BWW Interview: Alan Ruck Transacts 'War' with Brad Pitt
He is known for playing the exasperating Stuart Bondek opposite Michael J. FOX in the wildly popular TV series, Spin City, and for playing Matthew Broderick's disease-phobic best friend in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In the 1980s he hung out with the "Brat Pack." His CV includes feature films, TV series, and Broadway shows, both musical and non-musical.
Alan Ruck's familiar sardonic grin is instantly recognizable among fans of all of the above genres. A veteran of over 100 appearances in films, television, and stage, he currently appears with Brad Pitt in David Michôd's (Animal Kingdom) Netflix original film War Machine, subtitled "an absurdist war story," by flickeringmyth.com, and described on Entertainment Weekly's "Must List" as a "smart, sharp spitball of a film."
EM: What was your journey from your Midwestern origins to film, TV and Broadway?
AR: As a kid in Parma, Ohio, my folks didn't have a lot of money, so they took me to the art museum and plays and concerts at the high school because they cost basically 25 cents. I watched my older sister do dramatics and I kind of put it in my hip pocket when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I thought maybe I could do it. In high school you could take acting class and play production as English electives. Of course I loaded up my schedule with that - I'd rather take acting class than expository writing, right? I didn't really have anything else in my life that I could do. I wasn't an athlete or star student or musician. Acting was just this thing I found I could do and I kind of grabbed a hold of it and didn't let go. For college I wound up at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana, which was a happy accident. I met some really wonderful people there. Bob Falls, who runs the Goodman Theatre, and Audrey Berg, who runs CCM in Cincinnati. Some really talented directors. I did a lot of plays at the University and also was a ridiculous teenager and 20-year-old, smoking weed and just being silly. I needed more time to grow up as a person.
EM: And after school?
AR: I didn't know anyone in New York or Los Angeles so I went to Chicago, another good piece of luck. It was just bursting at the time as a theatre town. All these little Mom and Pop theatres, such as Steppenwolf. Chicago at that time had become a hot location city for movies because of the Blues Brothers. Belushi and Aykroyd filmed it there. for Hollywood people it was like they found a gold mine. A lot of commercials were produced in Chicago so they had all the labs, all the equipment and crew people they could ever want, plus this amazing pool of actors to play small parts. They didn't have to bring anybody from Los Angeles or New York. And it's a beautiful city, really photogenic. I just got lucky, doing some plays and little parts in movies. After doing that for about 4 years I had an audition for Biloxi Blues. Fran Cumin and Meg Simon were going around the country looking for young guys to be in this Neil Simon play. They stopped in Chicago and I read for them. I didn't hear anything more until a few months later my agent in Chicago, Harrise Davidson, said, "You've got a callback in New York for Neil Simon for Biloxi Blues." I said, "I don't want to do it." [Laughs.] She said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "Twice already I've flown myself to New York to audition for stuff that you've landed for me, and I didn't get them. And I'm out $300 for the airfare. So I don't want to do it." Harrise called up Manny Azenberg, Neil's producer, and told him my situation. Manny said, "Tell him to fly himself to New York. If he doesn't get the part I'll reimburse his airfare." [Laughs.] That was the only time I auditioned for a play and it was offered to me before I left the theatre.
EM: Sounds like they really wanted you.
AR: I did one big monologue and another scene where I had to sing. I was so nervous, because I'm not really a singer, just an actor who can carry a tune. I asked if I could sit down. My knees were literally knocking. The late Gene Saks came up to the stage and said, "You sound fine, just start singing every day." As we walked out of the theatre Meg Simon said, "Did you know he was offering you the part?" I said, "I thought so but I didn't want to make an ass of myself in case it wasn't true." The joke was between me and Manny. I said, "I'll never know if you wanted me to do the part or just didn't want to reimburse me the airfare."
EM: What then?
AR: I always told myself I didn't want to go to New York unless it was with a job. I got to go with a big Broadway show. During that time Matthew (Broderick), the star of Biloxi Blues, was offered Ferris Bueller. The casting director said I was too old. My agent, Myrna Jacoby, said, "He's on stage with Matthew every night, they look the same age, they're playing 18-year-old guys." I went and read for Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins. They had me read for John Hughes. I'd already met him in Chicago. He was going to do The Breakfast Club as a small Indie movie. I read for him, but he put everything on hold to write Sixteen Candles for Molly Ringwald. Matthew and I were friends - we'd spent 6 or 7 months together on the road and in New York. We didn't have to invent a friendship. We had a similar sense of humor. So it was great good fortune that everything fell into place for me and I got that job.
EM: Obviously meant to be.
AR: I'm a lucky guy. I've been lucky my whole life.
EM: I have a few questions relating to quotes of yours. First, "In his guest-starring role in Mad About You: The Glue People, his character said he wants to be mayor of New York City. In Spin City, he works as chief of staff for the mayor of New York City." Would you ever run for mayor of New York?
AR: You're asking me if I would ever run for mayor of New York City? [Laughs.] No, and neither would I ever attempt to be a brain surgeon [Laughs]. New York City to me is a miracle. I don't know how the City functions. All those people in that tiny area, everything that has to be maintained and constructed, to have in place for a successful city. I can't imagine trying to keep all that stuff in my head. So no, I would never, ever run for mayor of New York City [Laughs].
EM: Here's another quote. "With his role as Captain John Harriman in Star Trek: Generations, he becomes the fourth commander of the starship Enterprise, joining Captains Christopher Pike, Robert April and James T. Kirk." Did your role in that film engender a passion for space travel in real life?
AR: No! [Laughs.] Infinity is daunting. It scares the hell out of me. If we could go the Moon like flying to Hawaii or maybe Hong Kong, that might be okay. But no, no thank you.
