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: Although he got his start in the theater, Bob Gunton has worked in front of the camera as a character actor since the early ’80s. It was his 1994 performance as a despicable warden in The Shawshank Redemption that secured him cinematic immortality and has supplied him with an ongoing stream of work ever since. Gunton has proven himself deft at both comedy (Greg The Bunny) and drama (24), filling his filmography with projects ranging from Argo to Boat Trip, and he can currently be seen playing snippy, sarcastic financial wizard Leland Owlsley on Netflix’s Daredevil.
The A.V. Club: What was your familiarity with Daredevil going into the series? Did you know anything about the character at all?
Bob Gunton: I actually had flashbacks when I was asked to do this. I had flashbacks to when I was 8 or 9 years old, and I had measles or some damned thing, and I remember my dad bringing home some comic books. And I wasn’t much on the Daffy Duck spectrum, but he did bring home some of these dark Marvel Comics, and I’m pretty sure Daredevil was among them. And to my preteen soul, there was something about this character—the combination of courage and family life and guilt. And I’m a Catholic, from an Irish Catholic family, and we know plenty of stuff about guilt. [Laughs.] But there was something in it that really resonated—the loneliness of this guy’s situation. So this series was like a flashback. I’m not a big comic fan and I’m not a big fan of comic movies, but this character really got to me. I found him very haunting. And now, having watched some of the actual filmed series, they really captured all of those frissons that teenagers have… and that some of us with arrested development still have.
AVC: So how would you sum up the character of Leland Owlsley in a nutshell?
BG: In a nutshell? He’s a cranky geezer. You do note that he’s sort of out of the demographic of the other characters of the show. He’s rapacious and, I think, cultured and witty. And he probably thinks he’s smarter and more literate than everyone else, and I think that may be the case. One of the first lines he speaks, when they’re standing in the freezing night on a rooftop of an unfinished building, is something to the effect of, “Well, all right, but the next time we meet, it’s going to be at Per Se.” And what struck me funny was that I don’t think anybody else in that gathering had any notion of what the restaurant Per Se is, where it is, or where on the level of dining stars it sits. And it was a throwaway thing, but it’s the kind of thing that Leland says to kind of separate himself from this rabble that he is associated with simply and solely to make a whole hell of a lot of money.
AVC: As far as the character goes, in the comic books Leland Owlsley is also the super villain known as The Owl.
AVC: But it’s hard to tell at this point if Daredevil is moving in that direction with him or not, whether he may yet evolve into that, or if maybe it might prove to be his son, since he makes a reference at one point to having one.
BG: Yeah, I don’t know. And if I did, I couldn’t tell you how things shake out. But I did try and assume a sort of owlish mien. Of course, everyone is kind of a nocturnal animal in that show, so everyone is a little owlish. And there’s also a lot of glasses-wearing. Toby Leonard [Moore] beat me to the punch with glasses. I wanted to wear a pair of big, round lenses, but that was not in the cards. So I don’t think this is a foundational origin story. I think Marvel’s holding their cards pretty closely with this and with where a number of these characters are going.
AVC: Were it to steer in the direction of you actually becoming The Owl, would you be up for it?
BG: I probably would be.
AVC: Based on IMDB, it looks as though your first on-camera role was in Rollover.
BG: Yeah, I think that was my first movie, and it was a momentous introduction to film. I was doing an off-Broadway show about Vietnam—I’m a Vietnam veteran—and I played 22 different characters in the story. It became kind of a snob hit in New York because the Times wrote an absolute rave—Frank Rich, who’s now a friend of mine, wrote one of the greatest reviews I’ve ever gotten in my life—so lots of the intelligentsia poured into this little off-Broadway theater to see it, including Alan Pakula. And right out of a movie, he came backstage and he said, “I’d like you to come in and talk about being in my next movie, with Jane Fonda.” And by gum, that’s what happened.
It was the first time I’d ever pulled the kind of paycheck that mainstream movies can provide even a young character guy. I was just blown away. And working with Kris Kristofferson and Jane Fonda and Hume Cronyn—it was a wonderful, wonderful cast. The movie didn’t turn out very well, but it was a great experience, and that was my baptism into the world of film.
AVC: So how did you find your way into acting in the first place?
BG: It was a pretty circuitous route. It was sort of like “The Hound Of Heaven.” It was always chasing me down the pathways of my life. I was a folk singer in high school, and I starred in the plays and musicals and operettas that we did in high school simply because I wanted to be around the chicks. [Laughs.] But it turned out I got leads in all of those, and I actually was the star of a musical before I’d ever seen one onstage! I grew up in California, which was not—at least in the ’50s and ’60s—a cultural oasis by any means. Certainly not Orange County, anyway. So I actually acted onstage before I’d ever seen a live performance, and I loved it, but I didn’t think it was anything that someone would devote their lives to.
As a matter of fact, I decided in high school that I was going to go to the seminary, in the era of a Catholic president and a charismatic pope and a sense of new beginnings in the Vatican, too. And I did study with the Paulist Fathers for two years after high school in full anticipation of becoming a priest. But then I got involved during the summer in another musical and became a star in a fairly small… [Laughs.] I was a big fish in a small pond in Tennessee. But that experience underlined to me that I’d been given some gifts, and those are the best way of determining where you belong: by accepting those gifts. And for me, it was mimicry and singing and acting and all that stuff. And then I promptly got drafted! And by the time I got back from Vietnam—and I was a combat infantryman, so it was a fairly rough year—I said, “To hell with this. I’m going to do what gives me joy.” And I did another show in Tennessee, and then I went to New York, and the rest is my history.
AVC: As long as we’re doing firsts, your first gig as a series regular was on a drama called Hothouse.
BG: Yeah, that was a summer series we did in New York back in the days when the regular slate of series would go on hiatus and they would whip up a summer series. I did a couple of those. Actually, the writing was terrific, and I think it was interesting. It was set in a family-run psychiatric clinic. In fact, I think it was initially called The Clinic, because that’s what it was about. Katherine Borowitz, John Turturro’s wife, played my wife. I got to meet Alexis Smith and play opposite her. Michael Learned was a regular. It was a fine collection of writers and some really good writing. I don’t even know how many of those episodes played. I think we shot eight or nine, something like that. Maybe they all played, I don’t remember. But I do remember that I had a good time doing it. That was sort of my first entrance into what it’s like to have the discipline and the focus of doing a series, and also having the opportunity to have a character grow and evolve. It actually wasn’t until I did 24 a couple of years ago that I had that opportunity again.
AVC: It’s funny, but I just happened to notice that your first film and your first TV series shared an actor: Josef Sommer.
BG: That’s right! And we both came from theater and knew each other from that. We never got to play onstage together. But we also got to have a mini reunion on Patch Adams, because he played a doctor in that, too. Yeah, he’s great.
BG: That was interesting, mostly because I got to work with the great actor Brian Cox, and for the audition—actually, it wasn’t an audition, it was just a meeting. I had done Shawshank Redemption, so I was—for awhile—a fairly hot property. [Laughs.] In terms of character roles. So the big guy [Steven Seagal] invited me in to meet with him, and he sat down, and I sat down across from him, and when I looked across, I saw that he had a pistol strapped to his ankle. And I thought, “Oh, this is going to be an adventure.”
But I enjoyed doing it, and I actually got along very well with him. And he never pulled the gun on me, so I’m grateful for that. At least, he never pulled it on me offscreen. He certainly did on-screen. As a matter of fact, it was the first time I got drilled in the forehead with a bullet, and the first time that a squib didn’t blow, so I had to do it twice, when there was a whole room full of guns firing. I’d never really done a lot of violent films and stuff—when I was in Shawshank, the warden’s hands didn’t get too dirty with violence—but here I ended up having to take a slug in the forehead twice in one day, which was… interesting. [Laughs.] I can’t say I’d put that at the top of my résumé, but it was an adventure.
BG: That, too, was a strange day, because I really only shot for one day, and I was brought in—I presume that they might’ve had somebody else in mind but lost them or something. I don’t know. They just said, “Would you come in and do this role for a day and work on it?” And it was after the famed blowup that we’ve all seen on the internet of the director, David O. Russell, and Lily Tomlin, so the set was sort of like a ticking time bomb. I would notice that everyone was sort of holding their breath the whole time.
