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.
The actor: Scott Glenn did a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and worked as a reporter before it ever occurred to him to try his hand at the dramatic arts, but once he caught the acting bug, he knew it was destined to be a permanent condition. Glenn’s first on-camera work was on the small screen, where he continues to pop up on occasion (he can be seen in Netflix’s Daredevil as well as HBO’s The Leftovers), but he remains best known for his film work. In addition to having appeared in such critically acclaimed motion pictures as Nashville, Apocalypse Now, Urban Cowboy, The Right Stuff, Silverado, and The Silence Of The Lambs, Glenn recently explored serial killers from the other side of the fence in The Barber, now on VOD and Blu-ray.
The Barber (2014)—“Eugene Van Wingerdt”
Scott Glenn: What comes to mind with that is what I saw in the script, which is what could be described as—what would you say?—a conventional thriller that juggles the basic emotional and, at times, physical and emotional relationship that’s father and son, mentor and student, needer and needed, and—hunter and hunted? Or predator and prey. And if those were cards in a deck, it keeps shuffling them throughout the whole movie and keeps changing gears on the audience, faster and faster, until the end. So I thought I’d have a lot of colors to play with and also get a chance to be a little subversive by sort of standing age on its head and expectations of what old age looks like.
The A.V. Club: How did the film come about? Did they come to you with the pitch?
SG: Yeah, my wife and I were actually skiing. I live in Sun Valley, Idaho, and we’d just come down from doing a run on the mountain when my cell phone rang. It was my agent, who said, “I’ve got a couple of offers for you,” and he told me the two films. One never happened. It sort of keeps resurfacing, but who knows if it’ll ever happen or not? And then there was this one, and he said it was kind of an odd film. It was a very low-budget film—I think originally it was budgeted at a million bucks, and then it came in at a million two-fifty—and it was being done by Chapman University.
It was the first time, as far as I know, that any college has actually put together a film like this. With the exception of the UPM and first AD, who were very veteran people, smartly, everyone else were recent graduates of Chapman. Their idea was to make a commercial film and to continue to do that—I think they’re going to do it again this year—so that their students had an idea of what the real world of Hollywood and New York looked like, as opposed to doing an experimental art film and trying to get an award at the Berlin Film Festival or something. So it just sounded interesting. It was a first-time director, of course, which was interesting to me, and I knew there would be a whole lot of good energy, because basically I’d be dealing with young people who were just starting out, so they’d be hungry. They wouldn’t be the kind of people who’d be bitching about a 16-hour day or anything like that, and they’d be willing to take chances. So I did it. And it was fun. Actually, even though the movie just came out, it’s about 2, 2-and-a-half years old.
AVC: Given their lack of experience and your history in the serial-killer genre, as it were, I presume that you were being quizzed about that history on a regular basis.
SG: Yeah, you know, it’s funny, because… Well, I mean, when you say something like that, what you’re really talking about is The Silence Of The Lambs.
AVC: Well, of course, yeah.
SG: The benefit for me from Silence Of The Lambs was that I didn’t have to do research. Because I’d spent so much time with John Douglas and the FBI Behavioral Science people before I did Silence Of The Lambs that I knew more than I really wanted to about that world. One of the things that I wanted to do—and that the script kind of did beyond what you normally see in the movies, was—if you really study these guys, they’re not Hannibal Lecters, nor are they the guy that Ted Levine played in Silence Of The Lambs. Both of those guys walk into a room, and everybody runs out. But most of these guys use what I call the disguise of normalcy. You know, Ed Kemper looked like some nerdy guy that could be standing next to you when you’re crossing the street, and you’d never give him a second glance. Ted Bundy not only looked like, but was, a young Republican—good-looking and well-attired. So the vibe of these people, what they do is they get you to trust them, and then… well, they’re probably the last person you trust. So I thought it was a chance to play around with that.
AVC: Was it odd to be on the flip side of the coin?
SG: No, it was… it was fun. But I often give [my wife] Carol scripts I’m offered and want her opinion—because she’s a really smart lady, and she’s got nothing to do with this business, so I get the audience’s point of view—and I gave this one to her, and I said, “Should I do this movie or not?” Because the thing that I questioned—what we shot has a lot more of it than the final cut had—but in a way it looked like it could be a primer on how to pick up and murder young girls. I mean, it’s a tutorial until you begin to wonder who’s telling the truth and who’s not telling the truth, and then there’s sort of the built-in twist at the end of the thing. But I gave it to Carol, and she read about, I don’t know, 15 pages of it, and she said, “You’re crazy if you don’t do this.” And she said, “I don’t know if this is a great movie or not, but it’s a great part.” And I, for better or worse, am driven by the character I play rather than the quality of what it’s in. I mean, that’s way more important to me than who’s directing it, who’s in it, any of those things.
The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)—“Jack Crawford”
AVC: When you signed on for Silence Of The Lambs, had you seen Manhunter, or were you familiar with the Thomas Harris novels?
SG: Not at all. No, my connection with Silence Of The Lambs was Jonathan Demme, who I’d known for 20 years, and he really wanted me to play the part. At the time, I had another film that I was supposed to start in, like, three weeks, so I originally told him I couldn’t do it. And he said, “Well, you’ve got to do it.” And I said, “Well, they’re going to sue me if I walk out of this other film, so I can’t.” And he said, “Well, I’ll pay your court costs.” [Laughs.] And I went, “Uh, I don’t think that’s a great idea.” But then I talked to my agent, and it turned out that the other film was supposed to have put all my money in an escrow account, but they never had, so the contract was worth about a roll of toilet paper. So I was able to do Silence Of The Lambs after all.
