Eric Stoltz: True Confessions of a Faux Paraplegic
I’m trying to think, what would modern audiences know Eric Stoltz from? He’s shown up in some TV shows. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you may remember Stoltz from the Battlestar Galactica spin-off, Caprica. The first thing that comes to my mind is his supporting role from Pulp Fiction, but that goes back over two decades. The trivia obsessed will remember that Stoltz was fired from Back to the Future. But despite lead roles in movies like Mask and Some Kind of Wonderful, Stoltz never really caught on with the main stream.
Instead, Stoltz gravitated towards the indie scene of the 1990’s. In this interview from the June 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Stoltz discusses his acting technique as well as his recently rekindled relationship with Bridget Fonda.
When Robert De Niro gained 50 pounds to lend believability to his portrayal of fighter Jake La Motta’s nightclub shtick days in 1980’s Raging Bull, he unwittingly set a contemporary standard of dedication that has since been held up to younger actors. Needless to say, most young actors are unlikely to be offered a vehicle worthy of such artistic sacrifice and are unlikely to match De Niro’s accomplishments in any case. Nevertheless, throughout the ’80s a number of fervent, ambitious young talents, many of them disciples of the late, revered acting teacher Peggy Feury, went to some amusing or astonishing lengths to get into character.
As early as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (not exactly Raging Bull territory), Sean Penn was so deeply immersed in the subtleties of his character, Spicoli the fuckup, that he insisted on being called by his character’s name for the duration of shooting and refused to fraternize with cast members not in his in-story social set. Among actors of this generation, however, the pace of excess was set early on by Nic Cage, who reportedly had teeth extracted for his role in Birdy and went on to the greater glory of eating a live cockroach on-screen for Vampire’s Kiss. Other examples appear piddling next to Cage’s heights, but one could also point out that Val Kilmer hardly removed his leather pants during a long stretch of time that began well before he was even cast as Jim Morrison and ended not until well after shooting of The Doors was finished.
This is the milieu in which Eric Stoltz has grown up as an actor, and he has, in his quieter way, indulged in similar excesses. In terms of real life, he has never kept up with these other guys–no drugs, drink, fighting or helicoptered weddings. But in his passion for assuming other identities on screen and stage, he’s gone his own distances in pursuit of excellence within projects that have and have not merited such dedication: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mask, Some Kind of Wonderful, Sister, Haunted Summer, Manifesto, The Fly II, Memphis Belle and, on stage, Our Town.
Stoltz’s longtime friend James Spader recalls their adventures playing the sons of Robert Mitchum on a TV movie called “A Killer in the Family,” during which Spader himself was, thanks to activities he neglects to detail, getting very little sleep. “It was kind of ironic,” he says, “because the characters that Eric and I played were both on the lam and neither of them were getting much rest.” Spader claims his insomnia had nothing to do with getting deeper into his role: “I wanted to sleep. But Eric, as an acting exercise, was intentionally depriving himself of a great deal of sleep. It was very funny. As I stumbled down to the steam room at three o’clock in the morning to sweat the poisons out of my system, I’d run into Eric. He was there simply to keep himself awake.”
Stoltz has most recently inhabited a character and a role actually worth some degree of actor excess, the lead in The Waterdance, writer/co-director Neal (River’s Edge) Jimenez’s semi-autobiographical story of a writer’s experience in a rehabilitation hospital after an accident that has left him paralyzed from the waist down. Jimenez is very respectful of the focus shown by the actor who plays his alter ego: “Eric is a low-maintenance actor–he goes into a project assuming the director will be a traffic cop. He arrives on the set absolutely prepared to direct himself.” But Jimenez was plenty taken aback when Stoltz arrived for an early meeting at a trendy L.A. restaurant already well into character: “Eric showed up at L.A. Trattoria in a wheelchair–which he continued to use throughout the filming.”
