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Dennis Christopher – An Actor’s Life: From Fellini to Breaking Away to Django Unchained

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Dennis Christopher stars in "Django Unchained."

Dennis Christopher stars in “Django Unchained.”

Dennis Christopher

An Actor’s Life: From Fellini to Breaking Away to Django Unchained

by Jay S. Jacobs

You couldn’t make up Dennis Christopher’s life if you tried.  It has been a wild ride made up of raw talent, hard work and sheer luck and it has translated into a show business career that has been going strong for over 40 years – not bad for a guy who is only in his 50s.

Much like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Christopher has been a constant presence on the outskirts of Hollywood stardom.  Ever since he moved away from his hometown of Philadelphia, Dennis Christopher has consistently taken on interesting and risky roles – putting artistic growth over fame – and working with some of the great talents in film, theater and television.

He even was a buzz-worthy upcoming star when he played the lead in the beloved 1979 coming-of-age story Breaking Away.  He could have skirted by on similar roles, but instead since then he has taken on a dizzying series of intriguing parts that included a small role in Chariots of Fire, an against-type psycho role in Fade to Black, an extended Broadway run in Little Foxes and as part of the cult-fave miniseries Stephen King’s It.

In recent years, Christopher has guest-starred or had recurring roles in most great series on television including Profiler, Law & Order, Roswell, CSI, Criminal Minds, Star Trek: Enterprise and Deadwood.

However, perhaps his most surprising career turn came when just recently writer/director Quentin Tarantino specifically asked him to play Leonardo DiCaprio’s consigliore in the high-profile action film Django Unchained.

We recently spoke extensively with Christopher, who gave us some great insights into his life on stage and screen, his breakthrough role in Breaking Away and his high-profile fan named Tarantino.

One of your first acting roles was in Roma by Federico Fellini.  I was reading that you were actually just travelling through Europe and stumbled upon Fellini’s shoot.  How did you get that part and what was it like to even have a small part with such a legendary director?

I’d always wanted to be a hippie.  There were two things I wanted to be: an actor and a hippie.  Well, first I wanted to be a priest, then I wanted to be an actor and then I wanted to be a hippie.  But, [being a hippie] was done.  It was over in the United States.  I knew it was still going on over there and I was under the influence of an older woman.  (laughs again)  I ended up going there with a one-way ticket.  They used to have these things in the olden days called charter flights, where they would fill them up with people and they were very, very economical.  I went to Europe with a one-way charter flight ticket, following this friend of mine.  My friend’s name was Jeannie.  We ended up hitchhiking from France to Rome.  Of all people, the guy who picked us up has become a well-known photographer named Christopher Makos.

We pulled into Rome.  We hadn’t even checked into a pensione or anything.  Money was very tight.  I went to Europe indefinitely with about $79.00 in my pocket.  Very adventurous times for me.  We were sitting in some cheap place, having a bowl of – what else? – pasta.  I saw this beautiful woman walk by.  Bare feet, in a caftan, sort of a diaphanous robe.  It was this woman I had seen in fashion magazines called Veruschka.  I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of her.  She was a very famous model.

Yes, I remember her name.

Google her.  There was nobody like her that I’d ever seen in my life, [even] in photographs.  Here she was in person.  She walked by.  I didn’t respond.  I was flabbergasted by her and being in Rome and the whole thing.  Then I went, “Excuse me,” and I left [my friend] there.  I tried to follow after this woman, not exactly knowing what I was going to do, maybe just get a better look at her or something.  I left my duffel bag, with all my possessions in it, behind.  I promptly got lost, because all the little streets in the center of Rome are dead ends and cul de sacs.  I didn’t know where I was.  Everything started to look alike.  I couldn’t find her, I couldn’t find where I was.

I turned a corner in a square.  And, lo and behold, they were shooting a movie there.  I thought it looked like a really cheesy situation, personally.  I didn’t understand what was going on.  There was a big parade and all of these very large, round prostitutes.  There was a giant pig that they were carrying.  It was just madness.  The man sitting way up top on a chair on a crane was Fellini.  I had confided in my friend Jeannie – and not very many other people, it was just a kid’s pipe dream – that I thought my whole life as an actor would come together if I met Fellini.  (laughs)  I knew he would recognize me and know what to do with me immediately.  (laughs harder)  I don’t know why.  I think it was having seen Satyricon at a very young age.  It had blown my mind.  I thought, “That’s what I want to do!  That’s the kind of movie I want to be in.”  At that point, I didn’t even associate the word art with cinema, that’s how young I was.

