“Who’s Afraid of John Malkovich?”
THE ELIAS KOTEAS INTERVIEW:by Quendrith Johnson
[Author’s note: This interview took place in the secluded leafy patio hidden inside Chateau Marmont in Hollywood way before SHOOTER, or his current projects. Elias Koteas is a undeniably a powerhouse talent. A quote from this interview appears on www.imdb.com in his bio.]
You need some backstory to get a handle on actor Elias Koteas, not just because his movie Collateral Damage, in which he plays a CIA agent to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s anti-terrorist avenger, has been postponed from its October release due to the September 11 national tragedy. You need to understand that even before September 11, Elias Koteas, who broke out as an “international star” in the person of libidinous car-crash enthusiast Vaughn in David Cronenberg’s NC-17 film Crash (Holly Hunter, James Spader), was acting “as if.” As if we’re all in that moment of jeopardy at all times in our lives; as if the only time we get close to that delicate point of unreasonable fear is when someone, usually an actor, shows us our dark side on screen. Koteas would have shown us that this month in theaters nationwide with Collateral Damage; instead, he gets to do it on HBO.
In “Shot in the Heart,” the HBO bio-pic airing Saturday, October 13, Koteas inhabits convicted murderer Gary Gilmore on death row in 1977, and it is clear that this Canadian-born actor is one of those people who truly excel at mining the depths of our worst fears. Directed by Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa), who lobbied for Elias in the role, the project is a powerful duet with Giovanni Ribisi who plays the notorious double-murderer’s still-living youngest brother, Mikal Gilmore. Gary Gilmore chose a firing squad as his preferred method of capital punishment and donated his eyes as replacement organs in a final gesture of defiance (a song was actually written about it, titled “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes”).
Befitting Koteas’ m. o. as an explorer on the fringes of fear, he made a point to get to know the real Mikal Gilmore (an author and rock journalist) and still keeps in touch with him. The fact that he sought out Mikal and made a personal connection with him should have been a hint of things to come once our interview was set up.
Slotted for 40 minutes on a Thursday at Chateau Marmont, the Elias Koteas Experience actually turned into three hours in person, sixteen cell phone calls, and twelve e-mails. The total experience spanned his road trip from L.A. to Telluride and back (with his Great Dane Beckett in tow) to appear on a panel for “Shot” with Giovanni Ribisi and other stars like Faye Dunaway.
“Relationships” should not be included in the story, one of his e-mails reads (each is signed “God Bless”), although it is public record that he dated Heather Graham a few years ago. Another of the e-mails is a stream of consciousness response to my theory that the Male Movie Star has been eroded over the past few decades resulting in a pretty-boy aesthetic. It’s not “the erosion of the male movie star,” he counters, offering Ribisi and Vin Diesel (Fast and Furious) as examples. His last e-mail cites a New York Times story that quotes verbatim excerpts from the hi-jacked passengers’ last cell phone conversations from the doomed airplanes over America on that fateful Tuesday, and how not one of them made a call for vengeance. The final e-mail is signed “God Bless You and Your Family.”
Over the days and weeks, Koteas, who made a significant blip on the worldwide cinematic radar in Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line that garnered seven Academy Award® nominations, opened up about everything from his Greek Orthodox immigrant parents providing his inner core, to his archetypal actor’s neuroses regarding specifics about why he is currently living out of suitcases in a Hollywood-area hotel with his 12-year-old Great Dane. He also revealed that he is amazed by the films of fellow countryman Atom Egoyan, and is eager to see how the 2002 release Ararat, in which he stars as an “actor” playing a part, will address its complex subject matter: the Armenian massacre.
In moody bursts during our exchanges, the actor also wondered aloud about the final cut of the Steve Martin-Laura Dern dentist/dental hygienist love affair flick Novocaine. Slated for release in November, the film turns into an emotional root canal once a fidgety Helena Bonham Carter and a high-menace quotient Scott Caan get into the chair. Elias plays Martin’s ne’er-do-well brother who has both a Laura Dern and a red paint fetish. When asked about Novocaine, Elias raved about Scott Caan’s performance but admitted he hadn’t seen a final cut of that or Collateral Damage or Ararat.
Despite the urban-nomadic routine of hotel living, the actor, who has been in such movies as Fallen, Apt Pupil, Living Out Loud, Gattaca, Lost Souls, and the up-coming Dancing at the Blue Iguana, went out of his way to “be accessible.” He even reopened an old wound about how he “and the boys” (Sean Penn, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson) were somewhat “overlooked” when it came to invites to the Golden Globes when Thin Red Line got a nod… which should put a few list-makers on notice for next time. (SHOOTER with Mark Wahlberg is child’s play for Koteas.)