It’s just this sort of thing I want to talk to Stoltz about when I meet him one sunny Thursday morning at the Beverly Boulevard coffeehouse he’s part owner of, Java. Stoltz has just flown in from New York following the close of his Broadway play Two Shakespearean Actors. He’s dressed in beat-up jeans, a jacket with a tight plaid pattern and a bohemian goatee that goes suspiciously well with this extracurricular enterprise. Strolling past solitary, earnest coffee-sippers hunched over newspapers and scripts, Stoltz nods at the woman behind the counter and asks for chamomile tea “We’re out of chamomile,” she tells her boss. “How about a pot of Sleepy Time?” Stoltz glances at me, and at my tape recorder. “We better not have Sleepy Time,” he tells her.
Moments later, peppermint tea in hand, Stoltz leads the way to a small table, sits down and faces me, his eyes suddenly flinty, his manner slightly skeptical and more than slightly guarded. I start out by asking him how he prepared for portraying the emotional difficulties his character faces in The Waterdance. “I won’t go too deeply into the incidents I’ve used in Waterdance,” Stoltz says carefully. “Things happen to everybody in the course of a lifetime. Relationships end, people die, tragedy befalls everyone. So everyone has this wealth of experience, and the older you are the more you have to draw on.”
In an attempt to circumnavigate Stoltz’s reticence, I decide to go back a few years to when this actor indeed had much less experience to draw on. One of the odder, if not most extreme, examples of Eric’s getting into character that I heard about when I asked around concerned his work on John Hughes’s 1987 Some Kind of Wonderful, the feel-good teen film in which, you may remember, he played the jittery virgin boy who lusts after the unreachable Lea Thompson and is lusted after by the undesirable Mary Stuart Masterson. It was understandably going to take some work for a 26-year-old Hollywood actor to get into the soul of a sexually pent-up teenager in Apple Pie, USA. But, I ask Stoltz, did he really decide to remain celibate throughout the shooting? Stoltz looks at me as if I have just struck him. “That’s outrageous,” he says. Then his voice picks up a little steam. “This is outrageous. Have you been seeing an old girlfriend of mine or something?”
“Is it true?”
“Yes,” he admits. “It sounds so stupid, though. It wasn’t stupid for me to do, and it helped me to play the character. But when I hear it now, years later, it’s like something I did in the past. I’m imagining this in print and thinking about how ridiculous this will look.”
Yeah, well, it isn’t exactly eating a live cockroach. But Eric tells me he hates talking about his technique. From a certain point of view it is a no-win thing to do, since, he correctly points out, having the audience know these background details can detract from the effect of the performance. And, of course, actor stuff can sound a little silly. So we change subjects and Eric tells me how he came to the strange profession of acting. “My parents moved to American Samoa when I was three or four years old. My dad was principal of a high school there. It was idyllic for a kid. I had a whole island for a backyard. I lived there until I was eight years old and we moved to Santa Barbara. That was a rough transition to make. I remember being the only kid in second grade who couldn’t tie his shoelaces, because I had never worn shoes on the island.”
Stoltz studied drama at USC, where he fell in love with Ally Sheedy. “We met in history class. Neither of us were acting [in films] at the time. We were just kids in college. We lived together in a commune on Hollywood Boulevard. It was a huge old Victorian house called the Harris Hollywood House, and there were four or five rooms filled with expatriots from England, a handful of homeless people, lots of young, aspiring actors. It was cheap and the atmosphere was exciting. It was a wonderful, messy, fervent time filled with crazy people starting their careers and very excited about what might happen.”
Stoltz made his film debut as a stoned-out surfer in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, during which he asked Sean Penn to recommend an acting school for him. Penn touted his own teacher, Peggy Feury, and Stoltz began studying at her Loft Studio. It was under her influence that he began to take acting seriously. And it was her variation on the Method that he took to heart.
