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Eric Bogosian

The actor/writer/concert performer discusses life, art, drugs, Nazis, Wilford Brimley, speed metal and his place in the world.

by Jay S. Jacobs


This interview took place soon after the release of Bogosian's 1993 book Notes From Underground.

It is kind of surprising how down to earth Eric Bogosian is when you meet him.  After all, on the stage and the screen the guy is like a whirling dervish of anger and humor.  He seems like a volcano just about to erupt. It's hard to realize that this is the same guy standing there politely offering you some coffee, tea, or perhaps a juice.

This meeting is taking place in Bogosian's office in the Little Italy section of Manhattan. From the outside, the office appears to be a closed storefront. Bogosian admits that he has always been fascinated by things that are not what they appear to be. The hidden office almost makes him feel like he's in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The idea of being different than obvious appearances is one that seems to pervade his life and work.

The office is cluttered with papers and magazines and copies of his recent book, Notes From Underground. On one wall is a poster from Bogosian's favorite film, Taxi Driver. Another wall has the poster from his own film, Talk Radio. There is a large filing cabinet with "Stay hungry" scrawled in magic marker on its side.

Eric once lived in this little loft with his wife, director and collaborator Jo Bonney. That was in the lean years. Bogosian had many lean years before hitting. Bogosian started performing because of a lonely childhood. He did a lot of performing in the mirror. In high school and college he took acting classes. Eventually he moved to New York and hung out with a lot of artists in the late '70's. At the time he was doing things like The Rick Paul Show, a show about an obnoxious performer he mainly did in punk clubs. Bogosian was also putting together multicharacter plays, and losing money on all of them.

It was the high expense of these shows that nudged him in the direction that would assure him fame. Bogosian started doing solo shows where he would portray one or more characters. "I started to do solo pieces, which were about the people who were inside of me," Bogosian explains. "Those turned out to be some kind of careeristic paydirt, not that I was thinking about how to find that. Looking at it ass backwards, one looks at the situation, 'Well, if people like this so much I might as well do it some more.'"

Bogosian was surprised that these solo pieces were what finally garnered him wide-spread notice. He has to admit he does not feel that the format of these plays is his strong point. "It's not that I think it's better than anything else I do.  I've resisted them all along the way. I've been trying to quit, not do them and do other things, to do anything...  But Andy Warhol once said some people's best thing is what they think of as their second best thing."

The first show to garner notice was FunHouse. The play had a healthy run. Another one-man play called Drinking In America came next, became Bogosian's first book sale and garnered more acclaim. Soon after this, he started work on the show that would cement his reputation, Talk Radio. Theatre mogul Joe Papp decided to stage the play and everyone was shocked by its long run off Broadway. Then it was made into a film by director Oliver Stone. The film also did respectably and got critical raves. The whole thing took Bogosian aback a bit.

"I was definitely surprised when Talk Radio took off as a play. As a film it has become somewhere between a popular thing and a cult thing. I'm always surprised by things that happen to my work. For me it goes back to when I was in the fourth grade and tried to write the scariest story I could, and the audience in the class just laughed at it. I always seem to go off in one direction and get a different response than what I expected. Talk Radio was an attempt to create a full-blooded, completely obnoxious character. People found something there that was watchable or enjoyable. I mean, there were a lot of motives why I made Talk Radio, but I was surprised."

The next play was Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, which was also unexpectedly popular and made into a movie. In recent months, Bogosian has released his fifth book, Tales From Underground and has been working on his next theatre piece, which he alternately calls Dog Show and Pounding Nails In The Floor With My Forehead.

"When I'm putting a solo show together I make subsidiary shows that are feeders into the new show," Bogosian admits. "It's a mental fake-out to myself. I make believe I'm making a new show so I forget the material I was working on and make up some fresh material. Basically, I do it out of town when somebody wants me to perform someplace. It's a schizoid thing for me performing out of town, because I'm actually making no effort to promote myself out of town, by mass media appearances like comedians do they do Letterman and Leno and stuff like that." But Bogosian is part of something bigger than just theatre or comedy. He is a performance artist. Right now he is at an uncomfortable point bars are getting too loud for anyone to pay attention and Broadway palaces are too stuffy. Bogosian is one of the pioneers of a new art form, concert performance.

"There's something going on right now, and I'm a part of it, which is the rise of the talkers," Bogosian says. "There's people who are saying stuff. It's very exciting. I think it actually is an adjunct to some of the things that have happened in the last couple of years."

Bogosian's performances look at the darker sides of people. He takes characters on like aging rock stars, cutthroat executives, Brooklyn party boys and people who took drugs in the sixties but now sell Amway. Bogosian possesses these characters and opens them up warts and all, but always with humor.

If there is a complaint about Bogosian, it is that he only does truly abhorrent characters. Bogosian admits this is true, but says it is all part of the show. "People get a little lost here because they're getting too literal about what's going on that stage. We've got to understand what we're watching. We're watching my world of imagination, not the real world. You want to watch the real world, the real world is there. Go look at it. These aren't nice people. They're not people you want as a friend. That's because they're part of me that I find problematic. There are parts of me I don't have problems with and don't write pieces on. I don't find them terribly interesting for an audience. I'm pretty much a saint with my kids, and it's very sweet when I'm holding my two year old in my arms and I'm nuzzling his fat little cheek. But where's the conflict?

"My attitude is black with a lot of humor. Whereas, Talk Radio the movie was more like speed metal stuff. It doesn't quite have as much humor. It's very serious about what it had to say. The serious quotient has gone on quite a bit. I guess that makes me old fashioned. I remember when the Who were heavy. The Who are like fucking clowns compared to what you look at now, and they were the heaviest thing around. And yet, you know if you're into L7 or Mudhoney or Soundgarden, as heavy as they are, they still have a sense of humor about what they're doing."

