The Man Behind the Mask
From Acting to Directing, Cigars to Jazz, Actor Peter Weller Is a Man of Many Passions
Peter Weller is waxing poetic about white truffles. "It is like putting gold bullion in pasta," he says, brandishing the fungi on his fork to make his point, before savoring their delicate aroma and flavor.
Seated in Bice, a posh Northern Italian eatery in midtown Manhattan, on a slightly cloudy, late October morning, the slender 6-foot-tall, 48-year-old actor and director is in New York City to talk about his many passions: acting, directing, art, politics, cigars, jazz and, not to mention, white truffles. Sporting large sunglasses, a checkered burgundy blazer and blue jeans, Weller, best known for his role as the gunned down policeman turned crime fighting machine in Robocop, has worked with some of the most revered actors and directors of our time: from Diane Keaton in Shoot the Moon, to Judy Davis in Naked Lunch and The New Age, to Woody Allen in Mighty Aphrodite and Michelangelo Antonioni in Par-Dela Les Nuages (Beyond the Clouds).
Many careers in Hollywood have had their ups and downs, and with a career spanning almost three decades, Weller has seen his share. It seems that he has often tottered on the brink of stardom, only to have it elude his grasp. He has been in only one blockbuster, Robocop, and, although a majority of his films have garnered him critical praise and a contingent of loyal fans, his is not a household name.
So who is Peter Weller? He is passionate and strong-willed. He is socially aware and politically active. He is witty with a tendency to poke fun at himself. But there is much more.
First, there are the cigars. Cigars, especially Cuban cigars, are one of life's greatest pleasures, according to Weller. An avid cigar smoker for more than 10 years, Weller prefers such Cuban brands as Cohiba, Partagas, Bolivar, Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey. But he has recently learned to appreciate premium Dominican cigars as well, such as Partagas, Arturo Fuente and Avo.
"I was at the Grand Havana Room [in Beverly Hills], and a guy sitting next to me had a box of Cohiba Esplendidos, and I was smoking an Avo XO Churchill," recounts Weller. "I don't think he knew how good the Dominicans could be. And he said, 'Oh, put that out.' And I said, 'I don't want to put this out' and he said he had Cohiba Esplendidos, and I said, 'I would not trade you this cigar for a Cohiba Esplendidos at this second in time.' What I wanted was a long cigar. What I wanted was a light peppery cigar. I wanted to enjoy my Avo."
Like most cigar smokers, Weller finds the ritual relaxing and one that fosters camaraderie. "I find when people smoke cigars, men and women, their nature immediately transforms to one of grace and compassion," he says between puffs on his Partagas Lusitania. "When I smoke a cigar I am happy. It is kind of a momentary celebration. When I work, [a cigar] calms me down and makes me more accessible. It makes me kinder."
Some people enjoy smoking cigars alone and at home. Others, like Weller, feel the need to go to bars, restaurants and sporting events with fellow cigar lovers. One of Weller's cigar smoking comrades is Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom he has known for some time. Once, the two actors were at a World Cup soccer match, and Schwarzenegger wanted to light up. "Arnold asked me for a cigar and I thought, man, you are only making $480 million a year. Not that I am broke. And I said, 'I will give you a cigar. What are you smoking?' and he said, 'Whatever is free, Peter.'"
Weller hasn't always been in cigar friendly company and, like, most aficionados, he has had to deal with the antismoking fervor that has swept across North America in recent years. "I did have an experience in Toronto. I was outside, in a very lively part of Toronto. There are a lot of bistros and cafes outside, way outside, with huge gardens. I light up a Lusitania and a guy four tables away comes up and says, 'Would you please put out your cigar?' Now, I look at this as a confrontation. Nothing was blowing his way. He was in my face and I said, 'No, I am not going to put out my cigar,' and the head waiter came and said, 'I am sorry, but we are outside and everybody can smoke out here,' and [the objector] says 'I don't like it.' I was outraged. Then I thought, this is nonsense, the guy is just doing this to get attention. Lo and behold, 10 minutes later he comes back and says he's sorry. He puts out his hand and repeats some doofus line from Robocop and then made a swipe for my cigar! My reaction was to give him a shove, and the bouncer came around and grabbed him. He went completely wild. This incident had very little to do with a cigar and much more to do with just creating a disturbance."
Weller concedes that altercations like this are rare, and if he is in a restaurant and his smoking bothers another patron, he will politely put his cigar out, or go elsewhere. Nevertheless, he is passionate about his right to smoke.
So, restaurants such as Bice, where one can smoke and dine in a hassle-free, cigar friendly environment, are havens for Weller. At Bice, the staff knows him and he can use his Italian. (Weller is a student of foreign tongues and is fluent in French and Italian.)
