Michael Chernus inhabits a role in a way in which very few actors have the ability to do. He commands your attention, but does so without crowding the scene. He has that mysterious “it” that creative folks spend their entire lives hoping to tap into. He works within a spotlight that you cannot look away from and it is a light that he himself generates, powered by an unrelenting commitment and passion to his craft.
In a few months Chernus will be entering the Marvel Universe under the villainous guise of The Terrible Tinkerer, but before “Spider-Man: Homecoming” swings into theaters, the “Orange is the New Black” star will be appearing in “The Dinner” opposite Richard Gere, Laura Linney, and Steve Coogan.
We recently sat down with Chernus to discuss why it is important that movies like “The Dinner” continue to get made, the history of his Marvel character, and how saying too much could in fact lead to his untimely death.
TrunkSpace: This week your latest movie “The Dinner” is going up against a big Marvel blockbuster in the form of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and yet, soon you too will be in a big Marvel blockbuster.
Chernus: (Laughter) That’s true.
TrunkSpace: You really can’t be too upset about that!
Chernus: I have nothing to complain about, my friend.
TrunkSpace: When you’ve done a movie and it’s set to be released to the world… do you worry about the competition on opening weekend or because it is ultimately out of your control, do you just let what happens happen?
Chernus: It’s a good question. I think it probably depends on the project, but mostly, I don’t think about it because, like you said, it’s out of my control. And, they’re very different kinds of movies. If somebody is going to go see “The Dinner” they’re… not that they wouldn’t see a Marvel movie… but it’s probably a different audience. Also, I’m sure if I were Richard Gere in “The Dinner” or Steve Coogan or Laura Linney, maybe I would be thinking about those things more. I’m not the big movie star whose name is above the title, so how well the movie does doesn’t really depend on whether I’m in it or not.
TrunkSpace: It does seem that in this day and age a film like “The Dinner” is labeled a “small movie” and yet the cast is stacked. It really feels like a sign of the times when a movie like this falls into that very broad category.
Chernus: Yeah. It’s kind of wild. It’s interesting. As exciting as everything is in television in terms of Netflix, Amazon and all the new streaming platforms and how big of risks you can take in terms of storytelling on that platform… yeah, there’s not the same demand for movies that are more just about people talking to each other than there used to be.
TrunkSpace: From an art standpoint, how important is it that movies like “The Dinner” continue to get made and distributed?
Chernus: Oh, I think it’s super important. I’m always very grateful to the independent producers and financiers who make these “smaller movies” and put their money and their heart and soul into making sure that these kinds of stories get told. It’s very important. And just personally, I grew up watching all of those great movies from the 70s that were big mainstream movies that had big movie stars but were, for lack of a better word, simple movies about people’s lives. I’m thinking of movies like “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Terms of Endearment,” or “Ordinary People.” Movies that are about relationships and families. Not that they still don’t get made, but they don’t hit the mainstream in the same way that they used to. So yeah, I think it’s very important that these movies still are being made and being seen.
The great thing about the independent film festival circuit is that these movies will get screened at festivals and then get bought by giant distributors. “Manchester by the Sea” was at Sundance and had a big sale. I’m just glad that those kind of movies are being made still.
TrunkSpace: Obviously the bigger the budget the bigger the production, but from how you work as an actor on a movie, what is the biggest difference in performing in something like “Spider-Man: Homecoming” compared to “The Dinner” and movies of that size?
Chernus: That is a very good question. In some ways… I’m going to contradict myself here in the midst of this answer… but in some ways there isn’t much of a difference, to be honest. There’s a lot of similarities from working on a Marvel movie and working on “The Dinner” to even working on a Netflix show. At the end of the day, a set is a set and there is a way of approaching storytelling as an actor that doesn’t vary too greatly no matter what the budget of the movie is. And so, I would say that once the cameras are rolling, working on “The Dinner” is very similar to working on “Spider-Man” and very similar to working on “Orange is the New Black.” You’re there, you’re playing a character, and you’re just trying to live moment to moment and listen to your scene partner and just serve the story in the best way that you can.
That being said, and I can’t give away too much of anything until the movie comes out, but I will say that I’m very, very impressed by everyone who works at Marvel and everyone who works at Sony, who was also producing that movie. The Marvel way of making movies is really fun and really exciting. They put so much thought into these films and anybody who is a Marvel fan knows the effort that they go to to please their fan base and put little Easter eggs in the movie and little hints. There are all kinds of things and you can watch it and have never read a comic book and not know anything about Marvel and you have a good time. And if you’re the biggest geek in the world who knows everything about the universe, you also are satisfied because there are all these little inside jokes everywhere. And that’s really fun to dig into that world and be like, “Oh my God, there’s three meanings to this line I was saying.” This simple little line that I had, to people who really know, there’s so much more going on there.
