With more than four decades of iconic roles, Michael Paré established himself as one of the most dynamic performers in the industry. As an actor, he seeks out ambitious projects with eclectic characters. Most importantly, he doesn’t shy away from thought-provoking subject matter. His latest project, ‘PAINKILLER,’ is no exception to the rule. Directed by Mark Savage, this is a film where a seasoned actor like Paré flourishes and elevates the game for everyone involved, both in front of and behind the camera. Written by Savage and Tom Parnell, this gritty thriller takes a sharp look at those behind a crisis plaguing the United States. “PAINKILLER” centers around Bill Johnson (Bill Oberst Jr.), a man who suffered the kind of loss no parent should ever have to – watching his daughter fall victim to the opioid epidemic. Conversely, Dr. Alan Rhodes (Michael Paré), has led a lavish lifestyle, thanks to the profits he makes from his prescription business. Seeing that no one is being held accountable, Bill sets out on a campaign targeting those made rich from the suffering of so many. Teaming up with a rogue cop, they set out to dismantle this network of doctors and pharmaceutical executives that continue to devastate families across the country.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Michael Paré to discuss his passion for acting, process for bringing captivating characters from script to screen, the making of “PAINKILLER” and much more!
Four decades into your career and you are working harder than ever. What is it about acting and the filmmaking process that keeps you so passionate?
Ya know, I think everyone has this curiosity about why people do what they do and how you react to the world as you go through life. It’s a fascination with the human experience I guess.
You hit the ground running early on in your career with amazing projects. How did you deal with the pressure?
It was enormous pressure because I was new. I was working with people who were not new! [laughs] Even Diane Lane had been on Broadway and worked with Sir Laurence Olivier! I was new to the game! How did I deal with it? I was at my buddy’s restaurant yesterday and he’s kind of a boxing aficionado. It’s amazing how the two are very similar. Between action and cut, you hit your mark and you do your fuckin’ job. If you don’t do it well, you’re out! That’s kind of how it was. You just prepare as much as possible and hope you do it well. “Do it well” is such a subjective concept. They talk about how either you have it or you don’t, the magic of the camera and the magic of the moment. I think a lot of it boils down to if the audience believes you when you’re talking and if they understand what you are saying. I try to keep my craft pretty simple. James Cagney said, “You gotta mean what you say. You hit your marks and say what you mean!” If you do that, people know what you’re talking about and hopefully they believe you!
When did you come into your own as an actor?
I think it was the first, full-length, three-act play that I did. It was right after “Houston Nights.” I know people will think, “Wow, that’s pretty far into the game!” I’ve been doing this for 40 years, so that was almost 30 years ago, man! [laughs] It was the process of going through a month-and-a-half of rehearsals and the playwright was a guy who understood me, and I understood what he was writing about. It was the best learning experience of that part of my career. I learned that you have to be able to bring it up on cue. It’s not like in the movies, which is primarily what I do, even though I have done a few plays since then. When you’re doing a film, you can get a second take right away. If somebody drops a line, you can start again and it’s a lot more forgiving. Having that experience and learning what I did through that play has only made me better when it comes to my work in the movies. My job will always be the same. Like I said, between action and cut is where I do my work. That’s where I perform.
What lessons did you learn early on that continue to resonate with you as you continue to move forward in your craft?
Ya know, business-wise, they don’t pay you to show up with a hangover or a headache. You’re not getting paid to bring your family problems, personal issues, or bad health to the set. They pay you to show up 100%. As long as you do that, they really can’t be disappointed because they know you can act. They just want to make sure they are getting all of what they are paying for. Don’t expect a lot of compassion, patience and understanding if you are exhausted or had a breakup with your wife or boyfriend for example. Be a professional! I heard Robert Duvall is kinda like that as well. This is a craft. It’s a career. Be professional!
Artistically, it’s a whole mystery about the source of inspiration. There have been entire books written on it! I always say that there is a magic in the arts. Some people claim that they can get it from chaos; they dive into the abyss, go mad and inspiration is what they bring out. Other people prepare, read, and know the story forwards and backwards. They see the emotional dynamics of every character. Then they sit quietly, clear their mind and then inspiration will bubble up. Hey man, you’re asking about art, so I can babble about it, but it really is that complex and that important to me!
Just talking to you for a few minutes, I can tell you are a sponge when it comes to learning about the craft. Who had the biggest impact on you in a creative sense?
Ya know, I’ve worked with some really big guys. I’ve worked with Rod Steiger, Roy Scheider, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, Matthew McConaughey, and Sandra Bullock; not to mention a couple other Academy Award winners. When you’re in this business, it’s gotta be the most important thing! When you get a chance to either be on the set or walk onto the stage, the rest of the world stands still. It’s like a painter who sits alone in their garret and stands in front of their canvas or a musician sitting with his instrument, by himself, and he plays. An actor performs on the stage. They say, as an actor, you can sit at home and read poetry aloud and you’ll get a similar experience. What I’ve learned is that it’s kind of like a sacred act because it’s the opportunity to really experience that process of inspiration.