AVC: You mentioned John Douglas earlier, and there’s at least one report out there where you indicated that you regretted to some extent having done as much research as you did for the role.
SG: Yeah, it was kind of emotionally scarring, in a way, because John made me privy to stuff that you really don’t want to have roaming around inside your head. And it was real case studies. I don’t really want to go into the details of it, but pretty nasty stuff. But John’s a great guy, an amazing person. You know, he really is kind of the father of the whole behavioral science thing.
AVC: Since doing the film, have you followed anyone else’s performances in the role of Jack Crawford?
SG: No. No, the next film that they were going to do [Hannibal] was—it just didn’t feel right. And they wanted both Jodie [Foster] and I to be in it, but we both said no. And Jonathan said no, too. We just felt like, “Why ruin a good thing?”
AVC: So you haven’t checked out the Hannibal series, then?
SG: No. [Hesitates.] I didn’t even know there was one, actually!
AVC: There is, and Jack Crawford is played by Laurence Fishburne.
SG: Is this a cable thing?
AVC: No, it’s on NBC. But it’s still pretty intense.
SG: [Skeptically.] Uh-huh. As intense as you can get when you’ve got commercial breaks.
Angels Hard As They Come (1971)—“Long John”
Fighting Mad (1976)—“Charlie Hunter”
AVC: Well, since you mentioned how long you’ve known Jonathan Demme, let’s talk about Angels Hard As They Come.
SG: [Laughs.] Angels Hard As They Come… Jonathan and a guy named Joe Viola, who was the director, were friends, and I think they’d just gotten to L.A., and they were casting the whole film out of some motel they were living in. And it was Roger Corman, so it was, “Show up on your motorcycle and audition for this film.” I think we shot the whole thing in… I believe it was three weeks. It might even have been shorter, I’m not sure. We shot just outside of L.A., on—I think it was the Fox Movie Ranch? Maybe Warner Bros. Or Paramount. I really can’t remember. And then we did a lot of the riding stuff out around Victorville, where Roger liked to make a lot of his movies. It was where I met Gary Busey, and it was where Jonathan and I really started to get to know each other.
And then when Jonathan directed his first film, which was called Fighting Mad… It was one of those revenge movies, where bad guys do horrible things at the beginning of the movie, and then Peter Fonda goes after them and seeks revenge for the rest of the movie. It was me and an actress whose name I can’t remember, but we were killed at the beginning. It was also a Roger Corman film, we shot it in Arkansas, and it was Jonathan’s first time out as a director, but even then I could tell he was legit. [Demme directed Caged Heat and Crazy Mama before Fighting Mad. —ed.]
The Patty Duke Show (1965)—“Harry”/“Waiter”
Hawk (1966)—“Hal Currin”
AVC: We usually try to ask about an actor’s first on-camera role, and based on IMDB, it looks like it was playing a character named Harry on an episode of The Patty Duke Show.
SG: That may well have been true. Yeah, you know what? It is true. I was trying to think, and I was thinking that it was between that and a series that Burt Reynolds shot in New York.
AVC: Actually, I know the name of that show: it’s Hawk.
SG: That’s right! My God, you’re better than I am. [Laughs.]
AVC: To be fair, one of our other writers is better than I am: When I found out I was going to be doing this interview, Stephen Bowie said, “I wish I could get you copies of his episodes of Hawk and N.Y.P.D. before you talk to him.”
SG: [Laughs.] Back in those days, doing television for me was making money. My whole world was sort of improvisational and off-off-Broadway theater.
AVC: You made your Broadway debut the same year you did The Patty Duke Show, though, right? In The Impossible Years.
SG: That’s right, yeah.
AVC: So how did you find your way into acting as a career in the first place?
SG: I had gotten out of the service and I had a job on a newspaper in Wisconsin, and I started off as most reporters did back then: writing obits and free ad giveaways. But one day I was in the city room, and I heard some shots ring out, and… [Starts to laugh.] This is literally true: I said, “Those were shots!” And nobody working in the city room wanted to go outside because it was so fucking cold in Kenosha, Wisconsin. And I said, “There are a lot of things I don’t know, but I definitely know gunfire when I hear it,” so myself and another guy went out, and down the street was the chief of police’s wife, sitting in the chief of police’s squad car, sitting next to the chief of police’s secretary/mistress with half her head blown away. And they gave me the story to run with, so I kind of instantly became a police reporter.
My dream was to be a writer and poet, to write short stories and shit like that, and I thought, “Wow, a police reporter! How cool is that?” But the reality of being a police reporter—certainly on middle-size or small-town newspapers, but it may be anywhere—is that for every cool story of organized crime where a hit man came into town and did something with the Mafia, you’re talking to a woman 20 minutes after she’s found out that her son or daughter has died in a traffic accident. And I found myself thinking, “What’s my byline for this? Is there a picture? What page is it going to run on?” And I started to really feel like a ghoul, like I was making my living off other people’s pain. And I began to understand the martini lunch and why a lot of reporters, but especially police reporters, got into that, because—well, I can only speak for me, but I just didn’t like it. [Hesitates.] This is a long answer for your question.
AVC: No, no, you’re fine.
