23rd Jan2018

Exclusive Interview with Jon Voight for ‘Surviving the Wild’

by Philip Rogers

Jon Voight is an academy award winning actor who’s career has spanned more than four decades. He is best known for his performances in films such as Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Deliverance (1972), but with his new award-winning TV series Ray Donovan (2013- ) renewed for another series and film Surviving the Wild receiving critical acclaim, Jon Voight is proving he is still at the top of his game. With the release of his new film Surviving the Wild, I was fortunate enough to get some time to talk with Jon about what attracted him to the role, working with his co-star Aiden Cullen and his favourite scenes to film.

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I would like to ask you a few questions today about Surviving the Wild. What attracted you to the role originally?

I was given a first draft script and sometimes when these scripts come out the author gets inspired by something. That first draft says everything. This one did and came completely whole and I fell in love with it. This is a wonderful story for people to hear, to go on this journey with this boy. There are lots of ways that this can move us, we all have grandfathers, parents and family that have all their dramas, so it reaches us on so many levels.

What preparation did you do for the role?

This character reminded me of my father. My father was a golf professional and he taught golf. He was also great teacher of life and wonderful with children. He had a tremendous aptitude for communicating with children and it was mostly through humour. When I read the character of Gus I said this is like my dad. He always gave us a little wisdom he picked up on the tee, teaching golf and he would always come back with little stories and share them with us. But never in a pompous, dry or professorial way, but just in a way of telling a little tale, giving is a smile or a laugh. It always took its effect on me for sure. I was always very connected to my dad’s story telling and his way of teaching, so I kind of used a bit of that in the piece.

So, it’s very personal then the character itself? In the way you portrayed him on screen…

All actors when we look at ourselves, we have things we go to easily. Maybe in the beginning of acting its imitating our parents. For the boys imitating their father for the girls imitating their mum. It starts out as an acting aspect and in my case, I loved my father deeply and got so many wonderful moments in my life from my dad, and of course I owe him my life. Its always a happy place for me to return to when I am thinking about my dad, the way he was and the different moments we had between us. Every actor has some character like that in their life that they focus on and it becomes easy for them.

With your co-star Aiden Cullen as your grandson in the film, did you have that sort of relationship, with you as your father figure and Aiden being you as a younger child, off screen? There are some brilliant scenes between yourself and Aiden in the film…

Casting is a huge part of any film. The great directors always talk about casting as 90% of the work, and I believe it is. You really have to go in pursuit of the people who can bring alive those characters and there is a huge difference between someone who is adequate and someone who is really doing the job. Thank god, we have a group of young actors today who are just terrific. Mature beyond their years and very gifted. So, when I look at people in my past I say are we ever gonna have actors like Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and those guys that I grew up on. Then you have my group of people and people are saying are we going to have another group like that. Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and all the guys in my group. And yet I am looking at these young ones and I am saying this generation is full of riches. We have this lovely girl Millie Bobby Brown and all these kids from Stranger Things (2016) and Aiden Cullen who is wonderfully gifted, very smart and a wonderful sense of humour. Very witty which comes from his parents of course. He’s very free with himself and he’s interested in everything. He and I just hit it off and we found we were having a lot of fun and couldn’t wait to shoot these scenes together. We were having fun interacting whether we were shooting the scene or not doing the scene we were doing the same sort of thing. Teasing each other, having fun and it carried over. I am pleased with that film that it shows that relationship come so full. It sparkles this relationship, it’s real chemistry. I have had a lot of good chemistry in my work pairings with Dustin Hoffman, Burt Reynolds and Ricky Schroder and all these wonderful people I have worked with and he’s another one. Really, he is so delightful.

There is this special thing which he does. He went to improvisation classes and he’s young, thirteen years old. He did these improvisation classes and he liked them very much, so he is very used to thinking on his feet which is a very important ingredient and very good acting. He improvised quite a lot of the movie.

It’s good when you can bring that kind of natural talent to the screen.

There are certain moments in the film that are my favourites, when he is thinking beyond the lines. He understands everything very well and he is certainly not just line reading he is embodying the character. He really is quite something.

Talking of your favourite moments, what were your favourite scenes to film?

There is this one moment when his mother is talking to him and he is manipulating his mother into giving him to be with his dog, but what he is really planning is something else. It’s the ability to escape and go in to these mountains and bring his grandfather’s ashes to this mountain. This manipulation with his mother, it is certainly one of my favourite acting moments in the film. I play his grandfather who has returned to coach him, pester him and encourage him. He is dealing with both this figure of his grandfather who is intervening and his mother who he needs to manipulate, so he is really doing a couple of things at once. She asks him “Are you good with you grandfather” and he says “Yeah, well everybody dies eventually” something like that and its such an interesting moment because he’s talking about death. It is a young man accepting the death of his grandfather, its such a big scene for a child, but he just dusts it off. He’s juggling a couple of other balls, he’s lying, he’s manipulating, he’s playing with his grandfather, he’s doing silly things and says, “well everybody dies eventually” for some reason I just love that moment.

