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 McGill got his start in the theater, performing Shakespeare In The Park and building a strong reputation in the New York City acting community. After he made the decision to take a shot at making movies, his second film, Animal House, sent his profile sky high. McGill has since carved a formidable career as a character actor in such films as The Insider, My Cousin Vinny, and Matchstick Men. He can currently be seen playing Detective Vince Korsak in the TNT series Rizzoli & Isles.
Rizzoli & Isles (2010-present)—“Det. Vince Korsak”
Bruce McGill: Obviously a great role for me, because it’s ongoing. Usually I’m a single-shot guy. Feature films are beginning, middle, and end, and “goodbye, thank you for working with us, you’re done.” [Laughs.] So this is very interesting. It evolves.
The first thing I really enjoyed about it was Korsak’s relationship with the dog. That, and the fact that I’ve known Angie Harmon for a long time, and I enjoy her, so it’s great to work with her. Plus, I was really ready to do a TV series, one that wasn’t all year. We do 15 shows as opposed to 22, so I can continue my feature work. It appealed to me for a lot of reasons. And the writing was sharp. I didn’t even realize how good [series creator] Janet Tamaro was from the pilot, but now I’ve come to be a real fan of the way she writes these characters. She’s the voice of everybody, but she’s really the two sides of the two women. She has all of that in her. She can come up with that catty stuff that Angie delivers in such a charming way, and—I won’t say anal-retentive, but the detail-oriented science stuff that Maura [Sasha Alexander] goes through. It’s a great little world to swim in, and I’m really enjoying having a television show. I like work, I like to work, and it’s nice it’s all in one town, and I’m not spending as much time in airports as I used to. Airports are not what they were when I was a young actor. It was very exciting to fly first class to go work on a movie, and now going to the airport is like, “Ugh… ” If I didn’t need to have my wits about me, I’d just take a pill and be like a zombie going through the airport.
[Korsak’s] a good cop, and we’ve got a great cop tech. Our technical advisor is a retired Boston homicide detective who’s worked over 200 active homicide cases in his career, so when you ask him something, he doesn’t have to look it up. He’s lived it. My character is more modeled after him now than he was when I got the part, because they didn’t have him then. And my Korsak is much different than the Korsak in the books. Tess Gerritsen, who wrote the books, is obviously fine with that. It’s a new thing. Books are one thing, and they’ve created the characters to an extent and the world they work in to an extent, but now we’re off and running, and I don’t feel like anybody is too tied to the books. Some fans may be, but the TV audience is a whole new audience, and obviously Tess Gerritsen and Janet Tamaro have their agreement. I don’t concern myself with anything but the straightforward “let’s go, it’s great to shoot this” feeling about the show.
I don’t work all day, every day on Rizzoli & Isles, but I work every day. It may be a scene or two, or it may be an enormous workload, but there’s really not a lot of room for anything else, and that’s the choice I made. And that’s why I stayed away from TV before: Because I know that that’s what it is. But it’s just the proper time in my life, and I couldn’t be happier with the people I’m working with. As I say, I’ve known Angie for a long time, and she’s terrific to work with. She’s really super-smart and funny and lives in the moment really well. When I work with her—I’m also a musician, and I feel like I do when I’m playing music with good players: You don’t talk, you don’t think, you just listen and play. And that’s what it feels like to work with her. And all of them. Every character now is pretty clearly defined, and they’re all very different, and they’ve gotten to know each other, even outside of the immediate Rizzoli family. It’s very much a family, and most drama and comedy, the better ones, anyway, are based on relationships that are familial, so you can have cross-currents. Detective Barry Frost [Lee Thompson Young] and I are very different guys, and we give each other a hard time. We’re not a threat to each other anymore. We’re on the same side. But it’s gotten to be fun banter, and I hear from people that I see out in the world who like the show that, yes, of course they love the girls, but they also like the byplay and the interplay between all of those disparate characters, and they recognize that it looks like life to them, which is what we attempt. We’re looking to get the job done, solve the murder, and catch a bad guy every week, but also the day-to-day, moment-to-moment interplay with what it’s like to be alive right now in America. Or maybe even in the world. I don’t know, I haven’t been everywhere. [Laughs.]
