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Ben Walker.

the vulture transcript

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s Benjamin Walker on Dancing Ballet and His Repo-Man Days

The Scarlett Johannson/Benjamin Walker revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened last week, and as New York theater critic Scott Brown mentioned, Walker spends much of the first act wearing only a towel. In honor of the stripped-down performance, Vulture reached into its vault of celebrity transcripts (such a thing exists; you will never find it) to present you with Jada Yuan's almost complete conversation with Walker, whom she profiled for the magazine. It's a doozy — enjoy!

Have you had any mishaps on stage yet?
I do a lot of rolling and falling, and the other night I cut myself and it bled on my white silk pajamas, which really pissed off the costume people. Goddamnit, get your shit together. Don’t bleed on my clothes. Who do you think you are?

How did you fall?
I honestly don’t know. I just looked down and there’s blood on white silk. This is Broadway, but we don’t have a limitless budget here.

You must have to worry about which way you’re falling, how much butt your showing.
Exactly. With that towel on, butt is the least of my worries.

[Walker takes us to his dressing room.]

Walker: I’ve got a fridge and a pull-up bar. And I mostly use it for …

Wait, did you install it?
No they put it in …

They were like please, please get more in shape …
Yeah, Hey Fatty, why don’t you do some pushups? Yeah, get your money-maker going.

There are no other fun personal effects you want to add to the room?
I don’t know, I always feel like dressing rooms are like gypsy life, I’m not going to be here long. It’s where I work, I don’t want to get too comfortable.

Why don’t you put up like a little picture of —
What?

I don’t know, Mamie [Gummer, his wife]?
Exactly! I rest my case. I know what Mamie looks like.

You know, a little one with the lipstick kiss on it.
Oh, God. No, I’m all right on that.

So do you want to go to Joe Allen?
Yeah, that’d be nice.

I could eat. You too?
Yeah … but don’t tell them I’m eating.

[On the walk to Joe Allen’s]

Do you get recognized at all when you’re in the subway?
No! Nobody bothers me, nobody cares. That’s also what’s great about New York. I mean, every once in a while someone will say, “Oh my God, I heard you were great in [Bloody Bloody] Andrew Jackson, I didn’t get a chance to see it.” Like, yeah, thanks for that. “Why did you guys close so soon?”

Did you guys close that soon? I don’t think you did.
No, we were fine. I mean, we did great considering it was a miracle that we made it all the way to Broadway.

[Seated at the restaurant]

You play an alcoholic. What are you drinking all night on stage?
Tea. We have emergency urination buckets offstage in case I get in a bind. I drink a lot. We actually figured it out. We whittled it down to about around eleven to twelve drinks a night. Which is not that bad, actually. I mean, it’s bad. It’s alcoholism, but the science of it works.

[Waitress takes food order. Walker asks what we’re drinking.]

Um, I didn’t think that far ahead. What are you getting?
That’s where I start! How is that far ahead? I think it’d be an insult to Tennessee if I didn’t get a bourbon.

I’ll do that too.
Can we have a couple of Blanton’s? You like the rocks?

Sure. I don’t know what Blanton’s is.
You don’t know Blanton’s? Oh, you’ll be pleasantly surprised, it’s very good.

How much you drink in real life?
How much do I drink? Not Brick-level. Yeah, done my research.

In college?
Well the thing about college was, I didn’t really have much time for anything. Juilliard’s a very intense training program, and I started there right out of high school. And I lived at the YMCA, I was a bit overwhelmed. I didn’t do as much partying as I probably should have. But I also knew that this was an opportunity that I didn’t want to miss out. I can drink for the rest of my life, so I only got into trouble the last couple years of college. And I took it very seriously, I knew I was very lucky to be there.

But you did have your trouble?
We all did. And I’ll drink to that. Don’t trust somebody that don’t have a troubled period.

What was the town where you grew up like?
Cartersville [Georgia], I mean I think there were 15,000 people when I was in school there. And I liked it a lot, I learned a lot there. Learned a lot about music. I did some small plays there, but I thought I was going to be a ballet dancer. I was dating a ballet dancer, and I was always wanted to learn how to tap dance so my parents got me tap dance lessons and they needed guys, so I just … it was a time of day when my parents wouldn’t pick me up, so I found myself just hanging around this ballet studio and they were like, “Why don’t you come in here and pick these girls up?”

