In director John Stalberg’s stoner comedy, High School, soon-to-be valedictorian Henry Burke (Matt Bush) decides to get high for the first time in his life after a chance encounter with the school’s resident drug head, Travis Breaux (Sean Marquette). Shortly afterward, he discovers that the school’s dictatorial principal, Dr. Leslie Gordon (Michael Chiklis), has just instituted a zero tolerance drug policy. When Gordon schedules a mandatory drug test for the entire school the next day, Henry sees his dreams of a bright college future are about to go up in smoke. His only option involves stealing law student-turned-drug dealer Psycho Ed’s (Adrien Brody) stash of high powered ganga.
At the press day for High School, we sat down at a roundtable interview with Chiklis and Bush. Chiklis, who portrayed Detective Vic Mackey on FX’s ground-breaking drama The Shield, revealed what attracted him to the project, how he developed his character, and why he had fun playing the outrageous role. Bush discussed how the film compared to his real-life high school experience and why he enjoys playing characters that are distinctly different. They also told us about their latest projects including Chiklis’ new CBS television series, Vegas, with Dennis Quaid and Bush’s feature film, Trouble with the Curve, with Clint Eastwood.
MATT BUSH: Oh Jesus! In high school, I certainly wasn’t the valedictorian. I was the furthest from that. I worked hard, but I wasn’t as smart as him. I don’t know anyone that’s like Psycho Ed though. I can’t say I know anyone that’s like him.
How much was this film like your high school experience?
BUSH: We shot this at a practical high school. This was a high school that was built for $77 million, something ridiculous, that they used for one year and then the economy was hit hard, and with the operational costs, they couldn’t keep it going. It was empty so we took it over. It’s a sad situation, but fortunate for us. It’s fun to be able to shoot a high school movie in an actual high school. We had trailers but we never spent time in the trailers. We took over a teachers’ lounge, put TVs in there, a couch and a ping pong table. To be able to hang out in a teachers’ lounge, that’s a kid’s high school fantasy. It was a unique experience. It was fun.
How was it stepping into that mindset of being back in high school?
BUSH: I skew younger. I look younger. I always have, so it wasn’t for me. Truth be told, I’m a little immature at times so it wasn’t necessarily me having to switch too many gears to get myself in that mindset.
How did you first hear about this project and what was it like working with John Stalberg in his feature directorial debut?
BUSH: I was sent the script and I was actually told to read for Sebastian’s role who was one of the bad guys. I read that and that was fun, and then I got some notes back and they said “Hey, why don’t you read for Henry? That might be great.” So I did and I was very fortunate. I flew to Los Angeles. I read over there. I was lucky to be able to participate. I met with John. Sean (Marquette), who plays Breaux, and I went and met John in Michigan. We had dinner with him and he sold the heck out of this movie. He had such a vision. He said “I want to make a great stoner movie, but I want to make a fantastic film. I want this to be cinematic.” And I said “I’ll follow you. I’ll follow you to wherever you want to go. That’s great.”
Did he give you a lot of latitude in terms of what you could do in scenes?
BUSH: Yeah, we had fun, and I think that’s important because it translates. He certainly let us be open and play around, but at the same time, because he had such a unique vision, he knew when to reel us in. He gave us notes, which constructively is the best thing you can ask for.
Because this is “R” rated, the kids that could identify closest with what’s going on in the story are going to have to get their parents’ approval. Up in the tree house when Breaux is saying to Henry, “Take it or don’t take it,” do you think Henry recognizes that the choice he makes will be a landmark in his characters’ life?
BUSH: It’s funny you say that kids in high school would need their parents’ approval. It’s only after high school that you’re able to sit back and go “Man, the decisions I made in those four years really shaped my major, shaped my girlfriend who I’m dating, and my relationships.” With Henry, this odyssey he goes through all starts with that decision. If he didn’t take that, how boring of a life might he have had? Michael and I were talking and we didn’t even put this together until today, three or four years later. If Henry is so buttoned down and so focused, in 40 years he could have turned out to be just like Leslie Gordon – really just sphincter-like this (holds up a clenched fist). I think anything in moderation is [okay] and anything in excess is bad for you. I think it’s important to have those experiences, especially when you’re younger. That’s what Henry needs to go through.
You shot this film two years ago and now you’ve got a Clint Eastwood movie coming up.
How does Matt Bush transition from being Henry Burke hanging out with a stoned school to being with Clint Eastwood in a baseball movie?
