Category: Actor Interviews

Interviews with actors

Jason Schwartzman on ‘The Overnight’

BY ANDREW FISH

Jason Schwartzman in The Overnight
Jason Schwartzman in the Overnight
I remember in my early years in Los Angeles, sitting in a West-side coffee shop and watching a guy politely ask a pregnant woman he’d never met before if he could touch her belly. “Sure!” she said with a grin. I was shocked and wondered what was wrong with people in this town. I held onto that feeling for some time. But when I think back on it over a decade later, I see two strangers bonding. I still consider the guy’s inquiry to be inappropriate and would side with her if she’d given him the cold shoulder or a harsh word, but how can I begrudge them a moment they both enjoyed?

I thought of that when I saw The Overnight, which peers into the depths of L.A. oddness with a gentle heart. The film follows a pair of college sweethearts (Taylor Schilling and Adam Scott) — now married with a kid and new to Los Angeles — who meet a fellow parent (Jason Schwartzman) who takes an instant shine to them. He’s a little quirky, but they accept his hospitality at face value when he and his wife (Judith Godrèche) invite them over for dinner. As the night progresses, the film expands into a deft and often hilarious exploration of honesty, openness and fidelity.

“I love that line in the movie where Adam says, ‘Maybe this is how dinner parties are in LA!'” noted Schwartzman at a recent press event with The Overnight cast in Beverly Hills. “I just think that line is so funny. I’m from [Los Angeles], but I’ve never been at a party where it felt that I was in a situation like this. I’ve never been in a swingy situation — or maybe I have and I just didn’t realize it.”

It’s Schwartzman’s unguarded demeanor that’s made him one of my favorite actors since his breakout in Rushmore, and it’s that very vibe which keeps you from turning against his character in The Overnight, even as he’s clumsily trying to manipulate his guests into taking their clothes off.

“I felt like this is new to them, and that’s what I really loved about it ” he said, when asked if he thinks this is the first time the fictional duo is attempting to seduce another couple. “That we’re the hosts, Judith and I, and it’s like, ‘Get the wine — we’re trying to keep them happy. Don’t let them go! Don’t let the momentum or the centrifugal force stop. Keep going!” But we are very gregarious and coming on kind of strong, and it falls apart. We’re not good at it.”

From a lovelorn lothario in The Darjeeling Limited to a spot-on portrayal of smugness in Listen Up Philip to a crime-fighting Jonathan Ames on Bored to Death, Schwartzman’s characters radiate a certain vulnerability, even when they’re up to no good — so it was interesting to hear that even as drummer for the indie-rock outfit Phantom Planet, he never developed a taste for the insanity laid before him.

“I’m not a real party person,” he said. “I was in a band at a young age, and I was uncomfortable at any type of party with lots of girls. In many ways, I’ve got to say [to myself], ‘Whoa, grow up and move on past your high school experience! How long can it scar you for?’ But everyone in my band was, like, really tall and really handsome, and I was always pretending to fall into the pool — with my clothes on, instead of taking off my shirt. [I was] more awkward, so I didn’t go to a lot of parties. I would just go play our shows and then usually go for soup somewhere.”

At this point, Godrèche, who was sitting beside him, interjected. “That’s the kind of guy that girls fall in love with. That’s totally the kind of guy that girls are seeking,” she said. To which Schwartzman wryly replied, “Not then they weren’t!”

It was a moment of honesty and reassurance that recalled the film itself, which looks affectionately and without judgment at its characters and their needs, whatever they may be. As it wasn’t so much what each character wanted in The Overnight, but that they all had such longing for it. Married with children of his own, Schwartzman offered some insight.

“One of the things that I take away from the movie,” he said, “is when you’re in a long-term relationship, you fuse as two people, and you are growing together. But just as it’s important that you grow as a couple, it can be overlooked that you’re continuing your individual growth and interests, and that you’re constantly bringing something back to the relationship. When you start to move too much as a unit and only a unit, what happens? And then what happens if one person questions something, or grows in some way? Immediately, it’s asking [of] the other person, and they have a choice to discuss that and go with that, or to walk away from it. [The characters in The Overnight are] all out of alignment, like a spine, and sometimes these moments — like a crack — adjust you.”

The Overnight, directed by Patrick Brice and shot by John Guleserian, is now in theaters. Season one of Mozart in the Jungle, co-created by Schwartzman, is available for streaming on Amazon.