But I had loved David O. Russell’s first movie, Spanking The Monkey—I thought that was a wonderful feature—and I got along fine with him. His style of directing then—and I think he’s probably mellowed somewhat, but he used to be slightly out of range of the camera, and he’d shout directions while we were filming. And some of the actors didn’t take too kindly to that, but, you know, I went with it and had fun. There was a beautiful French actress in the film, Isabelle Huppert, who was a delight to be on-screen with, and Talia Shire played my wife in the thing, and I got to do some goofy dance or something. So it was a day’s work, and it was like going into a very exotic and dangerous place and then getting out right away. [Laughs.] But I would work for him again any day. I think his work since then has been just spectacular, very humane and very well done.
Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)—“Doctor #1 – VA Hospital”
JFK (1991)—“TV Newsman #3”
Wild Palms (1993)—“Dr. Tobias Schenkl”
AVC: I’m combining these three into one because they all have the same common denominator. Clearly, Oliver Stone likes you well enough.
BG: I had kind of an interesting relationship with Oliver Stone, since we were both Vietnam veterans. He brought me in for a meeting for Born On The Fourth Of July, and at the time he was also—I think he had an option to direct a film version of Evita, and I had played Juan Perón in Evita. So it was a very small role he was having me in for, but after we talked about Vietnam and all of our war stories and stuff, he sort of dangled in front of me the notion of, “Gee, you know, we might be able to do something with Evita…” And, of course, even at that early stage of my career, I knew, “No, if they do this, they’re going to have some major star play Juan Perón.” And at the time, I think it was actually Meryl Streep, Raúl Juliá, and… who else? I forget who he had in mind for Che [Guevara], but as it turned out, the whole thing fell apart, and the story I heard was that Oliver wanted the option of replacing Meryl’s voice if Meryl couldn’t cut it. [Laughs.] And she—very politely, I’m sure—told him to put it in his hat.
So he never did it, but as it turned out, I tested for the film version when Ken Russell—the great English director, but a crazy, crazy guy—was trying to put it together. I was flown to England and tested for it with Elaine Paige, the original Evita in the U.K., who was then the girlfriend of Tim Rice, the lyricist, and I was actually slated to do it, but then that one all fell apart, too, until many years later when it was done with Madonna and Jonathan Pryce.
But, anyway, that was the beginning of my relationship with Oliver, and then he called me on these other things, and I liked him. I just enjoyed being around him. He was difficult with some people, but I think our Vietnam bond trumped everything else. I do think those movies were great movies, and even though they were very small roles, I’m happy to have been a part of them.
AVC: What do you remember about Wild Palms?
BG: I just thought it was bizarre. [Laughs.] Bruce Wagner, who’s done a couple of movies since then about the milieu of Hollywood and the strange cultural tides and huge egos and crazy philosophies and all of that stuff. But it was just too bizarre, too strange for consumption. It would’ve been on a cable outlet if it was done today, or something like Netflix, and I think it would’ve found its audience. But on a broadcast network, people just looked at it and went, “What? What is this?” But it was a great cast, including Dana Delany, who I’ve worked with fairly recently, and it was fun.
BG: That was the most fun I ever had with my clothes on. [Laughs.] That series, I’ll tell you, if Fox had really given that show the opportunity it deserved… I mean, it’s still remembered when I go around. Of course, most people recognize me from The Shawshank Redemption, but there is this subculture of people who have collected all 13 episodes of Greg The Bunny. And I’m still close to a number of the creative people, Dan Milano particularly, who created Warren The Ape and Greg The Bunny and all of those characters.
We had the most fun. Sarah Silverman, Eugene Levy, Seth Green… Every day, we’d leap out of bed and dash to the studio, it was so much fun. And the puppeteers were so talented—these wonderful, all-American kids, men and women, who just opened up their id and pumped out this salacious and hysterical, satirical stuff… and that was between shots! [Laughs.] We would spend the entire morning improvising, just fooling around in character, while they moved the lights around. It wouldn’t even be involved in the particular story. It was just this improv orgy. And everyone was really up for it. And the break-ups… It was sometimes really hard to hold it together. But I had the greatest time. That was a wonderful, wonderful experience. And I think it was a terrific show, but—again—it was too cool for school.
