BY ANDREW FISHThere’s a chill I get sometimes when I know I’ve dug too far into someone’s work or philosophy during an interview, a silent request to change the topic before things get weird. I’ve never felt that with Serj Tankian, no matter what I’ve ever asked him, which is one of the reasons I was looking forward to talking with him again. He’s basically the ideal subject — friendly and articulate with a seemingly bottomless aptitude for detail — so when I learned I’d be connecting with him about his full-orchestra album and new jazz record, I knew I wouldn’t have to hold back.
Known for his high-decibel, borderline operatic vocals, Tankian has been taking some creative quiet time, at least in a relative sense. Even as he’s back to rocking live with System of a Down, his two latest solo projects are comparatively low-key. Released this month is Orca, his first symphony, recorded at Brucknerhaus in Linz, Austria, and in July comes Jazz-iz Christ, a wide-net jazz fusion project — both featuring elements of traditional Armenian melodies. Meticulously assembled and packed with guts and pathos, the albums come through as musical meditations with a subtle brand of buildup and climax. Orca’s full orchestra lays out a grand narrative leading up to a heart-wrenching piece played on the duduk, a traditional Armenian reed instrument, while Jazz-iz Christ injects electro-pop, dance-hall synth, ’70s vibe, and classical into old-school jazz. Check out this “Waitomo Caves” track for some serious funk and one of the truly dopest distorted flute solos. Tankian has set himself free and you can feel it.
The multi-genre musician and singer will tour with System of a Down in late July and August and then take his symphony through Europe in September. And as every Tankian fan is anxious for work to begin on a new SOAD album, I have it on good authority that patience will pay off. After our interview, I sent him a note to clarify — does he see himself committing to a new System record at some point? The answer I received was “Yes.”
I spoke with Tankian just before summer set in.
Iconic Interview: How do you begin putting together a symphony? Take us through the process. Serj Tankian: Like all great discoveries, it starts by accident. I had started working on Imperfect Harmonies, and I was writing these long piano diatribes and fleshing them out into songs. With one or two of the pieces, they were just so long and so melodic that I couldn’t envision adding vocals to them, so I had put them aside. At first, I thought these would be great at the end of a record, just listening to these long two pieces. I was in New Zealand at the time and a good friend of mine was over, having a beer and checking out music that I had written — just fresh off the press kind of thing — and he’s like, “Bro! These are the first two acts of your symphony.” It hadn’t even crossed my mind. And I shit you not, I Wikipedia’ed “symphony” to see how many of these acts I would need. [laughs] I’m like, wow, you need four acts, roughly about ten minutes each. I could do this! So I put them aside and worked on other music that could complement it, or other ideas that were symphonic. The first instrumentation is piano in all cases, and then I basically work on the celli, bass, viola, violin one, violin two, brass, percussion, in that exact order — and then add on other instruments we might need. At first I did an original demo and then I refined the demo with tempo changes and modulations here and there to add things that I wanted to it. I reviewed it many times and adjusted it and modified it. Then, when I was happy with the final demo results, we went and scored the whole thing. I have an arranger and I sat down with him and gave him all the material and he basically notated everything. At that point, once we had an orchestra to record it live in Austria, we went in and worked with the conductor. We sent him the score, made some other adjustments, rehearsed the orchestra for a few days, and recorded it! We did a live show; that’s what we will be hearing as the final result.
Did you have people playing the instruments for you on the demo, or were you synthesizing it? I was playing them myself using piano, sample strings, sample brass, sample percussion, and just basically tamping everything that way. Then with the second variation of demos, we started using other samples, better samples, and more modulations and tempo changes, which my arranger does really well with me. I’ve done all the original demos of all of the different layers of the music. Continue reading →
BY ANDREW FISHInterview conducted for Venice Magazine
John Goodman is a fixture in contemporary American cinema and television. Beloved for his rough-edged tenderness on “Roseanne” and idolized for his tyrannical loyalty in The Big Lebowski, he has a knack for cultivating hilarity in the darkest places and jubilance in righteous anger. He’s a master of the jovial veneer that thinly veils a percolating menace, and simply unrivaled at flying off the handle. The Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor’s body of work is prolific to the point of common knowledge, as one would be hard pressed to find someone unfamiliar with him, and equally challenged to find a moviegoer who isn’t a fan.
Goodman’s role as Dan Conner on “Roseanne” served as the rock upon which he built his towering reputation and his alliance with the Coen brothers made him larger than life. A rare example of a character actor who rose to the heights of Hollywood luminary, Goodman bounded his way up with such turns as the jail-breaking Gale Snoats in Raising Arizona (1987); an unlikely monarch in King Ralph (1991); Charlie Meadows (aka Karl “Madman” Mundt) in Barton Fink (1991); the savior of 1920s baseball in The Babe (1992); the epic Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998); the cyclopean, turncoat Bible salesman in O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000); the deftly exploited Detective Dehling in One Night at McCool’s (2001); and even as stone-aged family man, Fred Flintstone, in The Flintstones (1994). Always game for a laugh, Goodman became a “Saturday Night Live” favorite as he dolled himself up as Linda Tripp multiple times during the Clinton scandal. He also lent his talent to “The West Wing” as Acting President Glenallen Walken; the German historical drama, Pope Joan (Die Päpstin, 2009), as Pope Sergius; and “Waiting for Godot” as Pozzo on Broadway.
Goodman’s ability to illuminate the bright side of hardship, while playfully reminding us how deep in the gutter we’re capable of going, has earned him his place in the pantheon of screen legends. The venerated performer gave us a call from his adopted home of New Orleans on a Monday afternoon. The following interview took place in March 2010.
Your character in “Treme” seems to parallel your own life, in that he’s someone who wants to get the truth out about the events in New Orleans after Katrina.
John Goodman: Yes, the impotent rage that resides in me. [laughs] Snap a rubber on that and put it right!
Potential energy becoming kinetic. You’re getting it all out there.
Yeah, some of those speeches were fun to say.
How did you first become involved with the project?
