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Exclusive Interview : Eric Stoltz

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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 a capricious 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, 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.

Why acting?
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 more pigeonholed, 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?
No, no.

Michael J.Fox was on board first wasn’t he?
Yeah

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?

No, 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?
Yeah.

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?
No.

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.

Speaking of DVDs, I just watched “The Fly II: Special Edition”. That scene with the dog still gets me
That was a tough scene. It was all puppets. I haven’t seen that in years. I haven’t done that many horror films, they’re fun, in a disgusting way. That was a blast.

Did you look at Jeff Goldblum’s performance from the first film in prep?
Sure, yeah. I actually had dinner with Jeff – who was living with Geena Davis at the time – and they were wonderful, lovely people. I’m sure they still are. He’s a nice guy. He’s a lovely piano player too.

Do you have any skills like that?
I play Piano.

Ever do any composing for any films?
Just for the short film I did, the Bulls. I did some of the music for it, but only out of necessity because I couldn’t afford recordings. It was fun. I rented a little studio in New York, and played the piano.

I admire the way you’ve worn many hats.
I think that’s the way of the future. There’s that great documentary on Coppola, about the making of Apocalypse Now, called Hearts of Darkness, where he says ‘The next Mozart is going to be a fourteen, fifteen year-old girl in Ohio’. I really think there’s something to be said for that. I always love looking at short films that people send me – I think they’re much more interesting than film school stuff. Untrained. Passionate. People like Tarantino and Avary. There’s something behind it that’s not very prefab…that’s not very slick.

How did Tarantino find you for “Pulp Fiction”?
I knew Quentin from the Sundance Festival – we were both there in ‘92 or ‘93. He was there with Reservoir Dogs, and I was there with Waterdance, and they were sort of the two films in competition. We met and became friends, and stayed in touch. Later, I was walking down 6th Avenue and bumped into him again.

Tell us about the meeting
It was a sunny spring day – cos it was cold, but it was sunny – and it was early in the morning, like 9-9:30, and I looked across the street and from about half-a-mile away I saw this limbering figure – sort of walking like a madman – coming towards me. I’d only ever seen two people walk like madmen at this time of the morning – I saw Chris Walken walking towards me at 6am once. Anyway, I saw this giant red watch, from some comic book or something – and I knew then, that it had to be Quentin. I walked across the street, and he was like ‘Hey man, I was just thinking about you – I’ve got this script I want to give you’. I was like ‘Here I am’. He was staying with another director at the time. It was Roger Avary. Anyway, Quentin gave me the script for Killing Zoe.

And when did you meet Roger?
Later. I met with Roger at a midtown restaurant in New York. After Killing Zoe, I produced a film called Sleep with Me and I hired Quentin as an actor. Quentin came down, and I think that’s when he gave me the Pulp Fiction script.

How was it being involved in “Pulp Fiction”?
That was a blast! We had two weeks of rehearsal on the sets, which is very rare – it was a low-budget film, about $8 million at the time, so we had to really have our act together. We would go out and eat together, and it was lovely. A lovely bunch of people. It was so much fun – and I think that comes across in the film. Fast Times had a similar vibe. When you’re doing something challenging and fun and everybody is in it for the right reasons it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a hit or not. The experience stays with you. Whenever I see anything from Pulp Fiction, a wonderful feeling just comes over me. Very good times.

How was it working with Travolta?
He was hysterical. Silly guy.

Stephen Tobolowsky – who just did “Wild Hogs” with him – was telling me the same. He said ‘he’s funnier offset than he is on’
He’s hysterical – he does these little voices, he’s always dancing, teasing, and telling stories. He’s just a very wonderful fella.

“Killing Zoe” came after, right?
We shot it first, but it was released second.

Was that filmed in Paris?
I wish. It was all in Los Angeles, with one day in Paris. Roger had a miniscule amount of money, and he found this bank that was going out of business in downtown LA and I think he wrote the heist film around that location so that he could make his film. Incredibly creative guy. He and Quentin are really connected in a deeply, creative way.

I caught up with Peter Berg recently – your co-star on “Chicago Hope” – and typically forthright Berg was telling me how he couldn’t wait to give off that show.
He was on there forever. And now, of course, he’s doing another series.

Yep, “Friday Night Lights” – that’s his thing…his baby. It’s different I guess, because he’s now calling the shots. How did you feel about doing “Chicago Hope” after doing film for so long?
You know, I loved it. I only signed on for one year, so I didn’t feel that it was going to be the rest of my life. I had a great time. I love the cast and the crew – I’m still friends with most of them.

