C. Thomas Howell on The Outsiders, blackface, and how Marlboros got him cast in E.T.
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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: C. Thomas Howell started out in Hollywood by following in his father’s footsteps and doing time as a “stunt kid.” But after earning a few onscreen credits as an actor, his fortunes changed dramatically when he scored a role as one of Elliott’s bike-riding buddies in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which was quickly followed by his turn as Ponyboy in The Outsiders. Having successfully survived the transition from teen heartthrob to adult actor and occasional director, Howell is currently part of the ensemble of TNT’s cop drama Southland, now in its fifth season.
Southland (2009-present)—“Officer Dewey Dudek”
The A.V. Club: You’ve done a lot of TV, but you haven’t often been a series regular. How did you end up in Southland?
C. Thomas Howell: Well, I have a bit of history with [executive producer] Chris Chulack. I did an ER a few years back, and he and I made a connection on that show. He directed that episode, and then he brought me in for an episode of Smith, which he did with Ray Liotta, which only hung around for a single season. Then about five years ago, they started casting Southland, and I got a call to come in and talk to them for this role. It’s funny, because I felt like they really took a risk even considering me for this. I mean, I’m willing to do anything with Chris Chulack—he’s one of my favorite directors I’ve ever worked with, and I just think he’s a fantastic man, and a great creator, and a good friend. But when they said, “Look, we’ve got this character, he’s kind of a burnt-out cop,” at first I didn’t really see it.
Originally, I was only supposed to be in the pilot, and he was a pretty hardcore drunk and not very likeable. He’s not politically correct, he’s a bit of a misogynist, a racist… all the things that are pretty much career-killers. [Laughs.] I take a bullet in the pilot, I’m sort of wheeled out, and it looked like I was basically done, but then they brought me back in the next episode, and in that episode, my character more or less retires as a cop. By that point, I was starting to get concerned about not being involved in the show anymore, because they’d pretty much told me, “You’re gonna retire,” so I thought, “Well, I’m done.” But something happened, either with the writers or Chris or [executive producer] John Wells, and I don’t really know how it went down, to be honest, but they brought me back in the third episode, and they basically handled my reappearance with one line: Somebody turned to me and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you retired,” and I said, “Are you kidding me? Give half my pension to that bitch? It’ll never happen!” And there I was, back in the saddle.
The show’s changed a lot, because back then, we split our hour between the detectives and the badges, whereas today, we really spend very little time with the detectives, except for Regina King’s character. But I think Dewey helped serve as an outlet, or at least some direction for the writers to get away from the other characters, who were all similar in intention, which was to be the best cop or person they could possibly be. Dewey, however, represented more of the old school. You know, today we’ve got videotapes and hidden cameras and voice memos, and there’s a lot more proof in the pudding to be displayed when somebody misbehaves. Back in the day, though, you could crack a head and somebody would cover your back. It was a little different than it is today, as far as being a cop and potentially misbehaving. Dewey represents the old-school guy, and I meet a lot of cops who’ll say, “Hey, I’ve had partners who were like Dewey,” or, “Back in the day, there were a lot of guys like Dewey!” Today, you can’t operate like that. There’s a long list of “don’ts” and there’s a short list of “do’s” when it comes to the responsibility of being a cop.
AVC: Over the course of the show’s run, Dewey’s managed to gain depth as a character, which is impressive, considering he’s still a guy who barely has to open his mouth for most people to think, “Jesus, what an asshole.”
CTH: [Laughs.] One of the things I like best about him, and what has happened over the past five years, is… there’s a fine line between love and hate, and if you ask 10 fans of Southland, five of them absolutely hate the character, and the other five say he’s their favorite character. It creates a real black-and-white space for me as a performer. I think if I would’ve played him just one way, I probably would’ve been off the show a long time ago. I really worked hard on extending myself as an actor and crossing that line, saying things that shouldn’t be said, doing things that shouldn’t be done. At the same time, there are moments with Dewey where he has real heart, real soul, he’s a funny guy. So he might say something that makes you cringe, but deep down, it puts a little smile on your face, and you’re thinking, “Wow, this guy’s outrageous!” There’s a part of you as a viewer that can’t wait to see what he’s gonna do next. You don’t know if he’s gonna come in and burn the building down, or take a bullet for one of his co-workers. So that’s created something not only for me but also for the writers to really hang their hats on, and for the viewers to look forward to each week.
