Interview: Casino Jack's Jon Lovitz
|INTERVIEWS - FILM|
The SNL alum talks Casino Jack and the tragic passing of director George Hickenlooper...
With a film and television career spanning over 25 years, Jon Lovitz has made a marvelous living by playing characters that delight in delicious sleaze or antisocial pushiness. Whether it be his SNL characters of Tommy Flanagan (Pathological Liar), Master Thespian, and Mephistopheles, or big-screen roles of Jimmie Moore in The Wedding Singer and studio lackey Morty in Three Amigos, Lovitz has become well known for his ability to play overwrought boorishness with the best of Hollywood's comic stars.
His latest film role is 2010's Casino Jack, a based-on-a-true-story tale of infamous and disgraced Jack Abramoff (played by Kevin Spacey), former super-lobbyist in the George W. Bush administration. The film follows Abramoff's meteoric rise and spectacular fall from grace, complete with jail term, after masterminding a scheme to bilk Indian tribes out of tens of millions of casino dollars, all under the guise of 'protection'. Lovitz plays Adam Kidan, a former mattress chain owner with mob ties who signs on to the swindle as Abramoff's front man. When things start taking a turn for the worse, Kidan calls in a favor via his mob connections and blood is shed. Playing the con man with smirking and calculated obliviousness, Lovitz gives what might have been an unnavigable political morass of a film the right amount of comic flair to appeal to the average moviegoer. Jon recently sat down with us and talked about Casino Jack and its director George Hickenlooper, who passed away in October 2010.
When I watched Casino Jack, I was struck by how hard it is to pin down into one genre. It’s part comedy, part political thriller, part drama, part mob movie… Did you enjoy working in a production that took that course, with the audience not really knowing how to approach the film and its characters, even though the film’s events are widely known?
When it really comes down to it, it was George’s movie, and that’s how he approached it, and it was great. Jack was a guy who made a lot of jokes and did these impressions and played stuff for laughs but it wasn’t funny, what he was doing. As far as my character, he’s not a good guy, mixed up in a lot of bad stuff, involved in Gus Boulis’ murder. You know, it’s horrible, the guy was murdered, you know. It’s not funny, and George showed the horror of that, you know what I mean? So it adds all these things to the story. That’s why he wanted to make the movie, because it just had everything.
I read some reviews online that said that Kevin Spacey making those impressions took something away from the movie. What do you think about that kind of criticism, because I don't really agree with that personally...
Right, and that’s why you gotta take critiques with a grain of salt, because… I read about that, too, and what they don’t know is that’s how the guy was. Is. They visited with him and he’s doing this impression of Reagan. He would do these impressions. That idea didn’t come out of thin air. George met with him about six times and one time he brought Kevin. And that’s how the guy is and they go “we gotta put this in”. Kevin said “the man they portray in the press isn’t the man I met”. You know, that guy in the press was evil incarnate. Honestly, if he wasn’t that evil, he couldn’t have done the things he did. Now I don’t think he saw himself as evil, he just saw doing those things as a means to an end. A lot of the stuff he did was wrong, but the movie showed that, in his mind, he didn’t think he did anything wrong. “I took millions from the Indians, but I gave them billions, so what’s the problem?”
He says that in a couple different points in the film – that everybody does it…
Yeah, he’s told something like “well, you told them that you were going to do these things for them and you didn’t!” And I’m sure he’s thinking “well, but so what?!? They still made millions, so who was hurt?” You know what I mean? That’s how he justified it. And then, in the movie, Kelly Preston plays his wife and when it all comes apart, she says “quit trying to justify everything”.
Along with that justification, critics complained that Casino Jack sensationalized a true-life story. But isn’t that what Hollywood is - sensationalism?
Well, that guy was like a star in Hollywood, when in Washington. I remember…you know, I didn’t know much about it, but Jack Abramoff…they call him the super-lobbyist. Like a superstar. Supermodel. You know? And he was on the cover of Time Magazine. He was a star. And it was like “if you wanna get to Bush, you go through him”. He was the guy.
