William Sadler [Interview]

In 2015 I attended a Showmasters Collectormania convention for THN. The press access at these events isn’t the best. Essentially they grant some people passes and then you’re on your own. If you want an interview with any of the talent you have to approach them directly when they don’t have an autograph queue, and put them on the spot. It’s certainly not the nicest way to work it for anyone involved. In contrast, MCM carve a little time out of each guest’s schedule and host mini press conferences off of the convention floor with the opportunity for a few folks to get a couple of solo questions in at the end. As I hated the idea of springing a surprise interview on people, I managed to track down some of the attendee’s details ahead of time and William Sadler was gracious enough to say yes to spending some time answering my questions. When I arrived at the event though he was extremely busy and offered to meet me at the end of the day in the lobby of his hotel. Our initial chat in the lobby morphed into a three course meal wherein we spoke at length about pretty much every aspect of his career. It was a truly amazing experience and I’ll be eternally grateful to Sadler for being so kind with his time.

The interview ran in it’s full six-page glory on THN, the text below being a few (okay a lot) of the highlights of the conversation.

On Working with Frank Darabont

The Green Mile was the hardest job I did even though it wasn’t a large role. It was emotionally the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do on film ever. On top of that I had to run (laughs), which I’m not good at and I hate it. I’m surprised I didn’t fall over and have a heart attack while we were filming. I had to run over and over again. Frank had set up this huge track for the camera to roll down, to follow me like an antelope. When I see the two dead girls – John Coffey holding the two dead girls – just that little moment, the emotional part of it aside, which was not fun, not a pleasant place to be at all, the running very nearly killed me. In work boots on that uneven riverbed, The Green Mile was maybe the most difficult, and the most challenging.

On The Mist

The Mist was great fun. Frank was, by the time we got to The Mist, Frank said that if Shawshank was cinematic, this was like a piece of classical music. Every note was perfect, every shot was organised and composed and beautiful and planned out, by the time he got to The Mist he said it’s more like Jazz. He had directed an episode of The Wire, I think, and loved this two cameras, handheld, catching everything. Every moment of the film was sort of caught in this unplanned way. He actually brought the cameramen [from The Wire] down to Shreveport to film The Mist because he loved that style. It was easier, it was faster and there’s a more immediate kind of feel to it.

The ending is incredibly powerful.

It’s extraordinary isn’t it? The studio didn’t care for that ending. There was a lot of controversy about that, but Frank stuck to his guns and said ‘No that’s how I want it to end’. If I’m not mistaken Stephen King likes that ending too. It’s awfully dark (chuckles). You’ve fallen in love with this kid and the struggle to keep him alive to the end and then…

And people expect that it being a film that everything will be okay.

Yeah. There was a fun moment on the set where Brian Libby, who plays the biker guy. We tie a rope to him and send him out into the mist, and he walks out into the fog and he disappears and we pull the rope back. I had this idea on the set. I was watching them get ready to shoot and I said to Frank what if he walks out and the rope stops and all of a sudden the rope goes like this (points upwards). The audience can’t see where it’s gone or what’s going on and then it just falls. Turns out that was a great idea. The thing could have been sixty feet tall and you don’t have to show it. All you see is this little link of rope.

It almost feels like a rep company working with Frank, because he uses a lot of the same actors over and over again. I appreciate that, and it’s fun to see the same faces in different roles.

Your character has one of the most dramatic changes, he switches sides from good to bad. Was that what drew you to the part, that you got to play both sides of the coin?

I don’t know. I’m often asked to play parts that either start off good and go bad, or it looks like they’re going to be bad and then it’s revealed that there is a human being under there and this is why he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s fun. I’m not sure why Frank chose me to play that part, but it was fun to do. I loved the idea of people grabbing onto religion like when they’re frightened, when they’re really frightened holding onto religion and using that as a cudgel to protect themselves. It’s like the Salem witch hunts. You don’t understand what’s going on so it must be evil, it must be the Devil’s work.

How an audition for Tales From the Crypt changed everything.

