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Interview: Actor Jon Voight
by Scott Holleran
Jon Voight
Photo Credit: Scott Holleran
 

 
September 8, 2007

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?

Jon Voight: We watched everything.

Box Office Mojo: What's your first recollection of watching a movie?

Jon Voight: I don't remember the first ones. I don't know. I know my adolescent favorites were The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and stuff like that. But my dad loved great acting and he recommended Spencer Tracy and John Barrymore and we saw [Humphrey] Bogart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. I think I related to Lon Chaney—I loved changing myself and adapting to things. I had this book of reviews by Kenneth Tynan and I had earmarked all the places where he had reviewed Laurence Olivier. I used to look at the way Olivier had composed these pieces and a lot was written about that—how there was a beginning and an end to the way he approached [a role], that the gesture he showed in the beginning was going to pay off in the end and all these very extraordinary things he did physically to complete the roles. I was very observant of his charting the course through [William] Shakespeare's great tragic characters. I think that was my love; Olivier was this great actor who changed himself and became these guys. That idea—of a great actor—was exciting to me. There was a connection. It was a lineage to great acting. We used to listen to records of John Barrymore doing Richard III, which was extraordinary.

Box Office Mojo: Was Midnight Cowboy's controversy—including its X rating—a concern?

Jon Voight: I didn't think much about that stuff. I loved the movie. I thought we had done what we had set out to do. I was very pleased with the human statements. Everything was taken care of—the producer Jerry Hellman kept everything away from the set, so we never felt any friction from the outside and we had the time to do it. If [director] John [Schlesinger] didn't get it right on a day's shooting, he would return and revisit. He was a perfectionist. He was very pure—all of us were in it to do the best work we could.

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy
Box Office Mojo: What is the most underrated aspect of Midnight Cowboy?

Jon Voight: I think it's been embraced by everybody. People love that movie. Everybody got their due—the actors, the director, Waldo Salt, the screenwriter, Adam Holender, this young Polish cinematographer, who added something very exciting about the way it was shot. It didn't look glossy; it had a raw reality that added another dimension.

Box Office Mojo: What was the hardest part of making Midnight Cowboy?

Jon Voight: I understood it early on. I knew that the loneliness of the character was essentially the base of the character—that he didn't find himself comfortable or accepted anywhere, so he was trying, and this swagger was a mask, essentially. He wanted to belong. I felt that if I didn't do the role, it probably wouldn't have come alive like I thought it should. I thought I had the inside [track] on [getting] the part and, in fact, looking back, I did. I came to it knowing the story and knowing what I thought was the fun of it. I was in competition with three other fellas, and finally it came down to two—myself and Michael Sarrazin—and he had just done a movie with George C. Scott called The Flim-Flam Man and they made the decision to go with the more commercial fella. I was devastated. This was at the time when I was somewhat philosophic about things. If things didn't go my way, I'd say, "well, that's not meant to be." Sometimes, I would be offered a role and I would recommend somebody else—I was that kind of person. Yet this one stopped me because the thing I was excited about for this piece wasn't going to happen. I felt quite sick about it. Then I got a call from my agent saying, "Jon, it may not be over—they may be coming back to you." Apparently, they were looking at a screen test of Michael and, because Michael's people, whoever they were, decided to play games at that time with this deal, to raise the price that they had agreed to prior to the screen test and to push off the date, to wait for a film, Jerry Hellman, who was a very strong producer, didn't like that kind of nonsense. He just said, "well, that's the end of that." He couldn't wait to get on the phone. I felt badly about Michael, who's a very gifted actor. It came back to looking at our screen tests back to back. Apparently, Marion Dougherty, who was the casting director, was in the room and said, "well, there's no doubt who's the best actor." John Schlesinger said, "who?" And she said, "Jon Voight." Then, Dustin was called in to look at the tests and apparently he said, "when I look at my scene with Michael Sarrazin I look at myself—when I looked at my scene with Jon Voight, I look at Jon." That was a huge compliment. I think between these comments, that's what tipped the balance and then John came forward so I was very fortunate.

