Great character actors like William Sadler are a rare breed. The Man (we can all agree he's earned that capital M) has had a long and busy career, and whether he's playing a domestic terrorist (Die Hard 2), the Grim Reaper (Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey and Tales From the Crypt), a prison inmate (The Shawshank Redemption), or a bemused father (Wonderfalls), he nails the part the every single time. He's one of the most reliable faces around as far as this writer is concerned, and today sees the release of one of his coolest and most underseen films on Blu-ray: Robert Rodriguez's Roadracers.
Roadracers was the first film in a series of '50s-set movies that Showtime remade with a '90s grunge to them (the series was called Rebel Highway and featured other entries directed by Joe Dante, William Friedkin, John Milius, John McNaughton, Mary Lambert and more), and it's centered around a deadbeat punk (David Arquette) who lives too crazy a life for his small town. Sadler plays Sarge, the local sheriff and one of several people who want to run him and his girlfriend (Salma Hayek) out of town.
It's a very funny, dark, grungy movie that benefits greatly from the frenetic energy Rodriguez had in those early days, and is worth our hearty endorsement on those grounds alone. That it also features a vicious performance from Sadler is just the cherry on top. Plus, the introduction of his hot dog-obsessed character here is almost as brilliant as the intro of his Col. Stuart in Die Hard 2, which Sadler even talks about below.
Movies.com: What are your memories of Roadracers these days? Is it something you think of often?
William Sadler: [Laughs] As I've moved on to this long and checkered career... [Laughs] I have very fond memories of Roadracers, actually. I remember looking forward to working with Robert because he was such a child star almost, after El Mariachi. Everyone in Hollywood was excited about Robert, and he asked me to do it! I was blown away! There was no audition or anything, he just offered me the role. I had already wanted to work with him, and then I read it and just thought it was funny and a terrific script, so I wanted to be a part of it.
I haven't thought about it in a long time. I haven't seen Robert in ages. We've sort of gone our separate ways, I guess. But I do have such fond memories of being around the set with him. He was like a kid in a toy store with all this new equipment.
Movies.com: His shooting style is well known, at least in the early days, for being guerilla style; fast, in-and-out setups and takes. Was his style something that caused conflict with the cast and crew?
Sadler: There may have been conflict with the crew, I didn't notice. There wasn't any conflict with me over his style. I love working that way. Walter Hill worked that way on the Tales from the Crypt I did with him. You'd jump out of a van, set up the camera and shoot it a couple times. It was literally guerilla, and I like that. It keeps everyone on their toes and you feel very much like a team.
I think we shot it in something like 13 days. The whole thing! It was going to be set it up, shoot it, set it up, shoot it; as quick as you could. And that's also fun. I'm not a fan of hanging around on sets for dozens and dozens and dozens of takes. You should know what you're doing. You should be able to nail it in a few.
Movies.com: You have such great character introductions, whether it's doing Tai Chi naked at the beginning of Die Hard 2, or showing your undying love for your mom's pigs in a blanket in Roadracers. How do you craft those moments? How much of it is on the page and how much of it is an evolution?
Sadler: That's largely on the page. The pigs in the blanket was written that way the very first time I read it, and that's actually one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I read it and thought, "What a great way to meet this guy!" I thought it was very funny.
Movies.com: It's very funny, and I love how you approach it. That's what I love about the movie as a whole, how it rides an absurd line but keeps a straight face the entire time. How do you strike that balance?
Sadler: I guess my philosophy is, if you can make them the believe it, it's even funnier. If it slides over, if you start exaggerating it, for example, or pointing to it and saying, "Get it? This is the funny part!" you lose them. It's been my experience, anyway, that if you can get them to believe you, if you can get them to believe you really love those hot dogs [laughs] then it's genuinely silly and becomes genuinely funny to watch someone wax poetic about hot dogs. You can only pull it off if you really mean it; if you can convince them that is the most important thing in your life.
And the naked thing in Die Hard 2, the nude scene is one of the great character introductions of all time. That wasn't on the page. He wasn't supposed to be naked, it actually said a half-naked man doing Tai Chi in a hotel room. So I thought he would be wearing sweatpants or something. I got to the costume fitting, I tried on the uniform, the this, the coat, the that. We finished and I said, "Where's the costume for the hotel room scene?" and Renny Harlin looked over to the costumer and he looked back at me and said, "Well, Bill, actually I was thinking you would be nude." And that was the first I had heard of that. [Laughs] But thinking about it in retrospect, it's such an astonishing way to meet a character. You know nothing about this guy, but oh my God, he is one dangerous mother, you know?
Movies.com: It really is one of the best introductions ever, and you're one of the main reasons I love that movie and have since had a weird love for Renny Harlin's entire career.
Movies.com: So what's next for you? Will you be reuniting with any of your old directors like Harlin or Frank Darabont in the near future?
Sadler: I would love to work with Frank again. He's used me in three different films and I like to tease him that the one film that he did without me, The Majestic, was the one that didn't do so well. He needs to keep hiring me. I love the man, and I'm sure when there's something I should do, he'll just pick up the phone. That's what he's always done in the past. That's one of my favorite things about this business. When you get to work with people like that, when people just pick up the phone and say, "Hey, I've got this script I want you to read," you feel like you're part of some sort of terrific rep company.
Roadracers is now out on DVD and Blu-ray. We highly recommend checking it out.