Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when Robert Forster wasn’t a respected, steadily-working actor. But Forster himself admits that his career was “underwater” prior to being cast as Max Cherry in “Jackie Brown,” Tarantino’s adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel “Rum Punch.” In fact, he credits the filmmaker’s penchant for making unconventional casting choices for the career he’s enjoyed since the release of the 1997 film, which has included collaborations with Gus Van Sant, David Lynch, Walter Hill, Michel Gondry and Alexander Payne amongst other acclaimed filmmakers.
Today, Lionsgate released “Jackie Brown” on Blu-ray for the first time, complete with new bonus materials and a beautiful high-definition transfer approved by Tarantino himself. The Playlist sat down with Forster last week in Los Angeles to talk about “Jackie Brown,” and the actor spoke candidly about his career ups and downs, his collaboration with co-star Pam Grier, and the life lessons he’s learned during his more than 40-year career.
The Playlist: How well-defined was the character in the script, and how much did you feel like you needed to bring to Max Cherry? Because watching you on screen, it seems like you are this guy, you’re not “playing” him.
Robert Forster: Well, I am certain that this guy writes better dialogue than anybody, and the dialogue that he wrote for me, some of it was from “Rum Punch,” of course, but so much of it was re-fashioned in his mind. And so when you start with great, great dialogue and scenes that are believable and easy to play and you start with superior material – and then I think he did a pass of the material after we had spoken. I ran into him some years after I had auditioned for “Reservoir Dogs,” and I thought I was going to get that part. My career was pretty poor at that time, and I said, “Oh, this is a great shot, and I’m going to get this job. There isn’t anybody who can do this thing better than me.” You know, you convince yourself.
Which part was it?
The part of the old gangster. And when I went into the reading, I was sure I hit it out of the park. And as I walked out, Quentin comes after me, and he says to me, “You did a nice job in there, but this part is going to go to Lawrence Tierney, the guy that I dedicated this script to” – which I had never noticed (laughs). So I said, “Oh Bob, you’re not going to get this after all!” But he said, “Don’t worry, I won’t forget you.” And five or six or however many years went by and he had done “Pulp Fiction,” and by then my only strategy was, I had no agent left, no manager, no nothing; my career was dead. I was picking up scraps – anything anyone would offer me I was willing to do. And I was at that point, my strategy was to hope that some kid who liked me growing up would turn me into a moviemaker and give me a good part. And I’m sitting in a coffeeshop on Santa Monica boulevard with another actor and we’re bullshitting, and in walks Quentin Tarantino. I look over and I yell at him, and he comes in the restaurant and out on the patio and sits with me and this other actor and we break his balls for a while and kid around. And I asked him what he was up to, and he said, “I’m adapting ‘Rum Punch’ – why don’t you read it?” which I did. About six months later I walked into that restaurant, which I do almost every morning, and I walk out onto the patio, and as I turn the corner, in my seat is Quentin Tarantino. And as I approach the table, he lifts up a script and extends it towards me and says, “Read this and see if you like it.”
I guess that during that interim six months, maybe he had decided that I was going to be the right guy for this, and I don’t know how he decided or what he picked up, but I’m sure he remembered me and how I speak and so forth, and I suppose that influenced him some. He handed me the script and I went home and…that afternoon read the script immediately, and I said, “Oh, but what part does he have in mind for me?” Because nothing made sense, except for the big part, which wasn’t the right part for me because I knew that they wouldn’t let him hire me. You know, my career had slid all of the way to the bottom – it was underwater. And so he suggested that we have breakfast the following morning…and I asked him what part he had in mind. And he said it was the Max Cherry part. Well, I read it again, and the following morning when I met him, I knew that they were not going to let him hire me, and I told him that. I said, “I’ve had that experience before – the distributors want big names, and they won’t let you.” And that’s when he said to me, “I hire anybody I want.” And I believed him, and I said, “Jesus – you mean I’m going to get another shot at a career?” and so I don’t know how much he wrote for me, or how much the character seemed to fit, because I’d played those parts a little bit in the past, cops and detectives; I remember when I went from being the younger of the two cops to being the older of the two cops, in stuff like “Police Story” and stuff like that. But here was a guy who liked me when he was growing up, who decided he was going to put me back to work, and he has given me a huge, huge gift. And these last 14 years have been filled with the fruits of that gift. So if you start out with great material and a guy who takes care of you on the set, and then in post, and even after, and here we are. I’m still alive, and it’s been a great run.
