Before I even had my recorder going on my interview with the great actor Ray Wise, he was confirming a rumor that I'm guessing he'd been asked about several times during the course of his day of interviews promoting the DVD release of one of his most recent film BIG ASS SPIDER (released earlier this month), directed by Mike Mendez. Wise brought up the rumors that he had reunited with his "Twin Peaks" partner in crime, creator David Lynch, to shoot at least one promo for an upcoming Blu-ray box set (said to be on the calendar for release in March or April), that will include both season of the television series, as well as the prequel feature TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, along with a massive number of outtakes of the film. Wise wouldn't spill on the details of the promo shoot, but I'm guessing it'll be wonderful
Wise's portrayal of Leland Palmer on "Twin Peaks" allowed him to stretch his limits and show his range, playing everything from the grieving father of murdered Laura to her possessed raging killer. But at the time, it was something of a culmination of a long career in film and television that included everything from a handful of soap operas to guest shots on nearly every TV series on the air during the 1980s to genre classics like SWAMP THING (directed by Wes Craven) and ROBOCOP (directed by Paul Verhoeven), to works like BOB ROBERTS, RISING SUN, and POWDER. In more recent years, we've been fortunate enough to see him bring his voice of authority and penchant for playing slimy politicians and other forms of evil (including the Devil himself in the series "Reaper") to such works as JEEPERS CREEPERS 2, "24," ONE MISSED CALL, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, "Mad Men," and director Quentin Dupieux's most recent WRONG COPS.
At Butt Numb-a-Thon in December, director Adam Green showed us a work-in-progress film DIGGING UP THE MARROW, in which Wise stars as an expert in real-life monsters. It's a role unlike anything I've seen Wise do to date, if only for the fact that he's a man at his wit's end and not in complete control, as he often plays. It a remarkable performance in a film that scared the crap out of me more than once, and I can't wait for you guys to see it.
It's been a while since I've done a Legends column. The truth is, I've been truly itching to do one for months now, and I think Ray Wise is just the right performer to bring the feature back to its rightful glory. I suspect that Wise has a photographic memory, because he always seems able to pull out the most miniscule detail about a role he's played or some story about a films or series he was a part of. It certain makes for a series of great stories and remembrances. With that, please enjoy the hell out of my talk with the masterful Ray Wise…
Ray Wise: Hi, Steve.
Capone: Hi, Ray. How are you?
RW: I’m good. How are you?
Capone: Very good. There’s no way you would remember this, but we met at a San Diego Comic Con a few years ago at a party; I think it was right after "Reaper" had just gone off the air, and I was singing its praises to you, and you seemed very happy that someone remembered it so fondly. There were a bunch of actors from "Game of Thrones" at the party.
RW: Oh right, I absolutely remember that party.
Capone: But I zeroed right in on you.
RW: Oh, good.
Capone: In many of the interviews with you and articles about you, people make a point to talk about the fact that you have specialized in playing the quintessential bad guy. But I actually think in a broader sense you tend to play men of authority really well. Sometimes it’s just the way you dress, you’ve got this great head of hair, and the voice of course. Like in BIG ASS SPIDER, you’re a guy in the military and you’ve played that before.
RW: We have good and bad aspects of our characters.
Capone; Oh, absolutely. Where does that authoritative voice in you come from?
RW: Oh, gosh. It’s just something that I feel very comfortable playing, and it’s very innate and intuitive. It probably comes from my life experiences and what I’ve felt going into each job and character that I play, where I just have to walk in on the first day and be that person, that character. So I have to really feel that and have to believe in it, and I become an authoritarian over all of my characters. Right from the beginning, I have to be spot on, and be very focused.
And then of course, my experiences over the years. I grew up as a young boy in the '50s. I was a moviephile and watched everything I could possibly watch. All of those actors, all of those performances, they all made impressions on me, and I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many of them I borrowed little things from. So, yeah it’s an accumulation and a culmination of a lot of life experiences, a lot of work experiences, and that’s where I am.
