“The Chicago 8” is the true story of the notorious 1968 trial that resulted when seven leaders of an anti-war movement, and a member of the Black Panthers, were charged with conspiracy to incite devastating riots in Chicago. Desperate to stop what they saw as an “immoral war”, this group was ready to take on the establishment, express their freedom of speech by all means necessary, while paying a price for their actions. Never in America’s history has youthful protest captured society’s imagination nor polarized it to such a degree. A protest paralleled in the modern era, with recent establishment uprisings on Wall Street and in the Middle East. The ensemble cast includes Gary Cole (Office Space, The Brady Bunch Movie), Mayim Bialik (The Big Bang Theory), Danny Masterson (Men at Work, That 70’s Show), Orlando Jones (Mad TV), Thomas Ian Nicholas (American Reunion), Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia) and Steven Culp (The West Wing) and is available on Nationwide On-Demand starting September 4th, 2012. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with veteran character actor Philip Baker Hall to discuss his role in “The Chicago 8,” his history with the subject matter, the challenges of playing the role and what the future may hold for him in the years to come.
You have a lengthy career on stage and in film. What drove you to pursue a career in the entertainment industry in the beginning?
In high school and then in college I was very drawn to language arts and especially to the theater. Bringing literature into the theater was a great fascination for me. Having the opportunity to bring these characters to life in a play was something that seemed to be in the range of my interest and ability. It was an opportunity to play with language to and use it to create these wonderful characters that the great playwrights have given us. That started pretty early for me. I was active in it all through high school and college. My career seemed like a natural progression given what my interests were.
Who would you cite as your biggest professional influences?
In college, I went to the University of Toledo, there was a great theater teacher there who inspired quite a number of young people. I wouldn’t say that he directed us towards careers in the theater but he sort of indicated that it was possible to perhaps have a career in the theater. I say the theater because in the 40s and early 50s when I went to college, there was no thought in mind at all of doing movies. Even television was still pretty young then. Coming from Toledo and growing up in The Depression, movies seemed like more of a dream but the theater did seem within range somehow. It probably wasn’t but it seemed as if it might be. One thing leads to another as it often does in life and here we are!
To what do you attribute your longevity in the industry?
You need to get lucky along the way. You need to work with people along the way that really have sterling reputations, where it is actors, writers or directors. That certainly helps to prolong your career or to take the step toward the next level of your career. A lot of that is attributable to being in the right place at the right time and you also have to have the will to continue. A lot of artists have that felling of not being through yet, that we still have a ways to go and that there are still things out there that are challenging. I would say that a long career, and mine is pretty long now as I started as a theater actor in New York in 1960, is very much due to will. I have a young family and a couple of younger daughters — I still have kids to put through college, let’s put it that way! [laughs] It is also good for them to know that their father, although he is certainly older, is still out there working, being active, being willing and hopeful to be challenged even more in the future!
We are here today to talk about your role in “The Chicago 8”. What attracted you to the project initially?
In the late 1970s, there was a theater piece based on the original transcripts of the event. It is a very important event that much like everything else has recited into history. It is a very important event in terms of what there is to learn about the forces of fascism trying to stop the free expression of the opposition of the Vietnam War. It has relevance in terms of today too. That is what “The Chicago 8” is — “How do you fight these forces that are much more powerful than you and who are using Gestapo techniques to stop their opposition?” That is what makes the piece relevant today and what made it really important at the time where all of these people were really household names. AT the time, television coverage of an event like that was not permitted legally. Everything was reported via radio or on television, as it was done at the time, with sketches of the protagonists in the courtroom. Everybody talked about that trial. It was at the top of the news every night. It was really a vital event in American legal history and along with other events eventually led to the ending of The Vietnam War. The other part of what intrigues me about it is that there was a play about this event done at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles. It was dealing with the same event using some of the transcripts as the movie does as well. I played the judge in that production for a while as well. That was a long time ago, maybe 1977 or 1978. All of these years later Pinchas [Perry], who did not know I had played this role before, offered me the role of the judge. I have a long history with this role. I have a history with the vent, being a follower of it in the press and being able to play the judge both in that original production and now the film.
