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: Michael Lerner’s resumé is simply monstrous. He started out as an acting student in Brooklyn and has now amassed more than 170 credits, becoming an extremely reliable character actor, while also boasting an impressive list of stage credits. He’s been featured in a litany of pilots, including Starsky And Hutch and MacGyver, and has guest starred in a number of classic television shows, including The Rockwell Files, Hill Street Blues, and The Bob Newhart Show. He is perhaps best known as for his portrayal of quick-talking studio mogul Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, and for playing various low-lifes and villainous gangsters in period pieces. Even in his smallest roles, he is able to imbue his character with a immense sense of timing, pathos, and personality.
Michael Lerner: It was a miserable experience [Laughs.] Well, I liked working in Wilmington in North Carolina. But I was very disappointed in the movie. I thought it could have been much better. I think a lot of it is really obvious, and I mean I had fun. And I mean Sam [Jackson] and Nicolas [Cage] are terrific. I liked the fact that I played, like, not really a Jew, you know? More of a suburban guy. Wasn’t I on a machine, like a lawnmower or something?
The A.V. Club: Yeah, you mow the lawn at the beginning of the film. And it seemed like you played more of a waspy character?
ML: Yeah, I liked that.
AVC: At one point, Nicolas Cage imprisons you in a bunch of S&M gear. Was that tedious to shoot?
ML: No, that was fun. I just wanted the movie to be better.
AVC: When you say that the movie was obvious, do you mean in the sense that it was making very obvious critiques about race?
ML: Yes. It’s very interesting that that’s the first movie you’re asking me about. Seriously, that that’s your first question.
ML: That was a terrific, terrific experience. Todd Solondz is a very odd guy. He knows exactly what he wants. The first day when I worked on that movie, we shot in Puerto Rico. The very first scene that we shot was a very scene of me and Allison Janney on our first date. Todd is very nervous, and he was actually under the table where we’re eating in the restaurant. Allison and I were perfect with the dialogue and everything like that, and Todd loved it, and we only did a couple of takes, but he loved the fact that sometimes it was kind of improvisational. And I like that. One of the best things—and I’ve done a lot of stage work—but I think one of the best things about acting on film is when you fuck up… when you forget a line or something like that. Because film is very real, when you’re struggling for the line. And Allison and I are like “Mutt and Jeff,” you know? I mean she’s like 6’3” and I’m 5’7”, and she’s very thin and I’m dumpy. And there’s a scene in a hotel room where we’re making out, I think. And they greased us up and we fell to the floor.
AVC: They greased you up?
ML: Yeah, they wanted us sweating. And it was funny.
AVC: You’re cast as a lot of Jewish characters, and it’s interesting that in this film your Judaism is used in a very different way thematically, that sort of propels the plot forward.
ML: Yeah, I think I was in six episodes of Hill Street Blues playing a rabbi?
ML: To be truthful, I don’t remember. I remember being on Hill Street Blues and someone throws spaghetti in my face or something?
AVC: Yes, and as a rabbi you wore a ton of makeup. Do you remember what it was like being on the set of that show?
ML: It was fun, but it was pretty much the beginning of my career. I didn’t know much. I’ve been doing this for almost 60 years.
AVC: Did you ever find it uncomfortable earlier in your career to be asked to play so many Jewish characters?
ML: No, never. But you have to remember that half the roles I’ve played were also Italians or WASPs. Like in Strange Invaders or Blank Check, I play more WASPy characters, and it’s always fun to play against type.
ML: I read the script, and you just know good writing. It was brilliantly written, and I just knew it. I had auditioned for Joel and Ethan before, for Miller’s Crossing. So I walked into the room, as the character, and I don’t say hello to anybody. And I sit down behind my desk and do this big speech: “Bart! Bart! So great to see you.” I did the monologue the way I wanted to do it and I just walked of the room and that was it. And Joel and Ethan were just sitting in a corner just laughing and laughing and that was it.
The funny thing about working with them is that everyone thinks they’re control freaks and all that and they were trusting me so much—and we rehearsed it for about two weeks—and I changed one line and they loved it. Instead of saying citizen something I said, “Citizen Schmendrick.” They liked it a lot. The only direction they gave me was to pick up a glass of orange juice, and that was it. They were a little nervous that I was talking so fast, but my inspiration was Preston Sturges movies. They got that. And we did one take where we did it slowly, and it didn’t work. They knew I had to rattle it off, you know? Then they called me to do a cameo in A Serious Man. I just did a little bit. It’s like a silent movie and I didn’t talk.
AVC: You just walk in and have a heart attack. When they pitched that to you, were you concerned that it was just this little joke part?
ML: No, no, no, come on.
AVC: When you get nominated for an Academy Award, like you did for Barton Fink, does that change your career trajectory?
ML: Yeah, you make more money.
AVC: What was it like when you learned you had been nominated?
