Jake Busey interview: Sparks, Contact, Starship Troopers

Jake Busey talks to us about his new film, what he's up to now, and the roles he turned down...

Jake Busey came to prominence very much in the 1990s, off the back of films such as Starship Troopers, The Frighteners and Contact. He built on that with Identity, and then his career – as he admits himself – never took off in the way he thought.

Now back on the screen in From Dusk Till Dawn, and new indie superhero movie Sparks, we rang Busey up at his motorbike workshop to talk about his work…

You’re a man who seems to have three passions in life: acting, music and your love and motorbikes. So can we start there? Are you as passionate about all three, or does one take precedence?

Yeah, I think I am. I’m purely most happy on a film or television set. That’s where I feel I am home. And the music has been something that’s been a part of me since I was born. My dad was always in rock and roll bands in the late 60s and early 70s. Particularly in 1970 when mom was pregnant with me, dad was gigging all over town. So music was something – loud music at that! – that was imbued in me from conception! So being a drummer is second nature!

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Those are giant passions. And then when I was about ten I got my first dirt bike, and rode some motocross. I was working on set of The Closer at Raleigh Studios in 2010, and I saw a bicycle with an engine on it. I talked to the guy, and he said he got 150 miles to the gallon, and it went 30 mph. It looked so interesting to me. I’d never seen one, I didn’t know anything about them. And I decided that I wanted to start building them. I made a couple of them, and I wanted to do more. But I thought I don’t have the money, how am I going to do this?

So I started building them for other people. And now I’ve got a storefront in Santa Monica, working out of a historic engine shop, that has been here since 1927. It’s a family run business, and I have a quarter of the shop. It’s really great. We have a good time working here, and it’s my day job. I clock into work here, and all my free moments I have between being a daddy and working on the TV show are here.

You’re a man then living several lives at once by the sounds of it, and that’s appreciating you’ve been through an awful lot in life already. Is that the kind of person you are, one who does more than one thing at once?

Yeah, yeah! I kind of always have. For a while it was my love of aviation. I had my airplane, and I’d use it as a car whenever I could. If the drive was going to be longer than an hour, I was flying the plane instead. And in California, it’s really easy to have a drive longer than an hour.

You do go the full Travolta and have an airport in your back garden though?

[Laughs] Ah, the thing about California is it has 2000 airports!

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These are all deep passions, and you’re a family man as well. Are you passing these loves down the family line?

Oh yeah! Being a dad is the best thing that ever happened to me. It changed my life entirely. There are a lot of people who have been parents before me, and you’ve heard the same story, but I have to say for me it’s amazing to look at her. When I come home, and she comes running and screaming at me, and jumps into my arms? It’s just the best thing in the world. Now I understand where Steven Spielberg was coming from with all of his movies.

The interesting thing here is that you’ve done a film, Sparks, that’s cost comparatively very little to make. But that seems to be the way now: that movies are either very expensive, or very economical. Whereas a lot of the movies you used to make were the mid-budget films that don’t get through the Hollywood system anymore. What are your thoughts on that middle bracket of films almost disappearing?

Those movies… you know, I’ve never heard anyone put it the way you just did, and you kind of hit the nail on the head. It’s very true. I was doing a lot of middle class movies, and there really is no more middle class for films. That does sort of explain to me why I haven’t really been working all that much! [Laughs]

I never really did make the leap into being a lead character on the giant movies. We thought Starship Troopers was going to do that, and I was number three on the call sheet. I thought that The Frighteners and Identity were going to do huge. I was in a lot of movies that were supposed to be amazing, but for one reason or another, circumstances out of the control of the producers and the studio or whatever,

I just didn’t lock into being in the right role in the right big movie, and it going huge. I did never really make the leap to hyperspace. Who’s to say that it can’t still happen. I just enjoy working, and feel fortunate to be doing the things that I am doing.

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With regards the films you took on, particularly that astounding run of films you did around the 90s/early 2000s – Contact, Starship Troopers, The Frighteners – it just took ten years. Which presumably isn’t much use to you, but they did find their audience in the end. Presumably you sense that it took some time for them to seep through though?

Oh yeah. I am in some great cult classic films, but they certainly didn’t help my career in the immediate, in terms of getting another job or propelling me to the Leonardo level! The level of Bradley Cooper or something. I felt like I was kind of on the career path that would have put me in those Bradley Cooper roles.

But I think with Tomcats, and a couple of other movies… with Tomcats, they were saying that it’s going to be the next American Pie. And nobody went and saw it. The great thing is that I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences. It’s just coincidental and unfortunate that they were never giant smash hits. But I’ve had a lot of fun along the way. I hope that it continues!

Is all of this a source of regret to you, do you mind me asking? You sound quite mournful about it.

