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Shootin' the breeze with Steve Witting
A candid talk with the actor about life, his career, and Batman
Breaking the ice.
Steve, I’m so glad to be talking with you. I’m sorry about the time difference (note: Steve is on Eastern Standard Time, and I’m in New Zealand).
I directed a couple of operas in Taipei a few years ago, and I was awful about all of that [laughter]… so it’s okay.
I should’ve asked you what time zone you were in [palm to the face].
I was able to run a couple of errands, so we’re good.
I know you’ve been in some big pictures recently, and we’ll get to that, but my main memory of you is from Batman Returns. Even though that was thirty years ago, I could peg you on the street if you walked by because you look great. Do you get recognized when you’re out and about?
I always got more recognition on the streets of New York than anywhere else. L.A. is a different kind of city, and so the people don’t blend in the way they do with a mass transportation system like the one in New York blends people. It’s like a big blender. You may not visit or live in some of these areas, but we all commune together. So, it becomes a little bit more casual in New York City, where people are more like, “Hey man.” If you were in Beverly Hills you’d probably get recognized, but it’s just too cool there for people to bother you [laughter].
Let’s go back in time a little because I’m always fascinated by people’s formative years. Tell me a bit about where you grew up.
We grew up in my grandparents’ provincial household in Queens. My great-grandfather was a Danish immigrant and he had built this beautiful brick home, and on the outside, that’s what it looked like. But on the inside, it was really four little one-bedroom apartments all in the same house.
You were a tight-knit family?
My grandfather boosted the attic to make bedrooms for us kids. My young parents were there, and they had their privacy too, but my grandparents on my Dad’s side lived downstairs. My grandmother was really into classical music and into opera. My dad was very much influenced by that. My mom was more of a rebel. She loved Elvis and the Beatles.
My mom had a bit of that rebel spirit, too. She’d let us skip school to go to the movies sometimes, and it would always blow my kid-mind.
Oh man, my mom took my brother Chris and I to see the Beatles at Kennedy airport when I was four years old. Totally spur of the moment. We were home because we were so young, and back then school was only half-days because we were in kindergarten. And it was on the radio that the Beatles were coming, and my mom told my brother and I, “We are going to see the Beatles today.”
And you guys must be freaking out.
We were like, “Yeah!” And Mom looks at us and she’s like, “But… you can’t tell Teddy. You can’t tell your brother.” [laughter] Now Teddy’s my older brother, and he was in the second grade, and he wasn’t going to get home until three o’clock. So, he’s gonna miss out, but we’re like “Okay, mom, we won’t tell him.”
Do you remember actually seeing the band?
I remember my mom driving in a panic to get to the airport, thinking we’d be late. And she says, “If you see a limo, it’s them!” And I’m like, “What’s a limo?” And she says, “It’s a big black car.” [laughter] But it was the timing of the century because after we parked… and boom, the plane’s landed. I remember seeing the band coming down this staircase, and we were standing on this sort of observation deck, right at the front. The Beatles were waving, and my mom was ecstatic. I thought Paul McCartney waved to me, and he was really waving to everybody, but I looked at Mom and said, “He waved to me!” And my Mom was so nice, she always let me believe that he did.
Keeping that event from your brother couldn’t have lasted long.
I think it got to be about six o’clock [laughter]. But you know being the older brother he was kind of in charge, and I think either me or Chris lipped off to him about something. Well he came down on us and maybe got a little too mean, and one of us said, “Oh yeah? Well we saw the Beatles today.”
You obliterated him.
He was reduced to tears immediately [laughter]. And he’s yelling down the stairs, “Mommmm!” And she had to tell him, I’m sorry honey, you were at school. Revenge of the younger brothers is what that was.
I love that the secret didn’t even last the day.
Nope. Same day [laughter]. It was a little cruel, but I guess he deserved it in a way. But older brothers don’t really deserve it because they have to put up with a lot. I love my brothers.
Do you guys still laugh about that?
We will. I mean, we’ll tell that story when—
Whenever you hear a Beatles song?
Yeah [laughter]. You know, I tell that story to some people and they get teary-eyed thinking it’s sweet, and I’m always laughing thinking about getting my brother back.
A kid from Queens.
Would you say you were more of a daydreaming comic book kid, or were you glued to the TV?
I was definitely a television man, not a comic book man. After school we had control over the TV before Dad got home, and so we’d watch things like the live-action Batman show, or cartoons. And Dad was okay with that but he’d call certain things out as “absolute crap” [laughter] and he was into war stuff, so he wanted to watch Hogan’s Heroes. So that clash really gave us an understanding of what good comedy was and what good drama was because, there was this battle between more serious culture and pop culture. And since there was just one TV, the fight for the television became a battle of generations within the house.
A lot of kids will say I wanna be this or that when they grow up… news reporter… pro wrestler. Do you remember thinking early on that you wanted to be an actor?
We were a basketball playing family. Being the youngest of three brothers, I could never compete on their level, certainly not in terms of sports. And both my brothers were painters, and were very good artists and went to art school.
When you’re not the oldest, I guess there’s always a part of you trying to live up to the older siblings.
You know, when you’re a little kid I think you can never catch up. I think just by being the youngest I almost feel like I was born into being an actor. When you’re the youngest you have to hide a little more, and make room for yourself, and I had to be an entertainer to find my way and to get all the laughs in the family.
The Acting Bug Bites.
How did acting start to become a reality for you?
