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E-MAIL THE AUTHOR | ARCHIVES By Christopher Stipp

November 4, 2005

PRECONCEPTION

T.M. McNally.

I had Professor McNally for a professor two classes in my graduate studies. He taught me to look at a subject with honesty, that there is no such thing as a symbol unless you can throw it through a window, how to write a novel in 8 easy steps but, most of all, he instilled in me the idea that you shouldn’t pander to an audience’s expectations but that it’s more important to be skilled and to enjoy the work even if no one else reads what you do; the world is better for your having written it.

When I was rushing out of a supermarket mere days before my interview with Robert Patrick, the man who shapes Johnny Cash’s world as he plays his father in WALK THE LINE, I ran into Prof. McNally after not seeing him, easy, for a couple of years. The encounter had everything to do in energizing the time I spent with Robert.

It was my complete respect for the teacher who I still would listen to as if a grade depended on it that I realized my place in being a writer is to observe the world through the shared experiences of others. Being mindful that it doesn’t matter who comes after me, whoever talks to Robert after me, having the ability to get close to him as a subject, knowing it a well as I could and acquiring the kinds of insights which have never come out before was what I intended to do with the time I was given.

Getting ready for the interview meant preparing and even before this interview was to begin I was already having ptoblems. It was damn near impossible to get any information on Robert. His own site Robert Patrick.com had only cursory interviews which really, if anything else, didn’t really inform who Robert was as an actor. Here’s a man who has worked for titans of film and television, if we really want to be honest, yet I wasn’t really given any insight into how this one man has made a career, a successful living, by flying just beneath the curves of popular culture.

As I walked alone into the darkened thoroughfares of the spindly Hotel Roosevelt on Hollywood Boulevard, slow and smoky techno music quietly providing an ambience that would’ve best been served with a small stiff drink and a cigarette for dangling, I sat down in a leather chair which threatened to consume me completely in all its largess and pondered. Thinking about what angle I was going to work, which is usually the result of what comes out of the research, I thought about not only my own admiration (read here: fanboy) for the man’s work but with there not a lot to go on with regard to his career I only managed to write out a couple of pages worth of questions to ask him. I was nervous, to be sure, as you never quite know how wiley a subject’s going to be. From everything I was able to read about Robert, that he was fairly low-key and enjoyed riding motorcycles, I started to formulate my own idea of Robert: A guy who would be at home in a small town bar, requistite with the one pool table in the corner with all the cigarette burns on the felt, drinking beer out of amber colored bottles and carrying on with whoever he has with to all hours of the night. He even seemed to me like a guy who wouldn’t shy away from a brawl if a push came to a shove and that he wouldn’t think first about his well-worn face but of who he would take out first.

I turned my head from my chair to see if the subject had arrived, checking my time to see that I was still a few minutes early, and that’s when I saw the crew-cut top peeking up and above a stately looking leather chair, scanning the five of us present in the vaulted ceiling space called a lobby and wondering who of us was Chris.

Walking up to him, introducing myself, looking at Robert in his jeans, black t-shirt and the inverted rainbow of chrome chain which was no doubt connected to a wallet which hung from his hip I wondered indeed if Robert would go toe-to-toe with a stranger. His grip, smile and the way he wiggled himself into the corner of his chair when we sat down told me there was no doubt this was one guy who had a story to tell and I was glad that right then I was there to hear it.


(Robert looks at the digital recording device on the arm rest of my chair and decides to crouch down to its level) TESTING. I’ll just lean like this.So, Elvis’ dad, Johnny Cash’s dad, lot of father figure acting going on…

Yeah, and what really broke me into that was playing Matt Damon’s dad in ALL THE PRETTY HORSES. I think that when I said “Yes” to that role it’s opened me up to play the dad of all these young, punk actors.

