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: If Ted Levine had done nothing else in his career, he’d still be remembered for his instantly iconic performance as Jame Gumb, a.k.a. the serial killer Buffalo Bill, in The Silence Of The Lambs. But Levine has defied the odds—not to mention the many naysayers who thought they’d never be able to picture him in any role after seeing him do his revealing dance number in the film—by playing a wide variety of parts over the course of his 30-plus-year career, most notably an eight-season run as Captain Leland Stottlemeyer on Monk. In addition to his work on FX’s The Bridge, Levine can be seen in The Banshee Chapter, in theaters now.
The Banshee Chapter (2013)—“Thomas Blackburn”
The A.V. Club: So how did you find your way onto this film in the first place? Did they reach out to you specifically, or did the script just find its way to you and you liked it?
Ted Levine: I read it. Thought it was funny.
AVC: That’ll work. Did they steer you in any particular direction with the character? He obviously bears a striking resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson, but was that there to begin with?
TL: Yeah, that was there. I mean, the comparisons are undeniable. I tried to make a deliberate turn away from Hunter S. Thompson and actually do my brother David a little bit more, who was a junkie and a writer, so… there you go.
AVC: How was the process of working on the film, given it was a first-time writer-director?
TL: He wrote and directed it, which is a difficult proposition for anyone, because you’ve taken out an objective viewpoint. I mean, it’s hard to have written something and directed it. You have to rely strongly on your producers to keep that objective eye, to make sure that you’re actually telling the story, because you sort of feel like you had it on the page. I think [producer] Corey Moosa had that role.
AVC: You mentioned that you brought a bit of your brother to the role, but beyond that, what would you say that you brought to Thomas Blackburn that wasn’t already on the page?
TL: Oh, I improvised some shit, you know? [Laughs.] Which was good. Some of it stayed. A lot of it didn’t. There was some stuff that I thought was pretty hysterical, particularly in that first scene with Katia [Winter] in the bar. He saw her for what she was, I think, and he played with her a bit. They cut to the chase a little bit sooner, which is fine. It’s all about the story.
Murder In High Places (1991)—“Carson Russell”
AVC: Thomas Blackburn isn’t the first Hunter S. Thompson-esque character you’ve played: You were actually in a pilot for a series where you played a writer who was described with that exact phrase. Did you borrow any of Carson Russell to use in Thomas Blackburn?
TL: I’m sure I did. I had fun with that, too. Again, I did my brother. [Laughs.] You can say “David Levine-esque” if you wanted to. I source my family a bit for my work.
Through Naked Eyes (1983)—“Patrolman”
American Playhouse: The Killing Floor (1984)—“Policeman”
One More Saturday Night (1986)—“Cop in station”
AVC: If IMDB can be trusted, the first on-camera role you ever scored was as a patrolman in a TV movie called Through Naked Eyes.
TL: Yeah, absolutely! I remember that. With David Soul!
AVC: It’s since been removed, but it was actually available for viewing on Netflix for a while.
TL: No kidding! [Laughs.] That was, what, 1983 or something? It was a long time ago.
AVC: You seemed to do a lot of cop roles back then: You were a patrolman in that film, you were a policeman in an installment of American Playhouse…
TL: Yeah, early on I did a number of police. And military guys. I keep coming back to that.
AVC: Do you think that’s a Chicago-actor thing? Neil Flynn spent a lot of his early career as “Cop #1” as well.
TL: Neil! I know, Neil. Yeah, I’m sure it is. “Oh, we’ll just get somebody from Chicago to play a cop.”
AVC: There’s one particularly curious cop role, since it was in One More Saturday Night, which starred Al Franken and Tom Davis.
TL: [Bursts out laughing.] Did that ever see the light of day?
AVC: It did on home video, at least.
TL: Really? I’ll be damned. I’d love to see that. Al Franken. That’s hysterical.
AVC: It was their attempt to step away from Saturday Night Live and do something outside of the show.
TL: I guess. I just remember meeting David Mamet. I thought he was a real asshole. He was rude to me. I was at that workshop production of American Buffalo in Chicago, and I really enjoyed it. I went up to tell him as much, and he basically was just, “And you are…?” Like it mattered how important I was or something. I just wanted to talk to the asshole! [Laughs.] So that’s what I remember from One More Saturday Night: He was on the set, and he was a prick.
