America’s political system has been a favorite subject of filmmakers for decades. The reasons are clear. There’s enough grandstanding, scandal, backstabbing and intrigue in a week on Capitol Hill to fill a season of any network soap opera. Take the latest entry into the genre. Casino Jack, in the early stages of a nationwide rollout, follows the real-life story of so-called super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff who served time in prison for defrauding four Native American tribes out of tens of millions of dollars and trading money and gifts for political favors from some of DC’s biggest power brokers. While the scandal landed public officials in prison, the film has landed Kevin Spacey a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) and very positive reviews for Barry Pepper as Abramoff’s protégé Michael Scanlon.
Pepper recently sat down with Collider for a wide-ranging conversation. Hit the jump for the interview’s full audio and transcript, including his view of Washington, whether he’d run for office, his wild experience on a new Terrence Malick film and his very thorough research to play Robert F. Kennedy.
Some actors shy away from playing real-life subjects. Barry Pepper has specialized in it. Having made three-dimensional portrayals of sports legends like Roger Maris in 61* to the title role in 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story and war heroes in Flags Of Our Fathers and We Were Soldiers, Pepper has deftly moved into the political sphere as Michael Scanlon in Casino Jack and the upcoming mini-series The Kennedys as Robert F. Kennedy. Pepper also gives a standout performance in True Grit, and we’ll post our interview with him for that film later this week. However, we started this discussion with a look at his sports background to see if that’s where he got his dedication to detail.
Collider: You’re known for getting very deep into characters and that takes such a huge discipline. How important was sports, in terms of the influence of the discipline on you with your acting career?
Barry Pepper: I grew up playing everything from rugby, football, baseball, volleyball, bike races and boxing. I tried martial arts, loved to ride horses and I’m the youngest of three brothers, so it was a fiercely competitive family. So when it came to the opportunity to play Roger Maris in 61* that was just a dream come true and with Roger batting on the opposite side of the plate as me, I had to learn from scratch.
But also within the research of each character and to become a really good athlete, repetition is so important and, if you’re playing basketball, you’ve got to be on the driveway ‘til all hours of the night, until you can’t see the ball anymore.
Pepper: Yeah, right.
Acting is very similar, in the sense of discipline.
Pepper: Yeah, we spent probably, at least on that film, several months, before principal photography, just in baseball boot camp with Reggie Smith, the great switch-hitter for the Dodgers. He put us through our paces, both Thomas (Jane who played Mickey Mantle) and I until we were completely blistered and battered and bruised and that really helps you immerse into that world. I mean, that’s all you do is you eat, sleep and drink baseball. And then the same with the NASCAR film. I went to race school at (what was then) Lowe’s Motor Speedway (re-named Charlotte Motor Speedway earlier this year) and each of them are remarkable experiences, in that you do get so deeply involved in it, that I knew nothing about NASCAR when I first took on the project and yet you come out the other side of it, very deeply steeped in the sport and enjoying it, actually.
It’s interesting because you were talking about 61* and 3 (whose subjects of baseball and NASCAR) are so embedded in American culture and you’ve done so many different films that separate the myth from the reality of the American story whether it’s Saving Private Ryan (displaying the brutality of World War II), 3 (which didn’t shy away from Dale Earnhardt’s personal demons), 61*, where you told just how big of a toll (the race to break Babe Ruth’s single home run record) took on (NY Yankees’ slugger) Roger Maris, Flags Of Our Fathers (which told the stark reality back home that awaited the men who were in the iconic World War II image of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima) and now Casino Jack. Yet, you grew up in Canada before you set sail (At age 5, Pepper’s family sailed around the South Pacific Islands on the family’s 50 foot hand-built boat, for 5 years with stops along the way).
Pepper: Uh huh. Well, I’m a dual citizen.
As of a couple of years ago. Right?
Pepper: That’s right. Yeah.
Pepper: Oh, wow, you’re good. You did your homework. (Laughter). But that’s right. Yeah, I grew up on Vancouver Island.
Were you fascinated by the American story as a kid? I mean, did-
Pepper: Well, you know what’s funny, as a kid, I was always a Yankees fan. So, go figure. I mean, we didn’t have a Major League Baseball team (in Vancouver). My brother was a Yankees fan and I grew up just sort of emulating him, although I think that the Pacific Northwest, primarily Vancouver is so, sort of, influenced by what happens in Hollywood and that’s really, sort of, where I cut my teeth in the business because of that overflow of work that came up from California to Vancouver and all of the series and films that were shooting there. American film and television’s really what’s predominately on television and in the theaters in Canada, so it’s really unavoidable, in terms of pop culture, fashion. It’s sort of intrinsically connected.
What was your exposure to politics (through your film career) before doing Casino Jack?
