Friday, November 14, 2008

PTR Exclusive: The Cromartie Chronicles - One on One with Garret Dillahunt

Actor Garret Dillahunt of FOX's 'Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles'By LillyKat
PTR Senior Staff Writer

Garret Dillahunt and I must have been related in some other life.

That, or he’s a distant relative of mine in this life.

Okay, not really (wishful thinking on my part).

But of all the interviewees that have kindly visited with me during my tenure here PTR, I’m not sure I’ve ever had so much in common with just one:

- We both are Pac-10ers (Him: a University of Washington Husky; Moi: a University of Oregon Duck).

- Even though he is a U Dub-er, he loves the UO, too.

- We both have degrees relating to English and Journalism.

- We initially thought during our college years that writing might be a lucrative way to make a living (I’m still working on that one; he, obviously, has done quite well moving into the acting realm).

- We both love Westerns and annoyed the heck out of everyone around us with our Val Kilmer/Doc Holliday impersonations after seeing Tombstone.

- We both have never understood why people bag on the Pacific Northwest’s rain quotient, especially considering that is what makes the land in that corner of the United States green and bee-yooo-tee-full.

- We know the Terminator film series by heart, and particularly, every nuance of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 portrayal (“Say … that’s a nice bike.”).

- And we both keep hoping for a Cromartie vs. Cameron terminator smack down.

Suffice it to say it was a pleasure to speak with Garret this past week as he took time out of his busy schedule to discuss all-things acting, college, Coen Brothers, Westerns, horror remakes and, oh yes, Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles. It was particularly timely in light of the recently aired humdinger of an episode, “Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today,” which essentially saw his Cromartie terminator … well, terminated.

As our readers know, the verdict is still out for me as to whether he really is terminated. Garret, quite rightly, couldn’t tell me. But, most of us can put two and two together to figure out that we haven’t really seen the last of him.

We have, however, seen lots of Garret. A veteran actor, he has a seasoned résumé that includes a little bit of everything. He portrayed not one, but two, characters on the critically acclaimed HBO series, Deadwood. His role as a neurosurgeon in John From Cincinnati was called one of the most realistic portrayals of a doctor on television – period. He was part of the ensemble of The 4400 (a PTR Fave). He's enjoyed The Coen Brothers experience, serving up what little comic relief there was to be had in the Academy Award® winning No Country for Old Men. And it never hurts to have Brad Pitt in your corner, who went to bat for Garret to be a part of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Not bad for a guy who never thought he’d even be an actor.

Actor Garret Dillahunt of FOX's 'Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles'“At the time I went to college, I was just a kid,” says Garret. “I had come straight out of high school, and I was just kind of drifting. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I chose journalism because I was big into the school newspaper in high school, and I worked for the Selah Valley Optimist in my tiny hometown [in Washington state] – you know, where you’re your own photographer for stories. I just thought that was a good life.

"But you evolve through things. My brother passed away unexpectedly when I was a senior in high school, and that knocks you for a loop. I was determined to do something I enjoyed rather than get trapped somewhere. So, my last year [at the University of Washington], just on a whim – because I’m painfully shy – I took an acting class. I don’t know why, but I thought, ‘Well, it’s hard to make a living as a journalist, so I should probably write plays as well.’ Like that was lucrative,” he says with a laugh. “I took an acting class, which was part of the requirement for the playwrights, and it was really the first thing that had held my interest in college. But then I graduated, only having just tasted [acting], and I thought, ‘Aw, that’s what I wanna do and now I’m done!’ So, I went to NYU’s graduate acting program to train.”

Given that, it should come as no surprise we've inducted Garret into our PTR Fave Hall of Fame as he proves once again that kind, genuine, smart, insightful, easy-going and genuinely talented folks do make it in Hollywoodland. This is in addition to his being wonderfully humble, completely charming, articulate, very gracious and a true actor’s actor.

Plainly, he’s nothing like a machine.

And yet, Garret does wish one Cromartie-esque characteristic would rub off on him: lack of hesitation.

As in, just do it.

