Saturday, July 11, 2020

Interview -- Ronny Cox (Actor, Singer-Songwriter)

"We had been 
on the water six or eight hours
a day for four or five,
10 weeks already...
we were ready for those."
~ Ronny Cox ~

     They seldom are the ones chosen to host the big party, but they are part of a select group of actors who seem to always get that early invitation.  The ones who will help keep the party running smoothly.  The ones who always make the party better when they arrive.  Such is the case for longtime actor Ronny Cox who has graced the screen in roughly 150 movies and television shows.  Ronny Cox is one of those actors that make whatever you're watching a little more interesting.  Whether playing a warm understanding father or a coldhearted sumbeach...Ronny Cox brings it with equal measure.  And whenever I see him doing his thing, I put the remote down.  Ronny Cox Go get you some.

Ronny Cox Interview -- July 2020
Ronny Cox

Casey Chambers:  The terrifying backwoods thriller..."Deliverance" (1972) was also your very first film.  What was going on in your life at that time?

Ronny Cox:  Well, Mary and I got married in college. We were high school sweethearts. And by the time we graduated from college, Mary had a Ph.D. in chemistry from Georgetown University and I started my career in theater in Washington, D.C.  When we moved to New York, Mary was working on her postdoc at Sloan Kettering and I was doing some Broadway and off-Broadway still struggling as an actor.  And the people from Warner Bros. had come to New York looking for good unknown actors...and God knows I was unknown. (laughs)  I was actually one of the first actors they saw in New York.  Not because I was at the top of anyone's list, but because I was so far at the bottom.  I was the first person they saw because I came in for a pre-meeting.  They were meeting people at like 10 o'clock on a Monday morning and they asked me to come in at nine just to meet with the casting director.  He gave me a copy of the script, and as it turned out, ya know, I lucked out and got it. (laughs)  It was not only my first film, but it was also my first time in front of a camera.  And most people don't realize this...but it was Ned Beatty's first film too.

Casey Chambers:  Oh, that's cool.  And what a primo way to kick off your career.

Ronny Cox:  Yeah, and Ned and I were cast totally independent of each other.  They didn't know we had already done 20 plays together.  Or that we even knew each other.  We'd been best friends for about eight years.

Casey Chambers:  Small world, big place.

Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox

Ronny Cox:  Yep.  And it was probably the first time in the history of film that they found the two actors below the title before finding...(laughs)...I was the first actor they found.  Then Ned.  And we waited around for another three, four or five weeks while they were deciding on the two guys above the title.  Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds.  It generally works the other way.  The big names first and then they fill in around it.  But Ned and I were the first ones.

Casey Chambers:  Were you at all familiar with James Dickey's novel?

Ronny Cox:  Yeah, I had read the novel.  And it's a brilliant novel.  When we were making "Deliverance" into a film...and you gotta remember, this was 1971...a lot of people, especially down in Georgia where we were shooting, felt it was practically a porno with the homosexual rape in it.  But the film is a brilliant action, psychological thriller.  Generally with films that are made from novels...either you like the novel or you like the film.  But you seldom like them both.  "Deliverance" is one of the few that I liked equally as well.  But they're very different.  I don't know if you've read the novel, but the novel is in the first person.  Everything is seen through Ed's eyes.  The character of Ed.  And there's no way to do the film that way.  So the story works as a film and it works as a novel, too.

"Deliverance" Trailer (1972)

Casey Chambers:  John Boorman, who directed the film, chose to shoot the film chronologically.  How unusual is that?

Ronny Cox:  Totally unusual.  And it's because generally, the mitigating factor is always the bottom line.   And so most films...let's say we're doing a film and there are four scenes that are in your office.  Well, we're going to go in and shoot those four scenes in your office all at once.  Because there's no reason to shoot there, go away, and then come back and relight.  You're just not going to do that.  There are other reasons, as well.  Sometimes you might have a character that's in a scene and then doesn't show up again until much later in another scene.  You're going to try to put all these scenes together.  Or there may be a location that you can only get access to during a specific time.  So, therefore, you're almost always shooting out of sequence.

Now, "Deliverance" is a film that goes from point A to point B, and you're never in the same location twice.  So, therefore, "Deliverance" lent itself to shooting in sequence.  And in many ways, that was really helpful, since we were doing all the canoeing ourselves and all the stunt work.  The film starts in the easy rapids and the rapids get progressively harder and harder as we go along.  By the time we got to the really difficult rapids...we had been on the water six or eight hours a day for four or five, 10 weeks already...we were ready for those.  If we had been shooting out of sequence, who knows what might have happened?  Another hidden asset, if one of us scratched our cheek or tore our shirt or bumped our knee, it didn't have to be covered up with makeup or whatever.  By shooting in sequence like we did in "Deliverance," those things could all be used organically in the film.

Casey Chambers:  Did you guys know what you were getting yourselves into?  That river really looked wicked.

Ronny Cox:  It was.  Like I said, we did all the canoeing ourselves and if you recall, at the end of the film plot-wise, they find the other wooden canoe broken in half.  They didn't have to do that.  We did that for them. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Note to self: Bring lots of duct tape. (laughs)  Had you had any canoe experience prior to that?

Ronny Cox:  None.  None of us had really.  The best canoeist of us all, oddly enough, was Ned...the bumbler. (laughs)  Now Burt was a great athlete, but he was probably technically the worst canoeist, although his mammoth ego wouldn't allow him to fail. (laughs)  He couldn't be bothered with learning all the proper techniques, but his athleticism got him through.

Casey Chambers:  One of the most iconic moments from the film is your "Dueling Banjos" scene.  What do you recall about shooting that part of the movie?

"Dueling Banjos" scene / "Deliverance" (1972)

Ronny Cox:  Well, it was my very first scene ever.  One of the reasons I was cast in the film was because I play the guitar.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a bluegrass picker.  In the book, they play "Wildwood Flower," which is a much more sedate song.  But John Boorman had found "Dueling Banjos" and wanted to use that.  And John Boorman wanted me to play it in the movie.  To actually be the one picking in the movie.  He wasn't interested in making a hit song...which "Dueling Banjos" became.  He loved the idea of this savant kid showing up this totally amateur guitar player.  But see, here's the thing.  Billy Redden...the kid we got to play the role...didn't play the banjo.  That's not even his left hand in the film.  And since he couldn't play, we had to pre-record the song and then do what's called match-playback.  So in other words, they would start the music.  And then, we would match our finger movements to the song.  John Boorman wanted to be able to cut to somebody's fingers playing the right notes.  So, Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell are the two people who played it on the soundtrack.  But Steve Mandell taught me the piece note for note.  So, if you go back and look at the film, any time they cut to me playing, I'm playing the actual note. So, when push comes to shove...did I play it?  Yes.  Is that me on the soundtrack?  No.  Did it cost me about a million dollars?  Yes! (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  What a great scene.  What a great movie.  You were cast as a villain in two of Paul Verhoeven's blockbuster movies..."Robocop" (1987) and "Total Recall." (1990)   At that point in your career, playing a bad guy was a bit of a switch for you, wasn't it?

Ronny Cox:  Totally.  "Robocop" ended up being an iconic film.  And this was proof to me of what a director's vision can bring to a script.  The only reason I wanted to do the film was that it gave me the chance to play a bad guy.  I had spent 15 years playing nothing but boy scout nice guys.  So this gave me the chance to play a villain.  Everything about it.  The humor.  And making us care.  All those things were elements that Paul Verhoeven added to that script.  I mean, the script was fine.  Don't get me wrong.  But what made that film magic was Paul Verhoeven's approach to it.  Paul told me later, one of the reasons he cast me as "Dick Jones" was because he wanted to trade on that residual goodwill that I had built up in my career.  So when my character comes on the screen, the audience gets a feeling of...' Oh, this guy's good.'   Then when he ends up being bad...that makes him seem twice as bad.  I've seen some online polls where Dick Jones was voted the best villain in film in the '80s. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  You made a pretty excellent villain in Verhoeven's "Total Recall" as well.

