An interview with actor William Sanderson
by Nicanor Loreti
WILLIAM SANDERSON IS THAT rare thing: a character actor who’s managed to stay in control of their career. He has been in an impressive number of classics, worked with some of the best directors in the world, made independent films, westerns and A-list movies, and still keeps on appearing in big productions nowadays. You might think all of this would make him one of those cocky Hollywood guys, but William is actually really humble and gentle. Some might remember him for his great performance as J. F. Sebastian in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, co-starring with Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, but he’s been in lots of other interesting films too. William has illuminated the screen in pictures like Last Man Standing (Walter Hill’s often underrated neo-western starring Bruce Willis and Christopher Walken), the John Carpenter scripted Black Moon Rising (co-starring Tommy Lee Jones and Linda Hamilton), John Frankenheimer’s tv movie Andersonville and the grizzly seventies cult classic Fight for Your Life. I think I’m right to say he’s had an amazing career… so far. With stuff like Deadwood, I guess it can only get better.
NICANOR LORETI You’re working on the tv show Deadwood.
WILLIAM SANDERSON It’s good to have a regular job. I’m on my day off today.
Do you get many days off?
Well, it’s erratic. Sometimes I work a lot of time without days off and then I get too many.
What’s it like working on the show with people like Keith Carradine and Brad Dourif, whom you’ve worked with before?
Yes, on independent film. It’s great. I’m a fan of most of those actors — you just mentioned two of them. It’s a great cast full of wonderful actors, some of them from the stage. I’m glad to be involved. People talk about the language, but I tell them I don’t have enough character to turn down the money. I really like the writing and I think I’ve never worked with a better writer than David Milch. I really enjoy working with David; I’d say that this has been one of my most rewarding experiences in many years. I don’t know how long it will last, but every day is a gift. If I was twenty five years old or thirty, I would take it for granted. I don’t take it for granted anymore.
Hey, I’m twenty five and I don’t take it for granted.
Well, you’re wiser than I [laughs], because a lot of young actors think they’re going to start at the top and stay there. There’s a lot of vicissitude and you’re going to get a lot of rejection, so you should enjoy the moment while it lasts.
The first episode was directed by Walter Hill. You worked with him before. Does it make it easier in this case?
I hope he trusts me a bit more. He was there when I first auditioned. It’s a tough question; you can’t always tell what Walter’s thinking. I heard him say he usually tries to pick the right actors for each project, and if he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he’ll let you know. That’s important. He’s been out there for a long time, even wrote big classics like The Getaway and directed The Long Riders. I just took it as a compliment that he hired me.
Do you research for the part of a man who lived more than a century ago?
I love to research for Deadwood when I can, but there’s not much time. I did some insight on my character during the first year, when his integrity was questioned and I wanted to seek into his darker side. Research makes it feel more like it was a real-life character. You don’t know how someone feels when he kills somebody, but sometimes they don’t feel bad at all. I mean, Charles Manson doesn’t feel like, excuse my language, an asshole. But I guess most of the townspeople don’t think I’m tough enough and I’m playing the buffoon.
The other movie you shot with Walter Hill, Last Man Standing, was also kind of a film noir western.
Yeah, it was. We shot it in the same lot, the same studio. It’s always fun to be rehired by the same person. It’s a compliment.
What was it like shooting that one? The cast was great. Christopher Walken, Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern…
Well, working with Bruce Willis is quite an experience. When you watch him work you think there’s got to be a reason he’s one of the highest paid actors in the world. So I tried to learn and also have some fun. Although the film didn’t make as much money, I got my share of the money [laughs]!
You have some cool scenes together, like when you explain to him people think you’re crazy, and then he takes his guns and tells you he’s gonna kill ’em all.
Thanks, you’re very kind. I can tell you it’s pretty tough to remake a classic like Yojimbo. I’m a journeyman actor and part of my journey is getting to work with those actors I admire and make good films. So hopefully I get to learn and I get to travel. You have to remember that I’m a journeyman.
Do you improvise much during shooting or you stick to the script?
