"I LOVE DE PALMA. HE'S AN UNDERSTATED COMEDIAN. HE'S REALLY FUNNY. AND HE'S A POET."
Thanks to Peet for sending along a link to The Flashback Files' great new interview with Craig Wasson:
When you were cast as Jake Scully in BODY DOUBLE, do you know what movies Brian De Palma had seen of you?
That’s a good question. I know De Palma had seen a two-part episode of a TV series I did called Skag with Karl Malden. I played his oldest son. Like FOUR FRIENDS it’s about Serbian immigrants who are steel workers. And Karl Malden really is Serbian. It was wonderfully written by Abby Mann who also produced it. This two-part episode was about me and Karl going to Atlantic City on a break from the steel mill. While there I meet a hooker, played by Dee Wallace. Of course, my character falls in love and Karl’s like: You idiot! I’m like: She’s okay, dad. She’s a great gal. Anyway, it was so wonderful, working with Dee. She’s my favorite actress who I ever worked with. And this two-part episode is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever done. I know Brian De Palma saw this.
Just as a sidenote: Karl was the president of the Academy and he nominated me for membership. But they didn’t let me in! They rejected me.
That’s strange. What do you need to do to get in?
You’re asking me? I never got in! [Laughs] Supposedly, you give them a list of your credits and then you need two members who vouch for you. I had Michael McGuire and Karl Malden nominating me. And Karl was the president of the Academy. But I guess someone blackballed me. You can’t have anyone blackball you.
Now the same thing happened years later. In 2007 I go to Massachusetts to a film festival to honor Arthur Penn’s work. Sid Ganis was there, who produced AKEELAH AND THE BEE in which I have small part. And at that point he was the president of the Academy. And he walks up to me and says: How come you’re not a member of the Academy? I said: I’d like to be. He said: Just make a submission and I’ll make sure you become a member. And I got Sid and someone else to vouch for me. And I get rejected again!
But you know, it’s not that big of a deal, I don’t even have the clothes to go to these parties [laughs]. I’m a black T-shirt and jeans guy.
I’m nearly fifty and I never learned how to tie a tie.
[Laughs] I love you. You’re my kind of guy.
Let’s get back to De Palma. His movies are always exaggerated, even the performances in them. Did this prove a challenge for you? That scene in the tunnel for example…
No, I love De Palma. He’s an understated comedian. He’s really funny. And he’s a poet. That’s the thing people don’t know. He sees the humor in the fact that he’s supposed to do something as a filmmaker and then he does the opposite. He’s like: Why do I have to stay inside these boundaries? Yesterday I happened to be flipping the channels and SCARFACE was on, with my old buddy Steven Bauer. We used to call him Rocky Bauer. When I came to Los Angeles we used to play softball together with Andy Garcia. But I digress. The scene I was watching yesterday is the scene where those two gunmen come into the club and start shooting everybody. There’s one guy in that scene with a weird costume on and a conehead. And he’s wobbling around while he gets shot. Why is that guy even in that scene? But that’s Brian. Just throwing that guy in there.
But you did talk with him about the role of Jake Scully?
Sure. He pulled me aside and told me that this story was about mediated experience. For instance, the telescope represents television, movies, newspapers… And he said: You’re looking at something you love, that you adore, that means everything to you. And you’re seeing it’s in danger. But you don’t know what to do, what action to take. You’re frozen. Take action, Jake! Take action! Action! Right? It’s a great double entendre, with Jake being an actor. And he said: You don’t build up the courage to fight for what you love until what you love is gone and all that’s left is a bad impersonation of it. I was like: Wow, you’re blowing my mind! That’s what the movie was for him.
But Brian said: Nobody will ever see that. And he was right. Because he was always targeted. BODY DOUBLE came out the same week as THE TERMINATOR. That’s a great movie. It’s magnificent. But you know, it’s pretty violent. And we got criticized for being misogynistic, because one woman is murdered and you don’t even see it on screen. It’s all in your head. Well, there’s lots of movies where somebody dies. But now suddenly, Brian De Palma is a misogynist. And the critics at the time didn’t know what to make of him because he’s not a cookie-cutter kind of filmmaker.
The whole movie was also a salute to Hitchcock. Go back to Hitchcock and you can see it’s all there. I mean, Tippi Hedren’s daughter is Melanie Griffith! How on the nose can you get? De Palma asked me: Craig, can you do a Jimmy Stewart imitation? And I started answering him in my best Jimmy Stewart voice, but before I got anything out, he said: Don’t. You are Jimmy Stewart, just don’t do Jimmy Stewart.
My favorite sequence of the movie is where you follow Deborah Shelton to the Beverly Hills Mall and you’re watching her buy new underwear and you grab her old underwear out of the trashcan. There’s something humorous about that whole scene. It really lays bare Jake’s weakness.
I loved the interview you did with William Friedkin in which he says that people aren’t good or bad, they’re all in this grey area of morality. And he’s right. We’re all messed up. We can be great and horrible. So, a guy grabbing some underwear out of the trash. It’s disgusting, but at the same time you might think: I don’t know. I might do that. It’s an embarrassing human trait. You’re in love with a woman you don’t dare approach, now at least you have something. [Laughs]
Did the criticism of the movie hurt your career at the time?
It might have. People were offended by the fact that I wasn’t the typical hero. I played a less than perfect guy. A disappointing kind of guy, you know? I remember going to the premiere. Lot of big shots were there. I brought my girlfriend. My agent was sitting behind me. At first people were responding positively and I leaned over to my girlfriend, saying: I think it’s going well. But after it was over, there was no applause. Just this sort of hush. I thought: Oh, man, that’s not good. My agent was afraid to be seen with me. He walked out quickly, with his back to me. I thought: That’s not good either.
Maybe you were too successful in portraying Jake. Because it’s not only that he has a phobia, and he’s a peeper and a panty-stealer, or his inability to save Gloria. After all that he also goes undercover as a porn actor! I love that about the movie and I think your performance sells it. But watching BODY DOUBLE, you are embarrassed as a viewer. And if you don’t see the humor in this human folly, the way De Palma probably intended, then you’re not having a good time watching this.
I agree with you, brother. It’s the kind of movie people want to distance themselves from. That’s why the distance of years has made it more acceptable for some people. You could almost say: Oh, that was the eighties. But I got a secret for everyone out there… Nothing’s changed. Guys are still weird. [Laughs] And women are mostly fine with that. Let’s not kid ourselves.
Did the experience in BODY DOUBLE, doing the music video with Frankie Goes to Hollywood as a scene in the film, somehow inspire you to do a music video for Have Me Arrested?
I truly don’t remember if I did the video for Have Me Arrested before or after BODY DOUBLE. I know for a fact that I had written and recorded Have Me Arrested before the movie. The song was meant to address the news industry. It was about all these constant lies to control you through fear.
I wrote a song for the movie that De Palma actually was going to use. He had asked me to write it. He wanted something like Every Breath You Take. My song was called What You Do, I Do. But Columbia Pictures was owned by Coca-Cola at the time and they already had a deal with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. But it worked out for the best, because that video is great and the song is fantastic.