If performance prowess is measured in amount of diverse work created, then actor William Sadler is without question one of the greats. His amazing characters (Bill & Ted’s Grim Reaper anyone?!), memorable movie moments (a little naked martial arts via the opening of "Die Hard 2!") and sheer quantity of notable credits ("The Shawshank Redemption" – need I say more?) has made him one of the most recognizable faces in film and TV for over two decades. Plus having worked with the likes of Renny Harlin, Walter Hill, David Nutter, Bill Condon and even Frank Darabont (three times no less!) has shown that the best in the business love Sadler. (And we do too!) Early in the career of a post-"El Mariachi," but pre-"Desperado" Robert Rodriquez, the maverick filmmaker made an ode to the 50’s rebel rocker flicks - a little ditty titled "Roadracers." Rodriguez cast Sadler as the lawman of the piece named Sarge, a cop who leans on musical bad boy David Arquette. "Roadracers" is finally hitting Blu-ray courtesy of Echo Bridge with some deluxe Director’s Cut treatment (go five minute film school!)...
...and we jumped at the chance to do a little special exclusive Starpulse one-on-one Sadler Q&A to celebrate its release. But as with all the folks we adore, we go much further, providing one of the coolest and most comprehensive career interviews for your reading pleasure. So along with "Roadracers," we're taking a trip down Sadler memory lane. From "Hard to Kill" to "Freaked," Walter Hill to Frank Darabont and Niles 'Man Who Was Death' Talbot to Brayker in "Demon Knight," Sadler happily sat through a grueling past work grilling that would make a lesser man crumble. (Sorry – and thanks Bill!) So without further adieu here’s the ever amazing…
"Roadracers" was after "El Mariachi," but before "Desperado" so had you heard of Robert Rodriguez prior to making the film?
William Sadler: Yes. I had seen "El Mariachi" and Hollywood was talking about this kid who made a movie for like six thousand bucks or something that was knocking everybody’s socks off. The studios were falling all over each other trying to get him – who is this guy with this crazy editing style and this wonderful sense of humor? So he offered me the role in Roadracers and I said yeah. I liked the script, but I wanted to work with him based on "El Mariachi."
Since this was still early in his career what was your impression of him – what kind of director was he at that point?
WS: (Laughs) It was all new to him having big 35mm film cameras and all of these lenses. And you could lay track, you could have cranes, you could have dollies and sound crews – he had none of that before this movie. So the most fun thing on the set was watching him run from one (laughs) gadget to the next! And it was just a learning curve, but it was like somebody had given him the biggest box of toys on the planet. He was literally jumping up and down and running around giggling going, ‘Oh! Look at this, look at this, look at this!’ And shooting really, really fast – that was the other thing I remember about Robert. There was no farting around, it was like ‘put the camera over here, let’s go, boom!’ The thing is shot and we’re moving on while it’s all still fresh. Nothing is labored or precious, it’s sort of like working with athletes or something, you know?
Your character Sarge is a surly foil to David Arquette’s bad boy – any inspirations in creating the character?
WS: I think I had Rod Steiger "In the Heat of the Night" in the back of my head somewhere. It’s always dangerous to fall in love with an image of somebody else’s performance, but that was one. A lot of authority in a very, very small pond - that dangerous combination. And the ‘pigs in the blanket’ of course, that was the clincher because I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever read. I knew exactly how I wanted to do that the minute I read it and I thought this is funny, this is funny sh!t.
Now going into some past work, you did an early stint on the classic 80’s TV show "The Equalizer" and I was curious what was it like working with the late great Edward Woodward?
WS: I had a wonderful time working with him. That was one of the very first television roles that I think I’d ever done. He pursued me a lot in the show; we didn't actually have a lot of scenes together. But I remember thinking that was just the most fun you could have with your clothes on, running around being as bad as I was. There was one scene where I’m leaning out of a window and special effect called for me to be hit in the forehead with a paintball. And what they did was they stuck my head out the window and I’m looking around and they said, ‘Freeze!’ I froze and the makeup person came up and dabbed paint on my forehead and then stepped away and they said, ‘Action!’ And I went, ‘Ahh!’ (Laughs) It was my introduction to poor man’s special effects and I thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread.
You played a sleazy politician to Steven Seagal’s tough guy cop in "Hard to Kill" – was it unusual to play a bad guy who wasn’t the physical type?
