Oliver Platt knows how to play a drunk and loser with more effortless harm than any actor working in Hollywood. But he is as equally diverse as recent stints in the likes of TV’s Huff, for which he has attained an Emmy nomination and the dark comedy, The Ice Harvest.
A hulking character actor who brings new meaning to the concept of versatility, Oliver Platt has appeared in a dizzying array of films that make him instantly recognizable but not instantly placeable to the average filmgoer. Since making his screen debut as an oily Wall Street drone in Mike Nichols’ Working Girl (1988), Platt has lent his talents to almost every conceivable genre, including period dramas, political comedies, children’s films, and campy horror movies.
The son of a U.S. Ambassador, Platt was born in Windsor on January 12, 1960, Platt and his family soon moved to Washington, D.C. Thanks to his father’s job, he had an exceptionally itinerant childhood. By the time he was 18, he had attended 12 different schools in places as diverse as Tokyo, the Middle East, and Colorado. Long interested in acting, Platt received a BA in drama from Boston’s Tufts University; following graduation, he remained in Boston for three years to pursue his stage career. In 1986 he moved to New York, where he performed in a number of off-Broadway productions and had the lead in the 1989 Lincoln Center production of Ubu. ollowing his screen debut in Working Girl, Platt began finding steady work in such films as Married to the Mob (1988), Postcards from the Edge (1990), Beethoven (1992) — which featured him and future collaborator Stanley Tucci as puppy thieves — and Benny and Joon (1993).
He also proved himself adept at cheesy period drama in The Three Musketeers (1993), which cast him as Porthos, and at all-out comedy, as demonstrated by his turn as a struggling comic in Funny Bones (1995). Rarely cast as a leading man, Platt has always been visible in substantial supporting roles, equally comfortable at portraying nice guys, bad guys, and just flat out weird guys alike. As Ashley Judd’s suitor in Simon Birch (1998), he was the straight man, while in The Impostors (1998), his second collaboration with Tucci (two years earlier he served as associate producer for the latter’s Big Night), he again displayed his capacity for broad physical comedy as a struggling actor who finds himself a stowaway on an ocean liner. In Dangerous Beauty (1998), Platt was able to exercise his nasty side as a bitter nobleman-turned-religious zealot in 16th-century Venice; that same year, his capacity for exasperated quirkiness was displayed in Bulworth, which cast him as Warren Beatty’s put-upon, coke-snorting campaign manager.
1999 proved to be a somewhat disappointing year for Platt, as two of his films, Three to Tango (which featured him as a gay architect) and the schlock-horror Lake Placid, which cast him as an idiosyncratic mythology expert, were both critical and commercial flops. A third film that year, Bicentennial Man — in which Platt played the scientist who turns the titular robot (Robin Williams) into a man — fared somewhat better. The following year, Platt’s comic abilities were again on display in Gun Shy, in which he hammed it up as a bottom-rung mafioso with an overblown ego. Since then, apart from his Emmy-nominated turn in TV’s Huff, Platt’s diverse film credits include Ready to Rumble, Don’t Say A Word, Hope Springs, Pieces of April, Loverboy and Kinsey, with both Ice Harvest and Casanova due out within weeks of each other. In this exclusive interview, the always affable actor talked to Garth Franklin.
Question: Now you’re a Diplomats son, you have this sort of early kind of seemingly exotic background. How exotic was it and how does it prepare you for the life of a nomadic actor?
Platt: Well you know I think that is the key word, you are definitely prepared for that part because you are very comfortable as much as it is on some level it is very unsettling on a superficial or outward level you’re very comfortable, too comfortable you know packing your bags at the drop of a hat and going somewhere. But I think in a weird way you know without knowing it if you grow up and you move all the time and you get exposed to a lot of different cultures you become quite adapted, assimilating you know because especially as a kid you kind of want to you want to fit in and so you automatically go, even if you are not aware of it you are automatically going how do they walk here, how do they talk here, what do I have to do to be like these people and I think that is the sad truth about but though maybe it has served me and a lot of people like me.
