Peter Weller may still be best known for blowing away street punks as the original RoboCop, but he’s equally riveting these days as bad cop Charles Barosky on Sons of Anarchy, a series he has also directed. “I like acting, and if a good part comes along, I’ll do it,” he says. “But I get much more satisfaction from directing.” He’s helming three episodes in SoA’s seventh and final season, and his character has returned as well; he also directs this Sunday’s episode of FX’s The Strain. Weller spoke with Vulture about Barosky’s backstory, why he skipped the RoboCop reboot, the cult of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and how he became “a Ph.D. pretentious asshole.”
How did you get cast as Barosky?
I was directing the show, and Kurt [Sutter] came up to me and said, “We have this character. He’s a bad cop, he runs the port in Stockton, he’s a very interesting guy, he’s got a coffee shop. Do you want to do it?” I said, “Where does it go?” And he goes, “I don’t know.” So I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” I did it essentially because, what the heck? I felt so organic to the show. It’s such a family anyway.
Did you create a backstory for the character?
No, not necessarily. Like a lot of policemen, he got the opportunity to go rogue and make money. I’ve known several of them personally. So I didn’t really need much of a backstory for Barosky.
He’s on SAMCRO’s payroll, but is he loyal to them — or to anyone?
He’s loyal to nobody, and SAMCRO knows that. He runs his own ship. He’s in Stockton, he’s not in Charming. He’s certainly not endemic to any biker gang, be it Hispanic or white. He’s not necessarily beholden to anyone.
How does it feel to be coming down to the wire in the final season?
It’s like your last day at school. You know you’ve gotta move on, but you’re sad. There’s a catharsis, but you’ve gotta do it. It’s a myriad of feelings. It’s confusing.
You played another bad cop, Stan Liddy, on Dexter. Were you bummed when he got killed off?
No, everybody dies on Dexter like everybody dies on Sons of Anarchy and 24. My only request was I said, “I ain’t going under that sheet, man.” They said, “How do you want to die?” I said, “Colt .45.” And they said, “Dexter doesn’t do guns.” I said, “Okay, Bowie knives.” And that’s how I died.
Do you know if you’re going to survive on Sons of Anarchy?
Look, man, I don’t think anybody’s surviving on Sons of Anarchy. Honestly, I don’t know, and no one does. The only few people of decency on that show are Unser (Dayton Callie), Wendy (Drea de Matteo), and Nero (Jimmy Smits). Those are the people who are struggling with trying to do the correct thing for humanity and not themselves. They’re the soul of morality. Barosky sure as shit isn’t.
Do you feel like being known as RoboCop has held you back?
Nothing has ever held me back. Ever. And certainly not that role. That’s a brilliant movie. I was really fortunate to be a part of it. If anyone wants to look back at the beginnings of the age of information and see a great story about resurrection and redemption, that’s it. There’s nothing I have regrets for.
Did you see the RoboCop reboot that came out earlier this year?
No. I didn’t relate to it at all. I was busy doing Sons of Anarchy and Star Trek: Into Darkness and directing Hawaii Five-O. I had no interest in seeing it. That’s a long time ago for me, man. I’m very grateful I did it, but it’s over. I knew the new one wasn’t going to hold a candle to the original.
Is that why you dropped out of 1993’s RoboCop 3?
I didn’t even want to do RoboCop 2. When I was doing RoboCop 1, I knew what a brilliant movie this was going to be. I did RoboCop 2 for a paycheck. It was a pretty good film, but I was done with it. And I really wanted to do Naked Lunch. That was a seminal book to me.
How did you convince David Cronenberg to cast you in that film?
I wrote Cronenberg a letter and said, “You’re the guy to make this movie; I’m the perfect guy to play the dude.” I got this call from Cronenberg, and we met in New York and the next thing I knew, I’m in Naked Lunch — for, like, 10 percent of what they were offering me to do RoboCop 3. Even though it was no money, I said, “I don’t care. I’ll pay Cronenberg to do it.”
Buckaroo Banzai just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Is there any possibility that the sequel that’s teased at the end of the movie will ever be made?
I hear something every year, man. [John] Lithgow and [Jeff] Goldblum are the two people from it I stay in touch with most, and we always hear something, and nothing ever happens. I think it’s bound up in legal problems. If they can get through those, fine, and if they can’t, I don’t know.
Why do you think it’s still got such a cult following 30 years later?
It’s just a unique flick. The brilliance of it is it doesn’t spoon-feed you anything. There’s no introduction to it. You have to love it as it is, or not. There’s a social statement in it; there’s all kinds of stuff in it. I didn’t know what to make of it when I was in it. If someone asks me, I don’t know what the watermelon means. Earl Mac Rauch, the guy who wrote it, is one of the weirdest guys I’ve ever met. I hope there is something more to Buckaroo Banzai. Humphrey Bogart said you’re lucky if you make two or three movies that outlive you, and I hope I’ve done that.
I’d say so. You’ve played trumpet with Goldblum, who’s an accomplished pianist. Have you guys jammed lately?
I haven’t played with him in a while, but I play all the time. Goldblum lives in New York, and we talk about getting back together. I’d love to play with him. I love the guy. He’s one of the great guys.
Do you ever get mistaken for the British musician Paul Weller from the Jam?
I haven’t been mistaken for Paul Weller in 24 years! I used to run around Paris and get mistaken for Paul. I hope he’s been mistaken for me. When I was a younger man, I used to get mistaken for Jimmy Woods. Although he’s probably a lot smarter, I’m a lot better-looking, for sure. And every once in a while, I get mistaken for Christopher Walken.
I can see that.
He’s one of my oldest friends. He’s one of the first people I ever met in New York. I was told somebody once came up to him at a party in New York and said, “Hey, it’s RoboCop! Can I have your autograph?” And he said, “Absolutely!” and he signed my name. He’s so inventive, man. I mean, that guy, he’s a one-off.
Congratulations on finishing your doctorate, by the way.
Yeah, I’m a doctor. I’ve gotta shut up about my Ph.D., but my wife said, “I’m giving you five years to brag about it.” Because if you’ve got a Ph.D., man, it is the one title that, by law, no one can take from you. They can take your law degree, man. They can take your M.D. away. They can take your judgeship away. They can take any political title away. They cannot take a doctorate of philosophy away.
I was directing Dwight Yoakam, who’s a beautiful dude, on Under the Dome, and he said, “You’ve got to talk about your Ph.D., because no other motherfucker has done it in show business.” Even if they think I’m a pretentious asshole, I let them know I’m a Ph.D. pretentious asshole. Shit, man, I spent two years getting my master’s degree in Florence and seven years getting my Ph.D. at UCLA.
I don’t think James Woods has a Ph.D. …
No, he does not! Nor does David Duchovny or Natalie Portman or any of these other Ph.D. wannabes. The only people in show business who really do have them are Robert Vaughn and Brian May, the lead guitarist in Queen.
That’s pretty good company.
Yeah, it’s very good company, man! I’m very proud of it. It’s the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. When you get a doctorate of philosophy in Italian Renaissance art history, fuck! And I did that while I was raising a kid and directing. I just don’t know how I did it.