SG: Okay, so I applied for a job on a paper in the Virgin Islands, on the sports desk, and I got it, and my dream was, “Cool, I’ll go there, I’ll be around a lot of gorgeous women in bikinis, and I’ll write about sailing and windsurfing, and I’ll write a novel or a book of poetry or something.” But the job wasn’t starting for six months, and I was talking to a friend of mine on the phone, and she said, “Why don’t you go to New York and take an acting class?” To which I said, “What are you talking about?” And she said, “Well, I’ll be honest with you: You write description of action and ideas fairly well, but your dialogue is really stiff and sucks.” [Laughs.]
And she says, “It’s bad enough that when you put words into anyone’s mouth, whether it be a short story or a poem or what have you, you’ll lose the reader because people don’t talk that way. You hate the job, you have a job that you want that isn’t starting for six months. If you have to get on stage in front of people and say words, it’ll kick you in your ass to listen to the way people really speak, and if you’re doing theater, then you’ll be dealing with the greatest dialogue ever written.” And after I got over my 30 seconds—it may have been longer—of being pissed off because she’d told me the truth, I said, “Okay.”
So I went to New York and got a couple of jobs. I looked up “acting” in the Village Voice. Nothing under “A,” but under “B,” it said “Berghof Studio,” which I knew nothing about. But I called them up and said, “I want to take an acting class.” And it turned out the guy I was talking to was one of America’s greatest character actors, a guy named Bill Hickey. I don’t know if you know his work or not, but if you remember Prizzi’s Honor, he was nominated for an Academy Award for playing the old mafioso in that. He was an amazing teacher.
At any rate, he gave me a scene to work on, and I went in front of probably 11 people down in this basement on Bank Street, in New York City, and I walked in front of everybody. It was literally the first and only time in my life that a bulb went off between my eyes. [Laughs.] And I thought, “Holy shit! I’m an actor!” And he saw it. I mean, I didn’t even say it. I just stood there. But he looked at me, and he said, “That’s right: you’re one of us.” And then he turned to the people who were sitting down there, and he said, “Scott’s not going to do this scene. He’s got to walk around the block a few times and think about things.”
And I remember I went outside, and I went to a pay phone. You remember those? [Laughs.] And I called my mom and dad, and I said, “I’m not going to the Virgin Islands. I’m not going to be a writer.” I’d also thought about going back into the service, but I said, “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to be an actor.” And that was almost 50 years ago.
AVC: It seems to have panned out all right for you.
SG: Yeah, by now. [Laughs.] But living where I live, my wife and I still wake up and pinch ourselves and say, “Is this really happening?” To this day. It’s a lot of luck—a huge amount of luck—and I guess a fair amount of tenacity, and a minor amount of talent… which is, unfortunately, the way it works.
The Edge Of Night (1969)—“Calvin Brenner”
The Baby Maker (1970)—“Tad Jacks”
AVC: As long as we’ve talked about your first TV appearance, we might as well hit your first film, too: The Baby Maker.
SG: Yep, that’s it. That was with [director] Jim Bridges, and Barbara Hershey.
AVC: Based on what I’ve seen of that film, would you say it’d be fair to call it an artifact of its time?
SG: I don’t know. What does that mean? [Laughs.]
AVC: In other words, it was made in 1970, and when you watch it, there is no doubt that it was made in 1970.
SG: In that case, yes, I would say so!
AVC: Was there any intrinsic difference for you in doing a film versus the episodic television you’d been doing?
SG: Well, I’d really done almost no episodic. A very tiny bit. What I had done was—how many weeks was it? Thirty-nine weeks? It was a weird number, and I’m pretty sure it was 39 weeks, but it was on a soap opera called The Edge Of Night. That was almost every day for 39 weeks, and that show was no five second delay, no tape, nothing like that, so the minute the red light came on, 15 million bored housewives were looking at you in real time. So if you screwed up or something went south, it happened in front of everybody.
So one of the things I remember about The Baby Maker was the first scene we shot. It was me sitting on a porch, playing a guitar and singing—neither of which I do—with Barbara Hershey. And I remember her saying, “God, I’m so nervous! You don’t seem to be nervous at all!” And I said, “Well, we can do it again!” And she said, “What do you mean by that?” I said, “We can do it again.” [Laughs.] “What’s to be nervous about? If it doesn’t work, if the tape sucks, we’ll do take two. Or take three or take four. So I don’t understand.” So she asked me about that, and I told her about the realities of something that doesn’t even really exist anymore, which was real live TV. Thinking back on it, it was really like summer stock for the movies for me.
I also remember when I got the job, my wife—who’s, like, way smarter than I am—she said, “We’re going to get used to making this money.” Because, you know, daytime television, the money was—and I’m sure still is—really good, and they wanted my character to stick around. Not because I was so great, but just because the character worked with the audience. But my wife said at the end of 39 weeks, “Unless you want to be a soap opera actor, maybe you should think about just saying no.” And at the time I left, I remember thinking—and I think it’s probably still true with kids who start off with episodic television and do a lot of it—that the shortcuts that I’d had to learn to do one show after another after another, they were right on the edge of turning into bad habits.
And since then—and I still believe it—sometimes you’ll hear actors say, “Oh, I don’t want to over-rehearse this because it’ll lose its spontaneity,” and, well, the minute I hear that, I know I’m listening to someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing. There is no such thing as too much rehearsal, nor is there any such thing as too much preparation time. It doesn’t exist. The longer you have, the better it will be. You know, obviously, there’s a cut-off point to that. You can’t rehearse for 10 years before you do something… but if you did, it would be better! Ask Al Pacino about working on the parts he’s worked on onstage. So, anyway, that was that deal, with The Baby Maker. That, and getting to know Jim Bridges. He’s no longer alive, but he turned out to be—certainly in terms of career, but for a lot of reasons—one of the most important people I’ve ever known in this business.