Yeah, sometimes. If you come up with an idea that’s good enough for the director, they’ll let you do it. There’s not too much improvising with Bruce Willis, though. He’ll do the improvising. But usually, if you have a good idea and they’re open to it, yeah, it does happen from time to time. Some people do improvise better than others. I happen to not like a lot of it, especially when I do it [laughs]! There’s a little bit of truth in every joke.
Could you recall one of your improvisations for us?
Oh, I don’t know, man. I forget a lot of stuff like that. Not on that movie, though. I remember not understanding a direction. But sometimes that’s for the better and something good comes out anyway. If you know Bruce and you’ve worked with him and he trusts you, it’s easier to venture a little out of the script. But it’s been nine years since that film… I do recall they paid me a lot of money and I took a cross-country trip with my wife, visited the family, had some dinner. One time during the shooting I was driving in South Texas about 4 am and got lost. I got to the border with Mexico and the border patrol stopped me, pulled me over and asked me why I was going there. “What? Where am I?” I said. But luckily the guy had seen The Newhart Show on tv, so he told me it was 4 am and I was on the wrong side of South Texas, near the border. Thank God he had seen The Newhart Show!
Does it make it easier being recognised — when you go to auditions?
I guess it works both ways. Some people don’t want you in their films because you might get recognised from a tv show. And some people will pay extra money because you were in Blade Runner and they were fans. I don’t know the answer or what goes on in their minds. I like the fact that people recognise who I am and want me to work for them and sometimes they ignore me and I can tell more about them that way. The people that get recognised every minute pay a price for it. I’m very happy because a lot of people know who I am and I’m happy with my present vision.
Tell me about Blade Runner.
The casting director had seen me in a CBS tv movie of the week and when Blade Runner came along he brought me in and I met Ridley Scott. He was the one that turned things around, because I had played bad guys all along. And after that film I showed everyone I could play sympathetic characters as well. So maybe Ridley Scott’s inside joke let me start a new career. It was a stroke of genius. My whole experience with Ridley Scott was a joy. He may be a problem for other people but never for me. He whispered in my ear stuff about my character and those are fun things to hear. It wasn’t a big part but the film became a cult classic.
You had great scenes in that film with Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah.
They were great. I don’t see them anymore and I wish I could. It was fun, you know? We were younger, a lot younger.
Everyone seems to remember the good old days of the eighties [laughs].
It changes, but you manage to stay in the business. I’m in the good old days, as far as I’m concerned.
What’s the main difference between independent movies and big movies in terms of rehearsal?
It’s different, depending on the director. I’ve been in big movies where they did weeks and weeks of rehearsals before shooting even started. Most of the movies I’ve done, they rehearse a little bit before they shoot and then they shoot it. That’s kind of the way I like to do it. But sometimes it helps the cameraman to rehearse again and again, so you have to do it. When they made Batman Forever, I wanted to do a bit part just to work with Tommy Lee Jones again, but at the time I was set to do a tv movie called Andersonville, and the director, John Frankenheimer, said: “Absolutely not! You have to come to Georgia and rehearse!” So when I got there, he knew I had missed the other job and looked at me and said: “When it rains, it pours” [laughs]. I don’t like a lot of rehearsal, to be honest. If you’re doing a play, you should rehearse a lot. I’m thinking of Picasso. He said when he was a younger painter, he calculated every movement and then he became older and he just painted. I don’t know if you can apply it to acting but you get the idea.
Which part was it in the Batman movie?
It was a small part playing a bank guard when Tommy Lee came in blazing. At that point, everybody wanted to be in the movie. Bono, lots of people. Today, I’m happy it happened that way. I got to work with John Frankenheimer again, so it was OK: I practise a little self deception and I tell myself: “Things are great and are going to be.”
How many times did you work for Frankenheimer?
Twice. He tried to bring me in a third time for that movie Reindeer Games, which he did for Miramax. But then someone else got the part. Miramax wanted somebody with a name and I wanted to work with Gary Sinise. I love to travel and work with people I like but also like to stay in town.
