The actor: Dennis Farina, a former Chicago cop who served as a consultant to director Michael Mann, then became an in-demand character actor, making memorable appearances in the likes of Midnight Run, Get Shorty, and Snatch. Farina can currently be seen on DVD in Bottle Shock, a comedy based on the true story of a California winery that beat the French wine establishment in a blind taste test in 1976.
Bottle Shock—“Maurice” (2008)
Dennis Farina: A lot of fun to do. It was a beautiful location up in Napa, in Sonoma. I liked the script right away. I am not a wine connoisseur, but I can drink it. [Laughs.] I know how to drink it. My character was the only character in the movie that was fictitious. The rest of them were based on the real characters that were involved in the wine tasting. I cannot speak French, and you can see that if you see the movie. They had a person who taught French dialect, and she wanted to have me speak the French words correctly. I rejected that, though, because I didn’t think my character would do that. I thought he would kill the French language.
The A.V. Club: Are you the kind of actor who does a lot of research and prep? Did you try and learn anything about wines before the film?
DF: No, I did not. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. I’m researching a character right now only because he’s so interesting. I don’t want to imitate him, but I want to try and find out the reasons he did things.
AVC: Can you say who that is?
DF: I’d rather not at this time.
The Grand—“L.B.J. ‘Deuce’ Fairbanks” (2007)
DF: I was supposed to be the guy from yesterday who didn’t appreciate playing poker online. I was an old-school Las Vegas gambler who rejected the modern-day gambler. It was largely improvised. Our director, Zak Penn, set up scenarios, but then he let us do our own dialogue.
AVC: Did you enjoy the spontaneity of that?
DF: Well, it’s a trap. Sometimes you think you are a little funnier than you really are. If you indulge yourself, I think it’s dangerous, but Zak was there to cut us off.
Big Trouble—“Henry DeSalvo” (2002)
DF: Big Trouble was a wonderful book by Dave Barry. The movie was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, and it was the second movie I had done for him. I was one of two hit guys who were in Miami and were completely inept. I forget who said it, but if you see a man who is in trouble, you will find a comedy. These guys went with the best intentions, but wound up horribly in trouble.
AVC: That film has a fair number of fans, but it didn’t do terribly well at the box office. Do you think it was a victim of bad timing, coming so soon after September 11?
DF: I think it was definitely because of that. I don’t want to give away a lot in case people want to see the film, but yeah, September 11 had a lot to do with it.
Sidewalks Of New York—“Carpo” (2001)
DF: That was a really nice experience for me. I love working in New York. Ed Burns and I met while doing Saving Private Ryan, and I just had a ball doing it. The character that he created for me was well-written, but we embellished some of the stuff too. There was one scene that Ed Burns wrote right on the set. He said, “I want to do one more scene, and this is it.” Ten minutes later, he came up with it.
AVC: Do you find that writer-directors show more flexibility?
DF: Writer-directors are a little bit more liberal, rather than having just the writer on the set, because I think sometimes the writer becomes too precious with the words. If you’re a writer-director, you can see what you’re doing and see your work in action, so I think you can correct it right there and still not compromise yourself.
Reindeer Games—“Jack Bangs” (2000)
DF: I remember it was cold. [Laughs.] It was directed by John Frankenheimer, so I had a chance to work with him, which was wonderful. It might have been his last film.
AVC: And a chance to work with Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron.
DF: And my friend Gary Sinise.
AVC: That’s another movie that didn’t do so well, though. Could you tell on the set that it wasn’t working?
DF: I don’t think you can ever tell. I didn’t see Reindeer Games, so I don’t know how it turned out. There is only one movie that I was involved with where I got the script, read it, and knew it was going to be a pretty important film. I just had a very small part in it. That was Saving Private Ryan.
