Richard Edson by Lynn Geller

“I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’m consciously unselfconscious, which is where you want to be. Once you get there, as an actor, you’re right no matter what you do, because you’ve got the character inside of you.”

BOMB 28 Summer 1989
028 Summer 1989
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Richard Edson was living in the Lower East Side playing drums and trumpet with Lydia Lunch, Sonic Youth, KONK, and the Offs when Jim Jarmusch cast him as Eddie in Stranger Than Paradise. The film’s success alerted America to a certain “downtown” sensibility and casting agents to Edson, whose mobile features and deadpan delivery animated small roles in such diverse films as Platoon, Good Morning, Vietnam, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Howard the Duck, Eight Men Out, Tougher than Leather, and Walker. Still living in the Lower East Side, he is currently taking a break from an unbroken string of movies soon to be released, including, Do The Right Thing will debut at Cannes, Let It Ride, The Tender, Bloodhounds of Broadway and a TV pilot by John Sayles, Shannon’s Deal.

Richard Edson Is this going to be like the old Interview magazine interviews where they would describe everything, “And then the waiter came over carrying a pepper mill”?

Lynn Geller I miss that. I like those details. But, no. When you came in you were talking about losing things.

RE Today I lost a shirt, a tape, and a job.

LG What was the job?

RE I didn’t want to do a TV show. I’d just been doing small parts and one kind of big part in movies, major movies that were going to come out and then Carol Kane called my agent wanting me to audition to play her husband in a sitcom. I thought, I’m a little young to be playing a husband with four kids and I didn’t want to commit myself to doing a sitcom for TV. But then she called me personally, and asked me to read the script and I did and it was a lot better than I expected. But for personal reasons, I just wanted to lay low. So even though the script was good, I said no again. But she calls again and I’m being flattered out of my convictions, though I’m still ambivalent. Still, I agree to fly out for an audition. I had this “I don’t care” attitude which was perfect for them. They loved it.

LG Do you usually have that attitude in auditions?

RE When I do, it goes well. When I don’t, when I’m worried, when I’m thinking about acting, it throws me off. But this was unusual, because I didn’t really have a clear idea of the character and I was winging it. That’s not good because you can’t necessarily repeat it. I find it best to have a very clear idea of what the character is and a very clear attitude about the job, take it or leave it. But in this case, Carol and Dennis, the writer/producer, were so complimentary, and I was like, “What the hell did I do?”

LG How do you feel about living in LA?

RE I don’t care. I wanted to stay in New York for this period, but in general, I don’t care, if I’m working. Anyway, they said, “Take your time, think about it.” I started to talk to other people and realized all the implications, namely, the money, which is tremendous, and the exposure, which is tremendous, and the career boost with an offbeat thing like this. So from that point of view, it was a good opportunity. So they make a deal and I was told to get on a plane the next day to audition for the executives at Fox and Universal. By doing that, I’d be making a commitment. I still didn’t know why I was doing it and I was totally confused when I got there. I read for the execs and it was the worst reading of my life. No connection, no character, Acting 101, the worst. It wasn’t even the pressure; it was not knowing why I was doing it. So I think it’s over. And then Carol called me again and still wants me to do it and asks me to audition on tape. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’m consciously unselfconscious, which is where you want to be. Once you get there, as an actor, you’re right no matter what you do, because you’ve got the character inside of you. In my mind, I’d finally resolved all the problems. I did the tape and I did it well, so I thought, this seems like fate. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it. And then I got the call today from Dennis and he said, “No.” He’s afraid that I can’t be emotionally committed, and I wouldn’t be able to withstand the rigors of a series.

LG I have the feeling we haven’t heard the end of this scenario. But you’ve certainly changed your tune since I first interviewed you, after Stranger Than Paradise. You said, and I quote, “Acting’s a good job, if you can get it. But there’s something about it. You’re pretending to be something that you’re not, and if that’s what you become, who are you?”

RE I said that? I was so naive. I think I realized, at a certain point, that acting is, really, a way of revealing yourself. Actors put on masks in order to reveal themselves—that’s the way they act out who they are. An actor has a wonderful chance to put on many, many different masks, which I find I can do. But everyone does it to a certain level.

LG I don’t.

RE Except for you, the only people who don’t have masks are saints and infants. You’ve got to have that to live.

LG What happened to your music career?

RE I don’t know, it was more like a dream. Do I have it? I never knew and I never had the drive to see because the music was always a personal thing. I was glad when the acting came up.

LG When Stranger Than Paradise came out, were you still in KONK?

RE ’85, we’d just broken up.

LG What did you think you’d be doing? Did you think the movie would be so successful?

RE I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I was happy and it seemed like, well, I’ve got another life for myself. Acting was a lot of fun and I was good at it. My next role was a walk-on in Desperately Seeking Susan which was rather discouraging. Then I did Miami Vice and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that was an eye-opener. Two weeks on a major Hollywood picture. I was still a bohemian from the Lower East Side at that point, so it was another world. I was suddenly treated with more respect than I knew existed, like the prince of a small country. This is typical, I learned, of the way actors are treated on a big budget movie. But, at the same time, they’re treated as children, special children, but children.