The Challenge (1982)—“Rick Murphy”
SG: A lot of fun. John Sayles wrote the script, and it was a phenomenal script. I don’t know how old you are, but there was a movie a long time ago called The Americanization Of Emily, and this film was sort of like “the Japanization of Rick.” [Laughs.] The original script was a ruthless club fighter from California with no family, no real background, gets involved in messengering a sword to Japan, and through a lot of crazy adventures he winds up with a martial arts sensei played by Toshirô Mifune. The script was really a surrogate father and son finding each other from completely different cultures, and it was terrific. And John Frankenheimer was the director.
But I remember when we got to Kyoto and started shooting, I became aware very quickly that all those character-driven scenes were either being cut or shortened to almost non-existence, and what we were really doing was a martial arts movie. And I remember Mifune came to me, and he said, “Look, this is what’s happening. I’m disappointed, and I know you are, but this is what it is. So you can either have your heart broken every day, or you can use this experience as an opportunity to be spending time in the most interesting time in Japan and let me be your tour guide.” So it wound up with me learning an awful lot of stuff from Toshirô and, you know, getting banged around doing the martial arts. But it was a fun experience. My wife and kids came with me, so we put the kids in the international school there. It took five months to shoot that thing. Something like that, anyway. But it was a good adventure.
AVC: Given the sword wielding involved, did you have any Challenge flashbacks when you played Stick on Daredevil?
SG: No, no flashbacks. But a lot of, “Holy shit, am I really going to do this?” [Laughs.] The thing about Daredevil—I mean, sometimes I really feel, like, super fucking unaware. Because I loved the part when I read it, when Steve DeKnight sent it to me, but then it dawned on me that I’d never played blind in my life before, or even thought about it. And all of a sudden I thought, “Well, not only is this going to be blind, but this is going to be doing martial arts blind!” And I talked to Phil Silvera, the stunt coordinator, and he kind of knew my background, and he said, “We’re going to do as little doubling as we possibly can with the stuff I’m going to do, because you know how to do this stuff.” And it wound up being super fun doing that part. And it looks like I may well do it again for them.
AVC: That was going to be my follow-up. Especially now that they’ve officially confirmed that there’s going to be a season two.
SG: Oh, they did? Great! Great, great, great. Netflix has changed the game dramatically, man, and I just love it. But I always love the decentralization of power. I think that’s always a good thing.
Sons Of Anarchy (2008)—“Clay Morrow” (unaired pilot)
AVC: I don’t know if there’s any real story here to be told or not, but you were in the original pilot of Sons Of Anarchy, in the role Ron Perlman ultimately ended up playing.
SG: Yeah, I did the pilot, and then they called me up—I remember my agent called me up and said, “Are you sitting down?” I said, “Yeah.” “The network is going to go ahead with the series, but not with you playing that part.” So essentially, “You’re fired,” but, “We liked the series, but we don’t want you for whatever reason.” And I have my own ideas about why that was, but what is it they say? “When one door closes, another one opens”? It was ultimately probably one of the better things that could’ve happened to me.
AVC: Because of how long the series ultimately ran?
SG: Because of how long the series ran, and because, you know, if you’re going to be in a series and it has commercial breaks… People say, “Oh, there’s a difference between cable and network,” and my response to that is, “No, there’s a difference between sponsored and not sponsored.” That’s the thing. Non-sponsored—I mean, I finally had that experience with HBO in a show I did last season and will be doing again this season [The Leftovers], and then with Daredevil. Non-sponsored is a degree of free air that you’re breathing that sponsored doesn’t give you. So to be in a show that’s sort of a mid-level success but not a huge hit means you’re stuck there with the pay that you’re getting because you can’t negotiate more. I mean, if your show is Friends, then you can say, “Hey, it’ll be $300,000 a pop for next year!” But if it’s a mid-level thing that’s sort of just found its audience and is hobbling along, you can’t do any of that.
The guy who wrote Sons Of Anarchy, his name is Kurt Sutter, and I think he’s a really good writer, so this is no reflection on him. But I remember sitting there at the first table reading, and there were people there from FX, and they said, “Listen, everybody: There are no rules here. When you think you’ve gone too far, we want you go even further.” And my instinct at the time—I kept my mouth shut, because I had a job, and I thought, “Cool, I’ll get to ride motorcycle and play this very interesting character.” But I also had kind of the devil in me. [Laughs.] And at that table reading, I wanted to say right to the guy who said that… He was sitting next to a woman, and please excuse my French, because I’m intentionally using these words, but I wanted to say, “Why don’t you just stick it up your big fucking hairy fat ass? And that goes for that cunt sitting next to you, too!” And there would’ve been a dead silence in the room, and I would’ve broken it by saying, “Please don’t tell us to take it as far as we can or to go further when we know that none of us will be able to say any of the things that I just said to you two.” Now, with HBO, Showtime, and Netflix, that’s not true. And the difference is, they don’t take a break every 15 minutes to try and sell you Tylenol.
The Leftovers (2014)—“Kevin Garvey Sr.”
AVC: This would seem to be the perfect segue into discussing The Leftovers.
SG: Damon Lindelof… I told him this, and he kind of laughed, but I said, “Do you have, like, secret bugs in my fucking bedroom?” I mean, it’s like I open my mouth and the words that he’s written just spill out. It’s so good, and so close to me and the way I see things, and way better language than I could ever use in improvisation. But it’s huge fun to work with Damon, and also the whole cast of that, and Mimi Leder… I was telling Damon the other day—because I’m just getting ready to go down to Texas to do an episode—that doing [Kevin Garvey] Senior and Stick, they’re almost a perfect complement to each other.
