Interview: Character Actor James Le Gros Talks “The People Garden”, “Phantasm II” And A Career Working With Greats
In terms of sheer amount of quality character work in unforgettable films directed by some of the most notable names in the business, actor James Le Gros more than fits the bill. A skilled thespian who began his career early on with the likes of Kathryn Bigelow (go Near Dark!), Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy is a classic!) and Oliver Stone (a little Born on the Fourth of July anyone?!), Le Gros went on to have one of the most intense (The Rapture is a hidden gem!), diverse (big movies – how about Zodiac and Enemy of the State!) and character eclectic careers that’s still going strong to this day.
His latest film is of course another original thoughtful little indie from actress turned filmmaker Nadia Litz titled The People Garden (now playing in select theaters in LA and on VOD nationwide from FilmBuff) about a girl (amazing actress Dree Hemingway who is in full contention for my Best Female Performances of 2016!) who flies to Japan to meet with her rock star boyfriend who is filming a music video only to find that he has disappeared inside a dark Aokigahara forest. Le Gros plays Cole Gorney, the cheerful director of the video, plus there’s also a terrific turn by Pamela Anderson as an aging former sex symbol. But the uber-talented Le Gros has been on my interview bucket list for a while, so after years of waiting I finally got a chance to grill the man himself and I wasted no time. We of course chatted all about the perfection that is The People Garden (the use of the Kate Bush song ‘Running Up That Hill’ is brilliantly haunting!), but I also delved deep into the recesses of his long and tasty career and like his on-screen work Le Gros did not disappoint. From Kathryn Bigelow to the late Tony Scott, from Phantasm II to The Young Kieslowski I made up for lost time with a comprehensive career interview that’s a must read for film fans. A long list of great performances and memorable movies – all shared with us. Welcome one of our favorite actors…
JAMES LE GROS
As a story The People Garden is wonderfully character complex – what were your first thoughts upon reading it and your thoughts on Nadia Litz as a director?
James Le Gros: What I realized when Nadia was talking to me about the script and later when the film was realized is that these relationships and this exploration of love is so fraught with many aspects. But I’ve always liked this kind of melancholy love story and I was glad that that point of view was still strong when the film was finished. Nadia as an actor and writer/director works with great complexity and that creates its own kind of tension and suspense – that was the main thing that I was drawn to.
Your character Cole Gorney aka ‘The Director’ seems to be the most upbeat of all the more sullen people in the story – what was your take on him?
JLG: (Laughs) I feel like ‘The Director’ is the captain of the ship and so you have to have everybody vested and inspired to pitch in – particularly on those long rainy nights or when hardships like the lead actor goes missing. You have to have that kind of ‘can do’ attitude. (Laughs) That’s how Fitzcarraldo pulls the boat over the mountain. Not because he doesn’t think he’s going to make it, but because he believes he can. To me that was easy to access. Although I have worked with some very dark pessimistic people that have been in that position, but by in large they’re the ones that have to keep their eye on the horizon and because of that they have to maintain morale.
I loved the lush look of the environment in the film. Can you talk a bit about the shooting locations – where exactly you shot and how that informed the story?
JLG: I was only in two of the locations. I was on Vancouver Island in Sooke and Sudbury, Ontario that was a really cold thirty below zero the whole time. In Sudbury we were on stages there, so the hardship of that wasn’t really felt, but Vancouver Island is a beautiful and mysterious place. I would also say the people there were incredibly helpful and friendly, which is always a plus when you’re a stranger in a strange land.
Your choices, especially when it comes to smaller indie fare, are always films that are thoughtful and interesting – what do you look for in a project?
JLG: The first thing I look for is can I be helpful. Certainly the character has a lot to do with it because that’s gonna be my individual contribution, but I would say I’m looking at it more as an eye to the whole. I only say that because sometimes you can do good work in something that is not formed very well in other areas. Who cares whose the last person to drown on the Titanic really – except for that person I suppose. You want the thing to be good and I guess that’s what I look to. It’s like anything – what are you working on and who are you doing it with are the most important questions to me.
Recently I loved the chemistry between yourself and Haley Lu Richardson as father and daughter in The Young Kieslowski – how was working with Haley?
