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‘Red State’ Star Michael Parks on the Hottest Film at Sundance

The Hollywood veteran, cast in Kevin Smith’s lastest film, is the unlikely star of this year’s film festival

Several weeks ago, "Red State" director Kevin Smith suggested on Twitter that journalists track down film star Michael Parks to get the low-down on the film from the man himself.

I took Smith up on the challenge and wound up having an extended conversation with Parks.

Here, he talks about the controversial character he plays in "Red State," working with Smith and his first starring role after decades of supporting parts. 

When was the first time that you met Kevin Smith?

The first time I met Kevin Smith was at his house. I think it was a couple of months before we started the picture because he was still getting financing. I got a call and a letter from a producer named Jon Gordon, saying "we'd like you to do this part. That's all we can say for now." He said, "I'd like to have a meeting," so I had a meeting with them and we were in the same school [of thought], so we did the movie.

How did Kevin explain the role when he was first describing the project to you. Did he mention Fred Phelps specifically, or anything like that?

He sent me a script. I said 'send me a script' and he did, so I said "OK, I'll take a meeting." The first thing I said, and he agreed with — I think he's probably just leaving it alone because it'll attract attention — but the first thing I said is, "this is not Fred Phelps." And if it was Fred Phelps perfectly, then I don't think I want to do him because he bores me to tears, the person himself. If I did him, I'd certainly be capable, but i think it would just bore the hell out of the audience. He's boring. That's all I can say. So why do him? And I saw an opportunity to do more of a charismatic [character]. There have been many rumors though.

The project is shrouded in secrecy, so not too many people know what we're in store for.

It's good that way, don't you think, Jeff? I think that's good, that people don't know. Don't you?

I think that too many movies get spoiled these days with every single little detail on the Internet, so it'll be nice to go into a movie cold and just let Kevin tell a story.

Yeah, I think that's absolutely it. I was just one of many puppets but I enjoyed every day with him.

What was his style? What's Kevin's process like?

I never saw a style. I hardly ever saw him for the most part. I stayed out of his way and he stayed out of mine. I mean, you've got to get out of the way when they're moving equipment. So I'd go my way and he'd go his and everything was fine. Sometimes you work with some people and you develop a shorthand between the director and the actor. You don't need to have long dissertations on acting or the scene or the character. It's very quick. I can't explain it, except it's there. We connected that way. He's not dominant, which is wonderful, but he's always there, which is good. 

Is he the kind of director where he's always giving notes on the performance, saying 'tweak this or that?'

Oh, Christ no! I'm too old to read anyways.

So he just kind of let you do your thing?

Well I think that he had faith that I was going to bring the character. If he saw that he didn't like it, he sure as hell would say something, I think. There were a couple of times he helped me with suggestions.

Can you give examples how?

Yeah, like moments when I could be even a little sweeter, a very important thing. But anyways … the craft of acting takes a long time. I'm never quite sure. In fact, 10 seconds after I finish every scene I do, I think I could do it better, but I just go on.

How was it different being on a Kevin Smith set as opposed to a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez set?

There's not the slightest difference in feel. It's a very wonderful, easy set with Quentin, and easy with Robert too. I thought Rodriguez was on heroin when I first met him because everyone will be moving s**t around him and equipment, setting up the scene, and he's strumming his guitar like he's alone with the moon. That's just the way he is. Kevin's the same. I never heard Kevin yell. I don't work with yellers anyway.

Does it feel like your career is coming full circle at this point? You've been in plenty of movies the last 10 years in supporting roles, but this is your first starring role.

I've done a few independent movies where I've starred, and this is an independent as well, but yeah, I'm very thankful that Kevin offered the part to me. It's a terrible person that I play, interestingly enough. By most people in the business' standards, it wouldn't suffice to just ask me to do the picture. They'd want me to do the dog-and-pony show, which I don't do. I don't read or test.