Because with The Leftovers, what I’m really trying to do as an actor is take my hands off the reins—I mean, really off the reins—and just let the scene go where it wants to, and not try to force my performance into the way I saw it before we got to the set, which I used to do, and I think most actors—if you really look at what they’re doing—try to do. But with Stick, it’s just the opposite. Being blind and having all these trappings of what this character is… I remember asking someone, “So Stick is, like, in his late 60s to early 70s?” And one fo the people from Marvel said, “No, no, that’s just the description we gave in the screenplay. Stick is almost 100 years old.” And I said, “What?” And they said, “Scott, this is a graphic comic!” [Laughs.] “Ultimately, this is gritty and shot realistically, but it’s Daredevil.” And I love it. And I love doing it. Everyone I worked with, everyone I ran into from Marvel and Netflix, were so nice and generous and ready to support me in whatever way I wanted to make the character work. To have Senior and Stick in my back pocket, it’s perfect. It’s like having the best four-wheel drive off-road vehicle and the best super-fast crotch rocket in the world to play around with whenever I want to.
Absolute Power (1997)—“Bill Burton”
SG: I think of working with Clint [Eastwood], who my wife and I have known for many, many years. He’s a skier, and Carol and I first met him on the mountain up here in Idaho, on Baldy [Bald Mountain]. But that experience of making movies the way he does that nobody else does nowadays—that was for me the payoff of that movie, just working with him. I’d love to do it again.
Nashville (1975)—“Pfc. Glenn Kelly”
The Player (1992)—Himself
AVC: Having interviewed Ronee Blakley in the past, I dropped her a line and asked her what I should ask you about Nashville, and she said, “Ask him how he was asked to work the Barbara Jean fire story into his lines.”
SG: [Long pause.] You know what? I can’t remember! [Laughs.] But Nashville was… You know, I read the thing you did with Silky. Excuse me, with Lily Tomlin. That’s my nickname for her: Silky Tomlin. What a great lady. But what happened with Nashville was that Joan Tewkesbury, the woman who wrote it, and Keith Carradine and a bunch of the people who were involved in the film, kept kind of lobbying Bob Altman, “Give Scott a part in the film! Give Scott a part in the film!” And Joan wrote the part that I did, of the young paratrooper returning from Vietnam—she wrote it for me. And Bob Altman said, “You know, I never give a part because friends want somebody to be in the movie.”
But finally he called me up to come over to his place at Lionsgate, and he said, “These people are just getting to be such pains in the ass to me that I’ve never done this before, but… do you want to do the movie? Maybe it’ll shut ’em up. Do you want to do this part?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” So he said, “Go to Fort Campbell, get a haircut, and come to Nashville, and we’ll do the movie.” The experience of Nashville for me was, as I’m sure it was for everyone who was involved in it, Bob Altman. What a remarkable, amazing, unusual deal it was, working with him. I just loved him. And then I did another very small part with Lily in The Player.
AVC: By the way, I don’t know if this’ll jog your memory, but I think Ronee was referring to the bit with the fire baton.
SG: The fire baton… Did I talk about that in the movie?
AVC: You know, she didn’t specify. Sorry, I’ve got it on Blu-ray, I should’ve revisited it before I hopped on the phone with you.
SG: I don’t think I… God, you know, I should watch that movie again. It’s been a long-ass time. [Laughs.] But I do remember that Ronee’s performance was remarkable. She was a singing coach for someone in that film originally, but then Bob found out what her story was.
The Keep (1983)—“Glaeken”
SG: Michael Mann. [Laughs.] One of the most driven, obsessive people I’ve ever been around, and I loved it. I believe at one point—you could check on this, because I don’t want to bullshit you, but I believe at one point there was more overtime paid for that movie than for any other film ever shot in England.
In England, the crew gets to vote from day to day whether they want to work overtime or not, and the first time Michael said, “Well, we’re going to work overtime,” they got together and said, “Sorry, governor, but tomorrow’s Saint Alban’s Day,” or something. He hired a full other crew who was sort of in the bull pen, so we could keep working. Unfortunately, the cast doesn’t have a replacement, so we shot… I mean, it seemed like a full month, but it probably wasn’t that long. But we did at least two weeks of seven-day weeks and 18-hour days, just one after another after another.
AVC: The original cut of the film was supposedly over three hours.
SG: Yeah, but that’s, like, small-time next to some movies. I mean, the original cut of Apocalypse Now I think was something like 10 days. [Laughs.] Well, hey, Francis created a million and a half feet of film, so you do the math.
AVC: Did you ever see that particular cut of The Keep? Because there’s a perpetual petition to see a director’s cut of the film released.
SG: [Long pause.] No, I never saw it. But, you know, the big problem with that film was that Michael hired this guy named Wally Veevers, who was a brilliant special effects guy. He was the guy who did the light show in [2001: A] Space Odyssey, and he was the first guy to make Superman fly. He was, like, the most brilliant special effects guy in the world, and he was hired even though he wasn’t well at the time. I think he had a bad heart. But we shot a lot of stuff that was against black velvet in these big sound stages, hanging from piano wires and flying around, and a lot of people would, like, look at the footage and say, “Well, isn’t this supposed to be against a green background? Or a blue background? What are you doing?” And Veevers would just point to his head and say, “Never mind. I’ve got it all worked out.”