Question: Did you feel that background was something that was conducive to your desire to be an actor, was it?
Platt: I think to call it a desire is a in my case quite romantic notion. for me it actually had more to do with you know necessity and survivals in the sense that I audition for play…Christmas play when I was 8 years old and I was at a new school that I was very unhappy at and I was like the only new kid in my class and I was quite isolated and miserable and I audition for the play, Christmas play and I was the Inn Keeper that turned Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus away from the inn, I had one line I said, ‘Here there is no rest or bed for poor folks such as ye, the rich they lodge here but they pay plentiful’. And the whole place for whatever reason, either my timing was good that night or I said it with a certain vigour, but the whole place went nuts when the Inn Keeper turned Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus away, I don’t know if they were supposed to but when your are…so that God knows when you are standing up on stage in front of 400 people and everybody goes nuts you notice it.
Question: So it is that sense of recognition that about you…
Platt: Well just response, you know what I mean a very primitive sense of response and hate to use the word but approval.
Question: So when did that develop into a need to do more of that you think?
Platt: Well again if…I didn’t stop moving at 8 I kept on moving and so you know what I found is that it is a way if I were to just audition for the play I would invariably get a part and you have a kind of automatic group of friends to hang out with, which is a very powerful thing when you are nomad.
Question: How did that nomadic experience effect you in terms of your own emotional develop, I mean was it tough?
Platt: It was very tough. It is very tough being a new kid all the time and you revaluate this stuff as you get older, I mean 1 at the end of the day I am incredibly lucky because 1 of 2 things happens to family like that that move all of the time, they either disintegrate very quickly or they get very, very close and fortunately the later situation evolved with my family.
Question: Does it reflect what happens with your own children now?
Platt: Well it reflects I am determined to move my children as little as possible, I mean I do the travelling to work at a necessity but I like that we are very, very careful. I mean I would love to raise my kids in one place if I could but you have to understand I mean I think that in itself is arguably an overreaction you know, it is okay to move once or twice in your life not the end of the world people survive it all the time and I moved 12 times and I am okay. But that is right and you just don’t want to perpetrate on your own kids what you feel was perpetrated on you. Of course my parents, my father was just making a living doing his job and like I say we are very lucky that we are close as an extended family.
Question: When did you realise that you wanted to be an actor professionally that this is something that you could actually make a living doing?
Platt: I didn’t I was too stupid to know that it was in insane thing to aspire to and I didn’t do anything else I mean you kind of gravitate towards your talent and again my parents were and this is very unusual this but my parents were always tremendously supportive and I didn’t really realise what a blessing that was until much later on till I did start to work as an actor and surrounded myself with professional actors for real, I said this is very unusual.
Question: Was there a backup plan?
Platt: You know sure there is an abstract… I don’t know my backup plan is that maybe I would be you know I don’t know a rock star…
Question: So nothing realistic.
Platt: Nothing remotely realistic. Not a musician a rock star.
Question: An actual rock star. But you don’t see yourself as a movie star though, do you?
Platt: No I absolutely don’t… and when I say rock star that shows… I more highlighted the absurdity of the back up plan.
Question: Are you glad that you’ve become a character actor as opposed to a movie star, a John Cusack type, I suppose a leading man, whatever that is?
Platt: You know I feel very fortunate that my life has turned out the way that it has – whatever that means – I mean… you know, to say that I would be glad would mean that I planned it. Do you know what I mean? I’m a tremendously lucky guy. I think that there are aspects to being a character actor where you actually get offered more interesting roles and you have a wider variety of things you get to do.
Question: You’ve attained considerable success.
Platt: I work… yeah, exactly. I work enough, you know. I’ve never been terribly interested in being famous, it’s not something that I’ve ever aspired to, and that’s actually one of the aspects of the business that is more difficult to negotiate and can be very confusing because in a way if you don’t achieve a certain degree of notoriety you’re not doing your job, but what I’m much more interested in is ,doing good work. I do care about my reputation.
Question: Yeah, and people recognise you as somebody who’s well known, but at the same time they recognise you as somebody who they can rely on as being a good actor who will be usually in a high-quality project. You don’t seem to do a lot of shit really.