I was doing a TV movie in New York last fall with Al Pacino, a famous Italian actor.
I think I’ve heard of him.
David Simon and Eric [Overmyer] came down one day, and they had an idea; they had shot a pilot for this, and I’d heard of it already. I was all for it because they’ve done such good work, and I thought, “Maybe somebody will do a good piece about New Orleans.” So they had this character and they wanted to go and re-shoot some stuff, and they offered it to me. And I said, “Yeah, whatever.” It was one of those deals where I was trying to act like I was holding three aces and not grinning from ear to ear. [laughs] They offered it to me and it worked out. Continue reading →
Robert Knepper has a particular aptitude for making the blood boil. Able to infuse an audience with hate, fear, and affection in one big jumble of conflicted emotion, the actor excelled as the infamous Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell on the Fox series Prison Break. With vicious charisma, he made people feel for a cold-hearted killer by revealing glimmers of decency beneath what most would consider pure evil. Throughout the show’s run and long after its finale, Knepper has been stared at, confronted, and confided in by fans who watched him unleash his dark side every week — experiences that are coming in handy at his latest gig on The CW’s Cult, which features his portrayal of both Billy Grimm, a villain on a fictional TV show, and Roger Reeves, the actor who plays him.
As is evident in the interview to follow, Knepper pulls no punches. He’s an intense guy with great stories, strong opinions, and not a hint of the malevolence many expect from the man who channeled T-Bag with such brutal realism from 2005 to 2009. Even Rockne S. O’Bannon, creator of Cult — as well as the classic science-fiction series Farscape and the upcoming Defiance — admits he had some apprehension about meeting the performer because of the “indelible impression” Knepper had made on him through his work on Prison Break. “Then I met Robert,” O’Bannon tells us, “this very warm, generous, talented artist. I knew I’d found my man, an actor who could brilliantly bring both [Billy and Roger] to life. He’s an actor who cares deeply about the work, but also approaches it with a wonderful sense of fun.”
So how is someone with such a friendly demeanor and positive outlook able to craft such finely tuned villains as the frighteningly complex T-Bag, the relentless and diabolical Billy Grimm, the mass-murder-obsessed Samuel on Heroes, or the intergalactic fiend Simeon on Stargate Universe? He studied hard, immersed himself in theater, and became great at what he does.
Knepper cut his teeth on shows like Star Trek (The Next Generation and Voyager); L.A. Law; Law & Order; Murder, She Wrote; Profiler; The West Wing; CSI: Miami; and Criminal Minds. He also appeared on HBO’s Carnivale and Showtime’s Shameless, and played Frank Sinatra in the French film Cloclo and Robert Kennedy in the TV movie Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot. Next up is the big-budget supernatural action film R.I.P.D., based on the Dark Horse comic, with Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds. Knepper took some time to chat with us recently, and here’s what transpired.
Having been an actor who has played some villainous characters, most notably T-Bag on Prison Break, is it fun to now be playing an actor who plays a villain? Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this before. I think for a lot of people in the business, you run the risk of saying, “Is what I do and how I live my life as an actor interesting enough for people to watch?” It’s really cool with this project to have certain attributes of Billy Grimm be the same attributes of Roger Reeves. Then you understand why Roger Reeves is playing this part. I hope it’s interesting and I hope it resonates with people. It’s kind of what I went through playing T-Bag in Prison Break, because I get to save a lot of money on therapy by wrestling with a lot of demons! [laughs] And then I get to walk down the street and have people be at once horrified by me and at the same time — T-Bag, for a lot of people, was really an alluring character [and] I get to see a wide variety of reactions to that. I remember this one couple came up to me on an airplane. [The woman] looked me right in the eye and said, “I really love T-Bag, and so does my husband. In fact, we love T-Bag so much that we switch parts. We decide who’s going to play T-Bag tonight.” I’m like, whoa! That’s pretty out there. The power of the imagination is pretty crazy, that you can affect people that way, to scare them so much and to turn them on at the same time. It’s probably the same emotion.
These are some of the ideas that are being explored on Cult. Exactly! I’ve told a lot of these stories to Rockne [O'Bannon], and I swear I think he turns around [and] uses them, [but] tweaks them a bit.
So would you say that some of the things we see Roger experiencing on the show have come from your own life? I would say if you’re a good writer — and I think Rockne’s a very good writer — you can’t help but take things that you hear or you see. I’m envious of writing. I can’t say I create; [as an actor] I interpret what’s already there. I think writers are sponges. I’m friends with “Swampy” [Marsh], who’s co-creator of Phineas and Ferb, the [animated show]. When you’re sitting with him, you know when you’re trading stories, that guy’s soaking them up and filing them somewhere in the back of his head, going, “I can use this!” [laughs] You always have to be really careful what you say around writers because I think they’re wonderful voyeurs, and I think they can spin it! I’ve never seen an actual story that I’ve told a writer used in an episode, but I’ve feel like I’ve come close to it.
What can you tell us about the motivations of both the actor and the villain you play in Cult? What do these two characters want?
I think Billy wants to maintain what he has. He wants to keep that little castle going on the top of the mountain, and he’ll do everything to protect himself, and surround himself with people from his “family” that will protect him. There must be something about him that can’t help but love the power that he has. These kinds of people are interesting to me because on one hand they offer you unconditional love; they’re so giving. You can fill in the blank; they’re either a preacher, a priest, any religious figure, or they’re a politician, a leader. They give people so much, and they’re a sponge, themselves, because they feed off of gifts that other people give them. That power must be pretty amazing. I think any great leader has to have tremendous ego, and when you are that confident, a lot of people find that really interesting to be around. There’s this glow about you. I know it; you know it, I’m sure. Certain days you wake up and you go, “I am feeling on top of the world right now!” These guys wake up and they’ve got to feel that way every day. They have a huge responsibility, and what if somebody tried to take that away from you? What if somebody said to you, “I want to bring you down”? Billy Grimm says, “Uh, uh! I’m not goin’.” So I think that goal is pretty self-evident; that’s him.
