Canadian-born actor Elias Koteas so fascinating is that he doesn't
like to play it safe. In his latest film, the vampiric Let
Me In, he plays the policeman who discovers the true
nature of the mysterious 12-year-old killer Abby (Chloλ Moretz) and
pays for it. In the process, he shows a humanity that's needed to
charge this dark and chilly film. This 51-year-old handles gritty
roles full of dark and light mixtures from the auto/erotic-obsessed
Vaughan in David Cronenberg's Crash to
the stalwart Captain James Staros in Terrence Malick's The
Thin Red Line.
first got known by playing Casey Jones in the Teenage
Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, he moved onto a number of
genre films. These include the horror
thriller Skinwalkers (2006),
David Fincher's Zodiac,
Shooter (both released in 2007), the Denzel Washington
starring Fallen (as
the demon-possessed serial killer Edgar Reese) and as the
priest-turned-detective Thomas Daggett in The
Prophecy which also starred Christopher Walken, Viggo
Mortensen, Eric Stoltz and Virginia Madsen (with whom he appeared
Haunting in Connecticut).
But he's done
lighter fare as well, appearing in John Hughes' Some
Kind of Wonderful and in Disney's golfer bio-pic The
Greatest Game Ever Played. He's also done a ton of
television series, guesting on CSI:
NY, The Sopranos and House
MD, in which he plays a man who shoots Dr. Gregory
Montreal, Quebec, to his Greek mechanic father and milliner mother,
Koteas is tri-lingual. He left Canada in '81 for New York City's
American Academy of Dramatic Arts and later, the Actors' Studio
where he studied under Ellen Burstyn and Peter Masterson. While at
the AADA, Koteas was in the school's production of The
Devils adapted by John Whiting from the controversial
Aldous Huxley novel, marking a provocative start to his career.
such amazing extreme characters that push the envelope or live in an
envelope-pushing place, whether it's in a film like Crash or
How do you so lose yourself in these characters that sometimes the
viewer doesn't even realize it's you?
I can't believe you saw Prisoner.
I don't know what to say other than thank you.
What makes you fascinating as an actor is that you don't like to
play it safe. What's your process of inhabiting these arch
There's no rhyme or reason; for better or for worse, these jobs,
they find me. I like to think that. Sometimes you develop a
relationship with them, and sometimes the character pitches a tent
outside your front door and doesn't leave unless you invite him in.
It sounds hokey, but I don't know what to say about it, you know
what I mean? You try to give as much of yourself as you can to each
at the policeman you play in Let
Me In. You have to make it appear that an extreme
situation is slowly revealed to him, and that he's being blown away.
Literally. What did you do to make that work for you?
When I first read [a script] there are odd things that happen. You
never really know what it is that's going to set you off or set you
on the track to where you need to go with this thing. For some
reason Abraham Lincoln came into my life. I read voraciously about
Lincoln; what that has anything to do with the movie I don't know.
Other than that it allowed me to somehow think about the higher
nature in man and somehow the compassionate qualities in people and
to see both sides of something and to bear witness. It's odd to try
to make that connection, but my life at the time was going through a
lot of changes. Then how do I make it personal? How do I make the
part relevant without being obvious?
Somehow he felt like a ghost to me, like somebody who was in a room
observing, bearing witness. Then at the same time you spend a lot of
time alone. Your life somehow dictates that, and if you're open and
sensitive, one feeds the other. And the atmosphere and arena that
director Matt Reeves created sort of allowed you to be open,
vulnerable and to explore different ways about playing this guy.
really know how; I didn't have any preconceptions other than I felt
it needed to have a sort of compassionate tone. Then with a hope and
a prayer, you dive off, and hope for the best. It's always a crap
shoot; you never really know what's going to happen on that day.
Your role in Let
Me In is an important one, if secondary, to the two
I feel so blessed that I'm able to do this. Then you work with these
two children, and after all these years of my so-called experience,
having been on stage and gone through it, to this day, I still feel
like, if I got another job it would feel like I have no experience
at all. It's starting over, and I'm beside myself, hoping that I
asked the right questions in order to get the ball rolling.
So the toughest part is getting up in the morning and actually
showing up. That's the scariest part of the film for me. But then
you show up and you work with these two children who are so
unaffected, so incredibly phenomenal. They're so pure that it's just
humbling to be in their presence. You have a lot of kids at that age
who aren't able to reflect back what they see, but here are these
kids just so soulful.
There's almost something divine about it that as an actor I look at
that and go to myself, "Oh my god! As an actor that what I pray for:
to be as affecting and as moving as these kids are capable of
being." So in their presence, I don't know anything about acting.
in a segment of Eric Mendelsson's 3
a weary suburban executive which screened at The Hamptons Film
Festival last week -- a really wonderful film with three separate
stories that are interwoven in one way or another. No one story
dominates and nor does any one overwhelm the others, so it's more
about the film as a whole.