My wife loved “Chicago Hope” – but she didn’t catch it first time around, she only started watching it in repeats, which were on like two years back. I’d have to record it for her every day. I told her I was getting up to meet you this morning, and she was – in half-asleep voice – ‘Bobby’?
That’s hysterical [Laughs]

You were the ladies man on that show.
Was I really?

Yeah. I always found that kind of surprising.
I thought I was like the sort of new-age doctor.

Yeah, but you were flirting it up with the docs, like Christine Lahti’s character – who went ga-ga for you early on.
Oh god, that’s right! That was a lot of fun.

How is TV different than working on films?
Scheduling is much quicker but, more so, you get more of a chance to flesh out your character. I did 20 episodes or so of the show in a year, and you feel like you’ve had 20 opportunities to expand your character. That’s entirely different to a film, or a play, where you’ve got to do the entire story and character in an hour-and-a-half of two-hours. Knowing that you’ve got all that time with TV, you’re really able to invest a lot of detail in it, which is a lot of fun.

Why only a year?
I didn’t think I had the strength to do the character for any more than a year. I think the longest thing I’d ever done was a play that ran for nine months – and I started losing my mind. It takes a great deal of fortitude and concentration to be the lead of a television show for years and years. Its really hard work, and I didn’t know whether I could hack it.

I loved your final episode, where Mandy Patinkin comes back and fires everyone.
That’s right! That was hysterical. God he’s a funny man, Mandy. It was a big shock. I loved the way he also put everyone down, in addition to firing them, in that episode. It was very funny.

The show only lasted another twelve months after that. I guess the plan was to shake things up, by getting rid of the cast and bringing in some new blood, but it didn’t work.
I think David E.Kelley does that with his shows.

It worked for “The Practice” obviously, which is now “Boston Legal”.
Yeah, it did!

And you’re directing an episode, you said?
Yeah I am. November. I met William Shatner last week, or the week before. He’s an interesting bloke.

Can you believe the comeback he’s had from this show?
He’s pretty happy. What’s interesting is that – and I think few people know this – he use to do Shakespeare, up in Canada. That’s always a good basis for any career.

It’s great that he’s been able to find another character that people love him in just as much as Kirk.
He’s fantastic in it too. He really is.

Who is going to be guest starring on your episode?
They don’t tell the director whose going to be on. We don’t have scripts or anything – not yet. Probably won’t until the week before we start.

Then you’ll go wow ‘Wow, Pauly Shore!’
[Laughs] Pauly Shore!

You did guest-spots on shows. I recall you on “Mad About You”
I think I did one a year- maybe two a year. That’s because of Helen Hunt.

You dated her, right?
Dated her? No.

Must’ve been Paul Reiser you dated?
[Laughs] Paul Reiser. He’s a funny guy; he would’ve loved that joke. No, Paul and I didn’t date, although Paul’s wife is lovely. No, Helen and I did a play and later, a film together – The Waterdance – and she just called and asked whether I’d be on her show.

I was talking to James Van Der Beek the other day about “Rules of Attraction”…
…He’s a sweet guy. He was terrific in it. I’m sure he’ll get something just as good soon.

I think people just need to see past ‘Dawson’ and see that he can do other stuff
It’s interesting, I never saw Dawson’s Creek, so I was able to just sort of accept him in that role.

Did you enjoy “Rules”?
It was a blast. It was a lot of fun. It was a wonderful collection of freaks – Roger was like a circus master. It was a great time. I think Roger and Robert [Brinkmann] should make a series of films about anarchy and the disruption of our society. They should be in charge of the dismantling of western society. We should just hand it over to them.

In more recent years, you did “The Butterfly Effect”…
…Oh yeah, sure. That was a fun role. Everybody’s a bit of a bastard so it was a nice to be able to act like one and get paid for it. They were a fun bunch of people – Jonathan [Mackye Gruber] and Eric [Bress], wow, they’re maniacs! They are maniacs! Clearly, I’m drawn to maniacal directors. I can appreciate the passion behind it.

The last two films you’ve been in were “The Triangle” and “The Honeymooners”, can you tell me about those?
The Triangle was a lot of fun. The director, Craig Baxley, was hysterical. It was interesting doing all that green-screen – because I’d never done that much of it. I later used it in my short. It was nice having Dean Devlin down there and Bryan Singer’s people…Bryan never showed up because he was doing Superman. I enjoy the ol’ sci-fi horror film. It’s a genre I really do enjoy.

And “The Honeymooners”? – Which didn’t come out in Australia
It didn’t? That’s a shame. We should all go down and act it out for you at the Sydney Opera House [Laughs]. Ya know, I think it turned out pretty good. I had a great time making it, anyway – we shot it in Ireland – it’s just not the Honeymooners that people wanted. Jackie Gleason and all that.

– CLINT MORRIS

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About Caffeinated Clint

Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

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