Roger is like me, in a way. I am compelled to be an actor; I’ve been an actor since I was nine. You’ll discover a lot of [Roger's] back-story over the next several episodes. I think every actor’s nightmare is that none of us ever wants to be boring and we never want to be typical. [He started] in the right place years ago, in the theater — and I started in the theater [as well] — and you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder when you start in the theater, because it is the most pure form of acting. To go from that, as you’ll see in the unfolding story, to great film roles, to a juicy television role, [and] you’re thinking, “Am I doing the best I can do?” Almost 30 years ago, I was sitting with my agent who had come to New York to see his New York clients, and I was such a purist back then. He sat there [and asked], “So what do you want to do?” I said, “I love the theater.” And he started twiddling his fingers on the desk, and he said, “What else do you love?” [laughs] Because he’s an agent, right? I said, “Well, in a pinch I would do film.” And he pounded his fist on the table and said, “You left out the number-one-paying job — television!” This was, like, 1982 or ’83, and I said, “Uch, television. I’m not a prostitute! I’m not a slut! I’m not gonna sell myself out.” Of course, television back then, you had Banacek, you had Mannix, you had Hawaii Five-0, you had these big, strong, beautiful hunks of men whose hair never moved. And that was what you played if you were going to do that. So I just thought, “I’m not gonna do this.” And I think, to a certain extent, Roger Reeves has grown up with that kind of mentality, and you see him shift in the series, going, “You know what? I’m playing a great part!” I’ve certainly gone through this. I had a pretty [rough time] by having a taste of success — a huge taste of success — playing T-Bag in Prison Break [and garnering] worldwide knowledge and love for what became an iconic character. You can get a little addicted to that kind of love, and then you have to go, “Wait a minute; why am I doing this? Am I doing this because I want this recognition every time I go out? Or am I doing it because I really love the work?” You’re going to get to see a little bit of that with Roger, as well. I think he’s questioning what his goals are. What does he want? Does he want fame or does he want to keep playing a great part? And, like any great part you play — specifically on television, because it is a long-running gig — it starts to mess with your head after a while. Because you can’t walk around in your real life being the character that you’re playing. There’s no way you can have that much power over people. Once in awhile, you’re going to have to cook your own dinner. [laughs] Continue reading →
I still remember watching an episode of the revamped “Twilight Zone” back in 1985, white-knuckled as the silhouetted killer from under the bed prepared to finish off the one kid who was supposed to be immune to the carnage of the Shadow Man. It was my first experience with Rockne O’Bannon’s addictive brand of storytelling, though I didn’t know it at the time — and given his long list of science-fiction creations, you’ve probably enjoyed one or two yourself. I’d still never heard of him when the honor students at my high school polled A.P. English class about whether the Newcomers on “Alien Nation” should have the right to vote. Yet by 2004 when “Farscape”‘s fans had amassed enough clout to bring their favorite space chase back from the dead, O’Bannon had earned an international reputation for crafting the kind of mythos that gathers a cult following.
Thus well versed in television fandom, in around 2006 O’Bannon conceived of “Cult,” an experiment in metafiction, a TV show about a TV show (also called “Cult”), whose rabid followers are being recruited into a mysterious cabal. After a series of development snags, including the collapse of The WB Network, the show finally debuted back in February on The CW. Though its symbols, clues, and repeating phrases — including the curious “Well hey, these things just snap right off” — were left frustratingly unreconciled upon its cancelation, “Cult” remains a unique moment in television.
Playing the dual roles of Billy Grimm, the villainous cult leader, and Roger Reeves, the actor who portrayed him, was real-life actor Robert Knepper, who himself is best known as the sadistic and perversely charismatic villain T-Bag on “Prison Break.” When I contacted him to ask about his experience working with O’Bannon, he let me know how grateful he was for the opportunity to play both Grimm and Reeves. “For me, they were the antidote to T-Bag,” he relates. “To play the monster, as well as the actor who plays the monster, mirrored my real life since ‘Prison Break’ days. My relationship with Rockne began with ‘Cult’ and will last a lifetime.”
“Cult” had received its green light, much to O’Bannon’s surprise, while he was hard at work developing “Defiance,” Syfy’s new flagship swashbuckling, alien-steeped action-adventure, which — in a groundbreaking move — was tied in from day-one with a multiplayer online game. And now that “Cult” is in the rear view and “Defiance” is in the capable hands of showrunner Kevin Murphy, O’Bannon is on to his new gig as executive producer for season two of NBC’s post-apocalyptic “Revolution,” which premieres September 25th.
I first met O’Bannon about 15 years ago in my PR days when I accompanied him to an interview on public radio’s science-fiction program “Hour 25,” and again at Comic Con 1998 where — thanks to some unexpected scheduling — everyone on the team had gone home but me, and I ended up presenting the very first “Farscape” trailer. We kept in touch through the years, though it had been at least a decade since I’d seen him when we met up for this interview at Stefan’s at L.A. Farm in Santa Monica a few weeks back.
When you were asked to develop the “Defiance” universe, what did they give you as the premise that you had to run with? They knew they wanted to have some sort of town with aliens and humans intermingling, but the other versions they had were all a little more amorphous, and I looked at it and said, I’d love to do something that takes on the classic tropes of the John Ford Westerns and television Westerns. I thought that was a great starting place for this, but not to play it like a Western at all. As I kept saying to everybody in production and to the writers — this isn’t retro. They’re not reverting to the 1860s. It’s 30 years in the future, but it’s a world where technology has been churned under, for the most part, or at least conventional technology. I came up with the idea that the town of Defiance is built on top of the old St. Louis. St Louis is down under us, so the St. Louis Arch, we’re not seeing the whole thing — we’re really only seeing the top portion of it. But it gave us opportunities for stories that would allow us to go down into subterranean St. Louis. And then there was Nolan as the sheriff. The different races were already established by the game folks, so then it was just a matter of plugging in who was doing what. The Tarrs — Datak, and Stahma who is the Lady Macbeth. I was involved for the first nine months and brought in the staff — and in the meantime, Mark Pedowitz took over The CW and he was aware of the script for “Cult” from when he was at ABC, and the first pilot he ordered as the new president was “Cult.” So suddenly I get a call saying the CW wants to produce “Cult” as a pilot, and I was in the enviable and not-so-enviable position of having two shows, both of which I loved, in front of me. “Cult” was my baby, so Syfy was very cool about letting me go. Kevin Murphy, whom I had hired as my number two, an experienced showrunner, himself, has done a fantastic job [taking over "Defiance."] So I transitioned over onto “Cult.”
