Interview: Barry Pepper on ‘Casino Jack’, ‘True Grit’, and Terrence Malick

By  · Published on December 24th, 2010

Barry Pepper seems to be having one of the best years of his career. He’s got two films in theaters right now: the Coen brothers’ True Grit and the Jack Abramoff rise and fall story, Casino Jack. One being a near-masterpiece, guess which one, and the other being a fun satire. In True Grit, he plays a logical and almost likable lead antagonist, but as Michael Scanlon in George Hickenlooper’s final film, he couldn’t be further from playing logical. Barry Pepper seems to be very comfortable at playing slimy. He did the perfect type of sympathetic slimy in the 25th Hour, and in Casino Jack, he does the same.

And to top off having two films in the cineplex at one time, he also recently got to work with Terrence Malick… ever heard of him? Well, Pepper couldn’t talk at great length about that untitled project, but he did open up about the experience of working with Malick. As always, Malick is described as the type he always is labeled as: the genius kind.

Pepper and I started off discussing True Grit, even though we were really on the phone to talk about Casino Jack. But Pepper seemed more than happy to talk about his experience with the Coens and his reaction to the film.

To start off, this seems to have been a really good year for you with both True Grit and Casino Jack.

Oh, you’ve seen True Grit?

Yeah. I thought it was fantastic.

Me too, man. I saw it at the Academy, the Los Angeles premiere. I was sort of on the fence because I think the sound was off. The sound is very, very important in the film because many of the characters have very gravid tones and the dialog is so specific. It’s very authentic to the period being poetic and musical. If you miss it because the sound is not quite right or the audience isn’t very respectful, it’s a very different film. But then I saw it at the New York premiere here a couple of days ago, and I just fell in love with it. I mean, what a magnificent film. It was fantastic, so I’m glad you enjoyed it.

It’s a faithful adaptation of the Charles Portis’ novel. It’s really beat for beat, so that was our source material. Everything was there from who Lucky Ned Pepper was to everything. What was fantastic about the Charles Portis novel was that it goes into a back story, basically a year previous to meeting the characters. We learn that Lucky Ned and Rooster Cogburn have this history. Their paths crossed and they ended up getting into a dust-up, and Rooster shot him in the face. That’s why Lucky Ned’s teeth and jaw and lip is all busted up and why he talks the way he does [Laughs]. They’re true nemeses to one another. [Spoiler Alert] So when Rooster comes up to the mountains after Chaney, Ned is not happy at all [Laughs].

[Spoiler Over] That was why it was so much fun working with the Coens, they’re so specific to detail. That history is a fact that will never be in the film, but you have to portray that history in that exchange between the two characters. Most people would think Lucky Ned just has really bad teeth, but the lips and scars are busted up because Rooster shot him in the face a year ago [Laughs]. I just love that the brothers were so focused on those details that were really just for us. It was great for, you know, as artists to work with on the details for the mask.

Even if you don’t know that history, you can basically come up with your own story for why his teeth are so busted.

That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. That’s the thing about a Coen brothers’ film; on the second or third viewing, it gets deeper and richer.

Did you find it funny just how charming Lucky Ned and Chaney actually are?

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s right. It was really cool for me that I got to be involved in the film really early on. In fact, I got to help cast Hailee in her final screen test. They asked Jeff [Bridges] and I to come in and read opposite of her. They actually had five girls narrowed down from fifteen-thousand. I was in there early on and it was just remarkable for me to watch Jeff, Josh [Brolin], Matt [Damon] and everybody put their characters together. We were there in the wardrobes and props room picking out our gun-belts and your pistol and your knives and your hats and boots, and it was just trying to figure out the skin of the character.

The character just tends to sort of speak to you and you find out who it is. I came into that picture thinking that Jeff was always, for me, The Dude. And then I got to see him make this transformation into Rooster Cogburn, and it was something to watch. If he hadn’t won the Oscar for Crazy Heart, he’d definitely be up for this year. Anyway, so I’m guessing you’re calling about Casino Jack?

[Laughs] Yes, I was just about to mention that. Speaking as a D.C. native, let me say you really nailed down the D.C. slime ball shtick…

[Laughs] Honestly, it wasn’t my intention to judge the character. I never judge the characters that I play. It’s just my job to humanize them, regardless of their moral ambiguity. Really, what was most important, was that I was serving the story with my political views being inline with the filmmakers, regardless of the character I’m portraying or if he he’s cast as a villain. He didn’t see himself that way, as a villain. He certainly wasn’t accessing that part of his brain that was judging his own actions. It was a really fascinating character study from the moment I first sat down with Kevin [Spacey] and our director George Hickenlooper, who we lost recently. You start putting all the pieces together by all the books that you can find on this scandal and this period of time in Washington, which I think was 1994 when the Republicans took control over the house and all the way up to 2003 when the scandal broke and Jack Abramoff was incarcerated.

There’s a lot of books and an incredibly long paper trail of evidence with emails and phone calls. There’s also the amount of people you get to speak to. In Kevin’s case, he got to speak directly to Jack in prison. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet with Mike. He was cooperating with the investigation at that time and had, I think, left Washington at that point. I did have the chance to speak with his friends and colleagues and co-workers, who all worked intimately with him during all those years. That was really instrumental in my development of the character. Like I said, you get together with the other actors and start putting these two very schismatic characters together. They both had very unique personalities.

One thing that we thought was most interesting was that Mike had, through all the years of working with Tom DeLay and trying to impeach Clinton, to the point he teamed up with Abramoff to working with the F.B.I., held down a ten dollar an hour lifeguard job through all of those years on Rehoboth Beach. He was a surfer dude and spoke like one, that was really his world. In Washington, he was the country club type of guy with the fancy suits and the whole nine yards. It was these two very interesting sides to his personality, and the same goes for Jack. Jack was very much a philanthropist. He did a lot of charity work and was a loving father and husband. They’re making millions and millions of dollars being super lobbyist flying all over the world in private jets and eating at the most lavish restaurants and whining and dining corporate America.

I find that bit about Michael being a surfer dude pretty interesting because he basically seemed like a child in a suit for most of the film, wouldn’t you say?

That is fascinating. That would be the one scene I probably would have liked to have remained in the film, which was seeing him live on the beach as a lifeguard. There are several lines in the film that express that in the film too like, “Mike, you’re still paying off your student loans.” I think for many of them, and this is including the tribe of the Indian casinos they worked with as well as all the way up to the bureaucratic ladder, they saw this very common exchange of gifts and legislative favors for access to congress as a narcotic. The power and influence was what fueled these guys. They were governed by the sheer love of money and that modern lust of substance. They became the best of the best in the influence peddling business. They were lionized as absolute superheroes to the right [side].

When the scandal broke, nobody knew them. Everyone sort of “cockroaches” out of the light and completely inoculated themselves from ever knowing them, and yet they were so loved for the millions and millions of dollars they brought in for the Republican Party. I think it was just that cultural, insatiable hunger for power and influence. It was able to flourish because, at the time, the G.O.P. had no control over the levels of power in Washington. It was almost as if they opened up this super highway between K-Street and The Hill. It was like this bordello of money, and guys like Jack and Mike flourished. It continues today, and I think that’s the sad part. They kind of used Jack and Mike as sort of their fall guys. They were acting like they were cleaning up the lobbyist industry, but nothing could be further from the truth.

When it comes to the tone of Mike, can you talk about playing an over-the-top type of persona, but not making a cartoon?

Well, that was the real trick. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it at the beginning, because that’s where you really rely on one another. It comes down to George’s direction and the mountain of research that I have done. They’re all telling me “this is how he was” and “this is how he spoke,” and you have to balance that by having a safety net of making sure I don’t go too far, but also allow me to have the freedom to really explore this character. It is not only a big responsibility, because you don’t want to work outside the boundaries of authenticity, but you also have an obligation to the production insurance with liabilities, if it’s inaccurate. You’re certainly walking a fine line, and that’s where Kevin and George were so fantastic to work with. You really have to rely on one another to make sure it is factual.

Can you think of any scenes or moments where things maybe went too far or where you were told to take it down a notch?

No, and that’s sort of what I mean. The story is so much stranger than fiction. It’s such a bizarre and lurid and comedic odyssey that these two go on together. Like I said, that was all injected in the script because of the factual reporting that is there for everyone to read. The monologues that are used in the film are word for word taken from their exchanges. It certainly gave us some pretty interesting material to work with.

Did they also really quote movies? It makes them out to be sort of delusional, thinking they’re stars.

Exactly [Laughs]. That was enjoyable because that was something Jack had told Kevin when they met in prison. Jack was very, very entertaining and did a lot of impressions. You come to find out that he was a Hollywood producer before he got into lobbying, and he produced a Dolph Lungren film, Red Scorpion. He really liked to name drop and live in that life of his alter ego. That was really enjoyable to watch Kevin play Jack because of some of those moments. He’s such an incredible impersonator. He just kept the film set alive and full of life.

Them quoting movies also make them out to be sort of nerds, which makes them a bit more sympathetic.

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s right. You’re absolutely right, though. There is something very sympathetic about them, and that was what was so interesting and challenging about trying to portray.

I know I’m going to get wrapped up soon, so I have to ask: Are you still working with Terrence Malick?

I finished that. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my career, and that’s saying something. I’ve worked with some really tremendous filmmakers, and that was one of the most unique experiences I have ever had. I cant say a lot about it because he’s quite private, so I wont go into detail. It was an absolute joy. I can’t wait to talk about it.

Did you see The Tree of Life trailer yet?

No, I haven’t. How was it?

You can’t tell what it’s really about, but it looks incredible.

Wow, that’s cool. I’ve heard a lot about it. I spoke with Terrence and the producers that were on it, and it does sound really incredible.

I’ve spoken with a few people that have worked with him before, and actors always describe it as a pretty poetic experience.

I couldn’t agree more. I think, it’s much like floating down a river: you just have to let go, because it is a very free, loose, poetic and very interpretive style that he has. You know, quite often things changed in the spur of the moment. Quite often you have to be able let go and go with it. If you fight it, you’re just dead in the water. If you’re from a much more structured and formal theatrical background where you have your script and no deviating from the blueprint, then you’re in trouble [Laughs].

I talked to Elias Koteas a while ago; he said Malick basically wants you to show your soul on film.

I absolutely agree. One of things Malick did say to me is, “If what you’re saying doesn’t intersect with what is in your own heart, saying nothing will not be held against you.” To me, that was like getting a love letter. It was such a beautiful thing to be told. From my perspective, I’ve always admired filmmakers that put a lot of trust in their artists and actors, and respect their intuition and their ability with revising the dialog if you don’t find an honesty and authenticity to it. That’s the way he was. He didn’t want you to say anything that wasn’t absolutely pure.

Casino Jack is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.