Tom Sizemore on Point Break, True Romance, and getting yelled at by Pete Rose
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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: Throughout the ’90s, Tom Sizemore ruled as one of American film’s preeminent tough-guy character actors, a punishingly intense macho man whose rugged presence and flair for dark comedy electrified cult classics (Point Break, True Romance, Natural Born Killers, Strange Days) and big commercial blockbusters (1996’s Heat, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan) alike. The following decade, Sizemore hit a prolonged personal and professional rough spot that entailed a high-profile battle with drug abuse, a prison stint, and a tortured relationship with Heidi Fleiss. Sizemore cleaned up in 2009, and has been more prolific than ever in the interim, popping up in everything from the 2010 Insane Clown Posse Western Big Money Rustlas to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia to Company Of Heroes, a cinematic adaptation of the hit videogame series that has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray.
Company Of Heroes—(2013)—“Dean Ranson”
Tom Sizemore: I’ll be sober four years, beginning May 29, 2009. About six months after I got out of treatment, I went to see a friend of mine named Peter Nelson and show him that I was doing well. He said, “Stay in touch. You look good. Keep it up, kid.” Blah, blah, blah. I went to the next meeting, and about a year later, I got a call from Peter to come into Sony. Years earlier I had done a movie called Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man that Don Michael Paul had written with Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson. And Michael Paul [who directed Company Of Heroes] suggested me for the part, and Peter said, “Let’s see how he’s doing.” I’d been sober ever since May 29, 2009, and I was looking better and was cast.
The hard part was, it was a difficult movie. I was doing another movie prior to that called Five Hour Friends. I had one day off and I had to get on a plane and fly to Bulgaria. And then they started with the mountain stuff, which was really difficult, but I was heartened by the fact that I was able to do the work required of me. It was very vigorous and very cold, and I could still do that stuff. It was a tough movie, but after the first two weeks in those mountains, it was much easier.
The A.V. Club: Did being a veteran of war movies make the shoot easier?
TS: Yeah, I know how to behave and how they behave. I know how they load their weapons, the protocol of being a soldier. How you stood, how you saluted. I know the weapons. I know how to load them, how to take them apart. So that’s how that helped me. I was able to help the other guys with the fundamentals and the minutiae. The beauty is in the details, in how these guys load their weapons, comport themselves, etc.
Point Break (1991)—“DEA Agent Deets”
TS: Kathryn Bigelow and I became really good friends on Blue Steel, her second movie, and subsequently she asked me to do that part in Point Break. I thought it’d do well, but I said, “I can’t do this.” The part was too small. Willem Dafoe and I were good friends long before we were best friends, and Willem said to me, “Why don’t you do it unbilled?” I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked him what it meant and I read it again. And he’s like, “Come on, do it. It will be fun.” She’d also mentioned this other movie, Strange Days, to me and said I might be right for it, but that wasn’t really an inducement. It was kind of an inducement, but there were no promises made. I just loved working with her, and my part in Point Break only took a couple of days. But it was a very memorable scene, and I got to be really good friends with Anthony Kiedis. John McGinley and I were friends from New York. So it was a really good experience.
AVC: Reading the script, did you get a sense of its cult potential?
TS: A kid named “Johnny Utah” made me think it had a huge cult-classic possibility.
True Romance (1993)—“Cody Nicholson”
TS: I was cast in the part James Gandolfini ended up playing, initially. I got a call from [casting director] Risa Bramon and I said, “I didn’t want to beat Patricia Arquette’s ass on camera. I don’t want to do that.” Tony [Scott], God rest his soul, called me. It’s a shame what happened to him, but those were the halcyon days for him. He called me and said, [adopts aggressive British accent] “Man, you’re bullshitting me! Come on, man!” And Patricia’s his friend. Previously I had been up for Days Of Thunder. I said, “I just don’t want to do it. I don’t want to beat up Patricia.” He said, “Why not?” And all I could say was, “Because I don’t want to do it.” I was still living in New York and I was sitting on my brownstone’s front steps. I said, “Why don’t I play Nicholson to Chris Penn’s Nicky Dimes?” And he said, “Who will play the other part?” I said, “James Gandolfini?” At that point Jimmy hadn’t even done a movie yet. I knew Jimmy from the theater, and I flew out to L.A. I didn’t have to read. Jimmy flew up there the day after, and he went for that part. He got cast in it. I played Nicholson and it was great, especially [the] two scenes that were completely improvised, when we interrogate Bronson. Tony just told us, “You’ve got to just react. Say what you want. Just don’t talk over each other.” That’s the kind of experience it was. It was kind of a rock ’n’ roll, just running and gunning kind of thing. It was a different type of movie for Tony. You could tell he was really, really digging it, and everyone was on their game.
