Jack Erdie is interviewed by Davina Baynes (editor/writer).
Jack Erdie appeared as Richard Speck in David Fincher’s Mindhunter. I was recently very privileged to talk with him at length about his early life, his music, acting on stage, big and small screen and much, much more.
DB: You were born in Fairmont, West Virginia. Can you describe what your childhood years were like living there?
JE: You know when you are a child, you don’t know generally that your life isn’t the norm. You don’t really know, at first, that your family is not the standard against which all other families are to be measured.
I had some privileges that none of my friends had, one of which was: we had a family camp, in the mountains in Southern West Virginia and we would go there at least a couple of times a year, generally so the men could hunt or fish. That was such a wonderful privilege to have as a child, to be there in nature and hike in the mountains. Even to drive there was just gloriously beautiful, particularly in the Autumn. There were deer around and bear and mountain lions – predators everywhere – but that was great.
On the other hand we were a supremely and excessively religious (to my mind) family and we went between fundamentalist Pentecostalism and then my father was an addict so, when he was on the junk, things were very dysfunctional and riot and chaos reigned and when he was not, then he was very religious. Either the television was always on, and loudly, and he was planted in front of it like a vegetable or it was off and we weren’t allowed to watch it at all (you read the Bible before bed and that sort of thing) so it was topsy-turvy in that way. At times I saw an excessive amount of television, including things that were adult in nature, and at other times, none at all. In that way it was a rollercoaster: there was privilege and there was monstrosity.
Fairmont itself is called ‘The Friendly City’. When I was a child it seemed that way but it thrived on the mining industry which, when the mines began to close, people began their hajj, so the place emptied out. I think there were 27,000 people when I was a kid and there might have been half of that by the time I was an adult, or it seemed that way, and all the shops closed down and basically skid row had come to Main Street, after which it was desolate and dead feeling. I moved to a college town, called Morgantown, where the university was, about half-an-hour away and when you drove into my home town you would just feel a pall descending right at the city line. It has, since then, seemed pretty dead to me.
DB: What job did your father do?
JE: My grandfather had an exterminating, a kind of pest control empire! For 45 years he had Ace Exterminators, headquartered in a West Virginia with branches in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania etc. He was worth so many million in the ‘50s, he owned a hotel and he was a politician; so my father worked for him. Which I think, psychologically, it put him sort of in the position of Caleb in East of Eden because my grandfather had left my grandmother when my father (I think) was six and married my grandmother’s second cousin, who was much more suited to the life he wanted – the big wig about town who was hobnobbing with the rich and the politicians. She ran a dance studio over top of his exterminating headquarters (which was bizarre) with pest control downstairs and ballet upstairs. You can imagine that! We used to joke that the tap dancing was how he kept the roach population down in the building itself.
My father, I think, was always trying to be around him just in case some of the affection he didn’t get would come by happenstance. My grandfather was, in many ways, a community figure: a giving man, a caring man, he helped people out, he helped get a man out of jail, he helped get people jobs, but in my father’s case he was violent and didn’t show a lot of love and seems to resent his existence. My father worked for him for way too many years, I think, and probably out of that came his need for medication.
DB: What did your mother do? What was your mum like?
JE: My mother’s been a care giver. She looked after us (originally five children) and was a fairly text book co-dependent as far as my father’s addiction went – so always worried about, ‘Where is he? Is he having an affair? How are we going to get by with him spending all the money?’ All of that was going on and also just trying to stop us from killing each other because we were four boys and a girl and the three eldest boys, we fought with everything, we hit each other with chairs or a sofa, whatever happened to be in the vicinity. I think she was just trying to keep her body and soul together and her mind of a piece. I’m close with my mother. She also then became a nurse: while she still had three children in the house (after her second divorce) she went to nursing school and became an RN, so that’s four years. She’s achieved quite a lot. She’s an inspiration!
DB: She sounds like a really strong woman.
JE: She is. She’s just in her early 70s and she has begun to deal with emotions; she has begun to let herself feel things that it hasn’t been safe, maybe, to deal with for most of her life. I’m so glad of that, as I was getting to be afraid that wouldn’t happen.
My mother really pushed education. There’s this friction, as there is with many religious families that have aspirations, particularly intellectual aspirations, where you want to have them but you also feel guarded because you’re afraid that ultimately somewhere along the way God will be shed.
DB: As soon as you start questioning. You have got four siblings? So where are you positioned within the family?
JE: I’m the eldest.
DB: Me too. Music is really important to you isn’t it.
JE: It is, for sure. It was I think, as with so many people, my bit of consolation, maybe, early on.
DB: When did you first start making your own music?
JE: My parents sent the brother closest to me in age and I to piano lessons for three years, beginning when I was eight – so eight, nine, ten – and I resented it in the beginning and then, by the third year according to my mother, would get up an hour before the family so I’d have that time alone to practise because I really had come to love it. The first song I am aware of writing, I was seven: it was for when my sister was born and I am absolutely certain it was not worthy of performance (both laugh) but it was an inkling. The brother who I took piano lessons with died when I was 13, he was 11 – he drowned.
DB: Did he?
JE: Yes and I think that changed a lot of things, obviously, for me and one of them was: I began to have a need for music. I come from a gun culture. I had guns, real guns, at that age but I also had a pellet gun and I traded the pellet gun to a kid for a guitar with a cracked neck, so the strings were inordinately far from the fretboard, and upon that I learned to play and the same year I started writing songs with the guitar.
DB: So that tragic event was a catalyst to push music much further forward in your life?
JE: Music was really self-consolation for me at that point.
DB: And I assume the religious thing, being that it was always ebbing and flowing, isn’t necessarily a consolation?
JE: It wasn’t, no. It was for my mother. It has become so for most of the other siblings and it really was never… I tried (laughs)… I would say, ‘God knows, I tried,’ but I don’t believe in God so – I tried to be near God, I gave it a shot.
DB: You play guitar really well and you learned to play piano but what other instruments do you play?
JE: You know that’s about it. I play a little banjo but it’s been a long time. I learned it just specifically for my second CD and there were songs I wanted to play.
DB: That was Pumpkin.
JE: Yes, that was Pumpkin. There were a couple of songs upon which banjo appears, one of which is “Pumpkin” (maybe) which has the rolling Flatts and Scruggs sound, that Bluegrass, and that was difficult and fun to learn and I couldn’t do it now. I learnt it specifically for that song, held on to it for maybe a year, and let it go.
DB: Were any other members of your family musical?
JE: I think we’re all musically inclined, not all disciplined where music is concerned. My brother Joe, would probably make a good drummer but he just didn’t do it and he used to rap when rap first began he could extemporise, riff, free-style, free-form rap (it was always very funny when he did it). My sister Mara can sing: I think as a child, an adolescent, she was too lazy or unfocused to have learned an instrument in my opinion – she’s not now but she was then. I have a brother, Joshua, who plays saxophone, really well and my brother Daniel plays guitar very well and composes rock songs that are almost like classical pieces, doesn’t really write lyrics but he writes instrumentals. I have two brothers from after I left the house as well: one of them is an excellent drummer, Samuel. Had we all been closer in age we could have formed a little band which I would have enjoyed, I think.
DB: You’ve always been drawn to the spoken and written word and you like inventing new words.
JE: I do but it just happens though. I don’t really hold onto them. Maybe it’s the economist in me. Somebody will say, ‘It’s a dark, grey day.’ And I’ll say, ‘It’s drey.’ Just simple things like that. It’s my mind always trying to economise a phrase into a word. I don’t know why. It’s a sickness really. (Both laugh).
DB: I was going to ask you about your creative writing. I know you are screen writing at the moment, aren’t you?
JE: I do have a screenplay that I’ve been working on, it’s mouldering right now because I’m not sure if it has political resonance to several of the situations now in the United States, which are extraordinary for most of us and disruptive for, I think, the majority of us. I had an idea that I thought was brilliant when it occurred and I thought I could live with it for 9 months to a year and then, I just wasn’t sure that the things I was trying to say were the things that needed to be said. I lost heart a bit so I’m not sure I’ll resume with it but then one always wonders if this is not just another form of writer’s procrastination and insecurity. I’ve written certainly the first 50 pages, over-written and it just keeps going through incarnations. Right now I am very dissatisfied with it and I’m taking a break.
DB: And I guess, also, because it’s got relevance to what’s going on in your country at the moment, and also the impact it is having on everyone else, that’s a moving feast as well, isn’t it. Every day there’s something new to look forward to.
JE: Yes, it’s a moving catastrophe. It’s a hurricane that keeps shifting course. Wherever you are in the political spectrum, there’s such a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of shenanigans, of things happening all at once, of accusations, false accusations, real accusations, hyperbole on both sides, of a sort of heightened awareness of everything, every perceived offence and real offence. And yet, one doesn’t know if the Commander-in-Chief is a master juggler of his PR and of the calm psyche or if he’s just a fumbling, as somebody said, ‘A sort of malevolent, Chauncey Gardiner’ who happened to be at the right place at the right time and is supremely confident that he’s manipulating it all, and that it all is working out as though he were.
DB: When did you first decide acting was the career to pursue?
JE: You know, I was already, must have been 22 (maybe), and I started going out for plays at the college in my home town and getting biggish roles. I think I was Captain Keller in The Miracle Worker, when I was 23, and Ali Hakim in Oklahoma. I was getting roles that other kids were paying [tuition] to have because they allowed for people who lived in the community to also audition. I had some very good theatre teachers there who were the directors: Joanne Lowe was great, Charles Swanson, who’s in the American Who’s Who of Theatre. They were great people to learn the early lessons from, just the fundamentals, and I’m a good thief, so I’ve been stealing technique for my entire career. There were fringe benefits when you’re young which are all the romantic intrigues, the backstage frolics and flirtations and just the ‘high’ of being involved in a production. But I was always serious about wanting to somehow get to the ‘magic’ in performance where people forget that they’re watching. I am somebody who, if I am going to do anything, I want to do it at top level. I don’t know if I’ve achieved that but I am driven that way so a couple of years into it, I moved to Pittsburgh for more acting experience. I guess, with ultimately New York/Los Angeles as the end goal.
DB: You moved to Pennsylvania and then you were in a play there which made American Theater Magazine.
JE: After I was there many years, I got to be in such a fantastic piece that it got recognised – that was Strata.
DB: Could you describe that a little for me?
JE: Yes. There’s a movement with the interactive theatre pieces that incorporate a lot of modern technology and some of what we’ve gleaned through new psychology studies or studies from Milgram [and others] to now: the prison experiment and the authority experiment. They did this piece; they had a lot of writers involved. They wanted to trigger nostalgia and feelings of loss and love and formative experiences from early life and later life, through a series of installations and interactions. They presented it as a sort of a cult, this would be a sort of a cult induction and what they were pushing was something called Lower Case i, as in the iPhone, i-consciousness and you would come and be refitnessed. So they set it up in an old long-closed Bally’s gym, in downtown Pittsburgh and just redesigned the entire interior, so we had two or three floors; I was in the basement.
There were these rooms and it was all very tightly controlled but made to seem random. They had an eye in the sky where they could monitor every room and you came in twos and were separated from the person you came with and sent on a journey by yourself.
It had the potential to be transformative for people but, like any good theatre piece, they kept the conflict sharp and they didn’t let the tension out of any room for very long so it ended up being more of an emotional trigger mindfuck, I think, at the end of the day. I had a desire for it to be something potentially more transformative, like to allow people to forgive themselves, who never had, for certain things or to experience a kind of acceptance that people want in religion from a father or mother figure but they end up not getting and that probably that was a naïve hope. They more wisely went with triggering and jostling onto the next room but here’s a few examples of the kind of things that they did:
They had a room with a swing and they designed a little patch in the room like a public park and gave this twilight feeling and the walls were painted to represent it, just this little patch in the middle had grass. It was so like a child’s playground: it was walled around with wooden beams or wooden 2x4s and there was a swing over it with a chain that went probably 30 feet up into the air to the ceiling. A young woman actress who could bring across a spirit of a little girl, a pre-pubescent girl, on the swing in her flowing dress. You’d enter the room and she would address you as like a long lost uncle or aunt, and talk about how she’d been waiting here all of this time: this incident where you had promised to meet her and do something for her – to trigger these feelings of failed responsibility, which is something we all have. I was allowed to sample that room before we went live and I left it weeping.
There was one where a monk would interact with you silently, would give you a vial with a little saying in it and you had to take the saying out with a pair of tweezers and it would be something like about loving yourself or forgiving yourself. All of these things had a big influence on most of the people who went through them. So you went through a bunch of rooms like that and then you got to me.
I was the founder of i-consciousness and I was kept locked up in the basement Hannibal Lecter-style behind bullet-proof glass. Our own ‘Charon’ would bring you down through an old creaky elevator and you’d enter this basement. They had a wall of glass bricks so when you left the elevator you could sort of see shapes and that was me through the glass but you didn’t know until you got really close to me what was going on. I was on an exercise bicycle, pedalling, with a headset on. You would have to come to the window and pick up a phone and then I would just start this monologue (which had room for improvisation); it was the most uninviting dialogue, sort of a madman who’s angry that you didn’t bring him a cigarette and ranting about fitness.
I decided to try and find a way to synchronise emotionally with everybody who came, in spite of the dialogue. There’s a moment where I confess something to them and ask them to confess to me about somebody they’ve hurt or an incident where they’ve hurt somebody or been hurt and I thought, ‘Well the dialogue I have, nobody’s going to say anything to me, if I play it the way it’s written because they’ll just want to leave. They’ll be alone with me in this darkness and terrified.’ I’m proud and happy that I found a way to do that. I had people tell me things that they said they had either never told anybody else, or only their dearest friend and we ended up having experiences where… Somebody confessed to me – I think it was the suicide of his father – and he had never talked about it, he didn’t get emotional, and I just put my hand on the glass at that point, which would be the closest of course we came to touching, and he put his hand on mine through the glass and I just kind of wept for him – I broke down the way I felt I would have had I been in his shoes. So things like that, participant after participant after participant that, if I didn’t connect like that, at least got some big emotional response. So it was probably the most unusual and fulfilling ‘theatrical piece’ in which I’ve ever been involved.
DB: In Pittsburgh you continued to write and sing songs and you released three albums (When the Hurricane Hit ~ 2003, Pumpkin ~ 2005 and Mystery Sandwich~ 2012). You also had a band called The Insubordinates. Can you tell me about the band, the albums and the music you created? Did you do live gigs?
JE: They were mostly solo gigs: coffee shops, bars, nursing homes. But there some others who were able to come together at a pinch and play at bigger events. Mark Perna though, who was the bassist, always, produced all of the CDs and helped glean some of the other members. Mark is the only reason any of it happened really, well not the only reason but without Mark none of it could have happened, for certain.
DB: How do you go about creating your songs?
JE: It’s a mess really. I’ve done it all ways, you know. When I started I was more of a poet (or I thought I was) I had written poetry and I did that. It’s a pretty common mistake for young songwriter to write a poem and then try to fit it to music. It’s sort of like the Slinky of music, one following the other, falling all over the other and not quite matching or it just being hyper-verbal and the music just seems like an excuse or a gimmick.
Then I had one good friend, he was a friend of my father’s and a good influence on me when I was a kid, a great songwriter from my hometown area, his name is Doug McCarty. He had written some songs that really influenced me in the way that Leonard Cohen influenced me, or Bob Dylan, on the same level you know, just really powerful, lyrics and meaningful and masterfully written. He had told me to write them together, let the music and lyrics happen together.
You just gradually learned all of the things you need to learn as a songwriter: the inter-rhyming schemes, the onomatopoeia that the music also needs to carry the mood or play against the mood, run contrapuntal to what you are singing. It’s a lot of lessons learned over a lot of years.
DB: And not being content the first time round and thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I could have done that, this way.’
JE: I did a lot of that with Pumpkin, and it shows and I kind of wanted it to. The song called “Pumpkin” has this lead-in, and is fairly difficult to play; it’s just all of these guitar runs and begins with a staccato digga-digga-digga-digga-dun-dun and I was desperate to come up with that and I came up with it the day before we were to record it. It was just an inexcusable thing to do, to a recording engineer and to the person footing the bill, right; I would do that kind of thing a lot at that time. So I went in, by the seat of my pants and the scruff of my neck and after a bunch of takes nailed it and even now, I get nervous as it starts, I think, ‘Is this kid going to be able to pull it off?’ I wanted that, in the same way you want mistakes to happen on stage, because you can feel the life in it, you can feel the tension, you can feel the fact it’s barely in the metre or slightly out of metre. There’s something about that, that is compelling, not to a perfectionist so much, but you know Dylan would leave these mistakes in these songs, he’d say, ‘What am I going to do? Go over it again? [More than passable Dylan impression here] And he was somebody who made the point at one time, that when something is perfect, there’s no invitation for you to get involved in it – to invite the listener in. I go back and listen to it now, it’s a long work but I listen to part of it, and I think, (there is brilliance in there if I do say so myself), ‘Who was that kid? Where did he come up with all of that?’ There are just exalted moments and then there are some that are so clunky, so out of rhythm it’s just cringe worthy but it was a choice to leave it that way.
DB: What are your inspirations for writing songs and creating music? Are there particular inspirations?
JE: Yeah, I think it was anybody who was able to observe things about human nature, human behaviour and emotion that other people weren’t saying, or people either weren’t conscious of or it just wasn’t socially acceptable to say, and who would do it in such a way as to stay in the memory or to etch itself in memory. There was some jazz music that did that for me, like Thelonius Monk’s work somehow really resonated with me and early Coltrane but also Billie Holiday had that ability with her voice to evoke things that I hadn’t heard anybody else evoke and a kind of vulnerability – she had this strength and vulnerability – the whole symphony of human experience and emotion seemed to be in her work, in her voice and she was a big influence on how I phrase and some of what I go for when I sing. Leonard Cohen, in terms of his ability to evoke both strong emotion but also ennobled emotion – heightened. Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, they were my songwriting Shakespeare and Johnson early on.
There was a lot of music around when I was a kid, not instruments, but all my grandfather Jennings loved music (my mother’s father) and I was his first grandchild. He had just come off a life of drinking – he was largely absent for my mother’s childhood, he was an itinerant drunk and house painter as he told me he had been on nearly every major skid row in the US. He was a very gruff man, who had been in the Army during a World War ll and a kind of rough and tumble, man’s man of Scottish descent. He always had music on so he was playing Johnny Cash, country, Charlie Pride. He also had one of the best albums I had ever heard at that time, Ray Charles Does Country (or something like that), and that’s the first album I ever listened to all the way through and then just put it right back at the beginning – and still love it! He would have Sinatra. When I stayed at his house, as a small child, he would put a stack of records on the stylus at night and then we’d go to bed and I couldn’t sleep, I would listen through nearly all of the songs because I was so drawn to it. He was a big influence. I heard a lot of hymns, the Gospel. I heard a lot of lullabies and bizarre old folklore songs from my great-grandmother: songs like “The Grandfather Clock”.
DB: How would you describe your music to anyone who has never heard it?
JE: That is a major problem that I had, was my inability to do so, when I was playing music. I would just say, ‘It’s eclectic and I’m a blow torch singer.’ But I am interested in mystery and I’m interested in nuance and layers so in everything that I write, I try to embed extras – what would be an Easter Egg in a video game. I try to put messaging or affect people in a subliminal way behind what the obvious theme is of any given song. It’s important to me that things be: truthful, sophisticated, entertaining – humour is really, really important to me.
DB: I was thinking as I was driving along the other day, listening to some of your songs because I was laughing out loud at some of the lyrics. (Both laugh)
JE: Was it “I’m Sorry Jesus”?
DB: It could well have been!
JE: I would finish that song up, and I would play the Bible Belt as well, and I would finish the song and my ex used to move away from me while I was playing it in case lightning struck but I can remember taking the guitar and holding it over my head, just in case the wrath of God should descend!
DB: What about writing? I know you have said about your screenplay being on the back burner, but what about other stuff you write? Are there any particular things that inspire you to write, or do you just write?
JE: You know, I should just write. I don’t. I work largely on inspiration, I have to say, if it’s my own work. I was in Los Angeles 1999-2003 the first time and I quit acting in 2003, I just felt disillusioned with the industry and I had invested a lot of energy in some futile directions and, nobody to blame but me (as usual). I gave up and I wrote a novel and it was therapy. I wrote three hours a day, every day, until I finished that first draft which ended up being 400-425 pages. I used to describe it to people who ask, ‘What was it like writing a novel?’ It’s like directing traffic in the ocean, if you consider all the life that’s in the ocean: the swirling schools of fish, and sharks. There’s all of these things to bear in mind, to orchestrate, to remember: names of minor characters, where the conflict was left off when last these characters met… That was a logistical challenge but also the story itself fell apart on several levels but the experience of it, yeah, that’s something I want to do again. I have a novel percolating. As far as I know the story I want to tell hasn’t been told, at least not in this way, and we’ll see; I’ve been making notes and I would like to do that.
DB: You started a production, theatre group called New Teeth Productions, in Pittsburgh. I think that was short-lived wasn’t it?
JE: It was. It was just a lark really. I had made my first movie and I had money, which I had never had before and suddenly I had a good year’s salary out of 30 days work. The best thing I could think of to do was, ‘Let’s start a theatre group, we have some money and we can do shows we want to do and not be type-cast.’ There was myself, Andrew Jamron, Colin Doty, Lissa Brennan, DeLisa White and Camille Faria (who I was involved with at the time) and we all formed the group; Camille was not as involved in the initial meetings and she was more involved later that year. We did these performances ad hoc in non-traditional spaces and it was a gruelling and exhausting and wonderful experience. You learned so much because we had to everything: I went door-to-door to businesses seeking people to advertise in our playbills, had to hold auditions, to know what it was like to be on the other side of the casting table, and hire spaces and hire people to do concessions, and advertise and do interviews with newspapers and organise a preview at the Boarders Bookstore and that sort of thing. It was a lot of work and our hearts were really in it. We were young (laughs) and it was great! And we wanted to change the world through theatre.
DB: So you got to know about all, the things that needed to be done, even the mundane things which, if they don’t get done, everything else starts to fall apart.
JE: Absolutely! The painting, the sound, making sure that people have clean means of entrance and exit, making sure that people get paid, dealing with petty grievances of the stage manager or the actors.
DB: You were in the, as I described it the other day, ‘bleak’ film The Road in 2009 which was directed by John Hillcoat with Viggo Mortensen in the lead.
JE: It did and I forgot that it also had Charlize Theron, who also co-produced Mindhunter. Had you read the book?
DB: No, I haven’t.
JE: Well I’d read the book and thought, ‘Oh, I’d love to be in the film.’ Then I heard it was coming to Pittsburgh, auditioned and got in not, obviously, in a role of any note but just to be in it. Cormac says that he got the inspiration for the book while watching his son. It was in Mexico, he was staying in a hotel, his son was sleeping and he was watching his son sleep by moonlight when he got his inspiration for the book. And I always thought that the message of the book was: in order for us to really achieve a less violent, more trusting, less corrupt, selfish and greedy world, even we who want it might have to get out of the way, because we’re part of the problem. There’s this father who is trying to keep his son protected throughout the entire thing, through the most impossible circumstances in every moment. It’s just an unrelenting assault on one’s hope from the beginning. It’s funny how long you can hold onto it when, from the first note you know it’s not and really this panacea, this oasis of humanity, that he thinks must exist somewhere that he’s trying to reach, where people aren’t eating each other and where his son can be safe – he can’t reach it himself because he doesn’t have it in him to trust. He is going to be a source of the violence so he has to die and it’s that awful point where he lets go, not really knowing what awaits his son. He’s on a beach and he dies and the other family, who’s been following them feel it’s safe to reveal themselves once the father is dead. It’s a horrible thing to realise.
I too have struggled with this, the bad lessons of a barbarous childhood, a somewhat barbarous experience. It’s hard to let go of the reservation unto violence, should you be in a situation – I might be mugged, this might happen, a shooter might enter the workplace – this idea that you have to hold onto some potential for self-defence.
DB: It is a fantastic film.
JE: It’s hard to watch.
DB: Did you watch it yourself, as soon as it came out?
JE: Oh yes! I went with my former landlord and landlady who lived upstairs and we all went together. We rope-a-doped basically all the way through it, gut punch after gut punch.
DB: You’ve been in a load of other films, from Sudden Death which was the first one in ’95 with Jean Claude Van Damme…
JE: Yes, that was the break.
DB: Out of the Furnace, I watched the other day, with Christian Bale and the late, great Sam Shepard.
JE: Sam Shepard, yes. The late, great Sam Shepard. Another bleak movie, not as bleak as The Road, but bleak.
DB: What was it like working in that scene that you have with Sam Shepard and Christian Bale?
JE: It was lovely! Just to be in the room with them. We were on set, waiting to do that scene, which is my only scene in the film, and there’s the young actor who brings them up to meet me, Boyd Holbrook [Narcos] and we were on set and I was within arm’s reach of Sam Shepard. Christian had sequestered the director [Scott Cooper] and every time I’d go to Scott with a question Christian already had him, in a huddle – he was unapproachable. So I went off and I was sitting near Sam and I wanted to talk with him about writing and other things but Boyd was bogarting him, so I just couldn’t break through.
Finally, Boyd went off to smoke a cigarette or went off to shoot the unsuspecting crew persons (he’s a photographer as well) and I got to talk to Mr Shepard. I told him I was a big admirer and said, ‘You know when you’re writing, do you draw consciously from people you know? Because I was thinking of True West and the character of the brother just seems so real to me although I know some people say that it’s the inner ego of one character, it’s supposed to be, that’s being acted out.’ And he just adamantly banged the chair and said, ‘No! I’m an impressionist! I’m like Cézanne.’ He went into this eight-minute explanation of his art and his process, which was priceless to be the recipient of that answer, but I felt like this was this pent-up answer that he wanted to give for decades and finally got to give it to this guy he didn’t know. At the end of this long self-justification he finally settled down and said, ‘Well yeah. You can’t help really absorbing them just through artistic osmosis.’ And I was like, ‘That’s what I thought! Why didn’t you just say that?’ But just to hear him speak for 8 minutes, all to myself was, anything he had to say! Sam was a gentleman so it was a lovely experience.
DB: Are there any directors that you have worked with that you would like to work with again?
JE: Oh, Scott and certainly Fincher. Like I said, I’d crawl through broken glass, I’d navigate fan blades, to work with him again. There are a lot of people I have worked with like John Hillcoat certainly. He did a film about the Texas bootleggers with Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy, the young and oft scandalised Shia LaBeouf, and I had read that book, it’s a sort of biography about the guy’s uncle and his own Kentucky family, and you know being from them there parts I really wanted to be in that film but had no way of getting in touch with Mr Hillcoat. If he’s reading I would love to be involved in something similar.
DB: That was the film Lawless wasn’t it?
JE: Lawless, thank you. I had seen The Proposition, with [Ray] Winston that came before The Road.
DB: Although you have done a lot of movies, more recently you have been in three TV shows. With Banshee, you were in an episode of that where you were a pathologist.
JE: Yeah, one of my first non-villain roles.
DB: Accidentally dropping body parts on the floor made me giggle. (Both laugh)
JE: Without that bit, that part would not even have been appealing.
DB: No, there’s nothing like lifting up a liver or whatever it was (you can tell my Biology wasn’t that hot!) (Both laugh)
JE: The five second rule, yeah!
DB: And you were in Outsiders as well, for three episodes.
JE: Three episodes. Three directors. That was great!
DB: What was that like, working with three different people although you are playing the same character?
JE: I liked them all. Peter Werner, he directed my first episode; he did parts of Moonlighting with Sybil Shepherd and Bruce Willis. Peter was interesting. I know certain crew members so I got to hear stories about him, one of which was: they had a couple of vultures on for a scene, trained vultures and the AD, who is a friend of mine (shout out to Steve Parys) he said he stumbled onto set and Peter was trying to direct, he was talking to the vultures, giving them directions! (Both laugh)
DB: And how did that go?
JE: Like a lead zeppelin! I don’t think he has any special Doctor Doolittle powers that the rest of us don’t possess but I think he might have thought he had. If you weren’t a vulture he was lovely to work for. Then there was Adam Bernstein and Rosemary Rodriguez and she was great, she encouraged all of my improvisation, which was wonderful.
DB: And you don’t end well on that either, do you.
JE: I got paid well! The awful thing about it – I want to discourage any actors who want to attempt this sort of ‘method’ preparation – I went on-line because I wanted to be able to demonstrate, to bring across what it’s really like when someone gets their throat cut, so I watched a video of a Jihadist, Islamist terrorist, killing a hostage. I would firmly recommend anybody who has in mind to do such a thing, get on-line, to avoid it! It’s never left me. It’s one of the most shocking, appalling, sobering, dehumanising, desensitising things I’ve ever seen and did nothing to inform the performance. No! Don’t go that route. Talk to a physician or someone who is skilled in human anatomy, with what musculature would be affected, what would give out first and that kind of thing.
DB: In what way are TV shows different from working on stage or in film? And do you have a personal preference?
JE: I really want to get back to stage. I miss it. I need to get in touch with some companies in Los Angeles but particularly would love to do, to be honest, New York or London theatre. I would like to work with people who have made their bones on the boards because it always draws out your best.
Working with Sam Shepard and Christian Bale in the same room, working with David Fincher and Jonathan and Holt, you have already brought your best game and then it gets better, it just really does. I like television for its pacing: it’s a much faster pace than film. They have much more solid deadlines and generally less budget – not in the case of Mindhunter though, Netflix has a lot of money.
When I first started out I thought I only had the metrics for the big screen. I wanted to have Gary Oldman’s career really, that kind of passion and that kind of seething reservoir of emotion, always teeming and wanting to spill out.
DB: Turning to Mindhunter, how did you land the role of Richard Speck?
JE: This was a three-tiered process. First was a self-tape which I did with Suzan [Jack’s girlfriend]. Suzan played Holt and Jonathan. Suzan is at the higher end of the pitch spectrum and doesn’t have a very intimidating voice or persona, so one of the original lines in the audition was, they ask a Richard if he gets in a lot of trouble and he’s like some juvenile delinquent who’s been brought into the principal’s office, and they say, ‘So do you fight a lot?’ And he says something like, ‘I beat a lot of ass.’ And Holt says, ‘What’s that? You eat a lot of ass?’ And so, to have Suzan say that line… (Both laugh) It was very difficult to not corpse!
Laray Mayfield, the casting director got in touch with my managers and said, ‘We’d like to see him do it again, the exact same thing, self-tape, send it in.’ I said, ‘Really?’,‘Yes, same clothes, everything.’ So that’s unusual, generally a call-back you go before them, maybe the director. I got a different friend, an actor from Pittsburg named Kenny Champion who was in town at the time, to read with me because he has a greater capacity for male swagger and intimidation so he read Jonathan and Holt and that helped; it was pretty much the same but I’m sure better.
Then, finally, I got a call-back with Laray (I’d never met her but wanted to) and she does everything herself: she runs camera, she’s the only one in the room, she reads with you and she watches you through the microscope of her expert, analytical eye. That was thrilling! I went in and I did it the way I had done it, which was with a certain bravura and swagger, and then she said, ‘Let’s have one, in the way that you get with a sociopath: take away all the affect, do it almost monotone.’ And I knew right away it was a brilliant redirect and we did it, and as it was going on I could see physical changes in her, as she was watching and interacting until, by the end of it, her shoulders had come up a bit, her chin had receded a bit. At the end she just looked up from the script and from behind the camera and she had got this kind of smile that seems both chilled and ecstatic. It was so encouraging and she just went something like, ‘That was amazing!’ I felt at that point that I had it and she had told me that David [Fincher] loved my earlier taping as well.
People I have talked to have said that she’s really tough, that’s not my experience of her at all. I think she’s gifted, she’s looking for a certain level of talent and you bring that game into the room, or don’t enter, that’s all but when you bring it, she’s your ally, she’s your support. She’s the only casting director who’s ever called me after the fact and asked how it was going. Shocking!
DB: Did you know anything about Richard Speck prior to the role coming up?
JE: I had first heard of Speck through American Horror Story; they have a Speckcident in that. I didn’t watch it all but I did see some of the brutal scenes with the Speck character which I didn’t quite understand to be honest. I did realise what an irredeemable character he was, just from that: just a black hole really, of self-pity and rage.
DB: What was your experience of working on the show itself, and with David Fincher, the director?
JE: Great! It was a great experience: from the rehearsal, through the wrap of my two scenes – really one scene, but the intro where I’m screaming at the guards as they are tossing my cell. I learned a lot about his process. I talked to Cameron Britton [Ed Kemper] and Adam Zastrow [Gene Devier] we have met now three times, and the first and second times we spent a lot of time talking about working with Mr Fincher and his process. We each spent a day on set, when we didn’t have to be on set, just so we could watch him work. I just sat behind him and watched him through an entire day. It was a very tight, gifted and serious group of people that he works with. It was a master class in film making and I’m glad to have had that opportunity as well as to have worked with him. But I didn’t get a lot of feedback from David – I always want, I’m fairly confident in what I do but I also want that touchstone – and I feel like if he withheld it, it was for a good reason. I asked him, of course, ‘Is there anything you want differently? Is there something you would like me to not do, do, to bring forward, anything else you’d like me to add to the palette?’ He said, ‘You know, if I’m not getting what I want, you’ll know.’ So I took that to be encouragement that I was doing well. And the only other note he would give me was that I was not dumb enough.
DB: Be dumber!
JE: Which is not always the note I got in grade school.
DB: That big scene with Tench and Ford: what preparation did you do for the role of Speck and what effect did preparing for and portraying Speck have on you, yourself?
JE: It didn’t have any lasting effect on me because I’ve already studied sociopathy, I’ve already spent time learning how these people think. I’d read John Douglas’s book on which the series is based, ages ago and lots of other books so I’ve done way too much study of the criminal mind and the sociopath, the zero empathy mind, so that groundwork had already been laid.
There’s not a lot, that I could find, on Speck, there’s only the one shocking, appalling and revealing prison video and some MOS footage of him from the trial and that period and some books written on him – the one I read was written by the prosecutor so you know it’s biased.
You know, at the core of him is just this not very bright, not gifted, not attractive step-child who has a distant and cold mother – who’s a nurse by the way, he ended up killing nurses which may, or may not, be significant – a step-father who I don’t think physically abused him (because the man couldn’t walk without a cane) but was just very emotionally and verbally abusive to him, belittled him constantly. I just think he was a person who was never going to have any power, was never going to have recognition, was never going to do anything of note and he inverted it in the most awful way.
You take the little things you know about him, which was: a lot of swagger and a tattoo and a scared kid; he would go into a bar and have a great Bowie knife or something and drop it when he was sure everybody was looking. He’d sit at the bar, it would ‘clang’ and he’d take his time picking it up so everybody knew he was armed and dangerous; he’d leer around at the room. He wanted to be tough, but he really wasn’t a tough guy, so you just take that, and the later video and say, ‘Where would he have been at this point in his incarceration?’ And try to scale it back from the later video and up from when he committed the crimes and you know that he’s cunning in terms of surviving, so how would he survive in prison? He’s not in the general population so he doesn’t really have to be a tough guy and he hasn’t had to fight anybody and you just realise that he has got all this elbow room, he’s got all this room to swagger and that’s what he’s going to do. But also, he did have this violence in him whereas, I think, if he were general population he would have avoided confronting somebody directly but if someone was going to hurt him, if he could have, he would have cut their throat while they were sleeping. You have that to go on and wonderfully scripted moments.
DB: What about makeup and costuming, things like that for the character, do those help at all? Not just with this character but with other characters as well.
JE: If you’re in a period piece and they put you in a tight jacket, it makes your posture more erect and that affects your performance, gives it more restraint, propriety, whatever it is you draw from the posture in the context of the piece.
DB: For Speck you had false teeth?
JE: I had a dental appliance because Speck had these sort of pockets here around his lower lip, which I don’t have so much, so they had me go to a guy who does prosthetics and he fashioned several levels of that. One was too uncomfortable and gave me blisters and we wanted subtle anyway (David Fincher and I and everybody else involved) so we finally went with the one which was the most subtle. I don’t know that it shows all that much but it helped.
DB: Did Speck really nurture a bird and then kill it?
JE: Yeah, he had the nickname ‘The Birdman’. He nurtured, he kept, a lot of birds. I don’t think he threw any through a fan!
DB: Was the bird in the fan a dramatic device? It’s a strange contradiction to the psychopathic behaviour in a way.
JE: Whoever conceived that, it is such a brilliant device, because from the beginning it’s the contrast: here’s a guy that just brutally bludgeoned and stabbed eight women to death, in the same night, one after the other, gloatingly, and for most people to enter gently cuddling this little bird is brilliant and also, just the tension of how’s it going to end?
DB: What I found interesting about that whole scene is that it drives this wedge between Holt’s character (Tench) and Jonathan’s character (Ford). It’s driven partly by what Jonathan says to you but also when you say about feeding the bird meatloaf through an eye dropper and he goes, ‘Aww…’ and the look that comes across and that is yet another little wedge there, where you can see Tench looking across thinking, ‘You’re a moron!’ (Both laugh)
JE: Yes, and at that point Tench is the eyes of the audience, we are with him, thinking, ‘What?’ Even if you feel that, you don’t reveal that to Richard Speck!
DB: How important is the quality of the writing for you as a performer?
JE: It’s absolute. I mean, ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage’ is the old saying. I watched that writer, Jennifer (“Jen”) Haley, I learned so much from her in the room during rehearsal. I watched them throw so many things at her. I watched her choose her battles, which things to stand up for and say, ‘No we can’t lose that, you can’t do that, that changes everything.’ She was a bulwark in that process and I don’t know how much of that she came up with but I know she reconfigured it all, constantly, and managed to hold it centre, together, throughout all of the constant, many changes. It’s paramount.
DB: Do you normally watch your own performances on screen?
JE: Always. Since I did theatre, I would watch the video tapes because you learn. At least once.
DB: Have you watched Mindhunter all the way through?
JE: Oh yeah. In fact, we tried to not jump ahead to my performance and just watch it in order – we made it through one-and-a-half and then went straight to my scene! Well we had already waited a year; it was a year between when I performed and when it came out, so it was hard. Bit of a child that way, I guess. We leapt forward and then came back and watched the entire thing. It was hard also to imagine that there are other people in the world who are going to see it before I am, if I didn’t hurry, because I didn’t know what they were seeing.
DB: I thought the soundtrack of Mindhunter is really strong as well so, as a musician, how did you feel about the score and the general soundtrack of the show?
JE: I think they made really, some iconoclastic (which if it weren’t so, wouldn’t be Fincher) choices but I thought it is very evocative and spot on, for the most part. The opening titles… we watched Seven last night and the opening titles of that are a piece of art, they really are, artistically it’s beautiful and meticulous and you can see that the opening of Mindhunter has evolved from that – it’s similar, it’s macabre, there are little flashes of disturbing images, it’s a meticulous montage and there’s slicing going on and the music.
DB: And often the composers don’t necessarily get the recognition from the general public that they really do deserve because it can make an enormous difference to some shows, depending on what score they’ve got running through.
JE: It’s really unfair. I always thought that with bands too, the singer gets all of this fame and credit and they’re really not doing any more work. It’s this odd thing we call ‘charisma’ and ‘showmanship’ and same with the actors. I was certainly guilty of that as a kid, I only noticed the actors, I didn’t think about the writers, I didn’t really think about the music unless they were playing rock music or pop or jazz. I wasn’t giving credit where credit was due and I think most people don’t, they talk about the actors and sometimes as if they think that the actors came up with the lines. In the way that they say, ‘Oh, I loved when he said that. I’ll never forget when he…’ Without a script, Jack Erdie, or any other actor, is not all that interesting to listen to. When I was first acting, I thrived on watching interviews of great actors that I loved, I did plenty of that and now, not so much. I don’t watch Inside the Actors’ Studio or anything like that because it just honestly puts me to sleep.
It’s such a small part of the picture, yes it’s the most visible part clearly but it’s a big picture, it’s a huge collaborative effort and I love, when I’m working on a film, or now in television, I generally love most of the crew – I like working with them, l getting to know them and I do feel part of the family – don’t at all feel like I’m there to be coddled – that doesn’t make any sense to me, that idea.
Actors often complain that directors can’t speak the actor’s language but how many actors can speak the director’s language? How many actors can speak the language of film or understand how much is going on? It’s like directing traffic in the ocean, there’s so much to know and when you are aware of it, it is more humbling. It seems to be with actors that there’s either an utter lack of accountability for when things go bad (one’s part in that): I experienced that a lot at the beginning with stage if we ended up doing horribly it was always somebody else’s fault, even if they loved it up to opening night, if opening night got a bad reception it was, ‘It was awful writing! I can’t believe we have to deal with this! That stupid direction!’ You’d think, ‘Maybe…but you know, you were there.’ Or you have the actors who blame themselves for everything, that other soul-killing thing of, ‘I’m just awful. I’m terrible! The rehearsals were better.’ Either one is just two ends of the self-importance spectrum. I’m just a part, a cog, in this whole thing and if it’s working beautifully, I may have contributed to that and if it’s not, I may have contributed to that. You really have to take an honest look at it, right, otherwise you don’t get better either and nobody wants to work with you.
DB: Have you been surprised by the positive reaction that Mindhunter has received?
JE: Honestly, I thought it was either going to get a very positive reception or a very negative one. I guess, where Mindhunter was concerned, I was a little bit afraid that it might come out right at the time where people don’t want to deal with a show around people who are largely (at least the subjects, if not the stars) narcissistic babies, who only care about themselves. But I think that because one of the things they’re trying to achieve is to strip away this mythology that the serial killer is a larger than life, omniscient character who’s always smarter than the smartest person in the room and three steps ahead, there’s a bit of a service there to society.
I’m glad that people have received it with such accolades and I think the show is worthy of it. Myself, I’m tired of the topic; I don’t want to spend time in a room with these types of people any more but there’s something about the show that has made me willing to do it and it’s partly the writing, it’s partly the attention to detail and it is that it is chipping away at that mythology.
DB: And also because they are not just portrayed as ‘evil’ because if you just accept it’s ‘evil’ what are you ever going to do about it?
JE: I think that we will eventually be able to cure sociopathy. We know what the empathy circuits are in the brain now and we’ll be able to correct for that. Until then, honestly, I think, one of the big things we have to do to solve all of our societal problems is to screen for borderline personality disorder.
DB: Who are the actors that you especially admire?
JE: There are quite a few, it’s a long list. I love, and have always loved, Meryl Streep since Sophie’s Choice, which still breaks my heart and everybody in that is just supernal, what a trio of revelatory performances. Gary Oldman is a really big influence and he’s a chameleon – I’ve always wanted to have a chameleon career like his. I love John Goodman. I love the biggies: I love Brando, all the Os, De Niro, Pacino, Groucho, Harpo, Chico. A big early influence on me, who has never stopped being an influence, is Peter Sellers. I’ve read everything I could find on him. I’ve watched everything I could find of his, from junior high school forward. Daniel Day Lewis.
DB: Is there any particular piece of advice you would offer to anyone considering a career in acting?
JE: One is tempted to say, ‘Don’t,’ but you shouldn’t because you have to have dreams to keep hope alive. I would say if you are not genuinely interested in life, in other people, in self-evolution, in real human behaviour, in excellence, in listening – don’t do it! So many people need it more than it needs them (and I may be one of them) and I have seen that so often, even in theatre, where it’s a source of therapy for the performer and a source of abuse for the audience because there’s no fidelity to the calling, and the calling is empathy. The point is to step into another life, usually at the most critical moment of that life – if you don’t have an interest in that, if your interest is just to get accolades and to be loved and to be a star I would love to be able to discourage those people, just don’t do it! I would just say: be interested in the world, be engaged and have something outside of acting – at least one thing but hopefully several things – that you’re really passionate about and don’t talk about yourself! (Both laugh)
Actors, when they’re young, tend to lock into something. They tend to lock in a role and be inflexible (out of fear) and I think you want to be always, always touching life and emotion around you and responding to it and listening so that, whether the camera is on or off, you’re grounded, really listening and present.
DB: Outside of ‘work’ do you have any hobbies and interests?
JE: I’m intensely interested in psychology, meta cognition – I’m really interested in thinking about, and learning, what’s the real hardware behind the interface and I’ve been studying that on my own for a while. I find that it’s incredibly disconcerting, realising that we are all not what we thought we are. It’s one of those things about these interviews that when, I’m talking about childhood now, I know that I’m not necessarily giving you facts because I’ve studied how memory works. They say memory is not in any way like a recording device, it’s more like a a Wikipedia page: not only can you go in and change it, accidentally, but so can other people. What I try to pursue constantly, is the getting to the bottom of ‘us.’
I’m interested in any root causes of anything. For example: I would not read a book like How the Scottish Invented Civilisation because on the face of it, to me, it’s just ridiculous but I would recommend Guns, Germs and Steel because it tries to get at root causes: of how we’ve all come to be in the different societies, and different nations have come to seem either inferior, superior in terms of technology, in education or whatever it is.
DB: What are you reading at the moment?
JE: Right now I’m reading a John Irving book that I bought for a dime at a library sale, I’ve just started it and it’s called Until I Find You. I’m hoping to read Kurt Anderson’s new book which is called Fantasyland and is about belief, particularly in America – belief in the indefensible, things that we believe in.
DB: And when you get that other book, will you read one first and then the other one, or will you sometimes run two books or more at a time?
JE: Yeah, I’m one of those idiots. I’ll have three or four on the bedside table. Do you?
DB: Yeah. (Both laugh) Which can be a bit confusing sometimes if they’re not very dissimilar to each other.
JE: I have also just launched a political blog, Accidental Centrist, and I’m interested in communicating ideas no matter how. I’d love to do a podcast. I’d love to do a documentary series on beliefs and delusions, because we all have them; you could begin with the easy targets, like the cults but finally get back to each of us and that would be fun!
DB: Onto a bit of music, not your own but other people’s. What was the first single or album you bought with your own money?
JE: The first one I bought was (it sounds like I lived in a much earlier era than I did, but I am from a West Virginia), I went down to the GC Murphy and I bought Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear”.
DB: Aww. Oh I just did a Jonathan!
JE: I fed it meatloaf through an eye dropper (exact same accent and voice as Speck in Mindhunter).
I wanted to be Elvis. I’d read one of the biographies at 11 or something. So when I was learning piano, we had a turntable on top of the upright piano and I would do things, like I’d play a Johnny Cash album and play along on the piano. My grandfather got tired of Johnny Cash. He said, ‘Oh Hell! I’m tired of Johnny Cash singing about prison and trains. I’m gonna throw these album out, unless you want ‘em. You want ‘em?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to have them.’ So he gave me a stack of Johnny Cash albums and I loved those albums.
I had a horrible temper as a child and very little impulse control for a stretch of time, probably beginning at eight. So I went down, I bought “Teddy Bear” and I brought it home, was playing it and my father was in a religious phase and he’d just written a paper, the gist of which was that rock n roll was derivative of some kind of African voodoo music that was used to conjure the Devil, so it was the Devil’s music; that’s what the Rhythm and Blues was about man, it was about opening you up to demonic forces! So I bring this 45-rpm, the lyrical gist of which is: I want to be your puppy love, basically. (Sings) It’s so… (I’m sure there’s sex in it, because it’s Elvis but it’s definitely not in the lyric) and it’s just an innocent thing, it’s bubble gum, right? And my parents made me take it back. They said, ‘You can’t listen to that, that’s the Devil’s music. You take that back to GC Murphy and get your money back. You can’t have that rock n roll in the house.’
And I was so furious, I went outside, I took all these Johnny Cash albums that I’d been playing music with while they’d been trying to sleep every morning, and probably when I got home from school at night (so they were probably exhausted of Johnny Cash) in full view of my parents, and I took a big rock and I smashed them to bits! (Laughs) Which I’ve regretted ever since! It probably gave them a cause to celebrate because they would never have to hear them any more. I think I crushed the Elvis too.
DB: They would probably have blamed the Teddy Bear song, ‘He was never like it before. It was the Teddy Bear song that did it!’
DB: What genres of music do you like listening to now?
JE: I’ve been going back to the old Bird soundtrack and listening to some of that Charlie Parker recently. My girlfriend, Suzan, has got me into the 21st Century because she has a lot of newer independent music on her iPod, so I’ve been introduced to a lot of music like Iron and Wine. I really love Radiohead’s new album, but I’ve loved all their stuff. Iron and Wine, Death Cab For Cutie, Elliott Smith, Conor Oberst – people I hadn’t really listened to much before I’m getting into. So I’m catching up, pretty soon I’m going to come out against the Vietnam War.
DB: Is there a song, or songs, that take you back to a special time in your life?
JE: Yeah. I’m not nostalgic as a rule; I have managed to avoid it. Obviously music has that effect, it goes right through our walls and you can hear it in the way that Proust took a bite of the madeleine dipped in tea and was back in his childhood at his grandmother’s. Music can take you in that way that taste and smell can.
Any number of them. Sometimes I’ll sing a gospel hymn although I have absolutely zero belief in anything that it’s saying. Those were the songs that formed part of my musical sensibility and I heard them all the time so sometimes I’ll sing, even the worst of them like “I’ve Got A Mansion Over The Hilltop”. Dylan’s “Hurricane” is a song which takes me back. Dire Straits “Sultans of Swing” takes me back to a time when there was almost nothing on the radio that I liked – I think that made it to number 6 on the charts so when somebody was playing the top 40 I was always holding my breath until number 6 to come round.
DB: Is there a song that you would always have to blast out really loudly, at full volume like if you were in the car?
JE: You know, I was doing that yesterday with Ben Folds. Lots of U2 songs. I love U2! When I listen to U2 it makes me a better person, to be honest with you. I’ve gone into supermarkets where there are a lot of self-important people, shopping, where everyone there will seem oblivious to the fact that there are other people in the store (it’s quite amazing how they’ve manage not to bump into each other when they’re pretending that no one else is there, ‘It’s just me and the vegetables. It’s just me and the produce and I’m the only important thing here’). I can get very agitated in that situation. I want to get up on top of something and dance or make people acknowledge each other and I find that if I put on U2, there’s something so humane and empathetic and there’s such a spirit of love and acceptance in it, and healing, that I end up feeling empathy and more compassion for everyone else in the store and seeing it all differently. When I’m alone in the car, for the past 25/28 years, whether it was “Joshua Tree” or whatever I will bellow along with U2, with Bono.
DB: Is there a movie soundtrack or a theme you really love, and any favourite composers for film or TV?
JE: Ah now it’s the Game of Thrones theme, I keep putting words to it. Also a video game that I play called Skyrim (it’s sort of my heroin) and I love the music from Skyrim. It’s just that [Game of Thrones] just as soon as that music comes on, it puts you in the world, you’re in that alternate universe.
DB: It’s a character of its own, isn’t it, almost.
JE: It is a character of its own. Are you a Game of Thrones fan?
DB: Yeah! Who is your favourite character?
JE: My favourite is Arya. I relate to that kid, I don’t know but it’s so much from the beginning, she’s the one for me who resonates most deeply. I love Brienne as well. I knew when they killed Ned (Eddard) Stark, that I was in for a different ride. And they emphasise that on writing courses, you can’t be shy of killing your ‘darlings.’ George R R Martin seems to relish that and to not kill those we are positively holding our breath, hoping they will die.
DB: What song or piece of music would you like to be played at your own funeral?
JE: To be honest with you, I think I would prefer they played music prior to the funeral and I think at the part where you would normally play the person’s theme song, I would just like silence. I’d like to not lead the audience.
DB: Is there a poem or a piece of prose that you would choose to be read?
JE: I’ll have to think about that. I should think about that, I am going to die. (Laughs) The will is written. I will now.
DB: It’s not something I had really considered either, otherwise they might play something we absolutely hate (both laugh) or read a passage from the Bible or something!
JE: My mother has two brothers and one died, think it’s two years ago, and he was an atheist (which I didn’t know until he had died) and they had this Pentecostal preacher give the eulogy at his funeral and give a kind of a sermon. It was just so bizarre to me, and he wasn’t a very educated or sophisticated individual but as I understand a good-hearted man who has helped my mother out quite a lot. At one point he was saying something like, ‘The past is behind us but the future is ahead of us.’ I was lost and was, ‘What’s next to us? What’s sitting beside us?’ (I was beside myself at that point) He went on a little bit about a Jesus and it was just so awkward. So that’s one thing that I would want to not have, is for them to play hymns and talk about Jesus or try to find some way to apologise me, by approximation, through the Pearly Gates. ‘He wasn’t a Christian but he did try to love others’ (which I hope would be true). I love the poem that they read in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’, by W H Auden.
