Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Bruce Greenwood’s interest in acting began as a result of looking for three easy credits amid a tough course load at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, but through a series of roles in the theater and a stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he gradually turned an offhanded whim into a career, finding roles in everything from arthouse fare (Exotica and Capote) to big-budget blockbusters (J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot). Greenwood can currently be seen in the ABC series The River, airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. eastern.
The River (2012-present)—“Dr. Emmet Cole”
Bruce Greenwood: In a nutshell, Emmet Cole is a guy who wakes up every morning happy to be alive, but gets intoxicated by magic, and as a result, finds himself pulled into a world he knows nothing about.
The A.V. Club: Had you been actively looking for a full-time series role?
BG: Not really, no. But it just sort of came up at the right time, at a moment when I was open to it. And the part intrigued me. So it was like, “You know what? Let’s try it. I’ll give it a try and see what happens.” Also, living in Hawaii? Not so bad.
AVC: In the opening moments of the pilot, it’s fun to see your character in happier times, as he’s hosting his television series.
BG: Yeah, that was fun to do. Frankly, if I could just keep doing [Cole’s series] The Undiscovered Country… [Laughs.] I’d think I’d be just as happy going off and checking out flora and fauna worldwide and doing this fictitious show that Emmet Cole had.
AVC: One of the major behind-the-scenes players on the show is Oren Peli, of the Paranormal Activity franchise.
BG: Yeah, he’s one of the large architects. I think he’s involved in editing choices and that kind of thing. But he wasn’t there on a day-to-day basis. That was more… well, [Prison Break writer-producer] Zack Estrin was there occasionally, and usually they’d send the writer of each episode, who’d become sort of the de facto exec producer for the practical aspects of shooting.
AVC: The way everyone was talking during the Television Critics Association press tour panel, it sounds as though Steven Spielberg’s influence also looms large, even though he isn’t there, either.
BG: Well, his presence is felt because he’s involved in looking at the dailies and looking at the cuts, and he’s apparently very active in terms of addressing what he feels is good, bad, and indifferent about it.
AVC: Whether people love it or hate it, most will likely end up agreeing that the pilot manages to maintain a remarkably creepy, disconcerting feel.
BG: Yeah, I was surprised. I didn’t really think they could sustain the scariness as well as they have.
AVC: A major concern for viewers, though, will be whether it can be sustained beyond the pilot.
BG: I think they won’t have trouble maintaining tension. Because tension is all about the expectation of something, and that can span over two or three commercial breaks. You don’t have to do a “boo” moment at the end of every six and a half minutes. And if you did, I think people would just get used to it, and they’d feel it coming. So I think they’re going to have to mix up how, when, and where those fright moments come.
AVC: Given the structure of the series, where everyone’s on the quest to find out where Emmet Cole has gone, it’s hard to get a feel at the moment for just how much we’ll actually see of you on the show.
BG: It’ll be doled out in small but judicious chunks for the first few episodes until we finally do come face-to-face. And then all bets are off. [Grins.]
AVC: Until that point, will we just be seeing you in flashbacks?
BG: It’ll either be a series of flashbacks, or more often, it’ll be found footage that they discover that I’ve taken since my departure or disappearance. But there’ll also be flashbacks to Emmet’s show as well, so… We’ll see what happens, you know? I know the show’s good. I’ve seen enough that I feel good about it. I really do. And I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t feel that way. I’d be really careful about how I promoted it if, in my heart, I only thought it was mediocre. [Laughs.] But I think it’s pretty damned good.
Bear Island (1979)—“Technician”
BG: “Come on! Quit it!” My only line. [Laughs.] I was so scared. It was the first time I’d ever had a close-up, and I was so terrified. The director told me, “I’m gonna do a close-up of you in about half an hour where you hear a wire snap, and you’re going to turn your head.” So I went rushing up to my room to practice hearing a noise. [Laughs.] And when I finally came down, when it was time to do it, my girlfriend had knitted me a big sweater, and I was so nervous that, in the movie, you can see my heart beating through the sweater.
AVC: What led you into acting in the first place?
BG: I needed three easy credits in university. [Laughs.] I was doing a cross-section of some heavy stuff that required a lot of homework, and I thought, “Acting is totally subjective, it can’t be failed,” so I grabbed those three credits.
AVC: At what point did you realize you had a career on your hands?
BG: Probably not ’til I’d lived in L.A. for a few years. I mean, I worked onstage for many, many years, but that’s always hand-to-mouth. Or it was for me, anyway.
John From Cincinnati (2007)—“Mitch Yost”
AVC: Mitch Yost really needs to get back in the game.