Filmmaking and theatre are collaborative processes. What are the keys to successful collaborations?
Everybody has to be as prepared as they possibly can and then you can help each other go to another level. You have to be able to look at the people you are working with and trust that they are working as hard as you are or as hard as they can. At the same time, you have to be forgiving. I mean, it’s not like the fuckin’ Army or something! [laughs] You have to trust that everyone is doing the best they can in that moment and that allows you to take it to the next level. You might encounter a situation where the cameraman is thinking, “Maybe I will try this lens, or I will move the camera here or there.” You like to know that they have a definite idea that if all else fails that they can take charge. You want every person involved in that collaboration to take charge if they are the most prepared. Sometimes you work with actors and they show up and they don’t know their dialogue. You wonder, “Did they really think about what’s happening in this scene? Is it as important to them as it is to me to take advantage of this opportunity to perform?” You might encounter a director who you know isn’t prepared and they kinda stir up the pot and want to create chaos. They do this because it’s easier to lead people out of chaos. It’s kinda like that. If you have to start shooting with a script that they hand to you and say, “It needs a rewrite, but we are shooting on Monday.” It’s like, “When does the rewrite happen?” [laughs] The day after you shoot the scene! Things like that do happen. It’s much easier for everyone involved to do their job if the script is finished and the writer and director can defend every choice that is made on the page. It’s stuff like that!
One of your latest projects is “Painkiller.” What do look for in the material you take on?
With this role, there is a lot of evidence of the character’s greed, selfishness, and sociopathic tendencies. When it comes to villains, in The Middle Ages, they would have said they were possessed by demons to do such evil things. I look for that; you need evidence and it’s got to be visual for the audience to understand that he is the villain. You have to see them do evil things. That was really well illustrated with this character. In the film, I steal my partner’s wife, I’m banging a hooker right before my wife comes in, I’m working with an out-and-out gangster to figure out how I can best extort this guy and get the patent on this powerful heart medicine that is going to be sold off-label as an opioid. This drug is more addictive than Oxycodone. That’s what was most important from a technical standpoint, but the subject matter was also very important. I think it’s a crime, what’s going on! Pharmaceutical companies are the biggest lobby organization in the United States and our Congressmen are getting paid more by the lobbyists than they are from the taxpayers. Who do they owe allegiance to? The person who pays them the most! That’s really sad to say but it’s the bottom fuckin’ line. Just the idea that it’s easier to get a prescription for Oxycodone than it is to get a prescription for toe fungus is mind-blowing!
There is no shortage of the evil you mentioned in this character. Tell us about your process from bringing a character like this from script to screen. Are darker roles harder to shake off?
Some people say they can’t get rid of the character, but I’ve never been like that. In a case like this, you do have to ponder the situation where you are greedy and then you just magnify that! I think everyone is challenged by these deadly sins. It’s right out of “An Actor Prepares” by Stanislavski or Strasberg’s Method Acting; I’m a member of The Actor’s Studio. You look for that quality within yourself, no matter the volume, and you put yourself into a situation where you would pursue it in relation to what your character is doing. Am I greedy? Yeah! [laughs] I wish I could walk into Gold’s Gym and use all the machines whenever I want, and everybody would get out of my fuckin’ way! [laughs] In a sense, that’s greed. My character in the film wants to manipulate his partner and steal his wife because she owns half of what’s his. It’s the thought of “I want, I want, I want…” and the hunger for power and possessions. Why is that? Because there is something missing in my soul. If I had all this stuff, then I would be important to somebody else. It’s a deep and dark game when you are playing a villain. There are a lot of actors who can’t put it down. I mean, I’ve killed a lot of people on camera, but I’ve never done it in real life!
You never turned into a werewolf either, like you did in “Bad Moon.” [laughs]
Right! Although there are moments! You know that song by Johnny Cash, “The Beast In Me,” — I begged Eric Red to use that song in the movie but either they couldn’t license it or not everybody agreed with me!
What a movie! Your performance in “Bad Moon” is wonderful. The changes in your character over the course of the film is tremendous.