You worked with Tommy Lee Jones in Black Moon Rising, right?
Yeah, I survived it [laughs].
Did you two get along?
If we got along? I worked very hard to get along. I like Tommy, I know he’s difficult with some people but he paid me a big compliment after fifteen years or so. He asked me to be in a play that he directed. That was great. He could have asked anybody. He’s fun to work with when he’s directing. Some people find him difficult, but we did some stuff together, and then we did the play and then I ended up getting a job on The Client. It was OK; I worked in my own town, got to stay with my children and my wife and got to work with Susan Sarandon. You make the work the best you can. It’s a lot like playing golf. If you don’t come in second, you come in third but you make a lot of money. You say to yourself: ‘Well, I didn’t come in first, but I made a good deal of money and I got a winning attitude!’
You seem to be taking it one step at a time.
Well, I have a wonderful life and I work with people I like. The problem is you’re afraid it’s going to end all the time. “What will I do after the show?” I consider myself a lucky guy. It took me a long time to get that kind of maturity. I’m trying to get better priorities. I didn’t always have the right ones for many years. How does one not take himself too seriously, or life itself? There’s a lot of BS in Hollywood. And I love the idea of an actor becoming successful, the thing is: it’s hard to stay on top before falling.
What about Fight for Your Life? It’s a cult classic nowadays.
I think I was trying to break into movies on the East Coast. I went down there, it was midtown Manhattan and these guys seemed reluctant to give me the part. Finally I got it. It was similar to this Humphrey Bogart movie, Desperate Hours, and I got decent reviews around the country for it. Because of that film I got to be in bigger movies. Even Tarantino saw the film. I was glad to hear that. I’ve always wanted to work with Tarantino.
Well, everybody does.
One day we were driving up the hill, in the centre of town and I saw him. So I put the window down and I asked him: “Can I be in your next film?” and he looked at me like “Who’s this wacko?” [laughs]. So we drive all up the hill, to the top of Mulholland, and he puts the window down and he said: “William Sanderson, you were great in Fight for Your Life.” The guy had seen the film; my wife couldn’t believe he saw it. But that made me feel good. The movie is out on DVD right now and they asked me to do a commentary for it and I said: “No, thank you.” I also did another one which you probably never saw, co-starring Faye Dunaway. I can say I’m not proud about it, but… I’ve taken most roles that were offered to me, just to keep learning.
Did you ever turn down a role?
Not many. When I did it was a great feeling, but I have to make a living. Sometimes I take films just for the moment, to make a living. Last year, I was asked to do another job, but I was not able because of the schedule.
I don’t want to sound like a wiseass, but why did you ask that question? I know you’re the one doing the interview [laughs].
Oh, because you’ve done so many movies and you said you didn’t turn many roles down.
This is my final answer to that: not enough. “Have you turned down many films, William?” “Not enough.” There’s a need in me to keep on working and expressing myself. I’m very proud of my career and I even remember that when Blade Runner came out, they said it wasn’t a good movie, and today it’s considered a classic, so you never know.
Yeah, I read reviews from that era and they weren’t good.
You know what? I’m impressed that you’ve researched so much for this interview. Am I talking too much? I always do. I’ve shared planes with Tommy Lee, I travelled with him, went to his ranch and he’s always been the nicest guy. But he can be mean to the press. I’m just myself, probably boring.
Never boring! With all the movies you’ve done, c’mon!
We’re different kinds. It’s like the people who don’t like Picasso. Did you know that story? A woman told a man she didn’t like Picasso. The man told Picasso, “That woman doesn’t like you,” and Picasso said, “Which one?” [laughs]. That’s just like Tommy Lee Jones. He’s hard to talk to. I have my own memories of him, my philosophy is different, but we think the same about the job. It’s like the military, ‘Just get the job done’. You have to love and respect your fellow actors. You have time to be selfish, on the stage, or whatever, but when it’s over, just love your neighbor. What else can I say? It’s just tough up here, tough people. I’m just proud that I make a living.
You also did Lone Wolf McQuade, with Chuck Norris and David Carradine. What where they like?
