Stacy Keach has played a variety of badasses in his day, from the world’s most horrible dad in Titus to the world’s most horribly racist dad in American History X, and of course the all-around baddest good guy (or goodest bad guy) in Mike Hammer. He’s compiled all of his badassery in his new book, All in All: An Actor’s Life On and Off the Stage, and he’s back onscreen playing another less-than-nice guy in Alexander Payne’s bittersweet dramedy Nebraska. Mr. Keach was nice enough to speak to us about choosing roles, Midwest living, and being on The Simpsons.
NERDIST: How do you go about picking projects? Do you start with the script or is it the director, or is it the character you’re going to play, or kind of all of the above?
STACY KEACH: It’s kind of all of the above, yeah. Specifically, with this picture, it really had a great deal to do with Alexander Payne. I’ve been such a fan of his; I’ve loved his movies. I think he’s a great filmmaker, and, also, Bruce Dern, who is an old friend of mine. We did That Championship Season, together many years ago. Those were the two big draws for me. I liked the character; I mean, Ed is a – I wish there was a little bit more back story in terms of their relationship in the old days, but just being in the movie, as far as I’m concerned, was not only a great honor and privilege but very kind of unique in the sense that I’d never been in that part of the world: in the Midwest, in these small towns. When Alexander said he was going to shoot the whole thing in black and white, I thought, “Wow, that’s going to be kind of special.”
N: What was Alexander Payne like as a director on the set?
SK: Oh, he was wonderful. He’s a very meticulous director; great attention to detail. Every time we would get a take that he liked, he would be very happy, and then he would say: “Okay, now let’s go back and do it again and use your imagination. Let’s try something totally different. Let’s try something with a little more attention on this line or a little less attention here.”
He loves to have choices in the editing room, which, you know, a lot of directors, when they see something they really like they say, “That’s it.” I always remember, an actor friend of mine – I think it was Kurt Russell, as a matter of fact – after the director would say: “That was absolutely perfect. Perfect! Let’s do it again,” he said, “Well, why don’t you just print that one twice?” I didn’t have those thoughts with Alexander. I always welcomed the opportunity to try something new and something different, because it was a challenge. I think that’s one of the reasons he gets such rich performances from his actors.
N: Part of what makes the movie so enjoyable is how realistic everybody seems in their roles, likely due to them being from that part of the country. Did you get much of a chance to spend time in Nebraska before the shoot to get to know what people from there were like?
SK: Not a great deal of time, but I, you know, you made a good point – One of the things that we did when we were there was to get to know the townspeople, and, you know, sense their rhythms and their attitudes towards life and their whole persona. It was very, very enlightening, and it was like doing research, you know. That was the kind of, the best kind of research, when you really just interplay and intermingle with your fellow performers.
One of the great things that Alexander does is he casts people that are… First of all, visually. They have such wonderful faces, and I think that the essence of the kind of culture and life that he was depicting was personified by virtue of the people that he cast in the film. He’s done that in most of his films. He’s very, very specific and very particular about casting. Once he’s cast a film, he doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to teach an actor how to act.
N: Do you, for any character you play, like to create a back story for them if it’s not given? Is that something that you do for everyone you play?
SK: Yes; I think it’s important. I teach acting, and I tell my students that I think you have to create a back story. One of the exercises that I have them do is people just walk down the street and when you see somebody walking, write five lines of who that person is, where they come from, what they do. What’s, you know – It stimulates the imagination, let’s put it that way.
N: You’ve played a lot of villains in your career. Is it difficult to create, maybe not a back story, but like a human connection to the character? Some of them are written pretty vilely, as well.
SK: Yes. Now that’s true. Specifically, American History X; that was certainly a bad, bad guy. You know, playing the heavy is much more fun than playing the hero. You can release a lot more emotions that are inside you without any kind of worry. You don’t have to censor yourself so much.
I think one of the reasons why I had some success with Mike Hammer is because he was sort of a combination of a good guy/bad guy. He was able to, you know, get on the revenge track pretty easily. I’ve never been very comfortable – And I’ve been asked to play, you know, characters that have absolutely no redeeming values.
Iago in Othello is certainly one of the greatest characters ever written, and there’s no redeeming value there, either. But, I can identify with Iago’s feeling that he didn’t get the recognition that he felt he deserved. That’s true, I think, of many bad guys. Many villains, I think they have that in common, that they feel like something slipped by them in life and they have great anger and resentment as a result of that and take it out on unsuspecting people.
N: Do you wish you’d gotten to play more good guys?
SK: I just did, actually! I just did an animated film for Disney called Planes, and I play Skipper in that. He’s totally a good guy, but he had a checkered past. Skipper is sort of the mentor to Dusty, who’s a crop-duster played by Dane Cook. He teaches him to overcome his fear of heights and win a race around the world. In doing so, we learn that he had his own fear of heights when he was, you know, younger, during the Second World War, but that was one of the best good guys I’ve ever played, and it was just a voice-over.
N: You’ve done quite a few voice-overs. Is that process something you enjoy?
SK: I do enjoy it. You know, you get to go in the studio and don’t have to put on make-up, and it’s just you and the microphone. I narrate a show called American Greed on CNBC, and I’ve done that for a couple of years now and I love it. I really enjoy it. That’s sort of an extension of Mike Hammer, in the sense that the tone of my voice-over is sort of to catch the bad guys. There are a lot of bad guys out there. You know, fraudsters, like Bernie Madoff and others.
N: Because our readers are really going to be interested you’ve done a character (Howard K. Duff) on The Simpsons. Was that as fun as I hope it would be?
SK: Yeah, I loved that character. Yeah. I’d love to more of those, actually. They’re so much fun. Those guys are the best. I mean in terms of writing? Wow. I’d never experienced something like that. It’s one of the best-written shows, ever. I think that’s one of the reasons why their longevity has sustained so many years.
You can see Stacy Keach go toe-to-toe with Bruce Dern and Will Forte in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, in cinemas in select cities on Friday.