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A conversation with Xander Berkeley
By Jonathan Marlow
December 1, 2006 - 3:57 PM PST

"I "looked like an insect on acid from another dimension."

You've seen him repeatedly. Perhaps you have even acknowledged a certain familiarity with his face when it crosses the screen. But you've undoubtedly noticed him. Unless you pay attention to such things, you might not know his name. And yet he is one of the most talented actors working in Hollywood today. His chameleon-like abilities allow him to fully occupy a role, leaving unsuspecting viewers occasionally unaware that he's the same person from several other movies that they've enjoyed. The unsavory drug dealer in Sid & Nancy? Xander Berkeley. The pesky cab driver in Leaving Las Vegas? Berkeley again. The Secret Service man in Air Force One with questionable motives? Yet another exceptional Berkeley performance.

I first met Xander Berkeley in Park City a few years ago when he was at Sundance promoting the film
Human Error (then known as Below the Belt). His remarkable work in the film, along with the rest of the cast, represented the best ensemble acting that I saw at the festival. Considering some of the narrative films that generate attention there, I wasn't surprised when the film was hardly discussed and largely disappeared without theatrical or, to date, video distribution. I ran into Xander again in Austin earlier this year. More accurately, I followed him around a bar the second evening of SXSW. I'm not sure what he thought of this curious fellow trailing him through Buffalo Billiards but I wager he didn't expect me to question him about his portrayal of a magician in Pharaoh's Curse, an episode of the Twilight Zone.

Xander graciously spoke to me a few months later on his mother's birthday. The phone call was initially planned for twenty minutes and fortunately went on for three times that duration. We could've talked for another hour or two.

I suspect that you had a bit of experience in your youth acting for the stage. Honestly, I know that you did because I've read about it. At what point did you decide to pursue acting as a vocation?

The inclination started pretty early with me. I seemed not to have much interest in toys as a very young child. I was more into costumes. Since my mother sewed, I was able to live out these different characters but it wasn't about performing. It was about transforming and going off into the woods and becoming a character from another time and place. That was the thing that I found transportive. The lapse was not too long because I did school plays here and there along the way, along with exposure to a community theater [Black River Playhouse] out in New Jersey, where I was growing up. A friend's father was the artistic director and, when I was 14, I was lured into building sets during the summer.

Just being in the theater, it kind of made it clear. I auditioned for their next play and I got it. It was just a really good "outside of New York" community theater, in that a lot of people that had been in on the stage in New York had since retired to that area. There was a good influence on a lot of levels with the quality of the theater and the kinds of plays that we were doing. And then there was an experimental theater group that was connected to the community theater but did a little bit of traveling around. It was like joining the circus, in a way.

Throughout my high school years, I would do the school plays but it was more this company that was at another level altogether. When it was time for college, I went to a progressive liberal arts school, Hampshire College, which was initially the brainchild of the presidents of Smith and Mount Holyoke and Amherst along with UMASS. You could take classes or do plays at any one of the different schools in the area. I went there with the intention of getting a solid, rounded liberal arts education but, by the first year, it was already clear that I was going hell-bent in the direction of theater and art, since I've been a painter and a sculptor all along as well.

That I was going to use acting as a clear path towards earning a living was, to answer your question in a fairly long-winded way, at about the age of 18. It was pretty clear that I was going to pursue acting for a living and, when I left college, I went straight to New York.

Was there anyone else you were working with at that time that also continued acting?

Oddly enough, a play that I did at Mount Holyoke was Twelfth Night, where I played Malvolio. A friend of mine from high school and his older sister came to see the play and they brought along her boyfriend, David Strathairn. David immediately got me set up to play all of the juvenile male roles in the summer theater [the Eastern Slope Playhouse] that they were doing in [North Conway] New Hampshire. John Sayles, David Strathairn and Gordon Clapp, and even interns like Geena Davis and Chris Elliott were all there at the same time. David, Gordon, Adam LeFevre and all of these people went with John Sayles when he started making movies with Return of the Secaucus 7, but by that time I had already moved out to California. It's just one of those things when a confluence of people at one place, at one time, all go on to do great work afterwards and are successful at it.

How were you cast in your first film role as Christopher Crawford in Mommy Dearest?

I had been in New York, doing theater and studying with lots of different people and getting a taste of lots of different techniques and methods of working. It was just sort of a crash course for about four or five years and then I went to Los Angeles. I had an agent that came to see me in a play by Reynolds Price, a southern novelist who wrote Early Dark, one of the best plays that I've ever done. There was a lot of attention. I got a good review in the New York Times and a lot of agents came.