Capone: It’s very rare that I see you play someone who is a little more frazzled and manic. I’m sure you don’t even know this, but I’ve actually seen DIGGING UP THE MARROW because Adam Green brought it to…
RW: You saw it?!
Capone: Oh yeah, Adam brought it to this 24-hour film festival down in Austin, Texas.
RW: Oh, yes. I heard about that. Yeah, I’ve not seen it.
Capone: Your character there is so different than what most people have seen you play lately, and he’s such a great character--so paranoid and disheveled. He's still a voice of authority about this one particular field, but it’s a totally different take on that personality. How was it to be able to let your hair down a little bit?
RW: It was great. It was wonderful. Adam is a really good filmmaker. It was a nice piece of writing and it was really guerilla filmmaking. We were on the move and used all hand-held cameras. It was a wonderful experience to create that world. The whole concept of this guy who believed there was an underground civilization was really appealing to me. Then we made up little secret things that only we knew about and that the audience wouldn’t, and you see subtle signs of it, but it’s never really spoken.
Capone: And on top of that, it has a handful of absolutely scary, scream-out-loud, moments; the audience went crazy. Adam was there, and I got up on stage with him and did a Q&A with him. It was great seeing you do something like that.
RW: Yeah, it was really different, and I really enjoyed it, I loved it.
Capone: You mention that the type of characters you play now are a culmination of what you've done so far. Whether you knew it or not at the time, playing Satan in "Reaper" was a culmination of both that authoritative and evil personas in a single character.
RW: Exactly, yeah. Plus, the guy looks good in a suit. [laughs]
Capone: Yeah, but also, he's always in control, and you looked like you were having so much fun doing it. The cast just did a reunion for FearNet last year. How was that?
RW: It was great. We all got together, the entire cast, except for Missy Peregrym. But Tyler [Labine], Bret [Harrison], and Rick (Gonzalez], we all got together and had this great session that they filmed, and there was a Q&A thing, and we were there with our creators, Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, and it was just a great experience. And I was so pleased that FearNet was rerunning "Reaper" on their network. I was a big fan of that show myself, and I thought it was just really well done and well written, and it should have gone on much longer because they had a wealth of material yet to explore.
Capone: So the reason we’re talking is because of BIG ASS SPIDER, out on DVD now, and I saw it at this genre festival up in Montreal last summer.
RW: Was that at Fantasia?
Capone: Yes, it was. That’s where I saw it.
RW: I was there a few years back with JEEPERS CREEPERS 2. Yeah, and a movie called DEAD END. I had two movies there one summer, so they had me come up there. That’s a fun festival, isn’t it?
Capone: I’d never done it before, but it was truly great. I had a blast and more importantly saw some great films too.
RW: Yeah, Montreal’s a great city, a lot of good restaurants; it’s a fun place.
Capone: The role you play is a classic throwback to the '50s monster movies. There’s always a military presence that never does the right thing. How did you hook up with Mike for that movie?
RW: I was up in San Francisco visiting my daughter and I was checking my email on her computer, and I got an email from [director] Mike Mendez saying, “I’m doing this movie, it’s all about a giant spider that eats Los Angeles, and I would love you to play this part of Major Braxton Tanner. This is the kind of guy he is, and he’s going to be chasing after this spider with his special forces, and he’s going to have run-ins with scientists and with an exterminator and his buddy.” Then he sent me the script when I got back to L.A. a couple of days later, and I read it and I thought it really had a lot of promise and that it was really well written and it could be I think something special. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it. I’ll play this guy.” Usually I would be playing the exterminator [laughs], but this time I was playing the straight military guy who’s the contrast to Greg Grunberg’s exterminator and, of course, Lombardo Boyar as his Sancho Panza. It was a good working relationship, and we had a lot of fun.
Capone: Have you seen the finished film yet?
RW: I’ve seen kind of a rough cut of it. I have not seen the entire finished film with all of the the music and everything, but I saw a rough cut of it that I was very pleased, and surprised a lot of the effects turned out as well as it did.