Saving Private Ryan—“Lieutenant Colonel Anderson” (1998)
DF: I was very excited that Steven Spielberg would even think about having me in one of his films. It was in Ireland, and I was there for a week or so. It was great. I remember coming on the set. It was one of those days when the invasion was going on. There were cannons and machine guns in placements. I remember Steven Spielberg sitting there very calmly, very in control without being overbearing. Just doing his work. It was wonderful to see.
AVC: You weren’t on the film for very long, though.
DF: I had only one scene. There were a couple of different endings filmed, and I was in one of the endings that did not get on film. The ending they used was the proper ending.
AVC: Do you recall what your ending was?
DF: My ending was after Tom Hanks was killed. I came upon his body.
AVC: Too bad Spielberg doesn’t put deleted scenes on his DVDs.
DF: I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen the DVD.
Law & Order—“Det. Joe Fontana” (2004-06)
DF: I enjoyed working with Jesse Martin, and I love Epatha Merkerson. We had a good crew. And I had a wonderful driver and a great assistant. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you interested in returning to series television on a regular basis?
DF: You know, I’m old enough to never say never. I never had a grand plan with what I was going to do. There are some movies that I would like to be involved with, but I’m trying to be a working actor.
AVC: Do you prefer movies to TV?
DF: I do.
AVC: How about the stage?
DF: Years ago. I haven’t done it in years. I did quite a bit when I was younger and could remember things. [Laughs.]
Snatch—“Abraham ‘Cousin Avi’ Denovitz” (2000)
DF: Great time. Guy Ritchie is a wonderful director. I’m so happy to see that he is doing more movies. He is really a talented guy.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of movies and TV shows set in the criminal world. Is it a different vibe doing a UK gangster film, vs. an American gangster film?
DF: Location never really entered into my equation. In Snatch, you knew you were in a different kind of criminal world, a British criminal world, which was great for the character, because he never knew what they were saying anyway. [Laughs.] So it worked out. It was a Method experience without me trying to have a Method experience.
Out Of Sight—“Marshall Sisco” (1998)
Get Shorty—“Ray ‘Bones’ Barboni” (1995)
DF: Out Of Sight was Steven Soderbergh, Jennifer Lopez, and of course George Clooney. A wonderful experience in Florida, and a good Elmore Leonard book. It was the second or third Elmore Leonard movie that I’ve been involved in. I certainly would be open to another.
AVC: What do you think makes Elmore Leonard’s work special and so adaptable for movies?
DF: First of all, they’re usually short. I read somewhere that if a book is over 250 pages, it’s iffy for movies. That sounds very pedestrian, I guess. But I think people like that. That’s one of the reasons they’re good sellers, because they’re not 700 pages long. And he writes very clearly and very distinctly and very succinctly. I think everyone can identify with his characters.
AVC: When you’re reading the script for an Out Of Sight or Get Shorty and you see the character you’re going to play, can you tell right away what you’re going to do with that character? Does it jump off the page?
DF: With Get Shorty, I read the book as a matter of course because I’m a big Elmore Leonard fan. I remember saying to myself, “Boy, I would sure like to play Ray Bones.” As luck would have it, I don’t know how long afterwards, I got a call to go to a table reading in L.A. I got a call from Danny DeVito’s office. They wanted me to read Ray Bones. About six months later I was doing the movie. I thought he was the most honest guy in the whole story. He wanted his money, and that was it. There was no pretense. He wasn’t trying to make a movie. He wasn’t trying to be anything else. He was a gangster who wanted his money. I thought he was funny, but I don’t think he thought he was funny. He thinks he’s very serious and that he should be taken seriously, but no one else took him seriously.
That Old Feeling—“Dan DeMora” (1997)
DF: Oh yeah. Carl Reiner and Bette Midler. How do you turn something like that down?
AVC: And a leading role for you, which is pretty rare.
DF: Yeah, I was pleasantly surprised when I met Carl Reiner and then they called me to do the movie. I enjoyed Bette so much, and I loved Carl Reiner. I met Estelle, his wife, and they were just wonderful. She has since passed on, God rest her soul. He was just wonderful, and very entertaining between scenes.