Platt: I’m lucky that way. I mean knock on something [knocking on wood sound] – please do it for me…
Question: Like this? [Knocking on a nearby table]
Platt: There you go – just touch it.
Question: There you go.
Platt: There you go. I mean it’s relative, always. It’s relative, and you always take the best job that’s out there when you need a job. But I do think I’ve been very lucky.
Question: You don’t have any particular aspirations beyond what you’re currently doing?
Platt: Mmm… maybe producing and my interest in producing has led me to think that maybe I might need to direct one of the things that I’ve been developing for a while.
Question: How terrified are you at the prospect of directing, working with people like Hallström?
Platt: I wouldn’t say terrified of it. I mean I’d probably be terrified if I felt I had to rely on it, but it’s something I’m doing electively. I mean literally, if I had to direct these things it would be by default. I’ve always wanted to be a producer, it’s been very attractive to me the idea of marrying sensibilities and developing stories, getting the right people to do this job, and the right person to do that job. That’s very exciting for me, but I also realised… I’ve got something set up at the studio recently as a producer and, it’s a story – it’s an unpublished manuscript that has a remarkable movie at the centre of it – and I actually started to go down the list that the studio and I came up with for filmmakers and we offered to the first guy and, he would have had to piss a lot of people off to say yes but then we offered it to the second guy and I had this epiphany that producing is working your ass off on something for years and years then giving it away when the fun starts. And as soon as I realised I caught myself characterising that way I retracted the offer. fortunately he didn’t respond quickly, which allowed us to retract the offer and then I decided to…
Question: So does that mean you become a lot choosier as an actor so that you don’t have to do as much stuff so you can prepare, to spend more time working on things that you want to do?
Platt: No, because I can’t afford to say no to good stuff… there’s so little good stuff out there now it’s difficult to say no to it.
Question: So why this movie you’ve decided to direct?
Platt: Because I love the story. I just love the story. And again, I never set out to direct it but I’m somebody that I worked with once who was a very accomplished director and actor and writer sat me down – because we had a very satisfying working experience together – and he said, what do you want to do, you’re a director and a producer and [I said] nah, nah, nah, no – love the producing, I’m not really interested in directing, and he said, well here’s what’s going to happen, he said you’re gonna fall in love with a piece of material, you’re going to try and find somebody to direct it and you’re not going to be able to find someone who gets it the way you do. And he said this to me about ten years ago; it was very prophetic.
Question: So do you take on an Ice Harvest mainly for the opportunity to see how people like a Harold Ramis works?
Platt: No I take on Ice Harvest because it’s a great role. I love the script and I just thought it was a great role. Like I say, it’s like this – the script is like this sad, funny, desperate love song to the lost American man.
Question: And there aren’t a lot of movies that explore that.
Platt: It’s not remotely sentimental, you know what I mean. It’s brutally honest, and I think often hilarious, but it’s a sad movie, it’s sad and truthful.
Question: But you’re attracted to these kind of very sad and quiet, almost pathetic characters that have within them something…
Platt: Well as long as they’re layered. As long as they’re looking for something, you know, as long as they’re…
Question: Are you concerned that the guy in Huff is going to go so far down that audiences will stop sympathising with him?
Platt: I think in telling that life, you have to keep people invested in him. That character – one of the best characterisations of alcoholism that I ever read, it was a low-level spiritual quest. I mean eventually he’s going to have to start to get some sort of awareness of the kind of trouble that he’s in – or… and I think if he doesn’t people will stop caring.
Question: Is that going to happen in the second season ?
Platt: I think it might happen at the end of the second season. I think the situations he finds himself in as a result of his behaviour, he has no choice but to do some sort of reckoning.
Question: Do you relate to a character like Russell in Huff or do you know people like him?
Platt: I’ve known people like Russell. Not intimately because people like Russell don’t ultimately let anybody into their life unless they behave the same way. But the thing is… I do find him very relatable because all he is, is a very extreme case of somebody who’s scared of living, he’s just terrified. He’s running away from a lot of different stuff. I mean he’s self-destructive. I think we all have those compulsions, the question is what do you do with them?
