I am of a school of thought in which I firmly believe that a film with William Fichtner in it is better than one without him. Fichtner is one of my absolute, all-time favorite character actors. The guy just turned 50, and he has such an impressive list of films to his name, including the early Steven Soderbergh film UNDERNEATH, STRANGE DAYS, HEAT, CONTACT, ARMADEDDON, GO, PERFECT STORM, PEARL HARBOR, BLACK HAWK DOWN, NINE LIVES, THE LONGEST YARD, DATE NIGHT, the unforgettable opening sequence of THE DARK KNIGHT, DRIVE ANGRY, and the Fox series "Prison Break."
In the past year, I've seen him in two films that very few people saw that I thought were really strong, memorable performances. The first was the Russian submarine thriller PHANTOM and the other was the whacked-out WRONG from director Quentin Dupieux. With the character Master Chang, Fichtner may have created not only one of his greatest creations, but one of the finest performances you'll see all year. And look for him still this year in Neil Blomkamp's ELYSIUM, Danny DeVito's ST. SEBASTIAN, and Tommy Lee Jones' THE HOMESMAN. Oh, and did I mention that when I spoke with him last week, he was on the set of director Jonathan Liebesman's TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (produced by Michael Bay), in which he plays The Shredder?
This particular chat marks the fourth time I've talked to Fitchner, who was promoting his villainous turn as Butch Cavendish in Gore Verbinski's THE LONE RANGER. If you need a weekly dose of Fitchner, he can also be seen as the lead in the NBC series "Crossing Lines." Fitchner is quite simply one of the most energetic and enjoyable people I'm lucky enough to interview. He's honest, open and loves talking about all the great folks he's gotten to work with and characters he's been lucky enough to play.
Say what you want about the movie (believe me, I already have), but by my gauge, Fitchner might be the single best thing in THE LONE RANGER, which made this interview all the more fun to do. In setting up our talk, I was told I'd have about 10 minutes to talk with him. But since no one bothered to interrupt us when our time was supposedly up, we went about 25 minutes. No complaints from me. One day, I'd love to do an extensive AICN Legends piece on Fitchner; I'll keep that in my back pocket for a rainy day interview. In the mean time, please enjoy my talk with the always-great William Fitchner…
Capone: Hello, sir. How are you?
William Fichtner: Hey, Steve. How are you doing? Good to hear from you again.
Capone: Likewise. I’m sorry I missed you in Santa Fe [during the official LONE RANGER junket], but it seemed like you might have been a little busy there.
WF: I was a little busy at a moment like that. What a good problem, eh?
Capone: It was a beautiful place to be that busy, too.
WF: Oh man, I know. Actually I couldn’t make it the first day, but I came in late on Tuesday evening.
Capone: I was at that big press conference on Wednesday, so I saw you there. But I didn’t want to miss the chance to talk to you again.
WF: Awesome. I love it.
Capone: This is the fourth time you’ve worked with Jerry Bruckheimer. What is it he likes about you so much, outside of the charm and the good looks? Has he said to you, like “You are good at this, and that’s why I want to keep working with you.”
WF: You already mentioned the charm and the good looks, right?
WF: I just want to cover all the bases here. You know what? I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know. I honestly don’t. This is the fourth time I’ve worked with Jerry. One thing about Jerry Bruckheimer, he is more of… How do I say this? First of all, to wok on a Jerry Bruckheimer production, which I’ve had the pleasure four times, is a production value that’s as high as any in the world, if not the highest. There’s a commitment to preparation. There’s all this stuff that I personally love as an actor, all of this, “If we are going to shoot BLACK HAWK DOWN, we’re going to hang out with Special Forces and learn.” “If we’re going to do LONE RANGER, we’re going to have a cowboy camp.” So that’s the physical aspects of working on his productions.
Getting back to the original question, “Why is it that Jerry hires me.” I don’t know. I’m not going to give it a name. I’ll never ask him that, but if the phone rings and it’s Jerry, I could tell you I’m in. That’s just the way that I am, and it's not just about the production. Jerry’s a wonderful guy, and in this business, that is so fly by night, it’s here and it’s gone, and it can be fickle, when I get on set and I see Jerry, he’s always a gentleman to me. He looks me straight in the eye, and I say “Good morning, sir” and away we go. I’ll tell you something, he’s as kind as anybody has been to me in this business, and I am appreciative of it.
Capone: When you do a movie of this magnitude, a production of this size, what is it that you do for yourself and for the audience to capture a more intimate feeling in playing a character like this?