The Hand (1981)—“Brian Ferguson”
W. (2008)—“George Tenet”
BM: Oh, my God! Have you seen everything that you’re asking about? [Laughs.] God, this should be a two-hour, in-depth TV show! [The Hand] was Oliver Stone’s first directing effort. He had written the script for Born On The Fourth Of July in the incarnation when Al Pacino was going to play Ron Kovic, who was eventually played by Tom Cruise, and I was cast in that movie. That was the first time I met Oliver. We had a table read, and we read the first half, and then there was a break. And I walked into the men’s room, and Oliver comes in, and he’s bouncing off the walls, he’s raging about how they’re ruining his script, and he’s really throwing a tantrum. And it was so over the top that I assumed he was kidding, and I was waiting for the punchline. He stopped, and he looked at me—I’m at the urinal in a somewhat compromising position—and I looked at him and said something kind of flip. I really didn’t think he was serious! It was just so over the top. But it stopped him. And he said, “You’re not scared of me at all, are you?” And I looked at him, and I said, “Well, I am now!” [Laughs.] But we got along.
So when he called to do The Hand, at that point, I was looking for any A-features, and Michael Caine really made it an A-feature. So I thought, “Well, sure, that’d be great!” And it was a great experience. I really loved working with Michael Caine. He’s a really skilled and experienced actor. I learn something from everybody, but when you work with somebody like that, you actually learn things you can put in your toolbox, things about craft. Not necessarily life lessons, but actual things he knows that you can pick up. To watch Oliver direct his first film—I wouldn’t change anything. I was really glad to be there, and then I was glad to see him again when we did W. He’s a really smart guy, he’s a really good writer, and… [Laughs.] He has a certain kind of personality. But I really enjoy him. He’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I like him a lot.
Quantum Leap (1989)—“Weird Ernie” / (1993)—“Al the Bartender”
The A.V. Club: You have the distinction of being in both the first and the last episode of Quantum Leap.
BM: Yes, and that’s an interesting story. I didn’t know this until I did the last one, but I reminded [executive producer] Don Bellisario of his father. So when I got the offer to do Weird Ernie in the pilot, I was living in New York, and somebody had made a mistake, and they made an offer that was supposed to be $2,500 for the job, but they offered $25,000. I couldn’t turn that down. I’d never heard of anything like that! So I said, “I’ve gotta do that,” and we went on, and I didn’t find out until later somebody somewhere—I think it was in the casting director’s office—made that miscommunication. But to his credit, Bellisario said, “What the heck.” By that time he’d gotten to know me and saw my things in the pilot. When he did the last episode, [my character] was supposed to be raising the question, “Is this God?” That’s the question people were asking. And this character did what his father did: He had a bar in a coal-mining town. I reminded [Bellisario] so much of his father that he wanted me in that part. I loved that last episode, and I think that last moment, with Sam and I on the front porch, is just really poignant. I have to tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye on the set, and that’s a hundred crew people. Of course, they might’ve been crying about the fact that their job was over. [Laughs.] But it was just really touching, and I really enjoyed that experience. It’s funny to think that the first one was a mistake, and the second one was a coincidence.
Babylon 5 (1996)—“Major Ed Ryan”
AVC: Speaking of mistakes, there’s a story about how you got your role on Babylon 5...
BM: You mean how the producer [J. Michael Straczynski] actually wanted Everett McGill? Yeah, that’s apparently true. [Laughs.] And it’s just lucky that… I go up and down in weight, and at that time, I was pretty thin and looked pretty good in that tight captain’s suit. But I used to see Everett. We were both actors back in New York and out here, and before I really knew him—in fact, the way I met him, we were sitting in the waiting room, waiting for an audition, and the person came out and said, “Mr. McGill?” And we both stood up. And Everett’s, like, 6-foot-5 or something like that. And I thought, “Hmm, this is a McGill of a different size.” Yeah, I heard that, and I don’t know how that happened, but, hey, people aren’t perfect.
One of the defense mechanisms I have for the difficulties in the business, one of which is rejection, is that if I do the work, I go in, and I’m prepared and I audition and they don’t hire me, I’m always just amazed, thinking, “Wow! For that money, they could’ve had Bruce McGill, and they didn’t take me? I just think that’s amazing. Well, too bad for them.” Rather than go, “Oh, what did I do wrong?” I just don’t do that. I don’t go down that road. So it’s a built-in defense mechanism, but also, I feel that way. I feel like with what I know and what I can deliver, if I look enough like the guy they want to even have me in, and they don’t use me, then that’s their shortcoming. It’s a reflection on their inability to see what’s right in front of them rather than my inability to get the role.
