Capone grills William Fichtner about FIRST SNOW and PRISON BREAK!!!
Published at: March 31, 2007, 3:19 a.m. CST by quint
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here with one of two interviews I conducted recently with cast members from the upcoming release FIRST SNOW, a dark and thought-provoking work that doesn't easily fit into any genre and features a whole lot of great work from its cast. Yes, this small film is getting a whole lot of coverage on this site, since Quint has already given us interviews with the film's director and co-writer Mark Fergus (CLICK HERE FOR THAT) and star Guy Pearce (CLICK HERE FOR THAT ONE!). But the film has some great actors in it, and I jumped at the opportunity to interview two of Pearce's co-stars, not necessarily because they have huge parts in FIRST SNOW but because they are people I've just always wanted to chat with about the sum total of their respective careers. First up is William Fichtner, one of my absolute all-time favorite character actors, who, thanks to his recent television work (first on "Invasion" and now on "Prison Break") is being looked at seriously as leading man material. 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 (probably the role most people first remember him from, as Jodie Foster's blind co-worker), ARMADEDDON, GO, PERFECT STORM, PEARL HARBOR, BLACK HAWK DOWN, NINE LIVES, THE LONGEST YARD, and the HBO film EMPIRE FALLS. He's also got a very funny bit part in BLADES OF GLORY.
Fichtner plays Guy Pearce's best friend and co-worker in FIRST SNOW, and although he's only in a few scenes in the film, it's kind of tough to shake his impact on the story. I'm a die-hard "Prison Break" fan, and adding Fichtner to the cast in Season 2 has completely changed the dynamic of the show for the better. Now that all of the escaped convicts are scattered to the winds, Fichtner's FBI Agent Mahone is the unifying character that ties all the storylines together, and it's a fascinating and richly realized portrait of a disturbed man, who himself is under attack from his superiors. And it's with a discussion of that character that I begin. I should note that the morning our interview took place, Fox had just announced that "Prison Break" was coming back for a third season, but does that mean Agent Mahone was returning?
Capone: I have to admit, my ulterior motive for talking to you was that I'm a huge "Prison Break" fan. I just heard today that Fox has renewed the show for a third season...
William Fichtner: [laughs] Yes they did. They made that official the other night.
C: There are still two more episodes left this season, so I guess the question is, Is your character even in a position to come back for another season?
WF: It was always set up that Mahone was supposed to be a one-year thing, that has an option for another year. I've had a great time doing it this year, and it would sure be my pleasure if they pick up that option. And the way they finish this season, it's a strong possibility they will.
C: I couldn't imagine that the show would make the huge mistake of killing you off in one of these last episodes.
WF: It's always tricky with "Prison Break." What do I say, what do I not say? The last I checked, I was still breathing after 22 episodes.
C: What do like about doing this show and playing this character, because I don't think I'm overstating the case to say that Mahone has changed the dynamic of the show. You're not just another character; you've a co-lead.
WF: I can tell you one thing, it wasn't that he was an FBI guy chasing escaped convicts. It wasn't that. I liked the character. And when I had to make the decision to play him, I only had the first two scripts. And there were two little moments in the first two scripts where he pops a pill, and in the second show he has that moment staring at a bird bath. For this actor, I found pretty fascinating. Not that he pops a pill. "Oh wow, he takes drugs." But that opens up the world of why is he taking drugs, what's that about? Does he have a little anxiety about something? He seems to take it at moments of anxiety. What's going on? What's wigging him out? He's an FBI guy. He's their number one manhunter and he needs a little help. I found that pretty fascinating. And he's staring at a bird bath. He's not just having a cup of coffee when the sun's coming up. He's intensely looking at it. What's he thinking about? That stuff, to me, opens up a lot of doors and imagination, and that was interesting. On top of that--because that's a personal thing for a character--the writing is great on the show, consistently all the time. If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage. You've gotta have it going on, and they've got it going on. You can get great directors to keep a series fresh and alive, and you've gotta have a super cast, and we have that. But if it's not in the weekly storytelling, you don't have it, period. Not on a network television show. You've got 22 shots at holding people's attention. That's good writing. "Prison Break" has it; it always has.
C: I saw a list in The Onion about a year ago in which you were ranked Number 4 in a list of the 10 character actors who should be in every movie.
WF: [laughs] I've never seen that! Send that to my mother! That's very cool.
C: And you were in good company to. I think Gary Cole was at the top of the list. But I always wondered if actors who are frequently labeled "character actors" see themselves that way. Or are you just doing your thing? When I see you in a film, you may not have the biggest part, but you're playing it like you do.
