Eric Bogosian interview, Law & Order

TV Home / Entertainment Channel / Bullz-Eye Home

Eric Bogosian made his first real splash in Hollywood when he starred as radio host Barry Champlain in Oliver Stone's film adaptation of "Talk Radio," but Bogosian's background was far more theatrical, having actually written "Talk Radio" himself as a stage play. In fact, Bogosian has written quite a few plays and monologues (not to mention a book or two), but in recent years, the majority of his focus has been on acting in film and television. Bullz-Eye caught up with Bogosian on the set of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," which is beginning its inaugural season on The USA Network, and we spoke to him about his work on the show, the recent Broadway revival of "Talk Radio," his thought on the film adaptation of his play "subUrbia," and, most importantly, how he came to have a resume which lists work with Robert Altman, Woody Allen, and Beavis & Butthead. First, however, we had to overcome two small problems: (1) the overrun of his previous interview, and (2) the fact that I'd written his cell phone number down wrong. It was several minutes after our originally-scheduled start time before we finally managed to connect with each other.


Bullz-Eye: I'm very sorry about that.

A chat with Eric BogosianEric Bogosian: No problem. How are you doing?

BE: Pretty good. It's a pleasure to talk to you, and I appreciate you being willing to do a phone interview versus e-mail. Even if the answers are the same, I feel like I've lost out on something by not actually hearing your voice.

EB: OK.

BE: How did you find yourself on "Criminal Intent" in the first place? I didn't know if somebody had a long enough memory to remember you having played on the original show or not.

EB: Yeah. Well, I had done the original show, and being a New Yorker, I am pretty familiar with just the "Law & Order" franchise. I mean, just sort of aware of it as a place where all of us actors go to stretch our wings. I don't watch a lot of TV, but it's kind of hard to miss "Law & Order," and when I would see it come on -- any of the shows -- I would think, "Man, I would love to have that as a regular gig," because I like what those guys are doing on the show, even some of the...not necessarily the main lead guys, like the stuff that Epatha (Merkerson) does, or that Steven Hill used to do. I mean, I just love watching...it's very, very interesting acting-wise. And Vincent (D'Onofrio) does some very tricky stuff. I'm talking here from an acting point of view, so it may not necessarily be obvious, because I think when people watch people acting, they notice when you get very emotional, but a lot of the stuff that's the hardest stuff to do is not so emotional, and that's a real trademark of "Law & Order," more low key. It took me a while to really get what it was I was looking at, why I was so attracted to this and it reminds me of the acting that was in the Ilia Kazan movies of the early 60s. Now it's seen as a little too broad for the naturalistic movie. This is an extremely long answer here.

BE: (laughs)

EB: So how? So (A) I was being attracted to it, and (B) they were being attracted towards me because the main guy putting together "Law & Order, C.I." at this point is someone I have worked with and known for a long time, and he approached me and asked me, "Would you even consider doing this?" And I said, "I'd more than consider it, I would love to do it!" So I met with Dick (Wolf), and he said, "Your agents told me you don't want to do television." And it's like, well, that's what agents are there for, to make things more complicated. So I said, "No, I would love to do it," and it has turned out to be everything and more than I wished. I mean, I have never worked on something continuously like this, even movies; the longest has been like a couple of months. So it allows me to really explore my character, look at him, think about him, be in an environment that is very conducive to trying things out. Like I said, I don't have the most emotional scenes. Occasionally I do. The writers know me pretty well and they know what they can write for me or not write for me. The most mundane, forgettable line is something that I will spend a lot of time on just trying to figure out, like, what exactly am I saying here, and how can I make it come to life? I don't know to what degree I succeed at doing that, but that's what I'm trying.

BE: Do they offer you any freedom to tighten up your dialogue, as far as making it fit your voice, or do they have your voice down pretty well now?

"I met with Dick (Wolf), and he said, 'Your agents told me you don't want to do television.' And it's like, well, that's what agents are there for: to make things more complicated. So I said, 'No, I would love to do it.' And it has turned out to be everything and more than I wished."

