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INT: Ray Wise

08.15.2003by: The Arrow

The Arrow interviews Ray Wise

Thanks to the the 2003 Fantasia Film Festival, I had the opportunity to have sit down with Ray Wise at his hotel. Ray has an incredible amount of screen credits to his name, but it's his role as Leland Palmer, Laura's nutty father on "Twin Peaks" that made him a star. For me, it was quite an honor to meet Mr. Wise, since I was (and still am) a huge Twin Peaks fan and the character of Leland had always been one of my all-time favorites. Ray was in town to push two films playing at the Festival, one called "Dead End" (which I hear rocks) and the other, "Jeepers Creepers 2". Here's what the man had to say.

Arrow: How did you get the acting bug? 

RW: I knew from the time that I was about 13 years old that I wanted to be a professional actor. I started doing plays in Junior High school then continued doing them in high school and then went on to College to be a theatre major. I also did summer stock theatre in the summer on my college break. In fact, in my Junior high yearbook and in my high school yearbook too, my main goal in life, my ambition was to become a professional actor. It says so underneath my picture.

Arrow: Well, you made it man!

RW: Yeah, I've been doing it since 1970, for 33 years.

Arrow: Wow, that's a long time. What kind of odd jobs did you have to take to survive?

RW: None.

Arrow: NONE?

RW: (laughs)

Arrow: (laughs) Wow, you're living the dream, you're living the dream!

RW: Yeah, I went to New York after graduating out of college. I was there for about 2 weeks and I went to an audition at CBS and a few days later I got a job in a soap opera called "Love of Life". That was 1970 and I was on that show until 1976. While I did that show, I did theater on and off Broadway, theatre in New York and even went out to do repertory theater. In the last 33 years, I've done 80 plays professionally and 35 or so movies and lots and lots of television series, guest starring roles, TV movies, that kind of stuff.

Arrow: Now...one word: "Robocop". (Ray's face lights up) Wow, your face just lit up when I said that. It must have been a blast.

RW: Yeah, it was a big blast. We had great fun. I remember there was a street in Dallas, they were gonna tear it down, like a slum in Dallas. That scene in RoboCop where we blow up that whole street with our big guns, it was that street. In two nights, we blew up that entire street, it was great fun! That whole film was a hoot. Me and the other bad guys, we were like kids at a candy store, just playing the ultimate and fulfilling all of our childhood fantasies of being bad guys, fighting the super hero and shooting big guns.

Arrow: I actually really got to know your work via "Twin Peaks", Leland Palmer left such an impression on me, especially with "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me". Were you scared, at any time, that the Leland Palmer part would kind of interfere with getting other types of stuff?

RW: I may have given that some thought, but it never bothered me much. I never thought that would happen really. But it has, in fact. I guess it kind of typecast me because I find myself only playing fathers. But a man my age plays fathers, what else can I be? I can't play the young fellow anymore.

Arrow: Do you miss Leland?

RW: Oh yeah, I liked Leland a lot. He was a fun character, very interesting (laughs).

Arrow: (laughs) Yeah, that's an understatement.

RW: Leland was somewhat talented, a good lawyer...

Arrow: A good dancer...

RW: Yes, a good dancer. Decent singing voice, so yeah, he's greatly missed.

Arrow: Well, I must commend you on that performance. It has stayed with me since I was a kid and when I found out that I was going to interview you, I was like "Oh my God, I'm going to interview the man behind Leland!" I was like "Wow".

RW: Well, here in Montréal at the Festival when I do the question and answers after screenings, a lot of the questions have to do with "Twin Peaks". It's been eleven years since we did the movie and 12 years since the TV series and it's still a pretty STRONG memory in people's minds. Always will be, I assume. 

Arrow: I agree, a lot of people grew up with it.

RW: And there hasn't been anything like it since then, I don't think.

Arrow: No, that's for sure. Now let's move to the present: "Jeepers Creepers 2" and "Dead End". Dead End is a French film.

