Jon Voight: Isn’t it Romantic?
Jon Voight’s heyday was in the 1970’s. While he has taken time off from his career, he has always come back to acting. In the 90’s, Voight enjoyed a resurgence with character roles in movies like Heat, Mission: Impossible and Anaconda. The May 1997 issue of Movieline magazine included an interview with Voight in which he is surprisingly sunny. It probably helped matters that the interview was conducted by Pamela Des Barres, the rock and roll super groupie who partially inspired the Penny Lane character in Almost Famous. She doesn’t exactly hit Voight with hardball questions.
In 1969, I was 21 years old and dedicated to breaking down the doors of repression by marching against the war, dancing half naked, popping the Pill in public and traveling with rock bands. Dylan had said that the “order” was “rapidly fading,” and I couldn’t have agreed more. Unless something was groundbreaking, I just wasn’t interested. When John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy came out, I remember reeling with stunned relief that so much dangerous reality had hit the screen. Joe Buck, the naive, young Texas hustler who hawks his charms to wealthy, horny women in New York was shockingly, deliciously real–and I was shaken by the performance of the unknown actor who played him, Jon Voight. With Voight’s tall blondness, I expected him to become a heartthrob, but he went on to play what were really high-profile character roles in brilliant films like Deliverance and Coming Home.
The Champ (1979) turned out to be Voight’s last box-office hit for a decade and a half. He continued to show what had made him famous, notably in 1985’s Runaway Train, but now his political activism seemed to become as important to him as his acting. At a massive march for the homeless in Washington, D.C., in 1989, Voight was the pep rally team captain of a group of showbizzers called Young Artists United that I was with. He was at least as involved in the cause of Native Americans.
Though he was no longer starring in big-budget features, I always took note of Voight’s work. I saw him in the wonderful little movie Desert Bloom in 1986; I rented the odd film about reincarnation, Eternity, that he wrote in 1990; I watched him in Return to Lonesome Dove on TV; I adored the HBO movie The Last of His Tribe. Then in 1995 I saw him in Michael Mann’s Heat, in which he played a supporting part to two actors who’d come of age when he had–Pacino and De Niro. Next I saw him in Mission: Impossible, in which he played the role Peter Graves had done on the TV show. After seeing that he was doing John Singleton’s Rosewood and the jungle thriller Anaconda–there’s some range for you–I decided to find out everything he had in the works. Here’s what I discovered: he was making an unexpected foray into comedy as producer and star of the indie film Boys Will Be Boys; teaming up with Keenen Ivory Wayans in the action thriller Most Wanted; playing a smooth operator in Coppola’s The Rainmaker; and doing a turn as a homeless man in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. I realized Voight was coming home to the big screen.
PAMELA DES BARRES: It seems that ever since I saw you in Heat, you’re suddenly everywhere.
JON VOIGHT: Heat was a very big success for me, even though I had a small role. I have a larger role in Anaconda, in which I play a villain, very theatrical. I hope people won’t be able to talk about my performance without smiling. The film my heart was really in was John Singleton’s Rosewood, the true story of a massacre in the South, caused by a woman who lied about being raped.
Q: How did you come to make Heat?
A: Michael Mann and I had been friends for years, just seeing each other at various events. We have a similar sense of humor, and we like each other as people. We talked about doing something together, and then he sent me this script. I said to him, “Michael, there’s a lot of guys who could do this part without having to put on all this makeup.” And he said, “Yeah, but then I wouldn’t get the chance to work with Jon Voight.” It was such a sweet compliment.
Q: That was a brave move–to make yourself look that old.
A: When I walked on the set for my first day’s work with the padding and the makeup, one of the drivers said to my makeup man, “I drove Jon seven years ago. What happened? Drugs?” I felt great that it was working, but what I didn’t realize was that everybody was having the same reaction! Poor Jon Voight, let’s give him a life achievement award before he goes! It’s a good thing I didn’t quit after that performance.
Q: Did Tom Cruise come to you with the offer for Mission: Impossible?
A: Yes, he and Brian [De Palma].
Q: How do you feel about the finished product?
A: It’s a fun movie. I enjoyed working with Tom Cruise–I liked him very much. It was interesting for me because I took a character who was an icon of a certain stature and he became the disappointment, the horror. So what does that mean to me? It’s a temper of the times that we’ve been disappointed by leadership.