My friend Jeannie caught up with me, dragging my duffel bag behind, rather pissed off. I didn't know it was Fellini, yet. I'm just watching, and she goes, "Well, there he is. There's your big dream guy over there. Fellini. What are you going to do now?" She was pissed because she had to drag my duffel bag and I was quite lost. She had been to Rome before, so she kind of knew the score. I saw that he was there. I was flabbergasted to see that he was there. There were guards standing around the rope to so that people couldn't get too close to where they were shooting. A perimeter was established around the shooting. This is a long-ass story, Jay, I'm sorry.

That's okay...

I was watching the shooting. Inside, I'm thinking, "My God, he's right over there. Like 50 feet away from me. (sighs) I'll never, ever see him again. I'll never get to meet him. I don't speak Italian. I've been in Rome all of an hour and a half. I don't have an agent or anything. What would I play?" Just all these things. When you're staring at your dream 50 feet away, you actually come up with a lot of reasons why not to get it together. (laughs) All the negative thoughts went through my mind. How am I going to do this? What should I do? I'll never meet him. He's right there. Oh, my God, this is my chance.

So I ducked under the rope. My friend distracted the guards with her charms. (chuckles) I walked in a straight line over to where he was. He freaked out completely. Started screaming. The word you heard most on the set was "Mauricio," because that was his assistant at the time. Just screaming and screaming. These guys picked me up and took me to an alley. There was lots of hub bub in Italian going on. The parade that was coming down the street had to be backed up, because apparently, I had walked into the middle of it...

Oh no...

... not really knowing what was shooting and what was not shooting. It seemed to me to be so chaotic, although movie sets are very controlled, very thought-out chaos. I was placed in an alley, in a dead end, at the end of it. Everybody was talking in Italian – I thought I was in big trouble. Turning a corner, with all these giant movie lights behind, I see this back-lit figure in the cape and the hat, as you've seen so many pictures of him before. I knew it was him. This silhouette was walking towards me. My knees are shaking. My voice goes up 15 octaves. It was worse than being in front of the school principal. He's walking towards me; he can see how I'm dressed.

His first words are in English, because he sees me, and he recognizes immediately that I'm an American. Not Italian, not English, not French, but an American. He said, "What was so important that you had to wreck my movie?" Insert the Fellini impersonation if you will. I won't even attempt it. And I (high-pitched voice) replied like this. My voice is shaking. I said, "Mr. Fellini, I had a dream about you!" His face lit up. He said, "A dream?" I said "Yes." And he just started talking...

So cool...

... and talking and talking and talking and talking. In English and in Italian. I found out later, that Roma, which was the picture that I was in... Fellini's Roma, it was called... was in his mind an assemblage of his youth, his memories and his fantasies when he was young. It all came to him in dreams. So, it was a key word. I certainly didn't know that at the time. He was speaking of stones, colors, and clowns and all these different things. I just listened. What do you do? You're standing there in front of Fellini. You're scared to death. He's talking to you. He's actually taking the time to talk to you. In and out of Italian, weaving this whole spell around me. He said, "I have something very important to ask you. Are you an actor?" I said no. I said no. At that point, my friend had caught up to me. Jeannie had come around the corner. She said, "Oh, I'm an actress!" And she wasn't, at all. He didn't even look at her. He said to me, "Come here tomorrow at sundown."

Oh wow.

And I did. The next day. The ADs and everyone had been alerted. He had a little area around his director's chair where they used to put the "dream people," which was what they called us, although, of course, in Italian. There was a rope around his chair with a pretty wide perimeter around it. No one was allowed past the rope, except the dream people. It was a group of people that had to be there every night of shooting, because he never knew who was going to surface in his dreams. He'd shoot all night long. When the sun came up the limousine would arrive. The window would go down just a crack and you'd see these two eyes. It was Giulietta Masina, his wife, picking him up every morning. He'd go home and sleep the day away, dream and write. At sundown, assemble and start shooting again. I was privileged to be one of these dream people who had to go there every night, whether he used us or not.

A few years later you did Robert Altman's A Wedding. You've obviously worked with some legendary directors over your career such as Fellini, Altman, James Bridges, Peter Yates, right up to Quentin Tarantino.

Joan Micklin Silver. And I'm so glad you mentioned Jim Bridges, because everybody forgets about Jim Bridges because he's no longer with us.

How did working with all these great directors affect you as an actor? How did it make you a better actor?

Good question. With people that are artists, which know what they are doing and have high standards, there is an atmosphere that is created on the set that asks a lot of you. Working with Bob Altman – I actually made two pictures with Bob, I had a small part in 3 Women as well – you rise to the occasion. You step outside of yourself and come up a notch or a level. It's something that just seeps into you. It's not that it's always serious. Sometimes the director is tremendously serious, sometimes they are very lighthearted. But there is an atmosphere that I notice is created with artists that are a little bit more secure in their talent and that have had a vision. Have had a certain amount of success, had a certain amount of connection with the public, with people that have seen their films. I can only imagine it's like wine, you know? Or a good cheese. The more that it ages, the more the flavor comes out. The more the talent comes out. The more it's refined and distilled. If you are open and available to it, there's no way that doesn't rub off on you. But, as I say, it's not always a seriousness. Sometimes it is a seriousness. Sometimes it's looking at art in a different way.

The other good thing about it was a lot of these people that I worked for, I worked for when I was young. My idea of film acting was just being formed. In many ways, I thought that was what all acting that was recorded by a camera was about. Little did I realize that later, when I started my foray into television, it was a completely different thing. It was a completely different thing with directors that were maybe not so experienced. Some directors are completely afraid of their own talent, or afraid of their own work. I've been on the set with directors that have everything going for them and then have sabotaged what they had. I don't even know why. But I'm sure there's parallels like that in all of our lives, where we get something and the thing we desire most, we wreck it.

There's a confidence. In all of these situations with these directors, they wanted me. They either sought me out or found me or picked me out of an alley. (laughs) I started working with Bob Altman because I was visiting my very dear friend Shelley Duvall when she was doing 3 Women. That's how Bob put his eye on me and decided that he was going to use me... not only in that movie, but in A Wedding. It's a lot of those kind of things.

I felt like with these particular directors that something in me, and I can't even say what it is, was recognized. They recognized something and decided that they wanted to use that or put that in their films. Whether it was a large part or a supporting part or just a tiny flavor in a film. I work best when that happens. I'm not anyone who is afraid of competition, because I love to audition, and I love to fight for a role. But in the early days, things came to me. Oh, and I've got one more answer on what I learned from working with these great directors. To listen.

The first time I remember seeing you, even before Breaking Away, I believe, was in California Dreaming, which is still sort of a cult film about surfing culture. Was that a fun shoot? Was it interesting being a Philly kid hanging out in the surf world?

Yeah. If you remember, it was a real fish out of water story. He was from Chicago and was tortured by the idea of his dead brother, who was a trumpet player. He was very, very young, the kind of age where you're just trying to emulate someone. You're trying to find someplace in the world, some person you can be and some place that you can live in once you leave home. My internal work was that he was a kid from a very troubled home. The only person that ever loved him was his brother, who died unexpectedly. So, even though it was a fun surfing movie, there was this fish out of water aspect to it. This troubled young man coming out there and trying to fit into a whole new society that seemed a little bit more frivolous, a little bit more sexual, a little bit more fun than he ever realized before in his life that these things could be.

It was a coming-of-age story, but at least this character, not as mindless as some coming-of-age stories are. I've been blessed in the fact that I've been in a few coming-of-age films that I feel have had some substance. From 9/30/55 to California Dreaming to Breaking Away. I've been able to play people that were a little more interesting. A little more troubled. A little more dimensional than just the regular run of the mill. That's because in many cases, the script was there. It was in the script. Fade To Black, that was another strange, twisted coming of age story, so to speak. When I was younger, they were all about young men who were trying to find their way in the world. To a certain extent, it mirrored my life experience, as well.

Breaking Away was meant as a tiny labor of love by director Peter Yates. Were you shocked by how completely the film was embraced by audiences when it came out?

