James Marsden, Giovanni Ribisi and Bobby Moresco Interview

The actors and director get personal about their latest project

In 1999, I saw a film called The Other Sister, which starred Giovanni Ribisi and Juliette Lewis as a mentally retarded couple trying to stay together, however her parents (Diane Keaton and Tom Skerritt) wouldn't allow the relationship to continue. Giovanni's performance blew me away; I had seen him in other films, but that film made me a true fan of his work.

Since then, he's gone on to be known as 'Phoebe's brother' from Friends and Nic Cage's brother in Gone in Sixty Seconds. But, Giovanni stands alone as one of the greatest American actors today.

In his latest film, 10th & Wolf, he portrays Joey, a hot-head member of the Philadelphia mob. After getting reconnected with his cousin, Tommy (James Marsden), he decides to go after the people who killed his father a few years ago.

10th & Wolf is loosely based on the true story of the real Donnie Brasco; it's written and directed by Bobby Moresco, who wrote and produced Crash. This film marks his directorial debut.

More and more as I talk about this film, I like it even better. We caught up with Giovanni, James, and Bobby who talked about working together on this film, and how incredible the environment was on set as they were making the movie.

To get the full experience of the interview, here's the entire transcript:

When you were going to write the script, did you know you were going to direct it as well?

Bobby Moresco: No.

So how did that come about?

Bobby Moresco: They asked me to write the script; there was an earlier draft of which I took total departure. I told them I was going to do that, and I told the other writer I was going to do that, or otherwise I wasn't going to take it on; that seemed important to me. And we were shooting Crash, it was right while we were shooting Crash. And when I was finished writing the script, I gave it to the original writer, Chazz Palminteri, who was going to direct it. And Chazz was very complimentary, and felt that it was a totally different movie, which it was. He backed out, and they offered me the job to direct it, which is quite wonderful - I thank Chazz for that officially. And Chazz was very gracious; he said, 'Bobby, it's a wonderful script, just not the movie I wanted to make.' I think Chazz was going to make a more conventional gangster movie, which is on the level of what he wanted to do. It's just not on the level of what I wanted to do.

Was he attached to act as well?

Bobby Moresco: No, I directed Chazz as well, and it would have been great to have him, but he wasn't.

So when did you guys get involved?

James Marsden: It was during the casting process; I got sent the script, and it was at that point, he was attached to direct it and I read the script and it was something that spoke to me and it was a great character with lots of different levels, and very rich. And it was an opportunity to do something different and a chance to work with a real actor's director.

Giovanni Ribisi: Yeah, for me - as I eat my strawberry - I was initially not necessarily in the idea of doing another gangster movie; I felt like that genre had been really exhausted my agent was pushing me to just 'read it, read it, read it.' And I did, and I was really blown away; it's something that really superseded that genre and it goes a lot deeper and a lot more personal, and is a lot more than just bad guys and good guys. And as such, we spoke a lot about that during the rehearsal process with Bobby about really making a story - I hate to say the 'gray area' because that sort of means something that it's not. It's different, but it's really going deeper about loyalty and betrayal. And I think under any banner or setting that can apply; and I guess ultimately, there would be a common thread, which I think is great, and important. And important for films now a days, which would be the idea of desire what people will do and the lengths people will go to, to achieve that - whether it's good or bad, it's about human behavior. I was really fortunate to work with both James and Bobby; Bobby comes from the theater, and he understands the importance of rehearsal, and what that means to a film, in terms of the confidence the film overall will have. And as well as the fact that Bobby came from that life; he grew up in Hell's Kitchen in the 70's, and 50% of the rehearsals were based on the stories he would tell, and how incredible that was. And he's an incredible human being; his take on that was not like, 'OH YEAH! RAD! GUNS!' It was really about 'wow, this person did this.' And when this person walked into this bar at this particular moment, whether he could have walked down this road or this road, he did this and it was really from a story telling perspective.

James and Giovanni, did you know the characters you were playing; and Bobby, did you know the characters you were writing about?