And it’s not as if it’s going to stop now that he’s stopped filling that role…
No, there’ll be someone else, I’m sure. But I’m not an expert on lobbyists or politics. [laughs]
Same here. As far as your character, how fun was it to be able to play the film’s ‘unpredictable loose cannon’ role?
It was a lot of fun. I mean, George was great to work with. So was Kevin – great actor. So it was a… we all collaborated with each other, which always makes it the best. And it was great. But I just played what was in the script, you know, and how I interpreted it.
I have read in a couple other interviews that you gave for the film that you did have the opportunity to meet the real Adam Kidan, but because of his sleazy mob dealings and connection to the Boulis’ murder, you declined to meet him, correct?
George said “do you want to talk to him? Do you want to talk to him on the phone?” And I said no. The guy’s in jail. He said he had nothing to do with the murder. The guys that he hired to work at the cruise line were arrested for it. They weren’t convicted, but I’m like “this was real!”, you know? Yeah, it’s a movie, but it’s a movie about a real person. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the guy. I don’t want to get mixed up in all that.
And as far as portraying the Adam Kidan character in a script, I suppose there would be no reason to have to meet the guy…
No. I mean, if he was really well known, if there was a ton of stuff on him on the Internet, I’d have studied it and played him. But there wasn’t. There’s a couple pictures and a video of him walking away and that’s nothing, so I just ended up playing the script. And you end up having to do that anyway. You know, if I was anything close to him, I’d be surprised. But it’s, you know, a movie and none of it… It’s two hours, as opposed to how long that story was covered – four or five years or something.
I live in Denver, and that’s home to former Mayor and now Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper, George’s cousin…
So when George passed away, it was pretty big news around Denver because of the Hickenlooper name. How difficult has it been to participate in the marketing of Casino Jack with George gone?
Well, I’d been with George at the Austin Film Festival on a Wednesday and Thursday. And then Thursday night after they screened the movie, they had a party at the end of the festival. I was talking to George and he said he was going to Denver to see his cousin and he goes “I’m pretty sure (John’s) going to win (the Colorado governorship).” And I said “alright, I’ll see you next week in L.A. for the premiere.” And then I heard from, I think it was Sunday or Monday, from Spencer Garrett who plays Tom DeLay. He said “did you hear the news?” And I said “what?” He said “Kevin Spacey’s trying to call you” and I go “oh.” He goes “you don’t know what happened?” and I said “No! What?!” He said “oh no” and then he told me.
That’s a terrible way to find out…
Horrible. I was crying. You know, we’d all become good friends and it was so horrible. I couldn’t believe it. It was such a shame because he made the movie. The director makes the movie. We all contributed, but he made the movie. I was there for three weeks; Kevin was there for six weeks. And a lot of people worked on it, but at the end of the day, the director is in charge of the thing. He worked on it for another year, year-and-a-half, after we left! It was really going to open a lot of doors for him, it was going to move him to the next level, give him a big level up in his directing career. I was going to write a movie with him. I had an idea for a film that we were going to write together. I was all excited. I was thinking “boy, I’ve hooked up with a real filmmaker and this guy gets me and I get him”. And then he dies. It was a real tragedy.
Yeah, it’s really sad when something like that happens, but especially when somebody really appears to be on the cusp of hitting it really big like George was…
He did it. He was there. He was going to be directing a movie starring Pierce Brosnan. That was gonna be his next movie.
Well Jon, I know you’re really up against it, but I didn’t want to let this interview end without sneaking in at least one question about Saturday Night Live. I’ve always been a really big comedy fan and have watched a lot of your older work when you were at SNL. Is there one character in particular that you really enjoyed playing more than the others?
Um…I liked doing Master Thespian. I loved doing that. And when I did Harvey Fierstein…I did that about three times and that was really fun. I mean, I liked doing the (Tommy Flanagan, Pathological Liar) character, but I did it so much that I was getting kinda sick of it.
Lastly, if you were to speak to somebody who was totally unaware of the work you’ve done, what is the one role of your career that you’d want them to see?
Oh…I don’t know. That’s a tough one. There’s so many. [laughs]
Many, many thanks to Jon Lovitz for taking the time to chat with us. Casino Jack will be available on Blu-Ray and DVD on April 5.
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