Actor Robert Forster discusses his breakthrough role in Jackie Brown, working with Quentin Tarantino, Alcatraz, and much more.
Most people familiar with director Quentin Tarantino's work know he has a penchant for reviving the careers of actors he admires. John Travolta was coming off Look Who's Talking Now before Pulp Fiction put him in the spotlight again, David Carradine started getting a lot more movie work after Kill Bill Vol. 1, and stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoe Bell made a name for herself in Death Proof. Out of all Quentin Tarantino's career revivals, though, my favorite still has to be Robert Forster in the superb Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown, which makes its Blu-ray debut October 4. Robert Forster completely shines as bail bondsman Max Cherry, a role which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Robert Forster over the phone to discuss Jackie Brown. Here's what he had to say below.
Jackie Brown is still one of my favorite Tarantino films, and I'm a big Elmore Leonard fan as well. Were you familiar with this book or Elmore Leonard's work before reading the script and discovering Max Cherry?
Robert Forster: No. I ran into Quentin in a coffee shop. I had auditioned for him for Reservoir Dogs, and, while I was talking with him, he said he was making a script out of Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch. He said, 'Why don't you read it?' So I did, and six months later, in the same coffee shop, he handed me a script and said, 'Read this, if you feel like it.' I did get the audio book of Mr. Paradise when it was one of his newer books, at the time.
This was such a revolutionary role for you, to show people you were still around.
Robert Forster: Oh, my career was dead. I didn't have an agent, a manager, a lawyer, nothing. At that point, I was hoping some kid who liked me growing up would turn into a movie-maker and give me a good job. That's what happened.
Can you talk about working with Quentin on the set? I know he has a very unique style, but this was his first adaptation.
Robert Forster: First of all, he writes period dialogue. Nobody writes dialogue as good as he does. You start out with something that not only comes out of your mouth easily, but it comes out the way thoughts come out of your mouth. He writes stuff that you know is great to begin with. As I remember, he always has very interesting little pieces of direction. The best direction I ever remember getting from him was, early on he said, 'Just make me believe it.' For an actor, that's the basic thing you have to remember. Make it truthful and make sure the audience believes what's going on. He was fun. He was fun on the set. Most sets aren't nearly as much fun, and everybody contributes to that fun, not just the big guys. Sometimes the producers or whoever the big guys are stand around the set, kissing ass with the director. They're the only ones who get to say anything fun. On Quentin's set, the guy who brought the coffee had fun and added to it, the guy who pushed the dolly, everyone on that set was a part of that set. There were practical jokes and it was really the most memorable set I've ever been on. There were things that happened there that you wouldn't expect to happen on a movie set.
That's impressive as well, with such a huge cast like this, this incredible ensemble. It's great to hear that the whole environment really permeated throughout the set.
Robert Forster: It did indeed, actually.
Elmore Leonard had said that Jackie Brown was one of the most faithful adaptations of his novels, even though there are some key changes, like Jackie Brown is actually white in the book, and things like that. I was curious if you ever went back and revisited the book after the movie?
Robert Forster: I don't think I ever did read the book again, but I remember when I read the script that, 'Ah, Max Cherry doesn't have a wife anymore.' In the book, he had an ex-wife and he was in a really good relationship. I thought to myself, these aren't the kinds of things you usually think of, when you think of a hard-boiled detective. These were honest and real things. Of course, movies can only be so long and you can't put everything in, so I realized right away that he had slimmed down the needs of the story to what story he wanted to tell. It was a great story, so I stopped worrying about what Rum Punch included, as soon as I read the script. I knew I was into something here that was its own thing, and it was great.
You have most of your scenes with Pam (Grier), Samuel L. Jackson, and Tommy (Lister). Can you talk about your time on the set with them? Did you have a lot of time to get to know them before you started shooting?
