It was a gut-wrenching death on this week’s “Harper’s Island,” partly because it was gruesome, partly because you were forced to sit there knowing full well that it was impending and couldn’t be stopped, but mostly because it was a character we knew more about than just about anyone else on the show.
This is another one of those cases where, although I wasn’t rooting for this person to get the call from Karim, I was still very much looking forward to talking to the actor in question…and, in fact, I enjoyed the interview so much that, although I’m not going to mention the person until after the jump, I will at least say this much to random web surfers who happen upon this entry: you don’t have to be a dedicated viewer of “Harper’s Island” to click onward. You could just be a fan of the work of David Milch (“Deadwood,” “John from Cincinnati”), or of “Supernatural,” and you’d still enjoy reading what lies after the jump.
So what are you waiting for?
(Special thanks go out to Bullz-Eye’s legendary layout man, Brian Smith, who – even though his wife is expecting a child at any minute – still found time to help a brother out by putting together this week’s header graphic for me, since I had a computer crash last week and still haven’t rescued Microsoft Office from the old system. His graphics work kicks the ass of anything I’ve done…but, then again, that’s what he gets paid to do, and I’m taking comfort in that.)
Premium Hollywood: Hey, Jim, how’re you doing?
Jim Beaver: Hey, Will!
PH: Good to talk to you.
JB: Same here!
PH: Well, as a well-known character actor, arguably the most famous face on the show besides maybe Harry Hamlin and Richard Burgi, did they approach you to be on “Harper’s Island,” or was it your traditional audition process?
JB: I think it was probably kind of a mixture, because Jon Turteltaub, one of the executive producers, is an old, dear personal friend of mine, although I’d never worked for him before. And then the other executive producer, Jeff Bell, I had done a series for last year called “Daybreak.” So I think they knew pretty early that they might have some interest in me, but at the same time, I did come in to audition. So I think it was a mixture of the two.
PH: How quickly did you and Elaine Cassidy (Abby) pull together your characters’ father-daughter relationship? I would think it’d be a little easier than most such situations, just because the characters hadn’t been close in ages.
JB: Well, the material in the script was very rich in terms of suggesting how that relationship should be played, and Elaine is a very intuitive and empathetic actor. Just from the very first moment that we met, the relationship seemed to build rather naturally, except for the fact that, in real life, we didn’t have any strain between us. But I think we grew very fond of one another very quickly, and it made it very easy to play, “What if these two people who cared about each other had this big strain in their relationship?” So I think it came together rather quickly and rather organically.
PH: I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who, when Madison dropped the bombshell that it was the sheriff who’d kidnapped her, said, “No way, man, I’m not buying it!” Did you know at the time that line appeared in the script if it was true or not?
JB: (Laughs) At the time that line appeared in the script, I don’t believe I did know whether it was true or not. The way they structured the production…for about 99.999% of all of the information, the actors were kept in the dark up until we saw the scripts, and if the script alluded to something we didn’t understand, then we didn’t find it out until the next script explained it. So, no, I think when…you know, to me, I really enjoyed the game of making a show this way, where I and the other actors were guessing along with the audience…albeit, y’know, several months earlier. (Laughs) And so sometimes they would have us say or do things that completely caught us by surprise, and, yeah, at the point that Madison said that the sheriff had kidnapped her, I had no idea whether I had or not.
PH: I’ve heard some of the actors say that they would sit around and work out the intricate explanations as to how their character could be the killer.
JB: Oh, yeah. Yeah, you know, it was kind of a parlor game with us at nights and on the weekends and sitting around on set, trying to figure out and trying to eliminate possibilities. I don’t think anybody wanted…I think everybody was kind of anxious to find out, but I don’t think anybody wanted to be told in advance. I’m not sure. It kind of would’ve ruined the game, like, while you’re watching a tape of the game, somebody coming in in the second inning and telling you who won. (Laughs)
PH: One of the photos I’ve got for this piece is of you looking at your cell phone, and I was going to put the caption, “Karim Zreik? Oh, hell, I’m not answering that. They can’t kill me if I don’t answer!”
JB: (Laughs) That’s funny!
PH: How did you find out that you weren’t coming back to “Harper’s Island”?
JB: Well, apparently, from what I’ve heard from the other cast members so far, I’m kind of a solitary example, because Karim (Zreik) didn’t tell me. I got a call from Jeff Bell, one of the executive producers, and so because it was from Jeff, I wasn’t particularly expecting what he was calling about. But I was sitting in my apartment, probably watching television, and he called and…y’know, it was very business-like. It was, “Well, Jim, we’re gonna kill you off in this next episode.” And I said, “Oh, okay. How does it happen?” It wasn’t a lot of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I figured ten episodes out of thirteen, when two or three people are getting lopped off every episode, I was doing pretty well to make it that far.
PH: You defied the odds, definitely.
PH: When you were in the forest, that scream you gave…? I really believed you had been hit in the leg with a knife.
JB: (Laughs) Well, you know, it’s funny, because the first time we rehearsed it, I think I was probably trying to be a little too much John Wayne, because the director said, “Uh, you know, Jim, this really, really, really hurts.” “Oh. Okay.” So the next time we took it, I spit my larynx out somewhere in the forest there. It was a pretty miserable day, but it wasn’t because of the stake in my leg.
PH: I was going to ask you how you enjoyed the scenes in the woods. I’ve gotten mixed reports from the other actors.
JB: Well, that day, that one day with the spike or whatever it was that went into my leg, the day we shot that was the single most miserable day of my entire career, in terms of physical discomfort.
“That better not be Karim calling, because…oh, phew, it’s only Jeff Bell!”
JB: It was right around freezing, and it was raining buckets all day. Everybody else was bundled up in three or four down jackets, and they all looked like the Michelin Man, and I was out there in street clothes, crawling around in the mud and covered in fake blood. And it took all day. It was wet and miserable and very, very cold. But, you know, what, give up show biz? (Laughs)
PH: So what is it with you and sheriffs? You’ve played half a dozen of them in your career. Is it the beard? Does it give you the authority-figure vibe?
JB: I don’t think it’s the beard, because most of the sheriffs I’ve played have been before I…I grew the beard for “Deadwood” back in 2002, and just because so many of my jobs have overlapped, I haven’t been able to get rid of it! (Laughs) But, no, I don’t think it’s the beard. In fact, I think I’ve only played two sheriffs with beards, and I’ve always wondered about it, because I think they probably look askance at that in real life, but…I don’t know, it seems to be one of the niches I fit in pretty easily. It’s probably a certain dry or quiet aspect to my onscreen persona. I really don’t know. It’s kind of a kick for me, because every other show, every other film that comes along has a sheriff in it, so it’s been a nice thing for my career. But I don’t quite know how to explain it. (Laughs) I’m not nearly as tough as I play, so it can’t be that!
PH: Well, I guess having your character killed on “Deadwood” has probably saved you from being asked over and over again what you’ve heard about a “Deadwood” movie.
JB: Well, no, it actually hasn’t. (Laughs) I still get asked.
PH: Oh, well.
JB: Everybody who followed that show really wanted to see some more of it, as did I. It was not only one of my favorite jobs ever, but it was also one of my favorite shows ever, even if I hadn’t been connected with it., and I would’ve loved to have seen it extended somehow. But I’m afraid that ship has long since sailed.
PH: Were you surprised at the way Ellsworth’s storyline developed with Alma, or was it something that you kind of saw coming?
JB: No, I didn’t see that coming at all! I mean, c’mon, you saw me in the beginning of that show: I had green and yellow and black teeth, stringy hair, and a Gabby Hayes beard. I was covered in filth. Yeah, of course I’m going to marry the richest woman in town! No, I was really pleasantly surprised, and that’s one of the things I loved about doing “Deadwood.” To me, that was one of the greatest character arcs in television history! (Laughs) I always likened it to a Roy Rogers movie where Gabby Hayes marries Dale Evans. Yeah, I was very surprised. I mean, of course, it came on gradually, so I began to see things coming, but I certainly never expected anything like that when we started.
PH: Did you have any more idea what “John from Cincinnati” was about than anyone else did?
JB: Not particularly. (Laughs) I…the thing with me is that there isn’t a word David Milch could write that I wouldn’t willingly get in front of a camera and say. I trust him as a writer and as an artist, and I think he had powerful and meaningful things to say with that show. I think not all of them were made clear. I do feel like the show suffered from a lack of support from the powers that be at the time, because it started out to be a 13-episode season, and then it got cut down to 12, and then 11, and then 10. And all the time, David is having to restructure in order to get as much of his concept for the first season into a reduced season. I think it just got harder and harder for the message to come through. I think…well, I look on that show kind of like I look on great music: I don’t always understand what it means, but to me, there was always a sense that something wonderful was happening. Even if I didn’t quite understand it. (Laughs) But I think it might’ve cleared up quite a bit if it’d been given a second season.
PH: Any talk of you making it into a trifecta and doing a stint on “Last of the Ninth,” his new HBO series?