But, they’re great parts. I’m actually the right age for it. WALK THE LINE I play Ray Cash, Joaquin’s Johnny Cash, and I think they had me as young as…I was supposed to be as young as 37 and then I go all the way to 65. And with the aid of some nice age make-up, I also wear a fat suit, a middle-age fat pad. Vernon [Elvis’ father], of course, is totally thin and two guys, two totally different guys. The irony of the situation is I did WALK THE LINE in Memphis and, while I am in Memphis, of course, I had to make my pilgrimage to Graceland. And I guess we shot it last summer? A little over a year now and I didn’t know I was going to play Elvis’ dad. I was there playing Johnny’s dad and I was there soaking up as much research as I could, doing as much as I could to do the picture. I went to Graceland a couple of times to check it out, I’m a huge Elvis fan, I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan, the irony that I am playing the dad of both those guys, or I have, is not lost on me. Two totally different guys, the Elvis dad paid better, for those of you wondering what are your motives to play the father of two Southern rock stars.

It was really fascinating. My family came into Memphis and I drove them down to Tueplo, we saw where Elvis was born. It was weird…when we were doing WALK THE LINE unbeknownst to me I was doing a little research on Vernon. Vernon doted on Elvis, not as much as Gladys [Elvis’ mother], he much more of a dandy, good looking guy, pretty much after Gladys died he had another girlfriend but he was willing to be on Elvis’ payroll, really looked after the boy, really tried to the best he could for him and I would say, between Vernon and Ray Cash, Vernon would be the laziest. Ray Cash, Johnny’s daddy, really hard worker. Went off to World War I, came back, raised his kids, was a sharecropper, a cotton picker.

Like, Vernon bounced a check. Vernon went to jail for bouncing a check at one time, trying to make some money, wrote a bad check. Ray Cash would never do that. It was more of a, “I’m going to work hard to provide for everybody” kind of a guy. Now he was a tough, tough dude. And, obviously, Johnny was afraid of his daddy his whole life for whatever reason. The old man really struck fear in John. Or, J.R. as we called him, Johnny Cash was actually named J.R. he wasn’t named Johnny, he came up with that himself later but it’s neat to play those two guys because it’s part of a history, the 50’s and 60’s, both those guys came through Sun Records, both those guys came up through Memphis, both those guys brought the black sound of music, the blues, the soul, the gospel to their recordings, they were contemporaries of each other and, as I said, the dad’s couldn’t have been more different.

But, interestingly enough, both of the fathers, neither one of them really believed in the music.

They were much more pushing their kids to like…Like in Elvis’ case [Vernon] was pushing him to get him into Crown Electric, “Keep driving the truck for Crown Electric, get your benefits, da-da-da…” And with J.R. Cash it was, “That music, it’s nothin’. There’s nothing you can do with it. It’s not like where you pick cotton, you work all day. It’s nothin’. Don’t waste your time with it. You’re daydreaming.”

And the other thing that’s fascinating that both Johnny and Elvis lost brothers. So, both fathers dealt with the loss of a son. One was a stillborn baby, the twin of Elvis, and the other was a circular saw accident. J.R. lost his older brother who really was the favorite of the two to Ray Cash, most probably because he was the hardest worker and he could get more work out of him in a workday. Because you’ve got to remember, back in the 30’s, during the Great Depression, when people really were just fighting to survive, they didn’t have all the stuff we have now, really fighting day-in day-out trying to put food on the table. Ray Cash had seven kids and one of the main reasons was so that he could have more hands out there picking in the field. He had more kids to provide for but he had more workers. I’m so fascinated with that whole time period, I love the 50’s, I love the 60’s, and for a guy from Atlanta, Georgia to play Elvis’ daddy and now J.R. Cash’s daddy in the same 12-month period is, you know, really special to me. I really enjoyed it. Both totally different projects, one was a TV mini-series and the other is a real hardcore film, a real independent film, had a very independent feel, and, anyway, I went on about that for a very long time. It’s just a fascinating time to think about, and I’ll tell you a little thing, when Mangold asked me to do the part and even though I am from the South I just got into my car and I drove from LA to Dyess, Arkansas, and found the house where they lived.

