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: Tony Goldwyn handily qualifies as Hollywood royalty—his grandfather was Samuel Goldwyn and his father is Samuel Goldwyn Jr.—but it only takes a cursory look at his filmography to see that he worked his way up through the ranks just like any other struggling actor, from guest spots on television shows (Designing Women, L.A. Law) to supporting parts in films (Ghost), before beginning to pull leading-man gigs. In addition, Goldwyn has forged a career behind the camera, producing and directing on both big and small screens. Currently, his name can be spotted in the credits of We TV’s new drama, The Divide, which he co-created, but this fall, Goldwyn will be back for another season of ABC’s Scandal.
The Divide (2014-present)—executive producer, director
The A.V. Club: When you and I spoke in late 2012, this series was still without a title, but it was nonetheless in contention at AMC.
Tony Goldwyn: Yeah, we made the pilot for AMC, and they held it. They didn’t pick it up right away. And then they called us about six months after we finished filming it, and they said, “We have an idea: We want to use this show as the first scripted drama on this other network we own, called the We network,” which I was, uh, not familiar with. [Laughs.] But they said, “How would you feel about that? Because we’re really excited, and we’ve brought in somebody to develop scripted programming—Cheryl Bloch—and she’s this amazing woman.” And, in fact, she is. So Richard [LaGravenese] and I said, “Awesome! Let’s do it!” So that’s how it shifted over.
AVC: How did the premise of the series come about?
TG: Well, I’d made a film called Conviction, which was a true story about an Innocence Project case, where a man was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he allegedly didn’t commit. And his sister became an attorney to try and figure out a way to get him out, and with the help of the Innocence Project and DNA evidence, she got him exonerated after 18 years. Having made that movie, I got fascinated with this whole phenomenon and with the gray areas in our justice system that I took for granted. You know, I thought, “If someone’s in prison, they probably did something,” but, sadly, that’s often not the case. I was fascinated by those areas where it’s not clear, and how the wheels of justice sometimes don’t favor the truth. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t, and I wanted to really examine that. So that was the impetus of it.
I first thought I wanted to do a show about the Innocence Project and all of their cases, which are incredible, and then I couldn’t figure out a way. That didn’t seem like a very compelling series, because what are you going to get into beyond that? Office politics? [Laughs.] What is the show beyond each individual case? So I was having a drink one night with Richard LaGravenese, who’s a close friend of mine, and he thought the idea was interesting, and we came up with this idea of centering it on a prosecutor who maybe gets it wrong, and what happens then. What if you were to aggressively convict someone of murder and sentence them to death—and then what if you were wrong? And that’s how the process evolved. So Richard and I started brainstorming. It took four months. I was doing a play on Broadway, and every Friday before I’d go to the theater, I’d stop at his office, and we’d work and figure out and flesh out these characters. And we came up with the idea that became The Divide, and then after four months we went out and pitched it around to just a few networks that we thought were right for it, and we chose AMC.
AVC: This is the first time you’ve been an executive producer on a series. How has the experience been compared to producing films?
TG: I find it very similar. You know, being a TV director is, in some ways, a very different job than being a film director because—well, when you’re on the set shooting, it’s very much the same, but in TV, you are the servant of the creators, and you’re constantly trying to get in their head. You’re going, “How can I help you realize what you have in your head about bringing this show to life?” And then you’ve got to turn it over to them. In TV, you do a quick cut, and you hand it over to them, whereas as a film director, you are that person. So in television, as a director who’s also a co-creator, it was much more like being a film director. I had Richard, who really is the voice of the show, and he and I were attached at the hip, so I never made a decision without him, nor him without me, and I very much honored his voice as a writer in the decisions we made on the show. But it’s an exhilarating and terrifying thing at times to be the decider on this, as one is on a movie.
Jason Lives: Friday The 13th Part VI (1986)—“Darren”
St. Elsewhere (1987)—“Henry”
AVC: It would appear that Friday The 13th Part VI was the first time you ever appeared on camera.
