Tom Noonan

The actor: Tom Noonan leads a curious double life as a respected playwright/arthouse fixture and a sought-after character actor and villain in genre movies, particularly horror and suspense films. Noonan’s current feature, the atmospheric early-’80s-style fright flick The House Of The Devil, makes inspired use of the seeming incongruity between Noonan’s towering frame and the underlying gentleness of his manner and sonorous voice. So did Noonan’s breakout film, Michael Mann’s 1986 masterpiece Manhunter, which cast him as a killer pursued by William Petersen with help from Brian Cox’s Hannibal Lecter. Noonan won the Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance for his low-budget 1994 directorial debut What Happened Was…., in which he also starred. He followed it up by scripting, directing, and starring in 1995’s The Wife. He’s also turned in memorable supporting performances in The Monster Squad, The X-Files, Last Action Hero, and last year’s Synecdoche, New York, where he played Philip Seymour Hoffman’s doppelgänger. 

The House Of The Devil (2009)—“Mr. Ulman”

Tom Noonan: I liked the movie. Rarely do I see stuff that I make, in general, and even more rarely do I like stuff that I’ve done. I think this is a good movie, which I was very surprised by. 

The A.V. Club: Why?

TN: Because generally, these movies are not that good, overall. It’s just very unusual. And I also found it scary, and I rarely ever find anything scary. The movie is scary. I’m just this doddering old guy trying to get through the evening. I’m the one who gets terrorized by [the film’s protagonist], really, in the end. [Laughs.]

AVC: A lot of your signature roles have been in horror films. Do you gravitate toward the genre? 

TN: Who knows? I think I probably have a creepy kind of scary quality. Otherwise I wouldn’t get jobs. But I also think it has a little bit to do with, you’ve done it a couple times, and then people see you that way. The first play I ever did that got me any kind of attention was Buried Child by Sam Shepard. It had won the Pulitzer Prize, and it ran for a year in New York. It was the first thing I ever did that people really saw me in, and I was sort of sweet and funny, but sort of scary in it. And so that’s how people know you, and they start giving you parts like that, and then it starts to built up momentum, and you’re in the culture’s consciousness, or at least the movie culture’s consciousness. They can just plug you in. You’ll give that same effect. That’s sort of how the movie business works.

AVC: One of the things that makes you so effective in films like Manhunter and House Of The Devil is the incongruity between your size and underlying gentleness.

TN: [Laughs.] Yeah, but I’m also unpredictably crazy. You can’t really tell what I’m going to do. Making “bad people” seem human is the key to making them really scary. To realize that really “evil, bad” people are only bad a very small amount of the time. Most of the time, they’re pretty normal, they’re just like you or me. I can’t really vouch for that, but I think a lot of people want to pigeonhole a bad character or a villain as if they were just pure evil, nothing they do is of any use, everything they do is just horrible and terrible. And that’s not really the case. 

Manhunter (1986)—“Francis Dollarhyde” 

TN: I really don’t do anything that terrible in the movie. I do seem to be threatening, but you can’t really play a person like that thinking there’s something wrong with them or that they’re bad, or else it becomes a comment on the person, and it doesn’t become very human, and it’s not effective. So I just play parts sort of as me. Try to understand the person, and try to talk from my own self. 

AVC: Part of what makes the character so poignant as well as terrifying is the sense that there’s an internal struggle, that he wants to do right and lead a good life. And yet there’s this compulsion he can’t really control.

TN: Well, I’m not sure if I’d put it that way. I don’t know if Francis Dollarhyde wanted to do better than he did; I think he was doing what he thought was the right thing. He was doing the best he could do, which is what everybody does, and because of either his background or his constitution, there was some sort of distortion involved that made him not really fit in the way other people would. But he’s really trying. He’s doing everything he thinks is right, as anybody does. The really hard thing to contemplate in life is that, what do you tell someone who’s doing their best, and is doing things that are really damaging to the world? Do you say, “Don’t enjoy yourself at all. Don’t follow your passion or your muse in any way”? It’s asking a lot of a human being, because they’re damaged, to somehow suppress who they are. And I don’t meant to be an apologist for serial killers, but I think people in general tend to do their best. They try to do what they think is right, and they do what they can do to get them through the day. 

