The Richard Edson Interview
From Sonic Youth to Stranger Than Paradise, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Platoon and a Million Other Movies!
by Lee Sobel (10/15/20)
Richard Edson is one of those actors that when you see him on screen you always remember him - he's got a face and voice that is very distinctive. Even in a movie like Platoon (1986) that has a boat load of actors, he stands out. His character in that one has the good sense to warn his army buddy not to mess with stuff left behind by the enemy, and sure enough his pal gets his arms blown off for not listening to him. Who can forget that slow motion shot to the Star Wars theme in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) with Edson as a garage attendant at the wheel of a vintage Ferrari as it glides through the air over a hilly street, Edson's long hair flying through the wind. My personal favorite of Edson's career is the first movie that put him and his co-star John Lurie and their director Jim Jarmusch on the map with Stranger Than Paradise (1984). The film is a unique blend of arty minimalism, black and white film noir aesthetic, and deadpan comedy -- it's the kind of low budget movie that transcends the limitations of budget because of the director's originality. The film exploded out of the depths of the Lower East Side music/art/film scene and crossed over into the mainstream with a bang. All three of the main
characters in the film are played by musicians and Jarmusch himself was in a downtown NYC band called The Del-Byzanteens (a great band worth checking out if you like art-rock). Prior to making Stranger Than Paradise, Richard Edson was the first drummer in the band Sonic Youth from 1981-82 and appeared on their first album, and he was in the post-punk-dance band Konk. He's made well over a hundred movies and just published a book about his experience shooting Oliver Stone's Platoon that is well worth getting for both his writing and the incredible pictures he took.
Lee Sobel: You were a musician before you starred in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, right?
Before becoming an actor, Richard Edson (second from right) played drums in Sonic Youth
Richard Edson: I was a musician and a photographer and a writer. What was interesting I think was that it was the first real generation of artists that had a do-it-yourself attitude and it didn’t matter if it was fashion, film, painting, music, dance or theater. Most of us shared this attitude that you didn't need some academic institution to give you the official approval to do what you wanted to do.
Lee Sobel: What are your memories of playing drums with Sonic Youth?
Richard Edson: What I really enjoyed about them was how
Richard Edson (second from right) played drums in the band Konk
With John Lurie in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise
experimental and how open-ended they were. I was practicing groove type music and I tried to incorporate that which might have been a good thing or might not. If you listen to that first Sonic Youth album, every song on it had a different beat because I was focused on how experimental, how different can I get and sort of honing in on a rock beat which I realized at our last gig at the Mudd
Club, I don’t even know when that was, I think it was winter ’82 maybe that I was like well fuck it let me just crash and bash like a rock drummer and I had so much fun but that was the last time I played with them. I remember we played "I Wanna Be Your Dog" by The Stooges. Their thing was you get soft and then you get loud, you get soft and you get loud, you get textured and then you get a little soft texture and then you get loud texture. They had a rehearsal studio down in SoHo and they would just turn up their amplifiers and I’m bleeding back here. I’m killing these drums that are not amplified in anyway and I enjoyed the workout but it
With John Lurie and Eszter Balint in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise
struck me as somehow fundamentally opposed to what I wanted to do in terms of drums. Just to play bash and crash and to play rock drums, it was like you know, I was more into polyrhythms, stacked rhythms, funk or groove type rhythms and that was not in their vocabulary at all but the their encouragement and enthusiasm is was what linked us.
Lee Sobel: Tell me about the making of Stranger Than Paradise.
Richard Edson: We shot the movie in two parts. The first part was a four day weekend in February 1982. What I remember is that we didn’t have time or money to waste on rehearsal. So, at a certain point it was like well let’s see what’s going to happen. You know we’d kind of discuss it. I think the fact
that there was the tension and tons of emotion between Jim and John that did explode at one moment…
Lee Sobel: Tell me about that.
