Jon Lovitz Talks <strong><em>Casino Jack</em></strong>

George Hickenlooper directs this look at convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, on Blu-ray and DVD April 5th

The infamous Jack Abramoff was a Washington, D.C. lobbyist and businessman whose involvement in a massive corruption scandal landed him, two White House officials, and nine other lobbyist behind bars. In director George Hickenlooper's last movie Casino Jack, Kevin Spacey stars as Jack Abramoff in a tale that recounts the man's notorious fall from grace.

Sadly, George Hickenlooper died right before the movie's theatrical release last year. Today, in support of the Casino Jack Blu-ray and DVD debut, which hit store shelves on April 5th, we talked with Jon Lovitz, who plays Adam Kidan opposite Kevin Spacey. In 2005, Kidan pled guilty, alongside Abramoff, to fraud charges in relation to his 2000 purchase of SunCruz, a casino cruise line.

Here is our conversation.

The story behind this film is quite fascinating in itself. Were you pretty well versed in the life of Adam Kidan before taking on this project?

Jon Lovitz: Not really. I remember hearing about him. I remember when Jack Abramoff was on the cover of Newsweek as this super lobbyist. I remember hearing about the scandal. Other than that, I didn't know the details of it at all. Kevin Spacey and George Hickenlooper had talked about different actors for the part. One guy had to change his schedule, so Kevin turned to George and said, "Look, man, lets just get Lovitz!" I've known Kevin for quite a few years, and I was thrilled to work with him. George was a great guy, very collaborative. He made the movie, you know? And it was so horribly tragic that he died. This is one of those movies where the cast would hang out. We all became friends. We weren't just actors on a set. And we all became really close with George. It was a special experience. Of course, working with Kevin, everyone was thrilled. He is just a great actor. I'd known him, but I had never worked with him before. He was very generous in the scenes, and fun to work with. He was always very helpful. It was truly a great experience. But I really didn't know much about this story. After I got the part, I read articles about it. I learned about it. But the character I played? There were maybe two pictures of him on the Internet. Not a ton of video. So I played the character that was in the script.

Did not having that preconceived notion of this man as he exists in the world help you with the way you personally wanted to portray him on screen? That has to free up the limitations of having to do a caricature instead of a straight performance.

Jon Lovitz: Kind of. The guy wasn't known, and there wasn't much of him there to imitate. I looked at those photos, and I thought, "Now, why would a guy look like that?" Then I saw a video of him walking. I used that, and what was in the script. But this guy was basically in the script as Norman Snider wrote him. That's what you always end up doing anyways. You go, "Here is a scene." And you have to make it work.

It's an interesting role, because you need to bring humor to this. Yet, at the same time, it's a serious, very true story. How did you find that line of balance, not only in this character, but with what was going on around him in terms of the other characters?

Jon Lovitz: It was a very fun character to play. Because I have scenes with Kevin Spacey, and I have scenes with Maury Chaykin, and they are acting so real...If I don't act real? I will have to get in sync with this guy...Otherwise I will look fake. He is just terrific. You can't tell he is acting. He is just on another level. And they tried to force me to rise up to his level. It does make you better. It's like playing Tennis with someone who is better. They feed you the ball great. You get better. You hit it back better. It's so fun, getting to do these different kinds of scenes.

Whenever I see a biopic, or a movie based on a true story, I always have to go back and watch the real thing afterwards. Casino Jack is interesting in that the documentary about Abramoff came out in theaters pretty close to this. Did you get a chance to look at that film at any point during production?

Jon Lovitz: I haven't seen it yet. I would like to see it. It wasn't out yet, while we were making the movie. Otherwise, if they had included stuff about Adam Kidan, I would have made sure to watch it. But it wasn't out. Also, documentaries are more linear. I hear that other film is very good. But it just puts an observational eye on the story. It's where you want it. Whereas, with a movie, it's a dramatic interpretation of the events. It's going to be very different. There are facts that you don't see, and then the ones that you do see.

You guys were in the midst of production while that movie was being assembled. You don't see that too often, where the fictional account and the actual videotaped document of the same story are both coming together at the same time. You usually get one preceded by the other. Did knowing that another version of this story was out there lurking within your own release window hold any precedence over the way you guys, and specifically George, wanted to tell this version?

Jon Lovitz: I wasn't aware of it. It came out after I was done shooting it. I just didn't know about it. Maybe some of the crew did. But it wasn't anywhere to be seen. Otherwise I would have definitely used it for my research.

Coming into this project, we're seeing that your career has been on a really cool, interesting arc. People first knew you as a comedian and a comedic actor, but you've really dived into some interesting, dramatic, real characters, especially starting with 1998's Happiness. Is it still, even now, hard for you to get people to accept you as a dramatic actor?

