William Sadler is a hardworking American actor whose name you may not always know, but whose face is instantly recognisable. I had the pleasure of talking with him about his childhood, his education, and the path he took which led him to many theatre roles before moving into TV & film work. From the classic film, The Shawshank Redemption, to the lighthearted Bill & Ted films, Bill has amassed a huge fan base.
We also discussed romance, music, and some of the actors with whom he has enjoyed working with and much more.
PC: I always like to begin by talking about names, do you come from a long line of Williams in your family?
WS: No, I think I am the end of the line. There are just the three of us. My grandfather was William Sadler, and my father was William John Sadler, and I am William Thomas Sadler.
PC: Who does Thomas come from?
WS: My mother’s father was Thomas. He was from Scotland.
PC: I read that you have English and Scottish roots. Do you know what took your family over to America?
WS: I don’t know, I think the opportunities. My father’s family settled in Canada; first in Hamilton, then moved down to the United States. I think that was a common route. I still have cousins all over Glasgow, I think.
PC: Have you ever visited Scotland?
WS: My wife and I drove through Scotland many years ago. It was fascinating. I did a TV show called Assaulted Nuts back in the 80’s, and it was one of the first jobs I ever did that paid any money. They took us over to film just outside of London. We would shoot six episodes or so, then have a break while they wrote more episodes. We rented a car one time and drove up to Scotland.
PC: That is quite a journey.
WS: We made it all the way up to Portree on the Isle of Skye, and it was just beautiful – oh my God. Fantastic, it was fantastic. We stopped at Edinburgh on the way back down for the Edinburgh Theatre Festival.
PC: The festival has sadly been cancelled this year for the first time since WW2.
WS: Since it started, yes. Everything has been cancelled. It’s extraordinary, the world is just holding its breath.
PC: Neither of our countries are doing well. Along with Brazil, the U.K and the USA have the highest COVID-19 daily death rates.
WS: It’s not done here yet. I am worried with all the demonstrations, thousands of people packed together, they might spread it around and give it to their parents.
PC: It has been calculated that there will be a second wave, so I don’t understand why we are opening the country back up.
WS: Me neither. I mean, I understand the economy is in terrible trouble. Stores can’t open, people can’t shop, restaurants… there are so many people who depend on those things for their livelihood, but boy, what a trade-off.
PC: How are you filling your time in apart from your Kitchen Sink Tapes, which we will talk about later.
WS: I have been gardening across the street. We have a great big vegetable garden started there, and I play with the grandchildren, that is always fun. Jack is four and Josie is one.
PC: I’ve been friends with you on Facebook for years now, and it has been lovely to see Jack growing up through the videos and photos you share. Is it the best thing ever being a grandparent?
WS: Oh my God – if you get a chance to, it’s really, really sweet. You don’t have the worries and the responsibilities.
PC: I was reading that your father served in WW2 and even received a medal for bravery. Did that make him a strict father… having been in the military?
WS: He didn’t talk about the war very much. That was a different generation. He didn’t really come home and talk about it. I think a lot of those guys just sort of swallowed it up. I’m sure there was PTSD. I’m sure most of them came back with horrific nightmares, and so did my dad. He was good; he was a pretty cool father. He loved music, and he loved to laugh. He loved funny songs like Roger Miller songs, and Alan Sherman records, and Bill Cosby’s early albums… anything that was funny.
PC: You are not unlike him yourself. I sat down to listen to one of your songs, and you said it was going to be a really sad song… and then you included the line, ‘lying sack of shit’ (both laugh).
What about your Mom, I’m sorry to hear she passed away very recently. She seemed to be a remarkable woman. I read she was the first to get her pilot’s license in the county she lived in. Why was she learning to fly?
WS: That was during the war. All of her brothers were off fighting. Her older brother, Jack, was in the Marines; and Dan was in the Navy. They were all away. I think she had always been adventurous; she was quite a remarkable woman. She made a trip across the country to California to stay with relatives. There was a guy she was interested in, and they wanted to separate the two of them. So they sent her to California when she was a teenager, but she went by herself. She was a very bright, independent woman. She just passed a little while ago.
PC: She must have seen it all during her lifetime.
WS: She was 98.
