Long before Steven Bauer was a star I was a fan. I caught him on an early 80s HBO program profiling young actors and something about him just stood out. Then and there I made a conscious effort to follow any career he might have. It turns out he’s had a great one.
Born in Cuba, Bauer and his family fled the island in 1960 as Fidel Castro was coming into power. His father was a pilot and later flew missions for the C.I.A., including during the Bay of Pigs crisis. A talented musician, Bauer hoped to pursue a career as a singer. However, he discovered acting in junior college and hasn’t looked back. Best known for his star-making turn in “Scarface,” he has appeared in such films as “Running Scared,” “Primal Fear” and the Oscar-winning “Traffic.” On television he’s had roles in popular shows like “The Rockford Files,” “NYPD Blue,” “Burn Notice” and starred in the fourth season of “Wiseguy.” This coming Sunday you can catch Mr. Bauer in his new project, co-starring alongside Liev Schreiber in the new Showtime presentation “Ray Donovan.”
While promoting his new show Mr. Bauer took the time to sit down with Moviehole to talk about working with his idol, network television and why, three decades later, “Scarface” is still going strong!
Mike Smith: I have to tell you that I was a fan of yours before you even made it big. I caught you on an HBO special that was profiling up and coming actors in the early 80s when you were going by the name Rocky Bauer. It was all about you trying to make it as an actor. I remember going to see “Scarface” and when you first came on screen I leaned over to my wife and said, “Look, it’s Rocky Bauer!”
Steven Bauer: Oh my God, I’d forgotten about that show. It was called “So You Want to Be a Star.” (NOTE: I’m so glad Mr. Bauer remembered this show. I can find no mention of it ANYWHERE on the Internet. The show followed Mr. Bauer, Melanie Griffith and a third person – – I’m assuming they didn’t make it or I’d have remembered them – if I’m wrong and it was someone like Bruce Willis my apologies- – as they went through the rounds of auditions while trying to make a living as an actor. As someone that had those same dreams 30 years ago the show really resonated with me) That’s so funny. I remember the producers approached me…I don’t even know why they approached ME…I had already done a TV movie (“She’s In the Army Now” – a film from 1981 that starred up and coming stars Melanie Griffith, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kathleen Quinlan). That’s where I met Melanie (NOTE: Mr. Bauer and Melanie Griffith were married in 1982 and divorced in 1987 – they have a son, Alexander). I had also done the television series “From Here to Eternity” with William Devane (NOTE: the 1980 series, based on the Oscar-winning film, also gave early roles to such future stars as Kim Basinger, Michael Jeter and Don Johnson). Anyway they asked me if I wanted to be one of the people that they profiled. I said, “sure…I guess.” And I remember…it’s probably hoaky now…that I thought it was kind of cool then. They’d take shots of me studying a script. Doing my lines out loud. Which was weird because I never did stuff like that. Especially in profile. They’d say, “we need you to pose while you’re reading.” Melanie used to get a kick out of it. She’s in it too.
MS: I know. I can’t remember who the third person was but you and Melanie sure fit the bill.
SB: (laughs quite heartily) Wow. That’s funny.
MS: Give us a little info on your new show, “Ray Donovan.”
SB: I think it’s a great show. And I think it’s going to be one of the big ones…I have a pretty good eye for this stuff (laughs). Ray Donovan is a tough guy from Boston – Irish-Catholic – who moves his family to L.A. and goes to work for an agency that “fixes” the problems of celebrities and powerful people. His job is to take care of the situation before something like TMZ can expose it. His method is simple – whatever it takes. He can be brutal and very “take charge” but he can also be very compassionate. And that’s the interesting thing about the character that I think will distinguish him. He’s really complex. To his family he’s also an enigma because he’s not home a lot. His wife wants more out of life. They live in the suburbs and she wants to move to where the action is. So Ray Donovan is a guy with a lot of pressures. But he handles them well. I play Avi, one of his assistants. Avi is the action guy, especially when a situation requires a little “force.” It’s a very complex show…it’s about family and lifestyles…greed and corruption…weakness…betrayal…it’s really interesting. It’s very realistic. Very hard hitting. The writing is brilliant. And we don’t have to hold back because we’re on Showtime. The other actors and I have shared with the writers that we’re in a very fortunate situation to be part of the Showtime family. There isn’t any pressure to be politically correct. We don’t have to stay away from certain themes…we don’t have the restrictions of network television. We also don’t have the pressure of having to shoot for ratings. We don’t have to alter the content in order to garnish ratings. The show is going on the air and it’s going to play. And I know the audience will find it.
MS: Were those reasons part of what attracted you to the project?
