Eric Bogosian Comes Clean
If I had to describe Eric Bogosian, I'd call him the raw nerve of the American cultural psyche. I've been lucky enough to see quite a bit of his work (Talk Radio, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll ). His last one-man show, Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead, blew me out the back of the theatre. A year ago, I saw his play subUrbia, about a group of kids a couple years out of high school hanging around a 7-Eleven, and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. When I heard he was coming to town, I was really excited not only to have this rare (for Austin) opportunity to see his new show, but also to talk to him about "where it all comes from." An amazing actor, he's practically blazed a new trail in performance -- theater technically -- but I wouldn't go expecting a quaint evening.
Austin Chronicle: So, when you go to the grocery store these days, does a little old lady come over and kick you in the shins because you were the bad guy in Under Siege 2? What's the public effect of playing a bad guy?
Eric Bogosian: Well, the Under Siege 2 thing is... it's a class thing, kind of. The milieu I hang out in doesn't go see Under Siege 2, at least not in the opening run. But there are a lot of people, like guards and drivers and basically working people in New York City, who really don't have much to say to me most of the time; clearly, they've all seen this movie. And now even people who don't like me are like, "Hey, man, how you doin'?" Now I'm like this celebrity guy. All the guards and guys at the pizza parlor, everybody's my big pal now.
AC: Wake up and Smell the Coffee, is it multi-monologue, multi-character, like Pounding Nails and Sex, Drugs,...?
EB: It's trying to be a bit more stream-of-consciousness. It kind of slides from one thing to the next. Some things are only a minute long or 30 seconds long. Then another voice comes in and another voice, and it's like you really never know where you are, more Firesign Theatre than Lily Tomlin if you can make those comparisons.
AC: When did you sort of create your own form or...?
EB: This schtick?
AC: Yeah, whatever you want to call it.
EB: Back in 1980. I was doing a character named Ricky Paul, who was intensely obnoxious. I was doing him in punk clubs; it was very aggressive, and people would throw bottles at me and spit. I did him everywhere. I did him in Germany and I would "Sieg heil" the audience and junk like that. And I had a little band, and I did these shitty versions of "Light My Fire" and stuff. It was part of this how-bad-can-we-be scene, and the problem was, everybody was basically living their thing they were doing on stage. Well, I was pretty total on stage, but it drove me crazy to do it all the time. And I thought people didn't get what I was doing; they thought that I really meant it. So I came up with this idea that, instead of playing one guy, I would play 10 assholes in a row in one show. Then you'd have to be pretty dim not to get that it was all kind of a put-on. But people to this day say, "It's amazing to meet you because you're not this complete asshole."
AC: Like, you're married and have kids, not that you couldn't still be an asshole, but...
EB: Right. I was at a booksigning the other night and this woman said, "You have kids. How do you do this and go home and have kids?" I said, "It's the same as the guy who works for Dow Chemical and manufactures napalm all day. I don't know, what do you want me to say?"
AC: So who do you consider influences?
EB: De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy -- to this day, I think some of the things I do look so much like Ratso Rizzo -- Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor, when I was coming of age, was just this comedian who was on TV every now and then, doing things like Laugh-In; he was just one more funny black guy. And then I saw his first live movie, and I was blown out of my shoes. I mean, what he was doing was just so visceral. If you knew what was happening in comedy then, there was nobody...
AC: It was witty George Carlin stuff.
EB: There was no Sam Kinison, no Bobcat Gold-thwaite, there was nobody who was getting down. Did you know Bill Hicks? He was a Texas guy.
AC: Oh yeah, what a loss. God, he was so great.
EB: Oh yeah, he was brilliant. He was so brilliant. I met him a couple of times, and we had a little correspondence. Then I called him in L.A. -- I was going to tell him what I thought of his new CD -- and the phone was disconnected and I didn't understand. Then somebody called me -- from England of course, because the U.S. is such a suckhead country -- they were doing a memorial film and wanted me to say something about him. [Pause.] But back to Richard Pryor. That was all new for me, like how do you get out there and just sweat. That was the start for a lot of the stuff. And somewhere along the line I crossed into being funny. In the beginning, it was just some intensoid experience: "Let's make these the baddest bad guys I can do." Then there was this funny thing that started to drift into it. I ended up doing them in theatres because I come from the theatre originally. Even though I had tried clubs, and clubs seemed a good place for me to go, I wanted people sitting and listening to what I was doing.
AC: Right, not having a beer and carrying on a conversation with somebody. It really demands that sort of attention. Where do figure you fit in the theatre scene?
EB: The funny thing about a lot of people that I deal with in the theatre is, our tastes aren't exactly the same. The traditional theatre guys in the city either like sentimental dramas or musicals, and I don't like either of those things really. I like dramas where somebody's really chewing the scenery, American Buffalo with Al Pacino, where he's just completely over the top. It's kind of bad acting, but I like it in the theatre. When I go to the theatre, I don't want to see subtle shit.
