Sunday, September 7, 2014
‘DELIVERANCE CREEK’ STAR CHRISTOPHER BACKUS INTERVIEWED
On Saturday, September 13th, Lifetime will premiere ‘DELIVERANCE CREEK’, an original Western movie written by Melissa Carter, directed by Jon Amiel, produced by the tremendously successful novelist Nicholas Sparks (if you missed my review last week, go HERE )
Set in the South during the Civil War, it focuses on Belle Gatlin Barlow (Lauren Ambrose), a woman whose husband has gone off to war, leaving her to manage their farm and raise their three children. Between an amorous lawman she encourages (after all, her husband might be dead), and amorous banker she discourages, Union soldiers and runaway slaves, who returns to complicate her life but her brother Jasper Gatlin, a Confederate guerilla soldier, portrayed by Christopher Backus. Certainly by 21st Century p.c. standards he may not be the most morally and ethically upright man in the tale, but guess what? He’s the most interesting, both because he’s the most complexly written, and because Christopher Backus has a star’s innate ability to draw the eye, and make you care.
I first met Christopher back in 2011, on the set of the Western YELLOW ROCK, when he was the well-dressed member of James Russo’s gang, who were trying to enlist the help of Michael Biehn in finding a lost father and son. In DELIVERANCE CREEK Backus has been promoted to running his own crew, trained by Bloody Bill Anderson and Quantrill. He’s tal and handsome and charming and dangerous as a diamondback. And if DELIVERANCE CREEK goes to series, which it should, his part will grow and grow. On Friday afternoon I had the chance to talk with him about how his career began, Jasper Gatlin, and his hopes for the future.
HENRY PARKE: Hello Chris. We actually met a few years ago, on the set of YELLOW ROCK. And you were the only one I never really got to talk to. Every time we started, you were needed on-set. So I had to wait until your next Western.
CHRISTOPHER BACKUS: I remember that. Well at least it wasn’t too long, and I’ve got another Western on my résumé.
HENRY: At what age did you know you wanted to become an actor?
CHRISTOPHER: I was late to becoming an actor. I had graduated high school, and was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I was 19 or 20, never in a high school play or things of that nature. But as I got older, I was out of sports, and all the creative genes I’d been hiding kind of wanted to come out.
HENRY: Was there any incident that triggered it? Any moment that you knew?
CHRISTOPHER: It was just sort of chance. I was struggling with what I was going to do, and casting director Christian Kaplan asked if I was interested in reading for a film, PEARL HARBOR or PANIC ROOM – I can’t remember which one was first. He thought I had the right look and asked, want to come in and give it a shot? Just through the process of preparing for it, I realized how I liked being lost in someone else, bringing this imaginary character to life. Obviously I didn’t get either job, but it didn’t deter me from trying to figure out how to get to the next level; I was just winging it at that stage.
HENRY: I understand you were born in Orange County. Did you grow up ‘around the industry’?
BACKUS: I was born in Long Beach, and spent my early years there. But it seemed like a far-off
planet – the differences between Orange County and Hollywood are pretty significant. And ultimately I spent most of my youth in Kansas. My father passed away, and we moved to the Midwest. So then I was thousands of alien light-years away from Hollywood, living in Kansas.
HENRY: Was it pretty rural?
CHRISTOPHER: No, I was in Overland Park, right on the border with Kansas and Missouri, south of the downtown area, where jazz was popular. I remember being young and going and listening to jazz, and thinking that was the coolest thing that I had ever done. I remember right before we moved to Kansas I had this image of moving into farmland. And I had told my mom that if we moved to Kansas, my one deal was I got to build a FIELD OF DREAMS baseball field in our back yard. But our backyard was not farmland. So one day I plan to build a baseball field in my back yard, on my property.
HENRY: Your first credit on IMDB is a guest shot on WILL AND GRACE in 2004. Was that really your first?