With his Partagas Lusitania in hand, and in between his Italian exchanges with the Bice staff, Weller discusses his career. He reclines in his chair and talks enthusiastically about his current directorial project, Incognito. The film is about an art forger who cannot paint under his own name because he has forged all his life. He is hired to fake a Rembrandt and subsequently is framed for a murder he didn't commit. Worst of all, everyone hails the alleged Rembrandt as a masterpiece and the forger has to prove to the art world that he was the painter in order to validate his innocence in the murder. "It is about the rip-off of commercialism in America; the public's endowment of whatever they hear as opposed to whatever they experience," Weller says.
Being behind the camera is a thrill for the actor, although his current predilection toward directing doesn't eliminate his thirst for acting. He is currently appearing as the leader of a world-weary band of outcasts in the futuristic thriller, Screamers, based on a short story by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, who wrote the original stories that were the basis for such genre hits as Blade Runner and Total Recall. He also stars in the forthcoming Par-Dela Les Nuages, by neorealist Antonioni. Working with Antonioni was a dream come true for Weller.
"There is no director living except maybe Kurosawa, Bergman or Antonioni that I would fall down and do anything for," Weller says. "I met Antonioni three years ago in Taormina, [Italy], at a film festival. I introduced myself and told him that I adored his movies, his contributions to film, because he was the first guy who really started making films about the reality of the vacuity between people, the difficulty in traversing this space between lovers in modern day...and he never gives you an answer, Antonioni--that's the beautiful thing."
Antonioni, whom many in the industry believe isn't up to the task of making another film because of an aneurysm he suffered in 1985, offered Weller a part in Par-Dela Les Nuages. Another acclaimed foreign director, Germany's Wim Wenders, signed on to do principal photography for the film, just to work with the legendary Italian.
Weller's passion for his craft is obvious. It is also apparent that he doesn't regret any of the choices he has made, and, in particular, the decision to play the title role in Robocop.
"Robocop was the most incredible challenge I ever had. The makeup was the longest prosthetic process; it took six and a half hours just for the face, for 23 days. The artistic preparation, working with [director Paul] Verhoeven, was like climbing Mount Everest. The story was fantastic and it is a great film," he says. "Now, it just so happens that I haven't made as many great movies as Jack Nicholson, but he walks around and people say the Joker and he gets nailed for that. People say Peter Weller, Robocop, but I have learned to live with it. I am grateful I did it and I am grateful I left it. It wasn't as if that was my defining role; it just so happens that it was the most popular. What can I say? The past is the past. I don't feel like it's an albatross. Do I get tired of hearing it sometimes? Yes. Do I feel like it's the mark of Cain? No. It was a contribution and a great film."
There isn't an actor alive who wants to be pigeonholed and Weller is no exception. He offers no excuses for taking roles in action-adventure films such as Robocop and Screamers. He is also comfortable in more serious films, under the direction of auteurs such as Antonioni. He is as quick to take a role in a drama or comedy as he is a role that has the requisite car chases and stunts; he likes to balance simple entertainment with serious art. "I was doing The New Age, a very upsetting film about the emotional and spiritual bankruptcy of a couple and how to survive in L.A. I finished it and I said, jeez, give me a car chase, give me something like Screamers. And as soon as I finished that, I had to get out of this mindless diatribe and I said give me some rich denouement of people's feelings," Weller says. "A friend of mine said, 'For a guy with your training, you should have been in more shoot-'em-ups.' [But] I don't feel that my talents have been wasted."
From stage to screen, the roles Weller has chosen have run the gamut of what a gifted actor's should be. He has performed in plays by Tennessee Williams, David Mamet and David Rabe, among others. On the silver screen, he has appeared in comedies, serious dramas and almost everything in between.
Some critics have called him "edgy," "an Eastwood on the verge of a nervous breakdown," and someone who brings "layers of angst and disbelief, much too much skill" to the characters he portrays. Even his peers have strong opinions.
"He is enormously talented, cool and great," says actor and friend Jeff Goldblum, whom Weller met in 1983 on the set of the cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. The two have remained close friends ever since. Would Goldblum ever want to work under his friend's direction? "Anytime. I would read for him. I would be flattered to be considered working with him."
* * *
Born June 24, 1947, in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Weller was a product of a middle-class Catholic upbringing in Fort Worth, Texas, and was drawn to performing at an early age. Robert Jani, a friend of the family, was Weller's first mentor. Jani urged the 10-year-old boy to get on stage and act, and he did. Jani's guidance and encouragement had a lasting impact on him. It made Weller want to perform, although he was more interested in other things at the time.
