Given that Oliver Stone was directing the film, were you worried that his George W. Bush could end up being a caricature or a joke?
At first I had the same leftist, cosmetic view that everybody has—that this guy’s an idiot making the wrong decisions, that he’s a puppet. But this is an amazingly compelling story about a guy who was flailing. He was a mouse in a labyrinth, just lost, looking for that cheese and not finding it. And then he became president of the United States.
How is your performance different from late-night TV?
Some of these comedians out there, they do a carbon-copy W. that is hilarious for fifteen seconds. Then you ask, “What’s the next joke?” At first I said no to Oliver—I gave him names of other actors.
I was afraid I couldn’t do it. Then it was, “Will it be a carbon copy, or in the spirit of Dr. Strangelove, or will it be real heavy?” I wanted to fuck around and have a good time with the gestures and voice and all that, but I wanted a Bush that was sustainable.
Do you drill him for the awful way he ran his administration?
We don’t have to create that, it’s all out there. We concentrate on the compelling nature of someone who has no real deep interest in or training for the presidency, but who did it twice.
Are Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly stalking you?
Somebody left me a message last week: Bill O’Reilly hates you! Then he hung up. Ultimately, the hope is that Bush himself will see the movie and say, “Heh, that’s purty good.”
From the script I’ve read, I can’t really believe that. I hear the pretzel choke makes the movie.
It’s funny, but it’s pathetic and sad, too. You’re laughing but cringing. It’s like Tarantino—like watching a W. version of Pulp Fiction.
After the wrap party in Shreveport [Louisiana], you and co-star Jeffrey Wright ended up in jail for a few hours. You were reportedly in a fight at a local bar and the police arrested you both. What happened?
There was no bar fight, and that will come out. What really happened, I can’t talk about it, but it’s pretty ridiculous. What I can say is that what went down was not good at all, and everybody involved knows that. I think they had a responsibility from their penal-code manual to do what they needed to do, but I don’t think it paralleled what was actually done.
It’s been rumored that the police used quite a bit of force. Did it strike you as ironic that here you are playing a guy who justifies torture and you end up in the joint?
It can’t help but be parallel. People talk about me being this super-Method guy, and that happens five hours after we stopped filming.
You and W. both have famous fathers—and you both found success relatively late in your lives.
I didn’t want to [see those parallels] because of how I felt politically, but I couldn’t help it. I was reading these books about W., and I took out a pen to record the similarities between me and him: He and his father, he and his mother—I grew up with a very strong mother, too. But professionally, I was never embittered by the whole process like he was.
This fall, you also play Dan White, the man who murdered Harvey Milk, in Milk.
I heard a tape of White’s confession, and it was one of the saddest, most pathetic things I ever heard. He felt victimized, and when somebody feels victimized, they don’t rely on intelligence; they resort to very reactionary things.
Directed by Oliver Stone.
Lionsgate. October 17.