They went ahead and made me a regular this season, thank God, which is great. I’ve been in probably seven or eight out of 10 for the past four seasons, but I think they finally just decided, “Hey, let’s bring him in and make him a full-timer.” I’ve always felt, and I think the writers feel the same way, is that Dewey is like cayenne pepper: If you add just the right amount, it’s perfect, but a little too much just wrecks the whole thing. So the writers have found this niche for the character where I supply the spice, and it’s just been a great ride. It’s been my favorite character to play… and I grew up in this business, so I’ve played a lot of characters! [Laughs.]
Kindred: The Embraced (1996)—“Det. Frank Kohanek”
CTH: That was an Aaron Spelling piece that was a little bit before its time. It was a piece set in San Francisco, based in the vampire realm before vampires were really popular. It was a little bit unfortunate, because if that series had been a few years ago rather than almost 20 years ago, it probably would’ve been a giant hit. But we had a little bit of bad luck. Our lead actor, Mark Frankel, was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was a great guy, loved by all, and a Spelling favorite. Aaron loved this guy. We were on the borderline, anyway. It was an expensive show, but I think Fox probably would’ve given us another chance to really take off if that accident with Frankel hadn’t occurred. So it was a little bit of bad luck for all when that happened. I mean, he was a great guy—he was married, he had a couple of kids—and when he passed, it put us all on hold, and Fox decided not to move forward with it. It would’ve been different, I think, if Frankel had not passed away.
But also, I look back at that show, where I was playing a cop, a detective, and I was obviously younger at the time, and to be honest, I don’t think I was really at the place where I knew what I was doing. I hadn’t done a lot of television, and I’ve changed a lot over the years. Going from a child actor to an adult actor is not an easy thing, and I was sort of lost in a no man’s land for a while, trying to figure out who I was as a person, and going from a young actor to an adult actor. You see it often. I was sort of in that space when I did that show, and I feel like if I were to do that show today, we could make it a huge hit. But at the time, there were a lot of reasons, and a lot of growing pains, and some issues that held that show back. But it’s on DVD, and I hear all the time that people really love the piece, and as you know, there’s a huge vampire following, so there’s a big cult following with it. And I really enjoyed working with Spelling and all those people. But I personally felt like it wasn’t my best work.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)—“Tyler”
CTH: Wow. [Laughs.] I was about 12 years old when I did that. I grew up in the business—my father [Christopher Howell] is a stuntman—so I would go to sets all the time, and I was planning to be a stuntman myself, and had done quite a bit of stunt work as a child by that point. When I went in to meet Steven [Spielberg] for that film, I wasn’t even really an actor. I’d done a few commercials, I’d done a couple of small spots in this and that, but it wasn’t a priority for me to really be an actor. In fact, I didn’t really make up my mind to be an actor until I did The Hitcher with Rutger Hauer. I was about 17 or 18 when I did that, by which point I’d probably done a dozen or more movies or TV things, but The Hitcher was the experience that made me want to study and commit and learn how to do this for my life. That’s when I decided. Having grown up in the business, though, it wasn’t a dream for me. I wasn’t one of those kids who was chasing the dream and wanted to get to Hollywood because one day I was gonna get my chance and be a big star. I never felt like that. It was treated much more like a blue-collar position for me.
My father got a phone call to bring me in to meet with Spielberg for E.T., partially because they knew I was a physical kid, and I was known in the business somewhat as a stunt kid, and I could do all the bicycle riding. The other actors who were riding were being doubled, and I think Steven wanted to be able to cut to one of the actors on the bikes eventually, and not always be using the doubles, so that was part of the reason why I went in. Secondly, they had already cast somebody in the role of Tyler prior to me, but unbeknownst to Steven, the kid was Mormon, and that character had to smoke a cigarette. And, of course, the kid’s mother wouldn’t let that happen. So they decided it’d be best if they made a change.
I remember that, on my way to the meeting, my father stopped at a 7-Eleven and picked up a pack of Marlboros and was teaching me how to hold a cigarette and how to light it. My dad’s a very shrewd, clever guy. I went into the meeting, and at the time, I didn’t know who Steven was, and there was no fear about getting the piece or losing the piece. I didn’t care, and I wasn’t really… If I was going in to meet Spielberg today, I’d probably have a heart attack before I made it to the front door. But back then, there was a fearlessness that I had, and you take away any expectations or any childhood dreams, which didn’t exist for me, and it was like I was meeting with just another guy.