PC: You were very fortunate to have her around for so long.
WS: Yes, it was great.
PC: Was she a fun person like your Dad?
WS: She was different. Dad was interested in music and humour. My mom… as soon as I showed an interest in acting, my Mom said, “I bet you’d be good at that.” And we had never gone to a play before I got interested in acting. We didn’t go to plays. We lived on a farm outside of Buffalo, it just wasn’t part of the culture there. All of a sudden my mom, several times, drove me up to Niagara on the Lake to the Shaw Festival, it was just the two of us. When I got interested in acting and started doing plays, she would take me. She would say, “Let’s go see this, and let’s go see that.” We went to the Buffalo Studio Arena and watched a play. She drove me to Stratford in Ontario for the Shakespeare Festival. In some ways, she was responsible for being supportive of the career that I chose because I wasn’t sure from the get-go. You know, it’s a strange way to make a living. I had no experience, it wasn’t like I grew up doing theatre camp.
What I did was spend my entire childhood running around the barn playing these sort of make believes – huge long improvs. We were soldiers in WW2, hiding from the Germans and we would jump out of the hay loft, and come up shooting with our BB guns. But really my Mom, more than I think anybody else, was responsible.
PC: What were you like as a child, I can’t imagine you were quiet and studious.
WS: No, I was never quiet, I guess I was boisterous. No, I was never studious. If I wasn’t interested in a subject, my grades in high school were just awful. The other thing was… the Vietnam War was raging. I graduated from high school in 1968, the Vietnam War was in full swing. One of the ways that you could avoid going, for a while anyway, was to go to college and get a student deferment. My older brother, Gary, had been accepted at Buffalo State College. I applied as well to study industrial art and become a shop teacher… like that was going to work.
In high school, I had an English teacher named Dan Larkin who suggested that I try out for the senior play which was Harvey, the one that James Stewart did. I was cast as Elwood – as the lead. I had a great time. It wasn’t life-changing but it was an awful lot of fun, and I was interested in doing more. He mentioned that this community Theatre group was doing The Subject Was Roses, a play by Frank D. Gilroy, a Pulitzer Prize winning drama. It was the play that launched Martin Sheen’s career. There are three characters: a mother, an abusive father, and a son who comes home from the Army. He was not going to take it anymore; he was not going to allow his father to get away with this shit anymore. It was a beautiful play, and that was the one that sort of smacked me in the face. That was when I realised maybe there was more to this – this can be substantial stuff, though I guess I still didn’t think I could make a living at it.
The director of that play said, “What are you doing, where are you going to college?” And I said, “I’m going Buffalo State to study industrial arts and be a shop teacher.” He had just graduated from The State University of New York College at Geneseo; his name was Bob Schultz. He said, “Let me make a phone call.” And he phoned the head of the drama department at Geneseo and said, “I got this kid I want you to meet,” and so he made the arrangements. He drove me to the college, and we had a meeting with the head of the drama department, and we saw a play they were doing that spring. Long story short, I ended up going to Geneseo and studied theatre. Then I got a scholarship to go to Cornell University to study acting for two years, and then I was off – I moved to New York and tried to make a living out of it.
PC: You did a lot of theatre in the beginning before moving onto films, didn’t you?
WS: Yes, I did years and years and years of theatre before I did my first movie. I sometimes wonder what my career would have been like if I had moved straight to Hollywood when I was right out of school, when I was really young and stupid and cute.
PC: And pretty, yes.
WS: Really cute. Instead, I did tons and tons of theatre leading up to a year and a half on Broadway with Biloxi Blues and then I did my first movie.
PC: What was your very first movie?
WS: I did little bits and pieces on television, but the first real film that I did was Project X with Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt. I had just done Biloxi Blues with Matthew Broderick, so I think the director must have seen the play. Matthew had just done Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.
PC: Ferris Beuller’s Day Off is a modern classic, it’s still a great film, a lot like Bill and Ted. So, after all these years you must know in every interview you are going to be asked about The Shawshank Redemption. Do you understand now looking back what the formula was that made it so successful? I know it didn’t do so well until it came out on home video rental.
