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: Xander Berkeley has built a tremendous collection of credits in theater, film, and TV over the course of his 30-plus years as an actor, displaying a versatility and range that has taken him from Mommie Dearest to 24, from the late-1970s punk scene (Sid & Nancy) to the Wild West (Shanghai Noon). Currently, Berkeley can be seen in yet another time period, playing Magistrate Hale in the new WGN supernatural drama, Salem.
Salem (2014-present)—“Magistrate Hale”
Xander Berkeley: He wears a mask. He’s a survivor. He’s a guy who watched his parents burned at the stake for heresy as pagans in the old country, and he was thrown onto a ship with Puritans and set sail for the new country, so he’s had to maintain. He grew up among the Puritans and achieved magistrate-ship. He married well, has a child, and he’s managed to walk the tightrope, not falling off on either side, and he’s living undercover, in a way. One association that was made early on was that he’s like a Holocaust survivor who anglicizes to fit in. In his case, he anglicizes as a Puritan and hides his witchcraft and his association with witches. But he’s kept it alive. It’s what he came from, believes in, and maybe has a little bit of resentment toward those responsible for killing his parents.
The A.V. Club: How did you find your way onto the project? Did they pitch you specifically?
XB: [My wife and I] had the kids up in Canada, I’d been playing an evil mastermind, and my dear old friend Adam Simon sent me the original blueprint for the show. They had different photographs of different people from different times to create archetypes for the producers—and I was the only actual person from this time period. There was some scary description about him, and I was like, “Geez, Adam, I don’t know if I can do another evil mastermind.” And he goes, “No, no, it’s not going to be that.” I said, “I’ve got two little girls, and I want them to think that Daddy was something other than a shit-heel at the end of the day.” [Laughs.] So he kept sort of luring me into it, and I adore him, and I’ve wanted to see him have great success, ’cause I believe in him so much. I did his student film back in 1986, The Necromancer’s Wife, and this is our first chance to work together since. So he kept after me, and I stayed interested, and now I just cannot imagine not having done it.
AVC: You’d actually worked on another period piece, Seraphim Falls, with [director and executive producer] David Von Ancken.
XB: Yeah, that’s right! It was a pleasure introducing David and Adam, and I immediately thought what a great team they would make. David’s phenomenal as well. Just a great mind and a huge moving force—not in reference to him being a big guy, which he is, but he’s just got the kind of confidence, certainty, and quick judgment that’s required to pull off a feat like this, a seven-day shoot for a show, where you can’t have a halting or hesitating personality. But he’s so much fun to be around, that confidence, and it’s been just great having two dear friends associated with this project. It’s made it really like a meant-to-be scenario.
Mommie Dearest (1981)—“Christopher Crawford (adult)”
AVC: You started acting in the theater, but your first on-camera role appears to have been in Mommie Dearest.
XB: That is correct. “No more wire hangers!” [Laughs.] Well, that sort of permanently etched me in the cult realm, I think. And that may have always been my penchant. That’s sort of the way I directed things in theater when I was doing theater from early on, and it was a fluke, because it was meant to be a big, middle-of-the-road blockbuster Paramount movie, and it was very exciting being a part of it, but somewhere between the beginning of the film and the end of it, a lot of unraveling took place. It was a brutal initiation into the film world, because I auditioned with a nervous breakdown scene, where he sees his mother for the first time in a long time, and she’s dead in the coffin, and he hasn’t had a chance to say “I’m sorry,” “I love you,” “Fuck you,” or anything. It’s over and done. And he loses it. So that was the audition, and they gave me the part in the office. They just said, “Take the script. You’re it.”
Then five months later, when it was time to film, I wait five, maybe seven hours in the funeral home, filled with real flowers. In the theater, you get there half an hour, maybe an hour before, you get into character and go on. Seven hours! I’m waiting seven hours, the fumes of the flowers are kicking in—I’d also lost my grandmother recently, and there are all these feelings and preparations for this moment. And they call me over, and they said, “Okay, we’re ready for you to get your shot, Xander. The director will be here just a minute.” And he comes over, and he says, “Okay, you and Diana [Scarwid] are going to walk out.” And I said, “Uh… when is it that I go in to the room where the body will be?” “Oh, no, that’s a scrub. We cut that months ago. You didn’t know? You’re just going to see each other and head out. And remember, everybody, no acting!” And he walks away. And I’m like, “No acting?” [Starts breathing heavily.] And I just dissolve internally and went into an anger-tweaked, tortured hurt mode, and they caught whatever they caught, which I’m sure was vastly more loaded than it needed to be. [Laughs.] And I immediately scurried to the small screen to start practicing how to tone it down and just get into the rhythm of working on film.
AVC: As far as your theater work goes, your big transition from the stage to camera came when you did the play Early Dark.
XB: Yeah. It was a brilliant play that was written in an intimate theater-in-the-round setting by a great novelist named Reynolds Price, who I was lucky enough to know through the latter part of his life. He passed away recently. A great loss. He was a fantastic man and writer, and he created a very cinematic world, and a lot of press came. And agents. People wanting to take what they saw as a very cinematic performance and start to steer it toward film. So I was brought out to the West Coast at that point.