CHRISTOPHER: It was; that was my first job, and it was a good first job to get. At that time WILL AND GRACE was one of the most popular shows on television, and to work to with Eric McCormack and Debra Messing and Sean Hayes – it was just one of those experiences that you’ll never forget. It’s your first gig, and you’re intimidated, and I never thought I was particularly funny. So during the table read you kind of goose everything up. And Eric McCormack came up to me after and said, “Kid, you’re really funny when you’re not doing it. Relax and you’ll be fine.” And he kind of put me at ease. I’ll never forget, that changed my perception of what a table-read was. That was a great introduction to the business, WILL AND GRACE.
HENRY: What’s been your favorite role so far?
CHRISTOPHER: Honestly, it’s the one I’m talking to you about right now, it’s Jasper Gatlin. It’s one of those roles that you just cross your fingers and hope it comes across your desk. I enjoyed playing Jasper so much; hopefully I’ll get to continue to play it.
Christopher Backus in YELLOW ROCK
HENRY: Very few actors of your age have been in a Western, but you’ve been in two: YELLOW ROCK and now DELIVERANCE CREEK. Is it just chance, or is there something special about the genre for you?
CHRISTOPHER: There’s definitely something special about the genre. They both came up by chance, but you know, I’ve always liked Westerns. I grew up watching John Wayne with my father, and the great Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns, and to this day there’s no cooler man on the planet than Clint Eastwood. So when you’re young and watch those movies, they just stick in your head. When you decide to be an actor, you think you’d like to be in a western some day. So you just cross your fingers, and hope that one of those comes across. And I’ve been fortunate to get two, to rides horses; it’s one of those genres that speaks to you.
HENRY: Speaking of horses, you certainly look competent on a horse. Have you ridden much?
CHRISTOPHER: I had never ridden before YELLOW ROCK. It’s the old actor trick of, “Have you ever ridden a horse?” and you say, “Sure.” And then you spend the next four days figuring out who can teach you to ride a horse. And that worked out. But with DELIVERANCE CREEK, we did two weeks of ‘cowboy camp’ in between rehearsals when we were in Texas, and those guys really taught me how to ride a horse. And by the time that I left cowboy camp I walked away feeling like I was a cowboy. They treated me so well, and quickly, and the horses are so amazing, and I wanted to do them proud, for how much effort they put into breaking me of my bad habits. Because they sit in the back and watch Westerns, and they go, “Wow, he really doesn’t know how to ride; you can tell that he’s learning. He’s not comfortable.” So I really worked hard, and during our downtime on set, instead of going to my trailer, the other actor, Christopher Baker and I would go bother the trainer and say, “Could we borrow some horses and go riding around?” One of them would saddle up next to us, and the three of us would take off for half an hour, come back, shoot our scene, and then get back on the horses and go back out.
HENRY: You mentioned Texas. Is that where you shot?
CHRISTOPHER: We did, we shot it in Austin, Texas. So we lived in Austin and downtown. All of the locations were like an hour outside in all different directions, trying to find places that had no power lines and cars and had open fields. And it was pretty amazing how many unique locations were in Texas. The house where we shot in DELIVERANCE CREEK was actually built in the 1850s. And the center room was the only thing that actually existed; ten people lived in the house in just one room. The art department built on in the same style the extra rooms to make it a little more cinematic, so we could space things out. I’m tall, and so my hat would touch the top of the ceiling, which was sort of great for Jasper. I know that our fantastic director, John Amiel, loved that when I came in I had to duck through doorways, and tried to capitalize on that element of Jasper being larger than life when he comes back to Deliverance Creek.
HENRY: At Universal Studios, all the Western towns were built to ¾ height so all the cowboys would look bigger.
CHRISTOPHER: I didn’t know that.
HENRY: Is there any western actor of the past you look at and say, ‘I wish I had his roles.’?