Richard Edson: I think the tension was a good thing. To the extent that it kept everybody kind of a little on edge. And, made for exciting unpredictable things. Why the tension was there I think is that John Lurie resented that he had come up with the idea and the characters for the movie and Jarmusch kind of took it away from him. And I think that's why Jarmusch gave John another movie, Down By Law (1986), after Stranger Than Paradise. But
even today John will not lose an opportunity to say nasty shit about Jarmusch. What happened was that there was a scene we were shooting and they disagreed about it and Jarmusch got red in the face and exploded. And it was just very quiet after that.
Lee Sobel: In some of his interviews, Jarmusch said he watched you drumming and there was something about the way that you were drumming that he felt you would make a natural actor. What do you think it was about your drumming that translated to him as "This guy would be a great actor in my film"?
Richard Edson: I have no idea. Jim called me up, asked me if I wanted to be in a movie and I thought about it for a second and I was like, yeah, maybe that would be a lot of fun, because I was playing music a lot and being on stage, especially with Konk. I thought a movie could be another form of stage and that I could use how I hold myself in a movie. I didn’t even know that Jim had done another movie (Permanent Vacation). I knew John, I knew Eszter a little bit, I was like these are cool interesting people and it would be a fun thing to do. I think that attitude that I had, that openness and that willingness is what attracted Jim to me. I think my nature is to be positive and upbeat and adventuresome and experimental. The concept was explained to me and the way I saw it in my mind was that it could be a combination of like Buster Keaton and Franz Kafka and The
Honeymooners. I was always attracted to silent film comedians and I think one area that I’m really good at is working with my body, that form of acting in which the images tell a story more than dialogue. The attraction was that we could experiment with forms of expression that didn’t rely on dialogue.
Lee Sobel: You mean the fact that you guys could be very minimal in the scenes, like the scene when you’re drinking beer with John Lurie, you know you’re just kind of sitting there and drinking beer and you’re not really talking to each other.
Richard Edson: Yeah, and that was a mistake, that scene, because we had dialogue and I forgot it. And I’m sitting there tapping my beer thinking what the fuck am I supposed to say
and it worked perfectly because the situation was exactly that; it was like what the fuck am I supposed to say to my friend at this moment and I think that was the take that was used.
Lee Sobel: I thought it was great that Jarmusch made a movie that had nothing to do with what was commercial in Hollywood at the time, that it was so minimal and yet it was commercially embraced.
Richard Edson: Well isn’t that what Lars von Trier and the Dogma people were trying to do in their own way, just trying to have these really barebones restrictions about what you could do and what you can’t do?
Lee Sobel: Tell me about the attention that you all got from the film. First of all, did you go to Cannes?
Richard Edson: I did not go to Cannes. I remember getting a hysterical call at about 11 at night, it was like six in the morning in France, "We won the Caméra d'Or." I’m like really, what’s that? Really, I had no idea. I was like that’s great, I’m living in my small walkup apartment...
In John Hughes' Ferris Bueller's Day Off
In John Hughes' Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Lee Sobel: You got an agent from it? Did your phone just start ringing all of a sudden?
Richard Edson: Yeah, I started going to better parties.
Lee Sobel: And did you make a decision at some point to drop out of music and focus on acting?
Richard Edson: Well I was really disappointed with Konk and then the movie was starting to take off. Yeah I got an agent, I went on a press tour with the movie, I went to the original Sundance Festival, which was ’85?
Lee Sobel: Was that when it was called the USA Festival or something like that?
Richard Edson: Yeah it was still called the USA Festival and Blood Simple won that year and I remember one of the judges coming up to me and apologizing and thinking like…
Lee Sobel: Thinking you were going to beat him up?
Richard Edson: No, he said they felt that Stranger Than Paradise was more important and a better movie, but they wanted to give attention to other films and that we had won in France and they thought it wouldn’t be really appropriate if we won there too and I was like, "Don’t fucking apologize to me for telling me that we should have won but we didn’t win -- it’s like why are you telling me this, it just makes me feel like you guys don’t have the power to back your own convictions. If you feel that we were the better film then we should have won, regardless."
In Oliver Stone's Platoon
Lee Sobel: I asked John Lurie what did he think of the black pauses in between scenes and he said he hated that. What did you think of that? Did that annoy you?
