Dennis Farina Interview

'Big Trouble's' scene-stealing comic thug character actor Dennis Farina is just your everyday Chicago joe

'Big Trouble's' scene-stealing comic thug character actor Dennis Farina is just your everyday Chicago joe

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

You know Dennis Farina. He's the tough guy with the Chicago accent and the Miami wardrobe who thought he was cooler than John Travolta's Chili Palmer in "Get Shorty." He was Jennifer Lopez's roughneck cop pop in "Out of Sight." He plays the guys who crack wise even though they ain't.

Well let me tell you something about Dennis Farina, pal, and you better listen good, 'cos I ain't gonna say it twice: He may look like the same tough guy in person that you see on screen -- the Florida tan, the summer-white pants, salmon shirt, navy sport coat, and even the gold necklaces (his shirt is buttoned up, but you can hear them jangle when he scratches his chest) -- but as soon as the man smiles his invitingly huge smile (so huge his whole face gets into the act), it's clear he's more teddy bear than bruiser.

The tough guy is in there somewhere -- after all, he spent 20 years on the Chicago police force before stumbling into an acting career. But Farina is polite to a fault and more interested in conversation than Q&A. Meeting him in the lobby of San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, he and I take the elevator up to a conference room where he's doing press for "Big Trouble," a lunatic tale of arms trading and assassination attempts in -- wouldn't you know it? -- Miami. As the elevator doors close, Farina turns to me and says, "So where ya from?" And here I thought I'd be the one asking the questions.

His voice and his gestures, like the way he shrugs with his hands, are familiar from his movie and TV roles. (He had a recurring role on "Miami Vice" and his own short-lived concept-comedy called "Buddy Faro," about a Rat Pack-styled 1960s private eye getting back into the business in the '90s). They're also reminiscent of classic movie tough guys, many of which he admired during the matinees of his youth.

"When I was a kid going to the movies, we'd go to a movie because somebody was in it," Farina says. "Bogart was in the movie, or Cagney, or John Wayne. We didn't know what the story was about or anything. It was just, 'Let's go see Bogart. He's in a movie.'"

The actor also expresses a fondness for certain character actors whose footsteps he seems to have followed in. "I liked guys like Richard Conte (Don Barzini in "The Godfather"). Second bananas, you know? You didn't know who they were, but they were wonderful. Good actors."

Farina's character in "Big Trouble" -- which was rescheduled from September to April after 9/11 because its climax pokes fun at bad airport security -- is a greasy, hilariously fed-up hit man who spends most of the movie stuck in a run-down rental car with his witless partner (Jack Kehler) while waiting for his target to come out in the open. It's the kind of drolly disgruntled bad-guy character he has down to a science, which invites a comparison to some of those second banana actors he admires.

Q: Watching you in "Big Trouble" and thinking about your roles in "Snatch," "Get Shorty" and some of your other movies, you've arrived as a real character actor, like Cagney and others from the old days.

A: Well, I'm flattered you would even say that. I think really all actors are supposed to be character actors, but I take that as a compliment. Thank you very much.

Q: You wouldn't rather be a Tom Cruise or something?

A: [Amused] I would not rather be, and I don't think I have the option! But I'm very happy doing what I'm doing.

Q: So you kind of embrace being type cast?

A: Well, I really don't know that I'm typecast. I played a hit guy in "Big Trouble" and before that I did "Snatch" in which I played a Jewish jewelry salesman. I just did a movie called "Stealing Harvard" and I played somebody's father. In "Saving Private Ryan" I was a soldier...

Q: Well, I'm not referring to a specific type of character. It's more that you're pretty much a tough guy. A hit man or a cop or a mobster...

A: Well, how can I say this? They're not gentle roles. [Grins]

Q: They're often slightly shady. They're always a little bit smarter than the other guy and maybe a little bit disgusted with everybody else around them -- except in "Get Shorty," where you were just a little bit dumber.

A: [Smiling] I got out-foxed in "Get Shorty."

Q: Your character in this movie seems cursed to a life of funny, frustrating, eye-rolling moments (e.g. he keeps getting hit in the face by his automatic seat belt). Does that sort of thing require practice, to get the perfect funny, fed up look?

A: Let me tell you this: We were shooting this movie in July and August in Florida, so it was kind of easy. Barry would say, "Just do that you-want-to-get-out-of-Florida-in-August look," and I go, "OK, I gotcha."

