James LeGros Interview
Indie staple James LeGros gets a kick out of tweaking Shakespeare in dark comedy 'Scotland, PA'
(Some questions in this interview may have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)
Twenty years into his acting career, James LeGros has played more than his fair share of psychos and killers. It must have something to do with his heavy jaw line, stringy hair and deep-set eyes, because ever since his first TV gig playing a guy named "Trasher" in a 1982 episode of "Knight Rider," he's been getting plenty of bad-guy work, mixed in with his 30-plus appearances in independent features.
Now LeGros is getting to play one of the all-time greatest nutcase murderers -- Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Well, kind of. LeGros (pronounced Le-GROW) is starring in the low-budget adaptation "Scotland, PA" -- a dark comedy take on the Bard's tragic drama of greed and ambition -- as a fast food employee in the 1970s whose greatest ambition in life is to become manager of the joint and implement his vision of a opening drive-thru window.
Mislead by three ominous hippies (replacing Shakespeare's witches) and egged on by his deceitful wife (Maura Tierney in a hilarious yet human tweak on Lady Macbeth), Joe "Mac" McBeth kills the owner of Duncan's Diner to take over the joint. Then he and the little lady both slowly go mad from guilt while being dogged by a suspicious detective named McDuff, based on the play's Macduff and played with deadpan aplomb by Christopher Walken.
LeGros was recently in San Francisco to lend his enthusiastic support to the film.
|Q: I was looking at your filmography last night, and I see that in your career you've played guys called Cougar, Dodger, Roach, Hunter, Crasher, Trasher and Blade. How do you keep getting stuck with these motorcycle gang monikers?|
A: Wow! [Laughing a mellow-dude laugh.] You left out Metron.
|Q: I didn't see that one. What movie was that?|
A: I think it was in "Solarbabies" (a 1986 bomb about roller-skating, post-Apocalyptic teenagers) -- back before pictures had color. [Deadpan.] The great thing about that job was I lived in Spain for five months. That part of it was great, but it was a terrible movie!
|Q: Well I loved "Scotland, PA."|
A: Oh, I'm glad that you like it! I like it too. I think it's a really good picture, and it's fun. Part of what I like about it, and one of the reasons I took the job initially, was because you don't need to know f**k-all about William Shakespeare, you know? If this serves as a portal to the rest of his wonderful and rich material, I think that's a great thing too. But for me, initially the most important thing was, did it stand alone? And I think it does.
|Q: Did you feel you were cheating a little bit, getting to play Macbeth without actually having to learn the lines?|
A: [Laughs] Well, you know, that's actually one of the great things about Shakespeare, the beauty of the language. There will always be plenty of people lined up to hear old Mac daddy say, "She should have died hereafter/ There would have been a time for such a word/ To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow/ Creeps this petty pace from day to day/ To the last syllable..." you know? I mean, it's beautiful language. It will always bring people in. But it's not important to this film. I think if he was to see this, he'd be enthusiastic about it.
|Q: I think he would too. Once you realize his plays were meant to be fooled around with...|
A: Absolutely! I don't wanna see a bunch of middle-aged guys in tights futzing around with foils. Who cares about that? Let's see something vibrant and exciting!
|Q: Even Shakespeare adaptations I don't like I think are worth seeing because I'm always interested to see what people do with them. But I especially enjoy something like this, where a director just takes it and runs with it.|
A: Yeah! And you know, when they do it straight up, that great. That has its value too. But I'm always a little bit more intrigued by these adaptations. In fact, my favorite Shakespeare adaptation is from the same play -- "Throne of Blood," Akira Kurosawa's (1957) movie. It's amazing!
|Q: I love the fact that the characters in this film were so well developed on their own, apart from the Shakespeare parts.|
A: Yeah, for example, the two brothers (one of Duncan's teenage sons is gay but in the closet and the other is a slacker dude) -- I mean, that's not in the play!
|Q: And Lady Macbeth gets the short shrift a lot. She just gets played as evil sometimes. But I loved the she was portrayed in this movie -- she's human and just a little too ambitious and opportunistic.|
A: Maura did such a great job! She's really good in this. I hope that everybody else sees what you and I know.