My Cousin Vinny (1992)—“Sheriff Farley”
BM: Well, I think that was just [casting director] David Rubin. I just went in and read, and I think I read really well, but I think David Rubin is one of the great casting directors. He was an assistant at that time, but I just think he’s a wonderful casting director and one of the best readers with you, which makes a difference. When you go in and the casting director reads with you, if they can’t read and they’re not a very good actor, the scene suffers, obviously. But I think I got the part from the read with David Rubin, but the first thing Joe Pesci said—and I knew Joe from New York, and I see Joe a lot out here on the golf course—and in a very Godfather-ly manner, “Yeah, y’know, I approved you for that role.” [Laughs.] I said, “Oh, thank you, Godfather, thank you!” I’m sure he did, and I’m glad he did.
But, you know, it’s not any one thing. There’s a cumulative effect to getting good parts as a freelance actor, because you’re only as good as your last job, and you have to keep going out and getting them. Unless you’re part of the finance structure, by which I mean a bankable star, which I never was and never will be. That’s why actors who might not be such great actors but are bankable will have a great career. But mine is different. I’ve got to sell myself every time. And I embrace that gladly now. I didn’t always. There was a period of time where I thought, “This is irritating. I’ve done 70 movies. Why won’t you just give me the job or don’t give me the job?”
Then I ran across the following phrase: “There are two kinds of people in the world: the very, very wealthy and salesmen.” And I knew I was not in the former camp, so instead of looking at auditions as what I used to call “grovels.” I used to say, “Oh, I can’t play golf, I’ve got a 2 o’clock grovel.” I really did! And even when I said it, I’d say, “That’s not a really good attitude.” So then I ran across that phrase about the two kinds of people, it happened instantly. [Snaps fingers.] In the blink of an eye and the passing of a thought, I went from calling them “grovels” to looking at them as sales opportunities, as if I were selling wrenches. And I would go to a buyer and say, “These are my wrenches. They’re the very best wrenches for your job. Here they are, and here’s the price.” So I began to look at auditions like that, and I’ve never had a problem with it again.
Of course, I don’t audition for things I’m not interested in doing. I don’t have to do that anymore. And now I’ll still go and meet and… Actually, agents think you should not read, that you should just go and meet and discuss what you would do. And I don’t think so. I mean, it depends, but time and time again, I think that if you’re a good actor and you prepare well and you can audition well, you should. Because you may knock somebody else out of the box just by being better in the room.
Silkwood (1983)—“Mace Hurley”
BM: You know what? I wonder how I got that part. I was gonna say it might’ve been through Kurt Russell, ’cause he was hanging out around Goldie [Hawn] when we were doing Wildcats, but I think that was after that. I really don’t know. You never really know. I know I auditioned for it, though. I’d never worked with Mike Nichols before, but I’d worked with Meryl [Streep] in Shakespeare In The Park, but I don’t really know where that came from. It may have just been sent to me to audition. But I was from Texas, and even though it was an Oklahoma story, both places had a part in it. That was the beginning of my playing authority figures. People say, “Oh, you always play coaches or cops or judges.” And I say, “Well, what’s the common thread there? The thread is that they’re authority figures.” Every story has to have an authority figure for the hero to overcome or rebel against.
End Of The Line (1987)—“Billy Haney”
BM: Boy, that’s a blast from the past. I think that might’ve come from Wilford. ’Cause Wilford Brimley was the star of that, and Mary Steenburgen was producing it on a shoestring in her hometown of Little Rock. I think there were enough similarities between Wilford and I—if I put on a pair of glasses—you could say, “Well, okay, that’s that guy’s son.” So it may have been as simple as that. Plus, I was willing to do it. They weren’t paying me anything. And I had a wonderful time doing it. I’m very fond of Wilford Brimley, but he is a pretty crusty character to work with, and I have no problem with that. I was happy to intercede between the director, who was sometimes at his wits’ end, and Wilford. And I can’t say I blame him. [Laughs.] But Wilford’s just a certain kind of guy. You don’t ask him to look at a tape mark on the side of a wall when he’s supposed to be looking at a person. He’ll say, “Well, you better put that fella where you want me looking, because where I’m gonna be looking is right at him.” We do a lot of things where, to look right for the camera when you can’t get the actor, you put a piece of tape on a wall or whatever. But not with Wilford. So I was happy to help step in and make sure there was no conflict there.
The Last Boy Scout (1991)—“Mike Matthews”
BM: Can’t remember if I auditioned or not. I think I’d worked with… Gee, I don’t remember. That was such a small part. I’m blown up early in that one. [Laughs.] It might’ve been an offer. Or it might’ve come from Bruce Willis, actually, ’cause I knew Bruce pretty well before he was a star, when he was tending bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And the thing I take away from that movie is the moment when I’m coming out of the closet after being with his wife, and… It’s a pretty good moment. “Don’t do nothing crazy, Joe!” Dripping wet. I was supposed to be just in from the shower, but the way we got me wet to shoot the scene, there was a pool in the back yard of the house we were shooting in, and right before “action,” I would just hop in the pool and then get in the closet. [Laughs.] “Make-up!”
Into The Night (1985)—“Charlie”
BM: That was pretty funny. I’d worked with John Landis on Animal House—I was doing Broadway at the time—and I had this big mustache. And he wanted me to do it, and the joke was to be that I didn’t look anything like Elvis. So I got permission from the show—from Mike Nichols, actually, who came in to redirect the show My Only And Only—to fly out there. They shaved my mustache, dyed my hair Elvis-black, put me in the Elvis suit, and suddenly I looked a lot like Elvis. [Laughs.] So that was pretty entertaining. You know, it was a gay Elvis impersonator. I never had to sing, but it was interesting how things turn out. He’s not supposed to look like Elvis, but once they got me in the gear, I did.
Matchstick Men (2003)—“Chuck Frechette”
BM: I think it’s one of a handful of the best movies I’ve done. I think it’s one of Nic Cage’s top performances. Sam Rockwell and myself and Nic just loved that movie. It’s a really good grown-up comedy. I just think the world of that. And to play the two realities at all times was very liberating.
AVC: How was Ridley Scott as a comedy director, given he’s known for his work in action and drama?
BM: Well, when I’m playing comedy, I never do jokes. Sometimes I’ll deliver a line in a way I think is more likely to get a laugh, but all the best comedy is played straight. What’s funny is the way it hits the world around it or the way it hits the other characters. But if you’re laughing at yourself—the old adage goes—the audience won’t be laughing. I don’t do much slapstick comedy, although I certainly did in the theater, and I’m certainly capable of it. But the comedy we have on Rizzoli & Isles, which is considerable, comes out of real situations and characters. And the audiences are too smart. They’ll just groan at people pushing too hard for laughs. I groan sometimes at—well, I’m not going to mention any names, but some sitcom where there’s just two pages of jokes, let’s go, let’s go, get up the laugh track, let’s go, let’s go. I just groan and turn the channel.
61* (2001)—“Ralph Houk”
Live From Baghdad (2002)—“Peter Arnett”
BM: I just really enjoyed Live From Baghdad. When I auditioned for it, I watched a lot of nature shows back then—I still do when I can—and I’d seen this Aussie guy in the back of a boat when I found out they wanted me to do this with an Australian or New Zealand accent. So I just did. And apparently a lot of actors tried and couldn’t. Maybe that’s why I got the part. Also, I’m not going to blow my own horn too loud, but I’m a really experienced, comfortable actor. I also admired Peter Arnett, and I think the story of Peter Arnett after that is the interesting story. He was living and being treated like a king by Saddam Hussein. He got blown out of the water during Desert Storm when he came out with some report that sounded like it had been written by Saddam Hussein’s publicity department, and he was dead wrong. He admitted it, and he never was heard of again. It pretty much finished him. So I think it’s interesting what happened to him after that. But I got to shave my head, I got to use an accent, and I got to be a war-addicted junkie. These guys are adrenaline junkies. Like David Bloom, rest his soul, and Richard Engel is the one now. But they get in there, and they… it is very exciting, and I’m sure regular life after that just doesn’t have a lot of the same highs and lows. So it was really interesting to play.
Working for HBO on feature-length material is a great thing. I’ve done a bunch of them, like Billy Crystal’s baseball movie, 61*. That was another great one, because they give you a budget and they let you go, and they have their audience in place in advance. You don’t have to wonder, “What’s this gonna do at the box office?” Because their audience pays in advance for the programming, so you know you’ll get seen. I just think that’s another one of the better movies I’ve done. I thought that was really well done. Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane as Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were just terrific.
AVC: You’ve played more than a few real people. Do you usually research those parts?
BM: Oh, of course. Absolutely. But in my mind, when I’m preparing, every person I play is a real person. But when you have a real person to do historic research from, it’s a lot easier. Everything you ever knew about history or sociology or politics colors all of your decisions. When you get a character that isn’t a real, live person from history, that you can’t go read a book on, they all should appear to be fully textured, complete people. And you can always research the period, the time, the profession. When it’s a real person you’re playing… Well, with the fabulous river of knowledge that is the Internet, you can stay in your pajamas barefooted and research way better than you used to by going to 10 libraries. So I think one of the most valuable actor tools now is the Internet, in terms of research. After all, what was the great line that was engraved on the statue in Animal House? “Knowledge is good.” [Laughs.]
MacGyver (1986-1992)—“Jack Dalton”
BM: Well, that’s interesting, because they wanted me to sign up for the TV series. They had seen me in a Miami Vice episode where I played a pretty flamboyant character. [Laughs.] It was a case where they had halfway written it, and I just said, “Well, this is halfway there; I need to help this out,” so I threw a lot of stuff in that they hadn’t put in, and that energized the character. And what they were looking for on MacGyver was something to energize the sometimes-laconic Richard Dean Anderson as MacGyver, ’cause if you weren’t careful, most of the guest stars would come in and pick up his rhythm; he was very laid back. And if the actors that are guests come in and pick that rhythm up, you’ve got a scene that just sort of sits there, and that’s not what they wanted in that show. They saw that I had a chance to stir him up a little, so they asked me to do it. And I wasn’t doing any TV at the time, but one of the guys on MacGyver was the guy that was the director of photography on Animal House—Charlie Correll, a great guy, God rest his soul—and he said, “I know that guy! I’ll call that guy, he’ll do it. I’ll talk him into it.” [Laughs.] So I think it was February or something, and I was in New York City, where I lived, and Charlie called me and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m freezin’, man!” He said, “Get out here and do this show! We’ll do this; we’ll play some golf. How cold is it there? ’Cause it’s great here in L.A.! Besides, what are you worried about? This character dies at the end of the episode, so you don’t have to worry about being attached to a TV show!” So I said, “What the heck. Okay.”
So I came out and I did it, and, I enjoyed myself, but I never thought it would go any further. My guy didn’t die on camera, but he had this brain tumor, and he sacrificed himself to save MacGyver. But all you saw was Jack Dalton’s plane going over the horizon, assuming that he would crash and die. So three or four months later… [Laughs.] I’m back in New York, and my agent calls and says, “They’d like you do to a MacGyver.” I said, “Oh, yeah? What’s the character?” “Same character.” “But that character died!” And my agent said, “If Bobby Ewing can come back in the shower…” And I said, “I get it: Anything’s possible.” Now I know that television does whatever it wants to do, and audiences, if they like the characters, they’ll ignore it and watch it.
So I went back and did another episode, and in the middle of the episode, they explained to me they were looking to pump in a little energy and get a little rise out of Ricky, make MacGyver mad. In fact, I think I even had a line when we were in some scrape that I’d gotten us in, and I said, “Well, that’s okay, Mac, it’s still 50/50: I get us into trouble, then you get us out. That’s fair!” [Laughs.] So that was sort of the attitude, and once I recognized that—when they told me that, I went on and did it, not necessarily over the top, but I did a scene that was kind of full of broad choices. Scene-stealing, basically. And I apologized to Ricky and said, “Hey, listen, man, I’m sorry, they want me to… ” And he says, “Are you kidding? You are so welcome. I am so grateful. Take it and run!” So I realized that he wasn’t comfortable doing the energizing himself, but he was very comfortable with reacting to things that my guy did that drove him nuts. And it made for a really good relationship. I wasn’t in his way. Quite the opposite. He felt that it was helpful. And I really liked the guy. We got along extremely well. And that character—my mother loved that character, because he never cussed and he never died and he never killed anybody. So it was a great time. They wanted me to sign up full-time, but I was maintaining my feature career, and MacGyver was a nine-months-of-the-year show. I was also quite sure they would not write for my character if they owned him every week. So what we developed was, I agreed to do a couple of shows at a time, and then they would have to send me the script, and I would see whether they had written for my guy or not. I’m not even sure that you could make that deal nowadays if you were as nobody as I was. [Laughs.]
