A chat with Giovanni Ribisi, Giovanni Ribisi interview, Middle Men, Avatar, Lost in Translation
Giovanni Ribisi

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With credits dating back to the 1980s and "The New Leave it to Beaver," Giovanni Ribisi has grown up on screen. At 36, he's one of the most reliable and in-demand actors around, even if his youthful face – currently embellished by the addition of a thin mustache and soul patch – is a lot more widely recognized than his name. Indeed, even if you think you've never heard his him, you've likely spent several hours watching him. Among scads of other roles, he was the unobtainium-driven corporate tool of "Avatar," Scarlett Johansson's feckless husband in "Lost in Translation," the conflicted protagonist of the home-video guy favorite, "Boiler Room," Lisa Kudrow's hilariously dim younger half-brother on "Friends," the unfortunate medic of "Saving Private Ryan," and the almost as unlucky Oneders drummer of "That Thing You Do." That's just for starters.

It's also an unwritten law that every article about Ribisi mentions his lifelong association with Scientology (his parents are deeply involved in the church), and the fact that his brother-in-law is fellow Scientologist and ultra-brilliant mega-musician, Beck. So, I'm mentioning it too. With a gift for bringing out the sadness and humor of males on the verge of various sorts of nervous breakdowns, Ribisi is a genuinely intriguing actor I've been paying attention to since the early 90s. It's a pleasure to see him in another such role in the flawed but frequently entertaining, factually-inspired new film from co-writer/director George Gallo. "Middle Men" stars Luke Wilson as a businessman who finds himself getting much more than he bargained for when he sticks his big toe into the waters of online pornography.  Ribisi plays a cocaine-addled genius/complete idiot who, together with best pal/bitter enemy Gabriel Macht, concocts the technology for securely purchasing over the Internet using credit cards. No small matter. I spoke with Ribisi, who politely made sure I wasn't bothered by his tobacco habit, as he grabbed a quick smoke on the porch outside a suite at the Los Angeles Four Seasons during a recent press day for "Middle Men."

 

Bullz-Eye: I was looking on IMDb and you've got like 81 credits on there and you're still a pretty young guy.

Giovanni Ribisi: Wow. Do I?

BE: I have a feeling that people still come up to you and recognize you as "Phoebe's brother."

GR: Sometimes. Yeah. It's amazing. That’s such an insane thing in my life because often I would be doing another movie or working on something else and I wouldn't be able to come for rehearsals. I would just show up, like in front of an audience, and I'd look at the script really quickly and then just do it, and it was all over with within two hours.

BE: Really?

GR: Truthfully, I barely remember it. People will come up to me and quote lines and it's just the strangest thing for me. I don't know. I think now that the show's not on anymore, it's different.

"I looked at him as a casualty of war, for lack of a better expression. Someone who was engulfed by this level of responsibility that he couldn't really comprehend."

BE: It's funny because you'll still see it on bios as a "best known" kind of thing, despite "Saving Private Ryan," you've starred in "Boiler Room," and I've been noticing you in movies and kind of following your career since probably well before that. You have one of those faces that you remember – and this takes us into talking about "Middle Men" in a second.  Because, especially when you were younger, you had such a baby face, you seemed to get two kinds of parts. They tended to cast you as either fairly angelic or innocent, but maybe not very smart, people or weasels of one sort or another.

GR: "Weasels..."

BE: For lack of a better word. And, now that you're getting older, I think the weasels are...

GR: Are taking over?

BE: Are winning, or at least more roles seem to be kind of in that category.

GR: Yeah. Maybe. I don't know. I guess so. I never really looked at it like that. I guess maybe I should but I think it's really about the people that I'm working with and the director mainly, who I think is the predominant factor in the storytelling. That's probably still a part of that "Friends" influence, you know what I mean?

BE: Or "Boiler Room"...

GR: I didn't look at him like a weasel.

BE: He was a good guy, but somewhat morally [of two minds].

GR: Yeah.

BE: I know that actors do not like to...

GR: Be typecast?

BE: Or judge their characters.

GR: Right.

BE: Although, as weasely people go, [Wayne Beering] in "Middle Men" is pretty interesting...

Giovanni RibisiGR: I looked at him as a casualty of war, for lack of a better expression. Someone who was engulfed by this level of responsibility that he couldn't really comprehend – that thing, that everybody wishes for, the American Dream and money and power and success. The irony of it really is that he gets engulfed by it and he sort of gets consumed by it and consumes himself by it. That was really what was sort of interesting to me about his story and the story of the whole movie. One, that it's based on a true story. The character that it's based on produced and financed the movie, Chris Mallick. First of all, one of the best producers I've ever worked with. The stories that he had were just beyond [belief] – fact is stranger than fiction times 10 million. Things that you would say, "God, how could you even portray that in a movie?" People wouldn't believe it. As far as being a weasel, I don't know if [Beering's] that as much as he's sort of innocent and socially inept.

BE: So the drug use is kind of like a defense mechanism? That's a big part of his problem.

GR: "Weasel" to me is somebody who [enacts] this covert hostility – backstabber kind of guy, you know what I mean, whose sort of on the demimonde of his own ethics and all that. He's using drugs and he's doing that. I think that's part of what is so promoted in today's culture, especially with the cult of celebrity and how that's just grown to such proportions that we even take it for granted nowadays because of the Internet and because of things that you can buy on e-commerce. It's kind of ironic because he was in on the genesis of all that.