AVC: We interviewed Brian Cox recently, and he said that a lot of times, being a character actor is more fun than being a lead, because you get to come in and do two or three scenes and leave a mark. Do you find that to be true?
DF: Yeah, I do feel that. In a sense, all actors are character actors, because we’re all playing different characters. But a lot of the time—and I don’t know, because I’m not a writer—but writers a lot of times write second- and third-tier characters better than they write primary characters. I guess they’re more fun. I’ve sure had fun.
Midnight Run—“Jimmy Serrano” (1988)
DF: At the time, I was doing Crime Story. It was perfect timing, because I was going to be off for a month, and I got a call from the production people of Midnight Run, and they asked me if I wanted to do the movie. I, of course, jumped at it, with Robert DeNiro starring and Martin Brest directing it.
AVC: At the time, you hadn’t been in the business as long as those guys. Did you try to pick their brains, or did you just show up and try to hold your own?
DF: I tried to show up and hold my own. I’m not the kind of person that would try to pick somebody’s brain. I feel you really have to try to do it on your own. If you hit, it’s hooray for you, and if you fail, you have no one else to blame.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling—“Freddy” (1986)
DF: Wow, where did you dig that one up? Well, I got to meet Richard Pryor. I think I only had a couple of lines or scenes in that movie. It was very early in my career. But I went in to meet Richard Pryor, and I got a call to come in.
AVC: It was a very personal project for Pryor. Did he talk about it much?
DF: He did a little bit. Again, I wasn’t around that much. It was almost his life story. Yeah, he did talk about it.
AVC: How was he as a director?
DF: As I remember, he was very good.
Crime Story—“Lt. Mike Torello” (1986-88)
DF: We shot in Chicago and we shot in Las Vegas. It was Michael Mann’s project. I think the scripts were very good, but it was a lot of hard work. We worked a lot of hours, which prepared me for everything else I did in this business. Do I wish the show would’ve lasted a little longer? Yeah, I think so. It was taken off because some people succumbed to pressure from other people about it being too violent. I think somebody should have taken the bull by the horns.
AVC: Now it might have a better chance.
DF: I think you’re right.
Manhunter—“Jack Crawford” (1986)
DF: It was based on Thomas Harris’ book Red Dragon. It was right before I did Crime Story. I had done Thief for Michael Mann, and he called me to do Manhunter. With Brian Cox, as a matter of fact. It was a great experience. I had read the book before. It was a dark movie, but we had a wonderful time on the set.
AVC: Your character returns in Silence Of The Lambs.
DF: Crawford is a character that reoccurs in several of his books. I wasn’t in any of the other movies, but the character is.
AVC: Did you go and see Silence Of The Lambs and watch Scott Glenn and say, “I could do that”?
DF: [Laughs.] No, no I didn’t.
AVC: Do you watch a lot of movies?
DF: I do. I don’t watch any of my own, but I love going to the movies. To me, there is nothing more relaxing or gratifying than sitting down in the dark and having some popcorn and watching a great movie. Especially this year. There have been a lot of great movies this year.
AVC: What have you liked lately?
DF: I thought The Wrestler was a great movie. I thought Doubt was really good. Talk about good writing. When those words pop out on the screen and they’re right, it’s a great experience.
AVC: But you don’t watch yourself?
DF: Very rarely. If I come across it, I might watch for a second.
DF: I met Michael Mann. He was in town doing a movie, Thief, and I was introduced to him. Several weeks later, I got a phone call and was asked if I wanted to do a little part in the movie. I asked him if they were going to pay me, and he said he would. [Laughs.] That’s how it all started.
AVC: At the time, had you thought of becoming an actor?
DF: No, not at all. I was always a movie fan. I loved going to the movies when I was a kid. You know, Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Cagney, and all those guys were all really big. John Wayne. I didn’t know what those movies were about, because I was too young. I just loved seeing those guys.