Inside the world of Eric Stoltz
He has red hair, is a mutt in more senses than one, and is uncannily like his dog: friendly and warm. And much like his canine friend, can bite when he wants to. He has made his mark in films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "Mask" and his Broadway debut as George Gibbs in Our Town for which he earned a Tony Award nomination, which by no means is bad way to start off. He has also just appeared alongside Richard Dreyfuss in yet another Broadway play, SLY FOX, an especially cunning comedy. Yes, that creature is none other than Eric Stoltz. And with a certain charisma and intensity about him, can certainly wag anybody's tail.
Now a film and theater veteran, Stoltz is director Cameron Crowe's 'signature,' making cameo appearances in most of his films, and constantly an inspiration for characters for the likes of Roger Avary. Stoltz has somehow avoided the more blinding spotlight, often taking on smaller but memorable roles. He is often lovingly referred to as the "indie darling." And he is.
Originally, Stoltz had no conscious intent at all of going into the career of a thespian. "I just enjoyed pretending to be other people," he recalls. But it wasn't a matter of dabbing on lipstick, or other people's clothes, Stoltz's start was a tad less obvious. He began his career in "show biz" playing music for shows on the piano. "I was a rehearsal accompanist for a bunch of plays in Santa Barbara, and I noticed that the orchestra people were having considerably less fun than the people on stage, and so I thought I would try out for some of the plays. And then I just started doing plays and enjoyed it." But Stoltz never quite resigned from the piano either. Family legend has it that ever since he could sit up Stoltz would climb and sit at the piano, while his family would then prop pillows underneath him enabling him to reach the keys. He studied the piano for ten years and you just don't give up a relationship that special. Besides, you never know when a skill like that could come handy. For instance, Stoltz has just wrapped a short film where he played the piano just to save money on the soundtrack. Maybe that's why they call him "indie darling"?
When Stoltz pursued acting, it was not necessarily an overly conscious decision. "It's just something that I did that I always loved doing. And I don't remember ever thinking that I could actually make a living at it either," recalls Stoltz, "In the 70's there were no behind the scenes, no Access Hollywood, we didn't know anyone famous... The idea that you could make a living in the movies or television was about as familiar as the idea that you could breathe under water."
When he finally set down his parents to discuss his future endeavors in the world of showmanship, they responded like any normal middle class family would: they were quite concerned. "They were frightened for me that I wouldn't be able to earn a living or have a life that was a happy one." But to their credit, his family never discouraged him, never told him to give up his dreams and grow up to be a doctor instead. "I think that it scared them a little bit but they were supportive nonetheless." That didn't quite prevent the "fall back on" conversations, however, urging Stoltz to get a degree in something he could use as back up. "They were rightfully concerned. It's a horrible business...for most people.
"I feel it's particularly horrible at this point in history... just in terms of quality of material, in film and television, and even theater. I'd be hard pressed to name ten movies that I thought were great...It's low tide, for some reason. I'm sure there are two hundred million factors, all of them valid as to why I feel it is low tide in the industry... I don't think there are that many good scripts around. And even then, unless you get an A-list actor, the good scripts more than likely won't even get produced."
I set down with Eric Stoltz over tea while he was performing in SLY FOX in New York to speak about his early days, theater, the magical world of film and New York City:
Katherine:So how did you end up going from theater into film?
Eric: Now you are asking me to go way back.
Katherine:You can lie.
Eric: It's more interesting if I tell the truth, if I can only remember it.
Katherine:Remembering the truth, that's interesting...
Eric: (laughs) I sort of put myself through college by doing a lot of bad TV and commercials. And every once in awhile there would be an open call for films, and my whole gang would go and audition... And we all went and auditioned for "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" one day. I kept getting called back and then got a small part in the film.
Katherine:So that was basically your first big break. Did you enjoy the experience of being involved in that production?
Eric: Oh. It was fantastic. It was a party from day one until the end.
Katherine:What about it in particular was so dazzling?
Eric: Well, it was just a terrific bunch of people. I always think of that experience as being my true high school experience because I was much happier making that film than I was in my real high school.
Katherine:Doesn't seem like the "positivity" of a real high school experience is that tough to beat! What was your attitude originally towards film when you just started off in it? Did you have any preconceived notions?
Eric: I know I loved films. I loved doing films. I had no notions at all about how they were made or anything... I was completely ignorant and downright stupid about how they made films. And, as I said, there were no "behind the scenes"... there were no video cameras. There wasn't any way to learn other than doing it or going to school for it... and I was wide open. It was really nice.
Katherine:So considering you had done theater before that, you didn't have any, you know, negative outlooks towards film?
Eric: No. Not at all. I don't prefer one over the other. It's all entertainment...
Katherine:So you considered it all entertainment. You feel that the most important thing about film or theater is to entertain? Or do you think it should have any other elevated purposes?
Eric: I think it's nice when there are other elevated purposes, but unless it's entertaining no one will stay in their seats long enough to absorb them. So I do think the primary purpose of entertainment--a play, a film, or a TV show--is to keep you entertained and in your seat. Enthralled somehow--and entertainment doesn't necessarily have to mean just giddy, stupid laughter. I mean, you can be entertained by a serious drama, but unless it's compelling enough to hold your attention, no other elevated meaning is going to come through.
