Philip Baker Hall talks about his role in the new indie film, Paul Thomas Anderson and future projects
Philip Baker Hall has found quite a niche in supporting roles in his career, from the Rush Hour series to Paul Thomas Anderson films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia and many others. I also can't forget his incredibly memorable guest spot as the aggressive library cop Mr. Bookman in one of the best Seinfeld episodes ever. He gets the spotlight to himself in the indie film Duck, which was released on DVD on July 22. I recently had a chance to talk to the veteran actor about this unique film, and here's what he had to say.
You've often portrayed cops or government officials in your career. Was this role a nice lighter break from the stuff you normally play?
Philip Baker Hall: Yeah, it was. I remember a few years ago when I was doing a lot of government officials and cops and doctors and lawyers and judges. I went through a whole period of doing judges. I was telling my agent once that I'd really like to play somebody who's not running the company. I said, 'Keep your eye open for a role of an ordinary person with an ordinary job.' I remember my agent called me one day and she said, 'I think I have a role like that. I'm not going to tell you anything about it. It's kind of unusual. I'm just gonna send it to you and wait for your reaction.' That was Duck. It was a great relief to play a character who is not running the company or the institution.
This seems like a very personal film. Do you know anything about (writer-director) Nicole Bettauer's writing process? Was this based on any sort of real experience?
Philip Baker Hall: Well, she's had a really interesting life, before, that really prepared her to write a script like this. I'm not really at liberty to divulge any details of how interesting her life has been, but she's had a really fascinating series of life experiences that would've been possible for her to write a script like this. I don't think it's based on anything in particular. I do know that a dog came into her life accidentally and I think some of it may be based on her relationship with the dog and how that developed. I don't think Nicole has lived on the streets though.
The film is set in the year 2009, with Jeb Bush as the President, which is a fairly scary scenario.
Philip Baker Hall: (Laughs) Yes it is. 2009 by itself these days is a pretty scary scenario, but she picked the right year, actually.
Is that just kind of a minor backdrop for your character Arthur, or do they touch on more of the social structure of the country?
Philip Baker Hall: It's an important part of the film, in that, in the film, after Arthur is evicted from his home, because he has the duck living there with him, he is forced to live on the street with the duck. He discovers along the way that the public parks have pretty much been abandoned by the various legislatures, in terms of funding and that many of the public hospitals have been closed, many of the schools have closed and that the world in 2009 is in a pretty tough situation. Everything that depends on tax money or public service money is pretty much abandoned. It's kind of prophetic that she wrote this script in like 2006, and yet 2009 does seem to be a year in which many of those things may in fact come true. Some of them have already begun to come true, actually. It's an important part of the movie, yeah.
Nicole is a relatively new filmmaker. Can you describe her style compared to some of the other filmmakers you've worked with?
Philip Baker Hall: Well, like a lot of the best young filmmakers, she's a very intuitive filmmaker. She has a really strong vision of what she wants from a moment, from a scene, and she has developed a number of ways of communicating with the actor and with the director of photography and the various crew members on what she needs to get. A movie director, even on a small film like this, as you are probably aware, is in command of a lot of people. The bigger the budget, the more people that you have to coordinate and it's not easy to do that always because, not only do people have trouble communicating in that way, but often there are internal disagreements and everybody is not necessarily on the same page. Even in a big-budget movie with famous actors and directors, everybody could be on a completely different page. The director has to figure out a way of getting everybody on the same page, more or less, and keeping them there. I've had many directors over the years that have powerful instincts as a director, but have not yet mastered some of the... I don't want to say diplomatic because I don't think a director has to be diplomatic, but he has to have leadership skills that get everybody's best effort, and Nicole has those qualities. She has a lot of personal charm. She's very likeable and you have a sense that whatever she asks, she's asking not to serve her own ego, but to somehow serve the film and also you, whatever your position may be in the film. I loved working with her. She was great. I would love to work with her again.
Your roles have really run the gamut in your whole career, from the incomparable Mr. Bookman from Seinfeld, the Rush Hour films, Paul Thomas Anderson films. Is there anything you look for in particular in a role or do you just choose on instinct?