It was a great
two weeks of guerilla film-making with people who are really
passionate about what they do. Ultimately, it's a crapshoot whether
it comes together in a meaningful, affecting way, but the journey of
making [a film like that] that and being entrusted in that
[performance] was what I remember. There was a lot of kindness on
It's a small
film [which won an award at Sundance where it debuted] and got a
little bit of [exposure] in New York [at the New Directors/New
Films] in the spring. I'm very proud of it. I'll be curious to see
what your thoughts are [about it]. I haven't seen the [completed]
picture but I've heard that it's kind of like an everyman [story],
and if I can tap into that, that's the toughest part, in relation to
what you just said, where you could just be almost everyman in a
Now It's just
doing the festival thing and I think this spring it might play some
more dates in New York.
you have this slightly deranged streak, and yet at the same time, a
sympathetic quality. With Vaughan in Crash,
he has to be somehow sympathetic to show how he draws them in to his
little cult that was one reason that it got you so much attention
for that role.
That part to me was a metaphor for love and for making the
connection. And it doesn't make sense, but I saw it from a young
boy's perspective with wonderment. Everything that he did was with a
sense of wonderment; I haven't thought about it in 16 years, but
that's what I recall from it. If you leave yourself open to just
making discoveries without any sort of preconception then anything
You've done such a range of films. One of the through lines seems
to be that you often understand characters who are either pushed to
an edge or stand at an edge. Do you feel that's true?
You know what, I don't know, man. It's really in the eye of the
beholder. I'm living my life the best way I know how -- try to be
curious about things and open, and work through my own neurosis and
fears and hopes. And somehow, for some reason that's beyond me, they
translate that way on screen. So where that comes from I don't
really know. I don't know what it is. I wish I had a better answer.
In capturing the duality of darkness and light, you're in some
ways a successor to what Robert De Niro is able to do.
You flatter me putting me in that company. He's certainly somebody
that I admired during my studies and during my career. In response
to that I just feel like I haven't even started yet, so I feel with
your thoughtful words and kind words that maybe in my life I'm
opening up that ways that would invite different experiences,
I don't even know how to explain it; all I know is that I've barely
begun. It feels that way. I feel like a late bloomer even though
I've done 70 movies. I just feel like I'm just getting started. It
feels that way. So if you can compare me to an actor like that then
you flatter me. I should be so lucky.
Reflecting on your career, which roles were linchpins for you?
You want me to think about the roles that I've played and how
they've had some kind of effect on me?
Your relationship with Atom Egoyan -- being in Exotica as
well as other of his films The Adjuster and Ararat
has been very important. You had to have extreme talent to be able
to play that character in that very tough film. Was that a critical
role for you, and maybe a chance to make something of a statement?
A lot of these roles that I feel like I've had some sort of impact,
or that have had an effect on me, have always been with directors
who have the time to somehow get to know me. Any good director's
going to be curious about who it is that's coming aboard. Because of
lack of time a lot of directors hope that you just have the
character in your pocket and you just show up and do it. And
controversial production. Egoyan is very intuitive and he was very
inclusive about getting to know you and hanging out.
That breeds an environment that allows you to be open and to sort of
explore and to trust. David Cronenberg just left me alone. I kind of
somehow knew the role for some reason, and it was just all about
finding your light. The whole experience with Crash was
I felt like I was in a state of grace. I felt that we were making
discoveries as the camera was rolling, and that was very
The Thin Red Line was an experience where, again, the
director would get to know you and push you in a way that it's a
tough act to follow. Most directors don't know they don't really
know what questions to ask and how to inspire you. I feel like I'm
at my best when there's a relationship with a director, and you feel
safe and that you can fall on your face and make mistakes. I could
ability to give yourself to each of those situations allows you to
go from The
Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Shutter
Island. You've worked with directors like David
Fincher and Martin Scorsese who are known for a degree of
meticulousness. What do you think they find in you that works with
With David Fincher first of all, it's just a blessing that he would
see me as the color that he would invite along to help him tell the
story. That's just the luck of the draw. You know people, you've
done enough work, and you know the right people who would get in
touch with you and put you in his line of sight.
And so there
you are, and you're scared and nervous and this and that. I consider
him like a big pillow. Like if you're going to be nervous on that
day, scared out of your wits, you know you're going to be there, and
you're going to work through the scene until it happens.
That to me was like a comfort know that you're not going to move on;
you're going to do it 20, 30, 40 takes, whatever it takes, to make
it happen. And he's such a brilliant filmmaker and storyteller; you
could just let it go and just try to do your part and you'll be
taken care of.
With Marty Scorsese, oddly enough I felt like I was home, and I
don't really know how else to describe it. The whole experience of
making that film was like going to church almost. It was a very
quiet set and then suddenly there you are with all this makeup and
everything stops, everything's in slow motion. There's Mr. Scorsese
and there's the set and the cinematographer. It's a little surreal.