BG: He does. [Laughs.] He really does. A very troubled cat, that one. A very troubled cat with a lot of demons. And if that’s not enough, he’s surrounded by a family of even more complicated people.
AVC: The obligatory question for anyone who was in John From Cincinnati is whether you had any better idea what was going on than the viewers did.
BG: Negative. [Laughs.] That would be a no. A resounding no, even.
AVC: How was David Milch to work with?
BG: Fantastic. I mean, he’s bedbug-mad, but in a really good way. And that’s not even fair, really. He’s tremendously articulate and an intoxicating speaker, fascinating to be around.
AVC: What was your takeaway from the character? Did you understand him any more by the time you finished playing him than when you started?
BG: I felt like I’d been caught in a wave that was pounding me on the beach for three months straight. Every now and then, you’d come up for air and think you’d understand where it was going, and then the next wave of information would hit you, and you’d be pounded down onto the sand again. It’s not a bad thing. It was just, like, “Wow.” You’d walk out of there going, “I need a rest. Or a beer. Or five.” [Laughs.]
Super 8 (2011)—“Cooper”
AVC: You played a pivotal role in Super 8, even though we never actually see you onscreen: You did the “performance capture” work for the monster itself.
BG: I did. Yeah, I bumped into J.J. [Abrams] at the NAMM show, and a couple of days later, he called me and said, “Hey, we’re going to do this. Do you want to have some fun?” So I said, “Sure, okay.” And I was very stiff the next day as a result. [Laughs.] That’d be the best phrase to describe it. Because it involved stretching in ways that I don’t normally stretch. I’m not a dancer, but I was dancing around the stage with that button outfit on. So yeah, I was pretty sore the next day.
Nowhere Man (1995-1996)—“Thomas Veil”
BG: That was a year of running. [Laughs.] A year of running, ducking, and hiding. And I didn’t come up for air for 10 months. But it was fun. It was interesting.
AVC: And it still has a cult following.
BG: It does. There’s a complete-series set out there. I did some commentary for it, in fact. In retrospect, it was a lot of fun. When you’re in it, when you’re working 15-hour days for five and a half days a week, you don’t know anything but the work. But it was fun. It’s completely absorbing. I saved every dime I earned, because I never had a chance to spend it the whole year. Literally. I didn’t have a day off.
AVC: Were you happy with the way it wrapped up?
BG: Well, I mean, there was some semblance of closure, but we had lots of questions about what was really going on, and I can’t answer them. I don’t know where it would’ve gone. But I think ultimately he was a pawn, and he had been played by the government and looked at as a lab rat.
Dinner For Schmucks (2010)—“Lance Fender”
BG: Possibly the most entitled guy I have ever had the privilege of playing. [Laughs.] You know, it was just a riot watching those guys work. So fun to go to work. It was just going to school to watch Steve [Carell] and Paul [Rudd]. It was fantastic.
AVC: People don’t necessarily think of you for your comedic work, but you’ve done a decent amount of it over the years.
BG: Yeah, I enjoy doing it, but I don’t often get the opportunity. I’d like to, though. I mean, I’m funny at home. [Laughs.]
The Larry Sanders Show (1997-1998)—“Roger Bingham”
BG: Wow, reaching back there! Yeah, Roger was a full-on prick. I don’t remember too much about him beyond that, though. I think Jon Stewart was in a couple of those episodes with me.
AVC: How was it to work with Garry Shandling?
BG: He was an actor’s actor. He really cares about the performance. It was really interesting to watch him talk about motives and motivation and stuff. He really knows the craft.
AVC: You did three episodes. Was it always intended to be that many, or did the character work well and they decided to bring him back?
BG: You know, I honestly don’t remember. I can’t remember if I did one just as a lark and they came back and asked me to do more, or if I was asked to do five but I was horrible and they cut it down to three. [Laughs.] God only knows.
Star Trek (2009)/Untitled Star Trek sequel (2013)—“Pike”
BG: That was like a little gold meteorite landing in my backyard. J.J. called me and just floated it right into my lap, and I couldn’t be more grateful. We started rehearsals on the next film yesterday, actually.
AVC: You stepped into the shoes of Jeffrey Hunter. How much did you know about the character of Pike, let alone Star Trek, before you got the role?
BG: I was a fan of the television show when I was a kid, but I hadn’t watched the movies. And I wasn’t aware of the character of Pike. Not really, anyway. But I went back and did the research, and of course realized how important he’d been and where he was placed in the whole canon.
AVC: As it stands right now, your version of Pike has fared better than Hunter’s version.
