A few days ago, I took to social media with a question: “Which book would you be more interested in reading: a collection of interviews with actors about their most memorable experience making a low-budget film, or a collection of interviews with former child actors about their favorite performance other than whatever is considered to be their signature role?”
For me, this was a win-win scenario, because I think there’s merit to both premises, but I asked the question because I want to write a proper book, i.e. not just a collection of previously-published columns, and if I’m going to write a proper book, then it’s got to be something that people will actually want to buy because, well, it ain’t like I got a big-time publishing deal, y’know what I’m saying?
This is something I’d be doing on my own, and if I’m going to be doing it, it’s got to be something that I feel like is going to end up actually making me at least a little bit of money. It doesn’t have to be a lot – although I’m not going to lie to you, I would love it if it was a lot, and so would my wife and child – but it’s got to at least be worth something.
But I’m getting off the topic at hand, and you’re probably starting to get grouchy about how long I’m taking to tell you the results of the poll, so let me take care of that right now.
By a 2 to 1 margin, the people who took the time to answer the question said they’d be more interested in reading a collection of interviews with actors about their most memorable experience making a low-budget film. As I said, this was always a win-win scenario for me, but as it happens, this is arguably the better win in the grand scheme of things, because you could argue that I’ve actually already started this particular book.
I actually had this idea last year – Big Fun, Small Budget -but at the time I kept trying to decide if I wanted to make it a book or if I wanted to try and turn it into a regular interview feature on some site or other, one that I could actually call my own. (Obviously, Random Roles is great, but even if I’ve managed to put my stamp on it over the course of the past few years, it’s still not my feature: anyone who writes for the Onion A.V. Club is able to do it, provided the editorial powers that be grant them that opportunity, and since the feature existed well before I came about the AVC, that’s as it should be.) Given that books are difficult and time-consuming and – if you don’t have a big-time publishing deal – don’t actually involve getting any money, I pitched the premise to one of my sites, and the idea was deemed intriguing enough that it was suggested that I take a shot at getting an interview for it and, if I got one, then we’d see how it turned out.
I racked my brain: what actor could I contact for an interview that A) had been in a lot of low-budget films, B) had a history of telling great stories, C) wasn’t afraid to shoot from the hip or pull punches, D) had entrusted me with their personal contact information and said to drop a line anytime, E) actually meant it, F) had a high enough profile that people would recognize their name – or at least their face – immediately, and G) was still down-to-earth enough to be willing to do an interview that might or might not actually be published?
That narrowed the field considerably, as you might guess, but of those individuals who remained, one stood out the pack: Bruce McGill. So I dropped him an email, explained the situation, laid out the premise of the feature, and asked him if he’d be up for it, and he said “yes.” This is because he’s just as awesome as you’d want the guy who played D-Day in Animal House to be.
A few days later, Mr. McGill called, we had a wonderful chat, I transcribed the piece, I submitted it to the magazine, and…the feature never materialized. Which is fine. I know in my heart of hearts that this has nothing to do with the interview and everything to do with the economic realities of today’s journalism industry, the busyness of that business, and all that kind of thing. But because the feature never materialized, it seems to me that it’s about time I moved forward on the book.
So here’s what I’ve decided to do: I’m going to post the interview here on my personal site, so that you can see the concept of the book in action. If you like what you see, let me know below. If you really like what you see, feel free to throw a donation into my PayPal account. I’m certainly not going to complain. In fact, I’ve even added a donation button at the end of the interview. But if you aren’t of a mind to donate or simply aren’t in a position to do so, I will gladly accept alternative payment in the form of you sharing the piece on social media. That way, I can at least start spreading the word about this book idea and, fingers crossed, get enough positive feedback and interest in the project’s potential to feel like it’s viable to start moving forward on it in a more significant fashion.
So here’s the interview, and – to borrow a line from “Brak’s Hawaiian Vacation” – I hope you love it.
BRUCE McGILL – WAITING FOR THE MOON (1987)
BIG FUN, SMALL BUDGET: Waiting for the Moon is listed on IMDb as an episode of PBS’s American Playhouse rather than a film, but it did actually get a theatrical release.
BRUCE McGILL: I think it had a one-week theatrical release. [Laughs.] I don’t really remember. It was co-funded by PBS, and they had rights to it also, but if it had a theatrical release at all – and you say that it did – then I think it meets your criteria.
How did you find your way into the production in the first place?