Jake Gyllenhaal on ‘Nightcrawler’

BY ANDREW FISH

Jake Gyllenhaal
Jake Gyllenhaal (Photo by Siebbi*)
Every time I tune in to the local news, I end up subjected to an onslaught of personal tragedies exploited to portray a city overrun with random acts of violence — a frightening place proven to provide the maximum audience draw in its time slot. When I watched Jake Gyllenhaal’s inspired performance in Nightcrawler, I got that familiar queasy feeling, which to me signaled success for a film that aims at full immersion into this particular, sordid world.

With a disturbing mix of frenetic entrepreneurship and clinical detachment, Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, trolls the airwaves with his police scanner, tracking down bloody incidents occurring in the right economic bracket, and records the aftermath to sell to a local news station. The budding crime-scene videographer serves as the audience’s inside man, revealing a system that broadcasts images calculated to trigger the fear, empathy and morbid fascination that keep eyes on the TV and the ad dollars rolling in.

“I feel like [Lou] is our creation,” Gyllenhaal says at a recent press event in Los Angeles. Referring to society as a whole, he suggests that it’s “our desperation for information of all sorts, in a world where unimportant information is now important, and important information [is] now unimportant” that creates an environment where “people like Lou can thrive.”

Writer/director Dan Gilroy cast his wife, Rene Russo, in the role of quietly captivating Nina Romina, a local-news producer who recognizes Lou’s eye for the gruesome money shot. Gyllenhaal points out that Lou “is enabled by Nina, Rene’s character, and Nina is enabled by the guys [who are] the heads of the station, and they are enabled by us! There’s a world where we maybe could live, where someone like Lou wouldn’t end up a head of a huge, major network, but I feel like in the world we live in now, he probably would.”

Making clear his respect for journalism, Gyllenhaal submits, “It’s important to know, to be informed, and to make choices based on … a number of different sources, not just one.” He adds that his feelings about news coverage are far from black-and-white: “I have been moved by the media, emotionally. My heart has swelled as a result of stories I’ve read, and I’ve been disgusted at the same time [by] different stories I’ve read.”

Gyllenhaal plays Bloom as a mercurial self-starter with a hunger for both gainful employment and a sense of fulfillment. He’s also a thief and a manipulator with a distinct, albeit creepy charm. Barring duress or necessity, he’s shockingly honest, routinely telling peers and colleagues — like those played to a T by Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed — exactly where he stands. And he’s surprisingly, almost obsessively interested in the give-and-take of communication.

In embodying this intense personality, Gyllenhaal took on a markedly different look, in his posture, his mannerisms and especially his face. Gaunt and sunken-eyed, starving and on the prowl, Lou emanates a wily desperation. The actor praises the diligent and subtle work of makeup artist Donald Mowat, and describes his own transformation as mental as well as physical. “I was running through Griffith Park all the time,” he says, “like 8 to 15 miles a day, and picturing myself as a coyote with all the [other] coyotes. And then my face just changed. I don’t think I was even aware. I really wasn’t aware until a few months ago, when we were going through all the cuts.”

Nightcrawler‘s unusually authentic depiction of the landscape of Los Angeles, featuring the deft camera work of cinematographer Robert Elswit, eschews go-to landmarks in favor of locations that offer a genuine look at life in Southern California — while serving to accentuate Lou’s feral nature. “There’s the green grass and the lawns that we create, that are all man-made,” says Gyllenhaal of L.A., “and outside of that is wilderness and the animal kingdom, and wild. And these animals come in at night.”

The New York transplant, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, poses a playfully ominous question, specifically to this gathering of West Coast journalists: “Who lives in L.A. … [and] hasn’t been ‘eye-fucked’ by a coyote? They are not intimidated by you at all. In fact, they’re looking for the most vulnerable aspect of you. And they’re a beautiful animal. I’ve grown to love them because I did so much research, and felt like I was one of them for so long, playing this character. They are ruthless — because they are also starving.”

Nightcrawler is now in theaters.


*Photo by Siebbi, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

J.K. Simmons on ‘Whiplash’

BY ANDREW FISH

J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
We’re wired to feel a vicarious thrill as we watch a young protagonist become the hero he was meant to be. Whiplash hacks into this quirk of brain chemistry and gets you rooting for all the wrong things. Music student Andrew Neyman aches to earn a place in the pantheon of great jazz drummers. Terence Fletcher is respected and feared as the iron-fisted instructor who handpicks the school’s top talent and leads the jazz ensemble to competitive victory. He teases Neyman with a fleeting interest, then belittles him and withdraws. Neyman yearns for the golden ticket that Fletcher has the potential to give, and when it’s finally handed to him, we share his elation despite every indication that it will lead to very bad things.

