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: Although Jeff Fahey followed in the footsteps of many actors by getting his big break via a few seasons on a soap opera (One Life To Live), his career took another step up when he pulled his first film role, playing Tyree in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 western Silverado. Since then, Fahey has been a staple of motion pictures and television, including a high-profile stint on ABC’s Lost, and, more recently, the film Lake Effects, now on DVD.
Lake Effects (2012)—“Ray”
Jeff Fahey: A beautiful, beautiful film. You know, I’m at a place now in my career and in my life where it’s actually a pleasant surprise to go and work on these smaller projects that are… well, it’s a miracle that any film gets made, really. [Laughs.] But when you walk into something like this and see the passion and the effort put in by all the people up there at Smith Mountain Lake, Sarah Elizabeth [Timmins] and her friends and family, and then a wonderful cast and crew as well. To come in and to be a small part of a bigger story was enjoyable, as it was to know that you’re being taken care of, so you can just go in, deliver, and walk away. It was one of the gems. I’m really proud to have been part of this film.
The A.V. Club: Looking at the description of the film on the DVD, one thing that really leaps out is the spoiler that you play a father who “dies unexpectedly.” Most people will instantly figure, “Oh, I guess Jeff Fahey’s not in this thing very much.”
JF: [Laughs.] Well, as you’ll see in the film, the way they set it up is that, although it happens right in the first act, the relationship between his daughters and, obviously, with his wife, Jane [Seymour], but then you have the dream sequences, as it were, where Scottie [Thompson] is talking to me. But, again, I have to say that I’m really proud to be part of this film, also because it’s a family film. I’ve done the action and the horror and the heavy drama, and that’s all great. But to be part of something that’s this beautiful story and tells this relationship between a mother and her daughters, something with a lot of positive messages that you can show to your family and watch together, I truly enjoyed it… and I’m sorry if I seem to be blabbering about it. [Laughs.] It’s just one of those films that I really loved.
One Life To Live (1982-1985)—“Gary Corelli”
JF: Oh my gosh. Yeah, One Life To Live, that was fantastic, because I was part of a theater group doing off-off-Broadway shows, and I’d done a few Broadway shows, but getting Gary Corelli on One Life To Live helped me finance some of the plays I was involved in with the theater group at the Raft Theater on 42nd Street. So that was great for two reasons. First, it was great to have a job and to afford to get my own place in New York and not sleep on the floor in a loft with 10 other people. [Laughs.] So that was very exciting, to have this big paycheck like that. But I learned a lot working on a soap, dealing with whatever it was, 12 or 15 hours a day, pumping out and being a part of a complete script every day. I learned quite a bit. And, you know, there were a lot of people working on soaps back then that went on to… I mean, Tommy Lee Jones had just worked on it before, and Meg Ryan was working down the street and Alec Baldwin was working up the street. All kinds of cats were working on soaps at the time that moved on to other things. But it was a very exciting time early in my career to have a steady paycheck.
AVC: Have any of Gary’s storylines stuck with you as particular favorites?
JF: No, not really. It was all just part of the whole training ground. The stories and storylines themselves don’t necessarily stick out.
The Marshal (1995)—“Deputy Marshall Winston MacBride”
JF: Oh, heck yeah. I really enjoyed that. Again, another chapter in the learning stages, to be a one-man, action-driven weekly drama. I’ll tell ya, it was a fantastic learning ground as well. If I may jump forward for a moment as a comparison, to be on something like Lost years later, where you don’t have to carry the load, that was something different. But the time I spent on The Marshal, it pushes your limits on the time involved and the energy. It’s a learning process, really. I wouldn’t want to do it again and be the person carrying a show. It’s commendable for the people who’ve done it over the years. [Laughs.] But you don’t get the time to really enjoy the whole process as much as you do when you’re working with an ensemble. But it was a great experience, and I really enjoyed working on it.
AVC: At the time, TV was considered almost taking a step back from film.
JF: That’s right.
AVC: Did you have any hesitation about taking on a TV role at that point?
JF: No, you know, I’ve never looked at any of my career in that way. I’ve enjoyed more of the adventure of my experimenting with different avenues, whether it was stage, television, or film. Of course, it mattered what people thought of something, and people around me had opinions. “Should we do this? Should we do that?” Of course I took that into consideration, but I didn’t put much weight into what people thought. Because it was my own journey, my own experience. That’s the way I looked at it.
