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The Warren Awards: John Diehl

January 31, 2010 | 10:00 am

John Dhiel_02_Crop

Fifth 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 these interviews are framed as an award for their efforts, named after the quintessential character actor Warren Oates.

A versatile and immediately recognizable performer in film and on television and stage for more than 30 years, John Diehl has largely avoided the typecasting that is an accepted part of most character actors' careers. Though frequently called upon to play intense, even unstable roles, like the paranoid vet in Wim Wenders' "Land of Plenty" (2004) and G. Gordon Liddy in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995), Diehl has also played his share of scrupulous types, including suburban dads ("Falling Down," 1993), policemen (Assistant Chief Ben Gilroy on "The Shield"), military officers (Kawalsky in "Stargate," 1994) and gritty men of action (the ill-fated mercenary in "Jurassic Park III," 2001). He's also shown a knack for comedy, as seen in his turns in "Stripes" (1981), "Vacation" (1983) and two seasons of "Miami Vice" as Det. Larry Zito. 

You are the first Warren Award winner who's actually worked with Warren Oates.

Warren is one of my favorite character actors, and when I got the movie "Stripes," which is one of the first movies I did, I knew about him, but not that much. I had seen some of his movies, like "Badlands" and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia." So in the movie, he played Sgt. Hulka, and I was the Cruiser, the only one who was really enjoying his time in the Army, which I think was a really good character choice on my part. He was a simple guy -- not very conscious. [Laughs.]

We did a scene together that didn't make it into the movie: We were out in the field in a foxhole, and we were practicing with grenades. And I pulled the pin and started counting very slowly, and I think I lost count -- something really stupid -- and he grabbed it out of my hand and threw it and jumped on me to cover me. So we had fun that day, and I remember him saying to me, "You're a good actor." That was a nice compliment. I met his son and daughter when I was working on a movie with Monte Hellman in North Carolina [the upcoming "Road to Nowhere"], and it was great to be able to talk to them about their dad -- I was even supposed to get a few of his T-shirts. 

What is your definition of a character actor?

Every actor is a character actor, at least when they're starting out. Do you remember those books that they used to put out -- the Actors' Directory? I don't think they put them out anymore, but they used to divide actors into leading men and character actors. And they always used to put me in leading men, because the character actors were always the guys in cowboy hats and mustaches or looked angry -- you know, "This guy was good at this type of pratfall, or this guy was great at playing the boss." 

They were broken down by type?

And that will happen. And you know, [casting agents] will say, "Let's get a John Diehl type," so that people within the industry will know what they're talking about.

Have you actually heard a call for a John Diehl type?

I heard it one time; I don't remember what the circumstances were. It was probably a psycho killer.

What would you say is the definition of a John Diehl type?

That's hard to say, because I've been lucky to play all sorts of types. They're usually offbeat or eccentric, but I play evil guys and good guys. And all the doctors and military types and scientists and lawyers, they all have their little idiosyncrasies. And that's what's fun about being a character actor. I shouldn't have been in the leading men section, though I can be a leading character actor.

Which of your projects have the most resonance with you?

Well, "Land of Plenty" meant a lot, because I'm a fan of Wim Wenders. I worked with him one time previous to that in "The End of Violence." But really, anything that presents a challenge. I did [Samuel Beckett's play] "Endgame" with John Larroquette a few years ago; something like that asks you to rise up as an actor. Even "Stripes" -- that was my first experience with moviemaking. I was very lucky to get that so soon. Prior to that, I'd only done a dozen Equity-waiver plays and Hollywood scene studies twice a week for two hours. I did stuff like that for about nine months. I remember when I got "Stripes," I was in Culver City, loading up antique furniture on my truck to deliver to someone, and I got a page from my agent -- that's when we had pagers [laughs] -- and just then, Ed Harris and Robin Ginsburg, his girlfriend at the time -- Robin is one of the first people who gave me the confidence to be an actor -- they were walking by, and I told them that I was going to get this part in "Stripes." But I remembered that there was this other thing that I'd read for and really wanted in "Pennies from Heaven." So at first, it was a little bittersweet [laughs] when I got "Stripes," but when my agent said that it was $1,500 a week, it was like, "Wow!"

You mentioned that a challenge is what resonates with you. So what constitutes a challenge?

It depends on what it is. If you have a big part, or if it's a big play, you want to rehearse as much as possible. And of course, if it's a film, you're lucky if you get any rehearsal. A challenge is also coming up to snuff with your peers. When you're working with big actors, like Michael Douglas in "Falling Down," you want to come up to their level. The part can also be a challenge. Playing a transvestite or a transsexual would be interesting to research, and I'd have to find myself in the character. That's another way to define a character actor -- people like Robert De Niro or Warren Oates, or I'm thinking about Hume Cronyn, they want to find roles that are interesting and juicy. 

You know, working with a crummy director, that can be a challenge too. You have to do it all yourself. But that's the exciting thing: You don't know what's going to happen. But hopefully, you do your homework, and you go on set and get in front of the camera and just forget everything. Forget the homework and just be. 

What is the best piece of advice you've received in regard to the entertainment industry?

First of all, have a sense of humor, because there are so many down sides to the business. It can be a big, ugly monster, and that's who controls the industry -- like Rupert Murdoch with 15 heads -- so you have to really love to create as an actor. You have to stay with it, because it can be such a rough business.

I love the metaphor of "Pinocchio" and the wayward boys who were lured away by singing "... an actor's life for me!" They end up going to this wonderful, sparkling amusement park, but once they get there, they get trapped and become jackasses. They're at the bidding of this carnival ringmaster. So the actor is never in control. But you have to love it, and hang in there, and show a lot of persistence. I've been in it for about 30 years.

Last question for you: What's next?John Dhiel  

Well, that brings up another piece of advice: You always have to keep busy, whether you're working on a job or you're working by yourself on a monologue. I've read for a couple of things: There's a play that I've been asked to direct. And there's this western thing -- I love westerns -- and there's this independent thing that's shooting in Santa Fe. But everything's up in the air, so you never know. It gets slow after the holidays, but things are picking up again. And I have a recurring role on "Friday Night Lights," but we'll see what happens there. It's a great show to work on -- you have to be fast. 

But hopefully, what's next are plays. I want to do a Denis Johnson play -- he's a friend of mine. He wrote this play called "Des Moines," which I really want to do. I'd like to direct it and produce and play this part in it, which is this priest who's a transvestite. So who knows? You go to one audition, and you meet with someone, and you just have to go down the road with it and have fun and do the best you can. That's working too.

-- Paul Gaita

Top and bottom photos: John Diehl. Credit: Guy Webster.

More from The Circuit:

If I ran the Oscars: Ann Magnuson

The Contender Q&A: "An Education" star Alfred Molina

The Warren Awards: Michael Bowen