WS: I should start by saying I am completely grateful and elated it happened. I think part of what made it so wonderful was that it wasn’t a star vehicle; it wasn’t about the personalities of the actors. What was important was the story. It’s a story about two men, their friendship, their love for each other and it’s about hope, really. In a completely hopeless situation, he hangs onto the hope that one day he will get out of there against all odds, and then succeed in such an amazing way. I think that’s just a message that resonates with everybody, everybody has something in their lives that feels hopeless. I think it’s the story more than anything else, it’s just a powerful image of hope succeeding over hopelessness, with love succeeding over hate and corruption.
PC: Have you ever experienced in your lifetime a friendship like Andy and Red enjoyed… with that one person you have been best friends with for a number of years?
WS: I have such a friend now, he is a musician, he is a woodworker. Like most of us, he has been dealing with elderly parents. He is a great friend; we have been friends for thirty years. We don’t see each other for great long stretches, but then when we see each other, it’s like no time has passed.
PC: How did you first meet him?
WS: He was a friend of my wife before he was my friend. She was a stained glass artist when I met her, and he was a woodworker. They both made these beautiful creations that they sold at craft fairs and things. All of us lived in New York City at the time in the Lower East side, so we started hanging out together.
PC: What about the other actors on Shawshank Redemption like Morgan Freeman and James Whitmore, did you get to hang out with them off camera?
WS: There was a lot of time to hang out on the set. When the day was over, we didn’t hang out but it was great fun to sit around in the prison yard with Morgan. Morgan Freeman and I used to sing doo-wop songs. We would try and stump each other by saying, “Do you know this one?” There was quite a bit of time to kill, and with James Whitmore (Brooks), we were all just in awe of this wonderful old actor who was such a sweetheart.
There is a scene where he puts a knife to my neck. He was such a gentle soul – he didn’t want to do it, and the knife was dull. They’d ground the edge off; you couldn’t stab anything with it unless you really, really tried. It was cute, I kept saying, “It’s fine,” and, “Don’t worry about it.” As an actor, I wanted to feel the threat. I wanted to feel it there; it’s easier to act it if I could just feel the tip of it there as a threat, rather than having to pretend your head off. I finally talked him into doing it, but I think he was just worried that he was an old guy and that he was going to hurt me.
PC: Sweet! Do you have a preference between your role on Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile?
WS: The thing about Shawshank is that there was time for there to be lots of different colours. The story goes on for 19 years, so there were lots of opportunities to bring different emotions. My character, Heywood, goes on a bit of a journey from the beginning to the end. He learns who Andy is, and we get to know who he is. He’s not as hideous as he appears in the beginning of the film when he bets on Fat Ass. I really liked that about the character. There was more to him than we first thought. He’s this tough bad ass who snuffs out this guy’s life and doesn’t care about him. I wanted to show that it did impact him. They didn’t set out to kill Fat Ass, they were just having fun and this place killed him.
PC: When you do an emotional scene like you did in The Green Mile, can you switch off as soon as the director yells cut, or are you someone who takes it home and has to decompress?
WS: I’ve often thought that one of the hardest acting jobs I’ve ever done was The Green Mile because, from almost the moment he appears on the screen – the screen door has been smashed, there is blood all over the porch and his two daughters are gone. At the time of filming our daughter was about their age, and there is nothing more terrifying, not any horror movie creature, more terrifying than thinking something awful may have happened to your child. It’s just an instant, awful panic. Myself, just as an actor, I couldn’t turn it on and turn it off easily. I sort of had to go there and let that emotion take over and live with it for the whole day, so that when they said, ‘Action’ and I have to run… especially the scene where John Coffey has the two little girls, and they are covered in blood. The day that we shot that was really one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as an actor. It was too awful. I had to keep it bubbling underneath, so it was there when the director shouted, “Action!” I was very glad when that shoot was over. I’m glad it works in the movie, I’m glad it plays well and was effective, and the movie is better because I did it that way, but some scenes cost less emotionally.
PC: We must now talk about the long awaited third instalment of The Bill and Ted franchise: Bill & Ted Face the Music.
When you played Death, the grim reaper in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, was the character outside your normal comfort zone?
WS: I had actually played that character once before in that show that I mentioned. You can go on YouTube, and watch me in a show called Assaulted Nuts playing the Grim Reaper in a sketch comedy scene. For some reason I chose that voice, the funny Czech accent. When the audition came in for Bill and Ted that’s what I wanted to do, and I thought it would be funny and would be right for the character. I actually told the casting office (the casting director was Karen Grey) that I was thinking of doing it and they said, “Ooh, I don’t think so. You probably shouldn’t,” because, of course, they are convinced American actors don’t do accents very well.
PC: Well that’s certainly not correct.
WS: Just not true, some actors have made entire careers out of doing different accents. Anyway, I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks and I thought, “Oh well, I guess it didn’t work out.” Then Karen called me and said, “Bill, they want you to come back and do the audition again. But I need you to go to a Halloween store and get some grey and put it in your hair and black out your teeth, because they think you’re too young. Come in tomorrow and do it.”
I thought, “That’s just going to look like crap, that’s going to look terrible,” so I called the make-up guy from Die Hard 2, the only make up guy I knew, a guy called Scott Edow. I had just worked with him, so I told him about my situation. He said, “Come over to my house, be there at 7 o’clock and we will put some age makeup on you.” That’s what we did. He made me look like a believable 70-year-old guy with grey hair and wrinkles. I got in the car and drove to Orion pictures, then did exactly the same audition with that accent (Bill starts speaking in the Czech accent making us both laugh.) They give me the job, I think what was fun about it was that he was funny. The character that I had come up with was funnier, he would be funny just reading the phone book. He’s not the brightest, and he doesn’t speak very good English.
PC: He fit right in with silliness of Bill and Ted. If he had been very serious, he wouldn’t have bounced off of them so well.
WS: Yes, exactly! What it ended up being the first time you see the Reaper in Bill & Ted – he’s scary, he’s this frightening figure and our heroes are in real trouble. Oh my God, they’ve got to beat this guy. And then, of course, there is the whole game sequence; he’s utterly humiliated and becomes petulant. We see cracks; he’s not such a scary figure after all.
PC: His bark’s worse than his bite!
GW: Exactly, and at the end of the movie, he’s joined the band and he wants so badly to be part of the gang.
PC: Is there anything at all you can tell me about the new movie? All I know is that it was filmed in New Orleans and Kid Cudi is involved…
WS: Anything at all… I will say that I am very excited to see what kind of movie we made because I think the energy around it was exactly the same. The writers were the same, the two leads were the same (Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter), the energy and the craziness are going to be amazing – exactly what people remember from the earlier movies.
PC: There is such an expectation. I really hope it does well, but there’s such pressure to be as good as the first two.
WS: Yeah, I mean my goodness, it’s the most anticipated movie of the year, or something. I hope so. It will be really swell if it is very successful.
PC: How did you get on with Keanu and Alex when you reunited?
WS: It was funny, we picked up exactly where we left off. It was just playful and really, really fun. As soon as I put on the makeup and the robes again – the character just came flooding back, as if were filming Bogus Journey yesterday instead of 30 years ago. He had been bottled for so long that when we finally pulled the cork out of the bottle, the Reaper came spewing out and got a chance to dance and got a chance to sing – it was just really, really fun. I think everybody looks a little older, but I also think the spirit is all completely there, which was always the important thing. I think that’s what made those films so successful.
PC: I wanted to ask you about your nude scene on Die Hard 2. Obviously you had worked hard to get your body into shape, but I wonder how long afterwards did you stay that fit for? Did you let yourself go quite quickly? Did your wife like the Adonis-like body her husband was sporting?
WS: I worked hard to get into shape for the movie, I think my wife liked it. I guess I’m not vain enough to keep that fit just so I can admire myself in the mirror. I kept on working out a bit, but just to maintain being fit and healthy. I didn’t really let myself go, but also didn’t keep up the regime. That body just required way, way too much time and dedication.
PC: Nice to look back and know you were that buff though.
WS: Yeah, it is nice.
PC: We like to include a bit of romance in some of our interviews. If you don’t mind can you share how you met your wife, Marni Bakst?
WS: Like I said, Marni was doing stained glass when I met her. She was doing very well. She was having shows and galleries in New York City. She had a studio in the East Village. She was on 5th street between 2nd and 3rd, and I had an apartment on 7th street between 1st and 2nd, which I shared with another actor. It cost $150 per month, my rent was $75 dollars a month, and that was about all we could afford.
I was doing Shakespeare in the Park – Henry V. Joe Papp was directing, and Paul Rudd, Meryl Streep, and Michael Moriarty were in it – it was this wonderful cast. A friend of mine was in the cast named Mark Simon, and Mark was friends with Marni. They were buddies, and she came to see the play with him. I guess Mark had mentioned me to her before. She came one night which was the night before the 4th of July. It was the 3rd of July 1976 – I remember because after the play we sat on a stone wall in Central Park and watched the fireworks. It was the Bicentennial.
We started seeing each other and we found out we lived a couple of blocks apart. I thought she was amazing. About a year later we were married, and I moved into her apartment because it was nicer than mine.
PC: So, having been married for over 40 years, what is your secret to a long and successful marriage?
WS: Oh, for God’s sake, you do a lot of accommodating. You bend, and you bend. I think when marriages fall apart, – it’s because you give up. Often somebody is inflexible, somebody’s too rigid.
PC: Even after been married all these years, I still have some huge rows with my husband, but at the end of the day we still care so always make up quickly.
WS: You care deeply. That doesn’t go away, that just gets deeper. I don’t know how it lasts, I’m really lucky.
PC: You have had some great roles on TV, but I think you know my personal favourites are your episodes on The Blacklist. Had you watched it before you got the part?
WS: No, and I had never met James Spader.
PC: Wow, you really worked well together!
WS: That was one of the great surprises in that first episode where he kills me. It was really amazing how quickly the two of us fell into a friendship. He is a very, very good listener and so am I. Our conversations were just easy. It was fun to do the scenes with him, because there is a real person sitting there really listening to what you’re saying. The whole thing just seems real, so you give yourself over to it.
PC: I wanted to ask you about VFW, the movie you worked on recently. I believe VFW stands for Veterans of Foreign Wars, but it could have been called Veteran Actors Come Together; some really great old school actors in the cast.
WS: Yes, that was another acting surprise. They threw all of us veteran actors together, and the funny thing is that we’d all worked with each other before. I’d never worked with George Wendt, but I’d worked with David Patrick Kelly and Martin Kove before, and a couple of times with Stephen Lang. He was in The Shakespeare in the Park production when I first met Marni.
It was just surprising that there was this sort of camaraderie and good humour and good fun this bunch of old actors were having together – it just overflowed on the screen. This wonderful ensemble… it was like no matter where you aimed the camera, it was clear that we cared about each other, which makes you care about the characters. It makes the audience love the people, because they’re real. I am not sure it’s a great movie, it was great fun to shoot. It’s John Carpenteresque, it’s a great ride: a beat ‘em up, cut ‘em up, blow ‘em up saga. But what was remarkable was this group of actors at the heart of it. I think it sort of lifted off the page with the cast.
PC: I look forward to seeing it.
As an old hand, what kind of encouragement can you offer to the young actors who are coming through now about longevity? Looking back, you have had a very successful career, how have you sustained it?
WS: I think we touched on it a little bit earlier. I spent so many years doing professional theatre, regional theatres and both Off and on Broadway. I think the theatre sort of teaches you skills that you can’t learn on film; there’s no time to rehearse on a TV or on a film set. Shawshank was the only movie I think I’ve ever done where they brought all the actors together for a week and a half before filming commenced.
PC: That was unusual. Was that to get the camaraderie going?
WS: It was because he wanted us to feel like we had all been together for 19 years. Frank Darabont and Niki Marvin – the producers – they wanted this feeling, they wanted this ensemble. They wanted the film to feel like these guys had been living in the same environment for years and years and years. It developed that connective tissue, and it makes it feel real. You care about them.
PC: You really feel it at the end when Red is heading to find Andy.