Capone: The effects are much better than one would have expected form a movie with this small a budget, I agree.
RW: Me too. I felt the same way, yeah. When I read the script, I said, “Man, if he can pull this off on the kind of budget he’s talking about and the time restrictions and the shooting schedule, he’s really done Yeoman's work.” And Mike did it. He did it in every way, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Capone: Between seeing you in BIG ASS SPIDER and MARROW, I saw you in a small part in a film called WRONG COPS.
RW: Yeah, I was playing the police captain.
Capone: That’s right, in the funeral scene. Have you seen Quentin Dupieux's other films?
RW: I saw RUBBER. Yeah, he’s another special guy. He’s got quite an imagination, and he’s going to go on and do some great stuff, I think. WRONG COPS was a lot of fun, I have to say. And then of course I went to a screening of it and got to sit next to Marilyn Manson, so that wasn’t too bad [laughs].
Capone: I wanted to go through a few things in your career. The one thing I noticed right away is there is not a TV show that was in existence from the late '70s through the '80s and beyond, that you didn’t at least pop on at least one time.
RW: About 85 or 90 of them I think altogether.
Capone: Is there one one-off TV appearance that you did that stands out in your head as being particularly memorable?
RW: Yeah, I had a lot of fun doing "Hart To Hart" with Robert Wagner and Stefanie Power. I always felt that he and I should do a brother series, where he was the older brother, and I could be his younger brother. We had this great epic fight in his house on "Hart To Hart." We smashed the grand piano and tore up his whole living room; it was a pretty epic episode, and I really enjoyed working with him. I think we always hoped that we would work together, but it never panned out. That’s one of the ones I really enjoyed.
Oh god, there are so many of them. I liked playing the character of Blair Sullivan on "Dallas." And I played Spiros Koralis on the "The Colbys," which was an off shoot of "Dynasty," and Ricardo Montalban was my stepfather, so most of my scenes were with Ricardo. And I had a few scenes with Charlton Heston because I was, if you'll forgive my language, screwing his daughter.
RW: And remember he very angrily wrapping on the door of my apartment, and I opened it with a towel around my waist, and there was Ben Hur staring at me.
Capone: That is intimidating.
RW: It was. And Ricardo was just a sweetheart, man. Ricardo Montalban was the best. Loved him. So yeah, those were high points.
Capone: I know you were in a couple different "Star Trek" shows.
RW: Oh yeah, I loved those. On "Next Generation," I played a Mintaken which is kind of a lower-case Vulcan. We sort of look like Vulcans, but our brains are about half the size, probably. We aren’t too smart. And I thought that Picard was a god, and I tried to prove it by shooting him with my bow and arrow. Of course, he bled like all humans do, and I discovered that he really wasn’t a god. Then I did "Star Trek: Voyager," where I played Arturis, who was from another alien civilization, and he has a head about three times the size of most people’s heads to accommodate like a couple of brains. It looks like this big huge giant shrimp on the top of my shoulders. And that was great fun, I enjoyed doing "Voyager" too.
Capone: You get a kind of exposure in doing anything "Star Trek" related that really is unlike anything else. You could do the convention circuit for the rest of your life if you wanted to just off of those appearances.
RW: Off of those two alone, I know. They keep offering for me to do it, and maybe one day when I’m incapacitated and I can't act in front of a camera anymore I might go for that stuff [laughs].
Capone: I grew up in the '80s, so those were my formative years as far as film goes. So of course movies like SWAMP THING and ROBOCOP were just the best things I'd ever seen in my life.
Capone: Oh, absolutely. I read somewhere you still have the head piece from SWAMP THING, even though most of the time that isn't you in the costume in the film. Is that true?
RW: Yes, I do. I have the head piece tucked away in a box in a controlled-temperature room so it doesn’t deteriorate. I have the head from "Star Trek: Voyager" too, that big shrimp head that I talked about. And I have my costume from ROBOCOP that got blown up at the end, and it’s in tatters and it’s got a lot of burn spots on it. But it’s intact and I still have that, so I like to keep something from everything.
