There is a way to understand interview shows as being more often about the interviewer than about the guests themselves. You could think of the show’s booking history as a map of the interviewer’s interests, or see the lines of questioning as an expression of their worldview. Each episode can offer a different window into the interviewer’s life, and across a body of work, a full picture of that person can be properly pieced together. In the age of the podcast, this notion is extended with an idea of the interview show as self-therapy. Consider, for example, the well-known case of WTF With Marc Maron, or something like The Hilarious World of Depression.
Dead Eyes, a relatively new and wildly interesting podcast from actor-comedian Connor Ratliff (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Orange Is the New Black), brings this notion to the foreground. Described as a “personal nonfiction investigation series,” the podcast follows Ratliff as he sets out to learn more about a strange but nonetheless impactful episode from early in his acting career. A few decades ago, he was cast on the critically acclaimed HBO drama Band of Brothers. It was a very small role, meant as light comic relief, but for a working actor, it’s all valuable. However, before Ratliff could make it to the set, he was called back to reaudition for Tom Hanks‚ who was an executive producer. He ended up losing the part. Later, he would be told Hanks thought he had “dead eyes.”
Dead Eyes is essentially a show that explores the emotional experience of building a life in show business, though the podcast’s approach has a slight feel of a memoir, despite its largely interview-driven composition. Each edition starts off with lengthy narration, penned and performed by Ratliff, and the early portion of the podcast’s ten-episode first season is rich with personal biographical notes. These narrative portions are well-written and compelling in their delivery; they are often the most effective elements of the podcast.
But the interviews are plenty interesting as well, partly because Ratliff’s life tends to intersect with some pretty interesting people — among others, Jon Hamm pops up in an early episode, as they had shared an acting program — and partly because he’s able to fold a wider universe of unexpected people into his story. (Aimee Mann, for example, appears in another episode, as her music unwittingly ended up serving as the soundtrack to Ratliff’s Band of Brothers experience.) By the second half of its debut season, the podcast had begun to branch out, with a later episode focusing on another actor’s own Dead Eyes–like experience in show business.
When Ratliff spoke to Vulture about the podcast recently, he was having a tough day — not unlike the rest of us. As he explained in a recent episode, Ratliff is now spending this indefinite lockdown period at his parents’ home in Jefferson City, Missouri, where he grew up. It was a last-minute outcome; Ratliff had been in nearby St. Louis as part of a tour when the early stay-at-home orders were being issued throughout the country. He found himself with the choice of flying back to New York or heading to his parents’ place nearby. “There are very few moments in your life where you’re literally standing some place having to make a choice that will affect the next X number of months of your life,” he said. “Why am I trying to fly to the center of a pandemic? I’m not a hero.”
Speaking to Vulture, Ratliff talked about the podcast, how the team is approaching production moving forward, and what it felt like to learn about Tom Hanks testing positive for the coronavirus when your podcast is, in large part, about Tom Hanks.
The podcast has a fairly untraditional structure and feel to it. How did you arrive at its tone?
Dead Eyes has to do with a thing that happened to me, and the way that thing becomes a kind of topic that can unfold in different directions. So the podcast is not a parody. It’s true. It’s a nonfiction personal investigation series. Very low stakes. These are lots of great podcasts out there investigating very serious issues, where the stakes are very high. Some are trying to get people out of prison who may be innocent of the crime they were convicted for. The stakes of this podcast are mercifully low, which doesn’t mean it can’t go to some interesting, heartfelt, and true places. Because as stupid as this story was, it’s about something.
What was your history as an actor leading up to the moment Tom Hanks rejected you for Band of Brothers?
I was in my early 20s. I was trying to be an actor. I had gone to school for years, and then moved to London to try and get work as an actor. I had one big success right away, where I got cast in a really good part in a really good play at the Royal Court Theater, but when that was done, I just couldn’t find work. I spent two years where I spent most of my time being rejected.
At the time, it really felt like I was failing at this. And when I got Band of Brothers, I thought this was the tide turning. It ended up being worse than just not getting the job, because I was basically invalidated by someone I admired. One of my heroes looked at my audition tape and thought, “Nope, this won’t do.”
The aspect that really stuck in my brain was being told that I had “dead eyes.” There’s that rule, you know, when it comes to camera work, you need to see the eyes. That’s the most important part of the face, acting wise. So I had the thought this would be a funny premise for a podcast, and when I started thinking about where it could go, I figured plenty of other people would have had similar or analogous experiences. It could be kind of interesting to explore show business from this very specific angle. It could be fun to go out and try to get answers to these questions.
For example, I tracked down the actor who replaced me, and I talked to him and actually learned things about what happened that day that were enlightening. And they were kinda funny, you know? Like, I was waiting for my reaudition, he was in the bathroom at a urinal standing next to Tom Hanks, and they had a little bathroom bonding moment. There were these little surreal moments that flesh out the story and expand it in ways that are interesting.
It’s interesting that you consider the podcast to have low stakes, when it feels like the Band of Brothers experience seemed traumatic for you. At least, there’s high emotional or personal stakes with this journey.
No, I don’t think of the personal stakes being high at all. Before we started the podcast, I thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?” The worst, I thought, would be that people took the podcast the wrong way, or that they would be annoyed or irritated by it, you know? Maybe Tom Hanks will be mad at me, but then I figured I just have to do it in a way that makes sure there’s no confusion about what the podcast is.
It’s just show business. It’s just acting, and acting jobs. It’s what I do. But it’s also about an experience that, at the time, was traumatic to me, because it was about my identity, and part of what I learned from the experience was that I was investing far too much emotionally in whether or not I would get hired for acting jobs. I had to get to a point where I could separate my own sense of what my talents are from what the specific needs of projects are. Getting rejected doesn’t mean you’re not a good actor, it just means you’re not what they’re looking for, you know?
So that’s what I mean about low stakes. And since the podcast came out in January, you know, the low stakes have only been amplified by the moment we’re living in. We’re now at a point where, even if we just limit things to show business, we’re talking about an entire industry trying to figure out if there are safe enough ways to make a TV show or a movie. Are there ways we can hire people to work together without infecting each other? That’s a high-stakes show-business question.
I have to ask the obvious question: How did you feel when you learned that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive for the coronavirus?
For about 72 hours, I thought, “Well, that’s it, we’re done.” I really thought I didn’t want to do this anymore, because I was getting texts and tweets from people with jokes about it. To me, it was no joke. When I first saw the headlines I didn’t process them as “Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have this thing that they’re going to recover slowly from over the next month or so.” I read them as, “Oh, they’re not going to be okay.” It wiped me out. Who cares about my stupid podcast? It’s not even worth thinking about it. This is terrible.
And I have to say: I find all of this very hard to process. We have all this free time right now. Some people seem to be doing a pretty good job binge-watching things, catching up on podcasts, stuff like that. But I’ve been finding everything really hard to absorb. I have all the time in the world, but I spent a week trying to watch Molly’s Game because I just couldn’t pay attention for more than a few minutes at a time.
One of the few pop-culture things that did get through to me was SNL’s at-home episode, which had the reveal that Tom Hanks was the surprise guest host. Not to overstate things, but his monologue was almost … presidential. I felt like his monologue was what the country was waiting to hear — someone to stand up and say something that felt hopeful and encouraging, with empathy and compassion. People are crying out for leadership right now. It was really meaningful.
Given that everything’s mostly locked down in this pandemic, what comes next for you and Dead Eyes?
Right now we’re trying to figure out the last two episodes of this first batch of ten. We were heading on a certain course with the podcast prior to everything shutting down, and there are a lot of things we recorded for it that we haven’t yet found a place for.
Everything is a little bit topsy-turvy. Normally I would go into a studio and record, and now I’m in a blanket fort in my parents’ upstairs loft recording on my iPad. We’re all in a little bit of a weird place mentally. So we’re trying to be careful and figure out what makes the most sense as the next step. If there’s a reason for the podcast to keep going at this moment, it is to be a diversion. Look, if you’re looking for content about the coronavirus, you can find it. There’s plenty. So we’re trying to find a way that makes sense for our podcast moving forward, one that acknowledges the reality we’re living in. We don’t want to ignore what’s going on.
We have a couple of things that are pretty exciting that we hope are going to pan out for these last two episodes, and then … I genuinely don’t know. My hope is that we keep making progress on the central investigation while making more discoveries along the way.
What are chances right now of getting the man himself to appear on the show?
I know there are people eager for me to talk to Tom Hanks, and if that happens, that could be something that happens very suddenly.
One thing that is a legitimate question is that, you know, my hope was that I’d be able to go into a room with Tom Hanks and he’d be able to actually look me in the eyes. I don’t know whether that’s something we can really do over Zoom or something. I mean, we genuinely don’t know when we’re going to be able to get back to a form of life where we can travel and go places and be in rooms with people.
But my hope is that I can keep doing this as long as we’re finding interesting stories to tell, and as long as people are interested in listening.