Did you seriously do ballet?
I mean, in my mind I did. Did I actually have skill or know what I was doing? No, of course not. I didn’t. I had no idea.

But you thought that you could pursue it as a career?
Yeah. I did.

What turned you to acting?
When I was little, my father had a movie rental store and we always worked in it and shelved boxes and you’d get to see people’s relationships to the stories and what it does to them and means for them. And this back in the eighties when there was no Blockbuster, there was no Hollywood Video, this was the small town, Mom and Pop, video rental store and I always loved it. I always loved watching old movies and that’s probably where it all started. But I didn’t really think it was anything serious until, I had a great teacher that kind of changed my life in an audition. There was a summer program called Interlochen. You know what Interlochen is?

I went to Interlochen.
Did you really?

Not the academy …
But you went to summer?

Yeah.
Cool. It’s great, right?

For violin.
Oh good for you! Do you still play?

Not really.
You must’ve been good then.

I was okay, I never made it into the symphonic orchestra. It was very nerve-wracking.
So you know what I’m talking about?

Yeah, well we had to audition every single week, it was horrible.
It was horrible.

You went to Interlochen to do drama?
Yes, but I thought I was gonna be able to do dance. Because I wasn’t good enough to dance, but I thought, Okay great, I’ll do this thing but I’ll get to take lots of dance classes. And then I got there, I realized, Oh I’m horrible. These guys started when they were three and they’re amazing machines and, oh, I better learn some lines. Even at the academy, it took me a bit to kind of — I was the understudy for the Miracle Worker and the guy who played the doctor got busted for selling weed, so I got a chance. Yes!

He got busted for selling weed to the other campers?
This was at the Academy.

Okay.
But I was horrible, just horrible.

At dancing?
At dancing and at acting. I just had no idea what I was doing. Just horrible. But, I had good teachers. I got lucky, I got really lucky.

You must’ve been really secure in your masculinity early on to be doing ballet down South.
I guess. I just thought it was beautiful and, yeah. Guess I hadn’t thought of it. I mean, people would pick on you but at the same time, you were always meeting wonderful women and then, you know, having a wonderful time. And doing something I love to do. I always felt that if somebody picks on you it’s because they’re not happy doing what they’re doing. And if you find something that you love to do, it doesn’t matter if they pick on you. You don’t feel it.

Was singing something you did as a kid kind of naturally?
No, um … Jesus Christ. I grew up in a very religious home and my mother’s a pianist …

What religion?
Uh, well, she was an organist. And we would go wherever she played. So I’ve been Baptist, First Baptist, Methodist, Sam Jones Methodist, Presbyterian. I mean, about every brand of that that you could get. Which is also very interesting because the first actors I ever saw in person were preachers. They were up there, telling stories and putting on a show.

From Interlochen did you just know that you were going to move to New York?
No, I had no idea what I was doing but luckily I had some good teachers there that helped me prepare college auditions. And I applied everywhere that would let me waive the application fee. And then I went to Chicago and I auditioned for about fifteen schools in three days and I got lucky again. And I worked hard, I really didn’t want to have to quit.

They waived the application fee because your dad ran the movie rental store? That’s probably not the most lucrative profession.
They waived them because I was broke. You know? I mean, frankly.

Your mom is an organist by profession?
She plays piano. Piano and the organ. Now she’s a schoolteacher. Teaches music in public school. My dad is kind of a rascal, like in a Dickensian sense. He just goes from career to career. Like, he had the movie rental store, then he rented furniture and appliances, then he had a sign printing company, then he ran a stock quote website, then he did watercolors. He is always looking to surprise himself.

What’s he doing now?
Right now he’s a financial planner. When I look back on it, from a very young age we were raised to work. You contribute to our household or you don’t get to live in it. And we would work as repo men, you know, these kind of young boys going into peoples’ trailers and homes and repossessing or delivering their couches and televisions. I learned a lot going into someone’s home to see so intimately how people would live, and I liked that.

