No Copping Out: An Interview with Jason Patric
December 20, 2002
by Dan Lybarger
Jason Patric is one actor who is often known more for his famous relatives and girlfriends than for his work.
Admittedly, when his family includes television great Jackie Gleason (his grandfather) or the late playwright-actor Jason Miller (his father and the star of The Exorcist), it's not surprising that his mesmerizing creepy performance as a misogynistic doctor in Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbors, which Patric also produced, might go overlooked.
He gained a lot of unwanted attention when he and Julia Roberts were an item, so it's no wonder he's often leery about becoming as famous the other members of his family tree.
Patric is known for being choosy about his projects (Speed 2: Cruise Control is a sad exception) and not terribly prolific, so he's managed to keep his profile comfortably low.
Nonetheless, when he does work, he effortlessly specializes in playing brooding characters who can never open up about their inner torments. He was a widowed farmer who reluctantly helps a slave escape from captivity in The Journey of August King and a survivor of child abuse in Sleepers. He gained early recognition as a teen who flirts with vampirism in The Lost Boys, but he gained serious critical attention as a punch-drunk boxer in After Dark, My Sweet and a drug addicted cop in Rush.
Patric is back behind the badge in the new police thriller Narc, which co-stars Ray Liotta. The two play a disgraced narcotics officer and a hot-tempered detective on the trail of the murderer of a fellow policeman.
What makes the film and Patric's performance so intriguing is that both vary from brutal to sensitive with unsettling ease. Narc was a hit at Sundance but became a bigger sensation when Tom Cruise agreed to back the small independent film for wider release through Paramount Pictures. Even before its release today in New York and Los Angeles, Narc has picked up accolades. It won the Special Prize of the Police at the Cognac Festival du Film Policier in Cognac, France and received nominations at Sundance and for the Independent Spirit Awards.
In Kansas City to promote the film last month, Patric seemed to be taking the recognition in stride. There was enough about the new film and his thoughts on it to make you forget for a moment about his famous forbearers.
Dan Lybarger: This is the second time you've played a cop. Is there anything you do to be convincing in the role?
Jason Patric: Different things. I don't know. I find that when actors talk about research, they're just patting themselves on the back. The cop genre is so timeworn and overdone. I like this movie because it was a way to use that framework to tell a really, really stripped down character story. You're playing a man who just happens to be a cop.
Some actors have made a career out of playing cops, some of our most respected ones.
I did Rush over 10 years ago when I was 24. I just grew a beard and looked older. That was a guy who was showing his spiraling descent, and it was a period piece.
(Narc) was just so totally different because the guy I played had a tragedy in his past and is now struggling with his past and things that haunted him. I just thought there was an irony in this guy chasing a ghost to absolve himself. In the end, that ghost really is himself.
I played a cavalry officer (in Geronomo). I played a boxer. I played some archetypical type roles, but I approach them as "what is the man, and what are the constraints of his life?"
DL: One of the most striking images from Narc is the shot of you holding the baby in the shower after the grisly opening shootout. It's quite a jolting change.
JP: That's what really interested me in the movie. It's not just a cop movie. The cop stuff is going to be great cop stuff, but the other stuff is about sensual, flawed searching men.
(Joe Carnahan) had it written into the script that I was in the shower with the baby, but what I thought would be more interesting was if we just did a close-up on my face in the shower and then if we went down and revealed the baby that would be a real movement for people and surprising. It was good.
DL: The cops in Narc are a remarkable contrast to the ones in Training Day, where Denzel Washington is pure evil, and Ethan Hawke was totally innocent.
JP: To me, Training Day was such a Hollywood movie; I didn't like it.
(In Narc), there's an interesting cat-and-mouse between the two of them. They're very perceptive guys at the top of their game. I think that's why the acting works because a lot of acting indicates what's going on.
For a second as an actor, I wanted to show the audience that I'm suspicious of Ray's character. I do a little bit of a look. The realism of that is that Ray's character as a detective is going to see that look on my face that I'm trying to show you guys. It's going to key him off.
So it's really important that the director is following very closely the subtle sort of maneuvering and the eye contact and the body language, unlike most movies where music plays, "Oh ah Oh." I'm suspicious of him, and I raise my shoulders like this. And if you're a detective, you'll ask, "Why is he raising his shoulders?"
In a good movie you can't really get away this because everybody acts like they're in a movie in (most) movies. That's why they stink. But if you do it the right way, and you have actors that can do it and a director who can understand it, there's this underlying tension that you're drawn into in the behavioral sense.
DL: To capture those kind of reactions, did you use two simultaneous cameras or another technique?
JP: Sometimes we used two cameras. It depended. With the opening chase, we tried different things and ultimately we gave (a camera) to a stuntman who wasn't a cameraman.
There was a screening for some cops, and the cops who've seen it have said that is exactly what a chase is like. You run through houses; people are yelling at you. You're discombobulated. You don't know where you're going.
They're not the angles you normally show with Ridley Scott and 20 cuts a second.
DL: I noticed that you really have to pay attention during this film because sometimes important details are revealed in a half-second cut. If you blink, you'll miss it.
JP: We're not going to key you in with music. We're not going to key you in with false reactions from the actors. We want that documentary behavioral feel, even in the flashbacks.