CHRISTOPHER: Going back to the original 3:10 TO YUMA, the Glenn Ford part, you wish you’d get a part like that. And all of those Clint Eastwood movies, if you could carve out a career like that. My favorite western is THE LEFT HANDED GUN, with Paul Newman, where he played Billy the Kid. Paul Newman is my all-time favorite actor, and I thought he was just marvelous in that. I’ve seen it like fifteen times, and it was just so different from the Paul Newman we all know, just a brilliant acting thing.
HENRY: How did you get involved with DELIVERANCE CREEK?
CHRISTOPHER: Well, I read for it; I went and saw the amazing casting director from Junie Libby. I actually read for Cyril the first time I went in, who Christopher Baker plays. I got a call from Melissa (Carter, the screenwriter) and Jon (Amiel, director) – Jon wasn’t in the room when I read. And he said, “I’d like him to come back in and read for something else.” So then I read for Duke, and was trying to push my way towards Jasper. And the month of waiting, as the rest of the cast filled out, gave me time to prepare for Jasper, and it just worked out.
HENRY: You play Jasper Gatlin, leader of a pack of Bloody Bill Anderson’s guerillas, and the brother of Belle, Lauren Ambrose’s character. Jasper is charming, confident, and certainly a better man than some of those under him. But in today’s terms, he’s a terrorist. How do you try to make him sympathetic? Or do you care?
CHRISTOPHER: You do. I never looked at him as a bad guy or an outlaw. I felt that the Civil War had torn up the world, and if it wasn’t for the Civil War he might have been a farmer. But once you get into that battle, you can’t go back and ride horses and work on your property. That has been awoken inside of you, and he was a terrorist. Jasper is sort of loosely based on Jesse James. And history has been sort of rewritten to make him a Robin Hood, but he was a Southern vindicator of the Rebel cause; he was a terrorist to his dying day. And what I think makes Jasper unique is that in that time period those guys all lived in grey – from one town to the next there was no black and white. There was no good or bad. For example, Wyatt Earp would come into these towns and take over saloon as the sheriff. Couldn’t do that nowadays; a sheriff couldn’t come into a restaurant and say, “This is now my restaurant.” The first time I read it, I was trying to wrap my mind around Jasper, whether he was good or bad. And again with Paul Newman, in the movie HUD he says, “I’ve always viewed the law in a lenient manner. Sometimes I lean to one side, and sometimes I lean to the other.” And I thought that was what Jasper was. He leaned on either side of the law for whatever was good for him or the cause. And Jon and I talked about it. Not the law, but his moral compass. Jasper is a good man fighting for what he believes in. And history makes him wrong, being on the Southern side, but I tried to treat him as if he was justified in his actions and what he believed in. And hopefully you can see that he has both sides, good and bad.
HENRY: Did you do much historical research for your role?
CHRISTOPHER: I did. I’m a heavy researcher, especially when it comes to period stuff. Because the times have changed so much. And in DELIVERANCE CREEK we deal a lot with race and slavery, and in 2014, none of this makes sense. But you have to go back in time, you have to figure some sort of historical element to ground you, so you’re not playing the mustache-twirling bad guy in terms of race. Just because I am personally sympathetic to that cause, I can’t let that cross onto the screen. So the historical research was a big part of that. I’ve read THE GREY GHOSTS OF THE CONFEDERACY (by Richard S. Brownlee), INSIDE WAR (by Michael Fellman), which is still sitting on my desk, which is about the guerilla conflict in Missouri. My big research book was JESSE JAMES, THE LAST REBEL OF THE CIVIL WAR by T.J. Stiles; that was my biggest reference point. It also gave me a history of Jesse, in context with Bill Quantrill, because Jasper had ridden with Bill Quantrill before breaking off with Bloody Bill. I try not to watch any (films about Jesse James), because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone.
HENRY: You don’t want to be Tyrone Power’s version of Jesse.
CHRISTOPHER: Exactly, so I try not to watch anything. So to read those books, you can kind of create your own imagination around what these characters were. And mostly for me it was less about who that character was but more about historically what they did, what their causes were. And knowing that Melissa had sort of taken Jesse James’ trajectory for where the show would go, Jesse James became my lynchpin.