Tapped to push Neyman — played by gifted up-and-comer Miles Teller — well beyond the breaking point is journeyman actor J.K. Simmons. As Fletcher, he’s Neyman’s perfect dysfunctional complement. Obsessed with finding the next Charlie Parker, he’s happy to torture the full potential out of the right willing candidate.

You might not know him by name, but one look at Simmons’ face sparks a sense of familiarity and respect from just about everyone who’s watched TV or movies for the past 15 years. Adept at channeling brutal, compassionate and everything in between, he’s played a complex and vicious neo-Nazi on Oz, a loving and insightful father in Juno, an ever-exasperated assistant police chief on The Closer, and a pitch-perfect J. Jonah Jameson. And with his fierce performance in Whiplash, the Oscar buzz has begun — an especially satisfying development for longtime Simmons fans like me.

When I attended a Whiplash press event in Beverly Hills recently, I was particularly looking forward to hearing Simmons’ take on the project — a film which will likely bring him the attention and accolades he’s deserved for over a decade.

Simmons submits that Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle’s point was “to inspire discussion and debate and not decide — are we happy for Andrew Neyman or are we lamenting his loss of humanity? I think, based on the reception and the discussions that we’ve been involved in so far, that’s exactly what he achieved. Plus, it’s just awesomely entertaining. The end of the movie with a 10-minute drum solo!”

Neyman sloughs off all possible distractions, including his budding romance with Nicole (a charming Melissa Benoist) by letting her know that she doesn’t even rank on his list of priorities. It’s a moment of heartlessness emblematic of his single-minded symbiosis with Fletcher. “The debate I love,” Simmons says, “is how far is too far? How much is too much? Is it worth it? This kind of relentless abuse might be necessary and appropriate if you’re training Navy Seals, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate in a music school. But it’s there, and it can be productive; there’s no denying that. From my own perspective, I’d rather have a pretty girlfriend than go work with this guy and have my hands bleed all the time. I would have made a different choice.”

With 19 days to shoot, opportunities for rehearsal were apparently off the table, which was perfectly fine for Simmons. “I actually prefer to work that way,” he says. “Whatever the role is, if you’re working on an accent or a dialect or a specific skill set that your character has that you don’t necessarily have, like playing the piano, then that’s the kind of preparation that I find absolutely necessary. For me, if the words are good on the page, the rest of it just comes from spending some time with the script. Not [in terms of] learning lines, but absorbing what the script has to offer.”

Noting that “collaborative” is his “favorite word in moviemaking,” Simmons is particularly appreciative that the flexible dynamic on the Whiplash set offered opportunities for improvisation. “The freedom to occasionally depart from the page a little bit and just throw the ball back and forth, and throw each other a curveball, was an added part of the fun,” he says. “And the fact that Damien is self-confident enough to not get his ego damaged by, ‘Oh, wait a minute. You didn’t put that comma in that sentence, or you said “perhaps” instead of “maybe.”‘ That’s always a beautiful amount of freedom to have as an actor.”

One of the things that’s always drawn me to Simmons’ work is his ability to bring his singular brand of charisma and humor to such a wide spectrum of personalities — from the warm and kind to the downright despicable. As he explains, it’s been a conscious decision to maintain his impressively varied portfolio.

“I’ve been so blessed to have the opportunities that I’ve had,” Simmons enthuses. “If somebody asked me to play a Terence Fletcher-esque character next week, I would be reticent to do so. Part of the joy of doing what we [screen actors] are all fortunate enough to do here, is you get to do something different every time out. I learned that at the very beginning; I’ve been doing theater for 20 years, but when I first started doing camera acting, really, Oz was my first big thing that a lot of people saw. And I knew going into that, that it was a potential trap — that I could be playing the Nazi of the week on TV for the rest of my life. And from nowhere, all of a sudden Law and Order called and said, ‘Hey, would you like to play the shrink on Law and Order?’ — and it was like this perfect yin-yang that I had at the very beginning, so that I was perceived as a guy who could do a variety of things. That’s what we all want to do. We all want to not repeat ourselves constantly, and explore the limits of our capabilities. So, I just want to do something different than whatever I just got done doing.”

Aubrey Plaza on the Healing Power of Zombies

BY ANDREW FISH

Aubrey Plaza | Life After Beth | Parks and Recreation
Aubrey Plaza (photo by David Shankbone*)

In addition to analyzing my every social interaction and meticulously outlining how each of my decisions will end in catastrophe, I also maintain an ongoing concern that a zombie horde will inevitably begin its slow, trudging march directly toward my apartment, their decayed psyches convinced that mine will be the tastiest brain of all. I’d like to have the fantasy where zombies are after everyone and I join up with a ragtag band of reluctant heroes to save humanity. But no, the zombies are just after me.