I think nobody was ready for the way the film would connect. The film was conceived with quite a few significant differences than the film turned out. It was originally a script called Bambino. Dave rode a folding bike. He would hitchhike with his folding bike. There was a scene where he gets in a van and is smoking pot with people. His whole being Italian, a lot of it was mixed in with getting the girl. There were a lot of different conceptions.

I wasn't really on the same page as the film because I was working on another movie called... God, it's been re-titled so many times, I don't even know what the final title was... but one of the titles was called The Last Word. [ed. note: That was the release title.] It was Richard Harris, Karen Black, Penelope Milford, Martin Landau and myself. It was a very troubled set, a very troubled experience, and it kept being delayed. It turned out I was not available to do Breaking Away because this movie was dragging on and on. But Peter had already decided that it was me. He was lying to the studio. Between Peter Yates and my agent, they were in cahoots to keep the studio in the dark about how long I would be tied up on this other film. When I finally arrived on the set for Breaking Away, there was two weeks of rehearsal and shooting that I had missed. They had shot everything they could possibly shoot in the movie that I wasn't in.

Then they just sort of stuck me in. Their concept of the character was very, very different than what I had in mind. I had never been [the leading character]. I mean it turned out that I was the lead in California Dreaming, but I [became] the lead in the editing room. It was [filmed as] more of an ensemble piece. When you saw the movie, they really structured it around this boy's journey. I ended up the lead. But Breaking Away was clearly the leading role.

I had some thoughts about it, but I was also very intimidated by the fact that this was a 20th Century Fox movie. Peter Yates was a very accomplished, very well-known director with Bullitt and The Deep and these fantastic hits below his belt. So I didn't speak up as much as I should have. Also, I flew in on a red-eye special, not sleeping at all, and went right to the set. I was costumed, made up, my hair done and stuck into a scene immediately, because the studio wanted to replace me. They wanted to get the next actor that [Yates] was interested in because my absence had held up the movie so much. Nothing I could do about it, but it had. Peter was determined not to lose me.

They stuck me in so that they could get some footage and send it off to Fox and placate everybody. They painted me brown. They darkened my skin with makeup. They colored my hair a dark, dark brown and slicked it back. They had skintight clothes on. A Banlon shirt unbuttoned almost down to my navel, with lots of gold chains around my neck. Pointy high-heeled black boots. Skintight pants. I looked like a reject from Saturday Night Fever. That's what they thought the character was like, so when he comes clean later in the movie and confesses to the girl that he's not an Italian, he'd have someplace to go. He would take off those clothes, have his regular clothes and speak to her regularly. I shot a whole day like that, absolutely horrified at my appearance. But you're on a movie set and everyone is saying, "You look great! You look great! Let's go! We're late! Let's go, let's go!" They're handing you Polaroids of yourself and you're looking at it and you're going, "Oh my God."

That night I didn't sleep again. I called my agent and said, "I'm lost here. I shouldn't be in this movie. I have no idea who they think this character is. It's so swarmy that I'm afraid that we're just on completely different pages." I was a kid. I was 18 or 19 or something like that. Maybe 20. I remember trying to speak up for myself and my agent saying, "You can't back out now. This is a big movie. You've just got to bite the bullet and do this." The budding artist in me is saying, "No, I don't know what I'm doing. I don't want to ruin this movie."

The next morning, I got out of the car on the set. I saw Peter Yates get out of his car. I ran over to him, and he ran over to me. The reserved Englishman gives me a great big hug and I burst into tears. I looked at him and I said, "Peter, I don't know what I'm doing. I don't like this boy that you've created. I don't think that I can play him, before we get in any deeper." I'm bawling, crying. He sends me back. He says, "You know what you need? You need to go to sleep. Go back to the hotel and get some sleep. You haven't slept in a few days. [Screenwriter] Steve Tesich and I will be over at the hotel room later on to talk with you."

So I went back. I didn't sleep very well, but I got a little bit of rest. They came over and talked to me and I told them where I thought we went wrong, or where it was not right for me. I didn't know who this character was. We had shot a whole day's footage like this, with me looking really bad. Like in a Halloween costume. I looked like a drag king, like a woman dressed up like a man. (laughs) Which was horrifying. That old Lily Tomlin character, where she was the taxi driver. I looked like that. It was just horrible.