I heard you stood on the porch…

There ain’t no porch there but I did stand in the front yard.

I did find Elvis’ birthplace. I went to his front porch in Tupelo. But to get to J.R’s place in Dyess, you’ve got to imagine you come flying out of L.A. and, God, as soon as you get out of L.A. you just start feeling L.A. stripping away from you. Now, you’re getting back in there and you cross that continental divide, you just feel America. It’s really amazing, especially if you spend your time flying over it. To really get down there and get in it…It did what I wanted it to do. Just got my psyche in the right place. It was so easy to find Johnny’s house. It’s a shack, it’s a fuckin’ shack. It’s falling apart, the old guy that lives there is this while old guy, I think his name is Brown, Willie Brown, something like that, I’ve got a picture of he and I, I gave him a cigar, we smoked a cigar, shootin’ the shit about Johnny, and when Johnny was here for the Christmas thing and how he carved his initials here but it’s unchanged except that it’s soy, it’s soy beans now that’s being grown on the fields besides cotton. But you know what was really neat was when I got there and I went, “God, this ground zero. This where a little boy named J.R. Cash started daydreaming about being a singer.” Listening to the Carter Family on the radio…that stuff just really fascinates me. I love that stuff.

Did you find that there was a darker side to Johnny Cash? I was doing some research where it said that Johnny’s dad was emotionally and physically abusive…

Yeah.

But Johnny came out, and there’s a quote where he says it, and said that, “My father was a man of love. He always loved me to death. He worked hard in the fields, but my father never hit me. Never. I don’t ever remember a really cross, unkind word from my father.” Why, then, is there a disconnect…

Yeah, why the two different…What I got is…and there’s some stuff I can’t say because I really don’t think Johnny Cash wants it said about his old man and I read that too. And then I read our script. And I knew our script had been approved by Johnny. And our script was developed when Johnny was alive and Stacey Keach had the project and James Mangold, they were all developing it and they ran everything through John and I DID get that. I read that in the autobiography but I really think that comes out of the fear Johnny has of his old man.

This is what I know of Ray Cash: he never laid a hand on his kids. He never laid a hand on his wife. But the threat was there. It could happen. And, evidently, he led them to believe it could happen. I could never find where Johnny had said his dad abused him or did anything to the mother or any of the other kids but he did stuff like…and you know what I’m not picking on Ray Cash because I am about to defend Ray Cash and I want to defend him right now. Those were hard time; hard fuckin’ times in America and this guy is trying to do the best he can. The way he raised his kids is what he felt was the right way to do it for the time, he was a hard man.

There was a dog that Johnny talked about and Ray Cash took it out into the field and killed it and he killed it because he didn’t have the money to pay for the food. He didn’t want to have to pay money for the scraps, the thing was bothering him and he went out and killed the dog. Now, Johnny never forgave him for that and he wasn’t supposed to find it but he found the dog and Ray Cash had done it. I called Johnny’s sister and I asked about…I asked her what she thought about it. I said, “This is pretty intense stuff and it really seems to me like jealousy.” And she said that Ray Cash could sing. He actually had a pretty good voice and the same was true of Vernon, he actually sang too, and I wondered if there was a little bit of jealousy over the boy, the fact that he figured out a way to make a living at it.

His sister told me, and she was pretty proud of Ray, the things you hear is that Ray always provided. If he couldn’t do it picking cotton he’d jump on a box car and go ride the train somewhere, come back with some money somehow. He was always putting it together. You couldn’t accuse Ray Cash of being lazy. Emotionally distant? Yeah, very much so.