EB: They knew me pretty well to begin with. Certainly the head writer knows me as well as anybody could know me; Warren Leight and I have known each other for almost 30 years here in New York, working in various capacities. I was in a movie of his once, a long time ago; I actually ended up on the cutting room floor, so you won't see me in the movie. They know my voice. I will object to certain lines, or I'll say, "I don't want to say this," or, "This isn't something I would say." That's part of your job as an actor. I don't come into it as a writer, I don't come in thinking, you know, "How do I redo this?" I think that's something that is a bad habit of a lot of actors, which is to look at what's on the page and say, "Oh, this doesn't work." The question is how do you make it work, how do you figure out how to make it work, how do you sell what you have to sell? A lot of times, because our show is so complex, I don't always completely understand what it is I'm saying, so it requires that I go back and reread the script. Actually, I have to do that today on something I am shooting on Wednesday, and really remember all the aspects of what...it's funny, because it seems all kind of genre-y and up and up, but it's fascinating how complex genre can be. I was just watching "Fargo" the other day and what that company brought to that movie was just so amazing. You remember "Fargo," the movie? The Coen Brothers' movie?

BE: Oh, absolutely. Yes, definitely.

EB: Just watching somebody like Steve Buscemi, who is kind of always Steve Buscemi in every character he plays, but what he brought to that specific character, that specific moment, line to line, beat to beat, it's the difference between just kind of giving people what they want in the kind of sort of meat and potatoes or really giving... (pauses) This metaphor has gotten out of control here, but, uh, making it so it's delicious meat and potatoes instead of cafeteria food.

BE: Captain Ross is a family man, to a certain extent, as well as a cop. I know you're married, but do you consider yourself to be a family man?

EB: I'm a family man. It's fascinating to everyone in my household when...I was just looking at a blurb about...one of my plays is being done somewhere in the U.S., and I get these things that show up in my browser whenever something comes up, "Wild man Eric Bogosian's 'Humpty Dumpty,'" or "subUrbia," or something is happening somewhere. It's, like, "wild man?" I am the most unwild man. Now, maybe I once was part of a crew of people who were doing things that were kind of fringe. I mean, that's for sure. I mean, I would be...there's some word for it, but whatever it is, I would be full of shit if I said that...if I pretended that I wasn't part of that once, because I was. Right in Boston, I opened for Mission of Burma, like, years ago, and a riot almost broke out. It was a couple of years ago -- more than 20 years ago -- and, you know, it was fun. People whipping bottles at the stage, and fist fights breaking out at my feet, and the whole thing was just wild. It was some old hotel they used to do punk concerts at, and I had this show I used to do, "The Ricky Paul Show." So all that's true. But, now, I'm a family man, and I've been through all the family man stuff. My guys are getting on now: one's 16, one's 20. We're almost out of the woods with all that junk that is about child rearing. But, yeah, I mean, I've been married to Jo Bonney for 27 years. In a way, it's an attempt to have a very stable, stable core from which I can go exploring artistically, I hope, and be able to throw myself in to things. This show is relatively comfortable as that stuff goes. It isn't like I'm being parachuted into a jungle somewhere in Thailand in order to do a part. I'm going up the street and I'm getting changed in a dressing room and I'm going out. But there is...almost always, with everything I do, there is a factor of trying to keep everything else kind of quiet in my life, so when I'm doing the thing, I can do it all the way. I can really forget myself and throw myself into it. And we're shooting T.V., so we'll have days that go as long as 15 hours, and my scenes tend to be all shot at once, so they can be...it's grueling, you know, six of those squad room scenes in one day, however perfunctory they may seem.

BE: Were you at all concerned when you heard the show was going to be shifting from NBC to USA, or did you just roll with it?