Did you have any part in the casting of “Defiance”? Grant Bowler is the only one. We had obviously looked at other names, but in terms of someone who is so poised to be a star of his own show, Grant was it. He’s a great action star, but his relationship with Irisa, his adopted daughter, is just fabulous. He carries the show!
Julie Benz is great as well. I’m a big fan [of hers] from “Dexter” and “Buffy.” I had nothing to do with bringing her on, but when they hired her, I was thrilled.
Take us through the process of sitting in the room and sketching out the complex, interconnecting story arcs and back-stories that are played out on the shows you have worked on. Continue reading →
Probing the secrets that thrive beneath the surface, David Cronenberg excels at exposing the hidden and repressed. Though often frightening in the light, the psyche’s inner workings are at the root of human behavior, and the director’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, delves into the lives of the scientists who first revealed them to the world. A great leap took place at the beginning of the 20th century with the idea that we’re only partially aware of what our minds are doing, and that our reactions, emotions, and decisions are the result of an interplay between what we know and what our brains have been brewing behind the scenes. Sigmund Freud’s theories of unconscious thought and its investigation through psychoanalysis provided a new way to treat the emotionally unstable as well as a broader understanding of humanity as a whole.
In 1904, a young Swiss psychiatrist named Carl Jung, who had been following Freud’s work, decided to try out the Austrian neurologist’s “talking cure” on Sabina Spielrein, an 18-year-old Russian patient at the Burghölzli hospital. Diagnosed with hysteria, Spielrein was nearly uncontrollable, yet when Jung sat with her and asked simple questions, she divulged the underlying causes of her ailment. As her emotions began to balance out, she revealed her own interest in psychiatry and Jung took her on as a research assistant. Graduating medical school in Zurich, she became a pioneer in the field and a prominent psychoanalyst, herself. Jung’s treatment of Spielrein was the reason he began corresponding with Freud, which brought the two men together as friends and collaborators. For several years Freud groomed Jung as his intellectual heir, until things went sour. Jung had grown close to Spielrein — with strong evidence pointing to a romantic involvement — and their turbulent relationship led to Jung’s dishonesty with Freud. This tension, combined with Jung’s resentment of Freud’s perceived arrogance and Freud’s disappointment with Jung’s introduction of spirituality into treatment methods, resulted in their acrimonious split in 1912.
The methods of Freud and Jung, the respective fathers of psychoanalysis and analytical psychology, have been practiced, debated, supported, denounced, and expanded upon to this day, while Spielrein’s accomplishments have remained in the shadows. She did groundbreaking work in child psychology and was a key player in bringing psychoanalysis to Russia. Her theory of sexuality as both a destructive and transformative impulse was a profound influence on Freud’s study of innate self-destructive tendencies, and her relationship with Jung was instrumental in shaping the mystically minded doctor’s concept of the soul. Her life ended at the hands of SS soldiers who killed Spielrein and her two daughters in 1942.
Keira Knightley channels Spielrein as the frenetic turmoil of her adolescence gives way to passion, grit, and noble ambition. Michael Fassbender presents Jung as a married man conflicted in his love and lust for Spielrein, and equally burdened by his need to leave Freud’s nest. As radical psychoanalyst Otto Gross, Vincent Cassel thumbs his nose at the idea that urges should ever be repressed and counsels Jung to do the same. Viggo Mortensen’s Freud is cautious in his alliances and places the integrity of his field and his colleagues above all else.
Based on the book A Most Dangerous Method (1994) by John Kerr, the film was written by Christopher Hampton who adapted it from his play, “The Talking Cure.” A Dangerous Method is right along the continuum of Cronenberg’s work in the dark reaches of the mind. The parasites that pared down the psyche to basest instincts in Shivers (1975), the psychiatric treatment that brought emotional trauma to the surface as body deformity in The Brood (1979), the anger and greed that could reach out and kill in Scanners (1981), the melding of perversity with technology in Videodrome (1983), and the devolution of a man in The Fly (1986), each represented the forbidden rising up and taking shape. And when examined, Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993), Crash (1996), eXistenZ (1999), Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), and Eastern Promises (2007), all dipped into the mess of secrets, delusions, and impulses that define the human condition. We meet with the Canadian filmmaker to discuss Freud, Jung, Spielrein, and the historic first steps in the study of the unconscious.
In your film, Jung’s story is all about ego, id, superego, and reality, with Jung’s conflicted ego, Otto Gross as the unrepressed id, Freud as the superego father figure, and the reality of Sabina.
That’s right. Very Freudian. In fact, someone said, “You’ve used Freudian methods to analyze Jung.” [laughs] And I think there’s some truth in that.
Is that where you began when putting the story together?
First of all, it’s Christopher Hampton’s play. We have to give him credit for distilling a very complex era, the birth of psychoanalysis, down to about five characters, because there was a cast of hundreds of characters, really. But I noticed from doing panels with Christopher, and talking to him, that I don’t think he would have used a scheme like that. That’s great to analyze after the fact and it’s not that it’s inaccurate, but creatively it would hamper you, I think, rather than release you. It’s not something that you use creatively.
So that dynamic is something that emerged by simply telling the story?
