A chat with Barry Pepper, Barry Pepper interview, Casino Jack, True Grit, Flags of Our Fathers
Damian Kulash

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For a guy who’s spent most of his 15 years as a film actor in supporting roles, Barry Pepper doesn’t really have that many credits to his name…less than two dozen, if you can trust IMDb…but he’s got some real doozies in there, including two with Tom Hanks (“Saving Private Ryan” and “The Green Mile”), two with Will Smith (“Enemy of the State” and “Seven Pounds”), and efforts which found him directed by Spike Lee (“The 25th Hour”) and Clint Eastwood (“Flags of our Fathers”). Even now, he’s continuing to rack up his accomplishments: when Bullz-Eye spoke with him about his work in “Casino Jack,” where he and Kevin Spacey take on the Abramoff scandal, he had only just attended the premiere of his other new film, the Coen brothers’ take on “True Grit.”

Barry Pepper: Hi, Will!

 Bullz-Eye: Hey, Barry, how’s it going?

BP: I’m doing great! You?

BE: I’m doing well! Well, I know we’re talking about “Casino Jack,” but I’ve got to start by saying that I saw “True Grit” on Tuesday night, and you were fantastic.

BP: Oh, great! Yeah, I saw it just the other night here – we had our premiere at the Ziegfield – and it was extraordinary. I really, really enjoyed it. I don’t normally like to see films that I’m in. I kind of shelter myself. If I have to sit through the screening, I’ll be looking through my fingers, covering my eyes. But this one I was so excited, because I was only with the production for about two weeks in Santa Fe. I went in, shot my chapter of the film, and flew out. So I was so excited to see what everyone else had done, and, man, I was so pleased with it.

BE: Oh, yeah, it was fantastic. I took my father, because he’s a fan of John Wayne from way back, and he said, “I think that was better than the original, because in the original, you were just watching John Wayne be John Wayne.”

BP: That’s right! I agree, although he was comedic and vulnerable at moments. But I think he was far more understated and vulnerable as J.B. Books in “The Shootist.”

BE: Absolutely. That’s my favorite (Wayne performance), too.

"('Casino Jack') is absolutely stranger than fiction. That’s the thing about a story like this: you just don’t expect it to be as comedic and lurid and bizarre of an odyssey as it is. Your great concern going in is that it will be your typical dry Washington insiders story, and yet it’s highly entertaining stuff. At the same time, it’s repulsive in terms of what it reveals, in that it reveals what it’s intrinsically wrong with our democracy today, but it’s a very entertaining, comedic film."

BP: Yeah, but I think even… (Hesitates) I can’t remember the name of the producer of the Henry Hathaway film in ’69, but he was on record as saying that it was widely recognized that that was an honorary Oscar that (Wayne) was awarded for, y’know, just 40 years of work as a beloved film star. But, yeah, the Coens’ version…I don’t know if most people know or not – though I think we’ve made an effort to say it – that it’s a faithful adaptation…like, a beat for beat adaptation…of Charles Portis’s novel. Really, that was the source material of their film. The ’69 version never actually came up in conversation, so much so that I had never seen it. I had no idea that Robert Duvall had played Lucky Ned Pepper originally, and I felt like a bit of a jackass when I found out, but I was really pleased in hindsight that I’d been able to create my own version of the character based on the novel and not be influenced. Because I’m such an admirer of Bob’s that I probably would’ve been hard pressed not to be influenced. But anyway…

BE: Yes, on to “Casino Jack.” I was fortunate enough to be able to see it last month at the Virginia Film Festival, and I’m curious how much knowledge you had about the Abramoff scandal beforehand and if you had the chance to the real Michael Scanlon, who you play in the film.

BP: Well, no, I didn’t have the opportunity to meet with him. He, at that time, had kind of removed himself from Washington and was actively cooperating with the investigation. I think he still is. But I did have the opportunity to speak with several of his co-workers and friends and colleagues that worked very intimately with him through that period, and that was really informative for me in developing the character. I mean, of course, there’s a mountain of books that we read. Heist, in particular, was fascinating. But there’s also just an incredibly deep paper trail of E-mails that were sent back and forth between Jack and Mike, and much of it informed the script. Much of the dialogue is verbatim from those E-mails, the way they spoke and their particular lexicon… (Laughs) …or however you’d describe it. But, no, that was unfortunate. I would’ve liked to have spoken to him, although…I don’t ever judge a character I play going in. It’s just my job to humanize them, regardless of their moral ambiguity…and also regardless of my political sensibility, even though that’s what attracted me to the project. I was politically…my views were in alignment with the filmmakers. But irregardless of the character I’m portraying, I don’t see them as a villain and don’t judge them, because clearly he wasn’t accessing that compartment of his brain. (Laughs) He wasn’t judging himself. So I think sometimes it’s a blessing and a curse to speak to the person directly, ‘cause they may not have yet been able to distance themselves from their involvement. But speaking to the people who were closest to him was very revealing, and, of course, you get together with George Hickenlooper and Kevin Spacey, and you start putting… (Hesitates) Sorry, Commander Kevin Spacey, as we have to call him now. He was honorarily knighted by Princes Charles. Did you know that?

BE: (Laughs) I did not!

Aidan QuinnBP: Yeah, he’s got the title of CBE before his name now, for all the work he’s done at the Old Vic. But, yeah, then you get together with them, and you start putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, and you start sharing all the different research that you’ve done. “Well, I spoke to so-and-so, and I read this book…” What was most fascinating was that Kevin had the opportunity to sit down with Jack in prison, and it really, really revealed a lot of things that became the backbone of our relationship as characters in the film. One of them was that Jack said that he didn’t hold any animosity toward Mike, even though, y’know, they couldn’t get to the FBI fast enough to inform on each other. Even though Mike had got there before Jack could, he said that they would still be friends. I think that both Mike and Jack viewed this scandal the same way that we did, that they certainly did some very corrupt things, certainly were fueled by an unbridled avarice, and really flourished under this environment that was created by the Republicans when they took control of Congress in ’94, just this bordello of big money. They just became these heroes to the Right, bringing in millions and millions and millions of dollars to the Republican campaign coffers, but they were certainly just, y’know, two of many and really became Washington fall guys, to make it look like things had been cleaned up in the lobbying industry…and they certainly haven’t. I think that, in the final analysis, they would both be pleased with what the film reveals, in that nothing has changed in Washington. In fact, our democracy is slowly drowning under a tsunami of corporate campaign financing. Everyone that was involved in this massive scandal just completely inoculated themselves from Jack and Mike and denied knowing them and were really…I guess because they were so high up the bureaucratic ladder, they were insulated from any of the fallout. They were somewhat easier to humanize, in that sense.

BE: Well, I was impressed with the way that George Hickenlooper managed to underline the seriousness of the scandal while at the same time acknowledging the absurdity of it.

BP: Yeah, it’s absolutely stranger than fiction. That’s the thing about a story like this: you just don’t expect it to be as comedic and lurid and bizarre of an odyssey as it is. Your great concern going in is that it will be your typical dry Washington insiders story, and yet it’s highly entertaining stuff. At the same time, it’s repulsive in terms of what it reveals, in that it reveals what it’s intrinsically wrong with our democracy today, but it’s a very entertaining, comedic film.

BE: What would you say is your favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

"I just finished working with Terrence Malick, and, of course, he has so much respect in our industry, so much so that actors will come to the table with nothing, waiving their entire fees to work with him. And what that does is allow him to control the final edit and really make the films that he cares deeply about…as opposed to having to explain his vision to a freshly-hired studio head!"

BP: Oh, boy! You know, I was really, really surprised by two films that I was involved in that I really loved. One was “The 25th Hour,” that Spike Lee directed, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton. I thought it was a very good film and just didn’t seem to get the release that it deserved. The other one, which came out of the gates at Cannes and won several awards, one for Tommy Lee Jones and one for Guillermo Arriage, was “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” It just sort of faded, but I thought it was also a very good film. It’s difficult to say why these things happen the way they do, whether it’s just mismanagement or audiences just don’t respond. I don’t know what the case is. But I thought those were two very special experiences for me, anyway. There’s another one that I co-produced in Canada called “The Snow Walker.” It’s one of those things that…well, you know, it was a typical small-budget independent film, but it was really arduous to make. We’re up in the arctic working with the Inuit, and it’s a period piece, and you’ve got no money, and you’re freezing your ass off… I remember having to get my makeup done on the tailgate of a pickup! (Laughs) That kind of guerilla-style filmmaking. But they’re such rewarding experiences. I just finished working with Terrence Malick, and, of course, he has so much respect in our industry, so much so that actors will come to the table with nothing, waiving their entire fees to work with him. And what that does is allow him to control the final edit and really make the films that he cares deeply about…as opposed to having to explain his vision to a freshly-hired studio head!(Laughs) So, yeah, those experiences are extraordinary.

BE: Not that he hadn’t been around the block a few times as an actor, but what was it like working with Tommy Lee Jones on his first film as a director?

Aidan QuinnBP: Well, actually, it was his second. I think he directed “Good Old Boys.” I believe Matt Damon was in that. But, anyway, that was an HBO movie, I think. (Writer’s note: Actually, it was made for TNT, and many others have made the same mistake that I did, but that didn’t stop Sony Classics from utilizing Clay Smith’s rave review on the DVD box for “Three Burials.” Although Smith refers to Jones as a first-time director, Sony parenthetically added “feature film” between the words “first-time” and “director.” Nice play.) But I wish that he would direct more. He’s just extraordinarily talented. It was a difficult film. It was very taxing physically and emotionally. But I had a fantastic time working with him. But, you know, when I say “taxing physically and emotionally,” that’s probably my own doing. I like to dig pretty deep into the characters…and stay there. (Laughs) So that’s probably nobody’s fault but my own. It probably could’ve been far more enjoyable.

BE: Lastly, since I know we’re up against the wall, I understand that you’ve been working on The History Channel’s upcoming dramatic miniseries, “The Kennedys.”

BP: Yeah, I finished that…last summer, I guess! But, yeah, that was a massive project. It was…like shooting four feature films in the course of three months.

BE: Wow.

BP: We had a 500-page script, and we had, like, three and a half months to shoot it in, so it was a massive task, but I really walked away feeling like we had been a part of something special and hadn’t compromised ourselves in terms of artistry or authenticity. The History Channel seems really, really pleased with it. It’s just an unlimited amount of research that you do for a project like that. I don’t think the research ever stopped for the five months I was involved in it, A month before production and through the four months that I was in Toronto. So, yeah, for five solid months, I was just reading every book on the Kennedys, every interview, every speech, everything you can get your hands on, and looking at every photograph. Obviously, it’s just a mountain of material. And, of course, I had RFK in my earphones every second of the day as well. (Laughs) It was a very enjoyable project, but a very difficult one because of the time frame, the schedule. It was very, very tight. But, you know, The History Channel is really pushing the HBO market, and I think they’re going to do very well with it.

BE: I’m really looking forward to it. I’m a TV critic by trade, so I’m very excited about it.

BP: Oh, okay! Yeah, it was fun to work with Greg (Kinnear) again. We hadn’t worked together since “We Were Soldiers,” which was…what, nine years ago now? And I’d worked with Tom Wilkinson years and years ago, and it was really nice to see him, so it was a very familial feel to it to have them playing my father and brother. And Katie (Holmes) was very charming and lovely to work with. I really enjoyed her a lot. So, yeah, it was a great experience.

BE: Well, Barry, it’s been great talking to you.

BP: Yeah, you, too. Thanks a lot! Have a great night!

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