by Jose Nateras
Upon entering Michael Rooker’s room at The James Hotel, in lovely downtown Chicago, I was pleasantly surprised with just how warm and friendly the Chicago native and busy actor was. Having given standout performances in films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Mississippi Burning, Tombstone, Days of Thunder, Mallrats, and Slither, to name a few; Rooker took time out of his busy schedule promoting his latest film, James Gunn’s Super, to have a chat with myself and Tom Conroy. After kindly offering refreshments to the two of us and the standard pleasantries we got to it.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost’s Jose Nateras: I’m a big fan of Slither. I make my friends watch it all the time. How was working with James Gunn for the second time?
Michael Rooker: Just as bad as the first time (laughs). He was so demanding. He always tried to tell me what to do! He’s not the boss of me (laughs). James Gunn thinks he’s the boss of me, he’s not.
Tom Conroy: When did he first approach you about Super?
Michael Rooker: Super has been in the makes for a long time, but this last time, it actually got cast and it got done, of course. But the film was written ten years ago. So, it’s gone through several casts and didn’t get made. So this time around it just happened that his ex-wife works with Rainn Wilson, so she gave him the script and he loved it.
Tom Conroy: That’s Jenna Fischer, right?
Michael Rooker: Mmmhmm. So that’s how the film finally got made. And I had been friends with him since Slither, so you know, he finally asked me if I wanted to do a role, and you know it’s like he was a little embarrassed to ask me if I wanted to do the role because it’s like, three lines; it’s not a lot of lines there. So he didn’t know if I would do it. Whatever, but we all did it for nothing, we all did it because we’re all friends and we all know each other. So we ended up doing it.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost’s Jose Nateras: What is that experience like, working with a bunch of people that you’re friends with and familiar with on a film project like this?
Michael Rooker: Oh, it’s kinda fun. You have a lot of fun. In between takes and stuff and even during the takes you have a good time. You tend to be a little more open sometimes, even more critical, ‘God that sucked, you’re really going to do it that way? Really, can we do that again?’
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost’s Jose Nateras: That’s great. I thought the character of Abe was actually really interesting to watch. Just in terms of like, there are moments where you’re watching the movie, and it’s like ‘Wow’, you could see a sense of conflict; that he knew what was going on was wrong but he still had a job to do. How do you approach applying that sort of complexity to a character that could easily be a standard thug type role?
Michael Rooker: It could easily be that and I think that’s the mistake that is easy to make if you’re a beginning actor. You know that cliché: ‘No small roles, only small actors’. A small role like Abe could very well just be your regular, run-of-the-mill thug guy, and nothing could come of that. But, you just got to do your homework, no matter what the size of the role is. I think the smaller roles sometimes can be more difficult than the larger ones. For me, I do my homework no matter what size the role is, small or large, whatever. With the smaller roles, not a lot is written in the script, there aren’t a lot of givens in the script, so you get to make it up, it’s even more fun. It springs from your own imagination and can spring from someplace that’s more creative than what’s been written. So that’s what happened with Abe. The moral kind of dilemma you’re seeing is from a little idea I sort of thought would work and was interested in trying to do. So I talked with Gunn about it; that my character sort of kind of liked her [Liv Tyler’s character Sarah]. He kind of secretly dug her a little. So that fueled the whole moral dilemma thing that is prevalent in the character. And the thing is, as an actor, you can make up this stuff in your head, but if the director doesn’t get it, it’s not gonna come out. But sometimes, ’cause we talked about it, he utilized those moments and he edited them into the film. Sometimes you do this stuff with other directors, on bigger movies and stuff, and sometimes they don’t get it. Then, sometimes they do and they really dig it. So if you’re on, you bring it every time, every day you come on the set and they say action and you’re doing your stuff, and as long as it’s subtle, you don’t want to do shit that totally distracts from the scene, but if you do your work and you do it in a real honest and subtle way, hopefully it gets noticed and gets in the film.
Tom Conroy:You seem to play the tough guy, like Abe, or the henchman, those type of subtle roles in which, you’re the tough guy, basically. Do you ever get tired of it? Do you usually just have fun with it?