Capone: You got to work with Wes Craven at a time that was sort of pre-NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, so he was still a relatively new filmmaker.
RW: Yeah, he had just done LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES.
Capone: Right, so he had this cult following, but I think SWAMP THING was meant to be a breakthrough into the mainstream, a little bit more high profile for him. What do you remember about his style and working with him on that?
RW: I loved Wes. I really felt that he was going to do great things. He had an excellent way of working with actors, and, of course, I was working with Adrian Barbeau and Louis Jourdan and I was having a great time. We were in Charleston, South Carolina, which isn’t too shabby. We were staying at a great place and going to great restaurants in the evening, and then working out in the swamps during the day at the Magnolia Plantation, which had beautiful swamps with all the mangrove and all the different plants and animals. But all of our grips, they were carrying side arms because we ran into a lot of things like alligators and water moccasins. And then we had the black flies and huge mosquitoes to deal with.
But Wes was great, and I had always hoped that after that experience that I would work with him again someday, but it never happened again. We stayed in touch, and I went to a couple of his wedding parties. But I have the upmost respect for him, and, of course, he went on to do some pretty great things and has had an enormously successful career. But I will always be grateful to him for seeing me as Dr. Alec Holland.
Capone: Is it strange with ROBOCOP that you’ve been around long enough now that they're starting to remake movies that you’ve been in?
RW: Yeah, I hate that. I hate that. [laughs] There’s no reason to remake ROBOCOP. Just play the 1987 version of it. Yeah, that’s silly. I don’t like that, and I don’t condone it, and I won’t support it. Every once in a while, a remake makes sense, but hardly ever. The remake of THE OMEN was silly, the remake of PSYCHO was silly--the whole shot-for-shot thing. If you’re going to make a remake of something, change it up a little bit so you’re not trying to do a Xerox copy of it and a poor Xerox at that, with the ink fading.
Capone: Someone once said, “If you’re going to remake a movie, remake a bad one and make it better."
RW: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Some remakes make sense. You take something that’s really bad and improve on it. But no improvement was necessary on that one.
Capone: I know you’ve done more of genre work, but do you find yourself drawn to genre work, or is it drawn to you at this point?
RW: I think both at this point. I think enough people know me and know my proclivities and what I like to do, and so when they think of something and they can’t get a big million-dollar actor then they’ll come to old Ray Wise [laughs]. But I have an affinity for it. I grew up in the '50s and I loved all of those horror movies, those creature pictures from THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, and THEM!, and THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD with Jimmy Arness. I grew up on those. They made a big impression on me. All the Hammer films made an impression on me, too, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. A little off shoot of that, when I was doing "Love of Life," which is a soap opera in New York City for CBS, I started doing that in 1970, and for a brief time--a couple of years--I had a fan club for the character I played, and the gal who was the president of my fan club was also president of the American Peter Cushing fan club in New York. So I had that connection to Peter and Hammer films, we had the same president of the fan club for a brief time.
Capone: Christopher Lee's Dracula for Hammer Films will always be the best. I read somewhere you had a bit of an obsession with Dracula.
RW: Yeah, I think his was by far the scariest I think. I love the whole British stiff upper lip aspect of it, but also I’ve always wanted the definitive version of Dracula done. Coppola came fairly close to it, but I wanted to see the Bram Stoker book and that character done faithfully. He’s Romanian; he’s not British. In the development of the book, he starts out as a very old man and gets younger throughout the piece. They did that in Coppola’s version, which he calls BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, but I would like to see a little bit more of a faithful version of that, and I’ve always wanted to play that character. I’ve always wanted to become Dracula.
Capone: You’re part Romanian, right?
RW: Yeah, I’m half Romanian. Back around 2001-02, I went to Romania to make a movie called WINDFALL with Robert England and Casper Van Dien, and Robert and I went to visit Dracula’s castle together. So, that’s a trip. If people knew that, they’d probably be a little shocked that Freddy Kruger and Leland Palmer were going to Dracula’s castle together.