One thing came across loud and clear about Elias Koteas: he never took the idea of national or personal security for granted.
Quendrith Johnson: You play characters who are really intense.
Elias Koteas: I play guys who are willing to go really far. If the dung really hits the fan, I don’t know if I could walk the talk. but anyone who isn’t willing to die for his convictions isn’t worth living. My characters, no matter how demented they are, they have their convictions.
I started studying in the early 80s. You had the Pacinos, De Niros. You wanted to aspire to their authenticity. Now everything seems very derivative. I grew up watching 70s films.
The performance you gave in Thin Red Line is very textured in terms of moral dilemma. Does that stand out for you too?
A lot of it has to do with two million feet of film. Terry Malick is going to get it out of you. I watched the dailies. There are about two other films in there, performances by a lot of us that never made it into the final. It’s a tough act to follow. A lot of times, it sounds silly, but I’m trying to play a spoon- why do I keep getting a fork?
If you look at some titles from your past-Apt Pupil, Lost Souls, Hit Me-
Hit Me? It’s on Showtime at like two in the morning.
Hit Me must occupy a special place for you.
It really does. Steve Shainberg, the director, gave me full reign on it-anything goes. It was so liberating. Very few directors let you make the faces and gestures that he did. It opened up a lot of emotional doors. A lot of times you get stuck in a pattern, a rut, a way of acting. It is busting yourself out of a rhythm of acting, emotionally and physically. Hit Me opened the doors to Fallen and Crash and Apt Pupil and Living Out Loud. And it kind of came full circle with Thin Red Line. I attribute all of that to Hit Me, the freedom it gave me. How bad is a movie when it can’t go to video?
It didn’t go to video? It’s got William H. Macy in it, Philip Baker Hall.
It got released in like three theaters. The company went bankrupt. The movie used to be called The Ice Cream Dimension- I think the title (Hit Me) undermines it.
Was that your most sexually explicit role on screen?
Except for Crash. Actually, there’s a scene in Crash that didn’t make it into the movie where I’m humping the car. I was all giddy when I finished. Then I thought about my mother seeing it. But she’d never go to a movie like that.
[The love scene with Monique Roux in Hit Me] didn’t seem awkward or odd; it happened organically. Although we couldn’t share that passion in real life, I got a chance to live it out in the scene. There are always periods in an actor’s life when you feel like you are living in shallow water or riding the waves out there. It’s kind of spiritual actually, having some kind of divine inspiration. Ultimately, acting is giving; if you’re not feeling like giving, you’re really just into yourself. Even with Crash, there’s a moment when I look over and see Jimmy Spader with this contraption on his leg- in the script it’s as banal as asking a question, but it opens a door.
Okay, trivia question. What’s the connection between Hit Me and “Shot in the Heart?”
William H. Macy says to you, “Gary Gilmore’s last meal”-
Oh my god, no fucking way. You’re right. I’ve got to check that out. It is about his last meal. I don’t even think the director picked up on that.
Giovanni Ribisi is great in “Shot” and has a lot of choices about what he does. Did you know he was signed on?
I was on prior to him. Thank God, it was Agnieszka Holland pulling for me. I had accepted way before Giovanni was negotiating, but when he signed on he lifted the whole thing. He is so present and motivated. He could blow you away if you weren’t carrying your own weight.
Did he ever say why he was attracted to the project? Was it the director, subject matter, or Gary and his brother?
I don’t know.
How about for you?
I had a lot of reservations at first. It’s a great part, it has a lot of guns, so to speak, a lot of places you could go with it. I’m not saying mine is the decisive Gary Gilmore by any means. You wonder who has his eyes at this point.
He sort of seemed like somebody who was pretty up on marketing and publicity.
Maybe, but he also rotted away in prison as a chronic recidivist before he committed the murders. He wanted to do something for his own atonement. He even says [about picking the right candidate to receive his eyes], “Maybe I should give one eye to the younger guy, and one for the older guy.’
Did you meet any of the family, specifically Mikal Gilmore, the journalist and author of the book on Gary Gilmore?
Yes. Mikal is a brilliant guy, full of heart. When I look at him sometimes I see Gary in his eyes. I saw him about a week ago. I cherish the times with him. Whether I nailed the role the way I wanted to, it touched my heart.
What about Collateral Damage? It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger post-heart surgery.
Arnold is terrific. The version that I saw was pretty effective. You try to overact with Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’ll blow you off the screen. You feel for his character.