TG: Uh-huh. [Laughs.] I think that’s right. I get confused so I’d have to look at the dates. I thought I got my SAG card on St. Elsewhere, but I don’t know. I do remember being utterly terrified in front of a camera when I went to do that part of St. Elsewhere, though. And I remember feeling very marginally more relaxed on Friday The 13th. But they were very close to each other. They were in the same year, so I don’t know which one was first. But, yeah, in terms of movies, for sure, that was my first brief appearance!
AVC: How was the experience?
TG: It was amazing. I was in a movie! [Laughs.] I didn’t care. I was thrilled! It was pretty cheesy, and I knew that, but you’ve got to start somewhere. And I also felt like I had an opportunity to take something that on the page was pretty cheesy and try to make something of it, you know?
I remember the director being very appreciative of that, because I kind of cared. We’d have conversations about character and stuff, and he was really surprised that I wanted to have those conversations. So it was fun, but it was hard. I remember it being four nights in the middle of a swamp in Georgia, and staying at a motel on the highway with a Waffle House in the parking lot. So, um, yeah, it was pretty bare bones. [Laughs.] But it was great!
AVC: St. Elsewhere seems like it would’ve been a bit more intimidating, not just because—as you said—it may well have been your actual first time in front of the camera, but also because of the high-profile cast.
TG: Oh, my God. And it was intimidating also because by then it was season seven of the show, so I showed up, and everybody there had been doing this forever. I remember the wardrobe supervisor handed me my outfit, and I said, “Well, I’m not sure the character would really wear this tie. I don’t know. What do you think?” And he said, “Kid? Put on what we tell you to put on.” [Laughs.] I was like, “Okay!” But, yeah, I also felt intimidated but also privileged to be working with Denzel Washington and Alfre Woodard, who were the regulars that I was working with. I was like, “Damn! I can’t believe this is who I’m working with!” So that was thrilling, but it was definitely also intimidating.
AVC: Normally, I’d ask you how you found your way into acting, but given your background, it seems like a more appropriate question to ask if you ever thought about rebelling and not going into the family business.
TG: Oh, all through my childhood I wanted nothing to do with show business. I wanted to blaze my own path, you know? But I had no idea what that was going to be. And then at 14 I auditioned for a high school play, just for fun. Well, really, because my brother was in the play, and I was like, “Well, I want to do what he does!” And from the very first audition, I remember vividly reading this script with the theater teacher, and I was like, “I know how to do this!” And that was it. I, uh, didn’t get the part. [Laughs.] Which was also strangely like reality. But after that, it was more a case of, “How do I not do this for a living?”
AVC: Were you around show business your entire life, or were you kept sheltered from it?
TG: I was and I wasn’t. I mean, yes, my parents kept me very sheltered. They really didn’t want us growing up as Hollywood brats. I grew up in L.A., and, you know, my father was a producer, but we lived in Brentwood, which is a nice area, but it’s not Beverly Hills or Bel Air. And I never went to Hollywood parties other than parties that my parents would throw with their friends, some of whom were in show business and some weren’t. But I didn’t know any movie stars. I never went to movie sets. My parents really went out of their way to keep me out of that sort of thing, and I’m really grateful for that.
AVC: Speaking of your father, there’s a story on your grandmother’s Wikipedia page that I can’t resist asking about: Is it true she had a contingency plan set up in the event of Hitler invading the U.S.?
TG: Yeah, well, I read that in A. Scott Berg’s book [Goldwyn: A Biography]. What was she going to do? She was going to take him to—where?
AVC: According to Wikipedia, she was going to fake his death by drowning, set up a fake identity, and take him to Mexico, where she’d set aside some money.
TG: That’s right, yeah! Something like that, anyway. Yeah, I had not heard that story, but I think I trust Scott!
Nixon (1995)—“Harold Nixon”
AVC: Long before you played the President, you played the brother of a president. How was it working with Oliver Stone?