I think he thought Johnny was full of shit to a certain degree. No matter what Johnny did…like, “Your house isn’t big enough.” Like, “What do think of my house, Daddy?” “Well, it’s not as big as Jack Benny’s. You think you’re hot shit, kid.” There was a lot of that. There was a lot of that pulling him down, not letting him have it, not giving it to him, not saying, “Hey, I’m proud of you.” There’s none of that. There’s none of that stuff going on.

Really?

Seriously, that’s in his autobiography. He’s always afraid that, “I’m afraid to say anything about my daddy because I might run into him in the afterlife.”

Ray had a drinking problem but he gets it under grip, Ray Cash gets it under control. So, when Johnny had a problem…and another thing, I think he was always busting Johnny on the fact that Johnny seemed to work real hard at trying to make people believe that he went to jail, was in prison. This is what I heard, I think I say it in the movie, I can’t remember, it’s been so long since I shot it, I think it’s something like when Johnny gets arrested for barbiturates in Mexico [Ray] says something like, “Well now you ain’t going to have to work so hard to make people believe you’ve been in prison.” It’s that kind of thing. I think that as you look…Reese’s character talks in the movie like, “Yeah, you just happened to wear black.” Like, “You didn’t think, ‘I’ll wear black.’ You just sort of happened to do it. You just happened to do this and you have to do this.” Like, there isn’t ever any intentional preconceived kind of contrived, “This is the image I want to put out there.” Everything just sort of happens. Well, I think his old man kind of saw, “You’re really trying to project yourself as being a badass but you ain’t that tough.” So, there’s that kind of thing I always though there was definitely some jealousy.

Now, whereas Vernon, I don’t mean to be talking about these two, because, to be honest with you, the mini-series was a mini-series and I feel that WALK THE LINE is on a whole other level. But, Vernon was much more willing to participate and enjoy the fruits of Elvis’ labor with him. Whereas I don’t think that Ray Cash, even though Johnny bought him like a trailer park, something like that, he managed that or something like it, I think that Ray had a hard time accepting anything from Johnny.

[Johnny] says something interesting in his autobiography when he says, “I buried my old man and I haven’t been back there to see it. I haven’t been back to his grave once.” Some real, hard, tough fuckin’ love.

How did you bring all of this to your performance?

It’s cold. It’s still…

It bothers you? You’ve got two kids of your own…

Yeah, I’ve got two real kids. I have to watch it with my kids. It’s interesting. I’ve got a little boy that’s 5. I’m big. He’s little. And you can scare the shit of him if you want to, you know?

(Pauses)

And I see now from a kid’s point of view…I have to remind myself to get down on my knees and get at his level and not frighten him, do you know what I mean?

I have a little girl that’s 2 and she’s now starting that phase in her life when she’s fighting back and I see that happening.

You just…You know you just don’t realize you have to think back to what it was like to be a kid and look up at this giant man, 6 foot tall, 200 pounds, what that must look like to a kid. You’re like Darth fucking Vader. And you’ve got to get down on that level if you want to have a relationship with them.

See, I don’t think…going back to these guys, I don’t think Ray Cash and those guys, definitely Ray, I don’t know about Vernon, but Ray didn’t have time for this. It was about, “We’ve got fields to pick, we’ve got hogs to slaughter, we’ve got stuff that we’ve got to do. And I’m expecting you kids to get your asses out there tomorrow and pick cotton from sun up to sun down.” And they were out there when they were like 3, you know? So, you know, I couldn’t do that to my kid, you know what I mean?

My kids, I spoil them. I’m all about loves and hugs and really expressing it that way. It just made me appreciate the relationship I have with my children. Hopefully they’ll appreciate it too. I’m much more participatory I think than…one of the neat things about being an actor is that I got a lot of free time on my hands, sometimes. Sometimes. So, there’s a month or two when I can spend some time, I can take them to school, I can be around, let them get used to me, take my son to t-ball. Even when I’m coaching him in t-ball I’ve got to be careful, you know? I’ll turn out like Vic Morrow from BAD NEWS BEARS. You’ve got to back pedal it a bit. But, yeah, I’ve got an 8 ½ year old and a 5 year old. They’re the best. They’re the best. You’ve got a 2 year old so you know. Terrible 2’s!