Though Stoltz had small parts over the next few years in various movies with names like Surf II, the first opportunity he had to employ his new technique in a starring role was in The Wild Life (the sequel to Fast Times), in which he played a recent high-school grad who rents an apartment in a swinging singles complex. “I got a job at a bowling alley, moved into Oakwood Apartments in Burbank and tried to live that life. It was awful. I had to clean other people’s shoes, deal with women’s bowling day. The time really dragged. On one level it was no fun at all, but on another level it was real interesting. I had the opportunity to hang out in the apartment complex’s clubhouse and down by the pool. The place was filled with recently divorced people who were licking their wounds. I did that for two months. And, ultimately, it did make it easier to do the character.”
Stoltz’s technique and determination were vindicated in 1985 when he won a role that would, ironically, leave him relatively anonymous. The casting agents for Mask, the story of Rocky Dennis, a teenager with a horribly disfigured face, had refused to let Stoltz read for the part. When he had finally finagled his way into an audition via a sympathetic receptionist, he arrived for his big chance before the casting people wearing a stocking over his face. And he got the part. Now he really put the technique to work. Reportedly, he, like his pal Sean, insisted on being called Rocky, never Eric. But he went further than that. “I walked around town with the mask on,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was important to get people’s reactions in grocery stores and post offices and see what they would say when they saw me strolling down the street. I just wanted to get an idea of how Rocky may have felt, which was horrible. People were generally cruel and mean. They would make snide comments. Kids threw things at me. People took pictures and asked, ‘Hey, are you in the circus?'”
Mask created screen careers for both Stoltz and Cher, who played his mom. But Stoltz’s has not been a slide from one classy project to the next; he got fired off Back to the Future to make way for Michael J. Fox’s screen career, and, over the years, he’s been shanghaied into some terrible stuff, like The Fly II, in which he played the insect son of Jeff Goldblum. We do not discuss how he went about getting into that character, but he explains his presence in the film with what I’m beginning to see is his typically under-played, wry demeanor: “I wanted to be in every category of the video store– teenage, drama, horror, porn… well, I haven’t made the porn yet.”
He’s also made bad, but not all that embarrassing, movies like the Southern Gothic Sister, Sister, in which he starred with his then girlfriend Jennifer Jason Leigh. And he’s made some interesting, little-seen movies he can be proud of, like Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer, in which he played the Romantic poet Shelley, with Alice Krige as Mary Shelley, Philip Anglim as Byron, Laura Dern as Claire Clairmont and Alex Winter as John Polidori. “Actually, Laura Dern got me that role. She brought me the script and told me that I should meet the director. Passer took us to dinner and offered me the role. Some directors just want to hire you after getting a sense of who you are and others want you to read a million times. Either way is fine with me. Although it’s a lot more fun to just go out to dinner.”
Stoltz’s technique was a painless one on Haunted Summer. “We lived this sort of bohemian existence during that film. We thought of those people as the rock and roll stars of their day, young, hedonistic people pursuing anarchic lifestyles, shocking society. We were all passionate about it. I already had a knowledge of the Romantic poets, but I didn’t know much about Shelley. So I read every book about his life. I read this man’s mail. I went to the places he went. I had a great time. I remember one night on Lake Como when there was an incredible thunderstorm. All the power went out in our hotel. I went out on the balcony and saw Laura and Philip on a balcony, and Alex on the balcony next to them, watching the lightning. And I thought, this was what life should be like.”
Stoltz tends to be equally droll about both won and lost opportunities. I ask him about the projects he’s passed on for better or worse. “I’ve turned down a few that I’ve regretted after I saw the finished film,” he says with put-on gravity. “I probably shouldn’t have turned down Serpico. I guess that was a mistake. But Al did such a good job with that. Last Tango, I think turning that down might have been a mistake. I try not to look back.”