Q: Aren’t you working with Coppola right now?
A: I play a smooth, slick, dangerous character in The Rainmaker. I’m having fun working with Francis, who is one of the best.
Q: You’re considered one of the best, too.
A: I’m older now and as you get older you pick up a bit of stature just for surviving.
Q: How did you come to do the new Keenen Ivory Wayans film, Most Wanted?
A: I’d been a fan of In Living Color. You know the Frenchie character? I really loved him–in some ways he’s the brother of Joe Buck. So I felt a kinship with Keenen. I also feel he’s a natural leading man, a charming, graceful guy. I wanted to do the film in support of Keenen.
Q: It must make you feel good that you are seen in such different lights.
A: What’s interesting is that I don’t see myself in these roles. Where the hell did Keenen get the idea for me to do the part of a mad general? The same was true with Oliver Stone on U-Turn. He told me he was doing a picture with a homeless character who’s also a bit of a seer, a small character, but a very strong one. When we started working on it, I found he was very open to different ideas. I mentioned that perhaps the guy could be part Indian–in the tradition that the Native people know “something else.” So he changed the character, and I have no idea what it’s going to be like–a blind, homeless Indian.
Q: There have been big spaces of time in your career when you decided not to work.
A: As in all things, there are tides. In the last several years of my life, my mom was very ill. I was very grateful to be able to spend time with her when I could. It was important that her three boys, Barry, Chip and I, were there for her. It was a blessing that I wasn’t working as much as I am now.
Q: Are you ambitious?
A: My ambition is to contribute–to bring people some joy and comfort, to share insights. When I was a young man I saw great performers, and I wanted to be one of those cherished people who gives something.
Q: Do you consider yourself a “movie star”?
A: That phrase has a lovely ring to it. We’re part of the legacy, from the ’30s and ’40s, when we really had our movie stars. We’ve lost a little of that romance. I don’t even think it’s wrong–in fact, it was my generation that did it. There were many different levels of revolution in the ’60s, which had its good and bad aspects. We’ve had to get a little distance to see what happened there. I felt a plasticness about the movies that were made in the ’50s and early ’60s, a lack of reality, a lack of ethical strength.
Q: How does someone like James Dean fit into that?
A: James Dean was great. He was authentic, terrific, and he had a truth. So did Brando. And there were other actors who gave us another portrait of what a film actor could be. Paul Newman passed on the highest aspects of the history of Hollywood. Redford, too. These guys were movie stars in the old school, but also represented an activist ethic, a force for compassion and justice. But then there were the artist-revolutionaries, a group I feel some part of, who didn’t want to do formulas. I wanted to get to the bottom of things, to bring to life what I felt was happening at the time, what people were feeling. Obviously Dusty [Dustin Hoffman] was a product of that same kind of thinking. Jack Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro, and I know I’ve left out a whole bunch of others. We didn’t want to be movie stars. We were dying to say something. Midnight Cowboy represented something. I found I was full of passion.
Q: How do you feel about your Midnight Cowboy character, Joe Buck, now?
A: Joe Buck really had some pretty bad programming as a youth. He made some mistakes and he had to face it all. He had to admit to his failings, make a turn in the road. If he had stayed that goofy Joe Buck and kept those silly aspirations and didn’t have to suffer facing himself in the mirror, we wouldn’t feel so much for him. We love him because we recognize ourselves in him. I certainly recognize myself in him.
Q: Did you recognize yourself at the time?
A: Yes, it was me.
Q: Did you ever consider playing a male hustler in Midnight Cowboy a risk?
A: Honestly, no. I didn’t think there was a downside. Although when I was young I’d always identified with the heroes of the romantic adventures–and I still do.
Q: It was a pretty ballsy, groundbreaking film.
A: I honestly don’t know where that aspect of me came from. I can’t trace it. I only know that the role expressed some deep truth for me. It’s funny when you realize that the kind of films I’d recommend would be the Frank Capra movies, Fred Astaire and Beauty and the Beast–and [yet] I did Deliverance, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home and Runaway Train. What happened? I don’t know the answer.
Q: Did you go to the movies a lot as a kid?