Shanghai Noon (2000)—“Van Cleef”
XB: I had a blast. You know, you get to ride horses for two weeks before the film even started. Every morning for two hours in Calgary with Jackie Chan, who started out like—[Does Jackie Chan impression.] “Oh! I never rode a horse before! I’m a little scared! I’m very scared!” And then within the first week, he’s riding bareback backwards, you know? And then standing up on the hindquarters and spinning! [Laughs.] “You’re scared, my butt!” But he’s hysterical. When we first started, there was a stunt he had to do in one of the early scenes, and he kicked, and then he said, “Oh! I keep forgetting I’m not 19 anymore!”
But he would entertain us, just working on his routines with his team like it was the Peking Circus. [This was the Peking Opera school, a boarding school in Hong Kong in the 1950s and ’60s that trained students in various film industry disciplines, including stunts and acrobatics. —ed.] And the level of discipline and the level of creativity, watching them invent gags and stunts was just stunning. And he told us about being a kid in the Peking Circus, and I guess orphans went in there and became these stars, but the master would come around with a stick, and at any moment, without any warning, would just whack at your feet. And if you didn’t have the presence of mind to leap, you would get hit, and you would be hurt. So it was, like, constant en garde, having your wits about you at all times in that environment. And he brought that kind of ethic to the physical stuff that was done on the set. We had a great time working with twirling guns. And my character cracked a bullwhip, so I had the greatest teacher, Alex Green, who was a great trainer in that area. And then you just get to dress up as a cowboy, for God’s sake. A villainous cowboy! The evil sheriff in black! What more could you ask for?
AVC: And named Van Cleef, no less.
XB: So you’re doing a deliberate homage. [Laughs.] That was another fun thing: I could directly study all the spaghetti Westerns the whole time I was up there. And there’s so many cowboys up there, ’cause it’s Calgary. And the stampede took place during that time, too. It was fantastic.
Kick-Ass (2010)—“Detective Gigante”
XB: It was the first job I did, the first “away game” I took after my first child was born, and it shot in three intervals for me, two weeks at a time in London, but I got the two weeks back at home to include Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. It was such a top-notch bunch of people, and I have a whole bunch of friends in London. I had a lot of days off because they didn’t use me in all of it, so it was there was a lot of getting to sleep in and go out. [Laughs.] And then the job itself—they came up to me at the screening, Matthew [Vaughn] and Jane Goldman, and said, “We’re so sorry we had to cut out so much of the stuff that we did, but we introduced the character way too late in the story to be able to develop it, so as we were cutting it, it was like a train that was heading down a track, and the momentum was too great to go into those scenes.” And I said, “Are you kidding me, man? I saw that movie, and I wouldn’t want one frame to be different.” To me, that was just a flawless movie. Kick-Ass, I just got a kick out of it!
L.A. Takedown (1989)—“Waingro”
AVC: L.A. Takedown is Michael Mann’s TV movie that he more or less re-made for the big screen as Heat, but you’re the only actor who’s in both, correct?
XB: I am! And Waingro in L.A. Takedown was a blast. Michael Mann was walking around with his arm around me the whole time, going, “Xander Berkeley, my new cultural hero!” I never knew entirely what that meant. [Laughs.] And it didn’t prove to be the case, but we stayed friends. I developed a really twisted character. A friend of mine was writing a book on Richard Ramirez, and I went downtown with her to do drawings for her book. Like, courtroom drawings of Ramirez, so I could study his body language. That was the last time I ever wanted to play a psycho, because even without approaching it intellectually or emotionally, just physically through his body movements and incorporating that into the Waingro character, I got hives, and I got a really bad biochemical feedback off of his vibe. It worked to great effect in the film to make the character’s body language extremely disturbing, but it crept in under my skin, and at one point while we were filming, I actually had to go down to the emergency room and get a cortisone shot for the hives swelling up on the side of my throat. I just thought, “Wow, that’s dark stuff. I think I’ll steer completely clear of that in the future.”
And I was probably going to have to confront the possibility of doing it again when he did Heat, but as fate would have it, I had been offered a very fun role in Barb Wire, and then I was no longer available when Michael finally came around to inviting me to the party, and he said, “Well, there’s still this part available, and you’d be doing me a great favor if you’d do this part with Al [Pacino].” And I was like, “Oh, it’s with Al? Oh, well, I can do that favor.” [Laughs.] I’ve gotten to work with Al on other occasions, too, in the theater, and I just love him. So that was just nothing but a blast. I felt greatly honored to have been the only one to be a part of both projects.
Barb Wire (1996)—“Alexander Willis”
XB: Here’s a movie based on the classic Casablanca, but when you have Pamela Anderson portraying the Humphrey Bogart role, no one even thinks to make the parallel. But it is. It’s patently based on that story, and I got to play the Claude Rains character as Alexander Willis. I believe I even had a line along the lines of “I’m shocked that there’s gambling going on in my institution!” But Steve Railsback is another old friend, we’d done a movie in Mexico a long time ago, and I love the guy, so we had a ball playing evil cohorts. I was the corrupt cop, but he was pure evil. And, you know, there’s an example of what I was talking about: He was so brilliant when he did Charles Manson [in Helter Skelter] that nobody could ever shake that association with him.