Richard Edson: No, I had no problem with that. I think part of Jim's strength was that he was going to deal with the limitation of having to shoot nothing but long takes. No editing. And I think it fit with his aesthetic and it wasn’t just an arbitrary thing. It was like, it was part of how do we do the most with the least. And that was something that I really appreciated. It was experimental and I think Jim to his credit has always been an experimental filmmaker. You can argue whether you like it or not, but I think that’s always been his strength.
In Oliver Stone's Platoon
Lee Sobel: Well, considering how young he was, he was in his twenties and I’ve gone back and read old interviews with him and his combination of intelligence...
Richard Edson: I think he was a philosophy major first, no?
Lee Sobel: Yeah or a poet. He went to Columbia University for writing, but he was a young guy, he was extremely well read and he had concepts that he was applying to his filmmaking that were really way ahead of most people and I think that one of the things that I really admire about him is that he just always at least
seemed like he was much more interested in filmmaking than in making a lot of money. But I guess John Lurie and Tom DiCillo who shot the movie, felt ripped off when the movie became so successful.
Richard Edson: I have a different take on that because I think there’s a side to Jim that’s kind of pretentious. And that he in no way tried to disrupt the public understanding of him as this savior of film or something. I was still a musician living on a hundred bucks a week and not really minding it but it just seemed like
With Fisher Stevens in Howard The Duck
he was going from film festival to film festival talking about hanging out with famous people and that didn’t jibe with my understanding with what we as a community were trying to do. I felt like Jim was getting caught up in the attention from the success of the movie.
Lee Sobel: Why did you quit the band Konk? The band had a very interesting mix of funk, disco and new wave.
Richard Edson: I joined the band in 1981 and my last day with the band was January 1, 1985. The leader of the band had turned into a total control freak. He had eight songs initially that
he wrote and over the next three and a half years he only wrote two more songs. By the time I left the band I wasn't having any fun, I wasn't having any input and the band wasn't growing.
Lee Sobel: Once you started acting, you got an agent.
Richard Edson: Yes. I remember one of the questions I’d ask the agents who were trying to interview me was what kind of music were they into and if they had bad musical taste I would eliminate them as a possible agent because I was like how could I possibly have anything to do with them if they liked The Eagles or something.
Lee Sobel: So now you were in the professional acting business and not just making independent films downtown.
Richard Edson: I did Miami Vice and that was training for doing Hollywood movies because when we did Stranger Than Paradise we talked about the scene and it was very intimate and creative. TV is not like that. No rehearsal except for blocking the action. There is no input really. The director doesn't direct the actors. And I wasn't prepared either. I thought that by the process of rehearsing that's how you prepare.
Lee Sobel: So two years after Stranger Than Paradise you made Ferris Bueller's Day Off in 1986. What was that like?
With Christopher Lloyd in Eight Men Out
With John Turturro and Spike Lee in Do The Right Thing
Richard Edson: They were already shooting the movie in Chicago and they flew me out to Chicago to meet with the director John Hughes. He had a mullet and he wore all denim and his body was pear shaped. He was a nice guy but he was reserved, not that expressive, didn't smile a lot, wasn't trying to be your friend. So my character was Garage Attendant #1 and I only had one line. I said to John, "It's crazy that you flew me out here and spent all this time and effort to get me, and all I have is one line." So he goes, "Okay we'll improvise a scene, but don't tell Matthew Broderick." I told John my character needed a name. So he said to come up with one and I picked
With John Turturro and Danny Aiello in Do The Right Thing
"Smyznyk" - it was vaguely East European and they embroidered it on my shirt. Matthew was a pro - whatever I gave him he just gave it right back. So he was like, "Do you speak English?" and I was like, "What country do you think this is?" That whole scene was improvised and I think they used the first take.
Lee Sobel: You were in Howard the Duck (1986) which was produced by George Lucas and turned out to be a bomb.
