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Don Johnson Loved Hurling Insults at His Knives Out Co-stars

Don Johnson. Photo: Lionsgate

Everyone in the rich family in Knives Out is terrible in their own way, but Richard Drysdale has a good shot at being the most terrible man among them. In Rian Johnson’s whodunit, which is double-stuffed with movie stars, much like a bloody Oreo, Don Johnson plays Richard, a character who is seemingly never without a drink in his hand or a WASPy quarter-zip sweater over his chest, and who happens to be one of the terrible suspects in the murder of Christopher Plummer’s Harlan Thrombey. Harlan’s daughter, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is Richard’s wife, while Chris Evans plays his scummy son. Much of the fun of making the movie, as Don Johnson pointed out, was the chance to work alongside so many great actors, and the rest of it involved the chance to hang out with them while the cameras weren’t rolling. Vulture caught up with Don Johnson over the phone to talk about about his stories from the Knives Out set, the very different kind of charming he’s playing on Watchmen, and why he’s interested in going back to the world of Nash Bridges.

It’s so fun to see an old-fashioned murder mystery movie being made today.
[Laughs] You mean a movie with a narrative and interesting plot twist? Not a lot of explosions and shit?

Rian has talked about how the movie came together very quickly, and all the actors had to jump onboard at once. What made you sign on?
It was the easiest thing that I’ve ever done. A brilliant filmmaker dropped an amazing script in my lap, and then we got on the phone, and we talked about everything under the sun except the script and the character, and he said, “Okay, I’ll see you in Boston.”

Well, what did you talk about, if not the script and the character?
We were just shooting the breeze. The very first thing he said to me was “I saw your movie, Zachariah.” I made Zachariah in 1970, and I think I was 20 years old, and I was going, “Well, that’s a hell of an audition piece for this.” Honestly, I just couldn’t believe my good fortune to get ahold of such a great piece of material.

Your character Richard must be a fun part to play, because he’s a total scumbag, but he keeps hiding it badly. He can’t remember where Ana De Armas’s character, Marta, is from; he brags about Hamilton at the Public; etc.
The great thing about it is that all the characters in the piece are flawed except for Ana, and perhaps Benoit Blanc. Although, you could make an argument for that, too. I liked [Richard] because he was kind of the purest personification of entitlement. I’ve known a lot of these kinds of guys throughout my life, who don’t really do anything, but they’re always walking around with about a half a buzz on. He has a good rat intelligence in that he knows where his meal ticket is, and that’s in Linda, Jamie Lee’s character. He’s walking that horrible line that men have to walk when they’re kept men: I still have my manhood kind of, but whatever she says goes.

He has the privilege of all of the money, but it’s not really his money, so he has to stay in line, which is an interesting dynamic.
If you take the conceit that everybody in the world plays a part, he’s playing his part.

What was it like acting the scenes where everyone in the family is together shouting insults at each other?
It was fabulous. Throughout my career, I’ve been really fortunate to work with wonderful actors in pretty much everything that I’ve done, but to have five or six of these that are in the same scene, and you all are batting around these lines … Occasionally somebody will whip an ad-lib with some topspin over the net at you, and you go, “Oh, well, fuck, I better return this.” That’s kind of what happens. Although everything was pretty much in the script, you can’t get that many well-seasoned actors in a room without somebody saying, “Well, this would be a nice touch.”

Did you get any ad-lbs in?
Rian’s script was bulletproof to begin with. Obviously the ad-libs came in the times when we would all be together, like when we’re chasing [Marta] out of the house. I think I got a couple of good ad-libs in that scene. There was a nice little piece where we’re talking about Trump, and Marta coming into the country the right way [as opposed to undocumented immigrants, according to Richard]. Meanwhile, subconsciously, I’m just handing her my empty plate. That was an ad-lib.

Was there a sense of relief among the cast of, “Oh, we’re not in the middle of a franchise; we’re not waiting for all the special-effects shots or anything; we can kind of do more of the character work?”
The beautiful part of this, and it sounds crazy, it sounds idyllic because it never happens anymore: We all had these monster trailers, about 200 yards from the house, and we would see them first thing in the morning, and then the last thing at night, to change our clothes. The rest of the time, we fashioned a bedroom-size room downstairs, with some director chairs in it and stuff like that, and we made that our green room. So, as you can imagine, Daniel Craig, and me, and Christopher Plummer, and Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee, and Toni Collette, we all got down there and started telling war stories about our careers, and stuff like that, and people we’ve worked with. It was like summer stock. It was fantastic.

You’ve also got a pivotal role on Watchmen. Even if your character Judd died in the first episode, he’s still haunting the show. He’s a similar kind of a guy to Richard, in that he presents as a heroic sheriff, but by the second episode, we know that he’s a racist, or at least that he was hiding a Klan robe in his closet.
[Sarcastically] Well, it doesn’t make him a bad person. It just makes him … Maybe his ancestors were making bad choices … maybe.

How did Damon get you to do that part?
I think I gave Damon his first job on Nash Bridges, and I knew he was talented back then, and then he went on to work with the other guy that I put on Nash Bridges. That was Carlton Cuse. They went on to do Lost.

So Damon wrote me this incredibly flattering letter, knowing full well that if you do that to an actor, for sure he’s going to return your call. And I did, I returned his call, and he said, “Listen, you know how this is …” He just kind of described what it was. And then he says, “I know you’re not going to do it, but blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” I read the first episode, and I kind of liked being in on the joke. It’s different. I respect that it’s different, and I think it’s kind of interesting to be able to do whatever the fuck you want to do at my age, in my station, my career, and get away with it.

Plus, you sing Oklahoma!
I know. Right? Who doesn’t love Oklahoma!?

Have you seen the revival in New York? The really dark Oklahoma!? Because there’s something akin to that in Watchmen.
Well, I haven’t seen it. But it didn’t come up one time, so I have no idea. Either it was a zeitgeist, and we were all picking up on it at the same time, or it opened when we finished, or something. I don’t know.

Well, I do recommend seeing it.
I will do.

It was fun to see you sing too. I’d forgotten about your pop career.
Hardly a pop career. But it was a passion that I was able to realize, let’s put it that way.

Tell me about working with Regina King on Watchmen, because that relationship is really interesting, and so depends on the intense chemistry between Angela and Judd.
Well, Regina is a gifted actress. Whenever you find someone that you have a natural chemistry with, and then you incorporate the relationships and the narrative of the characters, every now and then it becomes exponential. I think that’s what happened with Regina and I.

Speaking of Nash Bridges, I’ve read that there are plans to do a TV-movie revival of it. What’s the state of that?
We’re writing the two-hour TV movie right now. I think everybody’s kind of squinting to look at it to see if it’s going to make a backdoor pilot or something. But we’ll see about that. I’ve got a rough draft on my system, but I just haven’t been able to … I’ve been a little busy. So, I’ll get to it over the weekend, during holidays. That was just a first draft, so I’m sure we got a ways to go.

Right now, people seem especially interested in reboots and revivals, but it must be an interesting challenge to figure out exactly why to go back to this world, or to go back to these people.
It’s fascinating because of what you don’t want it to be. What I’m hypervigilant on is, I really want to show the contrast between what that was then and what it’s becoming now. Muscle-driven cop shows and attitudes and stuff like that. Where is that 19 years later?

Also, given all the new technology, infotech and biotech, and being able to shoot in San Francisco — it’s just a rich, rich, rich well of stories and fabrics and dynamics. It’s a great place to kind of reflect it back to the rest of the world.

Watchmen, for instnace, explores a lot of the way police tropes in shows like Nash Bridges or Miami Vice might be dangerous or perpetuate racism, and it does feel like there’s a larger sense in American pop culture that the perspective on that world has shifted.
Let’s just think about all of the different things that have changed. What once was considered cool in the ’80s would be laughable now. The fact that I’m still working and relevant and finding a way to adjust and contemporize my own abilities and my own world with the time has been at times challenging, but really invigorating, because I constantly feel like I’m renewing.

We also have so many more questions about the kind of machismo you embodied at that time, which feels close to a standard of masculinity we now talk about as sexist or toxic, or at the very least uncomfortable.
I think all of that is in there, and I’m too scared to get into it too deeply. Because I suspect that there would be a lot there that would be ugly, and not very pleasant to look at. I don’t know who it was — someone said, “Don’t look back,” and I’m going to take them at their word.

You still come into a movie or show at this point with the expected pretext of being Don Johnson and having something of that kind of cool associated with you. Are you purposely trying to push the borders of that?
Look, every actor likes to stretch and show his range and stuff like that. And that’s what’s happening for me. I’m just really fortunate to still be in the game.

Don Johnson Loved Hurling Insults at His Knives Out Co-stars