An audition. I just auditioned as a young actor…well, not that young, but one of the pool of actors working in New York City.
Was it just the opportunity that interested you, or was it the subject matter as well?
Oh, of course I found the subject matter interesting. It’s essentially about the relationship between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein – that was the focal point of the movie – but to play Ernest Hemingway? [Laughs.] You know, I’m a literary guy, and I’ve always had read a lot. If you like books, how do can you not at least have a certain amount of appreciation for Hemingway? Also, it was before I met Gloria, who’s now my wife, and I was a guy having a pretty good time living life, so…it was my Moveable Feast, if you will. Between just the opportunity to play him and then to do it while shooting somewhere on the Normandy coast, it was just an adventure.
I had a lot of time to prepare and I spent some of it on a sailboat. I used to sail a lot around New England – Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Newport, etcetera – and after I got the part, I had three or four weeks to read and prepare, and…it wasn’t really that I took it terribly seriously, any more than I take everything seriously. But it was a fun one to research, and there was time to do it, so I read all of his letters, but, really, for the purposes of that movie, A Moveable Feast was probably all I really needed. But when I first knew it was going to be an auspicious chunk of life was A) the preparation was sailing around on a 43’ sailboat around beautiful New England in the summer, and B) turning 36 years old in the air while flying to Paris to play Ernest Hemingway at 36 years old. So it was a perfect lineup.
In regards to the budget, it wouldn’t necessarily seem to be a production where it would need to be huge.
No, but it was a super low budget. I mean, I don’t even know what it was, but I know I was working for scale…and that was PBS scale for that, which is even lower. [Laughs.] So it wasn’t much money, but they paid expenses. They flew me there, and that was when flying wasn’t such a trial as it is now post-9/11. And being young-ish and single with some money on my own, because I’d done probably 15 or 20 movies by then, it just seemed like a super good idea. And because the story was focused mostly on Gertrude and Alice, I didn’t have any counterpart in the cast who was off on the days I was off, so I was a man playing Hemingway who was alone in Paris with a per diem. In fact, now that I think about it, that was how it was for a good chunk of it! So I had a wonderful time.
It was my first time spending any length of time there, and having read a lot of Hemingway’s letters, I knew that he had hung out at a place called the Closerie des Lilas. I found it, and I went in there, and I thought, “You know, if it was me hanging out at this bar, I’d sit over here.” So I went over and sat in a chair where nobody could really get behind you and you could see all of the entrances and exits. And what did I find there? A brass plaque to Hemingway. It was his chair. And I found it just because it was where I’d sit in the bar to observe. Not that I’m a barfly, but I’ve been in a lot of bars alone in my travels, and if you’re alone… I’m not there alone to pick people up or to be, “Oh, poor me, I’m so lonely.” It’s just that, when you’re on the road, you’re going to have dinner somewhere, and I tend to go to the bar and have a drink, eat dinner at the bar, and find out what the bartender knows about whatever town I’m in.
So, anyway, there’s your set-up. [Laughs.] But it was really great on those levels, and, you know, even though the focus was on the two women, it was a good part. There were a significant number of scenes and a really nice balance in the structure in the screenplay. So I played the hell out of it, and I really enjoyed getting to know Linda Bassett, who played Gertrude, and Linda Hunt, who played Alice and who I just think is terrific always.
There’s a great photograph floating around somewhere – I’ve lost it – but the budget was so low that they had this… I guess it was a Volkswagen bug that they used to ferry actors around, and they’d also take out the back seat and put equipment in there. One day, we were shooting well outside of town, and…it wasn’t like you finished your scene and transportation takes you right back to your hotel. So there’s this great picture of Linda Hunt and I in period dress, and we were finished for the day, but they couldn’t take us back, so we’re sitting on a quilt at the end of the world. It was off the Normandy coast, overlooking the English Channel, and it’s just us on this Volkswagen seat, sitting in the middle of a beautiful field of green and wildflowers, and the infinity off the edge of the cliff. And in a way, it captured what was really good about the experience: working with an artist like Linda and having time to sit there with hours to kill, looking out over such a view, and just talking about what it was like to be where you were.
The shooting of it… There weren’t a lot of funny things that happened. It turned out that the woman who directed it was…not very likeable. And therefore nobody really liked her, least of all Linda Hunt. And Linda’s pretty classy, but she had some pretty salty words for how she felt about this person. [Laughs.] And, you know, whatever. But the director was a gay woman who was the ‘80s version of a gay woman. She almost had the Marlboros rolled up in her white t-shirt sleeve, a short, butch haircut… So she was butch. I mean, if you were out in those days, you tended to be really out and almost militant, and she was in that camp.
