I spoke with Bruce Greenwood both for GrouchoReviews and the Celluloid Dreams radio program. What follows is the complete transcript of the interview, conducted by telephone.
Groucho: Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood made a name for himself in the states when he won the role of Dr. Seth Griffin on NBC’s St. Elsewhere. Since then you’ve seen him in films as diverse as Wild Orchid, Below, I, Robot, Being Julia, Racing Stripes, Déjà Vu, and The Republic of Love, which he executive produced. Greenwood appeared in Capote and I’m Not There, and Canadian filmmaker Adam Egoyan used him to great effect in Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat. Greenwood played John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days and “The President” in National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Though it doesn’t get much more iconic than that, Greenwood came mighty close when he played Captain Christopher Pike in last year’s cinematic revival of Star Trek. This year he voiced Batman in the home video feature Batman: Under the Red Hood and for the upcoming animated series Young Justice. TV appearances include The Larry Sanders Show, The Magnificent Ambersons, and leading roles in Nowhere Man and HBO’s John in Cincinnati. Currently he’s appearing in two films: Dinner For Schmucks, as the host of the dinner, and Mao’s Last Dancer, the Bruce Beresford film in which he plays Ben Stevenson, longtime artistic director of the Houston Ballet. Bruce Greenwood, welcome to Celluloid Dreams.
Bruce Greenwood: I’m exhausted!
Groucho: (Laughs.) After all that…
Bruce Greenwood: That was just like going straight to IMDB and reading off every damn thing I’ve ever done!
G: (Laughs.) Right, right, right, right. Well, you have an impressive resume.
BG: Unbelievable. Just makes me feel like I’m a thousand years old.
BG: Yeah, no, we’re doing this—promoting this movie called Mao’s Last Dancer that's just a beautiful journey back in time.
G: Well, after that long list of credits, we are going to get to Mao’s Last Dancer very shortly, but I want to start by talking about something on your resume that I didn’t mention, which is your musicianship. You write songs and you play guitar and sing.
BG: Yes. I’m a relentless hobbyist.
G: And you put out a song not long ago people can get online called “My Best Friend,” right?
BG: Yeah, well, I was shooting a movie of the week for CBS for the Hallmark—a Hallmark movie. I was just kind of fooling around in my trailer, messing around with some chords, and the director said, “Wait, whoa, what is that?” And I go, “Well, I don’t know. It’s kind of a—I’m kind of thinking it might be about this movie.” And he goes, “Well, I like it. If you finish it, we’ll use it.” So I finished it, and they used it in the credits, and then they released it. They put it on iTunes.
G: Yeah, it’s very cool. I actually first took notice of you in the TV biopic of The Beach Boys, which was called Summer Dreams, and you played Dennis Wilson. And in that you briefly sing what sounds like a Dennis Wilson knockoff tune, and the rumor is that you wrote that as well. Is that true?
BG: I think that’s an unfounded rumor. I don’t remember writing that. I mean, I might have, you know, tinkled away on the piano or something, and done something semi-original, but no. I think that was probably written by the guy who did the music.
G: Hm. Speaking of that film, did you ever feel any heat from playing a well-known figure in the entertainment industry so early in your career?
BG: No, not really. You know, there are always people who are going to say you didn’t get it right or it wasn’t quite that way, but in general—you know, I don’t think you necessarily feel the heat. There might have been a negative result that I was unaware of. You know, in some other room across town, somebody might have said, “I hate the way he played Dennis Wilson! I’m not going to hire him.” You know? But you never find out about that stuff.
G: Uh-huh. Well, now you’re playing another real life character, Ben Stevenson. Did you have the opportunity to meet him, or anyone who knows him?
BG: I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Ben himself until a couple of weeks ago. Which was really nerve-racking 'cause the movie had already been finished, of course. But I did get a chance—I spent a couple of months, three months doing ballet classes. Which I’d never done before. Which is just an ass-kicking workout. And then I met a couple of dancers that had danced under him and interviewed them, and spent the evening sort of drinking wine and listening to their stories, so—and I had some film of Ben. So I had quite a lot to go on.