And they really have the time and the money and the resources to make sure that the movie works. On a smaller budget indie, you have so few days. Sometimes you have something crazy like an 18 day shoot schedule or a 21 day shoot and you’re behind before you even get started. On the Marvel movies you don’t feel the same kind of pressure. There’s a different kind of pressure, but you don’t feel the same kind of pressure of, “We have to get this and we have to get this right now and we have to get it right.” There’s a little more room to be like, “Okay, this isn’t working so let’s think of a different way to approach this scene.” So that’s really nice.
TrunkSpace: Well, when you’re shooting a movie like “The Dinner,” that’s the movie that you’re shooting, but when you’re shooting a Marvel movie, you’re also shooting parts and pieces of movies yet to be. Maybe not physically, but at least you’re setting the table for that.
Chernus: That’s absolutely right and I didn’t realize that. I knew a fair amount about the Marvel world and I read comic books as a kid, but yeah, these movies are so intertwined in such a major way. You shoot something and then they all go away and discuss it and I’m sure there are committees where it’s like, “Oh no, we can’t say that and yes, we can say that.” It was interesting to start to learn how we’re all part of this greater Marvel fabric. We’re all woven into this bigger story, which is the story of the Marvel Universe.
TrunkSpace: And what’s fascinating about that for you is that The Tinkerer has been around longer than many of the characters who are already appearing as part of the cinematic universe. There’s a lot of history on your shoulders.
Chernus: Oh yeah. Totally. He’s an OG villain. (Laughter) The Tinkerer is old school Spider-Man. It was fascinating. When I got cast and in looking at some of the old books… those first issues of Spider-Man where both Vulture and Tinkerer are there, it’s really cool. It’s really cool to feel that history in small ways and in large ways. I was very honored. I mean, obviously it’ll be a slightly different character in the fact that I don’t look like a bald old guy. (Laughter) So, visually it won’t be the same character, but I’m happy to carry the torch.
TrunkSpace: Many in the world grew up on a diet of Spider-Man, and again, what’s cool about The Tinkerer in the history of the character is just how much he played into the creation of other characters. He was the villain’s villain in that he gave them the power to be who they ultimately become. So being cast as a character who COULD be part of that fabric going forward must have been an exciting thing?
Chernus: Absolutely. And I’m not saying that I know that that will happen. Nobody has said that I’m coming back, but I’m hopeful for that. There’s definitely potential for him to be involved with many different villains if they choose to do that.
TrunkSpace: Performing alongside of so many acting heavies in both “The Dinner” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” must have also been very exciting, so we’re curious what was one memorable moment from each that you’ll carry with you moving forward?
Chernus: From an acting standpoint, on “The Dinner”… and this relates to the question you asked about what’s the difference. Although “The Dinner” was very heavily scripted, it’s based on a worldwide best-selling novel and Oren Moverman, the director, wrote the really great adaptation of that. That being said, Oren is very great about including the actors in terms of like, “Okay, what do you want to say here?” or “What would you do?” or “What do you think is interesting?” And he let us do a fair amount of improvising and so there’s this monologue I have where I describe a cheese course. Instead of being broken up into acts, it’s broken up in courses because it takes place over the length of this dinner. So we shot nights in this old mansion outside of New York City that we converted into a restaurant and we would start at like 5 p.m. and wrap at 5 a.m. So there were these sort of grueling night shoots and maybe we were there for a week or a little over a week. And on the last day of shooting at that location Oren was like, “Just a heads up, the last shot of the night I want you to describe the cheese course and it’s not written, so I want you to go into the kitchen…” We had a kitchen on set where we had great chefs who were actually making the meal every night. He said, “Go talk to Jay and Paul and just see what cheeses they have because I know they have some great cheeses, learn about them and write up some stuff about each cheese and then be ready to talk about it on camera.” Oren and I went over it and made up some jokes and created a structure for it, but essentially, I sort of improvised/wrote on the fly this cheese course monologue and shot it at like 5 a.m. That was so fun and it was such a great acting exercise. When he said it to me, I was like, “Oh, God, that’s terrifying and I’m going to screw this up and it’s not going to be any good.” But we just sort of went for it and I’m pretty proud of how it turned out. I think it’s this weird, funny little moment in the movie and on a bigger budget movie, you might not have the freedom to do that because things are just a little more structured.
And on the “Spider-Man” movie, again, I know it’s annoying, but I can’t really…
TrunkSpace: You don’t have to explain. Totally get it. The NDAs are probably super intense.
Chernus: Already, telling you what I’ve told you, I feel like they’re going to come murder me. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: We’ll talk about it again once it’s out.
Chernus: Yeah. Once it’s out, I’ll tell you everything! (Laughter)
But, just working with Michael Keaton was so fun. He’s such an icon and growing up and seeing him as Batman and Beetlejuice and all of his films… I’m such a fan. And now of his later work like “Spotlight” and “Birdman.” He’s so down to earth. He’s so cool. He’s so funny. He’s really generous. We really hit it off and just laughed so much on set. Any time we weren’t shooting we were just sort of cracking each other up, so that was really fun to be able to spend time with him and pick his brain about the business and to get to know him a little bit.
“The Dinner” will be served to theaters this Friday.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” swings into theaters July 7, 2017.