Xander Berkeley the (bad) boy next door with 'calculated nonchalance'
Xander Berkeley, star of The Walking Dead, Air Force One and 24, talks to us about his prolific career, the shock of seeing himself on screen for the first time, using 'bad guys' to hone his craft and his subsequent efforts to defy villainous expectations, plus the responsibility of actors that comes with experience.
Xander Berkeley may be the most prolific screen actor I've had the pleasure to interview. With 241 credits (and counting) to his name, he's worked with directors such as Michael Mann, James Cameron, Stephen Frears, Alex Cox, Wolfgang Petersen, Clint Eastwood, Rob Reiner, Harold Ramis, Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg... the list goes on.
He's known more readily here in the UK as cowardly Gregory in The Walking Dead, the heroic George Mason in 24, Candyman's Trevor Lyle and, of course, the kebabbed foster father Todd Voight in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. However, such is the prolificacy of his on-screen career, I open our chat by asking if it's possible for him to channel surf now without landing on his own face sooner or later.
"Well, yes, sooner or later I will land on a movie or show I was in, but I won't always have the patience to wait around for younger me to show up. Just as I'll see friends who I haven't seen since worked with them 20 or 30 years ago and think, 'Oh, the merciless ravages of time are having their way with them too [chuckles]'."
Making a name for himself in the 80's and 90's playing largely nefarious characters, the man himself couldn't be more warm, welcoming or good-humoured. Despite his expansive screen career, Berkeley's acting beginnings were rooted firmly in theatre, very much encouraged by his artist father. So seeing himself on screen for the first time was a shock.
"I was on stage pretty much non-stop from the time I was 15 until I was 25, and then from 25 on I've been pretty much non-stop on camera. I think it was my dear old friend Bill Paxton who told me 'The theatre is interested in what you can show with your voice and body, but film is really only interested in who you are, in Being'. I would calibrate that observation slightly, because film is still a visual medium. There is still a frame that needs to be filled and a story that needs to be told visually, as well as 'What am I feeling?', but there's definitely a transition from stage to screen.
"For me, the very first film I did was Mommie Dearest, and I was horrified when I first saw myself on camera. I looked like an insect on an LSD from another dimension. On stage, I had played all the sweet young things, the juveniles and the love interest. I thought, 'How did they ever see you that way? You're just weird'. I had to get used to my face, and my voice. I was also a little larger than life, terribly expressive and animated. I thought, 'Maybe, if you're playing a professor, or a lawyer, or something, you can use some stagecraft and be more yourself, otherwise, you really have to use a great deal of restraint'."
"I told my agent at the time, 'I want to get used to the cameras. Isn't episodic television almost getting paid to go to school?' I wanted to play different characters, but I targeted bad guys. If you can land the bad guy role, there's a different bad guy in every show, every week. They're disposable. I just didn't know they'd still be around 40 years later to haunt me [laughs]."
Berkeley then recalls the stress of getting to three auditions a day, changing outfits and running lines for each one, while trying not to hit anything with his car in the blazing LA heat. Added to that, using his own stage make-up skills to give extra elements to each character, always wary of that make-up running in the sweaty foot-race to get to the audition on time.
"Those are the post-traumatic stresses that I'm still recovering from [laughs]. I would break capillaries, decay my teeth, stuff like that for the bad guys I was going up for. I would try to see how far I could go and have it be believable, but for a long time I continued to err on the side of caution. I kept it really minimal because I didn't want to be caught with my pants down and be overacting. Then that learning just slowly built up. You'd watch, you'd study, you'd get a little paycheck, and then you'd go again. You gained confidence and familiarity with the imposing machinery in your face, and that sense that the minute the red light of recording goes on, it's going out to millions of eyes that will judge you [laughter]."
The hustle required of actors to make their mark is well known. After landing roles in series after series, film after film, I ask him if he remembers the point he went from an actor chasing a dream, to one that would have a successful and long-lasting career.
"Well, I think that moment happened because I visualised it before it had. In the very beginning, I would end up in audition rooms with all these really handsome cowboy types, and think, 'Well, I don't fit in here'. Then in the next room there'd be older guys with bow ties and glasses. 'I don't really fit in this one, either'. At one point, I remember someone said, 'Xandy, do you know what? We're in this category; offbeat, left of centre'. I rather liked the sound of that. If you have idiosyncrasies or eccentricities that don't really fit into any particular box, in being true to yourself, you're bringing an element of those to each of the roles you play. Maybe you're suppressing them in some roles and enhancing them in others, but it's a part of who you are.