Lost (2008-2010)—“Frank Lapidus”
JF: Fantastic. And I’m still working with Jack Bender, who was an executive producer and directed most of the episodes of Lost. We just worked on a pilot called Rewind for SyFy with a few other people. It’s another ensemble. We’re waiting to see if we get picked up. But Lost was fantastic. To work three seasons and live in Hawaii… I mean, the crew, the cast, it was fantastic. In all three seasons, I never had an argument or a disagreement. Honestly, it was really great working with that group of people and in that place.
AVC: Most viewers tend to view Lapidus as an enjoyable addition to the show, but he ultimately ended up being one of the least fleshed-out characters on Lost.
JF: Yeah. Well, one of the reasons I didn’t mind that it ended up that way was that I was and still am working in other parts of the world with the U.S. Committee For Refugees And Immigrants. So I was traveling a lot, and one of the things that gave me great flexibility was that they didn’t go heavy into his storyline. If they had, it would’ve locked me into more time on the island. But they didn’t, so I had the flexibility to travel. I’m not saying that my traveling had anything to do with why they didn’t explore his backstory more, but it worked out positively for me, because I was able to travel to the Middle East and Western Sahara and North Africa, then come back and forth and do an episode here and there. So I had the best of both worlds, as it were, of what I was doing.
AVC: Did you have a favorite episode of your work?
JF: Hmmm. No, you know, I really couldn’t say, mostly just because I really enjoyed the whole experience. Sometimes we get to a place where… I’m not quite sure if it’s where you’re at—meaning myself, as an individual—or where the projects are at, but sometimes they meet at this great place, and that was one of ’em. You know what I mean? It was so fantastic to feel that you’re in such a well-tuned and well-honed machine, from writers to producers to actors to directors, that there was no tension at all, and you were never worrying about what you didn’t understand.
AVC: And did you understand how it ended?
JF: Well, no. [Laughs.] I’m left out there with half the audience. We can read into it how we want, whether it is and was that place of so-called purgatory and people were having to clear up their lives before moving on to whatever that next place was. I actually kind of enjoyed that sort of—how should I say this?—unfinished, unknown metaphysical element of what the message was. Or was the message left up to each individual in the audience? But it was a great ride, man. I don’t have a specific favorite episode, I just dug the whole ride.
JF: Fantastic. The beginning of a great next, wonderful chapter in my life, to have left New York and gone off to Santa Fe for four months and to work with all the cats there and meet with Larry [Kasdan]. And, obviously, to work with him again years later on Wyatt Earp. That was obviously a turning point in my life, moving into films, but that introduction into film… it was such a level of equality with the people I was working with. And to go into my first big film in such a fantastic wonderland, if you will. I mean, I started out with a western. You can’t beat that. You know what I mean? Many people go through their careers—I’m not saying everyone, but a lot of people I’ve talked to are still wanting and hoping to be in a western. So to start off with something like that, it was fantastic.
AVC: And what an ensemble.
JF: I know, it’s wild, right? People always say, “Why didn’t they do a sequel to Silverado?” Well, it would almost be impossible, wouldn’t it? Just look what it would cost, just above the line, to even get those actors together. But it was great to work with everyone from Kevin Kline to Kevin Costner, Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt… all the way across, it was wonderful.
White Hunter Black Heart (1990)—“Pete Verrill”
JF: It was an amazing experience… and, sorry, but you’re gonna hear that a lot connected to all my work, because I’ve always felt fortunate to even be able to make a living in this arena and go off on all these adventures. But that was wonderful to go to Africa. We shot that down in Zimbabwe, so to travel over to Africa on the Warner Bros. jet with Clint Eastwood, and then stop in Paris and meet with Peter Viertel to do the first part of my research. And then Peter came and visited us down in Zimbabwe. Of course, you probably know it was based on his book that he wrote about his experiences with John Huston, so to be sitting there on numerous occasions with Peter Viertel and hear his stories about his relationship with John Huston, it was fascinating. And, of course, obviously working with Clint and developing that relationship. Yeah, once again, gosh, you bring these up and realize… well, not that I’ve forgotten, but it brings to mind all of these great people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with. But Africa? That was a great one.
Grindhouse: Planet Terror (2007)—“J.T.”
JF: Oh, my God. Yep. J.T. I have to be forever grateful and thankful to [producer] Elizabeth Avellan and Robert Rodriguez for hunting me down and finding me and bringing me in from Afghanistan to come to Austin and do that role. And, again, it turned out to be a great relationship, one that I still have with both of them. I actually just came back from Austin the other day. But J.T. was great. I just wish I could make barbecue sauce like him. [Laughs.] The man makes the best barbecue sauce in Texas. Period.
Body Parts (1991)—“Bill Chrushank”
JF: Oh my God. Well, the first thing I can tell you is that I think it was about eight hours in special effects for that whole opening sequence of putting the arm on. Yeah, that was quite an experience. I didn’t realize that would turn into such a cult film. Again, you never know. I remember when we did that, the nights in Toronto were very cold. Also, just as it was about to come out, right before the opening, was when that whole Jeffrey Dahmer thing happened. I remember they were thinking about delaying the opening of the film, or at least I heard talks about toning down some of the ads. But it certainly became quite a cult film over the years.
Psycho III (1986)—“Duane”
JF: Well, that happened right after Silverado. I went from that and I think it was literally only a month later. I remember that film for a number of reasons, but first and foremost for driving through the gates of Universal Studios, being pointed toward your dressing room on the back lot, and then looking up late at night and seeing the Bates house on the hill. [Laughs.] And then starting those scenes and watching Anthony Perkins go from—he directed that one, so watching him go from Anthony to saying “action!” and becoming Norman Bates. I’ll never forget it. It was just at the drop of a hat that he could turn into that character. It was quite awesome. You suddenly find yourself thinking back to when you first saw the first Psycho film when you were a kid. That was quite an experience just working at Universal for the first time and being on that famous lot, but seeing the Bates house on the hill at night, with the fake lightning and rain happening? Quite an experience.
Psych (2008)—“Dutch The Clutch”
JF: I. Had. A. Ball. [Laughs.] Man, that was a gas! I loved working with those guys. I’m really enjoying all of these original comedies and dramas that are happening. There’s so many platforms for these shows, with USA and A&E and all the other different cable stations. That was USA, though, of course, and I remember going to do that and how they gave me such a wonderful space to create and even go further. I had a ball doing that. That was great.
JF: Oh, I love it. I’m having a blast doing that. If you want to look at it from a career perspective, I’m getting all of these opportunities to play these offbeat, different characters. Especially in the comedy area. That’s where I’m having the most fun.
JF: [Laughs.] Hell, I mean, just being able to show up and be a spoke in that wheel. You just kind of come and sit and their table, and whatever humor is there is made funny by the cats you’re bouncing it off of, but those guys at Workaholics, they are funny. I really enjoyed working with everybody.
AVC: Did they come looking for you specifically?
JF: They did, yeah. They got hold of my manager and said something to the effect of, “We don’t have much money, but we’re fans. Do you think he would do it?” I had an appointment at my manager’s office right around the time they had just called, and my manager, Jeff Goldberg, is a fan of the show, and he showed me some clips on the Internet and said, “You gotta watch this.” I watched this, and I said, “Oh, I’ll do it. Absolutely.” So before I knew it, a few days later I was on the show. And I hope they call me back again, whether it’s that character or a different one, because I really, truly enjoyed working with them.
The Lawnmower Man (1992)—“Jobe Smith”
JF: You talk about your cult films. That one, you know, it’s still out there. I’ll be in different parts of the world, and they recognize you for this role or that role, but Lawnmower Man has a special place for a lot of people, particularly in the Internet world. They just had a big hacker convention in Las Vegas, and a buddy of mine was there and sent me a photo, and apparently they’re playing The Lawnmower Man throughout the convention. [Laughs.] I had a great experience on the film, though. What a surprise, right? But when Pierce [Brosnan] and I were doing it, we had no idea it would turn into such a cult film the way it did. Or that it would have such a huge opening and do so well around the world. From a career perspective, it was wonderful and has continued to be great. And from a creative perspective also, really. It was great to work on that and be part of what from I understand was pretty cutting-edge on the technology and special-effects front at the time. We certainly didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Everything you see on the screen as far as special effects go, we had to imagine. We were looking through empty goggles into a blank space, and they laid all of the special effects on afterwards. So it was pretty amazing for us to see the final version, as you can imagine.
