I recently got the chance to talk to Stephen Blackehart about his role in Rainn Wilson’s new film, ‘Super’. Here, Stephen talks about how he got involved in the project and his early work as a Disney casting director…
Hey Stephen. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film ‘Super’. It looks, well super. Sorry.
Ha! No worries. That was sort of the running joke on set anyway. You know, the ‘Super’ director, super cast, super lunch, super bathrooms, etc. Everything was the ‘Super’-something.
What’s the general premise around the film?
By now, it’s fairly well-known. A down-and-out fry cook has a mental breakdown (when his recovering-from-addiction wife leaves him for a charming drug dealer) and becomes a costumed vigilante known as The Crimson Bolt.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
I play something of a thug named Quill, one of Kevin Bacon’s henchmen. The back story is that Quill was the original, albeit small-time, house drug dealer in Jacques’ (Kevin Bacon’s) strip club. Eventually Jacques gets into “the game” and I, along with some of the other club staff, evolve into his crew.
How would you say this film is different to say ‘Kick Ass’ – (kind of the same idea – e.g. comedy fused with superheroness)….?
Well for one, (and James disagrees with me on this), I don’t think ‘Super’ is a comedy at all. I think that it’s a very dark and twisted drama with some funny moments in it. It’s much more akin to ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Falling Down’ than it is to anything in the comedy or standard superhero genres. Second, while both (Millar’s comic book & Gunn’s screenplay) were written about the same time, they’re very different animals. Once you get past the first act origin stories (and most “hero’s journey” structures start with the “Call to Action” plot), they diverge sharply from each other. The ‘Kick-Ass’ character emerges from his origin story as, essentially, a superhero. He has metal reinforcements inserted throughout his body and has lost most or all sensation of pain. He’s almost invulnerable. Despite his comic-book self-awareness, he’s exactly the thing the movie says it’s deconstructing, and indeed the third act is exactly what you’d get from a normal superhero film. By contrast, ‘Super’s Frank d’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) emerges from his origin story as a delusional psychotic. He truly has no powers, no mentor, no gifts at all…just years of pent-up frustration and rage. He has what Alan Watts or Joseph Campbell would call “essential psychosis”. ‘Kick-Ass’ is a traditional superhero; The Crimson Bolt is a (disturbed) vigilante.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I’ve been best friends with James since we did “Tromeo & Juliet” together in 1995. We became big fans of each other’s work, as well as each other’s morbid sense of humor. Over the years, we’ve worked on a lot of material together in one form or another. He often bounces ideas off of me or asks my opinion on the science of his set-pieces. So, though I didn’t contribute to the writing of ‘Super’, it was something we talked about since James first wrote it in 2002. I didn’t know what part he wanted me for until shortly before we shot it, but he had always told me he wanted me to be a part of it.
The film stars Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page and Liv Tyler – what was it like working with them on-set?
I didn’t have any scenes with Ellen, but she seemed really nice the couple of times I was around her. I know I’m biased, but I think it’s her best work to date. Liv and Rainn are really cool people. Kevin Bacon and Michael Rooker, too. Not a diva in the bunch. My favourite part of my experience with the film, in fact, was watching each of them approach their roles. They’re each so very different as people and as craftsmen, with such unique techniques, but they all deliver. And Gregg Henry is one of my favourite under-the-radar actors. I mean, working with a cast like that is truly mind-blowing. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
If you could be a superhero for a day, who would it be and why?
Only for a day, huh? Well, if you were to ask me that when I’m driving in traffic, I’d probably choose to be a super-villain. That’s when the worst, darkest side of my personality takes hold, and I just want to lay waste to the world. The rest of the time? Hmmm. I guess being Superman would make everyday life a lot easier, especially getting to work or flying around the world fast enough to turn back time (ha!), but more than a few days of that would get really boring, I think. I guess it’d be Iron Man. That way, life wouldn’t be overly easy, but I’d still get to fly, and do battle with lots of other power-suited folks (awesomely fun!), but I’d also be hugely rich and since I’m Tony Stark, I don’t have to be a goody-two-shoes. I can still drink, smoke and chase hot women! THAT’S the life!