Well, a day after we wrapped the film, he died, I believe of a heart attack… and we had all this footage, and no one knew what to do with it. So the end of the film, you know how the monster goes from being nothing, to sort of a creature made out of smoke, to finally being what you see at the end of the film? What we wound up with was something that one critic said looked like the Michelin Man. Now, you can talk to Michael about it, and he might tell you that I’m full of shit, because I just have the perspective of an actor, but what I heard was that they took that footage to, like, George’s [Lucas] people, to Industrial Light & Magic, and I forget the name of the outfit in France, but all of these special effects guys said, “Who did this?” And when they were told who did it, they said, “Well, that’s like bringing us a theorem on atomic energy that Einstein was trying to figure out when he died. We don’t know what Veevers was going to do with it!”
Apocalypse Now (1979)—“Lieutenant Richard M. Colby”
SG: They were doing cattle-call auditions for the film on a big soundstage in L.A.—they took the place over, I believe, three days—and I don’t know if I got a call or if I called, but I found out about it, and I remember finding out that one of the producers was Fred Roos, who was kind of famous and was really a good guy. But it was on a soundstage, and they had card tables in the middle of the soundstage and folding chairs next to the card table and all around the edge of the soundstage. God, I don’t know how many people showed up at this thing, but they would walk around, Francis and these different people, and they would bring people out into the different sections of the soundstage and have them do improvs.
I was there for the first two days and nobody called me, and then on the last day, I was sort of standing up against the wall, and they had these guys—I think Tommy Lee Jones might’ve been one of them—but it was, like, four or five guys, and Francis said, “Okay, you’re in a PBR, you’re on the Mekong River, and you’re having a fight about who should be the Playmate Of The Year. The Latino guy says it should be the Latina, and the black guy says it should be the black girl, the white guy says it should be the blonde girl, and… just have this fight. You’re a boat crew, and you’re a Special Forces guy going up the river, and they don’t know why they’re taking you.” You know, sort of the bare bones of that journey. So these guys started having the fight, and they were doing really well, but they were yelling at each other. And I guess I, like, rolled my eyes or something, and Francis looked over and he saw it, and he stopped right in the middle of the thing and he said, “Look, I know nobody’s called you, but this is serious stuff! Don’t make a comment. These guys are doing a great job!” And I said, “You’re right, they were doing a great job. But if you’re yelling like that in a boat in the Mekong River, you’re going to have a mortar shell in your lap in a fucking heartbeat.” And he said, “What do you mean by that?” I said, “Because sound carries so far. If you’re going to have a fight like that…” [Whispers.] “…you should have it like this.” And he said, “You’re hired. You’re coming to the Philippines.” And that was that.
AVC: So how long did you ultimately end up shooting on the film?
SG: [Long pause.] I was on the film for a long while. I probably ended up being on the film for about seven and a half months, but when I say that, an awful lot of it was training. The whole thing took a year and a half to shoot. What happened was, there was a big typhoon. [Hesitates.] I don’t really want to go into everything that happened, but Francis had a feeling that I might have saved his life, which I didn’t, really, but… Anyway, I was hired originally to be in a section called the Dulong Bridge, to be a guy shooting a bloop gun, an M79 grenade launcher, but after the typhoon, there was force majeure, because the typhoon just fucking wiped out all of our sets.
So when we were going to come back to the States for a week or two before going back to the Philippines, because of stuff that went on during this typhoon, Francis essentially said, “You know, I’m a really good writer, and I’ll write you a much better part than you had originally as a reward for your behavior during the typhoon, so tell me what you want to do.” So I said, “I want to be in the section of the movie at the end, with Marlon Brando.” And Francis said, “That’s the only part of the movie where I can’t. It’s completely settled. That’s when Dennis Hopper’s coming in, and… any other part of the movie, I can write you a great scene for.” And I went, “No, you asked me, and that’s my answer.” And he said, “Well, you know what, you could be this guy Colby, who went up the river ahead of Martin Sheen. You’ll have maybe two or three lines, but basically you’ll be a glorified extra. But if that’s what you want, I’m good for my word.” And I said, “That’s what I want.”
So when we went back to the Philippines, he had me and a couple of former Green Berets training these Ifugao tribespeople to be sort of strikers like they had in Vietnam, and then he had me teach these guys what it was like to be on a movie set. You know, what “quiet on the set” meant, what “takes” meant, and stuff like that. And I ended up living with the Ifugao for a number of months, learning their language and being taken into their tribe and given an Ifugao name. It was great.
Francis basically wanted all of us in that film to get as deep into our own personal lunacy as we possibly could and just sort of live there. But the reason I did it was because I understood that acting, like a lot of things, is really about serving apprenticeship, and that I would learn way more from watching Francis and Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen and great crew-people like [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro, from being around them day after day, than any great part at that time in my life would give me. And I was right about that, too.
The Right Stuff (1983)—“Alan Shepard”
SG: Okay, so I was going to do a film that Phil Kaufman was directing called The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and I got the part, but the day my first daughter, Dakota, was born—which was natural childbirth in a hospital in Culver City—I had to get on my motorcycle and go over to Universal to meet one of the producers of the film, who also was going to be acting in it. He was a great actor, but… this is a true story.
