William Sadler Relished The Opportunity To Sink His Teeth Into A “Really Meaty” Role In ‘The Historian’
William Sadler got his start in the theater and spent many a year treading the boards in New York City – including a stint alongside Matthew Broderick in the original Broadway cast of Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues – before making the move to Los Angeles and starting a full-time career in television and film. These days, Sadler has cemented his reputation as a character actor to such a degree that he’s rarely without work, and when he did a round of press to talk up his film The Historian, which is currently streaming on Tubi, Decider jumped at the chance to chat with him. During the conversation, Sadler discussed how he found his way into the project and how rare it is get an opportunity to play such a complicated character, but he also took time to tell some tales about past projects, including The Shawshank Redemption, and to talk about how excited he was to reprise his role as the Grim Reaper in the soon-to-arrive Bill and Ted Face the Music.
DECIDER: I had the opportunity to watch The Historian before hopping on the phone with you, and I really enjoyed it. How’d you find your way into it? Did Miles [Doleac, the film’s writer, director, and leading man] present it to you?
WILLIAM SADLER: I believe the way it worked was that Miles got the script and the offer to my agent, my agent got them to me, and when I read the script, I thought this was a complex character. He was an interesting man at the end of his career as the head of this history department. I found it fascinating, because it was dealing with the decline in his own power, his ability to keep his arms around his career, he wasn’t being published anymore… And here comes this young professor who’s challenging him! And it becomes…not just professional. It’s also for the attention of Jillian Taylor. And he’s taking care of his father, who’s got Alzheimer’s and who’s getting worse and worse. So I just found it to be a fascinating character and an interesting story.
It’s a very relatable one, too, even just taken in terms of getting older and aging.
Exactly! And there aren’t an awful lot of films written on that topic, with characters like that. Or I hadn’t seen any. I get asked to play a lot of heavies and bad guys. [Laughs.] But I just thought this was a really meaty role. Although he is kind of the heavy in the department. And he’s the antagonist in the movie. But there’s so much more going on in dealing with his aging father and his own inability to hold onto the career he once had, the power he once had. That letting go and stepping gracefully aside thing… He’s grappling with that. [Laughs.] I just found that all fascinating and challenging as an actor.
Did you have any professor who – even superficially – resembled your character, Dr. Hadley?
What, in the theater departments I went through? I’m sure there were professors who were wrestling with their own issues like that. But back when I was in the theater departments, I was much too self-absorbed. [Laughs.] I was focusing a lot of myself and my own career.
That’s unheard of with college students!
I know, I know… [Laughs.] But this character, Hadley… He was at one time at the top of his profession. He was a published authority, revered and feared. And little by little, that all gets stripped away as this young dude shows up. And I guess there’s also a love triangle. Or maybe it’s a lust triangle! But I found him a complicated character. And that was really interesting to me as an actor. So I said, “Yes!” Also, Miles produced it, directed it, wrote it, and starred in it, which is extraordinary. That’s an Orson Welles feat!
I was going to ask if he was successful in terms of keeping all his plates spinning simultaneously.
I thought he did a terrific job. I’m not sure how you pull all those off and do it well. But he started with a good story, and I liked the story so much that I got drawn into the project. And it wasn’t done for a great deal of money, either. It was a really quick shooting schedule. And John Cullum was cast to play my father, and I had lots of scenes with John. That was just wonderful fun. When I got to New York, I spent the first eleven years of my career doing theater. So I had done a lot of Broadway, and I spent a year and a half in Biloxi Blues. So John and I, our paths crossed quite a bit.
I hadn’t thought about that, although I did know that this wasn’t the first time he’d played your father.
When else did he… Oh, on Roswell! Of course! [Laughs.] But, yes, even before that, I’d seen him in lots of plays on Broadway. So to get to do such meaty work on a film with John Cullum was a treat.
Well, I wanted to ask you about some other things in your back catalog, but first and foremost I have to ask about something that’s coming up. I’m so psyched that you’re back playing the Grim Reaper in Bill and Ted Face the Music.
Oh, me, too! [Laughs.] Did we wait long enough for that to come around?
I felt like it just had to happen eventually. Everybody wanted it too much.
Yes, but if we’d waited much longer, I would’ve met the Grim Reaper myself!
Yeah, but maybe he would’ve given you an extension because he’s been waiting on the sequel, too.
“Not so fast. You have work to do.” [Laughs.]