Richard Edson: I don't have any insight into what went wrong, except the duck itself
was a problem. They could have animated him like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but instead they chose to do animatronics. It was big and it had a little guy inside it. The first A.D. would do the duck's lines over a loudspeaker and everyone in the movie would react to that. He had to do the physical movements and he had all these wires stuck to him to do facial expressions. It just seemed unwieldy and very unconvincing. I didn't like working on it, it wasn't fun, the scenes were all too big and I didn't like my part that much and I didn't like some of the people in it. I don't think I ever saw that movie. One thing that was cool was that I had lived in San Francisco in 1979-80 and I used to go to a club called
With John Turturro in Do The Right Thing
Mabuhay Gardens and I remember seeing the band The Avengers with Penelope Houston. So we were filming a scene at Mabuhay Gardens and I looked over and noticed Penelope was one of the extras in the scene. At the end of the scene the little guy was taken out of the duck costume and he went and changed and came back out. He had on an ascot, a jacket with a crest on it, wing tip shoes and a gold tipped cane. He was maybe three feet tall and he had a six foot tall girlfriend who was a showgirl from Las Vegas. He wouldn't even look at anybody because he was the duck in Howard the Duck and acted like he was better than everybody else. It was ridiculous.
Lee Sobel: Having made a movie like Stranger Than Paradise with such a small cast, was it weird to suddenly be in Platoon with so many actors in it? Who did you bond with and did you dislike anybody?
With Rachel Amodeo in What About Me?
Richard Edson: We had two weeks of training when we first arrived in the Philippines to make the movie. We weren't acting; we were training. The training was a total immersion in what it was like to go off and fight in the Vietnam war. They'd wake us up at three in the morning and we'd go one these missions so the connections with the other actors were based on our interactions in training. There were definitely a few different groups. There was the Hollywood group which was Johnny Depp, Charlie Sheen, Chris Pedersen and one other guy. There were the black dudes that stayed together. There was a group around Berenger, like John C. McGinley and Paul Sanchez who played Doc. There were the outcasts who didn't hang with anybody and then there was me and a couple of other guys and we could hang with anybody. I got very close with David Neidorf who played Tex - he was very real. We all
With Nick Zedd in What About Me?
stayed in our characters like Tom Berenger, who I could not stand. He played up his authority and he was just that guy all the time.
Lee Sobel: What about Willem Dafoe, who is a New York actor. Did you bond with him?
Richard Edson: Nicest guy in the world but he was a very private guy and once we started filming he had his wife and kid come out. So he didn't hang out at all.
Lee Sobel: How was Oliver Stone to work with?
Richard Edson: While we were in the training camp before we shot the movie, he came to see us and they built this platform for him to sleep on and we were all sleeping on the ground. It was like he was the General coming to inspect his troops. We were suffering and not that it was intentional but it also seemed true to life. Our loyalty was to Captain Dye who was training us and he was sleeping on the ground with us. Then he got together and worked with the actors and I was working with him and J. Adam Glover on our scene and he said, "This dialogue sucks!" And I was thinking, "You're an Academy Award winning screenwriter and you wrote the dialogue." It wasn't that we did anything wrong but he was angry and it was not a good vibe. So he
With Dee Dee Ramone and Rachel Amodeo in What About Me?
told us to improvise something so I came up with a back story for my character and we did an improv and he said, "That's great. Do it just like that." Then when we went to shoot the scene he told us to do what we had done in the improv and we did and he said, "This sucks!" I just threw up my hands and was thinking, "Go ahead and kick me out of the movie. I don't give a fuck." So he said improvise another version and that's the scene where I said not to mess with the enemy maps and it's booby trapped and the bomb goes off. That was all improvised.
Lee Sobel: I heard that Oliver Stone would push the actors to almost their breaking point.
Richard Edson: There was a scene with Forrest Whitaker where his ass was hanging out of his pants and it was crude and Forrest refused to shoot the scene. Oliver said why not. And Forrest said "My character wouldn't do that because he has too much dignity." And we all stood there waiting to see what Oliver would say and after a pregnant pause Oliver said, "Okay, do it the way you want." So I think Oliver realized that to argue with him would have been a losing battle.
Lee Sobel: I recently reviewed Oliver Stone's memoirs and I was really disappointed that with all the stories about him being a loose cannon that he didn't talk about any people's perceptions of him in his book.
Richard Edson: I have a theory about sociopaths, egomaniacs, directors, Presidents -- they make their own reality and anything that disturbs that reality is just denied or pushed aside and it doesn't have any effect on them or enter their consciousness. You think about Trump. You think he knows he's lying? I think: no. His whole life is a lie and his creation of his own reality works for him obviously, because look where he is. So his modus operandi has been validated by his life.
Lee Sobel: After that you went down to Nicaragua to be in Alex Cox's movie Walker (1987) starring Ed Harris. What do you remember about that film?
Richard Edson: Walker was about this soldier-of-fortune that goes down to Nicaragua with his band of mercenaries and as the movie progressed Alex became more and more like that character and expected us to follow him into battle. Alex had this megalomaniac mission that he was going to change America's foreign policy and he would talk in this wild-eyed visionary way and it was like he became Walker. Everyone would roll their eyes at him like, "This guy is nuts." But we had a great time, living in the only hotel in war-torn Managua that had been destroyed by an earthquake and every night we'd all get together and sing songs. Joe Strummer was there and people would ask him to do Clash songs and he was shy about it but Zander Schloss who was in the movie had his guitar and he's one of those people who knows thousands of songs so you could say some song and he knew how to play it.
Sonic Youth's First Album, featuring Richard Edson on Drums
Lee Sobel: You were in the Run-D.M.C. movie Tougher Than Leather (1988) and you were a hip hop fan, right? What do you remember about working with Run-D.M.C. and director Rick Rubin?
Richard Edson: Rick Rubin was a film student at NYU and he started Def-Jam Records as a side thing probably to make money, so when he became a music mogul I think he thought Tougher Than Leather was a chance to get back to his Plan A. But if Tougher Than Leather is any evidence, the guy has no talent at all. Run-D.M.C. weren't that friendly; they just kind of stayed with themselves. They were like hardcore neighborhood guys so I just didn't feel there was a way to connect with them.
Lee Sobel: You were in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (1989) - what was that like?
Richard Edson: Spike sent me the script for the movie with a handwritten note saying he saw me in the movie as "Pino," which was a badass character and I liked that. So
Spike took me, John Turturro and Danny Aiello out to the set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn before we shot the movie. Those kinds of things are always awkward because you kind of think you know people from their movies and you don't really know them. I went over to John Turturro and I said, which character are you playing in the movie? And he looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Pino." And that's how I found out that Spike had switched me to "Vito." When we were shooting the movie, John didn't like Danny and after we would shoot every day Danny would drive me to my apartment in the Lower East Side in his big Cadillac on his way home to New Jersey where he lived and ask me why John didn't like him. I thought John liked me but it turned out he didn't and he didn't like a lot of people. We were shooting in the back room of the pizza parlor in the movie and Spike
In Sonic Youth
wanted us to improv a scene. I had no idea what I was going to do but I figured I'd just roll with it. So Spike calls action and John Turturro goes from like zero to a hundred miles an hour in a split second and just starts screaming at me, why
am I friends with Spike's character "Mookie." I was kind of taken aback and I had nothing. But just then the cinematographer Ernest Dickerson calls cut which is weird because nobody calls cut except the director. They had run out of film in the camera; they were using short ends. So Turturro turns to Ernest and starts screaming at him about being unprofessional. But it gave me time as they reset the camera to prepare for how I would fight back with Turturro's character and that ended up in the movie.
Lee Sobel: You starred in Joey Breaker (1993). That was the first time you starred in a movie, right? Up to then you had just done character parts.
Richard Edson: Steven Starr who directed that movie had been an agent at William Morris and one of his clients was Bob Marley. It was 120 pages of dialogue and I do not like doing that much dialogue. I had to prepare for a month to learn all that dialogue. Steven wanted Cedella Marley to star in the movie. That's Bob Marley's daughter and she was like a princess, just perfect for the movie. She auditioned with me and Steven asked me what did I think of her when she left and I said, "She's it, she's the one." So she was cast and that's why Bob Marley's music is in the movie. But Steven Starr didn't have an inkling how to direct the movie; he was inept.