So I got on my motorcycle, I drove over, I went in and sat down, and I met Cliff Robertson. Phil was there, too. I was sitting on the couch, and I remember Robertson was really cool when he said, “I know you just had a kid born today, and don’t feel guilty about using it as an actor. The feelings that are going through your heart and your body right now, it’ll be valuable to you.” And I went, “Great,” and he said, “Well, it’s just great meeting you, and… well, we’ll see you on the set!” And I stood up to shake his hand, and when I shook his hand, I could see— [Hesitates.] You know how when you’re playing cards with somebody—poker, say—and you see somebody sort of minorly readjust their face? So that happened. And I thought, “Huh.” But I got back on my motorcycle, and I drove back to Venice, where we were living at the time.
Carol was still in the hospital with Dakota, so I got off my motorcycle, walked into the place we were renting, and the phone was ringing. I picked it up, and it was Phil. And he said, “Scott, this is Phil Kaufman. I couldn’t let an agent call you up and tell you this. I’ve got to tell you myself. You’re not going to be in our movie.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Well, because you’re too tall.” [Laughs.] And I was a desperate actor. I mean, my kid had just been born, you know? So was I fucking desperate to have a job? You bet! So I said, “You know, I… I can wear moccasins! I can…” And Phil stopped me and said, “No, it’s not going to work. This is just a bad Hollywood story. But I promise you this: The next time I do a film that I’ve got control over, I’m going to send you the script, and I’m going to have you pick your part.”
And lo and behold, later on down the line, I’m living here in Ketchum, Idaho, and a script arrives of The Right Stuff, with a note from Phil saying, “Pick your part.” So I read it, and I called him up, and I said, “I want to do Alan Shepard.” And he said, “God, I thought you were going to say Chuck Yeager!” And I said, “Nope. I want to do Alan Shepard.” He said, “Well, that’s kind of a comedic part and, you know, the guy’s got to pee in his spacesuit…” And I said, “You know, you asked me, and that’s my answer.” And he said, “And I’m good for my word.” And that’s how it happened.
AVC: So you’ve probably only been asked this every time the film’s been brought up, but did you really pee in the spacesuit?
SG: [Laughs.] Watch it again, and you tell me.
AVC: You’d be surprised how many readers specifically asked that question.
SG: Well, you know, one of the crazy, stupid things I do in my life is deep water spear fishing, free diving, and we say there are two kinds of people: people who pee in their wetsuits, and people who lie about peeing in their wetsuits. [Laughs.]
Backdraft (1991)—“John ‘Axe’ Adcox,” stunts
SG: A great experience. I got to know the most amazing guys on the Chicago Fire Department, who are real heroes and also irreverent cowboys, and Ron Howard, who was fun to work with. Not a film I think I would ever repeat doing, because of the crap that we all breathed in day after day doing that movie. I remember going for runs along the lakefront and just coughing up huge globs of black phlegm at the end, even when I wasn’t shooting. Actually, Kurt Russell even said to me at one point, “How many years do you think we’re knocking off our life by doing this movie?” [Laughs.]
AVC: You actually have a stunt credit on the film.
SG: I do. At one point, the stunt coordinator on that—a great stunt coordinator named Walter Scott—he and Ron came to me, and Ron said, “How do you feel about being set on fire?” And I said, “Not great. Why?” [Laughs.] And he said, “Well, this is the deal: We want to hang you about 75 feet up in the air, and we want to light fire below you in this scene, and we want to set the bottom part of your body on fire, and with harness and cables, it’ll look like Kurt Russell is hanging from a beam, holding you.” It’s where I say, “Let me go,” and he says, “You go, we go.” And Ron said, “The only way I can really sell this shot is to shoot down over Kurt’s shoulder, onto you looking up into the camera, hanging there, on fire. And I can’t figure out any other way to do it that powerfully with a stunt double.” And Walter said, “I want to go on record as being against this. You never set a principal actor on fire, and fire is unpredictable, and blah, blah, blah.” But I did it. They say God looks after kids and idiots, and I think actors are probably a combination of the two.
AVC: So after enduring all you did on Backdraft, what made you want to do Firestorm?
SG: A lot of money.
AVC: Well, there you go.
SG: Howie Long wanted me to do that movie. Howie’s a great guy, and he wanted me to be in the movie badly enough that Fox paid me a stupid amount of money.
Vertical Limit (2000)—“Montgomery Wick”
SG: That’s where I learned to ice climb, from Barry Blanchard, one of the world’s great extreme ice climbers. I loved doing that part, and [director] Martin Campbell was super fun to work with, but I’d never ice climbed before, so the experience of ice climbing and discovering that was so much fun. That was so new and so incredible to do. That, and just being in New Zealand, which is one of the all-time most beautiful, great places that either Carol or I have ever been.
Sucker Punch (2011)—“Wise Man / The General / The Bus Driver”
SG: Zack Snyder’s a genius. And one of the nicest people I know. He and his wife, Deb, are really good friends of Carol’s and mine. I had known Zack, and I was telling people at movie studios, “You’d better hire this kid,” when he was making commercials. I could tell then what kind of vision he had. But he wrote that part—or parts—for me, and going to Zack’s set, at least with Sucker Punch, was kind of like joining a three-ring circus, with great stunt people and dancers and CGI. It was just big fun.
W. (2008)—“Donald Rumsfeld”
SG: Thank you, Charlie Rose. [Laughs.] The reason I say that was that that was what I used for research. Well, I talked to people that worked with Rumsfeld, read as much about him as I could, and… there’s a lot about Donald Rumsfeld that I really respect and like, and there’s a lot of areas where we probably wouldn’t be in complete agreement. But I remember the real value of research… Look, Oliver [Stone] wanted us to really do these characters, not to do a take on them. He wanted their real mannerisms and all that stuff. So I watched Charlie Rose, and Charlie had interviewed Rumsfeld something like four times, maybe five.
