HitFix Interview: Michael Cristofer talks 'Rubicon'
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright explains Truxton Spangler's unlikely influences
With its characters in the foreground and its conspiracies in the background, AMC's "Rubicon" hit a creative peak last week, particularly in the scenes that found Will Travers (James Badge Dale) and his shadowy boss Truxton Spangler (Michael Cristofer) visiting Washington and making a plea for their American Policy Institute to continue to have autonomy.
You wouldn't think that it would be fascinating to watch characters advocate on behalf of an intelligence think tank, but if you're like me, you gave multiple viewings to Spangler's exquisite monologue comparing API's bias-free analysis to the possibly empty words of a wife complimenting a husband's tie. A triumph of writing, enunciation and well-timed silences, the monologue was theatrical in the best way possible.
For many viewers, Cristofer has been revelation on "Rubicon," an amusing breakthrough/rebirth for a Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning playwright whose screenplay credits include "The Witches of Eastwick" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and who helped launch Angelina Jolie's career as the director of "Gia." But for all of his acclaim behind the camera, Cristofer is still emerging from a 15-year acting hiatus, a comeback-of-sorts that had been previously undertaken on the stage.
HitFix caught up with Cristofer to discuss his return to acting, the inspirations for Truxton Spangler and the delicate art of the pause, plus his next piece of uncharted creative terrain.
Click through for the full interview...
HitFix: I feel like I could conduct an entire interview just on the "that tie" monologue from Sunday's episode. I may have watched that scene five or six times.
Michael Cristofer: Oh my gosh. That's fantastic. Thank you!
HitFix: Given your background, I have to start by asking how much you may have contributed to the writing of the monologue and how much was on the page in the beginning.
MC: That speech was written in one draft and I had questions about it and they did a rewrite of it and then I did exactly what was on the page.
HitFix: What did the questions stem from?
MC: There was a piece of it that didn't quite make sense toward the end. For my money, it didn't quite make sense. It was a little unclear what he was trying to say. So I brought up those questions and [showrunner] Henry Bromell, who's a bit of a genius, I think, in terms of writing and character development, Henry worked on my questions and we got to make it a little clearer at the end. It was just a little confusing in the end and it didn't quite make the point as clearly as I thought it could make it. It was one of the few times that I put my writer's hat on and said, "Can we make this a little better?" And they did. They did. It's great speech.
HitFix: And those pauses? They were all just there on the page?
MC: Oh, no. No, that was the actor.
HitFix: Well there you go. How did you develop the pacing of those pauses?
MC: Gosh, most of that that is pretty instinctive because of the situation, because of the previous scenes where he's lobbying for support from all of these different parts of the government so that he can finally get money without having them pry into what they're doing. Most of it just came instinctively out of that situation, sitting across from those actors, all of them very impressive. That's just what an actor does, I'm afraid. I don't know how to explain it. I really don't.
HitFix: TV just isn't a medium that usually allows for silence and there's so much silence in that speech. That seems like the kind of thing that could give a director a heart attack.
MC: I know! There aren't that many TV shows that would write a speech that's that long, either. So it's in the material, that method of doing it is contained in the material, and if you're going to write stuff like that, then it's going to be performed like that. We have a cast on that show. Those are some of the finest actors in New York City, who work in film and TV, but also work on stage. All of those actors know exactly what they're doing and then I think it's in the nature of the writing, how they're writing these episodes that allow for this kind of acting, just taking the time. Everybody who's written about the show has talked about the pace, which is -- and I don't see that much TV -- but I guess it's considered slow compared to to other shows. But it's the way they're writing and the writing is good, especially that episode. It's just the idea of Truxton going to Washington to get money and be allowed secrecy while, at home, these three young people are secretly making a decision about whether to take out this terrorist. I just thought that was pretty wonderful writing.
HitFix: It was my favorite episode of the series thus far. Does that continue through into subsequent episodes? Last night's episode felt like it could have been a creative turning point of sorts...
MC: Yes. It does continue. That terrorist that they're trying to take out, his identity moves through all of the rest of the episodes. You're right, that continues as the thread that takes us through to the very, very end. There are things I probably shouldn't say. But that's the thread, that guy.
HitFix: So how did you find yourself, at this time in your career, acting as a regular on a cable TV series?
MC: What happened was... Well, I've been away from acting for about 15 years. I hadn't really done any because I was writing and directing and a bunch of other things and then I was asked to do a part in a play and I hadn't done that for a long time, so I did it. Then that suddenly snowballed into being on Broadway last year in a production of Arthur Miller's play "A View From the Bridge," with Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson and they were casting "Rubicon" while I was in the show and they saw me in the show and they asked me to do the part. I looked at the first script, which was all they had at the time, and I looked at some of the pilot, which had been shot, and I realized what an extraordinary group of people this was, especially the actors and I could see that the writing was good. Plus, they were shooting it in my backyard. They were shooting it in Manhattan.