So we had a nice conversation, we talked about the bike stunts and some of the other aspects of the movie, and then I remember him asking me if I would smoke a cigarette. At that point, I didn’t really say anything, I just took this box of Marlboros out of my pocket. The group of people in the room just sort of looked at me a little bit, and I held the cigarette and I went to strike a match, and Steve was like, “Okay, kid, okay, I’ve seen enough. You’re fantastic.” [Laughs.] And I left, and it was a couple of weeks later when I got a phone call that they had hired me, and my career as an actor sort of took a different direction.
At that point, I still anticipated doing stunts, because having grown up around my father, who was a professional cowboy and had done rodeos his whole life, I figured that was the direction I would go. It wasn’t but a few months later, though, that I met Francis Ford Coppola, who had started auditioning for The Outsiders. When I got that, having worked with Spielberg and Coppola by the time I was 14 or 15 years old, things changed pretty significantly.
Hourglass (1995)—“Michael Jardine,” director
AVC: You had another significant career transition when you starred in the film Hourglass, which was also your directorial debut.
CTH: Yes! Having been raised in the business, it’s just sort of an evolutionary process. As a lot of actors spend more time on sets, you actually gain those man-hours, experiencing how to do various things on a production, but being the director of a film or a television series… It’s not a very good introductory position. You get a lot of first-timers who might be writers or producers, and you don’t necessarily get a chance to spend a lot of time on sets when you’re doing those things. To be a good director, you have to spend a lot of time on actual sets, but today, there’s a lot of people who spend a lot of time in dark rooms writing a script, and they’ll go in and tell the story to some suit at a studio who says, “Okay, this is great, let’s go.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean you know what to do once you’re on set.
I feel like actors, having spent a lot of time on movie sets, tend to make decent directors, because they’ve been there, they know what they’re doing, they’ve seen it done right, they’ve seen it done wrong, and they feel comfortable. There’s not a lot of chin-scratching and wondering what your next move is. I just worked with Regina King, who directed our last episode of Southland, and she was amazing to work with. But she grew up in this business, too, and she’s been acting since she was a child. So it was a great transition for her, and it’s a great example of what I’m talking about, because she didn’t waste any time making decisions. She knew what she wanted, so she was able to move quickly, and there was no second-guessing as far as the choices that went down.
When Hourglass came up for me, I was asked by a producer if I would play a role in a movie for them, and they sent me the script, but… the script wasn’t very good. [Laughs.] The producer, Steven Paul, was a friend I’d known for a while, and I was sort of cocky back then, so I said, “Nothing personal, but Steven, this script is bad. I could probably write a better script myself!” And he said, “Go ahead!” So I called a friend of mine who was a writer, and the two of us sort of scratched out Hourglass in about 10 days, and I gave him the script and he said, “You know, this isn’t bad. I like this piece!” I said, “Well, let’s do it, then, but I want to direct it.” And he said, “Okay.” And all of a sudden, I was at the helm of the movie and directing this thing, learning a lot, and I had a great time!
The Outsiders (1983)—“Ponyboy Curtis”
CTH: Yeah, that was just an opportunity of a lifetime, but I was so young that I probably didn’t appreciate how big the opportunity was. I’d seen Apocalypse Now, I’d seen The Black Stallion. I don’t think I’d watched The Godfather at that point, but I didn’t really know who Francis Ford Coppola was, or what he meant to the business. Working with him was an amazing experience, but that’s all I could really draw upon: the moment I was in, sharing that with him and learning what I was able to learn at such a young age.
I’m still close to S.E. Hinton, who wrote the original novel. The book is required reading in about 75 percent of our schools across the nation. All of my kids had to read the book in sixth, seventh, eighth grade, and it still affects so many of our young people. I can’t tell you how many people will come up to me and say something about it, whether they’re parents or kids themselves. I hear from so many parents, “Yeah, my son, my daughter, had a real hard time reading books until they had to read The Outsiders, and they fell in love with that book, then they watched the film, and not only is it their favorite movie, but they read constantly now.”