A: Every Monday, my dad’s day off, he would get us out of school early. My dad’s family was Czech, and he would tell the school principal that we had to attend a meeting of the Czechoslovakians. But there was never any such meeting. My mother would make sandwiches, and we’d stop on Yonkers Avenue for sodas and go to one double feature downtown, and then another. Sometimes we would even go to a third and come back at one in the morning. I was a child in the ’40s and ’50s, and I think all the wonderful movies at that time really formed much of my philosophy. I thank God for them.
Q: What did you learn at the movies?
A: One of the major contributions of those early films that has carried on in Hollywood is the legacy of the happy ending. Many people think of the happy ending in a cynical fashion–“Oh, this is so Hollywood.” I think the happy ending is a deep philosophical statement about life. Life is a love song. Sometimes we will be on the edge of despair, but as with all great love songs, there is always a happy ending–because we are not meant to be unhappy.
Q: What made you decide to act?
A: I just happened to have remarkable parents. Now that I’m in my late 50s, I see that more than ever. My dad was a very charismatic fellow, and a wonderful storyteller. He was a professional golfer, a very stylish person. He wore white jackets with yellow pants, salmon-colored shirts, with brown and white shoes–he was a flag from his own country. At that time, Jewish people weren’t accepted at country clubs in New York, so they had to start their own, and he was the golf professional at the Sunningdale Country Club in Scarsdale. He became this larger-than-life figure for many people. To this day I still bump into members of Sunningdale who want to talk about my dad.
Q: Was he larger than life for you?
A: Of course. All parents are larger than life to their children, in whatever way. He would come home after teaching golf all day and lie down in bed with his three boys and tell tales, many of them about his childhood. I told them to my children, and they, in turn, will pass them on to their children.
Q: What was your mother’s influence?
A: When I was in the sixth grade, I designed and made the sets [for our plays]. When the lead comedy actor took sick, the cast asked me if I would take over the role. Then the teacher got sick and my mother came in [as the substitute teacher]. She became my first director. And she was terrific. She was completely my fan, but very artistic herself, strong-minded, a tough one, but playful. She could accomplish anything.
Q: How did you get your first real acting job?
A: I was standing in a rainstorm in New York and a fellow drove up on one of those little motor scooters and saw this drenched person and asked if I wanted a ride. I said yes, and when I told him I was an actor, he asked if I wanted representation! He managed musical acts, and I said, “That’s fine with me!” I had a cold the day I auditioned for The Sound of Music and sang a little better than usual, but I was so used to them saying “Thank you” and walking away that when my manager caught me at the stage door with fear in his eyes and said, “They want you for the part!” I said, “You go back in there and tell them I can’t sing!” He said, “I can’t tell Richard Rogers you can’t sing–Richard Rogers is out there himself.” That’s how I got the part.
Q: How did your dad respond to your success?
A: He was the perfect bragging father. No matter what we did, he would distort it to give it a little more shine. My father was the most delightful being I have ever come across.
Q: Maybe that’s why humor is so important to you–it allows for a few foibles.
A: [Laughs] My father used funny words like “foible.” If you call it a “foible,” you can’t chastise yourself too severely for it. It’s a “foible.” You have to be amused.
Q: What was your first important acting experience?
A: In the mid-’60s I did the Arthur Miller play A View from the Bridge, directed by Ulu Grosbard. His assistant was a young fellow by the name of Dustin Hoffman, who had a reputation as rather a brilliant actor. At one point in rehearsals, Dustin said, “You’re going to be very good in this,” which was the first moment I entered into the realm of serious dramatic acting. It was a marvelous experience and it set the course for me. I got a lot of information from Bobby Duvall, who played the lead, about character work–how he developed his walk and mannerisms from the people he met. Not long after that, and because of that to some degree, I was able to do Midnight Cowboy. Since then, I’ve had my ups and downs. I’ve had the ringside seat at my own decision-making processes–and my own foibles. [Laughs]
Q: Were there movies you wanted that you couldn’t get?
A: Yes. I’d met Milos Forman and I wanted to work with him. When I’d done Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance and had some success, he was going to make One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I tried very hard to get that picture. They’d [already] gone with Jack. I don’t know that I could have done nearly as well, but I certainly had good taste.
Q: Is there a film you turned down and later wished you hadn’t?