I never really knew anything about acting until high school. When I was 16 years old I did a play that the kids at school organized as a sort of competition between the grades. And I just sort of took over. I somehow knew I could do it and I gave myself the starring role [laughter].
You weren’t nervous or scared?
Well, I didn’t really know whether I’d be any good once I got on the stage. But then when I did it, I got a huge response from the audience. I was addicted. That was the dopamine. And I’ve really been chasing that high ever since.
Did the people in your life like your friends and your teachers continue to cultivate that in you?
When I started out in New York City, I found out that my teacher at Richmond Hill, Alfred Christie, had a dual personality in a weird way. His mild-mannered Clark Kent day job was as an English teacher, and his Superman alter-ego was that he owned and operated a union equity theatre in New Hampshire along with his business partner. He ended up running this theatre for fifty years.
And your mind was blown because suddenly your teacher is now a human being who has a life outside of school.
Yes! [laughter] He taught drama and he directed the plays at the school, but prior to that he had never ever mixed those two worlds. And right around this time they were having a tough time business-wise, filling this six hundred seat barn theatre, and so they bought a hotel unit next door and started an acting camp. Suddenly these Fifth Avenue boys and girls were coming up to New Hampshire to pay big bucks for acting lessons and to be a part of this professional theatre. But they realized pretty quickly they needed a staff… we need people to do the dishes and serve.
And you jumped at that?
I mean the only reason I did it was because of my teacher, but he knew he could get some of these talented kids and offer them a scholarship… but they also have to work. So, I immediately signed up for that, and I was only a junior in high school. And yeah, even though I was serving these Park Avenue kids their food, and they treated me like I was serving them their food, I still competed on the stage with all of them during the Summer.
What did your parents say about it?
They were pretty hands off in a lot of ways. They’d seen me in a couple of school plays, but I don’t think they had a feeling I would do it for a living. But my teacher was very well respected and was obviously a mentor of mine, so my parents trusted him. So, once I got there, I spent the summer doing summer stock.
Your folks must’ve been proud.
They came to see me in a production of Fiddler on the Roof. Here I was eighteen years old playing Tevye, and I’m not even Jewish, and my parents were driving up to see the performance. They were debating with one another in the car like, “Do you think he’s gonna be like Zero Mostel, or more like Topal?”
Or did you make it your own thing?
I was Zero Mostel. I just totally copied everything he did. And it was after that production that my parents said, well, he’s obviously an actor. They never really gave me any trouble about it after that.
Did you go to college after high school?
I dropped out a little early from an acting program at city college. I didn’t like it because I’d already been polluted by professional theatre. But then once I got out of school, I was back in New York auditioning and I was struggling a bit… and I worked at the Metropolitan Opera as a supernumerary, which is basically a spear holder. Around that time, I met my first manager at a party who said he thought I could do well. Anthony Edwards and Eric Stoltz went to high school with him, and he said, “You’re just as good as they are, you should come out to L.A.” That’s how I got The Flamingo Kid, and ended up doing many national commercials after that.
I’m putting a date on myself now, but I first remember seeing you onscreen as Burt Weems in The Hogan Family.
I kind of built Burt on one of Bill Murray’s SNL characters where he played a kind of “cool” nerd. The episodes that I was heavily featured in were real tour-de-forces of physical comedy and timing, and that’s how Jason (Bateman) and I became friends. We talked about what that meant, and what that looked like. We talked about him as the straight man and me as the clown. You know, that’s what makes all great comedy teams… Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis.
I did notice that common thread connecting your career with Jason’s.
I was 28 years old and he was 19 at the time. I remember Jason observed, rather sweetly, that “for a nobody you’ve done a lot of interesting things.” [laughter] And that was us… Jason was the straight man, and still is to this day. He’s undersung as one of the great straight man actors of the 21st century.
He just never breaks.
He’s so brilliant at that. And he knows comedy backwards and forwards, he just never gets to be the clown because he’s so valuable as the straight man.
Were you totally busting at the time being on TV and trying to keep it together?
I was very lucky to get that show and be a part of it. I have such great memories of that time, and I’m still very close to Sandy Duncan, Josh Taylor, and Jason, Danny, and Jeremy. But that’s because we went through a certain war together, working through the show, and all the emotions that come from a show’s cancellation.
What did your family think of seeing you onscreen?
I remember I said, “Hey Grandma, what do you think of me doing this show?” And like most people saying who aren’t in the business, they don’t care about your feelings, they care about their opinion [laughter]. And she said, “Stephen, it hurts me to see you play a role like that.” You know, because I was a nerd on the show. And here’s the thing… even though my grandma said that to me, I didn’t take it as an insult. I totally understood what she meant by that because of the battle of the television in my house. I started to understand what kind of actor I could be then, but I just happen to be really good at comedy.
It just dawned on me that up until this point you were almost always wearing eyeglasses. Was that an intentional choice on your part to play the sort of fun-loving, harmless nerd?
I was very much typecast, and that’s why I don’t dwell in L.A. because I think even to this day people still see me as that guy Burt. Or a guy like that, a hammy sort of character, a sitcom guy who can’t do anything else. And the first gig I got after Hogan Family was Batman.
Bagging the bat.
Talk me through how you landed the role of Josh the image consultant in Batman Returns.
Well the casting director for that was one of the most famous casting directors of all time.
Marion Dougherty, right?
That’s right. There’s an entire documentary about her called Casting By. So, the first bit of due diligence I hadn’t done on Batman Returns was that I had no idea who Marion was.
Now sometimes that’s good because you’re not afraid, but I just didn’t care. I’m just this young guy from Queens and I might’ve been sort of cocky. So anyway, I went in and read for her, and I liked her right away. And for reasons that I now understand, Marion related to actors of a certain type that she could bond with. So, Marion just sort of bonded with me right away. She said, I like this guy he’s funny, and said I’m going to bring you in to meet Tim.
Did you see it as just “just another gig” or… ?
Well, I knew who Tim Burton was. But in those days, you couldn’t do the kind of research that you can do now to see how people interview or how they react.
I remember. No Wikipedia or YouTube back then.
But I could’ve definitely done more than I did, which was nothing [laughter].
What was your meeting with Tim like?
When a director is serious about casting you, they will often ask you to maybe improvise the scene a little bit. And so, I’m sitting in the room with Marion and Tim, and we’re starting to improvise the scene, and it’s getting even funnier. I’m saying all these funny things, and Tim was laughing. So, before I got home I got the job, man.
You walked out knowing you had it?
I didn’t know I had it, but I felt very good about it. So many auditions you leave and you just wanna shoot yourself because the experience is so horrible [laughter]. But I felt like, okay, at least that was fun and it went well. I could go home and hold my head high.
But you were in like Flynn at that point. Did you rehearse before the shoot?
Sometimes you have to come in and do a scene a few more times. Or sometimes you just go to set in costume, for the first time, and the director or the star says let’s just shoot it. And whatever they say goes. But now that I think about it, we didn’t rehearse it, ever. We had no discussion beforehand about what we were going to do.
Sounds like the best kind of organized chaos.
And everyone’s there, too. Jan Hooks is there saying hello, nice to meet you. And I didn’t meet Danny DeVito or Christopher Walken beforehand without make-up. The first time I see Danny is as the Penguin. [Grumbles and snarls like the Penguin].
And I started to improv because I didn’t know any better. I thought that’s what Tim Burton wanted.
Because of how the audition went.
Exactly. So, the first take I was doing a smarmy kind of Bill Murray thing. And I say something like, “Okay, big guy…” to the Penguin. And when the scene ends Tim says cut, and Chris Walken is kind of laughing. I think maybe Jan was laughing, too. Perhaps they were laughing nervously, but in my mind, I’m thinking oh this is good. But then I look down at Danny, and he’s going like this [scowling and shaking his head slowly from side to side].
Oh man [laughter]. So you’re sinking inside or you just try to roll with it?
I started to sink [laughter]. But wait, it’s not over yet… that was just strike one. Now for the second take, I don’t say “big guy,” obviously. But I improv something else. And when Tim calls cut, and Christopher and Jan are laughing again. But me just being a complete ham, my memory of it was that they thought what I was doing was hilarious. And I don’t really know what they were thinking. But I look back at Danny, and this time he’s not looking at me he’s looking at Tim Burton and he says, “Is this guy gonna say his lines?” [laughter]
Was Tim cracking up?
Tim actually comes up to me, and he’s so nice to me, and he goes, “So great, Steve. Really funny, uh, but um, let’s just do this one, you know, by the script.” [Steve’s impersonation of Tim Burton is dead on, btw.]
‘Cause you’re just chewin’ the scenery.
My ignorance of the business and how all this works is magnificent by this point [laughter]. So, I’m just sinking even further, and that was strike two. And now we’re on the third take. I’m so nervous now that I can’t remember my lines. Then Danny says my line for me, and then says his line, and then he says my next line again, and so on. You know just to show me like, hey, I know your lines and mine.
So, you’re sweating a bit and now it’s two strikes?
No. Danny saying my lines was strike three.
Oh boy… [laughing] And everybody’s waiting on you?
Well, I had got my shit together after we did a few more takes, but at this point I’m assuming that Danny DeVito, the actor, hates me [laughs]. And I hadn’t really held things up too much. In hindsight as a long-term professional it wasn’t like I was ruining the day for anybody… but I was certainly ruining his day.
I can’t help but laugh. That was three strikes in three takes.
Oh yeah, I insulted Danny, I improvised when I shouldn’t have, and then I forgot my lines [laughter]. But once we finally got a master of it, Tim said okay let’s move on to the bite now.
My sister Megan was nine years old at the time and the bite always freaked her out.
Oh, it was like that with my daughter. When she saw Batman Returns for the first time, she cried hysterically. She hated it. And to this day she can’t watch it because, you know, her Dad got bit on the nose. And it’s very realistic how it happens in the movie.
It scared some kids back then, apparently. I’m guessing that’s not how you thought your daughter would react?
No! [laughter] And that shows you how men can be dumb about that, because my wife was right. She said, no she shouldn’t see that yet, but then she relented and let her see it.
The chomp on the nose makes me laugh, but I think do think people were surprised at how gross the Penguin kind of was.
Well, now at this point Danny starts to show me what he’s got. It’s this actual fish wrapped in newspaper that Chris Walken gave him as a treat, and it’s like okay is this Danny or is this the Penguin now? So, when we go to do the scene with each take Danny says to the prop guy, “Gimme the fish.” And he just smushes this raw fish all over his mouth.
So that he can get it all over you.
Take after take after take [laughter]. And the fish wasn’t even in the frame!
Getting the blood to squirt in the right direction couldn’t have been easy. Did you have to do a few times?
After we got the bite itself, Tim says cut, and he says okay that’s great, let’s get you set up for the blood. So, go out to make-up, and then come back and we’ll get that.
Are you getting tired of it by that point or enjoying it?
Well Danny had those sharp plastic false teeth, and they hurt like hell. And yeah, it was a little bit disgusting. So, I leave and go out the door to make-up. Now I smoked cigarettes when I was younger, and at this point in my life I was really not wanting to smoke anymore, and I hadn’t been. But I had come out with this fish shit on my face and I must be a little bit mad, you know, because I’m this competitive kid from Queens and I don’t care who Danny DeVito is [laughter]. So I’m outside, and I bum a cigarette from some guy there on the Warner Brothers lot. And after a few minutes I started getting a little sick, and a little dizzy.
Because you hadn’t smoked in so long.
Yes! [laughter] So I’m nauseous, and I realize I have all this fish stuff still on my face. So, I found a bathroom on the lot, and I go in there and wash it all off. After that I went to the make-up trailer, and the guy who was there doing my make-up that day, I can’t remember if he was the key or in charge of the department, but I know he did Michael Keaton’s make-up. Anyway, he wasn’t on the set when I was getting bitten, he was sat in the driver seat of this camper I think reading the paper. So, he sees me walking up and he opens the door, and he looks down at me while I’m standing on the trailer steps, and I’ll never forget he goes, “What the fuck did you do to your make-up?” And I said, “Well, [sigh] eh, if you’d have been there you’d know what was going on.” And I guess where I had washed my face it must’ve looked like a bear snout, or a—
A clown? Or like Homer Simpson’s mouth.
Yes, exactly [laughter]. So, the guy says no problem, we’ll fix it. We fix my make-up, and then the guy starts connecting this clear rubber hose literally to a ketchup bottle. Maybe it was more industry standard than that, but it looked like a ketchup bottle to me. And because the guy wasn’t on the set, he was asking me where the angle was supposed to be for the hose placement. Well, I slowly realized this opportunity I had because where he was placing the hose against my nose was wrong, and I could tell it was going to squirt the blood right into Danny’s mouth.
Okay, now you’re just egging things on.
Well, I got back to set, and I could see they had redone all the lights. It was like boxing lighting. Everything was very dark as if we were in a prize-fighting ring. And Danny’s sitting there in his chair with an umbrella, and he’s got two assistants fanning him because he would’ve been absolutely roasting in that costume. All of the gear and the camera equipment is covered in plastic in prep for being covered in the fake blood. So, on the first take, all the blood goes right into Danny’s mouth, like a pint of this stuff. And I’ll never forget the sound he made [makes gagging sound]. Then I hear Tim say something like, “Oh that’s no good it all went in your mouth.” And Danny says something like, “No f*cking kidding!” [laughter]
Did they send you back to make-up?
Yeah, and the make-up guy is getting a little nervous because he keeps getting it wrong, which was sort of aided by me of course [laughter]. We did it a few more times, and the blood keeps going right in Danny’s mouth. On one of the takes the blood ricocheted off Danny’s teeth perfectly. And I remember Tim said something like, “That looks f*ckin great! But, uh, we gotta do it again because it’s not lit right.”
And DeVito is dying inside.
Right! [laughter] But now he has to accept this version of it because it looks great. So, we did a third take once the lightning was fixed, and that’s the one that ended up in the film. Tim says, “Great, Steve, thanks a lot.” And so, I’m done for the day. I just turn on my heel because I’m so mad, and as I’m walking out I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and it’s Tim, and he says, “I know how hard this day has been for you, but I want to thank you for doing such great work. Thank you very much.” And as he’s telling me that, I’m looking over Tim’s shoulder and I see Danny in the background in his chair like this [grinning] with his little flipper fingers waving at me like, “So long, sucker!”
Was Jan (Hooks) laughing in the corner somewhere?
Well, Jan had gotten a part on a show called Designing Women, which shot on the lot. And she had a really funny part as the Alamo tour guide in Tim’s movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I remember we were supposed to shoot another scene together for Batman, but she had come up with a reason not to do it.
There was going to be another scene with Jen and Josh?
Yeah, and I don’t know if Jan had an issue with it, but she used the excuse that because she was shooting Designing Women she couldn’t shoot the other scene. So, this scene would’ve been where Batman and Catwoman meet at a big party.
Shreck’s annual Maxquerade Ball.
Yeah, the fancy costume black tie thing.
But Jan didn’t want to?
She just wouldn’t do it. I remember going on the lot and begging her, “Please, I know you’ve got a job, and you’re great, but I need this.” But she never relented for whatever reason, and we never shot that scene.
It would’ve been so great to see the two of you there.
Yeah, hobnobbing with a big bandage on my nose [laughter]. It would’ve kind of re-established the character, and probably would’ve been much better for my career too… but it just so happens that it didn’t work out. Anyway, a few months pass, and I get an audition for a movie called Hoffa.
Ah, with Jack Nicholson.
Now again, I hadn’t done any due diligence, and didn’t understand anything about it. So I went to meet the casting director to read as Robert Kennedy, and I’m doing my best Kennedy accent. And he goes, “Great, I’m gonna bring you back for the director.” And I said, who’s directing? And he says, “Danny DeVito” [laughter]. And I thought Danny was playing Hoffa. I didn’t even know that Jack Nicholson was starring in it. And I told the guy, “Look, Danny doesn’t like me, and I don’t like him, and I probably shouldn’t go out for this.”
Yeah, like, we’ve got a history.
Yeah! [laughter] And the casting director goes, “Listen, I don’t care what you feel about this. I’ve only got two people that come anywhere close to this Robert Kennedy thing. You just have to suck it up and go in.” So, I go in to read, and I walk in and Danny’s doing the same thing [gnashing his teeth] like he did as the Penguin. And I laughed and told some stories about my brother who was a police officer in New York, so we kind of hit it off. But I didn’t get that role, I got another role who was an attorney for Kennedy, Eliot Cookson.
I remember that scene because Danny was a bit rough on you, pushing you out of the office.
Well the moral of the story is that if I had done any kind of research about any of this, I would’ve understood that Danny DeVito is an excellent method actor. He plays a character in Batman who’s a homicidal maniac who hates this guy Josh, right? So, of course he’s going to be like that on set. But then when I met him… I mean to this day he is the nicest, most kind, most human director that I ever worked with. So, it went from me thinking I hate this guy and he hates me, to me going, wow, this is one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with.
Danny seems like a stand-up guy.
On Hoffa I didn’t have a Honeywagon to sit in on the lot, and Danny invited me to sit in his trailer with him. Things like that. No director would do that… have this sort of nobody sit in their trailer with them. And it just showed me that I rarely learned my lesson [laughter].
Not even after all that.
I just didn’t know things that I should know. And I tell you who really helped me with that was Jason (Bateman). As you noticed before he has cast me, sometimes as kind of a lifeline so I could keep my health insurance, but mostly it’s because he loves me as an actor. And he never miscasts me in anything. So, when we work together we pick up right where we left off. We talk about the business, and I almost always play the straight roles for him now. He’s taught me a lot.
About being more prepared?
Yeah, and to know more about the business. He’s taught me a lot that I can take to the bank, because I couldn’t really parlay Batman Returns, or Dave, or other films that I did. I felt like some things were conspiring against me, and Hollywood had enough of me in many ways. They had enough of me not knowing better [laughter]. They had enough of me not embracing my “place” in the business, which was a sitcom actor, and if I could get more of I should and we won’t stop you.
Duking It Out With Anxiety.
How’d you navigate through that tough period?
Well, then I started to have severe stage fright after my daughter was born. Panic attacks, even fainting. And then 9/11 happened, and as a New Yorker you know my brother was there, and that gave me a scare because he was in downtown New York, and I thought he might not survive that. So, I started to freak out, but I ended up getting a pilot for the Fox network called Titletown. And I remember I beat out Jim Gaffigan for the role, even though I didn’t know he was up for it at the time. But I was so nervous, and then someone advised me, hey if you’re so worked up just take a Xanax.
That old scam.
A hilarious Hollywood trope, right? [laughter] And I guess I kind of knew that a lot of people in Hollywood were on it, but for the first time ever in my life I took one. And it worked like a charm. I was able to get through the audition, and book the job. I understand now that I think I was addicted to it immediately, because when I wasn’t on it, I started to become more and more panicked. I got through the rehearsals, but when the time got closer to shoot the pilot I was super panicked. So, I took another dose, and it was fine. I was very calm.
Did it affect your performance?
It was okay. It wasn’t electric, and it could’ve been. But when it was over I noticed something dramatic, which I first understood when I was onstage back in high school… what you’re really playing for is that other drug-experience of, hey, I made it. I got through it, and what a thrilling thing that was. It’s that conquering of your fears. And I didn’t feel that at all because of the Xanax. I just felt like taking a nap when it was over.
Did that experience make you want to stop using it?
I remember thinking, oh this is no good. I’m either going to have to be on this for the rest of my life, or I’ll never take it again and just get out of the business. But I stopped taking it, and I spent the next seven years in L.A. really dealing with the after effects of using Xanax after only two doses. I went cold turkey on it, and doing Catch Me If You Can with Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the last straws for me.
Why do you say that?
Well they brought me in early. I knew my scene was coming, but they said the director likes you, and thinks maybe you’d be good for this earlier scene. So, it’s something I wasn’t expecting so soon. And we’re starting to walk through the scene, and I knew I was starting to feel faint. I’m thinking I’m going to keel over, but luckily it was in a hotel lobby, and so there were a lot of chairs around, and whenever I could I would sit in a chair and try to get my equilibrium normalized. So as Spielberg’s walking us through the scene, I kept trying to hide and sit when I could, knowing I was going to faint or fall over.
Didn’t anyone notice?
Luckily, they gave us a bit of a break. I had a glass of orange juice and put my feet up and got my equilibrium back. So, we shot the scene, but then when we broke for lunch, I’m there holding my tray and these two guys who were also in the scene with me are behind me in the line, and they’re going, “Hey, it’s Mister Cool.” And I’m like, “You’re talking to me?” and they’re like [wink and the gun]. “You’re being very cool about things, you know, you’re sitting down.” And I’m going, guys I’m so Mr. Uncool, if you knew what was really going on [laughter].
Did you enjoy working with DiCaprio?
He was very nice, and I guess we did bond a little bit. I really like him a lot, and I liked working with him. But it was a very unhappy experience for me because of how badly my emotions were working against me. And it was right around that time I decided, I’ve got to get the hell out of here.
Were you saying goodbye to Hollywood?