Robert Forster: First of all, Quentin did something I had never experienced before. We did a rehearsal period. Not just a table read, but for two weeks, we went to each of the locations and anyone who was in the scenes at those locations went for a couple of days. We read the material, got a chance to feel what it was like, and during those days is when I got to know the other actors a little bit. These are actors who I had great admiration for and who were really at the top of their game. These were big actors, and I hadn't had a big start in some years. My career was dead, so showing up there with Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, you name it. Everybody on that set was really, really good. Getting to know them a bit eased me back into a big start, for a guy who hadn't had one in a long time. Some of the things he did made it really easy to work with these actors who had big reputations.
There are so many memorable moments in this movie, for me. I was wondering if there is a scene you shot, or maybe something that happened behind-the-scenes, which will always stand out for you when you think about Jackie Brown?
Robert Forster: The last scene in the picture. He said to me at the beginning of the day, 'I haven't really decided how this movie is going to end. But today we're going to shoot the scene where Pam comes and you have your goodbye.' There was a point where he said, 'Now, when we get into the last moment, when you kiss, the phone is going to ring. Pick it up.' I said, 'OK.' We shot it once, and then we shot it a second time. I don't think we shot it more than twice, but the first time, I was unprepared for whatever was going to be at the end of that telephone call. When I realized there wasn't anything at the end of that phone call, I started thinking about who I was talking to. The second time I knew who I was talking to, a mother whose child was in trouble. I asked her whether the father was still around, but those were little improvised remarks, based on Quentin saying, 'At a certain moment during the scene, the phone will ring. Pick it up.' That was a moment during the movie where I said to myself, 'Geez, I'm working with a real master.' It was right near the end of the picture, as I remember, and that really stands out. Although, there are many other things. Quentin populated the Max Cherry set with personal items of mine. He came to my house, prior to shooting, asking me some personal things, what certain things were. I told him about my father, who had been on the Ringling circus during the 30s. He borrowed some for the art department. They put some of my father's bull hooks, he was an elephant trainer, he put that in my office. I opened the drawer one day and in the drawer there were business cards that said 'Max Cherry.' He gave me every reason to own that set, so when I did my first scenes with Samuel L. Jackson, I was the owner and that was my space. That gave me the great bearing on that set. These are the things that this guy does that nobody else does. He played music. Remember when Pam comes out of the prison and I get my first look at her? Quentin played the music and boy, this is the kind of thing that swells your insides. It shows on your face. When you had a telephone call with somebody, usually you would be talking with the script supervisor. This time, you picked up the phone and it was Samuel L. Jackson and we do our scene. It's not that hard to do, but nobody does it. This guy is totally his own guy with his own knowledge of how to make a movie. He's something.
You have a role on Alcatraz, which is a highly-anticipated new show. Is there anything you can say about your character, Ray Archer?
Robert Forster: Well, only that I possess some of the secrets which will be revealed, eventually, in the series. I run a bar, I am the father figure of the lead girl, Sarah Jones, and I was, in the story, a guard at Alcatraz, before I transferred into the San Francisco Police Department and became a detective. Sarah Jones decided she wants to be a detective too. I am retired and run a bar. When they shoot that bar, I go up to Vancouver and shoot it and when I'm not in the bar, I come back to Los Angeles. It's my part-time job, but I do possess some knowledge of the events that lead to the mystery of what Alcatraz is about. It's a real fun series. There is a lot going on.
Do you know how many episodes you'll be in during the first season?
Robert Forster: I'm contracted to be in 10 out of the 13, so I won't be in all of them, but when they need be, I'll go up to shoot it and then come back down.
Finally, what would you like to say to fans of the movie, or to anyone who, for some reason, has not seen Jackie Brown, about why they should pick up the Blu-ray this week?
Robert Forster: Well, it's crystal-clear! It's the best version of it. If you like your movies, Blu-ray is a fabulous way to see them.
Excellent. That's about all I have. Thank you so much for talking to me, Robert. It's been a real pleasure.
Robert Forster: The pleasure is mine. Thank you.