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The actor: Producer-director Fisher Stevens, who moonlights as a popular character actor best known for his roles as Steve Guttenberg’s sidekick in Short Circuit and a computer whiz in 1995’s Hackers, and just seen in an extended guest stint on Lost. Stevens recently produced the crowd-pleasing, anti-dolphin-poaching documentary The Cove.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with The Cove?
Fisher Stevens: I’m a big scuba diver, and I dive with my friend Jim Clark, one of the founders of Netscape. One day he introduced me to this guy, Louie Psihoyos, who was a photographer friend of his, and we started diving together. Louie said, “Oh, I’m making a documentary.” I didn’t really understand what it was about, but he would be shooting dolphins. I screened Crazy Love, one of my films, on Jim’s boat where we were diving, and he said, “Wow, this is good.” And I was like, “Well, I make movies. That’s what I do.” So Jim called me about February of ’08 and he said, “Look, I’ve been financing this thing, and we want you to come on board and help us, because I think it could be great, but it’s not a movie.” So I saw the footage and it was like, “This is crazy. This is really good footage, but there’s no movie.” The writers had just gone on strike, so everything was quiet, so I dove in. I hired a writer, Mark Monroe, that I did another doc with, Once In A Lifetime. That you should see. It’s great.
That was my first doc. I financed it with my company and they delivered an unwatchable film, and my partner’s like, “You fucked me. You wanted to do this, you fix it.” So I got obsessed, and I loved it. And that led to Crazy Love, which led to this. We tried to make [The Cove] an action thriller. We re-shot a lot of it, the interviews. We couldn’t go back to Japan. The Japan stuff was done. And then I got obsessed with saving these dolphins. I’m thinking, “Wow, we can really do this. This will stop this from happening.” Not only that, it was a bigger environmental issue. Also, I was feeling shitty: About three years ago, I went to a nutritionist. I didn’t know what was wrong with me; I had this weird metallic feeling. He took a blood test and a hair sample to find out what vitamins I was lacking. Three weeks later, the New York Board Of Health calls and says, “You have high contents of mercury in your blood.” “What, is this a joke?” “No, no, no. There’s an epidemic in New York State where now we have to check everyone’s mercury levels. Are you planning on having a child in the next year? Six months to a year?” I said, “Maybe.” He said, “Don’t.”
AVC: That’s got to be surreal, to have the Board Of Health call you up and say, “Don’t procreate, if you know what’s good for you!”
FS: So when I saw the Cove footage Louie had shot… Louie had very high mercury levels. Louie and I both ate tons of tuna, sushi, and seafood. That was another part of the film, the mercury content. I hope, if the movie does well—the reviews have been great—that it’s going to open a lot of minds to a lot of different things.
AVC: It feels as much like muckraking journalism as documentary filmmaking.
FS: I think it’s a little thriller-y and cinematic. But yes, we wanted it to be entertaining. That was the key. Let’s make people sit. And I watch people now, especially with a group; it’s a very collective experience. I love watching the audience now.
AVC: Have you always been interested in becoming a filmmaker?
FS: Once I hit 25, I realized I had to do more than just be an actor. I love acting, but there’s something that makes it difficult to just be a man, a grownup. Not to take away from any actors, but I knew I wasn’t going to be Tom Cruise. Well, I knew I wasn’t going to be a Scientologist, either—but a movie star? I knew I was a character actor, which is great and I’m proud of it. But I knew that I wanted to do more. I worked at a production company when I was 16 and 17 as a bike messenger, so I was around it constantly, and I loved it. And then I started a theater company when I was 22. I was co-founder of Naked Angels. We just had a hit play, believe it or not, all these years later in New York, called Next Fall. But I started producing and directing and writing and stuff for the theater, and then that grew out of hand and I sort of lost my control, and then I started GreeneStreet. I’ve always loved the process of filmmaking. Now I’m much more into producing docs, but I want to direct features. I’ve done one. I want to get back into that. I love that.
CBS Schoolbreak Special: The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial High School Of Rules And Regulations (1984)—“Gary Gordon”
FS: Oh my God, that was in high school. I remember the girl, it was Kelly Wolf. She was a really gifted actress, an A-list theater actress. She had one brown eye and one green eye. I always thought she was a great actress. I always wanted to do an after-school special. I was like, “Wow, why can’t I get one?” And then I got one and it was like, “Oh my God.” I was a big vintage-clothes guy, and I made my character wear vintage clothes in that, and I kept them all. They were fantastic. I don’t remember where they are anymore.
AVC: What was the theme of the after-school special?
FS: I think it was a nerdy girl gets the good-looking guy. She was the nerdy girl. I was not the good-looking guy. I was the friend of the nerdy girl. I don’t really see the stuff I do a lot of times. It was on TV, so I don’t think I saw it. I didn’t have cable in New York, and if you didn’t have cable in New York back then, you didn’t watch TV. I’d like to see it now, though.