AC: Yeah, I want to be punched around.
EB: SubUrbia was like that, you go out there and you break shit and you're loud and you're... I don't know, it's nothing to do with training or method acting or any of that kind of stuff.
AC: That's what I like about it. It has this visceral, physical element. That's why I've always liked your stuff, to see it in a theatre, it's so unlike the traditional proper experience. It's this edgy thing that really, really unnerves you.
EB: It involves really understanding what theatre is. Theatre is not acted-out movies and theatre is not the script; it's the event going on. When I'm writing, I have to always keep that in mind because you can wander into this thing of the words and the scenarios. Well, obviously, if you're Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett, you can write these amazing word things. But, as theatre has become little sitcoms on stage, they pale in comparison to any television or movie you might see, so why even bother to go to the theatre in the first place? Unless there's something charismatic or exciting going on on stage. Like a rock concert.
AC: Yeah, it's that line between performance, music, theatre, and acting. So how was the subUrbia experience for you, writing and not performing?
EB: It was a serenely, deeply happy experience for me, as opposed to feeling like having a rocket shoved up your butt and you've just been sent to the moon, which is more like what Talk Radio was like. I mean, we were casting Talk Radio the play and a year later, the movie version was shooting. That's how fast all of that went.
AC: Did Oliver Stone see Talk Radio and just kind of say, "Let's do it"....
EB: No, Ed Pressman saw Talk Radio and he started bringing all these different directors by: Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, Friedkin, all these guys. Some guys would say, "I like the play but I don't see where the movie is," somebody else would say, "I see where the movie is but we need to get a star in it." So Ed said, "Let's forget about looking for a director, why don't you just write a draft? I know Oliver, because we just did Wall Street together, maybe he can look at your draft." So Oliver came to town, and we hung out at Nell's one night with, like, Chris Walken. It was so scene-y, and I had quit drinking about two years before, so it was very uncomfortable. But I did it. He did his usual Oliver Stone thing of making a snide remark about the clothes I was wearing.
AC: Yeah, he does. I met him once, he immediately like... boom, gives you a little jab. It's kind of funny.
EB: And then I made about five worse jabs back at him, and he didn't like that at all.
AC: He didn't like it? I thought he respected that.
EB: Oh no. Somebody at the table said, "Oliver, are you a leftist?" And I said, "Oliver's what the right wing wants people to think the left wing is."
EB: He looked like I had just broken a bread board over his head. Then he goes, "You know, you're being really mean to me." And I said, "You keep being mean to me, I'm gonna keep being mean to you back." So, we made peace. And from then on, we had peace and it was good.
He and I talked about what the script would be structurally, and I'd say, "Do you think I should do this?" and he'd go, "It's your thing, man." And I'm thinking, "Oh, this big advice I'm getting from this sage: it's your thing, man, you gotta go do it." So I do it and send it to him. Then I'm having a Christmas party in my apartment, the next day I'm splitting to Australia to visit my in-laws for a month, and the phone rings and it's Oliver. And he goes, "Man, I'm down in Miami and I'm goin' to Cuba and I read your script, man, and it's a complete piece of shit. Man, like, what's wrong with you? What are you doin'? Are you like workin' or are you jerkin' off or what? I wrote some notes about what's wrong with it, but I can't find 'em here. Umm, listen, first of all..." and he said something about something. And he goes, "Second of all..." something else, some other generalization. Then he goes, "I gotta get goin', man, I gotta go get my plane to Cuba." And I walk back into the party, and I'm stunned, right? I go, "What the fuck am I gonna do? I have to write this thing." So every day in Australia, I'm in this room, I'm typing on the bed, and kids are running around in the hallway, and people are going, "Sshh, Uncle Eric is trying to write!" At first, I'm completely pissed at Oliver for not giving me deeper notes, and then I realized the things he was saying were right. So I'm writing it and halfway through it, Ed Pressman calls and says, "Congratulations. Oliver's gonna direct the movie." And I said, "He said it was a piece of shit." So I call Oliver and go, "We're gonna do this, huh?" and he goes, "I don't know. I need to see the script." So I stopped in Los Angeles on my way back and delivered the script to him, and we immediately went to casting.
EB: Immediately. We hung out in Palm Springs, we did some rewrites, and it was a wonderful ride for me. Now, I got a completely distorted idea about how movies get made, I mean, shoot the thing in 25 days...
AC: Small crew, just do it, no interference.
EB: No studio interference whatsoever. It's his crew, his tight group of people who are prepping Born on the Fourth of July, and he's just giving them this thing to do before they start shooting.
AC: It's so cool you're coming to Austin. You have your fans here, that's for sure. I just saw a damn good performance of Talk Radio here at the Hyde Park Theatre. And there's a guy here, Ken Webster, who did a great performance of Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. I don't think there are too many actors who could pull that off, but he kicked butt.