A chat with Eric BogosianEB: Well, I thought we were going to be able to swear and smoke cigarettes and stuff, but I guess that isn't the case. I had hoped that we would get a little attention that we felt we deserved that we weren't getting at NBC and it's turned out that's the case. USA has welcomed us with open arms and is really cheerleading the show, and it's almost like the show is new again and is starting over again, and, you know, for me, it is. You know, for me, it's like this is the second season, this is the time when a lot of shows kind of hit their stride, and I feel that's what I'm doing with my part this year. There were a lot of things I had to learn coming in, and now I want to do that stuff. I mean, I want to let a lot more of my personality bleed through into the character, along with everything that that character has been. I mean, it took me very little time...like, almost like a month...before Danny was completely, like, so there that I just felt like I put on the gun, the badge, the jacket, and...I'm Danny. And I turn into this guy. He has a very particular way of talking and walking and looking at things and being kind of pretty uptight about everything. Now that I've got that nailed down, I wanted to let some other things come through, and the writers are up for that, absolutely. More of a sense of humor, more of a sense of irony, which is probably sort of trade mark for me, anyways, so...bring all that into the game. Can you imagine I spend this much time thinking about this? You watch the show, and I come in and say six words. But, I mean, this is what has to be done, this is what you have to do with these roles and it's such a wonderful tradition at "Law & Order" that I...Steven Hill, he says, what, six words in every episode? But it was, like, boom, he just holds your total attention while he's doing it.

BE: Speaking of the "new beginning" aspect of the show, have you had any scenes with your new co-star, Alicia Witt, yet?

EB: Oh yeah, tons.

BE: How is she integrating herself into the show?

EB: Alicia is fascinating, because...I mean, I absolutely can not say Julianne (Nicholson) is not a stubborn and tough lady in her own right, but Alicia...she's feisty, and she brings that to the game. It's wonderful to watch her when the director tells her to do something and she just won't do it. She is very clear about what she wants to do. Me and Chris (Noth), we're getting on, so she's a lot younger than us, and she's just kind of bringing that energy to it. It's cool. I like her a lot. She has brought a great deal of discipline to the set, too, because of the way she goes about her work. She is very clear about being prepared, and being ready, and wanting to run lines, and doing a lot of things that I think can... (pauses) As you become used to the way of shooting TV, in the fact that so much of it is shot, like, kind of on the run, where you only have an hour or two to knock a scene down and then keep going, actors tend to approach each scene with not a lot of preparation. I mean, I try to prepare a lot, and, certainly, I feel the guest stars are all at home, you know, running as much as they can. But when you are, like, just blasting one show after the next show after the next show, sometimes you just can't catch up. And Alicia does a lot of homework. She brings a lot of energy to it, and that's great.

BE: Now, given your experience as a monologist, performing your own material, do you ever find yourself adlibbing something new on the fly or will that just throw off your entire rhythm?

EB: In the show?

BE: Yeah.

"I'm a family man. Now, maybe I once was part of a crew of people who were doing things that were kind of fringe. I mean, that's for sure. I mean, I would be...there's some word for it, but whatever it is, I would be full of shit if I pretended that I wasn't part of that once, because I was."

EB: Never. When I'm running it, I make sure that it sounds right to me...and it may be something really tiny, like grammatical, that even the script supervisor doesn't even know what I'm talking about, that I want to say the instead of a in a certain line. The thing is, I think that adlibbing off of a script like this, which has to be so tight it has to work like clockwork, sometimes is a way of not really reading and learning the script. It's really important for me to really understand everything that is being said in the scene and that actually takes...it seems amazing but this is true...we will do a table read and then I will run a scene, I don't know how many times I run it, maybe 20 or 30 times to memorize it and learn it, and you're talking about just a few lines there, but I have to do it. And as I'm doing that, I'm learning, oh, this is what's happening here. But even after all that, we go to set, and we start shooting it, and more information comes in. So it is really important to keep going back to the script and saying, "What is being said here?" And, certainly, in the case of anything where we are talking about procedural stuff, "What is the subtext to what is being said here?" It is too easy to just do the "just the facts, ma'am" kind of approach to this procedural junk. It's very dry, so you want to know. Not only are Chris and I exchanging information, but there's a little power struggle. Or Vincent and I. We had a scene like this just two days ago, Vincent and I, where, basically, I'm walking in and I'm giving him a little shove, and he's giving me a little shove back. First couple of reads of the scene, that was not clear at all that that was what was happening in that scene, but I was questioning his technique. And, you know, if we don't know it, no one watching it is ever going to know it, so we have to know it so that an audience...even if they don't consciously know it, they sense, oh, something is going on here which will then pay off in a later scene. Like, oh, it turns out he was right or it turns out he was wrong. (pauses) You know, I can't believe I analyze this so much.

BE: Well, then, when it comes to your own stuff...like say "Talk Radio"...do you ever just suddenly come up with a new line within that, or is it just so ingrained in you now when you're doing it?

EB: Well I haven't done "Talk Radio" in a long time, but when I sit and I listen and watch Liev (Schreiber) do it on Broadway night after night, there is no question that I will watch it and go, "Oh, my God, you've got to say this at the end of that line, not that," and I will change a word. We were actually two months into the run, and Peter Hermann walked in, and his line was...I don't know how well you know the play, but Barry has basically had this huge meltdown and he goes, "Barry, that's amazing. Actually, I loved it." And he walks out. And then I said, "Wait a minute, it's not 'I loved it,' it's, "They loved it,'" because supposedly there's all these sponsors listening in, and it was important to remind the audience that that was what was at stake in the scene, and I had sort of missed that. So, yeah, I think of that. When I'm doing the monologues, I absolutely will. Almost every time I do them...and I don't do that many more, either...but there will be something new generated somewhere in there. I have done a ton of it up in Boston, but I'm not really doing it anymore, so that's the end of that.

BE: As far as the revival, how did that come to fruition? Did they approach you, or did you pitch the idea for someone else to do it?

EB: Well, it's a terribly long story. I had been in "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," when Robert Altman it directed for televisions many years ago.

BE: Right. I read your blog. Your farewell to him, as it were.

A chat with Eric BogosianEB: Oh, good. So I had done that with Peter Gallagher and Jeff Daniels, and it had been a lot of fun. When they did it on Broadway a couple of years ago, I guess Herman Wouk said, "Is Eric coming?" And he asked the producer, and they, of course, hadn't even thought to invite me...and why would they? So they call me up and said, "Could you come?" I went...and this was when David Schwimmer was doing it, doing the role that I did. So I went by and started talking to the producer, and he said, "You know, by the way, whatever happened to 'Talk Radio?' Has it ever been done on Broadway?" I said, "Well, I don't know about that stuff. I mean, Joe Papp had wanted to do it on Broadway 20 years before and I said, "Well, let me think about it." And over the weekend, I thought about it, and I thought, well, who the hell could play this? I'm not going to do it. And the reason why I wasn't going to do it was because there had been a film made of me doing it, and I really don't feel like competing with my film self so...and I thought, gee, the only guy I know who can do this is Liev. I didn't really know him very well, I had met him once or twice, and on the Monday I said to them, "Well, what about Liev Schreiber?" And they said, "Well, we were thinking the same thing!" These producers had produced him in "Glengarry Glen Ross," so they had a good relationship with him, and it took us a few weeks to convince him to do it, but he agreed. I'm delighted; it was a real high point for me to work with him.

BE: What did you think of the film adaptation of "subUrbia?"

EB: I just watched it again the other day, because it is going to get re-released on DVD, and I watched the whole thing with Rick (Linklater) sitting next to me, and we did the commentary. I really love it. I mean, I find it a little dark, partially because it's at night, the whole thing, but there is something kind of brooding about it. I think that in a theater, when people are kind of jumping around on a stage, it's not always about what's happening, but just sort of the fact that you're watching a bunch of people in front of you jumping around on the stage. I mean, they could be saying anything; they could be having a spelling contest, and it really ends up feeling the same way. There was something very dark in the heart of that piece that came out when it was made into a movie, and some of the fun...it didn't feel as fun, and I feel that watching it. But I really love it. It always was meant to be...and anything I write for ensemble is meant to be...an opportunity for actors to stretch out, and I think some of these guys did some of their best work. I mean, certainly Parker (Posey) and Giovanni Ribisi and Steve Zahn are all doing stuff that...I mean, I think it's their best performances there, with one or two other things that they have ever done, and that's a great bunch of actors to be able to say that about. So I am really proud of it.

