Sadly, lunch couldn't be accommodated. So instead I met Johnson in the noisy bar of a Manhattan hotel. He was eating berries (or something) and puffing on an electronic cigarette. At one point, his wife brought him cherries, an apology for being late to his actual lunch, which, sadly, he had without me in attendance.
Still, we got to chat about Jim Mickle's "Cold in July," in which he plays Jim Bob, a pig farmer and private eye who teams up with Michael C. Hall, a sheepish frame store owner-turned-vigilante, and Sam Shepard's toughened ex-con, to solve a truly twisty mystery. And the rollercoaster ups-and-downs of his new movie expertly mirror the unpredictable trajectory of Johnson's career. We talked about what's around the bend and whether or not he's grown tired of making movies.
Let's go back a little bit.
Oh, jeez -- how far back are we talking?
When you were doing "Miami Vice" did you have any idea of the kind of cultural impact it would have?
No. Just think about it at the time, what we were doing was unheard of in terms of network television. And we were all independent filmmakers. We were coming to this as a group of guys who, a lot of times, didn't even realize you needed to get a film permit. We said, "Well, we might as well just shoot it." And that was the spirit we made "Miami Vice" in. And so we would put on the screen what excited us, what was fun for us, and if that translated, then great. A lot of times, when you make independent films, the audience is about this big -- it's for a small group. But when you make something that catches the zeitgeist of the moment, then that's a big thing.
How did your life change after that?
Come on... Not much.
You were an icon after "Miami Vice." You talk about being an independent filmmaker but was it hard to maintain that spirit after every dingus in the country is dressing like you?
Well, you're put in a box. It's a prison. There's a lot of perks and a lot of fun stuff that comes with it, and I've got trunks full of stories when it comes to that sh*t, but it's also confining in a lot of ways. And these things [he picks up his cell phone] have made it impossible. Because there is no privacy. Back then we had a little bit of privacy. But that was the beginning of there being zero privacy for me.
Did you see the "Miami Vice" movie Michael Mann made a few years ago?
I saw some of it... I didn't think that was one of Michael's best efforts.
Since "Miami Vice," your career has had some amazing twists and turns. Looking back on it, what would you have done differently?
You've had some amazing recent roles, including popping up on HBO's "Eastbound & Down." What was that experience like and are you looking to re-team with Jody Hill or David Gordon Green?
David Gordon Green is attached to a project I wrote that I'm going to make for streaming this fall. That's called "Score." It's about the rise of big time college football in the eighties. It's for streaming. I'm not going to use Hulu, I'm just going to deliver it. So he's attached to direct that. And my experience with those guys was like going back to the pre-"Miami Vice" days. You know -- we're making it up, and we're going to shoot this, and okay let's do it.
So that style still holds some appeal to you after all these years?
Well, the relationship between capital and the creative process is symbiotic or should be, but when one starts to outweigh the other, the whole thing suffers. Right now we're in an era when the financing has eaten up by these tent pole projects and it's a very narrow hallway, like in a tenement building, that goes on forever and has very little room for the creative process other than a couple of changes in the special effects. So where you're seeing the best exploratory work is either on television like on "Eastbound & Down" or "Orange Is the New Black" or this thing I'm getting ready to do with David Gordon Green, and I say that with humility. Or things like "Cold in July," where the budget is really squeezed. It's sort of a mirror of what's happened to the America capital system in general. The middle class is incredibly squeezed and it's either the really rich or the really poor.
Have you been offered parts in these big studio things?
Well, I just did "The Other Woman." But that was just a flash.
Are you not interested in these larger projects?
Not particularly. But it depends. At this time in my career, I'm happy to be relevant. It's fun. And I'm getting offered some fantastic parts and am able to deliver some of the best work of my career because I'm less attached to the outcome and ambition isn't driving the bus so much and ego is gratefully dissipating to where it belongs, which is into the f*cking ether. And so it makes room for me to be the instrument for the work, which is a lot more fun.
You were in "Django Unchained" recently, and from all reports that production was pretty nuts.
Well, production is always nuts. You'd have to be more specific about what stories you've heard.
We'll, I'm coming to you for the stories.
You be specific and I'll tell you whether or not it's true or false!
What was Quentin Tarantino most obsessed about in terms of your filmography?
He knew my entire filmography. He knew things that I had done that I didn't know I had done. And that's the truth. We were at the "Machete" premiere and he was telling me how much he liked my performance and how much he wanted to work with me, but we had been saying that to each other for many years. So he said, "Yeah, I remember this one film you made..." And he went into it. And I said, "I didn't make that movie." And he said, "Yeah you made that movie!" Then he started telling me the plot and who the DP was and who the other actors were and I went, "Oh yeah, I made that movie." It was f*cking insane.
But what is fantastic about Quentin Tarantino is that he is a master filmmaker with an extraordinary eye for detail. And the difference between a small movie and a big movie is the attention to detail. He may be our greatest living filmmaker in that regard. In how he does his thing, he's a true auteur. He does it better than anyone, in that way. You know that it's a Tarantino movie. You don't have to think about it.
What is your relationship with Robert Rodriguez like? You were in "Machete" and you recently came back for the "From Dusk Till Dawn" TV series.
I have a fantastic relationship with Robert Rodriguez. He put the arm on me to help him launch his network with "From Dusk Till Dawn" and I was happy to do it. But I'm going to make another movie with him this summer. I should let him announce it. But I love working with Robert. He's another one of the great filmmakers. He and Tarantino are unique in their voice.
Do you respond well to Rodriguez's whole "let's make a movie in the garage" approach?
Well, he knows what he wants. And working with him is fun that way. It's not a lot of standing around, guessing. Robert says, "Here, stand here, walk over there, and say these lines." And you go, "Great!" I watched him direct De Niro in "Machete," in that scene we have together. And De Niro is tied to the chair and Robert comes on and I'm standing there and I'm thinking, Oh, I can't wait to see how he's going to tell Robert De Niro how to play this f*cking scene in the chair. And De Niro is standing there, watching him, and Rodriguez pantomimes having a chair tied to his ass and starts hopping across the stage. I'm cracking up and De Niro is just going, "Okay." So the next thing I know, we're rolling and De Niro has the chair hooked to his ass and starts hopping across the room just like Rodriguez. I thought: Wow, let the mystery be gone.
What drew you to "Cold in July"?
The script was sent to me and I read it and I didn't know what was going to happen by page 10. What generally happens is that a lot of these f*cking scripts that are written, by page 10 you go, "Ugh." You want to stab yourself. Because it's a version of every fucking thing you've ever seen that was either considered artistically successful or commercially successful from the past 20 years. So when I read this I thought, Wow, this is different, this is new. Then I met Jim Mickle and thought, This guy is talented and has great film sense and I could feel his level of confidence in his ability. When you've been around as long as I have, you rely on that.
What made you trust him?
I watched his movies. And you've got an instinct for these things. Usually I trust my instincts.
Had Sam Shepard and Michael C. Hall already been cast when you signed on?
No. Sam hadn't been cast yet and that was important to me, that they make that work with Sam, because I felt like that relationship was important and it was important for me to have that character... I'm not saying anybody else could have done it but when he told me he was thinking of Sam Shepard, I thought, Oh, well I would most likely do this if you get Sam. Then he got on a plane and went and got Sam. I thought there was a shot in hell that he'd actually get Sam.
What'd you think when you finally saw it all put together?
I just loved the whole movie. There isn't anything like it. It's a blend of genres that come together that makes it unique and fantastic to watch. Really fun.
Are you tired of making movies at all?
No. I'm more invigorated and excited about it than ever in my career.
Because I am less attached to the outcome, I am less driven by ambition and ego, and that leaves me available to the creative process, where I can be the instrument and the owner of the instrument.
What haven't you done that you still want to do?
I'd love to work with P.T. Anderson. I think we would be a good team. There are a lot of filmmakers... Nolan, I'd want to work with Nolan. Some of the younger guys... I think Bennett Miller is doing some good work, although he might be too f*ckin' mainstream for me. David O. Russell, even though he likes to work in a chaotic atmosphere, I understand. But that doesn't scare me!
Actors always talk about parts that they almost took but didn't.
Yeah, I have a few of those things in my career that I turned down that turned into big movies. But I don't regret turning down things that I turned down because it's just part of the journey. And you can't do it all. My intuition and instincts have gotten sharper in these last few years. But I made some stinkers, too.
"Cold in July" is in theaters and available On Demand now.
Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival