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The actor: Reliably excellent character actor Gary Cole, best known for his turn as Bill Lumbergh, the passive-aggressive, coffee-sipping boss in Mike Judge's Office Space. Cole played a lot of heavies in the early part of his career, but has recently won acclaim for his hilarious turns in Talladega Nights, Dodgeball, TV's Arrested Development, and as Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie. His facility for villainy and comedy is currently on display in Pineapple Express.
Pineapple Express (2008)—"Ted"
Gary Cole: Well, Judd Apatow was producing it, along with every other movie out, it seems. [Laughs.] And Judd was involved in Talladega Nights, so that's where I first met him, and I think it was pretty close to when we began shooting. My character is one of many villains in this story. I haven't seen much of it other than my scenes, for some dialogue replacement, but what I've seen is very funny, even though there's an action tone that isn't always necessarily comic. There's an actual body count and explosions and stuff like that, so he's kind of mixing up genres.
The A.V. Club: Was there a lot of improvisation involved? Director David Gordon Green is known for keeping things a little loose.
GC: Yeah, that was my experience on Talladega too—there is a script, and that's the version you usually do first, and then he either tweaks that a little or just opens it up totally. And a lot of times, David will just keep the camera rolling. The scene that's scripted will take place, and then there's no cuts, so you just keep going until you start to stew in your own ad-libbed juices. [Laughs.] Sometimes it goes on for a long time, but the one thing I figured out about that is, the good news about film is, nothing really has to work, other than bits and pieces. If you're onstage and you're improvising and nothing's happening, people are racing for the door. But the director can go shopping later and pick up pieces and moments and insert them. If people get on a roll and it works, then great. But that's what's nice about film. Accidental things can happen, but along with that comes a lot of footage that probably no one wants to look at, let alone pay to see. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you feel comfortable failing in that respect? Producing unusable footage?
GC: Improv is not something I had a lot of experience with, because for a long time, my only experience in front of a camera was all television, which is pretty rigid script-wise, except for the occasional scene where you toss in an ad-lib just to elongate something. Like, say, you're walking down a hall and you just don't have enough dialogue, and you throw in something. But you don't really have time to do other than what's written. It's very rigid. Shows have a certain rhythm that nobody wants disturbed. So a lot of that doesn't take place on television, at least the television I was doing at the time when I first started. So I didn't have a lot of experience in that until I wound up working with Will Ferrell and [Talladega Nights director] Adam McKay. And that's my first real experience of it on a daily basis. The days I was working on the film, it was always used. Now, a lot of it didn't make it into the film, but some of it did, and the more you realize how that stuff gets in there, you're more comfortable just doing it, knowing if something feels like it's really going south and it's kind of dead, it's not going to be in there anyway. You have to be able to fail in order to get those moments, and then you train yourself to just keep behaving until the cameras cut.
To Live And Die In L.A. (1985)—uncredited
GC: [William] Petersen is an old friend of mine from a long time ago. We started a theatre company in Chicago, and he's the one that got me on that. I was out here in Los Angeles. Billy was renting a big house while he was doing the movie, and there were other Chicago actors out here migrating, mooching off of him while we were out in L.A. auditioning for stuff. And there were some roles in it, and he mentioned me to William Friedkin, so I just got this role as one of a bunch of bad guys that Billy hunted down.
AVC: And he ran after you at some point?
GC: Oh yeah. [Laughs.] I never ran so much in a day in my life. It was somewhere out in a railyard outside of downtown near a bridge, like a train trestle. And it was running there, it was running across the bridge, and it was running through the industrial park, and finally Billy tackles me and roughs me up. But we ran all day long.
AVC: Could he outrun you?
GC: Oh God, yeah. Billy was quite the speedster then. But he had to hold back to make it a chase. [Laughs.]
Fatal Vision (1984)—"Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald, MD"
GC: I was still really in Chicago. I don't even think I made any pilgrimages out here. I was doing theatre in Chicago, and I had a couple plays in New York, which is really what led me to do it. There was a guy by the name of Joel Thurm who was vice president at NBC at the time, and he had seen a production of True West that I was in, in New York. And I think maybe a year before that or less, I had read for Miami Vice and did a network screen test for that. Obviously I didn't get that, but [Thurm] still had a memory of me. They had offered the MacDonald role to a few people who had turned it down, and the time for shooting it was approaching. And the casting director in Chicago, who I had known for a long time, suggested me to Joel Thurm. He remembered the play, and then I flew out and auditioned for it, and it became a reality. But it was one of those right-timing things, because they were getting down to the wire, and they were probably less than two weeks from shooting this thing. They already had Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint and Andy Griffith. It wasn't a question of getting someone that was known, although nowadays I don't know that they'd cast an unknown in that role.
AVC: Well, they already had two-thirds of the cast of On The Waterfront available.
GC: Yeah, they were set. [Laughs.] It was going, hell or high water, whoever they got.
AVC: What were your feelings about this role, especially given how the real-life story played out when the miniseries was over? [The miniseries and its source material, Joe McGinniss' true-crime book, cast MacDonald as guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and two children, but MacDonald successfully sued McGinniss for fraud.]
GC: I didn't know a lot about how it stacked up to the material that was out in Hollywood. I was a theatre actor in Chicago. It was massive, the role was massive. It was a four-hour miniseries, and I was basically in every scene in the movie. It was an eight- or nine-week shoot out here in L.A.. It was a whole change of life for me, so I was looking at that, too. I read it and re-read the book, and it seemed to me that their take on it was pretty one-sided, and they were pretty convinced that he was guilty. But I didn't disagree with that. That seemed to be the case, although I didn't want to play him like that, because I thought it would be better to play him if he was innocent. It would make him more convincing, which he was to a lot of people—a lot of people were convinced he was innocent.
AVC: So when you're in that role, you really have to be convinced of your own innocence, don't you?
GC: You make that choice. You look at each scene and you make sure that this is not a person deceiving people. And the very smart thing about this screenplay was, there was never a time that he was alone with his own thoughts. He was always in the presence of somebody, so we always had to be presenting that. But if you just make the choice—and that's really what acting is—you have to make a definite choice of how you're going to play. It's word-by-word, scene-by-scene, and movie-by-movie. You make a choice as to what the character believes and then you let the rest, the direction and editing and story, take care of itself. I felt that if I was just playing a guy that was lying to people all the time, that would come through. If I was playing a guy that was indignant and pissed-off that he was being accused of this, that was more authentic to me, even if he was in fact guilty.
Miami Vice (1986)—"Jackson Crane"
AVC: You mentioned auditioning for Miami Vice, but you did appear on the show eventually.
GC: I think the show was in its third season, so it was pretty popular at that point. It was a good experience for me. I was only there five or six days. There was a great actor in that episode who's now a director, Perry Lang. We were kind of partner bad guys, a couple of rich kids who became drug smugglers. I just remember having a decent time in Miami for 10 days.
AVC: And there were pirates involved in this episode? [Including Richard Belzer as "Captain Hook." —ed.]
GC: Yeah. I flew a pontoon plane that was my mode of transport, and Perry had some kind of smuggler's boat, and in the first scene, he wipes out a bunch of people on a boat. They just take over a boat, and though they weren't actual pirates, they fancied themselves to be, and they had the pirate lingo. They didn't dress as pirates. Miami Vice was very stylized, in a weird way. It was kind of like the old Batman. Sometimes the villains were very… I wouldn't say they were cartoony, but they were themed. They were very strong characters. This was not NYPD Blue. It wasn't trying to be hardcore authentic all the time.
AVC: After NYPD and Homicide, it seemed like all cop shows had to go for hard realism.
GC: And this was pre-that. This was before that whole Hill Street Blues blue-collar cop. The famous story about the creation of Miami Vice was that [NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff wrote two words on a napkin: "'MTV cops.' That's what I want as a show." And that's what it became.
In The Line Of Fire (1993)—"Secret Service Presidential Detail Agent-In-Charge Bill Watts"
GC: In The Line Of Fire wasn't technically the first feature I was in, but I'm going to say that it was, because the first one I did, I was basically invisible. I was in a movie called Lucas with Corey Haim in 1986. I played an assistant football coach who had one line, which was looped, and I realized it wasn't even my voice when I saw it. It was me saying the line onscreen, but it was someone else's voice. They lost my phone number, I guess. [Laughs.] But yeah, Line Of Fire was in '93, and that was an audition on tape, because that's the way [director] Wolfgang [Petersen] did it. He didn't usually meet people, and I believe Mr. Malkovich was responsible for getting me the part. I know John from college. I read for it and didn't hear anything for a long time, and in the meantime I saw John, and he had been set in it for a while as this villain, and I just mentioned I read for it, and he said, "Well, I wish I would've known about that." Then a week or so later, I got a call that I was cast in it. So I think John put in a good word for me.
AVC: What was it like going toe-to-toe with Clint Eastwood?
GC: It's intimidating. When I did Fatal Vision, that was intimidating as well, because Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, and Andy Griffith were big stars, especially to someone who was coming from Chicago and had never done a movie. But [Eastwood] is in a different league than those folks. Not to take anything away from them, but he is a giant icon movie legend. So it is very surreal that you're all of a sudden on a set, playing a character who has to argue with him, has to fire him, and has to be belligerent in his face. You see that famous face with the eyes getting squinty, and [Affects Eastwood growl.], and you're like, "Oh my God." So it was kind of an out-of-body experience. Part of you wants to look over at the people watching and say, "Not bad, huh? Me and Clint Eastwood." [Laughs.] But you have to get past that and just be an actor. He's a very soft-spoken, humble guy, actually, which helped put somebody like me at ease, who had never worked with somebody as huge as that. I'm sure that's not always the case with legendary people. But he's notoriously humble. He's the type of guy that when they try to put people ahead in line for lunch, he refuses. He just stands there patiently waiting behind the crew, and whenever he gets there, he gets there. That's the kind of guy he is, and it was just a great experience all around. To be in a movie directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and a movie that had a large budget… I got a taste of what really good filmmaking could be, so for my first experience in that kind of setting, it was great.
The Brady Bunch Movie (1995)—"Mike Brady"
GC: I had done virtually no comedy at all until then. All the television I had done was either disease-of-the-week movies or Fatal Vision or a television series called Midnight Caller. But Betty Thomas, who had actually directed an episode of Midnight Caller, she was the director. I had worked with her, I had also met her years ago in New York. She was a friend of Jim Belushi's, and I was doing True West with Jim Belushi, so I met her and knew her, liked her a lot. Thought she was very funny, very salty, and I went into the read thinking really that it just didn't make sense that I would get this part. But I thought since it was Betty, I'd go in and say hi, do my thing, have fun, walk away. And so I went in, and it seemed to go okay. What I did was, I just taped a bunch of episodes and watched them ad nauseam…
AVC: That's not easy work.
GC: Yeah. I went in and did my best Robert Reed impersonation, and it seemed to go fine. And a lot of time went by, more than six or seven weeks, it seemed. So I didn't think any more about it. It was like most auditions. You walk in, and 90 percent of them are dead. And then I got a call back and went in, and [Betty] said, "I just want to see if this was as good as I thought it was." So I did it again, and no one was laughing. She was just looking at me like an animal in the zoo. And then the third time I went in, they had already cast Shelley Long, so they wanted to see me with Shelley Long, and they put us on tape. They gave me some bad wig. I looked like Buckwheat from The Little Rascals, and they put me in some bad polyester shirt, and it was just really odd, because I looked so stupid. I left and didn't think anything about it, and then it still went on and on. It was on and it was off, and it was on and it was off, and then finally I got a call from her and she said, "I really want you to do it." And then she went to bat for me at the studio, because I don't think the studio wanted me. It didn't make sense for the studio; I'm sure they were going through their list of standup comedians and other comic actors that had done those movies. And nobody wanted to do it. They'd keep passing on it. And the time was coming, they had to make it, and so I was slipped in. [Laughs.]
AVC: How do you play a role like that? Do you have to play it pretty straight, and let the wackiness come to you?
GC: Two things. The way to play it is to play it exactly like Robert Reed. That's all I was concerned about, was doing an impersonation of Robert Reed, because that's what they wanted. That's what's going to make the movie be funny, is if people remembered the characteristics of those actors. That was my take, and that was a lot of other people's takes, and that's how we proceeded. But the best idea from the writers was that the Bradys just behave as they did, and everybody else around them regarded them as hideous or weird. It was like the old '60s fish-out-of-water television series, like Beverly Hillbillies or The Munsters and The Addams Family, where they just didn't fit in, but behaved as if they did, and that's why I think the first one worked. Not only that, but Betty and the crew made sure to shoot it exactly like the television show. The way the interior of the house was shot was very flat and two-dimensional like the show was, and any time they were outside, it had a different look, so it was jarring that way. And that seemed to work.
A Simple Plan (1998)—"Agent Neil Baxter"
GC: I got that role because of [director] Sam Raimi, who had produced American Gothic [a horror TV show starring Cole], and I just got a phone call, and that was nice. We didn't really meet on A Simple Plan, but there was a role they needed someone for, and he figured I wouldn't screw it up too badly. [Laughs.] Sam was great that way. I did two films for Sam [this and The Gift]. And even though I only had a small role in the movie, I think it's maybe one of the best films I've been in from top to bottom, in terms of everything working—the story, the way it looked, the kind of impact it had. It wasn't a huge financial success, but I don't really think it was a flop, either, because it didn't really cost that much to make. I think it's a good film.
AVC: It was such a critical role in the film, because it sends the story reeling in a scary direction.
GC: Exactly. Even though it's a small role, it's pretty pivotal, because it's one of those things where we don't know who this guy is, but either way, it's trouble. Because if he's really the law, he's trouble for these guys. And if he's not, if he's the guy coming back to get revenge, then he's even more trouble, which is what he turned out to be.
AVC: Is it tricky to play a part like that, where you have to present yourself as an agent on one hand, but on the other, you're also projecting a certain amount of menace? You have to find some sort of balance there.
GC: Yeah, and that's a lot of what Sam did. I looked at it and said, "What I don't want to do is tip either way. I want to back off and delay everything as much as possible." And he helped me do that. There was a great moment Sam built into it where the first time you see me, I'm just standing behind the sheriff, and he's asking the questions to Bill Paxton and Billy Bob [Thornton]. And I'm just writing the stuff in a notebook. And after he's done asking the questions, he just looks over to me as if to say without words, "Is there anything else I should ask them?" and I just wave him off. I just bury him. I don't even say anything. I just wave my hand and go, "Nah, these guys are really insignificant." And then Sam has a wide shot of the room, and he has Billy Bob and Bill Paxton turn and walk to the door, a very long walk. And on film, four or five seconds is long, and they almost get there, and they actually put their hand on the door, and as soon as the door starts to open, I go, "Uh, would you mind just taking us out there?" And they're both like [Whispers.] "Fuck!" They were inches from a clean getaway. So it's stuff like that. He builds that stuff in there to say, "Who is this guy, and what is he doing?" And then later, when we're closer to looking for the plane, there's a shot of me where I say something, and then there's one isolated shot of me where I have a look on my face like something's not right. But it could be either way. It could be me not believing them, as opposed to me lying to them. It could be me thinking they're full of shit. He created that tension that way.
Office Space (1999)—"Bill Lumbergh"
AVC: When did you have a sense that Office Space was finally picking up an audience? Because it certainly didn't find one right away.