When we made The Outsiders, I had no idea that that book and that film would go on to the sort of iconic status it’s reached. I mean, that novel is mentioned along with greats such as Catcher In The Rye. It’s truly amazing to see it happen to this book that S.E. Hinton wrote when she was 16, 17 years old. It started out as an essay, and she turned it in to her English teacher, who said, “Hey, you should really make this a novel!” And she followed through with it, and it turned out to become what it’s become, which has been really mind-blowing over the years. I think last year alone, it probably sold something like five or six million copies. And that book was written in the late ’60s!
What an amazing thing to be a part of and to cut your teeth on. I’m so proud to have played Ponyboy Curtis and to have worked with Francis Ford Coppola and shared that with the cast that was put together. I mean, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane… everybody! And Patrick Swayze, who was such a major part of my life for so long. I did three films with Patrick [the others were Grandview U.S.A. and Red Dawn] before he passed. When you look back on films, it’s so rare to have a cast like that, who start out so young and move on to be such a prevalent part of this town. I’m very, very proud to have come from that sort of… frathouse, really. [Laughs.] And to have shared that with those guys. And I know each and every one of those guys, from reading different interviews and still staying in touch with them, they all feel the same thing. We’re so proud to have come from that cut, and to have shared that together, it affected all of our lives so deeply. And it still affects my life today! I’d say probably 70 percent of my Twitter followers are 13, 14, 15-year-old girls who have just discovered The Outsiders and have fallen in love with Ponyboy. And Johnny and Dally and whoever. The digital age is upon us, and they now have a way to reach out to those people who played those characters. It’s just amazing.
Torchwood: Miracle Day (2011)—“The Gentleman”
CTH: Well, I’d watched some of the Doctor Who eps growing up—I’m talking the old-school ones, I’d yet to watch some of the new ones—but that had such an amazing fan base built into it that I was just sort of excited to be a part of that. Torchwood has had a comparatively short life, but it still has such a huge cult following. It’s funny, I got a lot of response from that role, which was, uh, somewhat insignificant, really. [Laughs.] When you look at it overall to the series, anyway. But the two lead characters, John [Barrowman] and Eve [Myles], were amazing to work with. I just think Miracle Day probably was a bit too ambitious for its own good, really. I personally loved working with everybody, but I only spent about four days on the set, so it was quick, fast, and furious. Not a whole lot of work went into the development of the character for myself, because four days is four days. You can’t really get lost in something like that. It’s more about showing up and doing the work. But I had a great time. There’s a certain responsibility that comes with playing the heavy or the bad guy that I’ve been enjoying. For some reason, I’ve been playing more of them lately. I really like it! There’s a real challenge to it that you don’t get by playing the good guy, I’ve discovered over the past couple of years.
The Hitcher (1986)—“Jim Halsey”
CTH: As I was saying earlier, The Hitcher was a real important film for me as an artist, but more importantly, for me as a person. I was 17 or 18 when I did that movie, just starting to really understand what it was to be an actor. I’d done some movies prior to that where I really was clueless. I had no idea what I was doing on The Outsiders, I had no idea what I was doing in a lot of those movies I did, whether it was Secret Admirer or Tank or Grandview U.S.A. or A Tiger’s Tale. I was just sort of handed a gift at a young age, and I really only knew enough to get into a world of trouble at that point. [Laughs.] The Hitcher kind of was a pinnacle for me, because of Rutger Hauer, who’s an amazing actor; Jennifer Jason Leigh, who’s an award-winning actress and still the most committed actor I’ve ever worked with to this day; and Jeffrey DeMunn, an incredible guy who has trained more in theater and done some great roles. I was working with these people, who really gave me an opportunity to sit down with each one of them and discuss the craft and how to build a character and how to make choices.
At that point, I hadn’t really done that. I was just going through the motions, playing these roles of young teenage boys, where the choices are made just by showing up. I mean, you’re a young teenage boy, you’re playing a young teenage boy. There isn’t a whole lot of thinking that goes into that. [Laughs.] But The Hitcher was my first step toward adult roles, and the experience of that film is what really made me want to do it for life. It was a time when I was trying to figure out who I was as a human being, as an artist. You’re judged so harshly at that point in your life, not only by yourself, but also by your peers. It’s a difficult time. Being a teenager really sucks. It’s a hard time of life, and I’m about to have two of ’em. I’ve got one kid who’s now 20, but I’ve got a 16-year-old boy, and I’ve got a boy who’s 12 and just about to step into his teens. I recall my teen years, and I remember that as being the hardest time of my life. You just care so much about what other people think, and it’s painful. The Hitcher, for me, was my first step out of that area and into becoming an adult, and I’m so thankful for that role. That experience is one of my favorite experiences in my career, and it’s also one of my favorite films.
The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting (2003)—“Jim Halsey”
AVC: Where do you stand on the sequel? Or did you take it mostly because you felt so strongly about the original film that you felt obliged to be a part of it?
CTH: That was probably a mistake, to be honest. It was mishandled. There was a time when Rutger was involved as well, so I sort of committed with the understanding that that was what was taking place, but then that didn’t happen. It was a bit of a mess. The whole thing was just a real mess, and there was nothing I could do at that point. It probably should’ve never been made. And thankfully, nobody really even knows it exists. I don’t even really call it a sequel. It’s not really a sequel. It’s almost a completely different movie, really.
Gettysburg (1993)/Gods And Generals (2003)—“Lt. Thomas D. Chamberlain”
CTH: Well, again, that was one of those experiences where you just thank God that you’re able to go through something like that. Playing a historical character is a wonderful opportunity anyway. With the Internet, there’s so much information made available for you, but also because there’s so many books, so many accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg. It made me a history buff, really, to be able to show up day in and day out, working with actors that aren’t there because of the paycheck, they aren’t there because of the fame and the glory that comes with it, they’re there because they love what they do. My exchanges with Jeff Daniels in those movies… He’s one of my favorite actors and one of my favorite people, a mentor that really shared and taught me a lot about being not just a man, but also a great actor with responsibilities much larger than myself. To go through that with Jeff and the rest of the cast of those movies was just an amazing time for me, and to be able to draw upon those books… The Killer Angels is an amazing read, Gods And Generals is an amazing read, and I was certainly hoping we’d able to do The Last Full Measure, just to complete the trilogy. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, but I’m a huge Civil War buff, and the stories and the relationships that come out of being on the set for that long and working with people of that caliber and the quality of writing that goes into that… It’s a very rare experience that you get as an artist, and I loved it.
Moonlighting (1985/1986)—“Waiter”/“Post Office Worker”
AVC: How did you come to make uncredited appearances in a couple of episodes of Moonlighting?
CTH: Well, I didn’t. [Laughs.] Not really, anyway. My dad was the stunt coordinator of that show for the full run, and it was as simple as me showing up on the set, visiting him, and somebody saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if you were the busboy getting pushed around by Bruce [Willis] and Cybill [Shepherd]?” And literally five minutes later, I’m wearing a waiter’s uniform and having some fun with Bruce and clowning around for a few minutes. But there was no strategy involved. It wasn’t like I was specifically phoned by anybody to be involved or to play a role, because I don’t even have any dialogue! I never said a single line or note on Moonlighting. I’m just a nondescript stock player kind of clowning around. That’s all that happened there.
Son Of The Beach (2002)—“Jason Dudikoff, Father Dude”
CTH: Yeah! [Laughs.] That was an opportunity to do some comedy. A friend of mine was producing the show, and I got the phone call, read the script, went in for a couple of days and messed around and had a lot of fun. I have more freedom to do this now, but I really enjoy just going to work and being on the set and sharing that exchange with people. That was one of those opportunities to do something I’d never really done before, and I had a lot of fun doing it.
Soul Man (1986)—“Mark Watson”
CTH: You know, I’m sort of surprised that… [Hesitates.] It’s funny: There are so many Soul Man fans that really love that movie, but it’s interesting how so many people are so careful to ask me about it, like they’re asking me about something really sort of naughty. Like, “Omigod, what about this movie?” But when he was 11, my son hadn’t seen Soul Man and wanted to see it, so we put it on and watched it together—this was relatively recently—and I’m shocked at how truly harmless that movie is, and how the anti-racial message involved in it is so prevalent. But I still don’t understand, and I guess this is just my own ignorance, the fact that certain people really hate the whole blackface idea, because this isn’t a movie about blackface. This isn’t a movie that should be considered irresponsible on any level. This is a movie that is quite the opposite for me.
I hadn’t watched it in years and years, and I’m really sort of happy to say that when I watched it with my son, it’s very funny. I mean, it’s hysterical at times. And I think it’s a great vehicle to show where we are. I mean, let’s face it: As much as we’d like to say we’ve come a long way with racism in our country, it’s not really true. I think it’s hidden better. I think people are more aware of how to hide it. But when I made the movie, I didn’t go into it with the idea that I had a responsibility to sort of teach America a lesson. I went into it because it was a great script. It was so well-written, so funny, and—sadly—very true. A lot of the experiences this guy goes through, maybe he wouldn’t have gone through them if he was a white person, but when he’s black, it’s a very different experience.
It was a great lesson for me just as a person, because it made me much more aware of the issues we face on a day-to-day basis, and it made me much more sensitive to racism. And I think a lot of the people that have seen the movie feel that same way. But there’s a lot more judgment about the movie from people that haven’t seen the movie, who are like, “A white kid paints himself black and goes through this experience? How could you do this horrible thing?” But it’s not like I’m Al Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy.” I understand that that could be seen as very offensive and even irresponsible. But Soul Man, it’s 180 degrees from that. It’s an innocent movie, it’s got innocent messages, and it’s got some very, very deep messages. And I think the people that haven’t seen it that judge it are horribly wrong. I think that’s more offensive than anything. Judging something you haven’t seen is the worst thing you can really do. In fact, Soul Man sort of represents that all the way through. I think it’s a really innocent movie with a very powerful message, and it’s an important part of my life. I’m proud of the performance, and I’m proud of the people that were in it.
A lot of people ask me today, “Could that movie be made today? There’s no way that movie could be made today!” Well, Robert Downey Jr. just did it in Tropic Thunder! And he was amazing in the movie! The difference is that he was just playing a character in Tropic Thunder, and there was no magnifying glass on racism, which is so prevalent in our country. I guess that’s what makes people more uncomfortable about Soul Man. But I think it’s an important movie.
Il Giovane Toscanini (1988)—“Arturo Toscanini”
CTH: That was a really amazing experience. Unfortunately, that movie never really came out in the States. There were some legal issues that kept that from happening. But I spent six or seven months of my life working on that film, working with Elizabeth Taylor, Philippe Noiret, Sophie Ward, and most importantly of all, Franco Zeffirelli, who’s such an amazing artist. I was 20, 21 years old, living in Europe, playing a historical figure. Arturo Toscanini was an amazing man. At a young age, the age of 18, he basically told the La Scala Orchestra to go screw themselves because they were a bit rude during one of his auditions. He became one of the most important conductors in the history of music. For me, it was one of my first opportunities—probably my only opportunity, really—to scratch the surface of old Hollywood. I became very close with Elizabeth Taylor, who shared some amazing stories with me over dinners, and I had different experiences that I cherish. Franco Zeffirelli, as well. These were old-time Hollywood people who were involved with films back in the day, when it was so special. I mean, it was royalty. And to have sat down and shared some of those moments with Elizabeth Taylor is something I’ll forever cherish.
Moviemaking these days… It’s rare that you are involved with something that special. I mean, things go directly to DVD or to cable, and YouTube has changed everything, where everything’s made for nothing nowadays. It’s something I feel really special having experienced at a young age, because it was such an important time for me. Those times are few and far between now. They don’t even really exist anymore. So that was just an amazing experience, and I wish that film could’ve come out more widely. I’m not going to get into the legal issues of why it didn’t, but it got hung up for three or four years, and there were some financial issues with the studio that made it, and it ended up becoming sort of an Italian miniseries, but that’s all that ever really happened with it. Which is unfortunate. For me personally, it was an incredible time.
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)—“Jack’s Father”
CTH: Spider-Man was important for me because it’d been a long time since I’d been in a movie of that caliber. I mean, that was a $200 million movie for Sony, so the opportunity to play that role in Spider-Man, one that was small but poignant… It was important to get back on that big screen and experience that again. Also, it’s kind of cool that it that came through Mark Webb and the people from the casting department, who were big fans of Southland. They brought me in and cast me in that piece primarily because of my work in Southland.
CTH: That was a reality show about celebrities competing in the world of magic, and I’d always been a fan of magic, but there’s a certain nerdiness that comes with magic and people who like magic. [Laughs.] But I really felt like I wanted to immerse myself and check this thing out, because once I’d met a couple of magicians, I found that magic was just another opportunity to perform. What makes most magicians bad magicians is their inability to act well, and here I was, a guy that had acting ability, so I thought, “Well, when I watch most magicians, if they were better actors, I’d like them better as magicians.” I personally can’t stand most magicians, because either their act sucks, they’re bad magicians, or they can’t act, so those three qualities made me really hate that art form. But I felt like if I could be trained and learned some skills or even some sort of magic act, then I applied my abilities as an actor to it, I could be a decent magician.
So it was sort of these two worlds colliding, and I’m now a fan of magic. I’m a huge fan of good magic, I should say. But I’m also a real hater of bad magic. So it was fun for me to watch and see how people put their acts together and the choices they make as a performer. It’s a lot easier to do, I think, if you’re a decent actor. So the idea behind Celebracadabra was a great idea. If you can get from the first episode through to the last episode, it’s a fun thing to watch. Although it didn’t have a very big following, and when it aired, I don’t think people really were down with the idea of watching actors doing stupid magic on TV, and were like, “Why would I spend an hour of my time every week doing that?” [Laughs.] But it’s an amazing watch if you get the whole series and watch it from the beginning to the end. It’s very interesting, and a lot of drama came out of it.
Criminal Minds (2009)—“George Foyet/The Reaper”
CTH: The Reaper, for me, that’s one of the most important roles I’ve played. First of all, it’s a very contemporary character on a show that’s viewed by 10 million viewers from week to week. At that point, they had never had a guest star repeat themselves, but the Reaper ended up being five episodes, torturing Aaron Hotchner and the rest of the B.A.U.
I’m gonna go back to The Hitcher for a minute here: When I was sitting with Rutger Hauer, I’d watched a lot of his movies, and he’d played the heavy a number of times, so I asked him, “Rutger, you’ve played so many great bad guys. What’s your secret? What is it that makes you so good at doing that?” And I remember he was smoking a Camel cigarette, almost chewing on the end of it—it was filter-less, of course—and he kind of looked at me through those steely blue-gray eyes, and with that very thick Dutch accent, he leaned in with that husky whisper and just said, “I don’t play bad guys.” [Laughs.] And that rattled around in my head for years, like a BB in a boxcar. I didn’t really understand what he meant, because I was too young.
Twenty-five years later, I’m offered the role of the Reaper, and I hadn’t played many bad guys, and I certainly hadn’t played any bad guys successfully up until that point, but it was really an opportunity for me to discover what that note really meant. When I played the Reaper, I was really clear that I wasn’t going to be playing a bad guy. And when you watch the performance in that show, I’m playing someone who’s a good guy who’s doing really bad things. And that affected a lot of people. I can’t tell you how many people—seriously, on a daily basis—remind me of that performance, and, from their perspective, how horribly despicable he was, and how he’s one of the worst, or baddest, characters ever. And it’s funny, because if it wasn’t for Rutger sharing that gem with me, I would’ve certainly screwed that up 100 percent. [Laughs.]
Otherwise, you would’ve seen me overacting, like you see with so many other actors playing bad guys. That’s just it: They’re playing a bad guy with bad intentions, and it turns out to be a bad performance, a bad character, in a bad movie or a bad television show. But as an actor, having really discovered what it means to play good intentions while doing bad things, and learning how deeply that affects audiences on so many levels… That was a really powerful discovery for me as an actor. I’ll never approach a bad-guy role as a bad person again. Now I try to find the humanity within those characters. I try to find the human quality people can connect with. That’s what affected so many viewers when they watched the Reaper. People were really roped in by his behavior, which is really true to being a human, and he’s not disconnected by being above it all. So many people that play bad guys, I think, make that disconnection. They think that they can’t play a bad guy and still be a real person. And that makes me not want to watch. The Hitcher is really a great example of that. Rutger Hauer’s human quality, the pain he feels, the tender moments he embraces, are the same that make you hurt as a viewer, that make you feel like you’re riveted to what this performance is.
I’m sorry, I may be overstating it. [Laughs.] It’s just a really important discovery, to make sure you don’t discard the human quality, and you don’t rise above and try to become bigger than the story. You embrace those tender moments. And people are really extremely affected by that. The Reaper and Dewey from Southland, they’re two completely different characters, but there’s a similarity because they’re both from television. I think the writing on television is better than it’s ever been, and the writers are giving actors like myself a real opportunity to make these discoveries and share them with a broader audience and affect more people by doing so. That’s just been a great opportunity.