HENRY: I also got the feeling that Belle is based on Belle Starr
CHRISTOPHER: That is true.
HENRY: Jon Amiel has had a wide range of successes, from dark musicals, to comedies, to thrillers. What was he like to work with?
CHRISTOPHER: He was absolutely delightful –we’re still in constant contact. He is generous and comforting and collaborative. He just gives you this feeling that anything is safe and fair game. That you can say, “Hey Jon, I don’t think Jasper would do this.” It didn’t happen often, but a couple of times… That scene with Rose, there was supposed to be some romantic tension, and I said I don’t think Jasper would do that. I think he’s singularly focused on hitting the Union. And Jon had my back all the way, and ultimately everyone agreed with that. I think when you have a director who has your back, you feel like you can stand on the cliff and hang there, and know you’re not going to fall off. From the very beginning, we did this thing; I hadn’t done it before, I don’t know if this would ever work again. But Jon would send me and Chris Baker and Riley Smith to cowboy camp, and then we’d meet with him to do these rehearsals. And we never once opened up the scripts. But the first time he said, “Alright, Riley and Chris, you’re Jasper and Toby. You’re twelve years old, and you meet for the first time.” And we would act out these imaginary circumstances that he gave us. And every day that we came back for two weeks, we’d be slightly older in the story. We made up these ridiculous back-story things, to the point that at one of the rehearsals Lauren Ambrose, Riley and I are running across a busy street in Texas, carrying a barrel full of nothing, pretending that Riley had been shot with buckshot, we’re laughing and he’s screaming, and we’re running across the street, and it just bonded us in a way I don’t think we knew was possible. We went into day one of shooting as great, great friends, and I think that comes across on the screen. Riley and I don’t actually say much to each other, but I think you can tell that there’s a closeness, that we’ve been through stuff together, and Jon just set that all up. It was surprising, and so much fun despite the fact that we were nervous to do it on day one, that we couldn’t wait and see what Jon had in store for us next.
HENRY: A bloody Civil War revenge story is not the usual sort of project territory for Nicholas Sparks. What was he like to work with?
CHRISTOPHER: I met Nick a couple of times while he came to visit on-set. And he is just a supportive, fantastic man. Obviously he‘s a genius creatively, and no one does those romance stories like Nick Sparks. I think what’s great about this is he’s taken what he does really well and put it into a circumstance that no one expects, and said let’s go for this, let’s make it darker and gritty. I think it’s a smart move by Nicholas to let it fly a little bit, and open up to this world that has outlaws and rebels and guns. And I think Lifetime is a perfect match, because it’s unexpected, and I think it’s something that can really hit home for their audience, and bring in a large male audience, because it is a story told through a female perspective, but it still has all those male-driven western testosterone moments. And of course Nicholas Sparks is so talented; I just hope we work together forever.
HENRY: About how long was the shoot?
CHRISTOPHER: We were in Texas for forty-five days, and I think we had twenty-five shooting days. We fit a lot in, in a very little amount of time, because when you add children and horses and animals and building towns and battle scenes, it was tight, but we made it.
HENRY: What was your biggest challenge in the making of this film?
CHRISTOPHER: The biggest challenge for me was dealing with Yaani King’s character, who is a runaway slave. Because it’s just not in my nature to judge anyone by the color of their skin. And to wrap my mind around it, that it was okay. She’s just amazingly talented, just this lovely person. And I told her I’m going to look at you in the show like a piece of furniture, like you don’t even exist. To wrap my mind around this idea that I was going to treat her like a piece of furniture was one of the most difficult things that I ever had to do. And I would end scenes and go over and just hug her, just because I felt so bad about it. That was the most challenging part for me, just mentally getting through that.
HENRY: What are your favorite memories of shooting DELIVERANCE CREEK?
CHRISTOPHER: There were so many amazing memories, and it really it all had to do with the cast and crew, from executives on Lifetime to Skeet Ulrich, Nicholas Sparks. We just bonded in a way that I think was really special. We ate dinner together every night, we hung out together. We had dinners every night with cameramen and sound-people. And we’re still good friends. On the 13th we’re all going to get together and watch DELIVERANCE CREEK when it premieres. As far as shooting it, every time I slid on that black hat, and put on the gun belt, and my gun was actually the gun, the dragoon, that Jeff Bridges used in TRUE GRIT. Every time I put that gun onto my belt, and I was Jasper, and I walked out of my trailer, those were just fantastic days. The moments of getting to be Jasper were just satisfying personally, career-wise, artistically – there was just something special about playing him.
HENRY: If it goes to series, what would you like to see happen with Jasper?
CHRISTOPHER: (chuckles) Melissa Carter, who is our show-runner, and I have had multiple conversations about story ideas. I’d like to see him hitting Union banks, seeing it as more of a targeted strike. I want to see the human side of him as well. Who does he open up to, who does he actually trust. I have some specific story ideas, but I think Melissa would kill me if I gave them away.
Wes Ramsey & Lauren Ambrose
HENRY: What do you have planned for the future that we should be watching for?
CHRISTOPHER: I’m in the final season of SONS OF ANARCHY, which premieres September 9th. DELIVERANCE CREEK and SONS OF ANARCHY do have these parallels if you just sub bikes for horses. And I’m in the live-action SPONGE-BOB movie with Antonio Banderas. I play Antonio Banderas’ father in flashbacks. I’m a famous Spanish captain that sets Antonio Banderas’ life on this course. And that was so much fun; to go from a bushwhacker to a pirate was pretty cool. I didn’t do any work with the sponge. And I do research, so I read the book, THE BLACK FLAG, an anthology of pirate stories, and then realized when I got there that I was in a SpongeBob movie.
HENRY: You and your lovely wife Mira Sorvino have four school-aged kids. Is it hard to juggle your careers and family?
CHRISTOPHER: It is. Like any other family when you have two working parents, it’s difficult. But we’re very supportive of each other, and we’ve been lucky as well that our schedules haven’t overlapped that much. She was in Vancouver shooting INTRUDERS. So I would fly to L.A. and do SPONGE-BOB, and on the weekends fly back. It’s difficult but workable, and we enjoy it. And every time I find myself complaining about how hard it is, (I remember) we’ve taken our kids to some amazing places because of the jobs we do. And the life experience that they get from being a part of that is pretty special when you look back on it. We took them to Egypt literally a month before it collapsed when Mubarak was ousted. And who knows when you’ll ever get back to Egypt to climb the pyramids. And they’ve done those things. In terms of DELIVERANCE CREEK, I have two little boys who ask me every day when we go to Texas and learn to be cowboys. It’s fun that they relate to that sort of thing. We love each other and we support each other and make it work.
HENRY: If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
CHRISTOPHER: Wow – I’m not sure I’m good at anything else! My wife likes to say that I’m black or white – I’m all in or I’m all out. So for the last ten years it’s been all in on acting. I wish I was a musician, but I just play around on it. But if I could do anything else and be good at it, I’d be a musician.
MARK OF ZORRO LACMA Sept 9 1pm
On Tuesday, September 9th, at 1 pm, for a paltry four dollars, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will present Rouben Mamoulian's brilliant film of Johnston MacCulley's delightful novel The Curse of Capistrano, THE MARK OF ZORRO! It is a feast to watch, starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and as wonderful a pair of villains as could be desired, Basil Rathbone and Gale Sondegaard.
Basil Rathbone & Gale Sondegaard
THAT'S A WRAP!
Next Sunday, would have been Clayton Moore's 100th birthday, and I plan to feature my interview with his daughter, Dawn Moore!
All Original Contents Copyright September 2014 by Henry C, Parke - All Rights Reserved