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One Mississippi’s John Rothman on playing lawyers, librarians, and chess with Keanu Reeves

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: John Rothman is an actor who could make a living solely by playing authority figures and intellectuals. He’s played librarians in Sophie’s Choice and Ghostbusters, headmasters on Arrested Development and Bored To Death, and a wide variety of lawyers, notably in The Devil’s Advocate. More recently, however, Rothman plays Tig Notaro’s recently widowed stepfather, Bill, in Amazon Prime’s One Mississippi. During this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, Rothman sat down with The A.V. Club at the roof lounge of his hotel, sharing a variety of anecdotes from throughout his career as a character actor.

One Mississippi (2015-16)—“Bill”

John Rothman: I have to say that when my agent sent me the sides for the audition, which were scenes from the pilot, and it was described as a temperament between room temperature and sleet, I thought, “This is not me.” And my wife said to me, “It’s called acting. You’re a character actor.” Oh, yeah. [Laughs.]

In the documentary, her father appears very briefly, and I looked at him and I saw that he was wearing this very particular pair of glasses, and the look of his glasses… My son’s girlfriend’s father is an optometrist a block away from my apartment, so I went to 20/20 Optical and I got exactly the glasses. And I put them on, and it was like a mask. We call that working from the outside in. I’ll tell you something funny: My son convinced me when I went to the callback and read the scenes with Tig that I should do a Daniel Day Lewis, essentially. [Laughs.] That I should go to the audition as Bill, totally in character, and not break, not be John Rothman. I actually auditioned how I was going to say hello to Louis C.K.—“Mr. C.K., good to meet you”—because it was in his office. And it worked!

As outside-in works, the more I got the outside and the behavior, the more the inside began to come alive in that part. I mean, that’s the magic of character acting. I’m in an actors’ company in New York, and I took a mask class from a woman who does mask work at Juilliard. They’re these incredible masks, and you put them on and look at yourself in the mirror, and the mask starts to talk to you, and a voice comes with it, a character. And then over the course of, like, five hours, you start developing your character and improvising and making a story. I’d done that a couple of weeks before this happened, and I just said, “Oh! That’s what it is: the glasses are sort of the mask!”

Actually, at one point during the audition process, I went up on my lines, and I said, “Tig, would you give me just a second? I want to look at my script.” And she said, “You don’t need the script. You are Bill!” And I thought, “Well, there we go!” And I’m very fortunate that she had the power in this situation to cast the person she wanted. You know, it wasn’t by committee, as it so often is, where they ask, “What’s his TV Q Rating?” and all of that. Because I have a good career as a working actor, but I haven’t done a lot of TV. I’ve done one other TV series. So that was great that it was up to her. And I have to say that, after the pilot, they started writing Bill for me. I’m very happy with the series. I mean, I know the writing is extraordinarily good, but it really works across the board.

The wrap present for all of us was all of her CDs, including… I don’t know if you know, but she did a whole Moth Radio Hour on her father. As an actor, that was quite something to get, to be able to have this insight into her childhood relationship with him.

You know, it’s funny: working on really good movies with great directors, which I’ve done – I worked with Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Alan Pakula, Anthony Minghella… I did a movie called Mr. Wonderful with Anthony. But this work in One Mississippi is the same kind of thing. You have a really creative, excellent director. I have to say, a lot of times in TV, you’re moving fast, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s about how many pages you can do in a day and how quickly you can get it done. The thing I love about movies, generally, is the time that it can take, the attention to detail… All of that is in One Mississippi.

Stardust Memories (1980)—“Jack Abel”
Zelig (1983)—“Paul Deghuee”
The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985)—“Mr. Hirsch’s Lawyer”
Radio Days (1987)—“Radio Actor” (uncredited)

AVC: Per IMDb, your first time in front of the camera was for Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories.

JR: It was. It was literally my first movie. And for so many reasons, it was a great experience. Jessica Harper, I played her boyfriend, and she’s my sister-in-law now! But we had actually gone to college together. She had transferred from Sarah Lawrence to Wesleyan, where I was an undergrad, and I had a total thing for her. [Laughs.]

In fact, I had done a lot of acting in high school, even in elementary school. I wasn’t exactly a child actor, but even as a kid I was doing community theater. I grew up in Baltimore, and there’s a thing called the Baltimore Actors Theater, and it was sort of a semi-professional theater.