I thought I’d move back to New York. And I honestly thought I’d get back into the theatre, to a place where I was comfortable. I mean, I could forget about film stuff. By then my daughter was in fourth or fifth grade, and I got an audition for Shutter Island.
That’s a great film.
And I got it. I got the part. But bear in mind I’m still not over my “issue.”
Working With Scorsese.
Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in.
Yeah [laughter] suddenly I’m up north, north of Boston, and I’m onto the set. And it’s a big storm bearing down on the island. We’re in this conference room with all these doctors who are treating mentally ill patients, and they’re having a discussion about the island flooding and what they’re going to do. And I’ve literally got like one line, but I’m freaking out.
What did you do?
Well the first AD comes in, a brilliant assistant director, a charmingly English guy named Adam Somner. He says, “I don’t know if the Guv’s gonna talk about this (he calls Martin Scorsese “The Guv”) but you’re going to be here, and he’ll be there.” So, then Marty comes in and I’m introduced to him, and he goes, “Steve, it’s nice to meet you, and you’re gonna be allied with Max von Sydow, and he’ll be seated over here, and when we do the scene you just sort of play off that energy, okay?” But I’m still very nervous and really considering whether or not I’m going to make it because the nerves are so strong.
Can’t you say you need to go get some fresh air?
Marty made me feel a bit better, because he’s very nice, but it wasn’t a huge help [laughter]. And then into the set comes the big stars Mark Ruffalo and Leo. But they’ve all been there for a month already, so they’re comfortable, and it’s all hey man, how ya doin?
And now you’re stuck.
Marty, Leo, and Mark are all bullshitting with one another, and then Leo looks over at me and smiles, and goes, “Hey man!” [laughter] Now, Marty, who I’ve since gotten to know, will play this character sometimes on set. Whenever there’s a lightness on set he’ll sort of become this nebbish director who no one trusts, and he’s the last person to know. So, he says to Leo, “So, you know Steve?” and Leo goes, “Yeah, Marty we did a movie together.” And Marty goes, “So I did good casting him?” And Leo’s laughing, “Yeah Marty you did good. He’s very good.” And Marty’s going, [wringing his hands together] “Okay, well great, good, now I feel good about that.” [laughter]
And yet you’re still amped up somehow?
Well right there, with Marty playing that character, I started to feel a draining of this anxiety. I mean, Leo remembered me, so that was nice, even if he maybe didn’t remember my name. But then Max von Sydow comes in. And after that finally in comes Sir Ben Kingsley. Now, I don’t know if he has a reputation for being a diva, but I do know that he demands everyone to call him “Sir Ben.”
But you worked with him before he was “Sir.”
That was in Dave, the Kevin Kline movie. And we did a scene together and he was really nice. But he taught me a valuable lesson even though we were both just glorified extras in this big scene that takes place in Washington, D.C. After the first take he looked at me and goes, “Boy, that’s exciting, isn’t it? That’s what film really is. All these extras, and we’re just playing make believe.” And what he said made realize even if I had no lines, or the part wasn’t great, that’s acting. It’s a thrill just being there. And one of the writers on set told me Sir Ben complimented me to Ivan Reitman, the director, and he pointed at me and said, “You see that actor over there? He’s very good.”
And now cut to all these years later and you’re doing a scene with him again.
When he came in, Marty was totally giving him his due, “Good morning, Sir Ben, how are you?” And so everybody’s being cordial, and now we’ve finally all met, but there’s hurricane waters lashing against the windows all around us. So, Marty goes behind the monitors, and we’re just about to go and Sir Ben looks across the table at me and goes, “We’ve worked together.” And I’m nodding like yep, and Marty yells out, “Okay, we get it Steve, you know everybody in showbiz, but we gotta shoot this thing.” [laughter] And so then I was fully cured of that stage fright thing. I’ve never had it again.
How many years was it from when the anxiety started to when it dissipated?
I think it was close to ten years. It started with that pilot, Titletown, that I did with Curtis Armstrong and Joel Murray. I was having it before then, but the Xanax thing happened with Titletown. And I’ve never taken it since. It really ruined the whole experience for me. And the pilot didn’t get picked up, and I often blame the Xanax, and blame myself for being this medicated person, and not a real actor who was present. And then the cure was being on the set of Shutter Island having all these titanic actors, no pun intended on Leo’s part, these major players and the lightness of Marty playing that part.
I never understood panic attacks until I started having them myself after my dad died. Prior to that I looked at them like they almost weren’t real. I wonder what triggered that for you?
I had a friend in high school who was a better actor than me, but what got him in the end was he started having panic attacks. I remember he literally fainted while we were doing a burlesque show. I think I read Lawrence Olivier had them very bad, and suffered from stage fright. And I always thought stage fright was shyness, or being embarrassed, but in terms of just being an actor stage fright really is another term for an anxiety attacks. Because the actor stops being able to just pretend, and for various reasons they start to get inside their head, and they’re them. Suddenly they’re themselves. It’s like now I’m Laurence Olivier again trying to be Richard III… but I can’t stop being Laurence trying to be Richard… I just want to be Richard III, but I can’t anymore.
Was that what was happening to you on some level?
Well for me, I’m not gifted all these roles. I have to go in to audition all the time, and my career’s just been one big nasty audition process. Only recently have I been given offers. So, I think all of that got to me then, and the anxiety of being able to do it well, to perform well. And I knew I could do it well, but I’d still start to get nervous about that. I think I still have “life” anxiety. Luckily my wife, who is just an amazing and wonderful person, and an excellent actor, and she and my daughter are real rocks for me. So, I’m able to not lose it. For them, they probably do think I lose it, but I think I’m doing decently [laughter]. And how all of that anxiety went away was maybe because I had to force my way through those years in the desert, of having to get through that.