Philip Baker Hall: Well, I look at a lot of different elements, when you're trying to figure out what to do next and you have, knock on wood, thank God, you have the ability to choose from more than one script or more than one project. You look at the diector and the director's history, unless they're a first-time director. If they are a first-time director, then you usually meet with them or if you know anyone who's connected with the project you talk to them to get a sense of who this person is and what they're approach to things might be, if you can live with it for a few weeks or however long the project goes. I think the thing that interests most actors these days is the strength and the quality of the writing. I think that's the main thing. We have, these days, with Paul Thomas Anderson, we have such an incredibly high standard that has been set with what is possible in screenwriting. I mean, Paul has kind of re-schooled everybody that screenwriting is really an art itself, and I just don't mean just the technique of it, which is taught in a lot of places, but how to open up the real inner life of the character, of the story you're trying to tell in a way that's fascinating and reveals something about the people and about the world we live in. I mean, Paul is gifted, no doubt about it, unbelievably gifted. I was talking to John C. Reilly not too long ago and John and I both agreed that whatever else we're doing in the meantime, we're still looking for that next Paul Thomas Anderson script, or one like it in the sense that it powers and opens up in a really powerful and poetic way. This is sadly missing from most of the scripts that we get, but then again not everyone is as gifted as Paul is. That's what I look for, I really do look for the writing and the quality of the writing. Like, although at the time I did Seinfeld, I didn't have the luxury of a lot of things to choose from then, but still one of the things that was outstanding about most of the Seinfeld, and in particular that one with Bookman, was the writing. The writing was great. That was a great character they had written.
That was a wonderful episode. It's one of my favorites.
Philip Baker Hall: Yeah, it's a funny episode, no doubt about it. The power of that show, not only was it on for 10 years, but it has been shown, repeatedly, all over the world. Wherever I go, I am very quickly identified as Bookman. People even remember the name of the character.
Still to this day? All the time?
Philip Baker Hall: Oh yeah. Bookman is a live character, you might say.
I was actually on the set of Fired Up a few months ago and I saw that you appeared in that. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
Philip Baker Hall: (Laughs) Yeah, that was (director) Will (Gluck). Will was the co-creator of The Loop and I loved working for Will on The Loop and I had a lot of fun working on Fired Up, which of course will be advertised as F U (Laughs). No doubt about that. It's going to be a fun film. Will has a completely insane comic imagination, running totally off the wall, but it works for him. He's in good control of his particular, unique, comic view of the teenage world, so I think this is going to be a very funny movie.
Yeah, I had a blast when I was on the set. It looks pretty funny.
Philip Baker Hall: Yeah. All these teen movies are aimed at young girls or the ones that are aimed in particular at adolescent boys. This one is going to be a little different. This one is going to have all those elements of the all the adolescent sex stuff and of course the Mean Girls stuff, that will appeal to both boys and girls but it will also have what most of them don't. It has real wit and real comic moments that are not just based on burping and farting. It's going to have something else going for it and that's going to be Will's particular gift for comedy. It's going to be a little unusual, I think, as a teen film. I hope it's not so good that it doesn't do well, but I think it might be pretty good. I think it might somewhat redefine the genre.
So what is your role in that then?
Philip Baker Hall: Oh (Laughs). I play the football coach. The guys, football players, two main guys, they're my guys on the football team and I'm the coach. They see the girls working out in the cheerleader team and they decide they would rather be cheerleaders than football players, so they can go to the practices with the girls and not have to go through the hot sweaty practices of football, wearing all that equipment, with a coach who can't stop saying, among other things, "shit." So that's who I play, I play the coach. So, they do. They leave the football team and go with the girls.
Philip Baker Hall: Yeah. Wonderful World, I think that's Matthew Broderick and I appear as a character and I also narrate that film. The Lodger is a remake of an Alfred Hitchcock film, starring Alfred Molina and Hope Davis. I just finished All Good Things, a film with Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst that we shot in Connecticut. That'll be out soon.
At this point in the interview, just as I was about to wrap up, we were hit by that earthquake that measured in the mid-5's on the Richter Scale and rattled the greater Los Angeles area. It was my first since moving here. How many people can say they got to share in an earthquake experience with Philip Baker Hall? Crazy.
Philip Baker Hall: It's still going. Wow. That was strong.
Yeah, that was my first.
Philip Baker Hall: That was your first? That was strong, yeah, yeah. Well, I've gotta look around and see if there's any damage. Anyway, I've got a lot of stuff coming out and they should be good, except for earthquakes (Laughs).
Well, that's about all I have for you anyway. Thank you so much for your time today, Philip.
Philip Baker Hall: OK. Great talking to you, Brian. Take care.
You can see Philip Baker Hall's lead performance in Duck on the DVD shelves now.