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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

William Sadler on Freedom, naked tai chi, and getting silly as the Grim Reaper

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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: William Sadler spent more than a decade as a theater actor before ever pulling a substantial role in front of the camera, but in the late 1980s he made the jump to TV and movie work in a big way, and thanks to making such a big impression with his performances in films like Die Hard 2, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and The Shawshank Redemption, to name but a few, he’s worked constantly ever since. In addition to turning up regularly across the TV landscape, Sadler can currently be seen in the film Freedom, now available on VOD.

Freedom (2014)—“Plimpton”

William Sadler: This was a case where they sent my agent the script and said, “This is the role, and we’d definitely like you to look at it.” And I read the script, and I definitely found it fascinating, but I liked the character as well. I’m not sure Cuba Gooding, Jr. was attached to the film at the time. He may have been. But there were several reasons why I was drawn to it.


Plimpton is a slave hunter. His claim to fame was that he tracked down runaway slaves to bring them back to the plantation, which was a cruel and awful enterprise, but he doesn’t want to take this job. He’s had enough of this, and he’s had sort of a change of heart, so he doesn’t want to take this job in the first place, and by the end of the film, he lets Samuel—Cuba’s character—escape. And it ends up costing him his life, so there’s sort of a redemption to the character, which I found fun.

The A.V. Club: Do you enjoy doing historical dramas as a rule?

WS: I guess. Well, I’m a history buff, anyway. I love learning about different periods, especially in American history. I’m a fan. But, yeah, I guess I’ve done a lot of historical dramas!


AVC: In a case like this, do you do additional research beyond the script, or do you just tend to stick with what they give you?

WS: More the script. But this is based, I believe, on real characters and real events. [Director] Peter Cousens was a great help in filling in the blanks, filling in the meat behind the lines and what have you. The biggest challenge for me was that I don’t think I’d ever ridden a horse on film before. [Laughs.] I haven’t seen the film yet, so I don’t know how they cut around my awkward riding. I was not born in the saddle, as they say. I’m sure there were some hysterical outtakes. I had no idea those things were so damned tall!


CBS Festival Of Lively Arts For Young People (1977)—“Poor Tom”

AVC: Based on IMDB, it appears that your first non-commercial on-camera role was in something called “Henry Winkler Meets William Shakespeare.”


WS: [Laughs.] That may be true! That was a TV show for PBS, I think.

AVC: CBS, actually. It seems to have been the equivalent of an afterschool special, but it was part of something called the CBS Festival Of Lively Arts For Young People.


WS: Yeah. Now you’re reaching back! [Laughs.] I think that was one of those things where they came to me because I had spent 11 years in New York City doing off-Broadway and Broadway and regional theater: The Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Trinity Square, Long Wharf, and Shakespeare In The Park and so on. So I guess I was sort of an easy choice for that.

AVC: It’s funny, the clip is actually on YouTube.

WS: Is it, really?

AVC: It is. And based on what you can see and what I’ve read, it may be Bruce Weitz next to you when you turn up onscreen, but I can’t quite tell.


WS: Wow, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that in 150 years. [Laughs.] This is pretty ancient, you know!

AVC: Well, if it’s you that I’m spotting, you appear to be jumping out of a box.

WS: That actually sounds about right. [Laughs.]

AVC: So how did you first find your way into a career in acting?

WS: I actually started in Orchard Park, New York, which is a town south of Buffalo. I did stand-up comedy around Buffalo. I played the banjo and told jokes, and I billed myself as Banjo Bill Sadler for awhile. [Laughs.] And I finally had an English teacher who said, “You know, why don’t you audition for the senior play?” And I did. And one play led to another and to another. And I was pretty good at it, and I enjoyed it so much that I sort of found my calling and went off and studied at an undergraduate school for four years, and then graduate at Cornell. I studied for two more years and got the MFA, and then I just started doing theater. Like I was saying before, it was just years and years and years and years of theater before I ever set foot in front of a camera.


Project X (1987)—“Dr. Carroll”
Private Eye (1987-1988)—“Lt. Charlie Fontana”

AVC: Did you always have a desire to jump in front of the camera, or did it just kind of happen incidentally?


WS: I think my wife one day said to me, “You know, you could make money doing this, if you wanted.” [Laughs.] I guess I was doing Biloxi Blues on Broadway with Matthew Broderick, and when Matthew went off to do Project X, somehow I was cast in that film. That was one of my first on-camera roles. I think it was the first feature, anyway, where I had any kind of a role. So that was sort of my connection and my foot in the door.

