Talking movies and acting with Tool’s Maynard James Keenan

Talking movies and acting with Tool’s Maynard James Keenan

Though best known as the frontman of Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer, Maynard James Keenan has actually had quite a varied career. He appeared in several sketches on Mr. Show, played Satan in both 2002’s Bikini Bandits and 2004’s Bikini Bandits 2: Golden Rod, and played a dog walker in 2009’s Crank: High Voltage. Keenan also owns a couple of wineries, Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards and Arizona Stronghold, an organic produce market in Cornville, Arizona, and was part owner of L.A. restaurant Cobras & Matadors. But Keenan’s main love is still his music. Late last year, he helmed A Perfect Circle’s first greatest-hits collection, a live box set of APC material, and a Puscifer DVD that was part concert film and part sketch-comedy showcase. The common thread, though, is Keenan’s eccentric aesthetic. The A.V. Club wanted to delve further into the origins of his identity, so we asked Keenan to mock up a 24-hour film fest of the movies that shaped his artistic output.

The A.V. Club: How would you explain the theme of your list?

Maynard James Keenan: Random stuff somebody suggested. You could also call this list, “films that have a structure that is complete.” A lot of films have a good guy where there is nothing to hate about them, and a bad guy where there’s nothing to like about them—and it’s an awkward, unrealistic film that has nothing to do with life. People aren’t that simple. There’s something to like and not like about pretty much everybody.

8 a.m.: Bliss (1985)
MJK: That was one of those films where it’s college, you’re living in some place that’s barely or a lot below the poverty level with your roommate, you’re drunk a lot, and you stumble down to the 7-11 or whatever to grab something because they happen to have videos behind the counter. So we rented one just because the box looked ridiculous. We randomly, in an inebriated state, rent a video, take it home and pop it in and it’s just one of those films. It’s an Australian film, and after the first minute, I was hooked. Like, “What the fuck did we just rent?” And it just keeps taking these comedic, weird, dark turns where we were laughing and horrified at the same time. But as it all wraps up, it turns into a love story in a way that would totally hook two dudes in a room who are trying not to show that they’re kind of crying. It’s a curveball, like, “I just got something in my eye, bro!” The whole film is just a crazy ride. It crosses genres halfway through. It’s one of those that stuck with me.

AVC: After you saw it did you recommend it to people?

MJK: Well, I was living in Michigan at the time so there weren’t that many people that could relate to it.

10 a.m.: Blue Velvet (1986)
MJK: Blue Velvet was a game changer for me. It brought out some of the darker sides of my friends. They were more into Porky’s and Fast Times At Ridgemont High and then, all of a sudden, they discovered Blue Velvet and it really flipped a switch. They started to really get into film in a way that opened the door for them. It was like a gateway drug for film. They started to understand a more complex dynamic in film and how you could actually embrace a dark story and laugh at it and be kind of scared by it.

AVC: Do you think it was that movie in particular? Or just that movie at that time?

MJK: There were probably movies around that time that we just hadn’t been exposed to, but Blue Velvet was the film that really hit us. I graduated in 1982. I’d seen crazy films at that point so I was already beyond saving in terms of my community’s perception of my path. I wasn’t going to be the high school guidance counselor; I was off on some other tangent. But Blue Velvet is when I witnessed a change in my friends from my generation, a change in their perception of art or entertainment or poetry or whatever you want to call it. That was an awakening point.

12 p.m.: Gummo (1997)/Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
AVC: On your list, you have Gummo and Napoleon Dynamite linked with a slash. How are they linked in your mind?

MJK: One is in Ohio and the other one is in Idaho, but to me, having grown up in Ohio, there’s one side of the tracks where Gummo is happening, and on the other side of the tracks, Napoleon Dynamite is happening. They’re parallel. There are parallel characters in each of those situations. The dark side of the track happens one way and the other side of the track is where Napoleon is trying to beat up his uncle.

AVC: One side was certainly more commercially successful than the other.

MJK: Oh, yeah. And it was almost like two sides of that coin, again. It was almost like watching the Blue Velvet side of things. Gummo was nestled firmly in that darker perception of a very similar situation. To me, it was just very similar; I almost saw them as the same movie, but through different eyes and on different sides of the tracks. It would take you actually sitting down and watching them side-by-side—which could be difficult because, to me, Gummo is a one or two-time watch. You can’t really make yourself watch that darkness too many times because it gets on you and you can’t get it off.

AVC: When would someone be in the mood to watch Gummo?