WS: I thought I was pretty young to be a senator at that point! But I had done "Project X" before that with Matthew Broderick where I killed all the chimps, so I had been a heavy already that wasn’t a physical guy. He wasn’t the guy from "Die Hard 2."
You were super ripped as baddie Col. Stuart in the opening bits of "Die Hard 2" – how long did it take you to get in such sculpted shape and was that your own character choice or did Renny Harlin demand it?
WS: Renny Harlin didn't tell me it was gonna be nude until we got to the costume fitting and there wasn’t a costume for that scene. And then he said, ‘I was hoping that you would be nude.’ And I said, ‘If you push that scene off to the end of the shoot and get me in a gym with a trainer, I’ll do it.’ And that’s what he did. I don't even remember shooting the rest of the movie; I spent the entire film every waking minute with this man named Keith Cuba at Gold’s Gym. So I think I had five weeks maybe before we shot that. I just didn’t want to look at it when I was sixty and think ‘man, I wished you’d done some sit ups or something!’ (Laughs) It was gonna be the summer blockbuster of the year, the much anticipated giant summer blockbuster and I didn’t want to be seen...you know.
You famously portrayed Death himself the Grim Reaper in "Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey" – how did you get that part and did you realize it would go on to become so known and iconic?
WS: (Laughs) No I did not! I went in to audition for it and the casting woman’s name is Karen Rea and I called her office and said, ‘I’m thinking about doing an accent – a Czechoslovakian accent.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, I don't think so.’ I did it anyway, I did the Czechoslovakian accent because it was funny and the writing wasn’t funny. What they had written for the character to say wasn’t particularly funny. It was threatening, but there was nothing really silly about it. I happened to have this Czechoslovakian accent (goes into Grim Reaper voice) that waz funny no matter what ju do! (Laughs) No matter what you say with it, it comes out funny. You could read the phone book. So I did it and about two weeks later I get a phone call from Karen saying, ‘Listen, I need you to go to a makeup store and get some grey for your hair and come back in and do the audition again looking old because they think you’re too young.’ And I thought that’s gonna look like sh!t.
So I called Scott Eddo the makeup man from "Die Hard 2" and he was home and he had his makeup with him. I met him the morning of the audition in his kitchen in Malibu and he did this age makeup on me that made me look about seventy years old, but good for the camera. So I drove to Orion and I did exactly the same audition again with the same accent and everything and Karen told me on the way out that the producer who thought I was too young said, ‘You know, he looks a lot older in person then he does on film!’ (Laughs) It was a long process getting the job and they were very nervous the very first day of filming, but then they saw the dailies and I think they all relaxed. They said, ‘Ah, he’s got this. I like this.’
Now if Keanu and Alex ever decide to do a third Bill & Ted would you be willing to come back and bring the Grim Reaper back?
WS: Absolutely. In fact, I’ve spoken to Alex about it because I know they've written a script, but it needs to be greenlit and there are a lot of hurdles between here and the actual making a "Bill & Ted 3." But I would love it, of course I would. It’s one of the most fun characters I’ve ever played. So if they need me to come back, I would certainly be there.
About the 'Tales From The Crypt' episode The Man Who Was Death from director Walter Hill he said in an interview that you were so dead on that he concentrated on the look of the piece and just let you go – where did the genesis of Niles Talbot come from?
WS: You know what, I don’t honestly know. I wasn’t supposed to get that role either. That was another role that Karen Rae cast and they had me in to read the character of the cop at the end who arrests him. But I asked her what’s going on with role of Talbot and she said, ‘They want John Malkovich. They want a star – they’re looking for a star.’ So I left and I was headed for my car across the parking lot and Karen stuck her head out the window at Fox and yelled, ‘Bill! Bill!’ and called me back. She said, ‘Come back in on Monday. Black out your teeth and grease your hair up or something because you’ve got to look ratty.’ So I came back on Monday and read it and it was just a monologue. Walter was funny that way because he liked the character that I brought to him, the character that I created, so I would show up at work and he would have written a whole new monologue for the guy to say. He just kept writing stuff for me to say. He’d hand me these hand written monologues and he’d say, ‘Here, read this.’ And I read it and he’d say, ‘That’s great – let’s shoot it!’ And a half hour later we were shooting it. It was a pretty wonderful relationship – Walter’s great that way.