WF: I think actually movies, especially when you have directors of the caliber of Gore Verbinski, then you have a movie that the size if anything makes you focus more on the details, because the bottom line is that camera is going to come in real close, and that moment to Gore is just as important. When you see the change happen in somebody’s eyes, the sheer spectacle if there’s 500 extras behind you in a real train and mountains and a prairie, that’s kind of like the icing on the cake. That’s the gift of a production of this size.
To be honest, I’m not sure how many movies will ever be made again like THE LONE RANGER. It’s not really a CGI-driven film. There’s been such a commitment to what is real and shooting live action for live action. But it doesn’t really change for me. I certainly don’t think it’s something that you act differently. A moment is a moment, you still go through the same process. You still think about your character. You still think about the director really guiding you to what story we're telling here, and sometimes it’s a crew of 274 and some times it’s a crew of 11. For me, when the camera roles, I feel like I’m in the same space.
Capone: A lot has been made of the look of Butch. When you get the makeup put on and you put on that gear and you look at yourself in the mirror as Butch, what does that do to your headspace?
WF: I remember the day that I got off the plane in Albuquerque, the first day. I had an early flight, and what I did with the first day there, I was exhausted. I was riding horses. I had to do a million things, but we also did hair and makeup tests and a wardrobe fitting. When Joel Harlow [head of the makeup department] did the entire look, which the first time took about three-and-a-half hours, and after that we got it down to a whole two-and-a-half hours.
I loved it. I’m not looking to play the me. I’m not looking to “Jeez, I hope I look good.” I would really like to look like the guy, and it’s probably a little bit more important to me. I’m not a bad looking guy, but I think Butch is better looking. Honestly when I looked at that, I looked at Joel and I’m like, “Wow. Okay!” I’ve said this a hundred times in the last couple of weeks, but when I had my first conversation with Gore on the phone about being in the film, which was only a few days before we started photography, a couple of days before I showed up in Albuquerque, and somewhere in that conversation I said to Gore, “This guy is fascinating and has this whole moral code of his own, but I do have one thought, Gore. I really just don’t want to look like me.” Gore paused and said, “Don’t worry about it.”
Capone: Yeah, I can attest to the fact that when you first came on screen I did not know it was you. It took about 40 minutes into the movie before I realized it was you.
WF: Getting back to your original question, how I feel about that. That stuff feeds you. You’re just adding layers to the guy. You are adding more pieces to the puzzle of whoever that character is, and I felt the same way about Penny Rose’s wardrobe. When she dressed me for the first time, and both the hair and makeup and the wardrobe, I would say we were in the 90th percentile of where it ended up from the very first time we tried it on. Her wardrobe, you put that on and you just move differently. I find that stuff just feeds you, just really, really feeds you.
Capone: I’ve often heard actors say that when they play villains, typically the villain doesn’t know he’s a villain. But I’ve got to imagine a part of Butch does know he’s a villain, which seems appropriate, because the Lone Ranger is really one of the last pure heroes that we’ve had in pop culture. What do you think about that? Does he know he’s an evil bastard in this story?
WF: Well there’s a couple of factors involved with that. One is this, I could never take on a role and try to play a part saying, “Great, I'm the villain. So let’s get villainous.” I’m not sure how you do that. I think you need a mustache. I think you need to twirl it.
Capone: Do they still do that?
WF: I think you need to change the character’s name from “Butch Cavendish” to “Snidely Whiplash.” I think you’ve got to do a lot of stuff, but what is a playable thing and what is much more of an actor’s journey is “Who is the guy? What makes him tick?" It’s not me. I mean good scripts will give you a lot of clues to who somebody is. Keep reading that script over and over, and you'll find things every time. I did, every time I read it. I thought, “Here’s a little something. That’s an odd little moment.”
It might not be something that’s spelled right out with some stage direction; it would more likely be his reaction to something. “Oh, so why does he have that reaction?” Those are the little things. You want to figure out what makes the guy tick. The old expression goes “An asshole doesn’t think he’s an asshole.” I’m not saying that Butch Cavendish is that, I’m just saying that they don’t, and I think that that’s true for everything. I’m not sure if good guys thing they are good guys; they just come from that place.
I think where an actor needs to spend his time, what is most helpful to him, is to figure out “What gets him to the place where he does the things that he does?” I think if you start to answer some of those questions, then… Not that I don’t think when I read the script, I didn't think, “Oh boy!” I remember thinking “He’s a tad rough.” [Laughs] I called my best buddy up and I said “Hey, this guy is rough” and my buddy said to me, “Yeah, that’s great. So did you accept already?” I’m like, “Calm down, would you please? I’m getting there.” Anyway, I think you know what I mean. It’s a different journey when you go in those directions. It’s more fun. It’s playable.
Capone: You have a lot of scenes in the film with Tom Wilkinson, who is one of my absolute favorites. What do you learn from watching a guy like him work?
WF: Tom’s been one of my favorites too over the years. It’s not like it’s a thing that’s specific to Tom, but in my life, I’m grateful for so many people that I’ve worked with who I can sit back and watch. I see where people come from and how they do things and I remember one scene in particular in THE LONE RANGER around this big table when Tom Wilkinson was telling everybody at this table, “Guess what, you can keep your watch, but I’m taking over.” I remember standing on the other side of the room watching him, and in every take he did something a little bit different, basically the same intention, but he was playing with it, and I thought, “That’s what you do. That’s how you do it. Right there, what he’s doing.” So I felt the same way about being around Johnny [Depp]. Everybody gives you something, just leave your eyes open. You get to go to school while you’re working.
Capone: You had two films that I saw this year that I wanted to quickly commend you on. You had this movie, PHANTOM that came out of nowhere, and I thought it was a great little movie. And then the movie WRONG, which gave us Master Chang, a tremendous performance, and I wish more people had seen them. Hopefully they will.
WF: You and me both.
Capone: Are you presently shooting TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES right now? Is that where you are?
WF: Hey listen, if I tell you I’ve got to go after you. [laughs] Yes, I am. I’m in the middle of it right now, yeah.
Capone: Tell me about playing The Shredder.
WF: Listen, are you ready for the politically correct answer? I play a guy named Eric Sachs, who goes through changes.
Capone: Got it.
WF: Okay, there we go. We’ve got that out of the way. No, you know what? Kind of similar to THE LONE RANGER, this came up very quick, and I was literally flying back from Santa Fe having worked on Tommy Lee Jones’ film, THE HOMESMAN, and I’m in the airport in Santa Fe, and by the time I got home, I had to read this, because I was going to travel like two days later. And I read it and I talked to my representation and my wife, which is the head of the representation, and I said, "I’ve got a feeling this is cool." And I’ve worked with Michael Bay before, and that gives it an awful lot of pop right there, but it was more than that.
I spoke to the director and some of the producers on the phone and I knew that what they were going to make…. See TURTLES was not my time; it was my niece and my nephew's thing. They're in their 20s now or early 30s. I called them up and said, “Hey, what do you think about Uncle Bill doing this?” They were like, “What do you mean what do we think about it? You better do it!” And I’m really glad that I did. I think that whatever I remember of the Turtles being more cartoony, and I don’t mean that as a knock, it’s just what I remember, that’s not this. This is cool. This is a little wild. It’s a little freaky. I’ve been having an excellent time working on it.
Capone: Ninjas should be cool, of course. Why wouldn’t they?
WF: Yeah, it’s been a real character to explore, and we're figuring it out. This guy has grown a lot more since the day I got off the plane to start working on it, that’s for sure.
Capone: The other movie I wanted to ask you about was ELYSIUM, which they’ve done a really good job of keeping your face out of any trailers or clips. Is there a reason for that?
WF: You know what? I have no idea. I honestly don’t. Somebody told me they saw one trailer where it has a quick clip of me.
Capone: That is true--very quick and unless you are looking for it, you almost miss it. That’s what I was wondering, maybe our character is meant to be kept a secret. Can you say anything about your character?
WF: You know, I’m not sure. Listen, when we were shooting it, it was definitely on the hush hush. What I can tell you is this--and I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know. DISTRICT NINE speaks for itself. Neil Blomkamp is amazing, and I play a supporting role in this with a character named Carlyle, and it’s one of the pieces that’s pivotal to the telling of the story, and I can’t wait to see it.
I will tell you this, about four months ago, I was in Prague working and I had to do a little ADR on one section, and they sent over a 90-second clip of me to see something, and that 90-second clip that they sent, I had an outloud verbal reaction; it was so thrilling. I’m one of these people that believes there’s nothing new in movies, but you can tell an old story or show an action sequence and do it like no one has ever done it before. And the clip that they sent me to look at was something that sure I’ve seen things like that before, but I never saw it like that, and I was like “Wow!” I can’t wait to see it. I have no doubt that Neil made an amazing film. He has amazing sensibilities about that world, and what seemed so simple when we were shooting it, when I did a little ADR and I’d get a glimpse of it, I'm thinking “Oh my god!” I love watching something that’s so much better than what it was actually being there.