Capone: The other thing you have done over the years besides genre films is a great deal of soap operas work. I think you’ve just started or you're about to start a "Young and the Restless"?
RW: Yeah, I’ve done about five episodes already.
Capone: What do you get as an actor from working on soap operas? Why do you keep going back?
RW: Back in the old days when I first started doing it in 1970, all the actors on my soap were all New York stage actors, really great ones. The soaps today are pretty much--I don’t want to speak in a derogatory fashion about them--the characters on the show and the actors that get to play them don’t have that training that we used to have back in the '70s. They’re more hired, I think, for their looks. They’re the 8 x 10 glossies, and I’ve never been that. I’ve never been a great 8 x 10 glossy. So, I’m trying to bring my sensibilities to this character, and it’s a great character, and that’s why I agreed to do it. And it was around the Christmas and New Year's holiday, so it was great to stay in town just to do the show.
And I found that their pace is a good one. I like it, it’s kind of leisurely; it’s not like the old soap days where you approached everything as a play, and you started everything at the beginning and went on to the end and you never stopped. And we had prompters on the cameras then, if we went up on a line, we could see it on the prompter. We became very adept to doing that. But these cameras now, these days, they don’t have the prompters. They don’t need them. They shoot little pieces and they can do them again, as many times as they need to, and it’s just a great process, and I’m really enjoying it.
I think they originally talked of an arc of 5-15 episodes, so who knows where it’s going to go, but I’m enjoying it so far; it’s a great character. I play this guy named Ian Ward, who’s a cult leader. He has a following of people who believe in him and he’s kind of a life coach, I suppose, where he’s trying to show people the proper path to take to achieve their ultimate happiness. He’s that kind of a guy. He’s really a good conman is what he is, I suppose.
Capone: You're the living definition of just like a classic working actor--TV, movies, short films, even music videos, you've done. Where does that work ethic come from? Is that something you’ve always had?
RW: I think it is something I’ve always had. I always wanna keep it going, you know, I try to go from one project to the next one to keep that momentum going, and that’s how I feel. You grow and develop the best as you can as an actor; you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to keep working. So, I’ve done big movies that pay a lot of money and I’ve done little movies that pay no money, and that’s never the deciding factor. The deciding factor for me always has been the story, the character, and how I react to both and, of course, other aspects of it like the director and other people in the cast. Really, how I respond to the character is the most important thing, and if I think that it’s something that I can do and do it well, and if it’s something that scares me a little bit--that sense of possible failure--I love to feel that because it motivates me, and then when something comes off and it comes off well, I really feel a sense of accomplishment. So, I guess that’s me in a nutshell.
Capone: You must be reading my notes because my next question was about the role of fear in choosing your roles. Do you sometimes read a script and said to yourself, “I’m not sure I can do this, therefore I must do it.”
RW: Yeah, that’s happened a lot of times. In fact, I really prefer that to happen, if I look at something and think, “How would one do that?” And then I know that I’m hooked. Then I apply everything to that problem, and then the character springs out of that.
Capone: Did that happen with Leland Palmer? When you look at that character on paper, he goes from the grieving father to this vessel for evil in the span of just a few episodes. That seems like it would have been such a fulfilling but also very scary challenge.
RW: It was, yes, and in the span of just 16 episodes. Totally, totally. As I’ve always said--and I said it just a couple of days ago when I was with David [Lynch]--it was the best of times, to borrow a line from Charles Dickens.
Capone: Oh, sure. When you saw David Lynch recently, were you two concocting more rumors to throw out on the internet?
RW: [laughs] Well, I’m sure more rumors will come out of it, but we were meeting to discuss and do some things for the new box set that’s coming out on Blu-ray. All the "Twin Peaks" episodes, including the pilot, also paired with FIRE WALK WITH ME, the prequel movie. So, all the "Twin Peaks" material is going to be in this new set, plus deleted scenes from FIRE WALK WITH ME.
Capone: Something like 40-some minutes of scenes is what I heard. Is that all going to be on there?