"I remember so clearly at Paramount, going in on this somewhat cheesy show. It was fun, because I got to fight with Patrick Swayze with a blow-torch. He's a ballet dancer and an athlete and I've done a lot of stage combat, we did all our own stunts and burned each other's faces off. It was a good action shot. Well, anyway, in the audition for that part, I remember my heart racing, and suddenly thinking, 'Wait. No one can do this part any better than me. Why don't I just make their (the casting director's and producer's) lives a little easier and show them?'.
"This was the artifice I then carried in to every audition. I ended up describing it as a 'calculated nonchalance', predicated on the idea these poor people in there have a tough job. They've got to choose between all these actors. They're probably nervous and insecure about making the wrong choice, so I'm going to go in and put their minds at ease by giving them that, and because I know that they're smart, they'll cast me [laughs]. You have that little trick of the mind, and it put me into the place you were asking me about, ahead of time, because then it started to happen."
Berkeley asserts that in addition to feeling comfortable in the character's skin, it's important to show the transformation from yourself to a character in front of the casting team. They might be looking to cast a psycho, but they're not looking to hire a psycho.
"Yes, I made the mistake of doing the other for a long time, which really got me pegged as a bad guy! I heard somewhere along the way back in New York, that out there in LA, they're not going to cast you unless they see it walk in the door. They have no imagination out there. There were all sorts of things that the theatre elite would use as their, I think, armour. That there wasn't as much an understanding or appreciation of the craft of acting and transformation, that they'll just wait for it to walk in the door and then they don't have to worry about the acting part.
"When it came to a lot of the early roles for psychos, addicts and disturbing people, I had the technique, and with a little help of the makeup, and just manipulating your energy in a particular way. I would sit in my car listening to David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. They sampled a whole bunch of crazy shit and then they made music and loops on top of it. I just remember sitting in the car thinking, 'I am now out of my mind'.
"Then keeping in that energy field, I'd walk into the office. People would step back a little bit and say, 'Hi. Nice to meet you'. Then I'd just look at them until they would say, 'Would you like to read the scene?' I would just nod and then start reading because I didn't want to lose what I had going on. They would cast me, but with a degree of trepidation [laughs]. All the casting directors were all friends, so they end up talking, 'Yes. He's psycho. He plays it well because he is a really disturbing person. We only use him because he shows up on time, he has his lines down, and he does interesting things on camera'. That kept me paid for years [laughs]."
His turn as George Mason in the TV series 24, was a turning point both for him as an actor, and for audiences accustomed to seeing him in dastardly roles. It was a preconception utilised by the producers of a show in which so many characters end up not being what they seem. In this case, Berkeley would play a true hero, a twist that arguably contributed to how strongly audiences connected with his character.
"Absolutely. I think that's absolutely true. I tried for a while after 24 to just say no to bad guys so that I could undergo a transformation and a redemption in the collective unconscious of the audience who didn't even know my name, or necessarily, but they would expect when they saw my face for something bad to happen. I really did try to shake that at one point. I remember my mother, who was a Texan, saying, 'Honey, I just see you as such a sweet boy, but they just have you pegged for a weirdo out there [laughs]'."
"However, in trying to dodge the expectation of playing villains, I just wasn't getting any work. I was turning down an awful lot of fun bad guys to take a sci-fi movie in Bulgaria just to play the hero. Then you're dealing with a bunch of questionable elements in terms of production, so I had to choose, even if it wasn't one of the major roles in a film, I'd try to work with great directors who would also bring with them great cinematographers, production designers, editors, all of whom help make you look good. There's a rift when you go from the A-list to the B-list just because you're trying to satisfy some sort of need to be the good guy.
"It was around that time the casting director Mali Finn, one of my favourite people who sadly died too soon, who cast me in Terminator 2 and in North Country, said, 'Well, Xander, let's face it, you're never going to play the nice guy next door. You just got that lean and hungry look about you'. I think if you have a little bit of mystery, of something else going on, people don't know quite what it is, and oftentimes there's fear of the unknown, so it's translated that way. Where I was able to make a transition was not so much in playing good guys, but in playing ones who would upset your expectation and who would be mysterious."
Thinking about the many characters he has been able to play, a few spring to mind when asked which have been the most satisfying to portray. One of which, is The Man in the web-then-Hulu series The Booth at the End, playing a mysterious figure changing people's lives from the back of a diner by assigning them tasks from a mysterious book.