Michael Rooker: I think it’s all different. Almost all of my roles are all different. Even though, with some of them there’s a through line. Some of them are a bit intense, kind of on that cusp of bad guy/good guy kind, that of thing. You’re not sure what’s going to happen when you’re in the room with this guy. Whether or not he’s gonna snap your neck or order you a coffee. You know? I love doing that kind of stuff. I find it very intriguing to try to bring that kind of stuff out so the audience will get a sense of ‘I don’t know if I’d want to meet this guy, in a library.’ You know? Or, with Abe; the guy’s got this job to do, he’s the guy that guards this other guy [Kevin Bacon’s character Jacques]. There are people that don’t like him and he has to protect that guy, and he doesn’t necessarily agree with the stuff that goes on maybe. And it was cool to do that kind of stuff. But Abe is tough, he’s definitely a guy you don’t want to fuck with. And even though he’s got some sort of moral dilemma going, he will shoot you (laughs). And he’s definitely the best shot of the bunch.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost’s Jose Nateras: At one point, in fact I noticed it a couple of times, there were little things I just thought were so cool, with Abe specifically. Like when he was eating Good & Plenty, and I was wondering if that was something that was written in the script, or that you developed on your own?
Michael Rooker: No, no it wasn’t in the script. We would just sort of think of little things to do, we think of little things to flesh out the characters. To make them kind of real life, fill in the arc if you can. In some ways, because it’s a little movie and there’s not a lot of time, there’s not a lot of time to do these little things and so you just have to get your shots in when you can. I like Good & Plenty. I really enjoyed the scene where Frank’s crying, he’s weeping, and I offer him some Good & Plenty and he doesn’t want any. That was a longer scene, if they had cut back to him, he actually looks at me and is like (sobbing) “No, thank you.” It could have been more intentional in the scene, and there was another thing of me going like, “Okay.” It was fun. It was a fun role to do, and even though it was small and some people would look at the role on paper and go, ‘Oh, it’s an insignificant kind of role,’ it’s up to us, the actors, to develop and bring our stuff to the screen and our craft and try to make it something that someone is going to notice. A regular guy on the street, a regular person notices this stuff, and hopefully the director (does to). The first door you can hopefully get through is the director noticing some of your work and they like it and it ends up getting edited into the movie.
Tom Conroy: Cool. Now, my favorite role of yours was in Mississippi Burning. It’s one of my favorite films, and I was wondering if there was a role that was either your favorite or something you’d like to be remembered for in the future?
Michael Rooker: A personal favorite of mine, man, you know what? I enjoy a lot of the little things I end up doing. Like Eight Men Out I really enjoyed and Mississippi Burning was another one of those little roles. When Eight Men Out was cast, I was cast in a group. There were 6 guys and we were all cast as thugs. You know? So Mississippi Burning was that kind of thing too. And Alan Parker is a great director and he’s looking at all these guys and he’s watching us and he saw how we would perform certain scenes and stuff like that and he ended up cueing in on me. I ended up being the most aggressive of the bunch and the most willing to get out there and get physical with people. I like that kind of stuff. I like physical comedy. I like mixing it up in those kinds of scenes. It was one of those roles that I ended up developing; there wasn’t a lot written about that role. So, all of that, just like in Super, it’s from my imagination and stuff we end up doing and things that end up happening on set that you just go with, because you’re on set with six, seven, eight people and they say action and no one knows what the hell they’re doing, so you just do it, you take control. So my guy was the guy that sort of took control, was the instigator in the violence and stuff like that. That was a very cool role I thought, because of that, and it’s one of the roles I’ll always remember.
Mississippi Burning was one of the roles that I enjoyed doing because it just happened to be one of those roles that there wasn’t a lot written for and so the ones I tend to like and remember fondly are the ones where I get to use a lot of my own imagination and physicality and stuff, which I ended up being good at. But to answer your question, Eight Men Out is probably one of them, and there’s a few more, like Days of Thunder and, of course, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost’s Jose Nateras:I just had one more question. I was really surprised by the complexity of Super as a movie, the way there was so much going on. And you hear about all of these superhero movies coming out, in times of distress in culture and things like that, but Super is not like any other superhero movie that I’ve seen. I was wondering what you would say Super is really trying to say and is really about at its core?
Michael Rooker: Well, you know the vigilantism question is brought up; the mental illness is brought up. Obviously the character [of Frank] is mentally ill. And my goodness, there’s a lot. It’s a complicated piece; the morality of it. And it’s all in Gunn’s… he’s the mastermind behind this. And all the thugs were his buddies, me and Stephen and his brother, us three, you know. It was good, a little movie, not a lot of time, not a lot of money to do it, so he wanted to make sure he got actors that were able to… that he didn’t want to have to worry about; that would come on, gonna bring it, do their job, and do it as well as they possibly can. And that’s what you got to have going for you when you’re doing a little movie like this because there’s not a lot of time and money, you know? And we had fun, I had good time doing it, I had a great time.