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.
Continue reading

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]
Continue reading

Sci-Fi Mastermind Rockne S. O’Bannon on Defiance, Farscape, Cult, and the Coming Revolution

Rockne S. O'Bannon | Defiance | Farscape | Revolution | Cult | Science Fiction
Rockne S. O'Bannon
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

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

The Fierce Force of Melissa Leo

BY ANDREW FISH

Melissa Leo
Melissa Leo (photo by sagindie from Hollywood, USA*)

Interview conducted for Venice Magazine

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

Adina Porter: The Newsroom, True Blood, and Motherhood

BY ANDREW FISH

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

Shelter in the Dark: Director Janet Tobias’ No Place on Earth

BY ANDREW FISH

Janet Tobias, director of No Place on Earth
Janet Tobias, director of No Place on Earth

Esther Stermer knew the future was bleak for the Jews of Korolowka in western Ukraine, and entrance into the ghetto would be just a stop on the way to the Belzec concentration camp. The stoic matriarch forbade her family from signing in to the walled city and sent her son Nissel into the woods to find a hiding place. He decided on a tourist cave called Verteba, a few miles north, and in October 1942 several dozen Jews fled their homes to seek safety underground. They survived there for nearly half a year until the Gestapo found them. Most escaped through a secret exit that the reluctant yet now-expert cavers had had the forethought to locate, widen, and lock down months earlier. They hid on the outskirts of the villages but Esther knew they wouldn’t last if they didn’t find a new “bunker.” Tasked again by his mother, Nissel sought help from a local woodsman, who directed him to a small sinkhole he had once seen a fox run into. And so they discovered Priest’s Grotto, what is now considered the 14th longest cave in the world, with 77 miles of caverns and passageways.

Director Janet Tobias steeps audiences in this story of darkness, family, survival, and triumph with her new film, No Place on Earth. Together with renowned cinematographer César Charlone (The Constant Gardener, City of God), she has meticulously blended documentary and scripted filmmaking, including dramatic reenactments alongside interviews with Nissel’s younger brothers Saul and Sam Stermer, and their nieces Sonia and Sima Dodyk. The film also features Chris Nicola, the cave enthusiast who first brought the story to light in a 2004 National Geographic article, a collaboration with writer Peter Lane Taylor.

Tobias got her start at CBS’s “60 Minutes” as associate producer for Diane Sawyer. The Yale graduate has since produced and directed for “Dateline NBC” as well as ABC’s “Nightline,” “20/20,” “World News Tonight,” and “Good Morning America.” She was executive producer on PBS’s Emmy-winning “Life 360,” and her parallel career in health and information technology has led her to an adjunct assistant professorship at Mount Sinai’s School of Medicine. The filmmaker and media professional took some time to speak with us about No Place on Earth.

Iconic Interview: Had you had any experience with caves before you began work on this film?
Janet Tobias: It was an entirely new arena. I had probably been to the entrance to a couple of caves, like most of us, but I had never been caving before, so this whole underground [experience] was completely new to me.

What was your reaction when you first heard the story?
It was, frankly, the most incredible adventure-survival story I had ever heard. Being lucky and starting at “60 Minutes” after university, I had been privileged to hear a lot of great stories, and I had never heard a story like this, which made me want to tell it to begin with. I had seen a lot of really great documentaries and dramas about the Holocaust and I thought, should there be another [film]? But I’ve always thought of it first as an adventure-survival story for everyone. I’m not Jewish, and I was just blown away by how they told the story and what they had been able to accomplish.