JB: Well, the last I heard…and don’t hold me to this…was that HBO didn’t pick it up. But as far as David Milch is concerned, I’m always up for a trifecta. I’ll sweep up on one of his sets, because he’s…I always felt I knew what a genius was until I met him. It’s been a total honor and privilege to have been associated with two of his shows, and I hope the chance arises again, but from what I’ve heard, “Last of the Ninth” isn’t going to be it…for me or anybody else. I’m not real sure where things stand, but my understanding is that they’re not going forward with it.
(Writer’s note: A call to Red Board Productions, which produced “Deadwood” and “John from Cincinnati,” resulted in uncertainty where things stood with the HBO deal. I was told, “We filmed part of it, but we’re not making it at the moment.” HBO confirmed the bad news, saying, “We are not going forward with ‘Last of the Ninth.’ Milch, however, is developing other projects to pitch us.” So based on the phrasing at Red Board, does that mean the show could yet end up somewhere else? Or is that just wishful thinking on my part?)
PH: Since turning up “Supernatural,” do you ever wear flannel off the clock anymore?
JB: Oh, my gosh, I never wear flannel! (Laughs) You know, the sartorial similarities between me and Bobby Singer are pretty much restricted to baseball caps, and if I ever got on a show where I could cut my hair off, I wouldn’t even wear those. Yeah, I kind of like the look they have for Bobby, but I don’t dress like that. And, of course, they’ve got him so layered up that every time I run into a fan in real life, they say, “Oh! You’re so much thinner than you look on television!” (Laughs) With enough layers, you start to look kind of paunchy…and, of course, I’m actually built just like Jared and Jensen.
PH: Of course.
JB: Exactly like them.
PH: So was the role of Bobby Singer always intended to be a recurring one, or did it turn into one over the course of the evolution of the show?
JB: I think it turned into one. Again, that was a case where I had worked for the producer, Robert Singer, my namesake… (Laughs) …years before on a show, so we knew each other, but when I came in to do that first episode, it was just a one-shot, a guest appearance, as far as I was concerned. And I believe it was just a one-shot as far as they were concerned. But I remember the crew saying, “Well, hey, we rarely get guest stars who don’t die, so maybe you’ll be back!” And then it turned out that I came back right away. I think it was the second appearance when they began to think, “You know, this character could actually fill a slot we need in the structure of the show.” But I’m not sure that they had any idea of that at the beginning.
PH: I know Katie (the lovely publicist for “Harper’s Island”) is going to be getting on the line any minute, so I’ll go ahead and make this my last one, but I interviewed Allen Coulter when his film “Hollywoodland” was released on DVD…
JB: Oh, yeah!
PH: …and you were credited on the film as “Biographical Consultant.” How does that work? Do you go through the script with a red pen, circling things and writing, “Dubious claim, never substantiated”?
JB: Well, you know, I didn’t have a technical title on that show. Allen and I at one time shared an agent, and this agent – Paul Alan Smith – knew that I had been working for years on a biography of George Reeves, and when his other client, Allen, ended up directing it, he put us together. Basically, they asked a lot of questions of what I thought had happened and how certain things worked, and they sent me the scripts, and I looked at them and said, “This never happened,” or, “This wouldn’t have happened.” And in some cases, they took my advice, and in some cases, they were far enough along in the production process that they couldn’t make the changes. So there are some things in the film that I wish weren’t in the film, because they weren’t completely true to real life, but by and large I thought they did a wonderful job with the film. And I also thought that they were enormously attentive to what I had to say. Whether they could make use of everything I had to say is a separate matter, but they really wanted to know as much true information as they could find, even down to the point where they called me up and asked me to send pictures of the real-life versions of even minor characters, so that they could cast closer to the physical types. And in a lot of cases, these were people who didn’t…nobody would’ve known the difference other than maybe relatives of the people. (Laughs) So they were very attentive to detail, and any failures of detail, I think, had more to do with things like budgets and the fact that I came into the process relatively late in the pre-production. A lot of things were set by the time I became part of it.
PH: Well, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you, Jim. I’ve got your new book, “Life’s That Way,” sitting in my Amazon shopping cart as we speak.
JB: Oh, well, thank you!
PH: I’m really looking forward to reading it, and I’ll include a link to the website, too.
JB: Oh, great. Thanks a lot; I appreciate that.
PH: Hey, anybody who can go from writer to actor…as a writer, I appreciate that.
JB: Oh, well, thanks. And, trust me, that’s the easy direction to go. (Laughs) Going from actor to writer is a little tougher!
* Missed our interview with Victim #1? Go check it out!
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* Missed our interview with Victims #10 and #11? Go check it out!