Because you didn’t give up.
I didn’t give up. But I think the Xanax was a form of giving up, and I knew I didn’t want to do that. And I couldn’t really see myself doing anything else, I’m not really qualified. Although I do have other gifts, I didn’t want to work a job [laughter]. I was lucky because I always made enough in my career that I didn’t have to do anything else. I didn’t have to wait tables.
Having A Creative Outlet.
I always joke that if I didn’t have a creative outlet I’d probably be in jail because it’s the things you’re passionate about that keep you from going ape. What do you do that keeps you in that artistic space?
As someone once said, “I went out to L.A., and took a nap by the pool, and I woke up twenty years later.” [laughter] And that’s almost exactly what happened to me. It took my anxiety to get me out of there, and I had that desire to go back to the theatre. While I’ve never really gotten any headway in the theatre as actor, I have made some progress as a director. I started directing things at my daughter’s school in Queens, and I remember one of the student’s mothers came up to me and said, “Are you a real director?” And I said, “I am.” And she said, “I can tell.” And I said, “Well thank you, that’s a nice compliment.” And she said she worked for Opera Brooklyn, and to this day it brings tears to my eyes when she asked me that because I thought, “Wow. I never thought I’d get back to this at all.”
It sounds like you were coming full circle back to your first love of theatre.
There’s something to be had from that. We did Three Little Pigs and we played it in a few schools, and a couple of nice theatres. And the conductor was a guy from Julliard who had this really cool place called the Pocket Opera of New York and I thought, oh this is going to be really great. But then Hong Kong eventually snatched him up, and so he was gone and became sort of the opera teacher of the Julliard of Hong Kong. But because he’s from Taipei, while he’s in Hong Kong the Taiwanese people were like… wait a sec, this guy’s a native son we should get him back. So, they gave him an artist’s residence at the National Theater of Taiwan there in Taipei, and basically said okay, so what do you wanna do? He said well, instead of just doing some adult thing, I’ve got this production of Three Little Pigs by Mozart.
Did he tap you for it?
He said I’ll get this Hollywood guy [points to himself] to direct it. The theatre liked it, and said yes. So, we went out to Taiwan and it was a massive hit, so much so that they brought it back the following summer, which was something they had never done before. So that’s probably one of my great passions.
You’ll be doing your own opera, then?
I have. Yoko Stetson, Nathan Baer, and myself, we wrote a two-hander of The Tortoise & The Hare with the music of Rossini. It’s been licensed all around the United States and about four different opera companies are performing it. And that all came from me having nothing to do out in Hollywood and overly exerting my influence on my daughter’s arts programming [laughter].
Do you see yourself tackling any Shakespeare?
Well this was all prior to the pandemic. But during the pandemic I decided to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, from start to finish. But the pandemic wasn’t long enough because I think I have twelve plays left [laughter].
Growing up I had access to a library in my dad’s office, and over the years I’d reach for a book on the shelf, maybe The Odyssey, or whatever. And every time I’d pull one, he’d almost always say, “You’re not ready for that.”
I wasn’t ready for those either! [laughter] My daughter studied English Lit, and more specifically early modern drama, but she has this brand-new translation of The Odyssey which I haven’t gone to yet. But you have to live your life a little bit before you can appreciate some of those I think.
So, if you were stuck on a desert island you’d definitely be taking some Shakespeare with you?
I would need a pair of reading glasses, or a magnifying glass, but I’d 100% go for the complete works of Shakespeare.
What about a desert island album?
One album that always I can return to again and again is the Beatles White Album. It has such a beautiful separation of the individual artists in a way. The band was already coming apart a little bit, and I think it had to be a double album because George (Harrison) insisted on it since he had built up all this material.
And how about one movie?
I don’t think I’m there yet, for it to be just one. I’m a big fan of Barry Lyndon. I just think that’s an amazing film. I love this Japanese film by Ozu, which is about a troupe of actors called Floating Weeds. It has a really great view of actors, and their sort of silly and kind of tragic lives. I did just recently see Tokyo Story, and it’s one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen.
How have I never heard of Tokyo Story?
It’s about two older parents, post-War, who go to Tokyo to visit their kids. And it might be the last time they see them because they’re elderly. And it’s all about the grown-up kids and how they kind of shuffle their parents around so that they have a nice time. It’s such a meditative piece of filmmaking, and the cinematography is unlike anything I’ve seen, it’s just brilliantly executed. I think Sight and Sound magazine always has it up there at the top of their list. I don’t see a whole lot of American films and at this sort of later stage in my life, because I’m sixty-three now, I want to enjoy the films that my film-snobby grandmother would’ve appreciated me getting to know [laughter].
The Current State of Cinema.
Is there anything in particular you still want to do that maybe you haven’t?
I’ve had such great experiences lately… The Irishman, The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a wonderful late in life experience, these collaborations. Other than Marty, my other great collaborator would be Jason Bateman. And I’m always holding out hope that he’ll use me for something. Because then it’s just a reunion and we just pick up where we left off.
Recently I caught up with an old friend who I hadn’t spoken to in nearly twenty years, and it was like no time had passed. It may sound corny, but that’s such a beautiful thing because those kinds of friends don’t come along often in life.