Only self-centered people can be paranoid, and it’s that piece of hard truth that makes me determined to get out of my own head — which is one of the many reasons I enjoyed what the inimitable Aubrey Plaza had to say about the free-form nature of zombie narratives at a recent press event in West Hollywood. She was discussing her latest film, Life After Beth, a bittersweet romp into darkness that follows a young woman’s mysterious resurrection and slow descent into demonic decomposition. Featuring a cherry-picked collection of talent including co-star Dane DeHaan, as well as John C. Reilly, Anna Kendrick, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines and Matthew Gray Gubler, the film offers Plaza and co. an unusual amount of artistic freedom.

“I really like how when you do a zombie movie, you can come up with your own rules about what your zombies are like because there’s no set thing, and it’s anyone’s interpretation,” she says. “There are things that people think of when they [picture] zombies, but you could really just make up whatever you wanted. I thought the script was really clever in coming up with some rules that we haven’t seen before — like zombies love smooth jazz! I’ve never seen that in a zombie movie before and I thought that was kind of a fun characteristic. And I also really liked the idea of seeing someone slowly transform into a zombie. Normally, they burst out of the grave and they’re immediately a zombie, but this was cool because it was like a slow burn.”

Plaza, best known for her role as April Ludgate-Dwyer on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, has amassed an adoring legion of fans with her elevation of sardonic deadpan to high art. She doesn’t paint by numbers, she’ll say what she darn pleases and she gets away with it with a bat of her big brown eyes. She was the perfect person to remind me that nothing — not even a long-held sense of personal, zombie-fueled doom — is set in stone. I also enjoyed hearing how she practiced her zombie moves in private.

“I did do that a couple of times by myself in the bathroom,” she recalls, and continues with a laugh, “I would look at myself and freak out — and I’d be like, ‘That was a great freak-out! I could use that tomorrow.’ Or I would do it at red lights just to freak people out.” When asked what her parents would do if she ever actually became a zombie, she replies, “I think my mom would probably cut off her fingers and let me eat them. I think any mom would! My dad would probably just shoot me in the head.”

In her signature style, Plaza steers the conversation toward an oddly calming place when asked if she would recommend zombie roles to her peers. She replies, “Yes, I would recommend them, I think they’re great and fun and very therapeutic. You don’t always get to play a physical role where you get to act like a lunatic and grunt and make weird noises and attack people. So if you feel like you are holding anger, or anything, inside, it’s a really great way to let it all go.”

So not only do I have free rein to change the unhealthy narrative in my head, but even if the zombies do come knocking, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. And as the vibe gets decidedly tranquil, Plaza is positively Zen when she reveals what she does to relax. “I’m pretty good at just staring at a wall and going into nothingness,” she says. “Nothingness calms me down the most.”

I felt a glimmer of peace, though even in a moment of ease, worries don’t disappear entirely. But they can be tucked out of sight with just the right encouragement, and Plaza serves it up. How would she do in a real zombie apocalypse? She grins. “I think I would be great in it because I’m a really good shot and I’m not scared of anything — so bring it!”

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, Life After Beth is now in theaters.


*Photo by David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Everybody Loves John Goodman

BY ANDREW FISH

John Goodman
John Goodman (photo by Tom Sorensen*)
Interview 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.
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Malcolm McDowell: The Icon in the Flesh

BY ANDREW FISH

Malcolm McDowell
Malcolm McDowell (Photo by lukeford.net*)

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.
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Cult’s Robert Knepper on Method, Prison Break, and Unleashing the Dark Side

BY ANDREW FISH

Robert Knepper | Prison Break | Cult | Billy Grimm | T-Bag
Robert Knepper

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]
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Adina Porter on True Blood and The Newsroom

BY ANDREW FISH

Adina Porter | True Blood | The Newsroom
Adina Porter (photo by Nick Horne)

If you’ve watched HBO’s True Blood since the early days, you know what kind of mayhem Adina Porter can whip up. With a vicious combo of spite and manipulation, her character, Lettie Mae, makes life hell for all involved. Meet Porter in real life though, and it’s a different story. She’s fun and charming and will tease you mercilessly if you still haven’t married your girlfriend of three years. The very opposite of the oppressive negativity that’s made her character a fan favorite, Porter has a grace and charisma that I’m convinced played a part in the decision to finally make her a series regular.

