The cinematic great talks to Clint Morris
Actor Eric Stoltz has played some very interesting, not to mention significantly diverse characters. He played Stoner Bud in the legendary 1982 comedy hit “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, won raves for his turn as the disfigured Rocky Dennis in “Mask” (1985), won hearts as teen rebel Keith Nelson in John Hughes’ classic “Some Kind of Wonderful” (1987) and as Martin Brundle in “The Fly II” (1989), proved a man can ‘Fly’.
In the 90s, Stoltz re-invented himself, emerging as an capracious dramatic actor that seemed intent on swimming in the choppiest waters possible. He won widespread acclaim for his role as the scarred Joel Garcia, in the acclaimed “The Waterdance” (1992) – a film he also produced – and soon after, became a constant in some of the breakthrough Independent films of the time, namely, “Pulp Fiction” (1994).
There was one character that Stoltz didn’t get to play though – well, not for any more than a few weeks – time-travelling Marty McFly.
Near three weeks into filming the Robert Zemeckis directed “Back to the Future”, the studio’s original choice for the lead role, TV star Michael J.Fox, suddenly became available. Stoltz, who had been bought onto the picture when Fox couldn’t escape his TV commitments to do the film, was out on his arse.
But as CLINT MORRIS tells, you’ve got to wonder whether Stoltz would’ve had the opportunities he’s had – like starring in those cult hits like “Pulp Fiction” and “Killing Zoe”, or headlining the sequel to “The Fly”, let alone producing his own films – if he had have become the bigger-than-Ben Hur movie star that “Future” promised. One thing’s for sure, it would’ve been harder to picture him as tussle-haired drug lord, Lance – that’s for sure.
On a sunny Saturday morning in Los Angeles, Eric Stoltz opens up about his long and exciting career, and how he’s embarking on a new challenge.
You’ve been directing?
Yeah, I have.
That’s great – getting behind the scenes there
I started a couple of years ago. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve been working on a short film called The Grand Design, starring Frances Conroy, about a mother and son looking for meaning in the world. It’s a lovely piece. I’m cutting it right now.
So are you hoping to get it into festivals and so on?
I don’t know… You know, I didn’t really have any plans for it at all. I just did it because it meant something to me. So even if no one sees it, or even just ten or twenty friends, it’s just been a joy to get involved with. Short films aren’t going to advance anyone’s career, after all. Unfortunately.
Were you always interested in directing?
No, not necessarily directing. I was always interested in filmmaking though. I produced four films over the last fifteen years or so. I started to realise that I enjoyed being with the crew, and seeing the behind the scenes stuff, and how the creation of the film is done more than I did sitting in my trailer being served cappuccino by attractive production assistants. Not that there’s anything wrong with that [Laughs]. What am I saying?! Now I think of it that might have been the wrong way to go.
Because on the next film, Pauly Shore will enter your trailer with a Milkshake
[Laughs] Yes, now that’s an attractive production assistant.
So you just wanted to get more involved in the behind-the-scenes process?
Yeah. I had a wonderful A.D in the 80s, who I did a few films with, as a P.A, and then I started producing [my own]. I was always fascinated with the creativity and hierarchy of power on a film set – it’s like a mini society. And if you can navigate those waters, you can create something interesting – Or lousy, you never know. The first thing I directed was a movie for cable starring Mimi Rogers and Allison Mack, and then I did an episode of a show called Once and Again – which is sort of infamous because it was the episode where Mischa Barton kissed Evan Rachel Wood, I got to direct that…fraught, sexual moment [Laughs]. I also did an episode of Law and Order, and I did a short film two years ago called The Bulls with Chris Pine. I’m about to direct an episode of Boston Legal in November. So I’m sorta finding my legs – and of course, I have a few films that I’m trying to get off the ground.
I sort of stumbled into it really – I was more into music. I studied Piano for many years as a kid, and to earn money I would play for local productions, like the musicals in Santa Barbara. I remember being in the orchestra pit and looking up at the stage and realising that the actors seemed to be having a much better time than me. So I thought, I might as well try that – it looks like fun. I started doing plays, and by the time I went to college I had done 42 plays. It was just something that I enjoyed doing, I didn’t think I ever would make a living out of it. And there were times when I was barely able to make a living out of it. It’s not like today, where if you’re a teen star you have to do what your publicist says or any of that shit; you just did what you wanted to do. Very different times. Its interesting, I was asked on some film I did – might have been Rules of Attraction – by one of the young stars if I had any advice on [what they should do next]. I just said ‘do what you want to do, and do plays’. I got a blank and baffled look in return, and the response ‘What about a publicist?’ I was like ‘Don’t get one’. It was unheard of.
Tell me if I’m wrong, but I still think that if you’d done “Back to the Future” your career would have went in a totally different direction – and not necessarily a good one.
[Laughs] Oh yeah.
I just can’t see Quentin Tarantino being interested in Michael J.Fox for that role in “Pulp Fiction”, for instance.
We’ll, you never know, he’s a good actor.
I just think you got to do a lot more versatile roles by not playing Marty McFly
Yeah. You’re right.
You may have got pigeonholed as a teen star, and you would’ve been tied down for sequels too.
I would’ve been unable to walk down the street! It’s a whole different life. I was lucky in that way.