24 (2001-2003)—“George Mason”
XB: Well, not only did I meet my wife, with whom I have two children—the ultimate spin-off!—but we got also got to go present at the British Comedy Awards, because it was so popular in England, and we got to go Paris to promote and do PR there, and we got to go to Tokyo and got the five-star hotel treatment. [Laughs.] We got the trip of a lifetime when we went to Tokyo, and the women who ran Fox marketing over there were just spectacular. So that was the perk: They took us everywhere you’d want to go, and we both fell in love with that country through that experience. We got to celebrate our second anniversary at the Lost In Translation bar, and they took us to a 12-course kaiseki meal afterward. So when I think of 24, as much of the experience of shooting it, I think of the experience of promoting it.
So we got to sit together as we were going through all of that, just as we did as we were working on the script and trying to figure out what was going on there, and our relationship began early and stayed on. But we kept it more or less to ourselves, and then we finally revealed that we were getting married somewhere in the beginning of the second season. It was fun, because it was like having one big family, and everybody was really excited about that for us. I think we’ll always look at all the people involved in that as family and stay in touch. I loved the show and the experience dearly. It changed my mind about how good television could be.
AVC: How did you come to do your own makeup for the show?
XB: Just because I’ve been doing makeup and masks since I was a kid. My father, being an artist, had been giving us art supplies, and seeing that I was predisposed to the acting thing, he thought of giving me a book—Richard Corson’s makeup book [Stage Makeup], which to this day is still the gospel on great stage makeup—and he got me Derma Wax and nose putty and a great makeup kit. I just started practicing, so when I started doing plays, I already knew how. And to be able to do my own makeup for different characters, I would be immediately employed by other actors who had no idea what to do with makeup, so any kind of aging or transformation or stylized makeup, I was the go-to guy in the area. I did a lot of it in New York, just coming in and doing designing of makeup for shows, so I worked for different aspects of the theater that way. In Tim Robbins’ company, I was sort of their resident makeup designer. Even when I couldn’t stay available to act in their plays because I was working as an actor in film, I would stay engaged with the theater and my crowd that way. That’s the company I got to know Adam Simon through: Tim’s actors’ gang. And that’s why Adam knew to be able to employ my skills as a mask maker in [Salem]: He’d seen and worked with me as an artist in the theater.
In 24, with something specific like that, where the guy’s been exposed to radiation, and there’s a gradual poisoning process by which he’s going to be decaying in the course of the season, and lesions will be appearing, and an ear, perhaps, will start to fall off or whatever. [Laughs.] I did all my research and got all the photographs of how things would look, and I consulted with friends in the business who are makeup artists who’ve won Academy Awards and stuff, and we play around, trying to figure stuff out, all the time, so I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with it to create the lesions.
For me, it’s always a really great luxury when makeup artists don’t feel threatened or anything other than supportive or excited to see a guy getting into it. I would always go to the makeup trailer, and while everybody else was getting pretty, I’d be breaking capillaries and getting crazy, deadening a tooth here and there. [Laughs.] I had all my techniques down for changing my looks as much as possible, because that way I feel like you’ve maintained your efficacy as an actor, if the audience sees you as different people. They see you as that person in that film, but then if you change, they can see you as a different person in a different film and not be distracted thinking about you as “the actor.” So I’d been doing it for years by the time I did 24.
Sid & Nancy (1986)—“Bowery Snax”
XB: The first time I did my own makeup in a film was for Sid & Nancy. I got the part because I went in completely making myself look like a drug addict—right down to having a warm bottle of beer in a brown paper bag and a cigarette—because I knew this was, like, downtown independent film, and they’d be impressed with little touches like that. People were still smoking in places at the time. I didn’t really smoke, but I let the cigarette smoke go into my eyes to get my eyes bloodshot, and I sort of stumbled into the office. I remember [casting director] Vickie Thomas, a dear friend to this day, looks down at my résumé picture, which had me looking very spruced up, and she said, “You look so, um, different in the picture here.” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s nice, but not for this meeting. Whatever. I don’t like to have to fuss and dress up and fake that shit.” [Laughs.] So they thought, “Okay, we got this guy here.”
So they shot me on video, and they sent it to Alex Cox in London. They had already started filming, and they were shooting it kind of in chronological sequence, which was a great part of that film, because it got to change and gain weight as it went along, and what Gary [Oldman] and Chloe [Webb] were bringing to it, we all got to work on scenes before we shot them and adapt them accordingly. But, yeah, when I showed up on the set in New York, Alex looked at me and went [With a withering sneer.] “Oh. You’re so… clean. I thought we had miraculously found an actor who was a junkie who could behave naturally in front of the camera. Oh, well, we’ve already incorporated your dialogue, so we couldn’t with a clear conscience not use you…” But he walked away so disappointed that I was not a junkie, that I looked clean. [Laughs.] So I went back to the hotel, broke out my little German kit, and I broke all the capillaries, put the soap—or the egg whites, whatever I used—in my air, and I had my outfit that I’d already picked, and I just staggered around in the street. It was an amazing thing.
I wouldn’t do it now. I hadn’t quite turned 30 yet, so I was still able to do the sort of adventures where you get to experience how people react to you on the street when you look very different—instead of the girls that might smile and nod when you walk by, they’re actually going to the trouble to cross and walk on the other side of the street to avoid you. That puts you in a certain state of mind. [Laughs.] Makeup has always had that kind of magical capacity for me, starting out in the theater. Doing repertory with an audience that was there for every show—like, a subscription audience—they were the ones who would be at the galas for each opening night party, and they would argue that you had not played that other character as well as this one you were doing there, because that was a different person. To me, that was my aim: to have that capacity for transformation that’s half acting, half visual makeup.
