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An Interview with Eric Bogosian

[ACTOR/WRITER]
“I ALWAYS THINK THE MOST INTERESTING ART TRIES TO GET YOU TO SEE THE ‘NEGATIVE’ AS PART OF YOUR OWN PERSONALITY.”
Highlights from New York City in the ’70s:
Robert Mapplethorpe
Feminism
Multiple Personality Disorder
Japanese steel
Lebanese drug dealers
David Mamet
by Erik Jensen
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Eric Bogosian

[ACTOR/WRITER]
“I ALWAYS THINK THE MOST INTERESTING ART TRIES TO GET YOU TO SEE THE ‘NEGATIVE’ AS PART OF YOUR OWN PERSONALITY.”
Highlights from New York City in the ’70s:
Robert Mapplethorpe
Feminism
Multiple Personality Disorder
Japanese steel
Lebanese drug dealers
David Mamet
by Erik Jensen
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Eric Bogosian

Erik Jensen
16 Snaps

Actor and writer Eric Bogosian first bubbled up from the cultural stew that was late-’70s New York with the Ricky Paul Show, an act in which he played an obnoxious comedian/abhorrent lounge singer who wore a plaid suit and instigated physical confrontation with his audience. Antagonistic, aggressive, and rough around the edges, the Ricky Paul Show was the theatrical manifestation of punk.

Over the next couple of years, the “guys in Eric’s head” started multiplying, each clamoring for stage time of their own. Simultaneously, at the tail end of a “kind of Robert Mitchum way of relating to women,” Eric met his wife, director Jo Bonney, who would go on to become his closest and most essential collaborator, directing him in six one-man shows that revolutionized American theater. The “solos”—Men Inside; Funhouse; Drinking in America; Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll; Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead; and Wake Up and Smell the Coffee—introduced theater audiences to Eric’s chameleonic, visceral acting style and his dark, hilarious, and radical writing.

Part Andy Kaufman, part Lenny Bruce, part good old-fashioned transformational character actor, Eric brought shock jocks, spaced-out drug dealers, Hollywood producers, New Age gurus, rock stars, homeless guys, and traveling salesmen to the stage, infusing each with his trademark fearless, acerbic, provocative, and insanely insightful wit. Chaotic, visceral, precise, and totally contemporary, his solos spawned a whole new genre of theater.

Eric has gone on to write multicharacter plays (Griller, Talk Radio, Humpty Dumpty, subUrbia), adapt two of those (Talk Radio and subUrbia) into films with Oliver Stone and Richard Linklater, respectively, and write screenplays, teleplays, and novels (Mall and Wasted Beauty). He also works constantly as an actor in film, theater, and TV, playing characters from Lebanese drug dealer/John Holmes buddy Eddie Nash (Wonderland) to world-conquering evil bad guy Travis Dane (Under Siege 2) to McCarthy-esque senator Larson Crockett (Witch Hunt) to Satan (Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot) for directors as diverse as Robert Altman, Lizzie Borden, Atom Egoyan, Woody Allen, Paul Schrader, and Oliver Stone.

This year, he has been added to the long list of great New York actors to star in the Law & Order franchise, as Captain Danny Ross on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Jo Bonney recently directed an updated production of subUrbia off-Broadway, and Talk Radio is currently being revived on Broadway.

We first met Eric when he acted off-Broadway in our play The Exonerated. We spoke with him on a late August afternoon in his office in Tribeca, surrounded by Futurist posters and minimalist furniture.

—Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen

 I. “I DID GET IN A COUPLE OF FIGHTS, BUT NOTHING TERRIBLY SERIOUS. JUST PEOPLE TRYING TO PULL ME OFFSTAGE.”

ERIC BOGOSIAN: What, do you guys have, like, notes and stuff?

ERIK JENSEN: Yeah.

EB: You’re such squares. I like that about you.