Yeah, they’d been talking to me – Ed Solomon and Alex [Winter], mostly – over the years, and the idea of doing a third one had been kicking around for a long time. And then at some point a couple of years ago, Ed called me and said, “We’re putting together the script. Are you still interested in playing the Reaper?” I…may have answered too quickly. [Laughs.] But I said, “Yes, of course!” It’s one of the most fun characters I’ve ever played, so of course I said I was interested.
And to be absolutely frank, when we got together on the set with Alex and Keanu and I, and I was in the makeup and the robe with the scythe, and my Czechoslovakian accent was on… [Laughs.] The minute we all got together again, it was as if no time had passed at all. It felt like we just picked it up right where we left off! And that was really wonderful. The energy was just fantastic.
Did you have to go back and re-watch Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey to make sure you had the accent down again?
I did watch it, but not for the accent. I went back to watch all the little things I had done – the gestures and little touches and things – just to check myself, because I’ve been carrying that character around in my hip pocket for a long time. And by the way, Bogus Journey was just as goofy this time as it was the first time I watched it!
I was just going to say that it’s one of those films that’s so goofy that it holds up despite its age. I guess goofiness is eternal.
[Laughs.] Is that what it is?
That’s my theory, and I’m sticking with it.
That’s a quote you could put on a t-shirt: “Goofiness is eternal.” [Laughs.] But I really enjoyed playing that character, and once I put on the robes and the makeup, he just sort of bubbles along in his own world. He takes on a life of his own. And almost everything he does is silly because of that accent, which helps immeasurably.
I actually played the Grim Reaper once before Bogus Journey. It was on a TV show called Assaulted Nuts. There was this one scene where I was the Grim Reaper coming to take…Elaine Hausman, I think. And I started doing this accent that I’d heard from an actor who I’d worked with onstage namedJan Tříska. That’s how I know it’s a Czechoslovakian accent: because he was Czechoslovakian, and I just lifted it directly from him. We did a play together called New Jerusalem at the Public Theater, and I just thought, “Yeah, that’s what Death should sound like: vaguely European and kinda silly.”
I reached out to the readers to see what projects they might want me to ask about, and a couple of people pitched your short-lived series Private Eye.
Private Eye was the series that got me moved out to Los Angeles. My wife and I lived in the East Village in New York. In fact, we met there, in ’76: I was living on 7th Street between 1st and 2nd, and she was on 5th between 2nd and 3rd, and I was doing Shakespeare in the Park at the time. But I came out to Hollywood and did a movie called Project X, with Matthew Broderick, and then after that I went back to New York and the East Village because we had a new baby, one who was born while we were filming it! But almost immediately after that, I was offered this role on a series from Universal. And I had never done a series before of any kind, but it was Josh Brolin and Michael Woods. What it meant, though, was that I would have to relocate to Los Angeles. And I didn’t really want to, so I kept saying “no.” But the money kept getting better! Every time I said “no,” they’d double the money…and I’d spent so many years doing theater for no money…I mean, we had a new baby! [Laughs.] So we picked up and moved.
And, of course, it didn’t last long – twelve episodes or something like that, less than a full season – but by that time, there we were in Los Angeles. And at least we ended up with a house in Venice and two beat-up used cars so we could get around. I was auditioning for everything in sight, looking for the next gig! But they were really wonderful to me, I have to say. I thought the writing was great, and the look of the thing… It was this film-noir sort of 1950s period detective thing. It had lots of potential. But what it also did for me was… It gave me a chance to learn how to work in front of a camera. Because it’s episodic, every week you get another script and you’re back at it again. It’s a great acting school for making that adjustment. Having done years and years and years of theater, I was pretty good at part of the acting skills, but working for a camera is a different animal. It sort of requires different stuff. And Private Eye was very useful for that.
Another reader wanted me to ask about the experience of making Trespass, with Ice Cube and Ice-T.
I had just done the very first episode of Tales from the Crypt for HBO, which Walter Hill directed, so when the time came for him to do this movie about these two guys who go off on a treasure hunt and end up in a place they should never be… You know, it was based on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but the original title of the movie was Looters. That was also relatively early on in my career, and it was fantastic. Bill Paxton… He already had a bit of a career going in movies, but it was a big deal for me, and it was great fun to work with Walter again. We’ve sort of remained friends over the years. It’s funny, I remember thinking when I was shooting it… You know, they’re trapped in this building, they’re all blasting away at each other, and they have one pistol and 21 bullets, facing an army of guys who’ve got truckloads of weaponry. They had a special effects guy on the movie who had an air rifle, and he would fire zirconium balls and dust hits, and he would chase you across the room with these hits. On camera they looked like bullets hitting the beam or the table you were hiding behind. The whole process was still new and fascinating to me, and I loved it.
