The actor: A gruff-voiced actor who’s best known for his stints on HBO mainstays True Blood and The Wire, Chris Bauer is the kind of actor our Random Roles feature was made for. He’s worked in Hollywood for over 30 years, and has appeared in everything from the Nicolas Cage/John Travolta action movie Face/Off to TV sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks And Recreation. His latest show-stopping role is on the wrestling drama Heels, where he plays “Wild Bill Hancock,” a washed-up wrestling legend who’s struggling to remain relevant (and alive). We talked to him about his love for wrestling, Tom Hanks, and being underwhelmed by Robert De Niro.
AVC: You’re a big wrestling fan and you’ve worked with Heels showrunner Mike O’Malley before. How did you end up in the role of Wild Bill?
CB: I am a big wrestling fan, but out of respect to true fans, I don’t want to claim any of that, because people who live and die for it are so—I mean, even my son, who was into wrestling before me, on a bad day knows infinitely more than I do about it. I’m just mostly incredibly obsessed with the event of it, and appreciative of the people who create it.
But what the hell, I’m a fan, so let’s just take the big risk here. Like everything, strangely there’s a very organic through line into aspects of my life that I’m really grateful for. Heels is a perfect example of that as Mike O’Malley, who is a treasured friend, but also probably the most loyal, devoted, and supportive writer in my life and career and such a great man, he mentioned the script over dinner in New York City three years ago. I think I was just kind of winding down The Deuce on HBO, and while we were paying the bill, he said, “What are you going to do next?” and I said, “Do we ever know? What are you doing?” And he said, “Not sure, but this script came across my desk called Heels” that Starz is developing or committed to. I don’t remember the status, but I said “Heels like [high] heels?,” and he said “Heels because it’s about wrestling.”
I just almost fell out of my chair because, for me, the world of wrestling and Mike O’Malley was a potential match made in heaven. First of all, he’s a jock. He’s the coach you wish you had when you were playing Little League. He also is just such a open-hearted humanist. I thought, “Wow, a writer like that taking a look at a world of men and women who are carrying on this tradition that started in a carnival and has this sort of sideshow inspiration and an extraordinary athletic component, all of which exists to satisfy the audience?” Mike also is a real old school theater nerd.
So I thought, “This is just the most incredible combination. What can make this better?” The answer to which is always me.
AVC: According to our recent interview with Mike, that’s how he felt too, and why he put himself in the show.
CB: I think we’re very much like wrestlers. I’m not speaking for him, but I would say that my aesthetic experience with him suggests that he honors the idea of an audience because we learn about being better people from an audience.
Anyway, that was like two years ago, and I’m sure you’ve interviewed many people who could tell you infinite stories about projects that are potential. This one actually came true! It really is kind of a “pinch me” moment in my career right now because it all worked and I ended up getting to play this part that I absolutely adore on a project that was really extraordinary, specifically because every person involved in this from studio to network to day players to every member of this crew, there was just an atmosphere of courage and devotion to try to make this thing pure and great. And now people get to see it.
AVC: How much like insight or voice did you give to what you wanted Wild Bill to look like?
CB: A lot. I had an immediate sense of time and place. It was very vivid and multidimensional and based on wrestlers that I had seen, wrestlers that I read about, and wrestlers that existed only in the peripheral in the shows, all of which is secondary to what Michael Waldron created and what Michael O’Malley followed through on. Both of those guys, there’s so much authorship in what they write that I very accurately would credit who Wild Bill is to them finally, because I created him based on what was on the page.
As far as the look goes, I know the costume designer [Laura Bauer] really well, because we’re married. As soon as we both knew we were doing this project together, we really went to work. She is such an incredible talent who, like me, builds characters from what’s on the page.
I think we used the outlaw cowboy gimmick as a sort of springboard and that let me get a look at the idiosyncrasy of that weaving its way through ’80s metal.
AVC: He does look a little like Lemmy from Motorhead.
CB: There’s a kind of guiding sense that Wild Bill is almost like a graphic novel character come to life or somebody you’d see on a T-shirt, because I think Wild Bill is very savvy that way himself. I was very insistent that no matter what I looked like, it had to tell the story that every room this guy enters, he forces you to turn and look at him.
AVC: He’s not inconspicuous. If you saw that guy in an airport, you’d think, “Who’s that guy?” You’d wonder if he was famous.
CB: Exactly. Bill is is a genius about promo energy, which is “I’m inside the ring with a microphone and there are probably 60,000 eyeballs inside this arena, and I know how to get them all on me.” That’s his comfort zone. So you’re not going to see a whole lot of subtlety in his wardrobe ever.