“What I’ve really come to enjoy about him is his complete lack of hesitation,” says Garret. “I really admire that because it’s something I don’t have in myself. I will sit and observe, weigh options, give into doubt. What I really dig about Cromartie is the fact that he has a job to do, and he just gets down to doing it. He doesn’t waste time over thinking or being overly concerned for his own safety. I would like to be that guy – sort of the decisive, Jason Bourne [of the Bourne series of films], man-of-action guy who just sees a job that needs doing and does it without waiting around for someone else to do it.”

Who knew a machine could be so inspiring, eh? And yet, it was Garret’s appreciation of the Terminator films that found him auditioning for a role in the television series.

Actor Garret Dillahunt of FOX's 'Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles'“Who wouldn’t want to play a terminator, y’know? I definitely wanted to do it - it just sounded like fun. And, I’m a big fan of the Terminator films. I’m old enough that I saw the first one in the theater. It blew me away. I also thought this was a good idea for a TV series. It’s the kind of thing I want to get home and see. Plus, I get beat up a lot in my career,” he jokes. “I always have to lose a fight, so it’s nice to win one for a change.”

And as we know, Cromartie knows how to win 'em. But so does Garret, particularly with his approach to portraying a legendary sci-fi character - that of a terminator machine. He's always felt a certain responsibility to hold up his end in playing what we'll call machineness perfection, yet he also brings his own unique element to the portrayal.

“I’ve felt a strong desire not to embarrass anyone ever associated with the Terminator franchise, especially because I enjoyed it so much. I thought Robert [Patrick] did a great job [in Terminator 2: Judgment Day]. He definitely seemed like a machine, but he was smooth. That’s something I’ve tried hard to do. I’ve also always tried to give Cromartie sort of an unconscious sense of humor – the notion that he’s just a little socially unskilled. He’s the weird guy at the party who thinks he knows what a good smile is, but he just doesn’t quite sell it in the eyes,” he says with a laugh.

So what’s been the most challenging aspect in portraying legendary machineness to perfection? It hasn't necessarily been about trying to suppress all those physical human quirks à la the lovely Summer Glau. Surprisingly, for Garret, it's been mostly about trying to suppress the human tendency to get disappointed.

To fail.

Says Garret: “You do have to stay aware of that kind of [human quirk] stuff. But for me, the surprisingly difficult part is [suppressing] the human tendency we might have to become frustrated or disappointed at failure. There’s a great scene in T2 where Robert Patrick’s [T-1000] has turned his hands into those hooks, and he’s clawing up the back of [the police] car [to get at John Connor]. Then, they sort of shoot him off, and he goes rolling in the street. But he gets right back up and starts running again. He’s not beating himself up [over it] like, ‘Aw, man, I failed. Gosh darn it!’ There’s just an immediate and complete recommitment to getting back at it. And that’s something I didn’t consider when I thought of the things that would be hardest to do [in playing a machine]. I didn’t think I’d be fighting my own natural instinct to register disappointment, or just sort of instinctive actor things, you know, when you have a task. But I actually like that about the terminators, that’s what makes them so scary. You can’t reason with them. They don't hate you – you’re just the task.”

And as an actor, the central task for Garret is always about telling a good story. Perhaps one could say that’s the English major in him talking.

“It starts with the material,” says Garret. “And the projects that I love the most – the things that sort of fire my imagination – come from literature. I think I’ve been fortunate to be in some really terrific projects, like Deadwood or No Country or Jesse James. I love stories. I never stop reading, and yet it seems like there’s still these gaping holes in my literary experiences. There are writers I haven’t even touched yet. And, I feel really privileged to make my living with my imagination. I get to do so many interesting things and meet so many interesting people. But, I want to do it all really well. So, for me, it’s all about the story. And if you can get on one of those kinds of sets, where the ensemble is really all working together to tell the same story - a good story - it's really just the best experience because everyone is feeding off each other. And it makes the whole better.”

So, does Garret look for roles that are quite different from himself, or does he like to share some similarities with a character he portrays (that of a machine not withstanding)?

“Oh, I think I’m going to weigh my response, here, because some of my acting teachers are going to be listening intently to this answer,” he jokes.

Actor Garret Dillahunt of FOX's 'Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles'In truth, he does try to distance himself from his characters, but he acknowledges there will always be a little bit of Garret-ness that resonates.