TG: Amazing. I think he’s the best director I’ve ever worked with. I found him really inspiring. I wasn’t on that movie very long—I was on it for about a week—but I found him very challenging, and I learned a lot. I wasn’t even directing at that point, but he has an approach—he’s obviously got a very strong point of view in what he’s doing, but he demands that everybody there on the set bring ideas and bring their best game. And he intimidates the shit out of people. [Laughs.] Because he’s like, “How do we make this better? What do you think? What’s your idea?” And if you’re not bringing it, if you’re not on your toes, then you’re going to get hammered. So I wouldn’t say he’s the kindest man, but I was very inspired by working with him. It was great.
A Walk On The Moon (1999)—director, producer
AVC: The first time you directed was on A Walk On The Moon. Had you always had a hankering to get behind the camera?
TG: Not at all. I thought that was the last job I’d ever want to do. I thought I had no skills or qualification to do it. But after I’d been an actor for a number of years, I started to feel the frustration that every actor feels: of not being in control of their career. I’d been in some hits, and then the next project I’d do wouldn’t be so good. So I thought, “Well, if I could produce and be involved more…” I was also fascinated with the process and, as an actor, I felt a little limited. You know, you come in, you do your job, and you leave, and there’s nothing else. So I said, “In 10 years, I want to be doing more than this.”
I thought of producing, so that I could be involved in the whole process, finding roles in great scripts and working on them so that I could act in them. And then that way, when I was in a hit, I could say, “Well, I have these scripts that I want to do…” Because you have leverage for a short amount of time after you’re in a hit. So I started reading scripts, and I found A Walk On The Moon—it was called The Blouse Man then—and I loved this piece of material. I didn’t feel particularly right to act in it, but I had a lot of ideas on how to develop it further, because it needed work, and I met with the writer [Pamela Gray], and she said, “Would you produce this with me?” And so I said, “Sure!”
We worked for a couple of years on the script, and then—to make a long story short—I’d meet with directors, and I’d be like, “Oh, they’re gonna screw it up.” And in that development process, I got very interested in directing and being the primary storyteller, so one day I sat her down and said, “Pam? I want to direct this myself,” thinking she’d freak out. She said, “That’s a great idea!” And then we were just lucky enough to get it on. Dustin Hoffman heard about the script somehow, and I got a call from C.A.A. [Creative Artists Agency] saying, “Dustin Hoffman wants to read this. He’s just made a deal with a production company to produce small movies.” So I sent it to them, and they said, “Please don’t show this to anyone else,” and they were willing to let me direct it.
AVC: Did you have any sort of directorial mentor?
TG: No. I had a directorial idol in Mike Nichols, but—well, actually, Dustin was very much a directorial mentor. He’s a brilliant guy. And he always looks at a creative situation and thinks, “What more is possible to do?” And I found that incredibly helpful as a young director, because there’s a lot—a tremendous amount—of pressure when you’re a director. I mean, you learn to process it and not be so stressed out by it, but it’s really unbelievable, the amount of pressure on a film director. [Laughs.] Because of time and money. And Dustin was always the voice of, “Yeah, but what if we tried this? How about that? And don’t settle for that!” He gave me the courage to make the movie I wanted to make.
The L Word (2003)—director, “Burr Connor”
Dexter (2006)—director, “Dr. Emmett Meridian”
AVC: The L Word was the first time you’d directed for television, but it was also the first time you directed yourself.
TG: That’s right—and I was scared of it! [Laughs.] I’d directed several episodes by that point, and Ilene [Chaiken] said, “I want to write a character for you. Would you be up for that?” And I was nervous. I’d been scared to do it in a movie. In the past, I’d always said, “No, I won’t act in my movies.” And then I thought, “Well, a TV episode is the perfect venue to try it.” Because, with a movie there’s just so much at stake. So I gave it a shot, and—I’ve always done my best work when I was working with a director who helped me. [Laughs.] But it was actually thrilling, surprisingly, because I had a bird’s-eye view of the whole show. I was the director, so it made a lot of sense to know what was the right choice and what was the wrong choice. But you don’t have that perspective when you’re just an actor. You have to look to the director and say, “Is this what you’re thinking?” It was also very intimate with the other actors. So I enjoyed doing it.