LG You’ve worked pretty consistently from one project to another and they’ve all been quite different, how do you choose your roles?

RE There has to be quality of one sort or another: the people involved, the script, the director.

LG Do you like going on location?

RE I love it. It’s a way of taking a vacation from yourself and your life. I like the gypsy life. I particularly liked filming in the Far East. Going there is like going through the looking glass. Everything corresponds to the West, but everything is different. Here it’s “hurry up and wait” and worrying about a future that never comes. There, the future is in the present. Everything has a certain dignity.

LG I loved the line in Good Morning, Vietnam where everyone was trying to get Lieutenant Hauk not to broadcast and he asks you, “If I’m not funny, why were you laughing when you typed up my notes?” And you say, “I was thinking of something else, sir.” It was such a great moment because, it was so off the wall and subversive in a kind of zen way, there was nothing he could say in reply.

RE Barry said, here’s the scene, if you want to throw something into it, just try it. There was another scene that was improvised, the scene at the bar.

LG The fight scene where you say, “Why don’t I get the girl?”

RE Yeah, I love that kind of stuff. Here’s a situation where it’s just happening. These guys are pulling the girls over and as an actor, I’m left out. But to interpret that as the character being left out and not getting the girl. It was actually happening to me and it looked real because it was real.

LG That must have been an interesting role because your character had to pretend to like his prissy boss.

RE Yeah, the role was originally written as a real geek, a figure of fun, who was the butt of everyone’s jokes. There was hardly anything written for him. It was clear that that was not the way I wanted to play it.

LG It’s nice to be able to influence the script and have that kind of input. Is it unusual for someone in a secondary role to do that?

RE Yes and no. In Platoon, I tried to talk Oliver Stone into letting me be a “doper” and a “juicer.” He agreed, but then he forgot about it. Now I’m more aggressive, pushing my way into things I think would be good for me and for the movie.

LG Tell me about Spike Lee’s new film.

RE There are a few young directors who have something to say and a visual style of their own. For example, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Tim Burton, and the Coen brothers. Spike’s film is a comedy dealing with a very serious subject, race relations in New York.

LG What do you play?

RE A white guy.

LG No kidding, that must have been a stretch.

RE The movie centers around a pizza parlor in Bed-Stuy owned by Danny Aiello. His two sons work there, me and John Turturro. He’s the unsympathetic, racist son. I’m not so much a liberal spokesperson, but I’m friends with Spike who works as the delivery boy. It was a great set. The cast and crew were all in love with the process. There was nothing jaded, nothing old about the movie and what they were doing. I looked forward to getting to the set everyday. It was funny because I did a movie in Florida with Richard Dreyfuss called Let It Ride, like a week afterwards, and the mood was so different. All these jaded pros. To the crew, it was just a job. To the people on Spike’s movie, it was more like, this is a life.

LG You know how sometimes you can have beginner’s luck and then you have to repeat the experience and it’s hard?

RE Just what the hell are you saying?

LG Well, sometimes you, meaning one, finds out you have a skill and it involves a certain amount of grace and intuition and coordination and somehow it all comes together when you’re an innocent. Then all of sudden, you’re thrust into the position of trying to do it again on a conscious level. Well, did that happen to you in Stranger Than Paradise?

RE Yes, that did happen to me. It not only happened to me that time, but I think I sustained it for a whole series of roles. I would say that this is the point where it’s necessary for me to be more self-conscious. It’s necessary because to become conscious is to become strong. It’s growing up. You can only fake it to a point. If you’re not innocent anymore, you can’t pretend.

LG Did anything happen that made you want to explore these things?

RE A lot of things, personal things. There were contradictions in my personal and professional life and I don’t think this happens quite the same way in other professions, because acting is based on emotions and emotional revelations and there came a point where I didn’t know where any of my characters left off and I began.

LG Is that true?

RE Sad, but true.

LG Do you believe in psychotherapy?

RE Excuse me?

LG Well, it’s one way to know yourself.

RE I think for some people, me too, it’s a very powerful tool. You take this big flashlight and shine it on yourself.

LG Well, you are a natural actor and you could just go with that. A lot of people stick with what works and will do anything to avoid change. I divide the world into people who are open to change and people who are clamped shut.

RE I think change is the thing that makes life worth living and makes people worth getting to know. Those people who have it all together, who wants to know those people? You might as well stuff them and put them in a museum.

Lynn Geller is a New York-based writer and a music supervisor on documentaries and features.

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Originally published in

BOMB 28, Summer 1989

Featuring interviews with Patrick McGrath, Craig Lucas, Mary Ellen Mark, Isabel Toledo, Guy Gallo, Gary Indiana, David Kapp, Bobbie Ann Mason, Roland Legiardi-Laura, John Ford Noonan, Roni Horn, and Richard Edson.

Read the issue
028 Summer 1989