A roundtable chat with Kevin Pollak of “Middle Men”

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A highly entertaining character actor, stand-up comic, and now also a screenwriter and Internet talk show host, Kevin Pollak will nevertheless remain forever in the shadow of three men. One is wise-guy crook Todd Hockney from Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer’s slambam 1995 debut, “The Usual Suspects” (currently at #24 of all-time most popular films on IMDb); the other two are, of course, William Shatner and Christopher Walken. So powerful are the Pollak impressions of these two men, I’d venture that when most of us attempt to impersonate either actor, we’re really not doing Shatner or Walken, we’re doing Pollak doing Shatner or Walken. (Though, personally, my extremely bad Christoper Walken is really a very bad impression of Kevin Spacey‘s Walken but, for all I know, Spacey got his from Pollak while shooting “Suspects.”). Indeed, I can remember a time when it seemed like nobody did Shatner and I’m pretty sure it was Pollak who kind of opened to door for all the other impressionists into the voice and mannerisms of the man Pollak calls “the Shat.”

Among the nearly 90 or more productions he’s been involved with as an actor, Kevin Pollak’s latest release is “Middle Men,” a black comedy-laced drama owing more than a little bit to Martin Scorsese. The film stars Luke Wilson as straight-arrow businessman Jack Harris who falls in with a pair of highly inventive cokeheads (Gabriel Macht and Giovanni Ribisi) and would be Internet porn kings during the late 1990s. The pair have developed the first really viable method for collecting money over the ‘net in a reasonable amount of time. Of course, things get massively complicated from there and Pollak turns up later in the film as an FBI agent who comes to Harris and his porn star girlfriend (Laura Ramsay) with a startling new reality. The film, co-written and directed by George Gallo, best known as the screenwriter of “Midnight Run,” is actually just part of an ongoing collaboration between the director and the actor-comic and now screenwriter.

As is often the case, I was one of a number of scribblers who were participating in a roundtable with Pollak during the “Middle Men” press day at L.A.’s Four Season’s hotel. Pollak arrived in a friendly but highly subdued mood. He was a late addition to the press day and obviously has been keeping very busy. Among many other projects, he had a new stand-up special ready premiering, and an increasingly popular podcast, Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, with recent guests including Neal Patrick Harris and John Slattery of “Mad Men.”  Pollak frankly seemed a little tired at first, though going out of his way to be funny — because that’s what you expect from Pollak. Things perked up as it went.

How did Pollak get involved with the film?

“George Gallo called me and said ‘I’ve got this script, I’m gonna direct and I’d like you to read it and be in it.’ And I said, ‘Who’s this?’ And then, here we are…I’ve known [George] a long time.”

Had he heard anything about the factually-inspired story before?

Gabriel Macht and Giovanni Ribisi in “No, I hadn’t heard the story before. Had you? I don’t think anyone did. I don’t think they went terribly public with it, these two idiots [played by Gabriel Macht and Giovanni Ribisi] in question. ‘Nutty geniuses’ may be more flattering. Maybe the story did come out briefly. Seems to me if you help create a way to change commerce forever, you would want your story told, but I’m not the one to ask as to why this is the first time we’re hearing this.”

Did Pollak research his role as an FBI agent in any way?

“No, I’ve never done any research for any movie I’ve ever done. I started out in stand-up comedy, had no formal training as an actor. I found pretty early on that all I had to offer was to be believable and authentic in whatever role I was portraying. I had a sort of natural ability to be loose in front of a camera… For me, honestly, the research is always the script. Read the script 25 times — but, literally, read the script 25 times and hopefully the writer’s done all the research that’s necessary. Because, if I’m an FBI guy it’s never about how to be an FBI guy, it’s about a guy who is with the FBI. Unless I star in the movie ‘I Was an FBI Guy’ and I don’t see that happening, to be honest with you.”

Sure, that could happen, one of us said. Agent Curt Allmans could be spun off into his own film.

“You’re my favorite!” Pollak responded in a sort of Liberace-esque voice.