HitFix: Were there things that you realized you'd missed about acting over those 15 years?
MC: Yes. And there were things that I had accidentally learned by not acting for 15 years. Having come back to it, I have just a great sense of freedom about it, much more freedom than I had when I was younger as an actor. I don't know why that is. Maybe it's just having been on the other side of the table a bit, having written films and written plays and directed a few films and directed a few plays and then when you go back to the other side of the table and you're suddenly an actor again, you just know so much more about the process and what's needed and what's required and what the director is trying to do and what's happening on a set.
I just felt an enormous amount of freedom and maybe it's personally, too, that when you get to a certain age, you're not editing yourself in any way anymore, so you have a lot more to draw on. Yeah, by doing that play and then moving into this character, because it's a character who's written with so many wonderfully ideocyncratic things about him, it's the freedom mostly. I'm just feeling absolutely free about what I'm doing, which makes it easy to do and also fun.
HitFix: Are you also better now than you were 15 years ago, do you think?
MC: I'm assuming I am. I'm gonna make that assumption. [He laughs for several seconds.] I think I am, actually.
HitFix: Why'd you take that break from acting in the first place?
MC: Well, the writing took off. Suddenly I was writing a lot of screenplays and I was no long in New York, so I stopped acting in plays and it just became too tricky to find a part to play, either in a play or a film that coincided with my schedule writing and or directing. I guess the first screenplay of mine that was done was "Falling in Love" with Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep. And then "Witches of Eastwick" happened. Then I worked with Brian DePalma for a long time on "Bonfire of the Vanities," for better or worse. Then I got frustrated as a screenwriter and I was offered an HBO film to direct, "Gia." So then I moved into directing and I directed a few pictures. You just can't... And even if you could, the schedule to have an acting career and a writing and a directing career at the same time, it's just too hard. So I let it go. I just let it go. I used to do readings of things every now and then if somebody asked me, if somebody remembered I was an actor. But it wasn't until two years ago that I really stepped back into it.
HitFix: Looking at your "Rubicon" character, one of the things I contemplated while watching Sunday's episode was what do you think the chances are that this guy's really name is actually Truxton Spangler?
MC: [Laughter.] Um, I'll say the chances are pretty good. I actually found a man named Truxton Spangler. He was a man who died in 1920 or 1921. I think he lived in Nebraska or something? I could find out very little about him, just basically his death notice. But this name is like impossible. Nobody could have this name. But sure enough, there was a Truxton Spangler. And Truxton was the name of a fellow that Henry Brommell went to school with and he always liked the name "Truxton." And there are many families named Spangler, that's not so uncommon, but the combination is pretty unusual. But then he's a very unusual guy.
HitFix: It seems like the name alone almost gives you the character to play.
MC: It's like, "There you go." It's very helpful. That and the cornflakes.
HitFix: What was your initial read on the character, then? Was he like people you'd ever met?
MC: There are two people, one I didn't know but I knew of and one I knew... Henry, when he was very young, worked at The New Yorker magazine at a time when a very, very famous man ran the New Yorker, ran it for decades, and that was William Shawn. And William Shawn had these eccentricities. William Shawn ate lunch every day in the cafeteria where everyone else ate, but he ate alone. He ate corn flakes for lunch every day and no one would ever go near him or speak to him while he was having his cornflake lunch. Some of the other things that are in this character were based on William Shawn, who I did not know, but I knew of. I knew many of these things about him. The other person who I based him on was a very eccentric, but at one time probably the most powerful, agent in the country and that was Sam Cohn, who was at IGM and back in the '80s represented everybody. He has since passed away, but Sam had many peculiar, eccentric qualities like wiping his mouth with his tie and some of the other things that I used. And some of the physical things he did and some of the ways he spoke, had the kind of arrogance that Truxton has. So he's kind of based on those two characters from real life.
HitFix: So Shawn was Henry's choice and Cohn was your choice?
MC: Yes. That was my choice, because he was somebody I had actually known and spent time with. Then, of course, the other person who we always thought of when we were doing anything with Truxton was Dick Cheney. For reasons that will become more and more obvious.
HitFix: How much did you know about those reasons up-front? How much were you able to learn about this guy?
MC: Well, it was tricky because we had no scripts when we started and then every script we got, we got about three days before we started shooting. So that created a problem, but it also was a great asset. The problem was that as an actor, you always like to think that you know where the character is going, what his arc is and then you make decisions about his behavior based on what you know about the character. Well, I didn't know any of that. I knew what Henry thought was going to happen, but the truth is that some of the things that Henry thought were going to happen never did happen and so I couldn't really rely on that either. But the asset in that situation is that you're forced to play every scene, every moment, completely in the present, in the way that we live our lives. You really can't color what you're doing with something you know about the future. And the great thing about acting is to be able to live in the moment, they say, and this kind of situation where you don't know what the future is, forces you to live in the moment. That was a great asset. If Truxton is a good guy or if Truxton ends up being the bad guy, not knowing that, you have to play every day as it comes and every script as it comes. I thought that was exciting.
