Devil’s Lake

Spring 2010 Issue

PR Griffis: The Serious Young Actor, Now Approaching Middle Age, Reflects on Twenty-Five Years of a Life in Cinema1


I got my start, yeah, in teen movies—slasher flicks, comedies—and a couple of weird and awesome independent films, when that meant something different from what it means now. But my first role—my first—I played a zombie in one of my friends’ home movies.2Wait. What was his name? Steve? Sam? Jesus. Brain cells, they come, they go. Anyway, we were probably eight or nine. Me and three other kids from the neighborhood played zombies. This girl we all had a crush on played the heroine. I think we were paid, if memory serves—which, shit, what was his name—a ham sandwich for lunch and as much lemonade as we could drink. And the guy’s mom—how have I forgotten his name, seriously—made us chocolate-chip cookies for the wrap party that afternoon. From scratch. With pecans. I think I ate a dozen of them. I got paid twenty-two million dollars, plus points, for my last movie, eleven million of which went to taxes, two-point-two of which went to my agent. I mean, that’s how it works, that’s the deal. But man. Those cookies? They were fantastic.


My father was an international soccer star at fifteen.3 The same age I was when I got my first part (after the zombie movie. Seth? Sean?) My dad was one of the first soccer players to get a seven-figure contract. Of course, this was the early seventies, fame was different. And he was a soccer player, not a sport widely followed in the US back then. But. We could go anywhere in Los Angeles, do anything, and nobody paid us the least bit of attention. Okay, once in a while, someone would come up and ask for an autograph, ask to take a picture with him. Ask me if I was proud of my dad. Which I was. I loved watching him play. He was always a little embarrassed, I think, by that, people asking for pictures and autographs. That’s what it’s like for me and Elisa and the kids. You do it, because it means something to them—the people who like what you do—but it always feels weird. Of course, it’s weirder when they just stare, like they want to come over and ask for an autograph or a picture, but can’t bring themselves to do it. And you start to think how—I used to, for what it’s worth—they’re probably gonna hate themselves later for not asking—not to sound egotistical, like their missed opportunity for connection with me is going to be some kind of low-point-in-life-defining moment for them or whatever—and but then you start to wonder—well, I used to, anyway—whether it might not be polite to go over and ask them if they want your autograph, or to snap a picture with you. I’ve never actually done it, but …


I really, really don’t like to talk about her. Which is pretty well publicized. And so is something both you and your readership are aware of. Which makes this, my speaking of it, an especial scoop for both you and your magazine. Which was, again? Just kidding. I read your stuff all the time. She died, as you’re probably aware, as everyone’s probably aware, in a car wreck when I was three. Out late, had probably been drinking, maybe some pills, fell asleep behind the wheel. All that was in the papers. My father tells me she was a great mother to me. That didn’t, of course, make the papers. She had her problems. We all have our problems, right? I’ve watched all of her films.4 How could I not? I think I look a little like her in the eyes. My temper, my father says, I get that from her.


My father’s father was a cobbler in Buenos Aires. He resoled people’s shoes for a living—ten, twelve hours a day. My father began playing soccer with a ball he and his friends made out of rags. Until he was picked up by the Argentinos Juniors—Los Bichos Rojos5 —when he was fifteen, the cobbler’s son played soccer barefoot.


Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I wouldn’t have started in Hollywood so young. I would have apprenticed myself to a boat-builder, a cook, and a photographer. In that order. Of course, nothing’s stopping me from doing any of those things now, except that whatever it is that drives you when you’re young, well, I don’t have that anymore. Not as much, anyway. I think I’m probably stuck with who and what I am, for good or for ill.


My father used to run soccer drills with me in the backyard. I was absolutely shit at soccer. It didn’t bother him, though. One guy in this family who runs around in shorts chasing after a ball is probably enough, he’d say. My father’s humility is one of the things I always admired most about him, one of the things I’ve tried hardest to emulate. With, I’ve got to admit, varying degrees of success.


Humphrey Bogart appeared in over seventy movies between nineteen-thirty and nineteen-fifty six. About the same amount of time I’ve been working. I’ve made twenty-eight movies. That guy fucking worked. And for the majority of his career, he played thugs and cowboys in movies no one watches anymore. He was seriously lucky, in a way. It just doesn’t happen that you get leading man roles that late in your career. I mean, you think about how many movies you’ve been in, and how many of those movies people will be watching in fifty years, it puts some shit in perspective.


A friend of mine called me the other day, asked if I was upset that Che and Chloe didn’t make the list of top twenty A-List babies.6We both laughed at that for a good long time. I mean, Che’s seven now, Chloe’s five, not really babies, anyway. But. A-List Babies? You’re fucking kidding me, right?


And no disrespect meant to those who feel otherwise,7 but I’m not sure that anything about what I do for a living entitles me to have opinions worth hearing on who should be president, what the United States’ role in foreign affairs should be, where the industrialized world’s resources should be concentrated to best effect to combat the multitudinous problems the world faces. Nothing about the fact that I’m photogenic or that I get paid a lot of money to pretend to be other people makes my opinion more valuable than the people who are trying to raise two kids on sixty thousand a year. Ask them where the money should go. Ask them who the president should be. That’s just my opinion, for what it’s worth, which as I’ve just stated, isn’t a lot.


My wife would probably be willing to tell you that when I’m not working, when I’m lazing around the house between films—not bathing, not shaving, hanging out with the kids in a ratty T-shirt and a pair of jeans, I’m not all that sexy.8 I’m flattered and all, but it feels a little fucking ridiculous.


Everyone’s aware, of course, that celebrities do court the paparazzi on occasion. Well, on more than occasion. I’ve seen people waiting inside some trendy spot until the photographer—if we can use that word for those vermin with cameras—concentration reaches critical density, so they can maximize their exposure, their potential that week’s gossip columns.


I’ve had my dalliances, my fuck-ups. They were well-publicized.9 My father, the soccer player, had as his organizing principle the idea that you couldn’t take it—whatever it is—with you. Leave it all on the field, he said. I think he managed to do that. I think that’s what I was trying to do when I was younger, in all the wrong ways. I like to think that’s what I’m doing now, on a different level. Life is fucking short, man. I’m almost halfway to ninety. Halfway to the grave.


Five of the people I worked with in my first films are now dead—two of them, at least, from overdose, one from suicide—not that there’s a whole lot of difference, ultimately. Fast or slow, take your pick. I lost count at some point of how many people I worked with are famously rehabbed or famously unrehabbed, still living the dream, rocking the fuck out. Too many. Way too many.


He died of throat cancer, Bogey, a couple of weeks after his fifty-eighth birthday. The same age my father was when he died. Of the same thing.10


James Garner once said that he was a Methodist, but not when it came to acting. In my earlier roles, I tried to become the characters I was playing. It works for the purposes of cinematic portrayal, but it’s hell on the psyche. You can’t spend too much time being other people without calling into serious question who you actually are. And so I don’t. Not anymore.


It’s smaller than you’d think.


Which is not to say, the eight million I saw from my last movie—what do I give a fuck, how much I get paid is right there on iMDB for anybody who gives a shit—that I’m not aware of what that means in the real world. Well, I’m as aware of it as anyone who can make eight million bucks for six week’s work can be. But still. Eight million, for instance, is about ten times what my grandfather saw from working ten-hour days for sixty years in his shop in Buenos Aires. Cobbling shoes, ten hours a day, six days a week, for sixty years. Longer than I’ve been alive. Never missed a day except for my grandmother’s funeral. My father begged him to retire, asked him to come live with us in LA. My grandmother had been dead for fifteen years at that point. My grandfather told my father, this is where I work, and if a man doesn’t work, he’s nothing. And besides, he said, what do I know about LA? My place is here, with the people I’ve known all my life.11 You and your boy live in LA, I’ll stay here in Buenos Aires. I think he thought we should move back. That’s probably the only thing my father stayed unresolved on, the only thing he couldn’t leave on the field, so to speak.


I heard this lecturer a couple of years ago, some kind of a cultural phenomenologist. He pointed out that when people were crucified in the time of Christ, they put the stakes through the wrists. He then posed the question that if stigmata were divinely inspired, wouldn’t the blood come from the wrists instead of the palms? The human brain, man. The shit it’s capable of. You know, self-delusion and so on.


I try to be as honest in my portrayals as I can be. Honest to the moment, in the moment. The first one I did, I carried around the mannerisms of that character for a couple of years after that—if you know what to look for in the films that follow, you can see it. I can’t be other people anymore. That shit’s dangerous.12


I have a restraining order filed against me in LA County by a guy whose job it is to push a camera into people’s faces when they’re trying to order a fucking cappuccino. That shit would not play in any other situation. I absolutely refuse to accept the idea that because I’m in movies, because I’m a public entity, whatever, I don’t have the same right to personal space and basic human consideration as the guy who makes the cappuccinos. And so yeah, maybe I’m wrong. I guess we’ll see here in a few months.