BUSH: Yes, that’s certainly a transition and an amazing opportunity. There are very few iconic actors in the world. I mean like legendary actors. Clint Eastwood is certainly one of them. It’s a smaller role in the film, but to have the opportunity to meet him and work with him is something that as an actor you can’t ask for anything better than that. That’s amazing certainly in my career. I have a high school full of stoned kids. I like Dawn of the Dead. And then, going into a movie like this, it’s fun to be able to put on different hats in different shapes.
And then, in between, you toss in Piranha 3DD.
BUSH: Which is coming out this month, too. That picture is a whole other, different kind of experience.
It’s the year of Matt Bush.
BUSH: Knock on wood.
You have three films coming out.
BUSH: I’m very excited and very lucky.
It’s a great opportunity to show your range as an actor.
BUSH: I hope so. Thank you. I’m excited.
When you get to work with an Oscar winner like Adrien Brody, and watch him go full tilt the way he does right in your face, is it tough to keep a straight face and stay in character?
BUSH: Truthfully, when we were doing scenes, he’s scary as an actor. As a presence, as Adrien Brody, he’s intimidating, an Oscar winner, and an amazing presence. But then, as Psycho Ed, it’s like okay, now we’re dealing with a whole other entity. That’s scary. I had trouble keeping a straight face in his scene with Sean as Breaux. There’s a scene where they’re having an interaction and I’m like stealthing behind them. There’s a moment between him and Sean where they’re doing this to each (bobbing their heads back and forth), they’re kind of putting their heads out. That wasn’t in the script. That was just them messing around. I blew at least two takes with them. In fairness, they were laughing too. But it was so hard to keep a straight face when they were doing the “Whut?!” “Whut?!” And that’s where that gag evolved. That wasn’t in the script. That just came from there and it became a running joke on set that has made it into the film and became a tagline of sorts for the picture. I just couldn’t keep a straight face.
What did you think when you first read this script which takes Dazed and Confused to a new level?
BUSH: The first time I read it I was laughing. The jokes are [funny]. It’s a funny premise and the characters are funny. It wasn’t until I actually met John where he was able to fill in and color in some things for me and explain his vision, cinematically what he was planning on doing. And then, it was just like this is okay. You’re right, it takes Dazed and Confused to another level. It’s played straight a lot of the time, at least between Breaux and Henry. There are these action elements that are weird and that don’t necessarily get on the page. That’s all John and his vision. When he told me that’s what he wanted to do, c’mon, I was all about it.
BUSH: They did an amazing job in costume, but it isn’t until he stands up straight and then he holds his hand here [imitates the character’s posture], that’s when it all comes together. Make-up did a great job but that only goes so far. But, as soon as he opens his mouth, you go okay, that’s a different person.
MICHAEL CHIKLIS: Often times, you work on a character from the inside out – who the person is and what drives them and all of that — but this was one of the rare occasions where I worked from the outside in and created the outer guise of this character. It was so much fun for me, because once I put the wig on and I had the mustache and the big glasses and the posture of him and the mid-Atlantic sound and the walk, it created this person. There are people that I’ve known and their physicality speaks to who they are, what they’ve become. Their personal repression informs the way they hold themselves. It was really a fun process of creating a character in that way.
When you talk about his own impression of himself, doesn’t Principal Gordon know what the kids think of him?
CHIKLIS: Oh no, I disagree with you about how he knows what the kids think of him. I think he’s incredibly unaware, un-self-aware. He doesn’t even care what they think of him. He only cares about what he thinks of them, which isn’t very much at all. He thinks that they’re miscreants.
Where did you take the inspiration for your character?
CHIKLIS: From several sources. He’s sort of an amalgam of several people that I knew – one in college and one… I have to watch out here because I don’t want anybody to know.
BUSH: Ruining lives.
CHIKLIS: Ruining lives. Exactly. I can just see someone in the theater having an epiphany and going “Oh no!” and turning purple.
Michael, this is not the kind of role we’ve come to expect from you.
CHIKLIS: Well see, I don’t even want you guys to have an expectation. Think about it. As actors, we’re all looking to play great characters. We’re all looking for great material. Often times, those opportunities that you get are informed by the things that you’ve done before and that can be a real drag frankly. Interestingly enough, after playing Vic Mackey, then understandably I get a rash of nasty bastards that are tough guy roles. But, interestingly, for the ten years prior to that, I wouldn’t have gotten an opportunity to read for Vic Mackey because I was known for roly-poly affable guys. I always fight against the stereotype typecasting. I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to break out of certain typecasting several times in my career and it’s because I insist on it. Life would be very boring if I played one sort of character all the time. That’s just my feeling. This represented such a phenomenal opportunity to do something outrageous and fun and funny in a funny context. That’s why I leapt at the chance. That’s what keeps your career exciting and interesting and also keeps you better as an actor when you get to stretch and try different things. If I took one of the first ten roles that I was offered after The Shield, I would limit even more possibilities because they were basically rehashing or retelling or trying to be variations of Vic Mackey, and I’d just done it for seven years. Also, people don’t realize too that it’s not like there’s a guy in short-shorts with a baton in one hand and a script in the other running to your house with another opportunity. We have to ferret out opportunities.
