The Badass Interview: Robert Forster On JACKIE BROWN’s Latest Home Video Release

Brian talks to the classic character actor on the eve of JACKIE BROWN’s Blu-ray release.

The Black Hole, Alligator, Vigilante, Delta ForceJackie BrownJackie Brown

I’m here with Badass Digest representing the Alamo Drafthouse. Robert you had, and continue to have, an amazing career in genre with movies going all the way back to The Black Hole and Alligator and Vigilante, the list goes on and on. And of course, those are the kinds of films that we at the Alamo Drafthouse love the most. You’ve come out here a couple of times and you’re a hero to guys like us, and I wanted to know what that cult following has meant to you.

Well you know, I stay as quiet as I can. You know I go to your events once in awhile, those are fine and I think I stay a little bit on my own somehow and so I don’t know what kind of a cult following there is. I wouldn’t have expected one. Except I think when you get to a certain age, you’re expected to have a cult. And dammit, where the hell has mine been before now?! So you’re telling me something that I’m only a little bit aware of, if it at all, honestly. I figure I’m still getting away with it and we’re not dead yet and I worry about what I’ve gotta do tomorrow or today for that matter.

[laughs] Gotcha. Well, given that Quentin is kind of one of us in that regard, someone who celebrates the greatness of underappreciated genre films, did it feel more appropriate to be working with him on Jackie Brown? How did that collaboration come about?

Well, you know I was reduced at a certain point to hoping that some kid who liked me growing up would turn into a moviemaker and give me a good job. And by the time Quentin came along, I was deeply in that hope. My career had a five-year first act, ascending, and then for 27 years it just kept dropping and dropping and one job worse than another. So Quentin came along and he was that kid who liked me while he was growing up. I don’t know what he liked, I can’t remember now, but he’s told me and he’s seen everything so I’m not sure what all may have given him a good feeling…maybe Vigilante, for instance. A lot of guys, like us, like that picture and Alligator, you named it. Whatever he liked, that was my entrance to his world. He gave me a shot that brought me back and has given me a 14 year run here and it’s not over with, so thank you very much Quentin.

Now, I had heard that there were a couple of other projects that you had tried to work with Quentin on before Jackie Brown, is that right?

Well, there was only one honestly: Reservoir Dogs. I auditioned for him. I thought I had the job, I mean I didn’t THINK I had the job. I said, “I just kicked the shit out of that audition, I BETTER get the job.” And immediately after I walked out just feeling great, he comes out and says “Look this thing is not going to work out, I’m going to give this role to the guy who I dedicated the script to.” What’s his name?

Lawrence Tierney.

Lawrence Tierney! I hadn’t noticed the dedication page in the script to Lawrence Tierney. So that didn’t work out, but he said “don’t worry I won’t forget you.” And years later, after he had done Pulp Fiction, he walked into a little restaurant that I was sitting in where I sit most mornings and have coffee and read the paper. He walks in and I yell at him and he comes over and we blah blah. He says he’s doing an adaptation of Rum Punch, Elmore Leonard. He said, “why don’t you read it?” Which I did, and six months later I walked in on a dreary morning and I walked out to the patio and here he was sitting in MY seat. And as I approached the table, he lifted up a script and handed it to me and said “read this, see if you like it.” So you know in one fell swoop, and without the usual chasing and auditioning and hoping and begging and whatever it takes to get a job, this guy handed me the best job in my career. It’s hard to explain other than miracles do happen. And it’s been a huge thing for me.

Absolutely, and how great was it working with Pam Grier? Was she an actress that was on your radar before you guys teamed up?

Oh, sure. I knew Pam from her exploitation days. You know, she’d made a bunch of pictures, Coffy and all the rest of them…not Jackie Brown, what was the other one?

Foxy Brown

Yeah, and she was a tough guy and there weren’t that many girl tough guys. So I was well aware of her. And I did not work with her directly in Fred Williamson’s Original Gangsters but I was in the picture. We didn’t actually have scenes together and I never met her, but I saw her. She was working in the gym one day at the hotel we were all staying at. And I passed by the gym and I was with another actor and he looked through the little box window into the gym and he said “oh, look who that is.” And I looked and I saw beautiful Pam Grier. I didn’t go in and bother her and I didn’t have scenes with her you know, but that’s the only brush I had with Pam. Although I had read…what was Quentin’s first movie that he didn’t make, it went to the Scott brother…

True Romance.

True Romance! I had read True Romance before they linearized it. It was broken up the way Pulp Fiction was broken up, things out of order. I had never seen a script like that and I read it and I thought “Holy moly what a script, and what dialogue!” And of course, the Scott brother made the picture and put everything back into order, which was lucky for Quentin because now he’s got it to go with Pulp Fiction and he changed movies entirely with Pulp Fiction.

I have to say, and I’m not alone on this, that your performance in Jackie Brown is fantastic. And obviously I’m not alone because you were nominated for an Oscar for the performance. 