We just stuck her in her own bed and now she’s crying every night, begging to get out of her room, just begging…

You know it’s actually…it’s actually really good. They are looking for you to define their world for them and let them know and you have to participate and you have to tell them, “No.” And, as much as you want to give into it, it’s better for them, they’re going to be better off knowing the difference between yes and no and not always getting their way. It’s loving them much better than it is than just totally relenting and letting them…I see, especially in L.A., kids raised entirely by nannies and….you’re creating a monster. You’ve got to get in there, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get dirty a little bit and let these kids know, “This is right, this is wrong, this is acceptable, this is not.” I wish they give you a handbook when you’re a parent and who knows but it actually shows more love, really getting in there and really explaining things to them.

You like that responsibility of fatherhood?

Love it.

Yeah, it’s cool.

I have friends who have kids and don’t want the responsibility of them. Some have said that, “Before I had kids I didn’t think I wanted them and now that I do have one I realize I really didn’t want them.”

Oh really? That hurts. That hurts. I love my kids. My kids are the greatest things that I will ever produce. I love the responsibility that’s been bestowed upon me. I just love the fact that it just gives me one more reason to go out there and work harder. One more reason to go out there and try harder. It gives me another reason to go out there and be a better person.

It’s funny, you’re doing something and you’re kinda going, “I want them to be proud of me.” I don’t want them to cringe when someone brings up their old man. I want them to be proud of their dad. So, that’s an added benefit I think you get.

I’ve been with my wife now for 21 years…

Congratulations…

Yeah…we actually had our wedding reception here at the Roosevelt, way back when it was uncool. It was totally uncool. The only thing cool about the Roosevelt at the time was that it had the big Hockney pool painted out there.

Oh really?

Which is still there. Thank God they didn’t cover that up.

Man, I don’t know…something about the way I was raised…I come from sort a blue-collar upper-middle class…my father was blue-collar, made it to middle-class and by the time I left he was upper-middle class. There’s something about the values, you know, maybe Atlanta, the Midwest, movin’ around all over, I’m just really into fatherhood and institutions like marriage really mean a lot to me. So does religion, you know?

And that’s another thing that’s really interesting with J.R. is that, talking about Johnny, and the fact that when he goes way off, when he’s really killing himself that he can’t have June Carter, when she finally gets him back into Christianity he changes his life forever. Here you’ve got this man who really understands darkness and yet is a born-again Christian. It’s fantastic. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

What made him so cool like to go to a prison? That’s a great idea, “Let’s go record a record in a prison! ‘Cause, God knows, they need it.” They’re going to be a receptive audience.

I really miss Johnny Cash. I don’t know how I got back to that other than…you know…I was thinking that I miss the fact that he’s gone. I always liked knowing he was alive. I don’t how else to say it other than that. He’s really the kind of guy…you just miss the fact that he’s not around. Does that make sense?

Did he represent something to you?

Yeah, he really did. I remember when that record came out, even before that, hearing Johnny Cash. The voice was scary. He was a dangerous man. He was a dangerous guy. I always thought he WAS in prison. That goes back to when I was 5, 6, 7, 8 years-old whenever I first remember consciously hearing Johnny Cash.

Anyway, I digress.

(Leans into the microphone)

HOW ARE WE DOIN’?

That’s high quality. Is it recording?

Yeah.

I hope so…

Oh, shit, I hope it is. It happened one time that…

(Robert laughs)

Did it really?

Yeah, many months ago, I ran out of space. I had a half-hour interview and it stopped at 13 minutes. I had no idea. It’s alright though, I recovered from that…

You can remember everything…

Didn’t remember everything but I embellished quite nicely.

