Mr. Beaks's Conversation With Jerry Dandrige (aka Chris Sarandon)!!
Published at: Sept. 19, 2008, 12:34 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Leon Shermer. Jerry Dandrige. Prince Humperdinck. The (non-singing) voice of Jack Skellington. There's no disputing that Chris Sarandon has had a decent run.
And yet it feels like we've been missing him over the last decade when, judging by the volume of work, we clearly haven't. Sarandon's been very active, snaring recurring roles on popular shows like FELICITY, ER, LAW & ORDER, JUDGING AMY and CHICAGO HOPE while appearing on Broadway in THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and CYRANO DE BERGERAC (with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner). But when you earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for your first film performance (as Al Pacino's gay lover in Sidney Lumet's classic DOG DAY AFTERNOON), and then go on to appear in two of the 1980s most beloved horror/fantasy films (FRIGHT NIGHT and THE PRINCESS BRIDE), anything less than iconic seems like a letdown.
While Sarandon sounds content with his life (and if I were married to Joanna Gleason, I wouldn't be complaining either), I can't help but feel that there's something unfinished. Sarandon is a top-notch performer; he should be mixing it up with his contemporaries (guys like Pacino, De Niro and Walken) on the big screen rather than quietly impressing on television. Doesn't someone have a nice, juicy, "Holy hell, we missed this guy!" second-act role for Sarandon? Isn't this your job, Tarantino?
All one needs to do is revisit the seductive menace of Jerry Dandrige in FRIGHT NIGHT to fall back in love with Sarandon. As folks have been saying in the Tom Holland talk back today, Dandrige compares favorably to the best big-screen bloodsuckers of all time; Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt wish they were this charismatic in INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE. Sarandon's so cool, he even keeps that bizarre, dreamlike dance scene in the club with Amanda Bearse's Amy from collapsing into camp; you totally get why this girl suddenly went from cute to scorching in the blink of an eye.
When I started lining up interviews to coincide with the special screening of FRIGHT NIGHT at the Nuart (Friday @ midnight!), it didn't sound like Sarandon would be involved. Then I received an email two weeks ago from Tim Sullivan saying Sarandon was in, and that he'd be more than happy to do an interview. A few days later, Sarandon rang me at home asking if I was ready to go. Though I was in the middle of writing a review (we hadn't set a definite time), I figured "What the hell? I've been watching this guy's stuff since i was a kid." So I grabbed my recorder, and we jumped right into it. I think it went rather well.
Mr. Beaks: Let's start with how you got involved in FRIGHT NIGHT.
Chris Sarandon: I was sent the script by my agent. I, of course, was convinced there was no way I wanted to do a vampire movie. When my agent called and said, "They're interested in you for this vampire movie that's being done. It's a first time director," all of the alarm bells went off. Then I read it. I remember very distinctly sitting at my desk in my apartment in New York at the time, and turning to my wife and saying, "You know, this script is really good! I think I should meet these guys. I don't think I should dismiss it out of hand because it's a vampire movie. It's really well written." I can't remember if I flew out or if they flew me out, but, anyway, I go out to meet with Tom Holland and Herb Jaffe, who was the producer, and we just hit it off. We talked and, essentially, I was honest with them. I said, "Tom, I'm taking a real flier here. You're a first time director. I'm really not sure what I'm getting into." And he said, "Well, let me tell you how I'm going to shoot the movie." And he literally described every shot in the picture. He had it all in his head, a very clear idea of what he wanted to do with it. And the more he talked, the more excited I got. By the time he finished, I said, "Let's do this!" And that was it!
Beaks: Did that confidence translate to the set?
Sarandon: Absolutely! Also, Tom was an actor at one time, and he felt comfortable with actors - which is unusual for first-time directors. My impression was that he was very specific with his cinematic vision of the picture, but also what he wanted from the characters. The first time we sat down to read through the script, he said, "I really want you guys to explore these characters. I'd like everybody to do a biography of their character - if only for themselves - to help create a real life for your character that's not necessarily going to be seen on screen in terms of its specificity, but will be specific in your mind when you're doing the scenes. It will make the scenes richer." He was, of course, absolutely right. That's the way to approach it.
From that point on, the atmosphere was very collaborative. I mean, I'd come up with ideas, and Tom would say, "Oh, great! Let's shoot it!" He would add shots, or he would rethink the way he was going to do a scene based on an idea that I had or someone else had. It was wonderfully collaborative.
Beaks: I know of two little elements that you added. One is your whistling of "Strangers in the Night".
Beaks: And the other is the apple. Tom said you had Jerry chomping on an apple to clean his fangs.
Sarandon: Well, first, I did a little research. I mean, how much can you research vampires besides what's available in the fictional realm? But I did think, "Why not research bats?" Why not get into the whole bat world?" So I started reading on that, and the more I read, the more I came to understand that the majority of bats throughout the world are fruit bats, not vampire bats. So wouldn't it be interesting if Jerry had some fruit bat in his DNA somewhere? Hence, his taste for fruit. So we had little moments in the movie where Jerry would enter the scene and... actually, I think the scene in which you first see him, he's walking down the stairs eating an apricot. Then there's the scene in which he leaves the house and Charley is hiding in the bushes; that's the apple scene you're talking about. I also thought, "Wouldn't it be fun if he took a bite out of the apple, and Charley sees the bite and it's huge!" It added a kind of scary element to the movie. So we added it, and Tom shot it that way. It was great. Tom was great that way.
Beaks: I can't imagine you've had too many experiences in film where you've had a director ask you to do a biography.
Sarandon: No. That was the first and the last time. Now, that said, I did work with Sidney Lumet, who has a background of having worked with actors all his life - in fact, he was an actor when he was younger. Sidney hires the kind of actors who do that kind of work naturally; it is a natural result of the naturalistic acting movement that was created in this country in the '30s and '40s by The Group theater, who were firm adherents to the Stanislavsky method, which says you've got to go back and figure out where you came from above from your own emotional truth and what your character's emotional truth is, etcetera, etcetera. So there are directors who are very comfortable with that. But this is the first time and the last time I ever worked with a director who said, "I'd like to see you sit down and do this. This is your homework. Come back to school tomorrow or next week, and let's discuss this."
Beaks: So working with Tom was a little like working with Sidney?
Sarandon: Yes. But Sidney does a lot of rehearsal. Tom didn't have the luxury that Sidney is afforded through his many years of experience, and the fact that he almost invariably shoots under-schedule because his actors are so rehearsed. You don't have to shoot a lot of takes. They know what they're doing. With Sidney, you go in and you rehearse for two or three weeks. I think we had a week to rehearse FRIGHT NIGHT, which is much more than most movies, but certainly not as much as Sidney. Tom was a first-time director, so asking for a week of rehearsal was unheard of, but it paid off because the movie, despite its special effects, came in right on time and right on budget.
Beaks: You talk about experiencing some trepidation over working with a first-time director. Before FRIGHT NIGHT, you'd worked with Sam Peckinpah on THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND and, obviously, Lumet on DOG DAY AFTERNOON. Were you chasing noteworthy directors with whom you'd like to collaborate?
Sarandon: I am not, and was not at the time, an actor who can choose what he wants to do. By and large, most of the actors who are out there, and that includes a lot of people who are better known than I am, are always looking for their next job. You're fighting for parts and trying to do things that are challenging and interesting. So when this came along, I was on a pretty good string; I had done THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND and some television specials for "Hallmark Hall of Fame" that were well received. I was working steadily. But you're always looking for the next role. That was one of the reasons I was being careful with [FRIGHT NIGHT]; at the time, I'd had an Oscar nomination with my first movie, and had done a string of movies after that, and... I was just looking for something interesting. And [Jerry Dandrige] was, in a way, a kind of theatrical role. Even though the medium itself is a naturalistic one, the story is a fantasy/horror genre piece in which the performances can be a little larger than life. You're playing someone who's been alive for a thousand years maybe, has powers far beyond normal human beings, and sucks people's blood to stay alive. It's all pretty much in the realm of fantasy, so it lends itself to a certain kind of theatricalism.