I said, I want a big family. That's why I want to be Italian. He doesn't want to be Italian just so he can nail the girl. It's a whole different feel, what it means to be Italian. What they didn't realize is that I'm half Italian and I had lived in Italy for over a year. They listened to the point where they sent somebody back to Los Angeles to bring my clothes to the set. All the clothes that you see me [wear] in the movie that are not bicycle riding outfits, [they] are my clothes.

We did it differently. I washed the crap out of my hair, so I had my blond hair back again. They said, "How are you going to change when you finally tell the girl the truth?" With my whole being I will change. We don't need props to do that. You don't need costumes to be masquerading yourself. It turned out really well, I think, those notes. We went back the next day and started fresh with this brand-new character. They really listened to me, really took my input. I was surprised they would, but they were very, very open to it. I guess they understood where I was coming from and liked that a little bit more than where they thought the character was coming from. I think it very much changed the movie.

All four of you Cutters went on to have long careers. Obviously, Dennis Quaid has had a big career, but you, Jackie Earle Haley and Daniel Stern all have continued working through the years. When you were making the film, did you get the feeling you were part of a pretty special cast?

I was star struck by Jackie Earle Haley. The first thing I had ever seen him was in...

... in The Bad News Bears?

No, the first movie I ever saw him in was The Day of the Locust. Go back and see that. Do you remember that film?

I do remember it, but I never saw it.

It's a major movie. [Director] John Schlesinger did an absolutely brilliant job. Karen Black was unbelievable in the film. The whole cast was amazing. There's a small part where there is a very domineering stage mother. She is determined to make her child into a star. The biggest star at that time [the film takes place in the 1930s] was Shirley Temple, so she decides to take her child and make another Shirley Temple, the only problem is that it's a little boy. She still makes him up like a little girl. It's a very young Jackie Earle Haley, giving an absolutely fabulous, complex, layered performance. It's just a flavor in the movie, but it's absolutely amazing. I saw that and I was like: "Wow! Who the hell is that kid? Jesus Christ." Then of course The Bad News Bears. I was hooked. So, when they told me that he was going to be in the movie, I was star struck. I couldn't wait to meet him. I was like, now this is a real movie actor. Still a young person, but he's been in real movies, not just bumming around in Europe.

The other person that I was very impressed with was Barbara Barrie. She had been nominated for an Academy Award before. She was one of the greats, I thought.

Paul Dooley I already knew because we were in A Wedding together. We played father and son in A Wedding. They were interested in Charles Durning for the part of the father. They were trying to schedule a table read of the script. Durning wasn't available to do the table read. Steve Tesich comes from the theater. Oftentimes the first day of rehearsal in a play you all sit around the table and read the script out loud, just so the director and writer can hear it in the voices of the people that are actually going to play the role, instead of just hearing the voices inside their head. They had scheduled this table read and didn't really sign Charles Durning yet. It was difficult. Was he available? Was he not? Was the money right? What's going on?

As you said, in those days, it was what would be considered an independent movie, even though it had 20th Century Fox executives behind it and Peter was an A-list director. They didn't know what to do. I said, "You need somebody to read the father? I just did a movie for Bob Altman with this man who played my father, Paul Dooley. He's a really terrific New York actor." They said, "Would he do the reading for us as a favor, knowing that he's not going to play the part?" I asked, "Will you pay him?" I don't think anybody had ever said that before. (laughs) We're New York people. We don't give it away. They said, "Oh, for the reading? Well, umm... Well, yeah, yeah, I guess we will, but he'll understand that he's not playing the part, right?" I said, "You say that to him, and he will hear you. He'll get a day's work out of it." He came in and read it. There was nobody in the room that wasn't gob smacked by his performance. There was no question of the fact that he was going to play the father from that moment on. I don't think they ever even called Charles Durning back.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie was the scene where you and Paul are walking on the Indiana campus and he’s telling you about when he cut the limestone on campus. You and Paul have played father and son a few times now – he also did it on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Yeah, and then [another time] I played a character that thought he was Jesus, and he was a priest. So he was a father again. Our paths keep crossing, very happily.

Do you almost think of him as something of a second dad now?

It's funny, yeah, you could almost say that. He had a relationship with his father very much like Dave, the character in Breaking Away, had with his dad. We both connected on that level – growing up with a father that was possibly a little bit more abusive than the father in the movie. He was just verbally putting down his son. I think we both grew up in households where you never spoke unless spoken to and if you were any kind of an individual, you got squashed down immediately. So he had a lot to draw on and so did I. We knew that we had that connection with each other. I think we played it for all it was worth.

Right after Breaking Away it looked like you could do anything, and you took on a totally different kind of role in Fade to Black. I remember really liking the movie at the time though I haven't seen it in years. Was the fact that the role was so different for you what attracted you to it?

There's also another truth to the matter. Right after Breaking Away opened to much fanfare, I was living in New York, and I broke my leg in several different places in a skiing accident. I was really messed up for a while. I was in some sort of cast for close to two years. I had a cast under my costume in Fade to Black. They came to me with an offer. I read the script. I was intrigued by the character, but I thought the script itself was rather flawed. I said no. They came back again and raised the money. I said no. And they came back again, and they raised the money and I said no. My agent said, "Now, wait a second. They are talking serious dough here and they want to put your name above the title. You need to make that jump from Breaking Away to this." I was still recuperating from this terrible skiing accident that I'd been in. The whole time I wasn't really concerned about the money. Me saying no was because I felt that the script was not fully realized.

[But] I couldn't get this character out of my mind. Then I realized I would never get a chance to play this kind of character again, this guy that recreates all these screen legends and iconic movie scenes in his own life. I just wanted it to be done with some class and intelligence. Not be just a regular slasher movie. I wasn't really interested in doing a horror movie after Breaking Away. I had done my horror movies before Breaking Away. I met with the director/writer Vernon Zimmerman. I said, "These are the greatest scenes in this movie, with the worst possible dialogue in the world. How could you create these fantastic scenes and have it written so poorly?" It was a combination of great writing and not good writing. "Did you have to rewrite this script a million times by committee? How long have you been shopping this around?" He said, "Quite a while, and yeah, I've had to take notes from everybody that ever wanted to put money in the movie."

Therefore, what resulted was a real disjointed script with a lot of other people's input, even though Vernon's original instincts and his original ideas were really great. I said, "if you want to work collaboratively on this particular project, I'll look at it again and we should seriously talk, with pencil to paper in front of ourselves." We got on like a house on fire and agreed on so many things. It turned out that I really liked what he originally wanted to do with the script. At that point, it was just a fight to keep it something that was more of a psychological thriller than a slasher movie. [The character] having justifications, albeit mentally impaired justifications, why he got involved in all this violence. I wanted to show what was underneath. This was a human being caught inside of this illness, rather than just, "Oh, it's Tuesday, I think I'll become a slasher." Become a murderer for no apparent reason, like Chucky and Friday the 13th and stuff. We only got to [those characters'] back stories with many of the subsequent sequels.

I thought Eric Binford could be a legendary one of those anti-heroes. Then I met Linda Kerridge, who plays Marilyn O'Connor in the movie, and I couldn't resist. She was just such a lovely actress and just a great, great girl. I really wanted to work with her. It did everything that needed to be done for my career on the business side of it at that point. It seemed like a good bet. The fact that it was more warmly received in Europe than it was here was a shame. I also loved our producer. We had Irwin Yablans as our producer. He was a great guy. I loved working with him.

Speaking of horror, you were in one of my favorite miniseries ever, Stephen King’s It.

Oh, I thought you were going to say The Lost Room. But that was more sci-fi, I guess.

Have you been able to look at a clown in the same way since?

(laughs) Yes, but only because the man underneath it was Tim Curry. He's the sweetest person in the world. If he can somehow make us accept monstrous transsexuals (laughs again) in Rocky Horror, of course he made us love this murderous clown that he was.

It had a pretty strong TV cast as well, and other than you and Richard Thomas, a lot of them came out of the comedy world. What was it like to work with all of them?

Well, the fact of the matter is that John Ritter was an absolutely great actor. He just was. If there is anybody that doubts that he was more than a brilliant comedian, have them look at Sling Blade. Have them look at some of the independent films that he did later on in his career. He was just an all-around fantastic actor. We only thought comedy when we looked at him because he was so brilliant in a not-very-brilliant series. In my mind, actor to actor, John had all the goods. He was as great as any actor that I ever worked with, and I got to work with some really great ones.

Harry Anderson, he loves movies so much. He's also a wonderful writer. Very, very serious about that. Then you've got Annette O'Toole, who was one of the great leading ladies of her particular period. The most beautiful girl that you ever saw in your life. So it wasn't as dominated by comics as you'd think, just because of Harry and John. Everybody else was pretty much not known for their comedy.

Well Tim did a couple of sitcoms.

Oh, but that was later.

Well, no, Tim Reid had done WKRP in Cincinnati and Sister Sister...

Tim Reid? Oh, I thought you meant Tim Curry.

Oh, no, I'm sorry, Tim Reid.

Yeah. Well, Tim Reid is also a very serious chap, because he's a producer. He was a very successful producer in Hollywood. But I know what you mean about the comedic actors. There have been these trends that Hollywood goes through. Sometimes it's because the script is weak – which wasn't the case with It. They will hire a standup comedian, somebody who is well-versed in improvisation because they need the holes to be plugged of their script. They know that anybody that has experience doing improv or stand-up will be able to plug the holes of a faulty script. I think the studios have gone through that period.

Still, to a large extent that's what we see on sitcoms. Every night when I'm cooking dinner, I watch Roseanne on Hulu. It's amazing the amount of serious, brilliant actors that show and that woman employed over the run of that sitcom. From John Goodman to Laurie Metcalfe to Estelle Parsons, you name it. There were more Academy nominated people in that sitcom, I think, than in any of them. They didn't go that route. They had their standup comedian. They had Roseanne. Then, as she always said, she wanted to become a film actress, so they hired film actors to surround her. Nowadays you hire a standup and that's what you do. Build a character around the standup comedian. I think the money people feel a little bit more comfortable when people have comedy chops, because it's always good to have laughs in it, whether it's a serious piece or not.

How did you learn that Quentin Tarantino wanted you to work on Django Unchained?

I got the script. He sent the script to my agent. When I pulled it out of the envelope, I practically fainted. Written across the title page in his handwriting is "Django Unchained written and directed by Quentin Tarantino" scrawled across the front of it. It looked like a book report. I went oh my God! I read it and called my agent back and said, "I'm clearly too old to be playing this character." He said in the script that Leonide Moguy and Calvin Candie, who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, are the same age. We're supposed to have grown up together.

Does Quentin forget that it's been almost 35 years since Breaking Away? (laughs) We did that back in 1979. I have not stayed the same. I've not been sleeping in a hyperbolic chamber. (laughs again) I'm steroid free. It's just me and I've aged. I'm not Leo DiCaprio's age anymore. I got a message back saying don't worry, he's rewritten with me in mind.

How gratifying is that for you as an actor?

It was pretty gratifying. I went in to meet him, not knowing what to expect. We spoke for three hours nonstop. I was not intimidated by his genius, but that's to his credit. Usually when I meet somebody like that I can be thrown into respectful silence and just listen. Drink in everything I can. But Quentin is incredibly engaging. He likes a two-way conversation. I knew this was my audition of sorts, speaking with him, so I jumped in with both feet.

I had done a hell of a lot of research on the south at the time. Also, the character. One of the secrets to Quentin is that he names everything in his movie, even the horses that people ride. Everything is named. Even if it's just a name that is referenced, a character that never appears, it means something to Quentin. Every frame that goes through that camera means something to Quentin. He doesn't waste a frame of it, whether you get it or not. It not only serves the purpose of the script that he wrote, but there is also usually an homage in there as well. From some of the more obvious things that people point out to some obscure things that you'll just never know. Right down to the names on the wanted posters hanging up on the wall. Each one of those is hand-done by Quentin, thought out, planned.

The first thing I did was Google my character's name and found out that he was a Russian filmmaker that had made three pictures in America and had discovered Ava Gardner. I was able to say, "Leonide Moguy, eh? You liked him, huh?" I rented and watched his movies, and we were able to discuss that. He was pretty impressed that I went that far. I even went deeper into the Google on Leonide Moguy and found out stuff that Quentin didn't know. It was a very stimulating afternoon. If I had never gotten the part, I would still rank it as one of the high points of being involved in film.

He started out the conversation by saying, "I have seen every movie you've ever made the week that it opened." I was like: What? Who does that? My family doesn't. My agent doesn't. Sometimes I don't even do that. I guess he likes me. He said, "Oh, yeah, you've been on my radar for quite a while now." I just thought, fuck! It's every actor's dream to know that someone is watching.