Jon Lovitz: Todd Solondz and George Hickenlooper, they had seen my work. They both said, "He can act. He can do this." They can tell. Most of my training was straight acting for ten years. And then I did comedy for three years. But I only had one job during that time. I was doing plays. In high school, I was a drama major. I did drama at U.C. Irvine. I did twenty-one plays. All of my acting teachers were from Yale. Then I had this film actor's workshop that I had done. My teacher there told me, "You should focus on comedy." From that time, when I was twenty-five, until when I got Saturday Night Live, when I was twenty-eight. I just focused on comedy. It was never a surprise to me that I could do drama, because straight acting was mostly what I did. I am not really concerned about convincing people what I can or can't do. Just as an actor, when you get a comedic role, you look for any dramatic moments you can play. It makes the part more well-rounded. You set yourself up for a more well-rounded character. The part becomes more interesting. If it's a drama, you look for the comedic moments in it. That's how life is. Its more that, than one or the other. It's like movies. Sometimes you'll see one and there is no humor. Every movie has its own style. This one has elements of both. But I enjoy doing both. It makes me more well-rounded. But I know what you mean. If I do comedy all the time, who is going to think of me in a dramatic role? Anyone with a brain...The directors who go, "Hey, can you do drama?" That director will tell you that comedy is harder than a drama. Because you have to do everything you have to do in a drama, and you add the comedy on top of that, and then you have to be oblivious to that comedy. They go, "Well, can you say the lines like you just did, and not be funny?" I say, "Of course I can. I am going out of my way to be funny. I can just say it straight. That is easy." Its easier, but a great dramatic actor? It's difficult to do it and be great. Just as it is difficult to do comedy. It works either way.

Going back to your character Adam, for a minute, what exactly was going on with this Dial-A-Mattress scheme he had going on?

Jon Lovitz: That was his business. He had a mattress store. I don't know about it, other than he had a chain of mattress stores. I don't remember that, really. I know that he was in the college Republicans. I know that he knew Jack Abramoff from that. They had known each other for years, and they were friends.

Did working on Casino Jack give you a different view of the politics at play in this particular story?

Jon Lovitz: Yeah. It's in the movie. George Hickenlooper and Kevin Spacey met Jack Abramoff while he was in prison. They went there maybe six times. They used a lot of those meetings in the script. For instance, Jack Abramoff said he never would have pleaded guilty of the fifth if he'd known he was going to prison. That is what he said, but who knows? He was doing impersonations of Ronald Reagan. They said, "This is not the man that is in the press." He is charming. He has humor. It's in the movie. He goes, "Yeah, sure. I took millions, but I made them into billions. Now, I get to make my school. I am helping people." Kelly Preston, who plays his wife, says, "Quit trying to justify it. That ain't going to make it right."

You need to have that to make him likable to an audience.

Jon Lovitz: Right! Yeah. I remember when they met with him. I said, "What was he like? Was he really charming?" And they said, "Yes." I went, "That makes sense. That is how he did everything. That is how he was so effective."

And he had two movies made about him, so he must have been doing something right.

Jon Lovitz: He is in jail because of fraud, and a few other things.

We see that a lot nowadays. If you get into trouble, and you have a charming way about you, people want to celebrate that, even if it is wrong.

Jon Lovitz: I don't think that's a good thing. I know on television, you have all of these reality shows. Its basically putting people on TV that are mentally ill. You go, "Look at that nut!" Then people want to watch that. It's a freak show.

They called that Carnival Theory when I was in film school. This movie kind of plays on that a little bit.

Jon Lovitz: The director, George Hickenlooper, is very, very bright. He went to Yale. His whole family is in politics. And he wanted to make the movie because it had a lot of humor and a lot of drama. It had everything. He wanted to put that in there. Then you see the movie, and it doesn't look like these people are doing anything wrong. To them, they are being clever, and helping people, and making a fortune. What's the problem?

We had talked to George about the movie right before it came out, and it was very sad and surprising to hear about his death. Does his untimely passing make the film a little more meaningful to you, especially in terms of trying to promote it on his behalf?

Jon Lovitz: Yes, in the sense that I feel like the whole cast is speaking for him. We all became friends with him. We need to point out that it was he who really made the movie. This was horribly tragic. Most of these questions, I would say, "Ask {PE0G3539ZBJV35||George! He's the one that did this. He is the one that did that." I shot for three weeks. I think the whole movie was shot in six weeks. And then George spent another year and a half on making it. Putting it together, and everything that goes with that. He worked his butt off. He worked extremely hard, and was working hard to promote it. It's a tragedy, because he is the one that made the movie. Anyone will tell you, when you ask what you are looking for in a movie: It's the director, the director, the director. They are in charge of the whole story. They bring all of the creative elements together. They are shooting it, making sure that its right. After they shoot it, they are in charge of post-production and making it come together. They made it. He really made this movie, and I am grateful that he left all of my scenes in. I was with him at the Austin Film Festival the day before he died. They had a question and answer period. Now, I just repeat what he said. He wanted to show the aperies of politics, and how change is good. His parents were very liberal. When he was at Yale, he said he was a Republican, and rebelled. After about six years, he became a Democrat. Everything seemed good. They were in power. Then it shifted back to the Republicans. It was good that there was change. He fell on both sides of Government. On one side of his family, he is related to George Bush's family. On the other side, he is related to John Hickenlooper, who is now the Democratic governor of Colorado. He was always very involved in politics. He did write a book about the movie, which explains it more. I can't come close to being as eloquent as he was with the subject. He really knew what he was talking about. He was extremely bright, and very humble. He would speak, and all the girls would listen to him. The guy could be so interesting. You would always learn something from him. He was an exceptionally bright person.

Casino Jack is on Blu-ray and DVD today.

B. Alan Orange