But I immediately ran back to New York after Project X. We ran back to our little apartment on East 5th Street. And then I auditioned and got offered a TV series called Private Eye that shot at Universal Studios, and they relocated us. They moved me and my wife and our brand-new daughter out to California. And the show ran for… I think it ran for half a season or something. All of a sudden, we had rented a house and had two used cars and a baby and we’re in Los Angeles, living in Venice. So began the Hollywood years. [Laughs.]

AVC: What do you remember about the Private Eye experience? It was a period piece, very stylized.


WS: That’s right: It was all set in the ’50s. It was great cars, great clothes. Josh Brolin and Mike Woods. It’s funny, it took me a long time in front of the camera—a lot of episodes and a couple of episodes—to actually get comfortable, to learn the technology of film work. You know, it basically sort of boils down to, “Someone’s trying to take your picture here, you need to help them take it.” But the size of your acting… Just master the technical requirements, and hitting the mark so that you’re in focus, matching what you did in the master that they liked, so they can cut back and forth and use whatever take. There’s a whole bagful of things that you need to get familiar with, and they need to become second nature so that you can get back to, “Just think about the acting. Just get into the character and do the work that you need to do.”

But I think it took me most of the series Private Eye to work that out. For most of it, I was probably saying. “And why do I need to match that? That was so good, what we just did!” [Laughs.] There is a learning curve, though. I honestly think that the theater background probably helps. There’s a tremendous work ethic and an ability to create characters and work to create moments. You know, to cook it up at 3 a.m. after you’ve been waiting all day. There’s a lot of discipline involved in doing eight shows a week for a year and a half. It’s nice to be able to bring some of that bag of tools with you over to the film world, where you don’t have the rehearsal, you don’t have an audience. You don’t have a month of rehearsal to examine these words, and you meet the guy who’s going to play your brother the morning that you shoot the scene. So you need a bag of tools.


Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1998-1999)—“Sloan”

WS: Oh, a fun character! I had a great time doing that. They called me up and asked me if I’d do it—that was another offer—and I had been a Star Trek fan, but I hadn’t watched Deep Space Nine. I didn’t follow that series. But Star Trek was such an important part of the fabric of the culture when I was growing up that I was thrilled. And I had a ball, too. But what a fun character to play. I think the first time we see him, he’s sitting at Dr. Bashir’s bedside, and he’s been there all night. Or you don’t know how long he’s been sitting there watching Bashir sleep. [Laughs.] It’s just an extremely creepy entrance for a character, and it’s great. Very unsettling.


AVC: He’s kind of a dark character for Star Trek.

WS: Right. But memorable! [Laughs.] He’s a bit of an Ollie North sort of character, where if you ask him, he’s doing the right thing. He’s protecting the Federation. He’s doing all the dirty work that the Federation’s rules won’t let them do, but that’s why you’ve stayed alive for all these years, because he gets his hands dirty, breaking the rules.


Iron Man 3 (2013)—“President Ellis”

WS: That was exciting for a couple of reasons. I loved the first Iron Man. I still think it’s one of the great comic book movies of all time. I love the way he becomes the hero, that he doesn’t start out that way but becomes it, and I thought Robert Downey, Jr. did a brilliant job at that. So I was already a fan of the series, and to play the president… That was another one of those situations where it was such a part of the American fabric, the American culture. We export these characters all over the world, so to be the president of the Marvel Universe was great. It was just a gas. And you get to wear the suit and fly and work with Gwyneth Paltrow… I mean, what’s not to like? [Laughs.] And I think it may have been the biggest budget film I’ve ever done.


AVC: Has there ever been any talk of bringing President Ellis back for any other Marvel films?

WS: I think so. They sort of let me know that I had been established as the president in the Marvel Universe, which was quite an honor. I’d love to come back.


Wonderfalls (2004)—“Darrin Tyler”

WS: What a cool series! [Laughs.] I don’t get a chance to be funny on camera as often as I would like, and Darrin was great. Darrin was a conservative Republican, sort of a tight-ass. Yeah, I had a lovely time doing that. We shot it in Toronto. I think that series was ahead of its time a bit. The people who saw it fell in love with it, but it only aired four episodes, I think, before they took it off the air. Very brief. But the folks who got it, they got it so well. I still get fan mail from people who loved Wonderfalls. It’s hard to imagine that it had the impact that it did, having aired only those few episodes. But then they released the DVD. What a fun cast. Holy cow.