Anyway, I did that, and somebody told me, “You know, you could really be an actor.” I was very frightened of that possibility, actually, and when I went to college, I deliberately did no drama. I studied architecture. I was an English major. But I didn’t go near the theater department until my senior year, when Jessica Harper showed up. And she was taking a drama class, so I signed up for a drama class, got into a play, and realized that that’s what I was going to do. She, meanwhile, left school and went and auditioned for Hair and ended up on Broadway for two years. I really kind of lost touch with her after thatalthough she was singing in New York and she was around—but I was sitting there with Woody Allen while he was explaining my part to me, and he said, “This is going to be your girlfriend.” And he handed me a picture of Jessica. That was pretty good! [Laughs.]

I don’t know if this is common knowledge, but Jessica and Woody were a couple. After Diane, before Mia, they were a couple. And the result of that for me was that, at lunch on Stardust Memories, Woody would go to Elaine’s for lunch, take Jessica, and Jessica would come by, knock on my door, and say, “Come on and come with us!” So I had these incredible lunches with Woody that were like an education in film history and baseball and jazz.

I also went on to be in Zelig and The Purple Rose Of Cairo, and in Radio Days he had written me a part that was so funny and so great, but then the part was almost completely cut from the movie. Originally I played a radio actor—and this whole thing is not in the movie—who’s beautifully dressed, standing at a microphone with a beautiful girl, smoking a cigarette, doing a western. And the sound effects guy is behind us, doing all the sound effects. And the drama is about the cowboy riding into town on a horse, having a gunfight, jumping on a train… It’s the whole thing, and it’s all about the sound effects guy. It was so funny!

And then he cast me as another part in the movie, where there was a radio drama company, and we were doing Chekhov. It was, like, The Moscow Drama Theater Of The Air or something. But if you remember the movie, Mia’s character wants to be an actress, and the producer says she has to be in the company. She’s going to play Masha or something in Three Sisters. And I had a very funny scene—also not in the movie!—with Bill Macy, saying, “I cannot work with her! I am an actor! I can’t work with this… amateur!” But he says I have to. And then we’re about to go on the air, and the guy in the booth stops the thing, runs out, and says, “The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor!” And I go, “Thank God! We don’t have to do Three Sisters!” [Laughs.] But the only thing that’s in the movie is this crazy moment where the guy is running out of the booth saying, “The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor!” And the actors are going, “Oh, great!” It sort of works—they’re just actors who don’t care about anything but their acting—but, anyway, that’s it for me in Radio Days!

Birdland (1994)—“Dr. Alan Bergman”
Feds (1997)—“Agent Katz”

AVC: So Birdland was the only other series regular role that you’d had prior to One Mississippi.

JR: That was a highly touted series, a hot series at the time. Brian Dennehy’s return to TV. And it was produced by Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald. Actually, I was in a car with Walter, I think, when he was talking to Steven Spielberg about taking over Amblin. He was a producer, but he wasn’t there, for various reasons. The pilot was written by Scott Frank, and the pilot was fantastic. Really, really good.

One of the things about that series, though, was that they hired great character actors. The list of people that they brought in for day players and supporting roles was extraordinary, and I think as a result the budget was over-budget, and the series only ran for six or seven episodes. The lesson was that you need a writer—somebody like a Tig Notaro, a David Milch—the person whose story it is, someone who’s invested in it. It was one of those things where they only picked up those few episodes and Scott Frank wasn’t in the writer’s room—I don’t know who was in the writer’s room—and, frankly, the scripts just got worse and worse, Brian Dennehy got more and more unhappy, and it was not a happy thing. Although I loved doing it. It was a fun part, running a hospital, and I had fun stuff to do with Brian. It was great!

Just to talk about my career for a moment, to put this in perspective, I came to New York in the late ’70s, and as I said to my parents, I could work continuously off-Broadway—it was one thing to the next—but you weren’t making any money, and you couldn’t really make a living doing that. I was trying to break into commercials so I could afford to do that. But then I got Stardust Memories, which was cast by Juliet Taylor, who also cast a lot of other things, and she cast me in Heartburn and Big… In the ’80s, I was in a lot of the movies in New York, a lot of great stuff, and there was no reason to go to L.A. And then there was sort of a moment where New York really shut down for feature production because they had different work rules, and the studio basically said, “If you’re not going to do it our way, we’re going to go to Toronto.” This was in the early to mid-’90s. There was very little feature film work in New York. I mean, Woody was still doing it, of course, but I had to go to California to look for work. I had a ticket to come back to New York, but I went to network at ABC, and I got that series in a two-week window. [Laughs.] And I didn’t change my reservation or anything. I tell you that just to show you how completely random show business is.

So, yeah, Birdland was the only other series regular role I had, but I had what should’ve been a series-regular role in a failed Dick Wolf series called Feds. It was an amazing series, with John Slattery, Dylan Baker, Blair Brown… It was sort of white-collar crime. It’s funny, I was watching [John] Turturro in The Night Of, and it’s set in the same world that Feds was set in, down in that part of New York. Anyway, I was recurring on that series…but in every episode!