Katherine:You made your Broadway debut in Our Town. How was that? Was there anything different about it in terms of having this big production, versus doing a smaller off-Broadway show?
Eric: Mmm... I had to share a room about the size of this table with Spalding Gray for six months.
Katherine:Really the size of this table right here?
Eric: Two tables put together - and I'm not kidding. You should see... if you go to the Lyceum Theater, you can see the small dressing room.
Katherine:So you were in this small room, and in a Broadway production?
Eric: Yeah. Well the cast was huge, so there were only so many dressing rooms.
Katherine:How big was the part?
Eric: Pretty big. It was one of the leads.
Katherine:You should have asked for a dressing room to fit the part... No, I'm just kidding! But really there was no real difference between working on Broadway or off-Broadway? Aside from the ticket price, that is.
Eric: Well, maybe the size of the theater. And, you know you pump up your voice a little bit. But for the most part, theaters are theaters.
Katherine:Do you feel that there is more pressure when you're doing a Broadway show versus when you're doing one that's off-Broadway?
Eric: Pressure? In what sense?
Katherine:Pressure in terms of it having to live up to certain expectations because it's considered "Broadway," and people are paying more money usually...
Eric: Yeah, that's true. I had never considered that (laughs) until you brought it up.
Eric: I think most people know and accept that Broadway at this point in history is closer to Vegas than anything else... For the most part it's pre-recorded, pumped-in music and dancing puppets, with maybe the occasional comedy, or drama...
Katherine:Yeah, and maybe a "Sly Fox" there too.
Eric: ...yes, and maybe a little comedy slipped in... somewhere...
Katherine:It seems like there would be more experimentation going on off-Broadway then...
Eric: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Just because of the money involved. When it costs a few million dollars to put up a Broadway show, the investors aren't going to... for the most part, there are exceptions... you know, I Am My Own Life is one of them... but for the most part, investors aren't going to put millions of dollars into an unproven formula.
Katherine:What is the greatest difference between shooting in film and playing in front of a live audience?
Eric: The greatest difference is, I think, time. Time and memory. When you're doing a film you're shooting maybe three pages a day, which is really... like imagining having our conversation for the last half an hour. That would be, maybe one day's work. Over and over and over and over and over, and over and over, and over. Endlessly. It starts to feel like an existential experience... and it's very easy to memorize that kind of a scene. Time stretches out and you feel like you're losing your mind. Whereas in the theater, you have to memorize a play of a hundred and five pages, and it's condensed, and you only have one shot at it--to not screw it up.
Katherine:And you stay more in character?
Eric: Yeah. And you are the editor, the director, actor...
Katherine:What are the major differences when it comes to working on big studio films vs. smaller independent ones - aside of the paycheck of course?
Eric: Again, it's the TIME. On a major film you have 3 days to shoot the 4 page 'meet cute' scene, and on an Indy you have 25 minutes to get it in the can before the sun goes down and the crew goes into overtime. Now, that's not entirely a bad thing- I think it leads to a certain energy and vitality in Indy films- but it would be nice to be able to relax just a little when you're working.
Katherine:Do you have a preference for either?
Eric: I try to like whatever I'm doing at the moment, and not get caught up in comparing. I'm happier that way.
Katherine:If a Broadway show you are in is a hit you could be acting in it continuously, limitlessly... Does that prospect scare you?
Eric: Sure, that's why I've never done it. I always limit my
time commitments to make sure that never occurs.
Katherine:Now that you're performing in SLY FOX with Richard Dreyfuss and a number of other actors who I know have done a lot of film work, do you feel that the audience would approach a film actor differently doing stage work than somebody who's known exclusively in the theater?
Eric: Yeah, sure... like Richard gets entrance applause which is not something you usually get in a theater. But he's this iconic American movie star and people say, "Oh... it's Richard Dreyfuss! He was in Jaws! Hooray!", and that's not normal theater behavior.
Katherine:Do you think that there's something missing from films that you can only get out of theater, and something missing from theater that you can only get out of films?
Eric: Oh sure. Absolutely.
Eric: "Like what," she said, leading him on... The theater has an immediacy and an instant response that is wonderful. The audience will tell you if you're sucking or if you're good, or if you're making them laugh or not.
Katherine:And they may like you so much that they just do it out of politeness...
Eric: Mmm... but that only lasts for so long. You sort of have to earn it... and you have a connection with those people. A palpable sort of connection like you're all one, in a strange way, that is sadly missing from film. But film has a larger-than-life, mythical quality that is magical to me that the theater doesn't have.
Katherine:Magical in what ways?
Eric: I'm talking about real film, not digital. There's something about the flickering...
Katherine:...I know. I hate digital film...
Eric: Me too.
Katherine:Thank you. Thank you! You get brownie points, you know...
Eric: Ah, brownie points.
Katherine:I just absolutely hate digital film... with very few exceptions.