You went to Ukraine and took the families back to the caves before you did their on-camera interviews. I assume you did pre-interviews, and I’m curious about the evolution of your interactions with the family members as their stories that they told you became more descriptive and personal.
Of course we did pre-interviews, and they had to get a sense that we were going to be careful with their story. They cared desperately [about], as Sam will say, “Nothing more, nothing less.” The facts are the facts. We went to Ukraine first for two reasons: They were getting very old. Saul was already 90; Sam in his mid-80s; the women in their 70s — and physically, Saul said to me that he and Sam couldn’t make it past when we went, which was in the fall of 2010. But I also thought it would be a good idea to take them back because in doing their interviews, they would have fresh memories of their return. They had told it a lot among each other. As Saul and Sam will jokingly say, they told it to each other on the golf course all the time, and they played really bad golf, because they would get so involved in the story. And then they would make a pact, saying, “For three holes, we’re not talking about [it] at all because we’ve got to have a good game today,” and it would deteriorate by the third hole. But taking them back to the Ukraine, for each of them, was a very individual experience. They were all different ages when this happened. Sima was a small child, from about three to five. Sonia was an eight-year-old girl. Sam was in his early-to-mid teens, and Saul was a very, very young adult — about 20 years old. So for them, I think they went back to those ages, and that experience. When they told it around the dinner table it was a unified story, and you could feel the differences in their individual experiences in the interviews after they had gone back.
Continue reading

The Wiccan of Bon Temps: True Blood’s Lauren Bowles

BY ANDREW FISH

Lauren Bowles
Photo © Daryl Henderson

Ever since True Blood hit the air, fans have fantasized about living in the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps, and once in a blue moon someone gets her wish. Lauren Bowles has gone from watching the supernatural mayhem from her living room couch to serving burgers at Merlotte’s and battling dark forces side by side with Sookie Stackhouse. A screen actress for some time now — with episodes on shows like Ally McBeal, NCIS, Arrested Development, Grey’s Anatomy, ER, Cold Case, and tons of others under her belt — Bowles has stepped up to series regular on one of her favorite shows and still can’t believe her luck.

She joined the cast of the HBO series in season three as Holly Cleary, the fair-haired Wiccan single mother, who tried to help fellow waitress Arlene rid herself of the unborn child she’d conceived with a serial killer. The spell didn’t work, but it set the stage for Holly’s pivotal role in season four, as she summoned the dead on Halloween night to spirit away the mad medium Marnie before she could kill vampires Eric and Bill.

Bowles is also often recognized for her role as the waitress on Seinfeld, which she landed with the help of her half-sister, Julia Louis-Drefuss. Bowles went on to appear with her big sis on Watching Ellie and The New Adventures of Old Christine, and was cast along with her husband, Patrick Fischler, on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

These days, the sparks are flying between her True Blood alter ego and Sheriff Andy. After a false start, the two ended up in bed together, got caught by her two teenage sons, and Andy’s bare bottom was posted on Facebook. Now they’re going steady — but what about Maurella, the fairy that Andy swore allegiance to before having sex with her in the woods? Nothing is ever simple in Bon Temps, and Bowles likes it that way.

I’ve read that you were a fan of True Blood long before you were cast on it. It must have been exciting to get the audition.

It was so surreal, because beyond just True Blood, I was kind of an Alan Ball fanatic. American Beauty really rocked my world in a way that no movie had up until that point, [and there was] Six Feet Under. So when I heard he was going to be in the room, I completely freaked out. I was like, oh, God! But I thought, this job’s too big [and] it’s going to go to a name, so my goal was like, okay, just don’t screw it up so that they bring you back for a guest spot. That’s really it; that was my attitude going in. [laughs] After the audition, by the time I got home, I got the call that I had gotten it. I don’t think I can remember the last time I was that shocked. I was over the moon but beyond shocked. It wasn’t within my realm of understanding that that could have ever happen.

You got the news as soon as you got home?

It was hilarious! I was just walking into my apartment; my mom was sitting with my then baby girl, who’s three now, and my manager called. I assumed he was just calling to see how [it went], and then he literally told me I booked it and I screamed, and my baby looked up and my mom looked at me. It was clearly a happy scream but they kind of looked a little startled and I was like, no, no it’s a good scream! And then all was good. It was wild. Wild!
Continue reading