Titus Welliver continues to balance multiple projects with Argo and Promised Land
Actor Titus Welliver discusses his film and television roles with MSN
Titus Welliver, center, in Argo. Photo credit: Warner Bros., courtesy Everett Collection
Argo seems to be the odds on favourite to snag Oscar’s Best Picture this year. The 1979 Iranian hostage crisis ‘Canadian Caper’ film has certainly cleaned up this awards season and has solidified Ben Affleck as one of Hollywood’s top directors. Titus Welliver is no stranger to working with Ben, having been a part of all three of the director’s films to date and in Argo plays CIA operative Jon Bates. Titus can also currently be seen in the Matt Damon/John Krasinski penned, Gus Van Sant directed Promised Land, the touching story of a town undergoing a fracking debate. For all the Lost fans out there though, Titus will always be known as The Man In Black.
Titus: I think that’s something that will follow me forever. The enormity of that show and its success, and just the fanbase, yeah, I will forever be the Man in Black, and I have no problem with that what so ever. It’s ok for Johnny Cash. I’ll take it.
You’ve worked with Ben Affleck as a director three times now, and Argo is cleaning up during award season, it seems to be the frontrunner for the Oscar. How has his direction changed or progressed over his three films?
Having worked with him on his first film, it never occurred to me that this was the first time Ben was directing a film. I’ve said this many times, and I shout it from the mountain high. He is an extraordinarily prepared director. He has the entire film in his head and cut before he event starts to shoot it. That’s not to say he will not deviate from his pre-conceived ideas of what he wants to do, but he is so prepared. I would say the only change that I’ve seen in him is just that he knows more. There was never a lack of knowledge in the first place. He also just seems to be more and more comfortable in that role as the director. Although once again, I would take that back and say that I never saw him in any level of discomfort as a director. To me, it’s who he is. It’s something that he was always supposed to do. Just like he’s supposed to be an actor and a writer. He is that thing. As far as the progression goes, it’s just the scope of the films, although I think Gone Baby Gone has an enormous scope, as does The Town. Argo has kind of an epic feeling to me. It almost feels like a David Lean film to it. It’s just broader than the other films. It’s also a departure in that it’s not the seedy kind of underworld of Boston. It’s just more irrefutable proof that he’s pound for pound one of the best directors in Hollywood. I don’t just mean of his generation. I mean of Hollywood, of history. He is an astoundedly gifted, brilliant guy. I just happen to be very privileged, and blessed to have started this journey with him, and it’s my wish to continue to do so. I think I do some of the best work of my career when I’m with him. He inspires you to do well. He gives you direction as an accessory and not as an obstacle. He’s very trusting. He’s also a wonderful human being. Very bright, and deeply funny too. He’s just immensely talented. I could blow smoke all day long, and if he was here, he’d just be rolling his eyes, saying, “Shut up. Go on, go on, go on.” I’m very passionate about the work that I’ve done with him.
Is there something that an actor brings to directing that a director coming from a different path might not see?
I think that because Ben understands the language; because he is an actor, he can be very specific, and very articulate. I have kind of a short hand with him. Sometimes it’s less than a sentence, and I know exactly what he’s talking about. There are other times where it’s my own lack of intelligence or maybe lack of sleep, when he’s saying, “No. I just want you to walk to that spot. Get to that spot. Say that line quickly. Then go.” I’ll end up doing four takes, and he’s laughing at me. I’ll go, “Why are you laughing at me?” He says, “I just want you to step to the mark. This is not about performance. This is totally for you to indulge me in this shot. Just do it.” And I do it. I’m always surprised that I’m so malleable because it’s not necessarily my nature. With Ben, if he said, “I want you to wear suspenders and a red nose.” I’d say, “You know what? That works for me. That’s fine.” I have complete trust, and faith with him. He’s the first to say to, if he leads you down a path on something, and it doesn’t work, he’ll say, “Yeah it was just an idea, and it doesn’t work. I take that back.” He’s very humble.
You got to play with a little humour in your scene with Frances McDormand in Promised Land. How does the process differ from working with Ben, or is it similar to working with Gus Van Sant?
Gus certainly didn’t say to me, “I want you to be kind of funny.” Part of it is that Gus creates an atmosphere of complete openness, the same way Ben does. It allows you to breathe and be present in the moment in those scenes. I’m looking across the counter, and it’s Fran McDormand who’s work I’ve loved since Blood Simple. She’s also extremely bright, and very beautiful. She’s incredibly charismatic, and hysterically funny. She’s a great listener. When you’re working with that caliber of actors, with Krasinski and Matt, and Rosemarie [DeWit], all those people, you just show up and swing. You’re operating at the highest level of your game. You’re in there with the pros from Dover.
Are you searching out challenging roles?