I tell 'em, when so-and-so movie star learns how to act, I'll come and read for you. There's no resentment, it's just that they have no right to do it.

What was the toughest part of playing Pastor Abin for you? Was it hard to get into the skin of such a dark character?

No, we're all dark. I told Kevin I was glad when it was over, to get that dialogue out of my mind. It's tough, but I always get terrible butterflies when I start a film.

So that doesn't go away with experience?

Oh, God, no. If it did, I would be Mac the Movie Star. Those guys are cool. They do themselves well, those movie stars. They're cool. It's easy for them. It's more difficult because if you're going to do somebody else, you really have to put your thinking hat on a lot more. You can't just improv or something, because if you improv out of character, what the hell have you done?

So you believe to staying true to the text in the script?

Well, that depends. If it's some cat that I know really well, maybe some character in another story. But I'd like to see you improv Shakespeare or Moliere or Ben Johnson or even Tennesse Williams, for crying out loud. People think they're cute when they improv but all they're doing is being cute with themselves. 

It's nice to hear that you treat the screenplay somewhat sacred. Are there any other details you can reveal without giving too much away? What kind of lesson is Abin looking to teach these teenagers?

Curiousity killed the cat? I don't know. Maybe. It's a story of intolerance and fanaticism. Intolerance as far as religion. It's only Christian in the sense that it's called Christian, but there are very few Christian religions that really prove it to me anyway. But this one is fanatical. It's a cult. He has a following. The conflict becomes a moral one and it's a conflict of intolerance. He goes by the book, my character. By. The. Book. He quotes from the bible, relative to what he's talking about. He's a true believer. Do I like him? Not on your life, but that's neither here nor there. As an actor, you're called to do either Hamlet or Hitler.

Did you take that character home with you at night? 

I've spent some nights in the South and around all sorts of bigotry. The only difference is that if I do go into some cafe or bar and experience a terrible thing, I don't go back. With this, I have to go back every day. But once the picture's over, it's not like I go home and beat my wife. I've always been a professional in that way. They'll tell ya … Jean Renoir told me this story — he's really the only mentor I ever knew — he told me a story about a French actor whose name I can't remember. The Sorbonne, the music academy in Paris, gave the actor an award. They only gave one award to an actor and it was him. And when he received it, he was like 75 or 80-year-old, he said "how sad that just when I'm beginning to learn my craft, I'm getting too old to practice it." And I believe that.

Do you feel like Hollywood has changed? You've been around the business for a long time. Is the industry going in a direction that worries you?

No, I'm very happy. I'm so glad there's new blood, because every time there's new blood, I get a chance.

With the emphasis that is placed on celebrity in this country, do you feel like actors have developed a sense of entitlement? Has it become more about the money than the craft itself?

Well, you know, when you get into the arts and craft and all that stuff, nobody's really interested. They're interested in success. That's really all there is to that. Actors are not appreciated, stars are appreciated. There was a sign I almost bought in New Canaan, Connecticut. I was there visiting a close friend of mine, a writer by the name of Terry Southern. We went down to the local pub and next to it there was an antique shop and it had a long sign, about 40-feet long, maybe 3-feet wide, and it had almost Gaelic carving in it, and it said, "when your barn is full of hay, you get rats. When it's empty, you get actors." And I was so sorry I didn't buy that son of a b*tch. It was only a couple hundred dollars and it was carved in like 1840.

People like Robert, Quentin and now Kevin seem to be introducing you to another generation of moviegoers who may not be familiar with your earlier work.

Right, absolutely. I agree with that. There have been younger people now who come up to me and say 'hey, I saw you in so-and-so, so that helps. It means somebody's watching and buying a ticket.

Is there one movie in particular where young people come up to you and say 'I loved you in this, whether it's "Grindhouse" or "Kill Bill?"

A lot of Mexicans came up to me after the second "Kill Bill," where I played a Mexican, and they said (affecting an incredible Mexican accent) "man, I didn't know that was you, man! I thought that was my cousin, but he tell me it was you, man! Sh*t, I didn't know and I watched it twice. I said, who is this Mexican actor? I want to know who that is, and it was you, man!"