JESSICA BLANK: It’s true; we are a couple of squares. OK. A lot of people know you for your solo plays like Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, but you also write more conventional plays, and novels, and you act in other people’s plays and in film and TV. Did your writing and your acting develop concurrently? Did you think of yourself as one or the other starting out?

EB: Everything started with acting. That was natural. The writing thing was more that I was a really big reader; I was like somebody that really likes baseball and would be a baseball player, except that they don’t have any of the things you need to play baseball well. I didn’t have the discipline, the word mastery, the linear imagination you needed to be a writer. So I go to theater school, I come to New York, I decide that theater here seemed way too commercial and hardball, I decide to quit the whole thing. Got a job trading Japanese steel at the World Trade Center, and on the same day I was meant to report to my first day of work I got a call from the performance space the Kitchen, where I’d applied before I’d given up on the theater. They said,“We need someone to come here and answer the phones.”

JB: This was when New York apartments were the proverbial ninety-five bucks a month.

EB:I slept in the dinette.One roommate was Israeli,one was Hungarian, it was ridiculous. I’m working at the Kitchen, which is this hotbed of video art, performance art, a Mapplethorpe show, the Wooster Group’s down the street. Now we’re in ’76.

JB:Ah. The year.

EB: Yeah. The people I was going to work with, they were going to CBGB’s and Max’s. I started going with them. And then in ’78-ish, the art world really tuned into what was happening with new music. Post–Talking Heads, the year Sonic Youth was created. There were a lot of weird bands. Everybody’s making a band. And at the same time, I saw in the experimental theater writing that was not linear, that came in all kinds of chunks and pieces, and that was something I thought I could do. So I scratched this thing together called the Ricky Paul Show. I would take standards and sing them really badly, do bad comedy, half-baked.This was a time when I was doing a lot of narcotics, so every performance ended in, like, a total immolation. I did get in a couple of fights, but nothing terribly serious. Just people trying to pull me offstage.

EJ:Were you thinking about Andy Kaufman?

EB: Andy made an impact on me with his first appearance on TV. Nobody knew who this guy was. He came out and he was like, “This is my aunt Edna: ‘Come in the house right now.’” “Marlon Brando in The Godfather:‘Make me an offer I can’t refuse.’”And you’re like, this is awful. But then he says,“This is Elvis Presley.”And he turned around, and he put a comb through his hair and he turned back, and he was Elvis.To me, it was the essence of theater: that you could change like that. I thought: What if I could change from guy to guy to guy to guy? And what if instead of playing just one asshole onstage, I could play a whole bunch? Then I saw David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago.That was the first time I had seen a writer put a character onstage and not make any excuses, not let the audience off the hook. It’s not like: here’s this really good guy that you relate to and then here’s this bad guy over here we’ll all vilify. No: this guy’s an asshole, yet you relate to him. I always think the most interesting art gets you to see the “negative” as part of your own personality. So, I thought, “ What if I could do a dozen of these guys, and really make it a series of transformations.” And so I started doing these collections of guys.

JB:And those became your solo plays. Did you just put pen to paper and start writing them? Or did they grow out of live performance?

EB: I was doing vocal exercises with somebody from Mabou Mines. They suggested that I tape-record myself, to learn about my voice. I didn’t have anything to talk about, so I’d just make stuff up. I’d go [redneck cop voice] “OK, get outta the car right now, put your hands on the hood.” Or [New York Italian gangster voice] “Every time I eat a slice I feel like I’m gonna blow up,” you know. I would make hours and hours of tapes. Edit them down, learn them, transcribe them.

EJ: What was it that made you move from the solos into writing screenplays and TV? Was it just that the solos were successful and people wanted to make movies out of them? Or did you consciously say, OK, I want to write movies too?