I would say that I’m always challenged, and I would even draw the analogy of a jujutsu match when I work with David Milch, because the depth of his writing, and the depth of the characters that he create are so complex, and are constantly in a state of flux, that for me has always been the most challenging work that I’ve done. Certainly in the television arena. Those characters are never what they seem on the outside. The journeys that I’ve taken with David, from NYPD Blue, to Brooklyn South, and Big Apple, and Deadwood. Those are enormous gifts. It’s such a privilege to work with a writer like David. That’s been very challenging stuff. Also to take a character that might seem as one thing on a page, but to really try and make it personal and collaborative, to bring my ideas to the table, and get together with the writers and say, “What about this?” What if we tried this, or didn’t do that?” I try and find really collaborative, open relationships in the work.
Was it like that a lot on Deadwood? I heard you say that there weren’t completed scripts before you began shooting. It was kind of, “Here you go,” an hour before shooting.
Yeah. That was certainly there. The quality of the work never suffered. That’s just the way David works. I said to somebody that it’s kind of like NAVY Seal training for an actor. Once you’ve worked with David, it just changes you as an actor completely. You get out of your head with all the things that really have no place being there when you’re working. You’re able to really deal with the task at hand. For some people, it might be a difficulty of memorizing such difficult and intelligent dialogue in such a short period of time. It forces you to make very quick decisions. Without the luxury of time, I think in the process of making quicker decisions, it is better. You are on your toes, and it’s a much more organic process. It’s not over-rehearsed. You’re going to say it letter-perfect, but your interpretation and time is somewhat limited. You really have to just be clear, and sharp, and just jump in, and service the writer. It makes for more interesting performances.
Do you find it easier to jump from character to character, or get back into it as it were, if you’re working on several things at the same time? Is it easy to get back into the person you were a week ago?
Yeah, I do. I’ve experienced that level of schizophrenia in this business. When I was shooting The Town, I was also shooting The Good Wife, Lost, and Sons of Anarchy. It’s just a switch that you flipped. I worked enough on those characters and knew who they were so it wasn’t difficult. It’s also because the writing is really good, and consistently good. I kind of responded well to that. That being said, I’d like to do a series for a few years and pop out two or three films a year. That’s what I’d like to do only because that gypsy travelling thing is hard on your system. I also have three children, and I want to be with them when I’m not working. I want to be able to be with my kids. While, I’m very grateful to that experience, it was disruptful to the harmony that I want my children to feel that their dad is present, because I’m very much a hands-on father. That was the biggest struggle for me. It wasn’t the characters. It was being away from my family, which is always the case, but going from Boston, to Los Angeles, to Hawaii, then back to New York, then back to Boston, it was a lot of wear and tear.
You just traveled up here to Canada to shoot a new film called Poker Night.
Yeah, I’m digging it man. That was my first time on Vancouver Island. It was beautiful. Look, I’m not going lie. I can do without that freezing cold rain that is bone-penetrating. I should probably have a Canadian passport. I work in Canada so much. I shot the television series Falcone in Toronto, and lived there for six months. I’ve shot a ton in Vancouver. I shot a pilot last year for NBC called Midnight Sun that I did with Julia Stiles, which sadly didn’t see the light of day. It was a really, brilliantly written thing. It was so original. I had never seen anything like it on television before. Julia Stiles is such a great actress, and a beautiful person. I know my way around Vancouver, I’ll tell you that. Victoria was great. It was really beautiful. I brought my daughter on location with me, and she loved it. She found some dollhouse store that was three blocks away from our apartment that she frequented. She would go in there like it was a museum. She would spend hours fantasizing about creating… believe me, if she had her way, my house would be like a dollhouse slim, just filled with furniture and people. I really liked working up there, and the experience of that film really had a tremendous amount of weight on me, and it was the first time that I returned to work since [my wife] Beth’s passing. I was very nervous. I guess it was like an opera singer with a case of laryngitis. I didn’t know where I could muster the courage or the strength to do it. Yet I got there with such a wonderful crew, and a great director. There was Ron Perlman, Ron Eldard, and Giancarlo Esposito, who are all friends of mine… longtime friends and colleagues of mine. I just looked across the table and I went, “I’m going to be better than OK. I’m going to have a great time.” And I did. It was like jumping off the building, but those three guys were holding the net. I didn’t hesitate for a second to take the leap. I’m so glad that I did because I think the film is really going to be good. Brutal, and not for the faint of heart, but a wonderful ensemble of actors, and a really tight script, with a lot of really original twists and turns. I think it’ll do really well. That’s my hope. I play a detective. It’s about a group of detectives who have been brought in to this small town to help corral some of the crime that’s been happening there. There’s this all-star team of detectives that get together, and they play poker together, and they tell war stories. They’ve brought this young detective, and brought him under their wing, and include him in their process as sort of a tutorial. My relationship to him is that he’s been dating my daughter secretly, which is a big no-no. I’m sort of forced to be, against my own will and better judgment to be a mentor to this young detective who has to navigate some serious hurdles. It was a lot of fun and a great, really cool character. Sort of a tortured guy in a way, but that’s a simplistic description. I really enjoy playing that character, and making that film. It was a lot of fun.
Five quick questions. One word answers. Hitchcock or Kubrick?
Lennon or McCartney?
Christopher Walken or Al Pacino? I know you do both impressions.
[Laughs.] That’s tough. Pacino.
Role you’re the most proud of.
Silas Adams in Deadwood.
And in one word, Titus Welliver.