Tag Archives: Abel Ferrara

Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten Christopher Walken Performances

Whenever Christopher Walken shows up in a film you can practically feel the energy and interest go up in an audience, whether they know him by name and are studious of his massive career (raises hand) or they just remember that instantly recognizable face. Whether it’s a supporting role, cameo or star turn there’s something about his electric eyes, steady yet spooky voice and offhandedly eccentric mannerisms that make him something truly special. His career is an epic one that spans comedies, drama, musicals, stage plays, music videos (that Fatboy Slim dance marathon!!), a Bond movie, the odd horror flick and a good dose of obscure indies that I’ve always loved to hunt down. Here are my top ten personal favourites! Please share yours as well and enjoy:

10. Max Shreck in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns

With a shock of electric silver hair and a razor sharp pinstripe suit, Walken embodies monstrous corporate evil as Gotham’s most corrupt business tycoon. I’m not sure if Shreck was a villain that ever showed up in the comics or if he’s something Burton dreamed up for the film, but in any case he makes just as much of a morbid impression as Danny Devito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in the baddie department.

9. Gabriel in The Prophecy Trilogy

Walken takes a decidedly darker approach to the Angel Gabriel here, playing him as a rogue operative at war with god and his forces and engaged in casual genocide of the human race to both achieve his goal and simply prove a point. The cool thing about Walken as an actor is that most of his career finds him playing characters in crime dramas, comedies, real people in the real world, no matter how wacky they get. But he also has the deft versatility to pull off something otherworldly and supernatural too, as you can see by this moody, intense characterization that definitely suggests something out of this world.

8. The Headless Horseman in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

I had to. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of this film:

“ Note: No power on earth could drag from me the identity of the unbilled actor who plays the Horseman when he has a head. But you will agree he is the only logical choice. “

Is that not the perfect summation? He looks positively animalistic here as the big bad in Burtons best and most underrated film, sporting rock star hair, teeth whittled down to points and a thunderous roar which is the only actual dialogue he ever has in the role. Walken is a lot of things but one that you could boil his complex essence down to is ‘both scary and funny.’ If there’s one role that reinforces that it’s this, he’s somehow legitimately terrifying and ridiculously hilarious in the same note. That takes skill and charisma.

7. Caesar The Exterminator in Gore Verbinski’s Mouse Hunt

There’s something in the way one observes a crazed Walken crawling along the floor adorned in a headlamp and tactical gear, tasting dried mouse droppings to learn the gender of his quarry. Only he could take a ten minute exterminator role intended as comic relief and turn it into the kind of bizarre, deranged performance art that steals an entire film. I’ll also add that the film overall including his presence is one of the most overlooked of the 90’s and a misunderstood dark comedy/fairy tale that was unfairly billed as a kids film and lost on many dismissive viewers. Time for re-evaluation.

6. Frank Abagnale Sr. in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can

A family man whose reckless decisions lead to a radically different lifestyle and a diminished self image, Walken nails both the fierce pride and detrimental flaws of this character while infusing a deep love for his wife and son. It’s a complex portrayal that despite being a sideline supporting character, fills the film with humanity and humility. Don’t even get me started on the “two mice fell into a bucket of cream monologue.”

5. Paul Rayburn in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire

Another performance filled with subtly sorrowful regret, Rayburn is an ex military man who shares a past connection with Denzel Washington’s John Creasy, and the two share several central scenes of mutual remorse and guilt that land hard. Walken is good at masking deep set emotion with a joke, cloudy half smile or idiosyncratic anecdote, but the intention burns bright beneath whatever deflection tactic he employs, and his work here is no exception.

4. Vincenzo Coccotti in Tony Scott’s True Romance

Like many actors in this film, Chris only gets one scene or so to strut his stuff, but the nasty verbal showdown with Dennis Hopper here is not only one of the most memorable of the film but of cinema itself. He’s an apex predator here, a sociopathic mafia don who’s used to getting his way and accustomed to nobody standing up to him. His simultaneously bemused and aghast reaction at essentially being owned by Hopper’s wily ex cop is something for the ages and provides the film with some it’s best humour and scariest violence. “You’re a cantaloupe!”

3. Brad Whitewood Sr. in James Foley’s At Close Range

Walken has portrayed a lot of villains, scumbags and less than desirable dudes but Brad takes the fucking cake. Leader of a rural band of small time thieves, he re-enters the lives of his two sons (Sean and Chris Penn) he left years earlier and from the moment they become involved with him nothing good comes of it. He’s charming and affable at first but when the heat shows up it becomes very clear this guy will kill anyone, including his own sons, to keep himself afloat. This is a mean, sad and bleak spirited film with a cold, ruthless central performance from Walken. But it’s worth it to observe just how far human nature can go into extremes that all of us hope we don’t ever have to encounter.

2. Nick in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter

One of several young men who go from life in a small industrial town in Pennsylvania to the horrors of the Viet Nam war, he brings all the subtleties of the world into his work here, showing how the darkness out there can smother someone’s soul to the point that they don’t even know who they are anymore. One of my favourite moments in Walken’s entire career is in this film, where a nurse in a military hospital asks him who he is and who to contact in this situation. The actor expertly but unobtrusively displays a quiet, confused and utterly devastating mental breakdown as the reality of what has happened to him sets in. It’s showcase Walken for how believable it is and one of the finest scenes he has ever crafted.

1. Frank White in Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York

The most introverted criminal kingpin ever to show up in cinema, Walken plays a recently paroled crime kingpin who’s ready to take back the territory he lost while in the slammer, with some help from his rambunctious crew headed up by a fearsomely unstable Laurence Fishburne. The performance I picked for top spot isn’t a weird one, a hyperactive comedic turn, a funny scary villain or anything that he’s outright known for. There’s something remarkably compelling and down to earth about Frank, something very ‘street.’ His name is fitting because that’s how he approaches both business and relationships: with a blunt, no nonsense and vaguely sadistic air. Ferrara directs one of the best NYC crime dramas ever made here, he and Walken make the moody final scene ring with unexpected, grim poetry.

-Nate Hill

Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York

Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York might simultaneously be Christopher Walken’s scariest, most intense and also withdrawn and detached performance, so idiosyncratically does he a draw his portrait of Frank White, a dangerous career criminal fresh out of the pen with high ambitions on ruling the NYC urban jungle, take no prisoners. It’s one of the moodiest, most dour crime films set in the big apple, but it finds a dark heart of bloody poetry, frighteningly funny menace and an ultimate resolution that has you undecided on whether crime really does pay. Walken’s Frank is a strange man, surprisingly introverted for a guy who commands an army and takes on rival gangsters for the control of city blocks, but it’s in the quiet, dangerous charm that he finds his effectiveness, and as crazy as he still is here, it’s a fascinating far cry from some of his more manic, well over the top turns. There’s three would-be hero cops out to get him by any means they can, cocky hotshot David Caruso (before his talents fell from grace with god awful CSI Miami), Ferrara veteran Victor Argo and a coked up Wesley Snipes. They go so far over the line trying to nail him that the only thing separating them from the crime element is a badge, which seems to amuse Frank as he eludes them at every turn. Walken’s merry band of assholes is an armada of gangbangers and drug chemists which include the likes of Steve Buscemi, Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Calderon, Roger Smith and a fearsome Laurence Fishburne as his first mate, young and rambunctious before his acting style gelled into something decidedly more cucumber cool (hello Morpheus). The violence and threat thereof is palpable, as Ferrara whips up a frenzy of boiling conflict that makes the epicentre of Hell’s Kitchen feel like the eye of a very angry hurricane, while still keeping the mood to a laid back thrum, it’s stylistic and tonal bliss the whole way through. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli shoots the city with an oblong, lived in, hazed out and very un-cinematic feel, throwing us right into the dirty digs with this troupe of miscreants and crooked cops, while composer Joe Delia makes gloomy, haunted work out of the score, especially in Frank’s darkly poetic final scene. As for Walken, the man is a dynamo and this may be his best work to date. He makes Frank a harrowing demon with humanity that catches you off guard when it breaches the surface of his opaque, unreadable persona, a suave, psychotic spectre of the NYC streets who won’t go out unless it’s with a bang, and won’t ever back down on his way there.

A crime classic.

-Nate Hill

The Abel Ferrara Auteur Podcast Series: DRILLER KILLER

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Frank and Patrick embark on a new series for Podcasting Them Softly: The Abel Ferrara Auteur series. They start by discussing Ferrara’s feature debut, DRILLER KILLER and both watched the film via Arrow’s release. You can pick up your copy of Arrow’s DRILLER KILLER here

CRIME STORY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Fresh from the success of Miami Vice in the mid-1980’s, Michael Mann parlayed his powerful clout within the industry to produce a new television show entitled, Crime Story. It was a pet project that he developed with good friend Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger. Like Vice, Crime Story was a cop show but set in the early 1960s and with a grittier, darker edge as opposed to the stylish, brightly-lit pastel look of its predecessor. To this end, Mann not only cast Hollywood outsider Dennis Farina (whose unconventional looks must’ve terrified NBC executives), but had exploitation filmmaker Abel Ferrara direct the pilot episode. The result is a lean, mean drama that features politically incorrect police officers battling it out with nasty criminals.

The pilot episode for Crime Story begins with a daring restaurant robbery gone badly. Del Shannon sings “Runaway” (re-recorded especially for the show) as the hold-up turns into a hostage situation. Three police detectives led by Mike Torello (Farina) race to the scene (blink and you’ll miss a young Michael Rooker as a beat cop). No words are spoken between the men as they calmly check their guns and get ready. As the criminals are about to take off with their hostages, Torello leans in menacingly and says to one goon, “You hurt anybody else, when this is all over I’m gonna find what you love the most and I’m gonna kill it. Your mother, your father, your dog. Don’t matter what it is – it’s dead.” Welcome to the world of Crime Story.

It turns out that the criminals are working for local wise guy Ray Luca (Anthony Denison), a vicious thug with a short fuse and an awesome pompadour that defies gravity. This guy isn’t afraid to smash bottles and furniture over hapless underlings to get his point across. Luca plans to steal some valuable European royalty jewels from the Lakeshore Museum but Torello intends to link the restaurant robbery to the thug and stop the heist from going down.

Mann has said that he was influenced by working on the Police Story T.V. series (1973-1977), which was run by playwright Liam O’Brien and included famous crime writer, Joseph Wambaugh (who wrote The Onion Field) as a contributor. Each episode was based on a real event, working with the policeman whose story it was based on. Mann “learned a lot about writing and about working with real guys.” Crime Story was based on the experiences of Chuck Adamson, a former Chicago police detective of 17 years. He claimed that the stories featured on the show were composites rather than actual events that happened, “but they’ll be accurate.” According to Mann, the genesis of the project was to follow a group of police officers in a major crimes unit in 1963 and how they change over 20 hours of television. He asked Reininger and Adamson to write the series pilot and a “Bible.”

Reininger was a former Wall Street international investment banker who had come to Mann’s attention based on a screenplay he had written about arson investigators, and a French film that he had written and produced. Reininger researched Crime Story by winning the confidence of Detective William Hanhardt who put him in touch with undercover officers in Chicago. They sent him on meetings with organized crime figures. Reininger risked wearing a body microphone and recorder. After visiting the crime scene of a gruesome gangland slaying of bookmaker Al Brown, Reininger backed off his Mob interviews.

Mann said that the first season of the show would go from Chicago in 1963 to Las Vegas in 1980 where the characters would have “very different occupations, in a different city and in a different time.” He said, “It’s a serial in the sense that we have continuing stories, and in that sense the show is one big novel.” Mann and Reininger’s inspiration for the 1963-1980 arc came from their mutual admiration of the epic 15+ hour film, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) by German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Mann said, “The pace of our story is like the speed of light compared to that, but that’s the idea – if you put it all together at the end you’ve got one hell of a 22-hour movie.”

NBC President Brandon Tartikoff gave an order for a two-hour movie, which had a theatrical release in a handful of U.S. theaters to invited guests only. Tartikoff also ordered 22 episodes which allowed Reininger and Adamson to tell a story with developing character arcs, and continuing stories (instead of episodic, self standing shows). Mann predicted a five-year network run for the show. However, due to budgetary constraints (the need for four sets of vintage cars proved to be too expensive). Tartikoff eventually allowed their series to move to Las Vegas for the last quarter of the 22 episodes. By the second season, an average episode cost between $1.3 and 1.4 million because it was shot on location, set during the 1960s and featured a large cast.

However, they realized that it was too expensive to go through several different period changes in one season. Universal Pictures decided not to make Crime Story because they deemed it too expensive and a small studio called New World Pictures Ltd. stepped up to finance it. It allowed them to work in the big leagues with a major T.V. network like NBC and a chance to sell the show overseas while Universal would retain the domestic syndication rights. The production schedule was a grueling two episodes every three weeks shooting 12 hours a day or more every day of the week.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Crime Story is the look, the attention to period detail. Hilda Stark worked as an art director on the pilot and was asked back by Mann after seven episodes to be the production designer. To achieve the show’s period look, she and her team would go to second-hand and antique stores, run ads in the in newspapers seeking articles from the period, and sometimes build furniture if they could not find it. According to Stark, the overall design or look of the show featured “a lot of exaggerated lines. We go for high style – sleek lines and high style…We go for the exaggerated shapes that recall the era.” Stark and her team also came up with a color scheme for the show that featured “saturated color, and certain combinations – black, fuchsias – reminiscent of the ‘50s.” She finds inspiration from a library of old books and magazines, in particular Life. For the vintage cars in the show, they would buy or rent from private owners.

It’s a testimony to Mann’s reputation at the time that Crime Story was even greenlighted. NBC would have never gone for the casting of Dennis Farina, with his pockmarked face and lack of acting experience, had Mann been a neophyte producer with no proven track record. The choice of cult film director Abel Ferrara must have also freaked out network execs. His previous films included The Driller Killer (1979), where a deranged psycho gruesomely kills people with a power tool, and Ms. 45 (1981), where a rape survivor viciously kills the men who attacked her with a .45 pistol.

And yet, the final product proves that Mann’s instincts were right on the money. Farina delivers the hard-boiled dialogue with the perfect amount of intensity (Torello orders a loose cannon cop, “Why don’t you get unconscious for awhile.”). You can see it in his eyes and the way he barks out orders that this a no-nonsense guy who isn’t going to let anything get in the way of his job. In many respects, he is the prototype for Al Pacino’s equally driven cop in Mann’s Heat (1995). Farina’s Torello is the prototypical Mann protagonist: professional and a perfectionist, all at the expense of everything else.

Ferrara directs with the same proficient skill of crime auteur, Don Siegel. Like Siegel’s two best crime films, Charley Varrick (1973) and The Killers (1964), Crime Story depicts a harsh world where life is cheap and characters will do anything – even if it means bending or breaking the law – to achieve their goals. Crime Story would provide the blueprint for Ferrara’s later forays into urban crime films like The King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992).

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One of the most striking aspects about Crime Story is that it feels like it was ripped right from the pages of a James Ellroy novel. It is even more surprising that this show was done before Ellroy had written his famous L.A. Quartet of books that featured L.A. Confidential, which Crime Story most closely resembles. The author claims that he hadn’t seen the show until after he wrote these novels but he does admit to being a fan since then. In an interview with Paul Duncan, Ellroy said, “I think Dennis Farina as Lieutenant Mike Torello is a force of nature. When the hatred between him and Anthony Denison fuels the plot, it’s great, it’s epic. but after a while it just goes to hell.”

Top Ten Harvey Keitel

Harvey Keitel is one of cinema’s most valued actors.  His brand: tough alpha male, career criminal, and the all-around bad motherfucker.  His filmography is unique; he has been a mainstay in the works of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, James Toback, Abel Ferrara, and most recently Wes Anderson.  While his hallmark is the tough guy, he’s been able to transform that archetype into colorful dimensional characters that only he could have portrayed on film.  Whether he’s in a crime film, a big budget opus, or an incredibly small independent film, Keitel is always on the mark and he is always fascinating to watch.

ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE 1974 Dir. Martin Scorsese

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In his third collaboration with his friend Martin Scorsese, Keitel gives a dual layer performance.  He starts out being the affable and charming suitor of Ellen Burstyn’s Alice – until he isn’t.  He’s the all too real sociopath that is able to cover his anger and inner frustration with his charm.  Keitel is frightening in this film, the way he’s able to camouflage the character’s actual motivations and drive is unique to the range he has as an actor.

BAD LIEUTENANT 1992 Dir. Abel Ferrara

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There has never been a performance like Keitel’s turn in BAD LIEUTENANT.  It is as pulverizing as it is soul bearing.  He removes the audience from their comfort zone, and takes them into the heart of darkness, watching a man spiral out of control.  He’s a killer, a gambler, a junkie, a cop – yet he accidentally finds a reason to live through redemption.  While the Bad Lieutenant is incredibly vile, the subtle vulnerability that Keitel graces makes this performance all that more tragic.  Aside from being one of Keitel’s finest performances, this remains one of the best performances in cinema history.

DANGEROUS GAME 1993 Dir. Abel Ferrara

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Off the heels of BAD LIEUTENANT, the seminal trio of Abel Ferrara, Harvey Keitel, and cinematographer Ken Kelsch embarked on one of the most daring and transgressive pseudo autobiographical films, DANGEROUS GAME.  Like Fosse’s ALL THAT JAZZ or Felini’s 8 ½ Abel Ferrara uses his actor as a vessel to tell his own story on film.  Keitel completely shakes his gangster vibe but leaves his darkness and intensity completely intact to play filmmaker Eddie Israel in a movie within a movie.

FINDING GRACELAND 1998 Dir. David Winkler

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In the vastly underseen FINDING GRACELAND, Keitel plays a quietly broken drifter who claims to be Elvis Presley.  While on the road to Graceland, he gives his most quietly heartfelt performance with an incredible amount of soul and reach.  We’ve seen characters like this before in cinema, but seeing Keitel playing a man claiming to be Elvis, along with singing SUSPICIOUS MINDS, is a one of a kind performance.  Yes.  Harvey Keitel sings Elvis.  That’s worth watching it on its own.

FINGERS 1978 Dir. James Toback

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Somewhere there needs to be a theatre showing a double bill of FIVE EASY PIECES and FINGERS.  This is a key performance from Keitel, where he plays the gangster and the intellectual.  He’s a brutal enforcer for his father, yet doubles as a piano prodigy.  Both sides of himself have one thing in common: sexual addiction.  FINGERS is Toback’s finest hour as a filmmaker, and is yet another performance of Keitel’s that is chalked up in the underseen category.

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST 1988 Dir. Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s most seminal film, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is controversial and monumental for a variety of reasons.  One of the most enamoring aspects is Keitel’s reinvention of Judas.  He’s an insurgent warrior, he’s the loyal follower, and then he becomes the voice of reason while Jesus is being guided through his final temptation.  Keitel’s turn earned him a Razzie nomination, and that is completely off base.  Keitel is brutish and forceful; purposely directed to speak with an overt Brooklyn accent with a new take on the Biblical character.

MEAN STREETS 1973 Dir. Martin Scorsese

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MEAN STREETS is often mentioned as the film that birthed the brilliant collaboration of Scorsese and De Niro, but the film is much more than that.  Keitel takes the lead, as the morally conflicted Charlie who is set to take over for his gangster Uncle, yet having to constantly juggle his wild card best friend Johnny Boy (brilliantly played by De Niro).  De Niro has the flashy role, but Keitel is the foundation of the film.  He’s Scorsese’s alter ego; he is struggling with his faith, his family, and his identity.  Keitel gives an incredibly soft and vulnerable performance as a man who is stuck in his own quagmire, having no way out.

