Stephen King’s words, adapted from his own novel, so it was obviously true to the source material, and it was terrific. A wonderful cast. I think that was some of the best television I’ve been involved with. I was a huge fan of the book. Big Stephen King fan. I think he’s dismissed often as a hack probably because of his prolific body of work, but he’s anything but. I think he’s a terrific writer. And not just a genre writer; he really approaches a number of complexities in everything he writes. So I’m a huge fan. Was before I did The Stand and still am.
Crossing Jordan (2001-07)—“Dr. Garret Macy”
MF: It was great. I loved that. Six years on the same show, working on the same lot. Got to go home and see my kids every night. They weren’t always awake, but I saw them. I loved that there were no out-of-control egos on the set. I loved working with the same people for six years. You develop a sure hand, and you learn how one works and likes to work. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We had a ball.
AVC: And you got to direct some episodes as well.
MF: Yeah, I directed a bunch, I can’t remember how many. I think I was never home when I was directing, because you’re either prepping, shooting, or editing, and then acting at the same time. It’s really time-consuming, but it was great fun. All these guys are my friends, all the crew guys and all the people in the cast, and they absolutely knocked themselves out for me. They really dug deep and went the extra miles, and all those other clichés. And I knew it, so it made my job really easy. By that time, the look of the show was well established, so I didn’t have to think so much about that. Much of it came intuitively. I knew the characters intimately, I knew largely how things were going to go, so I was able to put my attention on interesting things to do with the camera and really working with the actors, and I loved it. I just loved it.
Traffic (2000)—“Eduardo Ruiz”
MF: Well, that’s one that really came out well. Again, you have so many simultaneous storylines going that it was difficult to read as a script. As a matter of fact I tried to read it three different times and I couldn’t remember who was who. “Wait a minute, who’s Julio, and who’s this guy, and we’re in Cincinnati now, and now we’re in Tijuana, and then we’re here, and what? Who’s this guy?” I went back and tried to read it again, and then I tried to read it a third time, and I really, honestly—just between you and me—and maybe it’s because I’m stupid or have a short attention span, but I couldn’t get it. It’s a wonderful script by Stephen Gaghan, who went onto win an Academy Award, but I couldn’t follow it.
I said, “Well, I’m a huge fan of Steven Soderbergh, I’m going to have to trust Soderbergh and believe that this is going to be a pretty good movie.” And again, it’s one of those cases where I had absolutely no idea. By that time in my career, I had guessed wrong so many times. Things that I thought were going to be sensational turned out to be absolutely lousy, and things that I felt were mediocre at best turned out to be quite good. So I reserved judgment and had a lot of fun with Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman and obviously with Soderbergh and the gang of people with whom he always works. He seems to acquire crew people who stay with him forever, so it was a great experience. It turned out to be a wonderful picture.
AVC: It’s also one of the rare cases where you played a character with Latin roots.
MF: There’s another one. In Revenge, I’m supposed to be a guy from Northern Mexico. But yeah, it’s something I’m not often asked to do. And it was interesting, on one of my first days on the set with Soderbergh, I remember I asked him, “Now, do you want me to do this with a Spanish accent?” And he said, “No, absolutely not. He’s assimilated. You’re as American as anyone. You sound completely American. That’s the whole point of the modern drug dealer. They are no longer outsiders; they are absolutely insiders. They’re harder to spot.” And I said, “Well, you know, take a look at the script. The syntax and usage is that of someone for whom English is clearly a second language.” And he looked at me and said, “Hmm… you’re right. Okay, let’s try something crazy. Let’s find a couple of things in the scene that we know we have to hit, things that we absolutely need to do, and then let’s improvise. Let’s see how it goes. It may not work, but let’s try.”
And I thankfully was working with guys like Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman who are so on their game that we were able to do it and make it work. To take the scripted lines and largely throw them out, because we knew what the scene required and we could stick to that. It was an amazing way to work, and the first time I’d done it. Watching Don Cheadle, I had no idea what he was going to say to me. And it really keeps you on your toes. It was like playing tennis with Federer or something. You don’t know what’s going to come over the net, and you better goddamn well be ready.