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Interview: Vondie Curtis-Hall on JUSTIFIED: CITY PRIMEVAL, GRIDLOCK'D, COP ROCK, Baz Luhrmann, and Lena Horne
When I attended the TCA Press Tour back in January, I knew that Vondie Curtis-Hall was going to be part of FX’s Justified: City Primeval, and I thought, “Oh, man, talk about an actor whose back catalog is right in my wheelhouse…” Unfortunately, he wasn’t available to do interviews during the tour, but I was assured by the show’s publicist that when the time came to do press for the show, she’d do everything she could to get me some time with him.
She was as good as her word. Alas, I only had a little over 15 minutes with him, but as ever, I tried to make the most of my time, and I think I did right by you readers. The biggest omission in terms of major projects from his back catalog is Chicago Hope, which - as you’ll soon see - he did at least mention in passing. But I just never got to the point where I could ask him about it, and I knew what I wanted to ask as my last question, so I couldn’t use it there. But he said he’d be up for a sequel at some point, so maybe that’ll happen.
Hey, you never know. I mean, who thought Justified would come back?
POINT OF CLARIFICATION: This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.
I don't know where these episodes were actually filmed, but at least from a story standpoint, this put you back on your home turf. You're from Detroit originally, right?
Vondie Curtis-Hall: Yeah! Unfortunately, it was just set there. We shot in Chicago. But some of the areas that we shot were very, very Detroit-like. I was, like, "Oh, yeah, this works. I know this block." [Laughs.]
How much of a fan of Elmore Leonard were you when you came aboard?
I was a big fan of Elmore Leonard because of being from Detroit, of course, but also the Tarantino movie [Jackie Brown] and reading some of his books. So that was one of the things that kind of drew me to wanting to do the show. Elmore Leonard and [director] Michael Dinner, who I'd worked with before on Chicago Hope. At that point, when Michael called me, Quentin Tarantino was going to direct a couple of the episodes, and Michael called and said, "Hey, there's this character that I... I really just see you being this character. Would you take a read?" [Laughs.] So I read the pilot, and I said, "Wow, this is great!" It was really good writing. And true to Elmore Leonard's vibe, y'know?
Had you watched much - or any - of Justified before signing on?
I hadn't! You know, once I got the call, I watched a few of the episodes, and Tim [Olyphant] is just great in it. It's a very cool show. But it's really interesting to drop him into Detroit. I thought it was just genius to drop the cowboy hat into Detroit. [Laughs.] It was cool.
Well, I have to say that to have both you and Keith David in the mix, it's just a wealth of character actor goodness.
Yeah! Keith is amazing. I love Keith so much. Although not only did we not get to work together, but I don't even think I even saw him in the trailer! You know, sometimes you don't work with someone, but you'll see them in the makeup trailer, and they're going to shoot a scene that you're not in, or whatever. But I didn't even run into him! I think there was one day that he was in town over a weekend, and I missed him.
How did you enjoy working with Olyphant?
Oh, Tim is amazing. A great, great actor. Really good guy. Really generous and hospitable. Cares about the cast. Very respectful. He's a team player. You know, being the headliner, he was really just great with everybody and just made sure that everybody was happy. He's great.
I went on social media to tell people that I was going to be talking to you today, and I got a flurry of requests to ask you about stuff. The top one was one I was going to ask you about anyway: what do you remember about working with Joe Strummer on Mystery Train?
A-ha! [Laughs.] Yeah, Strummer! I remember showing up on set and Jim Jarmusch saying, "Look, I don't like the way this scene is going. What would you guys say here? What would you do here? Let's just rewrite it." So Joe and I were sitting there and just kind of came up with the vibe of that scene. I think Jim was really open to just reinterpreting it for our vibe together. So, yeah, he was great. I think he was a solid actor, and of course I loved his music. Just a super cool guy.
I actually went back and rewatched Gridlock'd last night.
Oh, really? [Laughs.]
I wish I saw you directing more, because that's a really fantastic film.
Aw, thanks. Yeah, that was a good one to come out of the gate with.
I know at least a little bit of it was inspired by your own youth.
Yeah, my own past as a young musician and a...young person into the substances that allow one to feel that they could be a better musician. [Laughs.]
I hear you. And how much did you enjoy having your brief onscreen appearance being introduced by "Superfly"?
[Very long and appreciative cackle.] Well, you know, I dig that music, you know, and my music supervisor was kind of like, "Well, it's iconic from another movie, you know?" But I thought, "Hey, this guy..." I don't know, it was kind of an homage to Curtis Mayfield, who I love, and I loved his score, and I just thought it was one of the most brilliant scores. And to use it to introduce that guy, I thought it was just kind of a nice, fun wink for the character and for Curtis Mayfield.
I mean, you earned it with the hat alone. Now, have you been trying to do more directing? At the time, it felt like a one-off, just because you did so much acting in the wake of it, but I know you've since done other things.
Yeah, you know, I've got another movie I'm gonna do called Residue. It's from a novel by Warren Adler. So I'm going to do that movie, probably in 2024. I think one continues to try to express in different ways as an artist, so I'll keep directing as long as I can raise the money. [Laughs.] And I'll keep acting to pay for it!
This is the first time you and I have ever talked, but...somehow I managed to put together an entire oral history of Cop Rock without getting a chance to talk to you.
[Surprised.] Really? Wow!
Yeah, I'll have to send you the link, because I talked to everyone from Steven Bochco on down.
Oh, I'd love to see it!
I'm sure I tried to get you on the phone, but I guess we were just two ships in the night or whatever.
Yeah, because everyone was, like, "Oh, it was before its time, it was before its time." [Laughs.]
I agree, though. It was a lot of fun. I was sorry when I heard recently about Barbara Bosson passing away, because I never got a chance to talk to her, either, and I loved her song, "She's the One."
Yes! That was a really interesting journey with that show.
What do you remember thinking when you first got the pitch?
Wow. Well, I thought, "Here's an opportunity for me to sing and act!" Because it was early on when I had moved to L.A. from New York, where I'd been working on Broadway and what have you, so initially I was a little bit torn, because I had taken all of the Broadway musical stuff off my resume, because at that point you couldn't really be a singer and an actor. You couldn't really be considered a serious actor if you'd also been a singer and a song-and-dance man. But when I got the offer for the Bochco show, I was, like, "Well, I'd get the chance to do some strong acting, and then break into song. We'll see how this works out. It's a little bit kooky..." But Bochco was Bochco, and his reputation was one of the biggest at that moment, and I hadn't been that long out in L.A. I think I'd come out to do Die Hard 2, and...maybe this was my next job after Die Hard 2? Something like that. Pretty close to it. So I was, like, "Let's see what happens! I can sing, I can kind of act..." [Laughs.]
I also wanted to ask you just in general about the experience of working on Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet.
A-ha! That was really interesting, because when I did Romeo and Juliet, it was before I did Gridlock'd - just a little bit before - and Baz knew that I wanted to be a director. So we shot in Mexico City, and I learned a great deal from him as a director as an actor. I came into his editing room when he was working - at that time they were editing on these big Steinbeck machines - and he showed me a book that he'd been collecting for a number of years, kind of an inspiration book, with different tear sheets and buttons and cloth and all kinds of materials that were inspirational for him for Romeo and Juliet. He said, "I've been collecting ideas for, like, five years, and this all has gone into the movie, in terms of inspiration." And he showed me the short he did with... At that point, it was with Natalie Portman and Leonardo DiCaprio and a young guy from Australia who was playing Mercutio. It was a short that he'd showed Fox as sort of a concept of what it would be like. It was maybe eight or ten minutes long.
So my experience of working with Baz was really more of the mentorship that he gave me as a director before starting my movie and really thinking about it. But ultimately working with him in the movie as an actor was great as well, because he was so specific with what he wanted. But none of us knew about the speeding up and what he had in his mind. We were just trying to serve him with the lines and do our characters. There was a lot happening in Mexico City, and the air was terrible, and all kinds of craziness was going on. But it was a really, really transformative experience working with Baz on that movie.
I know we have to wrap up soon, but I have a stock question that I like to ask everyone: what's your favorite project that you've worked on over the years that didn't get the love you thought it deserved?
Well... [Long pause.] I don't know, there's a movie I did with Alec Baldwin that I thought was gonna be really fun that Phil Joanou directed. It was me, Alec Baldwin, Kelly Lynch...
Yeah, Heaven's Prisoners. I thought that was gonna be really cool. But, y'know, I don't know how well that really came out. A movie I did called Waist Deep... I mean, Stephen King said it was one of his top 10 movies of the year that year. It didn't really get the play I thought it would. Maybe it's just because it's not that good a movie. [Laughs.] I don't know! But anyway, I wrote and directed it, and I was hoping for more with it. I think it's a pretty decent movie!
Lastly, because I know about your Broadway background, I wanted to know if you have a favorite Lena Horne story.
Ah! I think my favorite Lena Horne story... You know, she was such an icon that everyone came to see her when we were doing the show. So I'm backstage, and Lena calls me to her dressing room, and I come in, and she says, "Hi, I'd like you to meet someone." And it's Jackie Onassis.
And then Lena goes off to take off her makeup or talk to other people, and she leaves me with Jackie Onassis! And so I'm talking to Jackie Onassis, and she's saying, "Oh, it must be great to have made it. Now you've made it! Life is great now!" And I'm thinking, "Y'know, not really, but yeah." [Laughs.] I'm thinking, "Yeah, it's great to meet you, but it's Lena Horne's show. I'm a guy in it, but...it's not as if it's made me so that everyone is knocking on my door!" But we talked for a long time, and she was so great, so personable. Anyway, that's my favorite Lena Horne story: getting to talk to Jackie Onassis.
I'll take it. Well, I'll keep you on track, but I've got plenty of material for a sequel, so we'll have to talk again sometime.
Yes, indeed! It was great talking to you, Will!
Same! And I'll say that I'm currently five episodes into my screeners of Justified: City Primeval, and I'm loving it.
Oh, well, you've got a good treat coming toward you! [Cackles.] Take care!