Why do we laugh at violence or discard it when it turns up in a cartoon or a videogame but give it so much more credence and weight when it's packaged in human form?
Max Williams has taken a risk — a brash role full of whim, blood and head games that has left a distinct flavor on his resume.
Unlike Viola Davis or Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar-nominated actors whose bodies of work won't be defined by their leap of angst as relatable moms in "Won't Back Down," the recent Walden Media release that pulled in a disappointing $2.6 million in 2,500+ theaters in its opening weekend, Williams is still in the trenches with gashes, crawling his way to a wider audience, after his turn as a bullet-spraying nut job with zero remorse in IFC's "Bullet in the Face."
Known on the L.A. theater scene for crafting intense characters, Williams always seems to simmer through the trippy, breaking his bad and his good in such productions as "Anything," by Tim McNeil and "Icarus' Mother" by Sam Shepherd, both directed by David Fofi, a long-time collaborator at the Elephant Theatre.
He has eyebrows and cheekbones, and his breakout role in "Bullet in the Face" sets off Williams' seering visage and rapt smile as the dastardly German hitman whose face gets obliterated in a shoot-out. His performance is touchy, inflammatory, politically ugly, outlandish, juvenile and out there.
It's the kind of role that's like a fraternity hazing: He strips naked and gets vulnerable, and if he's lucky, he'll get a leg up.
I talked to him about the fresh air that has finally followed since the days of August when "Bullet in the Face" was unleashed in six episodes on IFC in warp speed over two nights. (You can still see them on Amazon Instant Video.)
For Alan Spencer, who tapped him to play the lead role in this ghoulish rendition of mob mania, Williams was a natural fit. Gunter Vogler wasn't the first mad man he'd played. He starred in "Block Nine" by Tom Stanczk at the Elephant in a role that garnered him an L.A. Weekly nomination for best comedic actor. "Cody Powers was the leader of a mob gang trying to seduce an undercover cop to join his ranks. He was eerily similar to Gunter," he told me. "Hair-trigger violent, funny and utterly unapologetic about his actions and behavior."
For so many artists, self-discovery comes through the work. For Williams, playing sociopaths holds a special place in his imagination. As he puts it, "It's the most unbelievably freeing experience for me as an artist. In our everyday world of artifice, back-stabbing, lies, half-truths, et cetera, lunatics and sociopaths are who they are. They do not have guilt. This is not to say that sociopaths are not incorrigible. But they are real. Out front and unencumbered in their behavior. And deep down I respect that. Not their actions, necessarily. But their honesty."
Perhaps it's the honesty in his performance that is so unsettling. The glee and sheer joy of killing. Isn't this supposed to be the Age of Aquarius or the Age of Enlightenment? Aren't we supposed to start making violence less sexy and less fun? As Williams sees it, Alan Spencer has "genius balls" for making us question and go places we don't typically visit. His own performance is a subconscious expression of that aim.
"I follow Michael Chekhov's acting technique," he toldl me. "Our world as performers is the world of our imagination. Let me put it this way: While driving down the road, passing a person on a bicycle, I have been guilty on more than one occasion of wondering what it would be like to swerve over and pop! Just send them flying, watch them toss and turn in the air. Is this wrong?
"Of course I am never going to act on it for real, but my imagination has gone there. And the feelings I have surrounding it are not violent in nature. I don't think about the consequences. I find it funny. Does this mean I'm 'bad'?"
If Mitt Romney loves Big Bird, Williams loves Bugs Bunny, his favorite character of all time. He's flawed, violent, hilarious and cute. And perhaps Williams is a bit jealous of him. Bugs, after all, nearly nullifies the critical debate about his violent antics. "Bullet" was not so spared during its run. Williams wants to know why we laugh at violence or discard it when it turns up in a cartoon or a videogame, but we give it so much more credence and weight when it's packaged in human form.
"We are subject to what I refer to as 'emotional' violence all the time. On reality shows, when one wife or husband does this or that to a mate, breaking down their character with this or that statement or scenario. Or one housewife to another housewife, isn't that just as serious a form of violence as actual physical violence? A 'soul violence?' I believe so."
Williams also believes he was Native American in a former life. As proof he mentions that there are tribes that believe the dream-life is actually a reality.
"Max," I reason, "this is where the sanity-litmus test comes into play. I've seen you embody outrageous sociopaths on screen and on stage, and now you're telling me you're Native American — in the real world … kind of."
"Indeed, being an artist is an ego-dance that can never be mastered. This is both its beauty and its bane."
"Do you realize why so many marginally sane people are afraid to date actors?"
Not only would he like to play a dying priest in an adaptation of Margaret Craven's novel "I Heard the Owl Call My Name," he'd also like for Warner Bros. to resurrect "Wolfen" by Whitley Streiber. The film premiered in 1981. It starred Albert Finney, Diana Venora and Edward James Olmos, and co-starred Gregory Hines. According to Williams, it speaks on many levels about man's relationship with nature, animals and the deep connection we have with them, which we've since lost.
"Whenever I create a character, it always begins with an animal. Gunter was an owl who had swallowed a snake. The head of the owl and tail of the snake were all part of the creation, and they were two animals vying for control. Gunter's essence, his heart, was that of a lion. So he was an amalgamation of those three."
"Which of the characters in 'Wolfen' intrigues you the most?"
"I would love to play Albert Finney's character in a remake — a cop who has much more in common with wolves than he knows, but slowly over time, he recognizes more and more similarities between himself and his animal. I really believe the story has even more to offer us now. Metaphorically, it hints at the dangers of the Western ideal of Manifest Destiny, our encroachment on nature and our exploding population."
So what does he make of our exploding population. More people, more violence, more sociopaths?
"I am," he said. "Reality is created within. Scraping my bones in a program for addiction is the defining journey of my life," he explains. "It taught me how to love myself. I believe that if each adult human recognized we are all addicts of some sort — be it food, drama, you name it — and took the time to dig deep and recognize that ego is our worst foe, well, the explosion could be love. All love starts with loving ourselves. If we do not … well, look around. It will play out as we choose."