Golden Years (1991)—“Dr. Ackerman”

JR: That’s another one that was just a terrific project. I loved that part. It was Stephen King. [And] Keith Szarabajka and Frances Sternhagen, who’s such a wonderful actress. It was a very interesting, fun part. Actually, a lot of it was directed by Allen Coulter, who went on to become a very important producer and director on The Sopranos. We shot it in North Carolina, and Keith Szarabajka was a friend of mine, and he actually asked me if I wanted to stay with him, since they’d given him a house on Figure Eight Island, so I did. And he had to have makeup, since the whole thing revolved around him being old and getting younger and younger. Now they can do makeup a lot faster, they’ve got prosthetics or whatever, but they had to do layers of latex, and he’d be in three or four hours of makeup in the morning and then had to take it off, and he was in it every day, so he was never there! And this leads me to something worth nothing: Being a character actor, playing mostly supporting roles, can be a really good job, because you don’t have to work every single day. [Laughs.] I enjoyed the house in North Carolina while he was going off to work!

Arrested Development (2004)—“Charles Milford”
Bored To Death (2010)—“Dean Saunders”

JR: Arrested Development was so much fun. I wish there’d been more of that character. What a great thing. And it’s great that the series got a second life, and it’s still out there. I was the headmaster of the Milford School, when Michael was trying to get his son into the school. I’ve done a bunch of headmasters. Bored To Death was another one. Again, another one-off. This is an actor’s life, but they always say, “This is a part that’s possibly recurring.” And you look at that part, and you think, “Oh, there’ll have to be more than just one episode!” But there’s not.

The Devil’s Advocate (1997)—“District Attorney Broygo”

JR: Okay, I do have a story about that. Taylor Hackford directed the film, and I had three callbacks. There was very serious interest in me for the role that Jeff Jones ultimately played, which was a pretty big role in that movie. And then Mary Culquhoun, who was a great casting director, called me and said, “I’m sorry, it’s not going to work out, but we’d love you to do this district attorney. If you’ll do it, we’ll pay your quote, it’s going to be on a weekend and won’t interfere with anything else. Please.” I said, “Okay, sure.” I didn’t even really look at it until, like, the night before I was going to start. And then I looked at it, and I thought, “Oh, my God, this is some pretty nice dialogue, talking about ‘murder with malice aforethought’ and everything. This is a good lawyer scene!”

We shot it in the actual courtroom at 60 Center Street where the Rosenberg trial took place. I mean, it’s a famous courtroom. Keanu [Reeves] and I had the judge’s chambers as a green room, so we played chess and hung out all day. I got to do this even though there’s not a whole lot of me in the movie. Doing the summation with the jury, if you’ll notice, Al is watching as Keanu does his thing. But you know it takes so long to do a scene on a feature film, especially one directed by Taylor Hackford, where he had the camera on a crane, flying around the room, for all the coverage. So I was doing my scene, and Al was watching me all day. It was a change of roles: He got to watch me work all day! [Laughs.] So that was fun. And I got to spend a very lovely afternoon with Keanu, so that turned out to be much better than I had anticipated.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)—“Librarian”
Prime (2005)—“John Bloomberg”
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)—“Editor”

JL: I have a website now, and it’s allowing me to put clips from all these movies. It takes time to edit them, but they’re working on that. Anyway, I thought about having a section that would be just lawyers. I’ve played a lot of lawyers.

AVC: Lawyers, doctors, librarians…

JL: Librarians, yes! Oh, but you’re bringing up a sore subject: Why wasn’t I in the new Ghostbusters? [Laughs.] But, yes, I was a librarian in Ghostbusters, I was a librarian in Sophie’s Choice… That was my second movie, Sophie’s Choice, and that was wonderful. That’s definitely on my website. It’s a great scene where Meryl [Streep] is coming into the library and saying [Affects accent.] “The poems of Emil Dickens, please.” I said, “There is no Emil Dickens.” “Yes, please, I am sure. Emil Dickens.” And then I yell at her, and she faints, and Kevin [Kline] comes out and rescues her. The point is that the Brooklyn librarian is as much of a Nazi as the actual Nazis. He’s a Nazi librarian, really. In fact, the American Library Association was very upset about my portrayal!

It was very good, though. That was a great experience. I mean, Alan Pakula was a great director; Nestor Almendros was a great cinematographer. Also, Meryl is a very old friend. I went to school with Meryl, and we’re very, very good friends to this day. In fact, I went to the premiere of Florence Foster Jenkins. It was great, as I knew it was going to be. But being her friend, I’m around when she’s thinking about what she’s doing and when she’s working on things, and Sophie’s Choice was a long saga of winning that part and working on that part. I used to live on the lower East Side, and there was a Polish restaurant right on First Avenue. Meryl and I would have lunch there, and she would listen to the Polish, and then she would learn Polish and talk Polish. And they shot that movie in New York.