RW: Yeah, it’s going to happen. I don’t know what happened to be able to do it, I suppose it has something to do with the French producers. But, it’s happening. I guess the first cut of David’s film, FIRE WALK WITH ME, was probably around three-and-a-half hours long, maybe approaching four, we’ll probably see a lot of that material on the new set.
Capone: Did David say when it's being released? I'd heard April for a while, but it seems like you’re not quite there yet.
RW: I don't think it’s quite there yet, but it’s happening. It’s going to happen sooner rather than later.
Capone: That’s great. Did the "Twin Peaks" cast understand what was going on while you were shooting it?
RW: No, never [laughs]!
Capone: That makes me so happy.
RW: No, we all had our own opinions and thoughts about the direction things were going, but, no, none of us really had any idea what David and Mark [Frost] were concocting for us, and that’s the way they wanted it. They wanted us to be real people in this town. They don’t know what’s coming around the bend, what the next day is going to bring, and that’s the way we approached it as our characters. We got into the swing of things right away when we were making the pilot, and then we thought, “It’s over. That's that.” Then the series came along, and it just mushroomed into the cultural phenomenon that "Twin Peaks" became.
We knew right at the beginning, everybody in the cast, what we were doing and the tone, and we felt we could carry it on no matter who the director was, and we had a lot of different directors. A lot of great movie directors. Tim Hunter, James Foley, Caleb Dechanel, just a bunch of them. And even later, Diane Keaton came on and directed an episode and of course David did about five or six of them, and those were always very special, working with him again. It was quite an experience, and it was a great boost for me career wise, but more than that it was just a great freedom of expression that I, as Leland Palmer, was able to run the whole entire gamut during those 16 episodes. I got to do everything imaginable that you could do on television, certainly. We’ll never see the likes of it again, I don’t think.
Capone: Did the type of roles that you got offered after "Twin Peaks" shift noticeably?
RW: Well, sort of. I wouldn't say noticeably. I always got those type of roles. The thing that I noticed the most was producers and directors just wanting to meet me because they were fans of the show. Steven Spielberg wanted to meet me, and for a while I was up for JURASSIC PARK, but then Phillip Kaufman came along and offered me RISING SUN before Spielberg would commit to anything on JURASSIC PARK. Anyway, he wanted to meet Leland Palmer. He was a big fan of the show, and Diane Keaton, who was casting a movie, wanted to meet Leland Palmer, and so I went to a lot of these interviews and auditions just to meet directors and producers who wanted to meet my character from that show.
Capone: Which role in JURASSIC PARK were they going to give you?
RW: The lawyer.
Capone: That would have placed you in a rather undignified position. What have you got coming out soon, or what are you working on now that you’re excited about?
RW: I did a movie called LAND OF LEOPOLD. I did that in Austin, Texas. I did another movie in Baton Rouge recently called DEAD STILL, where I played this turn-of-the-century photographer of the dead. I actually grew a little goatee and a mustache for that one.
Capone: Wow, facial hair.
RW: Yeah, the facial hair was a groovy aspect of this whole thing, and I really liked it so there might be a few different Ray Wise’s coming down the pike here. And I have a whole bunch of other films. You know about DIGGING UP THE MARROW, and I have another one called SUBURBAN GOTHIC that I made with the director Ricky Bates, who did EXCISION that was Sundance a season or two ago. And I did another one with Olivia Wilde, this science fiction film that I can't remember the title of [he may be talking about LAZARUS, although he's not listed in the credits yet].
Capone: I can look it up.
RW: Yeah, they’re all mushing together in my mind now, just one after the other, and that’s the way I like to keep it going.
Capone: You’re the hardest working man in show business, sir.
RW: Yeah, my son calls me that. [laughs]
Capone: It’s a fact, not an opinion.
RW: Yeah, I’m feeling good--creatively and physically--so it’s a go from here on out.
Capone: Ray, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk. I hope we get to chat again soon.
RW: I hope so, man. It was really great talking to you. I enjoyed this interview immensely, thanks.