The studio system—for good and for ill—made Hollywood, made American Cinema, made our understanding of what different people who make a living on film should say and do, the studio system made that what it is today. They cranked out movies like Henry Ford cranked out cars. With the same kind of ruthless efficiency. They understood something about what the public wanted. The public wanted stars, wanted to feel like they knew these people that made movies. The studios provided the public with stars, and they provided actors with a working knowledge of how to fulfill that requirement. They trained people in how to live life in the public eye. I can think of a number of people working today—or not working—who could probably use that.


There isn’t a magic bullet. Unfortunately. Sometimes, you see the script, and you think this can’t fucking miss; you shoot it and it feels right; then you’re at the screening and think what the fuck happened? A lot of times, I think, as cliché as it sounds, you have to be happy with what you intended to do, how it felt in the moment. So much of what you do as an actor is dependent on other people, on factors outside of your control. Unless you want to become a producer or a director. Which, frankly, I don’t. Thanks, but no.


His name was Jacob. Jacob Stevens. His dad was a doctor—Dr. Stevens. He took my tonsils out the year after we made Zombies from Brentwood Attack. Man. How did I forget that?


I have noticed that they tend to center around the least interesting aspects of these people’s lives. I like to think that a biopic based on my life would be pretty miserable to sit through. And yes, I do sometimes think of my life in terms of potential for a biopic. Although, thank god, they don’t have actors act out other actor’s lives as often as they do politicians. Not that politicians don’t act, of course.


My dad called me after I won the Oscar—he was too sick to make it to the awards ceremony.13 Don’t let it go to your head, he said. Man, I fucking miss him. Bad.


There’s a pub down the street from our apartment. Everyone knows everyone. They treat me like I’m just some guy, which I really appreciate. I’d like to bartend there. I like to shoot the shit with people. I can serve a pint with the best of them. I have very steady hands for pouring shots. I mean, it would be next to impossible for me to piss away everything I own. My wife wouldn’t stand by for that. But it’s nice to know—or to think, anyway—that you could do something other than what you do. I wouldn’t be forced to hawk and shill useless products on late night cable TV, which is a comfort. I mean, bartenders make a decent wage here in Prague. Benefits and everything.14


The thing is, anything I tell you—anything—is in keeping with what I’m supposed to tell you. It’s impossible for me to communicate anything that doesn’t come out sounding like me. Which is incredibly frustrating, ultimately. What will further my next project or boost sales for my last project—preferably both, right?—and if I for instance told you that I’d been—oh, let’s say I’d been shooting up, let’s say—for the last six or so months, that’s completely in keeping with the narrative, the irony or whatever of me living this—I mean, if I’m getting high in LA, then I’m one kind of very public and sketchy fuck-up, and if I’m getting high here in Prague—just chipping, let’s say, although of course if I was getting high I couldn’t actually tell you because it would be impossible to get insured for my next project, which would completely undercut the press such an admission would generate—but let’s say that’s what’s going on, then what does that say about everything else I’ve said? Does that make it obvious and distastefully ironic, or does it even register past the eye-rolling, the of course, how boringly knee-jerkingly prototypical Actor-With-Passé-Demons can you be? I mean, there’s a reality show about that now, right? And but so if it does register, does it negate everything else I’ve said—family, politics, beliefs? And, let’s be honest, here pretty quick you’re going to have to figure out how you’re going to structure this whole thing, which decontextualized quotes to take and which to leave out. It’s nonfiction, journalism, right? Except isn’t it just another kind of fiction? And, again, does my saying this seem too obvious and right on and ironic—the famously filmed turning the lens the other way ’round? Let’s say you do choose to use this diatribe. The Famous Young Actor Long Thought To Have Cleaned His Shit Up And Transitioned Esteemably and Respectably Into Middle Age Turns Out To Have Been Quietly Fucking Up Again. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say. Where do you put it? Near the front, where it’ll set the tone? The middle, where it provides a dramatic centerpiece? Or maybe towards the back—the build-up and then the leg-sweep? That’s what I’d suggest, personally. I mean, you’ve got total control of the context. You can use it to make me seem like an obvious asshole, or a self-aware-if-jaded veteran of the silver screen, or whatever, really. If you even choose to use it. The diatribe, that is. That’s a lot of power you have, right there. In a way, it’s a power I don’t and never will have.