Yes, because you’re trying to be faithful to these people, the reality of them, because they are so well known — at least two of them, and then two are obscure, Otto and Sabina — but we have endless documentation. They were obsessive about letter writing and they were obsessively detailed in their descriptions of their thoughts and their feelings and what they ate and what their dreams were. So we have tons of stuff, and for me the process was one of resurrection; I wanted them to be brought back to life. I wanted to see them and hear them, as close to what they would have been as artistically possible. So that means that you’re not coming with an agenda — pro-Freud or pro-Jung or anti-Jung or whatever — and you’re not really imposing a schematic structure on them. You’re imposing a dramatic structure, yes, but the drama was there in their lives anyway, so you’re kind of taking away all the peripheral stuff and some of the complexity to reveal this dramatic structure. But it was there, in reality. All of those things, really, were pretty much as they happened, as outlined in the letters. Otto Gross really did say those things to Jung, and Jung really did say [Otto is] very seductive and makes you think that he’s right and you’re wrong. All of those things happened, so you have to say it’s kind of an amazing coincidence that it has a perfect Freudian structure, because it is historically accurate. It’s not like we forced it into some scheme, but what you say is not inaccurate, either. Continue reading →
BY ANDREW FISH
There’s a reason Garret Dillahunt is one of Hollywood’s favorite hired guns. As Jack McCall on HBO’s Deadwood, he ended his arc after murdering Wild Bill Hickok, then returned to the show as an entirely different character with many viewers unaware they were watching the same actor. He played three roles (four by some counts) on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, including an emotionless killing machine and the human-like interface of a benevolent artificial intelligence. He was evil incarnate in the 2009 horror film The Last House on the Left and landed the role of sitcom dad on Fox’s Raising Hope just a year later. With uncanny adaptability, Dillahunt sinks into his characters so deeply that the performer himself is nearly undetectable.
Dillahunt’s on-screen acumen has landed him on the short list at the highest levels. Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, for example, cast him in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly, and the upcoming Twelve Years a Slave, and the Coen brothers made him right-hand man to Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men. He has a lengthy list of credits on the small screen, including Leap Years, The 4400, ER, Numb3rs, John from Cincinnati, Damages, Life, Criminal Minds, CSI, Law & Order: SVU, and Burn Notice. And with a spate of bad-guy characters under his belt, even those in the know tend to forget that Dillahunt got his start in comedy on shows like Maximum Bob with Beau Bridges and A Minute with Stan Hooper with Norm MacDonald.
So even though his current gig on Raising Hope is worlds away from his role as a duty-bound yet wavering Sheriff in Winter’s Bone or the sharp-shooting “gat man” he played in Looper, the show needed the complexity of a chameleon like Dillahunt to nail the nuances of the uncomplicated and hilarious Burt Chance. Following the struggles of a hapless 20-something (Lucas Neff ) who, with the help of his family (Dillahunt, Martha Plimpton, Shannon Woodward, Cloris Leachman), is raising the daughter he unwittingly had with a serial murderer, the unconventional sitcom earns its laughs from the subtleties of story rather than a barrage of punchlines.
Dillahunt is also currently co-starring with Alan Cumming in Any Day Now, a film about a gay couple in the 1970s who take in an abandoned teenaged boy with Down syndrome and battle a prejudiced legal system to retain custody. The powerful piece features newcomer Isaac Leyva as the boy at the center of it all and an icy Frances Fisher as a family court judge.
From the lovable Burt, to Cromartie the terminator, to Jesus Christ on The Book of Daniel, there is a certain Zen-like calm that runs through Dillahunt’s uncommonly diverse array of characters, and we get a hint of it as he speaks with us in his easy cadence on a recent afternoon.
Iconic Interview: Raising Hope is really idiosyncratic and I can’t think of anything else like it. What do you think makes this unusual show so successful?
Garret Dillahunt: I think it’s because it’s good and funny and people can identify with it in some way. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to assume that. This family is not a rich family; they have a hard time getting by, but you wouldn’t know it. They still find a lot of joy. They’re idiosyncratic, but loving. I think that’s how most families are, really. Everyone thinks their family is the craziest family in the world. [If you ask], they’re like, “My God, my family’s crrrazy!” So I think it’s not far from home for everybody.
Even though your character may not be a member of Mensa, he has a certain simple wisdom about him. How did you first approach the character? I think [show creator] Greg [Garcia] and I have a similar sensibility; I don’t think that’s arrogant to say. Things are a little weird; it’s not a typical sitcom. The jokes don’t really land [with the standard beats]. I went on tape for this in New York, I believe, and I just did what I thought was funny. [It was a lot] of little weird behavioral things that aren’t necessarily written in the script. I think [Burt is] innocent; there’s an innocence about him that he has managed to maintain — or has accidentally maintained — and that allows him to respond to things as they happen. He’s guileless, and it’s fun to play. Continue reading →
He pushed the elevator button in Speed and helped set the mood of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive over a decade ago, yet it’s in the past few years that Patrick Fischler has truly ingrained himself in the on-screen landscape. You may know him as Jimmy Barrett, the loose-cannon insult comic on Mad Men who told Don Draper off for sleeping with his wife, or Phil, the overzealous security officer on Lost who fought to maintain order until his bitter end. He spent a season on Southland as Detective Kenny “No-Gun” and appeared on a recent Castle to help the crime-fighting lovebirds through a relationship crisis before revealing himself as the killer. As Fischler showed up on his first episode of Californication last year and was so creepily good that he was woven into this year’s story arc, he continued to prove that the essential idiosyncratics of TV and film tend to find their groove when they’re good and seasoned.
Now in his early 40s, he’s having a blast with the juicy roles landing in his lap. David Duchovny’s Hank Moody, for instance, witnessed a certain bit of debauchery and is plenty perplexed to find that Fischler’s Gabriel has followed him to Californication season six as group-therapy leader at rehab. Admitting that he’s played some unlikeable sorts, Fischler inhabits his characters as real people and lets the honesty get the audience in the gut. The actor, who has appeared on over 60 shows, sees Jimmy Barrett as the classic case in point, a guy with big ambitions and bigger obstacles who turned to insults-for-laughs as his only way to the top.