I didn’t really want to read for the movie, and I was really angry when I finally got in there, because [director] Michael [Mann] was really late, and there was a casting woman who had never auditioned anyone before, and I guess I scared her during the audition, doing very little. And Michael found that very exciting. Michael gave me very little direction ever in the film. Once in a while, he’d just say, “Don’t forget the audition.” He sort of left me alone, but he did also create this sort of craziness on the set. Once, he asked me what would help me to do the part better. There’s very little I could have done either way. I do it the way I do it. But I said it’d be great if I didn’t have to hang out with any of the actors who are either trying to kill me or I’m trying to kill them, which is pretty much everybody in the film. 

So Michael sent out this memorandum to everyone in the cast and crew and the staff that none of the other actors can ever meet me. There has to be complete separation between me and the other actors, so I had a PA to run around for me everywhere. One in front and one behind, so there’s no way I can run into anybody. I flew on other airlines. I stayed at other hotels. It was sort of crazy. So the crew at this point is starting to get weirded out by this person, not because of what Michael did, it was to do with me. And nobody was allowed to talk to me except for certain members of the crew. Michael likes creating drama on the set a little bit, which is effective in a lot of ways. When I did the first scene, where I had a stocking over my face, that’s the first thing we shot. I could tell the crew was scared of me. I was also huge,. I’d been bodybuilding, and I’m big to begin with, and I enjoyed that whole thing. Michael, again, never spoke to me, never directed me very much. You’re sort of in sync a lot. That was nice.

AVC: It sounds like he trusted your instincts.

TN: Well, I think for some reason I embodied what he felt the movie was about. There wasn’t a lot I had to do just to stay with that. 

AVC: In Manhunter, you and Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter both give very restrained performances, whereas in the remake, the craziness of those characters was a lot more on the surface. 

TN: Yeah. I work with actors a lot, and I say if you’re in a bar and some guy comes towards you yelling and screaming, it’s not so scary, but if a guy walks up to you really quietly, it’s much scarier. When you don’t know what the person’s going to do. If all their energy’s going into showing off and blowing their wad, they’re not so scary. 

AVC: It’s one thing if a monster is killing people. It’s another thing if somebody meek and unassuming is doing it. 

TN: Yeah. And more real. A lot of these people are very shy, very quiet, those kinds of things.

Gloria (1980)—“2nd Man/Gangster”

TN: The only reason I went in on that job was because I wanted to meet [director] John Cassavetes. I don’t think there was a script. I never read it, obviously. But they got all these thug-type actors—I had not really acted very much at that point, maybe in a movie at all, so you’ve got these 10 big guys, and the casting director, whose name escapes me right now, said, “We’re going to go ahead and meet John. Just stand there. Do not speak to him. If he speaks to you, just ignore him. There should be no interaction between you and John. Just go in and meet the guy.” So as soon as I walked in the room, I just left the gang of guys behind me, walked right up to John, and said, “John, I’ve got to work with you. I love your movies.” And the casting director started screaming and tried to drag me out of the room, and John started laughing, and before I got home, they had already offered me the job.

John liked me a lot. And then what I did was, I told my agent that the only requirement that I had was that he come see me again in Buried Child. And he agreed. So that was really the only reason I did the movie, was so he could see me do this play. And we became very friendly, and about two weeks into the shoot, he said, “You never wanted to do this part anyway. I’ve got another guy who can sort of perform your function in the film, and he’s actually a real killer. It would be more fun for me to have him do it.” I said, “Great.” But then we became really good friends, and over the years, I spent a lot of time with him, and he was very influential in me directing the movies that I directed, and my writing, and acting in my life. Close friend of mine.

AVC: That sounds like a wonderful experience. 

TN: The experience of John is very much like his movies. 

AVC: It seems like he lived his art. 