As you stated, you have a rich history with the character and the event. What is your typical process for bringing a character from the script to the screen?
With characters that are either living or recently expired, there is a lot of research that can be done because it is so present. Doing research leads to some really interesting insights about these people. Judge Hoffman was virtually a radical fascist, he was dishonest, unfair and corrupt. I believe he was originally appointed by Richard Nixon. His job during this trial was to literally railroad these kids and deprive them of their constitutional rights. That was his job! That was what he was trying to do — to shame them and embarrass them in front of the whole country. Any research into his life reveals who his friends were, a whole lot of other fascists, and what his record as a federal judge was but it also reveals his personal life. He really believed he was taking a position that history would validate and that these people opposing the war in Vietnam were wrong. He truly believed this and was back by liberal newspapers. He saw himself as the victim of the trial rather than these kids he tried to victimize. In researching a role, you discover these little nuances that help bring a character to life. Basically, he is a really bad guy and history validates that fact. It is interesting he didn’t see himself in that way. He saw himself as a crusader for truth and right. So, yes, there is research that is done. He is no longer alive so I couldn’t go and visit him and even if he were still alive, I am not sure I would want to. There is enough published about Judge Hoffman from both sides of the political spectrum that you can get a pretty good picture of what this guy was — a political hack who rose to a very high position from having the right friends in the right places. He proceeded to use this position to hammer down the people who had less power. For an actor, it is kinda fun to play a character like this that is so multi-faceted.
You career has been and continues to be very diverse. Is there a particular type of film or genre that you are anxious to tackle in the future?
At my age, the roles that are available are limited. However, there are interesting roles out there for older actors. An issue that is being explored a lot right now, both in the theater and film. is the subject of Alzheimer’s Disease. I have actually done some roles in the past years that touch on this but I don’t feel I have yet found the role that defines it’s tragic essence. My eyes and ears are open for a study of that tells us something we don’t already know. We have seen the images played for us of someone who can’t remember there friends, family, the immediate past or even their own name. I am looking for a role that can go beyond these stereotypes. Perhaps the right playwright or poet will come along to give it a little deeper insight.
Best advice someone has given you so far in regard to your still career that you can pass along to aspiring actors?
It is difficult for me to counsel and not sound a little bit contradictory in my response. You really need to focus on live theater and all of the great possibilities that are there with the great roles of the past, as well as a lot of brilliant contemporary writing. I would say that if you really commit yourself to that, it will get you where you want to go. The only thing is, it may not take you there as fast as you would like to get there. There are fewer and fewer theater pieces of of consequence being done because theater is so expensive to do. In doing theater, you can really train yourself in being an artist. The theater is a great place to start. I say it is a little contradictory because I started in 1960 and I have appeared in a number of Broadway plays and Summer Stock. When I came out to Los Angeles from New York in 1975, I had done virtually no television or movies. However, I did have an almost twenty year career as an actor in the theater. If I were a young person beginning today, I don’t know how I could make a living and keep myself going. When I was living there years ago, apartments where not cheap but there weren’t three to five thousand dollars a month as many of them are now. With the way the costs are today, you cannot make the connection from what it cost me back in the 1970s and what it would cost today. Inflation has killed New York as far as developing of the young artists. I just don’t know how anyone would start today facing such enormous rental and living costs. Had the costs been only a quarter of what it is now when I was coming up, I could not of afforded it and would have been unable to become an actor. There are some terrible forces working against the young artist these days. It is an unsatisfactory answer but I still say that theater really is the place to start for this kind of artistry. It costs almost as much to become a doctor and there is no guaranteed payoff at the end.
I want to thank you for you time today, sir.