AVC: You’ve done it a few other times since then. Do you have any other particular favorite occasions?
TG: Dexter was really fun. And that was a surprise, too. We were trying to cast this part, and we couldn’t find—we needed a certain kind of actor, but I was like, “Who should we get?” And then Clyde Phillips, who was the showrunner, finally said, “You know who should do this? You should do it!” And I said, “You know what? I’ll just do it.” [Laughs.] “Because I know what needs to happen, and then I don’t have to worry about the hassle. I know how the scene should be played.” So, yeah, that was fun. I’ve directed on Scandal as well, but that’s always been very challenging, because every time I’ve directed episodes, I’ve had these intense, meaty scenes and really big stuff to do.
Scandal (2012-present)—“President Fitzgerald Grant III”
AVC: By the time you took on Scandal, you were directing and producing regularly. Did you see it as opportunity to set aside some of that pressure and just act for a change?
TG: Oh, yeah. I mean, I like that pressure now. [Laughs.] But it was an amazing opportunity that I wasn’t looking for. I’d really gotten more into directing than acting, although I’d just finished doing a Broadway show when Scandal came about. And television was getting so good that I said to my agents, “You know, let’s see what’s out there.” I’d never done a series before, and I thought, “Let’s see what’s out there in terms of pilots, because I should be open to that.” And lo and behold, Shonda [Rhimes] just called me up and said, “You want to play the president in my new show with Kerry Washington?” And I loved Kerry and was dying to work with her, and I loved Shonda, so I just said, “Oh, uh, sure!” It was a great script, and it’s turned into this really extraordinary experience, with the most amazing people. I mean, you just never know. It’s been sort of a revival for me. It’s been so great.
AVC: Has there been any particular moment that really startled you, as far as plot developments go?
TG: So many. But I think maybe the biggest one was at the end of the third season, when my son dies. It was just like, “What?” That, and in the second season, when I rejected Kerry. It’s a moment in the middle of the season where I find out that she helped rig the election, and she has come to me and said, “I will leave Edison for you, I will be with you, I will commit,” after I’ve been begging her to do that. And when she says, “I’ll wait for you,” and I turn to her, and I’m like, “Yeah, don’t bother about that.” [Laughs.] And I ice her. When we read that script, I literally couldn’t get the words out of my mouth—I was so shocked at why Fitz would say that.
Of course, the way the show’s structured, it’s out of time, so you find out afterward what happened before—and it was because he found out she betrayed him by rigging the election. But since it was out of time, when I read it in the table read—and we all all read our scripts out loud for the first time together—I didn’t know why. So it just happened. And it was a shocker. Then you find out what preceded it, if that makes sense. He did it because he found out she’d made his presidency illegitimate. Which was just such a body blow for him.
The Last Samurai (2003)—“Colonel Bagley”
TG: Well, that’s the biggest movie I’ve ever done, in terms of scope. I loved working with Ed Zwick. It was really fun, because it was like a Western, and I got to ride horses and do crazy stuff like that. Tom Cruise was a great team leader, the hardest working man I’ve ever met. And being in New Zealand? Beyond that, I just thought it was a beautiful film, and I’m really privileged to be a part of it.
An American Rhapsody (2001)—“Peter”
TG: Oh, wow, that’s a beautiful movie! Yeah, that was a great character. You know, we shot that in Hungary. It was a true story. The director, Éva Gardos—it was really her story. In the late ’50s—or was it the early ’50s? Well, it was a while ago. But she was, as a baby, smuggled out of Hungary. Her family had to flee when the Communists took over in 1950, and they left her behind as an infant. They couldn’t smuggle her over the border, so they left her behind with the intention of having her smuggled out, and she ended up living with this peasant family in the country for seven years while her parents struggled to get her back. They’d moved to America.
So Nastassja Kinski and I played the parents, and Scarlett Johansson played our daughter who came with us—because you follow our lives through her teenage years. Anyway, the first 15 minutes of that movie, I speak Hungarian. So I had to learn Hungarian phonetically. I could not understand a word that I was saying. [Laughs.] So that was a very interesting challenge, delivering dialogue I didn’t understand—and with a Hungarian accent! But it’s a beautiful film. I recommend it.
Conviction (2010)—director, producer
AVC: Has there been any project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
TG: Too many to tell you about. [Laughs.] And I don’t want to be bitter! I’m accustomed to putting my heart into things, and—some of the things I look at, and I go, “We didn’t get it right.” But there are many I’ve been involved with where I’ve gone, “God, that’s such a beautiful movie, but it didn’t find its audience.” Sometimes it’s through no fault of—I mean, it’s very easy to blame the studio, the distributor. Marketing is very tough, and sometimes things are not in their right moment. They just don’t find the moment. You know what I mean? That’s one reason I’m thrilled about The Divide: We TV is really behind it. They get it, and they’re not afraid of it.
What you so often find is that a marketing department will say, “We want to do something bold!” and then all of a sudden they’ll retreat into the familiar way of marketing something that’s the lowest common denominator, where you go, “Well, that’s a good trailer, but that’s not my movie! That’s not the movie we made, and that’s not the audience we’re going after.” And that’s happened to me a lot. I don’t want to point fingers, but it’s happened. And there are films that I’ve directed that I felt had it happen. I’ve had people come up to me time and time again and say, “I loved that movie! Why didn’t it do better?” I think sometimes it’s because it was sold as something it wasn’t.
Then there’s the other thing where, the way the business is structured—particularly the film business, but I think TV as well, though I’m more experienced in film as a director—if you don’t find your audience in a couple of weeks, that’s it. Fox Searchlight was really behind Conviction, and they had a great campaign, they marketed it, and they’re such a great studio. But after six weeks, they had certain financial targets that they needed to hit. We were doing pretty well, but at a certain point they were like, “We can only spend so much money.” Then in six weeks, you get pushed out. But that’s a movie where I keep hearing, “God, I didn’t even see it when it was in the theaters!”
From The Earth To The Moon (1998)—“Neil Armstrong”
TG: I remember getting a note from Tom Hanks saying, “We’re doing this project, and I want you to play Neil Armstrong.” And I thought, “Okay, I don’t say no to that.” [Laughs.] It was a great privilege. It was an incredible series, From The Earth To The Moon. All of it’s great. Interestingly, in the space capsule with me—playing Buzz Aldrin—was Bryan Cranston! And Cary Elwes played Michael Collins, the three of us on the Apollo 11 mission. It was so amazing. I mean, we got to go to space camp, basically. And Neil’s an amazing man, too. So that was a great education and really fun.
I told this to Bryan just a little while ago, but I remembered meeting him, and at that point Bryan was not that well known at all. He’d worked, and he’d always done great work, but he was just a working actor in his 40s. But I got to know him, and I thought, “This man is a genius.” [Laughs.] He was the funniest person I think I’d ever met, and he had this weird, unusual way of looking at things. So in addition to being the nicest guy on the planet, I was like, “No one knows that this guy is so unique and extraordinary.” I think I remember even saying that to him at the time. Then a couple of years later he did Malcolm In The Middle, and I thought, “See? I knew that there was something.” He was so brilliant in that, and then, of course, Walter White came along, and he’s now one of our greatest actors and acknowledged as such. I just saw him on Broadway, and he was so amazing as Lyndon Johnson. Oh, my God, it was one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. I mean, it really was amazing.
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2007-2008)—“Frank Goren”
TG: Oh, yeah! Well, I mean, I only did four episodes of that, but it was an interesting character. I’d seen Vincent [D’Onofrio] on a plane, and he said, “You know, we’re thinking of coming up with this character of my brother, and I wonder if that would be of interest to you.” And I said, “Sure, great!” Particularly the first episode I liked, playing this crack addict, a guy whose life had completely derailed and he was basically homeless. That was fun, because I don’t often get to play characters like that. [Laughs.] That was very interesting. Except that we were shooting the first one in 10 degrees on the streets of Manhattan, and I was outside in a light jacket, freezing my ass off. But it was real!