This agent had just gone with William Morris and got me to join him when he moved from the east coast to the west coast office. Through an introduction that he made in that initial burst of meetings with Lynn Stalmaster, who is one of the great casting directors, I was cast in Mommy Dearest not too long after that. They called me into a meeting with [director] Frank Perry and they gave me the role before I left the office. I remember walking by the big sky mural on the Paramount lot and feeling like I was floating and leaping bounds because they had given me the script and it was my birthday.

Basically, I did a scene that they never shot. The whole thing was a debacle - Faye [Dunaway] devouring the scenery and Frank Perry's wife dying in the course of filming. They went way over budget and over time and so they did short-shrift on the scene where Christopher breaks down when he sees his mother. He's never said, "Goodbye," or "I love you," or "I hate you," or anything at all, and suddenly all of this unresolved angst just poured out. That was the scene I auditioned with and they just handed me the script and said, "This is your part." I waited five months to shoot it and all hell broke loose for them in the meantime. I knew nothing about it.

Tom Hanks tells this story on occasion at a few of the lectures he's given about how brutal the business can be, because we did Volunteers together not long after. The day I arrived, after having shot the scene in the lawyer's office first, which is the last scene of the movie, we shot the funeral scene. I had spent five months waiting for my big nervous breakdown, losing it all. Waiting seven hours in the funeral home, having just lost my grandmother, who was very much a Joan Crawford kind of character in her way, and all the unresolved feelings I had being on the west coast because she was on the east when she passed. You know, in the theater, you show up and you go to work. You're an hour ahead, you get your make-up on, you get everything together and the audience comes in and you do your thing. They didn't consider the seven hours but I show up to the set a wreck, shaking, waiting for my moment and he says, "Okay, Christina [Crawford]'s going to come out from there looking at the body." I said, "When do I go?" And he said, "Oh, that's a scrub."

That was like, at the time, being run over by a truck and being gang-banged by the Hell's Angels all at once. And I didn't even know the cameras were on me in a wide-shot and I was so freaked out and pissed off and so upset with this disproportionate emotion going, I immediately freaked out when I saw it because I thought that I looked like an insect on acid from another dimension. It was also my first time seeing the translation from stage to film. I'd done about 70 plays at that point, having been onstage nonstop for ten years. Then, suddenly, I was in front of the camera. It was all new to me. But I went immediately into episodic television as a way of preparing myself to work with cameras.

And did that work?

I think it did. I mean, 97 movies later or whatever it is. I seemed to have gotten the knack of it enough to keep working!

I don't want to talk about every film because that would take until tomorrow. But I did want to discuss your next feature, Nick Castle's directorial debut, Tag: The Assasination Game. Is it sometimes difficult working with a first-time director?

What is difficult being with a first-time director is that they can be very uncertain about their decisions. I was up for the lead bad guy in that film for about seven call-backs at the old Zoetrope studios with Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson. They have a great book that's coming out, A Star is Found. They've cast me in a million things and a number of the cornerstones of my career are the movies that they've cast. Back then, they were with Zoetrope and Coppola over there and it was so exciting just to be on that lot at the time. I kind of didn't mind the seven call-backs. But I knew how excessive it was and felt that whoever they did cast in that role, they ended up basically directing him to do everything I had done in the seven auditions. But he had dark hair and dark eyes and that's what they wanted. Nick Castle threw me a bone and put me in there [as Connally] so that was a rough ride. I've run into Nick and we've almost worked together a few other times. I like him and think that he's got the right idea. He had his "French New Wave" cinematographer [Willy Kurant], so he was all excited about giving the film a particular feel and look. It was fun.

I quite like the film.

Yeah, I do, too. I'm just always riddled with the sense of, "Argh, why didn't they use me?"

You mentioned earlier about the whole "hurry up and wait" situation doing feature films versus the stage. Is there a sense of that as well when you're working on television?

They just don't have time to wait unless the shoot gets postponed by weather or some other unpredictable turn of events. With television, they've just got to fly to get the same amount of material. You're doing in eight days what would normally take you a month and a half in a film. So that's proportionally how much faster everything moves.

next >>>

"I "looked like an insect on acid from another dimension."
"It's amazing how often wardrobe is the thing."
"I found a way to counterpoint whatever Jack's renegade qualities were."
"You get to define your character by contrast to the others."

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Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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