AVC: In some ways, Wild Bill is similar to Andy Bellefleur from True Blood in the sense that because he has blind spots, he’s not growing as much as he could. Andy certainly grew over the course of the seasons, though, and we’re only in season one of Heels, so we’ll see where that goes. It seems like Wild Bill wants to be a better person, but he doesn’t know how to do that yet.
CB: That’s a great insight. It’s really cool that you just brought that up because I have such a compartmentalized brain that the characters tend to be so consuming. They’re like… what’s that stuff that grows in the south? They’re like the kudzu version of a character. Once I intersect with this fictional soul, it really takes up all the space in my own soul and I have no memory or no sense of reference of what I’ve played before, which I think is a great gift.
The thing about Andy Bellefleur that always had my attention was that there was a huge difference between what he was trying to do and what he was doing, and the only reason he knew that is because he had the sensitivity to see it on all the faces around him. He was perceptive enough to see that he wasn’t getting what he was after.
Wild Bill surpassed that limit decades ago. He’s more cut from the cloth of… “I just said it so fast and it just happened so fast, you don’t even have a chance to ask yourself whether or not you thought that was funny. And if you’re in doubt, I’ll tell you right now you thought that was funny. If you’re still unsure, I’m going to do something crazy that’s going to make you smile.” His tempo is running at such an unbelievably performative rate.
What’s really cool is that there is a dimension to it that comes from understanding human beings, and he has an amazing instinct for reading people. That’s the only way you can be as successfully manipulative as he has been. Heels starts just before his whole coping system, his whole way through life kind of falls apart, and he has to start relying on aspects of life that he has neglected.
AVC: He has to find the people that need him just as much as he needs them.
CB: What’s so compelling to me is that he’s so used to people needing him because he’s going to provide a pop, he’s going to provide money, he’s going to provide the crowd with something sensational. So, when he’s meeting people because they are going to give him a place, they’re going to give him shelter—emotional or literal—they’re going to connect him to the authenticity of his past because they’re going to acknowledge a part of him that exists outside of the ring.
He’s been on the run from that for decades, and its really atrophied. Like most human beings, he really wouldn’t go down that path and start that part of the journey unless he was forced to and he is during the course of the first season. I just think it’s very human.
American Crime Story (2016)—“Detective Tom Lange”
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2018)—“Dennis Kole”
AVC: You have played a number of law enforcement officers throughout your career, like on American Crime Story and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Why do you think people sometimes look at you and go, “This guy’s a cop”?
CB: I don’t know. Maybe I fit the stereotype.
I tend to be really comfortable with characters who clearly have feelings but don’t show them. I think there’s a certain notion of authority that’s conveyed to the point of cliche through a sort of poetic desensitization. Anybody who plays a good TV cop knows that you can’t show your feelings, but you have to be feeling them like a melodrama underneath the performance. I love playing cops for that very reason.
In real life, I’m such a raw nerve and I am so instructed by but frequently boxed in by my own innate empathy. I’m the kind of person who gets called into jury duty and raises their hand to say, “I really don’t believe in judging people because I don’t know what it’s like to be in anybody else’s shoes,” which has always put me on a jury, by the way. I’m also very stupid.
So I love getting to play these characters that exercise underdeveloped aspects of my own personality and in some cases parts of me that are antisocial and really not fit for civilization. I get to exercise those also. And that’s why a life in art is such a blessed life.
AVC: It’s interesting to think about how on-screen roles of police officers might have changed over the years. Now you could even show a little more embattlement under the surface or give a glimpse into the humanity of a police officer versus just the authority.
CB: That’s really complicated. I know there’s writers out there who write from that place of profound contradiction but understanding of a human condition. We’re going to see these stories, and I would love to be able to participate in them when the time comes.
I don’t know if this is related, and I have to be somewhat oblique, but there was a film that I was offered a part in that had cops and the KKK. The director first cast me as a cop and then offered me a role as a racist. I went to a friend of mine who’s Haitian-American, and I said, “They asked me to ask me to play this other part and it’s N-word central, and I just feel like my body just doesn’t feel right playing that part and doing that. What do you say?” And he said, “I’d rather you play that than be the cop.”
That was a few years ago. It really took me by surprise and turned into a great conversation and illumination for me. But I definitely think that the landscape has changed in terms of these authoritative stereotypes. I really do hope I get to jump in there and play.
The Wire (2003)—“Frank Sobotka”
The Deuce (2017-2019)—“Bobby Dwyer”
AVC: Speaking of great writers who could probably tackle something like that, you have worked with David Simon a couple of times on shows like The Wire and The Deuce. What’s your relationship with him like?
CB: I love David Simon for the same reason I love Mike O’Malley and David Mamet and John Patrick Shanley and Alan Ball. The writers who have hired me to do their work are that next-level writer where I feel like they write so explicitly and so immaculately that my job is really just to rise to the level of the writing. I generally don’t have better ideas than they’ve already rendered on the page, which I think they like. And I get there on time and I give it 100 percent of my conscious volition to realize the character they wrote. I exist for that.
It’s a very simple process. On some levels it’s a real value to have pragmatic relationships where you can hire an actor to do your work the way you want it to be done quickly and efficiently and leave all the drama for the audience.
Law & Order (1992, 1996, and 2002)—“Homeless David,” “Mickey Scott,” and “Sergeant”
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2007)—“Murtaugh”
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2009, 2017)—“Bill Tattenger,” “Sgt. Tom Cole”
Law & Order: True Crime (2017)—“Tim Rutten”
AVC: You have done four Law & Orders; you’re just missing a couple of the spin-offs. New York actors tend to get frequent calls from Law & Order. What do you remember about your first episode in ’92, which was still pretty early in the series?
CB: In ’92 I had just graduated from Yale and had been in New York City for a month or two. Law & Order was my first audition. It was six lines and I think I took at least an hour to prepare for each line.
I was so happy I got that job. I remember it was Paul Sorvino and Chris Noth, and it was a great day. I was pretty young when I got out of school, and just the whole process of getting the sides, navigating Manhattan, and getting to the place for the audition. I am not a great auditioner and I still have kind of a bad case of stranger danger. It’s not a good trait for an actor to have.
I kind of love that world. I did that one in ’92, and then I got executed by lethal injection in ’97 or ’98. A few years later, I played a veteran on trial, and you can throw in two SVUs and a Criminal Intent.
I just love those guys. In their own way, they’re very similar to the writers that I mentioned before. You play those scenes because those scenes are the star.
AVC: There are probably some common threads, whether it’s a producer or a casting agent, but with Law & Order if you go years between episodes of that show, you come back and you’re interacting with two new detectives or you’re in a whole different, different universe.
CB: I love that too. It’s like how every now and then, I’m watching an old movie… I’m one of those people who Google the actor, like, “God I saw that actor in everything when I was a kid.” Back in the day, you could be on Gunsmoke like six times playing six different characters. It’s kind of like that.
AVC: So you said that was your first audition out of school, but on your IMDB it says that you were in a TV show with Gary Cole called Midnight Caller. On your first job, were you just thinking, “Can I eat this food over here? Is that cool? Where do I go to the bathroom?”
CB: You’re so right. When you’re first on a film set, it’s literally like the nightmares you have where something is expected of you and it’s implicit that you should know how to do it, but no one has ever explained what it is that you’re supposed to do and you just kind of get to it and stumble your way around because God forbid you ask the question.
Looking back, it’s like, why are we so quick to try to be something we’re not? It’s such a fundamentally avoidable life problem.
But yes, there was a year between dropping out of college when my parents lived up near San Francisco. I had a picture and resumé and I sent it to that show because it was shooting in San Francisco. I got an audition and I got the part and I played a repo man truck driver.
Just to underscore your observation about not knowing what you’re doing, when I got there, I had to repossess a Lamborghini and the location was Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world or whatever it is. So I was supposed to say two lines to somebody and get in this car and drive it down Lombard Street. I mean, I can’t even fit in a Lamborghini. It was an interesting day. Somehow I figured out how to do it. We had a little viewing party and we all watched it, and you can barely see me. You could barely hear me, but I was right there.
AVC: Speaking of things that you’re barely in, you are in High Fidelity, but it’s like a blink and you’ll miss it part. How did that come about?
CB: [My wife] Laura, the costume designer of Heels, was the costume designer on High Fidelity. John Cusack was wearing half of my clothes anyway, so I think they just threw a party at me. And D.V. DeVincentis, who is one of the co- screenwriters, that’s my son’s godfather and one of my best friends.
That was just like, “Hey, Chris, go over and stand on the other side of the camera for a few minutes.” And I did. I was excited to because Stephen Frears is one of my favorite directors.
AVC: You were also in an episode of The Office. What was that experience like, just to sort of drop in on that show?
CB: Incredible. It was a huge opportunity. Those guys were all such a fine-oiled machine by then.
I’d never been in a situation where the conceit is that cameras are everywhere and rolling the whole time, so it wasn’t like there was a lot of blocking or rehearsal. You just kind of jumped in. It was super intimidating because I had sort of backed myself into this corner of being Mr. Heavy Drama, and those guys are all so funny.
The fact of the matter is that I’m an idiot and I figured I was going to work in comedy in my life if I worked anything. Doing that episode was a huge opportunity to learn that style of work. I have some jokes in there that got cut out and I think that’s par for the course in shows like that. But that’s why I did Brooklyn Nine-Nine. That’s why I did Modern Family. I would love to do that. I could do that all day long.
AVC: Doing those shows also seems like a good way to let the industry know you’re not just one thing.
CB: I mean, I don’t even know if they know it yet. It’s like… Wild Bill is fucking hilarious. I think he’s a hilarious character. But I think that it’s really hard to replace layers of impression that people have on you as an actor, and that’s why I do it every chance I get.
I thought Andy was funny, and there were a lot of funny moments on True Blood. I try to bring as much of that as I can. But my style of humor, I think, is based in reality. I’m obsessed with authenticity. It has to be real or I just don’t feel right. So maybe that limits me that in that way, but what makes a long life as an actor interesting is that you’re always trying to get better. You’re always trying to break through into a new chamber inside. And so I’ll just keep trying.
AVC: How do you find authenticity in a project like True Blood or Face/Off where the actual story is very unreal? Is it just the emotion inside the character, regardless of the setting?
CB: Yes, exactly. That’s what I love about performance. True Blood really is a great example of the most preposterous, implausible circumstances of a world and a show, but that doesn’t mean that I, as a mortal human in that situation, can’t be as real as I can imagine being in that situation.
I think what was great about Andy was how, in a way, he was the proxy audience. He was the one who was always going, “What’s going on here? You’ve got to be kidding me. You can turn into a dog?” That is the plausible reaction to the implausible reality.
What’s so exciting and alchemical about performance is you can transmit a real experience if you have the experience, talent, and imagination to make the adjustment so that you can put yourself in that implausible reality and then show the audience what it looks like.
The audience can tell because you and I are equals for infinity. We both watch something and how we experience it and what we feel about it is a fact. Whether it’s the same or not doesn’t matter, but our experience is a fact.
I try to work in a way where these anonymous people giving me their attention around the world see a real and plausible rendering of what’s happening in the world of the a story they’re watching, so I try not to do the bullshit. I try not to do the same thing. I really try to abide the most specific reality of the character, and when I do it right, I kind of disappear. I think in a lot of ways, my career tells that story. I sort of disappear into the world of it. That’s out of my hands esthetically. That’s what I’m compelled to do.
AVC: We only have a little bit more time, so you can pick your last movie from two options. Would you rather talk about The Devil’s Advocate or Flawless?
CB: Oh my god, that’s a Sophie’s Choice. Let’s go Flawless. Nobody ever talks about Flawless.
I had just done 8 MM with Joel Schumacher and I loved Joel and I miss him. He helped a lot of people. He gave me my start in a way because 8 MM was my first big sort of studio movie role.
He finished that and he said “I’m going to make this little tiny movie in New York. It’s this, it’s that.” Phil Hoffman was sort of just catching fire, and I knew him from theater.
Between you and I and whoever is reading this, I guess I thought what I always think, which is, “Hey, that sounds like employment.” But I was really grateful to do it.
The thing that I remember the most was how much reverence I had for [Robert] De Niro, and I still do, but at the same time, that sort of loss of innocence. If you remember, in that movie, he’s had a stroke so in that way it’s sort of a cliche De Niro circumstance.
I only had a couple of scenes with him, but I just remember sitting looking at him from across the room and he’s in his chair talking on the telephone and he’s very animated and kind of withdrawn. And they’d say, “Okay, Bob, we’re ready for you.” And he would say, “I got to go. I got to go,” and then he’d put down the phone and walk into the set. They’d say action and then all of a sudden he’s limping and talking out of the side of his mouth. They’d say cut, and he’d go, “Where’s my phone? Give me my phone.”
It was kind of a paradox because I thought, wow, that’s what a professional actor looks like. And then my other thought was, wow, there’s a difference between my fantasy of this whole world and the nuts and bolts creation of it. So I have a fondness for that movie for that reason.
AVC: Are there actors that you really revered that you’ve then met and thought, “Wow, they’re above and beyond. That’s the nicest, most involved person that I’ve met?”
CB: This is a fill in the blank answer, because I’ve met so many great people and have had largely incredibly positive experiences, but Tom Hanks was a mold breaker. He’s so inclusive and so warm and so generous and so human, and at the same time he’s able to do the level of work that’s expected of him and do it with incredible grace.
He manages that part of culture where everybody wants to be close to people like him in a way where he’s not tense about it and he understands it and at the same time he’s extremely responsible to himself. I just thought, “That’s going to be a very hard example to beat for how to be a generous and kind but thriving artist in this business.”