Bobby Moresco: You know, it's based on, actually not based on, taken from an incident that happened in Philadelphia in 1991, but that's really just a jumping off point. I took almost nothing of the real-life incident, and hopefully it created something that has to do with the world that we live in today. Hopefully, it will transcend a gangster movie to something that has contemporary relevance, hopefully. It's not by accident that 90% of the scenes in this movie have flags in them; if you go back and watch the movie, there's a flag in every scene. And whether you stand on the left or right isle, I wasn't trying to take a stance there. We live in a world where we should question the things that are being told to us, whether it's from our fathers, uncles, Mafioso, the President of the United States, or if it's the Prime Minister of another country - anything that's being told to us in this information world of today, we must question, and then decide. I thought that was an important thing to say and to write. So I think the characters are complex and on both sides of the isle and you'll have to decide for yourself what's right and what's wrong - this character, or that character.

Did you go back and research this incident?

James Marsden: It was always available to us, or made available to us by Bobby; and like he said, loosely based on this incident. And like Giovanni was saying, just the stories he would tell of growing up in that environment, and knowing people that were dealing with these things that these characters were sort of dealing with. So it didn't require going too far out of our little eco-system; it was all there available to us.

Bobby Moresco: And I think that's part of the reason why these characters are so human, besides the incredible acting, and I hope you agree with me, because I did grow up with people like this. We're talking about real human beings, we're not talking about a character - and that makes a difference when you're talking about someone who you love and care about. And it does; my lineage is important to me, and I wouldn't talk to anyone unless I knew they cared. These guys brought a sense of love to these characters that I was blown away by.

James Marsden: And it was all to his credit - we're all here stroking each other's feathers - it was all there on the page; it's one of those things, you go there and read and I know who this guy is - I don't know him personally, but I want to explore him through Bobby.

Giovanni Ribisi: Yeah, that was one of the things about this script, you would read it over and over and over again and you would discover new things - 'Oh wow! Yeah, that!' And that's really exciting; that's where complexity is a good thing, and how many district specific elements are there - like a generality, like 'tough guy.'

Bobby Moresco: It's all about specifics.

Was the tongue your idea?

Giovanni Ribisi: The tongue?

Yeah, was that your idea?

Giovanni Ribisi: Idea? No, it's sort of a natural thing. And that was for the ladies!

Bobby Moresco: And that's the thing about wonderful actors; we never talked about that. One day, he showed up with it and I was like, 'Oh sh*t.'

James Marsden: But I will say, having said that, not ever director creates a tone or environment on set that's conducive to you doing that of looking ridiculous and falling on your face and trying something that may not work. But Bobby gave us a free pass - within limits, of course, within the confines of the script, the story, and the characters - but gave us the courage to 'let's find these guys, let's not make the same thing.' And it's a technical thing making film, but within those parameters Bobby just encourages us to collaborate and find those moments - and it's not always like that.

Bobby Moresco: Thank you (to James). But if you're going to make an action movie - and we talked earlier about Giovanni making the shoot-out human; but there's another shoot-out, I don't know if you remember in the butcher's. And Jimmy (James) had this one point; we talked about an hour, and you came back to me a little later on - but it occurred to me he wouldn't let this go because there was something not right, and we made a specific change that made that scene, that look. He wouldn't let it go; to anyone else, it's a gun fight, but these actors didn't allow that. And you hope to foster that better.

So as far as the script, you kept pretty close, and no improv?

James Marsden: I never felt like it needed it.

Giovanni Ribisi: No, if you do improvising, it can sometimes end up being a waste of time. You have someone who's so apt to doing that; and if you do that, it's more or less based on a writing process. You improvise during a rehearsal process, and nail down what you're going to do. But it's really not - you didn't feel it was a necessity to do that; the writing felt so organic, you just wanted to serve that.

Bobby Moresco: I don't think that people - many people today, understand the nature of what an improv does for an actor in a specific setting. What an improv does for an actor is help him find the life; it's the life that an actor's after. What he says is much, much less important than a life, so that's the great use for improvisation; you go, you find the life, you find the life, you find the life and then you add the words.