It is a good moment, and with you in the background communicating as well?

I am always amazed by great acting, I am so delighted with it, and the main thing is we are telling a story. Then these moments of bringing life to this story are always wonderful for me to see these things come to be in a wonderful way, and when they are unique like that you can’t describe it. What he did in that scene was really good work. You can talk about it, but to see it being done there are a lot of intangibles and it’s really a kind of magic.

Jack Lemon used to go on, but before he did every take – you can imagine this – Jack Lemon who had so much experience and so much talent and before he would go on he would say “And now the magic” or something like that “Now we bring the magic” whatever it is. It was like he had to say it, because he said it a couple of times and it worked, so he never stopped saying it. It was out of fear he would never get there I guess. I think it’s the truth of it, there is a certain kind of magic, you enter into it and let it be whatever it’s going to be, listen and talk and just do it and see what’s going to happen. And if its really good you know its partially you, but its partially something else happens. Partially it’s a little blessing. A big part of it’s a blessing.

You have had a successful career so far with all your roles but what do you look for when you undertake on a new acting job?

As I said before, the main thing with me is the story and I think this story is relevant to today. Because of our feelings about the afterlife, certain things are coming to our awareness at this time. Whether it’s because of the influx of the various Eastern religions into our Western thinking, whatever it is, but we think about reincarnation, we think about Karma, we think about lots of these things and we think about life after death. I think those are good subject and this little story enters into that. So, I look for the story and I look for its relevance,

Going forward, do you have any other projects which you are working on?

I have been doing this television series Ray Donovan for 5 years and its gonna go on 6 years now. We start that in April and I’ve done a couple of other little movies. I just finished another movie called Orphan Horse which is written by the same writer as Surviving the Wild. It’s a lovely little piece and it has to do with a little girl, an eleven-year-old girl and I play a horse trainer and it’s a kind of a magical piece as well. It’s very different from Ray Donovan where I play a very dangerous degenerate. However, you describe this fellow, there is no positive way to describe him. There is nothing endearing about him I guess.

If you were to be remembered for one film, what film would you like that to be?

I don’t think in those terms I guess, because when I walk down the street I get the “Oh Jon you know, I love your” this or that. Some weeks I’ll get a lot of comments on The Champ (1979) this film I did so many years ago, or I will get comments on Ray Donovan or I get comments on a film called Holes (2003) which is a film I did. I get them from all over the place, Midnight Cowboy most certainly, Runaway Train (1985) I get a lot of comments. So, I really have these children that I participate in making and I don’t really think about one more than the other. Although I have to say there so different from one from the other and I think that is what I will be remembered for. My versatility will be something that people will remark upon.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to get into acting?

What advice would I give to someone looking to get into acting..? Everyone should follow their dream. You want to encourage everyone and if they don’t find it in acting, some of these people will find it in costumes or they’ll find it in producing or a relayed art. I would never try to warn people against their own enthusiasms, I’d never do that. But you can usually spot, if you spend a little time with somebody in terms of the acting world. You can usually spot whether people have a sincere understanding of the work.

I met James Woods many years ago. I was doing a (Harold) Pinter play called The Dwarfs in a theatre in Boston. This young man James Woods was kind of sniffing around the theatre and I saw him. We talked a little bit and I was intrigued by him, he was very smart, a very interesting intelligence and he seemed kind of lost he didn’t know what he wanted to do, and I said let’s go out to lunch or something and we can talk about it. So, we did that, and I was impressed by him. He said, “I think maybe I want to be an actor”, he was going to school for engineering or something and he had all this ability. I don’t know if he was interested in physics, but he was beyond me. But there was an intensity about him that I thought would be very interesting as an actor, a natural intensity and then his intelligence; and this desire to be an actor. I acknowledged him and said, “You should try it, you should give you self a chance at it because I think you could be very good”. Well, all these years later of course James Woods is somebody who everyone admires for his brilliance and I’m very proud of the fact I spotted that early on. I think that’s a little win, a little medallion of my own talents. But really when you see that, just like when you see this young man, he can do anything. He is interested in government, he is taking a course in government over and above his studies. He is in the debating team, he is into sports, he’s got all these interests, he is multifaceted. His talents and interests and yet he is a wonderful actor.

So anyway, there is that ingredient and when someone has that, they find their way in acting. It doesn’t mean they won’t have drama and go up and down and go through phases of when they will be challenged, but they’ve got that thing. I remember Katherine Hepburn, they said there’s that ‘IT’ factor. Everyone talks about ‘IT’, what is ‘IT’? and she said, “I don’t know what ‘IT’ is but I know I’ve got it”. She’s right to be an actress, that’s her vocation and it’s a very meaningful vocation when you think of her work and people like that. But for each of us, some people are writers or this or that and when they find their vocation they are at peace. It doesn’t mean the drama stops, but it means they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
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Surviving the Wild is out now. You can read our review of the film right here.

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