"In The Booth at the End you can't tell if he's God or the Devil. An angel who's fallen is kind of the image I went with. People have been told he can make things happen if they complete a task, but he always assigns one that's invariably out of character to the person asking. He's taking a compass on human morality to see how far people are willing to go to get what they want. It's a brilliant, fascinating, Faustian concept that Christopher Kubasik came up with and we had a great deal of fun playing with both seasons."
"I did Nikita, which drew on elements of the espionage world that I had portrayed in Air Force One and then in obviously in 24 with George Mason, and even though I went back to being malevolent or dark in Nikita, there was still a lot of fun I had playing that part.
"Then I did a lot of independent movies playing a lot of good, fun characters that people haven't really seen, but it's hard. When I was doing movies like Sid and Nancy and The Fabulous Baker Boys, they were still pretty good budgets for those little indie films. They went from being $6,000,000 movies to being $500,000, $200,000, $100,000 and I did a bunch of them. There's one that got some attention called The Maestro. It had severe limitations, budgetary and otherwise, but the character was just super fun and such a good man that it lifted my heart to finally get to play that guy [laughter]."
Despite his desire to explore as many characters as possible, the demand for his talents playing a certain type leads to offers too good to refuse. However, those offers afford him the opportunity to take on more unique roles in indie films such as The Maestro, but also short films too.
"Yes, absolutely. I like the format. I like going to short film festivals and to film festivals and just watching a bunch of shorts. I think they're in keeping with today's attention span. [chuckles]. There's something satisfying about just a nice beginning, middle, and end. Boom, not a lot of fat on the bone. I'm a fan of the format and a lot of times, it's a way of working with friends without having to tie yourself up for too long, and just keep honing your craft.
"Just like with bad guy roles I did on episodic television, it's a way to keep looking and studying what you do, how you manifest in different characters, and how you can keep celebrating it and honing it. I really feel like I've had such a good time with all the directors from wise old men to smart young kids, I feel like I can learn from either. I think in great artists there's a never-ending quest to learn and improve."
While he says it's important that new directors make sure they communicate what's needed from the actor to fulfil their vision, it's equally vital they are open to input from the performers who are delivering the lines. In that sense, he marks one key difference between playwrights and screenwriters; that without the robust rehearsal process in theatre, it won't always be clear how a scene will play on screen until the day the actors arrive on set.
"I think it was Sid and Nancy that really made it official for me. Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb and I had a few conversations before we started working. They shot it pretty much in chronological sequence. When it came to the drug dealer scenes in New York, they were in bad shape. What was written in the script was that they're bossing their dealer around, and that wasn't feeling right and authentic to them. I had just finished reading William S. Burroughs' book Junkie, and he validated their point of view completely saying it doesn't matter how famous or wealthy the junkie is, they are at the mercy of, and invariably bow down to, the drug dealer because of their addiction.
"It was a total power shift from what was in the script. The director Alex Cox was smart and open, we rehearsed the night before the scenes we were to shoot the following day. We would take what needed to be kept and hit those plot points, while adapting the way we needed to in order to take who they had become into account, and who I was to be.
"Being able to rework and massage dialogue, and being confident enough, and always saying, 'I'll defer to you, but I felt obliged to let you know that I was having a little bit of trouble getting these words out, here are some alternatives that I'd love to run by you'. I also had to learn you don't do that in public. Do it in private, lest their egos get hurt, or you incentivize others to start getting free and easy with the script."
I ask Berkeley what advice would he go back and give his younger self, knowing what he knows now about the industry, the craft and himself too.
"Well, I'm fixed on this thought that we were just talking about, so it's going to come out in the answer. I'm not too frustrated with the way things have gone because I do think you have to log the 10,000 hours in a way of discipline to make other people's words work as an actor to sell it. Have the respect to know writers worked on this for months and I'm not just going to change it because 'blah, blah'. No, I'm going to work my ass off to make this work. Only if something keeps coming up will I share with them that something is amiss, and I'll do it in a polite and diplomatic manner.
"That came from working on films more than TV, because there is a committee on TV, and film is a non-tourist medium, so the director has the freedom to ask, 'Does that work? Are we believing this? What would someone really say in that situation?' That, I have to say, came into 24 to a great extent because Kiefer Sutherland was a film guy, I was a film guy. We would do that in the beginning. The show started filming and airing right at 9/11, and there were so many parallels that were uncomfortably close we had to alter things at the very last minute. There's a collaborative trust that's relied on for that, whereas on other shows they want to hear their exact words, and they will freak out if you give different dialogue.