BG: As it stands right now, yes. Not that it couldn’t yet happen. [Laughs.] But we did pay a little bit of homage to that with the wheelchair scene at the end of the first film.
Batman: Under The Red Hood (2010)/Young Justice (2010-present)—“Batman / Bruce Wayne”
BG: [Adopts Batman voice.] You want to stay up the night before to get the full tanned-leather effect on the vocal chords. [Laughs.] They were fun to do. And I still do Young Justice.
AVC: Do you enjoy doing voiceover work?
BG: I do. I really do. I lost my voice earlier this year, though, doing voiceover for a cartoon, and it scared me a little bit. I was doing a screaming thing, screaming in a low voice, and I ripped something. [Starts talking in very high voice.] And all of a sudden this was literally the only way I could talk. I was standing there in the booth, and everybody in the booth is laughing, and I’m kind of laughing nervously, trying to lower my voice. But I sounded like that for three days. Then it sounded really raspy for a while, and if I tried to go real loud with it, it was back to the high voice again. So I’m a little nervous about it now. [Adopts high voice again.] “I’m Batman.”
AVC: Doesn’t quite have the same ring.
BG: Batman: Under The Tea Cozy. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you now or have you been a comic-book fan?
BG: No, the only comic book I read growing up—and it wasn’t really a comic book—was Mad magazine. Which I was hooked on. And then I eventually appeared in it. Twice, in fact: I appeared as Seth Griffin from St. Elsewhere, and I appeared as Jonathan Devereaux from Double Jeopardy.
AVC: Any Mickey anecdotes?
BG: Of course. [Smiles.] Next question.
AVC: It will be duly noted that the request for an anecdote was met with dead silence.
BG: Yes, but please note that it was with dead silence but a big smile. [Laughs.]
St. Elsewhere (1986-1988)—“Dr. Seth Griffin”
BG: How can you get away with being a doctor and having a mullet? What was I thinking? [Laughs.] Maybe it tested well or something. That was one of the weird things about Nowhere Man, too. I had this long, long hair that they spent a lot of time fussing with, and I said to the producers early on, “The guy’s on the run, and he’s got a fucking mane like an afghan. Shouldn’t I just cut it off so I can disappear?” And they go, “Well, apparently the hair tested well.” [Shrugs.] Okay. So I’m on the run, but, damn, I’ve got some great hair.
AVC: Your hair aside, you got to work with talented folks on St. Elsewhere.
BG: Oh, it was fantastic. I mean, watching guys like David Morse and Denzel [Washington]—I’ve worked with Denzel a couple of times since then, once just recently. Last month, in fact, on Flight. Watching him and [Don] Cheadle work was great fun. But, yeah, working with guys like [Bruce] Paltrow and [Mark] Tinker… It was a great proving ground, a great place to be introduced to television, really. I mean, Tom Fontana was so good to me, and he was such a mensch, so involved and so giving. I was very lucky to be hooked up with a guy like Fontana and the other producers of that show.
Thirteen Days (2000)—“John F. Kennedy”
BG: Another one of those meteorites, like Star Trek.
AVC: If a slightly more intimidating character portrayal.
BG: Well, sure. But at some point, once you’ve done as much research as you can possibly absorb. I mean, even though I continued to do research throughout the movie, you’re in the rapids, and you just have to paddle for all you’re worth. Roger Donaldson, who’s remained a friend, was really supportive. The same with [Kevin] Costner. Costner was tremendously supportive. Him and Steven Culp, who played Bobby Kennedy, we just had a really nice thing going on. It was very well written. David Self wrote a wonderful script, and that’s a highlight. It’s really a highlight.
AVC: Do you remember anything from the era? You lived through it, but you weren’t that old at the time.
BG: Yeah, but not only did I live through it, I lived in Bethesda, Maryland, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. So I actually remember being taken from school and having to go home when the sirens sounded.
The Malibu Bikini Shop (1986)—“Todd”
BG: Possibly my finest work. [Laughs.] Except for Bear Island, that’s just about as far back as you can go, and I don’t think you can unearth anything more ludicrous than that. What can I say, man? I’d been in town a month, and I thought it was a movie. A few years ago, it suddenly burped back onto the horizon and started getting played on TV again, so of course a couple of friends of mine called me and said, “Oh my God!” So my wife and I watched it one night, and I realized that I had so much energy back then that, if you watch the movie, I literally run into every scene. No matter what the scene requires. I just ran into the scene. Kind of a precursor to Michael Richards on Seinfeld. [Laughs.]
AVC: So you’re saying you were the Kramer of the Malibu Bikini Shop cast?