The Brother From Another Planet (1984)—“Card Trickster”
FS: That I remember very well, that I did see. That was John Sayles. Joe Morton was the brother. Great actor who I did Midsummer Night’s Dream with. He played Oberon, I played Demetrius at the New York Shakespeare Festival. John Leguizamo was Puck, Elizabeth McGovern was Helena, F. Murray Abraham was Bottom. I loved doing Brother From Another Planet. We shot on a train at the subway museum. I showed John Sayles that trick when I was auditioning for Baby It’s You. He remembered the trick, and then he wrote it into Brother From Another Planet. He offered me another movie years later, City Of Hope, and I turned it down to do The Marrying Man, a Neil Simon movie, and I’ve never heard from him again.
Short Circuit (1986)—“Ben Jabituya”
FS: I originally was hired, and then they fired me because they decided to make the role Indian. Originally he wasn’t Indian. And then they hired Bronson Pinchot. Then they fired Bronson and hired me back. It was a very crazy scenario. I had an amazing time. Although, I remember I was like, “Steve Guttenberg?” [Groans.] I was not excited to work with him. Ally Sheedy was a goddess, and I really wanted to work with Ally Sheedy, but Steve Guttenberg… And he turned out to be a really nice guy. Then we did the sequel and it was in Toronto and it was horribly directed by this terrible director, Ken Johnson, whose license plate said “Mr. Director.” I’ll never forget it. I knew I was in trouble when he pulled up in his Mercedes and I read his license plate. And it was a good script, too. It’s still a cute movie.
AVC: With Short Circuit 2, you went from being the sidekick to the star.
FS: Yeah, I loved it. I had a great time. I just was a little bummed that it didn’t turn out better when I saw it. I remember being really disappointed at the end result. Cynthia Gibb was really cute.
AVC: Austin Pendleton said the script for Short Circuit was much better than the film.
FS: Well, you cast Steve Guttenberg. And also, the voice they chose for that robot… You didn’t picture that when you read the script.
AVC: How did you feel about playing an Indian character?
FS: Back then, I loved it. I went to India and I studied Hindi. I got into yoga. And this is in 1985. I lived with Indian people. I really immersed myself. I used to be a total Method actor, so I was really deep in the deep end. And I had a great time. And the malapropisms, they worked. I thought they were great. So I really loved it.
My Science Project (1985)—“Vince Latello”
FS: It was an amazing experience. It’s one of my favorite experiences. Sadly, early on, I had the best time of my life, until recently when I just did my other new favorite movie. My Science Project was my first time in L.A. as an actor. Didn’t know how to drive. Working with Dennis Hopper—he was just out of rehab at the time—he was one of my heroes. My roommate and I, we got cast together. His name was Raphael Sbarge, he was in Risky Business. It was amazing we got cast together in this movie in Hollywood. We lived in New York in an apartment. On the Disney lot, when it was the old Disney, before Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg took it over… They actually took it over midway through our shooting, and they didn’t release the movie very strongly, because it wasn’t their regime.
Bloodhounds Of Broadway (1989)—“Hotfoot Harry”
FS: What happened was really sad. The director, Howard [Brookner], had AIDS. He died, basically, having never edited the movie. It was tragic. It was an amazing script. And Matt Dillon, when we were kids, he was one of my best friends, he got me into that movie. I auditioned, but he introduced me to the director. I’m a Damon Runyon fanatic. I did Guys And Dolls in high school. I loved him. I wanted desperately to be in that movie, but because Howard was ill, it did not turn out well. And that was the best cast, the best script; it just didn’t congeal. To be fair, there was no money to make it. There were big musical numbers, Madonna was in it, Jennifer Grey right after Dirty Dancing, Dennis Quaid. It was an amazing cast. But Madonna kicked me out of the makeup chair. She was tough.
Reversal Of Fortune (1990)—“David Marriott”
FS: That was a weird one, where I just had four days on it. That was one that helped my career as an actor, because a lot of people saw the film and liked my scenes. It was one of those weird moments where the director and material all came together. Barbet Schroeder is a great documentary filmmaker, but he hasn’t been able to come up close to that as a feature director. He cast every role perfectly and he got the atmosphere so right for that movie, and had very little money to make it, and he just did a brilliant job. I remember where we were shooting, it was disgusting, the smell and the dirt. I remember him saying, “I want you to feel this.” That’s why he was a great director for me. He’s like, “Just take it all in. This is the way you live. This is the life you live.” It was a great moment. And I had a great time with Ron Silver, God rest his soul.
The Marrying Man (1991)—“Sammy”
FS: That was a bizarre experience. Alec [Baldwin], who I knew from New York, was in a bad mood constantly, and Kim Basinger, who’s so beautiful, they just locked themselves up in a trailer and didn’t want to leave. The director was absolutely the wrong guy to direct the movie. He was an animator. Alec just gave him hell. Paul Reiser, Steve Hytner, Peter Dobson, and myself, we had the best time. I remember we went to Vegas one weekend with Alec and the producer, and the producer knew Frank Sinatra, and it was his last year at Bally’s. We went to Bally’s and we got to meet Frank afterward. Frank was in great form. We all decided to dress up seriously. That was probably one of the greatest weekends of my life. That was better than anything about the film. Neil Simon, I remember, he got really mad at me because I was improvising. He said, “Rewrite another line, walk the unemployment line.”