BE: In most of their cases, I wasn't even familiar with their work until that movie.

EB: Yeah, well, Steve...the character had actually started in workshops at ART (American Repertory Theatre), in Boston, when he was a student there, and I continued to pursue that character as part of what became "subUrbia," and that character continued to be a real...sort of the heart of the whole piece. And when we went to Lincoln Center, I told them that I really needed him to be in it, and they were kind of, like, "Yeah? Really? Some new kid out of Boston?" And I was, like, "No, believe me, you're going to love this guy." He ended up doing movies before the play went up. He came to New York and did a movie, but in many ways, "subUrbia" was the thing that got everybody excited about Steve Zahn. Parker I knew from earlier work that she had done with Linklater, and she hadn't really become the queen of the indies, which she was for about two years, and I just thought she was brilliant, always, and she brought so much to that role. I mean, I love all the actors in it; it's just these guys all had particular stories that are interesting to me. Giovanni Ribisi was known as the crazy brother of somebody on "Friends," and he melted toy soldiers, and he was known for his comedic work. Very often, actors who have those comedic chops can really do terrific work, serious work. As far as I know, this was the first time that Giovanni got serious on screen, and after that, he seemed to kind of stick to that from then on and get more and more and more serious. It's a very, very hard role to fill, because it is so wordy, especially for film guys. If you did the role on screen...if you did the role in theater and then you go to screen with it, then you've already got it sort of pre-rehearsed, which is what happened to me with "Talk Radio." People often mention the big speech I give in "Talk Radio," but I had done that 100 times on stage. That's a great way of rehearsing a scene, but when you ask the actors to come into a movie cold and learn that kind of verbiage, it's really hard. I was amazed at what he did with that role.

BE: I just have a couple quick questions about your other film stuff, and then I'll let you go. How have you picked and chosen your roles over the years? Because you have one of those resumes where you look at it and think, "Well, either he's picking stuff just because it sounds fun, or he's got possibly some sort of mood disorder."

"I opened for Mission of Burma, like, years ago, and a riot almost broke out. It was a couple of years ago -- more than 20 years ago -- and, you know, it was fun. People whipping bottles at the stage, and fist fights breaking out at my feet. The whole thing was just wild."

EB: (laughs) Well, in hindsight, I've gotten to do a number of things that I really wanted to do. There are things that I have not gotten to do, but I...the three very prominent things were that I got to play leads in movies: "Talk Radio" and "Under Siege 2" and...well, actually, there's more than that. There was "Wonderland," there was a Woody Allen movie ("Deconstructing Harry"), I mean, all of these things. "Caine Mutiny," even. I mean, in the case of "Caine Mutiny" and "Deconstructing Harry," I got to work with directors who I really was, like, oh, my God, what would it be like to work with Altman? Or, what would it be like to work with Woody Allen? And I found out. I got the answers to those questions, and it was really cool. I think there is curiosity on my part, and there's also a thing of me getting bored. The really deep, deep dramatic intensity of "Talk Radio" is a place that, if you visit that kind of place too often...I mean, for me, it's very disruptive to your life. I don't think that it's a place that I want to go to over and over and over again. You really have to put everything into it emotionally, and it can kill ya. But I wanted to do it. I mean, that's what everybody wants to do, is one really, really serious intense role. And I got to do that. I wanted to play...after I saw "Die Hard," and I saw Alan Rickman in "Die Hard," I really wanted to play a big, old fat villain in a big action movie, and I was very happy to be able to do that in "Under Siege 2." In the long run, it turned out that what I was doing had nothing to do with what Alan Rickman did...or any other villain has done...but that was because the director, Geoff Murphy, really encouraged me to get silly with the role. And it really fit me really well. And "Wonderland," which is pretty much like your classic indie action-y movie, where it's not really a perfect movie, but it's trying real hard, you know? I got to really pull all the stops out. At that time, I was beginning to think about Phil (Seymour) Hoffman a lot, who I ended up...he ended up directing me in a play here in New York a couple of years later. But I was fascinated about the way Phil would go to a role and not worry about...well, seemingly not worry about what he looks like, and just kind of be totally committed, which had interested me when Dustin Hoffman had done "Midnight Cowboy" and De Niro had done "Mean Streets," where these guys were just kind of going crazy. And I said, let's do it; let's do it with this role. Don't worry about what you look like. Just be the guy...like, completely, like, berserk. I don't know if you have seen "Wonderland."