Then I noted that Pollak has a co-writing credit on an upcoming film to be directed by George Gallo and produced by Christopher Mallick, the producer of “Middle Men” and the source of its historically driven story.

“I wrote it with George Gallo and it’s called ‘Columbus Circle.’ I acted in it as well and it came out fairly terrific. It tested wonderfully, surprisingly well, and is now shopping for distribution.”

Could he explain what the movie is about?

“No. It seems wildly premature, other than to say it’s a twisting, turning Hitchcockian tale. Terrific cast, Giovanni Ribisi, Selma Blair, Amy Smart, Jason Lee, myself, Beau Bridges, Jason Antoon who plays the slimy director in ‘Middle Men.’ George did a great job, again, directing. We wrote it on the plane ride from Cannes with this movie and then landed and 20 days later started shooting. So that’s probably the best part of the story… It was born of necessity.”

“Chris Mallick, our producer here who flew us all to Cannes out of the bigness of his heart and wallet, had built these two sets on a sound stage at [CBS’s Burbank studios] to do this other movie. Then, he lost the rights — this other movie was a remake… had these sets built and spent a couple million dollars building them. [He] told me the situation when we were in Cannes, the day before we went on the jet to go home. The next morning I got on the jet and said, ‘Here’s a story that takes place 90% in these two loft apartments that you built on the sound stage.'”

“Then, I, Giovanni Ribisi, Brian Tyler (the composer of ‘Middle Men’), Jason Shuman (one of the producers), and Chris Mallick beat out all the bullet points and beats of the script. Then, George Gallo and I hit the ground running when we landed. We wrote the script and started sending it out eight days later and started shooting 20 days later.”

The next question was honestly under-informed, but Pollak didn’t mind one bit. Was he still doing stand-up and, if not, did he miss it?

“I don’t miss it because I still do it. In fact, a brand new, one-hour stand-up special just debuted on Showtime. It’ll be viewable all throughout August and then on DVD September 7th — glad you asked! It’s called ‘The Littlest Suspect.’

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Pollak followed that with a bit of visual laughing-at-his-own-joke business. “‘Where does he come up with it? Right off the top, I suppose.’ That’s why I wear a hat.”

And that somehow led to the old, old, old, old question about where he finds his material.

“You know, I always did impersonations, it was what I was known for. But, over the years, I ended up working with a lot of these people that I’d been impersonating. I found that I had first-hand anecdotes of being around them, [like] meeting Christopher Walken the first time after impersonating him on TV.”

“Mostly the act is storytelling of these life experiences that actually happened with these people that I’ve been impersonating. So you have the real story, you have my perspective, and then you have, alright say it, my flawless impersonation of the person within the story. So, that’s the bulk of the act.”

Have any of the people Pollak impersonated not been in love with his rendition of their voice?

Jason Statham
“Knock wood, not yet. But I did fear doing Jason Statham in this special. I did not want to get — and still don’t want to get that — if he should be reading or listening, however this comes out, Jason, I don’t want to get that phone call at four in the morning…”

Naturally, Pollak launched into a, yes, reasonably flawless and very funny impression of the imposing Englishman.

“‘Do you know who I am? Do you fucking know who I am? What did I tell you, mate? [I’m going to] rip your fucking heart out. Do you know what I mean? Do you fucking know what I mean?’ I don’t want that call.”

Christopher Walken, however, is a fan of his impression.

“He loves it. Me and Quentin Tarantino were the two speakers when Christopher Walken got his hands and feet and signature in cement in the [Chinese] Theater on Hollywood Blvd. Why I was chosen, having never met him prior, was because of the impersonation. So that couldn’t have been more [exciting] than that moment, and that’s one of the stories in the Showtime special,” Pollak added, working in another plug.

Then I asked about the age-old high-class problem that comedians find in more serious roles that audiences, myself definitely included, tend to laugh or at least smile when he comes on the screen, regardless of the content of the movie. Is this a problem in straight films?

“‘Straight films’ — instead of all the gay work I’ve been doing.”

I meant ‘non-comedy’ roles.

“‘Drama.’ ‘Drama’ is the word you were looking for. Let me you help. The ‘drama’ word.'”