BUSH: You don’t have that guy?
BUSH: Yeah. Jeff is a good friend of mine.
CHIKLIS: He doesn’t show up at my house. So, I’m always trying to ferret out the diamond in the rough. There are literally twelve guys who have the “A” scripts coming to their door and they have that luxury. Most of us are fighting it out and trying to find that diamond in the rough that we can really bite into and make something of it.
Is it fun for you as an actor to go back and forth between something like this with a comedic bent to something more serious and dramatic?
CHIKLIS: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. That’s what I live for is those opportunities to move from one extreme to another, even if the differences are more subtle. I’m hoping that people see those subtleties as well. For example, the role I’m about to play in this CBS show, people will see elements of or similarities to a Vic Mackey, I’m sure certainly, but he’s very, very different. I mean, this is an Italian Mafioso as compared to this strike team commander in Los Angeles, so it’s very, very different. And then, Dr. Leslie Gordon has little to do with either of those guys, so it’s just fun. I’m having a good time.
What’s the name of your CBS show?
CHIKLIS: It’s called Vegas with me and Dennis Quaid set in 1960’s Las Vegas. It’s a pretty cool set-up. It’s a sexy backdrop for a show with great, real life stories of this guy, Ralph Lamb, who was the sheriff of Vegas from 1960 to 1980.
You’re playing Johnny Savino?
CHIKLIS: Vincent Savino. It was Johnny and we changed it to Vincent.
You look more like a Vincent.
Do you have a preference at this stage of your career between TV or film?
CHIKLIS: No. They’re the same processes. They’re the same except for time and money. Really, the only thing that separates film and television is time and money, and that even depends on what kind of movie. If you’re doing an independent, sometimes it’s much less of a budget than television and less time. I’ve done all of it. In Fantastic Four, there were things I loved about that movie and loved about the process of it and utterly hated. The things I hated were the costume and the fact that there were days when we would do 1/8th of a page in an entire 12-hour day. An 1/8th of a page! Whereas, at least with television, you know there’s an expectation that it’s going to move. You’re going to do a certain amount of work. And yet, I produced a movie in December called Pawn and we shot an entire feature film in 15 working days which is absurd. It’s not enough time. It’s 10 pounds into a 5-pound bag, but we did it somehow. We tore a strip off our lives but we did it.
We always hear about the leisurely pace of movies compared to series television.
CHIKLIS: Not any more. Not since the crisis. Not since the economic models have changed. It’s not like that any more. It’s even tighter than anything I’ve ever done before.
From the standpoint of a character, is there something attractive about being able to stay with a character like Vic Mackey for seven years and develop him over time?
CHIKLIS: I think of The Shield as one of the longest movies ever made or one of the longer movies ever made. We never looked at it as a television series. We felt like we were making one giant independent feature film. And yeah, it’s so much better as an actor to be able to. A lot of times in television, because of the models and how they sell television internationally, we were very fortunate with The Shield that it was a continuum. It was an ongoing story. Often times, they want these stand alone episodic situations where there’s never any kind of crossover. It has a beginning, middle and an end to each episode, where The Shield was one big, long story. And yeah, of course, naturally you can get far more, far deeper into the soul of a character and explore the life of that character much more deeply than you ever could in any single film. It’s two hours. We did almost 100 hours of The Shield. That’s a beautiful amount of time to explore a character.
Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed Men in Black 3, said he never wants anybody to act like they’re in a comedy. Do you find that you have to do what you do seriously in order for the humor to come through, especially with outrageous situations like in High School?
BUSH: Here’s the thing, I think Henry and Breaux are playing things straight, but at the same time, I think from my limited experience, you have to have fun. I feel like the fun translates, especially when you’re making a comedy. If the set is very tense, very serious, I’m not so sure that that’s …
CHIKLIS: That’s going to be a breeding ground for funny, for waka. I’m worried about hard, fast rules like that. I understand probably what he’s getting at when he talks about that. I think he’s talking more about commitment. If you’re not committed to your character, or if you’re commenting on your character, then you’re going to fail in comedy, and I think that’s what he’s really speaking to. But, in terms of the tenor of the set and everything and the feeling between guys, if you’re not loose in a fun way and you lose the joy in it, and everything is just straight and tense, then that’s not going to work either.
High School is now in theaters.