Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Dennis Farina

Building Character

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

March 28, 2002 — Character actor Dennis Farina has a way of expressing disgust that feels like magic. In his new movie, Barry Sonnenfeld's Big Trouble, he plays a hitman who takes on a job in Florida. As soon as he steps off the bus, his distaste for the sunshine state becomes apparent in a colorfully delivered line.

Part of the delivery comes from Farina's naturally grown Chicago accent -- part nasal, part attitude. All he has to do is glare and bark out, "I hate f---ing Florida." We laugh because Farina basically snarled the same line about England in Snatch and about Los Angeles in Get Shorty.

"I'm running out of states!" Farina frets during a recent visit to the Bay Area. "San Francisco and Chicago are the only places where I'm still welcome."

It's because of this that Farina has become a true character actor -- just like that guy with the frog-voice in My Man Godfrey or that other guy with the attitude in Johnny Guitar, you know the guy.

In other words, Farina is a familiar face but not so much a familiar name.

Farina claims he was in the right place at the right time when he made the jump into acting. He had served 20 years as a police officer in Chicago, working in a special unit that dealt with sophisticated burglars and stickup men, car thieves and jewel thieves.

According to Farina, A friend and retired police sergeant named Chuck Adamson met director Michael Mann at the Tropicana hotel in Vegas where Mann was shooting the 1978 TV series "Vega$." Mann told Adamson about a book he was hoping to make into a movie, called "The Home Invaders." Adamson informed him that he had arrested the man that the book was about. And so Mann hired Adamson to be a consultant on what was to become Thief (1981), starring James Caan.

Meanwhile, Adamson introduced Mann to Farina and a short time later, Farina had his first movie role.

Farina went on to work with Mann several more times, in episodes of "Miami Vice," in Mann's great 1986 film Manhunter, and as the star of the cult TV series "Crime Story." Soon after, a career was born. "I blame everything on Michael Mann," Farina says.

Farina says his co-workers on the force -- all retired now -- are his biggest fans and harshest critics. "They gave me a hard time when I was a policeman, and I loved it. They were and they still are very big supporters of mine. They come to all the movies and watch the TV stuff. And they're the critics that I really pay attention to. They'll call up and say, 'boy did you stink in that!'"

Farina says he considered writing screenplays based on some of his more exciting police cases. "When I'm writing it, I think, 'This sounds great!" he says. "But two days later I would revisit it and say, 'Jesus Christ! Who wrote this crap?'"

He continues: "Michael Mann taught me, 'Just remember one thing -- you're in the entertainment business. You're not in the reality business. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other. We're just trying to make a movie here.'"

Farina seems to have never considered the idea of being a character actor and he's flattered at comparisons to some of the old guys, especially in Westerns. "We would go to the movies as kids, like a John Wayne movie, and say, 'Oh boy, Walter Brennan's in this movie.' It was like a bonus." Farina says he would love most of all to do a western "like the kind John Ford made. There are very few people today who can make them. They're very hard to make."

Westerns aside, Farina has made a mark as a kind of tough guy -- an Elmore Leonard kind of guy -- sometimes smart, sometimes dim, but never timid. Big Trouble is the latest example of this.

"Know what's funny about this movie?" he asks, laughing. "The cast is huge, but I never saw any of them, except Jack Kehler, who plays my partner. It was just Jack and I and a lot of the movie is from our point of view -- things are being revealed as we see them. I saw Tim Allen once, in the makeup chair. He said, 'Hey, I heard we're in a movie together.'"

The rest of the cast includes Rene Russo, Zooey Deschanel, Omar Epps, Ben Foster, Janeane Garofalo, Jason Lee, Tom Sizemore, Patrick Warburton and Stanley Tucci, with whom Farina has made a few movies.

"All the movies Stanley Tucci and I have made together, we've never had a scene together," Farina says with a trace of irony. "But we've had a lot of great meals together!"

Big Trouble made the news last year when it was pulled from distribution just after 9/11. It's a rambunctious, high-speed comedy (85 minutes long) that culminates in a scene with a bomb on board a plane.

"I absolutely agreed with the postponement," Farina says. "And now I think it's time for the movie to come out and any other movies that wanna come out."

Happily, nothing in the movie was altered or cut. "I don't know that we should change things. What happened was beyond horrible and everybody knows that. But things happen and we just have to go on. Otherwise, they win. If we keep monitoring ourselves and censoring ourselves and being too sensitive to this and too sensitive to that and you can't do anything!"

Getting back to Farina's on-screen disgust, he says it was easy this time. "We were shooting this movie in July and August in Florida. So Barry would say, 'look frustrated and disgusted.' And I'm walking around all day looking like that."

In addition, Farina drove a rental car with a faulty seatbelt. "They found this car with the seatbelt that strangles you. It decapitates you. There was something else wrong with the car, and the transportation guys would want to come over and fix it. And I said, 'don't fix it. Never mind. Leave it alone, the more aggravation he has with this car, the better." he laughs.

He pulls himself together sighs and shakes his head, a man with his two feet on the ground. "We had fun. It was fun."

Partial Filmography:
Thief (1981)
Code of Silence (1985)
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986)
Manhunter (1986)
Crime Story (1986, TV)
Midnight Run (1988)
Another Stakeout (1993)
Romeo Is Bleeding (1993)
Striking Distance (1993)
Little Big League (1994)
Get Shorty (1995)
Eddie (1996)
That Old Feeling (1997)
Out of Sight (1998)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The Mod Squad (1999)
Reindeer Games (2000)
Snatch (2000)
Sidewalks of New York (2001)
Big Trouble (2002)
Stealing Harvard (2002)
Paparazzi (2004)
Empire Falls (2005, TV)
You Kill Me (2007)
The Grand (2007)
Purple Violets (2007)
Bottle Shock (2008)
What Happens in Vegas (2008)
Knucklehead (2010)
The Last Rites of Joe May (2011)

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