You and Pam have amazing chemistry in “Jackie Brown.” Would you attribute that to the writing, to you two working together, or just being experienced actors coming on set and being able to create that intimacy no matter who you’re working with?
That’s one of the things an actor does – he says to himself, “I am going to deliver movie shots that will be in the picture.” Something that makes these movie shots exceptional and watchable and maybe a little something extra that happens that puts that shot in the picture – which is why some directors shoot 40, 50, 60 takes. They’re looking for some little special thing that will actually get into the movie. Quentin doesn’t do that; he shoots a normal amount of time. He shot as many as he needed to to get something special, but experience does give you the knowledge that you’re here not just to render the material, but to find something in that shot that gives it believability and life and maybe something special that helps make the movie.
As far as the chemistry, she’s a beautiful woman. I had never met her, but I had been in a movie with her, in a picture called “Original Gangstas.” But I had seen her and I knew who she was because she was a big star of the era and the type of movies – I did a lot of exploitation movies at the time…And then I got cast in this movie, where we have a love relationship. And so it wasn’t at all hard to find the chemistry with Pam Grier. Additionally, as you are aware, she is an experienced actress who knows that you’ve got to deliver, and every day you have a bouquet of opportunities to put down really good timing and something special and hopefully one of those really good shots that the guy finds that he wants to include. And believability is certainly a big piece of that, and that was Quentin’s best direction to me; I heard him give two others, but early on in the picture making, he said before one of the takes, he said “Just make me believe it.” And that’s it! That’s what the actor needs to remember every single time before the take begins.
How tough is it to be honest about the ups and downs in your career?
Oh, I have nothing to be immodest about. Everything I have done, my career went like this [points up] for five years and like this [points down] for 25 years, and then I got “Jackie Brown” and he gave me buoyancy and it’s been – and one of the things I learned along the way, and this is a universal, I learned that every man — and woman for that matter – but every man has got to accept and hopefully be graceful with loss of status. I don’t care how big a star you are, you can’t hold on to that, it always is followed by that [points down]. And even if you’re not a movie actor with a career that goes up and down, you are a man whose strength gets to a peak and and then you start getting older and pretty soon, you’re feeble. And if you can address that comfortably and with some grace, then your chances of having a good time in the down slope are much improved.
So I guess I learned somewhere along that long, long 25 or 27-year descent that you’ve just got to make the best of what you’ve got, and deliver the best you’ve got under whatever circumstances there are. And once you realize that that is the circumstance of every human life, that the great leveler, the great evener is that with whatever you’ve got you can create your best thing. In any given moment, you can deliver your very best moment, and when you do, you get that reward that people tell you you’re going to get when you deliver your excellent best to this moment – you get the reward of self-respect and satisfaction. If you happen to be looking for the good life, those are both huge components in the good life. And these are things that you recognize and especially if you had a career that has forced you to be more and more and more modest, and more and more and more humble. You realize that it’s a gotta-be, and everyone’s life goes through that. And I was able since I had to take any job possible, because I have four kids, that you learn to take whatever jobs there are and make the best you can out of whatever you’ve got. And anyone in any walk of life, if they can figure that out, has a lot better finish than those who cannot stand to take a picture that doesn’t pay you as much or isn’t as good as the last one. Attitude is everything.
“Jackie Brown” is available on BluRay in stores now.