BG: Oh God, no. I’m not saying that at all. [Laughs.] That would be giving me way too much credit.
Summer Dreams: The Story Of The Beach Boys (1990)—“Dennis Wilson”
BG: Another really lucky break, to be able to play a part that I desperately, desperately wanted, and I made a lot of friends on that movie that I still count as friends. And I got a chance to play Gazzarri’s on the Strip, and have my photo taken with [Bill Gazzarri]. I mean, the Sunset Strip had already morphed into something that it wasn’t in the ’60s, but it was very different then than it is now. To be able to go down the Strip and shoot was fantastic, and to learn the drumming parts and be playing them. And we shot at the Ambassador. I touched some places in L.A. that are no longer around, and met some people that were huge in the music industry. I’ve been a would-be musician all my life, so that was really fun to me. Also, it gave me an excuse to buy a set of drums. [Laughs.]
Disturbing Behavior (1998)—“Dr. Edgar Caldicott”
BG: [Laughs.] David Nutter directing, James Marsden starring. Lovely guys, both. You know, a lot of moustache-twirling. That’s right, go ahead and say it. I had a very short little David Niven moustache, but it didn’t stop me from twirling it like crazy.
AVC: Can you twirl your moustache and chew scenery at the same time?
BG: Oh, yes. [Laughs.] On a movie like that, absolutely. It’s a necessity. Occasionally, you might end up with a few pieces of furniture stuck in your teeth, but you just keep on talking. It’s fun to play the villain once in a while, particularly one like that.
Passenger 57 (1992)—“Stuart Ramsey”
BG: If you look carefully at the reshoots, you’ll notice that my hair is a great deal longer. The owner of the airline—Stuart Ramsey—had a slicked-back do, but then months later, they said, “We need another scene,” so they brought me back. But I was in the middle of another movie, so I had much longer hair. So they slicked it back. And if you watch, suddenly Stuart Ramsey has much longer hair from scene to scene, hair that looks like a big helmet that’s tilting forward and back. And Wesley Snipes… [Snorts.] What a character.
AVC: Would you care to elaborate on that?
BG: [Laughs.] Next question!
Swept Away (2002)—“Tony”
BG: Well, dude, come on: hanging out in Malta and Sardinia, eating just fantastic food, getting to know Guy [Ritchie] and Madonna a little bit. And it’s kind of little-known, but I think it’s very interesting that in a very small part in that film was Elizabeth Banks. That’s where we met.
AVC: This may be a setup for another “next question” response, but how was Madonna?
BG: You know what? I really enjoyed her company. I honestly did. I enjoyed her a great deal.
I, Robot (2004)—“Lawrence Robertson”
BG: That was one of those things that came at the 11th hour, and getting a chance to work with Will Smith was more fun…well, working with him was a lot more fun than having him beat the living shit out of me at chess on every occasion we got. I’m very fond of saying that I beat him once, but the truth is that I beat him once, and that was the last time I beat him. I think he just wasn’t paying attention the first time we played, and after that… I was like a wet rag against a cement wall. Flap, flap, flap.
Capote (2005)—“Jack Dunphy”
BG: Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bennett Miller work was another education. These guys both know a great deal about acting and filmmaking, so watching them talk about crafting moments and making sure those moments land… I mean, I watched them talk about building a scene where I thought, “You guys are talking this beyond its ability to be represented. You can’t possibly hit all of the notes you just discussed, so why are we taking the time?” And then you watch the scene unfold, and you go, “Jesus Christ, that’s amazing.” It’s like a couple of great musicians who decide what they’re going to play in advance and yet still make it feel as though it’s just happening in the moment. It’s all sequential and stacked and cumulative. It was like watching a couple of guys say, “Let’s build a house. We’ll talk about it, discuss all the parts, then we’ll just close our eyes and start hammering, and when we open our eyes, the house will be there.” You’re, like, “Well, I’m loving the talk, and I’m seeing the tools, but I don’t have much hope for the house.” [Laughs.] But then the house goes up, and damned if it isn’t a thing of beauty.
Exotica (1994)—“Francis Brown”/The Sweet Hereafter (1997)—“Billy”/Ararat (2002)—“Clarence Ussher”/“Martin”
BG: One thing people don’t know about Atom Egoyan is that he’s devoted to Highland dancing and actually competes on a local level. He’s quite serious about it. [Laughs.] Beyond that, all I can really say is that every experience I’ve had with Atom Egoyan has been inspiring. I always come away with a renewed sense of what’s wonderful about this absurd profession. We laugh a lot. And absurd or not, that’s a reason to continue doing it.