Correct enough, I soldiered on, but what about that time it takes for an audience to figure out, depending on the nature of the role, that Pollak may not be making them laugh a huge amount in a given role. Does he feel somewhat pigeonholed by that expectation?

Kevin Pollak and Adam Brody in “I don’t, I tell ya. First of all, being a character actor I’ve had the freedom — the luxury and privilege — of doing a range of different characters, but however people discover you is how they know you. So, if you saw me first as a stand-up that’s what you think of. ‘A Few Good Men‘ was a giant leap for me. It was a welcome to the big leagues basically. Also, the character was written as sort of the conscience of the piece and I was the only actor, in a cast of giants, who the audience was [saying] ‘Who’s this guy?’ That’s how so many people discovered me. If you discovered me in that movie, then you’d think of me more in that way.”

Then it was someone else’s turn again. How much has show business changed for Pollak since he started out in the 80s?

“In every way possible.”

Is it harder or easier?

“It’s harder to make a living. It’s not harder, necessarily, to work with great people or…I mean opportunity comes and goes. There’s an ebb and flow of one’s career, if you have a career. So, as a character actor you come and go depending on the needs and desires of filmmakers as opposed to the studio. They don’t turn to me to sell tickets, so it’s kind of a luxury in that regard. But, in terms of making a living, that financial part of the business has changed, as it has in every other business.”

“So, fortunate for me, I have always been able to diversify so I’ve managed to make a comfortable living. Acting in movies is not the comfortable living it once was for a character actor. Other aspects of it, in terms of the fun to be had, in terms of the opportunities, in terms of the amazing filmmakers that I’ve been able to work with, that hasn’t changed.”

Then the topic turned to acting with Giovanni Ribisi. Though offhand I can’t remember any scenes in “Middle Men” with both the Ribisi and Pollak characters together, apparently they do work together in “Columbus Circle.” Were there any conflicts between Pollak’s intuitive style and Ribisi’s more intense approach that might have him tagged as a “method” actor. (If you read to the end of my Bullz-Eye interview with Ribisi, you’ll see a particularly vivid example of that.)

Giovanni Ribisi in “I’ve worked with method actors before. I don’t know if he would be considered a strict method actor in the full sense of the word, the people who study the so-called [Stanislavsky] method. In the past, working with method actors, I’ve found that there’s very little fun to be had, which confused me. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to do this if they weren’t having fun. I was quite relieved with Giovanni… While his work ethic was one that made it very important to him to do good work, and he’s his own biggest critic, there is a tremendous amount of fun to be had and silliness between takes as opposed to a ‘don’t look me in the eye’ type of thing.”

The topic then turned to Pollak’s various audiences from various gigs and his best known role.

“The weird thing about ‘The Usual Suspects’ is that it regenerates a new audience because it’s one of these weird rights of passage in college. By the time you’re a sophomore, if you can’t speak ‘Suspects’ you’re a loser, like to this day. I thought [that] would fade and it’s now 15 years later and that’s still the case. So, that sort of helps to regenerate a new audience.”

“Even when I tour as a stand-up, the audience tends to be my similar to my age, who know me as a stand-up first. Then, a whole bunch of 20-somethings who know me from these other movies, or who have seen me do Christopher Walken who’s a hero of theirs and who just want more of that.”

“Now, I’ve just started doing this online talk show, ‘Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show,’ and now, almost a year and a half into it, I’m running into people who are just coming up and saying, ‘I love your podcast.’ It streams live video every Sunday afternoon. I check the audio download numbers — 1.2 million audio downloads in the last three months…because of that it’s starting to reach that critical mass and people are coming up and saying ‘I really dig the podcast, dude…'”

“I found early on, if you’re not creating, you’re waiting, and I don’t enjoy waiting. I never know when someone comes up and I see in their eyes that they’re about to recognize me, what they’re actually going to say. It can be a little annoying when they say, ‘What’s that thing I saw you in?’ Then we’re screwed because as much as I want to explain, I wasn’t with you when you saw it.”

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