AC: I saw you on The Larry Sanders Show a couple of years ago. You were his alcoholic ex-partner. That was so fuckin' hilarious. How did that work out?
EB: Usually, I have no interest coming on and doing my little schtick thing in a TV show. But that show is so interesting, and I thought it would be really fun to do it. And it was a blast. They don't allow any suits on the set. It's actually in his contract that no producers or agents can be seen on the set. In fact, while I was there one day, an agent came by and he stopped the cameras.
EB: Everything stopped until the guy left. Nobody's allowed to see how they're doing.
AC: I like this.
EB: He totally controls the writers, and then you can improvise while you're doing scenes. And with guys like Rip Torn or Jeffrey Tambor... they're all trying to make each other laugh, and they try to get into this reality thing that's really close and embarrassing.
AC: So, do you relate to any of the spoken word things, like what Jello Biafra or Henry Rollins do? It seems like what you're doing is so different than that.
EB: I've seen Rollins perform, and he's funny when he's doing his talking stuff. But I'm doing a lot of things with my words and the whole enterprise that... I'm trying to play. The way I look at it is, you got an audience coming in, and you've got this stage, this big empty space, and I can do anything and say anything to turn the audience on. I can turn them on by scaring them or pissing them off or making them laugh. I do a lot of the laughing stuff, but I do the other stuff, too. And I can drop into a role instantly and become this other person. I can become a whole bunch of people. And it's fun to sit in a theatre and watch a guy do that.
AC: You're sitting there, "Okay, are these guys he knows? Are these guys he's hung out with? Is this him? Is this the darker side of him?" That's why it's such a kind of fascinating experience.
EB: Well, there's a mechanism in your brain that sort of regulates your own personality, like how you know who you are, how you're supposed to talk and act, and we put a lot of information into that. If we were in some village somewhere, we would be getting this information on some primitive level where you'd learn that you should dress a certain way and talk a certain way and address elders a certain way and whatever. But we don't live in villages, we live in this place where we just get slammed with endless versions of how we should act, everything from some guy on TV to a movie guy to the guy on the street, and I think that in our brains this all cooks into these personality types we all know. I play these guys and people go, "Oh, I know that guy."
AC: That's always a compliment when somebody says, "I went to high school with that guy. I know that guy. I have a name for him." And your characters, the guys from Jersey, you just know they have boots on, they're talking about Bruce... I don't live in Jersey, but I know those guys.
EB: It's pretty true stuff. I grew up around some tough guys and they think violence is funny.
AC: And sex.
EB: Yeah, they're very, very into it. I do this guy Red, the drug dealer who deals to this Wall Street guy, and he tells this whole story about having sex with his old lady and I think it's pretty...
AC: Ecstatic, as I remember.
EB: And I love that guy because he's real. I mean, I wish I was as sexually free as he is. It's very, very enjoyable for me to make-believe that I'm some bad-ass person that I'm not really at all. In fact, in Under Siege 2, to see myself blowing up parts of the world really fed my fantasy life. I didn't have to project; it was me up there.
AC: In 1986, you worked with another hero of mine on a radio piece, Blood on the Canvas. How was it working with Frank Zappa?
EB: It was great working with him. It was strange, like I had never met my real parents or something, and then one day, I'm sitting with this person and going, "Oh, he's got eyes like me, he's got hair like me, I'm related to this guy." It was like that psychically, you know. I'd forgotten that before there was Richard Pryor, before there was Richard Foreman or Richard anybody, Frank Zappa had shaped my nascent teenage mind with a certain brand of cynicism and a certain sense of humor. Basically in the Sixties, it was MAD Magazine and Frank Zappa that told me the way I was going to think about the world.
AC: There was a certain Dadaist kind of notion, just music, performance, and poking fun at everything.
EB: I suddenly said, "Wow, I'm at the source, you know." At the time, he was very involved with the Dead Kennedys thing because they had gotten censored. So he wanted to make a tape that basically had to be censored. In fact, no one ever played it on the radio. It was censored in every radio station except for Boston. We had a deal with the Museum of Modern Art in L.A. that they could only make 10,000 copies. So these 10,000 copies were made and that was it. It was very extreme. It has these little bits of music in it, and these funny characters that talk about all these innuendo sexual experiences.
One of the funny things for me is that it's so easy now to talk about this stuff and it can be printed in the paper, but when I started doing it in 1980, it was considered very extreme. I mean, I would have gigs cancelled because of stuff I did. And now it seems kind of quaint. To me, it has a lot to do with how powerful words are. People get very upset about things that you say and there's a lot of power to that, when really it isn't like I'm actually doing it, it isn't like I ever actually kill a baby on stage or torture a dog or something. It's just talking, which is what Lenny Bruce was always talking about, that you can just talk, and the power of it is amazing. n
Wake Up and Smell the Coffee will be performed
November 5 at the Paramount Theatre.
Rick Linklater is the writer and director of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise.