Saturday, July 18, 2009

M. Emmet Walsh: "My best work's in front of me"

“He is one of the most recognized character actors working in the business today; he is also one of the most respected, and busiest. With over 110 feature film and television credits in both drama and comedy on his resume, M. Emmet Walsh has at least half a dozen films in the can, ready to be released soon (these do not include the miniseries BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE). To pick one as a starting point, there is WAR PARTY, set to come out in spring 1989. “It’s an interesting script,” the actor says. “In one of these depressed areas of Montana the townsfolk restage an Indian civil war battle with the cavalry and the Indians in order to bring the tourists in. And there’s some local Indian-white rancher friction to the event; one white guy gets drunk and shoots an Indian, then some Indians tomahawk a couple guys, and three Indian kids ride off into the mountains.” The actor plays a bounty hunter who, partnered with a Crow Indian, is called in to track down the young Indians.

The film was directed by Franc (THE BRIDE) Roddam. “I’m not sure we did enough homework to shoot a western. There are things about staging a chase or whatever that have to be learned and I don’t know if we had all that solved when we shot it. There was always a conflict of not getting enough work done but [I mean to imply] nothing negative about Franc.” Walsh enjoyed the opportunity to learn to ride a horse in the proper period manner for the production. “They paid for me to take lessons at the equestrian center in Burbank. I did nothing but ride for a month and I’m not a horseman. When I’m working I like to be able to do physical things. I learned to play piano for CANNERY ROW. For three months I tried to learn a boogie woogie tune.”

Walsh plays a CIA man in THE MIGHTY QUINN (formerly titled FINDING MAUBEE) sent down to straighten out a screwed up operation on a Caribbean island. “I’m a little heavy-handed. I end up hurting a couple people but it’s just in the line of work,” he explains. The mystery-comedy-buddy film starring Denzel Washington and Robert Townsend was helmed by Austrian director Carl Schenkel. “It was interesting to see Jamaica. That’s one of the interesting things about doing movies. They don’t shoot very many in Hollywood [anymore]. It was fun to make. I don’t know how they’ll sell it. It’s quite different. Denzel’s very good and there’s some good acting in it. It’s very pretty but the mystery may be just a little too vague.”

An experience which was decidedly not fun came with the production of RED SCORPION, a feature he now regrets having been a part of. “RED SCORPION I shot in Namibia, S.W. Africa. I have major reservations about it because, with hindsight, I shouldn’t have gone there. I was lied to. I said I wanted nothing to do with South Africa, and they said it was an entirely different country independent of South Africa.” The actor then found himself in Namibia, the buffer zone between South Africa and Angola, with Dolph Lundgren who plays a Russian soldier sent to assassinate a black freedom fighter (he later has a change of heart). Walsh portrays a Hemingway-type character who is recording the war. “So I get down there and here’s this movie having to do with war guns and tanks. The money is supplied by South Africa and I’m thinking, ‘Wow!’ And then it became a very un-fun situation. I’d worked with the director Joe Zito before, on the Chuck Norris film MISSING IN ACTION, but this time it was very difficult. They went way over budget and time. It was also very dangerous. You lose your unions over there.” The actor now says his working relationship with the director was “destroyed” during the course of filming.

“But my major point is that, when I got home, I got a lot of flak and I totally agree with ‘That stupid ass Emmet Walsh’ shouldn’t have gone over there. I did my work – and I felt a lot of people didn’t do their work – and I came home and there’s nothing you can do. I approach these jobs [thinking] each one may be the last I’ll ever do so I do them as well as I can.”

He can also be caught soon in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, a comedy shot in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, in which Walsh plays a gambler betting on high school kids involved in drag races. “They paid me a lot of money to go up for one week but I gotta stop doing that stuff,” he laughs. Much more serious is his role in CHATTAHOOCHEE, in which he portrays a convicted gay bank robber serving time in an insane asylum. Co-starring Gary Oldman and Dennis Hopper, the film was directed by Britisher Mick Jackson, who made the haunting post-nuke tale THREADS.

Based on a true story, Oldman plays a disturbed Korean war vet who is tossed into a mental institution in Florida along with fellow inmates Walsh and Hopper. It is Walsh’s 59th movie. “Finally, after 59 films, Hollywood has decided I’m the sexy, romantic lead so I have a love interest in the film,” he jokes, “who turns out to be another convict who wears dresses.”

Walsh, a master of the naturalistic style of acting, approached this part – perhaps the most challenging of his prolific career – not much differently from his previous ones. “You don’t do anything about preparation, you just do it,” he says. “I did it because I thought it might be an interesting stretch for me as an actor. I just looked at it and played the man.”

On the question of research, the actor adds, “I did ORDINARY PEOPLE for Robert Redford, then he called and asked if I’d do THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR. He said I’d play the governor of Santa Fe, New Mexico. So if you’re getting no money an d no billing you might as well play the governor,” he smiles. “Bob’s a charming guy and I like to work with him. We have a good time. I also did BRUBAKER with him. So this was a big thing: Who was playing the governor in MILAGRO? I’m in my motel room watching Redford talk to the press, and they ask him what preparation I did for the role and Bob said, ‘You don’t need any preparation to play a politician.’ So if you’re gonna play a gay prisoner, what do you do? You just do it. Working with Dennis Hopper was wonderful. I had a grand time with him. We’d made KID BLUE together years earlier. Gary was working very hard. He is a little private but he had to carry the whole damn movie. We had a pleasant time.

