role call

Wayne Knight Answers Every Question We Have About Basic Instinct

“I feel like this film couldn’t be made today because the voice against it would be too strong and too listened-to.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by TriStar Pictures

Wayne Knight appears in only one scene of Basic Instinct, and not a single person in the last 30 years has forgotten it. You’re probably picturing it right now: Knight, sitting alongside four other men in a blue-tinted interrogation room, licking his upper lip and sweating profusely as Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs. Whether Stone’s vulva was exposed against her will — she maintains it was; director Paul Verhoeven disagrees — is not a matter for Knight to litigate, but the actor does have fascinating insight into what went on during his one, career-defining day on the set.

At the time, Knight was a rising character actor, having appeared in Dirty Dancing, Dead Again, and the Broadway play Gemini. He made his Seinfeld debut a mere two months before Basic Instinct opened at the top of the box office, igniting a legacy that would eventually include Jurassic Park (more on that in a minute), To Die For, Toy Story 2, Rat Race, and TV Land’s The Exes.

Where were you in your life and career when Basic Instinct first came around?
Basic Instinct was actually part of a process that began when I did a sketch-comedy show with Emma Thompson years before called Assaulted Nuts in England. It had a half-British cast and a half-American cast, and Emma and I became friends. She then came together with Kenneth Branagh; they were going to do Dead Again, and she asked me if I wanted to do the film. I, of course, said yes. In that process, I had been cast in Assaulted Nuts by Risa Bramon. She was a casting director in New York, and she and Billy Hopkins became casting directors at Lincoln Center for a period, and I replaced Jack Weston in Measure for Measure at Lincoln Center. While they were there, because Branagh had said yes to me, they had me meet Oliver Stone, and that became JFK. So now I’ve done a film with Branagh and Oliver Stone, and a director comes in named Paul Verhoeven who’s looking for a character face for this specific part. So this is part and parcel of a process whereby I’m meeting bigger directors and getting seen by people who are making bigger films.

I did not expect you to say that Basic Instinct started with Emma Thompson. 
Yeah, it’s bizarre. One of the world’s most controversial sex-based films begins with Emma Thompson. I don’t know how the hell that happened.

But I go to meet Verhoeven, and it’s one of those hotel-suite castings. I get to the hotel suite, and the door opens and there’s a camera attached to Verhoeven. I’m meeting him on-camera from the moment I walk in the door. He’s directing me to a chair to sit down and asking me questions behind a camera. It’s like having an interview with a voyeur.

That feels appropriate for Paul Verhoeven.
Yeah. So he’s watching through the camera and side-coaching me. We go through the scene, and he’s like, “Now you’re looking, you’re looking, you’re looking.” I say, “Okay, I’m looking.” He says, “Maybe while you look you do a little lick.” I go, “A what?” He says, “A lick, like a little lick of your lips.” So I’m looking and I do a little lick of my lips, and he’s staring at me through the camera. He says, “Maybe another lick. Maybe you do two licks.” I do lick, lick. Then he stares. He says, “Maybe you try a third lick.” And I do the third lick, and he says, “No, that’s too many licks.”

He had to draw the line somewhere, I guess.
From that, I got cast!

Your licks got you across the finish line.
Also, what I didn’t realize is that my face would fill a frame. I was gigantically overweight at the time, and as a young actor, you don’t realize when you’re being brought in as a type or when you’re being brought in as an actor.

So I get cast in this part, and we go to shoot the infamous interrogation scene. It was a walk-and-talk through the police station into the interrogation room, and then the interrogation. That was all shot in one day. We shot my side of it and Sharon Stone’s side of it.

So you only did one day on the movie?
Yeah. It was one day that, because of the trailer, became a massive thing in terms of me. My big mug and that look at her uncrossing her legs became part of the trailer. It became part of the Zeitgeist for the movie, and that movie was incredibly popular in ’92. What I didn’t realize is that perhaps the trailer — and maybe the film — got me cast in Jurassic Park.