TN: Like that scene in Husbands where they go to that bar, and they’re singing. He’s sort of manipulative and crazy, and likes to create trouble, and that’s sort of what he’s like. 

Easy Money (1983)—“Paddy” 

TN: That was a drag. What had happened in that film was, from what I understand, Billy Murray was supposed to play Paddy, and I think he had just become suddenly very successful, I don’t know what movies he had been doing, like Meatballs or something. Or Stripes. And I think him doing that sidekick role probably didn’t appeal to him. So he dropped out, or I don’t know what happened, that’s what I understand. So they wanted to find somebody to replace Billy Murray, they interviewed a lot of people, and for some reason they picked me. They hired me for the job. I’m sort of a serious actor who started acting, and I was really into it. I don’t think Rodney [Dangerfield] or Joe Pesci liked having me around, particularly. And I’m not the most accommodating, friendly guy. I’m not argumentative or hostile, but I just stay with myself, and I stay in character, and I’d just started acting. I was very serious about it. And I think that didn’t go over very well, and they sort of managed to not shoot about half the stuff that’s in the script that I’m in, through, I don’t think, very nice methods. But I’m barely in the movie, even though there are many, many more scenes that I was in in the script. 

AVC: They changed things once shooting began?

TN: Yeah, they made it happen that through a combination of… who knows what? I don’t want to get anybody in trouble, but it was not fun. It was not easy, and I really wanted to do well, and I liked those guys. I still think Rodney’s really funny, but he was really a drag to be around. Very insecure and very overbearing, and I don’t know. It was difficult. 

AVC: He seemed like a fairly troubled guy. 

TN: Yeah. Funny, but a drag. 

Best Defense (1984)—“Frank Holtzman”

TN: I think the whole production was troubled because Eddie Murphy, again, had suddenly become a big star, and had agreed to do the movie. I only did two days’ work on it, and it was really fun—Dudley Moore was really fun to work with. [Laughs.] And really easy to work with. I like the director and the writer, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. They were nice, and I had fun on the job. I know the movie sort of doesn’t go anywhere, but…

AVC: Supposedly they brought Murphy in after filming had wrapped to save the film with reshoots and editing.

TN: I think he refused to do the film, and they forced him to do that little bit that he did. I think at some point, he was more a part of the whole movie, but I don’t know this. This is just what I heard, that he had sort of wanted to bail on the film, and in order to settle that with them, he did this week of just him, driving tanks and stuff. I’ve never seen the movie. I don’t know. 

Last Action Hero (1993)—“Ripper/Himself”

TN: Well, that job, I loved doing, because I like Arnold [Schwarzenegger], and I love John McTiernan. I just think he’s one of the nicest, best-prepared professional directors I’ve ever worked with. And they had great people on the job, and I think the problem with the film—not that I know anything, either—is that they tried to get it out faster than they should have, because they wanted to compete with a film called Jurassic Park, which I’m sure nobody’s heard of. I was shooting three weeks before the film opened. They were shooting scenes the week before the movie came out in theaters. I don’t know how they did it. The script is great on that film, and if they had taken three months to do post the way they should have, I think it would have been a really good movie. You need test screenings to find out what scenes don’t work. There are some scenes in the film as it exists now that don’t really work. Then there are really good scenes they could have expanded, but they cut them down. I think that’s what happens when you get scared, and you’re rushing, and you don’t have time. Rather than cut things out and take a chance, and build things up you think are working, you cut everything down a little bit, and everything sort of suffers. 

AVC: According to Hollywood lore, something like 25, 30 screenwriters worked on the Last Action Hero script. Basically everybody who wrote in Hollywood wrote on Last Action Hero at some point. 

TN: Yeah. They would bring in guys to write five lines.

AVC: Didn’t William Goldman get a million dollars for a week’s work? 

TN: I know he worked on it, and he probably got paid a lot, but I don’t know. 

AVC: So what was it like to play yourself in a movie that big? If only for a scene or two? 

TN: That was, I found, very difficult. Mostly because I’m supposed to be sort of like a movie star, and I’m in line with a lot of other movie stars going into an opening. And I’m not really a movie star. People don’t even really know who I am, so it was sort of difficult. I felt uncomfortable. I’m in line with Chevy Chase and Tony Curtis, and all these people are much better known than I am, and it’s just weird. But I did my best. It was not easy for me to fake being a movie star. 

AVC: It’s not like you have a persona that you can spoof. 

TN: Yeah. But I enjoyed making that film, and also I made my own movie during the shooting of that, I made What Happened Was… I shot that during my days off from Last Action Hero. Last Action Hero financed What Happened Was…

AVC: That must have been a schizophrenic experience, to be working on a very low-budget independent film that’s very personal, and then be the bad guy in a giant action movie. 

TN: It doesn’t feel that different, but it was just fun. I would go to L.A. and shoot for two weeks and make a lot of money, and then I’d come back and we would shoot a week on my movie. To me, acting doesn’t really feel that different, one job to another. The set’s different, and we had no money, and we had small catering and stuff, a small crew, but it doesn’t feel that different. If you play basketball on a playground, and then you play in a college game, you’re playing basketball. If you’re playing guitar in the park with some guy, or you’re playing on a big album, you’re playing. It doesn’t feel that different to me. 

What Happened Was… (1994)—“Michael”

TN: I was making RoboCop 2, and my face started twitching. We weren’t sure why, and it prevented me at times from actually even acting or going into jobs, because my face would be twitching so bad. We never figured out what it was. I went to every doctor in the world. So I had this weird physical condition, which is not unusual for me, I had things happen that sort of happen to me like everybody does. And I felt like, “What have I been doing with my life, doing these films?” I enjoy doing them, but I consider myself a serious person, and had ambitions when I was younger of making a difference. 

So I decided to take a year off, and I committed to doing a play in my theater. I have a theater in New York that I built up over the years with money that I’d made in movies. And I committed nine or 10 months down the line that I would go on stage, I think it was June 12, 1992 or something, and do this play. And then I would take eight months to write the script. And then I started writing, and I realized that everything I thought I knew, I didn’t know, and I realized that I’d sort of gotten lost, and it took six months of writing script after script until something decent happened. What Happened Was… just came out. I wrote it really quickly. And then I cast it, we started rehearsing, and then I did the show, and I didn’t really ever think anything would happen with it, but I told Ted Hope, who worked at Good Machine, that maybe I could make this into a film. And they didn’t really think so, but a lot of people who came to see it liked it. I had some money, so I said, “Let’s just shoot this really quick and see what it’s like.” 

And I never thought anything would happen with it. I think it’s good. I mean, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done, and the script, I thought, was really good, but I had no expectation it would ever be seen by anyone. Much less win festivals and get awards, and all the stuff it got. It was so easy to do. It was just really fun. The way that I work is really down-to-earth and simple, and you just take a lot of time, you rehearse a lot.

AVC: It had to be validating that it got the reception that it did. 

TN: Yeah, it was cool. I was very surprised. I went to Sundance with it, and I’m not an unknown person, I’ve done movies. I was much better known than most people who had movies in, but nobody paid any attention to that movie. Nobody wanted to talk to me. I never got interviewed. A bunch of the screenings, people seemed to like it. I thought, “Okay, well, it got into Sundance. That’s cool.” And then they called up and said, “You know, you won everything.” I said, “Well, that’s interesting.” I couldn’t go back because I was in the middle of doing Wifey, which became my next movie, on stage in New York. I really couldn’t go back for the ceremony. So I never really quite enjoyed the winning, or the attention that film got. I was so much onto the next film. I couldn’t even take the time to celebrate having won something, because I was already in the middle of shooting another film. I was onstage when the film won, and then we shot the next film, The Wife, within a couple weeks. And then I went into post with that for eight or 10 months. So it was a good time for me. 