AVC: Both of your parents were doctors. What made you decide to become an actor?
TL: I was always acting as a kid. I was performing for my friends and shit. I’d be on the diving board and go, “Shoot me!” And you fall off the diving board, hit the water, float face down, and really try to make people think they’d shot you. That was sort of the objective. It was just fun, you know? And I wasn’t smart enough to be a doctor. None of us were. We were all supposed to be, because we were bred by two of ’em! [Laughs.] But none of us were that smart. I think I just turned out smart enough to know that I wasn’t that smart, so I went on to do something else.
AVC: Was there a particular point when you decided that you were going to pursue it as a career?
TL: Yeah. I had been in college and I dropped out, and I joined a little theater company. I didn’t really want to do it, because I didn’t really think… I wanted to have a family and a life and all that kind of deal, and it just became apparent to me that that wouldn’t be easy. I’d been on tour in West Virginia with a repertory company, where it was 13 actors in a nine-passenger van, touring around the South. We did a Scottish play and The Last Meeting Of The Knights Of The White Magnolia, and… it was kind of hellish. And on the way back, I decided that I was going to go back to school after having dropped out. And on the way back north to Chicago, I stopped in at the University Of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana, and the first place I ended up going was the theater. I wanted to go back and maybe go into biology. I’m into birds and shit, and I thought I’d be a zoologist or an ornithologist or some kind of thing. I was into that. And the first place I went when I got to campus was the theater, and I walked in, and there were the lights on the stage. I walked out on the stage and made some noises, and… I was hooked. So I kind of didn’t want to, but fortunately I made a living at it.
AVC: How valuable was the experience of working with the Remains Theater?
TL: Oh, invaluable. It was really cool. Amy Morton got me hooked up with them. I did music for the first show, then I started doing small parts in it and doing sets and all that kind of deal. But it was an ensemble with a group of people, and I learned a lot there… about everything, but mostly about telling the story collectively. Which is what we do. That’s why I learned that lesson, and I think a lot of people who come to this don’t know that. They’re sort of focused on themselves and shit, when in fact… I mean, the best things I’ve been involved with have been when everyone was pulling their weight and telling the story and there was a sense of a movement to get that done. And the shittiest things I’ve been involved with have been with people who were stars. So I learned that in the theater, and in the Remains Theater in particular. Because it was an ensemble, and nobody made any money. We made the sets, and we pulled our weight. And I’ve taken that lesson into my later work, hopefully.
Crime Story (1986-1987)—“Frank Holman”
AVC: There’s a story that’s made the rounds about how you first met Michael Mann because you crashed the Manhunter wrap party in order to hang out with William Petersen.
TL: Yes! [Laughs.] Absolutely. I crashed that party, and I used Billy’s name to crash it. I was on tour with the touring company of Biloxi Blues, and we were in Miami. And I heard this party was going on, and I made a bet with one of the kids in the company that I could get us in. I found a bouncer—because it was, like, serious security, guns out and whatnot—and I told him, “Go find Michael Mann and tell him that a friend of Billy Petersen is here.” I knew that Billy and Michael were pretty thick, and Billy and I were pretty thick because of the theater company back at that time. I haven’t seen him or spoken to him in forever. But I knew that would get me in the door, and it did. And when the guy came back, there was a cute girl in the company, so I was, like, “And they get to come, too.” And the guy nodded to them, so we all got in.
So I met Michael, said “hello” and shook his hand, and… I think he was impressed with the fact that I was able to crash that party, that I figured out a way to do it. Anyway, later on… Well, in fact, I got fired off of Biloxi Blues, but I got a call from an agent when I was in Key West… with my brother David! We were pretty fucked up. [Laughs.] But I got a call to come back to Chicago to audition for Crime Story. So that’s how I got hooked up with Michael.
That show was a gas. What was cool about it… well, basically, the core of this business, what I do, is lying, you know? When you get out there, I don’t care who you are or wherever you go, you’re basically telling a really good fucking lie when you’re playing a character. And what was cool about Frank Holman is that he was a liar. To varying degrees, but he was, “Yeah, yeah, I’m acting!” He was a liar. And it was a whole lot of fun, because every situation he was in, he was basically lying. And within that context, again, I did a lot of improvising, and the writers picked up on that, and we had a lot of fun. They kind of went with it, and the character developed, and… that was that! It was a great time.