So tell me, is missing out on “Back to the Future” a sore spot though?
You know, it was twenty-something years ago and I rarely look back, if at all, but in retrospect, I think just getting through that difficult period helped me realise how freeing it really was. I went back to acting school, I moved to Europe, I did some plays in New York and I actually invested in [pause] my self in a way that was much healthier for me. If I had become a massive star, I don’t know if I wouldn’t have gone into therapy. On the other hand, I would’ve been exceedingly rich which would’ve been wonderful! [Laughs]
I don’t think anyone realised at the time that “Back to the Future” was going to be a huge hit though, did they?
Michael J.Fox was on board first wasn’t he?
And then they cast you, when they couldn’t get him, and then they did get him. So, you were just the bait dude. Bastards!
They were nice people…
Yeah, but here’s the thing, it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference to your career because you were off like a rocket and flat-out working again. You did so many films over that time – did you ever stop?
I love working.
So was it just a case of saying ‘yes, yes. Yes’ to everything that came along? Sort of like what De Niro did in the early 90s? – Though he lost out with that “We’re no Angels”, didn’t he? [Laughs]
You didn’t like We’re no Angels?
o, hated it
I have to tell you, that was a fantastic script. I met on that film. I mean it was Mamet…I loved that script. It was hysterical. I’ve been sent fantastic scripts that have turned out to be bloody awful. And then, I’ve been sent scripts that I’d think ‘what the hell is this?’ and it would turn out great. There’s so many variables involved when you make a film. You don’t have any idea how they’re going to coalesce and turn out.
When did your association with Cameron Crowe start, was that “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”?
Fast Times, yeah. Yeah, that was the first time we met. 79? 80? It was a lot of fun. We had a good time. I remember that film as being more of a bonding highschool experience than my actual highschool was.
And Crowe promised you a role in every film since, didn’t he?
So you’ve done that?
No. The first one I wasn’t in, was because I was in Europe or something… Haven’t been in a lot of his recent ones.
You were the ‘keymaster’ in “Say Anything” though – That’s all that matters!
The Keymaster! [Laughs] I still have people come up to me at parties and hand me their keys.
Do you have a favourite of Crowe’s films?
That’s a tough question. I certainly have a soft spot for Say Anything, because not only was it his first, but also I got to work on it as a P.A. That was a wonderful experience. I have to say though, I’ve really enjoyed his last few –Elizabethtown, Almost Famous –, because I feel like I’m reading his journals. They’re much more difficult films, but I feel they’re much more personal and interesting.
Talking of personal and interesting, how was it playing Rocky Dennis in “Mask”? Challenging, I imagine?
I’ll say. I should’ve prefaced this entire interview by saying I’m notorious and actually very well liked for the fact that I have an awful memory. I just don’t remember things, and people adore that about me. I’m able to jettison negative experiences and most of my film past actually [Laughs]. I can remember certain scripts, but if you ask me about something from twenty years ago…
You’ve done so many films, though. I don’t see how you could remember everything!
Yeah, and I think I like to enjoy where I am right now. I’m not one of those guys that pulls out the yearbook and the old journals and says ‘Those were the days’. Maybe when I’m an old man that would be an enjoyable thing. I almost never even think about it.
So what’s your favourite film – which you’ve done?
Usually the last one I do – like the one I’m cutting now. Because I dream about it, and sort of breathe it…it’s like falling in love, that feeling of emersion and challenge.
One of my favourites is “Some kind of Wonderful”. How did that come about?
We just did the 20th anniversary DVD, so I have actually thought about that one recently. How did it come about? I think I was just sent the script.
I heard the character was written for you?
Really? I didn’t know that. I think I was just sent the script and met with the director, at that time – who was Martha Coolidge. It was an entirely different script [from the film you know] – it was almost a silent film, because Martha had this interesting idea of trying to make it as much of a non-verbal, non-jokey teen film as possible. Clearly, the powers that be didn’t go for that.
When did John Hughes come onboard?
He was always onboard, because he was the writer/producer, but as we get closer to shooting he replaced her because he didn’t like what was being done to his material. He fired Martha – and a lot of the cast. I stayed onboard – I don’t know how that happened – but even then, I think I barely stayed onboard. We had shot two or three weeks with my hair below-my-shoulders and I was very greasy and odd looking – because the guy was someone who wasn’t able to fit in, we thought that was a great way to go. Anyway, they shut down production. Someone at Paramount came down and said ‘We’re going to cut your hair, and clean up your act’. I said ‘But the role is a rebel who doesn’t fit in’. They said ‘You’re going to cut your hair, and we’ll clean you up’. I said ‘Oh, so this is how the world works’.
Is it true you suggested Lea Thompson for the role of Amanda Jones?
I did, yeah. After the purge of the cast, I brought her the script. She was lovely.
Thank god there was no “Back to the Future” for you man, because it would’ve been disgusting seeing you making-out with your mother on screen!
[Laughs] That would’ve been something. It’s a little weird anyway – the guy having his mother come onto him.
How much of “Back to the Future” did you actually do?
I think it was like three or four weeks. I would be curious to see it.
So you’ve never seen your stuff?
I would’ve thought they might have put it on the DVDs or something
No. I don’t know why that was. They certainly don’t ask the actors.