There was a moment early on in my career that sort of changed [my life], it was pivotal. There was a show called Tales from the Crypt, a TV series, and I did the very, very first episode. But I went into the audition for the cop at the end of the episode who goes in and says ‘you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say… ‘blah blah’, this tiny little nothing role. After the audition I asked Karen Rea the casting woman ‘What’s up with role of Talbot?’ who was the lead, The Executioner. She said ‘Oh they want a star, they’re going to get a star for that, they want a big name like Malkovich or Chris Walken.’ They were looking for a name. I said ‘Oh Okay’ and left. I got halfway across the parking lot and she yelled out of the window, ‘Bill, come back’. She gave me the sides for Talbot, she said ‘Come back on Monday, grease your hair, black out your teeth or something because you’re too pretty. We’ll put you on tape and see what they say.’ I came back in I put myself on tape, Walter Hill saw it and said ‘he’s great, he should play this role.’

There were four producers on that show, Walter Hill, Bob Zemeckis, Dick Donner and Joel Silver, those four gentlemen, this was their new show and this was their first episode of their new show. So I did it and it was successful, and it launched the series. The next thing that Joel Silver did was Die Hard 2 and I got the call and went and did that. I then did Trepass for Walter Hill. I worked with Zemeckis and Donner on other projects and Frank Darabont was a writer on Tales from the Crypt. He approached me on set a couple of years before we did Shawshank and said ‘I’m gonna do this movie and I’d like you to be in it.’ (chuckles), and he gave me a copy of this Stephen King novella which it was based on, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.

I also did for Silver Demon Knight eventually. So it was just this one funny little moment in an audition at Fox years and years and years ago where I asked about the bigger role, I asked about the lead, even that’s not what they were seeing me for and I can…it’s seldom in a career that you can look at a moment with such clarity and see that one moment lead to this, which lead to this, which lead to this. Most of what has gone on in my career was kicked off by that. It introduced me to a lot of good people.

The show became this funny thing in Hollywood where they started to get all the biggest names in town wanting to be in it. They all wanted to do a guest spot on Tales from the Crypt, or direct it. Everyone wanted to be part of it because it was so fun and kitschy.

Roswell, directing, and banjos…

I hear you play the banjo…

I do. I play the banjo, not the green grass banjo, but the jazz band from the thirties banjo. I also play the guitar and the mandolin.

Music became a focus for your character in Roswell, did you ever aspire to be a musician?

I played in a garage band when I was in high school; I mean we actually practised in the garage. We were called The Knightryders [yep with a y]. My dad taught me to play the ukulele when I was seven / eight years old. I played the ukulele and he played the baritone Uke. Then I got a banjo and he got a guitar. Then I got an electric guitar cause girls don’t want to listen to the banjo (laughs), The Beatles had happened so it had to be a guitar, and then I discovered acting. Actually the band I was playing with, The Knightryders, I left them to go to college and study acting and start this acting career.

(Pauses) I came back from college and there had been this terrible accident. They were coming back on a snowy night from Buffalo and the van was in a head on collision and most of them were killed. I took it as a sign that I should take this other road.

But you did get to do some singing in the work. Sheriff Valentine from Roswell was in The Kitsch-shickers.

(Laughs) Yeah and we actually did a couple of songs that I wrote. T-Shirt Man and All Point’s In-Between. There was a blues song and T-Shirt Man was kind of a rockabilly song. It was great, great fun, I love to sing and play. I don’t get a chance to do it much.

The X-Files is coming back, could we ever get a Roswell reunion?

I’d be there. I’d come back. I loved it. Roswell was a great time for me, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the character, I liked the series. I for one was sorry to see it disappear so if there ever is a Roswell reunion or Roswell the movie, I’m not sure how it would happen, but I’d be up for it sure. Somebody suggested there should be a Kickstarter, have a fan funded movie. I bet you could raise enough money.

The Roswell fans were very loyal, didn’t they save the show from an earlier cancellation?

Oh yeah there was a huge programme. They sent Tabasco sauce to the network executives. Cases and cases of the stuff. I guess they drowned them in hot sauce.

The sci-fi aspect really helped make it stand out, it wasn’t your typical teen series full of overly dramatic overly rich teens.

It also had at the centre of it this Romeo and Juliet thing. They were from two different worlds and they can’t be together no matter how much they love each other, this can’t work. The tension that creates was wrenching, ‘Oh my God she loves him’, ‘oh my God he loves her’ but this thing is doomed – he’s a freakin’ alien!

Your character had a big development throughout the show. He started off as the bad guy but then he changed completely.