EB: Well, over this time of solo writing, I kind of learned how to write. Jo and I were very poor for a long time, and then I got signed by the William Morris Agency in 1983, and I mean, what’s the point of that unless you have some kind of interest in something that they’re going to pay you to do? And what’s the thing that they’re gonna pay you to do? Write a screenplay. I learned how to tell a story in an arc, about beginning, middle, and end, and I had to learn how to have character push that. And then I created a TV series for Steven Spielberg called High Incident that ran for two years. TV is an even more haiku approach than screenwriting. Your plots have to be even tighter, you have even less time, you have to break for commercials. About eight years ago, I became aware that I didn’t want to write for corporations anymore—the whole process of being kind of, what do they call it? “in development,” is really, basically—

JB: —Hell?

EB: I don’t think it leads to anything good. Ever. Because basically they end up writing it, they don’t know how to write, so you’ve got nothing. But in the meantime, I had learned to write episodes and stories. And I was drawn to what happens with books. There isn’t this time thing cracking over you, like, you have to get it done in two hours. You can sit around in a puddle of the story for a while. And this was very interesting to me. So I started writing novels. It was fantastic because I think in very novelistic terms; the interior monologue that I could never explore in a screenplay or a play, I could fully expose in a book. I found out that my thinking and my imaging and my shaping of reality was not as original as I thought it was. I thought I had this really unique way of looking at things, but when I wrote it, I found so much of it to be kind of trite. It really helped me read other people, because I could then see the way they fashioned their worlds through their prose, I could see how original that is—basically they invite you into a new way of looking at things.

JB: Obviously the end product is not trite. So how did you uncover that?

EB: With the solo stuff, the way I wrote meant spending as much time editing as I spent writing. In the case of Wasted Beauty, my second novel, an eight-hundred page manuscript became four hundred pages long. I edited and edited. I had to believe that something in there was original. What’s the point of writing, anyway, because you’ve got so many books out there already; what have I got to say? You have to believe that in this time and this place, I am being totally present and honest in this thing that’s going on with me, so that when you read it you go, Wow, that guy is really on that moment in a way that makes this moment that I am living in right now shimmer a little bit more.

II.“FILMED ENTERTAINMENT IS LIKE NUTRASWEET.”

JB: Can you talk a little about character? What is it in writing, what is it in acting, where does it come from? Are your characters versions or aspects of yourself? Do they exist as vessels for ideas you want to express, or does the character come first and the idea follow?

EB: I have a very clear idea about what character is. I don’t know that I started out with this clear idea.With the first solo, I was basically inventorying a bunch of people who seemed to live inside of me and who were unique individuals.

JB: Did they appear from the beginning as distinct people, or did you have to kind of pull them out, tease them out, define them?

EB: Everything about the way I think about things in terms of character comes from being around the visual artists that I came up with. Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, and the rest of us, we were interested in archetype (as opposed to stereotype); what we called “pictures,” defined characters or images that everyone shares in their subconscious, which collectively we all know and understand immediately. For me, that meant: I come out and I do this guy, and you feel it, you know the guy that I’m talking about. And you’ve gotta acknowledge that we live in a sea of mass media, so that our experience melds seamlessly with the mass media experience. So we confuse the homeless guy we see on the street with Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy; we start to put these two guys together, because it really isn’t a guy in the street, it’s a little guy that we make up in our heads. And what happens is that we collectively start to agree on that guy in our heads; we agree that this is what a homeless guy looks like, in our collective minds. So then you go write a play about a guy like that, and we watch. And if we feel we really see it, then we’re all agreeing.And when we all agree, we’re dealing with a very powerful archetype.We’re not dealing with something so personal that somebody else can’t share it, or so naturalistic that it’s like a photograph, which I don’t really need. If I need naturalism, I can go out on the street and look at real homeless people. What does that do for organizing my thoughts and ideas? This is why I think Mamet is powerful, and why Shakespeare is powerful, and why the Greeks are powerful, it’s because in all these things we see these characters, and we are just like,“yes.”