And that was the first real television job I had. I had my little brown paper bag and a peanut butter sandwich and an orange, and I get there, it’s lunchtime, and I see this spread of shrimp and salad and… it was unbelievable. And I backed over to the trashcan and dropped my little peanut butter sandwich and orange there, I loaded up a plate, and never looked back.
Luck (2012)—“Isadore Cohen”
AVC: As far as TV goes, how different or similar was Michael to work with when you played Isadore Cohen on Luck?
TL: That was a little bit odd, because it wasn’t Michael’s deal entirely. It was the two guys, and it was [David] Milch’s script. Initially, Michael was excited about getting me into the part of Marcus, but Kevin Dunn, a wonderful actor, ended up playing the part. It was kind of like Michael was pushing me for it and then I think had to back off and go with Milch’s choice. Which is fine. But the Isadore Cohen character… I never really got a handle on him. He was written or described as being this sort of distrustful Jewish guy who was kind of a scumbag, and I’m not ready to go there yet. I could have, with a little makeup, I guess. But, anyway, because of the way Milch works, the sort of stream-of-consciousness thing, I couldn’t really find a through-line for that character. I never really felt like I scratched the surface on that. It wasn’t long enough, and I didn’t really have enough work to do it. You’ve got to have a hook to hang your hat on, and I never got that with that show.
Moby Dick (1998)—“Starbuck”
TL: Oh, that was a gas. That was really cool. The director (Franc Roddam) was a little condescending toward the Americans. And television, in a way. He would say things like, “Well, we have to make this understandable for the people in Blue Balls, Montana.” And I was like, “Uh, this is understandable. This is a great freaking story! The words are great!” And Patrick [Stewart] was great, because he supported me on a lot of trying to stay true to the book, as opposed to painting broad strokes for a television audience. You know, it was just a bit of assuming that the audience was dumb when, in fact, they’re not. So we lost a bit of that. But it was a great experience, and it was really great to have a take on Starbuck, because I think the character in the original film with Gregory Peck…
Oh! What was really cool about that was to work with Gregory Peck! Gregory Peck came and… We had a lot of Maoris on the thing, and whenever new people would come, they would do the whole haka thing. You know, pulling the canoes up the beach, and then you’d line up and rub noses. So I rubbed noses with Gregory Peck and his wife. [Laughs.] And I had the good fortune of being in a church pew during the Father Mapple monologue, which was amazing. To watch this dude who was well into his… I think he was 83 at the time, but he just was spot-on. It was beautiful. It was really cool. And inspirational for us who are, uh, getting a little older. It was a thing of beauty. He was a beautiful man. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. What’s wrong with the men in America today? All these skinny-butt-jean-wearing fucking lame men. I mean, really, what the hell?
AVC: I myself do not have a skinny butt, sir. Just for the record.
TL: Well, okay. [Laughs.] You know, I’m just talking about these fucking chicken-butt jeans, where the butt’s hanging, the pants are tight, and the little ass… They just don’t look like men! But whatever. Gregory Peck was a man.
The Mangler (1995)—“Officer John Hunton”
TL: [Laughs.] Well, getting back to The Banshee Chapter, I was horrified when one of the principal crew people just thought The Mangler was a masterpiece. That was a gas. The Mangler was fun. I mean, it was in South Africa, and one of the beauties of this business is that you get to go to these weird places. Of course, they’re places that are on the verge of war, basically, and this was right before the elections there. I had all these white girls wanting to marry me and get the fuck out of there. It was hysterical.
And Tobe Hooper, he kicked ass. They had no budget for that. I don’t know who was producing that, but there was money from some strange place, and we were in South Africa. And the Mangler, once it morphs into the monster… They had built the monster, and we went into this warehouse—I went in there with Tobe and the writer—to see what it looked like, and it looked like the 4-H had built a fucking float. It was this big kitty-cat-looking thing with an articulated arm, but it was just the most ridiculous thing. And Tobe was, like, “Goddammit, that’s not… what the fuck…. What the hell is this? I can’t use that! That’s funny… and it’s not supposed to be funny!” He was out of his mind. But that’s what I remember about The Mangler. They ended up getting the money to do this weird, primitive computer-generated deal, I think. But I think The Mangler has some merit, for those who appreciate a schlocky kind of grade-D horror movie. I know I do! [Laughs.]