Eric: I know. But you know what, I just did this short film and I shot it on 16mm. I went to Kodak, THE Kodak place, and I was hanging around talking with the guys waiting for my film to come back. And they said, "Do you want to hear something wild?", and I said "Yeah". They had just had a screening on the second floor of the Kodak place where they had film on the left and digital on the right, shooting the same stuff, and they said they could barely tell the difference. And they work at Kodak.
Katherine:So you said that part of the magic comes from the actual flickering film... What else makes it magical for you?
Eric: Well, it's much more chaotic and inclusive on a film set, you know, as you're talking about the death of your friend, the cloud could pass through the sun and the shadow goes over your face and you get chills--and it's on film. And that's an act of God. Or, you know, a grip could drop a hot dog and you're laughing and it's captured on film and you...you never know what's going to happen and what's going to contribute to...
Katherine:...So you feel that, in a way, film makes you and life immortal?
Eric: It does, yeah. It's a good way of putting it.
Katherine:So, what do you think is the best way to see a film?
Eric: In a movie theater!
Katherine:What's your perfect, ideal setting? (It's a psychological question ... I'm analyzing you...)
Eric: Geez, I like The Ziegfeld Theater, a matinee, with either an empty audience or a very quiet and appreciative audience, with a group of friends, or my woman, and some popcorn...
Katherine:Oh, popcorn... it's all making sense now...
Eric: Sometimes, I mean if it's a big, silly movie, sometimes Times Square at midnight on a Friday with a screaming crowd because they will yell back at the screen... appropriately.
Katherine: Like on Matrix: Reloaded?
Eric: Yeah. Like a big summer movie. And Spiderman has just opened.
Katherine:You're currently doing SLY FOX here in New York and often work and live here. What comes to mind when you try to describe New York?
Eric: Constant change. It's constantly changing. You know what's crazy about the changes? Times Square now feels more like Disneyland than the grossly dirty, gritty place that it was when I first moved here...
Katherine:So you prefer the grossly dirty, gritty place?
Eric: I do. I prefer the sort of sleazy, you know--dangerous...
Katherine:I can see that...
Eric: ...it's much more interesting to me the way it was. But I'm sure it will change again. You know...
Katherine:Mmm hmm... and become a sleazy place again?
Katherine:...and then I'll have to move out...
Eric: ...mmm, unless you like it...
Katherine:Why do you feel that the film and theater scenes are so strong in New York?
Eric: I think New York City, having a population of 8 million or so, has quite naturally become the cultural center of the US, which is why film, theater and TV are all so strong here. That's not to say that, say, Toledo, doesn't have a strong tradition in the arts-it's just that ours is bigger. And in the good old US of A, bigger *is* better.
Katherine:What do you find special about the city?
Eric: The public transportation and the surly attitudes. New Yorkers don't suffer fools gladly, which is refreshing to me, being quite foolish most of the time.
Katherine:Now, in general, if you could change anything about the film industry, what would you change?
Eric: The quality of the scripts. And perhaps the 'film school/music video' director worship, which I think leads to technically impressive films that somehow lack soul.
Katherine:What would you change about theater?
Eric: Well, in my fantasy actors would get $20 million dollars (US) to do a play, and minimum wage to do a film. That alone would forever alter the state of our culture, and make it much more interesting. It would really separate the wheat from the chaff.
Katherine:What do you envision the film industry to be like 10-20 years from now?
Eric: Hopefully revolutionized or at least reinvigorated. I keep hoping for the digital revolution to happen, and I think it will. Coppolla (Francis, that is) spoke in the documentary "Hearts of Darkness" about the next film genius being some 15 year old girl from Ohio who
picks up a camera and makes an astounding film- with digital technology, it's possible. I'm hopeful.
Katherine:Do you think that theater will evolve also?
Eric: It needs to, but I think it'll be slower. I think people will always want to see something live, there's just something terribly exciting about being present at the moment it's all happening- but, like film, we need good material to sustain peoples interest.
Katherine:How about your own future, what do you see there?
Eric: Lots of pets. Maybe a farm. It would be fun to own an Italian restaurant.
Katherine:What would you LIKE to see in your future?
Eric: No bills. And an all you can eat buffet.
Eric Stoltz is leaving SLY FOX along with Richard Dreyfuss and Peter Scolari on August 17. Never fear though, the witty show will keep running, albeit with a renewed cast, for as long as it can sly its way into the hearts of audiences. "I hope it runs a long time, it's a lovely piece of fun to be playing during these rather difficult times," says Stoltz. The production officially opened on Broadway, appropriately enough, on April Fool's Day. The slapstick comedy revolves around a crafty rich man who pretends to be on his deathbed in order to trick out his or her fortune every lowly opportunist who tries to become his heir, further enriching his own savings account. Stoltz plays Simon Able, Sly's servant.
Currently Eric Stoltz is on a retreat in Ireland, shooting THE HONEYMOONERS for Paramount, a film starring Cedric the Entertainer and Mike Eppes. In November he returns to Hollywood, directing a Law & Order episode.
Stoltz was most recently seen in "The Butterfly Effect" and will soon appear in "Childstar," Don McKellar's film about an American child actor let loose on a Canadian production, which makes its world premiere as a special presentation at this year's Toronto Film Festival.