EJ: But in order for us to get drawn into the character, the archetype, there has to be some sort of a commonality—

EB: Sure. And it’s constantly being revised; it’s not like we can just pick up Strindberg and immediately get what’s going on. We have our own way of looking today, and, particularly, the mass media has had a huge impact on the way that we think. I mean, the classic archetype that exists in my mind or your mind is our mother. Everybody has a little imago in their head which stands for mom. And when you go to write a play, you write about that “mom.” But “mom” has been very influenced by what we know about mass media moms that have passed through our minds over the years.

JB: Mass media now seems like the thing that creates the commonality, that creates the places in our thinking that overlap. So, if there were no mass media, or before there was mass media, is there still such a thing as archetype? Does it look the same? Without a mass media that’s linking us in the way that you describe, do everybody’s “imagoes” ever link up?

EB: I do think there’s a lot of commonality, yes, regardless. But now, with mass media as the glue, I think sometimes it is not a healthy kind of commonality. This is why drama is so vibrant, because it can create a healthy commonality. When the audience comes in, they become a little consensus, they connect up with each other and watch this thing, and are moved by this thing or not, and those characters that we present to them have a resonance for the audience that is more resonant than when they are watching a TV show. And there’s reasons for that.

JB:What are those reasons?

EB: A living being in front of an audience is not the same as a filmed being.We live in a three-dimensional—or four-dimensional—world. And if you always watch two-dimensional things, you start thinking that way, and it’s not useful. Because it’s manipulated in a way that is not organic. If you wanna get hippie-trippy about it, filmed entertainment is like NutraSweet: it doesn’t give us all the things we need.We take in what we think is nutrition, but it just tastes like nutrition, it doesn’t really feed you. I think that stories and characters are there for us to work out how we live, how we think. But when you watch television, you go into this sort of dream state, and you often can’t do that work. Movies sometimes can be useful and sometimes they can’t; it depends on what kind of movie it is. If it’s very theatrical and performance oriented, then it can be helpful, because you’re still aware. Often comedies do that, actually: we watch Groundhog Day, we know that we’re not watching real people doing real things, and we have some perspective and can use it to work things out. But when we watch a really romance-y, sentimental thing—I don’t like those things, because I find that they have an effect on me. I feel myself being manipulated, and I don’t like that feeling. I’d rather watch The Sopranos and know I’m watching a contrived fucking thing, then I can get into it with them and talk to the TV set.

EJ: I turned to Jess this morning and said,“What would an Eric Bogosian romantic comedy look like?”

EB: Awful. That would be the first thing. Although, I mean, there are things like that that are sentimental that I do let in every now and again.

EJ: I like When Harry Met Sally. I know it’s stupid—

JB: But it’s well made.

EB: Dude, when they put that movie on every Christmas—what’s the one, with the guy, gonna jump off the bridge?

JB: It’s a Wonderful Life.

EB: It’s a Wonderful Life. I will cry every time at the end when the little angel gets its wings.

III. “YOU EMPATHIZED WITH THE BRUCES.”

EJ: Your work sort of erases the notion of the other, in that it takes people—that homeless guy on the street, Ratso Rizzo, etc.—people that I might feel threatened by in another context, and yet I have all this compassion for them and feeling—

EB: Well that’s theater—asking what is it like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, right?

JB: Right. And what’s cool is that the somebodies whose shoes you’re asking us to walk in are these complex, unreliable narrators. So you’re asking the audience to empathize, without necessarily thinking of the target of that empathy as a good guy. Without glossing the flaws.

EB: My notion of a progressive—I don’t know if I’d call it a politics, but a philosophy—for me blends and melds with my spiritual pursuits, which all have to do with empathy, with reducing fear and increasing faith.When there’s fear, humans will start to divide into groups; they’ll find some way to decide this group is different from that group. What all religions start with is always about empathy, and then it gets perverted into these power structure hierarchies that have to preserve themselves, and then they create all these rules, and start fighting with each other, and ay yi yi. But I do think there’s a way that theater can be used to address that stuff on more of an individual level.