SB: Yes! First of all, the writer, Ann Biderman, is an old friend. I was very fortunate to appear in one of her early films…one that was truly one of her shining moments…”Primal Fear” (NOTE: Ms. Biderman has also penned the screenplays for films like “Copycat” and “Public Enemies.” She also won an Emmy for writing an episode of “NYPD Blue”). I was fortunate to be in the film and I got to meet Ann. It turns out she’s also from Miami, as I am. She remembered me and asked me to audition for Avi. He’s not Hispanic, he’s Israeli. I’ve done three films in Israel so she knew I could do the accent. All of that appealed to me. I’ve had opportunities in the past to be on network television and they’ve been very frustrating and very, very sad. I told myself I’d never do that to myself again…take a job that had “conditions.” You put all of your heart and soul into something and then it just ends. It’s a horrible feeling. That happened to me on “Wiseguy.” I did nine shows but after they aired two the boss of the network decided the show wasn’t going to find an audience. HE decided. (NOTE: After three seasons as Vinnie Terranova, an undercover agent infiltrating organized crime, actor Ken Wahl opted to quit “Wiseguy.” When season four started Mr. Bauer starred as a former US Attorney who had been in contact with Terranova). There was no changing his mind. One day they just told us to stop working and go home. That’s just the worse thing in the world to hear. Showtime has some great people.
MS: You made your feature film debut as Manny Riberra in “Scarface.” So for your first movie your being directed by one of the best directors around (Brian De Palma) and acting with, arguably, one of the greatest actors EVER (Al Pacino). What was your first day on the set like?
SB: (laughs) It was an very auspicious debut! On the first day I remember being very, very focused. My training was solid and I was prepared, mentally. I had been in Hollywood…had gone back to New York. I was working for a living. I was three or four years into my acting career and I had no delusions of stardom. But I knew I had to get into a really good, creative situation. I wanted to make my film debut in something really strong…creatively strong. And I was fortunate because I was in the right place at the right time. They were looking for me. They were looking for ME. And I was ready to deliver. And the concept…to be put next to one of my idols…Pacino and Robert DeNiro were my idols…I’d say to myself, “Jesus, I want to be THEM. That’s who I want to be…that’s how good I want to be.” Now all of a sudden I’m working with Al Pacino. He was my partner. And he used me. As I was learning from him he was learning from me. I was able to offer him an insight into that culture. The Cuban culture. And so we would bounce off of each other perfectly. I didn’t have time…I couldn’t afford to be nervous.
MS: “Scarface” will celebrate its 30th Anniversary in December. Why do you think the film is still an important part of popular culture today?
SB: I think it’s because it’s very consistent in its tone. It has a very specific tone that’s humorous as well as heavy. It’s brutal but there is a weird sense of humor that we were able to find that has appealed to each generation. The only people it didn’t appeal to were the critics at the time it came out. But their thoughts were influenced by political correctness. At the time it was released there was a backlash against violence in films. So when “Scarface” was released there was a tremendous backlash from the journalistic corps. The people who saw the movie…the PEOPLE who saw the movie, even our peers…had a tremendously positive response. Put that up against the almost 90% negative response from the film critics. And those reviews killed us. It was such a blow. There was no Internet then. You couldn’t have that instant response from the audience…people blogging that this was an amazing movie. What we had were the newspapers saying “this is a piece of ****! These people should go back to film school and acting school.” It was terrible. It was so vicious and so personal. It’s amazing that it survived those years and now has basically been re-claimed by the Hip-Hop generation. It was brought back to the forefront of pop culture and then people started seeing it without the trappings and limitations…by the thought of the day. They saw that what it was was a really good movie and a really great depiction of the rise and fall of a very bad man. It’s really a very moral picture.
MS: You’ve done a lot of voice work for video games (“Scarface: The World is Yours,” “Behind Enemy Lines: Columbia”). Does that require a different “kind” of acting then film or television?
SB: Video games require a lot of energy and a lot of concentration. It’s not normal acting at all. Plus some of them are motion capture. You have to wear a suit of lights. It’s like nothing else. It’s more like pantomime. Plus it’s a big demand on your voice. I did one where I just worked for 20 minutes. But in those 20 minutes I had to do so much…calling out, shouting…it was redundant. “Get over here! Get over here now!” Having to scream it over and over. And nobody knows it’s me! What’s ironic is that I don’t play video games. But I’ll be out somewhere and someone will recognize my voice and say, “Hey man, you’re in that game!” Yep, that’s me.
MS: Besides “Ray Donovan,” what else do you have coming up?
SB: Well a couple of films that I’ve done recently are beginning to see the light of day. I had a film play at Cannes (“Five Thirteen”) that stars me, Tom Sizemore and Danny Trejo. It’s a great heist movie and I have a cool role in that. I’m also in a film that should get some attention at the Toronto Film Festival called “The Lookalike,” made by an Australian director named Richard Gray. It’s got a great cast – Gina Gershon, John Corbett, Justin Long – it’s really a dark, dark movie. I’ve also got a film coming out August 23rd which deals with MMA fighting called “Chavez Cage of Glory.” And Danny Trejo’s in that one too.
“Ray Donovan” debuts tomorrow at 10pm on Showtime in the U.S and on Showcase July 2 in Australia