AVC: What’s it like acting against Vincent D’Onofrio? He seems like someone where you never know if he’s going to zig or zag in his performance.
TG: It was great! I love him. I love his work—I always had—and we get along great. He’s very free as an actor, so you’re right: You never know if he’s going to zig or zag, but I like that. It keeps you on your toes. It’s like having a dance partner: You just have to react to what they’re doing.
AVC: You haven’t done a lot of voice work in your career.
TG: No, that’s the only one. I mean, before that I did—over the years, there was a period of time where I did commercial voiceovers, but Tarzan just came up. I was doing a play on Broadway with Laura Linney, and I remember the two of us, actually, went down together and auditioned for Tarzan. We read some scene, and then that was that. And they asked me to do the part. I was shocked. It was a fabulous, fascinating experience.
I felt really lucky because a couple of years before that I’d been doing a movie with Nathan Lane after The Lion King had come out, and my young daughter was then 5 years old, and I called her from set in the evenings, and one night Nathan said, “Give me the phone!” And he got on the phone with my daughter Anna, and he said, “Anna? This is Timon!” And he did a whole thing of his character from Lion King! And she was so thrilled by this. She thought it was real, of course. So then a couple of years later, when I was able to say, “Guess what? I’m going to be a voice in a Disney movie!” she fell to her knees and said, “Thank you, Daddy!” [Laughs.] So it made me kind of a hero to my kids.
The Boys Next Door (1996)—“Jack Palmer”
AVC: Was that movie you were doing with Nathan Lane The Boys Next Door?
TG: [Surprised.] That was The Boys Next Door. Yeah, exactly!
AVC: Hallmark movies tend to have pretty strong casting, anyway, but all four of the actors playing the “Boys” in the movie were pretty impressive.
TG: Oh, they were fantastic. It was Nathan, Robert Sean Leonard, Courtney Vance, and Michael Jeter, God rest his soul. He was so great. And Mare Winningham was in it, too. And Richard Jenkins. Yeah, it was a great cast.
AVC: Is there any intrinsic difference between doing a feature film and a TV movie? It’s a speedier process, presumably.
TG: Yes, there is. I’ve just done one, and it’s changed a lot from those days. I mean, that was 20 years ago, almost. But there was—and I think it’s changing—an attitude when making television that everything is about time and speed and getting it done and rushing. That was my experience a lot of times in those days. That one was actually a unique experience, because we had a very good director in John Erman, and it was sort of meaty material based on this play. But you always felt like you’d do one take, and it’d be, “That’s fine, we’ve got to move on, we’ve got to move on.” That was often the case in television, and that’s why a lot of film actors didn’t like to work in television. But I’ve learned that the bar has been raised creatively so high in television now, and as a film director, I’ve learned that time is relative. If you have great people and your intention is to get it right, you can work very fast if everyone has the same intention. It’s not about rushing.
Iran: Days Of Crisis (1991)—“Jody Powell”
Truman (1995)—“Clark Clifford”
Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs (2014)—“Warren Jeffs”
TG: I’ve made movies in a short period of time. I just did a project for Lifetime about Warren Jeffs called Outlaw Prophet. We shot that thing in 19 days, which I thought was impossible, and it was a very ambitious piece of material, but with a genuinely gifted filmmaker in Gabriel Range. We had a lot of production obstacles, but we were focused, and it turned out to be a very interesting, substantive piece of work. Television has been different in the past because there’s this mindset that feels like it’s sort of the factory of cranking them out, and, “You’ve got to get it on by this air date!” But it’s very unnecessary. I do think that, to the advent of really high quality television, more and more can’t get away with that attitude.
AVC: I was going to ask this when you talked about playing Neil Armstrong, but I’ll ask it now in conjunction with Outlaw Prophet: When you play a character who’s a real guy, do you feel obliged to do a certain amount of research on your own, or do you prefer to stick to the script?
