In Collaborator, David Morse plays the bad guy, but beyond the stock description, “Gus” is lost and flailing, not evil, just confused and running for his life within the bounds of his own head.
Morse has built a career playing characters that, at first glance, seem like they can be easily labeled — cops, doctors, good guys, bad guys, and victims — but all require a deeper examination.
The actor is presently co-starring in Collaborator, and also the upcoming third season of Treme. Here he talks to us about the challenges of finding depth in Gus, contentment with the type of roles he’s playing now, how first time director Martin Donovan compares to other actors-turned-filmmakers that he has worked with like Sean Penn, the genius of David Simon, and his take on the alleged turmoil surrounding World War Z.
Here now, is David Morse.
You and Martin Donovan spend a great deal of the movie in a room together and it’s like this great tennis match between you two — was there time to rehearse much before hand, and was there a lot of improv on set?
David Morse: Martin shot this movie, he shot it up in Canada. It takes place in Los Angeles, you know, sunny Los Angeles and we shot it in snowing-all-the-time Canada, and he asked me if, while we were prepping this, if I would fly up to Canada and spend a few days rehearsing the film because it was the first film he has directed and because he was starring in it. He wanted to get a real head start on some of these scenes so he could be a little freer as an actor when we actually got to shooting them. So I took the trip up to Canada.
If there was any improvising, it was more just in terms of kind of discovering how these two men were in the room because we were goona spend a lot of time in that house, and just finding the ways of being in that house, and the realities of being in that house while I was holding him hostage.
Were there ever concerns that Gus might be perceived as a broad interpretation of a “Right Wing Nut Job”?
DM: I don’t think that I ever thought about that. Gus just seems so much a product of his circumstances. I think it would be kind of hard to judge him in that way, for me anyway.
Martin is very politically minded and it was important for him to express some of his own feelings through his character about things like the Vietnam war. I think if there was any concern it would be more towards his character because Gus was really just responding to the stuff that came out of Robert. Gus didn’t have any agenda about that, Robert, Martin’s character had more of an agenda than Gus did.
Was there any apprehension, any concern about “been there, done that” since you were on the other side of the thing in The Negotiator, or were they just too different between the lines for you to worry about any loose similarity?
DM: In terms of a hostage thing, no. I mean, this was so different than The Negotiator. That really was a total cop movie and this was not a cop movie in any way. My real concern was that I’ve played a number of people you would call bad guys, some who really are bad guys and I didn’t want to… when Martin sent me the script, I didn’t want to just keep playing a bad guy, I wanted to make sure we really understood and we were coming from the same place in terms of Gus, and we clearly were. There is so much that is endearing about Gus in a lot of ways — and funny, I really wanted to make sure that that was as important to Martin as anything else that happened in that room between these two men.
You told the New York Times, while doing press for The Seafarer back in 2008, “I did a lot of those bad guys, and people started thinking of me that way.” You’ve also mentioned previously the typecasting that you experienced after St. Elsewhere – are you happy with the types of characters you’re playing and being offered, or do you still deal with the frustration of typecasting?
DM: No-no, I’m definitely… you know I’ve been doing this series Treme, and I’ve also played a lot of policemen and I’ve played some bad policemen, but doing this show, the character I’m playing on there, I like a lot. The characters that I like — in World War Z, I got to do something really fun in that. In The Odd Life of Timothy Green which is coming out in August, and Collaborator. There have been a bunch of things that I’ve done — George Washington in John Adams – I love these characters that get to bridge both worlds, because it’s more of what human beings are.
You’ve worked with actors who became directors before, how does Mr. Donovan compare to someone like Sean Penn, and as someone who has observed both, and someone who has directed and written a little for television, what is the biggest challenge of wearing all those hats?
DM: Well nobody has worn all of the hats in the way that Martin does in this movie. Sean was not in the movies that I did (The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard), he just wrote them and directed them. Tim Robbins, I just worked with a couple times on Treme.
Martin, you know, is starring in this thing, he wrote it, directed it, produced it, you know he bit off a lot with this and he has that incredible task of being, as an actor, having to be in his soul and in his heart but not in his head. At the same time, he had to be a director and he had to be in his head, watching what was going on while we were shooting it and then he had to be concerned about writing and lighting and everything else on the set. It was a huge, huge task that he gave himself and I think he pulled it off pretty damn admirably. I don’t recommend it for most people.
You mentioned Treme, what can you tell me about David Simon, the series, the city of New Orleans, and what we can expect in season 3?
DM: The way he works, he really likes to think of what he does as a novel, sort of a Dickens novel, where things that happen in the first season are paying off in the third season. Just in terms of my own character, playing this policeman — at the end of the second season there is something that happened in New Orleans for real, about the Danziger Bridge, that some police were involved in, killing innocent people and there is a trial that just ended this year and that really escalates in the third season. It feels like everyone’s stories just escalate, elevate – they’re all building and it gets intense.
I’m definitely a big fan, I’m only halfway through the second season and I love his work, going back to Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, obviously.
DM: Honestly, he is amazing. I have to say, there is not anybody in television who is doing what he’s doing, what he and Eric Overmyer, who actually wrote on St. Elsewhere, and theyre doing this together, and I don’t know if anybody but HBO who would support a show like this, because it’s so unlike anything else.
You mentioned World War Z before, do you want to call BS on some of the rumors that Marc Forster was “not empowered” or that he was lackluster as a leader on the set of World War Z? That’s something that has been going around, and do you expect to be called back for some of the re-shoots they’re planning?
DM: I’ve not heard anything about re-shoots. I was just talking to somebody else who asked me about the re-shoots and its the first time I’ve heard anything. You know, I was on that for a week and it was a ball, I just had a ball doing it. I’ve never been on anything the scale of this movie, I’ve done some big movies, but the scale of this one is just over the top. I don’t know… and you know, you saying this is the first I’ve actually heard that about Marc, it was not my experience at all.
It’s a thing thats going around right now — with stuff like this, the media gets a nugget of something and they try to turn it around and they try to make it into a much bigger deal. With any kind of little issue where they have to do any kind of re-write, they try to make it into a bigger thing.
DM: When I was shooting on the movie they didn’t even have their ending, so that has nothing to do with the director, that has to do with everybody involved, you know, deciding to shoot whatever the budget is, 200 million dollars, I’m guessing. You know, They all decided to do that movie and didn’t have a clear sense of how to end it.
I believe thats what they’re working towards now, I believe they brought in Damon Lindelof from Lost and Prometheus, the writer, to do, kind of, a re-write on the third act.
DM: Well that doesnt surprise me, but theres are many movies — when we did Negotiator it was the same thing. We wound up not shooting for a week while the actors and the writers all tried to figure out how to end that movie and we wound up with a really good ending on that movie. Gladiator was something they wrote as they went along, you know I heard the same kind of stories about it. So you know, there are very successful movies that turn out just fine. The Rock had a lot of different writers on it, so I wouldn’t put too much into that.