Box Office Mojo: So the hardest thing was almost losing the part?

Jon Voight: Yes.

Box Office Mojo: Who were the other two actors in contention for the role?

Jon Voight: A fella named Kiel Martin (Hill Street Blues) who has since passed away and another fella I can't remember.

Box Office Mojo: Another one of your early roles was playing a corrupt Army soldier in Catch-22, Mike Nichols' adaptation of the Joseph Heller satirical novel about World War 2—?

Jon Voight: There were all these great actors down there [in Mexico]: Stacy Keach was originally down there, Richard Benjamin, Artie Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Balaban, Tony Perkins, the great Alan Arkin, Paula Prentiss, Martin Balsam, Bob Newhart—so we're all down there and, all of sudden, Orson Welles was going to show up and do a couple of days' work and everyone's waiting for Orson Welles. Mike Nichols is there, Buck Henry is there. Mike Nichols was making a joke to John Calley about meeting Orson Welles and how they were up until three o'clock in the morning when Orson Welles finally said, "…and then I was four…" In other words, he was telling his life story.

Box Office Mojo: In the audio commentary, Mike Nichols says he can't remember how he cast you, but that he thought it was because of Dustin Hoffman—with whom he had worked on The Graduate—and the implication is that he had seen you together in Midnight Cowboy. Do you recall how you were cast in Catch-22?

Jon Voight: I came and I auditioned. I was being touted because I was this new guy on the block. No one had seen Midnight Cowboy but they had heard about it. Mike had me in and I read. But who knows—Dustin was very close to Mike. He might have called and said I could do it. When I got the part [of Milo] I was thinking "Dusty can do this better."

Box Office Mojo: Your character really makes an impression without getting a lot of screen time—?

Jon Voight:—That was before we had CGI and the shots were real. There's a scene where Marty Balsam and I are talking and I have this long speech and there's this plane coming in, tipping and weaving, doing a very dangerous kind of ballet, almost hitting its wings on the runway. If anything had gone wrong, we would have been in jeopardy. We were right in front of that plane. Then it goes past us and then they had set up the shot where you seen the damaged plane that was already in view—you see that the plane had crashed. It's one of my first shots. I was praying with every pore of my body, trying to focus and do this thing right and we did—we did it.

Jon Voight
Photo Credit: Scott Holleran
Box Office Mojo: That was another counterculture picture, like Midnight Cowboy. There was a lack of traditional leading man roles. Did that concern you at the time?

Jon Voight: A guy like Cary Grant—he has this touch, and I have a little of that in me, too. Perhaps I could have done that kind of thing—or a Jimmy Stewart—if I had worked for [Frank] Capra. But then again, I would have probably wanted to push the envelope to do different kinds of characters. Midnight Cowboy was a good part for me because I do my character work and then I could do the stuff with Dusty—very good light comedy. We had a great joy doing that. I have great admiration for the guys who could pull that other thing off which is what they did in the Thirties and Forties. They found one character that they solved. When you look at Cary Grant's career, up to a certain point, he was full of potential but he wasn't really Cary Grant [yet]. Then, he discovers this guy—and he discovered it by doing a dark film—this kind of smooth, very suave character. Once he found that, he knew how to do it. He said later on "I'm not really Cary Grant," which sounds like a funny thing to say but it really means that Cary Grant was a character that he discovered and he was quite a magnificent character and he could do all sorts of things with that character. I liked that stuff—I was a fan of all those guys. Now Bogart was a great character but most of his work was around this one type—it was brilliant—it probably achieved its zenith with The Maltese Falcon, this kind of tough guy, this way of delivering things. Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest was a version of that.

Box Office Mojo: Is anyone in that league today?

Jon Voight: You have [Paul] Newman, [Robert] Redford—Redford is certainly a classic movie star. Kevin Costner is the same way, Tom Cruise, they have that same quality.