G: The role calls for an English accent. So you have nice plummy tones in the film.
BG: Have you seen the movie?
G: I have.
BG: Yeah, so. (Demonstrating:) But it’s not low like that at all. You know, cause his voice is very high.
G: Oh, yeah.
G: It sort of reminded me of James Mason, a little bit.
BG: Oh! (Slurring a Mason impression:) "James Mason?! What's that supposed to be...? Talking like that."
BG: "James"—that’s not quite. That’s a terrible—never mind.
G: Just a hint of James Mason. Anyway—
BG: That was a terrible James Mason impression. I used to do a James Mason when I was a kid.
G: (Laughs.) So how did you go about shaping up for this dialect? Is it one you’re familiar with?
BG: Well, not entirely because it’s a bit of a mélange. He’s from the South of England, from Portsmouth, so the "r"s are harder down there. Then he’d been—by the time this story takes place, he’d been in the states for fifteen years. So there was a lot of sort of American pronunciation had filtered into his speech, so it’s a bit of a sort of a dog’s breakfast of an accent, but on purpose. (Laughs.)
G: Yeah. Well, Mao’s Last Dancer is an ensemble film, but people should know that you have a major role and appear throughout. Your character is to Li Cunxin a talent scout, choreographer, cultural ambassador, and friend. And, you know, that warmth and openness that we see through most of the film gets kind of shaded later on when Li develops his own will and sort of threatens your plans. What to you was the key to understanding his character?
BG: To understanding Ben’s character?
BG: The key to me was the conversation I had with two of his dancers, in which we spent—as I mentioned, we spent an evening sort of drinking wine and me listening to them tell stories. And a lot of the stories were, you know, kind of—sort of, somewhat off-color. And, you know, crazy. Ben did this and Ben did that. And he was fantastic, but a nut. But incredibly, incredibly gregarious. And people really loved him. And so I got a full spectrum of all the things that were wonderful about him and then a bunch of the things that were maybe not so wonderful. Which was great. And then, you know, we’d had a couple glasses of wine, and then I took them into my little recording studio, and I'd put together for myself a little reference reel of some of the footage I had of Ben, in the old days. And both these dancers, who had been kind of laughing it up all night—you know, in a good-natured way, but still laughing it up—sat there in front of the monitor and with tears just streaming down their faces watched this old footage of Ben. And to me, they were so clearly so full of love and respect for him, and missed him, that that was the most, sort of, profound shot of information that I got in a short period, you know?
G: Yeah. That does come across in the film: that he commands respect. Not in an intimidating way, but just through his commitment, I guess.
BG: Well, he inspires respect, yeah.
G: Yeah. Unless I’m misreading it Stevenson’s mannerisms in the film imply that he’s gay, and despite living in Texas in the eighties, you know, he doesn’t seem troubled at all. Did this play into your understanding of the character?
BG: Well, you know, it’s not a gay thing; it’s just—at all. It’s just, you know, after three months of taking ballet lessons and being really free with the way you express yourself, you know, it just didn’t—it's not—it was just—it was a non-issue. I know several—a couple very specific dancers that are straight that you would swear to God are like, y'know, full-on camp kind of—you’d think it was just like, “Oh God! Well, for sure they’re gay.” But they’re not. So, you know, and I’ve been asked this question a couple times, and it’s just not something I gave any thought to—that I wanted to focus on. I just focused on—you know, 'cause I had some of this footage of the way he moved, and I also had the benefit of seeing other dancers, who happened to be straight, move in a very similar way. So I wasn’t worried that people were going to go, “Oh, you’re doing like a fey thing. What is that?” Cause it’s not—that’s really not what it was.
G: Um-hm. You know, it’s an interesting coincidence that you played another real life figure who had been a ballet dancer, though I presume you didn’t have to train for Capote. (Laughs.)
BG: (Chuckles.) Yeah!