Straight To Hell (1987)—“Preacher McMahon”
Walker (1987)—“Byron Cole”
AVC: Obviously, Alex Cox must’ve eventually accepted you in the role and appreciated your work, since he used you in several other films.
XB: Yeah, the closing frame of Sid & Nancy, he leans in and says, “Get your shots: We’re going to Nicaragua!” And I was like, “Ain’t there a war goin’ on there?” “There certainly is… and that’s why we’re going!” And I was like, “Oh, dear, you’re one of them anarchist anti-American types, ain’t ya? There’s a war goin’ on! Geez, I wanna work with you… Lemme try to work with ya, but… work with me: There’s a war goin’ on!” [Laughs.] And I did get my shots, and we did wait around, and the pieces got pushed back because…well, that sticky war thing was going on! The American government wanted very much to know what we were up to.
And in the meantime, he comes up with this: “Xander, as you know, idle hands are the devil’s workshop, so I’ve written a spaghetti Western in three days, and we’re going to shoot it in four weeks on the old Sergio Leone sets in Almería, Spain. Are you interested? Oh, and by the way, as perhaps a further enticement, the musicians who provided the score for Sid & Nancy are all very much onboard for becoming actors but need guidance.” That meant the Pogues and Joe Strummer and Elvis Costello were going to be there. I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ll figure out a way to get to Almería. Oh, you’re gonna fly us there? Oh, great!” That was quite an experience, that whole thing. That’s where I watched him kind of lose his mind a little bit. There was a great degree of hubris going on—the young auteur who could do no wrong—and I always thought he should’ve just stayed, for his own sake, a little more on track in preparing for Walker. That was such a huge period-film undertaking. There were some times where he was taking on a little too much, and he was deliberately… [Hesitates.] Like, when we tried to present things that might make Straight To Hell a little more coherent, his response was, “Fuck it! It’s a B-movie! Let’s go!” And that was his main thing: He wanted to make kind of a deliberately questionable film. [Laughs.]
AVC: It seems that he succeeded.
XB: Oh, he succeeded. [Laughs.] And we succeeded in having an incredible time. I’m still friends with those guys. I was deeply broken up when we lost Joe, and although I don’t remain in close contact with Shane MacGowan, James Fearnley—the accordion player for the Pogues—and I are dear friends and see each other a lot. I’ll be eternally grateful to Alex Cox for having provided me with the extreme experiences of life that he did when he did. And I wish he was making more movies that people saw.
AVC: Have you got at least one story about going out drinking with the Pogues?
XB: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] There’s actually a great song on one of their records about Almería, Spain. There was a fiesta going on, a major affair, the biggest one in all of southern Spain, and everyone in southern Spain—and probably middle and northern Spain—seemed to have descended on the town of Almería, and right outside the Grand Hotel, where we were staying. And we’d go out, because they made so much noise, the cacophony was so overwhelming, that you couldn’t really sleep, so there was a great deal of carrying-on at the fiesta with the Pogues.
We were watching three generations of women—like, granddaughter, mother, and grandmother—in the same lurid dresses and makeup, and there were all these weird, dangerous, non-OSHA-approved amusement park rides just whirring around, and these little stands where you could get a brandy and coffee, and all this stuff like that, and they just kept going into the night. You know, they’re so much unhealthier and less sturdy, but, man, have they got a tolerance to drinking that I just had never quite seen before! I was like, “This is fascinating! I can barely keep up just drinking the coffees!” [Laughs.] We had a blast. There was a great group of women on hand for that as well, and everybody just sort of fell in love and had a ball.
AVC: Which raises one other question: Do you have any Courtney Love stories?
XB: Oh, Courtney… [Laughs.] She was there as a hanger-on in Sid & Nancy. I don’t even think she had a line.
AVC: Isn’t she playing with kittens in one scene?
XB: I think so, yeah. She very much emulated Chloe’s performance in Sid & Nancy in her own performance in Straight To Hell… and then sort of used it as a template for her life! I remember one other charming thing about Courtney once we were back in L.A., maybe a couple of years later. The starring role in Straight To Hell did not take her trajectory into the luminary status that she’d imagined it might and hoped it would, and she was working at a thrift store, a trendy little secondhand store off of LaBrea. I said, “Courtney, how are ya?” I was getting my girlfriend a present and picked something out, and she said [Does exaggerated Courtney Love impression.] “Xander! I’m starting a band! I’m moving to Seattle! I met the coolest guy! I’m telling you, he’s a genius!” And I’m like [Patronizingly.] “Good for you. I’m sure that’s gonna be great.” And lo and behold, it was Kurt Cobain. But I have to say that I’ve actually been so proud of a lot of the things that she’s actually pulled together and pulled off over the years.
AVC: Is there any one story that sums up the Walker experience for you?
XB: Yeah: There was a war going on there. Did I mention that? [Laughs.] I have a lot of stories about Walker, but one that leaps to mind is when Peter Gabriel—because he wanted Alex to direct his rock video—appeared out of the blue on a night when I think I might’ve been killed otherwise. I was trying to walk through the fire, and I was about to have my head smashed open by a rock, and he emerged from the crowd just at the right moment, when things were just about to go horribly wrong, and was directly responsible for my survival.