RW: Yes, Canal Plus and a couple of French writers Fabrice Canepa and Jean-Baptiste Andrea. They're actually very good screenwriters and screen doctors in Paris, they doctor other people's scripts. They eventually decided they wanted to direct one of their own scripts. After they got their funding, they decided they wanted to do it in Hollywood. So they went there and planned to shoot the whole thing there. They knew me from "Twin Peaks" and it was the part of a father, a somewhat dysfunctional family, so naturally they called Ray Wise.

Arrow: (laughs) We need a father...let's get The Wise!

RW: Exactly! All they had to do was show me the script and I said yes. It was a clever little script with lots of twists and turns and it was also about a real family on a outing. It was kind of like an extended Twilight Zone episode, the old show, not the new one. And it really appealed to all my sensibilities. We got a great little cast together and I think we shot it in like 20 days and not for very much money.

Arrow: How much was the budget?

RW: I think it was a little bit over a million dollars.

ARROW: Wow, that's low.

RW: Yeah, that's like 5 cents. They had their stuff together though, it was like Guerilla filmmaking. We had to do it quickly and keep on the move. They used this one stretch of highway in a canyon next to a reservoir in the Hollywood hills. It's actually a road that goes to a kind of public park and we use that stretch of road that was about a mile long and we kept driving back and forth, night after night. Then we did a few days on a soundstage at the end of the shoot, where we did a lot of the car interiors. I was happy with the post-prod the boys did on the film, they put it together very well, added some effects that worked, I loved the music and was very impressed by how it came out.

Arrow: It all came together.

RW: Yes, and they created a very nice movie. A good movie, one that I'm proud of, especially taking into account the budget. It's a very good film and I think that's evident by the audiences reaction up here at Fantasia.

Arrow: Did you ever get a little jittery while shooting the film, not sure whether or not it might come out good?

RW: Yeah sure, even in the best of situations, with big budget movies, you always have those doubts, reservations and qualms. But I did know as we progressed that the people I was working with were doing a good job, so all of my doubts disappeared after 2 days. I knew that at the very least, we were going to make a good film, not a bad film.

Arrow: And it turned out to be a great film.

RW: Yeah!

Arrow: Do you know what kind of distribution the film will have?

RW: They have distribution everywhere in the world, but North America. Isn't that something?

Arrow: Yeah, the market is weird these days.

RW: And I know this flick would make money...it's a real crowd-pleaser.

Arrow: I say try Lions Gate Films...if they haven't already. They're really big on genre films.

RW: Due noted.

Arrow: In terms of "Jeepers Creepers 2", did you watch the first film before tackling the sequel?

RW: Yeah, Victor Salva invited me to a screening of the film before it opened because I had done a film for Victor called "Powder", in which I had a small part. Victor was also a fan of mine and he'd seen me in "Twin Peaks" and some of my other work and liked me as an actor. After "Powder", he had another film that he wrote that he wanted me to play but that fell through-- the money people wanted someone else and than Jeepers 2 came along. They had another actor playing the part, approved by the studio but the actor dropped out of it days before shooting. So Victor called me one afternoon before the Wednesday they were about to start shooting and said "Ray, would you like to be in a movie? It's the lead role in the film, it's the engine of the story..."

Arrow: That was like 3 days before the shoot?

RW: Yeah, he then pitched me by saying: "It's kind of like a morality tale, it's like you're Captain Ahab and you're going after The Creeper. The White Whale and the picture is your journey..."

Arrow: Hey, I'm sold!

RW: He laid down that 10-minute pitch on me and I said "yes" without even looking at one word on the script. I was accepted by the studios, the next day I had a costume fitting and they told me not to shave because I play a farmer. Fortunately, I hadn't shaved for about 6 or 7 days and I looked pretty good to play the part. But even so, I think everybody involved in the picture except for Victor were apprehensive about me playing a farmer.

Arrow: I wonder why? The last I checked it's called acting.