(Robert laughs)

Come back to this space next Friday for Part 2 of my discussion with Robert as we chat about his past, present and future within the Hollywood system.


SLITHER (2006) Director: James Gunn
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnie
Release: March 31, 2005
Synopsis: The sleepy town of Wheelsy could be any small town in America – somewhat quaint and gentle, peopled with friendly folks who mind their own business. But just beneath the surface charm, something unnamed and evil has arrived…and is growing. No one seems to notice as telephone poles become clogged with missing pet flyers, or when one of the town’s richest citizens, Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), begins to act strangely. But when farmers’ livestock turn up horribly mutilated and a young women goes missing, Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) and his team, aided by Grant’s wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks), uncover the dark force laying siege to their town… and come face-to-face with an older-than-time organism intent on absorbing and devouring all life on Earth.
View Trailer:
* Medium (QuickTime)

Prognosis: Oh, I get it…Der!… This is an interesting way to start a trailer.

Instead of coming out of the gate with original content we begin by rolling a series of “spooky” movies which have come out before this one with accompanying dates for those keeping score in which decade they came out. I’m not sure this is such a splendid idea considering that it feels like you’re trying to co-opt the success of others before this one establishes itself worthy enough to stand side-by-side. The more I dwelled on the opening the more I wondered why you would even allow all these other flicks to be commingled with the original “vision of horror” this film most certainly apes, wants, to be.

“They…were…all…sissies…”

I get it. They were goofing on all of them? The Ratt-esque A-chord guitar stylings in the background just say it all as the horror unfolds right before our collective consciousness. You’ve got what looks like maggots with ‘roid issues slithering, how creative, their way across the lawn of some unsuspecting suburban homeowner. Cut quickly to some telemarketer sitting at her desk, unaware, then fully cognizant of the shower of these mealy little maggotoids as she shrilly lets out a howl in terror. You’ve got the requisite woman, who’s alone of course, slowly walking down her basement steps and is jolted to find an aberration, created by these little things, as she too lets out her own howl.

I will admit that I was a little ornery when this thing started. I didn’t quite understand that this movie seems to be a blend of horror and comedy. The music is goofier than fuck, you’ve got my main man Stan, Michael Rooker, who really should consider doing some kind of project with Clint Howard, and even the likes of Nathan “Mr. Browncoat” Fillion and IT girl Elizabeth Banks are weirdly cast in this thing. The whole project is a hodgepodge of talent, schlock (in a good way), B-movie style and that kind of irreverence which made me a huge fan of GHOULIES and most every flick put out by Troma pictures in the mid 80’s which my mother would’ve tanned me for had she known I was such an avid consumer of them.

The effects are sticky green as we see the decimation of these little slithering things and even the freak outs, like that of Elizabeth, which make horror flicks so great to watch. I have to assume that because of what’s being shown, and the guy who is behind the lens, that this is some kind of macabre mixture of old fashioned spookiness and an over-the-top delivery which no major studio today would bank their dollars on.

I have to give it up to this trailer, though, because, like I said in the beginning, I thought the opening sequence was a little presumptuous but as you roll through this thing you see the strengths of the movie’s director/writer as clear as anything else. This kind of movie splits people into those camps we all know is so easy to put a label on, Like It or Hate It, but it works in this film’s favor because, and this is not knowing what kind of budget this was made from, as long as it does marginally well at the box office it should reap many dollars in the home movie market as this looks like a cheap thrill. It’s great to see Universal throwing this thing a few bucks as flicks like this are much needed in an age when every film, it seems, nowadays is trying to be “Oscar” worthy.

In an age when bigger and flashier is better, nothing beats the chick at the end of this trailer who is the twice the size of Violet in WILLY WONKA before they have to squeeze her; she’s not quite the gargantuan proportions of a Bob McKenzie in STRANGE BREW after he drank all that beer but it’s close.

Don’t miss taking a peek at this trailer. It’ll be the schlockiest thing you’ll see today.

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