The Monster Squad (1987)—“Frankenstein”

TN: Yeah, I really liked doing that. I’d been offered a bunch of other things that were sort of horror parts. There’s a movie called Near Dark they wanted me to do, and a bunch of other things that were sort of like creepy, violent people. And this was a cute movie, I really had fun doing it. I liked [director] Fred Dekker, I like the kids, and I didn’t see the movie for 25 years. When it came out, I don’t even know where I was. I don’t go to premières a lot, so I never saw the movie. But I also had a really fun relationship with Stan Winston, who was sort of a nut in a nice way. He’s just a great makeup guy, and I sort of gravitated to him during the shoot, and I kind of thought of him as my father. Like he had created me, and we used to laugh a lot about that. There’s also an interview that I did [in character as Frankenstein]. 

AVC: Frankenstein seems like a really juicy, fun part to play.

TN: Yeah. I had, like, 10 lines in the movie. And I never really talk to the kids, and I really had no contact, and to have a chance to actually talk about what it was like to be this person, it was really fun. 

Heat (1995)—“Kelso”

TN: Yeah. That was two days’ work. I mean, I loved doing it, and I love that scene, and I wish I could work with Michael more—not Michael Moore the director. But I love his movies. I just really think he’s the best, one of the best directors ever. It was fun to work for a couple days on it, but I wish the part had been bigger. It was really fun working with De Niro and all those guys. I just wish there was a way to work with Michael Mann more often. At one point, Public Enemies, they were talking about me doing something in that, but I think I’m so much bigger than Johnny Depp that the scene didn’t work, apparently, that they’d put us together in. 

The Pledge (2001)—“Gary Jackson”

TN: Yeah. I love Sean [Penn], and Sean’s great to work with, but the film was, again, very disappointing in a lot of ways, because what happened is, the people that put up the money for The Pledge also put the money up for Battlefield Earth. And they spent $200 million on that film, and it opened and did very badly. I think it made $500,000.

AVC: It’s one of the biggest flops of all time. 

TN: They were so freaked out that that had happened that they got on Sean about finishing on time and finishing under budget, which wasn’t really possible, because they were shooting in the mountains, and there were four or five scenes that I still had to shoot, which they never shot, which explain who I am in that film. Because I’m not the guy who killed the kids. I’m not the bad guy in the film. But because they couldn’t finish shooting the scenes I was in, they made it look like I was, I think. I don’t know, I’ve never seen it. But from what I gather, people think I’m the bad guy. So it was disappointing. I had another scene with [Jack] Nicholson that we didn’t shoot, and I had another scene with Nicholson that we did shoot that didn’t make it in that was really fun, and that I thought was a really good scene. So it was disappointing. It was fun to work on. Sean’s a very fun guy, and Nicholson was great. It was a nice job. 

AVC: Why do you see so few of the films you appear in? 

TN: I guess you go to a movie… I wanna be [Laughs.] the star of the movie or have a big part in the movie. It’s hard to go to a movie and you come on, and you’re there for like 30 seconds or two minutes, and you have to sit there. It’s not fun for me. And also, I’m sometimes worried about how they cut it, and I don’t wanna have to deal with that.

AVC: There’s anxiety that comes along with it.

TN: A little bit. I know that I’m good and stuff, but I also don’t like premières, I don’t like showbiz stuff. I don’t go to those things very often, I don’t go to parties. So then the idea of going to buy a ticket just doesn’t interest me. When I go and pull clips off stuff to show people what I can do, sometimes I’ll see parts of the film, the films I didn’t see for decades.

AVC: Are you pleasantly surprised at all by how some of your films that you haven’t seen turned out?

TN: The only thing I know about me as an actor is that how it feels is how it looks, generally. I’ve never done something where I thought, “Oh wow, that’s great,” and I went to see it and I’m not. It usually looks how it feels. So when I do a movie, I know what it’s going to look like. I’ve done this enough and I’ve directed myself and I’ve shot myself a lot—it’s not like I’m that concerned or worried about my performance. 

