Having headlined in the first ever episode of Tales from The Crypt, any genre fan worth their credentials knows the name of William Sadler. He’s fought demons, evil robots, street gangs, served time in Shawshank, faced a mist-soaked apocalypse and now, Sadler will butt heads with his toughest enemy yet: Danny Trejo’s Machete. Diabolique got a chance to chat with Bill about the upcoming Machete Kills, his career choices and methods, and a cult-classic character he hopes to revisit one day soon.
DIABOLIQUE: Bill, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
WILLIAM SADLER: Sure, you’re welcome.
DIABOLIQUE: A lot of us at the magazine are looking forward to Machete Kills, what can you tell us about your character and the film?
SADLER: I play a character named Sheriff Doakes who has his own brand of justice. He believes there is “upstairs justice” and “downstairs justice” and he is about to dish out some downstairs justice to Machete, but it doesn’t go as planned for the law enforcement, as you may imagine. I’m not sure how much I can really tell you without giving away the fun of it. What I have seen of the film is right down the same alley as the first Machete. The action and the humor are spectacular. It’s a terrific ride. I haven’t seen the whole movie, but I’ve seen bits and pieces and read the script and worked with Robert before.
DIABOLIQUE: So your previous work with Robert is what got you involved in this project?
SADLER: Yes, absolutely. I did Roadracers with him years ago and I’ve been a fan of his since El Mariachi. I think he’s amazing. He’s got the coolest set-up I’ve seen down there in Austin, Texas. He has taken over an entire airport and made it into his own sound stages. He’s sort of a self-contained Louis B. Mayer of Austin. He can writer them, produce them, shoot them, sell them, and he never even needs to leave the ranch. He has almost the entire town of Austin helping in some way and he has the best barbeque on the planet only minutes away, so it’s hard to imagine a better set-up.
DIABOLIQUE: With the sense of humor found in Machete and Machete Kills one would assume a lot of improvisation finds its way onto the screen. Was there a large amount of room for improvising or is Robert a stick-to-the-script director?
SADLER: There’s a fair amount of freedom with the line and what-have-you. Robert writes very funny dialogue to begin with but if something happens on the set or you gets caught up in the heat of the scene and launch into your own language or something he is quite open to improvisation. It feels like a collaboration, you know? You don’t feel like a hired gun coming in and doing the gig. If something comes out of an actor’s mouth on set that’s funny or works he’s perfectly happy with leaving it in.
DIABOLIQUE: So would you rank Machete Kills high on the list of fun sets to have worked on?
SADLER: Oh yeah. I hadn’t worked with Robert in ages, but I have been watching his career and I imagine he’s been watching mine, and even back when we made Roadracers there was this great rye sense of humor. This great, dark and dangerous sense of humor. I think I played a Sheriff in that one too, and there was this great monologue in the cop car about my wife making pigs-in-a-blanket and it was just classic Rodriguez humor. It’s funny, and dangerous so when he called about this film, it was a no-brainer.
I’ve wanted to work with him again for a while now. I’ve always loved Robert and the fun he has on set is contagious. It’s one of the things that makes him such a great director to work for. He keeps it loose and fun. He looks like he’s playing with the biggest box of toys anyone has ever devised and that’s spectacular. My favorite people in the movie industry all have that same mojo and excitement when they get to work. Just sitting there like “Oh! What if we did this?” or “Ooh Ooh Ooh, what about this shot?”
DIABOLIQUE: Is there something specific that draws you toward playing the villainous roles or is it really how the dice rolls?
SADLER: [Laughs] I think that has something to do with cheek bones and the shape of my face. I’m not exactly sure. It isn’t that I’m drawn to those characters as much as it is they keep finding me. The very first film that I did was Project X with Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt way-back-when where I killed all the chimps with this Air Force project. I don’t know, Hollywood has always had this view of me where they see my face and think, “Yeah, he could kill a room full of people and then sit down and have a sandwich,” and I’m actually grateful for that because bad guys are always fun to play. The same rules that apply to good guys don’t apply to bad guys. Good guys have to be honorable and all that, but if you’re a villain in a piece you can go just about as far as you want. There’s a freedom there that I enjoy.
DIABOLIQUE: While a character is initially created by the writer, is there a method of yours you use to creating the villains you play instead of using it as an excuse to chew the scenery for the whole film?