Great, great fun. That was the first time I worked with Chuck. I guess he liked me because I jumped down a third floor window. If you ask other actors why they like you usually it’s because you’re willing to take chances. Sometimes they like living on the edge and I do too. Now I’m much more careful, but Chuck Norris has so much character, he inspired you. And his brother Aaron is a wild man, too! He wanted me to work with him again in another movie, but I wasn’t able to do it so they gave it to Emmet Walsh.
Oh, that’s Missing in Action.
Yes, I had been doing a lot of independent work that year and wasn’t able to do it. But I got to work with him two or three times and I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s controversial, sometimes you get to make the same movie all over again. And one time they like you and the next one they don’t. I love martial arts, I just adore the discipline, not many people know about that. Chuck made a lot of movies and it’s not always about the money.
Lone Wolf is a cool movie, though…
Oh, yes. It still pops up now and then. We shot it in El Paso, a beautiful town. Chuck is a great guy; sometimes people don’t see the good side of him. I only saw the love in him.
Billy Drago told me the same thing about Chuck.
Billy, I like him. That’s a sweet man, and he plays those mean characters. Can you believe that? He’s really sweet, has a good soul, a good heart.
You worked together several times.
Yes. You know what? They say that in order to survive in Hollywood, you have to change loyalties. You have to be friends for little time, but Billy’s something else. I consider him a friend. We don’t hang out, I mean, I’m busy; he’s busy with his projects.
You also worked with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in City Heat.
That’s the reason I couldn’t do Chuck’s Missing in Action. Because I had to listen to the agent and I took this one, which turned out to be a lot of fun. I would have liked to do the Chuck film, because my brother was in Vietnam twice when I was eight years old. But you have to understand that the chance to work with Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood on the same film is appealing to a semi young person. Both of them were totally fun and I learned later that Burt was working under a lot of pain in that film. I made some mistakes but luckily they paid me and I didn’t get fired. You wanna hear about one?
Oh, please, yes.
I was there with a friend doing this none-role that I had and I got really pissed off and said real loud; “God damn!” and Burt Reynolds was doing his part and turned around and asked: “What the hell was that all about?” But he never lost his temper, didn’t say a word or hold it against me or anything. My actor friend was Nicholas Worth. We’ve known each other for years, we both recommended each other for projects and I love him. He was big enough not to hold it against me either. You don’t have to be yelling when Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds are working.
Tell me about working with Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin [in Death Hunt] together.
Thank you for letting me talk about that. They were heroes of mine growing up and I wasn’t let down when I worked with them. Unfortunately, the director Peter Hunt was going to amputate my arm onscreen. They ran out of time, but it was fun being around Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. When I did the movie, I didn’t even have a car and my son was about to be born, so I got a vacation and got out of the movie. I have to tell you though, they earned their legendary status. I got a signed picture by them. They inspire you.
I have to ask you about Newhart. Did you enjoy working on the show?
It was the easiest show in Hollywood. It made you feel like you were doing a play. I played a character in New York, in a Czechoslovakian play. He was a tramp. I got five or six characters in independent films where I played the town crazy. Then I got that show. The two brothers had an amazing theatre background, and I just got lucky. We all do during our careers. I can tell you it was great to have a regular job, especially one that means you can go home after you’re finished.
You had a catchphrase on that series, right?
Yeah, I said: “I’m Daryl, this is my brother Larry and this is my other brother Daryl.”
Did the writer come up with that one?
Yes, of course. She had written it for another actor, and I never even met her. They were going to hire another guy, and for a year or two, they didn’t tell me. They even did a casting with him, but they didn’t hire him because he was too crazy. It was great doing that show and it got me a lot of recognition for a while, but it can be a curse and a blessing at the same time, like I told you before.
What do you think of your own career so far?
After years of auditions and disappointments and living in Hollywood it’s hard to trust. I used to drink too much, which I don’t do anymore, thank God. Once you fall in love, you to have to be grateful and avoid wasting time. And I’m not so grateful sometimes. I should be because I’m really lucky to make a living out of this.