Question: Now you’re re-teaming with Mr Cusack I believe…
Platt: You know, everybody… we already have finished doing a movie we shot it in the spring.
Question: And you actually get to play a much nicer guy in that movie – how would you define that character?
Platt: You know that was much more of a kind of cameo, I love the movie, I love the story, I love Johnny as a fun little role but it was more of a cameo, not anywhere near as developed as this role. But I played a somewhat eccentric science fiction writer who has recently widowed and becomes irrevocably kind of drawn to this very troubled foster kid, very traumatised foster kid, and all of his friends, including me, and I’m also his literary agent, tell him just don’t… you know, don’t do it. You know, grieve your wife, this is an impulsive thing and you have no idea the kind of trouble you’re getting yourself into it. And of course he doesn’t listen to me and he adopts this child. And it’s kind of… it’s like a… you know it’s a love story metaphorically between the two of them. It’s beautifully… I’m a sucker for an orphan story…
Question: Sounds very nice. You’re pretty much done, I guess, with West Wing?
Platt: We do it on a case by case basis Nut, if it all ended the episode I did a couple of weeks ago, that aired a couple of weeks ago was the last one I was on that would be a very fitting end to Oliver Babish I think.
Question: What happens after you finish Huff? Are you taking a break?
Platt: I’m going to take a break. I’m going to take a little break, because we’ve been working for five months – and I did the movie with Johnny right before that.
Question: You have Casanova coming out.
Platt: I have Casanova coming out…
Question: What was the experience like in making that film?
Platt: Casanova? Oh, a delight. I mean truly.
Question: It’s full costume…
Platt: It’s full costume, it’s full Venice man, every frame of that movie shot in Venice, Italy, I mean pretty much, which, if you know anything about movie making, is like an insane proposition. Making movies is about moving massive amounts of equipment and people around at very short notice, you know, and Venice, Italy is a city where no cars are allowed. It’s, you know, gondolas and some ski boats. Motorised wheeled transportation is not allowed. So, I mean, a producer’s nightmare but an actors dream, because we all hung in Venice for three months.
Question: But it’s a Disney version of Casanova…
Platt: Well, you know… I don’t know what you mean by Disney version. This movie is not made for kids. It’s rated R and I don’t think it quite deserves that R but it’s definitely a PG-13. You know, Lasse Hallström made the movie, it’s not like a dumb, sanitised version – not that everything Disney does is dumb and sanitised, but I think when you say… when people use Disney, you know, to describe something they usually mean that it’s like, you know, for kids, and this is not for kids.
Question: Your character is not a broad comic character for you, right?
Platt: You know, it is and it isn’t I mean… as an actor I never am thinking about broad, I’m thinking about truthful. And maybe for me somehow it always ends up broad, but those are maybe the parts that I’m offered and, yeah, let the chips fall where they may. But both Ice Harvest and Casanova are naturalistic filmmaking. If I’m playing larger than life characters well, you know, that’s what happens but it’s not commedia dell’arte.
Question: Well you get to fool around with Lena Olin, which is nothing – most men would be very envious of I would think.
Platt: And I got paid to do it. We all have our good days and our bad days, you know.
Question: And you don’t get to do kind of romantic stuff all the time….
Platt: Well, no, no, no… funnily enough with Huff there’s romantic in a very kind of dysfunctional way.
Question: Well it’s dysfunctional romanticism…
Platt: Dysfunctional romanticism. But, I think that Russell tries to connect with people that’s what he does. I mean actually in his weird little world when he’s with a hooker he’s… he doesn’t know it, he’s trying desperately to connect with that person. He’s like paying somebody to create an environment where he can try and connect on his own, on his own terms, you know, and not have to worry about the consequences.
Question: So what do you do during your down time?
Platt: I just got out of a really exciting job which I’ll tell you about next time I see you..
Question: Do you miss the theatre?
Platt: Yeah, I do. I’ve been looking for a play to do for a long time but when you have three little kids and you’ve got a mortgage.