TG: No. I do a ton of research. And I’ve learned to do as much as I possibly can. I’ve played several real characters, and I’ve always found it very difficult because you don’t want to do an impersonation. The first time I did it, I played Jody Powell, who was [Jimmy] Carter’s press secretary, in a cable movie about the Iran-Contra crisis, and—the movie’s quite well done, I think, but I felt hamstrung, because I didn’t do enough research, frankly. So I sort of watched and read stuff, and I had lunch with Jody Powell, and I got kind of an idea in my head, and I felt a little hamstrung by it. Then one time I played Clark Clifford—another White House character, [Harry] Truman’s special advisor—in the movie Truman that HBO did with Gary Sinise, and again I read a lot, but I didn’t feel free.
Even Neil Armstrong, I did a lot of research on Neil, but I just remember having this image of Neil in my head, and—I’ve learned that I need to do so much research that I kind of internalize it, and then I’ve got him in me and I don’t even think about who the real guy was. And I did that with Warren Jeffs. I just read as much as I possibly could and obsessively listened to tapes of him talking, so that I could kind of separate whatever he was, and he became a character that I felt I understood on my own terms. Whether someone would say, “Oh, yeah, he’s exactly like Warren Jeffs,” I was very specific about how he spoke and his speech patterns and stuff, because I found it very interesting. But it’s a tricky thing, so I do as much research as I possibly can.
Designing Women (1987)—“Kendall Dobbs”
TG: Oh, wow, yeah! That was one of my first jobs. And that was a seminal part of Designing Women. It was the first time, as I recall, where the issue of AIDS was brought up on prime-time television. And it was on a sitcom, no less! I played this guy who was dying of AIDS and wanted the designing women to design his funeral, because his parents had rejected him. It was pretty heavy. And Linda [Bloodworth-Thomason’s] mother had died of AIDS, from a blood transfusion, and this was in 1987, I think? I don’t think Ronald Reagan was even talking about AIDS yet or even acknowledging that it existed. It was very new. It was right around the time that the movie An Early Frost was done. Remember that movie, with Aidan Quinn? An amazing film.
So, yes, I did this lovely character, and I still have people coming up to me, saying, “Oh, you have no idea what that meant to us, to our community.” At first, I was like, “Really?” I thought it was a great part, and it was obviously an important issue, but—it still resonates today, with both straight and gay people—I’ve had gay men come up to me with tears in their eyes, saying, “You have no idea what that episode meant to us at that time, when no one was acknowledging that this was going on.”
AVC: Did you realize that it was a big deal at the time?
TG: Well, I’d already lost friends to AIDS at that point.
AVC: No, sorry, what I meant was, were you aware that you were tackling something with that episode that hadn’t really been tackled on TV before?
TG: I knew that everyone was saying that, but—you never know what’s going to be a big deal. And I was a kid, too. I didn’t really… I mean, I was grateful to have a job! But you never know what the impact of something is going to be. I felt that it was bold and relevant, and I knew it was sort of groundbreaking in that way. But you never know. And it was still Designing Women. It was fairly lightweight, the treatment of it. So I was very surprised by the impact—and certainly the endurance—that it’s had.
Romance & Cigarettes (2005)—“Kitty’s First Love” (uncredited)
TG: Okay, so I get a phone call one day, a message on my answering machine. “Tony! It’s John Turturro! I’m doing this movie called Romance & Cigarettes. It’s a musical, but it’s not your normal musical. It’s with Susan Sarandon and Jim Gandolfini and Kate Winslet, and there’s this character of Susan’s ex-lover. It’s hard to explain, but basically you have sex on Jim’s grave, and then you piss on the grave, but—okay, I know that sounds really weird, but I really want you to do it, and it’s only one little scene...” [Starts to laugh.] “So call me!” Click. And I heard this message, and I went, “I don’t know what it is, but I have to say yes to this movie.”