So we shoot the movie, I do my scenes, and I think I’m doing a great job. After we’ve finished and we get back, I’m invited to the screening, and I take a girl who I was just starting to date, thinking, “Oh, boy, wait’ll she sees me as Ernest Hemingway!” And we go in, the movie starts, and I know there’s supposed to be this great scene I’d done…and it wasn’t there. And at first I thought, “Well, maybe they moved it, changed the order.” No, my part was so radically trimmed from the movie that I was embarrassed that I had even brought a date to it! [Laughs.] Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. But who’s the first person I walked into as I walk out of the theater? The director. She looks at me, and she has this stricken look on her face. She said, “Uh… Uh… Oh, sorry, I just… I didn’t know what to do with all that male energy!”And all I could think of to say was, “Well, it’s your movie.” And I just walked away. I couldn’t even engage her. Because I realized that of course she couldn’t: she was sorry that there were men in the world at all! Even though one of them was one of the great writers of the time, it was just disturbing male energy.
So I learned something there. I’d already learned that they can cut out every sixth frame and take you from saying “ohhhhhhh” to “oh,” so I knew that all we do when we’re shooting a movie is create the ore from which later they’ll make the film. You’re really just digging up iron ore, and they make the movie in post. But then I learned that just because you think that your character is necessary to the central story, you’re not necessarily correct, because you can look at it through a lot of different frameworks…and, obviously, hers did not like male energy. But that’s what I thought I could add! I thought I was balancing them by throwing a lot of male energy. Because, you know, Hemingway was a man’s man!
Yeah, you don’t get much more manly than Ernest Hemingway.
Yeah, not really. [Laughs.] I mean, come on!
You mentioned Linda Hunt and Linda Bassett, but you worked with Andrew McCarthy as well, didn’t you?
Yes, I did. Andrew McCarthy was, for some reason, I think mistaking bad manners for wit, and he was insulting to me in this bar, in a corner at a table. I said, “What does that do for you, to be rude to me? What does that do for you? Why would you say that to me?” I do that occasionally with people that are… They’re presuming on my good nature, is what they’re doing. And I just like to let them know in a gentle way that the good nature is a façade, and there is a head-eating beast down in there!
So, anyway, I don’t remember what it was about, but I just remember he was being flip, and…I think maybe he said something insulting about a piece of clothing. I don’t remember. But because I haven’t done it very often, I remember saying, “Why would you even do that? Why would you be mean to me for no reason? I’m no threat to you. You’ve got a better part than I do.” So, yeah, I worked with him. [Laughs.]
Did he have a response when you asked him why he’d said what he said?
Oh, when you do that, they always look stricken. And, of course, they go, “Oh, I was only kidding, I was only kidding!” And then I’ll usually finish up by saying, “Oh, so it was just a case of taking bad manners for wit.” Wit is so much more difficult. Bad manners, any cretin can do. [Laughs.] Anyway, I see his byline in some travel magazines now, and he’s sort of a pleasant, whimsical writer. But if I saw him again and he was rude, I’d say it again. Also, though, this was at a time when I think he thought he was King Shit. You know, when you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you run across people who are in their hot years, and if they’re younger in their lifespan, they of course think that’s the way it’s going to be always…and except for a very few cases, it isn’t that way. I mean, who’s ridden the horse all the way? Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Tom Hanks… Tom Cruise is doing a good ride, Harrison Ford… You know, there are a few. But a lot of guys, you know, your star burns for awhile, and then you fade.
That would’ve been right when his star was burning pretty bright, probably somewhere between Pretty in Pink and Less than Zero.
Yeah. And you can draw your conclusions from that if you want. “Here I am: I’ve achieved Less than Zero!” [Laughs.] But I digress. One of the reasons I say what I do in those situations is that it keep things level, so I can still have a pleasant relationship. As long as they know when they hurt my feelings that they heard about it. And to be frank, it’s not that they’re really hurting my feelings that bad. It’s just, y’know, you add a little whiskey and you say what you think!
You mentioned how the film’s low budget affected things a bit behind the scenes. Was there anything that struck you that affected things in front of the camera?