It was very athletic – it’s all diving through doors and whatnot – but it occurred to me that I had spent my whole childhood on the farm diving out of a hayloft with a BB gun and coming up shooting. [Laughs.] My friend from down the road, John Messer, and I used to improvise the enormously long dramas in my barn with our BB guns, where we were being chased by Germans or had to fight our way out of somewhere. So I sort of felt like I spent my whole childhood rehearsing for that movie! Diving through a doorway because someone’s shooting at you… It came really natural. It was all I could do to not make the sound of bullets with my mouth!
It’s still amazing to me that that movie was written by the same guys who wrote Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale).
Yeah! And I guess the original title became a problem because the L.A. Riots happened just as we were about to release it, so they changed it from Looters to Trespass. I think they were really at a loss to know what to do. I think they thought if they put it out with the title Looters, nobody would show up.
I found an L.A. Times article where Walter said, “Psychologically, changing the name was more devastating than moving the movie because it was like changing the name of one of your children. But with the two Ices and the title Looters, I had to see (Universal’s) point.”
[Laughs.] And didn’t Ice-T come out with an album called Cop Killer right around the same time? So we were gonna have trouble with that title, I think! But it was great fun to do. Working on any film, in front of a camera, that I would still learn something else new from Walter, or from Bruce Malmuth, who directed Hard to Kill, or from Renny Harlin when I did Die Hard 2. What you can do in front of a camera is extraordinary compared to what you can bring to a stage performance. If you’re doing it for 1100 people on a Broadway stage… Some of it’s the same, but most of it, like I said, is just a different animal.
There are always two things I suggest to young actors who ask for advice. The first is to do some theater, because it’s all on the actor from the moment the curtain goes up until the moment the curtain goes down. If the audience is going to experience anything exciting, it’s because you and your fellow actors cooked it up fresh that night right in front of their eyes. On time, no excuses, eight times a week. You get used to being able to pull it up on demand. Whenever it’s required, you can yank it up and make something happen. For lots of reasons, theater is a great training ground for a lot of what actors have to do. For example, if you just ran out to Los Angeles and tried to get jobs in television and movies, you work one day in March, and then maybe not again until September, when you’ll get a walk-on in something else. It’s just not enough time. You’re not practicing your craft the way you need to to get good. But doing a month of rehearsals and then eight shows a week in front of live audiences, with all the nerves and other distractions, is a tremendous training ground…and then you have to go learn about doing it front of cameras! [Laughs.] But that’s the first piece of advice I give young actors. The other piece of advice is that if you land on a TV show and start making money, do something smart with the money. Invest it, carefully, because the TV show may only last one season…and you’d be surprised how long you may have to wait to get onto the next gig!
Before we go, I’d be remiss if we didn’t spend a couple of moments talking about The Shawshank Redemption.
Oh, well, that was one of those experiences that just sort of… [Chuckles.] You know, it’s funny, but I don’t think any of us realized at the time that we were created something that would not only last but grow in stature over the years. I think everybody brought their A-game. It’s a great story, but it was an extraordinary experience. You know, you’re sitting around the dining table with James Whitmore and Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman… You could aim the camera at anyone. I really feel like everybody brought their A-game. Which is, I think, part of what made it so much fun.
And you obviously enjoyed working with [director] Frank Darabont, and vice versa, given that you were also in The Mist, which has maybe the most devastating ending of any film ever.
I’d been a parent for just over two years when I saw it, and it just absolutely ruined me.
Oof. Yeah, and as I understand it – although I was obviously not involved in that decision – that ending was entirely Frank’s. Apparently the studio argued with me…and I can imagine they would! [Laughs.] That’s an awfully dark way to end a movie. And it’s not what Stephen King wrote, either! But as I understand it, he liked it.
He did. And I will say that, even as much as I hated it as a parent, as a film fan I thought it was amazing, because it’s absolutely not something you expected.
Right! And what he delivered… Well, like you said, it’s devastating!
Well, I know you’ve got to run, but I appreciate you taking the time to chat.
Oh, it was my pleasure! I was happy to do it, because I very much enjoyed filming The Historian. Like I said, those complicated characters don’t come along every day, so when I got a chance to do it, I really tried to sink my teeth into it!