Killer Roles And Good Fortune: An Interview With Scott Glenn

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 27, 2015 4:30PM

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Scott Glenn on the set of "The Barber." (Photo courtesy of Chapman Filmed Entertainment)

When he accepted the title role in the new independent thriller, The Barber, Scott Glenn had already done his homework for the part ... more than 20 years ago.

Researching his role as FBI agent Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs, Glenn had dug deep, tapping the knowledge of real-life agent John Douglas, who was a consultant on the movie.

"I'd really gone down that road, probably into too great of detail for my own psychological health," the veteran actor told Chicagoist during a recent interview. But while Glenn fully appreciates The Silence of the Lambs as a modern-day classic and treasures having worked on the movie, he noted that Douglas showed him few serial killers have the charisma of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter or even the clearly disturbed demeanor of Ted Levine’s “Buffalo Bill” killer.

"They use the disguise of normalcy," Glenn said, explaining that his new role as a possible serial killer who appears to be a gentle, elderly, small town barber may be closer to the dark truth.

It was that "possible serial killer" angle that appealed to Glenn. His character, Eugene Van Wingerdt, seems to be a murderer in hiding, but the plot turns to raise some doubts about that. The actor said it was that "seductive unpredictability of the story…the way it keeps changing gears on the audience," that drew him to the film, along with "how expansive the role was…how many colors there were to work with, or riffs to play."

While The Barber and roles on HBO’s The Leftovers and Netflix’s highly anticipated Daredevil series show the prolific Glenn is not slowing down in his 70s, he has been able to look back and appreciate being part of some important and beloved films over a long career.

Philip Kaufman's epic adaptation of The Right Stuff (1983) is certainly among that group now, though when first released it was a box office flop. Glenn, who played astronaut Alan Shepard in the movie, attributes the commercial failure largely to a cover story in Time magazine titled, "Can a Movie Help Make a President?"

"At the time, John Glenn [no relation] was thinking of running for president...and Time ran this cover story," Glenn explained. "And the marketing people saw that and they started selling this film as some sort of important, serious American movie that's going to influence politics, rather than saying, 'It's really funny, you can bring the whole family to it, it's exciting.'"

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Scott Glenn (photo courtesy of Chapman Filmed Entertainment)
Glenn might never have played Shepard, or any of the roles he is now famous for, if Urban Cowboy director James Bridges hadn’t talked him into playing John Travolta’s nemesis in the 1980 hit.

"I hadn't had a job in over two years, my unemployment had run out, I couldn't get arrested in town. I just thought, I'm obviously never going to have a career in front of the camera."

Not wanting to subject his wife and daughters to the life of a struggling actor in Los Angeles or New York, Glenn was prepared to forsake the coasts and his dreams of a movie career in favor of a more settled life in Idaho, where he still lives when not on location.

"When we moved up here, it wasn’t like I totally quit acting. I thought, 'I'll do Shakespeare in the Park in Boise in the summer and do other things to put food on the table.'" But Bridges persuaded him to take one more shot at industry success.

"Jim Bridges said, 'If you do this job, you can stay in Ketchum, Idaho...you'll never have to audition again as long as you live and people will send you scripts.' And I went, 'Yeah sure. That sounds like bullshit to me.' But he was right. That movie kind of put my big foot in the door."

He had worked with Jonathan Demme long before The Silence of the Lambs, when they both toiled in the low-budget empire of Roger Corman. Glenn appeared in the biker flick Angels as Hard as They Come (1971), which was Demme's first produced screenplay, as well as in one of his early directorial efforts, Fighting Mad (1976). Glenn recognized Demme's talent, but makes no claim of predicting his later success.

"I knew right away that he had his own specific, unique vision and he was great to work with, and visually knew how to tell a story. But you really can't clock somebody's future, because a lot of that has to do with just plain, bald good luck," Glenn said.

"I've worked with young directors who I thought were as talented as anyone I've ever been around, and a number of them have never gone on to do much else. You hear a lot, I guess in every field of endeavor, that cream always floats to the top. Well, not in my business, it doesn't. There are people driving cabs or waiting on tables in New York who are as talented, if not way more talented, than anyone you see in movies or TV today. And if they don't get a shot, they may just keep on driving cabs or waiting tables. There's no justice to it. You just need the breaks."

Glenn acknowledged he’s been the recipient of many lucky breaks, including being mentored by screen legend Burt Lancaster on the set of Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981). But he related that his luck extends far beyond his profession.

"I'm really grateful every day when I wake up. I should have been dead probably a dozen times in my life, starting with childhood diseases and all kinds of shit," he shared. "My career and my whole life, in fact, have been the result of pure good fortune. I never really thought I had a lot of talent. I'm very tenacious and I've developed the ability to see good luck when it’s in front of my face."

Fans and many colleagues would argue against Glenn's modest view of his talent, but his tenacity is evident in how the former Marine has kept himself in excellent shape, accepting a physical role in Daredevil at an age when many actors might balk at the challenge. He has a stunt double, of course, but is getting a good workout playing Stick, the blind warrior mentor to the blind superhero.

"Someone said the other day, 'Scott, you’ve got the face of an 85-year-old and the body of a 35-year-old'," he said with a laugh. "Most of the physical stuff, thank God, I can still do. One morning I'm going to wake up and everything's going to shut down. But right now, hand-eye coordination, reaction time...all that stuff is sharp and fine. What was demanding was playing it as blind, which I've never done before. That was pretty exhausting, but fun."

His role on his other series, the critically acclaimed The Leftovers, may get less pop culture buzz than Daredevil, but Glenn could not be happier with the part. In fact, he ranks the show in the upper echelon of a career with plenty of peaks.

"Damon [Lindelof, co-creator of the series] has written the best lines of any character I’ve ever played in my life. It's almost as if he’s channeling me."

The Barber - Trailer from Dodge College on Vimeo.

The Barber opens Friday in limited release and through various VOD services. Check out our review of the film here.