RESERVOIR DOGS 1992 Dir. Quentin Tarantino

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This is the performance where everything Keitel has done before comes to a perfect culmination.  There isn’t an actor who has delivered Tarantino’s dialogue with as much weight as Keitel.  Keitel walks Tarantino’s walk, and in particular talks his talk.  There is a Shakespearean quality to Keitel’s performance in this film.  From the start of the film, we know he’s heading for impending doom, and he does it all with gravitas and honor.

TAXI DRIVER 1976 Dir. Martin Scorsese

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Originally, Scorsese wanted Keitel to play the campaign staffer Tom (the role Albert Brooks knocks out of the park), but instead Keitel wanted to play the pimp who had only a few lines of dialogue in the original screenplay.  Keitel transforms into a smooth and funny character, yet in his private encounter with Iris (Jodie Foster) we see what a master of manipulation and control he is in a creepy and quiet way.

SMOKE 1995 Dir. Wayne Wang

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SMOKE is another one of those quietly underseen gems of independent cinema.  In a very low key way, we see Keitel in a new light. He’s himself, in a certain regard, a brash New Yorker who smokes, runs a tobacco shop, yet he has an undying pension for art.  In this film’s case, he’s a photographer, who has taken the same photograph in the same intersection every day for the past twenty years.  This is a very touching film, and Keitel gives one of his sweetest performances.

YOUTH 2015 Dir. Paolo Sorrentino

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In a character that is fusion of Charles Bukowski and John Cassavetes, Keitel plays writer/director Mick Boyle who is on his annual holiday in the Swiss Alps with his best friend, Michael Caine.  This was a role that Keitel was born to play.  He’s the artist that is overflowing with creativity and inner torment.  He’s being torn apart by his own emotions and ego, and he gives is a bittersweet showboat of a performance of what it is truly like to be an artist.

Honorable mentions: BAD TIMING, BLUE COLLAR, BUGSY, CITY OF INDUSTRY, COP LAND, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, THE PIANO 

PTS Presents Cinematographer’s Corner with Ken Kelsch Vol. 2

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kelsch ferraraWe’re back with our second volume with cinematographer Ken Kelsch.  This time we speak with him about more of his work with Abel Ferrara including WELCOME TO NEW YORK, THE ADDICTION and retouch on BAD LIEUTENANT.  We also speak with Ken about working with Eric Red on 100 FEET, his work with Stanley Tucci on BIG NIGHT and THE IMPOSTERS, and Sherry Hormann’s DESERT FLOWER.  Hope you guys have as much fun listening to this as we did recording this with Ken!

PTS Presents ACTOR’S SPOTLIGHT with PAUL CALDERON

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Paul Sh #2Podcasting Them Softly is honored to present a chat with veteran actor Paul Calderon, who has appeared in a wide range of some of our favorite films and TV shows for close to the last 40 years. Paul has worked with filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Abel Ferrara, James Mangold, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Sydney Pollack, Harold Becker, Sydney Lumet, and Arthur Penn, to name only a few, with credits including Pulp Fiction, King of NY, Bad Lieutenant (which he co-wrote with Ferrara), Welcome to New York, Q&A, Sea of Love, Copland, 21 Grams, Out of Sight, Clockers, and The Firm. His massive list of television credits include Boardwalk Empire, Hostages, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, How to Make It In America, Miami Vice, and an epic run on the daytime soap One Life to Live. He’s also no stranger to the theater, having appeared with Robert De Niro in Cuba and His Teddy Bear. He also runs his own acting school, which you can find out more about at his website www.paulcalderon.net. Paul is a founding member of the Touchstone Theater, The American Folk Theater, and The LAByrinth Theater Company, as well as being a member of the Actors Studio since 1984. A consummate NY character actor all throughout his career, Paul brings energy and edge to every performance in every project, and we’re extremely excited present this interview! We hope you enjoy!