James Ransone on Cutting Through B.S. and Why We’re a Shared Organism

James Ransone on Cutting Through B.S. and Why We're a Shared Organism

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While you may not recognize his name, you’re sure to know his face. Glance over his credits and you might be inclined to assume that actor James Ransone is much older than 36, his actual age. In just a little more than a decade, Ransone has worked with some of the most well-respected behind-the-camera creative talents across independent film and cable television, including Larry Clark, David Simon, Spike Lee and, as of late, Sean Baker, who cast Ransone in his latest film, “Tangerine,” which opened in theaters on Friday, July 10.

Ransone burst on to the independent film scene with Clark’s 2002 film, “Ken Park,” but is perhaps most widely known for playing the character of Ziggy Sobotka on the second season of Simon’s HBO series, “The Wire.” It was a breakout role for Ransone, who was 24-years-old at the time. Since then, Ransone has gone on to work on three films with Lee and two Baker (“Inside Man,” “Red Hook Summer” and “Oldboy” with the former, “Starlet” and “Tangerine” with the latter); reunited with Simon on the HBO miniseries “Generation Kill,” which went on to receive 11 Primetime Emmy nominations; and guest starred on multiple episodes of “How To Make It in America” and “Treme.”

Given his accomplishments to date, it’s hard to believe that for the better part of his twenties, Ransone was, in his own words, a junkie “with a pretty healthy heroin habit.” The impetus to sober up emerged from a friendship he developed with two Marines he met while filming “Generation Kill.” This friendship served as the basis for a personal essay Ransone wrote for an issue of Malibu Magazine, published back in 2006. While the original version of the article is no longer available on the magazine’s website, a republished, text-only version is available on a personal blog called The Magnificent B.

During a recent phone interview with Indiewire, Ransone expressed some embarrassment over the way he wrote the essay, describing his linguistic choices as “really cheesy, subject matter aside.” Indeed, it’s been almost ten years since the publication of the essay, which Ransone wrote not long after making the commitment to overcome his addiction — demonstrating a profound self-awareness that has grown increasingly nuanced over time.

“I think if anything, I had the false expectation that my professional life would take away some of that pain and that just simply is not true,” Ransone said of the person he used to be before he became sober. “There is no external means, whether it’s my career, or money or house or a wife or anything, that is going to set me right.”

In other words, no matter the obstacle, the burden to overcome lies is on you and you alone. According to Ransone, identifying as a victim “is played out and frankly, it’s bullshit, too” because, as he put it, “[a]t a certain point, we all hit the skids because life is not easy and at certain point we all bottom out.”

“It’s more like, what are you going to do to confront yourself,” he continued. “How far are you willing to go, how deep are you willing to go inside yourself, to look at what is bothering you? I’m not special. The signposts are out there for all of us. It’s weird to go, ‘let’s talk about that’ and ‘does it inform your work in a conscious degree.’ No, not really, I’ve just been really lucky to have a bunch of people call me out on my shit, point me in the right direction and to at least take the cotton out of my ears long enough for me to listen.”

As Ransone explains in the essay published in Malibu Magazine, he began the process of personal confrontation during the filming of “Generation Kill.” Subconsciously, however, he may have been headed in that direction long before — which makes sense when you consider how the evolution of his interests in politics, economy and philosophy has seemingly coincided with the caliber of creative individuals he has consistently collaborated with over the years.

“I just auditioned for ‘The Wire’ like I just auditioned for any other job,” Ransone explained. Over time, however, he found himself becoming more interested in the issues that were being interrogated onscreen.

“I just think it’s my natural curiosity for how we’re conditioned as a society,” he continued, “and some of that curiosity is definitely informed by having been lucky enough to meet people like David [Simon] and Spike Lee and Sean [Baker], where it’s like ‘oh, I never really considered this aspect of our culture, so let’s learn about it.'”

Furthermore, these experiences on set have inspired him to seek out literary texts that provide additional context around the issues of politics and economy that he has become so interested in. “I’m going to sound like such a dickhead [and] such a pompous asshole,” Ransone prefaced self-consciously after we asked him to share some examples from his reading list.

“I like to read [Jacques] Lacan and [Michel] Foucault,” he told us. “I read Marx’s ‘[Das] Kapital’ broken down by [David] Harvey, that professor at SUNY Purchase, because I couldn’t get through it on my own.” Ransone also cited the works of Alan Watts, Slovj Zizek (he took care to warn us that he might catch shit for liking Zizek) and Jiddu Krishnamurti as fundamental to shaping the way he engages with issues of politics and economy, even though he might not be able to understand all of it.

“To be honest, I can’t wrap my head around all of it,” Ransone admitted. “Just because I try to read a lot of stuff doesn’t mean I can fully conceptualize all of these intense, big abstract ideas.”

More than anything else, Ransone’s self-consciousness about his intellectual growth is indicative of how willingly he embraces the unknown when it comes to thinking about the next steps in his career.

Case in point, Ransone recalled how he declined his girlfriend’s suggestion to make a list of directors that he would like to work with at some point in the future. “I said I’m not going to do that and the reason I won’t do that is because if I start to say I only want to work with Scorsese, for example, then anything that isn’t Scorsese is going to feel less than what I want,” he told us, “and so I wouldn’t have even been in ‘Tangerine’ because I would have said, oh they’re shooting this movie on a phone, Scorsese would have never shot on a phone.”

Rather than allow himself to be guided blindly by the prejudice of his own expectations, Ransone tries to always remain open to whatever comes his way. And then once he gets on set, help as much as he can.

In spite of his dismissiveness towards the idea of approaching the trajectory of his career with a preconceived specificity, Ransone admitted that when it comes to storytelling, specificity, more often than not, functions as the key to unlocking the full potential of the narrative.

“The more specifically you try to tell a story, the more universal those themes become,” he explained. To demonstrate his point, he cited “Tangerine” as an example. The specificity in character and story — two transgender prostitutes, one with aspirations of singing onstage at a local restaurant while the other embarks on a quest for revenge against the woman who slept with her boyfriend — results in an incredibly nuanced topsy-turvy tale that manages to transcend its specificity through the universal desire to bring a dream into existence. “What it ends up doing is disintegrating these walls — the inherently false belief that there is difference between myself and other,” finished Ransone. “There is no you and there is no them; we’re a fucking shared organism.”

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