I can’t say for certain—I would have been three at the time—but I think I remember going to the zoo with my mother. Her holding me up over the railing to look at the animals. Kissing me right behind the ear. Now, whether this is something my dad told me often enough that I think I remember it, or something I actually do remember, I couldn’t say. But that’s where I kiss my kids. Right behind the ear. Man. I love them. You know? You’re supposed to, of course. There was a long time where I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a father, the world like it is. But here I am. And I’m happy. I’m really fucking happy.

a photo of the author, PR Griffis PR GRIFFIS received his MFA from the University of Arizona. He now lives and writes in Austin, Texas, with the writer Mika Taylor. The both of them have been for some time now, neck-deep in home repairs. He is completing a novel about addiction, punk rock, and cultural-devolution-as-recovery; his shorter work appears on no set schedule at The Murky Fringe. More from this issue >

1 With footnotes by the interviewer.

2 No copies of which are, unfortunately, extant.

3 Originally signed to Argentinos Juniors, a football club founded in La Paternal, Buenos Aires, on August 15, 1904. The club was originally called The "Martyrs of Chicago," an homage to the eight anarchists imprisoned or hanged after the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago. The club is one of the most prolific sources of football players in Argentina, thus, the nickname El Simillero (nursery, or seed garden).

4 Toughs on the Streets of Los Angeles (uncredited, 1962), Hell’s Bride (1962), She- Kittens on the Prowl (1964), Schoolyard Vixens (1964), The Abattoir (1967), We All Fall Down (1968).

5Another nickname for the Argentinos Juniors—the red bugs—so-called for their red uniforms.

6 Recently run by a popular celebrity magazine, the article profiles the trendsetting children of celebrities, noting that one New York children’s hairdresser receives an average of twenty requests a week for a "Suri." "They may not be," the article goes on to say, "old enough to walk and talk, but they’re already omnipresent in their influence."

7 Here, he scrunches his shoulders, pulling into himself. One can’t help but be reminded of his portrayal of Caravaggio, especially the point at which the great painter—perfector of the chiaroscuro, drunkard and murderer—is forced to countenance his misdeeds.

8 Here, he squints and scratches his two-months growth of patchy beard—a gesture that, were a homeless person to do it in your proximity, would be off-putting. When he does it though, it is, of course, charmingly raffish.

9 Here he details the particulars of the two drunk driving arrests (anybody can get a DUI; the second one makes you an asshole), a cocaine possession charge (dumb, really dumb), a heroin possession charge (you hear it all the time, so I won’t say it wasn’t mine, but), three assault charges (one of which is still ongoing, and so I’m not, you know, at liberty to discuss) and which stemmed from a 2005 incident in which paparazzo Lawrence Mills got "entirely too close" to him and his two children while he was ordering coffee from an LA coffee stand.). He was also questioned but not charged in the 1995 Los Angeles "Black Book Madam" scandal.

10 During the course of the afternoon’s interview, he smokes ten or eleven cigarettes, lighting them with matches from a local establishment and stubbing them against the bottom of his shoe before discarding them in a garbage receptacle near the park bench where we are sitting.

11The historically poor barrio in Buenos Aires of which he speaks has, in the last thirty years, undergone a radical transformation—paved streets, running water, electricity. When asked, city officials say only that private donations made it so.

12 He is unwilling to confirm or deny that there are talks in the works about him portraying folksinger Elliot Smith in a proposed biopic. When pressed, he says only, "Elliot was a beautiful individual, and all anybody wants to know about him is how many or what kind of drugs he did, whether he committed suicide or his girlfriend stabbed him to death. That isn’t what’s fucking important about him."

13 His father passed, of complications stemming from lung cancer, two months after the 1999 Academy Awards.

14 After the interview, the afternoon stretching its shadows into evening, we go to the pub of which he speaks at his insistence, and our reception there is warm and friendly. We have a couple of pints and he sits in with the house band, strumming his way through Chan Chan and a couple of Elliot Smith tunes, his gravelly tenor drawing the crowd into a lull. His cigarette is forgotten in the corner of his mouth as he croons Needle in the Hay, the ash lengthening and dropping, spilling to the floor.