BE: Yeah, I have. Val Kilmer's in it as well.

EB: So I guess each one of these things fit my curiosity, fit something I wanted to try and do. "Law & Order" fits in with that, absolutely. I wanted to do subtle stuff. I mean, I have done, really, so many broad things; what would it be like to bring it down, down, down, all to the eyes, all to the voice, and try not to be too ludicrous most of the time? It has turned out to be very challenging, and continuously challenging, and there's a lot to learn. That set has had... I mean, I learned things on that set 16 years ago. (Michael) Moriarty taught me cool things when I was doing the original show, and Vincent and Chris are extremely naturalistic actors who, you know, are not that kind of...well, they do all kinds of stuff. They certainly...either one of them can be super broad when they feel like it. Vincent has done some of the broadest performances on our screen. So it's just...I like to keep learning about what this is all about. I have a lot of big heroes in the world of acting, and I watch them grow and change. I mean, I got to see Frank Langella on Broadway to see him do "Frost Nixon," and it was just a revelation how he can get better and better and better, and more and more complex, in what he is doing. If you're not having fun doing it, you shouldn't be doing it. So I guess I'm doing it for the fun of it.

BE: I guess doing voices for "Beavis and Butt-head Do America" falls under the fun of it, too?

A chat with Eric BogosianEB: Absolutely. I mean, I met Mike (Judge) when I was down in Austin working with Rick, but I was a big "Beavis and Butt-head" fan. I mean, I do things and get involved with things that I'm a fan of, and I think the ultimate question in my household -- and because my wife is a director, we always ask it -- is, "Would you go to this? Would you go to see this? Is this something you would be interested in?" If it's not something we'd be interested in, we don't see what the point is in getting involved. Yeah, somebody shovels a ton of money at you, you're not going to be a shmuck. On the other hand, I like vampire movies, and showing up in "Blade 3" for 10 minutes was kind of cool, and I had no problem with that.

BE: How about "Charlie's Angels?"

EB: Same deal. I loved "Charlie's Angels." I loved the first one, I thought it was really cool. That was more like Drew asking me for a favor, because I didn't really do anything in it, and I would have loved to have been more active. I mean, I think I was dead for the whole time I was on screen. But, you know, it's fun to watch how different directors work and different actors work. It's also fun to have Lucy Liu's finger in your mouth looking for a pork rind. So it's all good.

BE: Sounds like a good closing line to me. A real pleasure talking to you.

EB: Same here.

BE: I'll send the link out to guys over at NBC/Universal so you can take a look at the site when it comes up.

EB: Oh great. Don't get me in trouble, OK? I don't think I said anything bad about anybody. I mean, I don't know what they think about the fact that I'm complaining about the promotion they did last year, but I guess there's nothing they can do about that.

BE: Well, I think the fact that you're doing promotion for it yourself kind of takes the edge of that.

EB: Yeah, yeah. (laughs) Well, thanks a lot.

BE: Absolutely. Thanks to you.

EB: Take care. Bye bye.

You can follow us on Twitter and Facebook for content updates. Also, sign up for our email list for weekly updates and check us out on Google+ as well.

Around the Web