Niles is seen as a bad guy of sorts, but as far as a moral line he was killing people who killed people – what was your take on the moral ambiguity of the character?
WS: I liked that about him – I don’t think he had any moral ambiguity. He figured these people they needed to be killed and there was something wrong with the courts that would let them off because they weren’t read their Miranda rights or something, you know? But his sense of justice was much simpler – it came from a more primitive place. You kill people, you need to die. Period.
You also teamed up with Hill on the action thriller "Trespass" – did you and Hill have a shorthand working together again on that film?
WS: Absolutely. Hill doesn't say five words to you on the set - he’s a man of few words. It threw me at first because you would do these scenes, like 'Tales From The Crypt' I would do the execution scene and you’d finish the scene and he’d say ‘That’s great. Got it.’ But there’d be no discussion. It really was one of my very first acting gigs on film and he was a terrific mentor to have that way. But at that time I needed a lot of ‘was that okay’ and ‘should I do more’ and I wasn’t sure handed. I knew what I was doing was good, but I didn't know if it was what he needed. I didn’t understand cameras - I’d done eleven years of theater before that and almost no film. But we did have a shorthand during "Trespass."
You played a wonderfully comic character in the highly underrated "Freaked" by Alex Winter – how much fun was that film to shoot?
WS: (Laughs) That was another one of those shoot it in eight days or something for no money. That was hysterical. I had a great time because we had just come off of "Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey," so we were all sort of buddies and he’d written this very (laughs) silly thing. And Alex is a hoot, he’s one of my favorite people and he’s a very funny man to hang around with and get to know. What was that line in "Freaked?" I am Juan Valdez, I come from the island of Santa Flan – the patron saint of creamy deserts. (Laughs) That was wrong on so many levels, but it was so fun.
You made the 'Project Greenlight' film "The Battle of Shaker Heights" – was the film as chaotic to make as portrayed on the show and did you get the feeling like Shia LaBeouf would become as big as he has?
WS: I don't think any of us realized that Shia was gonna take off and launch as big as he did. He was just lovely and committed and putting out a hundred and ten percent under difficult circumstances like everybody was. I thought he was terrific and great fun to work with because acting is a team sport. It’s like tennis – if you have somebody great to play opposite your game goes up. But the 'Project Greenlight' movie, the whole premise that we’re gonna give this person a million dollars to make a movie and we’ll film the behind the scenes drama, I think there’s something a little bogus about that notion. Because they were gonna get I think it was thirteen episodes of television out of it. For that one million dollars they’re gonna get an awful lot of television – they’re not just gonna get a movie. And in some ways I began to feel very quickly that there were issues that could be resolved. It’s always more interesting to watch a train wreck then it is to watch something go smoothly the way it should and I kept feeling over and over again that the producers were allowing the directors to run the ship up on the rocks. They could have stepped in at any moment and said, ‘You have to do it this way.’ Just helped them out and sort out the problem, but that doesn't make interesting television. (Laughs) What’s interesting is people ripping their hair out and having screaming meltdowns and all of that stuff, so there’s a conflict between what it takes to make a good movie and what it takes to make thirteen episodes of exciting television. They’re two different things and we were working at cross-purposes. I think it was more important to HBO that they come up with exciting television then this little million-dollar movie.
"Demon Knight" was one of the few times you got to play the straight man to Billy Zane’s bad guy – what was it like to play the hero?
WS: I had a ball and I didn't actually approach it any differently then I approached anything else. I just found my own path through it, but make it make sense and make it believable. But that was a hoot – I had the best time in the world. I think I spent my whole childhood diving out of haylofts with my BB gun and coming out shooting. So those scenes where Brayker dives through a doorway and shoots the demon in the eyes – all of that jazz fit like a glove. It all felt like I spent my whole life getting ready to play that stuff. It was also Joel Silver who I loved and I had a close working relationship with the writers on "Demon Knight," so I got to have input into lines that were awkward or if I wanted to try something different that was always available to me which I love. I did it on Bill & Ted, I did it in "Die Hard 2" – I can’t keep my mouth shut. If I have a better idea I say can we try one like this? I try not to step on writer’s toes, but ninety-nine percent of the time it ends up in the movie and sometimes it’s the line that everyone remembers and quotes from the movie. Like Bill & Ted was like that – (in Grim Reaper voice) ‘What about my butt?’ and ‘Reaping burns a lot of calories!’ They couldn’t know that I was gonna do that character when they wrote it and they were very kind to let me fool around with it like that.