TL: Oh, wow! That was cool. I was at a point in my career where I was just getting offered rapists and killers and all that shit, and Jennifer Jason Leigh really went to bat for me on that. She grabbed ahold of the wheels of the bus and helped me turn it. So it was really cool. There were a lot of people who weren’t in favor of me playing that part, but she really championed me to get it. That was a real big help, and it enabled me to get seen in the role of a husband and father and that sort of thing, rather than playing a pedophile or rapist. Which is always a plus. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve done films on just about every level, from big-budget blockbusters to small indie features. Do you enjoy the opportunity to mix it up like that and see the various sides of the industry?
TL: Yeah, as long as I kind of know what to expect going in. That one was shot on film, but the video thing has changed the vibe on a set. It just seems really transient. When you’re shooting on film—with Georgia and independent features—it’s important when the film is rolling through the camera. When you’re shooting an indie thing on video, with kids who’ve grown up with iPhones and whatever, there isn’t that kind of focus and attention to the moment that’s happening when the camera’s running, because… it’s not film.
I don’t know if I’m explaining that right. It’s kind of weird. People will just be chattering, and they’ll be, like, “Oh, well, go! Do your acting! The camera’s rolling!” When you’re shooting on film, there’s this process where everybody’s got their poop in a group, so when it does roll, there’s a kind of reverence for the moment that the camera’s rolling. And you’ve kind of lost that with video. So it’s different. It’s a little bit of an adjustment for me. In fact, it’s a big adjustment for me, actually, to find my own focus like that. It’s… different.
AVC: Georgia’s kind of a raw film, but it seems like there would’ve been a family vibe of sorts on the set, given that it was written by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother [Barbara Turner] and directed by a longtime friend of hers [Ulu Grosbard].
TL: Yeah, it was cool. It had a feeling of… Ulu Grosbard directed Straight Time back in the day, and he comes from a school of American film that was pretty appealing. It was really neat. It was a great experience. Barbara was really a real stickler about the script. Which is nice—you have to have that context to work in. But I kept saying, “You don’t want everybody’s saying Georgia’s name every other sentence. People don’t do that.” And if you watch the film, it’s, like, everybody’s going, “Georgia? Georgia. Georgia!” [Laughs.] It’s kind of weird.
Wild Wild West (1999)—“General ‘Bloodbath’ McGrath”
TL: That was a kick. It was a lot of fun. You know, there were too many writers on that show, for sure. It didn’t have a real center, that movie. There was a wonderful performance by Kevin Kline that was virtually cut out of the picture, where he was in drag and singing a song by Elmer Bernstein, about how the South will rise again. Kevin’s in total drag in this whorehouse in West Virginia, and my character… This is when we meet my character, and my character is just totally smitten with Kevin Kline, this big ol’ whore. And she’s singing this song, a cabaret kind of Western-saloon style deal, about how the South will rise again, with all these metaphors for having a hard-on. [Laughs.] It was really beautiful. It was hysterical. And it was barely… it was just background in the film. But the performance was amazing, and it’s something I’m just really sorry people didn’t get a chance to see.
AVC: You mentioned that there were too many writers on the film. Did you get the sense even as you were making it that it was kind of all over the place?
TL: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It was like, “Well, hey, this is a successful ingredient for the mega-hit soup!” So they were throwing all kinds of shit in there. Like I said, the story was all over the place, and it didn’t really have a center, and at the crux of it… I mean, I grew up watching The Wild Wild West on TV. Bob Conrad was kind of an iconic, laconic, quiet guy. And Will Smith is one of the classiest dudes I’ve ever worked with, a really cool guy, but he was miscast in this part. The part was not of a cocky, wisecracking guy, and I think he just missed it. It was, like, he was supposed to be this character, a black man in the South, and… it was just ludicrous.
Monk (2002-2009)—“Captain Leland Stottlemeyer”
TL: That was awesome. It was a trip. You know, we developed those characters, and living with them for that long… The wonderful thing about doing series television is that you get a chance to really lay some pipe and develop some character stuff, so that you have a file cabinet full of choices that you’ve made in the past which sort of define the character of the character. And you’ve got that resource to go back to, and the longer you do it, if the writers are sensitive and paying attention to what you’re doing, the more colorful and complex the character becomes.