Snow Angels (2007)—“Band Leader”

TN: I did that because I really like David Gordon Green. The part was not really something that I thought, “Oh geez, I really wanna play this part.” [Laughs.] You know? And the audition was very difficult. David’s sort of funny, he has you do things over and over and over and over again, but for some reason, I really, really like him. He reminds me a lot of Spike Jonze; there’s a great spirit about him. And I’d been offered something else that was much more money and much more high-profile and actually more of a part, but I thought, “I wanna go hang out with David and do this thing.” It’s really fun. I shaved my eyebrows, which I later found out was a great idea, because somebody said they’d grow back, apparently, but they didn’t. And you don’t really notice that I don’t have eyebrows because I have these crazy glasses on, but it was fun to do. 

AVC: How many days was it?

TN: I was probably on the movie for a week or 10 days. There’s a couple little scenes that didn’t make it in. There are a couple little scenes that I’m in. Even if you’re in a scene for two seconds, you have to be there the whole time they shoot it, because you never know when they’re going to be on camera or something. And then there’s sort of the opening and closing scene, which both took probably a day or two to shoot. I remember going back and forth there for weeks, but we probably only shot five or six days. 

AVC: It’s an incredibly depressing film. Almost unbearably so. But it sounds like that was not the mood on the set.

TN: [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean, I always tend to have fun and enjoy myself and not take it all… I’m very serious about acting, but I’m not that serious about show business. It was pleasant.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)—“Sammy Barnathan”

TN: That was really fun. I think I had more fun than anybody else in the movie. At times, I could feel on the set that people were really down about how bad everything going on was. But I had a great time on the movie. Charlie and I are sort of friends—he had written a play for me years before, called Anomalisa, for me and David Thewlis. So Charlie and I’d worked together with him as a director before Synecdoche, so I was really comfortable with him, and it was really easy. Still was really fun—Philip Seymour Hoffman’s really fun to act with. We’re very different as actors, and it sort of made it interesting and funny.

AVC: How so?

TN: You know, Phil just works in a very different way. I don’t really want to typify how he works, but it’s very different. Like on a movie, I never wanna talk about character. I don’t think there is such a thing as character. I never really care what they want me to say, as long as it doesn’t feel too stupid to say it. All I wanna know is where I move, so I’m comfortable with my blocking. I really never take part in any discussions on any movie I’ve ever been in about, like, “Well, he wouldn’t do this if that had happened.” I’m just not like that. And Phil is very, very careful about—which I admire and is another way to work—he really wants to understand, and he’s got a huge part in the film, so it’s probably different for him. Just a very different style of acting. I just wanna be present and say the words and see what it feels like to be there. I don’t really think about what happened before the scene, or what the scene’s about, or much of anything. 

The actual background and structure of it is of no interest to me. It’s sort of freeing to work that way. I’m very good at repeating, and I’m very good at blocking—it’s not like no thought goes into what I do, but not usually very much to do with story, or character, or backstory. Those sort of things don’t have much interest for me. I’m interested in, “How do I feel about Phil? Do I like him? How does this feel, to be in a room with him or Samantha Morton?” People that I greatly admire and wanted to work with my whole life. 

The X-Files (1996)—“John Lee Roche”

TN: The gentleman who wrote it, I can’t remember his name right now, he’s not a friend, but I know him pretty well. [Vince Gilligan, later creator of Breaking Bad. —ed.] He was one of the writers on X-Files, and he wrote the episode for me. And at that point, I don’t think I’d done very much TV. I’ve done a little more since then, but he called me up and said “I’m one of the writers on the show, I’ve written this script for you, but I didn’t want to give it to you until I’d finished it,” and they sent me the script, and it was really fun. So I thought I’d do it. And working on that show is wonderful—the crew’s great. The crew is very similar to… I do this show now, Damages, which is a very similar feel to doing X-Files. The crew really loves the show, and loves working on it. Which you don’t even find on a lot of features. So it was really fun to do, and David Duchovny is one of the most lovely people, and fun people to work with, and I really liked him.

AVC: What was your character?

TN: I play a person who is in prison for killing young children, and when he kills them, he cuts a heart of cloth from their nightgown, and then he has a collection of these hearts, and he claims that he killed Mulder’s sister. And somehow, through psychic abilities, I’ve contacted his dreams, and told him that I’m the guy who got his sister. And I convince him that I did. So he breaks me out of jail… It was really fun. I had a lot of scenes with David. He’s interesting. 