How did Val Kilmer get involved, and why did he have such a small part?

Bobby Moresco: No, Val was originally signed to play the role that Dash Mihok played, and I love Dash; I directed him in another movie, I would work with Dash in anything, I love him, I was happy to have him. But originally, it was Val, and then we changed dates - the financing didn't come through in terms of what we wanted, the financier was originally going to put up a certain amount of money and the deal didn't quite work, so we pushed it a month so we lost Val. And, in the end, this financier, Jeff Todd, put up all the money. He said, 'The hell with everybody,' which g-d bless him - a great guy. But anyway, so we lost Val, but Val called me up when we changed the dates; he said, 'Hey, I love this movie, write me a part.' So I said, 'Ok.' So, I wrote that role, originally it wasn't in the script - (to Giovanni) 'Was it in the script you read?'

Giovanni Ribisi: Initially, I don't think so.

Bobby Moresco: So that's what happened; I lost Val and I thought this a really interesting challenge, let's see if it works. But that's how it happened, Val wanted to do the movie and I wanted him in it.

James Marsden: And he's from Pittsburgh too, isn't he? And he would bring his mom to the set everyday.

Bobby Moresco: And his mom was on the set, oh yeah!

Giovanni Ribisi: In that strip club, yeah, exactly. 'Val, come down, come on.'

James Marsden: Send me work.

Bobby Moresco: Val's the greatest guy in the world; I mean, he's had a reputation of sorts over the last few years but I can't tell you what a great guy he is.

James Marsden: It was a ball working with him.

Giovanni Ribisi: Yeah, and a sweetheart; that's the second movie I did with him.

Bobby Moreseco: And ever since, we've been looking for something else and maybe we'll find it, because I love the guy.

What about Tommy Lee, because he's perfect for that part?

Bobby Moresco: You know -

James Marsden: Why didn't Tommy bring his mom?

Bobby Moresco: Tommy brought somebody else's mother! You know, my producers called me up. Apparently, Tommy had heard about the project, and my producers said, 'Will you meet with Tommy Lee?' And I said (sarcastically) 'Sure I will.' And they said, 'No really, he wants to act.' And so I said, 'Ok, I'll take a meeting with the guy, he wants to act.' So I take the meeting cause I figure I'll just take the meeting and it'll be a bunch of bologna and that'll be that. So first thing he said to me is, 'I really love the script; I loved it so much I almost finished the whole thing!' But then we start talking, and I see he really wants to act; he calls me the next day and says, 'I finished the script; it's incredible! I will do anything you want me to do; I'll come as early as you want, I'll stay as late as you want, just tell me - I just would like to be in this movie.' And it was this role of Jimmy Tats, and who's better than Tommy Lee for Jimmy Tats? And he convinced me much like Ludacris in Crash. You know, I sit down, face-to-face meeting and convinced me that he was serious about acting. And Tommy showed up; he came back for re-shoots, he changed the schedule for a date he had for a concert - he was an ultimate professional. So how it came about is he convinced me that he was serious about acting - and indeed he was.

What was the environment like on set; it's a dark story, but there are some humorous moments?

Giovanni Ribisi: Yeah, we were doing that scene with Piper (Perabo), right? In the bar, it was before the club opens, and it was this really dramatic scene where I have talk to her and talk to her about her husband - he was murdered and the whole thing. In between takes, you're sitting there, you're concentrating, you're trying to focus on the emotion of the scene and, in between takes, Tommy Lee shows up with I guess a gaggle -

Bobby Moresco: A gaggle's a good word.

Giovanni Ribisi: Strippers from the real strip club next door - and it was his first -

Bobby Moresco: A tap on my shoulder, 'Bobby, I have a present for you.' I turned around and went 'Ah!'

Giovanni Ribisi: Well I guess the whole rock world is a different thing.

James Marsden: That's his focusing; that's how he focuses.

Giovanni Ribisi: Yeah, and everybody has their own way and their own process -

Bobby Moresco: But the greatest thing was, I was in between takes one night and I went walking by one of the trailers, and my daughter and two of the other actors and Tommy were sitting there playing poker in the trailer - see, he's just the sweetest guy in the world.

Giovanni Ribisi: Yeah, he is.

Bobby Moresco: Just stark raving mad.

And were these strippers background for the club?

Bobby Moresco: No, these are just extracurricular strippers that Tommy happened to find.

James, do you know if there is going to be a Cyclops spin-off?

James Marsden: Yeah, I think this is going to be - no, no, I, um - I have no idea. I don't think that they're doing a Cyclops spin-off, but, if they're doing a 4th one, I don't know, I doubt it. I think they're just going forward with the Wolverine spin-off, I think with Hugh.

Are you interested in coming onboard?

James Marsden: I think it's a prequel so it's prior to our meeting in the first film so, yeah.

If they came to you?

James Marsden: Oh, yeah! No, I feel very lucky to be a part of those films and great affection for the comics and for those characters and I feel very lucky to be a part of it and I would. If they'd have me, I'd be a part of everyone they did.

How come you often are 'the other guy' in your movies: The Notebook, X-Men, Superman Returns, who loses the girl to someone else?

James Marsden: You know that if you have me in the film, and I'm the other guy that doesn't get the girl, it's going to do really well. I'm the sort of perfect third wheel, the thorn in everybody's side. I know it's time to just have me in a love rectangle or something.

How was working with Piper?

Bobby Moresco: They were great together onscreen.

James Marsden: And she's terrific in the film too; yeah I wish I could say - it wasn't planned to sort of have that common denominator in all the films, but yes I've become supremely cognizant of if now.

What are you guys all working on after this?

Giovanni Ribisi: I just finished 5 movies back to back and just the whole - there's the pre-production, production and the promotion of the movie - once you do that just getting geared up for that.

Any one in particular that you can talk about?

Giovanni Ribisi: Yeah, there's a movie that I did with Don Cheadle and Lynn Collins and a bunch of other people called The Dog Problem; Scott Caan is in it and it's great. I mean it really turned out to be something good, so I'm going to go to Toronto for that and then yeah -

Is that the one Scott wrote and directed?

Giovanni Ribisi: Yeah, yeah, it turned out.

I saw the movie last night Dallas 362 -

Giovanni Ribisi: Yeah, that's a different thing; that's his fist movie and he should be proud of it. The Dog Problem - who would have thought? It's James Caan's son who's so talented; he's written, I think, six plays and a put them up and this is his second movie and I guess it's got a lot of hype, people are digging it - which is cool because it's like we made the thing for I think like $1 million or something like that yeah -

Bobby Moresco: That's great! That's terrific!

James Marsden: Well I'm just doing some 'other guy roles.' No, I just finished a film called Enchanted with Amy Adams and Susan Sarandon, for Disney.

Giovanni Ribisi: I love Amy Adams. I saw her -

James Marsden: She's a talent, she's terrific in Junebug and a consummate pro and a really more impressive human being. And that's sort of a musical fable, half-animation like old traditional 2D animation, basically like Snow White if were then to become a real human being in the middle of New York City. I worked an afternoon for voiceover work on this new Conan voiceover animated film. And then I'm getting ready to star in Hairspray, the movie based on the musical, that's based on the movie.

Do you sing?

James Marsden: I do, yeah, not like, I'd never say I sing professionally but I do it as sort of a hobby.

Bobby Moresco: I'm shooting a television show that me and Paul Haggis, my partner on Crash, created for NBC called The Black Donnellys. We go on the air in January; we're shooting it now, I'm executive producing it. I'm writing a movie for Walden Pictures called Heat, based on Mike Lupica's bestseller. And I have a comedy I'm doing in May, I'm directing with Evangeline Lilly - my first romantic comedy and I'm going to try and gaggle these guys in there.

How does that compare to doing a thriller?

Bobby Moresco: I don't know, it's my first one.

James Marsden: I mean obviously you've seen the comedy in this film!

10th & Wolf opens in limited theaters and cities August 18th; it's rated R. Look for a wider expansion in the weeks to come.