I know, how good was that? I think it was the end of the first season, he doesn’t understand. He’s hot on their trail, he’s the big danger for them. If he finds out they’re screwed. Until he finds out. In the moment that he finds out, he finds out because Max saves his son who’s dying. It was a really remarkable ark for the character because he came back in the second season with a new agenda, he now has to protect them. He protects them so well that he loses his job, so by the end of the second season now he’s in trouble. Having protected them so well which is when he starts (laughs) his country western band again. I enjoyed the challenge of playing somebody over that period of time and having that. I’d never done a series before. I’d never done a series that lasted that long. I can understand how people can get tired of doing the same thing over and over again but I never found Valenti tiring at all, because every time he showed up was like every time you turn a page it’s a new chapter, he’s gone further down his road.

You also directed an episode of the show.

I did, which was fun and challenging. I was sorry to see the show end, I really was. If there had been a fourth season I would have tried to direct more. I might have tried my hand at writing some of it. Directing it was a completely new challenge for me and I found myself growing. I’d never been behind the camera before. You just see things differently and I was learning a lot from sitting with the editor. Watching them put things together. Setting up shots and planning little dramatic moments in that episode and watching how they played in the final thing. Being part of the creative team that way I found really exciting.

Did you seek out the opportunity to direct or were you offered it?

Yeah I told them I wanted to direct, and they told me at the beginning of season three that I would direct episode seventeen. The second to the last which gave me the whole year to shadow other directors and ask questions and sit with the editors and so on.

It’s a pivotal episode as well.

It was a huge episode. How do you show something coming out of this space craft and killing all these scientists and you can’t show what it was. You can’t show these deaths, but you do [come up with something]. I came up with that big screen, that great big curtain, so that everything happens inside like a shadow puppet show. It’s like happening on the inside of a lampshade. That sort of challenge like I wanted when the explosion goes off that kills Tess, there’s a tremor in the baby’s bedroom, where the baby is sleeping, the room goes like that [judders hand[ as there might be from a huge explosion. You shoot it the way that Spielberg shows it, which is with a glass of water which goes do-ing, but I wanted the baby to cry. I wanted the connection between the mother and child that’s broken at that moment to be felt by the baby. Even though he wouldn’t know why, he couldn’t possibly know what’s happened, it was little stuff like that, that you can add, it doesn’t take any longer to shoot it. It doesn’t change the script at all, but it lends a little interesting nuance to the storytelling.

Fighting Bruce Willis

(Chuckles) That was interesting. I’ll let you in on a secret, they trained me for a couple of months in martial arts and kick-boxing. I was trained by one of the best, Benny Urquidez, Benny the Jet, who was like kick-boxing champion of the world for years and years. He won tons of championships. He trained me like crazy for that movie so that I would look like a badass. But in the fights with Bruce Willis on the wing of the plane, if you can see Bruce’s face, it’s not me whose kicking him. It’s a martial artist named Randy Hall. If you see my face, it’s not Bruce kicking me (Laughs). I mean, we did fight together, but we pulled all the kicks and we pulled all the punches because if I get carried away or out of position and my boot comes across and breaks his nose, puts a gash in his cheek, we’re all screwed. So like I said when it’s Bruce’s face it’s Randy Hall who was also a kick-boxing champion. He could knock a fly off your nose with his boot and do it 100 times perfectly.

I didn’t mind at all because it makes me look all the better. But that’s how they pieced it together, so you would see the camera on me and I would start the move, then Randy’s boot would bang him in the face, then they would cut back to me landing after the kick. With all of this wonderful editing it looked like I kicked the shit out of him. It was Randy Hall and Monty Cox who doubled me. There’s a lot of dangerous stunts, like those high-speed snowmobile chases, that’s all Monty Cox. He was a great stunt man.

Disturbing Behavior and working with David Nutter

I’m a big fan of Disturbing Behavior.

(Seamlessly goes into character voice) ‘Rats! Rats from the bay.’ That’s the first time I worked with David Nutter, he then cast the pilot for Roswell and he brought me in as Valenti. Then he cast me in Traveler, which didn’t last that long a time, and then again in The Flash.

He seems to go from strength to strength…

Right. David Nutter is a genius. He’s one of my very, very favourite people on the planet. I adore David Nutter and I’ll work with him again any time anywhere. He did a couple of episodes of The Pacific that I did.

I don’t know if he’s done any other features though, besides Disturbing Behavior, but he has an absolutely astonishing record with doing pilots. Last I checked he was fifteen for fifteen at getting them made, getting them picked up on the air. The reason for that is just that he’s fucking brilliant. He’s like a ten-year-old kid, he still is. That’s one of the things I love about working with him. He gets just as excited about things as I do when it’s going well, you know you do the happy dance. Once you pull off a shot or a scene and you know that it just like BOOM that ones the one, he’s like a little kid in a grown up man’s body. A total joy to work with.

I do have a soft spot in my heart for Disturbing Behaviour, the soundtrack’s great, it’s an interesting idea.

It was a horrible experience for David after, during post production not shooting. The shooting of it went wonderful. The shooting of it I think was terrific. He cut together the director’s cut which I think was 103 minutes or something and they tested it and it tested through the roof with audiences. So immediately the studio said ‘Ah, this is going to be our big summer hit, let’s cut it down.’

They cut it all away. They cut the back story, they cut the romance, they cut the history, they cut the guts out of it. They cut the relationships. Anything that wasn’t gruesome special effects was cut. They did it with these focus groups and they cut it and then tested it again and it tested worse. So they cut it more. Then it tested worse, and then I think they cut it down to seventy-one minutes, something like that and it’s this little thing. David was livid. David was beside himself and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. I think he was so mad he wrote an open letter to the LA Times or Variety or some place about the process of what they did to this movie. I would have loved to have seen his cut of his film.

On Bill & Ted

I think I had more fun doing Bill and Ted then I’ve ever had making anything I’ve ever shot. It was, once I came up with the Czechoslovakian accent and had the funny make-up done, and the idea that he’s almost effeminate. He starts off as a scary dude and almost immediately it all unravels and he becomes this kind of insecure, dufus who all he really wants is for them to like him. At the end it was so sweet. I also got to be creative, I wrote the Reaper Rap. I kept having ideas, like when he goes by – I said to Peter Hewitt the director, ‘wouldn’t it be great if he walks pass somebody who’s smoking and says ‘See you real soon’ as he goes by, and the person who’s smoking goes ah and puts it out?’ Peter liked the idea and said bring the camera over here, that’s Peter Hewitt as the smoker. We didn’t have an actor to play it, the idea happened on the set, while we were shooting other stuff. Once I was in costume and character it was just easy to be silly, you know ‘what about my butt?’, ‘reaping burns a lot of calories’ (laughs) there were a lot of little things that I would say that ended up in the movie.

Why he works so frequently

(Laughs) I have to keep busy. Part of it is that I just love to work. I’d rather be acting than sitting around the housed doing nothing… but don’t tell my wife that. I’d rather be acting than doing almost anything else, and a lot of these projects don’t pay very well. Theatre doesn’t pay much at all and little independent movies sometimes have wonderful roles, or great ideas, scripts and problems that need to be solved, that I can sink my teeth into, but they have no money. They can barely fly me in (chuckles), the money is very limited. The days when you used to be able to do two or three movies a year and make enough money for the rest of the year are over.

That’s the other thing that’s changed in Hollywood. Somewhere along the lines the stars started making $16 million dollars and $22 million dollars, and everyone else below the line, below the title were asked to do it for a quarter of what you used to get, or a tenth of what you used to get. If you don’t want the job it doesn’t matter because we’ve already got Tom Cruise and there are ten guys standing behind you who are perfectly willing to do it. That happened around fifteen years ago, I wish I knew more precisely. The big stars, the Bruce Willis‘, the Tom Cruise‘s, people like that, they and their lawyers started wrangling more and more and more of the money, that’s all. You can pay them $20 million dollars without making cuts elsewhere. It’s not just the actors that took the cut, it’s carpenters, electricians, set builders, costumers, all of a sudden everybody else on the show was asked to do it for a quarter of what you used to get. It was really unfortunate I think, it’s just greed.

What if you didn’t pay him $16 million, but $14 million and then gave everyone else in the movie a living wage. You could do that. Or the executives could take a small cut, but Hell will freeze over way before that happens. When it first started to happen I thought it was just me, I thought ‘Oh my God, I was the flavour of the week and now I’m out of style’, until I started speaking to other actors and realised it was happening to everybody. I think they even had a name for it, salary compression or something. Sort of mirrors what’s going on in the world, with this incoming inequality where 1% of the people in the country control 90% of the money. It’s the same idea, it happened. So I like to work, I’d rather be working than not working, but working actors have to take more jobs in order to get the same pay of the old ones.

This interview appeared in full on THN.