Director Michael Polish’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel, Big Sur, just debuted at Sundance and features Fischler as supporting character Lew Welch, a member of Kerouac’s beatnik gang and unsung poet of the era. And just debuted at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is the short film The Test, starring and executive produced by Fischler and his wife, Lauren Bowles, True Blood‘s blond Wiccan waitress (whose interview you can find here). It’s their latest collaboration since they both appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2011, and the fun they had putting The Test together reminded Fischler of their time in the LA theater company Neurotic Young Urbanites, back in the day. He also enjoyed the unusual opportunity to play a regular guy. “She’s a Southern witch and I’m, you know, playing a controlling, closeted rehab guy or a drunk poet,” he says, “so it’s nice to just be this couple who’s dealing with issues.” Fischler chatted with Iconic Interview on an early winter morning.
Californication is so wonderfully shameless. What did you think when you read the script for that first episode? When they called to offer me a part on it, at that point it was just going to be that one episode, and I didn’t see a script. I’m like, “Of course, I love Californication! I’ll do it, sure!” And then I got that script and I kept reading and I saw, oh! Okay, so wait, what? Oookay. [laughs] I thought it was pretty funny and the character was great and I love those guys. Then, when my managers called and said, “You know what? They want you to come back for a bunch of episodes this season. They have this idea.” I was like, “Great! Let’s do it!”
What does your character get up to this season? Hank goes to rehab and I run the rehab, and that causes problems because he and I don’t get along very well. And then throughout the season, he needs my help with something. Running the rehab is the basis, the start of our relationship, me having to deal with all the shit he gives me.
And it all started with his meeting you at a party and seeing all of the strangeness behind the scenes. Exactly, so that’s why he’s sort of like, are you kidding me? This is the guy who’s running this?
When you gear up to play a character who’s written to be dislikeable, and you’ve done a few… Yes, I have. [laughs]
Do you get into the character’s headspace to understand the character’s perspective, rather than looking at this person as being dislikable? Oh, a hundred percent. To me, that’s the irony. Most of the characters that I’ve played that are dislikable, I don’t think of as dislikable – this being one of them. I think Gabriel is actually a good guy who’s trying his best, and he’s sober. He’s maybe got some odd personality traits, but I don’t think he’s dislikable. Jimmy Barrett from Mad Men being the classic of all of them. I thought he had a couple of, how should I say, issues. But I never found him dislikable. Everybody’s got something in them that’s likable. That’s what I ultimately go for; I look at the humanity in everybody. Absolutely you’ve got to start there, and that’s where you build up. I never, ever, look at any of these people as not likable. You can’t really play that. You can’t play “unlikable.” You can give them circumstances and then go from there.
What were Jimmy’s good points? His good points were, I actually thought he was funny. I thought that when he found someone he cared about, he cared about them. It all came from insecurity, any kind of negative stuff that Jimmy had, it all just came from – probably in high school and growing up – not being Don Draper. Because of the way he looks and the way he was, he had to always think, “I’m never gonna be that guy, so I’m going to have to be something to get me to a level of that guy.” Insecurity is always where a lot of people’s stuff comes from, so that always breaks my heart for somebody. Continue reading →
Knowing Melissa Leo as the fiercely devoted matriarch of The Fighter, a champion of human rights on HBO’s “Treme,” a sacrificial mother in Frozen River, and a dirty cop in last year’s Conviction, it leaves one wide-eyed when meeting her in person. The intense, singleminded vibe of her on-screen roles gives way to an easy, warm thoughtfulness and gently flowing conversation. Winner of 2011’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as Alice Ward in The Fighter, and an Oscar nominee for 2008’s Frozen River, Leo is a strikingly free spirit, which is likely what makes her so open to the compelling characters she plays. Beginning with her mid-’80s stint on “All My Children” and working up to a five-year run on “Homicide: Life on the Street” in the ’90s, she’s been a vessel for fiery personas for quite some time. She’s portrayed the grief-stricken yet resolute wife of Benicio Del Toro in 21 Grams (2003); a sexy and supportive waitress with an extracurricular love life in Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005); a downtrodden alcoholic in Righteous Kill (2008) with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino; a delightfully adept con artist in Don McKay (2009) alongside Thomas Haden Church and Elisabeth Shue; an insightful truck driver in Everybody’s Fine (2009), again with De Niro; and the agoraphobic, estranged wife of James Gandolfini in Welcome to the Rileys (2010), featuring Kristen Stewart. She’s also appeared in 24 Hour Woman (1999) with Rosie Perez, Fear of Fiction (2000) with “True Blood”’s Sam Trammell, and The Dry Land (2010) with America Ferrera. A stage actor as well, Leo performed alongside Anna Paquin and Alison Pill in Neil LaBute’s 2004 production of “The Distance from Here.” She appeared in the five-part HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” with Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood, and in Kevin Smith’s Red State, featuring John Goodman, who also played Leo’s husband last season on “Treme.” (“What a pleasure to be married to him — in the movies!” she laughs.)
Wrapped in her faux fur and sipping iced tea under the night sky on the rooftop of a West Hollywood hotel, the veteran actor settles in for a chat. The following interview took place in January 2011.
The Fighter tells a great story.
Melissa Leo: I’m very, very proud to be a part of it.
You play a powerful mother who, from her perspective, just wants what’s best for her son.
That’s nice to hear you say that.
Did you adopt that point of view when you were playing the character?
Very much so. [Director] David [O. Russell] had brought the women in Micky’s life into the story in a bigger way when he came onboard as the helmer. Because when I met David, and when Amy [Adams] met David — by my understanding — they were still roles that were being built by him. And that was actually what captivated me the most, the belief David had in me. I wanted to hang on for the ride to see if he could really make me into this thing he saw me so wholly as, the moment we met.
In what way was your character a work in progress?
I had a glorious three-and-a-half or four months where I had the role and I had some meetings with [costume designer] Mark Bridges for the costumes, and the meeting for the dyeing and cutting and recutting and cutting again of the hair. That’s unusual for me to have that kind of prep time on something. There was so much to putting her together. It was sort of this endless circle. Film, for me — I think I’ve said it in the magazine before — is a collaborative art. It’s perhaps the collaborative art. An orchestra or a ship at sea are the things that come to my mind that are akin to it. The way a group has to work together under a single guide who knows that perhaps there are people aboard that know more. The navigator knows more than he about the navigation. Continue reading →
BY ANDREW FISHJuggling career and family is a lot easier when you love what you’re doing. Heading into its second season, HBO’s “The Newsroom” has been controversial since day one, and Adina Porter has been all the more thrilled to be involved as the sparks have flown. Best known for her intense portrayal of Lettie Mae Thornton, the manipulative, sanctimonious, emotionally abusive mother of Tara (Rutina Wesley) on the hot and sultry vampire saga “True Blood,” Porter is now happily dedicated to her “Newsroom” supporting character, Kendra James. Following frustrated Republican anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) as he wages media war on the Tea Party and its influence on the GOP, the Aaron Sorkin-created show has spawned prolific debate, with detractors and supporters generating pages of opposing opinions on the message boards — and it’s proving to be one of Porter’s all-time favorite projects, among the dozens she’s appeared on.
When we asked Porter which of her other recent TV roles we might take a look at before our meeting in Toluca Lake, she let us know that with two kids, she rarely watches her television work — besides “The Newsroom” — and has trouble keeping track of which shows she’s on. “Thank goodness for IMDB,” she wrote in an email. Her portfolio starts in the early ’90s and includes “Law & Order,” “Brooklyn South,” “Judging Amy,” “Crossing Jordan,” “NYPD Blue,” “ER,” “CSI,” “Prison Break,” “American Horror Story,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Glee,” and “The Vampire Diaries.” She appeared in The Peacemaker (1997) starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, and About Sunny (2011) alongside Lauren Ambrose. She was also featured in the HBO TV movies “Gia” (1998) with Angelina Jolie, and “Lackawanna Blues” (2005) with Macy Gray, Mos Def, Terrence Howard, and Louis Gossett Jr. Joining the dialogue about the importance of diversity in entertainment, she participated last year in an HBO-sponsored panel at the American Black Film Festival with Sufe Bradshaw (“VEEP”), Michael K. Williams (“The Wire”), Nelsan Ellis (“True Blood”), and JB Smoove (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”).
As a familiar on-screen face for two decades, Porter reflects on her niche as a guest star: “There’s a part of me that thought, really good actors become series regulars — and then ‘Newsroom’ came around and I thought, do I want to be a series regular on a show that pays the bills but people won’t be talking about years from now, or guest star on a show that I think people will be talking about years from now? I like being a guest star! It’s quite a muscle, having to prove yourself over and over again.”
Next up is a return to the supernatural backwaters of Bon Temps, where Porter will once again sink into the spiteful fury of “True Blood”‘s Lettie Mae and exorcize the stress that her dual life as mom and working professional inevitably brings. Here’s what transpires when we meet on a sunny spring morning.
Iconic Interview: Did you have any advantage in getting your role on “The Newsroom” because of your work with Aaron Sorkin on The Social Network? Adina Porter: It was just a regular audition, except it was on camera at Sony Studios. None of the big shots were in the room; it was really low pressure. And then something like six weeks went by and I get a phone call from my manager saying, “It looks like you’re in the running for this.” I was like, great! It was [an audition] that you do and you forget about it. Then I’m told by my agents that [co-executive producer] Scott Rudin said, “I want Adina Porter. Why isn’t Adina Porter booked yet?” So they were like, “Okay, let’s book Adina Porter!” So that’s what happened and I’m really glad that Scott Rudin is a fan, and I don’t know if it was because of Social Network. Scott’s quite a theater person, so I think it’s because all the stuff I’ve done in my life has just added up to this!” Continue reading →
BY ANDREW FISH Interview conducted for Venice Magazine
With his blue-eyed gaze and air of perpetual amusement, Malcolm McDowell has been captivating audiences for over four decades. His charisma and intensity strike a cultural nerve, tickling the imagination of everyone suspicious of the status quo. The actor’s first subversive triumph came in 1968 with his role as a percolating revolutionary at a boarding school in Lindsay Anderson’s If…. Ending his character’s scholastic career with gunfire and a devilish grin, the young star caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who cast him in A Clockwork Orange. McDowell’s portrayal of the sociopathic Alex in the 1971 classic was an incendiary moment in film history. Opinion of the film was so split that it was nominated for four Academy Awards and banned in Britain for 27 years. Whether glorification of brutality or commentary on crime and free will, A Clockwork Orange created a whole genre of pop-culture art, fashion, and philosophy. His bowler hat, single eyelash, future-British slang, and carefree love of ultraviolence and Beethoven, lifted McDowell to iconic status, and he’s continued to earn it ever since.
Anderson, whom McDowell had come to consider a mentor, tapped him again to star in O Lucky Man! (1973), a sweeping, surreal journey through every nook and plateau of British society — a film that didn’t stop for a second and never looked back. He completed Anderson’s trilogy with the black comedy Britannia Hospital in 1982. He played a World War I fighter pilot in Aces High (1976), whose smirk and swagger masked a pain that was turning him to drink. McDowell flipped the industry’s lid as the title character in Caligula (1979), the violent and sexually explicit tale of Roman Emperor Gaius Caesar Germanicus, produced by Penthouse magazine publisher, Bob Guccione. That same year, he starred in Time After Time as author H.G. Wells, who traveled to then-present-day San Francisco in pursuit of Jack the Ripper and fell in love with a bank employee played by Mary Steenburgen. McDowell and Steenburgen married shortly after and remained together for 10 years. He performed alongside Nastassja Kinski and John Heard in the darkly erotic Cat People (1982) and cut loose as Reggie Wanker, an outrageous parody of Mick Jagger, in the psychedelic rock & roll sendup/love letter, Get Crazy (1983).
McDowell worked relentlessly through the 1990s and 2000s. He became a go-to bad guy, yet punctuated his portfolio with the unexpected. Amid his roles in 1990 as an interplanetary saboteur in Roland Emmerich’s Moon 44 and a high-school principal who installed killer-robot teachers in Class of 1999, he played humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Albert Schweitzer in Schweitzer. He also appeared as an antagonistic police chief in the Danny Glover-starring Bopha! (1993), Morgan Freeman’s directorial debut. He played himself in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and teamed up with the auteur once more as the director of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago in The Company (2003), co-starring Neve Campbell. He’s affectionately infamous among Trekkers as Dr. Tolian Soran, the man who killed Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations (1994), and he had a go at situation comedy as a stuffy professor on “Pearl” with Rhea Perlman (1996-1997). McDowell took on the role of Mr. Roarke, previously inhabited by Ricardo Montalbán, in the updated “Fantasy Island” (1998-1999). He ascended by any means necessary as a ruthless, foulmouthed heavy in Gangster No. 1 (2000) alongside Paul Bettany, and probed the mind of Michael Myers’ as psychologist Sam Loomis in Rob Zombie’s redux of Halloween I and II (2007 and 2009). With numerous stage credits to his name, McDowell brought his one-man tribute to Anderson, “Never Apologize,” to London and Edinburgh. The performance, as well as a wealth of archival footage, was released on DVD in 2007.
It was at a screening of Gangster No. 1 that McDowell met director Tamar Simon Hoffs, who cast him as the patriarch of an endearingly confrontational Irish family in Red Roses and Petrol (2003). “She gets her own way by charm,” McDowell beams, “and she’s got bags of it.” Their followup collaboration is Pound of Flesh, co-starring Timothy Bottoms, which sees McDowell as Noah Melville, a college professor with an infectious enthusiasm for languages and Shakespeare. By night, he sends female students out as escorts to pay for their tuition. Everything’s going fine until a young woman is killed and Melville’s life and delusions of altruism begin to collapse.
Having gotten his start on the small screen with guest roles on shows like “Crossroads” (1964), “Z Cars” (1967), and “The Newcomers” (1967), McDowell is still a familiar face on television. On NBC’s “Heroes” (2007-2008) he played Daniel Linderman, a powerful and ruthless businessman with the ability to heal the sick and injured. On HBO’s “Entourage” (2005-2011) his character’s mentorship, split, and reconciliation with Ari Fleischer (Jeremy Piven) gave a look into the bad blood and pathos behind a Hollywood changing of the guard. (McDowell tells us he’s been approached to reprise the character in the proposed “Entourage” film, and that he’s keen to do it.) On TNT’s comedy “Franklin & Bash, McDowell plays Stanton Infeld, senior partner and eccentric patriarch at a major Los Angeles law office, who hires a couple of rambunctious young lawyers (Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar) to jump-start the firm’s mojo. Always up for some fun, the English thespian lends his voice to animated characters like Vater Orlaag on Adult Swim’s “Metalocalypse” and Grandpa Fletcher on Disney Channel’s “Phineas and Ferb.” Animated versions of “Batman,” “Superman,” and “Spider-Man” have also featured McDowell’s unmistakable cadence.
With eight current and upcoming films, by his count, McDowell clues us in on his role as a producer in L.A., I Hate You. “There was a very funny scene in it,” he smiles, “where I say to this young actor, ‘Would you kill for the part?’ And he goes, ‘Well, yeah.’ And I went, ‘No, no, no. Would you kill for the part?’” Recently released was Suing the Devil with Tom Sizemore and McDowell’s “good mate,” Corbin Bernsen. “I was determined to do it because it was such a wonderful part, to play the devil,” he says. McDowell is especially looking forward to Monster Butler. “It’s such an incredible part,” he relates. “It’s a great script written by a dear friend, Peter Bellwood, and it’s based on a true story of this con man, who was a Scot, who in his late or middle 50s becomes a serial killer and kills five people in as many months. The thing about this character is he could have been a captain of industry, a politician, or whatever he wanted to be. It’s just that at some point in his life, he went this way when everybody else goes that way. He’s incorrigible and you can’t help but love him, but then, of course, he turns into a cold-hearted killer. But it’s funny. It’s a black comedy. This is what Warner [Bros.] said to me: ‘It’s Clockwork Orange 40 years on!’”
A family of deer crosses the dirt trail as we drive toward McDowell’s home near Santa Barbara. He greets us warmly as we enter a living room that’s decked in eclectic finds. He offers some Perrier only to find that his kids have snagged the last of it. “They all drink the stuff like it’s coming out of the tap,” he calls from the kitchen. As we sit down, we hear woodpeckers tapping on the roof. The sound is ominous yet somehow comforting. The scene is set. The following interview took place in September 2011.
You’ve played many characters who diverge from the norm.
Malcolm McDowell: You mean I play a lot of oddballs? [laughs] Of course I do. I mean, listen, I’m not here to deny it. I’ve often played a lot of strange people, and people that I would not personally like to meet. That is true. But the thing about film acting, and acting in general, for me, is that I really want to enjoy myself. I want to have as much fun as I possibly can when I work. I think it’s important because I think it shows on the screen, somehow, even though it shouldn’t, that there’s this light, this sort of energy behind the eyes. And to me, a lot of these odd characters suit that kind of thing. I guess you could say I’ve played a lot of heavies, and that would come under that category. But having said that, I’ve pretty much played the full spectrum. But oddballs are fun for me. I love playing them. Misfits.
I’ve enjoyed watching you play characters who represent the lifting of repression. I saw that especially in If….
That movie really takes a dagger and sticks it in the heart of the [British] establishment through their schools, and the revolution in a boys’ school. Of course, the great Lindsay Anderson, a genius director that I was very fortunate enough to work with, he didn’t make it a sort of realistic piece. It’s real, but not realistic, in that it’s not a documentary-style movie. It’s very stylized, very poetic, and so all the shooting of the parents at the end is a sort of imagination rather than to be taken literally, a la that horrific massacre in Columbine, for instance. But it’s meant to stun and shock the audience rather than incite them to violence. Continue reading →