The Lawless Land (1988)—“EZ Andy”
XB: Oh, wow…
AVC: My understanding is that you more or less got your role in The Lawless Land while you were working on Walker.
XB: Yeah, that remains easily the most interesting six months, geopolitically speaking, of my entire life. My mother was never particularly interested in me becoming an actor, she’d always sort of always had notions that I might be a diplomat or something. I was just talking to her late last night, and we were talking about this subject in general. I’ve made friends with many diplomats, junior ambassadors, and a couple of ambassadors over the years, because I was always attracted to that world, and they kept reassuring me that I picked the right world. [Laughs.]
But it was really true: I got to make relationships with people in all these different nefarious realms internationally, and we could be introduced to one another without any sort of bureaucratic obstacles. So I continued to choose jobs for location rather than necessarily for the importance of the role or the significance of the project. A lot of times it was just that I was really interested in becoming familiar with the world, and I discovered early on that working on a film set was a great way to do that, because people were all somewhat fascinated by the film industry and very happy to invite you into their homes. And if you could speak Spanish, as I could, it was just such an incredible opportunity to sort of fly neutral into a very charged zone. The Sandinista conflict, as you know, was taking place in Nicaragua while we were there doing Walker, and Pinochet was in charge of Chile when I was there right afterward for The Lawless Land. I only had 10 days in Los Angeles between the two. Otherwise, it was pretty much a three-month solid stint on both. So it was… interesting. [Laughs.]
Super Force (1991)—“Dr. Landru”
Son Of Batman (2014)—“Dr. Kirk Langstrom”
XB: “Dr. Landru.” Wow. [Laughs.] You know, I thought when you first said that name—I recently went to Wonder-Con, something I never do, but one of my favorite directors is an animation director, Andrea Romano, and she invited me to join her because I play a character with a name very much like that in the new animated Batman film, Son Of Batman.
AVC: Right, you play Dr. Kirk Langstrom.
XB: Dr. Langstrom, yeah, there we go. But Dr. Landru I’d completely forgotten about until you reminded me—and there’s one to make one humble! [Laughs.]
I hadn’t been to Orlando, Florida before. I’d been to Miami a few times, but I’d never been to Orlando, and I’d sort of enjoyed the climate of Florida, so I thought I could bring my girlfriend at the time down and we’d get to check out Disneyworld and other places down there. So this was my career motivation at the time: You travel, you get a nice hotel room, and it gets paid for by someone else. My agent said, “No one watches this show, so you don’t have to worry about it.” I said, “Well, what is Super Force? It sounds terrible!” “Look, you’re doing a double episode, they’re paying you for two episodes, you only have to be there for four days… Really, do you want to question this?” And because I had avoided pilot season three years in a row by doing obscure independent films internationally, I thought I’d better just say “yes.”
And I get down there, and… oh, my God, this is how ignorant I am. I had just done The Rookie, with Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen, and when I get on set for Super Force, this girl comes up to me who I’m going to be acting opposite in this thing—I’m playing a cult leader—and she says, “You know my boyfriend Charlie!” And I said, “Who? What? Huh?” “Charlie Sheen! You just got through working with Charlie. He said to say, ‘Hi!’” I said, “Oh! Oh, well, say ‘hi’ to Charlie.” And she said, “You know I am, don’t you?” “Um… no, but I don’t really watch TV or too many movies, so you’ve got to forgive me.” She said, “Well, I’m the leading adult film star.” And I honestly didn’t even know what that meant. I’m, like, “You’re the most famous grown-up actor?” [Laughs.] “You barely look grown-up! How can that be?” And then with that said, she takes me over to her trailer and shows me. She says, “You have to see what I got Charlie for Valentine’s Day!” And she proceeds to bring me into her trailer and show me all this intense erotic paraphernalia. And I went, “You know, I… I’m just gonna run back to my trailer. I’m gonna head back over there for just a minute. But I’ll see you on set. Nice to meet you!”
Well, as I’m sure you know, the actress was Ginger Lynn. And in literally the very first scene that we did together, she’s being inducted into my cult, and she’s on her knees in front of me, and I have a sword sort of resting on her head… and TV Guide just happened to pop up on set. [Laughs.] Like, I never got publicity for anything, but this I’m getting publicity for: They’re flashing all these pictures of me in a compromising position with Ginger Lynn at my crotch. That’s all I remember about Super Force… but that’s a good story, huh?
Storytelling (2001)—“Mr. DeMarco”
XB: I was a fan of Todd [Solondz], and that was the role I was offered while I was in… [Hesitates.] someplace exotic, like Portugal. But I said, “Todd Solondz? Yeah! I’ll do anything!” It was so funny, because he was shooting two movies concurrently, with the idea that he could find a way to combine them. A friend of mine, Bob Wisdom, was on it, too, and we were going, “So you’re in that other movie?” “Yeah.” “I’m in this one.” “So do you know how they’re going to tie ’em together?” “No, I don’t know how he’s going to do it.” And he ended up giving short shrift to both, unfortunately, because it was a really mindboggling and iconoclastic thing he had set out to do. One way or another, even as adventurous as his producers were, they opted to go conventional, so I barely ended up in it. But at the time, I shot this really fun scene where this student is blathering on about her problems, and she’s sort of a cheerleader type, and the camera pushes in on me while I’m listening to her drone on, and I’m nodding as I reach into my drawer and pull out a gun. And then they cut to the outside of the office, showing the guy’s name on the door, and then you hear this horrible explosion, and you cut to all these kids screaming, with various other kids dropping, and this guy’s just lost it. Somehow or another, that never ended up in the movie. [Laughs.] And I forget what actually did!