But the comedy is only part of Bogosian's work. Underlying the comedy is a real sense of tragedy, making the monologues sort of a two-edged sword. Comedy and tragedy mix in real life and Bogosian feels that they have to go together in drama as well. One should not overshadow the other.

"Sometimes I'll be thinking, why don't I just commit more into the black of it?" Bogosian admits. "There needs to be something that ties the audience together with me in the moment that we're in. So we understand what we're doing is we're sitting in the theatre and watching some skinny guy jump around on stage. That's what's really happening. So, I can be talking about anything. I can be talking about racism, I can be talking about concentration camps. The humor has to bring us back to where we really are and get it into perspective. I guess that's why I use humor that way. On the other hand, I can't come out and do straight humor. I just can't do it. There are too many things on my mind. The world intrudes in my brain daily. Since my brain is dripping with all kinds of stuff that's out there in the world, that I can't seem to be able to shut out, it has to end up being in my work as well. I'm not a light-hearted person, so I can't think light-hearted at work."

The funny thing is, even though his writing has been acclaimed, Bogosian does not like writing his shows nearly as much as performing them. Acting to him comes as naturally as swimming to a fish, but writing is something he really has to work at.

"I'm often confused with character actors. There's a wide span of them. Let's say Wilford Brimley, okay? You take Wilford and bring him in here and give him a bottle and have him say this is good. You are bowled over with Brimleyness. I don't have that, you know? Some of these people think I do. They want me to come in and out, except I'm invisible if I'm on the screen briefly. I need a dramatic moment to play. If I have that, usually it's something involving obviously anger would be one of my specialties. But in the end, I know that is something I can play very well. I need the sex scenes. I love playing other people's work. I love acting."

In fact, Bogosian says that he would have never written a word if the acting roles had come from the start.  If the world had pulled him up onto their shoulders when he got to New York in the '70's and said just act and act and act.   We'll pay you.  You're great.  But writing it is engrained in his life. Writing is just part of being an entertainer.

"I feel like I'm in the curl of a wave and now's the time to do the performing I've always wanted to do. I've got every capacity that I ever wanted to have. I am stronger, I'm leaner and funnier and smarter than I've ever been, so I want to be able to get up on that stage and do things, sort of like the platonic version of my solo stuff. Or, as close as I can get to it. In fact, that's why I don't want to do theatres, because theatres seem slowed down a little bit. I don't know who ought to see it, I don't know if people would see it the way I see it, because it requires I perform live at places, so I'm going to do that more and more."

In Talk Radio, the main character said his biggest fear was being boring. This is obviously a feeling that Bogosian shares. He chuckles, "As a performer there is a thing of trying to seduce people that are in my presence in whatever way I know best. Wanting to be very compelling in person and making that a major issue, that would be the idea of not being boring. You'd be afraid if you were boring that the place would go away. I think there's definitely a fear on my part of people going away."

Bogosian admits that even he didn't know what he was creating on stage until he saw the film version of Sex, Drugs Rock & Roll. He had thought he was playing five or ten characters in a show. Bogosian realized he was playing another role, behind the characters. "This very cool, glib guy that I am not. I'm not hip, I'm not cool, I'm not glib. I saw him and thought he's a very convincing guy. I'm convinced this is a cool motherfucker up there. I suddenly understood why. The real cats of the netherworld of show business would come back like, 'Let's get together, man. Let's go out somewhere.' You don't understand me. I'm a guy that goes to bed at eleven every night. I don't do that shit. I mean, I'll be honest, I tried years ago. You know, I I.D. more with John Belushi, who basically was way in over his head. That's why success scares me so much. Because I'm too thin skinned for that shit. Okay, you're writers. You're bikers. You're biker-rock star-actors. You are guys who could do heroin all night long and drink and fuck everybody you can stay up all very late. Don't care if you hurt everybody's feelings you come across in your life. Great, but I'm not. That's the big confession for me."

Bogosian has said that he hides behind characters because he would hate to show an audience the real person. "Well, the real Eric Bogosian is pretty self-conscious of himself. Obviously you're not going to describe me as shy, but I'm aware of one thing. As we sit here, I'm not the person I am when I'm at home at all. There is no connection. So, it makes me wonder about the various masks I'm donning all the time. This need to know who the real person is. I think one of my big vulnerabilities, and I'm proud of it, is that I say the thing as it lies. I say I don't want to go in front of an audience and be me, the real me. All the people we see in show business, all the people we see stand in front of us, they're all lying. But we don't know that they're lying. We want to believe that the stars are the charming, gregarious human beings that they appear to be on stage. I'd always suspected they were lying. I've met a lot of them in recent years and I know they're lying now. Most of them are just as average as you or I, but they are instilled with being this very seductive persona onstage."

Still, Bogosian does not want to refute any of the stories that have circulated about him over the years. "None. They're all true," he laughs. "You know, I feel I lead with my chin, and if I say something or propose something that is vulnerable and you go, 'You fucking liberal,' I have to say, that's true. That's what I am. I'm not afraid of it. I don't know that everything has to be previously approved for appealing to everybody. To me, that's fascism. So, I'm not interested in that. I want to see a little awkwardness in life, because you can't exist without it."

For Eric Bogosian, it all goes back to appearances versus reality. Which is the way life goes too. Bogosian acts as a conscience in a world of poseurs, and yet he will readily admit he is one. Eric Bogosian is an artist for a complicated world.

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Copyright 1993   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.


Copyright 1993   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.