Interview: Actor Craig Bierko
On his career and the art of being a bad guy.
I’m just going to say right off the bat that I’m super excited about this week’s edition of the ‘Daly Grind’ newsletter.
As a thriller author, I work hard to create interesting, unique, and downright scary villains for my books. And like a lot of fiction writers, my characters are often inspired — in some way, shape, or form — by other fictional characters that have left their mark on me as a reader or viewer.
So, I was pretty taken back a few weeks ago when I discovered that a friend of mine happens to also be a friend of an absolutely brilliant actor (and singer) who portrayed a couple of my favorite cinematic villains.
That man is Craig Bierko, and you likely recognize him from numerous movies, television series, and Broadway (where he was nominated for a Tony Award for his role in The Music Man).
But the part that first put him on my radar was that of “Timothy,” the charming but casually sadistic villain in the 1996 Renny Harlin film, The Long Kiss Goodnight. Bierko co-starred with Hollywood heavyweights, Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson.
Timothy was an absolutely mesmerizing character, and as great as he was written, I can’t imagine another actor pulling him off nearly as well as Bierko did.
Bierko also portrayed real-life boxer, Max Baer, in the 2005 Ron Howard movie, Cinderella Man (starring Russell Crowe). While it’s probably unfair to label Baer a “villain”, Bierko’s portrayal of him as the film’s fearsome, vicious antagonist was absolutely fantastic.
I decided to reach out to Mr. Bierko (of course dropping our mutual friend’s name in the process — I’m no fool), on the off-chance that he could spare a little time and generosity to participate in one of my silly interviews. And to my pleasant surprise, he did. Huzzah!
Below is our conversation, and I hope you all enjoy it.
John: Craig, Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I really hope I kissed your butt sufficiently in the intro (let me know if I didn’t; I can go back and re-edit). Seriously though, as a fan of yours, I’m a bit star-struck even though this interview is being conducted over email. So, if the wording in these questions seems a little shaky, that’s why.
Craig: Fair enough.
John: What sticks out to me, when I look over your impressive career, is the range of your work. You’ve done it all (drama, comedy, action, science fiction, musicals, etc.), and you’ve done it very well. Is there a particular genre you prefer performing in more than the others?
Craig: I don’t prefer one genre, no. If I had to choose one, I’d probably choose improvisation. I studied theatre at Northwestern University. Beautiful state-of-the-art facilities, by day performing scene work by all the great playwrights in class, by night if I wasn’t rehearsing a production, there was always something to see on campus or downtown. Steppenwolf was very big, The Remains Theatre Company - The Goodman, of course. And I was drawn to almost none of it. I wasn’t worried - but I envied the passion I saw in other performers. I just hadn’t developed as a human being enough to relate to the emotional life of anyone older than twenty.
Some actors - like Harry Lennox who’s “Cooper” on the The Blacklist - Harry had this voice - he’d be down to earth, hilarious Harry one moment, then he’d walk out on stage and be a king. I can admire a gift like that without feeling competitive or envious. But, like I said, I did envy the passion I’d see all around me. I just wasn’t drawn to playing characters I didn’t understand.
My second year, I auditioned for a campus improv group - The Mee-Ow Show. Totally separate from the theatre program - it was such a funny, hip group. We wrote the show so all the parts we played were comfortable fits - and the feeling of being onstage with a whip smart group that have your back - we previewed in a shack and performed a few weeks in a lecture hall. It was electric. And a revelation for me, a genuine sea change - I realized that my passion was actively creating onstage, I started to allow myself into my work.
A character may be funny - or just a cog in some big tragic machine - if any part is well-written the wit may not be verbal, but performative. Brando in The Godfather - He doesn’t speak for most of his first scene and yet he’s riveting. Yes, it’s ‘Brando’ and the charisma - and he’s riveting just sitting still, listening - but Brando was witty and understood how to express it through choices. He suggested stroking the white cat. Already, there’s drama in that image - the devil stroking a cat. Brando knew he was playing a terrible human being - but no human is irredeemable - and the image of that kind of dark power gently stroking this fluffy white cat, suddenly you’re looking at a powerful dangerous man capable of affection.
So funny isn’t always “funny” - sometimes it’s a witty behavioral choice; like an image that subconsciously offers the audience permission to root for evil sinister reprobates. Years later, Pacino played the actual Devil - he’s got this wildly operatic monologue at the end - and I love when he plays the big comic notes in the dark - he mines wit from inflection. Bombastic versus delicate. He’s a brain surgeon.
John: Because you have such a wide range of work, I feel a little selfish focusing so narrowly on your roles as a “bad guy”, but in my opinion, you are just so damn good at them. The Long Kiss Goodnight is such a fun and memorable film, and your screen presence was a big part of what made it all work. Timothy was a very unique character for his time, with a killer combination of wit, frat-boy smugness, and coldheartedness that stole many scenes. You portrayed him convincingly, and as I alluded to in the intro, there are elements of that character that I’ve incorporated into my own fiction writing (though hopefully not enough for me to get sued or anything like that).
The film itself was overflowing with clever and very funny dialogue. As I mentioned to you the other day, that quip you delivered about “Baywatch Nights” is honestly one of my all-time favorite movie quotes. Since you’re a naturally funny guy, I’m wondering if you were given much allowance to stray from the script a bit, and infuse your own humor and dialogue into the character.
Craig: Renny was very generous with me. If I had an idea, he’d always give me a take. Timothy was word funny and that’s tough because funny releases tension, and a movie like The Long Kiss Goodnight requires a well-gauged balance. For example, toward the climax - I’m yelling commands to my men and setting a nuke in this locomotive sized semi. The camera moves toward me as I set the nuke, turn around, and say “we go in as planned, no mistakes - I want to be home and in bed to catch The Nanny.” Upon reflection, I feel Renny was right to cut that one. I snuck in some stuff but Shane Black’s script didn’t need me to improve it. Everything was on the page.