I’ve done that show myself and sat at that table, and it’s the only interview show, I think, where you really get to start seeing the interviewee’s true behavior, because when you’re doing that show, you’re not even aware of a crew being there. You’re just sitting in a dark room with this guy who is so well-prepared—I mean, mind-bogglingly prepared—and he starts to get you to just have a conversation. With most interviews, you’re aware of the camera, you’re aware of the lights, or you’re doing one of those odd kinds of things like, you know, audience interviews with guys like Jay Leno. And those—I’ve never really been able to figure out what they are. They’re somewhere between interview and entertainment. But, anyway, I used Charlie’s stuff to do Donald Rumsfeld, and it was fun doing the part. And Oliver’s an… interesting guy to work with. [Laughs.]
Man On Fire (1987)—“Creasy”
SG: Wow. [Long pause.] I loved doing that part, and I thought that the film itself wound up being really good. I felt good about it. I felt good about my performance, I felt good about everything. And just in terms of comfort and luxury and fun, it was probably the best location I’d ever been on in my life. You know, six weeks at the Villa D’Este on Lake Como, and then a couple of months in Rome. It had a great producer—Arnon Milchan—and Élie Chouraqui, the director—I felt like his take on that character and that story was right on.
AVC: Just out of curiosity, since you and Denzel Washington had worked together before, did he by any chance come to you before he tackled the remake of the film?
SG: No, he didn’t. Denzel and I know each other really well, but no, he didn’t. [Hesitates.] Didn’t he do that before we did Training Day?
AVC: No, it was a couple of years after.
SG: Oh, okay. To tell you the truth, I’ve never seen it!
The Virgin Suicides (1999)—“Father Moody”
SG: When I met Sofia [Coppola], she was something like 6 years old. [Laughs.] So when Fred Roos called me up and said, “Well, you know, it’s Sofia’s first film, and we’re just calling in favors,” I said, “Where do you want me to be?” And I talked to her, and she said, “I want an Irish priest.” And I said, “Do you mind an Ulster accent?” And she said, “No.” So Carol and I just went up to Toronto, and I did it. That was just, like, for the family.
Magic Valley (2011)—“Ed Halfner”
AVC: Is there a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
SG: Yes. I did a little film. I don’t really play a lead in it. There isn’t really a lead. It’s kind of, I guess you’d say, an ensemble film. Very small. I think the budget of the film was $300,000 or less. And it went directly to television. It never opened in theaters. But it was called Magic Valley.
AVC: What was the premise of the film?
SG: At the beginning of the film, the audience—along with two little kids—discovers a body of a young girl. The film takes places over one day, and by that I mean from dawn to dusk, and after that initial event, you’re introduced to all these people who all have connections to that girl, but they don’t know that she’s dead. The girl is my character’s granddaughter, she’s the daughter of two other people that you’re introduced to, and the film ends when everyone finds out that this girl has died, with the very end of the film shot in silence.
The idea is, you wake up in the morning, and the things of your life are the most important things to you, whatever they are. But things change. Like, today, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but when you hang up with me, I’m sure you’ve got other stuff you want to do, and that’s really what counts to you more than anything else. But one of these days—hopefully not today!—at 5:30 you get a phone call, and… is your mother still alive?
AVC: She is.
SG: Well, imagine you get a phone call that she just died. And all of a sudden, all that stuff that seemed super important? It doesn’t count for shit. And that’s essentially what the film is about.
SG: That was written for me. I was doing a movie in Germany at the time that was… not my favorite. [Laughs.] And Larry Kasdan sent that script and said, “I hope you do this film. I wrote the part of Emmett for you.” And I literally led out a “yee-ha!” when I finished it. And I called up my agent, and I said, “Do not fuck this one up. I’m doing this. This is like… I mean, what a gift!” And the whole experience of working on that film was just phenomenal. It really was a great adventure.
AVC: Was there ever at the time any talk about trying to do a sequel?
SG: Yeah. And I remember at one point Larry asked me would I be interested in doing it, and I said, “Yeah! Why don’t we shoot the next one in Hawaii?” [Laughs.] Because there was a big cattle scene over there. But, yes, we did talk about doing it, and I know that I said, “If you have a problem with the finances of this thing, this was such a great experience for me and was so good for me that I’ll give you a break on the money. I’m sure that Danny [Glover] and Kevin Kline would do the same.” But, you know, Westerns are hard to get made nowadays, especially big ones with the kind of scope that Silverado had. So for whatever reason, it never happened, and as to why, you’d have to ask Larry about that. But if someone called me up today and said, “We want to do another Silverado, would you be the old Emmett?” I would for sure say “yes.”
Urban Cowboy (1980)—“Wes”
AVC: Just really quick before we wrap up, I meant to follow a thread that came up earlier when we were talking about The Baby Maker, which is that you went on to be directed by Jim Bridges again on Urban Cowboy.
AVC: Was that a case where he just called you up and said, “Do you want to do this?”
SG: He asked me to do it, and he told me—he said, “If you do this film, you’ll never have to audition again as long as you live. You’ll be able to live in Idaho, people will send you scripts, and it’ll change your life.” And, of course, I said, “Yeah, right.” [Laughs.] But I did the movie, and everything he said was true: It got my big foot in the door, it did change my life, and it’s the reason I’m talking to you from Ketchum, Idaho right now.