Gary Busey is a legend and not only in his own mind, as some entertainment writers might have you believe. Busey is larger than life and has a reputation as a wild man, uncontrollable and possibly dangerous. So, when the news came out that he will be making his stage debut in Perfect Crime, a play about a serial killer known as “The Baseball Bat Killer,” Den of Geek jumped at the chance to talk with the veteran actor. Come on. Gary Busey with a baseball bat, possibly talking about the mind of a madman? What could beat that?
Perfect Crime, by playwright Warren Manzi, is the longest running play in New York theater history. It opened in 1987 and had its 12,000th performance on July 16, 2016. Leading lady Catherine Russell, who plays Connecticut psychiatrist Margaret Thorne Brent, is part of the original cast. She is so committed to the work that she’s never taken a sick or vacation day, earning her the title the “Cal Ripken of Broadway,” as bestowed by People magazine.
That commitment is apparently contagious. Perfect Crime is a real whodunit with a mysterious premise and Gary Busey is a performer who knows how to milk suspense whether on stage, on camera or in an interview.
Busey plays Lionel McAuley, who may or may not be the notorious murderer with the lethal batting average. He described McAuley as a man who “might not know who he was or where he was.” He said he did not know what the audience would be getting because it had not yet been presented to them.
Busey is a sly actor, given to contradictions. While he chided me for my early questions about conflicting reports on his character and my fast-talking patter (“I wonder if I’ll start talking faster now that I’m living in Brooklyn?” he asked at one point to slow me down), he also gave a very deep, personal analysis of how he inhabits McAuley and how the character is in him.
Busey then went on a philosophical, almost poetic but not in an awkward way, soliloquy about acting that included his early stage auditions where he found he “enjoyed the laughter.” It was a stream-of-consciousness story, filled with twists and turns, veering into what acting is and is not, but as he tied it all together he changed his mind.
“Of course, you can’t print any of that,” Busey said. “That’s a patented Gary Busey method.”
And in that statement, his character made perfect sense. The actor isn’t just bringing the memories of the “over 400 roles” he’s played in every genre of film, to the part.
“Everything I am,” Busey said. “Everything I’ve experienced. Everything I’m aware of. Everything. One word. Without a doubt and with no fear.”
Perfect Crime explores the psychological power of suggestion. Busey explained away questions about whether a person could be convinced via hypnosis that he is a murderer by pointing out that “it’s never been done before, as far as we know.”
Busey’s wife, Steffanie Sampson Busey, is a certified hypnotherapist who guided her husband through a past-life regression that he found “pure and clean and clear. It was very revealing.” But she also wouldn’t reveal any secrets. Steffanie, an actress who appeared in SyFy’s Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens with Busey, took the question, only to defer to the wisdom of not giving out any spoilers by concludng “but I should better just say, no comment.”
This somehow contributed to the suspense behind the enigmatic role. We asked where the actor found the murderous intent in Lionel.
“There is no murderous intent,” Busey explained. “When Lionel leaves the stage, you’re not going to know whether he did it or not, whether he even knows where he is or if he’s just playing a game with himself to be his own star in his own self-imposed carnival. It’s that simple. No less. No more.”
There is a deep spiritual component to his method of becoming the character that Busey alludes to as coming from his December 4, 1988 motorcycle accident. He was pronounced dead at the time and crossed over, but came back with a purpose.
“You want to know the truth? I’m guiding you,” the actor comfortingly described the interview itself.
Busey hinted that the experience also informs his work. He didn’t base his characterization on any famous real-life or motion picture serial killers.
“Why would I do that? Not at all. I’m not interested in that. I go the way of the spirit,” he said.
Busey is a strong advocate for artistic freedom, which he finds more easily accessible on the stage where he can feel the “energy” of the audience bring life to the words. “That’s the way I feel about the writing for Lionel.” he says. “It’s a great feeling of accomplishment. But movies and plays are so different. They won’t fit in the same box.”
There are a lot of films in Busey’s acting box. From his uncredited appearance in the revolutionary Wild in the Streets (1968), through his Oscar nominated turn as the title character in The Buddy Holly Story (1978), whether riding with the legendary red-headed stranger Willie Nelson in Barbarosa (1982) or as the last player to die on Gunsmoke, he remains a fearless performer. He’s even taken on the challenge of playing himself on an episode of The Simpsons, a very scary character.
The Baseball Bat Killer isn’t Busey’s first swing into the stands of fright. Besides his appearance in From Dusk Til Dawn, he was part of the first wave of Stephen King players when he co-starred in the werewolf film Silver Bullet (1985). While he clearly enjoyed doing the film, he doesn’t particularly identify with the horror master’s overall monstrous output.
“No, that was a one-shot,” the actor said. “It was his first screenplay. I’ve met Stephen King. He’s a great guy but, boy, he has a vivid imagination that doesn’t stop.”
Busey made a memorable short appearance in the imaginative Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), a cult masterpiece about Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. “I know him personally,” Busey offered. “I knew him when he was alive. I met him in Aspen. He’s quite the guy. He’s out there beyond out there beyond out there, way beyond out there. Write that down. Yeah I knew him and Johnny is a dear friend. We had a great time.”
So, is Depp a good kisser?
“What happened was this,” Busey began. “The end of the scene, you know we were on the mesa. That meant no equipment could be on the mesa where we were shooting except the camera, the focus guy and the loader, and the clapboard guy, the camera crew. Everybody else was on the side of the hill.
“The scene ended when Depp says, ‘well I gotta get to Los Angeles’ and I tell him ‘Well, you’re too tired. You need to go down there and take a rest stop and that rest stop is where my jurisdiction ends. So I’ll drive you down there and sit with you for a while and keep you company while you get a little short nap.’”
Busey had gone into character to do his voice, but then surprisingly did a muted version Depp’s version of Thompson.
“’I’m hungry. I’m hungry so I’m going to get sick, what about Baker?’ I said ‘Baker, that’s 20 miles.’ And Depp said ‘is there a good food place?’ I said ‘yeah, Lucy’s Hacienda, get the enchiladas.’ That’s when I’m expecting to hear Terry Gilliam, from Monty Python, go ‘cut.’
“But there was no cut and the cows keep running, and the bison keep running. And so, I changed my voice and I said ‘Hey, what are you doing here with all these lightbulbs.’ Then I changed my voice and said ‘uh, would you mind if we kissed before you departed.’ And then I said ‘it’s very lonely out here.’ And then I picked him up and slammed him on the trunk.
“I didn’t slam him. I just laid him down on the trunk. We’re kind to each other in the movie business, physically. So I put him on the trunk and Gilliam yells ‘cut, cut, cut, cut, cut,’ laughing, screaming laughter and it stayed in the movie. That little piece there, I just kept running with it. I’m like the marlin in the ocean you can never catch. I’ll run with the line until the line breaks or pulls you in the water.”
The retelling was a performance in itself and I had to tell Busey that was one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Busey said with such sincerity, it had to be included because it underscores his commitment to the audience. “That’s very kind of you and thank you very much. That’s a very sweet comment you made and I, I was going to say I deserve the comment, but I’m going to save the complement because it’s true from you.”
Director Terry Gilliam is renowned as a visual artist. Busey said he is also an actors’ director.
“Yes, very much so,” he said. “He’s incredible. Monty Python guy. I remember him in a movie, I think it was Life of Brian, he was dressed up in this gorilla suit. He had his back to the camera. He turned to the camera and you see this full on gorilla and then he put his hand on his forehead and unzipped his gorilla suit so it fell off him on either side and he said ‘The movie is half-way over.’”
The highway scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was improvised on the spot. Improv is most associated with comedy, but Busey explained that an actor’s intuition guides whether a joke has to land.
“It’s a freedom of expression. Whichever way it goes, it’s on its own. I’m just the messenger. The actor, the player, the thespian on the stage is just a messenger for the message in the script, and the story and the scene with the people,” Busey explained, drawing out the beats on the last lines.
“And especially the audience. They are the most important ones in there. “Because we know what we’re doing, we know the lines, doot do do do do, but they don’t. They are the most important ingredient in the theater. It’s not the story. It’s not the play. It’s the audience. Just give the audience the most you have to give if not more. And when you do it honestly, more of the care for the audience comes out.
“It’s not a thought process, it’s a feeling process. When you think in theater you get in your way. And that’s one place you don’t want to get in your own way. Anyplace, you don’t want to get in your own way, but I’m talking about theater.”
I set myself up for disappointment when the questions veered from acting. It is a not-very-well-known fact that Gary Busey drummed for the music legend Leon Russell. I am an unabashed Leon fan, not just his solo work or his masterful job at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangla Desh, but for his historic place in the Wrecking Crew that put the backing on so many instantly recognizable hits. I wanted to hear Busey’s memories about being a young musician working as a session man for the ultimate session player.
“I love the question but we’re talking about a play,” Busey said, dismissively. But I couldn’t give this one up and persisted by asking if he learned anything about acting from his musical background, the similarities in the rhythms of performance, the live energy of music as opposed to acting when a performer is on stage.
“Hey, Tony, listen man, you don’t know,” Busey said, seemingly to shut me up, but he continued.
“No one has any idea. No performer, no player. Unless you’re doing opera or a musical like Buddy Holly. Those musicals are something. I remember working with Barbara Streisand on A Star Is Born. That girl can sing. Music is a very high art form. It’s probably the paradigm of art. Stephen Spielberg did a good job showing that, with Close Encounters. The music they communicated with at the end of the movie which is just the beginning of imagination’s trip down wondery land. And when it’s wondery, it’s fun.”
We wondered what new energy Busey might bring to a cast that has been long into extra innings.
“You’re going to have to see the play,” Busey said, mischievously. “You’re putting the cart before the horse and there’s no answer to these questions because you haven’t seen the play and we haven’t done it.”