Read our round-table interview with Canadian actor Barry Pepper, who appears in the new biopic ‘Casino Jack.’ The Golden Globe and Emmy Award-nominated star portrays Michael Scanlon, a former communications director, lobbyist and public relations executive. Scanlon pleaded guilty in 2005 to conspiring to bribe a member of Congress and other public officials after committing various financial crimes with his business partner Jack Abramoff.
Question (Q): The movie takes a very serious subject and makes it light-hearted. Did that make it interesting as an actor?
Barry Pepper (BP): I think when you research this story, the books that we did, like Heist and various others, you follow this papertrail, you look at the schismatic personalities of these characters, like Mike Scanlon, Jack Abramoff (who was played by Kevin Spacey), it’s hard to believe this is factual reporting. You have to have a First Amendment lawyer back this script, for inaccuracies and liabilities. You can’t tell a story like this without production insurance. It is remarkable how lurid and comicable it is at times. This is a factual odyssey. This is truly how they lived, these guys were a couple of interesting characters. What’s remarkable is their schismatic personalities, if you will. I mean, here Jack is a very philanthropic man, a good father, a good husband. He’s a super-lobbyist involved in some of the most scandalous deeds. Yet when this scandal flooded the information highway, we fond out that Mike, throughout the entire time they worked together, was holding down a $10-an-hour lifeguarding job and living like a surfer dude. He was this completely alternate personality, living the high-life, working as a PR consultant with Jack Abramoff. It’s remarkable and stranger than fiction. I don’t know what other approach you would have taken to it. It’s all about the story. It’s hard to fathom how this ever took place. I think when you look back, you start to do your research on a project like this, at the climate of things, in 1994 when the Republicans took control of the House. Tom Delay and others turned it into big money. K Street was just flourishing at the time. It was this incredible breeding ground for men like Jack Abramoff. They brought in millions and millions and millions of dollars to the Republic campaign. They were lionized as heroes to the right. When the scandal broke, everyone flees and denies ever knowing them. Sadly, they became these famous fall guys for that period of greed. But nothing’s changed, and that’s a really sad, remarkable fact of this story that intrigued me to be a part of it. I have nothing in common with my character. This might serve as a cautionary tale of our democracy and the state of affairs in Washington such that democracy is drowning under a tsunami of corporate financing and campaign loot.
Q: Did you follow the Abramoff story when it was happening?
BP: I remember seeing him walk down those court room steps and his black Borsolino hat and trench coat. I remember the headlines: ‘The Mafia Don,’ ‘Gangster,’ the misinterpreted quotes by the press, thinking that he was some type of bad man. I guess in a way he was a sort of Don Corleone-type figure. He was cast in a very villainous light. At the time, I thought that was the story. Then you dig a little deeper. I knew very little, like most people. You just sort of assume the press knows what they’re talking about, and that’s the story, off you go. But then when you dig a little deeper into these things, you’re amazed at how unbelievable it is. Kevin had the opportunity of meeting with Jack in prison. When he and I and (director) George (Hickenlooper) got together, that’s really what it was, just sharing all of our information. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet with Mike. He left Washington, and was cooperating with the investigation. He was not really available to speak to. He had paid restitution, $20 some-odd million, like Jack did, yet he didn’t serve any prison time. Obviously, he was able to cooperate with the FBI before Jack did. But what was so remarkable when we got together, comparing our information, was that Jack told Kevin that he held no animosity against Mike and he would consider him a friend today. That was the back-bone of their relationship that we held fast to.
Q: The dynamic that you have with Kevin in the film, as far to being similar to the dynamic between Jack and Mike, how did you build that dynamic?
BP: Well, Kevin’s excellent to work with, so remarkably talented. You elevate each other, in terms of your desire to go there with each other. It’s so enjoyable to work with someone who’s so talented and giving as Kevin. You completely lose yourself in each other. Beyond on, it’s all what you gain from research. Like in my case, I was able to speak to several of Mike’s colleagues and co-workers and friends that worked with him during that period. Some have really fallen out of touch because Mike sort of disappeared and as they described it, left them to pick up the pieces after the scandal broke. That was really interesting to me, that’s where you really start to build. But in terms of the ease and effortlessness of working with Kevin, as soon as you meet him, he’s an easy-go-lucky guy. He doesn’t bring that intense method approach to the set. He’s able to be enjoyable to be around and tell stories and do impressions and make it enjoyable for the entire cast and crew. Unlike with some actors, they can really hermit, lose themselves in the role so much, out of fear of losing the character, and being unable to retain it. They hold onto it to a point that you really can’t communicate with them. Then there’s others, like Kevin, that give equally amazing results, if not some of the best in the business, and he’s got an Oscar in each hand. Yet he’s able to be really enjoyable to be around. In fact, sometimes this subject matter can be really overwhelming and upsetting at times if you’re politically-minded. When you see the truth in Washington, and there’s been no change in lobbying reform, and they’re drowning our democracy, it can be overwhelming. But in order to pick each other up during filmmaking, it’s nice to have someone like Kevin, and Jon of course. They keep things light and lift you up above the subject matter. It was nice the story unfolds the way it does. You’re able to go on this comedic odyssey with these guys. So it’s not your typical dry, Washington scandal film. It’s actually very humorous and entertaining.
Q: George passed away before the film’s release. What was he like to work with?
BP: He was a joy. He was so enthusiastic about film. I think like many people feel, he shot one of my favorite documentaries of all time, ‘Hearts of Darkness.’ Each day, he came with boundless energy and full-throttle enthusiasm for film. I think he would be so pleased with Kevin’s (Golden Globe) nomination (for Best Actor-Motion Picture Musical or Comedy). It was shocking to us because he was so young (he was 47-years-old), and had a young family. I guess those things are always shocking, you never expect those things to happen. He was extremely organic and perfectly suited for the material. When you’re trying to find a balance of this schismatic character, in the fact that he’s this surfer dude and a multi-millionaire PR consultant. He’s living this dual life, how do I balance this surfer-dude lingo? That was all improvised, taken from the way they spoke in e-mails. Speaking to colleagues, that’s the way they said he spoke, in surfer-dude lingo. Neither George or I are surfer dudes, so I didn’t know how it was going to come off in the final process. So it really was a wonderful exploration because George is immersed in politics. His cousin (John, the current mayor of Denver) just won his election (he is the Governor-elect of Colorado). George has done many other political documentaries. This was just the absolute story for him to tell.
Q: You’ve tried many different types of roles in the past. Are there any types of qualities you look for in a role before you say yes?
BP: No, it’s not so much the role as it is the story. I would have never have done this role if it wasn’t for the storyline and what it ultimately says to its audience in terms of being somewhat of a cautionary tale, opening our eyes to our responsibilities as citizens. Exercising our First Amendment rights, I think that’s the truest form of democracy. I think having a voice in a story like this, it’s not a very enjoyable business to be a part in. You’re just playing a villain to be villain. I just read the screenplay, and see if it aligns with my sense of responsibilities. It certainly did politically.
Written by: Karen Benardello