It was great to be a part of that show. To this day, I have people coming up and saying, “Oh, that was my mother’s favorite show, and she watched it ’til the day she died, and my daughter, who’s 7 years old, would watch it with my mom.” So it was a show that a kid could watch with their grandma and enjoy it. It was engaging for both of them. I was really proud of that show… and, ultimately, of Stottlemeyer. At first, he was a bit of a shit, and it kind of evolved to where he became more compassionate toward Monk and enabled him, because he was a crime-solving tool for him on one hand. So we had that dynamic going. But that’s something that developed in the first few years of production. It was great. It was a great group of people. Tony [Shalhoub] came from a theater background, so it was a bit more of a collaborative feeling on that set than I think is typical of a television show.
AVC: Did you have a particular favorite Stottlemeyer storyline?
TL: [Hesitates, then starts laughing.] Oh, there was one, yeah, where Stottlemeyer… he was married at one point—Glenne Headly was my wife on the show—and they were always having trouble. And he got kicked out of the house because he didn’t believe this old man had been murdered, and Stottlemeyer stayed with Monk, at Monk’s house. He crashed at Monk’s house. And I thought that was pretty fun. We had some good stuff in that. But as far as Stottlemeyer goes in general, that was just one of my favorite roles.
Wonderland (2000)—“Dr. Robert Banger”
AVC: To turn to a show that lasted a decidedly shorter length of time…
TL: Oh, shit. That was an amazing show that was way ahead of its time on a number of fronts. It still is. It had a great premise for a hospital show, because… he’s a forensic psychiatrist, working at Bellevue Hospital. These are the guys that people go to to get an insanity defense. These are the guys that first interview murderers and say, “He was obviously crazy when he murdered those people!” It was a very complicated, very interesting place for drama. For me, the ethical choices that a man makes are probably the most interesting thing you can see dramatically, and there were a lot of ethical choices being made in that show, both in the family lives and working in the hospital. It was a great show, a great idea, with great people. Patty Clarkson played my estranged wife in that. It was wonderful. And I think it got kind of buried by reality television, too. We were up against Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? That was our competition. So I think that kind of sunk us. They only aired two of them. We made eight. And they’re really great. I think you can get them online. I still get a couple of pennies of residual money off of that. Literally! I have a check on my desk right now where I’ve got, like, four cents for each episode. [Laughs.]
AVC: Billy Burke said that the series hit really close to home for Peter Berg.
TL: Oh, yeah, Peter Berg, he was great. He was on his own with that. He fought some serious battles and I think… the stars were just aligned against him somehow. If he’d brought in some other people, some other writers, rather than burning himself out doing it all himself, it could’ve had a life. But we were using this nervous documentary camera style, which is just common everywhere now, but it was groundbreaking at the time. But people weren’t used to seeing it, this bungee rig where the camera moved all the time. It kind of floated around the room. But it was a great way to work. You were really sort of freed up in the room. It was great. I loved it. I’d love to go back and revisit that.
Joy Ride (2001)—“Rusty Nail”
The Bridge (2013-present)—“Lt. Hank Wade”
TL: I spent two weeks in the studio with John Dahl, a wonderful guy. He directed an episode—the next to the final episode, I think—of The Bridge. Great guy. He’s made a real nice transition into television. He’s brought all that cool stuff to the party on The Bridge, that whole feature-film aesthetic. That’s been great. Diane [Kruger] and Demian [Bichir], they’re really cool people. But John Dahl, he brought me in Joy Ride, and we just tried to… you can do a lot in post-production, and the whole thing was done in post, so it was really neat. It was a lot of fun.
AVC: How did you end up on the film? Did they just call you up and ask you to do it?
TL: Yeah, I just got a call, saying, “Would you want to do this?” And I looked at the film, and I said, “Hell, yeah!” I’m a big fan of Steve Zahn. Paul Walker was wonderful in that. And Leelee Sobieski. It was appealing to me because I had an older brother who was always pulling me into trouble, so I kind of related to that.
The Fast And The Furious (2001)—“Sgt. Tanner”
TL: Well, you know, The Fast And The Furious… that was all about the cars, basically. But it was cool.
AVC: Are you a car guy?
TL: I have been. I’ve kind of sworn off beaters. I like shit that runs nowadays. But I used to fuck around with old American cars and trucks and such. And motorcycles. I had a 1937 Harley Davidson Knucklehead that I bought off of the first movie I ever did, which was Betrayed. The bike I rode, that the character rode, in that movie, I just fell in love with it, so after we got done, I called the guy up, and he put it in a box and sent it to me. And I spent a number of years restoring that, and then riding the hell out of it and dumping it a couple of times and fixing it again. I finally ended up selling it.
AVC: Do you have any anecdotes from working with Paul Walker on The Fast And The Furious?
TL: No, I didn’t hang out with him too much. I didn’t even meet him on Joy Ride, and like I said, The Fast And The Furious was all about the cars. I think I might’ve bummed a cigarette from him and shot the shit a little bit. A really sweet guy, as I recall. Not the sharpest tool in the shed, but a sweetheart.
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)—“Sheriff Timberlake”
TL: That was a great movie. It was cold! Edmonton, Alberta, is cold, man, especially when you’re out there in those vintage clothes, which didn’t offer a whole lot of protection. Oh, I know what happened in that. I bummed a cigarette from the director [Andrew Dominik] in the audition. [Laughs.] ’Cause I was kind of nervous, and he smelled of cigarette smoke, and it was a situation where people were smoking inside, so I said, “Fuck it,” and I bummed a cigarette. I think it might’ve been a roll-your-own.
Anyway, I got cast in the thing, and later on I came back and… I have issues with tobacco. I’ve quit, but occasionally I get stupid. I enjoy sharing tobacco with a person sometimes. But I got back on set, and he said, “Oh, you’re gonna smoke in this scene,” and he had this whole thing lit in such a way so it’s all about the smoking. And I’m like, “Oh, I don’t smoke, man.” And he said, “Yeah, you do.” [Laughs.] I said, “Well, I don’t, I just bummed a cigarette that one time…” Anyway, I ended up smoking in the thing. And those herb cigarettes you smoke, they don’t have that look that tobacco does, so… it was a little rough. Because if you don’t smoke for six months or a year or something, it kind of clobbers you when you do.
AVC: You talked about working with Michael Mann on TV, but what about working with him on Heat?
TL: Oh, that was a gas. He wanted me to play the scumbag, the guy that Kevin Gage played the part of. He was the wild cannon, loose hair, crazy-eyed peckerwood redneck type. And I was like, “You know what? I don’t want to do that kind of thing anymore, because that’s what I’ve been doing.” So I picked Bosko. I said, “I’d rather play Bosko. Let me do that.” And Michael said, “Yeah!” So that’s how that happened.
The L.A. Riot Spectacular (2005)—“Tom Saltine”
TL: [Cackles.] Man! Yeah, I saw this guy’s rock video. He did a rock video for a band where he had… shit, the whole thing was just dolls. It was, like, a rock ’n’ roll party, and he had all of these Barbie dolls, and that was the whole thing. I think the band members’ faces were glued on these Stretch Armstrong dolls and different things like that. But the whole video was dolls, and it was hysterical. There was a bit where there were, like, five Barbie dolls sitting on the edge of a toilet, peeing together. It was just hysterical. Anyway, it was on that and on the script being so whacked out. And Snoop Dogg was doing it, and I wanted to meet Snoop Dogg. So that’s how I got involved in that. And that’s a case of one of those deals where we didn’t really have any sort of compression or context. It was shot on video, so it was just sort of a free-for-all in a lot of ways. It wasn’t fully formed, and it never did gel, I don’t think. But I did it!
Ironweed (1987)—“Pocono Pete”
AVC: Have you got any Tom Waits anecdotes from working on Ironweed?
TL: Not so much on Ironweed—we didn’t work together—but I ran into Tom in Chicago when he was doing a thing called Franks Wild Years. That’s where I got to know him a little bit. I auditioned there, and, you know, it was a play he did that… I think he did an album called that that came out after. But, yeah, Tom’s a cool guy. There’s some people, musicians mostly, who are iconic in my mind, and he’s one of them. I mean, shit, he’s written some songs that might as well be “This Land Is Your Land.” Some real fucking iconic American songs. He’s a national treasure, he is! [Laughs.]
The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)—“Jame Gumb”
AVC: Supposedly, when you were first offered the role of Jame Gumb in The Silence Of The Lambs, you actually called Del Close in Chicago to ask him what he thought about you taking it.