Ending last season with a disturbingly intimate scene where Lettie Mae offers her own blood to feed Tara (Rutina Wesley), her daughter-turned-vampire, the show has returned with Tara’s death and Lettie Mae’s relapse. Except it’s not booze anymore for Lettie Mae — it’s V. After several seasons sating her addictive drive with a hateful brand of religious fervor, she has succumbed to the lure of vampire blood, which she believes is linking her to Tara’s tortured spirit.

Amid the supernatural pandemonium, the True Blood crew is periodically kind enough to give Porter the day off so she can lend her talents to season three of HBO’s The Newsroom — and she’s also gearing up to play a warrior queen on The CW’s post-apocalyptic drama The 100. With her hectic days it was no surprise that it took a bit to schedule our chat, and once we were on the phone she was open and honest as ever. “It was very, very exciting,” she recalls of learning about her bump in status. “I’ve never been a series regular, so it was definitely something I had been looking forward to.” When I ask if it seems like old times now that she’s back to her season-one-style hours, she replies, “Every time I have worked on the show, it’s always felt like coming home. True Blood has been like a security blanket that I’ve had for a long time — seven years.”

The sun is setting on the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps as True Blood gnashes through its final season, and Lettie Mae is definitely back home and killing it as one of TV’s most awful moms. “I think that’s why I’m there, that family dynamic,” Porter slyly remarks. “There’s that expression, ‘If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.'”

Porter reveals at the time of our interview that neither she nor Wesley had watched their final scene from season six when Lettie Mae offers her own blood. “It’s not what I’d call a pleasant memory,” she says, “but it was pleasant to take whatever grief you have and use it, and leave it there, and be able to walk away from it, and know that it’s in a safe place, being used constructively.”

When asked to describe her character’s evolution through the years, she hints at Lettie Mae’s ultimate trajectory. “If you’ve got that DNA,” she suggests, “you’ve either got to fight really, really hard or you’re going to come out the way the DNA was arranged. From beginning to end? Maybe sometimes it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”

As to any more details she could provide about upcoming episodes, Porter replies, “It’s like a quilt. I know my square, but I don’t really know all the other ones. When I do ADR work, I’m like, ‘Whoa, that’s what we did?’ I’m always a little shocked when I see what was actually done with the raw footage that I shot. I’m very much enjoying going along with the ride with everybody else.”

And on the way, she’s also taking time to play supporting character Kendra James on Newsroom. It had looked for a bit like we’d seen the last of Will McAvoy and his band of idealistic elocutionists, but Porter never lost hope. “I knew that it would come back,” she says. “[Jeff Daniels] won the Emmy! You can’t win an Emmy and not give people a little bit more. Aaron Sorkin is a busy man and he has other projects to do, so I was relieved that it came back — but I knew that it would happen.” Porter is also glad to be back at work with a crowd she really likes, “hanging out with Sorkin at his house and [group trips to] baseball games. My husband was the dog trainer for the AD’s dog. [It’s a] set where people hug each other when they arrive in the morning. What a close-knit group of people!”

You’d scarcely recognize Porter in her Newsroom role if you’re expecting someone similar to Lettie Mae. She’s polished, professional and quite becoming, and I talked to her about image and beauty in the entertainment world. As a woman of color, she feels “incredibly lucky to be an actor at this period in history. I’m able to work in this business, and look put-together, sexy even, with natural hair. We just lost Ruby Dee; she would not have been able to wear an Afro on television. There would have been no way. I know how lucky I am that I happen to be in the business as times change.”

I brought up her role in the 1998 TV movie Gia, starring Angelina Jolie, about the life of supermodel Gia Marie Carangi. Porter’s character lays into Gia about the fashion industry and its effect on young women’s images of themselves, and I asked her about that. “Every once in a while,” she says, “I’ll have an acting role that allows me to look at something in my life and work it out.”

Even in the face of tragedy, the loss of her husband last year, Porter has been a model of fortitude in maintaining her bustling career and raising a family. “It turns out that I am a resilient person,” she says when I ask how she’s doing. “My kids are resilient, I’m resilient, and I guess I am an optimist. That saying, ‘It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all,’ is so incredibly true. I’m still standing and I’m kind of proud [of that]. So — I’m okay.”

Raising Hope’s Garret Dillahunt Reflects on Deadwood, Any Day Now, and the Importance of Keeping It Different

BY ANDREW FISH

Garret Dillahunt
Garret Dillahunt

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.
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Patrick Fischler: From Mad Men to Californication, the Top-Tier Character Actor is Just Hitting His Stride

BY ANDREW FISH

Patrick Fischler | Mad Med | Lost | Californication
Patrick Fischler (Photo courtesy of Sharp and Associates)

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.
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