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Interview: William Atherton talks ‘Headspace’, ‘The Citizen’ and ‘Jinn’

"Ghostbusters" Actor William Atherton

“Ghostbusters” Actor William Atherton

Since the late sixties, William Atherton has starred in motion pictures, television and on Broadway, first achieving prominence as the lead in Steven Spielberg’s first feature The Sugarland Express, and followed that with starring roles in John Schlesinger’s classic The Day of the Locust and his memorable antagonist roles in the first two Die Hard films, Ghostbusters and Real Genius. Atherton’s television roles include his portrayal of Darryl F. Zanuck in HBO’s Golden Globe-winner Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, opposite Homeland’s Damian Lewis in NBC’s Life and in a small but crucial role in the final season of Lost. Atherton’s has also appeared in the Syfy Original Films Jersey Shore Shark Attack and Ghouls, and will next be appearing on Adult Swim’s dark comedy series, Children’s Hospital.

For his work on the stage, he has received the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Circle Critics Award, the Theatre World Award and nominations for an Obie and Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award. Atherton’s recent films include Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, Headspace, the thriller The Kane Files, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, as well as the upcoming deportation drama The Citizen.

DIABOLIQUE: You’ve said Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is “a film that has legs.” Could you elaborate on this?

WILLIAM ATHERTON: From what I know, it has legs in that it’s still around and people still talk about it. It was a very difficult subject and I thought they did it very well. I bookend the film, which is great. As an actor, I don’t participate in anything in it like that (of a graphic nature). I don’t mean that necessarily in a negative way. My position in it was kind of like the conscience of the film. It gave the film a spiritual edge. I mean, it’s recounting a childhood but at the same time, the weight of that childhood is enormous and so bookending it like that, even though the scenes are very short, gave it a lot of substance and it was mine for each moment and meant something important in terms of the whole film.

DIABOLIQUE: I thought your role as Adult David was absolutely heartbreaking, as he is a man who has contemplated the loss of his young love for over 50 years. I watched those bookend scenes several times and they are profoundly moving.

WA: Well, The Girl Next Door is based on a true story (of monstrous child abuse). It happened in New Jersey in the 1950s. Andrew van den Houten, the producer, got onto it and he was the one who really marshalled it along. I had done Headspace with Andrew.

William Atherton on the set of "The Girl Next Door"

William Atherton on the set of “The Girl Next Door”

DIABOLIQUE: So van den Houten had you in mind for the role of Adult David after working with you on Headspace. I guess he’s a big fan of yours.

WA: Yeah. And then we crafted those scenes together and figured out what to use, what not to use, how much of the voiceover to use, to try and keep it as spare and as evocative as we could to save time.

It was a very quick shoot. This friend of mine would tell me that it was very difficult to shoot the kids since they couldn’t see certain things because they were under 18. The girl who was being abused (Blythe Auffarth) was 21 by that time, but the younger kids couldn’t see what was being done to her. It was a real ballet in terms of how to orchestrate that.

I met Andrew van den Houten a couple of months beforehand through a friend of a friend of mine in New York. A very young kid, very talented and he asked me to do this movie when I was doing the play …Address Unknown. I shot on my days off for about a month in New York on the dark days in the theatre. That movie did very well for Andrew and it got him started. Dee Wallace and I have a couple of scenes at the beginning of the film. Andrew marshalled a very good cast. Sean Young, Olivia Hussey and Udo Kier are in it. It’s a very interesting movie and it did very well. Andrew was ambitious in terms of the technical thing. He did some nice stuff (with monster makeup and special effects).

DIABOLIQUE: In 2010, you appeared in Re-Animator: The Musical at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood. You and George Wendt knocked it out of the park in your respective roles as Dr. Carl Hill and Dean Halsey.

WA: We did a stage reading for it here in L.A. and we did a couple of nights of it for director Stuart Gordon. And then they did a permanent production of it. I didn’t do the permanent production. I just helped them out in the stage reading but it was a lot of fun. There weren’t any special effects in the stage reading – just the music and playing the scenes. Kind of like a description of what might happen, but there were no special effects in what I was involved with.

DIABOLIQUE: After seeing your memorable performance in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, I wondered: why is a classy guy like you so damn good at playing these sleazy characters?

WA: The reason is because the characters that I play are far more interestingly written than the nice guys. Nice guys kind of take care of themselves, but there’s not much conflict usually, particularly in television. You come and play a character and you can have all kinds of dimension which is very hard to keep up week to week. And so they bring you in for color and the writing was terrific and that’s really how that all happens. The writing is often interesting for the villain. You can kind of play around with it. And it makes it fun.

DIABOLIQUE: Tell me about your new film, the independently produced The Citizen, recently picked up for distribution by Monterey Media.

The whole world for indies has changed in the last four or five years. It’s become a lot more difficult for different films. It’s a fictional picture, but it’s about one of the guys who got caught in 9/11. Simply because he was Middle Eastern, he got into trouble in New York. It’s with me and Cary Elwes. It’s a lovely picture and it stars Khaled Nabawy, who is the George Clooney of the Middle East. He’s enormous over there in the Arab world. The film festival in Abu Dhabi was incredible. We had a great time and the movie was very well received.

My character is a prosecuting attorney trying to deport Ibrahim (Nabawy). It gets pretty intense. I’m in a courtroom and so what I’m trying to convey is that at the time, people were suspicious of people and you couldn’t really take anything for granted. Everybody had to toe the line in a way. That’s just the way the world changed. It was not necessarily a personal thing against this man so much as it was saying: “This is the scenario now. You have to account for yourself in ways that you wouldn’t have had to before, but that is the way of the world now.  So it may seem to you to be unfair and perhaps in the long run it is unfair, but that’s the reality of the moment and we all have to address it.”