AVC: When you were doing the series, did you have the sensation that it might be a hard sell for middle America, just because it was indeed so unique?

WS: I guess I didn’t really give it much thought, I have to say. I mean, who knows about these things? I have a feeling that, if you released that show today, it would fit right in. That’s what I mean about it being a bit ahead of a time. There were lesbian themes and other themes being dealt with in the show that were not easy to talk about when it came out, which I think is part of the reason the network didn’t really get behind it.


The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)—“Abe”
Eagle Eye (2008)—“Jerry’s Dad”

WS: [Snort of laughter.] Oh, my God. The Battle Of Shaker Heights was the first time I played Shia LeBeouf’s father. I also played his dad in Eagle Eye. But that was an interesting film, because the whole premise of Project Greenlight is a little strange, I think. It’s hard enough to make a movie of any kind and overcome the problems that you have that come up, but to do it with cameras in your face 24/7, just cameras sitting in on every conversation everywhere around the set, no matter how embarrassing or private or whatever… I mean, that really just made it much harder, I think.


And you would see it in people. You’d be sitting and having lunch with someone, and the cameras would come over, and I think people react one of two ways: They either clam up and say nothing because the camera’s on them, or they start bloviating about, “Well, I was summering with Sidney Lumet in Africa, and this rhino was running right toward us.” [Laughs.] And you get this enormous blovation of people showing off for the camera. But none of it feels natural. I came away with the feeling that they were making a lot of interesting television episodes, and that was sort of the primary focus of the show, but not, “How can we best make a movie for a million bucks?” You felt bad for the writers and director. It’s, like, the trainwrecks are more interesting and more fun to watch.

AVC: One of the first things one of our readers asked in regard to The Battle Of Shaker Heights was for insight into the crying hug.


WS: Well, it was one of those moments when Shia and I connected with the material, and… I don’t know. We had no rehearsal. I didn’t even know I was going to do it until the night before I was supposed to shoot. So I showed up on the set the next morning at 7 a.m., and that was the first scene up, so I had no preparation, and I don’t even think I’d met Shia before that.

AVC: Wow.

WS: Yeah! [Laughs.] But, you know, it often feels like that. It often feels just like an improv, where there is no rehearsal. “You’re not going to rehearse this. We’re going to figure out where the cameras are going to be, and then you’re just going to do it.” In fact, I think the only film I’ve ever actually gotten rehearsal on was The Shawshank Redemption. We had a week or two of rehearsals in the prison before we started filming.


The Shawshank Redemption (1994)—“Heywood”
The Green Mile (1999)—“Klaus Detterick”
The Mist (2007)—“Jim”

AVC: Since you’ve given me an organic segue, how did you find your way into Shawshank?


WS: I had just done the first episode of the series Tales From The Crypt, and Frank Darabont was one of the writers. He approached me on the set when I was visiting one day, and he came over and said, “I’m going to do this movie, it’s called Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption, and I would like you to be in it.” He said it just like that. A couple of days later, he mailed me a copy of the Stephen King anthology, I think it’s called Different Seasons, and I read the novella, and I have to say, when Frank first said that he was writing the screenplay and wanted me to be in it, when you’re in Los Angeles, there’s a part of you that says, “Yeah, right.” [Laughs.] Because everybody you meet is writing a movie, and they want you to be in it. Every cab driver is writing a movie! But thank God, it turned out that Frank was completely serious, and something like a year and a half or two years later there we were shooting it, and it was one of the most fun shoots I’ve ever been involved with.

AVC: We actually just interviewed Bob Gunton for this feature last month.

WS: Oh, yeah! Well, he must feel good about that film. I’m sure he must enjoy the memories of doing that.


AVC: Oh, absolutely. He said, “I’m sure that, unless the gods come down from heaven with another marvelous movie, that will be the movie that I will probably be remembered for and that I am most proud of.”

WS: I would imagine so. I mean, they just don’t come around, movies like that. Frank even talks about that. Whenever we get together, we just sort of shake our heads and say, “Can you believe it’s still going as strong as it is?” He feels like we really caught lightning in a bottle, and I think to some degree that’s true. It was a strong script, but I don’t think any of us had any idea that it was going to take on this life of its own and become such a beloved film.


AVC: When it first came out, were you—as it seems everyone else was—frustrated that audiences didn’t seem to pick up on it?

