Where: his dressing room (Circle In The Square Theatre). 4:45 pm.
Anthony LaPaglia is currently making his Broadway debut in a revival of The Rose Tattoo. While audiences are used to seeing him on the big screen, his decision to spend his time acting in a lesser-known Tennessee Williams play has been a long time coming.
“It’s refreshing to get away from films for a while,” he says with a laugh. “There are still pockets of resistance out there that are interested in the art of movie making as opposed to the money making capacity of movie making. It’s basically a business now, so people treat it accordingly. But if you’re an artist within the business, and care about what you do, in the theater you have a chance to remind yourself why you do it.
“I had a really bad experience making a movie which will remain nameless, and it really opened my eyes to a lot of things. I took it a lot more seriously than it deserved to be taken, and at the end of that experience, I honestly just felt like I was either going to quit or have fun.
“Since that time, I now recognize bullshit when I see it. If I find myself in a situation, I don’t get into it. I just decide I’m going to do the best work I can. I’ll always find somebody to have fun with, so I’ve just lightened up a little bit. If the work requires it, I’m there. I’m serious about it. If not, I’ll have fun.
“The weird dichotomy is that they often pay you the most to do the things that they expect the least of. They really do. They’ll pay you more for a movie. When you come into the theater, you get paid nothing, but you really get to work. It’s disproportionate.”
LaPaglia’s process in dealing with a potentially combative work environment has now taken a complete turn for the best.
“Within the first week I know if we’re in trouble or we’re not in trouble. I know whether I have to be director-proof or not. If I came across a bad director, there was a time when I would be confrontational about it.” He suddenly smiles, “I’m still some way on that level. Unfortunately, being vocal can hurt you, and it has in the past. When I work, if somebody is really pissing me off, they’re going to know.
“I have had stand up fights on sets. It’s happened twice. I’ll basically focus just on myself and the project. Then the director will talk to me, and I’m just--” He swoops his hand over his head. “I’ll just look at them and say, ‘Mm-hmm,’ and just do whatever I want to do. I don’t even argue anymore, and they’ll think it’s their idea and everything is fine.
“Directors are good for lots of different reasons. Some directors are very good with camera and shots. I respect that. Those guys usually have enough sense to hire good actors and leave them alone. But you meet someone who doesn’t know anything and thinks they know everything, and when you do 15 movies just by osmosis you learn so much. You know what works. You know what doesn’t work. You know how a camera shot should be. You know how certain angles should go. You know what the coverage should be.
“If it’s not happening, I will speak up every time. First I try to communicate with whoever it is and express to them that we have similar interests, similar goals, and ultimately want the same thing. We may have different ways of going about it, but we want the same thing. If they respond negatively to me, I try now to approach it in the most intelligent way possible. If that doesn’t work, I’ll stick to my own guns. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll get into a confrontation. I used to go straight to it. Now I take my time getting there.
“Directing doesn’t mean being a fascist leader. It means collaboration for the most part. People that have extreme arrogance and treat actors badly are really insecure. Just know what you’re doing. Know your subject. Always cast good actors. That’s half your battle right there. And just be open to communication. Even if you think an actor’s got a completely bizarre, stupid idea that’s not going to work, let him try it. How do you know? It might even be fantastic! If it fails, that actor will be the first one to say, ‘Let’s go back to what you said.’ If you’re a director, and you know what you want to make, you’re going to inspire a lot of confidence in a lot of people.”
When you look through Anthony LaPaglia’s filmography that is chock full of back-to-back films, it would seem like he takes any project that comes along, but that is the exact opposite of the way he chooses material.
“I have three movies coming out this year. If it’s good quality writing, and the people who are doing it are good and committed, I’ll do it. I’m pretty open to anything, but there are certain givens. Whenever you start pandering to the audience because of what you think they might want, you always lessen the quality of the material because I don’t think the point of what we do is to give the audience what they want because I don’t think the audience knows what they want half the time.
“It’s you at the end of the day. It’s you forty feet high. If you tank your performance, or don’t commit yourself to it, nobody says the director was bad. Nobody says the cinematographer was bad. They just say you were bad. So any job that you do, you should love it. If you don’t love it, don’t do it. If you love it, you’re always going to put your heart into it no matter how bad the project is sometimes.
“The difficulty in the system now is that you have to strike a balance. There are some films that I do that I would prefer not to do. But in the business of movies, you have to be in a high visibility project in order to perpetuate work for yourself. Even to get an independent film, you need to be in big movies in order to get overseas pre-sale, which determines whether you’re marketable enough for a small movie to use you.
“I try to pick things that are interesting to me for whatever the reason is. Either they make me laugh, or the character’s got something interesting about them that I haven’t done before. The criticism that people level at me sometimes is that I don’t look at the overall project, but the truth of the matter is you never know how a project is going to turn out.
“Ultimately, there’s no point in picking a fabulous project and deciding to do it, if you feel no affinity to that character at all. If you feel that there’s no way that you can bring something extra to it, you are just walking through it, and so I try hard to avoid picking things because they might be a hit. I tend to take chances more. Who knows?”
TH: That’s a good thing. You’re respected for that.
AL: Sometimes. (laughs) Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far.
TH: I mean by the folks that go see your films.
AL: (laughs) Yeah, but not by the people that hire me.
After several years of being in those high visibility projects like The Client, the expectation was that everyone wanted him to become a movie star. Everyone, that is, but Anthony LaPaglia.
“The whole business of stardom is that a lot of actors are confronted at a certain point with a choice, and it ends up showing in your choice of material. You actually get a choice at some point. You can choose to be a movie star or an actor. They’re two very different things, and some people manage to cross over into both arenas. It’s rare, but once in a while somebody crosses both.
“The problem with being a movie star is your parameters are quite narrow in terms of what you can play because usually you get success based on playing a particular character. You have to basically keep playing the same person in a different script because this is what has appealed to people. Nobody’s making you do that, by the way. There are a lot of actors who pick projects that are predictably safe for them and offer no acting challenges at all. They show up, and they’re doing the same thing based on the likelihood that it will be a hit again, and they’ll be on top again.
“The weird dichotomy of it all is that when you’re in that position, you’re actually given the choice of movies. Prime scripts! And when you’re in my position, you have to rely on people passing on it. You get lucky. Once in a while, it comes your way. But for the most part, you’re doing what I do, which is looking for good independents and going with them. They’re more interesting. They’re smaller, but you might enjoy the work.
“There’s lots of different ways to have a career. Everybody takes a different road. I’m very happy with mine. I kind of determined what I wanted it to be, and that’s the direction I took it in. So subsequently, I still consider studio movies. If I find something I’m interested in, I’ll do it. But for the most part, I look for independents, and I’m happy now. Most of the films I’ve done in the past year have been independents.
“Success is a terrible lure. There’s a huge price to pay. Having people look at it from the outside, everybody thinks it’s a glamorous business. For the most part, I don’t particularly find it to be glamorous at all. A lot of the stuff that comes with it is stuff that I do not enjoy. I do not enjoy press. No offense,” he apologizes. “But this is not my favorite thing in the world. Mainly because I don’t think I’m saying anything that anybody hasn’t said before. There’s such a proliferation of journalists speaking to actors that the information that comes out is all pretty much the same. I don’t really have much to add to that.
“But stuff like people recognizing you make me uncomfortable, a great deal. I try to lead as normal a life as possible. I still catch the subway, even though I wear my hat every day. Some of it I miss. Just the day to day. The thing that really helps you as an actor is a certain anonymity because it allows you to observe. You watch people, and you’re not watching anything anymore. It cuts off access to that valuable information. Although I have to say New York is a great place to live because most people don’t give a shit.”
TH: When you first started getting recognition, you said that you were doing all these movies back to back. Something like eight or nine movies in three years?
AL: I’m still doing that. I did four last year.
TH: You said that you felt as though you needed to catch up because you had started so late.
AL: Part of it is that. But I’m more honest with myself. (laughs) I actually discovered that I’m a workaholic, and that I like to work. I don’t like idle time on my hands too much. I like working on something.
TH: So a couple of weeks around the house, and you’re like—
AL: Enough! I’m ready to get back to work. I’m not a lounging type. Although when I do relax, I lay down a lot (laughs) because I’m usually so tired.
“For the most part, I figure you have a limited time span as an actor. If you’re lucky, a long time span. It’s a cycle. You’re in fashion. You’re out of fashion. Even the guys who are at the top. For them it’s even worse because they have a lot more to lose. You only have to look at the history of cinema to see how temporary it all is.”
TH: Number one is never the same year after year so—
AL: This is my favorite quiz question. Who was the number one box office star for the majority of the 1970s?
TH: Is this something that you know the answer to?
AL: Yeah, I know this.
TH: It would probably either be Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood or John Travolta.