G: But what was your experience of working with Philip Seymour Hoffman on that film, in an unusually intimate capacity?
BG: He’s a very focused guy. He’s a tremendously focused guy and extremely articulate, in an emotional sense. And he and [director] Bennett [Miller] could discuss for half an hour sort of five layers of subtext in a scene, and I found myself thinking, "There’s no way you’re going to be able to make that clear to the audience. I mean, I get it on an intellectual level, all the stuff you’re discussing, but there’s no way you’re going to pull it off." And then the camera would roll, and I’d just sort of stand there with my jaw on the floor going, “Holy smokes, you got that going on!”
G: Acting has been your ticket around the world, and this picture, for example, took you to China and Australia.
BG: Ticket, yeah.
G: Yeah. And I know you’ve worked in South Africa and around Europe a bit. What has been the most memorable place you’ve gotten to work?
BG: I’ve been to a lot of great places, but I would say fifteen thousand feet in the mountains of Pakistan.
G: Wow, yeah. What film was that on?
BG: That was a movie called The Climb.
G: Oh, The Climb!
G: You’ve mentioned, I think, in interviews before that you had some sort of "lost in translation" moments in China because there’s not a lot of English spoken in there. Did you find it, you know, sort of difficult to get by with the language barrier?
BG: I mean, it’s incredibly difficult, but at the same time, in a way, it’s really energizing, because you find yourself really looking at people carefully, and miming everything. And you’re in a—it’s kind of ironic, with people you have not a syllable in common with, you end up really working hard to connect. And it’s fun. And engaging, and people respond. So, I mean, in many ways, you don’t need language. Unless you're looking for directions, and then you’re just in big trouble.
G: Well, you’re currently appearing in Dinner For Schmucks as one of the biggest a-holes imaginable. Is it a delight to play someone that horrible, or do you find yourself wanting to take a shower after every take?
BG: (Laughs.) Well, no, most of the time we were just laughing so hard that—you know, I just watched as Steve and Paul do their thing, and I was just laughing my head off. In terms of playing—I’ve played a handful of, y'know, unctuous pricks now, so— (Laughs.) Maybe I’m kind of used to it. Maybe I should shower more often.
G: (Laughs.) Those guys do a lot of improv. You probably had to parry with them quite a bit. Are you comfortable doing improv?
BG: I enjoy it, yeah! And Jay Roach creates this environment where it’s okay if it doesn’t work. "Nobody’s getting hurt, y'know? We’ll just keep on going." And so you—it kind of relaxes you.
G: You’re also playing an important role in the revitalized Star Trek, one that lives large in the minds of fans. What did you decide for yourself about who this character Christopher Pike is?
BG: Well, I had the luxury of it being a parallel—sort of a parallel universe, so—
BG: He had very different challenges than the original Pike. You know, the original Pike had this—he was desperately ambivalent about his station and whether he wanted to remain or go home, and my Pike didn’t have that dilemma at all, so I was blessed in that I didn’t have to wrestle with the very same things that he had to wrestle with. So, y'know, repetition and copying wasn’t going to be a problem.
G: Yeah. He was more of—he's really sort of the moral center of this new film, isn’t he?
BG: Of the new film?
BG: You could make an argument for that, yeah.
G: I mean, he sets the moral standard for these young Turks.
BG: Yeah, that they ignore.
G: (Laughs.) Right. I take your point. It’s the kind of franchise that once you’ve done one, it stays with you forever, and I know you recently did the big Vegas con, what was that like?
BG: Well no, I was supposed to do the Vegas con—
BG: But I was stuck—I got stuck in Mexico.
G: Ahhh, all right.
BG: Um, yeah, I did Comic-Con a few weeks ago, but the Vegas thing, I was bummed not to be able to get to, but I was stuck shooting in Mexico.
G: I see. Well, what about Comic-Con then? Meeting the fans in a setting like that, what is that like?
BG: Crazy. It’s just like—well, I’ve never seen anything like it. The excitement and the—yeah, it was really, really fun. Just seeing the hoards of people, you know.