TL: I did! Wow. Wow! Yeah, I’ll tell you why that happened. I had gotten the part and went to New York for a read-through, and this was one of those ones where everybody was pulling their weight, and everyone was there at the read-through. All of these departments were there. And Locations was there, and they came up to me with a pile of Polaroid photographs—we used Polaroid photographs in those days—to show me these locations that they were considering for the Jame Gumb house. And I’m flipping through these pictures of houses… and the hair on the back of my neck started rising up. And I said, “Where the hell… Where are these houses? Where is this?” And he goes, “Well, we found this really depressed little coal-mining town on the Ohio River.” And I said, “Bellaire, Ohio?” He said, “Yeah!”
Now, Bellaire is where I was born and lived until I was 11 years old… and the house they were looking at for the Gumb house was the haunted house next to my little girlfriend’s house, where would go for lunch because my mom, being a physician, worked. And this house was this scary house next door to Megan’s house, down by the river. They’ve all been bulldozed now for a stupid highway, but this house… They didn’t end up using it. They used a house a few doors down. But Belvedere, Ohio, where Jame Gumb allegedly lived, was actually Bellaire, Ohio, where I was born and raised.
So it freaked me out… and I didn’t know what to do! And I knew that Del was a warlock-y, black-magic kind of guy, and since I was kind of freaked out and Del was a bit of a friend, I called him up. And he said, “Oh, it’s a wonderful thing!” He was all happy about it. And I said, “Okay, good.” So I guess it turned out to be a wonderful thing. But maybe I sold my soul at the time. I don’t know.
AVC: You’ve said before that you thought your audition was better than your actual performance. It’s hard to imagine how disconcerting your audition must’ve been.
TL: Oh, yeah, well, sometimes when something just comes flying out, off the cuff, it can be better. I’d done a bit of work, obviously—I’d read the book a whole lot—but I hadn’t nailed something down. I actually read with Brooke Smith, who played the girl in the pit. She read Jodie [Foster’s] part in the audition. Again, there was sort of an ensemble feel about it, because I guess Brooke had already been cast. And Jonathan [Demme], I don’t know, he just sort of likes actors to read with actors. But that was pretty cool from the get-go, because right then she and I kind of hit it off, which made it a whole lot easier to do the work and to make a separation between that insane misogyny and the actual person. So that was a real gift, to be able to get to know Brooke so soon, so early on in the process.
AVC: One of the best quotes describing Buffalo Bill during his dance number, as it were, is when you referred to him as “a would-be glitter rocker.”
TL: Oh, yeah, for sure. Well, the dance… You know, actually, that’s from Chapter 20, where he was in the shower and did the little penis-tuck deal. That wasn’t in the original script, and I asked that that be put in there because I thought it was really pretty key, because it made it totally accessible to the man on the street. “Just look at yourself as a woman,” which is basically what he was doing. It made this psychotic monster accessible, in a strange sort of way. But in a weirdly gentle sort of way.
Actually, my ex-wife tells a story of how she was on a plane to Vegas with a bunch of girlfriends, and there were a bunch of guys on their way to Vegas, too, for a stag party. And everybody’s drinking on the plane—the girls are all drinking, the guys are drinking—and one of the guys is saying, “Yeah, we do this thing, we’ve done it three times now, where we get drunk enough and then we do that thing that the freak did in Silence Of The Lambs!” They do this at the stag party for each other! [Laughs.] Which I think is kind of funny. I wonder how many dates have gone, “Hey, why don’t you do that thing we saw in the movie tonight, sweetie? Go ahead, do that.”
AVC: And how much did you have to drink to film the scene?
TL: Well, I did drink. [Laughs.] I did. I drank some… I think I had some scotch. Or maybe it was tequila. But, yeah, I had a few drinks before I did it. But like I said, the set was very cool. Jodie tells the story where she had a scene in the shower where she had to take her shirt off, and the whole crew took their shirts off, too, so she was comfortable. So the set was very cool that way. And I’d done some nudity on stage and stuff with the Remains Theater, so it wasn’t that big a deal. I wasn’t too upset about that. But I did have to shave my ass. That was a drag. I shaved my whole chest and all that. I did a little Brazilian on myself. And that growing back? Yeah, that wasn’t fun.