Says Garret: “I don’t think you can totally get away from yourself – if you’re open at all. [Part of you] is always going to be there [in the role]. And yet, I always do feel that I want to be as far away from myself as possible. I just want each of the roles I play to be different from the last. I don’t want to be just a personality as an actor, and I don’t want to play the same thing over and over again. Even though I’ve played a lot of bad guys, I think they’ve all been pretty different. As such, I really want to disappear into the role. My favorite actors are those that have always been able to completely transform themselves into another person – historical or fictional. Even when I started acting, I lived in this hovel of a place in Seattle. It was great, though. There was a shared bathroom on the floor. I just loved it. It was the first time I’d ever lived alone and had a roommate. I paid something like $120/month in rent. I remember I made these little collages on my wall of my heroes. It was always people like Gary Oldman or Sean Penn or Daniel Day-Lewis – those kind of guys that were really brave in how far they went to play a character. I always thought that was the kind of guy I wanted to be. But there are pros and cons to that [approach]. If you’re unrecognizable from role to role, it’s almost like you’re the new guy every time you come in [to a new project]. But it’s what I enjoy.”

Spoken like a true character actor, or better still, an actor's actor - one who aspires to move seamlessly between the mediums of stage, television and film.

“I don’t think I have a preference,” says Garret, when I asked him if he prefers television to film given that series television usually grants actors a longer stretch of time to delve deeper into a character vs. the two hour snap shot usually covered in a movie.

“I’m grateful there is a difference,” he says, “and that it does represent change. I like change. I think it’s a necessity for us [as actors] – unless you’re the very rare actor – that we’re able to move between the mediums. And, my goal is to be able to move gracefully between them all – television, film, stage. I like that each one has its own demands, its own subtle differences. I also like that my job has such variety in it. [And sticking with a character for an extended period of time] is certainly an advantage for series television. Like I told Summer the other day, she has played a terminator more than any other actor in the history of terminators – more than Arnold [Schwarzenegger], more than anyone [because of the time required to be on series television]. And, in that, she’s been called upon to explore things that they never had time to do in the movies.”

Speaking of Summer ('cause we love her, too), it turns out she and Garret both have a wish to … well, beat the tar out of one another. And by “beat the tar out of one another,” we of course mean their characters.

Actor Garret Dillahunt of FOX's 'Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles'“Yeah, definitely,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m hoping that at some point, she and I actually get to have a throw down. We both just love stage fights and doing as much of our own stunts as they’ll let us.”

So what does Garret think is the overarching theme of season two of T:SCC – especially from a machine’s perspective?

“A recurring theme – I don’t know if it’s the theme – certainly seems to be the increasing independence of the machines,” he says. “They are, in a way, starting to think for themselves, which is dangerous. And it seems like you can see the seeds of the dangerous part of the world that the Connors will end up having to fight – that John will end up having to fight – beginning to develop."

And how about collaboration amongst actors and showrunners?

Says Garret: “You know, that’s an interesting question because I guess I’ve never felt like I didn’t [have a chance to have input]. We’ll talk about where things are going, and I’ve always thought you could throw out an idea or two. But, for the most part, I think [the showrunners] know a lot more about [where they want to go with the storylines and characters]. You know, [series creator] Josh [Friedman] is a huge fan of the whole Terminator universe. I think I would defer to him if we ever had a disagreement about something because he probably knows better than I do about what exactly I am capable of. And I don’t have a problem with that - I enjoy him.”

Another thing Garret enjoys: author Cormac McCarthy. A huge fan of his work (which is why he fought so hard to be a part of No Country For Old Men), he’s found his way into another Cormac-inspired film with the upcoming The Road, which co-stars Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall.

Actor Garret Dillahunt of FOX's 'Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles'On the film and his role as The Gang Member, Garret says: “No one has names in the book or in the movie. Viggo plays The Man, Kodi [Smit-McPhee] plays The Boy. It’s really their story, which is about a man and his son trying to live and get to some place better in a post-Apocalyptic world, and the people they encounter along the way – either friendly or not. You might guess from my pseudonym that I am not friendly. It’s a real departure for Cormac, in a way, because it’s a future story. In this book, there are the guys that don’t give up, the guys that fight, the guys that hope for a better place. There are those who would do anything they could for food or for relief when they live in a world where there is no food or where nothing is growing. It makes you wonder what levels would you stoop to survive or take care of your family. Obviously, The Gang Member [chose] a certain way [to do that]. There’s a great harrowing scene between [Viggo], myself and the kid because I try to take something from him that he values.”