Beaks: Very much so. There's that wonderful seduction of Amy in the club; it's this sort of pas de deux that feels like it belongs in a movie musical.
Sarandon: That was choreographed by [Dorain Grusman], and a lot of that was Tom, too. The way he chose to shoot it, the way he had her physically changing so that she goes from this rather dewey, innocent-looking girl to this femme fatale, she kind of grows up right before your eyes. It was all very choreographed and calculated.
Beaks: And this centuries-old romance was also something you suggested, correct?
Sarandon: Yes. It was something that I thought might be a little corny, but I also thought it would add a certain kind of resonance to his attraction to Amy. Otherwise, he's just attracted to Amy. But if she looks like someone he loved hundreds of years ago, it gives us more of a jump-start into that relationship.
Beaks: It's an interesting choice because, up until that point, there is a sexual ambiguity to Jerry. He's very pansexual.
Sarandon: Oh, absolutely. Duly considered. It was seen that way from the beginning, and we didn't want to shy away from that. The scene with Evil Ed, in which Ed is being stalked by Jerry... but then, as it turns out, Jerry is the only sympathetic figure in Evil Ed's life. Everybody makes fun of him, everybody gives him a hard time, and, essentially, Jerry is saying "I'm giving you a chance to become as powerful as I am both physically and sexually." I think that's one of the things that people find attractive about the character - and the movie, too. It has a sexual ambiguity to it.
Beaks: Now in terms of the special effects, Tom was working with Richard Edlund and the team that had done GHOSTBUSTERS the previous year. A lot of those f/x were centered on your character. Did that complicate your performance?
Sarandon: In a way, those things were still in their infancy. It was, um, work. (Laughs) It was time consuming because a lot of what was done was done very low-tech. You weren't working against a blue-screen or a green-screen; you were working with a fake bat and/or with special f/x makeup, cranking the camera in reverse... that sort of thing. There were things added after, but a lot of what was done was done on the day; I don't want to say it was a majority, but certainly more than is done now. For the full vampire makeup, I would come in at four in the morning, and I'd be done eight hours later. The prosthetics were very time consuming to put on: the fingers, the whole face, the ears... everything. We didn't have the full facial pieces, so they were done individually and blended. It was very time consuming, exhausting, but fun. Except for the bloody contacts. At the time, contacts were very low-tech. They were hard contacts, and they were literally painted with paint, so they felt like somebody had stuck a three-inch diameter pearl in your eye. I could only wear them for no more than a half-hour to forty-five minutes before it became just impossible.
Beaks: So what are you up to now? I see that you did a production of CYRANO DE BERGERAC.
Sarandon: We closed at the end of January. Since then, I did a pilot for ABC called THE UNUSUALS, which just got picked up. It's about a female detective. I play her rather rich and disapproving father. She comes from a Park Avenue background, and he is a very wealthy mogul. Joanna Gleason, who is a rather spectacular actress, plays her mother. We get to play husband and wife for the first time ever. And that's it at the moment! Otherwise, it's the old actor's life. You're just out there looking for work.
Beaks: Well, that's very admirable.
Sarandon: It's interesting and fun. I spend a lot of time at this point working outside gardening and raising my own tomatoes and vegetables, which I enjoy tremendously.
Beaks: And at the same time, you've got a number of great performances in movies that have left their mark on the culture: DOG DAY AFTERNOON, FRIGHT NIGHT, THE PRINCESS BRIDE and even NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.
Sarandon: I'm very proud. I'm very proud of the work that I've done and the people I've worked with.
Coming tomorrow (or over the weekend), I'll have your Stephen Geoffreys interview.