WS: Yes, but getting back to your question, I really only have two pieces of advice. One is to do some theatre because that really is the actor’s medium; once the curtain goes up, it’s on you! If anything exciting is going to happen for the audience, it’s what you have created with your fellow actors. You are going to make these moments come alive and lift off the page and move people. And you’re going to do it 8 times a week, and you’re going to do it whether you have a headache that day, or if you’ve had a fight with your wife. I think that sort of discipline helps enormously when you finally get to do a movie, and it’s three o’clock in the morning and they haven’t gotten to your scene yet, and they say, “Okay, we’re ready. And action!” You have to somehow pull it together and do it on a dime when they ask for it. You can only do that if you have the discipline and the ability to focus and create something: create moments at will. It’s just a little easier in a film. If the scene doesn’t work they can stop, they can play with it, try this, try that… but the theatre gives the actor a bag of tools and self-reliance so that it doesn’t matter. You work with good directors and it’s great, but if you work with crappy directors you still have to pull it off. You work on bad scripts sometimes…
PC: It makes you remain professional at all times.
WS: With a bad director you have to make it work, and you learn how to do that by doing that. I said before that I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d gone to Los Angeles earlier… if I’d started my film career when I was 18 or something. The problem with learning to act by going to Los Angeles and getting into TV is that you will work one day in February, and then you have a five line walk-on in August, and then maybe you will have something else in the fall, and there is no time to rehearse. It’s just impossible to get good at anything. If you had to learn to play the piano, and they’d only let you sit at the piano for 20 minutes in March, then another half hour in September, you’d never learn what you needed to learn.
PC: That’s a good way of putting it. I was taking piano lessons a couple of years ago with a one hour lesson once a week, and I didn’t have a piano at home so it made it very difficult to learn.
WS: That’s what I mean. If you’ve done theatre – particularly good professional theatre where the acting is good – you do it 8 hours a day, and you do a month of rehearsals.
PC: So, you are learning your craft literally.
WS: Yes, in every rehearsal you go back to the top of the scene and bring it alive again and again. Those are muscles you have to work as an actor so that when you get that 5 minutes in a TV show like I did in The Highwaymen – you get that tasty scene, you’ll have the acting chops so you know what to do with it. I can’t emphasise this enough: there’s almost no rehearsal, you walk onto the set and you meet the actor you’re going to play the scene with… sometimes you’ll meet them the night before. The scene in The Blacklist: I met James Spader a half hour before we shot the hospital bed scene. We ran through it once or twice and then they called in the camera guy. They set the lights and we shot it and that’s how it works.
PC: Would that have been the same with any other actor? It seems crazy that you only ran through it twice, given how intense that scene was. Was that more to do with you and James Spader and your chemistry, or would that have worked just as well with any actor?
WS: It doesn’t work with just any actor, no. It was especially fun with James Spader – as I said, he’s a tremendous actor. He is a really wonderful actor, and between the two of us we were able to cook up a moment between two men that felt like two friends that had known each other for decades, and we were in this awful inflection point. No, it’s not a given you will always work with actors as good as him. You will work with actors who don’t listen.
PC: The scene where your alleged daughter, Liz (Megan Boone), phones you whilst you’re lying in the hospital bed dying… it really grabbed me, very believable, full of angst. My own father had recently passed in a hospital bed.
WS: Some of that is that the writing was very very good, and some of that is me, some of that is the actor you’re in the scene with. It’s funny though, as an actor, the writing is not always going to be terrific. You do jobs where the director isn’t helpful at all. You have to get yourself through it somehow. My first piece of advice about the theatre also includes the importance of learning a disciplined work ethic: that you are just never late, you don’t keep your fellow actors waiting. You can’t have a headache.
The only other advice I’d give young actors would be – if you land on a TV show and start making oodles of money, do something smart with it. Get some good advice, invest it and don’t just piss through it thinking that this is going to go on forever, because the show will end one day. Maybe you will step right into another show and maybe it will be 10 years before you do another. When you work in television and film sometimes it can be hit or miss, but if you’ve done something smart with the money, you don’t have to say yes to every job. You can be picky, I don’t need to do that one.
PC: James Spader has said in the past he has taken on a role where he has absolutely no interest in the genre or the movie itself, but he took it because it paid the mortgage. Not to say he doesn’t give it his all when he does begin filming, he absolutely does.
WS: That’s exactly what this business is, he’s a journeyman, he is a working actor. You have to pay the mortgage, you have to pay the rent. Your daughter needs shoes and clothes and what have you.
PC: I suppose that applies to other occupations like football players because you have a short playing career.
WS: It’s probably even worse for athletes: you reach a certain age and it’s over, or you injure yourself and that is it, your career is over just like that. The good thing about being an actor is that you can get old and craggy; your hair can turn white and you can look like you’re 105 years old.
PC: Do you think you will ever retire, or will you keep on acting as long as those in the industry want you to?
WS: First of all, I can’t afford to retire and I enjoy it. I still get the biggest kick figuring out a scene with my fellow actors and bringing characters to life. When it works it is the greatest high in the world, it’s really really fun. You finish a scene and you can feel it in the room, everybody in the room is going, “Holy shh… did you see that?” As long as that’s the case, I can’t see myself quitting. As long as I’m still good at it and people pay me, I will still do it.
PC: I think you will be alright for a while (both laugh) and if not, you have your music to fall back on.
WS: I’ve always had my music. I’ve been playing music since I was in high school.
PC: Have you ever released a record!
WS: No, I keep writing these songs and now of course you can’t get together with anybody to do anything and I’m not sure when I’m going to get into a studio. I have been putting up these videos called The Kitchen Tapes. I wanted to put the songs out because if something happens to me… I’ve got dozens and dozens of these songs and I think they are pretty good. I do open mics or I do cafes and other venues, but I wanted to record them in some fashion so that if something happens to me they are still around. I enjoy the songwriting too and I enjoy singing them. They’re not heard outside of the house much, so I thought it would create a way for people to hear them if they want to.
PC: I listen to them. I like how some days it’s a country song and the next you are playing the blues and I like the little stories that go with them. I like the recordings you have done with the band Dirtfoot. I especially like the music video you were part of that was shot in a prison. Are those guys friends of yours?
WS: I met those guys down in Shreveport when I was filming The Mist. They have been fantastic. They kept saying, “Your songs are great… you have to come down and do a show!” I wrote one song that they recorded – “Broken”. I have an alter ego. I’ve always loved music, I have way too many guitars.
PC: I was going to ask you about them, I’ve noticed you play a few different ones. When did you being playing?
WS: When I was little up on the farm, my father had a den and in the den was a gun case that he kept his Playboy magazines in. He had a ukulele, he could play that a little bit and he gave me his tenor ukulele and he got a baritone ukulele. The two of us would sit there with a Mel Bay book of ukulele songs open between us and play every song in the book. He knew all the songs, I didn’t. There were these old songs from the 30’s and 40’s – “Little Annie Rooney” and “There is a Tavern in the Town”. So we would play ukulele together and then I wanted a banjo. He got me a banjo and he got a guitar and we started taking lessons from the same guy who taught both. He would drive us to see this guy – his name was Bernard Perry. I would go in first and do my banjo lesson for half an hour, then he would go in and I would wait in the car whilst he did his lesson. We did that once a week for a long time and then the two of us would play for parties and square dances, and round the campfire.
PC: Were you still a kid at this point?
WS: Yes, I was around 11-12 and then The Beatles happened and I wanted to play the guitar in a band like the Beatles. I bought a guitar – an Epiphone Sorrento – I could have bought a Stratocaster or a Fender or a Gibson but the guitar I ended up buying was the Epiphone Sorrento, a single cutaway. I spent my entire summer of 1965 playing that guitar in a garage band called the Knight Ryders in high school. We played at dances and Battle of the Bands. We did okay, it was great fun, and then I got into acting and I went away to college and started that career.
PC: How many guitars do you own now?
WS: I’m embarrassed to say (laughing) I don’t even know.
PC: Do you name any of your guitars? Willie Nelson has a favourite one he calls Trigger.
WS: I have never named any. There is not a room in the house that doesn’t have a couple of guitars standing there like soldiers waiting to be picked up and played.
PC: Is Marni okay with that, or is it the bane of her life?
WS: They are acoustic guitars, so I’m not driving her too crazy. She keeps finding guitars online. She says, “Bill, look at this one…Bill, look at that one – are you interested in this one?” She has actively encouraged my collecting of guitars and I always say, “No, I have enough, I don’t need anymore,” and then I look at it and go, “Oh, that’s a pretty nice one.”
PC: Do you have a favourite?
WS: My favourite guitar now, and it’s been my favourite for a long time, is a Martin 00-17 guitar in mahogany. It was made by the Martin company in 1951.
PC: I have watched you play it in your videos. It has a really nice sound.
WS: It’s just beautiful, I do a lot of finger style, and it rings and rings. It’s just fun to play.
PC: You are obviously into country music and the blues, but are there other genres you are keen on?
WS: The stuff that I like to listen to changes. I’ve been submerging myself in John Prine. I want to hear everything he ever wrote. Before that it was Paul Simon, and before that Willie Nelson. I get infatuated with different artists.
PC: Have you heard much of Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son? I really like his music.
WS: No, I haven’t.
PC: I will send you the link to a lovely video of him and his dad and brother singing Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.
WS: Those are big shoes to fill. It’s like Ahmet and Dweezil Zappa, Dweezil has a music career as well, he is very good. He is an extraordinary guitar player. It’s the same problem Julian Lennon has, if your dad was John Lennon…
PC: Where do you go from there…?
WS: Yeah, exactly.
PC: Also, Tim Buckley and Jeff Buckley. I like Tim’s music, but I love Jeff’s. Didn’t you play Lee Underwood in a film about Tim Buckley?
WS: Yes I did, in a little film.
PC: What about the newcomers? I like Brandi Carlile a lot.
WS: I catch new stuff once in a while. Like I said, I get infatuated with a particular singer such as Norah Jones.
PC: How do you listen to your music?
WS: Mostly these days it’s on YouTube or Spotify.
PC: It’s just so easy to listen to. I listen to music on Spotify, and then if I really like it, I buy it on Vinyl. I am like you. I will listen to everything a particular musician has ever recorded.
WS: My wife and I like listening to Tom Waits – everything he has ever done. He’s fantastic, just wonderful. Then we will slide over to Bob Dylan. I guess we are into the older school of music.
PC: When you are learning your lines, can you have music playing or do you like complete silence?
WS: No, I can’t learn my lines with anything else going on. What I do – the secret to learning my lines is first thing in the morning, I get up and make a cup of coffee, then I sit down with the lines and start going through them, then repeating them out loud and memorising them. If I do it first thing in the morning, my mind is wide open and they stick. If I wait until later in the day or in the middle of afternoon and I’m having a busy day, my head is full of crap and noise. It just gets harder and harder, and if I’m really tired I can’t remember my own lines.
I will read the scene the night before and go to sleep. Then I wake up in the morning and I learn the lines and that usually works.
Final questions, I try to ask every interview session:
PC: Which book have you got on the go right now.
WS: The last book I got most of the way through was the biography of Paul Simon. I am fascinated with song writing, the whole process. Like the story of him sitting in a bathroom at his parents’ house writing “The Sound of Silence”. He would sit in the bathroom and play and sing because it had tiled walls, he’d get a little echo on his voice. He would turn the lights off and the first line was, “Hello darkness, my old friend.”
PC: Yes, and he wrote the lyrics to “Homeward Bound” in a railway station in England when he was heading back to London to see his girlfriend.
WS: Yes, so that was the last book I read.
PC: If it was your last meal on Planet Earth, what would you have to eat and what drink would you choose to accompany it?
WS: This is going to sound weird… Marni makes this amazing pasta – spaghetti with anchovies and parsley and olive oil I think, it’s spectacular. It’s been so long since I had a drink but if it’s really my last meal, I guess I’d have a big old honking glass of red wine.
PC: How would your perfect day pan out?
WS: That’s a hard one. I guess I’d wake up and have coffee. I’d probably sit and play my guitar for a little while, maybe I’d finish a song that I was writing. Later on, we would have dinner with the grandkids – that sounds like a pretty perfect day to me. Oh, maybe I’d do some fishing.
PC: There’s something gone wrong here, your perfect day doesn’t involve acting.
WS: No, it doesn’t have to involve acting. My perfect day is a relaxing Sunday, you made it sound that way.
PC: That is true, it is my fault.
WS: Coffee in the morning and music, fishing and family and, at the end of the day, hang out with Marni and binge watch some great TV show like Breaking Bad and just finish the day sitting with her on the couch.
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.
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