“You work very hard to learn the techniques of everything and you try to hide all the gears,” he says, elaborating on his style. “You can learn 85 or 90 percent of acting and then it requires the gifts or something. I don’t have an ego when I get at the work. If I’m playing a doctor I want you to see a doctor. I don’t want you to see an Emmet Walsh doctor and that’s, I think, been the confusion with my career. People know my work but they don’t know who I am. Maybe that's why I'm doing this interview. I've always had fun hiding in the character. I'm a character actor," he states proudly. "I can take on the skin and hide longer. I don't have a need to go in and overpower somebody. When Chuck Norris and I did MISSING IN ACTION we had a grand time making a nice relationship with the two characters. I let the character get up front and I get out of the way. If anything, I'm bigger than life, so occasionally [directors] say, 'Pull it back, simplify it.'" He is also in the upcoming movies THUNDERGROUND and SUNDOWN.

Michael Emmet Walsh was born on the Vermont-Quebec border, the son and grandson of U.S. customs officers. He received a degree in business administration with a major in marketing from Clarkson College in New York. His bachelor's degree was earned more to please his parents than himself and the dean of students told him he was graduating with the lowest marks of anyone in seven years. An obviously indifferent student, he had always enjoyed appearing in plays in high school and college, so he decided to see if he could make it as an actor in New York. "My basic motivation was not to be 40 years old, look back and wonder if I should have tried." He auditioned for, and was accepted at, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan, pretty good for a young man who'd grown up in a small town of 3,000 people.

Deaf in his left ear since age three, he has been able to use this to his auditory-acting advantage. "Deaf people speak louder for fear they're not being heard. If you do it for 50 years you end up with a huge instrument," he notes. His first job in professional theatre was as a prop man at Buck's County Playhouse in Pennsylvania. Soon afterwards he performed in summer stock in Vermont, Kentucky and at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. He eventually wound up on Broadway in That Championship Season and Does the Tiger Wear a Necktie? where he'd keep his eyes open all around him. "New York was a very exciting place. I just kept looking around. An actor's a sponge. You just keep watching everything. You never know when, eventually, it's time to give some back."

Walsh, a very friendly fellow with a good sense of humor, would cue up with the crowds outside the theatres during intermission, then slip back in to see the last one or two acts of a play over and overa gain. "I'd watch [the actors] and think, 'What do you do with your hands?! Women must have it tough -- they have no pockets!'" A short while later, he got his first Esso commercial through a girlfriend of his, and this in turn got him his first agent. After doing dozens of commercials, he got tired of auditioning for TV ads and got a bit part in 1970's END OF THE ROAD, in which he hung from a crucifix in an asylum while wearing a mask and a tutu ("I had good legs. What the hell," he laughs).

Eight years later he gained much notice as Dustin Hoffman's parole officer in STRAIGHT TIME, although he feels his role in the film was misunderstood. "I didn't play it sleazily. I come from a long line of civil servants and I was not going to degrade these people who work hard but, basically, if you press this button, his reaction is this. And I became the nastiest guy in the world when I busted Dustin for Gary Busey's matches [used to burn coke with]."

It was, however, a turning point in Walsh's career, as he feels was 1984's BLOOD SIMPLE, in which he played a definitely sleazy detective for the producing-writing-directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen. The role in the brilliantly quirky mystery thriller, in fact, won him a best actor award from Independent Feature Projects West, and he would later volunteer to do a cameo in the brothers' next movie, RAISING ARIZONA.

M. Emmet Walsh, last seen as Michael Keaton's AA sponsor in CLEAN AND SOBER, is currently back in Canada as one of the stars of the upcoming NBC television series, tentatively titled UNSUB, in which he'll play an "intuitive cop type of guy who looks at that evidence. It's a special elite FBI group -- which doesn't exist -- that goes around trying to solve serial killings." He admits, though, when mentioning his dream role, he would "have nothing against doing a movie in which, for the entire two hours, Jamie Lee Curtis does nothing but lick the sweat off my body. I'm ready for that role. Jamie, of course, may wish to turn the role down," he smiles.

"I don't spend that much time in the past," the character actor says. "My best work's in front of me, Lord willing. The parts are all your children. They'll be my epitaph when they throw in that last shovelful of dirt. I'm a 53 year old bachelor; I don't wish to be a 53 year old bachelor but obviously my charm is in my work and not my sweet little nothings in somebody's ear," he chuckles. "Where my career's going, I don't know. Doing television's gonna make me a little more visible. And I do hope I work until the end. I'd like to get back onstage a little bit.

"For a little guy from a small town I've done all right. I haven't hurt a lot of people and I've had a good time. When I meet my mom and dad up there, later on, they'll say, 'Okay, Michael, you did good.' What else is there?"

by Kris Gilpin

Originally published in Drama-Logue, January 26-February 1 1989


Marty McKee said...

He isn't mentioned by name, but I'm pretty sure it's Walsh's manager quoted in Salon's piece about RED SCORPION producer Jack Abramoff saying that his client never got paid.

E.S. Coakley said...

How funny: I just watched SUNDOWN: VAMPIRE IN RETREAT the other night...

Walsh is one of those actors that you see so much, he almost becomes like a family member...I always smile when I pop in a movie and his face appears onscreen. He never disappoints...

Anonymous said...

He's wonderful!!!! What a great actor.