If you don’t recognise his name – which you probably will – then you’ll absolutely recognise his face. He’s starred in huge films like Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Contact, Black Hawk Down and The Dark Knight and smaller projects along the way including a great one-scene turn in Crash. He’s even showed up in the Grand Theft Auto franchise as Ken Rosenberg! Now he’s coming up as the villain in The Lone Ranger but there’s even more of him to see this year alone. He’ll be popping up in Elysium, he’s in Phantom, The Homesman, St. Sebastian and leading his own TV series called Crossing Lines. It’s all about Bill lately but it’s not even remotely going to his head. Our chat had some difficulties at first as he spoke – hands free, calm down people – driving through the mountains where the signal was intermittent to say the least. His battery, low on charge, was also looming, thinking that this interview may be cut short or unusable because of the signal issues.
Instead of giving up on the interview he pulled over at a random gas station where he plugged his phone in and stood next to it just so he could chat to us. Don’t try that at home kids. In this encounter he had two people come up to him – one to ask if he was having car trouble, the other an autograph – and he was completely polite to both. Thanking the guy asking if he had car trouble who was offering assistance and promising the “sweet old lady” who owned the gas station that he would come inside, thanking her a lot for letting him use his phone charger in her business. He stood out in the open at the side of said building just to chat with us and on thanking him for his time and ‘unexpected circumstances’ he just said “it’s no problem, it’s great to get out of the car!” which really shows his personality.
A lot of people can get cynical about celebrities on press tours, believing that it’s all an act and that they all want to do a Bruce Willis really. People feel that they play themselves up to get a good image and are contractually obligated to promote the film in question. That may be true for some people but it certainly isn’t for William Fichtner who is the most genuinely polite and positive person to talk to. He loved the chat, was excited about it and – more importantly – was just so nice about everything. He is incredibly grateful for all of his achievements and remains humble even though he has such a successful, well loved career and remains an incredibly underrated actor. This year may change that though. We got to speak to him about biting into Butch Cavendish, his unusual path into acting and the many things he’s up to next.
So you play the baddie in The Lone Ranger with rather a few scars on his face. It’s hard to recognise it’s actually you sometimes! Whose choice was it for you to have this make-up on and did it change your performance?
Academy Award winning Joel Harlow created the look for all the characters. I’m sure it was Joel or Gore Verbinski who had an idea of where they wanted to go with [Butch] Cavendish. I think it only adds to it. Great costume design like Penny Rose who designed an amazing costume. It just helps you round out and take something off the page and makes it real. It really gives you a sense of who it is and what you’re playing. That stuff, to me, adds to where you’re going.
When you have all of the costume on, your guns at your side, scars on your face and a horse, does it really help you immerse yourself into the character?
All of those things do. The journey is to try to totally realise who a guy is. That’s the journey I like. Who is he, how does he walk, how does he talk, what is he thinking about? A lot times you don’t know where inspiration is going to come from. Sometimes it’s out of a costume, sometimes it’s out of a look and I felt that on The Lone Ranger all of these elements together – one on top of the other – really gave you another layer. I was very appreciative of all of it.
You’re surrounding yourself with the character so after you’ve put it all on and you’re ready to shoot did you ever just look in the mirror and say like “Yes! I am this character! I am going to own this!”?
There are so many factors that come together but I’ll tell you, with The Lone Ranger, I’d step on it and I’d be like ‘Wow! That’s a hell of a guy, man! That ain’t me!’ and I love that about it. I loved that part. You want to know all about stuff, you want to put all those pieces together and you want to let it all go. You want to let it all go and try and let it breathe and find the rhythm of a guy. That, to me, is the goal. You find the rhythm of a character and it’s not a million different thoughts, it’s one.
Is that what got you interested in acting?
Boy I had a very strange journey. I was a criminal justice major which, in the States, to be that sort of a major in college usually means you’re going into something like the FBI law enforcement thing. I’d taken a few acting classes really just by chance and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the expression of it so I graduated with my criminal justice degree and I had a couple of months to think about it. I was working in Mulligan’s Beach Club and decided I was going to change my life and got a bus and moved to New York. I started waiting tables.
How long were you waiting tables for?
If you’re going to live in New York and you’re going to do theatre then you’re going to wait tables – which is what I did. Not that I didn’t want to work in film, I did very much so. I have to tell you though, I just never got hired! It seemed like everybody I knew was getting a job in a movie except for me. I didn’t do my first film until I was 36 years old, which is a long time to wait for a break like that. You know what, it’s not wasted time because your life experiences are what define you. They help define the things you want to do and places you want to go, what characters you have experienced – we draw on ourselves, we draw on our own life! Would I have liked to have gotten a movie ten years earlier than that? You bet I would! But, buddy, [laughs] it is what it is.
It’s a big action blockbuster lead by Jerry Bruckheimer with Gore Verbinski calling the shots and even has Disney’s name attached. Did you have a lot of fun on set and play around or was it quite a tight, strict shoot because of the budget?
The only people who talk about budgets are everybody that’s not on the production. Everyone on the production doesn’t talk about the budget on the film, they’re just trying to make a good movie. And I don’t mean that facetiously! It’s true. The crew doesn’t come to work and the actors don’t come to work to talk about the budget today. This is a Jerry Bruckheimer production. I’ve had the good fortune to work with Jerry for a fourth time and whenever you get to work with Jerry there’s a very, very high production value – probably the highest of anyone. You’re surrounded by the very best. That is a luxury you don’t always get. Then you couple that together with the very brilliant mind of Gore Verbinski and… I gotta tell you there are very few things I look back on in my life and think ‘Boy, that was a drag’ because I really don’t approach work that way. I like to have a great time. I like work. I like to be engaged and have fun and have these experiences be great. I think I live my life like that. The Lone Ranger was no exception to that. I mean, we had an amazing time. You’ve seen the film, we went to every iconic south-western location in the United States. It was amazing! Just amazing!
You must have seen a lot on that tour.
Oh yeah! We were like a big circus travelling around!
That must be a luxury of your job too. The travelling. Have you seen a lot more because of your work?
Oh God yeah! I’ve been all over the world! From Morocco, certainly all around this country [America], to beautiful places in Canada, Prague and Italy and here and there. Yeah, it has been amazing. That’s part of the joy of the whole thing. I’m currently working on a film right now in New York City. I lived in New York a looooong time and it’s nice to be back. I haven’t lived there for seven years and I spent the whole summer here this year and it’s been great. I’m revisiting my old place and it’s been a real joy.
Which film is that? Is that the film that you said you’d like to bring to the screen?
No, it’s the new Paramount feature of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m doing that right now, almost done with it.
How does your character The Shredder feature in it and what drew you to that?
I don’t know if you know a lot about the story of The Ninja Turtles. I know it through my nieces and nephews because it was a little bit after my time. This isn’t the cartoon of the ’80s, this is Michael Bay produced. This is big production value. It’s pretty cool! I’m having a pretty excellent time. But what I enjoyed most about it is the care with which they’re going into the characters – especially the character of Eric Stacks who sometimes changes into other people, I may say. It’s been pretty cool and I’ve had an excellent time.
Surrounding yourself with a talented cast and crew must make working infinitely better. How different is it working with people who know what they’re doing and how much of a better experience is it?
When you’re around great people like Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson and Ruth Wilson – who I absolutely adore and think she’s amazing – all of that stuff seems seamless when you’re doing it but you know how much you appreciate it when you’re in a circumstance where you don’t have that. I never worked on anything with a crew quite the size of The Lone Ranger. They’re professionals – it’s what these guys do for a living. It was great. Not much else to say, it’s just a great memory. I don’t look back on any day of the 7 months I worked on it and think ‘Oh that wasn’t a good day’.
7 months is a pretty long shoot! Is that the longest thing you’ve worked on?
2013 is coming up all you really. You’re starring in The Lone Ranger, Elysium, Phantom, St. Sebastian and The Homesman. Have you been working non-stop?
Knock on wood! I don’t have any wood around so I’m just going to knock on my head. I’m way too old to get anxious about it when things are slow. I’ve got other things to do. I’ve got Little League practice to go to and a couple of kids and, believe me, my wife always has a list of things for me to do around the house! My feeling is that when I get to go to work that is when I get to relax!
That’s a very different take to most people who stress themselves out over the job. [laughs]
Listen – I mean this too, I’m not just saying it – I don’t live a stressful existence. I can’t. I have enough drama being in show business, believe me. I don’t need drama in my life or the way that I live it. I have a good time, I have great friends, I have great family and an amazing wife. We’re foodies. We just love going to find a great new restaurant. That’s how I live. When it comes to the work thing, I love to take the time to care about something and be interested in something. That’s where I come from. I’ve had work situations where they can be drama filled but I’m like ‘Nah’, we can lose that part.
I must ask you about your character in Elysium as well. Is there much you can tell us about it? How much of a role do you play in the film?