DB: Do you go to watch live music very often?
JE: Not as often as I’d like to.
DB: Which concert have you been to would you consider the best live concert you have ever been to?
JE: Oh man! I haven’t been to nearly enough concerts, which is ironic. I’ve been to a lot of concerts of people I know, people who are local, struggling musicians and I’ve seen some really fantastic concerts there. Heather Kropf, of Pittsburg, I’ve seen her give some excellent shows, really moving. Robert Wagner, had a group called The Little Wretches: whenever he plays solo or with a group, it’s always moving and stimulating and a learning experience for me. We recently saw The Shins live, at the Greek.
It’s probably Neil Young just because I was 17 and I saw Neil Young in Morgantown, at the Colosseum, and he was doing his ‘Pink Flamingo’ tour (sort of ‘50s Rock n Roll but he saved that for the end). The beginning, the first hour-and-a-half to two hours, was classic Young. He did all of the Neil Young songs that I loved, mostly solo, either on piano or on guitar with a harmonica and a drum or bass machine that he played with his feet at the same time. And that, the one person in a room under the white-hot spotlight, is the experience for me – that’s the way I like to perform and that’s the way I like to see performers, that’s the most affecting for me. He held the entire Colosseum of people spellbound through the entire thing, whether he was playing “Old Man” or “The Needle and the Damage Done”. I definitely left there walking on air.
DB: Is there any band, or artist, that you have not seen but who you would love to see perform live?
JE: Oh many, so many. I’d love to see U2. I’d love to see Radiohead but I’d also like to see Joni Mitchell (I don’t know if she’s doing it anymore). People who are no longer with us – Billie Holiday, I would love to actually hear how she sounds because the recording equipment at the time I don’t think could do it justice. I would like to see St. Vincent, the one who did the album with David Byrne recently. I’d like to see David Byrne. It’s a long list!
DB: Do you dance? I don’t mean dance well or badly…
JE: Two very different answers!
DB: If you hear music that’s dance music?
JE: Yeah, I love to dance! I was telling Suzan last night, who does not like to dance and regards it as utterly ‘uncool’ – I have to say she dances like a short-circuiting robot…
DB: That’s what my kids say about me! Honest to God that’s exactly what they say, ‘You look like you’re being electrocuted mother!’
JE: I’d like to have a video of the two of you dancing.
DB: I just think I dance in a really cool way but…
JE: You must! That’s a very energetic way to dance! How long can you keep it up?
DB: I usually get exhausted!
JE: I would dance every night if I could. That would be enough exercise for me and there’s something about it, it releases everything in me. There’s this wonderful [French] movie called The Hairdresser’s Husband, the main actor in the movie, he’s done this since he was a child and they go onto the beach on holiday and he would do this dance. He’d hear this sort of Arabic music and go into this semi-herkyjerky, but his emotion would come out though it, you can feel his heart in the dance and at the end of the film this woman, who is the love of his life but who is bi-polar, takes her own life (now you don’t have to see it! Spoiler alert! Both laugh) and he comes in to the beauty shop, where he has had his life with her, and he puts on that tape from his childhood on an old tape player and he goes into the dance and that’s how he grieves.
And yeah, dance is all of that for me.
I love to watch dance: ballet, modern dance, anything. I have friends who are dancers who I love and admire; I love to watch them work. I took a ballet class, briefly, and I took tap for a little while but I just love the free-form, my form of me being electrocuted or short-circuited, I could do it for hours!
DB: Have you got a guilty music pleasure?
JE: At one point it would have been – cannot remember her name but she had a song about exit to Mallville or something – but she had a very sexual song that I used to listen to, probably 25 years ago. Guilty pleasure now? You know what? I’m not really a fan but when I’ve had jobs or situations where I had to stay up late and was very tired I’ll listen to AC/DC or music like that because it’s energising.
DB: What was the last song or album you heard that really excited you?
JE: Well. The last artist I encountered who I can think of who really seemed like a big discovery to me and who broke my heart, is Keaton Henson. I don’t know if you know his work or not but a good starting point, which was my starting point, is called “Old Lovers In Dressing Rooms”.
Three questions we ask everyone:
What’s your favourite word?
JE: I like ‘incandescent’ a lot. I like ‘prescient’. Words do now, and always have, had a visceral effect on me. I try to be very specific because they are important to me and I can’t really help that. I don’t know. I’m a word person, it’s difficult. I feel like I’m betraying all these words.
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
JE: My perfect day would… Wow! It’s funny. It would absolutely involve a hike in the mountains. I guess they say there are mountain people and there are ocean people and I’m certainly more of a mountain person, as I find the ocean overwhelming and terrifying. What I would really like to do is have a big dance at the end of this day, a pre-planned dance, to which would be invited everybody I have ever loved – don’t wait for the funeral, right. It would just be to have them all there, everybody bring food, and there would be a dance too.
DB: Would you do that at the end of the long hike?
JE: Yeah, at the end of the day, beginning about 6 and just stay all night. There would be cots for everybody, places to crash.
DB: What could you not possibly live without?
JE: It would be very hard to live without music and it would be very hard to live without meaningful conversation. If I were in prison, I’m don’t… I’m not… I wasn’t born… I didn’t have in me as a child… I was a very Little Lord Fauntleroy, a bit of a girlie boy and then the brutes made me brutal – I eventually became… I guess I have that way, that rolled into Speck and people like that, because I know what it’s like to be brutalised to the point where you lash back. (I’ve forgotten the question again, sorry).
DB: What could you not possibly live without?
JE: You’ve evoked so much emotion in me. I’m all welled up.
DB: And me.
JE: So meaningful conversation. I’ve told certain people that I’ve been involved with that if I ever had an affair, it would be a conversational affair. I’m not interested in going out and having sex with other people, particularly now [that] I think I’ve finally graduated to fidelity but I am always, always really interested in talking about what’s really going on and expanding.
I did a play once, with my theatre group called Two Rooms about a man who’s a hostage in Beirut for two years, his wife is back in the United States and she creates a room that approximates what she has been told his cell would look like in a hostage situation and they imagine communicating with each other.
There was no way for me to prep myself for what the experience would be like, of being blindfolded in a dank cell for two years; it’s just an unimaginable calculation. I did all the bizarre things like: I’d handcuff myself when there was nobody around; I’d put myself in a position which was very awkward and painful where it was really hard to get out of it and leave myself there for half-an-hour until there was no circulation in my arms – and all the dumb things some actors do. To try to get that feeling of helplessness and pain and loneliness and earplugs in but finally (and I was busing at the time, I didn’t have a car and it was winter in Pittsburgh, very cold) I realised every couple of minutes I’d burst into song. I thought, ‘You should try not singing.’ So I forbade myself to sing and every time it welled up in me, which was frequently, I killed it off. And that did it! That’s H2O and oxygen.
DB: And as you said, when you were really little and then your brother died, music was the first thing that you went to which was the thing that helped you make sense of things and carry on.
JE: Yeah and I’ve become a very, very weepy, whingeing twat as I’m approaching my later years, I guess. Even when I play music now it’s hard to get through performances of some songs because I’ll cry; I’ll cry while I’m singing. As any actor knows, it doesn’t help to try to not cry because that’s the method for bringing it about. So I’ve never gotten on top of that but have gradually accepted it and incorporated it into performances.
You can find Jack on Twitter
I would like to express my thanks to Jack for being such a delight to interview.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.