A: There was a lot made of the fact that I turned down Love Story. I didn’t see myself as being able to pull that kind of role off. I was that character in some fashion–a college-y, preppy-looking guy–but the movie was a little sentimental. Though I thought it was good.
Q: What do you like most and least about show business?
A: I’ve had a romance with show business since I was a child. I’ve never lost it, and I don’t think I ever will.What can I say I like least about it? The tendency to give people what they will buy as opposed to something they can celebrate.
Q: You have an activist approach to celebrity, don’t you?
A: Activism is not a dirty word to me. It’s a good word. It means being active, not being inert. But I would rather be referred to as a humanitarian. It has the aspect of responsibility. Being in the eye of the public puts me in the position to use my name for the right causes. It pains me sometimes to see some celebrities using their popularity for the negative. With our youth constantly seeking heroes, it would be so easy for those who are in the public eye to guide them to more positive thoughts and activities.
Q: I know you’ve been very active on behalf of American Indians.
A: Not as active as I would like to be. They are a great people and their nations have gone through the most horrible genocide. Some day, hopefully soon, we will answer their cries and fears with a love strong enough for them to really hear. I had this dream that I put into action. Several years ago I found myself in the great halls of our government in Washington, D.C., talking to senators and congressmen about my dream–to compose a circle of the great chiefs of the native people facing the great chiefs of our nation. And around this circle would be spiritual people from around the planet–the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Elie Wiesel, the great Nobel Peace Prize people. And around that group would be a circle of the most prominent celebrities from all over the world, to call attention to the event. And around that circle would be the international press. The great chiefs of our government would make an apology–and I know they could do it quite eloquently–while looking in the eyes of these old, wrinkled, beautiful faces, and make a treaty signed under God.
Q: That is such a beautiful idea. At least you made the effort.
A: There is so little self-esteem in the Indian communities, but there still exists a connection to their heritage. Each of the tribes has elders that still hold to their holy ways and represent the greatness of this people in a most spectacular way. We recently lost Leon Shenandoah, one of the great chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy. I am deeply honored to say he was a friend of mine. I hope you can mention that I give my love to the Iroquois people, to his widow, to all his chiefs and to his nation.
Q: You are perceived as a very emotional, dramatic kind of person.
Q: And you seem to have no fear of that. It’s as if you can’t hold back.
A: I’m not sure where it all comes from. Maybe when I perceive myself expressing a truth, I’m moved. I’m so grateful I’m able to see a truth or two. I don’t want to relinquish my sensitivity or my passion.
Q: Has that been there from the beginning or has it blossomed as you got older?
A: I think in the beginning I didn’t feel the self-confidence or the responsibility for leadership that I feel now. I’m older, so when I look back I can make an assessment: “I wasn’t wrong here; I was the only person saying this at that time and I should have been more forceful.” Or, “[It would have been] wiser not to say it here when I could have said it here.” Life is not something that one solves. It’s a continuous string of challenges. I’m proud of some of the places I’ve been. As I look back, I have to say that I haven’t done too badly.
Q: It doesn’t sound like you have much of it these days, but what do you do with your downtime?
A: I have two children, they’re 23 and 21, and I humbly say that they are very remarkable young people. There’s nothing that gives me more pleasure than spending time with them. My daughter, who goes by the name Angelina Jolie, seems to be making a name for herself in our industry, and since my experiences have been good, I have no doubt that she will thrive and grow and love it as much as I do. My son Jamie shows great promise as a writer, and he directed a short film that was remarkably good. I have great faith in his future as well.
Q: Do you advise your daughter about possible Hollywood pitfalls?
A: Angelina has seen with her own eyes my ups and downs and my struggles to do what I thought was right. Hopefully she’s learned from the mistakes I’ve made. I think she’s pretty well equipped.
Q: Does it matter to you what people think about you?
A: It does matter, because I don’t want it to get in the way of what I say. If I’m going to help focus some energy toward people who are needy, I want to be read as a sincere and knowing person–as someone who is responsible, compassionate, intelligent and respectable.
Q: I think you’ve reached that place.
A: At this table, in this restaurant. [Laughs] They respect me here, I pay my bills. [Laughs]
Pamela Des Barres interviewed Christopher Jones for the August ’96 issue of Movieline.