WF: Do I think of myself as a character actor? I guess not. I don't see it as leading either. I don't give it a name. I never know about something that really attracts me to it. It's kind of on a script-by-script basis. Believe me, there's a whole lot of stuff I wish I could do that I never got an offer for. You never know what it is, whether it's a one-scene thing, a small supporting, a larger part. It's usually the material and who the character is, and what piece of the puzzle he is. It's hard to give it a name, and you never really know. One thing's for sure because I'm old enough to have learned the lesson many time in my life, if I'm trying to convince myself or talk myself into doing something, that's usually a pretty good reason not to do it. But things come along and you read it, like FIRST SNOW, a great little film from a first-time director. I'd never met Mark Fergus before, but I read that script for the first time on a flight from New York to L.A., and I got off the flight, called my agent, and said absolutely. I loved relationship that my character has with Jimmy, Guy Pearce's character. I thought the whole thing was really well written. And the fact that the guy who co-wrote it was directing it, I thought, I don't know Mark Fergus but I'll get to know him.
C: You've worked with so many established directors in your career, I wonder what goes into a decision to work with a first-time director. And did some of the other people in the film influence your decision?
WF: No doubt about it. First and foremost it's the material, no matter who the other actors are or the director. I liked the script, and I knew that Guy Pearce was going to play the lead in it, and I'm a huge fan of Guy's. He's the sort of actor that brings the complete package of what I think is fascinating in the world of acting. This sort thing that Guy Pearce brings to each and every thing that he does. He finds the guy, whoever it is that he's playing. And knowing that Guy was going to do it: good for Mark Fergus first off. He just got Guy Pearce in his movie! [laughs] That was enough for me. I believe I said yes to it before I even talked to Mark.
C: How do you think Mark did as a director his first time out of the gate?
WF: Mark was a joy to be around from Day One. Like a lot of first-time directors, just thrilled and pinching himself, like wow, I can't believe I'm here. And good for him, because it's tough going our there in this business and raising the money and getting Guy Pearce to be in your movie. And Mark was great from the beginning. One of my highlights from the shoot was when I first got to Albuquerque, I spent a couple of dinners talking to Guy and Mark about what we thought about the guys and their friendship. And Mark from the get-to had a quality about him that showed a lot of experience even thought it was his first time. He was very open to collaboration and what everybody was bringing to the table, and not insecure or closed off and stuck on an idea. It's a real confidence and openness to realize a moment for the first time right then and there. He didn't figure it out in his living room and go, "It's gotta be this." He stayed open and had great ideas, and you can't ask for more than that.
C: It must have been nice to work with someone who wasn't afraid to show a little enthusiasm about making a movie. You don't see that all the time.
WF: I've worked with a lot of people, and you're right. I'll never forget working on PERFECT STORM with Wolfgang Petersen, the guy doesn't make tiny movies. But I'll never forget his enthusiasm. He'd sit there and talk about an eighth of a page of a little silent moment on the boat with the guys and talk about for five, six, seven minutes about specifically what this moment meant. And then they'd roll the camera, and boy, everybody was there. He just brought everybody there. It happens at all levels. I like that; I respond to that. I like to get that enthusiastic about something. It's really great. I mean, why do it? If you're going to phone it in, I don't want to work with you. It's infectious, absolutely.
C: The character you play in FIRST SNOW is the realist counterpoint to other things going on in the Jimmy character's life, with the fortune teller. You are his realism. What kind of man did you envision Ed to be?
WF: I knew right away, when I read the script for the first time, that there was an element of a friendship. And not all friendships are equal. There's always someone who's a little more of the giver. I felt that Mark and Hawk [co-writer Hawk Ostby] really captured that my character was a bit more of that one. Jimmy was the better salesman. He really looked up to him, and I loved that about it. I thought that it was an unbalanced friendship; it's a true friendship. My guy really enjoyed being around him. It's a simple thing, ] For that alone, I really dug that, they really got that.
C: All of your scenes are with Guy Pearce. What did you learn from working with him? Or have you been doing this so long, maybe you've learned all you can know.
WF: I think I'm more of a student now than I've ever been. I hope that never changes. To be around Guy, everybody's got a different process. Guy had his thing going on, and he was just really cool to be around and watch it unfold. I hope that answers the question. I've never felt, "Hey, that acting thing, sure glad I figured that out!" [laughs] I don't think that will every be true. One step at a time.
C: You've been in so many films in your career, but the one I saw you in where you really first struck me was Steven Soderbergh's UNDERNEATH. Probably for a lot of people it was CONTACT. But for me, UNDERNEATH was the one where I said, "I'm going to remember that guy's face and name from now on." That's a criminally under-appreciated movie. What do you remember about working with Steven so early in his career?
WF: That was my first film really. I remember running into Steven sometime after we made that and I said to him, "Man you really spoiled it for me, my first time out there getting to work with you in Austin, Texas. What are you kidding?" Believe me, it's not like I didn't want to do a film before that, I just never got hired. Steven's such as great guy and an awesome director. Everything about making that was a highlight, really. And I appreciate you mentioning that; that's not one you hear about very often. There are so many awesome little subtle things going on in that movie.
C: You tend not to repeat yourself in your choices of roles. Is that by design or pure chance?