RW: That's a standard story in Hollywood, they try to pigeon-hole you and think that's all you can do.

Arrow: They forget that you actually studied the art of "acting" to play different types of roles.

RW: Yeah, and I actually know about farming, as a kid I learned a lot about it. So anyways, Victor had faith in me and he knew that I could do it. So on the first day of filming we got in a couple of farm scenes and by the way, the film was shot in sequence...

Arrow: That must have been good for you as an actor....

RW: Yeah it just flowed, natural progression. After a couple of takes, Victor had a big smile on his face and said: "We're going to show them, we're going to show them" and then a couple days later, everybody was happy. Everything went smoothly and we had a ball making it. It was great fun everyday. Victor Salva is a great director, he's very laid back and likes to keep the set very congenial. I've never seen him angry. He creates a great working atmosphere. We knew we were making a creature feature, but at the same time, we wanted it to mean something to people and not just be a horror film and I think that we accomplished that.

Arrow: How was it working with the teen actors on the film, being that were fairly green?

RW: Yeah, they were green but they're playing silly high school kids, so it all fit in. They didn't have to be great acting personas, they fit the bill just right. And since my character had such tunnel vision, he didn't pay much attention to anybody else anyway. He's absolutely fearless, he sees only what he has to do, bombs could go off around him and he wouldn't care.

Arrow: He lost his son, right?

RW: Right, and when that happens it sets in him a deep determination and an obsession to avenge his son's death.

Arrow: Was it an angry part with lots of negative emotions that you had to sustain for a long time?

RW: No, it didn't feel negative, it felt righteous, it felt good, it felt exhilarating. Not negative at all. I felt like I was saving the world.

Arrow: Would you consider yourself a method actor where you brainwash yourself to feel what you're supposed to feel?

RW: Yeah, I do like to immerse myself in the roles I play, I like to think the characters thoughts. I'm a firm believer that the camera, that's only a few feet away from you, looks right into your brain and soul almost, looks right into your eyes and sees what registers in the back wall of your retinas, so I like to have the right thoughts in my mind so that it catches the right thought in my eyes. I know that sounds kind of weird.

Arrow: Not at all. I understand exactly what you're saying: be in the moment.

RW: It all exist in the moment and then it's gone. In film, camera takes the pictures of the moment and on stage, it's the audience that leaves with it.

Arrow: Are you a one-take actor, second take, third or beyond?

RW: I don't like to do it a lot of times and if it feels right, there's an agreement there that it does feel right, why muck it up. It can often happen on the first take, those first takes can be wonderful because they're the first take. It's fresh and some great stuff can come out. Second takes can be great too, especially if you make some adjustments and you think about things you'd like to do differently, slip them in. Beyond that, it becomes a repetition, trying to keep what was good, fix what was bad.

Arrow: It's very obvious to me that you have a deep love of acting and a vast knowledge of the process. Have you ever thought of applying that as a director? I think you'd be pretty good!

RW: I haven't really planned on it, but you know, you're probably right. When I do think about it, I almost scare myself, I think I can probably be pretty good, but if I open up that can of worms, I don't know if I'm ready. But I do think I can maybe be a really good director. Perhaps one day, I will. I think that if I'm in a position where I can select a project and get the financing independently, I would do it. I wouldn't start  looking for studios to hire me.

Arrow: it would a headache in terms of creative control to start off with a studio picture.

RW: Yeah, boy they always try to take over. If you let someone else touch it, they all touch it and then everybody steps on it. I think it was Orson Welles who said: "Experience doesn't matter much, but one thing that experience does for you is that it shows you that there are more choices than you thought there were".

ARROW: Touche!

RW: Yeah.

ARROW: Thanks for your time, Ray.

RW: Thank you, John.

Well, another fanboy dream comes true. Although I had met Ray Wise briefly at the San Diego Con, it was such a pleasure to have this lengthy sit-down with the man. Good luck with everything and say "Hello" to Leland for me...I miss the poor bastard.



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