Natural Born Killers (1994)—“Detective Jack Scagnetti”
TS: I could talk about that forever. Greatest experience I had apart from my TV show that was short-lived because of my legal problems, Robbery Homicide Division, and my relationship with Michael Mann, which are the highlights of my career. I hope to revisit him again when we’re friendly again, or rather good friends again. But at that point, Oliver Stone was my Eskimo, I guess. He was helping me figure out what to do. We’d become friends on Born On The Fourth Of July. He would see me before he came home from work and before I did my scenes. I was there two weeks, and I’m riding down the crest of this thing in a wheelchair and I’m trying to figure out how to do it and not smash my face against the ground because I’m supposed to be a paraplegic. He saw me doing that every night for 10 solid days.
So one day he had me over to his room and he said, “Hey Sizemore, what the fuck are you doing out there?” I said, “I’m trying to figure out how to do that scene so that you don’t have to use a stuntman and cut away from me.” He said, “Really?” That impressed him, I guess. I just thought I was doing my job so that they wouldn’t have to use a stuntman. So I did it without a stuntman, and Oliver and I had become friends.
So he was casting Natural Born Killers and I called him and said, “Don’t cast Michael Madsen. He’s my best friend, and I’ll kill myself.” He was my best friend at the time, and they went, “I guess you’re going to be dead soon.” Two days later, he replaced him with Woody Harrelson, and I went to the Monkey Bar that night [because] I knew [Oliver would] be there, and I had written a monologue for Jack Scagnetti. Scagnetti was still being rewritten. And I made Oliver listen to it in the parking lot. He had me in the next day for like three hours and we worked on it. I had done a lot of work on it already in a short period of time. So I knew my competition was Gary Oldman and James Woods. It was a long shot. I was coming off of Heart And Souls with [Robert] Downey [Jr.], and I knew we were doing something special. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I trusted him. Oliver was in the pocket, man.
He was so completely sure of what he was doing and how he was doing it. I thought that that movie and Nixon were his strongest movies. I fell in love with Juliette Lewis. We had a long romance. It was destructive in the end, but we both got out of it. Didn’t hurt each other. And in my relationships with Robert and Oliver and Woody and Tommy Lee [Jones] and [director of photography] Bob Richardson, they’re all my friends today. It was a great experience. It was a tough movie to shoot. But movies are fun. I love doing them. Tough doesn’t mean shit to me. Getting older is hard. I don’t look forward to running up and down mountains, but the result is spectacular.
Strange Days (1995)—“Max Peltier”
TS: It was a great movie, man. [That year’s] Oscar movies are really good. Back in the 1990s, I didn’t know I was living in a really great period of moviemaking. That movie got largely ignored because Seven just blew us out of the water. It came out the same weekend as Seven. They ignored Strange Days, and it was a great movie. The shoot was 17 weeks and nights. It was hard. It was a really hard movie. It was one of the hardest movies I ever did because I was not healthy. I was wearing down. I was just working a lot, and for 17 weeks and nights I was breaking up with Juliette. We were in the movie together, and it was a very difficult time in my life. I was starting to make a lot of money, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I was going through a lot of changes. I realized I really had made it, that this dream I had as a kid in Detroit was a reality. I was working with the best people in the business over and over again. And that was both incredibly satisfying and created this internal pressure. You’ve got to keep up the standard.
Heat (1996)—“Michael Cheritto”
TS: De Niro and I became inseparable, and he had always been a big hero of mine. I met my future wife. That was a great time because Michael [Mann], although he’s difficult on crews, he makes the actors part of his family. So you’re in his house a lot. It was just great experience. Michael Mann is the most talented filmmaker working today, I think. He hasn’t made a movie in a while, but in the ’90s he had Daniel Day-Lewis’ Last Of The Mohicans, followed by Heat, The Insider, and Ali. It’s hard to top those four.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)—“Sergeant Horvath”
TS: I don’t know what to say about it except Tom Hanks is a great person, a serious person; he’s dissatisfied in a very likeable way, in a very discreet way, and Steven Spielberg is similar in his discretion and drive. But Spielberg is calm. He’s this driven filmmaker and visionary. He really is. He created the film in 58 days. He prides himself on coming in on time after that whole Jaws problem. We finished it in 58 days, and I worked every single one of those. The actual physical production was one of the best experiences of my life.
All those guys were great, especially De Niro and Hanks, who I got really close to, and Mann. They never deserted me. When I was going through my difficult times they never were far away. They’d call me and check on me. And when something happens to you, when something bad happens to you, you find out who your friends are. Those guys are my friends. They were my friends when I wasn’t doing well, and I’m happy to report that they’re my friends today. I’m looking forward to Act Two of my career. I took a break for seven years to go to prison. Actually it wasn’t seven years, it was nine months, but that foolishness is over.
