Fresh Air Inteview
with Terry Gross
National Public Radio
April 29, 1998

Terry Gross: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Campbell Scott is starring in David Mamet's new film, "The Spanish Prisoner." Scott, who is the son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst has been acting in movies since 1988. He's best known for his role in Longtime Companion, Dying Young, Singles, The Daytrippers and Big Night, which he also co-directed and co-produced with Stanley Tucci.

In the Spanish Prisoner, Scott plays Joe Ross, a naive inventor who becomes the mark in an elaborate con game. He's invented a top secret formula known as "the Process." His boss believes it will make a fortune for the company but Ross suspects he might be cut out of the profits and that suspicion is deepened when he meets a mysterious businessman played by Steve Martin. Soon Ross has no idea who are his friends and who's trying to set him up. Here he is with his boss, played by Ben Gazarra. They're at a Carribean resort to attend a stockholder's meeting.

JR: Mr. Klein, if I might, They were kind enough to mention the stockholder's meeting. But if we could discuss the exact terms of ...
K:Of your...
JR:Of my bonus. my participation..
K: Joe, if this thing goes, there's going to be more than enough to go around. Are you kidding, you did good in there. And I'm not gonna forget it. Neither are they.
JR: Thank you sir. Thank you but my exact questions.
K: How much. Well I'm in the same position as you. They keep me in the dark too. Yes they do. Need a couple of bucks for your rent?
JR: For my rent? Can't say that I do sir. No but ...
K: Joe, I'll tell you what. Frankly I'm here to enjoy myself. That's why we brought you fella down. Give you a little perk. Now you want to talk business? New York, my office anytime. An Joe, why don't you buy yourself some new clothes. Give yourself a holiday.

Campbell Scott, welcome to Fresh Air.

Campbell Scott: Thank you for having me.

Your character in the Spanish Prisoner is an easy mark and I'm wondering if you had to find something in this character that makes him an easy mark for the cons.

I think that, it's funny we were just discussing this yesterday that there's... Someone has thrown about this quote that,"you really can't con one, someone who doesn't want to be conned, or someone who doesn't have the conman in himself." I think that it certainly is David's intention, and I go along with it that he not seem completely innocent, that in fact the reason he is a mark eventually for these people is that he does what he does well and he also wants something. You know, he desires something badly and desires it enough so that he becomes engaged with a number of people, more than just with his common sense but with his emotions and that's what gets him in trouble.

What does he want.

I think he wants to be recognized for his hard work. There's no doubt that the world he lives in is a small one, but in a strange way I think, like a lot of people - writers, for example, they spend a lot of time in rooms alone, working very hard on something but it never quite seems real until someone either accepts it or gives you some praise or financial restitution, or is that the right word, or appraisal.


Yeah exactly, and that's what makes you feel alive in some ways. So he's not a man who has a lot of friends or a lot of, or a lady that he loves or anything like that. So he has been working hard but he also is aware enough to try to be recognized for it.

Some directors like to keep their actors a little bit in the dark so that the actor doesn't really know what his character's fate is until he gets to that scene in the movie, and since there ar so many little plot twists in this movie and so many conspiracies that your character is prey to. I'm wondering if Mamet kept you in the dark about any of it, or you had a whole script that you were able to read before you started to shoot.

Oh absolutely, yeah, I wouldn't take a job if I couldn't read the script. There are some directors who will only give you little bits. I've never worked for them but I have a big thing about actors being treated as colleagues and all that. And David was very much, he's an old theater man and he, you basically, everybody reads the script and talks about it for a little while and then you shoot it. It's very no-nonsense.

Is your attitude, "I'm an actor, I'm a professional. I can handle knowing what happens to my character"?

Well, like I say, this is a "thing" with me because I've been sort of on both sides of the camera now and both sides of the stage and, but mostly an actor, and I do. I have hidden resentment about the way most actors are treated and the way they behave in response to that. I think but often like children or like gods which are both ridiculous ways to treat them, I think.

Have you ever been conned? Do you have direct knowledge of what it's like to be a victim of a con?

I've never been financially conned. I think, yeah, we've all been conned in some way, certainly. I think that's part of the reason that people will hopefully be attracted, seduced by the movie. I certainly have been conned in relationships with other people. Been made to think one thing when in fact that the opposite was the truth, or whatever. And then of course you always feel, well you feel horrible. I think that's hopefully part of the attraction of the movie. It's very safe to sit there in the dark and watch other people get screwed, and it kind of makes you happy to watch it (laughs). And nobody really gets hurt. But in real life, people obviously get very hurt.

One of your co-stars in this movie is Ricky Jay, who's a kind of master of the con game, a historian of con games. Did he give you any insight into setups like this?

He and David are always obsessing (laugh) about what to show and how much to show because that's what it's all about,. you know, how you draw people in and then pull the rug out from underneath them. They're both fascinated with how to do that, whether it's magic, illusions, film-making. It's all kind of the same thing for them. And Steve Martin, who's also in the movie, is actually quite a very good amateur magician and he and Ricky and, they're always whispering. (laughs) And eventually you just take it for granted that there's something going on that you've not, you don't completely know the full truth about.