AVC: That’s a shame. That seems like it would’ve played pretty well—in a Todd Solondz film, anyway.
XB: Oh, I know. It would’ve! And it was really fun to do, too. They also did an interview with the guy before he lost it, where you just sort of see him as this ticking time-bomb, a tightly wound, ex-jock, not-that-bright guidance counselor kind of dude who’s about ready to blow. Yep, that movie was something else.
Justified (2014)—“Charles Monroe”
XB: My in-laws are from Kentucky, so I got to work on the accent with them. And that’s all I used of them. My father-in-law also went to Princeton, but he and his wife both maintain a certain accessibility about them through their vernacular and their accent. So that was fun. Also, Walton Goggins is one of my best friends in L.A., although we didn’t get to do scenes together. He’d been working on getting me on the show to play a character where he and I would’ve had a lot of interaction together, but we missed out on being able to schedule it by a day, and this was the next one that came along, so we said, “Yeah! Do it! We might be there the same day!” But we’ve both been traveling a lot. I love the show, though. Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite contemporary-ish writers, and I feel like his noir sensibilities cross over sort of beautifully to television.
North Country (2005)—“Arlen Pavich”
XB: God, I loved that experience. Everything about it. We were in Minnesota, we were in obscure parts of New Mexico, working on mines and working in places that looked like they were mines, so, you know, isolated environments. But we had such a community and camaraderie between all of us. The entire group of actors that were there for the duration just became fast friends, and whether it was karaoke in a bowling alley or making legal little bonfires that protected the natural reserves, which we were very careful to put out at the end of the night.
AVC: And what is your go-to karaoke song?
XB: “Young Girl,” by Gary Puckett And The Union Gap… sung as Bela Lugosi. [Laughs.]
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)—“Todd Voight”
XB: The opportunity to work on that was obviously thrilling. Jim [Cameron] is a genius. The term gets bandied around randomly and constantly, but in the business he’s also known as a pretty tough ride. When asked, I always say, “If I’m gonna go to the war, that’s the motherfucker I want to lead the army.” That’s a general I’ll go down fighting with and for, because he knows what the hell he’s doing.
The Incredible Hulk (1982)—“Tom”
AVC: According to IMDB, your first TV role was playing a Marine on an episode of M*A*S*H.
XB: Um… that might be the first one that comes up, but my first TV role was actually playing a punk with a heart of gold on The Incredible Hulk.
AVC: Even better.
XB: There you go. There’s some pop culture for you.
AVC: So how realistic was the punk? Are we talking a Quincy-episode type of punk?
XB: No, but when you’re playing a punk with a heart of gold—I mean, I’d just come from New York, and I’d been hanging out at CBGBs, so I knew the authenticity of the scene, but I also knew that that wasn’t likely what they wanted me to bring to an episode of The Incredible Hulk. [Laughs.] You know, they were doing these darling little morality plays, those episodes of that show. Lisa Jane Persky and I met on that episode—we’re still friends to this day—and we both knew the downtown New York scene inside and out, so we knew we were doing a wink and a nod to it.
But the fun part for me was that my character, even though he was externally rough, was like, “We shouldn’t be doing this…” He knew it was a bad idea to rob this city that had just been declared quarantined. “It’s gonna come to no good!” So sure enough… [Laughs.] It was like, “I warned ’em!” But because I didn’t want to do it, I got to survive, and I got to be carried away by Bill Bixby himself, after having just been Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk when he discovered me.
AVC: What a way to begin your TV career.
XB: Yeah, no kidding, right? I remember sending my sister the lesion or whatever it was that I’d gotten from the radiation poisoning in the town that had been quarantined. That began the first of many letters to my sister that contained either the Polaroids they used to take or the various special-effects wounds that had been applied to me when I was killed in various TV shows along the way. She’s about to move, and she warned me the other day that I’ll have a package coming my way very soon. [Laughs.]
The Grifters (1990)—“Lt. Pierson”
XB: I’d been working in theater circles with [John] Cusack around that time, and Vicki Thomas, who’d cast Sid & Nancy, was the casting director on The Grifters. She had great relationships with directors, and they trusted her. And English directors, more often than not, could just tell. They didn’t make you come in and read the role. They could just tell if you were a good actor, and if you had a feeling or a sensibility that they could relate to, they’d want you in their movie. So I ended up working with a whole lot of British directors, because I’d just come in, and I could speak their language, in a way, creatively, and end up with a part in it. And that’s the way it was with [Stephen] Frears. I’ve always wanted to cross paths with him again. That role was kind of a tough one. It was one where all it really involved was stepping over the puddles and not in them. But Anjelica [Huston] and Cusack and I had a great night in Phoenix, Arizona. It was, I guess, the last three days of the 1980s, and we were reflecting on what that decade had meant to each of us, him in his 20s, me in my 30s, and Anjelica in her 40s. It was a great night, fueled by Kamikazes, oysters, and great steak shared between the three of us.
Tapeheads (1988)—“Ricky Fell”
AVC: You’d already worked with Cusack on Tapeheads by that point. Was that where you’d met him, or had you known him prior to that?
XB: Well, Adam Simon—the guy who created Salem!—was a writer in this company, the Actors Gang Theater, and we all met through that back then. Tim [Robbins] did a German Expressionist play called Methusalem, and I was going to be in it, but then I got a job. I made up for leaving him at the last minute by making all the masks for the play. Cusack saw that show and was so enthralled by it that he mounted a production in Chicago, where he was still living at the time. Catherine Hardwicke was the production designer for both productions, and she hired me to do the masks again, so I had to bring them out of storage and give them new livings, because the actors in the Actors Gang were famous for profusely sweating into their costumes—and their masks. [Laughs.] And with their stylized makeup underneath them, so they needed to be rebooted entirely.
But I got to know John even better during that time, and then Adam Simon wrote a play which was the next production we all did: Slick Slack Griff Graff. It was just a great period, and I met a lot of people that I’m still friends with to this day. Adam had just come from Harvard and was at USC film school, and somehow Tim had brought him into the fold. They’d all just gotten out of UCLA, and then I came out from New York, and I don’t even remember how we all met, but it was somehow through the Olympics Arts Festival in 1984. And it was right after we’d met that Adam enlisted my services as lead actor and makeup artist for his black-and-white Gothic horror film, The Necromancer’s Wife, which I mentioned earlier.
The X-Files (1993) —“Dr. Hodge”
The Mentalist (2008-2013)—“Sheriff McAllister / Red John”
Nikita (2010-2012) —“Percy”
XB: Now, I share this just to give the reader the insider’s view on things, because it’s not the obvious answer, but The Mentalist came about because of David Nutter. He was someone I’d worked with before, but the last time I’d worked with him before that was on one of the very first episodes of The X-Files. So he asked if I’d play the part of Sheriff McAllister, and, well, again, it’s always dot-to-dot with my career. I’m always in some obscure place when I get this offer, and then I hear the director’s name or something that links it, and I go, “Oh, yeah, if they’re involved, then whatever it is… Can we work the dates? Is it a reasonable offer? Then go for it!” I had no idea what the show was going to be, but my wife had just worked with Simon Baker on this other thing, so he and I were sort of in a little bit of a crowd at the time, and I’ve known Robin Tunney forever, since the ’80s. So there was a feeling of, like, “Oh, they’ve got a show? They’re going to do something? Yeah, that’d be fun to come and play.”
At the time, ironically, I had been playing some bad guys, so when I looked at whatever they sent me, I was like, “Oh, this is a likable, sweet, avuncular, cornpone kind of guy, and, oh, he’s the sheriff of Napa County? Oh, I got the whole picture.” [Laughs.] You know, I’ve known a lot of these sheriff guys over the years, either because they’ve consulted on films or because of having stayed in these various great places, and they always seem like guys who secretly wish they’d been born in the Wild West and were really cowboys, so they become sheriffs. And then when it turns out they’ve got a bunch of rich people they’re in charge of, they get sort of a little bit swaggerishly drunk on the power of having a gun on their hip and being in charge of rich people. That was the image that came to mind. But he was a red herring. I mean, really, that he might be Red John was so absolutely and fundamentally ridiculous that I felt completely free to explore my comedic side and my avuncular side, only laying a trace of it every now and then, just to be able to keep the red herring alive in the episode, and then it was, what, six years later.
We’d just gotten back from Canada and doing Nikita, and it was my wife’s turn to do a TV series. [Laughs.] She’d been doing a few jobs, but in general it was her turn, so she was getting first dibs, and I was staying home with the kids and only accepting jobs that shot in L.A. and paid a reasonable-enough wage that justified my leaving home even for just a day’s work. So it was sort of reuniting with those guys down the line that the thread was picked up.
I was doing another friend’s show at the time, this Adult Swim show [NTSF: SD: SUV] that was doing a cowboy-ish thing, when all of a sudden I got this email that The Mentalist wanted a picture of me. They wanted to pay to use a picture of me in an episode. I went, “What? They want a picture of me?” So I took a picture of myself wearing this Western thing, with a greasy Hitler-looking wig and a mustache, and I said, “Is this the picture they want?” [Laughs.] “Because that’s all I’ve got right now! Otherwise, feel free to use my IMDB archive of terrible, terrible photographs, or my résumé picture.” So they ended up using my résumé picture, and I didn’t know where they were going to go when they came back and wanted to use me for four episodes, but that I would be Red John was really the last thing on my mind, so I didn’t even worry about it.
I’ve really been trying to say “no” to playing bad guys—they keep on coming back to me for more of ’em!—but the fact that Sheriff McAllister would turn out to be Red John seemed impossible, which I think is why Bruno [Heller] went for it. He liked the idea of this guy being a cornpone-y guy as a mask. I sat and talked with Bruno in his office and said, “Look, you’ve been building this character’s arc for six years, so I feel a certain responsibility to deliver what you had imagined at some point along the way, to deliver the impact that you must’ve always wanted it to have, and not just to conclude the storyline.” And he said, “Even though you were playing this sort of country-bumpkin character, there was always something going on behind your eyes.” And I don’t think he actually said that I sound disturbing [Laughs.] but I filled in that gap. He said, “Your voice, your natural talking voice, when you drop the McAllister character and that is revealed, I think that’ll be most effective. Don’t you?” And I went, “Uh, all right. I don’t know. I’ll work with that.” And he talked about Julian Assange, who was in the news at the time, and the idea of somebody like that, a mastermind who craved power and attention on a certain level but at the same time wanted to be completely stealthy. So he just wove together a kind of idea, but I honestly didn’t know until the last two or three episodes that I had to then bring it all together. So it was fun. I love Bruno.
Internal Affairs (1990)—“Rudy Mohr”
Timecode (2000)—“Evan Wantz”
AVC: Rather than ask about each time you’ve worked with him—since you’ve worked with him a lot—how did you first come to work with Mike Figgis?
XB: I touched a tiny bit on this earlier, but it’s almost like there’s a British film mafia. [Laughs.] They see you’ve been in a movie they liked and they really liked what you did in it, but they understand that you play different characters, that they’re not just buying a sort of generic type but, rather, a storyteller who will transform into the fabric of their story and help them tell their story atmospherically and as effectively as possible. So it’s sort of like being a collaborator in that world.
I’d just done Sid & Nancy, [Figgis] had loved the film, and he was doing Internal Affairs and he really wanted me to play the Billy Baldwin role, but I wasn’t young enough. Billy was so perfect for that part, and I’m always happy when I can say, “I feel like I’m a square peg you’re trying to fit into a round hole. I’m sure I’m a great idea for another role down the line, but I’m not sure this is it.” And we improvised together, and I just remember him chasing me around the room with a video camera while improvising when I was up for that role. He kept trying to imagine somehow how that might work, because he liked for some reason the chemistry between [Richard] Gere and me and how that would play.
I obviously didn’t get the part—Billy did, and, like I said, he was perfect for it—but Mike ended up having me play this kind of dark character, an insider from the Internal Affairs office that’s, like, an ex-cop who can get retired cops jobs working security gigs as a cover for some other nefarious thing. That was the basic idea, and the whole thing was going to be improvised. A lot of the roles I did, not only did I change the way I looked, but there was a lot of improvisation. We usually think of improvisation as being comedy, but I employed it a lot as an actor, and I ended up getting a lot of roles and getting lines that I had come up with in the improvisation written into the script. I even had a couple of directors that I felt obliged me and gave me the role because I was writing the script. [Laughs.]
But that was one of the great things about working with people like Mike: It didn’t matter what size the role was. It was a creative process. And what we ended up doing with Timecode was, the entire movie was improvised, and he had me as a collaborator working from within. We’d done four movies at that point, and he knew that I could kind of direct from within if he gave me the role of the head of the studio. We’re all improvising, I’m at a pitch meeting, and I’m basically orchestrating the improvisation from within and keeping an eye on the digital watch that I’m wearing, because we all have to transition from Camera A to Camera B at minute 22, and so on and so forth.
So you become certain directors’ secret weapon if you’ve got a brain that works that way, and you’re not determined to draw attention to yourself. Sometimes, even in an improvisational atmosphere, it’s like a piranha in a bathtub, and when the camera points at them, it’s like throwing in a piece of meat. It’s a feeding frenzy. So between the actors who’ll shut down because they don’t know how to improvise and the actors who will over-improvise… Well, anyway, Timecode is an example where I think everyone was picked because they were naturally between the two—naturalistic actors who had a sense of humor and the ability to improvise but weren’t determined to dominate.
The Booth At The End (2010-2012)—“The Man”
XB: Over the years, all the obscure stuff I’ve done—the sort of anti-celebrity stuff or sabotaging celebrity to a certain extent in order to fly under the radar—ended up proving that, if you do anything long enough, you reach a certain saturation point and critical mass is established, and the persona or brand manifests itself, and I guess I’m the mysterious man. Because I didn’t always play the bad guy, and if I did, I didn’t always play him the same way or, at the very least, I tried not to play him in an obvious way. I’ve played all sorts of other guys along the way, and disappearing into the landscape of the story created not only a certain sort of longevity for me but also a mystique, I think, over time that made me the go-to guy for that.
At least, it did to the extent that the director, Jessica Landaw, was telling me. I’d just met her at a dinner party—she was going out with Michael Lehmann, another director I’d worked with—and Michael and my wife were talking, so Jessica and I were talking. We’d all exchanged information, so a few days later I got an email from Jessica saying, “I have a script for you to read. You have to read it. I was at a meeting, and they were all saying the same thing: ‘We need a Xander Berkeley type for this role.’ And I suddenly piped up, ‘I know Xander Berkeley! I could send it to him!’” And then she cuts straight to, “It’s a web series. Don’t erase this message!” [Laughs.] So I read it, and I did it, and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. It was deeply satisfying.
It was less satisfying the second time around, though, because three days before that, I’d just finished doing my character’s final arc on Nikita, and for whatever reason I hadn’t gotten the script until just a few days before, and I always like to have time to chew on things. I only wanted to do it if it was going to be “better,” not “just as good,” so I think if I do another season, it has to be “better.” Because it’s such a great idea, it really needs to be thoughtfully developed. The second time, it felt more like ordinary TV, but the whole point was to be counter to ordinary TV. It’s about the story, the writing, and the acting, and exploiting the maximum real estate in that area alone, just in that one location. Not special effects, not action, not manipulative technique and/or conventional camerawork. You’ve got to go with right-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, compelling storytelling, or you’re gonna lose them.