GC: No. It was like a lot of movies. You do the movie and then you walk away. It lasted maybe five weeks in theaters, if that. The first time I got a sense of it was probably a year later. I was doing a play in Chicago in the summer of 2000, because here [in L.A.], you don't spend a lot of time on the street. You're always driving. But in Chicago, I lived next door to the theatre, so I was always walking up and down this big boulevard in Chicago, Halsted Street, and going to restaurants and just down the street a lot. And people started coming up to me, doing Lumbergh's dialogue. And this is a year and a half later, and I was really surprised, because I thought the movie was a flop. I didn't know that it had gained an audience on video. And it happened consistently. I started going to restaurants and people would be like, "Hey Lumbergh!" I went to the ballpark at Wrigley Field, people were shouting out Lumbergh's name. I thought, "My God, somebody's actually watching this thing." So that's the first time, but then you kind of realize that in this day and age, a movie doesn't have to be successful in the theater, necessarily. I mean, it helps, but it doesn't have to die a death in the theater and never be seen again. You get a second chance if word of mouth helps you out, and that was the case of Office Space.
AVC: So what went into conceiving that character? Was it totally Mike Judge?
GC: I'd love to say that I invented and meticulously crafted that. But it was entirely Mike Judge's creation. Again, it was me being a halfway decent mimic. It's based on a cartoon Mike did in the early '80s, where the only two characters were Lumbergh and Milton, and Mike did the voice. So I saw it before I met him for the part. So I just went in doing an imitation of Mike, and he seemed to like that. [Laughs.] I didn't see any way to improve on it, because when I saw it, I laughed out loud. It was a characterization everyone could relate to. Everybody's known a guy like that. And that's what Mike is really great at creating. Office Space is full of those kinds of characters. Even though they may be exaggerated, they come from a place of authenticity. Anybody who's ever had a job like that, or a boss or anything, knows those characteristics, and that's why he was making the movie.
AVC: It sounds like from your description of this and The Brady Bunch Movie that you do a lot of preparation before going in to audition.
GC: In those cases, there isn't a lot to do to perfect it, because the characters already exist in some form. The audience has a notion in mind of what those characters are like. And while somebody else can go, "Well, I can make it my own," I think that's the wrong choice in those two cases, because I think you can't do better than recreating them as closely as possible. You want to do the best duplicate, because that's what makes it funny. But in the case of Office Space, people didn't know that necessarily, unless they've seen these little films, but it's why the character works, is what Mike did. So I wanted to do the live-action version of that. I kind of liked it, because it's something to shoot for. Then you're not inventing everything, and in an audition, you're not rolling the dice to see if your choice is going to be the one that somebody has in their mind.
Win A Date With Tad Hamilton! (2004)—"Henry Futch"
GC: That was just another audition that went fairly well. Then later, there was a table reading of the movie which I was invited to do, and that led to being cast in it. So it was actually two auditions. Studios hold readings to hear the film out loud to see if there's anything they want to change or revamp, and I was involved in that. Same thing with my audition for Talladega Nights. I wound up at a table reading probably six months before the film.
AVC: With Tad Hamilton, you seemed to be given a lot of leeway. Were you allowed to put some color into it?
GC: I think that was all scripted. None of that was really improv. It was all scenes that were written. From my memory, there wasn't a lot of improv on that set, not in the scenes I was involved in, anyway.
AVC: At one point, you're trying to impress your daughter's would-be Hollywood boyfriend by wearing a Project Greenlight T-shirt. Was that a reference to your own appearance on the show? [Cole auditioned for a role in The Battle Of Shaker Heights.]
GC: A total coincidence. The way it was put to people on Project Greenlight was that you're auditioning for a real independent film, but you agree to let people film the audition process. In other words, before you go in, you know that they're going to film you coming in, hanging out at the waiting room, meeting people, stuff like that. You just go, "Yeah, whatever." But for actors, it's just like you're going to another job interview. It's just on camera and winds up on the television show.
