Eric Bogosian might not be the first guy you think of when you think of Uncut Gems. In the film he plays Arno, a guy who married into Adam Sandler’s character’s family and is one of the many characters to whom Sandler’s character owes money. With his ghostly eyes and hangdog face, it’s easy for Bogosian to play characters who look like they see right through you.
Smallish role notwithstanding, Bogosian seems uniquely positioned, both to offer insights on what makes the Safdie Brothers film so different, and to explain how this was accomplished. In regards to the second, Bogosian had probably the most scenes with Gems‘ cast of scruffy first-time actors and heavies — the guys who made a perennial heavy like Bogosian seem like a babyface by comparison — and was present for most of the movie’s most intense scenes. Bogosian told me he had to offer valuable advice to some newly minted heavies about not breaking Adam Sandler’s arm.
In regards to the first, Bogosian has been a New Yorker since 1975. He’s one of those dramatic arts multi-hyphenates who seems to have dabbled in just about everything. He was nominated for a Pulitzer for his 1987 play Talk Radio (later adapted into an Oliver Stone movie), has written three novels, been an actor on Law and Order, written a non-fiction book about Armenian Genocide revenge vigilantes, and even founded a dance series. Noah Baumbach characters always seem partly aspirational. Eric Bogosian seems like the kind of person they’re aspiring to be.
I spoke to Bogosian by phone last week about what makes the Safdies great, why streaming has been great for character actors, and what was going through his head when he accidentally made that scary guy bleed.
What was shooting this movie like?
Kind of a controlled anarchy. There were different parts to it. Adam was really generous and easy to be around on set and then the Safdies kind of keep everything moving very fast and frenetic. It was pretty gritty — like a lot of the physical stuff we were doing, we were really doing.
I talked to Keith (Williams Richards, who played the scary mob guy). He said in that one scene you accidentally made him bleed.
Making Keith bleed isn’t easy. Yeah, they had told me to fight back in the scene and they had told him I guess to kick my butt. So I fought back and the next thing I knew I saw that there was some blood on his face. And also the look in his eyes was like, I’m going to kill this guy. I thought, well I haven’t seen that look in anybody’s eyes since I was in playground fights when I was 12 years old. What do I do? I’m making all these decisions in microseconds. I thought, well, I don’t think he can actually kill me on set. I don’t think that’s legal, so let’s just go with it. It made for a really exciting shoot and a lot of reality. I mean, there’s a moment when he throws me up against the wall and some glass is breaking and it’s real glass, it’s not breakaway glass. Nobody was supposed to be throwing anybody against the walls there, and things were breaking.
A lot of those extras looked really authentic and sort of scary. Did you think that when you were working on it?
Well, when I started working with them, I knew they were non-actors. On our first day, which is in the SUV riding around and beating up Adam, I basically knew that they didn’t really have any experience. So there were some sort of technical things that they needed to learn about. When I have a line, they can’t be screaming and yelling. Later on, that would turn out to not be really a point that we needed to make. But also on the first day, they were really roughing up Adam. I was like, guys, you do understand that if you actually break his arm or something, then he’s going to have to stop shooting? We’re going to have to close down the set, so you can’t actually hurt Adam.
Over time we all got to know each other and they turned out to be a pretty sweet bunch of guys. It was only on the last day of the shoot that I discovered that they weren’t like construction workers who wanted to go make a movie or something. These were guys who had some pretty hard backgrounds. I think one guy had been in solitary at Attica. Another guy, while we were shooting, got mad at somebody and tried to throw him through a plate-glass window. It’s like okay, so they’re for real. And Adam was totally into it. I know he had a stunt man, but I never saw the stunt man. I never did any scenes with the stunt man.
When you’re working with younger directors like this, do you think it’s intimidating for them to direct you — having been a prolific director and theater person yourself?
I mean, I know that because of Talk Radio people before they meet me make a lot of assumptions about the kind of person I am. I think that’s a little intimidating. I mean, I do have a temper, but I keep it in check most of the time. I think it’s more like now that I’m getting a little more grizzled and older, I think it’s an opportunity for some of these younger guys to work with this guy who they respected and used to see in movies and such when they were kids. I mean, [the Safdie brothers] are basically my son’s ages and I don’t mind that. I mean, I’m happy that the Safdies wanted me to play this role.
This isn’t the first time you’ve played Jewish in a movie, right?
I’m not Jewish in this movie.
Oh, you’re not?
They don’t make it really clear what’s going on, it’s only alluded to in one short speech that Judd Hirsch gives where he says, “It’s like a stranger in my house.” I’m Christian and I’ve married his sister. I’m Armenian in this movie and Armenians are Christians. But almost every character I ever play in anything is Jewish, and usually identified as Jewish at some point in the script. Which makes me kind of an honorary Jew. I haven’t had my bar mitzvah yet, but I know a lot about being Jewish. I have a very strong affinity for the culture. But the funny thing is I’m not. Like a lot of people brought up Christian, Judaism was kind of a mystery and especially where I come from in New England. In fact, that was a common ground that Adam and I had right away. Both very ethnic guys from towns where there wasn’t anybody who was ethnic at all. As a result, neither one of us cheer for New England teams. We only cheer for New York teams.
That’s funny. Yeah, actually, I’m part Armenian myself and I was going to ask if you saw any similarities. I always feel like some of the stereotypes between Jews and Armenians are similar.
Well, there are all kinds of parallels. The key thing is that, as we know historically, a lot of Jews in Europe were living in Christian countries where everything was Christian. Armenians thrived in the Ottoman Empire, which was Muslim and they were a minority there. So there’s the theme of not having rights and being either suppressed or mass-murdered. There are all those points of relation, but it’s not a good idea to go too far with any of that stuff because there are really key things to being Jewish that are distinctive from being Armenian, obviously. I’ve tried to be sensitive to what those things are. But it does very much parallel Armenians. One of the reasons I moved to New York was because I liked being able to just blend in, and here I blend in, I guess. Most people just assume I’m Jewish.
You wrote a (non-fiction) book a few years back, and the plot kind of sounds like the Armenian Munich.
Yeah. But a few years before that — this is happening in 1921 and 1922 after the Armenian Genocide. They were a hit squad, operating out of Massachusetts, of all places. They went to Europe and they made a list of people to kill and they knocked off most of the Turkish leadership that had been responsible for the genocide. It was an untold story that I only found out about almost by accident. I’m like, so where’s the book about this? What are we talking about? It turned out that there was another fake story that had been circulated for years. It’s like cover for this death squad. People are kind of stuck to that story and weren’t telling the truth. I said, we have to tell this story.
I thought I’d be able to write the book in a year or so, but I ended up taking like seven years, ended up doing a lot of research on it. It was also, with regards to Adam in a weird way, I was just thinking about this the other day, that when you’re fifty-ish, which is what I was and what Adam is, it’s great to do something really different than anything you’ve done before. Even though Adam has done dramatic roles before, I think it’s got to be really exciting for him to do something so different than what he’s known for.
When I was working on that book, which involved all kinds of scholarship and so forth, it was a great change of pace for me in my fifties. Then basically the book was paid for by all my Law and Order gigs. I had done like 60 episodes of Law and Order and was getting paid way too much money, which was great. It allowed me the time to write this book. After it was all done, I thought I was finished. But this streaming television business has become a great employer if you’ve got something to offer as a character actor. So I’ve done the Get Down for Netflix. I did Billions for Showtime, and now I’m on Succession with HBO. It’s wonderful. You get to work with all these great actors, and with solid writing. You don’t get network censorship the way that television has traditionally been. My cup runneth over in the last couple of years. I don’t even know what question I’m answering at this point. I’m just babbling to you.
No, that’s good. I mean, has there been any talk of Operation Nemesis as a movie or a series?
There’s been a lot of talk about it. It’s an enterprise that I kind of get into and then wander away from. For a long time after I made Talk Radio, I worked on movie and even television projects. When you’re doing those things, it’s called being in development. So you’re in development, you’ve got studio executives looking over your shoulder. I’m not really anxious to get back into that kind of game again, especially with something that I have such heartfelt feelings about. I know it sounds kind of spoiled, but I have to feel that the thing is right and it’s with the right people. But there continue to be questions about it, and we get nibbles all the time. But again, it’s not about the money. It’s about, is this something I really want to dive into? In the case of this, Uncut Gems, it was seeing the movie Good Time and saying, “Oh yeah, I want to play with these guys because they’re cool.”
I was not disappointed. They have a real voice. I think a lot of people today, especially with there being so many film schools and film departments everywhere, all of these people that graduate and become screenwriters or directors or whatever it is — everybody kind of has this vague idea of what it means to do that, but you really have to have a point of view. A point of view is what makes a director great. All that technical stuff is important, but it’s not what makes a great director. These guys have a real point of view. They really had a story they wanted to tell.
Having lived in New York for some time, I assume you’re sort of a hardcore New Yorker at this point…
Yeah. I moved here in ’75. I lived in Times Square and moved out from there.
This movie felt like it gave us a different side of contemporary New York than we’re used to seeing.
You know what I love about this movie? Every single building has scaffolding around it. It’s the weirdest thing. It took me a couple of viewings. I was like, do you really think we never go into a building that doesn’t have scaffolding? That’s New York. It’s funny how New York changes very subtly over the years and all of a sudden you really are in a different New York than the one you moved to years ago. Things like all the franchise eating places and Starbucks and everything that are on every single corner of the city. The safety of the cities is very different now, but there’s still this frenetic quality to New York. I guess that’s never going to go away. We’re always on our feet. We’re always moving.
There’s like this feeling that you go from one environment to the other and all these environments are frenetic and full of all kinds of energy in a way that is not shopping mall reality, but it’s also not the old New York gangster reality either. It’s the reality of, here’s a nightclub, here’s a Diamond District place, here’s even a high school play. That’s what makes it New York is that you literally can walk three blocks and be in a completely different neighborhood, a different vibe.