You're plucked out of your own life, and then suddenly you're thrown
into this situation and you're asked, "Okay, what are you going to
do?" I don't really know how to articulate the adrenaline that is
shooting through you at this moment, but somehow you have to
remember your whole life has prepared you for this one specific
moment, that you are here, you are where you have to be. And Marty
Scorsese was just so open to trying a lot of different things, any
fear that you have is your own, and he's there to help you along.
You've done two films with David Fincher, so obviously you have
some understanding of him. Have you seen his latest?
Social Network? No, I'm going to. It looks pretty
He's becoming heralded on a level he didn't get with Zodiac or
Curious Case of Benjamin Button. What's the secret of
working with him?
I wish I knew. He is an incredibly bright guy, very visual. He knows
what he wants. It's all about rhythm in the scene... He's very
thoughtful and open, but like any creative person, it doesn't have
to be the most comfortable, and sometimes it's very frustrating.
It's a lot of
different things, so some days it can be very difficult, and some
days he might not even know what he wants. But that's all part of
the process, so you've got to be willing to go through it.
At the end of the day what's up on that screen is what's important.
I'm so happy for him because I remember when Zodiac came out, it
[was the] beginning of the year [but despite] glowing reviews
somehow at the end of the year it was like, "Zodiac what?"
There wasn't any sort of acknowledgment, and I thought to myself,
what's at work here? But then it goes beyond that.
The guy is able
to make his films, and he's able to tell a story, and the fact that
he's as prolific as he is these past few years is awesome. He's got
a lot to say and he's just getting started, and I look forward to
seeing anything that he does. It's poetry.
You've been in films, sometimes in a critical role or as a
supporting figure who understands isolation and alienation, and you
deal with directors who show the dark side of humanity, like Michael
Winterbottom with The
Killer Inside Me, or with James Gray, showing that crazy side in Two
Lovers. What is it that you get about these characters?
Are you slightly crazy?
I don't really know... It's all instinctual... it's really my makeup
I guess, and in some way I'm able to find a voice within my own
struggles with why I'm here and what my purpose is and what my
conflicts are within myself and family and relationships; whatever
I have an idea of what my own personal demons are, and somehow the
more aware I am of those maybe perhaps the work will get even more
honest and perhaps get close to what those children were doing
at the tender age of 75. Maybe then I'll be able to figure it out.
When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?
I don't know. It was like overnight almost. I was watching Rich
Man, Poor Man with
my mom, and I was deeply affected by that series for some reason.
Nick Nolte's character blew my mind. There was something about his
character that somehow, I don't know, as a 10-year-old, as a
15-year-old, whatever I was at the time, what I saw in it the idea
of affecting people. Like I sat and watched after his character was
killed; I was crying, I was weeping, I was inconsolable. Somehow
there was something about that that wanted me to do that and affect
people that way, make them see their own mind.
At the time I didn't know that; at the time I was more like, let's
pretend. Let's make you forget about your life. Let's entertain you
for a while. Let's tell a good story. You want to be affecting, you
want to be doing scenes where when somebody's watching it they're
not just saying, "Oh wow, what a wonderful scene," and then go off
and have a sandwich. In some way you want to open the door to the
view in their own hearts, their own life. To touch someone and make
them see themselves perhaps.
But you were able to get outside of yourself.
A lot of times I don't watch anything that I'm in because I'm going
to nitpick it to death or I don't see it behind the eyes or I could
have made that choice or they could have done this. So I don't even
bother. And the fact that I'm able to watch I saw Let
Me In three times in one week, and each time I saw it
everybody got better and I got worse. It's tough, man. I mean
Ritchie Coster as the teacher, he was lovely. He had a limited
amount of time.
Whom would you like to work with again?
Atom Egoyan, obviously, and David Cronenberg, I would be back there.
I'd like to say Terrence Malick because of the arena that he creates
and the poetry of his films, but for better or for worse I'm always
Captain Staros to him, and I don't know if he'll ever see me in any
other aspect. And that's not an indictment; it's just the way it
You can proudly say you've been in both a werewolf and a vampire
movie. You've covered two of the great iconic...
I grew up watching these guys, man. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi,
later Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. They were my idols as a
kid. The outward monster, but then inside there's this conflict,
this battle with one's good and bad side. Somebody outside looking
in, trying to belong, being a freak.
Maybe that has something to do with the kid that was sitting in
front of a TV late at night. Maybe I should have been supervised,
maybe I shouldn't have been allowed to watch TV, like endlessly
watching horror films. I'm sure that had some sort of weird affect
on how I look at the world and how I look at myself in this world.
You've been in ghost stories, played a priest, been in a vampire
movie, been in a werewolf film. But I haven't seen you as a space
captain. You'd be the perfect captain of some ship in space dealing
with the dark and light sides of encountering aliens.
I don't mean to be glib but do I have to wear like tight, spandex
uniforms? As long as I don't have to do that then I'll be okay. I'm
taking the question seriously. Hey, you know what, if it's a good
story out there in space. Can you image being out there light years
away from earth? Can you imagine what it was like being in that
capsule going around and round the moon? You're just by yourself.
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