WS: Oh, yeah! I don’t know if you remember, but it opened in the movie theaters, and it closed, like, a week later or two weeks later. It had no run at all. Nobody knew what a Shawshank was. No one could pronounce it. It’s a terrible name. I remember Frank showing me a list of 10 different names they were going to call it, because everyone knew that name was just dreadful. And people tell each other, “I saw this movie last night. It was great! It was called… Shrimptank something?” [Laughs.] You know, it’s really hard to get the word of mouth going if no one can pronounce or remember the name.


AVC: That’s almost exactly what Morgan Freeman said.

WS: I think that’s true! I think the name hurt almost more than anything else. Morgan and Tim Robbins were not household names at the time. I mean, they were strong film actors, but there wasn’t a name attached like Tom Cruise that you could hang the movie on. They went for a strong ensemble, and that’s what they got, and I really do think that’s part of the magic and the strength of that film: It felt like you could aim the camera at any face in that room and see the whole story played out in those eyes. It was a true ensemble.


AVC: You and Frank obviously worked well together, given that you also ended up in The Green Mile and The Mist.

WS: Yeah! I love Frank. I’d work for him anywhere, anytime. We might not see each other for years on end, but we get together and we just pick up as if we’d been talking yesterday.

AVC: The Mist seems destined for reappraisal as a lost classic at some point. It’s a very underrated horror film.


WS: Oh, yeah? And how do you like the ending? [Laughs.]

AVC: As someone who had a 2-year-old daughter at the time, I found it horrifying and disturbing.


WS: I think that’s where Frank was. He wanted that ending. I don’t think the studio did. I think a lot of people had a lot of questions about it. “Oh, my God, you can’t be serious. He’s going to… He’s fought so long and so hard to keep this kid safe, and now he’s going to do this?” It has to be one of the most disturbing twists at the end of a movie ever.

Tales From The Crypt (1989)—“Niles Talbot”
Die Hard 2 (1990)—“Col. Stuart”

WS: Ah! Die Hard 2 was also, as a matter of fact, a result of that very first episode of Tales From The Crypt. Die Hard 2 was produced by Joel Silver, who was also one of the producers on the Tales From The Crypt series, so a great portion of my career flowed from one particular moment when I came in to audition for that episode. But I actually came in to audition for the cop at the end who arrests Talbot and says, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say, blah blah blah…” And at the end of the audition, I asked, (casting director) Karen Rea, “What’s up with the role of Talbot, the lead?” And she said, “Oh, they want a star. They need a star for that. They’re gonna get [John] Malkovich or Chris Walken or somebody. They need a name for that.”


So I left, and I got halfway across the parking lot, and she stuck her head out the window of the Silver building, and she said, “Bill! Bill! Come back!” She handed me the sides and said, “Come back on Monday, black out your teeth and grease your hair, and I’ll put you on tape and show it to them. What have we got to lose?” So I did. I came back on Monday and did the audition, and Walter Hill loved it. I worked with him again subsequently. In fact, the four producers on the show were Joel Silver, Dick Donner, Bob Zemeckis, and Walter Hill, and I worked with all of them subsequently. So it was just this remarkable little moment in my career where I could’ve so easily just left. If I hadn’t asked, “What’s up with the role of Talbot?” I would’ve had a different career.

AVC: In regard to Die Hard 2, you certainly make a big impression with your introduction, doing naked tai chi.


WS: Why, thank you. [Laughs.]

AVC: Was it in the script that you’d be fully unclothed for that reveal?

WS: Uh, no. I didn’t learn that until I got there for the costume fitting.

AVC: Or lack thereof?

WS: You’re absolutely right! [Laughs.] I said, “What am I wearing in that scene?” We tried on everything else, and then Renny [Harlin] said, “Actually, I was thinking you would be nude.” And I said, “Well, if you push that scene off until the end of the movie and get me in the gym, I’ll see what I can do.”


Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)—“The Grim Reaper”
Freaked (1993)—“Dick Brian”

WS: The Grim Reaper may be the most fun role I’ve played in my entire life. Seriously! My silly Czechoslovakian accent and that character… I told you how much fun I have and how much I enjoy being funny when I can unleash my silly. That character was nothing but silly. He was harmless and not very bright and totally silly, and it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done on film.


AVC: So did Freaked come about just because Alex Winter called and said, “Would you do this?”

WS: Yes. [Laughs.] And I hope he calls me about Bill & Ted 3, too!