AVC: That had to be flattering, to have people write parts specifically for you.

TN: A lot of things get written for me, which is a great experience. A lot of parts in movies. I’m pretty sure that Charlie wrote that part for me in Synecdoche, and he wrote the play for me. I’ve had plays written by pretty well-known people for me, and it’s just a very nice experience to have somebody write something like… even Damages, I think they liked me as an actor, Glenn and Todd Kessler, and they sort of wrote the part for me. 

AVC: It’s a sign of respect. 

TN: You just know that someone’s working with you and thinking of what you do, and what it is they love that you do, and you’re gonna get a chance—beyond having to fit into something they’ve already conceived, because that show, I love doing. I’m a regular back on the second season, and just a great job.

Collision Course (1989)—“Scully”

TN: [Laughs.] Oh God! I have all these terrible stories… What happened is, I had done… this guy, I think his name is Bob Carpenter? The guy who made Porky’s.

AVC: That would be Bob Clark.

TN: Bob Clark! Bob Clark called me up one day. It’s gonna sound like a showbiz story, but he actually called me through my agent and said, “We’ve got this script, we don’t really like the script, but I loved what you’ve done in the past couple of movies you’ve done. I’d love to work with you. Come to L.A. and I’ll put you in the room with our writers, and we’ll do anything you want.” And so I went to L.A.—he actually meant that day. I sat with these guys for a couple days, and I said, “You know, within the framework of this idea, this sort of thing would be fun for me to do,” and they rewrote the whole script. And it was actually doable. It wasn’t amazing, but it was good. And I like Bob Clark, so I passed up doing this other movie called D.O.A. that… What’s his name?

AVC: Dennis Quaid.

TN: Dennis Quaid, it was a really nice part, but it wasn’t as good as what I was working on, and I had this connection to Bob Clark. So I passed on that, and I went down to shoot Collision Course. I got to Wilmington, where I’d shot a lot—I think I did Manhunter there—not sure if I did one before the other, but I think I did it after. Sort of embarrassing to say. So we went to the set the first day, and I waited in the trailer all day, and we never shot. And the next day came, and I waited half the day, and we weren’t shooting. And I was thinking “What’s going on?” And the producer comes to my camper, and he goes, “Tom! I have good news and even better news.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Well, we fired Bob Clark.” And I said “Oh, really? Shit, why’d you do that?” And he said, “Well, he’s just not a guy… He wasn’t really working with us. So we got somebody great comin’ in. But the better news is, we’re going back to the original script.”

AVC: Ohhhh…

TN: Which is this horrible script. So I’m now saying to my agent, “Do I have to do this movie now? Can they actually make me do it?” And he said “Well, you can walk off if they haven’t shot you yet, but it’s not a great thing, to leave a movie.” And I’m not a troublemaker person, I’m a cooperative guy, but I didn’t know what to do, so I struggled through the rest of the movie. And actually, I wrote a lot of the movie, because at the time, I had been writing a lot by then, and the director and I became sort of friendly, and I—I probably shouldn’t say this—but I wrote a lot of the stuff that we ended up shooting and gave other people credit for it. I would put sheets under the doors of the producers and the director at night, and those sheets would be the pages we would shoot the next day. So the movie moved back to a little better for me. At least the scenes I was in, I helped change a little.

AVC: And that was Jay Leno’s only film as an actor. 

TN: Mmm… I think he did one other one. Didn’t he do one when he was really young?

AVC: He did Americathon when he was very young. 

TN: Yeah, and I love Jay Leno, and I think he’s really funny, but doing The Tonight Show and doing stand-up is very different from being an actor. But I never saw the film, I’ve never seen a frame of it, so I have no idea. It was sort of a crazy experience—I mean, it was sort of fun having Tex Cobb as my assistant, but other than that, I don’t remember much. There wasn’t much fun on that film.