Interview Date: 06/10/2011
Run Date: 06/16/2011
Ray Stevenson has worked on roles that have taken him from ancient Rome to Camelot, but in Jonathan Hensleigh’s “Kill the Irishman” (now available on DVD and Blu-ray), the actor takes on one of his greatest transformations to date: playing a crime boss in 1970s Cleveland. Bullz-Eye was fortunate enough to chat with Stevenson about his work on the film, but we also got an update on the oft-discussed “Rome” film as well as his excitement about his work in the upcoming cinematic re-visitation of “The Three Musketeers.”
Bullz-Eye: You’re obviously well familiar with period pieces, but I think this is your first one set in the 1970s.
Ray Stevenson: Yeah, and it’s the weirdest thing! It’s, like, whenever I play other characters like, say, from the 1500s or 2000 years ago in ancient Rome, I always maintain that you never play a historical character. They’re not historical characters. They’re contemporaries in their world, and you’ve basically got to live and breathe them as they were. But this is the first time a character has been only, like, 40 years ago. It’s, like, “Whoa, hang on…” That had a different sort of resonance to it and a different sort of requirement. It was weird. And, also, with living relatives and knowing that you’re not doing a docu-drama, you’re not doing a mimicry thing, you’re actually telling a dramatic tale about this character’s journey. So it’s a testimony to Jonathan Hensleigh’s script, actually, that he managed to pull that all together.
BE: I was curious how you came aboard. Did the script land in your lap, or did Jonathan pointedly pursue you?
RS: I was in New Mexico shooting “The Book of Eli,” and Jonathan Hensleigh got in touch. It’s a weird connection: Jonathan Hensleigh scripted and directed Thomas Jane’s “Punisher,” and his wife, Gail Ann Hurd, produced “Punisher: War Zone,” which was my “Punisher” movie. (Laughs) Which is a weird sort of connection, although it was never actually brought up at any point. I got this phone call from Jonathan about this story of Danny Greene and what have you, and he said, “I’d love to send you the script.” I said, “Well, I’d be delighted!” So I read it, and I thought, “Whoa, hang on, there’s so much underneath, there’s so much subtext…” And then I met him in Los Angeles and we started talking, and I said, “Oh, my God, listen: four or five years ago, I was channel-surfing and saw this documentary on American mobsters, which was riveting…and it was the story of Danny Greene!” I was, like, “I know this story! I’ve seen it!” And it was always a surprise to me that the story hadn’t been told before, why it had always been the glamorized Italian-American Mafia sort of thing in New York, the big sexy sister that got all the attention. Cleveland had such an impact on organized crime in the United States, and yet its story had never been told. But it was terrifying to realize that this guy still had living relatives. His wife was alive, his daughter and son…it was a different thing, but eventually you just try to play the script.
BE: After reading the script, did you do any additional research?
RS: Yeah, of course, ‘cause there was so much out there. There were newsreels, police reports, various books and what have you. But you reach a point where history, no matter how well documented it is, is still one person’s point of view. And if someone else had stood next to them, you would’ve gotten a different perspective of the same thing, the same scene. So it’s always going to be sort of biased. You’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt. And eventually you get to the point where you hit saturation and you just go, “Stop!” Because you’re not doing a historical documentation or mimicry, so you go back to the script. It gives you enough information about the time and the people involved and gives you enough of a feel for it to say, “Okay, you know what? I get it. I don’t need the specific details.” Because certain details won’t be in the script, and there’s no need to be standing there going, “Oh, listen, you know, on March the 2nd in 1971…” That’s bollocks, ‘cause we’re not going to be shooting that. You’ve basically got to pull yourself back and settle into the script and concentrate on the story that’s being told there.
BE: I have to say, this is an absolutely amazing ensemble you’ve got going here.
RS: Oh, my God, isn’t it? (Laughs) And that’s down to Jonathan Hensleigh. When Jonathan would tell me, “We just got so-and-so,” I would be, like, “Are you shitting me?” It’s a dream cast, ‘cause they’re all, like, actors’ actors. They’re a tour de force, each of them. One thing Jonathan said was, “You know, this is a big ‘guys’ movie,” and he’s right. In this time, it was one of the last times that these career criminals actually went on the street. You would see the head of the family, the head of the crime cartel, because they walked the bloody streets. It was like the Wild West. They were larger than life. They were charismatic. They were like movie stars. They had this charisma, and yet they were extremely violent people. But after this period…it was the last period of Americana where the cars never got bigger, the lapels never got bigger, sideburns and moustaches never got bigger. (Laughs) And crime, after this period, started to get more sophisticated. It became underground, subversive, more secretive. You didn’t know who was who. This was one of the last great flurries, where the head of the crime family would sort things out himself. These were real guys’ guys, and it’s a very interesting period in Americana. And the casting…Steve Shirripa, Val Kilmer, Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio…my God! And that’s just to mention just a few of the brilliant people involved. They’re all such individual actors that if you were to put them in another movie with other actors, these people would just stick out like sore thumbs. They’ve got something about them which you just have to watch. So when you have a scene full of these people, and they all just carry a presence which the characters they’re playing had, it’s just amazing. It’s amazing what Jonathan did. This is what brought these people in to do this low-budget movie in Detroit…and, yet, what a crew.
