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ORIGINALLY FEATURED in 1998- by Andrew Goletz 

One of Hollywoodís most versatile actors still fresh from his Oscar winning performance in 1995ís The Usual Suspects and role as District Attorney in A Time To Kill, sat down to talk with Gray Haven about his directorial debut in Albino Alligator and more.

AG: Why did you choose this particular film as your first to direct?

KS: I had been looking around for a couple of years and I had Ďthe bugí ever since I was a little kid. Me and a bunch of friends in high school and junior high would always go to these revival houses. There was one theater, which is still around today, that we would go to on weekends or even skip school to go to. Weíd see Peter Brooksí King Lear and Harold and Maude and all these movies that were from another era and I just fell in love with movie making and what other directors did. It was something that always intrigued me. Around 1990, I started talking about how I wanted to direct. I didnít know whether it would be a play or a movie, and I wasnít sure how I would find it, but over the years I read a lot of scripts and had a lot of opportunities to do other things. But there was this one particular script that gave me so many compelling reasons to take a shot at it.

AG: What was it that appealed to you?
KS: The basic premise was unique and interesting. I liked the fact that it harkened back to an early time in film when they used to do box dramas; these early Hitchcock movies where everything was done on one set with these unbelievably long takes. For me as a first time director, I didnít want to have to face the logistical nightmare of 25 different locations or 30 locations. Since 85% of the film takes place in one room, I could shoot it in sequence.

AG: So the linear aspect was important?
KS: Iíve done a few movies that used that process and I just canít tell you the value of what that does for what you experience as an actor and from knowing where you are and what youíre doing. Itís all cumulative in terms of how it lays itself out. You shoot a scene in the middle of a movie and youíre forced to do a lot of guesswork on how you might have felt during the scene before. When shooting in a linear fashion, you take the guesswork out and the feelings are more genuine. In this instance, you could rehearse like it was a play. It helps the performances, but it would also act as a bit of a safety net for me as a first time director. It was sort of like on the job training since I didnít go to film school. My film school has been making movies and hearing ideas and learning from the visions that filmmakers had and then by seeing movies. I was able to learn how they worked. I was very fortunate this first time to find a film that had a lot of interesting characters and a great script. These were all factors that helped me choose this for my first directing job.

AG: Are you tired now?
KS: No. Actually, Iím very energized by the whole experience. I think that next to acting in the theater, this has been my most satisfying experience.

AG: Do you have plans to do it again any time soon?
KS: I do, probably in about a year or so. I think Iím going to test myself with a film with a vaster scope. Maybe Iíll do 3 locations next time.

AG: Do you think there are any differences between an actor directing and a pure director directing?
KS: Well I view the world and artistic experience as an actor, but I donít look at it as an actor who only sees a narrow scope of the character. I first and foremost try and envision the world that the writer has created and try to honor that world. Sometimes you go to a movie and see a performance by someone and think, Ďwow, if everyone else was in the same movie with HIM, this could have been really goodí. I always try and tell the whole story, which I could always see, but now as I director I have a chance to shape that world. For me, the relationship with the actors was paramount because I wanted to create a common sensibility about the work and what I would be needing from everyone in terms of performance. We shot the movie in 34 days, 24 of which were inside this bar we built. We shot in sequence, none of the characters were peripheral. So for me, trying to create an ensemble of actors who could have been responsive to one another and where we could all have an open dialogue and work with each other, was very important. I think as an actor, I was better able to relate to what the actors in the film needed from my performance as a director.

AG: How important is it for a director to have different takes to choose from?
KS: Very. What you discover in the editing process is that if an actor delivers a line the same way each and every time, youíre giving the director no choices in the editing room. Thatís why I didnít have the actors come to dailies. I didnít want anyone to come and see the work because itís easy to fall in love with a moment and go, Ďoh thatís the oneí. Except in the course of the movie, take 7 isnít the one you use because it doesnít fit the mood of the overall story youíre trying to tell. If an actor gives you different line readings, you have this great warehouse of information and material to use.