Exactly. There aren’t many of them. Jason is one of them for me, and one of my friends from high school who came up with me under the same mentor. Lately we don’t see much of each other, but we’re always close.
You’ve mentioned your friend from high school a few times. My best friend from high school was curious to know what you think of current superhero movies?
The great debate about the Marvel Universe versus Martin Scorsese [laughter]. You know, I think I have to clearly fall on Marty’s side of the debate, and when I say that I don’t mean that I don’t like those kinds of movies. I always felt for some reason the X-Men movies appealed to me more than the others. I think because they somehow incorporated modern-history to their world in a more elegant manner, even though they’re these mutant people, so I’m attached to that more in the way they pulled that off. As opposed to The Avengers, which I felt didn’t really pull that off and was focused on a lot of brassy talk.
Maybe X-Men pulls people in differently because it’s dealing with tolerance, and it’s got this blended family element. But I think The Avengers films are great popcorn movies.
For what it is, The Avengers is a style of movie that I’m not exactly drawn to. What’s funny is that I don’t even consider that I’ve done a big superhero movie, and of course I have done one in Batman Returns. And it’s a great one. So now I’m starting to be kinda snobby about having done that [laughter]. Because it wasn’t mass-produced. At the time, it had to be put together carefully, it had Tim Burton, and it had a uniqueness about it.
Since we’re back on Batman, would you say Michael Keaton is your favourite Batman?
I will say this, I like Tim’s take on Batman, so therefore I guess I like Michael Keaton because he played in that version of it. I love the darkness of Batman Returns. And it’s a scary frickin’ movie and also funny, which I think is a great comic book balance. But I also saw the Val Kilmer Batman… and of course Adam West.
I had the honour of meeting Adam West about twenty years ago, may he rest in peace, but he didn’t seem happy to be at this comic-con type event. There were hundreds of people lined up to see him.
Maybe that’s a hard pill to swallow for some actors, you know, to be in tights like that [laughter]. I mean, I could be pursuing those kinds of events as well. There was something in L.A. that I did a while ago, like a Batman Returns day, and it was nice because I could go out there and see Jason and my wife came with me. And it was enjoyable to talk about my experience on Batman, just like it’s been enjoyable to talk to you. But you know there’s something that doesn’t ring true to me to monetize something that is… I don’t know, there’s something pure about it when you get it, you do it, and it’s done.
Would you do another superhero movie?
I don’t think I’m any closer to getting to be in one [laughter]. But you never know. And if I got one, of course I’ll do it. As an actor, you’re just a hired hand… I just go where it takes me. If Avengers comes along at my age I’ll get in the tights, I don’t care.
Hey, Keaton is over seventy now, and he just played Batman again.
Michael Keaton… he’s a great actor. But who was the most recent actor to play Batman?
Robert Pattinson or Ben Affleck?
No… neither one of them, it’s the other guy. I think he’s an international actor?
Yes! He’s a very good actor. But honestly if I think about all of them, just as actors, I would say the most versatile and interesting would be Michael Keaton. When you look at all the other stuff he does, he doesn’t have just a bag of tricks. And don’t get me wrong, we all have our tricks… but I like his bag.
For Keaton to return to Batman after all these years is kind of a big deal, I think.
Well, he did that one movie that was sort of a take on that idea, where he was a bird-man. I can’t remember the name of the movie…
That’s Birdman [laughter].
Oh, right [laughter]. When you’re a guy like Keaton, and you do something like Birdman and you do it so brilliantly, I can’t imagine that it didn’t intrigue him when someone called him up for Batman and said, “Hey you wanna come back?” I think maybe being Birdman might’ve inspired him to go, “Ah, fuck it. Why not?”
He must’ve been aware of the parallels between the two roles, and I love that he seemed to be taking the piss out of himself in Birdman.
I love when he gets stuck outside and he’s running around in his underwear [laughter]. To me, that right there is symbolic of why Adam West maybe just didn’t want to be known as that. No matter what he does, that’s how everybody sees him, in those purple underwear.
Okay, yeah… [laughter] now I’m starting to understand a bit more why Adam West might’ve been upset that day I met him.
And maybe that’s why Michael Keaton had to exorcise “the underwear” from himself by walking around in his real underwear.
Without that moment in Birdman, maybe Keaton never would’ve been ready for the tights again.
Exactly! [laughing] It’s funny because when I was younger I used to tell my manager when it came to stuff like national commercials, “No foam costumes.” I had certain rules. Like, I had to be myself you know. If they didn’t like it, then forget it. And I never did any commercials like that. And now, as I’ve gotten older I’m saying, “No Geritol. No erectile issues.” Consequently, I haven’t done any commercials in years.
Okay. I don’t know what Geritol is, but I think I kind of get the gyst because of the name [laughing].
The older people, you know, they take them to make themselves more… peppy, I guess.
I’ll pick some up and see what it does for me. [We’re both laughing for a good ten seconds about Geritol.] Steve, I gotta say, talking to you has been my pleasure. Really, thank you for doing this.
This was fun for me, I really enjoyed it.
I could talk to you all day [we’re still laughing] but I know you’ve got places to be.
Yeah man, surf’s up. I’m off to the beach!
Steve Witting can be found online at www.steviewitting.net and you can catch him in the latest Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon, an epic Western crime drama premiering on October 20, 2023.
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