Well this was a big, big, big surprise. You know, you go along in this business and you figure you’ve been long forgotten. There was a moment on the day of that nomination where I realized after doing 29 interviews that morning and early afternoon, the car was driving me back…they had a car pick me up, they took me hither and yon to do interviews all morning…and coming back I realized that the members of the Academy didn’t actually have to check my name off, they had to write it in. And I realized there were an awful lot of people who I owed a great deal to who actually wrote my name in, and the feeling of that was very, very warm, satisfying, confirming, something really quite out of the ordinary in a career when you finally get something that makes you feel part of it.

Right, and I mean that’s recognition that was a long time coming and I know a lot of the other fans feel that way as well. The thing about your characters is that they typically are kind of the epitome of the working class regular joes…


You bring such sincerity and an irresistible amiability to these characters. I mean they’re soft spoken and they worry about losing their hair, which seems to be a common theme.

[laughs] Yeah.

Even Max Cherry who ends up totally in cahoots with Jackie never seems the least bit shady. How do you keep these characters so grounded and still make them work in these high genre films?

Gee…uh you know I decided a long time ago, you make decisions about who you’re going to be in life, you come to a point and you say, “yeah, I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to be that guy.” And I’ve made a lot of choices like that and I’ve always decided that those are the strongest things I have to play. If I get a chance to play the good guy, I deliver that. Now I got stuck in bad guys for 13 years, I did Delta Force on protest, but I had no money. I owed my agent money and I said I don’t want to be a bad guy. He said, “well look, I got nothing else for you. You better go to Israel and make that movie.” So I did, and I got stuck in bad guys for 13 years after that. But in general, I have enjoyed the good guy side of the menu. And when I get one to play, somehow you say, “I know what a good guy is” and you deliver it.

Absolutely. I always wanted to ask you that, was it weird playing a Middle Eastern terrorist being that you’re from New York?

Sure, I said “how am I going to get away with this?” And all it took was eyeliner and a moustache and a white suit.

Kind of a throwback to the silent movie era, as long as you put a moustache on the bad guy everyone will know he’s the bad guy.

You know, it’s either a black hat or a moustache, exactly.

I guess I won’t say that all of your hero characters are soft spoken. You have a line in Walking the Edge, which is one of my favorites of yours…

Oh! OK, maybe I’ll tell it you.

OK, great.

I don’t know that this is your favorite line, but I improvised a line in the bathroom, it’s not that line is it?

I think it might be, do you want to give it a shot?

The guy knocks on the door and I say “leave me alone I’m jerking off” or “leave me alone I’m taking a shit” I can’t remember what I did. Go ahead you tell me, I’m getting crude.

Well I’m not going to get much more wholesome because my favorite is “say hello to hot weather you filthy fucking scum.”

[laughs heartily] Oh yeah, no that was a writer’s line, yes, that wasn’t my line.

But the delivery was perfect on that. My friends and I when we first saw that movie on VHS we had to back that up over and over and over again because that line just slayed us.

[laughs] OK, well I forgot that, but now I sort of remember. You know, listen you make movies and there’s things that happen in a day that sometimes you don’t remember until you see it again.

Right, absolutely, well it definitely made an impression with us and I kinda wanted to bring it up because it was one of those things that just stuck with me over the years. Let me ask you this, what were the films or who were the actors that you grew up in awe of?

Oh, gee, I’ll tell you, I liked Burt Lancaster. And I liked Tony Curtis. These were the typical heroic guys of the era in which I grew up, the 60s these guys were operating strong and the 50s. Who else did I like? A little later I liked Marcello Mastroianni and I liked Cary Grant. I don’t know, not oddballs, these are all the obvious ones, but they were big when I was growing up and I liked them. I never imagined being an actor until I got into college. In my senior year, I chased a girl into the auditorium. They were doing a show Bye Bye Birdie, and she was in the show. And I said to myself “oh man, I want to meet that girl.” And so I got into the show, I got involved in this play. And later I married the girl, so you know I had a legitimate reason to chase her. By the time I graduated I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore, I wanted to be an actor. I wondered, “how do you do it?” And next thing you know I said to hell with being a lawyer, I’m going to New York, and how hard could it be? Kids can do it. That’s how I started without knowing that there were a zillion actors and a few tiny numbers of parts and that they were all politically given. You don’t go there with a batting average and say “put me in the lineup, I bat .350.” You go there and you say “please put me in the lineup and you can take a big piece of my salary.”

And I’ll be the batboy for a while.

Yeah, well whatever you need. It’s a different business than I ever could have imagined, but I got lucky.

Well there’s no better reason for a man to do anything than chasing a girl, so I think your motivation was right on there.

Yeah, my first step was a correct step.

Are you aware of any future collaboration with Quentin, have you talked to him about projects for the future?

Forster: No, I have not, but I see him occasionally. We are on the best of terms. I stand ready to jump in case he needs me, and you know that’s the way it’s been.