HitFix: But presumably if people are good guys or bad guys in their everyday lives, they also have good or bad motives, so if you don't actually know what your character's motives are, how does that impact you?
MC: Well there you go. Some people do very bad things with very good motives. That became a potential for Truxton as well. If he were doing terrible, still his devotion to that intelligence agency, to API, was very real. His devotion to the people there is very real. His manipulation of his situation is sort of a plot thing that develops over the course of the episodes. Again, Dick Cheney... Everything he does, he does for the good of the country.
HitFix: That's very generous of you.
MC: That's what terrifies me about it.
HitFix: You mentioned briefly putting on your writing hat for the revision of the monologue, but when you have that sort of open-ended character, does crafting your own backstory and motivation almost become a writing exercise for you?
MC: Somewhat. I would ask those questions. I would say, "Oh, I see that in this scene, he's doing this, this and this. Is he doing this, this and this in a manipulative way? Or is it honest? Is it dishonest?" I would ask those questions and sometimes Henry would have the answer, but often he didn't. Often he didn't.
HitFix: If the man steering the ship isn't always ahead of you on the journey, is that good or bad for you as an actor?
MC: I think that if you have the courage and, like I said before, the freedom and it doesn't throw you off the rails or it doesn't paralyze you, I just assumed that everything human was possible for this guy, since nobody closed the door on any part of him. Nobody said, "Oh, he's a really bad guy" or "Oh wait a minute. He's really a good guy, so turn off all the bad stuff" or "Now he's a bad guy, turn off all the good stuff." Nobody said that, so it allowed me to just develop him as fully as I could and just hope that, by the end, it added up to to what it needed to add up to. I think that's one of the qualities of the show, because actually none of the characters knew where they were going, so everyone invested really fully in each episode and, as much as they could, they gave you as much of that person as they could so that hopefully down the line it would all make sense. But I think that's why it makes sense when you see the whole thing. Everyone makes sense on a really human level. They also make sense on a plot level, but more importantly, they make sense on a human level, because you've seen all aspects of each of these people. That's what I think is really good about the show.
HitFix: You mentioned earlier the number of reviews that called the show's plot "slow." I would probably go with "methodical," personally. What word would you prefer to describe the pace of the show?
MC: I would say methodical and full. It's fully paced. It's like nothing is skipped over. Nothing is tossed aside. Everything is investigated and invested fully. The moments are played fully. Ideas are handled fully. To me, it's a very full kind of pace. That's what I find good about it.
HitFix: Is there anything you'd compare the pace to?
MC: Well, most people have compared it to some of those films from the '70s. I think that's true. I think that when people like Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet were directing pictures. They were directing stories where characters and characterizations drove the plot, as opposed to the plot driving the characters. I think it harkens back to that, where the people are in focus even though there is a complex and important plot happening. They never lost focus on the people. I would guess that's a quality of the commercial films that happened back in the '70s. That's about the only thing I can think of. You could also compare it to some of those English series that were done, like the Helen Mirren series, "Prime Suspect."
HitFix: You're back in an acting frame of mind. You've written and directed...
MC: Yes. And as a friend of mine said, "Pretty soon you'll be a waiter again."
HitFix: Well OK. Pretty soon, what do you expect to be?
MC: My friend Paul Newman said to me once, "You really don't have a game plan, do you?" And I said, "No, I think that *is* the game plan." I don't have a game plan. I have no idea what I'll be doing next. Actually, I do know what I'm doing. One thing I'm doing -- which I've never done before, so it's another new thing -- is I'm writing the libretto for a opera with Terence Blanchard. Terence is the a jazz trumpet player and he did the scores for two of the films I directed, "Gia" and "Original Sin." He does most of the Spike Lee pictures. He was commissioned by Opera St. Louis to do an opera and he asked me to do the libretto. So that's a new and exciting area to delve into. And having come back to acting, I'm now more entrenched in the New York theater scene than I was a while ago, though the New York scene now includes some great film and TV stuff. I guess I'm going to be around New York a little more, whereas I used to be around LA a little more. I'll see where that leads. I have a new play that I just finished that we might do next year. And I'm going to do the lead in Tony Kushner's new play next spring, in March. We worked on it in Minneapolis last year and he's rewriting it. So I think that's the future. And maybe "Rubicon" again.
HitFix: So you're not sticking to any one path?
MC: I'm at a place now, it's a kind of good place and a lucky place. It's a place where I'm getting to do things I really like to do and I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. So that's a very nice place to be.
HitFix: I'm envious.
MC: Oh, you'll get there.
"Rubicon" airs on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on AMC.