Anyway, I felt like, even though I only had that one part as the librarian, I was around, and I felt very much a part of that whole movie. Also, do you know Prime? It’s a very bad title for a very good movie. [Laughs.] I mean, really. It’s a movie where I play Meryl’s husband. She’s a Jewish psychiatrist in the upper West Side, her son is played by Bryan Greenberg, who falls in love with Uma Thurman’s character, who’s Meryl’s patient, and it uses Meryl’s sort of physical comedy. She’s so funny. And that was a great experience. As I say, I’ve known her for a long time, and I’ve done other films with her. I’m in The Devil Wears Prada, although we don’t have scenes together. But actually getting to play her husband in Prime was thrilling. I hope I get to do it again!

Ghostbusters (1984)—“Library Administrator”

AVC: Ghostbusters has certainly remained one of your most high-profile roles over the years.

JR: It’s funny. It’s very high-profile, and because of VHS, it was probably the first time kids could watch a movie like that over and over and over again, which they did. And it was worldwide! My daughter was working in a summer project in Corsica in high school, and at the end of it they had a celebration, a party, and they showed Ghostbusters on the wall of the building. [Laughs.] I’ve been interviewed by an Italian Ghostbusters fan club, there’s a documentary about the film that I was interviewed for. But at the time, coming from working 24 weeks on Stardust Memories, working with Meryl on Sophie’s Choice, when they came to me with Ghostbusters, it was such a small part that I thought, “Should I do this?” And Sigourney Weaver, another classmate of mine, called me and said, “You’re crazy! Of course you have to do this movie!”

One of the great memories of my career is being in the makeup trailer early in the morning on 41st Street with Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis while they were getting made up and getting ready for the day, and how incredibly funny they were. It was so fun. And then the movie itself... Well, it’s an amazing movie.

Copycat (1995)—“Andy”

JR: I was thinking about Sigourney for a second, because the other really major role I’ve had is Copycat, and that was another case where I actually had the whole movie. In fact, they reshot. There were changes in that movie where they killed my character. Originally I was not supposed to have my head cut off in an alley. The ending didn’t work, so they re-shot and sort of simplified it. But I was on that movie for a long time, and a lot of me did survive in that movie. That was great.

Gettysburg (1993)—“Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds”
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)—“Jefferson Davis”

JR: I just saw the King Of The Vampires—Rufus Sewell—a few minutes ago. He’s on another Amazon show [The Man In The High Castle]. And that was my first trip to New Orleans, which was fun. You know, the sort of costume dramas are often fun. I’ve done a few of those. But Gettysburg, of course, that was a great one, for all sorts of reasons. We were actually shooting in Gettysburg, on the battlefields of Gettysburg, riding horses… My first scene was on horseback with Sam Elliott. He’s a trip. [Laughs.]

One of my best scenes in Gettysburg was cut, because it was four and a half hours long! But if you put “Buford and Reynolds” and “deleted scene” and search for it, you can find it. I think it may have actually been in the British version. But it’s out there. And that was the scene that had my best line in the whole thing, where I say to one of my men, “Go down and tell the people in town to go inside, because there’s apt to be a little brouhaha today,” or something like that… and it was the Battle of Gettysburg! [Laughs.] But that moment didn’t make it into the film. Thank goodness for YouTube, though, because it’s out there… although some of my cut stuff I’m glad isn’t out there!

Third Watch (1999)—“Ross Green”

JR: I did an episode of Third Watch during its first season. A prostitute takes all of my character’s clothes and locks him in a car. So I’m locked in a car, naked, and they have to come and get me out. And they say, “You’re going to be naked. How do you feel about that? Is that okay?” And it wasn’t too many years after Dennis Franz’s butt was on NYPD Blue… and now my butt was going to be on Third Watch! [Laughs.] Which I was okay with. I decided I was going to do with it, and I didn’t question it. Of course, the crew was all getting into the set, and everyone was very nervous about it. So they get me out of the car, and I knew it was network television, so I knew they were going to be careful, although there was a moment where my hands were against the car.

So I’m having lunch in a restaurant in New York by myself, I’m reading The New York Times, and there’s an article about John Ridley, the guy who wrote Third Watch, and how he was a triple threat: He had the movie Three Kings, he had a novel at the time, and now he’s got Third Watch. So they had a picture from the movie, they had the cover of the novel, and for Third Watch, there’s a picture of me, naked up against the car! [Laughs.] I just went, “Oh, my God…”