If we were asked to pick a favorite, it would be difficult to choose one particular memorable role of William Sadler’s career. The problem is, there have been so many. Heywood from “The Shawshank Redemption” is an obvious choice. The Grim Reaper from “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” is comedic gold. And as horror buffs, we can’t discredit his turn as Brayker from “Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight.”
Instead of shoehorning ourselves into making that singular decision, we have decided to celebrate Sadler’s career as a whole, which has spanned four decades of pop culture impact, from film roles in “Die Hard 2” and “The Green Mile,” to television stints on “Roswell” and his current portrayal of Tony Teresi on Starz’ “Power,” set to return later this year.
We sat down with Sadler to discuss his craft, the draw of quality writing, and how playing bad can sometimes feel so good.
TrunkSpace: For audiences, you’ve been responsible for a number of memorable roles. But for you, what was the most memorable?
Sadler: One of the most rewarding ones I think was, well… there’s several. It’s funny. They’re like children. You love them all for different reasons. I mean, “Shawshank” was… the experience of shooting it, of creating the character and then helping to create that world and tell that story… that stands out as one of the most fun.
TrunkSpace: And that one was sort of a slow burn because it didn’t initially hit with an audience, so it must have had some unusual rewarding milestones after its release?
Sadler: Well, not only did it not hit with audiences, it tanked. It opened and closed in the movie theater. I read somewhere it made something like 18 million domestic… something like that. But then it was nominated for all of the Academy Awards and they put it back in the movie theaters and it got a little more exposure. I don’t think it really began to sink in with people until home rentals. It was the king of home rentals. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: Well now it’s a film that is often tagged with the “modern classic” label.
Sadler: Yeah, but as far the filming experience went… that was one of the most fun times I’d ever had on a movie set. You’re sitting at the dining hall table across from Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins and James Whitmore… and just anywhere you look there’s another great player. And no one wants to drop the ball. It’s getting tossed back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and around and around and around. It’s sort of like playing tennis with John McEnroe or something. Everybody brings their A game. It was fun. There was a lot of terrific chemistry in that.
TrunkSpace: Is there a project that was particularly rewarding creatively that you wished more people had seen or discovered?
Sadler: There have been a number of them. Just for pure creative fun, “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” Playing Death was hands down the silliest, most enjoyable. It was sort of non stop creative because there was a lot of improvising and it was sort of like, once you put those robes on and got into that character, I couldn’t shut up.
TrunkSpace: And that film is almost 25 years old now, correct?
Sadler: Yeah. I think so. 91.
TrunkSpace: Could you have ever imagined that your costar Keanu would become a big action star?
Sadler: No. (Laughter) I’m not sure he wanted to do that second Bill & Ted movie. I think he was getting ready to go off and do something else. I have to say, I thought he was brilliant as that character… the sort of idiot high school student. I thought it was a genius bit of acting.
TrunkSpace: Some of his best moments as that character weren’t in the delivery of the lines themselves, but in the pauses and reflection he took between each line.
Sadler: “Whoaaaa.” (Laughter) It just seemed so childlike. Like surprised by everything. “Whoa, dude!”
I have to say, when he went off and did “The Matrix,” I was just blown away. I think that’s a modern classic. That’s right up there.
TrunkSpace: Absolutely. The films that come along and change the way that other filmmakers approach their craft and directly influence the next generation, that’s when you know you’ve created something that touched a nerve.
Sadler: Right. I guess that’s the way with any of the arts. Someone comes along with a different way of looking at things or a different way of doing things and… everyone has a tendency to steal from the best. Everybody’s standing on the shoulders of the people who went before.
TrunkSpace: A big trend in television these days is re-imaginging film projects into television series. Is there a character you played that you felt had more story to tell and someone you wouldn’t mind playing for five or six seasons?
Sadler: A film character that would translate that would make the leap? I played the president in “Iron Man 3”… President Ellis. That’s carried over a bit into the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” television show.
There are lots of them. I’m one of those actors who just loves to work. I get a big kick out of solving the problems. And every character, every situation, every film, every script is a different set of problems. Each one of them is a puzzle and I just really get a kick out of finding a path through the puzzles that works for me. Some are more successful than others, but I love the process.
When I was doing “Roswell” back at The WB, one of the things that I really enjoyed about that process… I had never done a series that lasted that long before. Every week you’d get another script and it was sort of like opening another chapter in your character’s life. With each time you turned the page, your character became more interesting. There was another facet or another color that wasn’t there before. It’s like a long form movie in a way. Or that’s the way I perceived it anyway.
TrunkSpace: Well, and certainly nowadays, television series are being made like mini films, particularly on the cable side.
Sadler: Right! “Breaking Bad” or what have you… it’s precisely that. It’s all one long story. I really enjoyed that. I think some of the best work on the planet is being done on television these days.
TrunkSpace: It must be an exciting time for actors because of the quality of the content that is made available to them now… these really rich, character-driven pieces.