Most of the time when you have flashbacks in movies, they're arbitrarily cut in. They're usually there for information for the audience. But I told Joe way before we started filming, "Let's plan exactly where we want these flashbacks. Tell me what they're going to be, and I as the actor will bring you into them or take you out of them with my eyes or a subtle movement. Or we'll do it with the camera and myself together."
I think it becomes more of a synaptic flash as opposed to an informational one It's a subtle build that puts you subjectively in the scene with the character at the same time. It's a build that you are so connected to that it makes the movie very unique.
DL: The domestic scenes in Narc are not like most of the ones I've seen in other cop movies. His home life eventually crumbles, but we don't see that right away.
JP: Once again, why I liked the movie when I talked to Joe about it is that I want this movie to be successful on a lot of levels. You could be watching a Casavettes movie in all those home scenes. It doesn't have to be a cop movie.
When we have the baby, the baby's always in every shot. It's easier to establish the baby and then cut it out because it's hard to work with a baby.
We had that scene where I come home and my wife's on the bed. That baby's right there on the front of the bed, and that's one shot, like a five-minute scene. That's hard to do, but it gives you family life. It gives you something unique. They start to make love with the baby on the bed. I like that not only showing that side of him. It wasn't like cop family life, and he couldn't be comfortable unless he chased this ghost. Usually I find (movie) cop wives just an addendum as opposed to, "This is integral to this man."
(Shooting with the sleeping baby) was somewhat impossible. There's the bed there, and don't forget there are 15 guys here. And what happened whenever we worked with the baby is that the baby's fine with the mother. Everyone's quiet on the set, and then the baby sees the mother and starts crying because it wants to be with his mom.
That was one baby where we managed to have her rub his head, and we kept it literally only just like three people in the room—only people who absolutely had to be there. We were adamant, Joe and I, that the baby's going to be in the shot, in this long shot. He fell asleep, and we got it.
It's funny because Warren Beatty had seen the movie and tracked me and Carnahan down and kept talking about "how did you get that baby?" Because filmmakers know the difficulty with certain things that most people just take for granted.
DL: Wasn't Narc almost shut down in mid production?
JP: We were literally not getting paid at all. Vendors weren't being paid, and it was a struggle every day. It happens. There's a certain destiny. Eventually, I threatened to sue the pants off of them and got some money.
When I had a chance to see it all put together I think it has a chance to be more commercially accessible than I originally thought. I thought there would be a core audience because it's interesting. When you look at what Traffic did and the amount of money it made, this movie doesn't have to bow to Traffic in any capacity.
DL: In Narc, you also have to do some stunts like the opening chase, which looks rather demanding.
JP: It was exhausting. It was very tough because you want it to look like a guy who's going all out and is running for his life. At the same time, there has to be some type of protective control.
It's well over 300 yards in that run. I'm jumping over fences, garbage and ice. I'm scaling that wall and landing, and you do that all day. It's not just exhausting; it's dangerous. We pushed it toward the end of the movie because we knew it would be difficult.
DL: With the exception of Cary in Your Friends and Neighbors, you've tended to play characters who've had some haunting secret or burden.
JP: I just like guys who are dealing with some kind of primal struggle. I know I've been labeled as playing some dark characters, but I think that's because of the context of the culture in the movies. I never did anything that was darker than anything Pacino or DeNiro did within their heyday. Nothing. They were praised for that
Through the years, I've been given the "dark" tag because I wasn't doing the John Hughes movies or the Bruckheimer movies. But that's because movies changed. I didn't do it. Pacino's always played the suffering prince. I just find them interesting.
In something like Friends and Neighbors, it was difficult, but I also found it hilariously funny.
DL: I watched Your Friends and Neighbors last night, and it struck me that when I watched it in a theater it was disturbing. But when I watched it at home, I was laughing my head off. Have people told you that before?
JP: I think both that people in the theater were uncomfortable about laughing because there are other people sitting next to them who might not have found it funny. That was the idea. It was real black humor. People always say to me why do you play such dark roles and not do comedy. I say that was a great comedy.
I brought Neil out to Hollywood. I got a copy of In the Company of Men before it even had a distributor, so I pulled out and convinced everyone to make that movie. He's a smart guy, a very literate guy.
DL: I was listening to his commentary on the DVD of Your Friends and Neighbors.
JP: I've never heard it.
DL: It's interesting because he's describing how actors sometimes want a producer credit for merely showing up whereas you tend to be really active in the entire process. You had even negotiated with the artist whose painting is used in the titles and on the poster.
JP: It's like a vanity shingle. That's not very interesting to me. There's a lot of vanity you can get in Hollywood without being a producer. I put the whole thing together.
Those pictures from the Alex Katz painting. We put them together in a rough draft of the movie without any permission, and no one could get a hold of the guy. His galleries wouldn't get back to us. Finally, in New York, I just opened up the phone book, and there's two Alex Katzs.
I called the first one. He answered. I said, "Is this Alex Katz?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "The painter." He said, "Yeah." I said, "yada, yada, yaha." He said, "Hi, come on over." We showed him the video, and he got the whole feel for it.
I only work every couple of years. There's lots of movies I could have done through the last ten years where I think I might be good in the role and come out all right, make some money and get some kudos.
But I really try to look at the larger picture. I want to be in a really good movie, so I have to look at the scope and the scale of it and never look just at my character. What's the story, and how can I make that story in a different way? I always go from a story standpoint.
© 2002 Dan Lybarger
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