James Ransone is rapidly becoming one of the best character actors in the business—someone who often appears in small but memorable roles, turning in consistently excellent work. He first came to prominence with his stint as Chester “Ziggy” Sobotka in season two of The Wire, and has gone on to appear in dozens of film and television roles, including repeated collaborations with David Simon and Spike Lee. He’s currently starring in the horror sequel Sinister 2, reprising his role (the best part of the first film) as a well-meaning but out-of-his-depth man. The A.V. Club spoke to him about his new film, losing his ego, and why he thinks Chicago is a better city than New York. When we got him on the phone, he was running late, having just come from being on The Howard Stern Wrap-Up Show, an experience he was only too happy to tell us about.
James Ransone: I was doing The [Howard] Stern Wrap-Up Show today. I stayed and hung out for a minute. I brought Howard a bunch of coffee, too. I’m such a fan. It makes me so mad when I hear all these actors say they’re big fans of Stern, and you can totally tell they’re lying.
The A.V. Club: It does seem like something they all have to pay tribute to. But it’s obvious when a Hollywood actor is saying, “Oh, I love the show,” and it’s clear they’ve never listened to it before, because they have no idea how it works.
JR: Oh, and I’m like, “You fuckin’ phony. You goddamn liar.” I can hear it on the radio. [Laughs.]
AVC: When Julia Roberts was on years ago, she said exactly that, and it just seemed clear she had never heard the show before.
JR: That shit drives me crazy. The way you know if someone’s a real fan is if they talk shit, because there’s so many people that are so unlikable on that show. [Laughs.] And you’re in Chicago right now?
JR: I’ve lived there several times for various projects, including Sinister 2. I actually, no bullshit, really like it as a city.
AVC: For real?
JR: There’s a bunch of cities I’m not crazy about, but I love Chicago. I love the musical history—the mid-’90s indie rock scene, Chicago house music. It’s a great town. You know what? I lived in New York for 15 years, and I actually think Chicago’s a better city than New York now.
AVC: What makes you say that?
JR: Corporate greed in New York won. It suffocated anything interesting out of the city. I come here now, and it’s like, “Oh, Walgreens, Starbucks, Walgreens, Duane Reade, Starbucks, Target.” Why would I pay $5,000 a month to live in a 400-square-foot apartment that’s the same as any other place in America? I mean, that’s what happens, cities change, but I just feel like the gross commercialism of this place completely strangled all the culture out of it.
AVC: Part of what’s so fun about seeing you in the Sinister movies is that it feels like this socially awkward guy walked in from a mumblecore film and ended up being the focal point of the story.
JR: Well, man, I don’t know whether to be—should I be insulted by that? The mumblecore element. Like, oh, I’m just some dude’s friend that they put in a movie.
AVC: I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. I meant it as a compliment. It feels like a character from a very honest, small, indie film found himself the center of this outsized supernatural horror story.
JR: Well, there goes all my hopes and dreams of ever actually being a leading man. In 30 seconds of a phone call. [Laughs.] Yeah, I can only change my approach to work so much. I think it’s because I’m not going to go, “Oh, I’m doing a big horror movie, so I should act this way in it.” Do you know what I mean?
AVC: It’s great to see a big mainstream horror movie where the main guy doesn’t feel like someone’s generic idea of a dashing lead. This main character freely admits he’s in way over his head and doesn’t know what he’s doing. There’s something very refreshing about that.
JR: Oh, thanks. Yeah, I did the first one, right? The reason I think people liked me in the first one is because I was doing this really sort of half-assed—I drew a lot of inspiration from “The Chris Farley Show” sketch from Saturday Night Live where he would interview celebrities really awkwardly. Do you remember that?
AVC: Yes, totally.
JR: So everything I do in the first Sinister is 100 percent a rip-off of that. It’s just me trying to play Chris Farley, because I loved him so much when I was a kid. I grew up in that era of SNL, with Farley and [Adam] Sandler and all those guys. Farley was always the funniest. So I just did that in Sinister. Then, they go, “Guess what, idiot, you’re the only one who survives so you have to do a second one.” I thought, oh, fuck, there’s no way I can stretch that out for an hour and a half. So, what is really weird—and maybe stupid of me, because it seems so counterintuitive to do it—in the second one it’s just me doing an impression of [Charlie] Chaplin in City Lights. That’s it.
AVC: That makes sense, actually. You see how this guy goes from a comic-relief character in the original film, to the second, where you realize he is frail, not ready for the world around him.
JR: Yeah. Well, I love City Lights so much. I like the tramp. He doesn’t have a lot of resources at his disposal so he’s got to be really crafty in how he’s going to help out this woman that he loves.
AVC: People who see you in this or something like Tangerine probably have a very different idea of the kind of roles you play than someone who knows you from Low Winter Sun or Generation Kill. Do you find that a lot of your jobs come because people have seen you in one set of roles versus another?
JR: Yes. It’s weird. I guess my hope is they start to look at my body of work as a whole and realize that—I don’t know whether I’m pulling it off; I’m trying new things because it’s exciting for me, not even as a careerist move. I think it’s exciting to try new things because the prospect of failure is intoxicating. What if I pull it off? What if I fuck it up? I’ve been lucky enough, though, that at least different people are watching different things, so I have to gauge it, like, “This person over here watched this, and how can we expand on that?” Hopefully, people will put together that I have a diverse—maybe I don’t even have a diverse body of work. Maybe it’s all just the same character. I have no idea.
AVC: Do you notice any themes or patterns that have emerged for you in works you feel especially connected to?
JR: No. But what I have noticed is that certain roles show up at times in my life where there are things happening in my life that sort of mirror them symmetrically, if that makes any sense.
AVC: Can you give an example of what you mean?
JR: Well, I’m about to go do this thing that I’m not allowed to talk about, where I’m playing someone that’s very, very still and very stoic and I’m not showing any of my cards. It’s really straight faced. That happened in a time in my life where I started meditating a lot and I stopped drinking coffee, and I just got very still in my life, right? I wanted to feel what that was like, to be very still. As a result of that, an opportunity came up to go and play someone who was very still. In retrospect, I’ve noticed that the trajectory of my career has sort of always followed that. Whenever I was at any given point in my life, a job came up where those issues naturally presented themselves to work out through whatever character I was playing.
AVC: Obviously you’ve clicked with certain folks, because they want you back. David Simon for example, clearly, has a sense of your range, given that he’s cast you in three different roles in three different series. It’s no coincidence that you guys have managed to figure out a good working relationship regardless of the project, right?
JR: I’m just really lucky that they keep hiring me back. I sort of have that thing with a group of people. I’ve done two movies with Sean Baker. I’m going to do another movie with him next year in Florida. I’ve worked with Spike Lee four times. I feel like you get to a certain point where you get a shorthand with people and then they trust me enough to try new things. So it’s symbiotic. Like, I trust you to tell me where I fit into this thing and you trust me enough to know that I’m going to do, or at least attempt to bring something interesting to it.
AVC: Is it interesting for you to return to work with someone every couple of years and observe how your own methods have changed since the first time you worked together?
JR: Yeah. But the good part about that is at least I have the luxury of having a history with someone. So I’m not self-conscious when I’m trying something new. I’m in a place that’s safe, because I know them. Like, what if I tried something new with a stranger and they go, “What the fuck are you doing, you clown?”
JR: Yes, and I think that’s probably why they hire me over and over again, because I like working with people who are going to go out on a limb and fail. You can’t always succeed. Listen, everything has a set of rules. A muscle doesn’t grow until it fails. It’s that simple. I think it works similarly with the creative process. So, I’m actually really interested in working with people that are really talented even in the midst of something that doesn’t necessarily works 100 percent, because it just means there is something over the horizon where if they keep pushing this muscle until it snaps, it will come back stronger. That’s the most exciting part to witness.
AVC: That analogy makes a lot of sense.
JR: It’s not always best for the audience. I understand if someone’s like, “Well, that didn’t really work.” But for me, as the creative process of watching someone do that, it’s exciting, because it could work, too.
AVC: It’s like that vibe at the circus: Audiences are bummed if they see a tightrope walker try to cross the tightrope and fall into the net, but there’s still something inherently compelling about that.
JR: Well, Tangerine had that risk, too. Imagine, right, I do all this stuff and I’ve worked on big-budget studio movies and somebody goes, “Hey man, we don’t have any money so we’re going to shoot on iPhones at a doughnut shop that’s not locked up.” So I’m in a position where I could’ve put my ego first and said, “You know what, I’m too good for that. I’m too good to be in a movie shot on phones because I’ve done enough in my career that I shouldn’t be at this point.” Or I go, “What if this works?” The voice in my head that says, “You’re a piece of shit. You suck. Stop doing this.” is also the same voice that says, you’re way too good for this. So as long as I ignore that voice entirely, then anything creatively is possible.
AVC: Let’s talk about your character in Tangerine for a second, because he kind of feels like the more real-life version of the pimp that James Franco was going for in Spring Breakers.
JR: That I sincerely appreciate.
AVC: Were you drawn to it by how idiosyncratic that project was, this tiny little thing shot on iPhones? Because even though it’s this gritty low-budget film about transgender prostitutes, it has an almost Frank Capra-esque vibe at points.
JR: It was just an incredibly simple thing for me. Because I made Starlet with Sean [Baker]. We had a great time. We all won a bunch of awards from it and he says he’s making another movie, so I’m like, “Okay, just tell me when you need me to be there.” There was not a lot of real hemming and hawing. I’m just a fan of what Sean is thinking about, because he makes movies about labor. All his movies are movies about vocation and the transcendence of the person in the vocation. That’s interesting to me as a person. So, whatever Sean asks me to do, I’ll do because we’re interested in the same thing.
AVC: The opposite of that, of course, is making a compelling role in those smaller parts in Hollywood assembly-line films. Can you talk a little about that challenge of showing up in something that’s obviously a well-oiled machine and having so little time to make your part count?
JR: Honestly, a lot of that came from David Chang, the Momofuku chef, who influenced me in thinking about my work in a different degree, which was the context of how I’m working. Whether it be a TV show or a movie, it’s irrelevant. It’s the same way that he makes the world’s best bowl of ramen, just hands down. It’s still ramen, but he’s using the best ingredients. We think of ramen as this shitty brick of food that’s for poor people. But he’s like, well, why would you do that? So he took the same care and quality control and he applied it to this peasant food, and guess what? He gets Michelin stars from it. So his whole point to me is, you can’t worry about your ego or what show you’re doing. Just keep saying yes. Just keep working. Once you do that, you build this entirely new set of skills just by keeping the machine running. So I tend not to think [Adopts scornful voice.] “Oh, I’m doing this TV show over here and the part’s really small, so I’m just going to use the same ingredients for this as I do with everything else.” Again, that’s my ego getting involved.
AVC: Like in How To Make It In America; you take someone who could have played as almost cartoonishly antagonistic on paper and you inject something other than cheap jokes into them. [Ransone played an odious hipster on the series—ed.] Because that seems like a character where you could easily draw from actual awful people you meet in New York.
JR: Yes. Oh, yes. There’s a lot of them like that in Bushwick right now. I don’t know, man. I try not to be super self-referential about my work because it becomes like navel gazing at a certain point. To me it’s more boring because, the more that I start to look at that, at that aspect of what I’m doing, I miss the experience of what other people are doing, and that’s always going to be more interesting to me anyway.