Yes, Spielberg once said he stayed through the end credits to find your name specifically to give you the part in Jurassic Park. At what point did he tell you that?
I didn’t get a direct statement on that. I learned it through others. But I also knew I was perhaps the first person he cast. Fat people like that might die; you better lock them down! The idea was that the look on my face and the sweat on my brow — just imagine, instead of it being open legs, it was a dinosaur.

Sure, I can see where one transfers to the other. 
Something frightening and dangerous.

And when you were in that audition room with Verhoeven, did you already know Sharon Stone had been cast? A lot of women were considered for that part before she got it. 
I know, and half of them were suggested by Michael Douglas, I think. But no, I did not. I didn’t know who Sharon Stone was at that point. But I did notice, when she came into the shoot, that she was shockingly beautiful, anatomically. There was no bad angle that you could photograph her from. She was incredible in that sense, and she was very good in the scene.

But what people don’t understand is that the shot where I am looking at her and she uncrosses her legs and the big idea of whether or not she knew she was being shot — all of that is not to be settled by me because I had a matte box in my face. The camera was so close to me.

Oh, of course. You’re shooting reaction shots but not really reacting to anything.
Right. This is all in my head. I’m literally looking at a little X in a matte box and there’s a giant lens about two inches away from my nose, so I’m not seeing her.

And what about the reverse of that? Did he shoot her with you guys on the other side of the room?
Yes. There was the reaction to “Are you going to arrest me for smoking?” That scene was played out from the other side because we had to do the master shot. And there are close-ups of each of the characters: George Dzundza, Denis Arndt, Michael Douglas, myself. It’s heavily intercut, so you’re getting a lot of information in these shots. And it’s Jan de Bont who’s shooting it, so it’s complex and delicate.

Obviously you can’t speak to what might have happened when Sharon Stone saw the completed film and got upset, but in terms of that one day, how would you characterize her comfort level and her interactions with Verhoeven?
I found her interactions with Verhoeven to be peculiar. I didn’t know what their relationship was, but it felt heightened. It didn’t feel like just an actress and a director. But I have no idea. I’m just a character actor coming into a scene, and this is a star I don’t know. I wasn’t like, “Hey, how ya doing?” We’re just going about our business.

As far as the infamous shot, the problem is that you have to light everything you shoot in film. The likelihood of things being accidentally shot is somewhat hard to pull off. So that’s all I know of that. I’m not going to correct Sharon Stone on what she has said because I have no real knowledge.

How would you characterize Paul Verhoeven as a director and collaborator?
He is a person who has very strong images in his head. You may not know the images that he’s bringing about, but it’ll be seen in the film and not necessarily when you’re shooting it. Also, being European, his sensibilities may be different from yours, and you can’t quite be sure where his take is.

When you’re in the hotel suite auditioning, the direction you’re getting is about licking your lips. How does Verhoeven direct you on the set?
You definitely know what’s going on. You have the person in this group who you would deem as the least sexually successful, and then you give him a view of the promise land and he is overwhelmed by this.

Is that your assessment or Verhoeven’s assessment?
This is what I got from what we were doing. I got the idea that you have a man dying of thirst and he sees an oasis. He’s trying to be perfunctory and controlled and not doing a very good job of it. You play kind of a counterpoint. You’re trying not to reveal what’s going on underneath, but the camera is getting closer and closer and closer.

And was he still as fixated on the micro-details, like the licking of the lips?
I felt he was trusting that I would be suitably aroused.

That whole interrogation scene has such a seductive, noirish quality to it. I gather you were on a soundstage, but what was the room like in person?
It was actually quite small. It felt intimate because when we were shooting we were all sitting there together for quite a while. You begin to talk in between shots. I didn’t have a lot of conversations with Michael — he was more subdued. I had more time talking to George Dzundza and Denis Arndt. Denis was talking about having been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and I found that interesting. You begin to settle in. It’s amazing, though, how significant that period of time was, and it was so short.

And it’s aided by the fact that the movie at large, and especially that scene, has taken on a longevity. People can still say “the Sharon Stone scene” or “the Basic Instinct scene.” It’s part of the lexicon.
And a lot of people talk about that film who probably didn’t see the film.

Yes. It’s been parodied and referenced so many times that you don’t have to know anything about Basic Instinct to be able to visualize it.
What’s ironic is, I did JFK and then Basic Instinct. In Seinfeld, we did parodies of the scenes I did in JFK and Basic Instinct. There’s an interrogation scene where Jerry’s being interrogated for potential mail fraud. The room is very hot, and he has a cold drink between his legs. And I, as Newman, am staring at the cold drink between his legs and licking my lips. And we did the “second spitter” scene, which was a parody of the JFK “second shooter” scene. It’s like my film career became a source of parody a mere two years later.

And Sharon Stone was parodying it herself. When she hosted SNL, her monologue was a re-creation of that scene. The whole thing immediately took on a life of its own that has not dwindled in the years since. It must be cool to be part of something like that, right?
What’s interesting is that I basically got made from a couple of things. Between Jurassic and Basic Instinct and Seinfeld, my place was made, for good or for ill. And the ill of it is that it’s less likely you disappear as a character actor into the story.

Have you been frustrated with typecasting over the years as a result of that trifecta?
I’ve never been bothered by typecasting as long as there was a continuity of work. My career began as a stage actor doing a big diversity of stuff, and then you kind of get frozen as this comedic presence that doesn’t see you in other lights. But it’s hard to complain.

Any other defining memories from Basic Instinct that stick out to you?
While we were shooting, there were protests going on outside the studio. I feel like this film couldn’t be made today because the voice against it would be too strong and too listened-to, which it was not at the time.

What exactly were the protests addressing?
I think they were addressing the idea that it was easy to make a bisexual character the deviant villain as opposed to just someone who’s bisexual. That was the nature of it. The script had been in the works for quite a while. When people get agitated enough to protest, oftentimes that’s based on what you think the material is. But I did know it was surprising to me that it had created that much of a furor before being finished.

That’s a complicated thread of criticism surrounding this movie. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been quite so vocal had The Silence of the Lambs not just come out and faced similar criticism with Buffalo Bill. 
I just finished a family film with a trans director, and the dichotomy between that film and this film is interesting to me. One involves inclusion, and the other is the opposite.

Right. Verhoeven apparently wanted Michael Douglas’s character to be bisexual too, and Douglas said no. I would love to know more about those conversations.
Have you seen Verhoeven’s Dutch films? The pre–Basic Instinct stuff is pretty startling at times. He believes in stark images that upset.

It feels like there isn’t much room for a Verhoeven to emerge today. He can still get films made based on his legacy, but it’s hard to imagine a new Verhoeven in this era.
I think, though, that there were directors in the ’90s who had very strong tastes. Oftentimes, they were off-putting and dictatorial. I don’t know that we have room for that right now. Right now, we’re trying to be encompassing and calming. This, too, will not last. There are all kinds of explorations that are allowed and not allowed depending on the time and depending on the director.

Did you ever see Basic Instinct 2? Not many people did.
No. I don’t watch sequels to anything that I’m not in. My feeling is, You could have used me.

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Knight played Numa Bertel Jr., an assistant to Jim Garrison, the district attorney who investigated John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. Arriving in an era known for lucrative, star-driven erotic thrillers, Basic Instinct grossed $238 million domestically when adjusted for inflation. They reportedly include Kim Basinger, Julia Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathleen Turner, and Demi Moore. Before Basic Instinct, the Dutch cinematographer shot Roar, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October. He would later direct Speed and Twister. Knight worked as a private investigator for a few years when he was younger, and when asked if anything from that experience informed his approach to shooting an interrogation scene, he replied, “I don’t know if working as a private investigator did much for that, but I worked with some homicide detectives when I was a PI. I think that gave me a sense of groundedness in the sense that this guy has seen this a lot. A lot of people have come through; he’s asked a lot of questions. And then somebody comes in and does something that he’s not expected.”
Wayne Knight Answers Every Question About Basic Instinct