Box Office Mojo: What about you—you say you have a little bit of that. Do you wish you'd been able to indulge that more?

Jon Voight: No. I'm perfectly happy with the career I've had. My mom loved Conrack [based on the novel by Pat Conroy]—[Mr. Voight's daughter, actress] Angelina [Jolie] loved Conrack; it was her favorite [Jon Voight movie] and that was closer to me. That was my Cary Grant guy.

Box Office Mojo: How did Conrack do at the box office?

Jon Voight: Not too well. It's an awful lot of people's favorite film of mine. But it wasn't a big success.

Box Office Mojo: Why?

Jon Voight: I don't know. I really don't know. Maybe people wanted something harsher or more negative. Conrack wasn't.

Jon Voight in Catch-22
Box Office Mojo: Milo in Catch-22 is an American military figure who becomes a fascist—?

Jon Voight:—He was this crazy profiteer and certainly there are those people and that's who he was but that's not the main body of our [armed] forces. I was in the Army reserves in the Sixties and it seems like those characters are possible. I saw Catch-22 as the commentary on the other side of things. I was an artist so I was a pain in the neck to the military but I'm much different now. I have a great respect for the military and now we have a situation today, since 9/11, that we've come to understand the severity of this [enemy] force that's been building ever since the Seventies really—this [Islamic] totalitarianism. We're starting to see how pervasive it is and how well planned it is. It's a very frightening time.

Box Office Mojo: Catch-22 was released at the peak of the Vietnam War. Did veterans chide you for playing Milo and the U.S. military as fascists?

Jon Voight: No. It was a disturbing time. When I look back, we were all in confusion. I have to say, I think we were traumatized because we had our great president [John F. Kennedy], whom we believed in so deeply, this great young man of Camelot—and it was dashed by an assassin's bullet. Then, a couple of years later, it was [U.S. Senator] Bobby [Kennedy] and Martin Luther King [Jr., who were both assassinated in 1968]. That set off a tremor that we really didn't know how to deal with. We were traumatized in the Sixties and all of that behavior—the dancing in circles, the smoking pot and saying "all we need is love"—it was because we couldn't identify evil; we couldn't believe in evil—we didn't want to believe in evil so we just hid from it. It was a very disturbing time. Some of it—let everybody do their thing and all that stuff—was OK in terms of getting to the truth of things and that was a nice energy. But, really, overwhelmingly, it was a very bizarre, selfish and hedonistic philosophy that wasn't very helpful. It attacked the family—the attack on the family was very severe because not only was there this idea of [indiscriminate love] and that would solve the world's problems, which gave rise to teen pregnancy, but also this idea not to trust anyone over 30. This was from people who were over 30 and bombed out of their minds with every kind of drug they could put into their system. Then there was the romanticization of the drugs—there were people coming out with [pseudo] scientific evidence that [drugs] increase your enlightenment—it was devastating. Today, I find that people look back at that time in a romantic way and that's as dangerous as anything is. It wasn't a romantic time. It was a time of great distortion.

Box Office Mojo: You co-produced a picture in the early Eighties, Lookin' to Get Out, that displays a comic sensibility—

Jon Voight: There's stuff in that film that's classic.

Box Office Mojo: That was released in 1982. It did seem like you were choosing different roles in the early Eighties. With Runaway Train, which was not a box office success, you earned renewed critical praise.

Jon Voight: I was up for an Academy Award for that [performance] and, if it wasn't [distributed by] Cannon, it probably would have had a wider release. It was a terrific film.

Box Office Mojo: You also did Table for Five. Is that one of your favorites?

Jon Voight: It is. I'm very moved by it and I think it's an important film. It was made for an audience of people who had come from broken families. It was a good film for kids to see.

Box Office Mojo: What's your least favorite movie?