It’s a very important role to the story but then they all are. Neill Blomkamp is an amazing guy and really quite a filmmaker so it was a real joy to be a part of that experience. You ask if it’s a small or a big role but I have to tell you that I take things because they’re worthy journeys. Sometimes that’s one scene. Believe me, I’ve gotten scripts from my agent who’s said ‘Hey, what do you think? Look at that! It’s a big part!’ and I say ‘Yeah but I don’t really like it. I don’t think it’s consequential to the story’. Then the other side of the coin is a story like Crash, a one-scene part and I remember when my agent sent me that he said ‘It’s only one scene’ and I read it and I called back and said ‘Well, it may only be one scene but I’ll play a one-scene part like this in every movie you send me if it’s this good’. Elysium is not a big supporting part but it’s very important to the story. That matters as much as anything.
It’s good to see you have such a respect for your work and don’t have an ego of ‘Oh this part deserves to be bigger because of who I am’, you know? It’s nice to see you do work because you love the work.
Every time I think my ego is getting big, my wife will remind me that the garbage needs to go out. We don’t have a lot of room in my house for ego. [laughs] It’s really not my thing. Life’s too short. The magical moments happen with people and friends and when the vibe is good. That’s the worthy journey.
So talking of supporting parts, how did you get the role of the bank manager in The Dark Knight?
I’ll tell you exactly how I got that! One of my friends, Aaron Ryder, who produced a little film I worked on called The Amateurs – it might’ve been released over in the UK called The Moguls – with Jeff Bridges, which is a little comedy and one of my favourite things I’ve ever worked on, also produced Memento with Chris Nolan and Chris called up my friend because he knew we were friends and asked ‘Do you think Bill would want to play a one-scene part in the beginning of my film?’ Aaron called me and I said ‘Let’s talk to Chris’ who I’d never met before. I had a conversation with with him in which he told me all about it, what he was thinking, shooting it with an IMAX camera, etc. He’s such an interesting guy and an incredible filmmaker – obviously – so I said yeah! We’ll get back to the same thing I was saying before: it’s not the size of it, it’s what it is. Chris explained what he wanted to do and what this bank manager was, this kind of mob guy in a bank. The description was so fascinating that I said on the phone ‘Yeah! I’m in!’ Three days later I went and shot it.
That really is a great scene. It’s an interesting prologue to the film.
Yeah it’s a very cool little piece, isn’t it?
A lot of people would call you a character actor (a weird term) as well. Do you prefer it that way? To blend into roles?
I wish they’d call me a leading man because then I’d get more money! [laughs] I’d rather do the character parts with the leading man’s pay cheques, let’s put it way! [laughs] I don’t know what I am. I know one thing, all characters are characters. Do I just like to play people that are interesting and have more than one spinning plate in their mind? Yes, I guess, so it’s a much more fascinating journey. I guess that makes me a character actor.
Now you’re heading up your own TV show with Crossing Lines where you get a much longer arc to play with. How did that come about and what made you want to work in TV?
I’m going to do Crossing Lines again. I’m going to go back to the Czech Republic and work on it again. Another one of those things, it’s always an individual thing. It’s a lot of factors together – you read something, it does something for you or not. When I read the first two episodes of Crossing Lines I was like ‘Wow… This is an interesting guy. Former NYPD cop, living in Amsterdam, he’s got a substance abuse problem, he’s kind of screwed up’ and all of that together, I loved that!
You’ve spoken about telling your own stories. Are you ready to do that now? What are the stories that you have to tell and when will you get to make them?
I co-wrote a film over the last 8 years, over several cases of red wine with my buddy. I got very close to making it this summer but Turtles came up and the decision to do Crossing Lines again came up. I thought instead of trying to fit 8 pounds of bologna [sausage; pronounced ‘baloney’] in a two pound bag I would just wait and I give myself the time next summer. Things can change all the time, we know that, I really feel like next summer [is the time]. Part of the reason I’m in the car right now is because I’m taking a weekend away from the Turtles as I’m going off to the small town to meet some people, some potential financiers, my alma mater – the college I graduated from which I think would be a fine location for a part of the film. So next year! That’s when I’m crossing my fingers for.
Will you be starring in it, directing it or just the writing credit for you?
No, no, I’m going to direct it, write it, star in it, the whole deal! If I’m going to go down burning I might as well do it all!
I must say by the way that before this interview I was a little intimidated because of the types of characters you play but you might be the nicest person in the world.
[Laughs] I really appreciate that and it was good to catch up. I’m glad it finally worked out, it took a while! I finally got a cell signal…
We’d like to thank William so much for taking time out at a gas station to speak to us and recommend you head off to marvel at his transformation in The Lone Ranger which hits cinemas in the UK tomorrow, August 9th. We’ll leave you with the trailer to said movie…