MJK: I don’t know. After you’re fired or your house burns down or something, I guess. Or when you go back to Ohio to visit your family and you have to remind yourself that they’re not quite that bad.

4 p.m.: Happiness (1998)
MJK: Happiness, to me, was almost like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in that everyone was awful and wonderful at the same time. They all had their interesting sides, but they were all monsters. They were all really fucked up. I had never seen a film like that except, like I said, Unforgiven, where everybody was basically a balanced character, but a little darker than balanced. And it was kind of real. Growing up in Ohio was like a cross between Gummo, Happiness, and The Apostle.

A Perfect Circle | Photo by Tim Cadiente

AVC: Where are you from in Ohio?

MJK: I was born in Akron. So The Apostle, Happiness, and Gummo are a nice slice to me. That’s what growing up in Ohio was; everybody had their face and everybody had their makeup and had their posturing but behind all of that, you saw all this crazy shit. It was just a lot of hypocrisy. That’s why I liked Happiness, because you see all these people trying to put on this face, and they all have cracks in their foundation. That’s a realistic film to me. Then everybody can recognize the cracks in their foundation and start to fix them if they have a desire to.

6 p.m.: Videodrome (1983), Female Trouble (1974), Repo Man (1984)
MJK: Videodrome was another one of those unexpected films that a friend dropped on me. It actually was together with Female Trouble and Repo Man, all on one videotape. Back when you could do three movies on the one VHS tape and they were all kind of grainy but you watched it anyway.

AVC: And you had to fast forward if you only wanted to watch the middle one.

MJK: Yeah. So it was Videodrome, Female Trouble, and Repo Man all on one tape. Those films were just a sneak attack that you didn’t see coming. It was just James Woods killing it and, of course, Divine.

I guess when you grow up in Michigan or Ohio, you go to the theater and there are all these films that you’re exposed to where everyone is in agreement, whether it’s Star Wars or whatever was out in the theater, there was this consensus. Then you get into college and start discovering these independent films or under the radar films like Scanners and Videodrome and Female Trouble and the David Lynch stuff and you’re like, “Holy shit, there’s a whole other world of film out there that has nothing to do with my aunt! Or my church!” I would put every dollar I’ve ever earned or will earn on the bet that none of my family will ever see these films. So that was kind of a weird awakening when you see these things and when you all of a sudden feel not lonely, but liberated in a way—or a little of both.

AVC: Did that sense of movie superiority make the films appeal to you more?

MJK: Yeah, because as a kid, you’re like, “This is mine, you can’t touch this!”

AVC: “You wouldn’t get it.”

MJK: Yeah. You won’t get this, you won’t understand this.

AVC: John Waters is too highbrow for you!

MJK: Yeah. Eating shit off a lawn. That’s just way over your head.

AVC: How many times do you think you’ve seen some of these movies?

MJK: Oh, God. Videodrome, Female Trouble, and Repo Man, 100, maybe 150 times. Not all of them conscious, of course.

Puscifer | Photo by Tim Cadiente

12 a.m.: Super Troopers (2001)
MJK: Super Troopers was almost like a lightning strike for those guys [Broken Lizard]. I have a lot of faith that they’ll figure it out and make something else great.

AVC: They’re supposedly making a Super Troopers sequel.

MJK: I will reserve judgment on that one for sure. Unless they find those characters again, I don’t really know how they’re going to do a sequel. But I will definitely check that film out. But whatever happened with Super Troopers, it’s like a perfectly written high school comedy. It’s that sophomoric humor that fell in place and everyone in that film found that character. I think they nailed that film and it’s one of those guilty-pleasure films for me. If I’m on tour, I’ve always got that one on my iPad or my laptop or the DVD version of it on the bus.

AVC: Maybe the Broken Lizard guys experienced a lag after Super Troopers because—and this happens with bands, too—you’ve put seven or 10 years into working on a first project and then you just have to churn something else out in a year.

MJK: My first album took my whole life to write. Some bands, the second record, you’re under pressure and still have some ideas left over, so it turns out decent. And then the third one is all about being in a bus, because what the fuck else have they done other than being in a bus?

Those guys, I’m sure, are all stuck in those rooms trying to write these characters and all they know is craft services and bad coffee and you can’t quite get back to whatever took you all that time to write those characters and write that script.

AVC: Did you ever have that problem? How did you get over it?

MJK: You just take the time you need. You live life and talk to different people. I’m part Irish, so I have all kinds of angst built up. It’s an endless wellspring of hostility and sarcasm. You can translate that into music all day long.

2 a.m.: The Chronicles Of Riddick (2004)
MJK: My wife hates this movie. We were on our satellite dish and I was scrolling to see what was on. If she sees Chronicles Of Riddick she’ll try to distract me. Then she’ll just leave. Half the time I watch it just to bug her.

AVC: Why does she hate it?

MJK: Well, for the obvious reasons. It’s sci-fi but you have this one-liner dude that’s just awful. It’s so great. Some of the guys that are actually in that film, I can’t remember their names, but there are some serious thespians in that film. As you’re looking at it, you just think, “Why are you in this movie?!” I guess it’s because you’re an actor and that’s what you do. You embrace a part and then you deal with Vin Diesel fucking up a movie. How do you deal with that, how do you get around that?

AVC: Did you see the sequel?

MJK: Yeah. God, it was awful, but I watched the whole thing!

4 a.m. on: “Anything with The Denzel”
AVC: The last movie on your list is “Anything with Denzel.”

MJK: The Denzel. Say it properly. The Denzel Washington.

AVC: Why are you such a big fan?

MJK: I don’t know. I guess I’m a product of American living. Germans love David Hasselhoff and I just love the Denzel Washington. I can’t explain it. It’s that guilty pleasure. It’s almost like when you’re a kid and you have your blanket. He’s my comfort blanket.

AVC: He does have some pretty polarizing movies, though. You can like American Gangster but hate The Book Of Eli.

MJK: You and I just completely disagreed; polar opposites. There were no swords in American Gangster. Where were the swords in American Gangster? Tell me that.

AVC: They didn’t really need swords. Maybe they had knives?

MJK: Then it’s a shitty film. I’m just kidding. I liked American Gangster. I guess it would be a good psychological study to sit down and go, “Why do nine out of 10 silly white dudes just love Denzel Washington films?” Sit down 10 bald guys and go, “How many of you like the Denzel Washington? Raise your hands.”

AVC: Have you done an informal study? Do all of your friends like the Denzel Washington?

MJK: All of my friends are on the road. I got all the crew, the band, and everybody to go to the theater on an off day. Nobody was in the theater but, like, two other people and we saw… I don’t even remember which film it was, but it was with Ryan Reynolds and Denzel. Half of the people in the group were like, “Why the fuck are we here?!” And when Denzel got shot, I was like, “No!” in the theater. And they were just laughing at me.

Photo by David Goldman

AVC: Are you talking about Safe House?

MJK: Safe House! That was the one. He shoots sideways while walking and not looking; that’s how amazing the Denzel Washington is. He doesn’t even have to look at his target, he just shoots that way. The bullet will go there.

AVC: What’s your favorite Denzel movie?

MJK: Training Day is one of my favorites, I think. I can’t put my finger on it, but it just resonates with me. Believe me, it’s not one of my favorite films at all, but it’s the one that’s most memorable for me. We could go on for hours about film and just one single part of one film that resonates with me or whatever. For example, in The Last Boy Scout, stupid movie, but Kim Coates, his whole part with Bruce Willis was so fucking memorable that he owned that piece and he took that thing as far as anyone could take it and I’ll remember it forever. I like films that have those moments where artists take something, make it their own, and take it beyond the realm of any possibility. On paper, you couldn’t have possibly explained to Kim Coates what to do in that scene, but he took it and owned it.

AVC: Did any of these movies influence your acting?

MJK: They made me realize how, if I’m going to act, I need to stop everything I’m doing and do it because my skill level for acting is non-existent. I have no experience or natural acting ability, so I would have to stop everything I’m doing to justify being in a film. I’d have to really work at it. If you’re going to sit down and take the time to be in a film… unless you’re going for the camp factor to watch me just fuck it up and be awful and just laughing at it, if that’s your goal and that’s our goal together, I can totally do that for you. But to actually be one of those people that you remember in that part for that one single bit, it’s not really responsible of me to take a part when so many other people could do it so much better. I have to take the time to study harder.

AVC: Is that something you want to do?

MJK: I don’t think I have the time. Little bit parts that I could do take a solid month to shoot 30 seconds on the screen, and if I think it’s worth taking that time to do it, absolutely I’d like to do that. But to be in a full feature film… I did that one time and it did not work out for me. I looked at the film and was like, “God that was fucking dreadful, I’m never doing that again.”

AVC: Are you talking about Queens Of Country with Ron Livingston and Lizzy Caplan?

MJK: Yeah. Oh my God, that one. I hope it never sees the light of day. All the actors in that film are fantastic, but I was dreadful and embarrassing and I can’t even watch it. I won’t be taking any calls for those kinds of films anymore.


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