AL: Right on! Burt Reynolds. Every year for five years, Burt Reynolds was the number one box office star. Where is he now? Hello? This stuff doesn’t last very long.
“We have quite a number of stars who are exactly the same who can’t really act either. I have a kind of level attitude in this respect that there’s room for everybody, and there’s room for all kinds of talent. Minimal, major, whatever they are. The star system is what keeps this machine rolling, but unfortunately, I think they’ve forgotten the basics. Names mean shit. Look at films this year that had huge names in them. Came out and then tanked because the movie was bad!
“Make a good movie. You can make anyone a star if you put them in the right role. There seems to be all kinds in the business, but talent is definitely not high on their list in terms of casting. Look at Gene Hackman. It took a long time for him to catch on. Guys like that; the key to their success is persistence. They just go, ‘I’m here. Fuck you. I’ll keep working.’”
With over eleven years of professional experience in Hollywood and his native Australia, Anthony LaPaglia has sound and inspired advice for actors who are frustrated with the ambivalence of the industry.
“There’s a way to do everything. If the front door is closed, go through the back door. I’m telling you, most of this business is just persistence. The truth of the matter is that there’s no formula. You talk to ten different actors; they’ll all tell you ten different stories about how they got an agent. It’s so different for everybody. Part of it is serendipity. Part of it is hard work. Part of it is right place, right time.
“Whatever you do, you’re not wrong. People will tell you you’re wrong, but you’re not actually wrong because it could work for you. People said to me when I first started, ‘You can’t do it that way. No, no, no, no, no.’ And I thought, ‘Why not? Where’s the rule book?’ It really comes down to desire. How badly do you want it? When I started, there were no avenues. I looked around and thought, ‘Well, I’ll do student movies. I’ve got no experience, but neither do they.’ That’s what I did. I did student films, and I learned how to act on film.”
Another thing LaPaglia has subsequently learned is how to navigate the sometimes aggravating world of film publicity.
“I wish I had known how to capitalize on when I first started getting recognition in the business. I kept a very low profile. I hardly did any press. There’s a certain amount of heat that comes with it, and I found out that it goes away,” he chuckles. “There is a way to keep it rolling, and a lot of it is doing this.” He points to my old Panasonic.
“It depends on the person, honestly. There are some interviewers who piss me off severely, and I will be hostile with them because I see no reason to take shit from them. I will be non-communicative. Somebody approaches me with a relatively intelligent set of questions, I’m open to it. But I find it very hard to suffer stupidity, especially with journalists.
“See, I’m sitting here listening to you, and I’m impressed because you’ve done your research. You’ve actually read things and looked at things, and you’re asking me questions about stuff that you have background knowledge. I get people coming in that don’t know shit! They have not bothered to research a damn thing, and therefore ask me the same questions 500 other journalists have asked me,” he shakes his head in exasperation. “This completely agitates the crap out of me. It’s an insult to me. They have to interview you, but they don’t really feel like it.
“Why the fuck am I doing their job? It’s like being an actor and getting a part and not bothering to learn the lines. Not bothering to research the character, and just showing up and doing it. I’m not going to sit here and pacify you and make your job easy. I’ll make your job fifty times harder than you ever thought it was going to be if I get pissed off. I don’t enjoy this in the first place, so if you’re going to take up my time, then please do something with it. If you’re not going to, interview’s over. I am basically relatively calm and relatively nice, but I do have a quick fuse. I have very low tolerance.
“That’s the one thing I would have introduced to my career earlier. Learning how to use the system better and making it easier on myself as a result. And even that’s not a loss because you get a second shot. This time I know better. You’re not supposed to say anything bad, and it does come back to haunt you, by the way. You catch a lot of shit for being honest.”
That refreshing honesty is on full display when LaPaglia talks about his life in general.
“I didn’t used to like my life.” He stays quiet for a while, seeming to reflect on his frank statement. “What I like about my life now is that it’s the life that I created for me. It’s not the life that anybody in society thought I should do. It’s what I wanted, and I’m happy with what I got.
“I have a great personal life, which really puts a lot of things in perspective. It makes the business less important. I love getting up in the morning and having a cup of coffee, reading the paper.
AL: (picks his cup up from the floor and takes a swig, which must be ice cold by now) I love coffee! I’m addicted to it. And cigarettes. (points to an open pack next to him) I love cigarettes.
TH: (snarls up at the cigarettes)
AL: I know. I’m just a disgusting human being.
AL: (points at me and laughs) See? I laugh a lot more than I used to. Mostly because my life is good. AAA
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