EJ: In Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll there’s that great story about the guy at the bachelor party, this thing that starts small and turns awful.And I found myself at the beginning being repulsed by those bachelor party guys. But at the same time—

EB: Where did you grow up?

EJ: Me? Minnesota. I grew up with guys like that. I used to get beat up by guys like that.

EB: Me too.

EJ: The Bruces.

EB: The Bruces?

EJ: Bruce W. and Bruce S. They were white kids who wore break-dancing clothes.

JB: In Minnesota.

EJ: And they would beat me up. I thought I could save myself by buying a pair of zipper parachute pants, but they just beat on me harder. But later on I found myself saying, This is the only world these guys know.

EB: You empathized with the Bruces.

EJ: I empathized with the Bruces.

IV. “ARSENIO HALL IS WATCHING ME, JUST SHAKING HIS HEAD.”

EJ: In Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, you have the homeless guy go into the audience and I kept thinking about the Futurists and their electrified theater seats.You’re implicating the audience in that moment; it’s not so comfortable for them.

EB:You have to remember what the ’70s looked like: Everybody had long hair. Everybody was kind of cool. And everybody was smoking weed, and everybody was kind of a feminist. But in fact everybody was the same bunch of assholes they always were. Men and women were supposedly in this new enlightened stage, the age of feminism, sexual freedom, all of that, and yet I looked around and saw everybody pretty much acting the way they always acted. My approach to that was to make extremely male, nasty guys. Now these days, it’s understood that when you make work like that, that it’s with an understanding that it’s meant to be—I don’t know—

JB: Illuminating it.

EB: Yeah, or chipping away, or breaking stuff off and turning it upside down. But man, back then, I had stuff cancelled all the time—

JB: Really?

EB: It’d be like, (a) do you have any sense of humor, and (b) do you have a brain? I mean, I’m not advocating rape. Of course. But I am looking at it.This was a problem for people. Eventually that attitude became something that was easier and easier for people to lose. And in fact, went the other way, to the point where I’m not sure I buy every “devil’s advocate” kind of piece anymore. I think that’s why Chappelle had his meltdown, because I think he was making that work with the best of intentions, and he’s fucking hilariously funny, but he realized he was making people laugh who maybe didn’t have any enlightened aspects. This is the difference between mass media and

working in theater. In the theater, I know the kind of crowd that’s coming in, I know what’s going on. But you take one of those bits by themselves, and put it on television? I’ve never allowed that to happen. I had those opportunities, in the late ’80s, early ’90s. To get out there and jump out and start doing my homeless guy. They asked me to do the [MTV] Video Music Awards in 1991 or something, they were like, yeah, get up and do that freaky shit you do, it’ll make us all laugh. And instead I went up and talked about constitutional rights.

JB: Wait, wait, I want to hear about that. You talked about it in character, or as yourself?

EB: As myself. Six thousand people in the theater, six million people watching live on TV, the audience had no interest. A guy had been selling 2 Live Crew albums in Florida and got busted, and I was introducing 2 Live Crew, so I decided to make a whole big stink about this. But I’d never heard 2 Live Crew. So on my way to the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A., I pick up a 2 Live Crew tape at Tower Records. I’m in a stretch limo. By myself. And I stick the tape into the thing. And it’s all about, you know, fucking doggy style, and I’m going, God, this is kind of trash. But I’m still going to stick by my guns, because I am absolute, 100 percent freedom of speech. But then I meet them backstage, and they are kinda gross. And yet, I get up there, and it was something to do with the Constitution and freedom of speech, and what this country stands for. And all I remember is my hand was shaking holding the mic, ’cause I could sense—well, you’re both actors, you know what it’s like to be onstage and feel an audience that is moving away from you at warp speed. And Arsenio Hall is watching me from his little podium, just shaking his head, “What the fuck. When is Madonna coming out?”