Anything else you want to add about "Red State" or the experience of working with Kevin?

Go see the movie. That's all. Just go see the movie.

Have you been aware of what's been going on online with Kevin and the media?

Yeah, my wife follows that stuff. I'm from the paleolithic period so I know very little about the buttons and the mouse and all that stuff, and then all those breasts pop up on the right side and you forget about what you were looking for. It's a mess, so I stay away from it. 

Well, critics went after Kevin for his last movie ("Cop Out"), which he didn't write. He took a studio job. So with this movie, he's saying "I don't need critics. I have enough fans who will pay to see the movie, so what does it matter what the critics think?" 

I think Kevin's allowed to be thin-skinned about these things. There are people who know how to get there, they just don't know how to drive the car. I think of that a lot. Great critics are just not here anymore. There was one a while back who would review something and talk about the things he liked, and in the last paragraph he would concisely state where they missed the boat. But it's not about that anymore. It's cutting and it's mean. 

I'm certainly pulling for you guys. I'm rooting for you. I'm a fan of his and I want the film to succeed as well.

I think it's very important for him, this film. I think that's why his feathers are a little ruffled. It may be because it's important for him. I had never seen anything of his when I met him, and didn't know much about him.

What was the first thing of his that you watched?

I think it was called "Clerks." I didn't get to watch all of it. My wife was watching it, so I joined her. Now, it doesn't matter to me what other films somebody's done. The only thing that matters is the film that I'm doing with them. Simple as that. He wants to do the life story of Shirley Temple next, I don't care. It doesn't matter. That's how I look at it. He did talk about a French-Canadian part in this picture called "Hit 'Em," which is about ice hockey.

Yes, I believe it's called "Hit Somebody." Are you going to be in that movie as well?

I don't know. He said to John Goodman when I was at the house the first day, he said "I'd like him to do the French-Canadian guy in 'Hit Somebody'" and John nodded, but I didn't say anything. You feel like saying, would you please, but you don't do that.

That would be awesome. I know he cast Nicholas Braun, who's in "Red State," as the lead in "Hit Somebody.".

Right. They're good kids. A good bunch. And you can't find a better cat around than Goodman.

So you'd definitely want to work with Kevin again?

Oh, I'd carry a spear for him. I love the guy.

Did you end up liking "Clerks?"

It's not my age, I must say. It just isn't my age. There could be a story or character that is my age, but I don't think I could play a father of one of those boys. I don't mind if someone is vulgar on occasion. My God, just listen to Kevin. Just atrocious vulgarity.

Yeah, he's got a mouth on him.

Oh my God, yeah. And I'm old-fashioned, as far as movies. But I will say that he captures the youth. It's not bullsh*t. I see it. I hear 'em. And the kids were wonderful in the movie, just really good. But I don't even go see myself in pictures.

Have you seen a finished cut of "Red State," and if so, were you pleased with the result?

Yeah, I saw it. He invited me to his house. As I said to you earlier, 10 seconds after any scene I finish, I'd like to do it again because I don't know if I did it right, but as far as the picture, he approaches it in a fascinating way.

I can't wait to get a look at it myself. It was tough to come up with questions for this interview without having seen the movie. Maybe we can do a follow-up after I see it. Do you have an agent or a publicist?

Jeff, if I had an agent, I wouldn't talk to you. (laughing) There's a lawyer at a firm with so many names, the list is longer than I've been away from home, but he handles my negotiations. And I don't know where you get PR at my age. I should probably talk to an agent though since I don't have one.

You should, because I'm sensing a career resurgence on the horizon here.

I'll ask Kevin about it. He's very smart about those things. But the comedian Fred Allen once said that 'Hollywood is an orange that you can put in the navel of a flea and still have room for three caraway seeds and an agent's heart.