JLG: I just loved working with her and that director (Karem Sanga) he was fantastic. The experience was a really pleasant one for me. The time on movie like that is really short and you’re not working with a lot of resources, so you do feel that pressure for things to go well quickly. But I really enjoyed working with Haley. Plus we were shooting in Hermosa Beach, which is a little beach town that many years ago I used to find myself all along that part of the California Coast surfing all those breaks and so it reminded me of old times and that was nice too.
You’ve worked with an amazing list of directors and just wanted to know a few thoughts on each and possibly some of the respective films made…
Kathryn Bigelow pre-Oscar – first on Near Dark and then Point Break?
JLG: It’s funny, she’s the third director that I’ve worked with that came out of visual arts – she was a painter. Todd Haynes came out of visuals arts and Gus Van Sant was also a painter. But it was interesting to get to work with somebody who has that kind of vision and in a way those two movies are very iconic in the genre they’re in. You think of the avalanche of vampire movies after Near Dark – I’m not saying that was necessarily the tipping point but it certainly was at the point of the spear of those other movies. And Point Break too – that was the first sort of action/adventure movie with sports that were outside of the typical sports experience. You had parachuting and motorcycles and surfing and all these things and we hadn’t really been as an audience exposed to those things in that way. Again, there was something out in front of a lot of other stories that followed. As far as Oscar I’d be a liar if I’d thought it was going to happen, but I certainly wasn’t surprised. The scope of her talent is apparent right away and she has such a strong sense of how to place things in a frame – she’s a great artist.
Gus Van Sant – first on the indie Drugstore Cowboy and then the studio driven Psycho…
JLG: One much loved and one much hated…
Any differences in terms of Gus as a director on a small vs. a big film?
JLG: Not really. He’s who he is, wherever he is and that might be the secret to the success. I also have to say that down the line people will see Psycho for the value that it clearly possesses. But you take on some of these sacred cows in cinema and people have very strong feelings and I get it. But Gus is another person who as an artist continues to stay relevant – I mean what a catalog of work. Drugstore Cowboy was a big deal for me because it was the first movie I did that was an artistic, in terms of film criticism, the first artistic success, which was very important.
Then you did Born on the Fourth of July with Oliver Stone?
JLG: Yeah, rolled right into that! I didn’t really have so much to do in that movie, but I was there on set a lot and to see people work at that scale and obviously Oliver Stone at that point in his journey was at the top of his game was amazing.
Michael Tolkin with the hidden gem The Rapture?
JLG: I LOVE Michael Tolkin. Many years later we did a pilot that didn’t get picked up that was a really good pilot called ‘1 percent’ that we did at HBO and we stay in contact. He’s got an incredible intellect and you feel very privileged to engage with people that think that deeply.
You don’t talk a lot about it, but I’m a huge fan of and grew up with Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm II – what are your thoughts looking back on that film?
JLG: Phantasm II – I love that one! Two things about that film. One – that was the first lead I ever did in a movie, so that was really exciting for me. And second because of the privileged position of being on the call sheet everyday I learned so much about filmmaking on that film – things to this day that are part of my working experience. But I just loved all those guys. Angus (Scrimm, actor The Tall Man) God rest his soul, Reggie (Bannister, actor Reggie) and Don and Daryn (Okada, Cinematographer), everybody was just so fantastic and there was just such a collegial spirit. And these guys were making this stuff from nothing and all in camera too. It was back in the day when you actually had to do stuff. None of that CGI – things had to happen. In a way that’s why we engage with some of those other older movies that way because it’s less synthetic. Digital artists they do some terrific work, but there is something lost in the bargain. I have very fond memories of that experience and I was pleased how it turned out – I’m very proud of that film.
How about Cameron Crowe on Singles? Man you’ve worked with everybody!
JLG: Yeah. (Laughs) That was a funny kind of a thing too because I thought I was going to work on that movie earlier on and he picked somebody else to do the part I was up for. And then I guess they hired this actor and for whatever reason it didn’t work out and I got a phone call from my agent saying ‘They want you to come up there to start work on Monday – can you get on a plane tomorrow?’ And I was like, ‘Sure!’ And I went out there and I shot the thing and some time went by and they decided maybe we need to have a little bit more of that character, so I went again and they added a couple more little moments for that character. It was a wonderful lucky experience for me.
Again another hidden gem – Todd Haynes with Safe?