V. “I REALLY BELIEVE THAT WE ARE AT THE END OF THE PSYCHOLOGICAL SELF-IMAGE OF PEOPLE.”

EJ:We were watching the film of Talk Radio the other night. I said, you know, this is kind of prescient. Shock jocks, Bill O’Reilly, Fox News—talk about archetypes.

EB: I think the American setup keeps bringing up the same questions again and again.There can be minor ups and downs, but generally speaking, we’re living in a certain set of values, a certain idea.With Barry, the host in Talk Radio, I knew I could get at a lot of that. Anger: that is an overriding emotion that’s been sitting around our culture now for a while. And what is anger but resentment, or what is anger but pointing: “That guy’s fucked, I hate that fucking guy.”

JB: We seem to have this cultural fascination these days with watching someone be confrontational. And there’s a way that happens on television that I think is different from how it happens in your work. I wonder if you agree, and if you could talk about what that difference is.

EB: There is a difference, absolutely. In the theater we know that it’s fake.And so, again, you can work something out through it. Your thinking, your ideas. But you switch over to TV—Jerry Springer, where the host comes out and people all start fighting—the audience loves to believe that they’re watching an authentic fight that’s happening in front of them right now. Same thing with sports. My children find plotted stories, dramas, to be the most boring things in the world. They’re just not interested.

EJ: What are they interested in?

EB: My children are not so interested in so-called reality-based stuff either, actually. They’re interested in, I don’t even know what to call it, the Lord of the Rings style—many iconic characters that all have some kind of complicated baroque structural relationship. None of the characters are psychologically deep. They’re more like chess pieces on a board. Here’s this guy, and here’s this guy, and you make them interact, and that’s what’s of interest, not necessarily the psychology. The interesting thing about Shakespeare, the reason why many people have said Shakespeare is the beginning of the modern, is that all of his characters are psychologically true. Psychology hadn’t been invented, Freud was a long way away. But Shakespeare was such a keen observer of human behavior that he generated this sense of this inner self that motivates the person, with drives that aren’t really understood. Prior to that, no matter how complicated the characters are, how wonderfully they’re presented onstage, you don’t have the feeling of that little engine boiling away, pushing the characters. And that engine, which you also find in Dostoyevsky, or Kafka—the sort of ball of emotions boiling up out of deep recesses, creating this troubled character that drives the story—that’s really not what people are attracted by now. Television and the internet are causing a new way of thinking, a more mental and structurally complex approach. I really believe that we are at the end of the psychological self-image of people, of ourselves. And that there’s a new era beginning. That’s why graphic novels are so big all of a sudden, comic books, Lord of the Rings, all these epics.

EJ: My little brother’s in college; I don’t know that he’s into books at all, but he has a really intense relationship to narrative, all of it through video games and epic movies.

EB: And I think there will always be an intense relationship to narrative, this is necessary for our emotional and spiritual survival, but people almost have to do it in different ways; it has to change as the culture changes. I’m still drawn to the psychological, though.

JB: Do you see this Lord of the Rings way of thinking about narrative as a “movement” in the sense of other literary “movements” that have come before, or is it more of a shift in the entire culture? Some would probably decry a shift away from the psychological and the literary toward a way of thinking influenced by video games and Hollywood epics as a “dumbing down,” or a kind of loss. Do you feel that way?

EB: I think the first thing to put into the mix is that there’s this bias that builds from one generation to the next, where one group looks at the next and feels that the next group is sort of intellectually lazy, and that whatever the older group was doing has the higher value, and whatever the new group is doing has a lower value. Like if you’re willing to sit down and read Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann, then you’re a better person than the person who’s going to sit and read, you know, Hellblazer or something. And I think that’s bullshit. From time to time, these periods or movements seem to emerge. It happens organically. In my own life, we’ve seen this highly literate period, where everybody wanted to get the next book by Salinger or whoever, and what writers wrote was meaningful to people in the culture at large, not just because it’s literature with a capital L. Then, that didn’t happen again till just recently. And in the meantime, we saw music go through a couple of highly vital periods: the late ’60s, the punk period, and then the early ’90s, Nirvana, all those guys. I like the bands that are around now, but honestly, I don’t know that they have a lot to say as a cultural force.