Well, you know, I think we all have a condition where we would like to be successful in our field, and not just mediocre. And as you said, the movies that I was doing were mid-level films and what have you. But then I’m really excited to be working on such high profile projects.

I’m thankful for what I’ve had. Being in this Robert Rodriguez television show [From Dusk Till Dawn] is very exciting, and we’re really enjoying making it. And then there’s Sparks, which is a great little film. It’s got a big heart, and a tiny budget. I think Chris [Folino, writer, co-director] did such a brilliant job of making a mountain out of a mudpile. It just really came through I think, and I’m proud he’s getting the traction he is with it.

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I got the sense in the 1990s though that you deliberately moved away from the kind of roles you could have easily been pigeonholed into. And I wonder how much you turned down? It would have been easy to be defined by your excellent turns in Starship Troopers and Contact, for instance. Contact, in particular, still sends chills down my back. So were you turning things away, deliberately to avoid being typecast at the time?

Yeah. I think there were a few films that I turned down. There’s a couple that I really regretted turning down. Fight Club and Twelve Monkeys are a couple. Zoolander was one. Requiem For A Dream. Those were films that either I didn’t understand the scripts, or I didn’t feel like the role was substantial enough for where my ego had me in my mind at the time.

You want to be smart about your career, and there’s a lot of times where yes, you don’t want to be pigeonholed into one thing. For me, I really like being a dynamic and diverse actor, and being able to do a lot of things. At the time, I didn’t know that I was supposed to pick a colour and stick with it. Did it hurt me? I think so. But I felt I could be an actor who did all kinds of different roles.

I guess now if you look back, there’s someone who did do it, and that’s Johnny Depp. He’s like a character actor who’s a leading man, and I just thought that’s what actors were. I didn’t realise that what I should have been doing was the Tom Cruise route or the Owen Wilson thing, where you deliver a solid performance, but you’re kind of the same guy all of the time. And I don’t mean that in a bad way either. Those guys are great, they’re fantastic. I guess Tom really has gone on to more dynamic stuff. But I hope you hear what I’m saying.

When you then have the chat with Robert Rodriguez at the Machete Kills premiere, he’s drawn to you precisely because of the choices you made back then though? His reference point is an actor who, somewhere along the line, stuck to his guns.

He told me, and this is what gave me great hope, that he really likes hiring actors who play against their normal type and what you would expect out of them. And that to me was so exciting. When I read the role of Professor Tanner in From Dusk Till Dawn, it’s not a role that someone would look at and say ‘Jake Busey’. But it’s a role that Jake Busey would look at and say wow, now here’s a character that I can relate to.

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I don’t understand why I’ve been cast to play so many heavies, or scary, insane bad guys. I don’t get it. I’m told that I’m good at those roles and all that, but if there’s one aspect that I guess you could say I was slightly pigeonholed into the role of the heavy and whatever. Perhaps it’s being 6 foot 3, delivering a solid performance in The Frighteners and Contact which sets the stage and the tone. But I’m just not that kind of person. My dad’s pretty out there as well, but he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.

Myself? I just really enjoy spending time with my two year old daughter, and building motorbikes. I’d much rather play roles that are not psychopaths, but it just so happens that it’s been something I’ve done a lot of. If you’ve got to keep a roof over your head, then you give the people what they want!

So are you still developing material yourself? You were going to direct a film at one point?

Well absolutely, and when the moment comes and the time is right, I’ve got the project and I’ve got the people. It’s just a matter of getting myself in the right spot so that the investors and the money people look at me as a number on a page and say he’s valuable enough that we can let him do this. And we’ll give him some money to do it. That time will come, and it’ll come soon. But I’m building towards it right now.

Would you consider crowdfunding for it, something along the lines of the Kickstarter route?

There’s no harm in that. That could be a fantastic thing. It’s a great idea, and I may just have to take you up on that…!

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Finally, Sparks. My understanding is that came to you through a friend?

William Katt is a long time family friend, and like an uncle in a way. I knew him when I was a young lad, and my dad and he worked on the film Big Wednesday together. And he called me and said listen, I’ve got this project. He gave me a brief description and said I know it’s asking a lot, and there’s not enough money, but would you consider doing it? So we had lunch, and I did really like the script and I loved his ambition. I felt that I saw something.

There was really not much of a role there, but at the time I didn’t care, because nobody would hire me. I couldn’t get an audition. Billy Katt and Chris Molino were the two guys in the world who were willing to put me in a movie, and I wanted to work more than anything. It wasn’t about the money, or about just helping out a friend. It was really that Billy and Chris were tremendously helping me, a guy who had a pregnant wife and no money in the bank! I will forever be in debt to those guys for their help and for the fact that they had me come on and get involved with the project.

And next?

A miniseries of Texas Rising!

I’ll look out for it! Jake Busey, thank you very much!

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Sparks is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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