Machete (2010)—“Michael Booth”
AVC: If you were already grateful to Robert Rodriguez for Planet Terror, then Machete must’ve just been icing on the cake.
JF: It really was. It really, truly was. And c’mon, working with Robert De Niro and just getting to work with Robert Rodriguez again? Just great. Robert De Niro is a fantastic cat. So easy to work with. Especially in that environment. Robert Rodriguez creates a very easygoing work environment. Kind of like I remember it being with Eastwood on White Hunter Black Heart, actually. Just a laid-back and easygoing, but very supportive, environment.
Woman Of Desire (1994)—“Jack Lynch”
JF: Well, I have to say, Bob [Mitchum] and I became very close over the years. He actually came in and played my father on an episode of The Marshal. And Bo Derek was a great gal to work with. I don’t know if people realize—well, I’m sure they do—but back then I think everybody thought of her just as this beautiful woman from 10. But she’s a really intelligent, giving, warm individual. And Steven Bauer, I just worked with Steven on an episode of Common Law a couple of months ago, but before that, I hadn’t worked with him since we were in South Africa on Woman Of Desire, so that’s, what, almost 20 years? So we’ve reconnected from that. I’d have to say that the relationships were the best part of what came out of that film. And I always enjoyed working in different parts of Africa, and that was shot down in Cape Town.
Maniacts (2001)—“Joe Spinelli”
JF: We shot that in Santa Fe. And Kellie [Waymire], the actress who co-starred in that with me—it was a great experience, but, you know, she passed away. I thought she was so lovely. A good soul and a wonderful gal. That was a tragedy. But it was great working with her on that. That was a pretty strong film, I thought. Dark but interesting.
Bad Blood: The Hatfields And McCoys (2012)—“Devil Anse Hatfield”
JF: Oh, wow. Well, I have to tell you, this was very interesting because, I didn’t get the job, but it was on the table that I might possibly go off to Romania and go off to work on the Hatfields And McCoys with Kevin Costner. I’m not saying I had the job, but I was in the mix, as it were. But then I had an opportunity at the same time to do a play at the Geffen Theater here in Los Angeles, one called Next Fall, with Lesley Ann Warren, and I hadn’t been on stage in 27 years. So I had two wonderful things in front of me, and I had to make a decision: I could take the play, which was a definite, and fulfill another chapter of my career—because I did want to get back to theater, since the last time had been in London, doing Orphans with Albert Finney, with Gary Sinise directing—or there was the possibility of doing Hatfields And McCoys. So I took the play.
While I was doing the play, obviously the bigger production of Hatfields And McCoys with Costner was happening, and these guys from a small production company got a hold of my manager and said they were doing this little low-budget film on the Hatfields and McCoys, and it was filming, like, three days after finishing the play. And I thought, “You know what? Here’s a chance to jump into that world.” Again, I want to stress that I didn’t have the job, so it wasn’t like I turned it down. I didn’t have it. But I thought this was serendipitous that this would appear, so I took it and had a great experience. And let me tell you, the best part of it, I would say, was working with Perry King. After all these years of having not seen Perry… I mean, we’d met, our paths had crossed over the years, but working with Perry King and seeing him in that role and in that environment, I really realized—not that I didn’t think so before, but I actually saw it—that that guy’s a damned good actor. He’s still got a whole other chapter of his career in front of him. So little things like that were great.
AVC: How was director Fred Olen Ray to work with?
JF: Oh, he was great, man. Again, I’m at that place where if I can help a small film get made… Look, I’m beyond embarrassment. Sometimes they hit the mark, sometimes they don’t, and that’s just the way it is. With this or Lake Effects or any of the other little indie films I’ve done, you don’t know how they’re gonna turn out. You hope they’ll turn out in a wonderful way, but you don’t have any guarantees, whether it’s with the ones I’ve mentioned or the ones I’ve conveniently forgotten about. [Laughs.] You just never know when one’s gonna turn into something wonderful. You just try to hit the mark and hope that everyone else can, too. And if you miss, then you pack up and carry on to the next one.