WF: Thanks for mentioning that. That's absolutely deliberate. There are times when I'll read a script, and my agent will say, "What do you think of that?" And I'll say, "I kind of did it." I fell really challenged by going new places, so when something comes up that feels familiar, I tend to pass. CONTACT was a real high for me, you know? I'll never forget that, because it was one of the first times I found out that I had a job in advance. Movie stars know they're doing something six months in advance, not guys like me. I found out I got that job two months before we started shooting it. That was the first time I had any preparation time, and that was wonderful, and I was really grateful for it. But it would be tough to play another blind guy. I would be hard to do another film about a guy on a boat. It does feel a little repetitive. Or it might be something much simpler than that, something about the journey of a character. It's new and fresh and alive to go someplace new, and I think that somewhere deep inside I have a barometer about what's new and what isn't for me.
C: I haven't seen the film yet, but I can't let you go without asking you what it is you do in BLADES OF GLORY. Please tell me that we get to see you in a figure skating outfit.
WF: [laughs] Actually, you don't. It's just a little thing in the movie at the beginning of the film. I play Jon Heder's father; he's my adopted son. He's just an incredibly rich billionaire who really wants a gold medal and is a figure skating fan, and he searches the world for the future hall-of-fame skater. It's all flashbacks in the beginning of the film. I got to work with Will Speck and Josh Gordon, the two awesome guys who directed the film, and they were like, "Come on Fichtner, you gotta do it." And I said absolutely, I'm in. And I know people don't think I do a lot of comedies, but I don't necessarily believe that's true. When you look at FIRST SNOW, my scenes are really the lighter side of a darker piece, and I like that because of it. Also, GO has it's very funny moments. My favorite experience of all time is one that has yet to come out called THE AMATEURS. Have you ever heard of it?
C: I don't think so.
WF: I did it about three years ago. It's one of these little heartbreak stories that hasn't found its way yet. It's a film Joe Pantoliano, Tim Blake Nelson, Jeff Bridges, Ted Dansen, Patrick Fugit, Glenne Headley, Lauren Graham...
C: Did it used to be called THE MOGULS?
WF: It used to be called THE MOGULS. Now it's called THE AMATEURS. It's probably the best time I ever had on a film, and it's a comedy. I think for me, I'm not a guy that's looking for sitcom jokes, but I sure do like finding real humor in real people. I always try to bring that to everything I do, if there's room for it.
C: In FIRST SNOW, this idea of fate and of trying to change destiny is a central theme. What is it you are still destined to do in your life?
WF: I don't know what I'm destined to do. But I pray to the good lord that I'm going to be around a long time and watch my kids do amazing things and drink a really good red wine with my sweetheart and work on things that always make me smile and make my own film someday if me and my buddy can ever finish writing it after three years. I just had my 50th birthday a few months ago, and I giggled the whole day long because I don't feel like I'm 50, and I sure do laugh about a lot of really cool things. I'm very very grateful for the journey.
C: I noticed in doing the research for this interview that there's a fan-based website devoted to you, and on it was a question and answer page in which you answered what looked like hundreds of fan-asked questions. Does this ring a bell?
WF: Yes it does. I don't go on the website myself. I check my e-mail once every three months, maybe a little more than that, but not by much. I spoke to the young lady who created that website years ago to thank her. My sister showed it to me when I was home for the holidays, and I was so honored. So I ended up getting in touch with the woman who created the website, and she said that sometimes people e-mail in with questions. And I said, do me a favor, every three or six months put the questions together and send them to me and I'll answer them. I can't promise you it'll be overnight, but I'll get it back as soon as I can. So that's what we've done over the last few years. She contact me, sends me a list, I answer what I can answer, mail them back to her. That's kind of how it works out.
C: That's a really unusual thing and really nice of you to do that. Why is it important to you to reach out to the fans?
WF: I never looked at it as, "Oh, my minions." [laughs] But sometimes I'll be walking down the street, some dude will come up to be and say, "Hey, you're that dude from that movie." And I'll say, "Thank you, buddy." It's cool, come on. I'm from western New York, it's cool. If somebody asks me for a photo or has a question, if I can, like I said, it may not be overnight, but I'll always try. It's my pleasure. Sometimes I'm with my boys, and I'm a little shyer then. But if I can, I will. You are where you come from. When you come from western New York, you don't put the cart before the horse.
C: Bill, it was a real pleasure talking to you. And please do everything in your power to get back on "Prison Break" next season. It wouldn't be the same without you.
WF: My pleasure. Is the tape recorder still on?
C: Should it not be?
WF: Turn it off!
And so I did, and Mr. Fichtner spilled such wonderful "Prison Break" secrets to me... Actually, that's not true, but he did let me know what the likelihood was that he's be coming back next season. I'm sure soon after the season finale, we'll have a clearer picture of who's coming back and who isn't, but since many of the cast members have still yet to sign for Season 3, we've got to keep this quiet just a little longer.