Campbell Scott is our guest and he's starring in the new movie. The Spanish Prisoner, which is written and directed by David Mamet. Campbell Scott, I want to ask you about another recent role. This is a small part but I thought you were just terrific in it. The movie was The Daytrippers. And you play an author in it who's one of these literary guys who's very self-absorbed. Very kind of narcissistic.

Oh really (with airs) You thought so, Terry?


I didn't find him self-absorbed at all! (laughs) I'm joking.

Yes I know. And this character really knows how to. How to kind of flatter women into being able to hit on them. (laughs)

Did you think so?


I guess so, I don't know.

You seem, I think you nailed this character so perfectly. I'd like you to just describe the character a little bit.

You know, you know you tend to nail the characters that are completely unlike you. So when you say that, I say yeah, that must be true because you know, I could never even approach women. I've been married now 15 years so I don't have the opportunity, and I don't want it, but I tell you it's so much easier when you just have to do it from observation. I read that script, movie, which is written and directed by Greg Mottola who's really a friend and quite a talent to watch. I think, yeah, I mean, as soon as I read that part, when he originally gave it to me, we had talked about me playing some other roles and stuff like that and I was one of the producers on the film, just because I loved it so much and I liked him and he said "who do you want to play?" and I said I want to play this guy. The kind of sleazy guy who does nothing but hit on women because they're, but in a kind of a faux intellectual "I'm a writer" kind of way.


For some reason, I, I don't know, I just sort of got it (laughs). Or I certainly understood it just from what he wrote. You know, my whole thing is if the writing's good, it's easy.

I wonder if this is the kind of guy who you observed.

I don't really know, I'm sure I have. I hope I'm not just imitating other movies (laughs). But I couldn't pick anyone out, frankly. There are people you meet obviously who seem both confident and also there is an amount of self-absorption that makes it possible for them to be that confident because if they fail or get hurt, or don't , or get rejected they just move on, you know. It doesn't tend to stifle them for the next go-round. And for some reason, that tends to appeal to a lot of women, too (laughs).

Campbell Scott, another recent film of yours, Big Night is another movie that you teamed up with Stanley Tucci to make. You co-directed the film together. He co-wrote it with an old friend of his. And you also had a small part in the movies as a Cadillac salesman. I understand you and Stanley Tucci were high school friends. How did you decide to make a movie together?

Well he, Stan actually wrote it with his cousin, Joe Tropiano. They had worked on it for years and years and years. Stan and I have known each other for...since we we 14. We both grew up outside of New York City together and you know, eventually became actors. We would always call each other and say "we gotta make a movie, we gotta make a movie. We're so sick of, you know, working on other people's stuff." Anyway he wrote this beautiful script and I loved it and he was, I think, certainly smart enough to recognize that he definitely wanted to play the lead but doing that and directing that might hinder the movie in some way. So, it'd be too much to bite off and so I said I'd be the adviser. I'll watch, I'll do anything. He said why don't you co-direct it. So that's how it started. And after that basically he and I, and Joe operated as a trio. I mean we really discussed, we discussed everything and the sensibility was already in the script.

You have strong feelings about how directors talk to actors. When you're directing what do you want your approach to be, in directing actors?

Oh, I'm a complete tyrant (laughs.) Having said that...actually it's kind of funny because, you know Stanley and I, we we getting ready to do Big Night. We we, you know, we'd talk about it for a long time and say "this is going to be so great, you know, we're finally gonna be able to create the atmosphere that we really want on the set and we're going to treat everyone like colleagues and equals and speak to the actors as they should be spoken to, like artists and, you know, people who are creating along with us the whole time, and it'll be so great." Within a week, we were, like (dictatorially) "turn your head to the left, don't do that. laugh on this take, get of, get off screen!" You know, we got hysterical. But there is a point to that actually, I think the reason we eventually got to doing that sometimes is there was a great amount of trust. A lot of the people in the film were our friends already. Isabella Rossellini and Tony Shalhoub. These are people that we already knew . So there's already a love and a trust there. And so of course you really can cut right through it and say whatever you want and that's the way I prefer it. I think all directors, you need to have a strong hand without a doubt. The best directors in the world, I think, are the ones who are able to ... are balancers. They're able to maintain quite an extraordinary and definitive vision. Even if they don't really know what they want, which nobody does until they see it before them but at the same time be incredibly encouraging and flexible to all of the people around you, you know. That's a tall order but that's the struggle that should be attempted.

My guest is actor Campbell Scott. He's starring in the new film "The Spanish Prisoner." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

Campbell Scott is my guest and he's starring in the new movie, The Spanish Prisoner which is written and directed by David Mamet. Now you are the son of two well-known actors George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst. Did you expect to be an actor yourself when you were young. That something you actually wanted for yourself?

