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: Giovanni Ribisi kicked off a long-running TV career with roles on cheeky spin-offs like The New Leave It To Beaver and the coming-of-age stories of Blossom and Kevin Arnold. That gave way to an adolescence that saw him take on another classic ’60s series, The Mod Squad, while also trying to out-kook Lisa Kudrow on Friends. Ribisi has taken advantage of his kid-next-door quality, graduating from cinematic grifter school in Gone In 60 Seconds and Boiler Room. He now leads Amazon’s Sneaky Pete, playing the most confident of confidence men. The A.V. Club spoke with Ribisi ahead of Pete’s season-two premiere about botched heists and remakes, having your idol become a mentor, and how things weren’t really that chummy on Friends.
AVC: This is Bryan Cranston’s first post-Breaking Bad drama, which had to feel like a big score for you.
Giovanni Ribisi: [Bryan’s] had a lot of projects since then, but this was one of the first series that he’s been a creator on, I think, and has produced. He also was in the first season. That’s the main reason for my interest in getting involved and being a part of it.
AVC: Not to mention beloved character actress Margo Martindale.
GR: Honestly, I really… Margo and the rest of the cast, I feel privileged. I mean, it’s altogether such a great group of people who I think I just identify with their mind-set and their approach to making movies and television. I think it’s rich, it’s very layered, it’s colorful. I think all of us feel really strongly about wanting to do this more.
AVC: Pete/Marius is another in a long line of antiheroes on TV. Do you lean toward dramas in your personal viewing? Is that what drew you to the role?
GR: At the heart of it, I think it’s really based on whether or not something is a compelling story. Really, I think that the collective characters are what make that up. It’s that, but then there’s also some of the other factors. It’s not necessarily an antihero or any of that, it’s really about the people that are involved in making the internal story. The directors, and the crew, the department heads, the cinematographers, the producers, the other actors—it’s all of that, that goes into my personal drive to be a part of something.
AVC: Sequel series and spin-offs are so popular right now, but this was one of your first recurring roles on TV.
GR: I mean, you want to talk about anti-heroes. Watch out. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was so long ago. That was one of the first things I did. It was on cable. I definitely watched the first incarnation of that show, and I had—I think I was just new to the whole thing. It was just sort of this strange arena of the world. We’d shoot on the Universal lot, and the history of Alfred Hitchcock—even at that age, it was all sort of fascinating to me. But [now] I look at it as a completely different person. It was a different lifetime.
AVC: The Wonder Years was one of the best coming-of-age stories to unfold on TV. Were you a fan first? How did you get involved?
GR: I think that was just the standard. I mean, not standard. You know, I auditioned for it. It was a show that had already been on for quite some time. But what’s interesting about that is that one of the producers and showrunners on that show actually was involved in Sneaky Pete. His name is Michael Dinner. So, 30 years goes by, and you’re finding yourself working with the same people.
AVC: Here’s another show that was a cultural phenomenon when you joined the cast.
GR: Yeah, it really is interesting, because my experience is different from what I think people perceived. When I was doing Friends, I was usually working on something else, and so my experience is, honestly, showing up in front of an audience. The script would be put in front of me, and I’d quickly try to understand and learn the scene, and understand the blocking that they have rehearsed all week.
I would go on and do it, and be done with it. So, it’s sort of surreal sometimes because people come up to you, and they’ll quote things that you say that I have no recollection of. I don’t know, I guess it’s even translating to this next generation, from what I understand. But I look at it as, “That’s their show,” you know. I just look at it as I was a guest on that show.
The Mod Squad (1999)—“Pete Cochran”
AVC: What do you know, another Pete. In this case, you took over for Michael Cole, who played the Cochran character on TV in the ’60s and ’70s.
GR: Mm-hmm. It was interesting. I think that Omar Epps and Claire Danes—I worked with them. I really liked those two actors. Yeah, that’s all I’ll say about that.
AVC: 2000 was a big year for you. You had four movies out, including Gone In 60 Seconds, where you got to play Nicolas Cage’s younger brother.
GR: That was great. That was a big movie. I’m talking about the infrastructure of that movie. And Nicolas Cage is such a phenomenal actor. I’ve been a fan of his forever. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Moonstruck and Wild At Heart. And he has a role in Cotton Club, you know? And of course, Leaving Las Vegas, which goes without saying. So, I think I was just happy to be able to work with him. Also, Scott Caan is in that movie. He’s a great actor, and a dear friend. Yeah, I got to explore the world of fast cars and driving. It was really fun.
AVC: Yeah, you were around some really impressive cars, even among collectors. Did you all trade “first car” stories on set?
GR: Yeah, of course. When you’re making a movie about racing, of course. But when you consider the cast—we were working with Robert Duvall, so we definitely had a lot of questions for him. This is someone who’s in a canon of actors, and films that he’s been a part of. It was one of those things where you sort of linger around him, just hoping that he might say something, or that you might have the gumption to ask him something, and then you might be able to learn from a master.
AVC: So the “shop talk” was more about the industry?
