Interview: Ray Wise
I’ve interviewed a number of actors in my time, and I’m fortunate to have had very few unpleasant experiences over the course of my career, but I will say that, even considering the formidable competition, Ray Wise remains one of the nicest guys in the business. He loves what he does, he loves that people enjoy his work, and he always seemed pleased to talk about it.
I still remember having a close encounter with him at one of my first TCA tours: it was at a big CBS / CW / Showtime gathering, and I was fortunate enough to have been able to bring my wife to the event. She had the opportunity to tell him how, when she and I were first dating, I introduced her to Twin Peaks via this classic VHS set that WorldVision released once upon a time…
…and she also told him how—underestimating how quickly she would blow through it in my absence—left her at a key cliffhanger moment without having the next tape in the series in her possession. He turned to me and said in a mock-accusatory tone, “How could you? That’s terrible!” And then he grinned and started laughing.
Funny guy, that Ray Wise…
Thanks to Tatum Wan, the publicist handling Ray’s latest film, King Knight, I had the opportunity to chat with Ray again, and he was as delightful as ever. Due to time constraints, it wasn’t as in-depth as some of the chats he and I have had in the past, but it was still a solid conversation. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you check out the film in question, which also stars starring Matthew Gray Gubler, Angela Sarafyan, Andy Milonakis, Barbara Crampton, and Nelson Franklin. To say that it’s quirky is an understatement, but I watched it and laughed out loud more than a few times.
\So what was it like to play such a major figure in fiction as Merlin?
Ray Wise: Oh, my goodness. Yeah, it was... Well, when Ricky asked me to play Merlin and I went, "Wow!" And then I thought, "Well, actually, I've seen a lot of other Merlins..." And then I read his Merlin, and I thought, "Yeah, this is something I want to do." And when we were on set and playing around with it, we did a little bit of improvisation. Ricky, he has a great ear for dialogue—he writes extremely well—and he's a great filmmaker. He writes and directs! And I've done all of his projects except for Trash Fire. And I would've done that one, too, except I had a conflict. So anytime Ricky Bates, Jr. calls, I'm there!
You're his good-luck charm, I guess.
I guess! [Laughs.]
Well, I will say that yours is the rare Merlin that gets to drop the F-bomb.
Oh, yes, I know! Yeah, I don't think any Merlins before that... I'm not sure they had that word in the Arthurian legend! [Laughs.] Yeah, he drops the F-bomb, and...I hope it doesn't offend anyone!
In fairness, you're only repeating something that Matthew [Gray Gubler's character] says. So how did you enjoy working with him? Working with him again, I should say, since this isn't the first time you've worked with him, either!
Oh, gosh, Matthew, he's great. Yeah, I did Criminal Minds and had a couple of scenes with him on that show when I guest-starred on that, and then we did Suburban Gothic, in which he plays my son. So, yeah, we're very familiar with each other, and we have a good working relationship and a good friendship. Again, he's someone who, whenever he gives me a call, I'll be there!
I meant to mention a moment ago that, in addition to sharing the screen with Matthew, you also had the opportunity to do some narration for the film.
Yeah! That was nice. I found that out when they were doing post-production, and they said they wanted me to do some narration. And I said, "Well, yeah! If I can get into any more of this film than I'm already in, that's all right with me!" [Laughs.]
Well, you have such a distinctive voice that I recognized it immediately.
Oh, yeah, I guess I do! I don't think of my voice as being distinctive, but I suppose it is!
Well, I've been watching you since Twin Peaks, so it's certainly distinctive to me.
Yeah, wow, Twin Peaks. I certainly ran the vocal gamut on that show, didn't I? [Laughs.] My goodness...
To say the least. Including vocalizing a few songs.
Yeah! Well, Leland Palmer, he had a decent Broadway baritone... [Laughs.]
He did. How fortunate that you had one as well. And that reminds me: the last time I talked to you was before you'd popped up in Twin Peaks: The Return. Obviously, you didn't have a major part, but how was it to be back in that universe again?
It was wonderful. Just wonderful. You know, it was just one day for me in the Red Room, but Richard Beymer was there, and Kyle [MacLachlan] was there, and of course David [Lynch] was there, and...it was great to be back with all of them again! And when I sat down in that chair in the Red Room, it was like Old Home Week. It just seemed like yesterday that we did the series...and then Fire Walk With Me, of course. But it's been 30 years now. Over 30!
Time flies. But I'll say that I loved all of the new episodes. It was even weirder than the original series, but...
Oh, yeah, I was disappointed. I wanted to be in more of the third season! I had a couple of good ideas. I said to David, "You know, I know that Leland is gone, but...he could have a twin brother named Leonard!"