Home In Time For Corn Flakes scene - "Total Recall" (1990)

Ronny Cox:  Yep. Yep.  We had a good time. We shot that in Mexico City.  We took over the whole of Churubusco Studios in Mexico.  I don't know if you know this, but "Total Recall" had been in development for 14 years because no one could figure out how to make it for the price.  This was 1990...and even then the film cost about hundred million dollars.  It was far and away, the most expensive in the history of film at the time.  The film had actually shot, I think, for a week or two in Australia.  With Ridley Scott directing and Patrick Swayze playing Arnold's (Schwarzenegger) role.  And then they realized they weren't going to be able to make budget and pulled the plug on it.  That's when Verhoeven got involved and moved it to Mexico City.  It was a really different time.

Casey Chambers:  With all the crazy special effects, and there were a bunch of 'em, the Mars decompression scenes were hard to forget.  And your character got the decomp face treatment, too.

Ronny Cox:  That was Rob Bottin who did that.  I'm sure you've heard of people who have photographic memories.  Rob Bottin has photographic memory with his hands.  He can sit with a pencil and paper and draw an absolute photographic likeness of you.  Or take a piece of clay and make an absolute replica of your face and head.  Just with his hands.  And so for that decompression scene, Arnold and I spent one whole day just making as many faces as we could.  Grimacing and contorting our faces in every possible way.  And they took photograph after photograph.  Then Rob took all of them and made masks with all those grimaces.  In addition to that, he put air pockets behind so they could distort our faces even more.  That was how Rob Bottin was able to make the masks that were grotesquely almost like us, but obviously not us.  I tell you the the end of the day, both mine and Arnold's faces were so sore. (laughs)

Mars Decompression scene - "Total Recall" (1990)

Casey Chambers:  It was fun to watch.  Even with all that going on, I think I still enjoy the scene of you having a 'bad-day tantrum'...and taking it out on the fish aquarium.  No tricks.  No smoke and mirrors.  Just your character being frustrated to all hell. (laughs)

Ronny Cox:  Ya know what's funny? (laughs)  I got more hate mail for kicking over that damned aquarium than you can imagine. (laughs)  And I have to tell you the truth.  We had another tank below and all the fish were caught and unhurt during that time.  But boy, people went on!  If you recall in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" when I played Captain character made them take the fish out of the Ready Room, too. (laughs)  By the way, I'll tell you a story about that.  The reason I took the fish out of the Ready Room in "Star Trek" was a perk to Patrick Stewart.  He had always hated those fish in Captain Picard's ready room.  His point being...' we're doing a series about the dignity of all species in the universe, and we've got captured fish in the ready room. That's terrible.'  And so he kept going to the producers and saying, 'They should be out of there.'  But the producers liked it because they liked being able to shoot through there and the production values.  So as a perk to Patrick, when I came on the ship for the two episodes, they took out the fish.

Casey Chambers:  Oh right.  That was the two-parter called, "Chain Of Command." (S:6 E:10/11 - 1992)  Really, really good episode.

Ronny Cox:  They were the two highest-rated episodes of "Next Generation."  The two highest-rated episodes.  It's funny, I mean, everybody loves to hate Jellico, but he was actually quite good.  And I had a good time playing Jellico.

Captain Jellico - ST:TNG / "Chain Of Command" (1992)

Casey Chambers:  Can we talk about the book you wrote a few years ago?

Ronny Cox:  Well, of all the films I've done, there are more questions about "Deliverance" than any other film I've ever been involved with.  And so, I decided to write "Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance Of Drew" (2012) and offer it as an audiobook too.  You can listen to it in about three hours.  It's just me telling the story of making "Deliverance" and dispelling many of the myths.  And going from an absolute unknown to having the break of a lifetime.  Most people seem to love the book and it is pretty good if I do say so myself.

Casey Chambers:  I'll look for it.  Mr. Cox, thank you for letting me cherrypick from your long list of films.  It has been a real pleasure speaking with you today.  Thank you for all the fine entertainment you've given us and be sure and stay safe out there.

Ronny Cox:  Of course.  You bet.  Thanks.

Ronny Cox Official Website

"Roll Down Your Windows" - Ronny Cox / "Ronny Cox"

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers

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