BG: All dressed up and all in good humor, you know. Everybody takes it with a—you know, they're serious as can be, but at the same time there’s a—everybody is—really enjoys it.
G: Yeah. Well, you’re now a go-to guy for DC animated voice director Andrea Romano. And I’ve seen all of these DC animated features, and I have to say I think Batman: Under the Red Hood is the best one.
BG: I think it’s pretty strong, too, yeah. The filmmaking is just tremendous. I mean, the visuals. I thought the visuals were mind-blowing.
G: Yeah. What had been your experience with the character of Batman prior to taking on the role?
BG: None at all.
G: You hadn’t ever seen the sixties series even, or something like that? Or the films?
BG: Well, yeah, but—sure. I mean like—yeah, I had, but my—I wasn’t really allowed to watch it because my parents felt it was too violent.
G: Mm. All those “Bap!”s and “Pow!”s, huh?
BG: All those “Bam!”s, those “Biffs!”
BG: Those “Ka-pow!”s—
BG: They felt were too violent, so I had to sneak off to a friend’s house to watch it. So I didn’t really have much experience with Batman. I wasn’t—and Kevin Conroy, of course, who’s by all accounts the definitive animated Batman, I didn’t have a chance to hear, so—
G: So the text of the script was really what was—I mean, ultimately that’s going to be the most important thing anyway, but you really—
BG: Yeah, so I just approached it as I would anything else. You know? I had a sense of what was required in that particular script and then left it to Andrea Romano to guide me.
G: And how did you sort of find the voice? I would think there’s not much time budgeted in voice-over for trial and error, so you have to sort of come in with a plan, right?
BG: Yeah, I came in with a plan, and then Andrea would go, “Okay. Yeah. A little sharper. A little more leather. A little less leather. Oh, okay, now we’ve found a tone; now let’s get the intentions. Okay, he’s more guilt-ridden than that.” You know, so we sort of looked at it first in terms of timbre and then next in terms of emotional content.
G: Now, you’ve noted recently that you haven’t played that many heroes, relatively speaking. And, of course, lately, you’ve played a couple of iconic ones. It seems to me in this age of reboots, someone might get the idea of doing a remake of Nowhere Man.
G: In which case someone else might well play a character that you established.
BG: Well, you know the weird thing is I was growing my hair to do a movie this summer that suddenly fell apart, but at the—you know, midway through the summer, I looked at myself and I went, “Jesus. I just look—I look exactly like Thomas Veil!”
BG: What's happened? I mean, ten years have gone by, but I just looked like the same cat with that long hair and the—
BG: So if they want to reboot Nowhere Man, they better call me first.
G: They better call you, yeah. (Laughs.) As an actor, every failed audition is, in a way, an open door to the next part that you’ll land, I think. And given how well your career has gone, I would guess you have few regrets, but is there a role that got away that still nags you?
BG: Oh yeah, there’s a couple! Oh, of course, yeah. That I came desperately close to and, by all accounts—by my own accounts, anyway—should have landed, but they went to other people who have since gone on to have quite magnificent careers.
G: Well, You’ve had a pretty magnificent career, I’d say.
BG: No, I've—yeah, I’ve been pretty fortunate.
G: Well, I think I’m supposed to wrap up here shortly. So, since you studied economics in college, and you’ve played the President twice—
BG: You’d think I could manage my own finances better, but the answer is no, I can’t.
G: (Laughs.) But my last question for you, Bruce Greenwood, is: can you save us?
BG: (Purring dramatically:) Of course I can save you.
G: (Laughs.) America needs you.
BG: Well, don’t be absurd. We’ve just all got to pitch in.
G: Yeah, yeah. Well—
BG: Yeah, I wish—wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple?
BG: It'd be nice if, y'know, the guy everyone pins their hopes on could actually do it himself, but he can’t do it alone.
G: Wise words from a wise man.
G: Thank you for talking to us.
BG: You bet. It was fun.