Jon Voight: I don't have one. But, I'll tell you, I initially wasn't very happy with End of the Game, with Martin Ritt and Maria Schell. Donald Sutherland plays a corpse. But I saw it again recently on television and I liked it.

Jon Voight in Transformers
Box Office Mojo: What do you think of Transformers?

Jon Voight: I like that movie. I read your review of it—you call it bombastic—but when I look at the CGI in that picture, I'm absolutely amazed. I really liked it and I thought Shia LaBeouf was brilliant.

Box Office Mojo: You've created some compelling characters in big budget movies, such as Transformers and National Treasure. How do you avoid being consumed by the spectacle and achieve a distinctive, supporting performance in these huge movies?

Jon Voight: It's a challenge. I work hard. If something is partially carved, and they come to me with it, I sometimes help [develop] the role a little bit. The relationship to the surroundings, even the environment of the filming, has to be taken into consideration—you have to use everything. It's like what happened with National Treasure. [Producer] Jerry Bruckheimer called me and asked me to do it—he said they had half of it written and he wanted me to do something with it. I saw that they hadn't constructed the ending yet and I saw that my character was the answer to give the piece some depth. I said, "there's the ending"—the father and son come together, obviously. So with very little, almost no real preparation, I worked with [National Treasure director] Jon Turteltaub—who's a delight, such a smart, fun, caring person—and he let me play. He incorporated my ideas. We did this one scene where they come to my house, and we haven't seen each other in a long time and Nicolas Cage [who plays his son] and I have this little edge between us, and we were feeling each other out—not agreeing with one another—and it all actually worked for the scene. I had to be on my toes and he had to be on his toes, so it helped us both—it was good. Because of that energy between us, it created the characters in a sense, like my little thing when I come back from the fight, I'm cleaning up and I suggest that we have some food and you see how he lives a little and I'm happy to have my son in my house. I did it comedically and we kind of made it up as went along, playing. That little edge produced a good chemistry. It was fun to play with Nic—he's completely original, and it will enrich the sequence, if you can all work together.

Box Office Mojo: How did you find working with Helen Mirren on National Treasure: Book of Secrets?

Jon Voight: She plays my ex-wife and I haven't seen her in a long time—and she's an expert in interpreting a certain ancient language. I have to say Helen Mirren is terrific. I've bumped into her over the years and said complimentary things and she just won the Oscar [for her title role in The Queen]. The thing about Helen is that she really has her feet on the ground—there's just no guile and she's smart and she's just who she is—delightful and a great sense of humor.

Jon Voight, Nicolas Cage and Diane Kruger in National Treasure: The Book of Secrets
Box Office Mojo: What's the sequel's premise?

Jon Voight: The initial challenge comes when Ed Harris says that our family is a sham. I'm stricken because he seems to have a page from the [President Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes] Booth diary—and the movie's based on the ten missing pages of the Booth diary, which is true. So, the central energy comes from a threat to the family legacy.

Box Office Mojo: Helen Mirren won an Emmy in 1999 for her portrayal of Ayn Rand for Showtime and your daughter, Angelina Jolie, has been slated for some time to play Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged heroine, Dagny Taggart—

Jon Voight:—She'd be great for the role of Dagny. Terrific. I read Atlas Shrugged and it's really interesting and I think it can be done in an appealing way. "Who is John Galt?" It's a very romantic, philosophical [novel] and she's a very romantic actress.

Box Office Mojo: Would you want to appear in the movie version?

Jon Voight: If they came and asked me, I certainly would.

Box Office Mojo: Is there any hope of reconciliation with your daughter?

Jon Voight: I certainly hope so—she knows I'm rooting for her and always wishing her the best.

Box Office Mojo: Are there directors with whom you want to work?

Jon Voight: I'd love to do another Michael Mann movie—I did Ali and Heat—but I'm very fortunate to have worked with the directors I have. I've done a movie we haven't talked about called Pride and Glory with Edward Norton and Colin Farrell and a wonderful ensemble of New York actors and actresses. I haven't seen it but I've heard it's terrific and I sense that it's going to be very gritty, complex and powerful. It's the story of a family of policemen—I don't want to give it away—and the temptation for corruption that exists in police work. It has a classic feel to it—like a family structure story, like Death of a Salesman. There's a tragic aspect and a pretty deep theme. I have very high hopes for it.

Box Office Mojo: Did you enjoy working with Pride and Glory writer and director Gavin O'Connor?

Jon Voight: I did. He was wonderful. He's a very good writer. He directed Miracle. This is darker and more personal and I think it's going to be very strong.

Box Office Mojo: How do you regard Edward Norton as an actor?

Jon Voight: He's extraordinary—a very, very fine actor. I enjoyed working with Colin Farrell too. They're both very bright and very intense. There's a certain kind of acting and energy that I haven't been part of in a while—because they don't make those kinds of films anymore, almost like a Seventies film yet it has a classic structure.

Box Office Mojo: You also played a principal in BRATZ, which didn't do well at the box office.

Jon Voight: I think that film is very charming and my goddaughter, Skyler Shaye, plays one of the girls. She's the blonde. People wrote it off as something less than wholesome because of the dolls [on which the movie is based]—and it isn't. It's very loving and surprisingly moving—with wonderful lessons for young people. It's a terrific, rousing movie.

Box Office Mojo: Can a movie be popular and great?

Jon Voight: Yes. If you make a great movie, you're going to get your money back. But it may take a little work. Like with Bratz, it should have been successful but it wasn't because it was based on something that was perceived as unwholesome which is a big problem. How do you correct it? Maybe it will pick up a little bit of business in the U.K. and it will be OK. Then when it comes out on DVD maybe people will share it. There are ways for people to revisit a film and that's good.

Box Office Mojo: Who are your favorite directors?

Jon Voight: You know, the decades almost carry the directors for me. I'm working with all the hot guys right now and they're terrific and I'm enjoying working with them. Michael Bay has his own genius—he's a great shooter with a great imagination and sense of humor. He stayed on those Transformers until it took life—I was there when he did it. He did a job on it, just the complexity of the artwork—he's a visual genius. But there are all sorts of directors. John Schlesinger was perhaps the greatest director for me because [playing Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy] was an actor's performance that was required to carry the film—there were no tricks to that. It had to be the relationship so that was key and I love that. I love working on the psychological stuff and trying to work it into a shape and play with it and improvise. I like John and I had tremendous endurance and he pushed me until I got it right. With John Boorman, he's a great painter. Deliverance is almost magnetic in the way the camera moves—or doesn't move—or whatever. The way he moves the actors around the camera, whatever he does visually, is quite extraordinary. He told me before we began the film, "Jon, I'll tell you what I'm good at—whatever we find, I'll be able to get in front of the camera." He shaped those sequences so brilliantly, he smoothed the camera. In rehearsal, he was totally the opposite of John Schlesinger, who would have stayed there for four hours trying to figure out what to do, but there would be so much depth in what he finally decided. Hal Ashby—who was the quietest person on a set—was a watcher who was so sensitive to the actor. He would never give direction to anybody. He would never suggest anything. You were free to do your best—and it's almost like he was on the set as a witness for all the good you do and none of the negative, so I felt totally nurtured. He came from editing so he had a great understanding of what he needed visually from the editing aspect.

James Van Der Beek and Jon Voight in Varsity Blues
Box Office Mojo: Which of your movies prompts the strongest response from fans?

Jon Voight: It depends on who I'm with. If I walk through an area with a lot of Chicano guys, they'll all call out: "Anaconda!" When I went to Mozambique [Africa] to do Ali, everyone knew Anaconda. A lot of the troops know Varsity Blues and Zoolander. I have my Anaconda days, I have The Champ days, I have The Odessa File days, I have a lot of Midnight Cowboy days—and then I have a couple of movies I've done for television that I'm very proud of—a series of films I did for Showtime—The Fixer, Convict Cowboy and Jasper, Texas. Then I did two pieces that were really high level: Pope John Paul II, there's something very special about that for me—a very successful film—and then I did The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Those were wonderful.