So this movie, I’m barely in it, but it’s this fantasy where Susan—I’m her ex-husband, and she has this dream where we have sex on Jim’s grave. Then I piss on his grave! [Laughs.] And then I had some other scene where I appear in a flashback, but that was it. It was very brief, and I was barely in it. I actually never saw the movie, but I heard it’s interesting. But, you know, Turturro’s a huge talent. And the cast was amazing in that. Chris Walken is in it, Mary-Louise Parker, Bobby Cannavale, Steve Buscemi, and Elaine Stritch plays Jim’s mother.
AVC: How did you first cross paths with Turturro?
TG: I don’t remember. We didn’t know each other well. I think we just sort of knew each other a bit through the New York theater community, and he just called me up.
Murphy Brown (1988)—“Bobby Powell”
AVC: You’re actually in the pilot episode of Murphy Brown.
TG: I was! That’s right, I was the guest star. Another one of my early jobs. At that time, the Gary Hart/Donna Rice scandal had just broken in the presidential election, when he’d been outed for having an affair. Interestingly, I hadn’t thought of the parallel to Scandal. But I was sort of the male Donna Rice who was supposedly having an affair with the female vice-presidential candidate—because it wasn’t that long after Geraldine Ferraro—but I wouldn’t give anybody an interview, and Murphy Brown got the big interview. Apparently, she’d promised not to bring up the hard questions in the interview, but once she got me in her sights, of course, she brought up the hard questions, and I was humiliated on camera. But that was one of those shows where, when we were doing the pilot, I thought, “This thing’s fantastic!” And Diane English has remained a friend. I was like, “Wow, this woman really knows what she’s doing.”
L.A. Law (1988)—“Chris Arnett”
Kuffs (1992)—“Ted Bukovsky”
AVC: You were in Kuffs with Christian Slater, but you’d actually both been guest stars on the same episode of L.A. Law a few years earlier. I haven’t seen the episode, though. Did you actually work with him on that?
TG: I didn’t. I mean, I knew who Christian was, because I’d seen him in a couple of movies at that point, but he was still pretty new and, of course, I was, too. [Laughs.] Then we did Kuffs together a few years later. It was the first movie I did after Ghost, and I did it because I wanted to do a comedy, and I loved Christian’s work. It was fun. I, uh, don’t think I ever saw the movie, but I remember it being fun. Kind of silly, but he was great to work with.
Ghost (1990)—“Carl Bruner”
TG: That was obviously a big turning point. Up ’til then, I’d been—well, I’d been working, and in retrospect I was doing pretty well, but at the time I felt like I was just sucking wind, because you never know when your next job is going to come. And I couldn’t even get auditions for movies, because in those days, if you did television—and I’d obviously started doing guest spots on TV shows—you couldn’t even be considered for films. It’s all changed, but at the time it was very compartmentalized.
I fought my way into an audition on Ghost. My wife was the production designer on that movie. At that time, she was much more successful than me and was doing all these big movies, and she kept saying, “They haven’t cast that part! You should bug your agents!” And I kept harassing my agent, who would never return my phone calls, and I managed to get an audition. And, by a fluke, they stumbled on my audition tape and said, “That guy was really good.” [Laughs.] When they couldn’t get a star for the part, I got to screen test for it, and it worked out.
AVC: So what’s the worst reaction you’ve gotten from someone who recognized you from Ghost?
TG: [Long pause.] Well, the worst was right when it was in the theater. I was doing a play in New York, and I went in to get a bite to eat in a restaurant in Greenwich Village, and the waitress would not seat me. She was incredibly rude to me—she wouldn’t give me a menu, she wouldn’t take my order—and I finally said, “Look, I’m on a break. I have to go.” She finally took my order, but I’m like, “Why is this woman being such a bitch to me?” She was just staring at me evilly! Then as I was eating, she came over to me and said, “Excuse me, are you an actor?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Oh, my God, you’re in that movie, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “I’m so sorry! I knew I hated you, but I didn’t know where from, and because I couldn’t place who you were, I thought you were a guy I slept with who was horrible to me! I’m so sorry I was treating you so badly!” So, um, we became friends after that. [Laughs.]