JLG: That was a really good film and another film that eventually was critically well received. But I have to say it was also a learning experience because I remember when that film was at Sundance, and this is before anybody knew that it was good cause no one had told them it was good, a lot of people walked out of that movie. So it was a very important lesson about perception. Out of the gate the early opinions were like ‘Oh my God, it’s so weird, so stupid, blah, blah, blah’ and there was a negative charge. Mr. Miles Davis said the hardest thing to be is original because it’s the most misunderstood, so again another one of those very critical learning experiences. But it also had the additional benefit of a lifelong friendship with Julianne Moore who has been a really, really valuable person in my life. Her fidelity and support is deeply appreciated – she is a good egg that Miss Moore.
The late, great Tony Scott with Enemy of the State?
JLG: That was heartbreaking when that news came. Tony was an amazing guy. He knew I was very interested in the process, so for the short time I worked on the film he let me follow him around. He’d show me all the storyboards and what he was thinking because he was running a lot of cameras – he was a filmmaker really in full possession of the craft of filmmaking. As far as the movie I remember the casting directors were friends of mine and they were saying, ‘They’re re-writing the script, so you should go in there and pitch them an idea.’ So I went in there and in the original script the guy who tips everything into motion with that surveillance video of birds where he ends up seeing the murder was like some hippy fat guy in a VW Van and I was like, ‘He should be a guy like me, fit and be on a mountain bike and he should be a naturalist.’ And I showed them all these pictures I had cut out of what his clothing should look like and I showed them some clips of guys doing stunts and I’m like they should do this whole chase riding the bike – it’s better than a car crash! And they loved the idea, but then they didn’t cast me in that part – they cast Jason Lee! But because those guys are straight shooters they hired me for another part and they paid me an ungodly sum of money for doing this little teeny, tiny part which was their way of going hey man, we appreciate what you did and we’re not gonna screw you. I remember going into my costume fitting and seeing the costume director muttering to herself because she had to go shopping because Tony Scott wants this one character to look a certain way and she’s holding the clippings that I gave them! I mean I didn’t say anything, but I was like oh my God – that’s so f@cking funny!
Here’s an interesting one – David Fincher for Zodiac?
JLG: That was another weird job where I put myself on tape and it got sent to him and his casting director was like, ‘Yeah – it’s good.’ And it must have been six months and then I heard ‘they want you to be in the movie’ – great! He was another one that suffered all my stupid questions and I remember we reshot every scene I did in the movie two or three times. But one scene in particular that didn’t make the cut of the movie was near the end of the film and it was the first thing I shot when I got on the film. And I heard a few days later ‘they’re gonna reshoot that’ and I was really bummed out. I was thinking I f@cked up. Here’s this director I’ve always wanted to work with and first day out of the box and they’re gonna reshoot the scene and I remember feeling bad about myself. And then I had one of those great good news, bad new moments. I looked at the call sheet and everybody’s name is next to a number and there were only two people in that scene. There was number one and then as you work your finger down the face of the call sheet you get to my name which is number fifty-four. And I thought to myself – that’s interesting. They don’t reshoot for fifty-four, fifty-four gets fired and somebody else comes another day and shoots the scene. (Laughs) It was clarifying. The good news is…it’s not about you. And the bad news is…it’s not about you! One more aspect of the education of young James Le Gros.
What’s next for you – I’m especially excited about Buck Run with Amy Hargeaves who is currently on my list of Best Female Performances for 2016 for the film How He Fell In Love?
JLG: Yeah, me too, but it doesn’t start shooting until end of October. That’s a really great, intense, somewhat heartbreaking script that could turn out well if we can just manage to shoot what’s on the page. Also I just finished a movie called Dating My Mother, which I was making in New Jersey with a group of young filmmakers. A funny, touching script about this guy and his strange relationship with his mother trying to find his place in the world – that’s the next thing. And another thing that’s coming out at the New York Film Festival Oct. 3 and starts its theatrical opening Friday, Oct. 14 in New York and LA is this fantastic movie I did with Kelly Reichardt called Certain Women. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had as an artist working with Kelly – I’ve done two movies with her now the other being Night Moves. Great cast. You have Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Jared Harris, Lily Gladstone, Rene Auberjonois and James Le Gros bringing up the rear. I really thought it was a moving, thoughtful, deep picture and I hope people get out and see it.
THE PEOPLE GARDEN IS CURRENTLY PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS IN LA AND ON VOD NATIONWIDE FROM FILMBUFF.