"I wanted to play baseball, but this guy convinced my mother to let me sing," Weller says. "I am glad that he did because it paid me a good buck. I liked it because it got girls' attention."
With dreams of becoming a jazz musician, Weller attended the University of North Texas as a music major. However, he finished his degree in theatre and English, because, he says, "I was no Miles Davis." He learned that he had a penchant for drama. After college, he received a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the first step on his road to Hollywood.
Before he could accept the scholarship, though, Weller had to overcome his parents' skepticism. Frederick Weller, an Army helicopter pilot (he often flew former president Lyndon B. Johnson) who later became a lawyer and eventually a federal judge, and Dorothy, a homemaker who raised Peter and an older brother to appreciate the fine arts, were initially reluctant to
pay their son's living expenses. But he was determined to
attend the academy.
pay their son's living expenses. But he was determined to
attend the academy.
"I was very committed to the thing. I knew it was do-or-die and I convinced my dad to let me go to acting school, to support me and help me with a scholarship," Weller says. "Of course, I got the scholarship and he thought that maybe this was another mumbo jumbo scheme. My mother, who supported the arts in me, thought for sure that this was a mumbo jumbo scheme. But my father, bless his heart, was the guy who supported me. I said I needed $200 a month to live; the scholarship paid for the tuition and the extras, and he said 'I will give you $185.' I told him that I would pay him back, and at the end of it, he didn't want it back."
After attending the academy, Weller studied for three years with the legendary drama teacher Uta Hagen at H.B. Studios in New York and was a member of the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. Both experiences gave him, as he terms it, a "formidable education in the craft of acting."
The New York stage allowed the young man to hone his skills. Because he was a New York actor at heart, he didn't want to take the initial trip to Hollywood unless he was invited. During the 1976-77 season, Weller was at Lincoln Center starring in Mike Nichols' adaptation of David Rabe's Streamers. Producers Gene Reynolds and Allan Burns saw the play and asked him to audition in Hollywood for the lead role in the film Midnight Express. Weller flew to Los Angeles and auditioned, facing some stiff competition for the part.
"It was between me, Brad Davis and Richard Gere. They offered it to Gere, but he wanted too much money. Brad Davis ended up doing it, so you know where I came in," Weller says, self-deprecatingly. However, the experience wasn't all for naught. Reynolds and Burns thought Weller would make a suitable guest star for a new television show called "Lou Grant." Although he had never performed on TV, it proved to be his big break.
The guest spot, about a Hasidic Jew who disappears in his teens, then reemerges years later as a neo-Nazi threatening to blow up The New York Times building if an article about him is published, catapulted Weller from stage thespian to screen actor. Feature film director Richard Lester saw the episode and hired Weller to star in 1979's Butch and Sundance: The Early Years, Weller's silver screen debut. It was only a matter of time before other offers came his way. Subsequent starring credits include Just Tell Me What You Want (1980), Shoot the Moon (1981), Of Unknown Origin (1983)--for which he won the Best Actor award from the International Film Festival of Paris--the cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), the megahit Robocop (1987), Shakedown (1988), Cat Chaser (1988), Robocop 2 (1990), Naked Lunch (1991), The New Age (1994), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Screamers (1996) and Par-Dela Les Nuages (1996).
"Humphrey Bogart said that 'you are lucky if you make two [films] that outlive you.' Of course, Bogart made more than that. I think I have made three," Weller says. "Naked Lunch, for sure. I am happy that it is being studied at UCLA as an experience nonpareil. The experience was extraordinary. I think Robocop will outlive me. I think that a movie that Michael Tolkin made, The New Age, will outlive me."
Weller now divides his time in Hollywood between acting and directing. He has received critical praise for his work behind the camera. In 1992, Weller directed Partners, a comedy about a group of lawyers and their clients, starring Griffin Dunne, Marg Helgenberger, Ed Begley Jr. and Robert Hayes. The critically acclaimed film garnered an Academy Award nomination in 1993 for best live-action short.
But the silver screen is not the only showcase for a director's product. There is the small screen, too. Last year, he directed an episode of the heralded NBC drama "Homicide: Life on the Street." Entitled "Hate Crimes," the show was about a murder of a gay man by a group of skinheads and aired on Nov. 17. The opportunity shifted the focus of Weller's career from acting to directing.
"Now I am much more given to directing; it doesn't make me money as acting does, but directing is a year out of your life as opposed to three months," he says. "Right now, it is much more interesting to do, much more satisfying to tell the whole story. I like directing right now, but that doesn't mean that I always will. I am happy and very thankful to be doing both."