EJ: There are always individual artists or bands or writers doing cool things, but it’s a question of: is it coalescing into some kind of group force and getting into the popular imagination?

EB: Yeah. And you can’t go back and reinvent those moments. I can’t make the late-’60s music scene happen again. I can’t go back and make another Janis Joplin show up. And likewise, I think that there’s always a new one. No matter how many people are interested in movies today, they can’t make the movies that directors in the ’70s made. Although I love The Matrix.

JB: And that’s that new epic nonpsychological structure. The Matrix is part of that new relationship to narrative you’re describing.

EB: Yes. And now we’ve got these graphic novels, like Watchmen. It’s funny, they kind of have an obviousness to them, and yet, in about ten years, no one will be able to figure out how they ever even put all the pieces together. It’ll look like what the Gothic cathedrals look like to us. You could build one today, but it still wouldn’t come out the same.

VI. “YOU DON’T GET ALL BLACK. STEVEN WEARS ALL BLACK.”

EJ: And then there was Under Siege 2, the movie where you were the bad guy.

EB: I’d seen Alan Rickman in Die Hard, and I said, I want to do something like that someday. I want to be the bad guy in a big old popcorn movie. I came onto that set with a very clear idea about the kind of evil lunatic mad genius I was going to be. I go into wardrobe the first day and I say, “I want all black.” They say, “You don’t get all black. Steven wears all black.” That character wound up different from my initial idea. He wound up being a lot of myself, really. And that’s what it’s always got to be. I think of acting less as drawing something up out of myself and more as subtracting from myself what I don’t need. I have to use what is me and speak with my own voice, whether it’s Satan in the play I did last year, or the Law & Order: Criminal Intent police captain I’m playing now. But you gotta ground it—I think that’s what the Method does for actors, it grounds them. Drugs also does that. [Laughs]

JB: I want to know if Steven Seagal had been recognized as a reincarnated Buddhist lama already when you did Under Siege 2. And if so, what influence did it have on your experience of making the film?

EB: I have to say I don’t know. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time with him.Who’s recognized him as that?

JB: Tibetans, I believe.

EB: Really?

JB: It’s a real thing, apparently.

EB: [Pause] Well, that hadn’t been happening at the time. [Pause] There were a lot of guys around him who in some way or another sort of gave you the impression that they maybe had to do with the mob—

JB: That was extremely diplomatic.

EB: Or maybe Navy SEALs, they knew how to handle weapons; I don’t know.

VII.“THERE’S BEEN NO POETRY.”

JB: So your artistic project includes: writing and performing in solos; working as an actor in film, TV, and other people’s plays; writing more conventional plays; and writing novels.

EB: There’s been no poetry.There was almost a graphic novel, but we didn’t get to it.

JB: How do those component parts interact? When you have an idea, how do you know if it’s going to be a solo, or a play, or a novel? Do you think about it in different categories? Or is it all kind of one thing?

EB: It’s not that I know that this idea is supposed to be this thing or is supposed to be that thing; it’s more a question of what format I’m interested in at the time. In terms of acting and writing, I started out as an actor; over the years I’ve developed an idea of an actor as an author. In a certain way, I know what a character’s gonna do next in fiction just like I know what a character’s gonna do next in acting. But the thing that’s happened is that I don’t ever see myself as a real novelist, or a real playwright. I mean, I know real playwrights. I know Edward Albee, he lives around the corner. I know real novelists, I know John Casey, I know Jerry Stahl. This is what these guys do. They get up in the morning and they do that again and again. I am, in the best sense of the term, a dilettante, and I move around. Weirdly, the actor thing has always been the fundamental: like in music, you have the harmonics, you have the fundamental from which the harmonic arises. And I return to the fundamental again and again.

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