|Q: I hope so too. But you all have development in these characters. Mac has that distracted, can't-think-on-his-feet edge. He thinks he's gonna blow it. You know he's gonna blow it...|
A: ...and he lacks confidence in certain situations...
|Q: How much time was spent working on the characters themselves, apart from their Shakespearean counterparts?|
A: Honestly, I only go from what's in the script. I re-read the play just to see how this adaptation tracked. But that is something I put away and went from what was in the script.
|Q: So there wasn't a lot of sitting around, talking about what's parallel...?|
A: You know what? I hate doing that! It makes me uncomfortable. Also, if I read an interview with an actor and he talks about his method -- I don't want to know that! I don't want to know how Siegfried and Roy do it all! Let me have a little magic. Besides, language is so subjective anyway. What a phrase means to somebody, in terms of their approach to (acting), has a completely different meaning to somebody else. It's a very subtle thing. And I know that word "method" is terrible. But everybody's got one.
|Q: Everybody has a method with a lower-case "m." Not necessarily a "Method" as in Method acting.|
A: Yeah, yeah. We've all got one that we use. Some of us have one we use over and over, and that works. Some of us keep re-tooling. On this movie it was great because Maura hates to do that too. [Laughs] We didn't really talk about it at all. What we talked about was, what were the things we could cut? What was the point we were trying to get across in a scene? Very basic, practical kinds of things.
But for a film, I hate to rehearse. It's not like a play, where you can rehearse and rehearse and get it completely awful, and then rebuild on that -- and you have the real time, working with the real props on a real stage, where it will be when it finds its feet before an audience. In a movie, it's not like that. You never have enough time, and you're working in some lame rehearsal space with stuff taped off. It's not how it's going to be when you're on the set and you're having to make technical adjustments for camera and sound, and all these other things. Because in movies, if they can't see it or hear it, it didn't happen.
Film and theater are both like running, but on the stage you're kinda doing the 5,000-meter steeple chase, and in movies you're doing the 110 high hurdles -- and any little mistake is disastrous. Nobody survives the microscope of the camera. So I found those rehearsals are generally just a terrible idea. I do my work before I get there. Turn the camera on and tell me where to stand.
|Q: You just embrace the spontaneity.|
A: That's one element among many.
|Q: How were you cast in this role? And why did you chose this movie?|
A: Oh, I think how it worked was they offered it to a bunch of people, they all said no, [laughs] and finally it came to me. The script came to me from my friend Anthony Edwards (from "E.R."). Tony says, "I got this script. You should read it." I just really didn't want to do it prior to reading it. I've got these coming out of my eyeballs, these little low-budget, first time director (movies). But I read it and it was good. And being the decisive person that I am, I had to have a couple other people read it -- who are much smarter than me. When they said, "It's good," Billy (Morrissette, the film's writer-director) and I got together.
He was a smart guy with good ideas, and he seemed suitably unhinged at the prospect of having to direct this beast -- and that, to me, was a good sign. It's good to know that Atlanta's on fire, you know what I mean? If he'd been very confident and under control, I'd have thought, this guy has no chance in hell. I don't buy that. Not from a first time director. Then lastly, and perhaps of equal importance, was the chance to work with Maura. I've liked her work for a long time. She's a really solid actor who is incredibly underrated. That girl is just f**kin' flat out, straight up good!
|Q: I agree with that 100 percent. Of course, I also have a crush on her.|
A: Yeah! And she's got that too! But she's good at the hard stuff. People get a lot of credit when they work hard on something that has a good script and it turns out really well, and their genius is hailed. But I really think -- and I wasn't the first person to say this, I think it was Alan Rickman (the bad guy in "Die Hard") -- they oughta give a prize for best performance in a crappy movie, because that's when it's tough. We gotta make a living. My kid's gotta go to college too. I'm not ashamed to say it -- I work for money sometimes. I do try to pick things that have some intrinsic value. I don't do just any piece of crap. But the truth is, I take jobs for money because I have to work.
It's kind of one of life's ironies that people think, "Oh, Tom Cruise is getting $22 million. You must be getting at least 1.5!" Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Over many, many years maybe. I mean, I'm lucky. I have this job, I get to work a lot. I am so lucky. It's a great job, it's a hard job to keep and I'm very happy to have this job. Otherwise I'd be probably asking "You want cream with that?"