John: I read somewhere that you really hate cold weather. The Long Kiss Goodnight was very much a cold-weather movie — a Christmas movie, in fact (kind of in the spirit of Die Hard being a Christmas movie). Did the elements make it a hard production for you to work on, or was much more of it filmed on sound stage than I probably realize? (To be clear, I’m not of the illusion that you actually fell through that stories-deep shaft into an ice-cold river… Or did you? 😉)
Craig: No, the fall was a green-screen trick. I was suspended, maybe a few feet off the ground, if that - and the camera started real close and then shot up to the ceiling - so it looks like I’m plunging. The helicopter stuff was outside. Over a bridge in icy winds. Coldest winter in 100 years.
John: Cinderella Man is an excellent film. Max Baer was a dominant force in boxing in the mid 1930s — a heavyweight champion and towering figure known for severely injuring opponents; at least one even died. He also had sort of a Hollywood glitz to him. You portrayed him brilliantly both in and out of the ring, and because of that, he was an antagonist that audiences really wanted to see get clobbered at the end of the movie. How much research do you remember doing for the part, and was there a lot of physical conditioning involved in achieving the right look?
Craig: I trained with Hector Rocca at Gleason’s Gym, six days a week for six months (three of them in Toronto). Imagine supplied me with lots of footage - and he was like the pre-Dean Martin. Genuinely charming womanizer - and yes, my understanding is that he was far from a villain. He did go to warn Braddock - that was added in while we were up there. But I think it was genuine, not menacing. Braddock and Baer became friendly; I saw a picture of them attending a fight together. A few years ago I called his son - he said very kind things about me in an interview but he wasn’t pleased with how his father was written. I told him I studied his dad and saw a charming, lively champ - and we talked for two more hours. I check in once in a while.
John: These days, Russell Crowe isn’t in quite the same ring-shape as he was in the film. Do you think you could take him in a rematch?
Craig: You can’t learn to box in under two years. We were a couple of chops playing sirloin steak.
John: Who are some of your favorite fictional villains, whether it be from film, television, stage, or books? And what about them do you find particularly effective and memorable? I noticed a portrait of DC Comics’ The Joker hanging behind you in a recent Zoom interview. Would he make your list?
Craig: I love that picture of The Joker by Alex Ross. That was my starting point for Max.
John: Interesting. On a different topic, we recently lost a couple of true screen legends in Sidney Poitier and Betty White. I think it’s safe to say that both impacted American culture in very positive (albeit different) ways. Did you ever have the opportunity to meet or work with either of them, and what thoughts do you have on their contributions to the business and beyond?
Craig: I never had the honor of meeting Mr Poitier, but my friend, actor George Newbern, worked with him. Said he was easy going and very kind. Ms. White I worked with on Hot in Cleveland. I have footage on my Instagram page of her holding my dog, Boo. Boo and I raise money for Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital - and that got some attention.
John: In preparation for this interview, I watched some of your older interviews, and noticed that people like to ask you about your past romantic relationships with high-profile actresses including, Charlize Theron. I won’t be doing that, since I think it’s kind of tacky. But I will ask one question about Charlize, if you don’t mind: Did she ever talk about me?
Craig: Not awake, no.
John: You’re on Cameo, where all proceeds you earn from doing personalized video messages go straight to Loma Linda University Children's Hospital. Children’s Hospital here in Colorado has certainly been a godsend for my family, so I think this is a great cause. How long have you been involved with the LLUCH Foundation, and are there other charitable organizations that you’re particularly close to?
Craig: I drove out there as a favor to my cousin, Dale Rotner, who works very hard on behalf of a charity for the children’s hospital. I went out for a quick tour, lunch and some pictures - I was totally unprepared for the experience. I left there determined to be a part of what they were doing. So, I just started pimping my friends and my dog for benefits, videos - whatever. I never ask for favors which allows me to be shameless about asking for this: I’m gearing up to do a benefit online with a great guy, a charitable force of nature on Twitter named Geno Carter (@GenosWorld).
John: What are some upcoming projects my readers can look forward to seeing you in this year?
Craig: I just finished an episode of The Blacklist - I don’t play a nice person. And I’m about to go play a smarmy literary agent on Sex/Life at NetFlix. My friend Stacy Rukeyser - who ran UnREAL for the last two seasons - created the show and I’m really looking forward to that.
John: Excellent. This is probably a good place to close things out, as you’ve already been very generous with your time. Thanks for putting up with me, and it was great getting to learn more about you. People can follow you on Instagram and Twitter, and of course IMDB. They can also follow your dog Boo on Instagram. I wish you continued success, and I look forward to your future work. Is there anything else you’d like to say, in closing, to ‘Daly Grind’ readers?
Craig: Please stay healthy. Please make an effort to speak to people with different political views than your own. We need to make active choices to close the gap and become The United States again. And thanks, John!
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Obligatory Dog Shot
Every spot is his spot.
The Plain White T's rose to fame with their big hit-single “Hey There Delilah” at a time when I wasn’t listening to a whole lot of music. My son was very young, his sister was on the way, and home-life and work-life were just kind of crazy. Still, so many people loved that tune that radio stations were playing it all the time, and it eventually caught my attention as well.
The lyrics and sentiments behind it are so sweet and innocent that they bring me back to my own years of youthful naivety. When he was a little older, my son became a fan of the song as well, sometimes singing it in that cute little boy voice of his.
It’s on the band’s “All That We Needed” album from 2005, which features a collection of other good songs that sound great on vinyl.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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