SADLER: I wouldn’t dream of chewing the scenery. [Laughs] I try not to put the character in a box. I don’t like to think, “Well he’s a villainous guy, so he has to be A, B, and C,” you know? All of my favorite villains are also funny. They have humor to them, and the more colors you can bring to them the more believable you can make them; the more frightening they become. It’s true in movies that if you can get the audience believing that this person and this story exist in a real world, you can take them anywhere. You can scare the daylights out of them. [Laughs.] I always try to give these people intelligence and humor. Give them a sense of themselves in the world and have them, I don’t know, love dogs and children too.
You can be both things at the same time and in some ways those contradictions in the nature of the person are really scary. How tender and sweet a character can be and then in the very next moment do something so heinous it’s even more shocking than if you try to paint with big, broad brushes and think, “He’s evil so he never smiles.” I don’t know how to play evil, I know how to play people. It helps to avoid cardboard. Sometimes I’ll get a script and the writer is not as talented as someone like Robert Rodriguez or some of the other people I’ve worked with before and what’s on the page is pretty one-dimensional. There is one note, and every time you see the guy, he is playing that note, and that’s when it becomes difficult. That’s when I am the one who has to find the other colors and soften him here and there. I have to add the other notes to make him a full song. Then, obviously, when the writing is better the author has provided those things for you.
DIABOLIQUE: With a steady balance of both television and film work in your career, do you prefer working in one more than the other?
SADLER: I’ve enjoyed them both for sort of different reasons. Film tends to be very intense over a short period of time where you meet people that you’ve never worked with before and you all gather in some little town in Ohio or something and hammer out this thing together. Then it’s over and everyone goes their own way. It’s very intense for a short period then explodes and goes away. Whereas, I’ve found that television, or episodic television where you work as a regular on a show, it’s a little bit more of a relaxed atmosphere. It’s not quite as pressured for the actors, I don’t think, but I find it really fun to open the scripts week after week and it’s like they’ve added a chapter to your character’s life.
I had a lot of fun on Roswell for three years when I was on it because every time I would open next week’s shooting script they took the character in different directions. A romance had began or he’s having trouble with his teenage son, and those colors I was talking about, that keep me interested as an actor, would keep being thrown in. You know, he loses his job and has to start a new career and the challenge changes from week to week and I always find it interesting acting out this sort of long-form novel rather than a short story. I mean a film is two hours or whatever and it’s set in celluloid and done, or pixels or whatever it is these days [Laughs.] It doesn’t grow or change, but in television it evolves. Characters evolve and relationship evolve and I always found that interesting. So that’s a long-winded way of answering your question.
DIABOLIQUE: You have not shied away from acting in genre film through your career. Have you made a conscious effort to go for the genre roles or has it been more a choice based on wanting to take parts for the love of acting?
SADLER: Do you mean am I an acting slut? [Laughs.]
DIABOLIQUE: We believe the phrase is “working actor.”
SADLER: [Laughs] Yes, if the role is fun and the time is right. I don’t know how many “working actors” you’ve talked to but it’s not the easiest thing in the world to cobble together enough different jobs in the course of a year or over the years. You have to remain open to what’s coming down the road. To get back to the question, though, I don’t particularly feel a draw to just genre. I enjoy them. I enjoy humor; I enjoy funny which I don’t get to do as much of as I’d like to. I’m an equal opportunity actor. I’ll [Laughs]….I like the variety I guess is the way I’ll put it.
DIABOLIQUE: You are very hesitant to say “you’ll do anything” after calling yourself an acting slut now, aren’t you?
SADLER: Yeah, anything for a buck. [Laughs] No, there are some things I won’t do, but you look at a career and it can swing around from Shawshank to Green Mile to Demon Knight to Bill and Ted. If it feels like it’s all over the place that’s ok with me. I’m drawn to good writing and really good stories and they can be funny, they can be dramatic, you know? It isn’t the genre that attracts me it’s the story; it’s the character. I’m doing Homeland right now, the series for Showtime, and it’s absolutely fascinating. I love spy stories, but what’s really fun is working with talented people. Come to think of it that may be the biggest draw for me. You get to work with people who are the best in the business and if you bring your A-Game, everybody brings their A-Game to the table then the caliber of the work is terrific. It’s always fun to be involved in those kinds of projects it almost doesn’t matter what the genre.
DIABOLIQUE: Funny you should mention Bill and Ted. Have you spoken with any of the guys about coming back as the Grim Reaper in the rumored 3rd film?