BE: With a film like this, where it’s not only a gangster film but also a recent period piece, it’s got to be somewhat of a delicate tightrope to walk. You don’t want to play the gangsters too big, plus there are people out there who actually knew these characters. What was the greatest challenge for you?
RS: Well, you know, the thing is, what I got from the initial reading of the script was the subtext. On the page, when you read it, you think, “This is a guys’ movie. It’s gangsters killing gangsters front, right and center.” But what’s underneath that…it’s wrong to call it a right of passage movie, ‘cause it’s not a 17 or 18-year-old passing into adulthood. It’s something else. It’s, like, there’s this man who goes on this odyssey, and it’s weird, ‘cause it’s got this resonance and reflection in all of us. It’s what we’re all doing. We’re all on a journey of self-discovery about who we are and what we are, and this guy…this story is couched in the world of mobsters and violence and bombs and killing, and it’s not to glorify him or make him a hero or anything. He’s a bad piece of bloody work. But he’s this man who went on this odyssey, and the result of his actions actually affected and brought down this organized crime. It’s a huge part of American history, and normally New York, the big sexy sister, was getting all the attention with the Italian mafia, and yet this story was there and was real. It’s just…it bites you. It’s scary. You’re, like, “Bloody hell!” We had a screening in Palm Spring, and this lady came up to me at the end and said, “I loved the film. I’m Shondir Birns’ daughter.” Or maybe it was her niece. And Chris Walken played Shondir Birns in the movie, so I’m, like, “Uh, I’m sorry for killing your dad…?” (Laughs) But you get to meet these people, and it’s…I don’t know. It’s sort of unique. It’s got its own unique kind of power, you know?
BE: By the way, I think Cleveland needs to formally adopt the slogan, “New York’s Less Sexy Sister.”
RS: (Laughs) Well, you know, being the sexy sister is not being the sexual sister. I mean, we wanted and Jonathan had scouted Cleveland to actually shoot there, but, you know, Cleveland has gone through a tremendous regeneration and gentrification, and it’s improved its social communities and what have you, whereas Detroit, God bless it, has been on its knees since the riots, and these big bloody companies have done zero regeneration. It’s criminal what’s allowed to happen there. However, it was a blessing for us, because we could shoot there and it could stand in for ‘60s and ‘70s Cleveland.
BE: I should point out that much of Bullz-Eye’s staff is based in and around Cleveland.
RS: Oh, right! Well, you know, we had a premiere there. And Nancy, Danny Greene’s wife, turned up with his two daughters, and it was just…well, it was breathtaking, really. And I was just, like, going, “You know what? This is what it’s about. This is real.” And the movie hadn’t played yet, so I was going, “Oh, my God, I have no idea how they’re going to take it!” But I said, “You know what? Bollocks. We did the best we could, we told the story that we did, we committed to the script, and there’s nothing I can say or do. It’s done.” And then this guy walked up, and he looked the spitting image of Danny Greene, and he said, “Hello, I’m Danny Greene’s son.” And I went, “I knew exactly who you were!” Jonathan had told me before, he says, “Danny’s son wanted nothing to do with the movie, nothing to do with the books, he’s refused any interviews.” But when he came up…I’d spent the day doing TV and radio interviews, and he said, “You know, I wasn’t going to come, I didn’t want anything to do with it, but I heard one of the radio interviews you did, and the way you talked about my dad and the things you said, I just knew I had to come.” And I was just, like, floored. And then, again, I realized he hadn’t seen the movie yet, so I was all, “Oh, bloody hell…” But he was such a gentle soul, and then we talked for a long time afterward. You know, certain times in your life you get to connect with human beings that you would never get to connect with normally, and…it’s just so humbling. It’s an extreme experience.
BE: Well, I know you’ve had a long day of interviews, but I wanted to wrap with a few questions about some other things you’ve done in your career.
RS: Sure, all right.