You worked with the great Frank Darabont on "The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile" and "The Mist" – what was your impression of him working with him the first time and how did he change as a director from film to film?
WS: He actually came up to me on the set of 'Tales From The Crypt' the TV show – he was a writer on 'Tales From The Crypt.' And he came up to me two years before he did Shawshank and introduced himself and he said, ‘I’m writing this script and I’m gonna do it one day and it’s called "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and I’d love for you to be in it.’ And I though yeah, right – everybody in Hollywood is writing a script. (Laughs) If I had a dollar for everybody who said I’m gonna make a movie and I want you to be in it. But he did and it was his first. I think Frank has gotten freer with his style in the progression of movies from one to the next. Shawshank was the most studied and carefully laid out, carefully planned. Every shot was thought out, but I think he’s gotten looser, like in "The Mist" there’s handhelds. He talks about it in musical terms, he said, ‘If Shawshank is a symphony where every note has to be planned and thought out and delivered perfectly then "The Mist" is like jazz.’ He said, ‘We’ll get it – the story will get told!’ But you allow for interesting accidents and there are interesting accidents happening everyday.
I also loved the challenged character you played in "Disturbing Behavior" – any inspirations behind that work?
WS: I came up with the character, a sort of mentally challenged school janitor who it turns out isn't anywhere near as mentally challenged as he lets on - it’s just so that people will leave him alone. But I have to give a lot of credit to David Nutter for that performance. That was the very first time I’d worked with him and I’ve worked with him six or seven times since then in lots of other projects and he is without a doubt my favorite director. He’s so easy to collaborate with. He brings something to the table like that character and he creates a space in which you can play. He gives you the freedom and license to take it as far as you want to take it. (Laughs) You always trust that he’ll pull you back if you go off the rails, but I just had a wonderful time working with him. He saw the potential in the character and made a safe place for me to do it.
Another notable TV show that you played a great part on was the series "Roswell" – what were your feelings about that show?
WS: I enjoyed "Roswell" a lot and I had a lot of fun playing Jim Valenti. I had never done a show that lasted as long as that - that one lasted three years. I had done lots of guest spots and series that didn't go very far and I just found it fascinating to play a character who every week you get a script and it’s like turning the page and there’s a whole new chapter in your characters life. It was fun to watch the character grow and develop over time – I didn't find it stagnate at all or stifling. My character had a past that just never repeated itself ever. And then of course I wanted to direct and learn about directing and they allowed me to direct the second to last episode of the third year, which was an extraordinary experience for me. It was life changing and a real eye opener to be on the other side of the camera.
Having worked with so many talents directors would you ever consider directing a feature yourself and whose style do you think would influence you the most?
WS: In terms of working with the actors, in terms of finding performances inside of actors and nurturing them and getting them on camera, I mentioned David Nutter, but Bill Condon is another one. He directed me in "Kinsey" and these guys just have a gift for making actors feel safe. You expose yourself and you feel safe and then you go a little further and a little further and before you know it you’ve got a performance that you didn’t even know you had in you. But directors are good at different things - Renny Harlin was great at fight scenes and explosions and car chases and some directors are good at performances. I guess I would model myself after the Bill Condon’s, the Frank Darabont’s and the David Nutter’s if I were to direct a feature, which I would love to do by the way.
So final question – looking back at your amazing body of work thus far what would you like to be remembered for?
WS: (Laughs) Wow, that’s a tough one. I suppose the one I’m maybe the most proud of is "The Shawshank Redemption."
Such great work.
WS: Yeah - just as a film, as a whole it will probably last longer then I will. It finds new audiences every year and it’s speaking to people. I’m anxious to see if twenty years out or thirty years out it’s still in the top five movies. People talk about it as ‘it’s a classic,’ but you really don't know until you get some distance between when it first came out. But so far it shows signs of outlasting all of us.
Special thanks to the very cool and super accommodating William Sadler for making this career interview happen and be sure to check out "Roadracers" Director’s Cut on Blu-ray from Echo Bridge available now!