SADLER: [Laughs] I’ve spoke to Alex [Winter] and Chris Matheson and I let them know that I am more than happy to come back and reprise the Grim Reaper if it works for the script. That’s really the question. I know Alex and Keanu [Reeves] want to do another Bill and Ted, but part of the question is now that George Carlin is gone, how do you work around not having his character, who was so integral to the previous films. Yeah, I’d love to carry the scythe and put on the Czechoslovakian accent again. That would make me very happy to come back and revisit that world and that character. I had a ball the first time around. That is one of those situations where the writing was good, but the people were fabulous and I could bring humor to this outlandish character. I got to be a complete participant and fire on all cylinders.
DIABOLIQUE: Your version of The Grim Reaper may be the most unique interpretation anyone has ever seen. Going from the master of death to an attention-starved child; how did the character come about?
SADLER: [Laughs] It started with the accent. That was my way into the character, but as I took this scary figure and put him through all of this; he loses the games, and has to wear a dress, he gets Melvin’d, and becomes more humiliated and broken it’s like his whole world’s turned to shit. [Laughs] Everything he’s done for centuries and centuries is crumbling around this guy, to the point of being embarrassed in front of God, then discovers his love of music and does The Reaper Rap; it’s all so outlandish to begin with. The director, Peter Hewitt, was so open to all these little pieces of business. The scene in the hardware store where I walk up to the guy who is smoking and say, “See you real soon,” is something I suggested to Peter that night while we were filming and said, “Oh, that’s great!” We didn’t even have an actor to play that role, so that was Peter Hewitt who played the smoker.
Trying out different weed wackers and deciding to stick to the scythe, just again and again my creative juices got going and Peter didn’t get in the way of it. There was no one saying, “Listen, let’s just stick to the script we have.” I think they were enjoying what they were getting so they just decided to let me go and see what I came up with. Stuff like “What about my butt? Reaping burns a lot of calories.” That wasn’t in the script, there was a lot of fun things that were improvised, like the Reaper Rap. There was a rap in the script but there wasn’t anything particularly funny or interesting in it so they let me write my own Reaper Rap. I think that’s why the character is so enjoyable to watch and certainly why it was so much fun to do, because I got to be such a creative participant in that world. So, yeah, I would love to come back and play him again. He was great, great fun.
DIABOLIQUE: What’s next in the way of projects for Bill Sadler?
SADLER: Nothing I’m aware of. [Laughs] The television season has sort of just kicked off and there are a lot of shows calling up and asking about my availability at this exact moment. So, I trust that some of these jobs may materialize. It’s a very strange life, this thing. You don’t know. You’re always unemployed until you get a job. Then you’re employed for a minute, and then you’re unemployed again and looking for the next one. You’re always watching, and looking, and poking, and auditioning and what-have-you. I get offered a lot of independent movies, which is fun, and I love reading them. I do a fair number of them, but it’s fun now that I have a body of work that people know about. I guess it’s gotten easier. My reputation sort of precedes me where people just call up and ask, “would you be interested in this or that?” I do still have to audition, but maybe half of the projects now people call and offer, which is wonderful.
No, the auditions part still occurs, and I used to get angry about it. I used to get upset when I would have to, thinking, “Don’t they know who I am? Haven’t they watched enough movies over the years?” That isn’t really the issue, though. It’s usually young directors or producers who have pinned all of their hopes and their life’s dreams on this project and they’re a little insecure about their choice. Everything is riding on how they cast this thing. They want to hear their words coming out of your mouth and see what you’re like in the room; what it’s like to talk to you and direct you.
It’s funny that I was thinking about this the other day, that if you didn’t know me personally, and all you knew about me was what you saw in the movies it would quite easy to image that I’m this dark asshole. This bitter, fucked up, cold-blooded, killer type of person and if I were a young director contemplating me in something I would be hesitant. “Really, you want the guy from Die Hard 2?” So, I’m grateful to get a chance to get in the room with people, because I get to feel them out as a director and it’s great to watch them discover I have a brain and a sense of humor or that I’m one of the nicest people they’ll run into. I don’t kill puppies.
Catch William Sadler in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills in theaters Friday, October 11th along with Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez and Mel Gibson to see the difference between upstairs and downstairs justice. For more from William Sadler, you can visit his official website here and you can also follow him on Twitter: @Wm_Sadler. For more on William Sadler, Machete Kills and Bill and Ted 3, check back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com.