Garret is also delving into the horror genre as he stars in the upcoming remake of Wes Craven’s cult classic, The Last House on the Left. Being the horror fangirl that I am, I was curious as to whether Garret considers himself a fan of the genre, and his thoughts on the skepticism that usually accompanies remakes from the die-hards who stay loyal to the original.

Says Garret: “I’m not a hardcore fan – I know they’re out there, and they’re much more knowledgeable than I am about it. But, I am a fan. I enjoy going to [see horror films] - being scared, being surprised. I thought as far as remakes go, this wasn't the worst candidate only because it’s not something like The Wizard of Oz, where everyone knows it and loves it. This one is known and loved by certain people, yet there are others who have never heard of the original. So, I thought, well … [original director] Wes [Craven] is producing it himself, so there’s obviously things he wanted to do differently, or get another crack at. He chose a director very carefully, who has a real sensitive bullsh*t meter, and I trusted him immensely. And, we all worked so hard on it. It was a great group of actors that all had that thing that I was talking about before – where we all wanted to tell the same story the best that we could. There was no battle of egos on set, or one-upsmanship. So, I’m actually quite proud of the movie, and I think we’re very respectful of the original.”

As we rounded out our chat (and believe you-me, I'm fairly certain we could've kept talking for at least another three hours), I wanted to ask Garret about the Coen Brothers experience working on No Country for Old Men.

Is it what we all think it is?

Yes. And better.

Actor Garret Dillahunt of FOX's 'Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles'“I was there for about a month. I wish I could’ve been there more. Everyone sort of does the same impersonation of the Coens - and that’s very laid-back. You know, we’d do a scene, and they’d both come up in cowboy hats and sunglasses. They’d sort of kick stones [on the ground] and go, ‘Well, that seemed pretty good to me. Was it OK for you?’ And you’d go, ‘Yeah!’ And then they’d say, ‘You want to do another [take]?’ to which you would say ‘Sure!’ Then, they’d walk off, and we’d do another one,” he says with a laugh. "You know, we got the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] Award for best ensemble [cast in a motion picture], but we all joked that we really never worked with each other – or just barely. Tommy Lee [Jones] and I were in our story, Javier [Bardem] was in his, and Josh [Brolin] was in his. We very rarely crossed paths with each other on screen. But that's a testament, I think, to the Coens in that one of their strongest assets is their casting. They put the right people in the right job."

"I actually feel like I got to work with three directors [on that film] because Tommy Lee is a pretty good director in his own right. He would shout out things like, ‘Your toes are too far out!’ So, I’d of course put my toes in. He helped me out. And, there wasn’t anybody there that I didn’t trust – that’s for sure. It was really nice to be a part of [the film]. They certainly didn’t win those awards because of me, but at least I didn’t hurt it,” he jokes.

No, he definitely did not.

More like enhanced it.

Our great thanks to Garret for taking the time to chat with us here at PTR. We're hopeful hope we might chat again so that I can quiz him on whether he still remembers AP Style (heck, I don't). You can catch Garret on FOX's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which air Mondays at 8 p.m. He’s also slated to return to NBC’s Life this season as Russian mobster Roman Novikov. And, you will be able to catch Garret on the big screen in 2009 in the Cormac McCarthy-inspired The Road, and the Wes Craven produced The Last House on the Left remake.


John said...

Thanks for the two-part interview.

I am of two minds on whether I want Cromartie back. On the one hand he is a great villain - meaning he is good at his job and you need worthy opponents for our heroes to fight. Also Dillahunt does a great job with the role.

On the other hand, there is a tendency in SciFi shows for popular characters to never die. "Heroes" come to mind, but it is not unique to that show. If no one ever dies (or gets destroyed for a robot) then nothing is at risk or ever changes.

fanshawe said...

Great interview, thanks for posting it!

I doubt Dillahunt is permanently gone from TSCC. I've never seen writers have that much fun with a terminator before so I'm sure Friedman & co. have bigger plans for him. (An unholy cross between Cromartie and the fun loving Turk comes to mind.)

But yeah, keeping Cromartie around wouldn't have done much for the plausibility of the story. Which kinda sucks, since he had me at "I never sleep." :)