How weird was it to be suddenly doing scenes with all this A-level Hollywood talent like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz?

It was great. It was a level of professionalism, also a level of respect. There was also a great deal of fun when we weren't shooting. Everybody knew they were doing something special. Quentin is quite a fantastic ringleader. He is a real maestro the way he works on the set. He laughs all the time, but he's also incredibly focused. He gets what he wants and then some. The only regret that I have is that the movie is not even longer, because the first cut came in at five hours. That's the script that he wrote that version. I could use more of it. Lonesome Dove was five hours, but it was a miniseries. Even though Harvey [Weinstein, the executive producer] was talking about splitting Django in two, Quentin was pretty adamant about the fact that the journey that Django was on had to be completed in one film. You couldn't wait six months until the plantation part of the movie came out. You had to see the entire journey of this character from tortured slave to this superman by the end of the movie. It had to be achieved in one sitting. There is a lot of the picture that is not in there. A lot of the supporting cast, our stuff fell by the wayside to concentrate on the main stories. It's not that they're not written and were not filmed, because they were written beautifully, and they were filmed amazingly. We can all hope that someday...

Maybe the director's cut will come out.

That would be absolutely amazing to be able to see the script that he wrote in its entirety. He took great care with every second of this film and covered it absolutely beautifully. It's a rare experience to be able to work with a genius who is not compromised whatsoever. Because of the success of his movies and his own ability of writing such amazing things, his friend Harvey Weinstein gave him all the freedom that he needed. Compromise is a big word in Hollywood. Quentin didn't have to on any aspect of Django Unchained. For an actor to be working with someone like that is a very rare, very special experience. I'll forever be grateful to him for hiring me. And I'm forever grateful to the universe for giving me this opportunity.

Do you have any Oscar parties planned in which you will be rooting for Django?

Oh, yes. All sorts of stuff going on. I'll let you know after it happens. It's the frosting on the cake, but it's a particularly delicious frosting, I must say.

What do you have coming next?

There is a script that I just finished reading the other day. I don't really like to talk about things in the future.

I understand.

They're not set. I've never given up my theater interest. You were talking about what's it like working with these huge stars. I spent a year on stage with Elizabeth Taylor in Little Foxes. Some of the people I worked with under Robert Altman's auspices were great. I worked with the mother of cinema, Lillian Gish. It may be one of the reasons why [Tarantino] chose me. I don't know. But as far as being shy or intimidated by the incredible talent that I was able sit around the table with, it felt right, you know what I mean? We were all up for the challenge and all up for the task. The scene in the dining room, we were in there for at least two weeks.

That must have been pretty chaotic to film.

It wasn't chaotic. It was intense. Because Bob Richardson, our DP, is another genius. And the fact that we're working on film. We're not working digital and we're only doing one camera at a time. I don't know if you know this about Quentin, it has to be happening or he doesn't film it. There is no CGI [computer generated effects] in this movie. Do you know there's not one ADR [dubbed] line in this movie?

I didn't know that.

That's the genius of our sound guy, Mark Ulano, who was nominated for sound by BAFTA. That's how highly they think of him. He does all of Quentin's movies. I kept waiting, when are we going in to the room to do some ADR? Next thing I know, they say, "You're invited to the screening." I go, "I haven't done any ADR." I go to the screening and the sound was perfect. Quentin doesn't like ADR. He doesn't like CGI. It has to be happening.

When you get shot in a Tarantino movie, you're kind of getting shot. (laughs) It's nothing that he puts in later. He wants it to be happening in front of him and then he films it. It all has to look real. It all has to be happening. The little cards that had our names on them that he would give people, that has to be the real signature. The slave papers when the transaction was going down, where Calvin Candie was selling Broomhilda [Kerry Washington], those papers, they are all written out by the characters involved. Quentin is a stickler for that. (chuckles) It's kind of amazing.

You know what the secret is? If he wasn't so in love with film, he'd be a fantastic theater director. He would yell "Action" and we'd go to a scene from top to bottom and never stop. We did it every time, for every person, for every close up. Not only the master, but for the coverage, too. I don't know if he realizes it or not, but he'd be a fantastic theater director.

Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved. Posted: February 6, 2013.

Photo Credit © 2013. Courtesy of The Weinstein Group. All rights reserved.


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