DIABOLIQUE: So would you say The Citizen is one of your better recent films?

WA: Yeah, I think so. The Citizen won Best Ensemble Acting at the Boston Film Festival. The Citizen is a great picture. It also stars that lovely young actress Agnes Bruckner, who is playing Anna Nichole Smith for HBO. The Citizen will go into general release in the summer. I don’t always stump for everything that I’m in but I do stump for this one because I think it’s a terrific picture.

DIABOLIQUE: Can you give me your honest opinion of the surreal Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie?

WA: My honest opinion is that it made money and did well and that’s all you’ll get out of me. I think it made money overseas. But it did better than people thought, which is always important. I think Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are very talented, and they’re going to find their niche.

DIABOLIQUE: Did you have a blast working with co-star Robert Loggia?

WA: Oh yeah. I love Bob. He’s always terrific. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is not for us. It’s a kid’s picture. It’s not the kind of thing we’d be interested in. Their audience are hip kids on the internet. Their audience is like the one for Children’s Hospital or Workaholics. That is their milieu and that’s Tim and Eric’s audience.

William Atherton in "Jersey Shore Shark Attack"

William Atherton in “Jersey Shore Shark Attack”

DIABOLIQUE: How do you feel about present-day Hollywood? You have an international reputation from Ghostbusters, the first two Die Hard films, and the incomparable excellence of your performances. How do you fit in to this new Hollywood of Marvel Comics summer blockbusters, Internet movies…

WA: Well, I don’t know about that. Ghostbusters was one of the first summer blockbusters, where it was really designed for that kind of thing. That’s almost 30 years ago now. Pictures I began with like The Sugarland Express and all that – they belong to a different era. But no, I think it’s about the same now. Everybody is trying to figure out the best way to get good product out there. It’s always been a business and the summer blockbuster thing has been going for a long time. Look at the Die Hards. They were positioned to be summer blockbusters. And Real Genius the same way. So nothing has changed very much. What’s changed is that things come and go more quickly. The attention span is less now than it used to be, but not because of Hollywood. It’s the culture’s attention span that’s changed.

DIABOLIQUE: What can you tell me about your participation in the SyFy Channel Creature Feature Ghouls.

WA: Ghouls was very ambitious for SyFy because they wanted to see how much they could do technically with the CGI stuff for television. It was all shot in Romania, so Erin Gray and I went over there for a month and that was fascinating because you were shooting in Romania which was a hot location for a number of years until it got too expensive. They had finished shooting Cold Mountain with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law over there. We worked in the big studios in Bucharest. A lot of American production companies were buying or leasing space in them. It was just cheaper to bring a lot of people over there from the States to shoot the picture. That changed after SAG’s Rule 1 became official. And that is, if you’re an American actor and you’re in SAG, if you shoot a picture in Romania for international distribution, you have to have a SAG contract. But the fun part of it was that you could go there and visit beautiful little towns, these little Baroque gems in the middle of the Carpathians and you were shooting in some really lovely places.

Ghouls is what it is. It was a horror picture for the SyFy Channel. I think they were trying to shoot as many things as they could for all the distribution that they could get. That’s really all I can say about it.

DIABOLIQUE: In 2012, you were called upon to play another bastard in Jersey Shore Shark Attack, a Syfy Channel production.

WA: That was just a hoot. I did that because Paul Sorvino was in it. Paul and I have known each other for many years. It just seemed kind of fun and stupid and I guess it was fun and stupid and so that’s why we spent four or five days down in El Segundo and we just had a very good time and it’s one of those things you do just for the hell of it, because it’s silly and stupid and we had a good time doing it and that was that!

DIABOLIQUE: What role do you play in Childrens Hospital, Adult Swim’s hit comedy series? 

WA: I play an official who is kind of like the Inspector-General. Shooting that episode was a lot of fun. I worked with Henry Winkler. Henry and I have known each other for a thousand years, all the way back to New York and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel in 1971!

DIABOLIQUE: What have you currently been up to?

WA: I also just came back from Palm Springs where I did a big musical benefit for Jewish Family Service of the Desert. I used to do music in New York years ago. So it was a big musical extravaganza for a couple of thousand people and was filled with artists like James Barbour, Michelle Lee, Kate Ballard, and other great people. It was called Michael Childers Presents One Night Only. I sang Isn’t It Romantic?, which was used in The Day of the Locust.

DIABOLIQUE: Jinn sounds like a very intriguing picture.

WA: I shot Jinn about two or three years ago and I did some more on it last summer. It’s really a film-in-progress. The director of Jinn (Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad) is a very talented guy. It’s really a Middle-Eastern Exorcist. My role as Father Westhoff is kind of like the Max von Sydow character in The Exorcist. A jinn is one of the spectres of Arab folk tales, a ghost essentially and part of Middle Eastern lore and it’s a very interesting kind of sci-fi slash horror picture. So we’ll see what happens.

By Harvey Chartrand

About Harvey Chartrand

Harvey F. Chartrand is a features writer at Ottawa Life Magazine (www.ottawalife.com). Harvey’s stories have appeared in numerous publications including Cinema Retro, Filmfax,Shock Cinema, Rue Morgue, Scarlet: The Film Magazine, National Post, Jerusalem Postand The Globe and Mail. Harvey is a movie fanatic and has interviewed several film celebrities. To contact Harvey, e-mail him at: [email protected]

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