Hackers (1995)—“Eugene Belford/The Plague/Mr. Babbage”
FS: That was a great gig. Angelina Jolie, it was her first movie, pretty much. I thought the film could have been a lot better, but I had a blast making it. I loved it. I had to shoot in London, first time, Pinewood Studios. I didn’t own a computer, I didn’t know anything about computers. Reading about these hacker guys and what they’re like, it was kind of interesting. It has a big cult following. That’s probably what kids know me a lot for now.
Undisputed (2002)—“James ‘Ratbag’ Kroycek”
FS: I’d just finished making my first feature. [Writer-director] Walter Hill, he did a couple of my favorite movies: The Warriors and The Lone Riders. A great director. They didn’t pay us. It was a real low-budget kind of thing. They paid Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames all the money. But it was in Vegas, which I loved. And I wanted to act again, and I’m a big boxing fan. I box a little shitty, but I do it. And I knew Wesley from when he was on Broadway in Boys Of Winter. He really changed. He was like this humble little skinny guy, and then he was like, Wesley. And my part was all about me and Wesley. I was his trainer. I was Angelo Dundee to his Muhammad Ali. So that was another really interesting experience. We shot in a jail where there were real prisoners, so I got my first real jail experience. I got raped a couple times. Cool. It was really nice. [Laughs.] All part of the process. And I had a beautiful time on it. I loved doing it. I basically blew all my dough, though, gambling.
AVC: Wesley Snipes is kind of notorious for staying in character.
FS: He was intense. I hope he gets it together, because Wesley is a great actor. He’s a great actor, and he just got a little off track. But if he can get back on, he’s a phenomenal actor. He’s a great stage actor.
Anything Else (2003)—“Manager”
FS: One scene. I wanna work with Woody Allen so badly, man. I’m hoping, I’m waiting, to really work with Woody. That was just a taste.
AVC: Did you receive only your one page of dialogue?
FS: Yeah. I had six or eight lines, but they were with Woody, Danny DeVito, and Jason Biggs. But the only reason I got this was that Juliet Taylor didn’t cast it. She casts all his movies, and she took a vacation, and Laura Rosenthal gave me a shot, because Juliet… I don’t know what I did to her in a past life, but she’s never had me meet or go up for a Woody Allen movie in my life. But that was a great moment for me. It was exciting. It was like, “Do a scene with Woody? Okay.”
AVC: Did you intentionally decide to do smaller roles as your filmmaking career took off?
FS: Uh, no. No. I just wanted to work with Woody. I don’t care. I would have done one line with Woody.
Prison Song (2001)—“Prosecutor”
FS: That was because I’m an Elvis Costello fan. And [director] Darnell Martin is a friend of mine, and she said, “Will you do a scene with him?” I have a scene with Elvis. So I just did that to work with Elvis and Darnell. That was totally it. Here’s my criteria: Whom am I acting with? Who’s the director? Where does it shoot? And what is the money? And I’ll forgo the money if it’s with Woody Allen. And I don’t care how big the part is if it’s with great people. If there’s nobody good in it, they have to pay me a lot of money. If it’s shooting in a shitty location, they have to pay me money. If they’re shooting in a great location, I’d do it for free.
AVC: You do a cost-benefit analysis for each role?
FS: The movie I just did was called Gringos Do Rio, and we shot in Rio. The director, Jonathan Nossiter, is a friend of mine, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my entire life. But it was in Rio. I had scenes in Portuguese, French, and English with Charlotte Rampling and Bill Pullman. And I didn’t get paid anything. We own a piece. But it was magic. Just magical.
Lost (2008)—“George Minkowski”
FS: Lost, I’d never seen. They asked me to do this part, said it was going to be a little bigger than it turned out to be. I got down there. It was amazing how they shot a big feature. Took a long time. It was in Hawaii. I got to shoot with these great actors, Naveen [Andrews] and the British guy—I can’t remember, the long-haired guy. Fabulous actors. You know, I was bummed that was it. I came in a couple times. I was there for like three weeks. It was great. I wanted to go back. Maybe it’s too late. Yeah, and then I started watching the show and it was beautiful. Great show. I don’t really watch television, I have to say. I had to watch it because I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (2008)—“Lyle Corman”
FS: I got asked to do that show, and I wasn’t going to take it, but my assistant is the biggest fan, and he said, “You have to do this.” And I’m glad I did, because it was very fun, very improvisational. And those guys were fantastic. And you know, I had a blast.
AVC: Why were you originally not going to take it?
FS: I didn’t know it, they don’t pay very much, I was like, “Eh, I’m busy.” And then I said, “Fuck it,” and I did it. I’m really glad I did.