BG: Well, that was another one where they asked, “Can you come in for a day and be an authoritarian character?” And as it turned out, it was—again—a wonderful collection of character guys that I got to work with. I think it was two days I worked on that. And Ben [Affleck] is great. He’s really a very, very skilled director. He knew exactly how he wanted to shape this thing, and it was brisk. Again, with all these very, very professional, experienced actors. It was all too brief. But it turned to be, I think, a wonderful film.
Boat Trip (2002)—“Boat Captain”
Judas (2004)—“High Priest Caiaphas”
Live At The Foxes Den (2013)—“Tony O’Hara”
AVC: And on the flip side of wonderful, we have Boat Trip.
BG: Well, I have to confess… [Laughs.] What happened was that I’d actually been doing a movie for the Paulist Fathers, the order of priests I’d studied with. They have a production arm, and they were producing a movie called Judas And Jesus in Morocco, and they asked me to play Caiaphas. So I was in Morocco, and I get this call from my agent saying, “Somebody just called with this thing called Boat Trip, and it’s a gay captain of a cruise ship,” and they explained that the Swedish Bikini Team drops in. I don’t even remember all of the tags, but this was again a one-day gig, and they were going to shoot all nine of my scenes in one day, and they offered an awful lot of money. And they allowed me to come back home so that I’d go from Morocco to Germany, where they filmed it, and I’d be able to go home via Paris, where I’d get to spend a week. And I said, “You know, I can’t pass that up.” Particularly after spending almost a month in Morocco.
So I did it, and my scenes were actually funny, and I enjoyed the character, but they ended up cutting the scenes that made this character make any sense. And I actually asked to have my name taken off, and they said, “Oh, no. No, no. We paid you too much to take your name off the thing.” But I guess we’ll always have Paris, as I told my wife. And we did. We had a wonderful time. But I started to watch it once, and then I said, “Nah. No, I can’t go there.”
AVC: I just love the fact that you went from a biblical epic to Boat Trip.
BG: [Laughs.] Yes, I guess that was from the sublime—well, if not sublime, then certainly serious—to the weird. And years later I got to play a gay man opposite Elliott Gould under far different circumstances. That was, again, a very low-budget independent movie, but we played old lovers who hang out at this place called the Foxes Den, and the movie’s called Live At The Foxes Den. The movie wasn’t all that polished or anything, but the storyline between he and I was very nice. And I finally got to play an older gay man who wasn’t a cliché but a real person. So I consider that my redemption for playing a gay boat captain in Boat Trip. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you tend to find more often than not that you’re hired for your more villainous roles—like, say, in 24—because of your turn in The Shawshank Redemption? Or, more specifically, do they say it outright?
BG: No, but I don’t think that was the case with 24, anyway. They brought me in initially just to do a couple of big ensemble scenes as one of the members of the cabinet. In this case, I was initially secretary of defense. And then they called that summer, and they said, “We would like you to play the same character, but we want to make him the chief of staff for the female president that we’re bringing in.” And as it turned out, Cherry [Jones] and I had done The Perfect Storm together. She’d been one of the women on the yacht that I was the captain of, the one that ends up being involved in the story. And we both came from theater and knew each other’s work very well, so we had an almost instant rapport. And they liked that relationship, so they brought me back the next year as her secretary of state. So I was sort of the Dick Cheney of 24. [Laughs.]
I ended up playing the same character in three different positions, and I don’t think anybody else on the show had ever done that. And it was a great, great, great experience. By the time I got to 24, the crew was so practiced and everybody loved each other, and it was a wonderful set to be on. And logistically, because there was a lot of action stuff that the president and her staff were not usually involved in directly—until they invaded the White House—we would shoot all our scenes for two episodes in two or three days on the set. So it was very economical, in the sense that I had lots of days off. [Laughs.] And then three or four days of really intense work in a two-week period. So that was nice, too. So, again, that was a great, great experience—one of many.
