"Straight to DVD" is no longer a ghetto where good actors and bad movies go off to die; it's a fertile world of creativity where performances and personal stories elevate material beyond its low budget or bad marketing. Wrong Turn at Tahoe is a new film starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Miguel Ferrer, and while it's not quite The Departed, it demonstrates how smaller films can find a place thanks to memorable, even powerful turns from its stars -- particularly from Ferrer, the longtime character actor who here settles easily into the role of Vincent, an aging mobster who finds himself engaged in a turf war.
Cinematical spoke to Ferrer via telephone late last year to discuss his work in Wrong Turn at Tahoe. In addition to discussing his collaboration with Cuba Gooding Jr. and the challenges of lending humanity to the hard heart of his character, Ferrer reflected on his vast, eclectic career, and offered a few insights about one of our favorite of his former roles, FBI Agent Albert Rosenfeld from David Lynch's iconic TV series Twin Peaks.
Cinematical: The character you play in Wrong Turn at Tahoe reminded me of some of the other characters you've played in that he's kind of a hard-ass but he's got some real palpable humanity. How do you figure out where that balance is going to be?
Miguel Ferrer: I think for some reason I'm able to do that, and I don't really know why outside of the fact that I believe, well, first of all, bad guys are pretty interesting -- although this guy is less bad than others in the picture. But I think it's important to remember that guys who lead less than ethical lives or live by their own code which is outside of acceptable social behavior, no one wakes up in the morning or very few people wake up in the morning feeling that they're going to make the world a less good place. You [have to] recognize the inherent humanity within their lives and not sit there and twist your moustache into the camera, which I think is incredibly boring at worst and really bad acting. And most of all, if it's on the page, I think you can do well, or I can do well -- let's put it that way; I don't know if you can do well (laughs).
Cinematical: When you went in to play this guy, was there something about this guy that you saw if you got right then the rest would fall into place?
Ferrer: Again, it really starts with the play, with what's on the page, and I think there was a lot to work with there. I don't want to repeat myself but I think it's a guy who lives by his own set of rules and has reconciled himself to this life, and [possesses] a strange code of morality within that life. He doesn't live without rules the way one might picture some 17-year-old crack dealer; that's not who this guy is. He knows how procedure should be followed and is in that sense living within his own moral construct, but most of all, again, if it's not on the page, in my opinion it's impossible to deliver a believable much less compelling performance. That's where it all starts, and I was a big fan of the script. That's where it starts, and that's what makes my job a whole lot easier.
Cinematical: Talking about this guy's sense of personal resolution, there's a kind of stillness in him that you play very effectively. Was that something that was on the page?
Ferrer: I think the character largely was up to interpretation, so I sort of brought that aspect to the party, but it wasn't something I had to remind myself of throughout the shooting or bring every day. That's just a decision that I made and I think once you do that, the rest will follow.
Cinematical: In the bonus materials you mention that you'd met Cuba Gooding Jr. but you hadn't worked together before. These guys obviously share a pretty substantial history, so did that require a lot of rehearsal, or how did you create a sense of familiarity between the two of you?
Ferrer: Well, I think it happens differently in different cases. If you're doing a big hundred-million-dollar studio movie and you've got the luxury of two or three weeks of rehearsal, that's generally a wonderful way to approach things, especially if one has dissimilar temperaments or approaches to acting. In this case, we didn't have that luxury, so I wanted to meet Cuba just so that we could talk and see if there was some affinity and kind of briefly discuss the picture. The extent of it was we spent a couple of hours one day over drinks, and he's an enormously likeable guy and we had the same objectives and opinions about the relationship, and then we hit the ground running and in my opinion the relationship worked pretty well and it looked like we did have a history.
Cinematical: Do you find that on material like this that is kind of weighty, you want to be a little more lighthearted on set, or is it more valuable to you to be more straightforward and serious?
Ferrer: I am not one of those guys who likes to inhabit one's character on set, or even when the camera's not running. I like to have fun; I like to have good relationships with the people with whom I'm working and I tend to get very friendly with the crew. I'm not some brooding guy who likes to sit in his trailer until it's time to work. I think my job is a lot of fun, and if you don't have fun, in my opinion, what's the point? I think to me, the way I was trained and the way I learned by example from my father and mother, if it's on the page and you're working with competent people, you should enjoy yourself, unless it's a very sort of demanding scene. Like the scene in which my wife is killed; I don't want to be telling a bunch of jokes during that time because it's distracting. That's a time when you kind of want to concentrate and be left alone.
Cinematical: I've been a fan of yours since the days of Robocop, but Albert Rosenfeld was one of my favorite things about Twin Peaks, which to this day is my favorite TV show of all time. It was actually that character that made me see the balance between this character's no-nonsense attitude and his sense of morality. Has that ability to find both aspects of a character availed you of more opportunities as an actor, or has playing these kinds of characters so well been limiting in terms of what you're offered?
Ferrer: Well, I think that's the big dilemma in Hollywood -- most of the people making decisions believe that the only thing that you're capable of is the last thing that they saw you do. It's something that I've fought against the whole time; people think "oh, well he's this guy, so he can't be funny," or "he's a funny guy, he can't be that," or "he's got to be in a leather jacket," or "no, he's got to be a suit." I fight against that constantly. I love to do different things. I love to do different sort of characters and accents and approaches. You spoke of Twin Peaks; that was one of my favorite experiences ever. Again, the writing was so great between David Lynch and Mark Frost leading at the helm, and when I first read that scene to which you alluded where he compares himself to Gandhi and King and that is his motivation in life, I couldn't believe that. I just could not believe what I read; I called up Mark Frost -- I think Lynch was unavailable at the time -- and I just thanked him profusely for the opportunity to say those words.
It's thrilling to someone like me when you can make that kind of turn within a character, but it's hard unless you're Meryl Streep, who everyone knows she does that better than anyone, or Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of those guys who I think are really by the nature of their gifts and by the nature of what they did early in their careers are afforded that luxury of being offered a lot of different kinds of roles. It's really difficult for most of us to convince the people in authority that we can do something other than what they last saw. It's a struggle.