GR: Sometimes. But you know, Vinnie Jones, who was a pro soccer player, was also in this. I remember somebody brought out a soccer ball, and he started messing around with it. When you actually see that firsthand, what a professional athlete can do, it’s a whole different thing. You have no idea. I mean, it’s a whole new respect for him and for soccer players.
AVC: Your character here isn’t in the same circumstances as [Sneaky] Pete, but he’s definitely a con man.
GR: Oh yes. That was so cool. Scott Caan was in that, and so was Nicky Katt and Jamie Kennedy. That was cool. I think most of my experience on that film was really about [writer-director] Ben Younger. That was also his first movie. I don’t know—gosh, that was a while ago. We were here in New York, and I think it was done in probably eight weeks or something like that. Maybe 10 weeks.
AVC: There’s a scene that’s a direct nod to one of the movie’s biggest influences, Wall Street. How much did that film play into your own research?
GR: I was just really wanting to understand the mentality of someone who wanted that power and then finally got it to a greater or lesser degree, and became sort of like this—I guess the analogy is the yellow brick road. That he wanted to better himself and his situation, impress his father, but there were all these unexpected consequences, you know?
AVC: We saw something similar in The Wolf Of Wall Street, right? There’s lots of blustering, shady dealings, and conspicuous consumption that makes up a through-line in these three movies—Wall Street, Boiler Room, Wolf Of Wall Street. They’re all of their time, but feel pertinent to today. Are you drawn to timely subject matter?
GR: Yeah, I mean, I guess you could make a film about and have the premise be what it is, but I think that as long as the metaphor of humanity, or that humanity comes through, that it’s about human beings within that scenario. To me, that is what is the most interesting thing. So, absolutely.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)—“Narrator”; Lost In Translation (2003)—“John”
AVC: The Virgin Suicides was the first of two movies you made with Sofia Coppola. Again, there was a great cast, which you unfortunately didn’t get to work with much because you were the narrator.
GR: I did, I made two movies with Sofia, but this one, I forget how it came to be. I just remember I was in a recording booth the whole time. [Laughs.] I was working on another movie at the time, so I had a beard and I was 30 pounds heavier. I remember going in for a couple of days and working on that. I think she is such a phenomenal filmmaker.
AVC: So did that collaboration make Lost In Translation an easy “yes” for you?
GR: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if it’s ever an easy “yes.” I think that it’s always important to look at the actuality of a project, and to study it, really, as much as you can before you commit to it.
But Lost In Translation, that was interesting. I think that was one of five movies that I was doing consecutively. We shot in Japan, and then I went off and did another thing in Australia. I was kind of all over the place at the time. But, again, I think it’s so difficult in any creative endeavor, to find your own voice, and to have that voice be something unique and original. I think she’s one of the few directors that has done that in the truest sense. Yeah, I was looking at Beguiled. It’s just such a beautiful movie. It’s so great and haunting.
Avatar (2009–present)—“Parker Selfridge”
AVC: Speaking of extended working relationships, you starred in the first Avatar movie, and now you’re signed on for a whole series of sequels with James Cameron.
GR: James Cameron has always been one of my favorite filmmakers. The first Terminator is such a phenomenal film. It’s not just that, though—he’s also a very interesting person, James Cameron. It’s fascinating to talk to him about science and engineering. I think at one point he was on the advisory council at NASA. He really is all of that. He’s the first person to the bottom of the world in a vessel that he helped design, which is incredible. He brings all of that to the filmmaking experience, and I’m really anxious to get started. I haven’t started on the films yet, but I’m looking forward to it.
AVC: This was a passion project for Cameron—I think it was his first feature film in years [since Titanic], and was basically in development that whole time, right?
GR: Yeah, he made some documentaries. But sometimes it just takes a while. And to write and develop—I think that also there was a lot of technology that was being developed for the film.
AVC: So what was it like auditioning for one of your heroes?
RR: I remember I was testing for the part, and [Cameron] was already there, filming. He was really involved. That was great because it was really a nurturing experience. In other instances where you go to audition, it can feel cold—this sort of strange thing where you were expected to come in, and work on something. It’s a different thing. With [Avatar], it was really great and it wasn’t like anything I had experienced, really.
AVC: This was a movie with a lot of stunning visual effects. But your character, Parker, he’s more in the corporate world than anything. Was there ever a moment where you wanted to join what was going on in the more fantastic parts of the film?
GR: No, I was happy with what I had to do in that movie. We were all in New Zealand and Wellington. That was such a great experience.
AVC: Dads was a return to TV for you—as a series regular, anyway. How did you end up involved?
GR: It was really based on a conversation with Seth MacFarlane. I really love Seth MacFarlane. It was more or less something like, “Let’s try to do something together.” That’s a world that in the present tense, or in its present tense, I wasn’t familiar with.
AVC: Not to put too fine a point on it, but this comedy was not well-received at all, and it kicked up a fair amount of controversy while on the air. Do you have any regrets about working on it?
GR: I don’t regret anything, no. I mean, why would you wallow in something like that? I think there honestly was a situation where you get involved in something, and you want it to be something. Nobody wants to make a bad TV show, or movie. Then, [Dads] definitely became something that I didn’t expect, and it became something else. That happens sometimes.