I mean, we saw the resemblance between Laura and her cousin. I'm just saying.
Yeah, and he thought about it for a moment. But then he laughed...and nothing came of it. [Laughs.]
I've enjoyed the fact that you've spent your career unafraid of doing quirky roles.
Yeah, anybody who has a good little part for me and I like the writing and I can do something with it, I'm there! You know, it doesn't really matter how much they're going to pay me or any of that stuff. I relish playing different characters and expressing myself in different ways. So, yeah, I love that about the way I do things.
That said, it was also nice to see you in a thoroughly mainstream role on Fresh Off the Boat for so long.
Yeah, how 'bout that? I certainly didn't anticipate doing that show. But it came along, and I did the pilot for it, and then it got picked up by the network, and they wanted to keep me along with it. It's the first dentist I've ever played, so that was rather interesting. I had my own dental office on the show, and...I fixed a couple of teeth, I think! Yeah, that was a big show, Fresh Off the Boat. And groundbreaking! And, of course, it made Constance [Wu] a big star, and Randall Park, he's wonderful. I couldn't speak more highly of a human being, really, than Randall. It was just a great situation, a great bunch of people.
Randall's got a great new series on Peacock with Ed Helms that's a lot of fun.
Yeah, I saw that! Great for him! You know, he's so talented, and he's one of a kind, really. I think that he's gonna be working forever!
Is there a project you've worked on over the years that didn't get the love you thought it deserved?
Oh, wow... [Hesitates.] I guess...I would've liked to have seen Reaper on the air a little bit longer. You know, where I played the Devil?
Yeah! I was real disappointed when the CW decided to cancel that one. I still can't figure that one out to this day, because...I look at some of the episodes now, and I go, "Wow, that was a great show!" And there's nothing really on television now like it. So, yeah, I was real disappointed when that was cancelled. I thought that could go another couple three years. And I think Michele [Fazekas] and Tara [Butters] had a couple of seasons already planned or outlined. I thought maybe we would go down to Hell a little bit and see what Hell was really like, that sort of thing, but...it didn't happen. It was a real disappointment. I could've played the Devil forever! [Laughs.] It fits my personality, I think.
Well, I still have my Reaper Dirt Devil that they sent out to critics as promotional swag for the series, and I forget whether it was Rick Gonzales or Tyler Labine who said, "Hey, I didn't get one of those!"
I didn't get one of those, either! [Laughs.] Those guys—Tyler, Rick, and Bret [Harrison]—they were a great bunch to work with. We had a great time. It was just pure fun.
I was looking online, and I'd forgotten that you'd actually gotten your start in the theater. You were in a pretty notable production of Romeo & Juliet.
Yeah, I did Romeo & Juliet on Broadway—I played Benvolio—and I did Tartuffe on Broadway. I did The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill off-Broadway, and I did The Tooth of Crime off-Broadway at a theater called La MaMa, and I won the Obie Award for that one. That's the off-Broadway acting award.
Yeah, I've done probably around 80 or 85 plays professionally in my career. I was a stage actor to begin with. And then I got this job in New York in 1970 to do a soap opera called Love of Life, and that's what got me started in New York. And I had a good paying day job, I could do theater at night… It was the best of all worlds, and everything has worked out up to this point. So you're catching me at a good time. [Laughs.]
What do you have on the horizon? Or can you speak to that?
Ah, well, you know, with the way things are now, I don't know! I have been working during the pandemic—I've done a couple of movies and guest-starred on a couple of shows and did some voice work—but it's kind of a crap shoot now, because everything that is being done, everybody and their brother is up for it because they haven't been working for the most part for a couple of years. So it's extremely competitive right now. And then, of course, you have to do these auditions on Zoom or that kind of thing, and that's not ideal. You know, you're not in a room with people. So it's a very difficult process now. So I just sort of wait until somebody offers me a job, and then I decide if I want to do it or not! [Laughs.]
Lastly, do you have a favorite film that you've worked on over the years? Excluding Fire Walk With Me, I guess, since you've already indicated your love for that one.
Oh, wow... Well, I have more than one, actually! But Good Night and Good Luck, which I did for George Clooney. You know, with Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Daniels, and Frank Langella. That was just a wonderful experience.
But then also I loved a film called Robocop—the original—and I really enjoyed Rising Sun with Sean Connery, one of my big heroes. And then, of course, even something going all the way back to 1982: Swamp Thing, with Louis Jordan and Adrienne Barbeau. I had a ball making that film.
So I guess those four would be my favorites, although...I know you did say "excluding Fire Walk With Me," but I'll just say that that movie is very special in my heart.
It's dark, but it's wonderful.
Yes, thank you. I think so, too. In many ways, I think it's David's masterpiece, really.