BE: ["Middle Men"] was originally conceived as a long-form television show or miniseries of some sort. Just the story of you and Gabriel Macht's character could have been a whole movie and might have been a pretty good one.

GR: Absolutely. I think that there is a whole lot of room for that. Ultimately, you have about two hours, usually, to tell your story. You have to take it and make it a coherent whole and that, to George Gallo's credit, was done beautifully.

BE: Okay, I'm going to take you back again in the way-back machine here. Your part was not that big, but in "That Thing You Do,” I've always wondered if there was more material that they shot, just because your character adjusts so well to breaking his arm and not being in the band.

GR: Yeah.

BE: He seems so happy for the success of the group afterward, I just wonder, is there anything we haven't learned about that guy?

GR: I don't know. That's probably best left to the imagination of the audience or the viewer. I don't know, that's a good question. That was one of my first movies, actually. I think Tom Hanks is such a force on so many levels as far as his career and what he's done, acting and directing. I would love to work with him again.

BE: That's a movie I have a special affection for.

GR: Oh, cool.

"Ultimately, you have about two hours, usually, to tell your story. You have to take it and make it a coherent whole and that, to George Gallo's credit, was done beautifully."

BE: In Hollywood, adulthood seems to come sometime in your late 30s, at least in terms of the kind of roles you get, it seems like. You seem to be settling in – and I know this may be a slightly dirty word to some people – you're becoming a character actor, which to me is a great thing. I'm a huge fan of people from the classic era like Claude Reins, I don't know if you know Eugene Palette. These people who were kind of typecast but delivered these amazing, memorable moments. Do you feel like you're working into that groove a little bit?

GR: I don't know if I have that concept of my job or if I categorize it like that, honestly. I think that ultimately it really isn't about that. I love people and human behavior. If anything, that's what I have to try to understand and express, even if it is a solipsistic thing. I think that "leading man" and "character actor" has sort of lost its definition. I think that Hollywood is sort of in a state of flux. For instance, in the 70s, the character actors were the leading men. I have respect for people no matter what job they have within a movie in an acting capacity. If they do a good job and they're committed to what they do, that's always exciting to me.

BE: I know that, from every actor's point of view, their character is, in a sense, the star as far as they're concerned. Every movie is the story of the person they're playing because that's how they have to think of it.

GR: But I guess that's analogous to an individual living their life, as well. That's part of it.

BE: We're all the star of our own lives... Changing the subject, there's two things that most actors don't get asked about very much, and that's their religion and their brother-in-law. Do you get tired of talking about those two things?

GR:  Not at all. I have a lot of respect for my brother-in-law [i.e., Beck]. I think he's an incredible artist and musician. I think my religion, you asked about that, is such a broad subject that, no, I don't get tired of that. I have no problem.

BE: I've seen other interviews where you talk about it. It's funny how certain people....

[I was probably going to make some brilliant point about why some celebrities get asked about this kind of thing while others don't, but then we were interrupted by a publicist, alerting us there was time for was one last question, which threw me slightly, causing one more abrupt change of topic.]

BE: Let's just talk a little bit more about you and Gabriel Macht's character. That's such an interesting dynamic to that relationship. It's real love/hate. We see more hate onscreen. How do you build that kind of dynamic?

GR: I think it really depends on who is playing the part. With any movie that you're doing or any relationship that you're trying to build. I think it just depends on how available the other person is and how much trust is created there. [Macht] is a classically trained actor. He went to Julliard [note: Macht would later inform me that it was actually Carnegie Mellon]. We both realized, working with George Gallo, there's a similar kind of mentality like you would find in a [Sam] Peckinpah movie. It's just raw. It's just human; you can't hide. It's an all-or-nothing kind of thing. I just knew that we couldn't be safe in approaching the movie and I think that he was on that same train.

Giovanni Ribisi

That was the end of our official one-on-one interview, but not the end of Ribisi's point about not being "safe" in the way that he and Gabriel Macht approached their very fraught and often humorously physically violent movie friendship. Here is a relevant exchange from a roundtable discussion with several assorted writers held the same day. My question was prompted by a remark about how much of the film was being rewritten during filming and lots scenes had to be learned, staged, and made unusually quickly.

BE: Among the scenes that were kind of done on-the-fly, did that include any of your fights? I know that usually in a movie you have to work pretty carefully on a fight scene. Were any of those done on-the-fly?

GR: Yeah. They were done on the fly but definitely worked out [in advance]. But some were just like..."go, go!" [Ribisi and Gabriel Macht laugh.]

BE: Fortunately no one got hurt?

GR: Yeah.

Gabriel Macht: He got hurt.

GR: I got hurt a little bit. It's alright.

Journalist 1: Please elaborate.

GM: There was one day where it felt like Giovanni was, 'I'm going method today." And he asked this bouncer who was easily 6'5" 280 [pounds] to throw him down onto a concrete floor as hard as he could. "Just throw me down man, just fucking do it to me." And he said, "All right" and bam.

GR: That hurt. That hurt.

GM: He got through the scene. I thought we were going to get out of it and have, like, paramedics but you just kept on going.

GR: It hurt, man.

GM: I'm surprised you don't feel it right now.

GR: I think the actual shot of that moment is in the movie, too. We had to keep doing it over and over and over again that was the other thing... After that moment it was like, "Okay, I can't do that again." It was injured. It was bad.

Journalist 2: Did you actually injure yourself?

GR: Officially. Yeah.

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