Eric Red is one of my favorite directors. They wanted a lot of different people, but he gave me the role. I think we met on the Warner Bros. backlot and we went to The Blue Room and ate. I told him how great the transformation speech was, and I asked him who I had to audition for and how much of a chance I had. He said, “Michael, you just have to say yes!” I was like, “Oh my god! Wow!” It was very exciting. We had a two-week rehearsal process and Eric was very methodical and very specific. He is one of these guys who knew exactly what he needed. To be honest, and this is one of the things I respect about him, if I couldn’t have pulled it off, he would have fired and replaced me. I’m sure this is what part of the rehearsal was about. If I was him, I would want to see that performance before I got to the set. Every movie has certain performances that are required for the story to work. Eric knew that he needed this. I mean, he fired the Director of Photography because of the special effects test shots that they did of my transformation. He didn’t like what the guy did, so he fired him and brought in a new guy. This is what I love about him. There is nothing more important than his movie. There was not even a thought of, “Oh, don’t worry. We will carry you. You can lean on me.” He was like, “No, man. You’ve gotta hit the fucking mark. You’ve got to do your job. You’ve got to give me more than is on the page and take it to another level.” Then he gave me “100 Feet.” Again, I didn’t have to audition. I didn’t have to do anything. We live in the same community, but I ran into him at the American Film Market. He said, “Mike, I’m doing a ghost movie. I want you to play the ghost.” I said, “Good! I’m in, I’m in!” It happened just like that!
I think the trick with animals is never to try to upstage an animal! You can’t! Animals are so unaware. They are unconscious of themselves. People get self-conscious of themselves, but animals don’t have that, so if you try to upstage an animal, you’re going to lose! It’s better to extract and that’s what we did. I have told the story that it was very important that there be just more than just animal to human. There had to be an interaction at another level because, in this film, I was an animal. I was a werewolf, so the dog had to know that there was something weird about Uncle Ted! When we were shooting the two-shot and the shot over my shoulder of Thor, we had to get the dog to react on cue. Eric was trying to figure it out and said, “Just do this…” So, he rolls camera, and I am looking really deeply into the animal’s eyes and then I do a little blow toward the animal. It was done very softly so my head wouldn’t shake, and the camera wouldn’t know I was doing something. The dog reacted to my breath. Ya know, with dogs, their sense of smell is more acute than their hearing or vision. They are more of an olfactory sensory animal. That’s why a dog is always smelling your ass and smelling, smelling, smelling! That’s how they perceive the world more vividly. By doing that, the dog is thinking, “What did he have for breakfast? Is that bacon I smell? No, that’s sausage.” That’s the process going on in the dog’s head. People don’t know what the animal is thinking but he is thinking and, most importantly, he is reacting to me.
That’s incredible! I always admired your drive when it comes to you and your craft. How did that end up in your DNA?
Fear! [laughs] It really does start in fear. Ya know, I’m from a big family without a father. My mother worked for minimum wage and we got Social Security, so we were always in the situation where, at any moment, shit could hit the fan and who knows what would happen. There was no security, so it was driven into each one of us; that we had to get good at something and then we could take care of ourselves. You had to be really good at something, so you had to obsess on it and think of every aspect of it. You had to work hard to get ahead. I’m a Baby Boomer and it was in our culture to work hard, be straight with everyone, be sincere and be grateful. The Baby Boomers, my father was in the Coast Guard, were over there doing this incredibly noble thing. Then they came back and said, “Get thy shit together! You have an opportunity.” The year I graduated from high school the Vietnam War had just ended. It was over in 1974 and the draft ended in 1972, so I didn’t have to go to war. However, a lot of my buddies, especially those in the movie business, did. They went because it was the thing to do, and it was driven into them that there are things you are obligated to do. What I took from that is that you’ve got to work hard. Look, here’s the thing. I teach class once in a while. It’s a substitute acting teaching job. I always say that the basic thing that is required of any artist is that you must want to be great. You must want to be great, and I think that is what’s a magnet for inspiration. Everybody wants to be rich and famous but that isn’t going to be what makes you good at something.
I was excited to see you will soon step behind the camera to direct. Tell us about this next exciting chapter of your career.
Ya know, I’m supposed to leave on Tuesday to start the very finalized preparations, but I don’t want to jinx it but I’m really excited about it! It’s called “Supersonic,” and it will probably be “Supersonic 2022.” The director for the project fell out because he couldn’t get back into the United States due to the pandemic. Consequently, he could have because we had to push a couple of times because of casting. But yeah, the producer and the money guy said, “Michael, did you ever want to direct.” I said, “Everybody does!” They asked me if I would direct this and I said, “Yeah, if you let me get my DP.” They said, “No problem.” God willing, we will be shooting by the middle of May. After so much time, I think it’s about time I give it a shot! I’ve been working with the writer and we are on our fourth draft. I’ve also spent a lot of time with my DP going over the shot list, the value of specific lenses and specific money shots and camera moves for the big dialogue scenes. I couldn’t be more excited!
That’s awesome. It’s cool to hear how passionate you are! What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
It ain’t over ’till you quit!
That’s the truth! Thanks for your time today, Michael! Take care and I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us!
Thanks, Jason! Take care.
“PAINKILLER” is available On Demand, Digital and DVD May 4th, 2021. Check out the official trailer for the film below.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.