BG: That was a wonderful episode. I’ve been to some of the conventions, the signing conventions, and there’s a whole string of people who know that episode beat by beat, and people recall that Colm Meaney and I got to sing “The Minstrel Boy.” The moral question involved in that episode, I think, was kind of intriguing and tantalizing. I was proud of that character, playing him, and getting to get beamed up. [Laughs.] I had worked with Brent Spiner on Broadway. We had done Big River onstage together, so it was fun to do work in another medium with him. I remember that, when we were on the set, they had plaques all over the stage that we worked on with the word sandwiches that Data had to say, this nonsensical Star Trek speak. They would applaud sometimes after he would go into one of these real technical speeches, so they got to putting them on the wall in frames, as a sort of congratulations that he was able to navigate through the words.
BG: Uh… yeah. [Laughs.] Well, as I said, the main thing that presented me with was an opportunity to work with some terrific actors. And it was the first time I’d ever had my head shaved, and the producer sat next to me while I was done, beccause he wanted that character to look like Erich Von Stroheim. I think the guy was more of a chicken-hearted Erich Von Stroheim. It was a pretty bizarre movie. But like so many of these things, it was a lot of fun to do. I got along great with Sandra [Bullock]. They actually cast another actress to play that role, but she didn’t work out, so they brought in Sandra Bullock, and the whole production just lifted up with her bubbliness. So it was fun, and I enjoyed playing the character, because I’m a fairly imposing looking guy, but in the future, everybody is so chicken-hearted that I think it made for a fun contrast.
BG: Matewan: great movie, great script, great director, great actors, lousy location. [Laughs.] But all of us were so devoted to it that staying in an Econo Lodge in East Broken Jock Strap, West Virginia—none of us minded that. And I got to work with some people that I’d gotten to work with in the theater. Joe Grifasi, I made my Broadway debut in a musical which he was in, and which Meryl Streep was in, too, actually. I was reunited with Meryl many years later when I got to play her husband in a movie, which I can’t think of the name of right this second. But I’m sure you can look it up. You seem like a guy who knows his way around IMDB. [Writer’s note: The film in question was 2007’s Rendition.]
BG: Well, I’m sure that, unless the gods come down from heaven with another marvelous movie, that will be the movie that I will probably be remembered for and that I am most proud of. It’s one of the few movies where I got a lot of screen time and also great scenes, and it’s where I learned that if you’re a character actor, unless the camera comes in for a close-up, you’re really just part of the mise en scène. You’re really just sort of background, or moving the story along. But in this case, I was the antagonist to Andy. And it was a great collection of actors once again, all of the prisoners. I loved working with Frank Darabont, and Morgan [Freeman] was great, Tim [Robbins] was terrific—it was a dream role, and I had to work pretty hard to get it.
Frank and the producer wanted me to do it from jump street, but initially the studio said, “Yeah, well, the guy’s a good actor, but this is a starring role. This calls for a star.” So they tested me, and I’d been doing Demolition Man just before, and my head was shaved. And I knew if I did this role, I didn’t want to do it with a chrome dome, so they actually bought me a wig for the screen test. [Laughs.] And I was still shooting Demolition Man, so they flew me to New York, and Tim very generously was off-camera during the screen test, so I did the scenes actually opposite him. And Roger [Deakins], the cinematographer, shot the screen test. So I had everything going for me! And sure enough, a couple of days later, they called me and said, “You’re on. They want you.”
It was a wonderful three months in beautiful downtown Mansfield, Ohio. Actually, I was back there last year for the 20th reunion of Shawshank, and the way that movie has become such a cult and has such devotion around the world. I mean, in Morocco, in Europe, in Australia—and recently I was in South America doing a movie about the Chilean miners, and down there people would come up to me with their words of homage for the movie. It really is a classic, and it was disappointing when it first came out, because the reviews were not all that great, and the attendance for the initial run was not good. Even after it was nominated for a couple of Academy Awards and was re-released, it did not do good business. And it continues now to be one of the most remunerative of the movies I’ve done, in terms of residuals and stuff, because it’s played all the time, but more important than that, people just respond to it with almost a religious respect. So to be associated with that movie, particularly in an important role, it’s a great, great privilege, and it’s a lot of great memories for me.