Not that I was nobody. I’d done Animal House, and I was a known quantity in the New York theater, but I just didn’t want it as bad as they wanted me, and that’s when you can always make a favorable deal. There was a character called Jingles on a TV show in the ’50s, The Adventures Of Wild Bill Hickok, and he was played by Andy Devine, who nobody remembers now. But he was a pure sidekick, and I said, “I just don’t want to become Jingles.” And they said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “ I don’t want to ride around behind Wild Bill, holding onto my hat like I can’t ride a horse, and going, ‘Hold on, Will Bill, I’m coming!’” And I really did feel that’s what would happen, and looking back on it, I feel that’s correct. And, you know, all that would’ve happened if I’d been exclusive to that show is that I would’ve made a little more money at the time, but I wouldn’t have made the feature films that I made throughout that period that have really been the bulk of my career.
And it’s a career that’s still ongoing: On our last hiatus, I did Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln, and I’m excited. I can’t wait to see that. Because when you do a movie like that, 150 speaking roles, you’re of course not there all day every day, so most of it I have no idea what it was like. I know exactly what the scenes I was in were like, and I know exactly what Daniel Day-Lewis was like as Lincoln, which was electrifying, I have to say. So I would not have wanted to do anything in the past that would’ve made it impossible for me to have had that role in that film. And I’ve had a couple of films I really wanted to do that I’ve already had to pass on this season because of Rizzoli & Isles, but that’s the road not taken. I’m a bloom-where-you-were-planted sort of human being, so I’m with the show, and that’s where I wanted to be. It avoids inner conflict.
But both of these films were really interesting. They’re doing a film about the making of Psycho, with Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his behind-the-scenes wife and producer, and I really would’ve loved to have done that, because when people ask me if there’s anyone I’d really like to work with that I haven’t, Anthony Hopkins is at the top of the list. I think he’s going to be incredible as Hitchcock. Now, whether the making of that film will find a broad audience, I don’t know, and I don’t care about that anymore. If it’s something that really appeals to me experientially, I’ll jump on it. But the thing about being an actor—and it’s why sometimes they pay us—is that you can only be in one place at one time. And you can’t do everything that comes along.
Miami Vice (1985)—“Hank Weldon”
The Insider (1999)—“Ron Motley”
AVC: You mentioned your role on Miami Vice as having been pretty flamboyant, and you’ve also done several films with Michael Mann. Did that initial role have anything to do with him casting you in The Insider?
BM: That’s really more a question for him, but to my mind, I think so. I’ve done three features with him since then. And the Miami Vice I did, the story there was they were in a bind. The part was written for Dennis Hopper, and then two days out, Dennis Hopper decided they weren’t gonna pay him enough. They were so hot. It was their second season, I think, and they really did change the face of Friday-night TV. So they were just not paying. They didn’t have to. I think Hopper thought they would make a deal, and then they didn’t, so they were really up a creek. And apparently they’d shown the script to some people, and… That script had some things that needed help, that needed to go a little further, but they wouldn’t even send me the script! I was house-sitting for my buddy Tim Matheson at the time. I still lived in New York, they were shooting in Miami, and I get the call, and they say, “Well, if you want the role, you have to get on a flight at 4:30.” And I said, “Well, what’s the part?” “Oh, he’s an ex-cop, sort of like what Don Johnson’s character was 10 years before.” And I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” In those days, a payday for seven days of work after all the life in the theater was pretty worthwhile. And it was the hottest show going.
I remember them describing the character, but I had no idea. Of course, the flight going east was screwed up, I didn’t get in ’til 2:45 in the morning, and I was supposed to be picked up for work at 7 in the morning. The director said, “When you get in, call me,” and I thought, “God, can he be serious?” I wish I hadn’t looked at the script ’til the next morning, ’cause it was pretty challenging. The guy was a cop who had cracked up and spent the last seven or eight years in a lockup in Ft. Lauderdale for mentally disturbed cops. They had him doing characters, impersonations or whatever, and I decided that all he’d done since he’d been locked up was watch old movies. So whenever things didn’t go his way, he would snap into a different character, whether it was Groucho Marx or Walter Brennan. And they had written two or three of those, but I said, “Well, it should be every time a conversation doesn’t go the way he wants. That’s his default defense.” So I went through and put as many in as I could and did it in a pretty flamboyant way. And I think that put me on Michael’s radar in a big way.