Pepper: It would’ve been We Were Soldiers. I played Joe Galloway, who was the first civilian to be ever awarded a Bronze Star in combat. He was a photojournalist in Vietnam and subsequently became a speechwriter for Colin Powell (at the State Department in 2001-02) and was very involved in politics in Washington and (as a writer for United Press International, U.S. News & World Report, Knight-Ridder Newspapers and McClatchy Newspapers). Anyway, he was the one that really introduced me to the state of things in Washington because we became very close friends and then (with) a few of my films, I would get invited to Vietnam Vet memorials and Veterans’ anniversaries and bases around the country and West Point and you’d meet with soldiers and veterans and the more time that I spent in Washington, the more involved I got and seeing it through the eyes of someone like Joe, who is so intimately involved and really had such inside connections, you got a very unvarnished view.
Before doing Casino Jack, what was your view, especially in talking to (Joe Galloway) and seeing DC that way?
Pepper: The only reason that I involved myself in Casino Jack was because of what it ultimately said as a film. It was a cautionary tale to the public about what is currently the state of affairs in Washington, that our democracy is drowning under a tsunami of corporate financing and, you know, a mountain of cash that influences our political process and has irrevocably changed it forever, in my opinion. And even (with) all of the beating of drums that took place during this scandal when it broke by John McCain (who famously co-authored the McCain-Feingold law to regulate campaign financing) and others. Nothing changed. There was no lobbying reform act with any teeth. In fact, it’s probably worse than it ever was. Material equality and liberty are intrinsically connected and you can’t have an honest, true democracy without equal representation. You know, you see it in the recent midterm elections, record numbers of millions spent on these campaigns. $50-100 million dollars of personal wealth and probably corporate wealth wagered on these elected positions and you and I can’t be equally represented if we don’t have that kind of cash to get in the race. It’s just ballooned so far out of control that I think until people become aware of it, and hopefully through a film like this, they can be made aware of it and exercise their 1st amendment right. Use their voice. Hold their elected officials’ feet to the fire and understand that that is the truest form of democracy is dissension and that that’s not only their right, it’s a privilege. You know? People are tired at the end of a 10-12 hour workday, raising their kids and living their life, that most people in these high-level elected positions feel like they can really get away with whatever they want because the public just doesn’t have enough time in the day to keep tabs on them.
I wasn’t going to ask you this question, but hearing you talk about it, you’re a concerned citizen, would you ever run for office?
Pepper: (Long pause) I don’t know. Um, I think it would only be out of sheer desperation. (Smiles) You know I, if I felt like I could be of service in some way, absolutely. I, I think it would be every citizen’s responsibility and also privilege to serve, but boy, it would be a very, I think, frustrating town to work in. You know, it’s much like my business. You know, it’s mostly theater. It’s mostly pageantry. I mean, how else can you explain Sarah Palin? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
Jon Stewart said something along the lines; he said, “The difference between Hollywood and DC is that the people in Hollywood” and I’ll clean up the language, “are jerks who think they have power. The people in DC are jerks who actually do.
(Note: Stewart’s actual full quote is “The only difference between L.A. and Washington is they think they have power in L.A. They don’t. It’s the same insular a******s you find on both areas, but in Washington they actually do have power.”)
Pepper: (Laughing) Yeah. That’s very true. That’s great. Is that an original quote of his?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Pepper: Oh, that’s good.
Speaking of politics, you’re gonna be playing Bobby Kennedy (in The Kennedys, opposite Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy and Greg Kinnear as JFK).
Pepper: Yeah. I just finished that.
Did you talk to the Kennedys (for research)?
Pepper: No, I didn’t. There was a little bit of difficulty going into the project because the keepers of the Kennedy flame, if you will, were very concerned that the image of Camelot might be eroded and that, I think early drafts of the script might have given them an illusion that it was more of a, a salacious piece, than it really was, but it couldn’t have been more opposite. It was such an incredible experience for me. But no, I, I stuck to just my own research, I read every book that has been written on the Kennedys and listened to every phone call between Jack and Bobby and every speech that Bobby gave and really just lived with him for five months that I was involved in the project, basically in my earphones. Just listening to his speeches over and over and over and over again. Everything that I could find, uh, I compiled digitally and he just lived with me, in my ears all day long. But the books are incredible. There’s such a vast array of books out there on the Kennedys as you can well imagine, but, you know, specifically Bobby and then I read every book that HE highlighted in his books as being books that were an influence on him. Like, when Jack was assassinated, Jackie gave Bobby a book called The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton and that was a very, very important book to him, to both of them really, and it’s what, was one of the, the keys to his healing some of his suffering and confusion at the time and then I read, you know, other books tbat were somewhat more controversial like (Bobby and Jackie: A Love Story) about their relationship and then, of course, you read other books that are also somewhat controversial, by Seymour Hersh; The Dark Side Of Camelot. Then you read all the other ones that are considered to be the foremost authorities.