Let’s talk a bit about you Stephen. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?
Me? For me it’s a calling, if that doesn’t sound overly pretentious. I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life until my last year in high school. I was at that age where I was just bored to death all the time, and started getting into a lot of mischief as a result. I remember my sister recommended that I take a drama class as a good way to meet girls. Ha! Acting, drama, theatre…none of it had ever been on my radar before that. So I took the class, and the very first time I had to go up in front and perform, I was thunderstruck. It was as if the clouds parted and the angels were singing – truly a religious experience! I knew right then and there that this was to be my life. Of course, there have been detours along the way, but my life has always pulled me back to it. Whether or not I ever amount to anything memorable as an actor, I firmly believe it’s what I was put on Earth to do. I’m sure that sounds strange or pretentious or even deluded, but I believe it.
You’ve had a number of different roles on a range of different mainstream projects – who has been your favourite actor to work with so far and who has given the best advice to you?
I guess Michael Rooker has been my favourite to work with so far…he’s such a screwball, but he takes what he does deadly serious. Probably the best advice I got though, was from Dustin Hoffman, when he talked to my acting class at Uta Hagen’s studio. He talked about not worrying about typing yourself as an actor, the way agents and casting directors want you to do. He was chums with Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman when they were all struggling, and the first thing agents wanted to know was what other (known) actors they were like. They all had to keep doing their own thing for a long time, doing bit parts, before people started to see or care about what was unique and special about each of them, but it made all the difference. I don’t put myself in that class of actors, sadly, but I take a lot of heart from that.
What has been the most interesting piece of local / national news you’ve heard in the last month?
I don’t follow much of the local LA news, and I don’t like politics particularly, but I am following the events in the Middle East quite a bit. The change going on in that part of the world is fascinating to me. I do believe that if people there begin to experience more freedom and a better life, we will have a much safer future in the West.
What music is currently on your I-Pod / CD music system?
Right now I’m listening to a lot of Glam, Goth and Punk from the late ‘70s through the late ‘80s. Even some of the New Romantics. You know, everything from ABC to The Skids, XTC to the Buzzcocks. I love that period in popular music.
We should mention that at a point in your career, you were a casting assistant for a range of Disney projects – in your mind – what kind of person makes a good Disney voice-over?
I worked for Disney when I still lived in New York. Disney would come out there to look at all the Broadway musical performers, since most of their animated features include a lot of singing. It’s amazing to listen to all of these performers, and hear the difference between someone who has a truly expressive voice, and someone else who might rely on their visual presentation more. Obviously, Disney was looking for the more expressive voices, though they do use the actors’ physical style as a jumping-off point for their drawing. Probably my favourite was seeing Jerry Lewis audition, while he was doing ‘Damn Yankees’ on Broadway. He was an absolute dynamo…incredibly alive and present in his work. And he must’ve been 70 years old at the time!
What does a Stephen Blackehart day usually consist of?
Well, it’s not as exciting as you might imagine. If I have an audition, I usually spend the early part of my morning working on the script over a half-gallon of coffee and half a pack of cigarettes. If I don’t, I’m usually tending to my night job, which is running a bar and restaurant in the Silver Lake neighborhood of LA. That means I make phone calls and send e-mails all day, then work out, shower, get to work, and be on the floor and run the place all night. Usually, when I get home at anywhere from 1 to 4AM, I like to watch at least one movie from my Netflix queue and/or catch up on some of the better television shows out there. I’m really digging ‘Breaking Bad’ right now, BTW! I love movies and television, but there’s also a work element to what I watch. I try to at least get a feel for the tone of different current shows, on the chance that I get to audition for them. After that, I hit the bed at around 5 AM, then get up the next day and start all over again.
What’s coming up for you in 2011?
Like most actors, I never know. The nature of the beast is that you have no idea of what’s around the corner. Your whole life can change with the next phone call. I’m up for a number of parts, but haven’t the slightest idea how any of it will play out. That can be unnerving to some, but I find it invigorating, exciting stuff!
Thanks for the interview!