But every time I work for him, I have to read for the part. I think I do. Maybe not Collateral. No, he just hired me for Collateral. But I certainly read for the part in The Insider. I think I waited almost two hours for my audition. I got there at the time, and it just went on and on—as do some of Michael’s shooting days. [Laughs.] But I waited, and I did it. It was a lawyer, and I had prepared it and… it’s just Michael and I at our audition. If he’s gonna shoot it, he’s gonna shoot it himself. So I did the thing, and he says, “Yeah, that’s good. That’s intelligent. That sounds like a lawyer. But now I want this tobacco guy to feel that he’s in physical danger. Like, maybe your character came off of the football team at Ole Miss and maybe… He’s not gonna touch the guy, because he’s a professional, but the guy doesn’t know that.” And I said, “That’s interesting. So you want me to physically intimidate this guy?” And he said, “Yeah.” So we did it again, and while he’s shooting it and I’m just tearing up the scenery, he’s shooting it and going, “Yeah! Yeah, that’s it! Great!” I’d like to hear the soundtrack of that audition, because it’d have me roaring and Michael Mann going, “Yeah, yeah, great, that’s it, yeah!” [Laughs.] That was three months before I showed up, and I didn’t see him again until I showed up on the set. And right before we shot that scene… Do you know the scene I’m talking about?
BM: Well, right before we shot it, I said, “Okay, Michael, now do you want this with the Southern accent of the area, or do you want it straight?” And he said, “Oh, I dunno. Let me hear it.” So I did a little bit of the accent, which I really wanted to do, and then I did it straight, and he said, “Yeah, accent.” And that’s how a crafted actor and a really decisive director can work together that way. You can do your homework, bring in everything, and it’s like you unroll your wares and go, “Here’s what I got. What do you think?” Another interesting thing about that scene: We did the scene, and he said, “I dunno, it needs something here. Like, you would tell a 9-year-old kid to wipe that smirk off his face...” And I said, “What’s wrong with that?” “What?” “What’s wrong with using the line, ‘Wipe that smirk off your face’?” “Ah, I dunno. Let’s look at it.” And, of course, when people see me and that’s the role they’re thinking about, they say, “Wipe that smirk off your face!” Because it went from those secret whisperings to my client, Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigant, in the quietest voice that you could possibly record, to basically the same sort of vocal production I used to use when I did big Shakespeare roles without a microphone. So “wipe that smirk off your face” became a real kind of rallying cry in my career for a while. [Laughs.]
Handle With Care (1977)—“Blood”
BM: Wowee. First film! What can you say about your first feature film? I was a stage actor, and I didn’t know how hard it was to get a major role in a studio picture. That was Jonathan Demme’s first studio picture. It came out under the title of Citizens Band, and then it was later given the title of Handle With Care. I didn’t know how difficult it was, but the role they had me read for was sort of underwritten and undeveloped in the screenplay. I’d been doing the theater and working in New York City, either in Shakespeare In The Park or on new plays, and when you work on new plays at a public theater, part of the actor’s task is to help the writer and director build a show, so you’re in the process of fixing things that aren’t working right. So I just applied that to the screenplay, didn’t really think about treating the dialogue with much reverence, and if I thought there was a beat missing, I put it in. Sometimes it wasn’t even dialogue. It was just adjustments that I made either audibly or visibly that fixed the problem the role had in terms of being lightly developed. And Jonathan’s a real sharp guy; he looked at that, and he said, “Well, there you go, that’s why I’m having a problem with the role. I need some help!”
So I got the part, and it was really exciting, but I didn’t know how exciting it should’ve been, because I thought, “Well, of course that’s what happens: You start acting at 11, you get good at it, and…” When I was growing up in Texas, I always wanted to do Shakespeare In The Park, so there I was at 25, onstage in the Delacourt Theater in Central Park with a speaking role in a Shakespeare play. And that was all according to plan. And then I thought, “Well, I guess now I should probably get in a movie.” And, you know, bam, I got a movie. [Laughs.] So it wasn’t until after that, until the lean periods that come for every actor, where I was like, “Wow, that was really difficult to get that first part.” And by getting the first part in a studio picture, you suddenly lift yourself—it’s a very competitive field, as I’m sure you know, but once you’ve done a major role in a major motion picture by an American studio, in this case Paramount, you’ve lifted yourself above 80 percent of the people that are trying to get jobs, because 80 percent of them haven’t gotten a movie yet at the age of 26, or whatever I was. So you’ve limited the field of competition a little bit, and then when you do a film like Animal House, and Animal House is such a huge hit, then you further lift yourself out of the mass by being an actor at 27 who has a hit movie. Believe me, I’ve made a lot of movies by now, and only maybe three or four of them are bona fide hits. My Cousin Vinny and a handful of others I’m really proud of. There’s none, I think, that I’m ashamed of. None that I’ve seen, anyway. I may have conveniently forgotten something. [Laughs.]
Getting the first one, though… Well, what is luck but when preparation meets opportunity? So that helped a lot, but having the second one be such a big hit, that was certainly fortuitous. And I was ready for it. And I also became fascinated with the filmmaking process. I used to be strictly a man of the theater, which is great. It’s very singular, though. You can’t really do a whole lot of other things. Life now is so broad and varied, and if you’re doing eight performances a week in New York City, that really becomes your entire world. You may go out to Montauk or the Hamptons for a day or a weekend, but that’s about it. With the movies and television, you work work work work work, and then you’re absolutely free, like a kid in summer.
Animal House (1978) / Delta House (1979)—“D-Day”
AVC: There’s a moment in the first season of Rizzoli & Isles when someone asks Korsak where he went to college, and he shrugs and says, “I didn’t. I just watched Animal House a few times.” Did they have to twist your arm to get you to make that joke?
BM: It’s funny that you picked up on that detail, but I [answer] that question more than I would’ve thought. No, they didn’t have to twist my arm, but Janet did ask me if I had any problem with it. And I said, “Absolutely not. If somebody’s gonna make an Animal House crack on this show, it better be me! Now, if you’d tried to give someone else that crack, that would’ve been bad.” But no, she was sensitive to the fact that I might have a question or somebody might have a question about it, but to quote that movie, “It’s something that never looks bad on your permanent record.” [Laughs.]
It was my second film, and I don’t know if there’s any other film that’s so strongly still watched as that one. Maybe My Cousin Vinny. It is, as they say, woven into the social fabric of the nation. I mean, Animal House, I don’t know how many times I read film criticism, and they reference it as a watershed film; The Hangover and all the films that came after that were sort of like it, or were at least similarly irreverent. Because when Animal House came out, it was a Universal picture, but Universal was the guys in the black tower with the skinny black ties, doing a lot of Westerns and cop shows, and it wasn’t really their area. So Animal House was treated like a poor relation, shuffled off to a young producer and not given much money, ’cause they thought it wasn’t really what they did, and I think they were concerned about the racy material. Of course, now it doesn’t seem that racy at all.
AVC: On that note, you reprised the role of D-Day for the short-lived sitcom spin-off, Delta House.
BM: Well, it was twofold: They offered me the first good payday I’d ever had. I didn’t earn any money on Animal House, and I felt very strongly that, while somebody wrote D-Day, I invented him visually and physically, and I didn’t want to pass that on to anybody, because I really liked him. I really liked the character, and I liked the world that he was in, and… it was time. It was time to make a little money. Because I finally realized that, yeah, you can work in New York theater all you want, but you still can’t have a nice apartment in the city. And that just wasn’t gonna work for me. And a lot of my friends were gonna do it. Jamie Widdoes was gonna do it. I just thought it was a no-brainer, and I didn’t want to cast it off to anyone. I think the show was doing okay. It was just too expensive to shoot, and they put us on too early to be as raunchy as the people that liked Animal House enjoyed.
AVC: There would seem to be some inherent problems in trying to duplicate the tone of Animal House on broadcast television.
BM: At that time, at that hour, certainly. But then along came Sex And The City, and now nothing’s sacred. Forget it! [Laughs.]
By the way, you know how I was talking about how “wipe that smirk off your face” was a rallying cry for my career after The Insider? That’s what “ramming speed” was for me in Animal House. When I worked with Spielberg for Lincoln, I’d been told by John Landis that, while Spielberg was doing 1941, which came right after Animal House, he would go around the set yelling, “Ramming speed!” So when I first met him—We’d met before in passing, but I’d never had a meeting with Steven—I said, “Is this true? Did you really say, ‘Ramming speed’?” And he said, “All the time.” [Laughs.]
I’ll tell you what: Nobody’s ever done this with me before, and it’s a very interesting way to conduct an interview. It pushes me to look back. I’ve had a really interesting ride, working with the best of the best, and that’s what’s most stimulating to me still. Of course, it’s also the reason why the ones I can’t do because of Rizzoli & Isles tug at me a little. But I never question the trade-off.