AG: Do you think your work on films like The Usual Suspects and Swimming With Sharks, where characterization is extremely important, was an influence on picking Albino Alligator?
KS: Yeah. I donít see how they couldnít have had some affect, but Iím not sure what it was. I didnít consciously set out to do it, but Iíve always been attracted to scripts that have characters going through some degree of change.

AG: What attracted you to LA Confidential?
KS: Itís a really fun novel and Elroy is this sort of jazz writer. When you read him, he has his own language. Heís the only guy I know who can use the word Ďdadioí and make it sound really cool. I really like the story because it is very interesting and I like that period: 1951, 52, 53. I had never played a cop before, and this character I play starts out as a sort of questionable character and he has a deal with the tabloids where he busts celebrities and reports them to the tabloid. Elroy told me heís based on the cop who busted Robert Mitchem for pot, which was a set up. What they do is bust starts and my character is in cahoots with the editor of Hush-Hush magazine (played by Danny DeVito). I was attracted to it because heís not a dark or evil character and through the course of the film he decides to do the right thing. To me, that was a transition as I move to playing characters who are more entertaining, more available and arenít manipulative or evil. Iíve done as much as I can for those roles.

AG: Any new projects on the horizon?
KS: No. Iím working on writing a script for a film I want to direct, and maybe find some parts that ask what I want to bring to the table. Iím in no hurry. Albino has occupied my time for the last several year and Iíve just sort of snuck these other films in.

AG: Any desire to direct yourself in a feature?
KS: I didnít this time because I didnít think I was right for any of the parts and I didnít know what it would entitle. I talked to other first timers who directed themselves and even if they didnít say it to my face, I get the sense that they wish they hadnít. Maybe next time, if I feel Iím absolutely right for the role. If I think 25 other people are appropriate, then I donít see what I can do for it.

AG: Was your character in Swimming With Sharks based on a real producer?

KS: Absolutely. He was based on a couple of people, actually. Who are these people? I donít know. I hear all of these names thrown around, but Iíve never met the people I supposedly based the characters on. I mean, Iíve met them since, but not until after Iíve completed the role. It was written on the page for me. It was a hilarious and interesting character. A lot of the stories were compilations of assistants in these bull sessions after work, talking about their horrendous bosses. Ultimately, I did the movie because it was an interesting examination of ambition and what people are capable of; and what theyíre willing to do to get what they want. We had a screening of the film in Washington DC and all of these Senatorís aides were coming out of the film saying, ĎYou donít understand. This is MY life.í Itís not just the movie world. This stuff happens everywhere. There are people who are just mean spirited and put others through these hazing rituals to prove themselves.

AG: What is your favorite role?
KS: There are two of them, as a matter of fact: One that everybody has seen and one that I donít think anyone has seen. Certainly theater roles are close to me. The chance to go back and get another whack at it every night has a tremendous appeal. My character in The Usual Suspects is my favorite film role. At the end of the movie, you want to replay the entire thing. But even without itís shock twists, the character of Verbal is a really meek and vulnerable character. That attracted me. It was nice to do a quieter and less hermetically sealed character, unlike Swimming With Sharks where youíre just defending your position. I didnít go to the dailies with this film. I just trusted the director, Bryan Singer, implicitly as he guided me through it.

AG: And the lesser known role?
KS: Iím particularly pleased with a film I did for American Playhouse on the life of Clarence Darrow. He was the father of the legal profession in the United States, and a great man. He had a lot of ideas that I agreed with. To run with that philosophy of his was moving to me. I was proud of the part.

AG: And finally, howís the reaction to Albino Alligator been?

KS: Really positive. Iíve had great response to it in the festivals in France and Toronto. Itís a film that asks a good deal of patience from an audience, and Iíve been encouraged during the past few years by seeing films like Dead Man Walking and Leaving Las Vegas; films that ask for patience and audience involvement doing really well. What Iíve realized in the past few months is that the audience is there, and we also want to appeal to people who are interested in a good ride.

Copyright©2000 Andrew Goletz