It’s crazy that you were a repo man.
I could tell you some stories. How much time do you have? Because I think the first fully naked woman I saw, I was repossessing her couch. She answered the door with not a stitch on her body.

That’s like every young boy’s fantasy.
God, no this was not, this was a nightmare. This was not good.

How old were you?
I mean, when I was big enough to pick stuff up, we were in the truck. And there was a guy named Jack Daniels — yes — who was retired from the Navy, he was about 64 or 65 when I knew him, smoked Basic cigarettes, and he would always pinch the fat of my side and squeal like a pig, he’s very kind of down home, tough …

This is all in your hometown?
Yeah, well there’s the city of Cartersville and then there’s the county, but we served a lot of the county as well, which is much larger.

Was Repo Man one of the movies that you watched in your dad’s rental store?
Oh yeah. With Emilio Estevez, is that right? Oh we rented the hell out of that movie. The alien in the trunk or something. That’s right. Good memory.

What were other movies you were watching? I’m surprised that you didn’t turn to acting right away.
I didn’t have any access to that, or nobody knew anything about it. It seemed very elusive. It’s still very elusive. I liked Gary Cooper movies and Stanley Kubrick and Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis. Come on! I mean, these guys were great. I was in love with Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Danny Kaye, these guys that could dance but also be men and be funny and sing and be romantic.

A New York Times Magazine story compared you to Hugh Jackman.
There are worse people to be compared to.

Song and dance guy of the type who doesn’t exist very much anymore …
Right.

And that there maybe aren’t roles for.
Great! Thank you. [laughs] I’m glad to hear that. Although I just saw him in Les Miz and holy crap he’s great. Really, really great.

Did you not try out for that? What happened?
For that part? Well, Hugh Jackman got it! That’s what happened. No. [laughs] Didn’t fall my way.

No, I meant the revolutionary dude, Enjolras. Some commenters on our website were lamenting that you weren’t playing him.
Yeah, it didn’t fall my way. [laughs] I know what you’re talking about. And yes, I did audition for it and no, I didn’t get it. So, thank you.

Fuck them, right?
Yeah, exactly. No, the guy who did get it was great. It’s all a crapshoot, you know. It could just as easily go another way. You can’t think like that. You just have to enjoy what you have. Life’s too short.

What’s your feeling about movies and TV? Would you rather be doing theater now?
If it doesn’t feel like a job and I’m learning something and getting that rush that I get, I don’t care if it’s behind a camera, on a TV set, or on the moon. All I’m worried about is health insurance. If I can keep health insurance, the rest of it’s great.

You’ve had a blockbuster-ish movie.
Yeah, exactly. Well said. Thank you for that. Just a little splash of honesty right in my face.

[laughs]
No, no, no, you’re absolutely right.

Well …
No, no, no, don’t backpedal. That’s very well said.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was your first big screen role. What was the experience like for you?
I learned a lot. I like that director, Timur [Bekmambetov]. We would always joke, because he would show up every morning and say, [Russian accent] “Okay, Ben, I have idea!” And you would just start sweating. I don’t know if Abe Lincoln can fly, Timur, because that negates everything we’ve shot and won’t match with everything we’re going to shoot. But that kind of playfulness, he was like a professional child, someone who could get the work done but at the same time his imagination was ruling him at some point. But I liked him a lot, I learned a lot. I like American history, obviously, and though we didn’t get as much in it as I would have liked and as much in it as the script that Seth [Grahame-Smith] wrote. It was a learning experience because I … movies are so collaborative. There are so many moving parts to it and so many cooks in a kitchen and so much money at stake that you have to be open to that and aware of that. And I’m proud of the work that we did and I enjoyed the movie, and a few other people did, too. [laughs]

Well, it made back the budget, I think.
Did it?

Domestically it fell short. But according to Box Office Mojo …
Okay, which you should trust everything you read on the Internet.

It’s actual stats. It cost $70 million and made $39 million domestically but $116 worldwide.
GREAT! All right.

You didn’t ever look that up?
That’s something else I don’t like to read, the algorithm of what makes a movie work. But the thing I learned about movies is they’re so much bigger. There’s so much more at stake, the work is longer. But inversely, you get great things that go with it. Like, I got to go to the Persian Gulf and land on the aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and meet the sailors there and show them the movie and go to Djibouti to the base there. I mean, I’m not gonna get to do that with a play! It was awesome! And meet our servicemen and women. Particularly on the aircraft carrier, they don’t get television, they don’t get Facebook. They loved it! [laughs] So I mean, there’s always going to be something that you can take from it and learn from it.

Why was that the first big movie that you did? Why was that the role that you picked?
All right, let’s address that question, because where does that idea come from?

What do you mean?
That I just have so many roles laid out in front of me and I’m going, “Hmmm. I can’t! I won’t take that one. I’ll take …  hmmmm ... No, Hugh Jackman’s going to take that one. This is the one I want.” Are you kidding me? I’m just barely getting by. I don’t get to pick like that.

You’re a handsome, strapping young man. You should have your pick of everything!
What does that got to do with anything? I couldn’t agree with you more. I should be able to do that. That’s not how it works. I don’t have enough, you know, something. Because a lot of movies are based on math, you know, this guy has generated such and such money, so he can guarantee such and such money, and I just haven’t had that opportunity yet. And according to you, I won’t for a while. [laughs]

I’m not saying that!
No, you’ve done your research, thank you very much.

You made back the money!
What’s that Woody Allen quote? “A movie has to just has to make one dollar over what it cost.” So maybe I’ll be all right.

The thing that I felt bad about is that you have a better face than Abraham Lincoln and your big starring moment was not looking like your face.
You mean that big rubber nose they glued on me?

Yeah.
It took like seven hours every day to get in that shit. It was so uncomfortable [laughs]. But that was also great. I got to learn about prosthetics. I had a lovely time.

Was there any part of you that was like, Okay, this is my big starring moment
What does that even mean?

You’re unrecognizable.
You can’t think like that. Life’s too short to think like that. I can’t, my mind doesn’t work like that. What does that mean? Star moment?

This is my big break, but nobody remembers I was in this movie because my face is different than my face.
Yeah, but, what’s my goal if that’s the thing? I just don’t understand what you’re saying. Do actors think like that? That sounds horrible, that sounds like a nightmare.

I don’t know. I’m not an actor.
But you’ve talked to them before. Do actors come up to you and say [maniacal voice], “This movie’s going to make or break me. It’s my star moment!” And you don’t punch them in the face?

I mean, I would hate them.
Good. Just stab me with a fork. It sounds horrible. No, it just seemed like … fun.

It looked like fun.
Yeah, it was!

You got to swing an axe.
Yeah, I did. And I really did that stuff, for the record. I did a lot of work on my axe-ing. It hasn’t come in handy since then, but I do know how to do it.

You haven’t wielded an axe since?
Not recently.

[Food comes]

[Ben looks at phone. It’s Mamie.] She always worries about me in these things.

In your interviews? That you’re revealing too much?
No, she just, um, and rightfully so … I just don’t have much experience doing it, and so I never know when I’m gonna sound like an ass. And also sometimes humor, like, we can be having a great time and the humor that we share won’t translate to written text.

I saw that you have a single line you use over and over again in interviews when people ask you about Meryl Streep.
Yeah, what do you think of that? Which is it? Oh, “The only thing more intimidating than an international film star is your mother-in-law?” It’s good, though, right?

You used it over and over again.
Why not? The people will realize that that’s what I’m going to give you if you keep asking about my mother-in-law. This is my family. I’m not gonna talk about her.

You emcee a standup show at Joe’s Pub, Find the Funny. What is the continued appeal of standup for you?
It’s continuously challenging. I like the community. I like comedians and funny writers.

Do you have to read the news a lot to do your standup?
I like topical comedy. I’m interested. I read the paper and watch the news. I find humor in it all the time and I think that’s important. I don’t do it very well, but, you know, I enjoy it and I like people who do do it well.

In other interviews you’ve talked about your career of doing weird interpretations of American presidents.
That’s a good line, right?

It’s good. It’s common.
But I haven’t thrown it at you, right?

Not yet.
What do you mean, not yet? Come on! It’s only a matter of time. I’m not that guy. If you’re gonna be that person, you’re gonna get it. You’re gonna get the script. And frankly, that’s all they want. They just want an opportunity to print the same shit that everybody is printing. That’s not my fault. Let’s bang it out and get it over with because you don’t actually care about me or what I have to say in my career. You want to sell your magazine and these guys want me to sell the movie. So we’re meeting in the middle, and this is unique.

Have you thought of more presidents that you’re going to interpret weirdly?
Have I? I haven’t. I’m going to stay off presidents for a while.

Obama?
I’ll leave that one alone.

Let’s talk about this play in particular. How do you have the stamina for two hours and 40 minutes? That is a long play.
I don’t know. Much less twice in a day, which we haven’t done yet, so I don’t know how that’s gonna go. I don’t know. The text is so powerful it’s almost like if I have enough strength to get there and buckle up, all I have to do is hold on for the ride.

Had you met Scarlett before you started rehearsals?
Yeah, we did a reading of The Glass Menagerie a few years ago and then when they were thinking of doing a play, they flew me to Paris to do the reading with her, of this.

Why Paris?
I think she has a place there, or she was working there. I’m not sure. There are worse jobs. We were doing press for Abraham Lincoln in Korea, so I had just come from there. And, like, Seoul, I got to go to Seoul! Come on! They loved us in Seoul. It was a magical, wonderful time to work on this play with her and Rob and to watch the sun come up repeatedly in Paris.

You’d wake up to watch the sunrise?
I couldn’t sleep and they have these bikes you can rent. My sleep clock was already screwed up from Korea. And also, you’re in Paris! What, are you going to go home and say, “I had a great sleep in Paris!” That’s just horrible. No, you want to stay up and bike around and watch the sun come up in a place where I don’t live and a culture that I’m learning about. Life’s too short to sleep.

Do you always have trouble sleeping?
I can fall asleep. I just can’t stay asleep. I don’t know. I just feel like I’m missing out and it’s just hard to stop and decompress. I find it very productive and I like being awake when everyone’s asleep. I find it a very productive time. It started in high school. A doctor told me once that it’s just a chemical thing and as long as I don’t get sick I’ll be fine. Not everybody needs the same amount of rest. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

Was the audition a situation where you nailed it or that others dropped out?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I mean, I like Scarlett. I admire her work. I admire her work ethic. I certainly think we have chemistry together.

What did you mean about Scarlett’s work ethic?
Just it’s tough, man. I can’t imagine the amount of pressure. There are so many people that want things from her, that have expectations and pressures. It’s hard to be a woman in this business, harder than being a man, in my opinion.

Why?
Because so much is expected of you. I mean, we joke about me doing sit-ups, but it really doesn’t fucking matter. Most of the time, nobody cares. And for a woman there is an expectation with how you should look and how you should dress and how you should carry yourself. You’ll do as much work as a man but not get paid as much, and there’s not as many good roles for women. It’s not fair. And in spite of all that, she’s really done something remarkable.

Did you see that also with Mamie, that she’s struggling with that, too?
Yes, of course. I think all the women in this business have it hard, and it’s the rare few that can make an actual life of it. I definitely think both those women have got legs. And Scarlett just works hard. It’s a hard part. And I mean, she has no need to do a play. She’s got a Tony. She’s got great movies lined up. Why go back? Why not just do something else? Why risk an opportunity for somebody to say you’re bad? But she has the balls to give it a shot and jump back in the fire, and that’s admirable.

She talks for the entire first act.
I know! Jesus Christ! Welcome to my world.

Whose suggestion was it that you go to Paris to read with Scarlett?
Uh, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I try not to ask too many questions so people won’t figure out what a fraud I am. I ask questions and they go, “Oh no, we meant the other Ben Walker.” I’m glad whoever did it did it.

It’s so interesting to think of how they dealt with grief and mental illness back then. People just drank their way through it.
Drank and smoked. Not really going to see your therapist for any of this. And particularly in Big Daddy’s life, there was no time for it. When he was young, he would have died if he could not have coped. And that’s something that I admire about Scarlett and what I think makes her right for Maggie. That they are willing to do what it takes to survive. Maggie the Cat is, you know, a modern woman in so many different ways because she’s willing to face reality and in spite of reality’s ugliness, she’s willing to endure it and try to make something out of it, and I think that’s great.

Did you know guys like Brick growing up, like good ol’ boys?
Oh yeah, and that idea … my father used to always say, if you think the years in high school are the best years of your life, you’re right. And what a horrible existence that is. You peak as soon as you’re in high school. I can’t imagine that. It must be horrible.

You must have looked the part of that in the day.
Are you out of your mind? I’ll show you some pictures of me in high school. I was a horrible loser. I had horrible acne. I had terrible skin. I was lanky. I mean, it was bad. Dude, I was in bad shape. I didn’t dress well, which I didn’t know at the time. I thought I looked great. My hair, it’s Georgia. Humid, made it an Afro. I was this curly mushroom head. Oh my God. I wore glasses. I was a mess! Oh my God.

Did you have a Southern accent?
Oh yeah.

What happened to it?
I went to Juilliard and they kicked the crap out of me. I want my money back! It’s funny because they make you make a tape the first day you get there, and then you re-record it the last day of the first year and I didn’t recognize the other person.

So you had to eradicate your Southern accent …
And now I have to relearn it. It’s doubly frustrating, because I could so easily do this a few years ago. [laughs]

A lot of the play deals with pressure to have children. Do you want kids?
I’ve wanted kids long before I wanted a wife. I always wanted kids. I like kids.

Are you going for that?
Who knows? [laughs] What’s my diplomatic answer for that? You can help me write it. You want to order another round of drinks?

Sure.
[orders]

What did you think of Lincoln?
I haven’t see it.

What?
I haven’t seen anything! Why would I go to the movies? I did see Les Miz but that was because it was this nice screening thing that they did.

Of all the movies you should see … You were in the only other Lincoln movie of the year.
They’re so different. We definitely had — this is one of the lines that I use, by the way, and I think it’s a good one. I’m proud of it. When people ask me about Lincoln, I say, “Well, we had better vampires.” Right? Funny, right?

But you don’t know!
Because you haven’t seen it! I’ll see it. Definitely. I adore his work. But I just haven’t had a chance.

[A little while later, a female fan approaches us, somewhat inebriated.]

Drunk fan, to Walker: You don’t remember me. I saw you in Bloody Bloody. I was a doctor for the show. And I went to the Find the Funny that was right here. I was drinking Jack Daniels and beer. It’s kind of sad.

Walker: No it’s not! Why is that sad?

We love bourbon.

Walker: I know. It’s great to double-fist.

[This goes on for a few minutes, then the restaurant starts to shut down]

Will you and Mamie work together?
I don’t know. Maybe. If it’s right. I’m not opposed to that. I think that I’ve seen other couples do it and it’s problematic. I mean, we started dating when we were working together. Clearly it’s fine.

I thought you met her when you were doing the play Dangerous Liaisons.
No, we’d known each other before. We didn’t hit it off. Yeah, there’s that.

What happened?
No, we were just at very different places in our lives and dating our respective other mistakes. I don’t know if we didn’t like each other. It’s just we were in very different places. And then we became friends, and that’s nice. As it should be. I trust that more than [sings] I saw her across a crowded room.

Okay, we should probably go soon. I just wonder how you feel as someone who got his start in theater and is now competing with big movie stars who want to dip their toe in Broadway. Chris Pine and Jeremy Renner were both reportedly in the running to play Brick.
Good for them. If they’re going to do good plays and people are going to see such and such in a great play, maybe they never would have seen that play had it not been for some pretty boy that they got up there. That’s fine.

It’s interesting to go from sexypants in Jackson to this guy who’s not having sex with his wife.
[laughs] Yet.

How hard has it been to live down the Sexypants poster?
There are worse things to be called. Ultimately, I don’t know that that was my ass. I looked at that poster and I was like, That’s not my ass.

What kind of shape were you in before this? Did you get bulked up for this play?
I’m not bulked up! Look at me! I’m a fucking twig. What are you talking about? Why is everybody talking about my body?

You’ve got muscles.
Oh, I see how it is.

You’re shirtless for the entire first act.
There’s that.

You’ve got the towel.
That is a dangerous towel.

Has it fallen off?
Not yet, but I forgot to tuck one night and a woman in the front row went, “Mmmm hmmm.”

Photo: Getty Images