Pepper: On, on The Kennedys and the ones that are, kind of, more mainstream and so, I really covered my bases, in terms of research and the, The History Channel also just compiled a, a tremendous amount of documentaries and just real footage and material for us to wade through. So, it was a mountain to research that was just ongoing throughout the entire production. It really just never ended. I thoroughly enjoyed that, but I hope to meet them. You know, even playing Roger Maris, the family was quite hesitant about being involved with HBO.
Private. Such a private family.
Pepper: Very, very private. And then after the film came out, they welcomed me with open arms. We screened the film at the White House together and they just loved it. They were very grateful (for) the care and the sensitivity that HBO took to represent their father and husband. Roger, I should say. And I became dear friends of their family. And with Casino Jack, I wasn’t able to meet Mike because he was- excused himself from Washington.
I’d imagine so.
Pepper: And he was actively cooperating with the investigation so it wasn’t available to me, but I was able to speak to his friends and colleagues and co-workers and was given a tremendous amount of information that I would’ve never been able to get from books and articles.
Have you heard through friends of Scanlon what he thought about the film being made? Have you heard, like, what his reaction was, at all?
Pepper: No. No, we haven’t, but Kevin (Spacey) got to speak at length with Jack (Abramoff) in prison and so, that was, that was quite informative. Like I say, all of my information came through friends and co-workers and colleagues that had worked in Mike’s office. Such an interesting personality. Such a schismatic personality in the sense that he’s holding down this $10/hour lifeguard job through the entire time that he’s making millions as a PR consultant and lobbyist with Jack Abramoff.
And for a smart guy, making the dumbest decisions.
Pepper: Incredible, but he was this truly pure surfer dude. (That) really was the life closest to his true self was this surfer dude living the life as this lifeguard on the beach and yet, all the while he was in Washington, he was a completely different guy. You know-
Well, it makes, it makes actually perfect sense, if he was a surfer that he was riding that wave. (Pepper laughs) And I’m not saying that in a pun kind of way, but literally as this thing is cresting, he’s going let me see where it takes me.
Pepper: Oh, it was like a narcotic, for sure. You know, he was a very hail fellow well met sort of country club type guy running these elaborate schemes and then, here he is off at Rehoboth Beach (in Delaware) working for $10 an hour as a lifeguard! Holding, holding down that job the whole time and I, and so I was just fascinated by that character study. Absolutely fascinated! And I can absolutely understand why he was swept up into it. I mean, you can’t remove culpability from all the others that were involved. Even the casino- or the Indian tribes, I should say, that opportunity to access power and wealth, by exchanging cash or lavish gifts for legislative favors was like a narcotic to them, too.
Pepper: I mean, there was a lot of people that (were) very involved in the scandal that really didn’t suffer the blows that Mike and Jack did and so in that respect, I have a modicum of sympathy, ‘cause they were really thrown under the bus as the fall guys for this, but you know, nothing has changed. Ten more guys have taken their place. They say they’re trying to clean it up, but they never will because it’s such a gravy train for their re-election campaigns that neither –
It’s “Follow the money.”
Pepper: The Democrats, nor the Republicans will ever clean it up.
Pepper: (Smiling) That’s up to you and I. (Laughter)
You were talking about The Kennedys and you just worked with Rachel Weisz (on Terrence Malick’s currently untitled new film) who’s doing (Darren Aronofsky’s film about Jacqueline Kennedy) Jackie.
Pepper: No, I never did work with her.
Oh, you didn’t.
Pepper: But she was on the same film.
Pepper: That’s the nature of a Terrence Malick (Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) film (laughter). Because our two characters never knew each other existed. I don’t know. I don’t even know her storyline in the film.
Oh, really. What’s your storyline in the film?
Pepper: I couldn’t tell you.
But you’re playing “Father Barry.”
Pepper: I can partially tell you but I couldn’t tell you what the script is about because I never received a script.
Wait. Ok, because we hear it’s about a fisherman.
So, wait, what do you know?
Pepper: I only came in and played my part. That’s all I know. That was what was so wonderful about it.
What is your character?
Pepper: I believe it’s not any breach of confidence because that’s, I’ve, I’ve read it many times on the internet that Javier Bardem and I play priests. But that’s really all that I can tell you.
(Note: there is unconfirmed word that the plot focuses on a failed writer played by Ben Affleck in a loveless marriage who does, indeed, go fishing to clear his head. Click on the link for further spoilers)
Pepper: (Laughs) No, but I mean, you know, there are cer-, there are certain obligations that you have, but I’m being absolutely honest with you in saying that I don’t know what the story is about. All I know is my involvement, which is a small chapter within the film, so, which to me was absolute joy to work with him on that level because it was so free and so, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Never been involved in a project where you’re not handed a concrete screenplay, but to me it was just like floating down a river. You know, you really just had to go with it, or else… You just really had to float because it was such a free process that if you fought it, you’d, you’d just start drowning. (Laughs)
Yeah. Well, thank you so much.
Pepper: Yeah, my pleasure.