AVC: Did you ever see the finished result? Do you regret not appearing in The Battle Of Shaker Heights?
GC: No, I don't regret it at all. I think I got more mileage out of just appearing on the show than I would've gotten being in the movie. [Laughs.]
The West Wing (2003-2006)—"Vice President Bob Russell"
GC: My manager had a connection to the show, which I think was helpful. She represents Stockard Channing. So she was familiar with everybody over there, and that was pretty traditional. I had read for [producer] John Wells on a show called Third Watch. I read for probably a couple other pilots, too. Didn't get any of them, but a couple of those auditions went fairly well. And I went in to read before the beginning of the fifth season, which was a scene that turned out to be with Martin Sheen. It was actually the first scene I shot, and it went well. It was fairly traditional. But I think the fact my manager had been plugged into the show for a few years because of Stockard probably helped.
AVC: Did you base your performance on any one politician?
GC: No. A show like that is so well-written, it's really about the writing. You look at the scenes, and you try to envision what will make them work the best. So you don't have to base it on anyone. That will take care of itself. If it happens to resemble somebody that people have an idea about, then fine, but I didn't pick out anyone in particular. To me, the character was specific enough as written that it kind of created itself.
AVC: You've appeared on several television shows for long runs. Do you enjoy that kind of commitment?
GC: I don't know. The longer I work, I don't care one way or the other. I like both situations. I like doing something, getting in and out, and I like hanging onto something for a while if it's something I like. But I haven't been in a situation where I was playing a character for a long time that I didn't enjoy doing, or I didn't think the show was good. Maybe once or twice, but I'll leave it unsaid. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does a long-term television show have to meet a certain quality standard for you?
GC: You would hope so, but you never know. You don't know what a show will become. It can start off quality and it can turn to shit. Television is a big roulette table on so many levels. That's all it is for actors. There are so many factors involved in making a show good. Now a show that's been successful that been on a while, chances are it's going to stay that way. At least it's going to maintain some kind of standard. But when a show begins, there's no telling. Even after 13 shows or a whole year, you don't know what will become of it. So you just have to be prepared for anything. The one nice thing about doing a character for a long time is, you begin to feel more comfortable, and you are thinking less and behaving more. It's always best not to be thinking a hell of a lot while you're acting, because you want it to be as spontaneous as possible, not too intellectual. Just behaving and listening to other people who you're doing scenes with. I always like the latter when it looks easy, even though it may not be.
Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law (2000-2007)—"Harvey Birdman"
GC: One weird thing was, I auditioned for Harvey on the phone. I was in Chicago, and they put me in touch with the writers. We had a conference call, and I just read a bunch of stuff over the phone at the studio. It's not really anything different than when you record. You're doing a character doing scenes. Most of the time, you're doing them by yourself. But all roads lead to writing, usually, and I just read this and thought it was a great idea and it was funny. The idea I had for the voice was slightly… There was an element of Mike Brady in it, in that I thought Harvey was just as vacant in his head as Mike Brady. I pictured a little more of a superhero/game-show-host voice, and that's how I read for it. And they seemed to like that, so that's how it stuck.
AVC: You have that voice in Midnight Caller and Dodgeball, too. You have a voice that lends itself well to announcers or radio DJs.
GC: Right, and there's a bit of pompousness. Harvey was an attorney, after all. [Laughs.] But he was always declaring things very broadly. So it was a lot of fun, and you had a lot of great people in that. You had John Michael Higgins, and Stephen Colbert was on it for years. It was funny, because even though I was doing scenes with him, I never met him, and we never really worked together, because he was probably all on the East Coast.
AVC: So you're completely removed when you're recording?
GC: There were a few occasions where we actually had everybody in a room, or at least some people I was working with. But that was rare, and that was usually in the beginning, because it's just tough, scheduling-wise. And also it takes longer. When people come in, they can knock out their thing in… We used to do two episodes in two hours, basically. But when you get everyone together, you can argue that maybe it gets better performances, but it does take longer. But it was a fun little thing.