No, I mean, it was people talking, and we were using real locations, so they didn’t need to build any sets. As I said, there were the challenges of not having what you were used to in American productions in terms of transportation…or, actually, in terms of all the amenities, whether craft service or, you know, what you have on the table throughout the day. Also, we shot French hours, which is… They don’t break for lunch. They just shoot through. They pass food around, nobody starved, but you end up shooting a 10-hour day.
But, you know, I was having the movie experience, but I was also having the Bruce-McGill-alone-in-Paris experience. [Laughs.] I kind of didn’t mind at all that there was nobody who… I mean, usually you hook up with some cohorts, and you go out and do whatever you’re doing, whether you’re chasing a good meal, chasing drinks, or chasing girls. In this case, it was much more reflective. And it was a really interesting, good time for me. Even though I knew there was friction between Linda Hunt and the director, I really liked everybody on my side of the camera, even though it was uneven. I don’t remember much about the movie – except that they cut a lot of my stuff! – but I remember that it was a great experience.
My whole life has been filled with things like that, where I get a job and go to Paris or Mozambique – which wasn’t a wonderful experience, but it was certainly broadening – or in Bulgaria or even in some little market in the United States that you’d never go to for any other reason than because you’re shooting a film there. And you go not as a tourist to spend a day or two but as a local for two to six weeks. So you really have a taste of living in those different areas.
In that you were playing Ernest Hemingway, how much did you find yourself channeling him at the Parisian bars? Did you find yourself tempted to overindulge?
Well, you know, that was no stretch. [Laughs.] This was in the years after Animal House, and I’d only slightly calmed down by then. I know it, because I turned 36, and Animal House was out when I was 28. Now, when John Belushi died in ’82, that slowed the whole business down, because the feds investigated Hollywood for cocaine, etcetera. Also, I’d been spending some years saying, “John, take it easy, buddy. Things are going good for you. You’re gonna blow it.” And, of course, it’s still sad and shocking that he did.
But, yeah, I went out in Paris. In fact, my last night in town, I went to a place called Le Bain Douche – The Bath Shower is the rough translation – and it was this cool underground bath that had become a nightclub. And I got loose there. I ended up in one of these pools in all my clothes! And then I had to go back, barely in time to get some sleep, but when I got back to New York City, the clothes I had been wearing in the Le Bain Douche pool were still wet. It was, like, “You thought it was a dream, but, no, the clothes are still wet. You were really there!” [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s been a pretty adventurous life. I never think about it when I don’t have a reason to reflect on it, like this, but when I do, I go, “Wow, you didn’t waste a lot your time. You really didn’t.”
In regards to getting loose, as you put it, I’d imagine that the man who played D-Day hasn’t had to buy his own drinks in quite awhile.
No, but the man who played D-Day has learned one technique: sometimes it’s best not to let somebody you don’t know buy you a drink. [Laughs.] It’s, like, how much is your soul worth? Is it worth $8.50 at an airport bar? So sometimes I’ll go, “No, no, let me buy you a drink!” It just depends on the person. But, shit, I could dine out and drink out on playing my throat for the rest of my life if I wanted to be that much of an extrovert. They still ask, you know: “Did you really do that on your throat?” And I respond, of course, by doing it! But…what was it that George Bernard Shaw said? “What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do.”I live by that. Not so much now…but I did for awhile!
So did you have any problem shrugging off the character of Ernest Hemingway once the production was over?
I’m still wrestling with that. [Laughs.] There are a lot of differences between the two of us, but there are a lot of similarities as well. You know, there is a parallel in the way he pared down his writing and the way I try to pare down my choices as an actor. So I think about that occasionally, consciously. He was great, disciplined, a very hard worker, and he worked early in the morning, standing up, and felt like if he could get a couple or three sentences in a day sometimes, if they were good enough, that was a good day’s work. It was all about paring down.
If you read Hemingway, when you’re reading him the first time, you think, “I could do this.” Or at least I did. You think, “This is so simple!” But it’s not. So my spirit has been known to channel his spirit of… [Hesitates.] It’s not just sparseness, it’s stripping away the extraneous. Like, he would never say “he utilized something” when he could say, “He used something.” Before I was in the movies, I was very much a man of language – the plays of Shaw, Shakespeare, etcetera – so I love language and I love to explore language and the way different characters talk. So, yeah, Hemingway and Bruce, very similar. But I’m not gonna shoot myself. [Laughs.] I’ve already missed the “61 years old” date, anyway!