No, it wasn't even considered really. My parents were the kind of people who were very professional, they would disappear at night for a few hours. We hardly knew where they went and then they'd re-appear, you know, at twelve midnight and we'd think "gee I wonder where they went." Eventually we'd figure out they were just going to the theater but no, it was something neither my brother nor I thought about at all. It just didn't , it didn't strike us. And then I, when I finally went to college, I went to college to be a teacher. That's when I did a couple of plays and I immediately fell in love with it.

What kind of teacher did you plan on being?

A history teacher, which of course means, I have no idea what I wanted to do

That was like your fall back?

Except that I like those historical figures, you know, and I really just want to drink (laughs) at college. You know, I mean, who knows what they want... go. But yes, you ... right down there. I was fascinated with history. Actually, I'm sure that's part of what, the same kinds of things that made me want to be a teacher and a history teacher were the same things that you get up in front of a group of people and you basically talk about or create characters in their heads, and stories. That's what always fascinated me. I was a big reader. I mean the though of performing, if you had known me back then would have been absolutely ludicrous. I was completely a reserved individual.

Very inhibited?

I wouldn't say inhibited. I was just incredibly quiet and I had no, absolutely no desire at all to speak to any more than one person at a time, if that, you know, just wandering around.

So how did you first become aware of your parents as actors. What were the first, say, movie roles you saw your mother and father that made a big impression on you?

Well, it's funny, most of the early part of my life, probably 'til I was 13 or so my parents were theater actors. They were known just in New York mostly. And so we would go to theater sometimes and we knew what was going on but wasn't a big hullabaloo. And then in 1970 my dad did Patton and obviously that was a big dea. But shortly after that they were divorced anyway and he kind of disappeared and went off to another marriage. So that was felt more, I'm sure, just in the high school hallways in some way by my brother and I but we managed to just try to bypass it all I'm sure.

Having grown up the son of actors, what were some of the things you have seen in the acting world that you didn't want to do. In other words, mistakes that you had seen other actors make or ego problems that you'd seen other actors have.

I think it's more of just, it's anything that takes you away from the work at hand. I mean, both of my parents and I don't think, I don't like it when people say or think that it's exclusive to theater. But I do think it is more prevalent, certainly in my parents' generation from actors who were from theater because there is a certain amount of endurance (laugh) required. And equality between amount of work and amount of money that you're paid so that it keeps you focused on the correct things. Obviously you know where I'm leading. You know, people do get paid a lot of money to be in movies often. Sometimes it's ludicrous amounts for work that is challenging and difficult sometimes. It's things you have to endure and all that but it ain't diggin' ditches, you know. And so a healthy respect for that is something that will always keep you centered on the right thing. Because it will hurt you ultimately, it's not about me saying "oh let's just... there's only one pure way of being an actor" and all that, you know. I don't believe that. Everybody's different and everybody has different things they want and you know, there a part of the seductive part of this business that's great, it's fabulous. You know, people take you pictures and everybody said you're great. "yah yah ya" Part of that is fun but you have to take it with a serious grain of salt and keeping your mind on what's important. Because that's what will give you a real life, and if you don't have a real life, how could you be an actor?

I have one last question for you. Usually when an actor is mentioned, say, in a press kit, or in a cast list, they're identified with their most famous movies, and that movie's in parentheses. So your parentheses movie is Campbell Scott parentheses Dying Young.

(laughs) Oh, Jesus.

That's always the movie's that's used in parentheses when your name is mentioned

Yes, why do you think that is so, Terry? (laughing)

I was going to ask you if that's the parentheses movie of your choice. Or would you like to most identified with a different film?

Ha ha, of course not. No, I don't want any parentheses movie. I don't want to be identified with any film. I think it's deadly, you know. Hopefully, anybody who has any kind of knowledge of what I do or what I'm trying to do they can see that I'm trying not to have a parentile movie at all. No. often it's funny, I was talking to Harris Dew, who is one of the guys whos' working on publicity for the Spanish Prisoner were discussing in the car how I'm seen in this business. which is endlessly fascinating to me because I do have a rather, people don't quite know how to take me. And the older I get the more I consider that a compliment because oftentimes people say "well, he's a good actor but who is he?" I mean you never see him really, but he seems to be in movies. And to me that is the greatest compliment of all because I'm working, I leave some kind of impression, and yet hopefully the next time I'm working people will say, "who is that, is that...?"

I get the same thing on the street. I'm very very lucky that way. People often, actually people, not often. When they do come up to me, the first thing they often say is "did I go to high school with you?" They don't know where they know me from and I immediately consider that a compliment. And then of course I immediately start to torture them and say "what high school was it?" -- for a while, and then I say no. So hopefully I have no parentile, obviously Dying Young is my parentile on the resume because people think that was the biggest deal I was in because Julia was in it and all that. I had a very limited foray into Hollywood.

Well Campbell Scott I want to thank you so much.

Thank you very much, it was my pleasure.

I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.

Campbell Scott Companion