ML: It was very bizarre. Very strange. I went back to my house at 6 a.m. and I went to the watch the nominations with a friend of mine, who was this great actor, and his wife, and when I got nominated it was lot of fun. I drove back to my house and there were like 20 reporters there.
ML: Let’s not go into that, it was a terrible experience.
ML: Where’s this going to be published?
AVC: This is going to be published online.
ML: I don’t care, you can mention it. He [Woody Allen] is a schmuck. He was shooting scenes with me and Judy Davis, and I’m supposed to be the greatest facial surgeon in the world. And he shoots it all at my back and on Judy. And I said why’d you fly me all the way in from L.A. to just look at my back? I don’t get it. And he says, “You’re right, Michael, I watched it and we’ll do it again on Friday.” And we do it again on Friday, and we have an argument on the set. From what I understand, he always takes on an actor in his films and he picked on me and I said, “Go fuck yourself!” And the movie’s a piece of shit.
AVC: Why would he act like that toward you?
ML: I don’t know. He has problems. I think it’s his worst movie.
ML: That was a good experience. To be in a film with these three great black actors of American comedy was fucking amazing. Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy. And Della Reese. Eddie Murphy courted me like crazy. They wanted Robert Duvall to play the part. I auditioned for Eddie twice and he said, no, he wants me. He had a lot of power, so I got the role.
Richard Pryor was frail, and in very bad shape, and we had a scene in a limousine. It was a whole day shoot, with lots of close-ups and masters and dialogue. Eddie shoots in on Richard first, and Richard is very tentative, but he gets through it. Eddie turns [the camera] on me, and I do my thing. Richard and Eddie huddle in a corner. They tell me to go to my trailer.
They break down the set, which probably cost about two hundred grand, and they re-shot the scene completely with Richard. Richard was much better. He was a very gracious guy to me, and he knew I smoked cigars, and gave me a box of Cuban cigars. And every African American person knows me as Bugsy Calhoune. I’m in London, and this guy comes up to me and goes, “Oh my god! Oh my god! It’s Bugsy Calhoune!” Every black and Hispanic person knows me from that and Elf.
AVC: Do you like playing that outsized gangster character? You play that kind of villain in numerous roles.
ML: It was a lot of fun. I like being sarcastic and witty. The kid who works for me, I slam his finger down on the piano. I like to underplay, and I underplayed that role pretty much the whole time.
Eddie only said one thing to me when he directed: “When you’re having a conversation with the schmuck who brought you sugar instead of heroin, why don’t you tilt your head to the left. It’ll be funnier.” That’s the only direction he gave me.
ML: Oh god that was one of the first things I ever did. I have no memory of that at all. I’ve been doing this for 60 years. I went to dinner with Guy Ritchie, and he said “If you like five or six movies of the 187 you’ve done, that’s a career.”
AVC: How did you get started?
ML: I always wanted to be an English professor. And I went to Brooklyn College—with my friend Joel Zwick, who is a TV director—and I don’t know what happened. I started acting in the drama department, and played Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman at the age of 18. And it moved me. And my wife at time—we quickly annulled, so it’s not in the books—wanted me to be an English professor and I wanted to be an actor. I got a scholarship to go to Berkeley graduate school to study drama and acting. I wanted a Fulbright [scholarship] and nine out of 10 professors said I wouldn’t get one, except for one who said he would support me. So I got a Fulbright and went to London for two years. Then I was invited to San Francisco and to join the American Conservatory Theatre. An agent saw me, and took me up to L.A., and I started doing films.
I did a film with Charlotte Rampling, and then Alex In Wonderland with Paul Mazursky, but my first real significant role was in a TV movie called Ruby And Oswald. Brian Dennehy had a small part in it. I was in Missiles Of October. And I do smoke cigars, and played [noted cigar-smoker] Pierre Salinger. I met Jackie Kennedy at a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. And she said, “Mr. Lerner, you’ve out Pierre’d Pierre,” which I thought was very funny.
AVC: When did you start getting steady roles you didn’t have to audition for?
ML: Ten years ago.
ML: That was a terrific experience. Jack Nicholson is one of the most generous actors that I ever worked with. I had a close-up and I had long takes I had to do. I had a briefcase, and I didn’t know which hand it was [supposed to be] in. And Jack said, ”It doesn’t matter, really. If they’re looking at that, then you’re in trouble.” So I just carried it with both hands. I never smoked cigarettes, and I didn’t know how to smoke a cigarette. [Bob] Rafelson wanted me to smoke a cigarette and it was with Jack in the jail. So I held the cigarette like a cigar, which was stupid. I threw the cigarette down the toilet in the jail cell. Bob said, “Why did you do that?” I said that I don’t know how to smoke a cigarette. We worked very, very long hours and Jessica Lange was very nervous. It think it was her second movie; she had just done King Kong.
My longest scene in that is in the garage with Jack. I tell him, “Learn to lose,” and that to me was my favorite scene.
David Mamet [who wrote the screenplay] and I had a long history together. With David, it’s like with the Coen Brothers. It’s all in the writing. He had directed me in a version of Twelfth Night… I don’t remember how that came about. We were friends first, I think. And we were very young. And it was down in Greenwich Village. And [William H.] Macy was in it. I played Sir Toby Belch.
Slipstream (2007)—“Big Mikey”
Dark Victory (1976)—“Manny”
The Road To Wellville (1994)—“Goodloe Bender”
AVC: You worked on three different projects with Anthony Hopkins. How is working with him?
ML: He’s a terrific, terrific guy. I did Slipstream as a favor, because he directed it and there was no budget. [The Road To Wellville director] Alan Parker was very worried about me, because in rehearsals, I didn’t want to give my peak performance. I played Goodloe Bender, an oil snake. Michael Caine was supposed to do it. I was doing George Lucas’ movie, Radioland Murders, and it was the same studio. Fred Roos, the casting director, who is a very good friend of mine, introduced me to Alan because Caine couldn’t do it. Parker said he knew my work and that it would be great. In those scenes, I’m an outsized character, over the top. I told him, “Look, I don’t want to shoot my load until we’re on film.” And John Cusack, whom I’ve worked with a few times, is in the film, and Alan was delighted when I did my shpiel. And I saw him a few years later in London… and we laughed and joked about it.
AVC: Did you ever get to meet Roger Ebert?
ML: I did. I met him at the Toronto Film Festival about four or five times. He was always very kind to me. I liked him quite a bit… Roger and I used to go to George Christie’s luncheon every year.
AVC: What was it like working on such a massive production with Roland Emmerich?
ML: Roland [Emmerich] was nervous about the comedy I was doing, but he kept it all in. He felt the movie needed that comedy relief. The movie itself is about effects.
ML: Mostly about the costumes, not about the acting. An overproduced, big, big movie. I loved doing that and X-Men: Days Of Future Past in Montreal. Those are good parts but not great acting roles.
ML: John Sayles is a wonderful, wonderful director. I think it’s a communist movie, in the sense that it’s people against labor. Against [White Sox owner] Charles Comiskey. I liked playing Arnold Rothstein… I didn’t scream or yell. I was very smooth and kept myself out of the fix, even though I’m the fixer. I had a big speech explaining who I am, and thought it was very well written. John Sayles was terrific, and didn’t say anything to me.
We played poker quite a bit. Me, Charlie Sheen, and Christopher Lloyd.
AVC: Who would win?
ML: Me. I’m a very good poker player. It was competitive, but one like one- and two-dollar cheap games. Seven-card stud. It was so fun. The highlight was working with Studs Terkel. He had so many stories about Chicago and the writing business. We shot in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Kentucky, which I loved. One of the great things about being an actor is traveling.
AVC: How do you generally prepare for all these historically based roles?
ML: Most of the time I don’t rehearse, but I do a lot of preparation. Especially for a biographical character or one of the studio heads. I did a lot of research for Barton Fink and looked into Louis B. Mayer and all the moguls in Hollywood.
AVC: You’ve mentioned a few times that you enjoy when a director doesn’t give you a whole lot of direction.
ML: An actor’s a big baby. That’s why kid actors are so good, like that kid from Room was so good. Even if you‘re 90 years old, when that camera comes on your face for a close-up, you’re a big baby. You have a million views as an actor, and one of those million views comes out as the character you’re playing. I like a director who can edit me. That’s the important thing. If a director comes over to me and says, “That’s too big, that’s too small,” those are good directions. But my interpretation of a character is instinct. If a director doesn’t like my interpretation, then I have a problem.
ML: A stupid movie I made, where I play an Irish cop. My friend Leo was in the movie, and Leo suggested me and I thought it was a great idea. I came in and worked a few days and it’s become a cult classic. It’s not a great film.
AVC: In this one, your character gets his flesh sucked out by aliens.
ML: Did that happen? The hair and makeup people didn’t listen to me. I told them to keep my hair gray and they didn’t listen to me and my hair looked blue on film. I don’t know if you noticed that. It was the first film that Bill Condon wrote.
AVC: What do you have coming up?
ML: Drive Me To Vegas And Mars. [Director] Sidney J. Furie thought of me because of Shelden Anderson, the Vegas mogul, and he worked on the character with me and let me re-write the part.
My stepson and I are writing a one-man show and we’re writing a movie script. The play is going to be pretty tremendous.
AVC: What’s the film script about?
ML: Did you ever see About Schmidt? It’s in that genre. It’s me and Bud Cort hanging out at the farmer’s market in LA, arguing politics, and then I go off and have adventures. I just did the Marc Maron show and two episodes of Funny Or Die. I’ve done about eight of those. This last one was about climate change, and I was the youngest actor on the set with Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, and Betty White.