Capone: Can you at least say who your scenes are with? Is it with Matt Damon or Jodie Foster?
WF: I will cross both paths.
Capone: You mentioned this Tommy Lee Jones film. Tell me about working with him, because he’s slowly building up this reputation as being a tough interview, but I’m guessing he’s a little different when you’re working with him as a director.
WF: Absolutely not. [Laughs] Absolutely not, but I will tell you this. I can count maybe two things in my life--one of them was a television experience, I’m trying to remember the film experience that would mirror that--where I didn’t have a good time. I want to find a director’s vision. I want to show up with something to offer. I have a good time when I’m working. I can’t work in a negative space. I have to tell you, working with Tommy…and we're talking about several people here today--Quentin from WRONG, Neil Blomkamp, and Gore Verbinski--they're all are so different. But all of them equally just wonderful and wonderful experience for me.
I will put Tommy and all of that in a slightly different category, just a little amendment on the side, too. I never worked with anybody that, when he stood in front of me--and I don’t have a big role in it--but when he stood in front of me and said, “I want this and this.” I have to tell you something, I checked everything that I had inside of me, my thoughts, I checked them on the side, and I just listened to him. I had that sort of faith in him and I knew from the very first day that I met him and I worked with him that Tommy’s vision was so clear.
It’s not even like, “Hey, why don’t we think about this?” I so trusted where he wanted to go, that’s all I wanted to do, go where he wanted to go. And not that that shouldn’t be what it is every time, but it isn’t. Different people work different ways, but that’s the way that Tommy works, and I knew that’s what was important to Tommy. I really wanted to find that for him and I have to tell you, that was 10 days in Las Vegas, New Mexico I’ll never forget. I’ll work with him any time.
Capone: Wait, so what was the horrible TV experience? Hopefully not the new show.
WF: No, I’m not going to go down that road. Some day. It will come up some day.
Capone: Speaking of TV experience, I was telling a female friends of mine a couple of days ago that I was talking to you, and she couldn’t quite remember what you looked like. So I showed her your picture and she was like “Oh yeah, he was on 'Grace Under Fire.'" It seemed like such a strange recall, but I know the show was popular.
WF: "Grace Under Fire." “Ryan Sparks, the petrol chemist.”
Capone: Going back to LONE RANGER for a second, you mentioned something about Johnny and his look. I’m curious, when you first got a look at his version of Tonto, what was your reaction?
WF: First of all, I don’t think that I’d ever be in his circumstance--I can’t imagine that I would, it’s not part of who I am--to question where Johnny Depp wants to take a character. And I’ll tell you why, because here’s a character guy that’s probably the biggest movie star in the world arguably, and you could say he’s a leading man, but he’s really a character guy. That’s all he does is come up with one amazing character after another, and that’s not just a physical thing, that’s an inner thing. It’s all part of that, that’s what makes great characters. That’s what Johnny does. If you want to show up like that, yeah okay.
But I’ll tell you also why I have no issue with it whatsoever. "The Lone Ranger" TV show was a little bit before my time. Growing up in America, sure, what kid didn’t know The Long Ranger and Tonto, but you know what? I didn’t feel for this film that I had to go back and watch the 261 or whatever it is episodes of "The Lone Ranger" or any other movie that was made or any other thing that has to do with The Long Ranger. When I read the script for the first time, this is this story. This is Gore Verbinski’s telling of this story. It’s different then, let’s say BLACK HAWK DOWN. Well, we’re going to have Special Forces guys and we're going to have guys that are going to be with it every single day for five months in Morocco that actually were there when the helicopters went down in Mogadishu, that were there on the ground, real-deal special Forces guys helping us get it right. That’s a different thing.
Something like this, Gore Verbinski wants to tell his version of The Lone Ranger and Tonto. You know what I want to know about? I want to know about his version of The Lone Ranger and Tonto; that’s what I want to know. So that’s what we were finding out and that’s what my focus was. So it’s a clean slate, as far as I’m concerned.
Capone: What you personally thought of the Tonto look?
WF: I think it looks great. I mean come on, I think the first day I worked, I was sitting on that railroad car pulling that nail out of the floor with my bloody finger, me looking like that and him looking like that, I'm telling you, that's a couple of out-there dudes, man.
Capone: That’s a great opening. And we were talking about intimate moments, that’s what that is--two guys who are going about escaping in very different ways.
WF: Right? Exactly.
Capone: Bill, thank you so much for taking the time out and talking. I probably got more time with you today than I would have in Santa Fe, so I'm happy we waited.
WF: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to talk, and I’m looking forward to the next time.