BE: First of all, we’re big fans of “Rome” here at Bullz-Eye, but before I ask you about the experience of doing the show, I’ve got to ask about the perpetual rumors of a “Rome” movie.
RS: There are rumors. I’ve actually read a script by Bruno Heller. But it’s a tough call, ‘cause in order to finance a movie, financiers would want movie actors in. Y’know, bankable people. And that means, what, you’re going to recast the people from “Rome”? So, you know, it’s tough. I…I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re going to go back. Also, it’s, like, why would you make a movie of it? Every episode was a mini-movie. It was expensive and all this sort of stuff, but they pulled the plug too early, and HBO have actually admitted it and said, “Oops.” (Laughs)
BE: Yeah, the show wrapped up pretty rapidly, with some pretty huge time jumps to get to the finale.
RS: Well, we knew before we started shooting Season 2 that they’d pulled the plug. So Bruno Heller, who was basically the head writer, he had to amalgamate Season 2 and Season 3 into that finale season. So it was a real short shrift on Marc Anthony and Cleopatra and many other things that kind of give passage to Season 2. It was a shame. I think he did a tremendous job, but it does jump. Like, you know you’re missing so much. And it was already outlined and ready to go for Season 2 and Season 3! But, you know, we went into Season 2, and Season 1 hadn’t come out yet, but it was, like, “It’s too expensive, you’re too far away from L.A.,” and then there was a change of power at HBO, and it’s that old thing where, when you get the new head coming in, if you keep something going and it’s a failure, it’s his failure. If it’s a success, it’s his predecessor’s success. So they tend to come in with a new brush and sweep everything away and choose their own programming. It’s just the way it is. But the fact is that, while we were shooting Season 2, which we knew was going to be the final one, Season 1 came out, and normally the first season of a show…like, “The Sopranos” did nothing in its first season. But with “Rome,” Season 1 came out and just started to light fires everywhere, so by the time Season 2 came out, Season 1 had built a huge following, so Season 2 just exploded…and HBO went, “Oh, my God, what have we done? Whoops!” (Laughs) But what can you say? I can’t complain. I miss it, I would’ve loved to have continued, but I can’t complain at all, because they left my character and me on the crest of a wave. I got my representation in the States, and that was my passage to basically opening doors in the U.S., which is the big boy area of the business. So what can I say? It is what it is, I’m so proud to have been part of it, Pullo is with me every single day and always will be now. There’s an amount of times where I just go, “Well, it’s what the gods have decided, so what am I going to do about it?”
BE: When you look back at it, given that there’s, y’know, a little bit of sex and violence happening, is there any moment that you think about and say, “I still can’t believe I did that”?
RS: Well, there was a lot of leaving one’s dignity at the door. (Laughs) But what’s weird is that there was a parallel that went on that really changed my life, and I think Pullo had a lot to do with it, anyway, but basically I was getting divorced as the season started, and I moved to an apartment in the old sector of Rome. And this woman walked up, who was effectively my landlady, since she was renting this apartment to me, and looking at her…it was, like, “You’re shitting me!” It’s as if Sophia Loren’s walked up and she’s your landlady. Nobody’s going to believe this stuff, right? And here we are, living in Ibiza six or seven years later, and we have two children together. “Rome” changed my life.
BE: Lastly, since it’s coming out in short order, I just wanted to ask you about the experience of shooting “The Three Musketeers.”RS: That was so much fun. It was so much hard work as well, you know, but it was tremendous fun. These guys…I love working for Constantin Films as well. It’s the biggest home-grown German production, and we filmed all around Munich, and we had access to places never seen on camera before. Then we finished up in Babelsberg, this studio where they shot, like, “Metropolis.” I mean, this is the oldest producing studio in the world. It’s the original. Basically, people from Babelsberg, producers or whatever, they left there and went to the United States and set up in Los Angeles and basically gave birth to the studio system in the States. There wouldn’t be a Hollywood without Babelsberg. And here we are, coming back there, shooting in 3D on the biggest German production…it was just a tremendous experience. It’s a romp. It’s a great big rollicking rollercoaster romp. (Laughs) Everybody committed to it, all of us in our musketeer boots and everything, and it was just a tremendous experience, and I think people are going to steal their nieces and nephews and say, “Yeah, I’m going again, so you’re coming!” It’s gonna be one of those movies, I hope, where people are going to say, “Oh, my God!” It’s a new movie and it’s in 3D, but it’s like the movies I used to see when I was a kid. It’s not an old-style movie, though. I’m very interested to see how the classical narrative plays through 3D, ‘cause it’s not 3D for the special effects. It’s 3D because it’s visually stunning. But there’s also a classical narrative that runs through it, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays.