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The Warren Awards: Michael Bowen

November 13, 2009 |  5:35 pm


Fourth in a series of profiles that pays tribute to the men and women who personify the backbone of the acting craft -- the character actor -- and explores their creative process and experience. Their work, though never less than memorable, rarely receives the credit it's due, so we've framed these interviews as an award for their efforts, named after the quintessential character actor, Warren Oates.

Michael Bowen

This intense, often imposing performer got his start when he became a part of the Carradine acting dynasty through the marriage of his mother, actress Sonia Sorel, to John Carradine (a legendary character actor himself).

His first film appearances came in the early '80s with a string of teenaged supporting roles, most notably as Deborah Foreman's pill of a boyfriend, Tommy, in "Valley Girl." Steady work throughout the decade yielded roles that provided a greater showcase for his range, such as the aspiring Austrian bodybuilder in "Echo Park" (1986).

In the late '90s, he enjoyed several terrific character parts -- twice for Tarantino in "Jackie Brown" (as Michael Keaton's LAPD counterpart, Mark Dargus) and "Kill Bill: Volume 1" (as the venal orderly, Buck), and as the father of a young quiz show contestant in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" (1999) -- while maintaining a steady and dependable presence in features ("Walking Tall," 2004) and network TV (he was the bruising Other, Danny Pickett, on "Lost").

In 2006, he shared a Copper Wing Award from the Phoenix Film Festival with the cast of the medical drama "Self Medicated" (2005), which cast him as one of its nastiest heels.

FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this post referenced "honeydews" instead of "honey do's" (as in "honey do" list).

What is your definition of a character actor?

The best character actors are chameleons. If they're doing good work, they disappear into the role. I've always loved watching Ross Martin (Emmy nominee for "The Wild, Wild West") transform himself in every performance. I could never stop watching him -- he's my idol. 

I think people remember him best for that show, but he did so many other great projects, like "Experiment in Terror" (1961).

Unbelievable film. One of my favorites. 

You know, a character actor doesn't want to jump out at the audience. You'd rather have a critic not notice you -- that to me, is the best criticism. If someone says, "Well, in that scene, the cop came in and made an arrest," and you're playing the cop, that's fine. It's not some actor playing a cop -- you've completely faked them out.

It's interesting that you say that, because I wanted to ask you about the anonymity that goes along with being a character actor -- it's the whole notion of "I know the face but not the name." For you, that's a positive?

It is. Let's put it this way: I can go out to the market without some cretin jumping out from behind a bush to take a picture of my bald spot (laughs). 

Of the many roles that you've played, which are the ones that have had the most resonance with you?

That's an interesting question. I don't cringe at a lot of my roles, but if I had to pick a couple, I'd have to say the character of August in "Echo Park." I felt that I did a good job of disappearing into that part. There's a funny story there, too -- someone told me that some studio executives took a $1,000 bet that I wasn't the same guy in that picture who played the kid in "Valley Girl" (laughs). And at that particular time, I was counting pennies and going down to the market at Santa Monica to buy lentils, so...

They should've cut you in on that action, at the very least.

Yeah! I should've said, "That is me!" And I'll take all of that bet. 

Also, the character of Rick Spector in "Magnolia," and obviously Buck in "Kill Bill." People yell his lines at me all the time. But my wife would probably say "Valley Girl," because it's her favorite '80s coming of age film. That has a lot of resonance with people -- it's an important role, apparently (laughs).

You work on both sides of the Hollywood fence -- you do a lot of studio projects and a lot of independent projects. Do you have a preference?

Well, the trailers seem to be nicer on studio projects, and I haven't had a steak and lobster dinner on an independent film set yet. But there's usually more of a camaraderie on an independent set -- everyone's willing to get down in the dirt. And of course, there's the Tarantino film, where you have the independent, creative feel combined with the studio money. That's a nice combination.

But I've been doing a lot of TV lately, and I really like it. I'd be very happy working as a series regular -- you know, get up at 4 a.m. every morning, kick some ass for a while, come home and hang out with my family, take care of the "honey do's," sleep, wake up and repeat. I like the pace of it, and I like the challenge.

I imagine that being on a show like "Lost," that's something of a phenomenon, must've been a pleasure.

Yeah, I really enjoyed that. It's nice that executives are realizing that it's okay to for an intelligent, well-made series to come out in people's living rooms, and Joe Public can enjoy a show like that.

And it makes money.

Yeah, it does, and now that they've figured that out, hopefully, we'll have more shows like "Lost."

Do you find that you are called upon to play a type in films? Do you find that challenging or limiting?

I've been cast as a heavy or a cop, and that's okay with me. The checks are clearing (laughs). But playing heavies isn't as easy as it looks, because that's not me -- that's not who I am. I've got three girls and one adolescent boy -- you think I'm running the show around my house? Come on, man, I'm a kitten! 

So limiting doesn't really come to mind. It's always a challenge to work and tell the truth. There are no small roles. 

Is there a role that you've longed to play?

I'm inspired by characters and stories with heart. But I'd also like some more opportunities to show my comedic side. And you know, I'd like to play Krishna, Satan, Jesus Christ...

So, the lighter roles.

Yeah (laughs).

Your extended family is full of great character actors. I'm wondering what you've drawn from their work.

Well, I love all my brothers. I think they're all masterful artists, and not just as actors, but musicians, painters, sculptors. And it was great to see Bobby in a movie with John Wayne ("The Cowboys," 1972) or Keith in a movie with Warren Beatty ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller," 1971) and turning on the TV to see David every Thursday night (on "Kung Fu"). That inspired me a lot. I wouldn't have gotten into the business without them. 

Has the name ever had an impact on your career, one way or another?

Not really. There was a time when I debated using it, but I think that I might've gotten spoiled if it happened too fast for me. 

You mentioned Ross Martin, but are there other character actors you enjoy watching?

Yeah, I like Bruno Ganz and Klaus Maria Brandauer. And Gene Hackman, who's probably my favorite. If you look up "understated" in the dictionary, there's a picture of Gene. 

Bruno Ganz is like the European Ross Martin. And Brandauer has an electricity in every one of his performances. He's like a stable Klaus Kinski.

What's the best piece of advice you've received about the entertainment industry?

My brother David, God bless him, he always told me, "Just tell the truth, man. Know your lines, make the performance real, be respectful to everyone on the set. But do not take crap from anyone, no matter how big of a wig they might be." I love David, man, and I miss him.

-- Paul Gaita

Photo: Rafael Sierra