With a role in one of the year's top-grossing movies, Transformers, a Christmastime National Treasure sequel opposite Helen Mirren and a villainous part in September Dawn, the controversial movie about a radical religious attack on innocent travelers, Best Actor Oscar-winning Jon Voight is among Hollywood's most in demand—and bankable—actors.
Having returned from a Washington, D.C., shoot for National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Mr. Voight kindly invited Box Office Mojo to his Hollywood home for an in-depth discussion of his distinguished accomplishments in the motion picture arts. The star of Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home and The Champ—who is also the father of actress Angelina Jolie—talked about his livelihood, his politics and how he became an actor.
Jon Voight is sharp and engaging and it is eminently clear that he loves his work. With the upcoming Pride and Glory starring Edward Norton and his avid interest in playing a wide variety of parts—Mr. Voight has portrayed a prostitute, a pope and an American president—for both independent and spectacle-scale movies, the 68-year-old artist is heading toward his sixth decade of making movies.
Box Office Mojo: What do you consider your most profitable role?
Jon Voight: Of course, Midnight Cowboy is the role that catapulted me into the public eye and I was very proud of the work and the film. I had a great director [John Schlesinger]—and great actors. Dusty [co-star Dustin Hoffman] was quite extraordinary in that role—and, yet, when you say profitable, I made $14,000 for that film. I wanted to make the deal, though it was very low paying. I was wise a young man to know not to care how much money they were offering.
Box Office Mojo: When you were nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award [for his portrayal of Joe Buck] and Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture at the Oscars, did you feel underpaid?
Jon Voight: I didn't think of it that way. I knew what it meant for me of course. I had asked for a small percentage [of profits], which they didn't offer me, but I was happy to have done it. I was immediately put into another category.
Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy
Box Office Mojo: In that sense you knew it was profitable for your career?
Jon Voight: Yes. Of course, I spent the $14,000 by the time the film was over—I bought a couple of ties and a shirt.
Box Office Mojo: Did it open the type of roles you wanted?
Jon Voight: Initially, people couldn't figure out what to do with me because I was maybe, to some degree, physically classic leading man [material]. On the other hand, I had this other kind of talent; I was a character actor, like [Dustin Hoffman]—so I didn't quite fit in some of the roles that were offered. For instance, I turned down [the leading role in] Love Story at an early age. I thought Ryan O'Neal was better for it. I would have been looking for too much complication in the character. I thought he did a very good job.
Box Office Mojo: Your early roles are almost uniformly counterculture characters, though, as you say, you had this leading man look. Was playing Joe Buck disadvantageous, pegging you to the counterculture?
Jon Voight: No, not for me. When Dusty and I talked about [playing] Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo, we talked about them like they were [the comedy team Stan] Laurel and [Oliver] Hardy in a certain sense; that there was a comic play between these two guys and, indeed, when you look at the piece, there's a lot of laughter and good comedy in the relationship. There was more depth to it, of course, and it was complex stuff we were dealing with, but my love has been for the character work since I was a young fella. Maybe it comes from the fact that I initially thought of myself as an artist, as a painter, when I was three years old. I was very happy until I was four, when I saw movies with my dad and my two brothers and realized that my two-dimensional art was obsolete in a sense because this form—this media—was so amazing. I retired [from painting] at the age of six. I really did retire, something in my heart retired, and I felt this great sadness, it wasn't my real love anymore. I didn't get this sense of an identity with work [again] until I'd finally made a decision after the last year of college to become an actor. I had little stops along the way. In grammar school, my class wrote a musical and asked me to do the lead and I was very successful in it. In high school, after designing sets for two years, in my junior year, they asked me to be in a play and, once again, I was hugely successful. When I went to college, I was going for stage design and, in my senior year, I decided after talking to many people I was going to try to be a serious actor. Then, once again, I felt this sense of identity that I knew who I was—I was very comfortable—I knew I wasn't going to quit. I knew that was going to be it. I [felt like] I had no other choice.
Box Office Mojo: You went from age six to senior year in college without a sense of identity?
Jon Voight: Yes.
Box Office Mojo: What was the play in high school?
Jon Voight: I played Count Pepi Le Loup, a comedy part, in Song of Norway, a beautiful musical.
Box Office Mojo: What movies were you watching with your dad and brothers?