Q: [Laughs] You're not going to need 20 takes to get this scene!

A: Exactly! That's exactly right. So it all kind of worked out.

Q: "Big Trouble" seemed to have something besides you and the director in common with "Get Shorty": It seems as if the entire cast is having a great time.

A: We had a wonderful time making this movie. But you know what was funny about making this movie? The cast was huge, but I never saw anybody. Just Jack Kehler (who plays) my partner.

Q: That's right! You're in a car half the time and hiding in bushes the other half of the time! [Laughing]

A: I saw Tim Allen once, in the makeup chair. He said to me, "Hey, I hear we're in a movie together." I saw Janeane Garofalo once. "Hi, how are you?" We had a little scene together. "Fine, how are you?" Then she was gone. Stanley Tucci and I never had a scene together. (Tom) Sizemore and I never had a scene together. Jason Lee and I, I think we had one scene together. (Jack and I) never saw anybody.

Q: An obvious question I have to ask: What are your thoughts about the movie being postponed after 9/11?

A: I was actually in New York on Sept. 11 doing the publicity for "Big Trouble." When the attacks happened, I was there for about five days, six days. We wound up driving back. We found us a car in Newark and drove back to Chicago from there. But I absolutely agree with the postponement. I think it was proper to do it. But I think now it's time for the movie to come out.

Q: Have you seen it post-Sept. 11?

A: No, I haven't. I'm told nothing was cut out.

Q: Nope. In fact, I saw it on Sept. 10 for its original release date, then I watched it again yesterday and it was the same print -- it still had the "Corky Romano" trailer attached to it! I had to do an instant replay of some of the movie's gags in my head to see if they were funny after my knee-jerked, post-Sept. 11 reaction: Inept screeners at an airport? That's not funny anymore. But then I thought, "OK, well, but here it's funny." A bomb on a plane? That's not funny. But again, in the context of the movie, it's funny. So that's why I asked if you'd seen it since.

A: No, I hadn't. But I don't know that we should change things. Listen, what happened was...was beyond horrible and everybody knows that. But we have to go on. Otherwise (the terrorists) win. Otherwise we keep monitoring ourselves, censoring ourselves, being too sensitive to this, too sensitive to that. We can't keep doing that.

Q: And worse case scenario, it can been seen as a period picture. It obviously takes place before the terrorist attacks.

A: You know, when they released "Sidewalks of New York" (a Edward Burns-directed Manhattan romantic comedy-drama in which Farina had a supporting role), there were some shots with the towers...

Q: Yeah, Ed's interview scenes (the character played by Burns is interviewed about his love life with the World Trade Center prominent in the background).

A: They were going to take that out, and Ed told them no. Don't take them out. Are we just going to deny those things were there?

Q: I really had a positive reaction to those scenes in "Sidewalks." Especially the second or third time (Ed is interviewed), it really felt good to see them.

A: Yep. I don't think they can deny the towers were a part of New York. I think we're silly if we try.

Q: So, a little background now. Chicago is your home town...

A: Born and raised there. Still live there.

Q: Any bungalow in L.A.?

A: I have a home in Arizona. I go a couple months a year.

Q: Working on the tan in the winter?

A: Yeah, and my golf game. [Laughs] But basically Chicago is my home.

Q: You were on the force in Chicago, yes?

A: Yeah, yeah. I'm proud of that.

Q: You still have friends from your police days.

A: Absolutely. They're all retired now.

Q: How did you go from cop to actor?

A: I was in the right place at the right time. A friend of mine named Charlie Adamson -- a retired Chicago police sergeant who I worked for -- he retires, he goes to Vegas to work security at the Tropicana hotel. (Director) Michael Mann is shooting "Vega$" (the 1970s detective show) at the Tropicana. They meet and they're both from Chicago, and Michael Mann tells Charlie Adamson, "I bought the rights to this book that I'm gonna turn into this screenplay." And Charlie says, "Well, I'm the guy who arrested the guy that the book is about!" So they get together to work on that.

Q: Which film was this?

A: "Thief." It was based on a book called "The Home Invaders." So they get together to collaborate on the script, you know, Michael hires him as a technical consultant. So they come to Chicago and Charlie tells Michael, "Call these guys, they'll show you around." So we did. Then he called me one day and said, "Do you want to do this little part in the movie?" I said, "Yeah, sure!"

Q: And the rest is history, as they say.

A: Yeah. So I always blame everything on Michael Mann.

Q: Right, because (the TV series) "Crime Story" came after that, then (the original Hannibal Lecter film) "Manhunter," then "Miami Vice," all with Michael Mann. So when you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you ever think about acting?

A: Oh, no. Never. I never even thought along those lines. I had a brother who was an attorney, so my first intention was to go to law school. I didn't do that. I wound up in the police department, and I loved it. I really loved what I was doing. But everything that happened to me (in showbiz) was accidental, really. Not that I'm complainin'!

Q: Did the guys on the force give you a hard time when you started acting professionally?

A: They gave me a hard time when I was a policeman! I was always the butt of a joke or something -- and I enjoyed it all, believe me. But they were, and they still are, big supporters of mine. They came to all the plays, went to the movies, watched the TV stuff, and they're the only critics I really pay attention to. They'll call you up and say, "Boy did you really stink in that!" [Laughs.]

Q: What's it like when you're not working and you're back in Chicago? Do you hang around with the guys?

A: Well, you know, as it happens, they're retired now -- a lot of them are retired to Florida or Arizona. But we try anyway. Somebody will call up and say, "Listen, we're all going to dinner on such-and-such a night," and we'll get 10 or 15 guys together. We always try to keep in touch.

Q: How many years were you a cop?

A: Just about 20 years.

Q: Really? Wow. So how far up were you in the force when you retired?

A: I was a detective. We worked on a unit that worked on the sophisticated burglars and stick-up men. Jewel thieves, stuff like that.

Q: You could probably write a couple screenplays of your own with that background.

A: I probably could! I don't think I ever would. I've tried writing. I would write something down and two days later I'd go visit it and say, "Jesus Christ, who wrote this crap?"

Q: Do you speak up when you're working on a movie that has something to do with jewel thieves or detectives or cops and you think, "that's all wrong!"

A: I do, but I learned a long time ago -- Michael Mann taught me, he said, "Just remember one thing: You're in the entertainment business. You're not in the reality business." One has absolutely nothing to do with the other. Sometimes I'm asked, or I'll volunteer (information). Sometimes they tell me "OK" and sometimes they tell me to shut up and mind my own business. [Laughs]

Q: [Laughs] Speaking of detectives, I was really disappointed with what happened to "Buddy Faro."

A: [Nodding emphatically] So was I.

Q: That was a great show. People just didn't get it.

A: I was terribly disappointed that it didn't go. At its inception, I thought it was a very, very good idea -- something that hadn't been done before. But when too many people get their hands on things, they want to make it commercial, and they wanna do this, and they wanna do that. They started taking the music away from us, which was a big, big part of the show -- Tony Bennett and Dean Martin and all those guys singing in the background -- they wanted to make it more contemporary. They started picking at it.

Q: I just interviewed Randall Wallace, who directed "We Were Soldiers," and I asked him about script doctors taking to his first draft of "Pearl Harbor." He said, "It had doctors when it wasn't ill."

A: Yeah. Yeah. That's what happens. I wanted to do "Buddy Faro" as a movie, as a small budget movie. They said no. So I wanted to do it as a series of recurring TV movies, and they said no. But by then I was so fond of the character I didn't want anybody else to do it. So I agreed to do it as a series. But from where we started to the time they took it off (the air) there was a world of difference.

Q: The characters you've played over the last several years have been especially quotable. There are all kinds of Dennis Farina quotes all over the Internet Movie Database. Do you have an all-time favorite line? One that you remember from a movie that just cracked you up when you got to say it?

A: Well, let's see...uh...it's hard to pick just one. I really like Elmore Leonard's writing (from which was spawned "Get Shorty"). "F**k you, f**kball" was kinda fun.

Q: [Laughs]

A: There was another one in "Get Shorty," what was it? "i.e., e.u..." whatever that was.

Q: "i.e., e.g., f**k you! The point is..."

A: Right, right! [Laughs] I wish I could say I wrote some of those. But they were a lot of fun to say.

Q: Is there any role or any particular kind of character you'd love to play that you haven't?

A: [Without hesitation] Oh, a cowboy! Yeah. I'd love to do a Western. A real Western like John Ford used to do. There's not too many of them made, so I don't know if I'll ever get to do that, though. They're awfully hard movies to make.


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