Sadler: Exactly. The writing has taken a leap. The performances have taken a leap. It’s an exciting time to be in the business, I think. I got into it back when it was all film and studios. You needed a big studio and you needed a lot of money to make movies. As things became digital, anybody with a camera… you can make a movie on your iPhone now and upload it to YouTube. The industry has just changed so completely. I just did a thing called “Shoot Me Nicely”… a pilot for a TV series. It was done on a shoestring budget… a real shoestring budget… and it’s going all over the world winning competition after competition after competition. I truly expect that it’s going to find a home somewhere on some network or some platform and become a series.
TrunkSpace: And what’s amazing is that those shoestring budgets of today… those projects look better than a million dollar project from 1989.
Sadler: Right. (Laughter) It’s amazing. It’s a brave new world.
TrunkSpace: From an acting perspective, it wasn’t even that long ago when it was frowned down upon to be in television, or at least, it wasn’t as prestigious.
Sadler: Well those days are gone completely. The thing is, good actors go where the writing is. You follow the writing. Good directors follow the writing. Good actors follow the writing. If the writing is strong… if the ideas and the concepts of the writing are strong… you can interest the best actors on the planet. And some of the strongest stuff happening these days is happening in television. “Orange Is the New Black.” “Breaking Bad.” Going back a ways, “The Sopranos.” It was just like magic. There’s no stigma involved in that. It’s flat out phenomenal work. And that’s just exciting to be involved in.
TrunkSpace: With the pace being so different in television than in film, does it force you to approach performance differently? Are you limited in what you can try with a performance in television or do you still have that room to breathe?
Sadler: No, I think there’s still plenty of room to breathe in the television schedule. I’m doing a series right now called “Power” for the Starz network. I mean, it’s not like we can spend the entire day doing take after take after take on a single scene. There’s a schedule and it has to move, but within that, there’s plenty of room to play. You want to try another take… you want to go again… there’s nobody standing over you saying, “We’ve got to go!” like they used to. (Laughter) It’s a slightly longer shoot. I think it’s 14 days or something. It used to be, like “Roswell,” we would crank out an hour show, it would take eight filming days. And that’s pretty breakneck. You’ve got to get that shot in and get to the next shot.
But to get back to this idea of following the writing? I think that when the writing is good, it just lifts everybody. That’s the tide that floats everybody’s boat. If the writing is good and it’s moving and it’s thoughtful… it’s not hard to be amazing if the writing is amazing. I’ll put it another way. If the writing is not amazing… if it’s just sort of boilerplate drama, it’s harder. It’s harder to memorize. It’s harder to act in because the emotional honesty isn’t completely there. It isn’t thought out. The more clunky the writing, the more difficult your job becomes.
TrunkSpace: And when people are on their A game, it inspires other people to elevate their game as well.
Sadler: And that was one of the really wonderful things about Shawshank was that, nobody at the time thought it was going to become a classic of any kind, but everybody who read that script thought it was an amazing story. Everybody! And because the writing was so strong, everybody and their brother wanted to be a part of it. Tom Cruise was doing table reads. Charlie Sheen, Nicolas Cage… the names of the day were being thrown around. It’s not hard to get people excited about a piece like that, but it all starts with the writing.
TrunkSpace: Looking at your career, it seems like you were never pigeonholed to one genre. How did you navigate that aspect of your career?
Sadler: I don’t think I did much intentionally. I said yes to projects that varied and to things that interested me… things that sounded like fun. When I first came to Los Angeles, the very first things that I did were… I was a villain in “Hard to Kill” with Steven Seagal and I was this asshole villain in “The Hot Spot” that Dennis Hopper directed and then the villain in “Die Hard 2.” I really got off on an evil dude streak and Hollywood is funny that way. Once they see that you can do something well, they’re very happy to keep you doing that again and again and again. They’re not tremendous risk takers and they really don’t care whether you find a role fulfilling or if you’d like to expand yourself as an actor. They couldn’t care less. But I’ve been fortunate enough to… interesting projects seem to find me and I say yes and go off and explore that. I’m glad that I haven’t been so thoroughly pigeonholed that there’s… it would be like being a concert pianist and the only thing they ever let you play is “Ragtime.” (Laughter) And that’s all they let you do. I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I like that people think of me as the evil dude because it’s nice to be able to bring an edge to the good people that you play.
TrunkSpace: Or with a character like Brayker from “Demon Knight,” he was bad, but he had layers of good. He was a complicated guy.
Sadler: Right. Exactly. It’s always more fun if the hero’s got a dark side or the villain’s got a funny side. We’re complicated creatures, we humans.
TrunkSpace: Your character Jim in “The Mist” feels a little reflective of what’s going on in society today with the panic within the social and political landscape.
Sadler: Wow. I hadn’t thought of that. I think you’re right.
TrunkSpace: At times, it feels like we’re not far away from society turning into the same vibe as what was going on in that store.
Sadler: I see what you’re saying. I think that’s probably true. I hope the lesson of the film is… (Laughter)… I hope you can take away the lesson of the film, which is that doesn’t help. Letting that panic turn you into animals. If the fear of the unknown calls up the worst angels in you, you’ve just made the situation worse. You haven’t fixed anything. You haven’t solved anything.