EM: And one more. "When I'm doing a drama, I wish I was doing something funny. When I'm doing something funny, I wish I was doing something more serious." Are you equally passionate about drama and comedy?
AR: As a young person in school and then in my career, I kept getting seen for comedies, things that were more lighthearted - though I did a few serious things along the way - a lot of sitcoms, especially when I moved out here to California in 1989. But I always wanted to do all of it. Now that I'm older, for some reason, I'm getting cast in some more dramatic stuff, and it's very satisfying. The thing about sitcom, which I adore actually, I love the format. Every third line there should be a laugh. You have to keep your big toe somehow stuck in the world of plausible reality, and then the rest of it is very rubbery, just comedy. It's fluffy. And at the end of the day it should be funny. So that's another little challenge. What's great about a drama is, if there's any crap happening on the set, any friction, even in your own personal life, there's unresolved things going on - you can throw all of that into your work. But in a comedy, no, because it's got to be funny. So if you're going through a divorce and you're in a comedy you have to find some way to find the funny side of things even though you might not want to. But I love it all.
EM: Do you also love film and TV equally?
AR: I actually think film and TV are sort of the same thing now. To me they're all motion pictures. There's a camera, a script, other actors and a director. Doing a sitcom is a little different. It's kind of a hybrid, half movie, half play, presented in a proscenium fashion - the camera's on one side of the line, the set on the other, the audience sitting behind the cameras. Like you're doing a 22-minute play every week that's being filmed. An episodic TV show or working on a movie, it's basically the same thing. It comes down to how good the writing is. Now Cable TV, like Netflix and Amazon, are doing original content, so many wonderful things are being produced for television. When I started out in the early '80s television was where actors went to die. Unwritten rule was, try to do plays and movies and when you can no longer get hired doing movies, go ahead and do a television show because the quality of them are miles apart. Now things on TV are every bit as good or better than what you find in movie theatres.
EM: What are some of your favorite roles?
AR: I had a lot of fun playing Stewart Bondek on Spin City because he was such a pig. It was just a license to steal because I got to say all these sexist, politically incorrect things and get away with them, and be the target of jokes. I got to get away with murder. Early on in Spin City we were having a scene where Michael was in his office for a morning meeting and said something that had a double entendre, kind of a sexual second meaning. They cut to me, just sitting still, taking it in with wide eyes - he was a deviant, right? The audience went crazy. Gary David Goldberg said, "That's a laugh of recognition. They understand who the different characters are. If someone says something sexy and they cut to you, they know you're a perv." It was really a lot of fun. I did a play at Bob Falls' Wisdom Bridge Theatre in Chicago, right before I got Biloxi Blues, Billy Bishop Goes to War, and a Keith Reddin play, Life and Limb at the Remains Theatre Company that Billy Petersen, Gary Cole, Amy Morton, Donald Moffitt and Ted Levine had in Chicago. That was a wonderful time in my life, probably the best time I ever had on stage. Those are things I really enjoyed.
EM: Tell me about War Machine.
AR: It's the best part I've had in a motion picture in years. I actually had major dialogue with the leading character. There was real transaction, friction back and forth. Somebody wants to do something and I'm telling him it was the worst idea he could possibly have. That was very satisfying.
EM: How would you describe your character, Pat McKinnon?
AR: I think he was based on a real-life guy who was Ambassador to Afghanistan. He was about 6'5" - a huge, imposing, commanding guy. I was like, oh well, I won't be bringing that to the part. But he's a career diplomat, a bureaucrat, one of those people in D.C. that is never elected but through their skill set or brain power make themselves useful to politicians along the way and constantly find themselves in these incredible positions of power. He's a realist, he's accepted that war is part of our nature and of the American culture that has to be dealt with. There's almost a clinical removal, some sort of armor there. There was the phrase, "innocent bystanders," now "collateral damage." He's one of those people who accepts collateral damage as unfortunate, talking in terms of people's lives and deaths. I don't think he's a bad person, he's a smart fellow and a realist.
EM: What was it like to work with Brad Pitt and David Michôd?
AR: David is so smart. He's quite brilliant. The visuals are beautiful, but I want to go back and just listen to the narration. It's an incredible summation of the idiocy of war and what actually goes on in the American warfare culture. And Brad is everything you would hope he would be, one of the good ones. He's a great guy to work for as a producer. He and his Plan B people are some smart folks. They all have great taste and make smart compassionate movies about stories that might not otherwise get told. As an actor, Brad's completely generous. The whole thing was a pleasure. I've been very fortunate, actually. I've never worked with any stars that have been overbearing or overly demanding, who build themselves up by diminishing others. For some reason I've been spared those experiences. Brad wants everybody to bring their best game because it makes the movie better. He takes care of people. My wife (Mireille Enos) worked with him as well, World War Z, about 6 years ago. He's a good egg. Being who he is as a movie star he could play it safe and basically do the same role over and over again and people would come see him. He doesn't do that. He's always looking for something new. That was a brave performance, too. He just went for it, this big, broad, strong characterization.
EM: Very brave indeed, and wonderful to hear.
AR: So many times in life we find ourselves in these situations where we can't believe what's happening or with some person who seems outlandish and you say to yourself, "If they put this in a movie you'd never believe it." Brad put a character like that in a movie. He's a fine actor and he takes chances. Some of the criticism has been, "Oh, it's too broad." I think they're not getting it.
EM: Aside from your current and upcoming films, Succession, Gringo, and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, what's coming next?
AR: I have this TV show I'm doing in fall in New York, so I hope to enjoy this time in Los Angeles with my wife and kids. Now while nothing is happening we're just happy to stay put.
EM: Alan, this has been such a delight. Thank you.
AR: This has been great. It was nice to meet you, Erica.
Photo credits: Mike Bowman