You’re the CIA guy, right?
A CIA guy with a deep-seeded psychological problem.Hey, there’s John Malkovich [seated at a nearby table with three other people].
Do you want to go talk to him?
Is it hard to talk about acting in front of Malkovich?
It is so bizarre. In “Death of a Salesman” he blew me away. I kept going backstage and watching him, watching him. He probably thought I was a creep.
You gush over Malkovich and get nervous for an interview-that’s very endearing.
You’re making me feel comfortable. A lot of times interviews do not bring out the best in me.
Better to be pro-active with the press, otherwise you get things like “dated Heather Graham” in your bio.
I know. Why is that?
You just got back from Telluride. How was that?
The best thing was seeing the movie Lantana that Anthony LaPaglia is in with Geoffrey Rush. Brilliant work. It really had me going. I wept. I wept. I really feel like this is what you become an actor for. I mean having gone through relationship and loss. You walk out and you are so deeply touched; you were so altered. There are so many masks. It was just beautiful.
Let’s talk about the panel you were on at Telluride, because that ties in to what you are doing now.
There was a French director, I forget her name, who talked for 40 minutes of the 50 minute panel, I should have told her to shut up- [shouts it out in French]. The whole room would have applauded. I drove back thinking that I should have done that. I was so mad at myself for not doing it.
You asked me before what my influences were. I’ve had time to think about. Monster movies, I love monster movies. Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi. I love that stuff, that stuff turns me on. There is something about the ostracized guy that attracts me. The guy who is watching from the sidelines.
To incite fear is also another type of power.
Right. Whatever that says about me psychologically, I don’t know, but also I’m attracted to this movie Lantana where the actors are so naked and so raw. I think “Shot in the Heart” needed to have no, no…
Yes. Artifice. That’s the word. So people are going to have their reaction to it, they’re going to feel whatever. If it wasn’t for Agnieszka, I wouldn’t have been the guy. So I can’t complain about what my own shortcomings were under the circumstances (tight shooting schedule and 12-hour shooting days). With Thin Red Line, if we had a limited amount of time, I don’t think I would have had the performance that I had.
What was that movie up against that year? Because it seemed to have been eclipsed.
The other famous war movie was Saving Private Ryan.
They are two philosophically different movies.
But you had a lot of people getting behind it. I think it will stand on its own merits and stand the test of time.
It really deals with the fear and how sometimes you don’t have honor in war.
And that’s a testament to Terry (Malick) and his gift. He let shots run for ten minutes on end. You have to find business and feel vulnerable. He searched for that angle to make me look like a leader of men. So you go up for the next job and they say, “You don’t look like a leader of men.” It was his just letting the camera roll and catching me in moments. I get turned on by that: you are in the hands of someone with a bigger vision.
You are starving for that, it seems.
You become the stereotypical bad guy and you feel like you’re going to undermine all the good work you’ve done [hits the table].
Why haven’t you used the press before as a way to communicate these frustrations?
It goes to a whole publicity thing. I really feel that basically people are really interested in a good story. If my work merits people talking to me about it, that’s great. It’s not like I’ve been shunning the press or anything.
Do you want to turn off the tape?
No. It doesn’t matter. I’ve been lucky to play some great roles. With “Shot in the Heart” I felt I had an opportunity, but I didn’t get a chance to really go to town on it. Giovanni said (paraphrasing Ribisi), “[Acting] is like getting drunk in some home movies and watching yourself make a fool out of yourself.” He’s really a bright kid. Kid, hardly, he’s 26 years old. I really respect his ethic and how he approaches his work.
Are you speaking about larger issues as far as how you feel about acting?
I started thinking, ‘I’ve got a page in this magazine. How involved does one get with a page in one article?’ It’s all ‘feel-good.’ How I feel [about my work as an actor] is irrelevant, ultimately.
The less I say, the better, sometimes. So I don’t know how I feel walking away from this interview. I don’t have a public persona. Last week you said to me that someone said to you, “Since when is Elias Koteas so famous,” and your response was “Why is he-”
No, my response was ‘Why isn’t he more famous?’ based on your work.
It is a fine line between my understanding of how to be in the press and how to express myself. But I wanted to make myself available to you, and I don’t think that I’ve spoken as freely before. My mind is going at about a million miles an hour, and I’m running out of vocabulary. It’s in your hands now.
[ELIAS KOTEAS can be seen in SHOOTER with MARK WAHLBERG, but rent everything — especially CRASH, HIT ME, and ARARAT.]