Box Office Mojo: What's the last movie you saw in a theater?

Jon Voight: The Good Shepherd with Angelina. I think she was the best thing in it.

Box Office Mojo: What's your favorite Angelina Jolie movie?

Jon Voight: Just like she likes Conrack, she did a little movie, Life or Something Like It, that was not her most successful movie—a little comedy—and she's wonderful, delightful. Her character is like Lucille Ball. But I like all her films. I think she's very powerful in them.

Jon Voight
Photo Credit: Scott Holleran
Box Office Mojo: Do you have a career theme?

Jon Voight: I don't know. Again, maybe it's by the decades. As a leading man, pieces are around you, so you're allowed to do a certain kind of work. When you do a character piece, it's like coming off the bench in a big game—you come off with a specialty, you're not pacing yourself for the full game, you're going in there to do a job and sometimes the character actor gives a vivid performance because you don't have time—the film is not going to help establish moments because the story doesn't have time. You have to see everything there. The stories that I choose are varied but the stories always have some kind of impact—usually an emotional impact and a beginning, middle and an end. Stories that are saying something, something relevant to this specific hour of our history. Like September Dawn.

Box Office Mojo: How would you describe your character in September Dawn?

Jon Voight: He's a fella with several titles; he's the general of the local militia, he's the mayor and he's the bishop—he's a composite of several characters. He's had some influence and we see that he has a family with two sons—with whom he has a very strong relationship—and it turns out that he meets this group of Christian people coming through on a wagon train and it is revealed quite quickly that he has a great deal of rage against the people who expelled the Mormons from Missouri and Illinois. Meeting the wagon train triggers a painful memory that he's carrying. You can see how he builds his antagonism toward the wagon train and that he's able to put all of this influence toward this moment when they will murder these people. You see it happen—it's inevitable and you cannot stop this thing from happening and, as you go forward, you learn about what this man is carrying inside him in terms of his own lack of self-esteem, his loyalty and love for the prophet who obviously gave him some status in this community and he's a very conflicted character. The more human he becomes, the scarier the piece becomes, in a sense.

Box Office Mojo: What was it like to work with Terence Stamp?

Jon Voight: He's been a legendary character in the film world. He had done a film [Far From the Madding Crowd, adapted from Thomas Hardy's novel] with John Schlesinger—with Julie Christie and Alan Bates—right before I did Midnight Cowboy so I was aware of him. He's just a wonderful actor and I was really impressed with him. He's very powerful.

Box Office Mojo: Had you read Frederick Forsyth's novel, The Odessa File, before starring in the movie version?

Jon Voight: I had.

Box Office Mojo: The novel includes a secret, post-World War 2 Nazi plot to arm an Arab state with nuclear and biological warheads with which to attack the West—

Jon Voight:—That makes it more pertinent today. We know the Muslim Brotherhood is dedicated to Nazi principles; they have an allegiance to the Nazis.

Box Office Mojo: Peter in The Odessa File is a mainstream, traditional leading man role—was it your first role in a thriller?

Jon Voight: Yes.

Box Office Mojo: Then you did Coming Home starring Jane Fonda—

Jon Voight:—when we worked together we had a nice relationship. But my politics were different. I was very close to the [Vietnam War veterans] at that time and I wanted to represent veterans. There are many sides and there is that sorrowful side [depicted in the movie]—which is real—but if I were to do that movie today I would perhaps speak about the aspect of liberating nations.

Box Office Mojo: Did The Champ do well at the box office?

Jon Voight: It did pretty well. It was huge all across the world. Here [in America] it was successful but it was hugely successful [internationally]. People come up to me from all across the world—Italians, Indians, Japanese—and it's great.

Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder in The Champ
Box Office Mojo: Have you stayed in touch with your co-star in The Champ, Rick Schroeder?

Jon Voight: I have. I worked with Ricky [again] in Return to Lonesome Dove. He's a good actor.

Box Office Mojo: How was working with Faye Dunaway?

Jon Voight: Faye and I did A Streetcar Named Desire down at the Ahmanson [Theatre in Los Angeles]. She's a very talented actress and she was right for the role. I was kind of an abrasive, roughneck character and she was so shocked that I was such a beast. I would give [director] Franco Zeffirelli my ideas [for creating the role of the boxer] and he would say, [in an Italian accent] "you are a cretin."

Box Office Mojo: Then you did Lookin' to Get Out—which is coming out on DVD, right?

Jon Voight: I'm going to give you the scoop. Hal Ashby had a daughter we didn't know about. About six months ago, I had a call from a fella named Nick Dawson from Scotland—a very nice young man—who's interested in film and specifically in Hal Ashby and he says he wants to talk about Hal Ashby. He came to the States and asked if he could bring Hal Ashby's daughter—and there was this whole thing where she had been [unsuccessfully] pursuing [Hal Ashby about being his daughter]. I know Hal had many ghosts, a most difficult time, and his dad had committed suicide when he was 12 years old and the family from that time was traumatized and he was never quite able to get over that. He's one of the nicest, most extraordinary, gifted people I've met. I loved Hal. He had these difficulties that impeded him but he was so nurturing. His daughter, Lee MacManus, came and she was great and we talked and it was a happy event—I told her all about her dad. Then, she said her favorite movie was Lookin' to Get Out because she figured she was the little girl in the movie, the character that was played by Angie, my daughter. She felt that was a little something for her—and when I look at the story, I say, of course; a father doesn't see his daughter and is deeply moved when he meets her and he lets her go off on her own. It made something complete for her and [helped her] deal with the loss of connection for her. So I said, "where did you see the film?" and they had seen it at UCLA, a version left by Hal Ashby. I was intrigued that he would have left a version because the version that he initially did was the best version. Then we had to take 15 minutes out of it because [production company] Lorimar or the studio wanted 15 minutes out of it and it really ruined the film. I kind of got in there and tried to fix it and do this and that but I couldn't save it. So, it really came out as a crippled version of what it was intended to be. Then I heard from [writer] Al Schwartz that Hal had said mysterious things to him before he died, about how Lookin' to Get Out was a much better movie than anyone knew. That's a version no one had ever seen—and Nick said [Hal Ashby] had made a cut in the years in between and showed it only to Charles Chaplin and somebody else so I said "let's go see it!" We go down to UCLA and we watched the first reel. I know every cut—I co-produced it and co-wrote it—and it's what we had written initially, before some embellishments took place that Hal wanted. It's pure Hal Ashby humor. It's brilliant. This [version] is twice as good—it is what it's supposed to be—there's a whole lot of stuff that's never been seen and it's put together in such a way that releases it all. All the good stuff that was in it is framed better and the sequences keep it building.

Box Office Mojo: So Hal Ashby was still fiddling with it after release?

Jon Voight: Right. He took all the elements and made it his and I think he took a cue from some of the stuff I had shifted into place. It was almost like I was in touch with him. But I have to say that when Hal Ashby did a film, when he cut it, it was magic—it's really like talking to Hal. This is his version. It's done and now we're talking to Warner Bros. about a release—maybe a theatrical version—but a DVD for sure. The Warner Bros. people are terrific and they're the best at packaging these things. They do a nice job. It's going to be exciting. It reconfigures everything—

Box Office Mojo:—and it's Angelina Jolie's motion picture debut?

Jon Voight: That's right. She has a little piece that's an emotionally powerful moment toward the end.

RELATED ARTICLES
• 1/31/05 - Jon Voight Vs. Screen Actors Guild
• Review - September Dawn
• Review - Transformers
• Review - National Treasure
More Interviews by Scott Holleran

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