Bringing Out The Dead (1999)—“Tom Wolls”
TS: Oh, what can I say about Scorsese? I know I said that Michael Mann was the best filmmaker, but I have to amend that to include Marty and Steven and Oliver. That movie was shot at night. It was a bold way to shoot fast. It was mainly in that truck, and it was a really good movie. Nic [Cage] was really deeply enmeshed in that part. And Cage goes underneath the water of his characters. I don’t do that when I work. I do it, but I easily pop out of it. It was an adjustment working with Nicolas because he doesn’t really come out of character. He may, he just doesn’t talk. He seemed to me like he was staying in it all the time. And that was a hard role to occupy all the time. Marty was always trying to remind us it was a comedy. We’re both like, “This is a comedy? It is? Isn’t Noël Coward a comedy writer? Doesn’t Neil Simon write comedies?” And Marty goes, [in fast-paced Scorsese voice] “No, no, no, no, no, no. It’s not that kind of a comedy. It’s a comedy like Taxi Driver is a comedy.” I was like, “Wow. I didn’t know that, either.” Yeah. I think he meant a dark comedy.
I don’t think the character cares if he saves anybody’s life. I think his ego is bruised if he doesn’t, but I don’t think losing anybody bothers him. I think he likes the gigantic thrill he gets from racing the clock, in saving these lives. There are guys where if they don’t save the guy in the ambulance they’re crushed. But with a lot of these guys, if they lose someone they’re just on to the next one. It barely fazes them.
AVC: The whole film has this really exhausted quality, like none of the characters have slept in ages.
TS: You’re onto something there, because Marty said, “I don’t want you to forget that everybody in this movie needs to go to bed. They’ve been up for a decade. They’re tired. They’re exhausted physically, emotionally, and mentally.” I thought we captured that in the movie.
Pearl Harbor (2001)—“Sgt. Earl Sistern”
TS: Oh, Ben Affleck. I had a great time. I didn’t have much to do with the movie, and I had a lot of fun. I like Michael Bay a whole lot. And Jerry Bruckheimer. But I love Ben Affleck as a person, as a director, as an actor. I didn’t know he was a director yet.
AVC: Yeah, I don’t think anybody knew he was a director at that point.
TS: Nobody knew. I knew he had a big brain. It’s amazing. Argo is a work of art. Ben was almost like a young JFK, that’d be a way to describe him. On the set of Pearl Harbor, you could tell he had his eye set on, not a greater conquest, but a bigger board. You could tell. He was a real student. He was always talking to the DP and getting familiar with the equipment. I remember he’d ask Jonathan Schwartzman, the DP, “Why are you shooting it like this and not like that?” “There’s an infinite number of ways to shoot a scene, so why do you do it this way?” He was just educating himself.
Paparazzi (2004)—“Rex Harper”
TS: [Producer] Mel [Gibson] was “Melvin.” I was in legal hot water, so that was a very difficult movie for me to do. But the set was the only place where I got any kind of release and that was really good for me. I didn’t really enjoy the character so much as I enjoyed being with the crew and being with Mel. Cole [Hauser] was great. It was a difficult time in my life, and it was the beginning of this bullshit that thankfully is over. Thank the Lord. But it wasn’t the best movie I ever made.
Hustle (2004)—“Pete Rose”
TS: I thought my performance was really, really good. I did. Some critics did and some critics didn’t, and a lot of people didn’t like Pete Rose. I met him; he’s easy not to like. I happen to like him. I happen to like him because I was playing him, also. He yelled at me once. “Do you know what it’s like to be up in the ninth inning of the World Series with two men on base, you’re down by one, there’s a 3-2 coming, and you need to get a base hit to win?” I said, “Of course not. I’ve never been a Major League Baseball player.” Then I was about to ask him, “Do you know what it’s like to be in front of a camera?” And before I said that, he screamed, “Shut the fuck up!”
I said, “Okay.” And I knew that it was his story and he was trying to convey to me the pressure, this enormous pressure that he’d been under since he was a young man. Nineteen years old, starting as a shortstop for the Reds and how that pressure became something that he became addicted to conquering. And when he retired as an athlete, the pressure was still succeeding and meeting that challenge. [He] found his way into gambling—he gambled as a player, but he said it went up exponentially, like, 10 times worse after he retired. It was to try to recapture that feeling of, “Wait, I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to come through.” And it was very, very helpful to me.
Zyzzyx Road (2006)—“Joey”
TS: I don’t want to talk about that movie. Who really cares? I had fun. I was in legal turmoil. I had a good time doing it. It’s just not a very good movie. The female, Katherine Heigl, is wonderful. Katherine Heigl was a movie star. I thought she was going to be one, and it was fun to watch this young actress getting better every day.