Giovanni Ribisi has had an up and down, but consistently steady career since he began acting at the age of nine. He was a familiar presence on television before making the move to the big screen.
Billed early in his career as Vonni, the pale, sleepy-eyed, baby-faced blond gave his first notable performance on a 1985 two-part episode of “Highway to Heaven” playing a boy stricken with cancer. From 1987 to 1990, the young actor could be seen in a recurring role on NBC’s “My Two Dads” playing Cory Kupkus, the boyfriend of Staci Keanan’s paternally confused Nicole Bradford.
Ribisi joined the cast of “Davis Rules” for the 1991-1992 season, and was featured the next season in a recurring role on “The Wonder Years” (both ABC). He followed this up with a regular role on the short-lived sitcom “Family Album” (CBS, 1993).
Ribisi’s most significant television work may have been in guest roles, like his impressive 1995 performances on “Chicago Hope” (CBS) and “The X-Files” (Fox). These marked his transition from boy-next-door to more demanding troubled characters. In “Chicago Hope”, the actor gave a powerful and disturbing performance as a skinhead in need of a heart transplant who learns that his only hope lies with a non-white organ donor.
Equally memorable was his work on “The X-Files” (Fox); as Darren Oswald, a weird teenager that receives electric powers after being struck by lightning, Ribisi showed his strength at making a bizarre character sympathetic. He joined the cast of NBC’s “Friends” in 1996 in a recurring role as Phoebe’s obtuse yet oddly endearing brother Frank Junior.
1996 saw Ribisi turning a career corner when he made his film debut playing the injured and ousted drummer of The Wonders (of one-hit fame) in Tom Hanks’ music-themed comedy “That Thing You Do!” He followed with a starring role in Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play “subUrbia” (1997), playing Jeff, a sensitive and disenchanted youth.
That same year, he also acted small roles in “Lost Highway” and “The Postman”. In 1998 the actor starred opposite Natasha Gregson Wagner in the dark teen romance “First Love, Last Rites” and appeared alongside Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan”, offering a critically acclaimed turn as Wade, the medic who functions as the conscience of the group.
Continuing his big screen ascent, Ribisi teamed with Juliette Lewis to play a mentally challenged couple in “The Other Sister” and was tapped to play Pete Cochran in the big screen version of the 60s TV series “The Mod Squad” (both 1999).
While those efforts failed to attract the attention of moviegoers or the acclaim of critics, Ribisi recovered with a lauded leading role in the 2000 drama “Boiler Room”, playing a young ne’er-do-well who hits the big time as a broker for a fraudulent financial firm. He more-than-capably handled his character’s ethical struggles and also served as the film’s narrator, perfectly setting the mood with the quiet, matter-of-fact delivery he had previously employed to similar effect as the voice of the author in 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides”.
2000 also saw the actor take high-profile supporting turns, playing Nicolas Cage’s brother in the forgettable actioner “Gone in 60 Seconds” and a young man seeking advice from a psychic (Cate Blanchett) in the more impressive thriller “The Gift”. Ribisi returned to the small screen with a compelling turn as famed serial killer Gary Gilmore’s journalist brother Mikal in the HBO original “Shot in the Heart” (2001).
After reteaming with Blanchett in German director Tom Tykwer’s English-language debut “Heaven” (2002), Ribisi was next seen in the thriller “Basic” (2003), starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. Ribisi had a small but very entertaining role in director Sofia Coppola’s meditative “Lost In Translation” (2003), playing Scarlett Johansson’s energetic but very preoccupied photographer husband (a role rumored to be inspired by Coppola’s then-real-life husband, director Spike Jonez). The actor also had an amusing turn in “Cold Mountain” (2003) as a backwoods hick who generosity with the food, moonshine and especially the women of his hillbilly clan may not be as benevolent as it first appears.
Ribisi will next be seen opposite Halle Berry in the thriller Perfect Stranger as a computer geek who aids Berry’s journalist character to trap a potential killer in this film in which most characters have many a secret. The good humoured actor spoke to Paul Fischer.
Question: Are you a computer geek?
Ribisi: There was a point after I did Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I saw movies being made more in that way and I have aspirations of making movies myself one day so yeah, I went to school for it for a little while but then, no. In this way, the computer hacker thing, that’s just on another level. I had three or four weeks to get ready for the film so it was just about concentrating on the character and all the different masks the characters have and the relationships they have with each other.
Question: What made you fall in love with the character of Miles?
Ribisi: I don’t know. It was just this conversation I had with James Foley. This guy is like a character actor but he wants to be a leading man and he wants to get the girl and he fails and it’s just tragic. I think anybody, to a greater or lesser degree has felt that infatuation or that obsession with somebody. And, the story, generally, as a whole isn’t good versus evil or black and white. Everybody is a human being and it’s about how far people will go to get what they want or to cover something up and I think that that’s interesting. [re: tape recorder] This one is not on right now by the way. I’m saying some genius shit right now. Throwing it down! [laughter]
Question: Could you relate to the obsessive nature of this character?
Ribisi: Yeah. Maybe this is really narcissistic, but if you can’t then you’re really not living life. I think it’s also about power and who she is. Who is she. She’s famous, she’s got money and a really nice apartment.
Question: Did you have any say in designing his secret room?
Ribisi: No. I made suggestions. They asked questions but ultimately, that guy, whose name is escaping me, is great. He did the H2A office. He’s incredible.
Question: What was your reaction when you saw it. Especially the Halle shrine?
Ribisi: That was actually a thing that came out of the rehearsal process, talking about that room. It’s so thematic to the movie as far as the hidden aspects of people’s lives. Nowadays, it’s really predominant. There’s that expression, you find one out point and keep pulling the string on it and, sooner or later, you’ll find a Sherman tank. It’s like how deep can you go? People are living their lives sometimes, on their computer screen, carrying on relationships with other people and that’s one of the themes of the film.
Question: Do you visit chatrooms under an alias or as yourself?
Ribisi: No. I don’t type fast enough. It’s kind of embarrassing. I’m not up to date. I’m old-fashioned.. with a cell phone. I think, that’s one of the things. I like that human contact and I think that’s important.
Question: Did you at least get a free laptop?
Ribisi: No. I asked about that but they were stingy.
Question: Have you seen the business grow since you started acting as a kid? Did you think the business would be like this?
Ribisi: No. I had no idea. I was a different person back then. I was into acting earlier on and I begged my mother to do it and she finally acquiesced and I started doing TV. Then, I quit for a little while and someone said ‘oh, you don’t know who Marlon Brando is? You’ve gotta go see Streetcar Named Desire’ and I was blown away by that and that’s when I started studying. I feel like that’s when I became an actor. It’s completely different. I don’t know if it’s just be and my own subjective viewpoint but I don’t feel like actors are as committed as they were when I was coming up in the ’90’s or in the ’70’s. You hear about people bleeding for these characters and really seeing that it’s possible to be effective with a performance, to effect somebody. I think that probably speaks to what our process is and conversations we had in rehearsals about music industry and movie industry as being somewhat parochial nowadays. How can that be because anything’s possible and nobody’s shocked anymore but really listen to the way they mixed a Jimi Hendrix record for instance. It’s massive, or a Beatles record and the amount of experimentation that was going on back then. Some of the shit that was going on back in the ’50’s or the ’70’s, nobody had ever seen. it was mind-blowing. They were taking chances. One of the things that Bruce Willis said to me in the rehearsal process was ‘this should be a four million dollar movie’. He was really passionate. Meaning we have to be in the trenches on this and really push the envelope. I think we at least made the attempt.
Question: So you think the industry has become too formulaic?
Ribisi: Yeah, that, to me is an argument I’ve been hearing all my life and I think they were probably saying that in the ’50’s and even in Chaplin’s era. That’s why UA was founded. But, I’m talking about generally. Maybe, it’s a disenchantment with things. I’m just seeing movies less and less…. However, I say that and I saw this one thing, T.V. Junkie, fucking hell! That movie is unbelievable. Talk about something you’ve never seen. Maybe that’s the way things are going because we are in such a reality TV world. Talk about being fearless and wanting to expose yourself. I think it’s more or less about that.
Question: What do you look for in a project now?
Ribisi: I think dimension. Also what rings my bell at that moment. Also, something that’s mainly going to be a challenge at this point. I think you have to do things that you’re scared to death of. There’s definitely something I’m looking at right now that I shouldn’t talk about but I can’t fucking sleep about it and I haven’t really signed on. So, I think that is what keeps you awake as far as being an artist and creative and pushes you.
Question: Do you think all the secrets in this movie were exposed?
Ribisi: I have thousands of secrets that nobody knows [laughs diabolically wha, ha, ha, ha]. I don’t know. That’s part of what this genre is. Part of it is who done it. My character’s definitely suspect. Really, I don’t know if anybody is necessarily guilty in this movie. If you look at the context of their lives and what they’re really trying to do. They’re trying to survive and get on. It’s through the medium of the internet and secrets. Everybody has secrets.
Question: Do you think some actors today get too carried away trying to be method?
Ribisi: No. I’ll fucking take that any day of the week over somebody who doesn’t give a shit. Somebody who is earnest and cares about it, I think that shines through, even if their accent isn’t that accurate or whatever. I saw Blood Diamond and I think he’s mind-blowing in that movie. The accent was perfect. I’m not from there but I think seeing how alive that performance is, I love that. I think that’s great. There’s balance and maybe sometimes people can get too garish or whatever.
Question: What’s coming up for you now?
Ribisi: I have a movie that is the exact opposite of this film, it’s a romantic comedy called The Dog Problem with Don Cheadle and Scott Caan and Lynn Collins. It’s going to be coming out in May or something like that. I play the guy with the dog problem.
Question: Do you build your character’s backstory in your head when you do something like this role?
Ribisi: Yeah, sometimes you do. That’s important because you are seated in something and, when you say something you are coming from a place. Even if it’s that little extra tinge of confidence, I’ll do it for that. It’s also fun. It’s fun to imagine. Part of the whole game of it is evolving and fleshing out and consummating the character as much as you can.
Question: Were you curious about the mechanics of what your character was doing?
Ribisi: At that time, no. There’s also like triage in the sense of given the amount of time you have, it’s important to prioritize and, yeah, there was a little bit of that but what excited me and what I concentrated on more was the behavioral attributes and the way he related to Halle’s character.
Question: How do you get yourself out of a role like this and start over?
Ribisi: Sometimes it’s crazy. No matter who you are or what your approach to acting is, ultimately, it’s an itinerant life. You travel around for work. At some points in my life, with a family, I’ve been gone for ten months out of a year. You are in such an intense situation. You have an agenda every day and then you come home and the slate is clean and it’s like rocking back and forth in the corner with drool for a week, a post-partum thing. I think you’ve got to have something else. I always want to have a plan when I’m done with a movie to work on my own personal things or spend time with my daughter, whatever.
Question: Do you have a gameplan for directing at some point?
Ribisi: I’m looking at some books that I want to adapt. It’s on the subject of the guy’s life Egon [SOUNDS LIKE: Sheelay] who was a 20th century Viennese paints and it’s about what was going on socio-politically back then with the Austrian-Hungarian empire and World War One and him and the women in his life.
Question: Would you act in this as well?
Ribisi: I wouldn’t want to because I think that directing is just a whole other thing. It might be presumptuous if I did want to. It’s a massive undertaking and it would be, probably at that point, a singular job for me.
Question: That great scene where Halle comes out in a dynamite dress and Miles goes “Wow!”. Was that your reaction or your character’s reaction?
Ribisi: Yeah, I think that was both. You try to blur that line. Yeah, that was just something that was out of rehearsals. I think I did it as a joke in the rehearsals and they’re like ‘yeah, you should… where’s the thing’?
Question: Are you hard on yourself as an actor? Can you watch yourself on screen?
Ribisi: It depends on what I’ve had for breakfast but, I don’t know. Sometimes, then with this, I felt at ease. I felt like I was watching a movie and that’s a nod towards the director as well. But, other times, for instance, Saving Private Ryan, I saw the movie more or less at the premiere because I was nervous about it and I don’t even remember it because there was all the lights and so much going on at that moment that you can’t really concentrate. It was ten years ago that that movie was made and then I saw it like last week on TV, I was like ‘oh, yeah. I was in that’ and it’s a great movie. I’m really proud of that. It brought back all the memories so I think I need a little bit of time.
Question: Was it tough shooting the lovemaking stills for that subplot with your character?
Ribisi: That was just a closed-down thing, just me and her and the photographer. It was like ‘wooooooo’, the process. I was nervous. So many times with sex scenes and sexuality in movies you already have your family back at home and it’s like ‘hi, I’m Giovanni’ and [starts mock unbuttoning his shirt], ‘okay, here we go’.[acts out a tongue kiss]. On The Dead Girl, that was like a four day shoot and it was really intimate. I don’t know.
Question: What was it like working with Halle Berry?
Ribisi: For me what blew me away about her is how fearless she is. She’s so fucking committed to what she does. This is a movie where we were shying away from being parochial and she was just so willing to try things and just there. It created this environment to make you… because I do things that some people might get offended by in the movie and she was just right there with it. It’s not like acting with somebody who is just naturalistic and dead, it’s somebody who wants to go to the movies. That’s inspiring.
Question: What is the worst acting job you’ve ever had?
Ribisi: Right now, sweetheart.