One classy project Stoltz really was offered and did not turn down was Memphis Belle, the 1990 WWII story of young airmen making a last treacherous mission over Germany. Stoltz is happy to talk about his work on this film, mostly because the preparation he did was someone else’s idea–director Michael Caton-Jones’s. “Michael was a little twisted. He had us spend three weeks running five miles a day with packs on our back and sleeping with 20 other smelly, grumpy guys. I think he wanted to see spoiled Hollywood actors tortured and beaten down so he could come in and direct. After boot camp we were putty in his hands. He wore a general’s cap on the set and occasionally walked around with a riding crop. He’s a good director, but his sense of humor is obviously strange.”
It was at Caton-Jones’s house that Stoltz rekindled an old romance with GQ cover girl and dynastic heir Bridget Fonda, whom Caton-Jones had directed in Scandal (and who is starring with Stoltz’s ex Jennifer Jason Leigh in the upcoming Single White Female).
Stoltz’s romantic life has featured a distinguished sequence of actresses–the aforementioned Ally Sheedy and Jennifer Jason Leigh, plus Lili Taylor and now, for the second time, Fonda. (“I never look to fall in love with anybody. It’s not like I said, ‘I want to get involved with actresses.’ They’re the ones I happen to meet. And it makes life easier when you’re involved with people who do the same thing you do.”)
“Michael was throwing a pool party. Bridget happened to call and Michael invited her over. We hadn’t seen each other for five or six years, so there were no hard feelings. It seemed natural to just sit down and talk. We became friends again for five or six months before getting romantically involved, and it’s turned out to be quite wonderful. We felt like we had known each other since we were kids. It was sort of like getting into a warm bath.”
Stoltz’s first major role since Memphis Belle is one that, if you’re going to go overboard getting into anything, truly merits it. The story in The Waterdance involves nothing more or less than the process of his character, writer/co-director Neal Jimenez’s alter ego Joel Garcia, making the agonizing physical and psychological adjustments to life as a paraplegic. “The role required a lot of research. I spent every day for three or four months at the hospital, never getting out of the wheelchair. I would have lived there, but there aren’t enough beds as it is.”
One of the most wrenching scenes in the film is also one of the least obligatory sex scenes in the history of cinema. Joel, attempting to have a sexual reunion in a hotel with his girlfriend (Helen Hunt), ends up urinating on himself, and the tender emotion turns to pain and wrath. “Everybody’s had bad sex,” Stoltz says of how he approached this scene. “Everybody’s been there. I’ve been there. I had some fears about doing the scene, but I knew it was an integral part of the story. It was no fun and difficult and embarrassing. I mean I was lying there, buck-naked, with a catheter on. But all of those embarrassing emotions help the scene, and, to me, the scene was more important than my personal feelings. As long as it helps the scene, I’ll do just about anything. I don’t care.”
Stoltz’s performance in The Waterdance has been justifiably praised. Among other intelligent touches, he shows a sardonic, pained meanness we’ve never seen from him in any other role but that here, as part of Joel, is necessary and believable. The months in the wheelchair were clearly worth it. But I can’t help myself–I’m curious just how far Stoltz took his campaign toward empathy with his character. What about the catheter, or “gizmo,” as it’s referred to in the movie? Did he actually use it while he was in his wheelchair? Stoltz looks at me with astonishment. “Oh, my God,” he says in answer to my out-of-bounds questions. Then he punches off the tape recorder, answers off-the-record and trundles off to the men’s room at the back of Java.
When Eric returns with a last cup of tea, I ask him why he keeps such a tight lid on his discussion of his personal and professional life. “I’m in one of the most public professions in existence,” he says. “But I’ve always felt that the less you know about an actor’s personal life, the more you can get involved in the story in which he’s playing a character. And I don’t like to see movies where you know about everything that happens behind the scenes. I can’t engage in the story if I know what’s going on in the actor’s head. I don’t want to see the zipper in the back of the monster suit. Like everybody else who goes to the movies, I want to believe the monster is real.”
Michael Kaplan interviewed Mercedes Ruehl for the May issue of Movieline.