In May 2001 I interviewed Ned Beatty – “Visiting Film-Pimp” at the 28th Athens (OH) International Film Festival. Ned passed away a few days ago. This interview, originally published in the Athens News, was read by many hundreds of or perhaps a few thousand people. Buried on one of my crusty, dusty websites for decades, it’s time to shine new light on this discussion with Ned Beatty. Please enjoy this edited version of our landmark pow-wow wherein I goad Mr. Beatty into ripping on Spike Lee, Margot Kidder, and Alex Trebek. RIP Ned. -DD
Hi Ned, do you have an agenda, or should I just fire away?
Computer hardware and software – are they really ready? I had one of the first Macintosh 128k computers. I got it 6 months after I paid for it. I took it out of the box and plugged it in and the keyboard was miswired. I sent it back – and another 4 months go by… So it was basically a year from the time I gave them the money to the time I got a working computer. But at least it had a mouse. It was the first user-friendly computer interface. I’m still using Macs and I’m still angry with them.
I’ve never owned a computer.
That’s the way to be. Buy one when they get it right.
So what about your new film?
I haven’t seen it yet.
You’re amongst a huge audience. It hasn’t played many places. I’m very happy to be in it. I like almost every aspect of it. I love the photography. It’s great. We don’t see that much anymore. There’s a lot of trash out there. These days they’ll put almost any cut out. Nobody cares.
What’s important about Spring Forward?
I think it’s wonderful because it came out of a real experience that the writer/director had. His mom fell ill and went into a coma and was put into a hospital away from the city in which he lived. He joined his father in a hotel room for eight days and they spent more time together than they ever had before. And out of that experience of getting to know his father when he was thirty-something years old – he wrote this script about a young guy and an older guy relating to each other. They sort of had to because they were working together. It was just the two of them. The younger guy just got out of prison and if he can’t keep this job – well, he’s really worried about his future. Two people stuck with each other who have no reason to relate to each other outside of these circumstances. This setting carries them through a year of their lives. We filmed over 12 months. Four sections, one in each season. It was quite a labor of love.
The film focuses almost exclusively on these two characters then?
There are a few other characters who interrelate. The interstitial little pieces in-between the seasons were great too. Given the milieu of the film, compared to other contemporary films, it’s an ‘alien’ movie. It makes no excuses for itself. it’s mostly about two guys who are not intellectuals. it’s not like “My Dinner with Andre,” but there are two guys talking about the same thing everybody talks about. My ex-wife and I used to call it “the stuff.” …Like religion and whatnot, the real stuff.
You’ve visited Athens before. Do you have any favorite spots?
I like every place I’ve been. I like the town. I love the campus I’m a big tree nut. You can tell somebody cares about trees here.
Here’s a weird one for you. Last year you were playing banjo in Athens and a guy called you Warren. (Warren Beatty) You reportedly said, “Don’t fuck with me, I’m from Kentucky.”
(Laughs) I’m really alright about it. Warren has almost hired me two or three times and always backs away. Somebody asked me about him in an interview once and I said, “He’s OK. He’s my illegitimate uncle, but I don’t really have anything against him.” I thought that “illegitimate uncle” bit was funny, but for some reason I don’t think Warren did. Warren takes upwards of a hundred takes on everything he shoots. I don’t think I could do that.
As one of the quintessential character actors of our time, how do you treat each role as a distinctive experience? What do you bring to your characters and why do you select them?
I’m very dependent upon the first blush. When you come into contact with a person, if you’re like me, you usually have these instant feelings. I never want to forget what that was and I usually try to build around that. Very often, you just feel something. And if it was a false impression, you want to figure that out as quickly as possible. When I first met my friend, actor Jerry Hardin, I thought he was English because he had an English accent. It turns out he was from Texas. I didn’t figure that out until I was talking to him and a bird crapped on me. I sort of brushed it off and moved to another chair and started talking again and another bird got me. I brushed it off and moved. And boom, third one hit me and Jerry just broke up with this big old Texas laugh (mimics big laugh with Texas drawl) and I said to myself, “That’s no Englishman!” So your gut feelings can deceive you. Jerry used to ask me, “What choices are you making with this character?” And I said “What do you mean? I read the script and I see how to do it.” It was years before I realized that I could do things a slightly different way. I still depend a lot on first blush… but I know I can get past that and make some other choice. I think the best thing in the world is when a director can ask you to do something completely wrong for the character and you can give the director what they want and do it in such a way that your character stays intact. That’s when you’ve got a V8 under the hood. (laughs)
What of the pending writers strike and other current issues in Hollywood?
Well, in a funny kind of way, I’m sort of semi-retired. I only really work when I want to. I’m on a pension. If they go on strike I can probably get my pension anyway. (laughs) I want to see the writers strike because the writers, god bless them, are the only true commies we have in Hollywood. They really believe in unionism. The actors are pushy. They’re not very good unionists. The problem is that there’s no way of sharing the aftermarket. We have this thing called Television residuals. And the fact that they’re called residuals is really important. Musicians have royalties, or partial ownership. Residuals are what is left over. Why would you call them that otherwise? Like Superman… did that do well on TV?
Do you know how many residuals they’ve paid? Zip. Last week they were releasing a new Superman DVD and they were calling all of the actors. I told them that they screwed us on the television residuals and that if they wanted me to help them sell their DVD for free that they were out of their minds! They said, “Margo Kidder is gonna be out there.” Margot Kidder, god bless her, is lucky to get out of Toronto these days, or wherever the hell she’s living. Anyhow, I hope they strike.
You worked with Spike Lee in He Got Game, have you seen Bamboozled, his latest flick? Any comments?
I haven’t seen his latest film, and I have trouble with some of Spike’s stuff, but I really like him as a director. It always impresses me when a person of small stature has command. His whole crew, they just watch his command. So many directors don’t have it. So many directors are just listening to make sure their words get read. It’s not a literary piece, it’s a movie! Spike knows what he wants, but he’s not rigid. I like him a lot. I love what he does.
Who would win in a no holds barred fight, Alex Trebeck or Regis Philbin.
Sorry Dan, we’re out of time.
Dan Dreifort is a film buff and a smartass. Though he learned to code as a wee one back in 1981, and helped start and run an ISP from the mid-90s to the mid-aughts, he didn’t own a computer until late 2004. True story. …But far from suggesting that he didn’t spend a crap-ton of time working on them. In fairness to the late, great Mr. Beatty, full disclosure: Dan didn’t ask, and Ned didn’t answer that last question. #PoeticLicense