Michael Rispoli on ‘The Rum Diary,’ Johnny Depp, & Life As a Character Actor

I meet actor Michael Rispoli in Burbank, California, at Robano’s, an insider-y atmospheric Italian eatery. It looks and smells like a joint on New York’s Mulberry Street—not like somewhere in L.A.’s suburban sprawl. In fact, it’s run by a few “knockaround guys,” originally from back east. They’re street characters so colorful and authentic, that the studios nearby would be challenged to cast actors as convincing as them.

The New York-born Rispoli has drawn upon these types of guys—mobsters and the grizzled cops who chase them—in movies like Kick-Ass and Rounders, and shows like The Sopranos and the upcoming Starz drama, Magic City. But if you take a deeper look into Rispoli’s filmography, you’ll find a diverse gallery of wiry eccentrics. None more so than in his latest role opposite Johnny Depp in the Hunter S. Thompson Adaptation The Rum Diary. Rispoli plays Bob Sala, a colleague/friend/drinking buddy to Depp’s Paul Kemp. “The movie takes place when Hunter S. Thompson is finding his voice as a writer,” said Rispoli. “Going on this journey is one of the things that’s special about this film.” The voice of the waiter momentarily breaks our conversation as he asks what we’d like to drink. Rispoli orders two glasses of rum for us, which seems appropriate, to say the least.

When you were on your way up as an actor, who had a positive influence on your career? I’ve been lucky to come in contact with people during my career who have a generosity of spirit. At the beginning, my acting teachers were a positive influence on me. John Malkovich gave me my first job out of school. He was directing an off-Broadway play called Balm In Gilead and needed understudies. Jacqueline Brookes, who was one of my teachers at Circle in the Square, recommended me for an audition. Even if I didn’t get hired, I wanted to do a great audition just for her for believing in me. Whether you’re worthy of that belief or not, you want to show that person that they made the right decision. I got a call the day after I auditioned saying that Malkovich wanted me to be an understudy. The great thing was that I eventually did Rounders with him a few years later.

You have a long list of credits behind you. What was the first film role where people took notice of you? I got my first movie role in Household Saints in 1992. But the first film that people took notice of me was While You Were Sleeping starring Sandra Bullock. I played a goofball Italian guy–a character that was quite lovable. That movie came out in 1995 and I still get recognized from it today.

You played a lot of cops and mobsters earlier in your career. Were you ever worried about being typecast? You have to be typecast in order to work at the beginning of your career. Sure, I played cops and crooks mostly. But in my head, I knew there were many roles that I could play. After While You Were Sleeping, they wanted to see me as an Italian goofball. After The Juror, they wanted to see me for mobster roles. It’s the way of the business. So when a lead part in an independent film comes along like Two Family House that went on to win Sundance, I sunk my teeth into it.

You’ve appeared onscreen opposite some of the most talented leading men and women — Sandra Bullock, Nicolas Cage, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, among others. Has being a character actor been rewarding to you personally? I love being a character actor. Take a look at all of the actors opposite Henry Fonda in the movie 12 Angry Men. All of them were tremendous character actors like Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, and E.G. Marshall. They came from the stage and the studio system. Back then, some even came out of vaudeville. It’s so hard to find a cast like that and they all are so important to the film. That has inspired me to be the best character actor I can be.

How did the part of Sala come to your attention? Denise Chamian was the casting director on The Weather Man starring Nicolas Cage. She didn’t cast me as a cop or a crook in that film. Denise saw me as something different, which is what you really hope for. A few years later, she was casting The Rum Diary and wanted to bring me in for the role of Sala. I read the book and the script and I auditioned on tape in New York. A week later, they called and said the director Bruce Robinson really liked me and wanted to meet me in person. I had a great dinner with Bruce in Los Angeles. A few weeks went by as they went through the rest of the casting process. Then they called, asking me to fly out to LA to meet Johnny Depp.

Bruce, Johnny, and I sat down in an office suite and started talking. We eventually spoke about silent film and I told him a cool story about Buster Keaton, which loosened things up. Afterwards, I went back to my hotel and Bruce said he was going to pick me up for dinner. I got into his car and he asked me what I thought of Johnny. “He’s terrific,” I responded. “It was great to meet him, but more importantly what did he think of me?” Bruce said, “Well, I should be getting a call by the time we get to the restaurant.” The waiter poured me wine and as I tipped my glass and started to say, “Bruce, whatever happens– ” he cut me off and said, “You got the part.” “Get the fuck out of here! Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. He said, “I wanted to make sure you had something to toast with before I told you.” Bruce was my champion on this film and I will never forget it. Anything he asked me to do on that set, I did it.

What was it like working with Depp? I think Johnny is one of the great talents of our time. He is so versatile and a tremendous force as an actor. I got to know him and I learned about his other talents as a painter and musician as well. I’m not intimidated or starstuck by people. I do recognize achievement, and Johnny deserves all of the accolades that he gets because he has achieved so much on his talent and his drive. It was also great to see him work every day. Everyone on Johnny’s team was a gentleman and a gentlewoman. They helped everybody on the set and did it with a smile.

There was a lot of time between Depp’s performance as Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and this film. How did this movie come about? Johnny was very good friends with Hunter S. Thompson. He was doing research for Fear and Loathing at Hunter’s house and pulled out a manuscript for the book The Rum Dairy. Hunter wrote it in the early ‘60s and it was never published. Johnny told me that they sat on the floor and started reading it. He thought it was fantastic and it needed to get published. From that point on, Johnny was determined to get this made. It was eventually published, but Hunter of course died before the film was made.

Tell me about your character Sala. Bruce had to adapt the book into a screenplay and in doing so he combined some of the characters. Sala is in the book and he’s a part of all of the hijinks that go on. Bruce combined him with another character. Sala is a photographer at the fledgling newspaper that Paul Kemp gets a job at in Puerto Rico. It’s a tumultuous time labor-wise there and a turning point in Puerto Rican history. Kemp moves in with my character and we just drink a lot of rum and I complain a lot. We go on a lot of high adventures. But, in the end, Kemp finds his voice as a writer. This story is the origin of Hunter S. Thompson blowing apart the American dream with his pen.

Rum was like another character in the movie. Any hijinks off-screen involving the rum? Absolutely. Puerto Rico is a gorgeous paradise of an island. The people were wonderful and embraced the movie with great excitement. The nights were sultry and balmy with a beautiful breeze and you had a glass of rum in your hand most of the time. We had a lot of fun filming and a lot when we weren’t filming. The rum was always right near by. I am not telling people to become alcoholics, but have a little rum before you see this movie. Afterward, you’ll want to have two more glasses.

How was it to work with Amber Heard? First of all, she’s a beauty inside and out. And her talent matches her beauty. She went toe-to-toe with Johnny Deep throughout this film and it’s very impressive. There are going to be many more fantastic things from her in the future.

Tell me about the new drama series Magic City that you’re a part of. The show’s creator Mitch Glazer is truly one of the good guys in Hollywood. He’s a terrific writer, and when I read the script, I loved it from page one onward. It centers around a luxurious hotel in 1959 Miami Beach. The world of glitz and glamour that Mitch has created truly seduces you — long-legged bathing beauties, big fin cars, and a Jewish mob element, which my character is a part of. It’s a world that you wish you were in and I think people are going to love it.

If you met Hunter S. Thompson, what would you like to say to him? I would tell him that he has a great friend in Johnny Depp.

Why Aren’t ABC Affiliates Allowed to Interview Johnny Depp?

This weekend, Johnny Depp stopped by the Austin Film Festival to receive an award and screen his new film, The Rum Diary. Naturally, a frenzied media presence surrounded the festival, but not every press outlet got the chance to participate. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “no ABC affiliates were allowed to speak with or even shoot [Depp] at the event due to a clause in his contract with Disney.”

According to Shelton Green, a reporter ABC’s Houston affiliate, “Disney doesn’t want Johnny Depp’s new movie premiering here at the Paramount [Theatre] to get more exposure than his new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.” The last Pirates movie premiered over the summer, so the clause must be referring to the franchise’s next installment: Pirates of the Caribbean 5: The Search for the Quest for the Fight for Blackbeard’s Jewels in the Danger of Squid Cove’s High Tide Heist of Azkaban. (Working title, the movie doesn’t even begin production until next summer). It’s unlikely that a film adaptation of a Hunter S. Thompson book will directly compete with a nine-figure blockbuster that won’t even start shooting for months, but Mickey isn’t taking any chances at the Austin Film Festival. Because of Disney’s paranoia, Green says, “they wouldn’t allow us to interview him nor would they even allow us to get video of him, but hundreds of other people did.” They may have been denied the chance to formally interview Depp, but his contract says nothing about unfilmed, off-the-record small talk. Below is a list of possible light conversation topics ABC affiliates can use with Depp, free of charge: • The unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having. • Are gluten-free diets a fad, or are they here to stay? • Last night’s game. • The perils of painting a house without using primer. • Are Carbon Monoxide detectors built into smoke detectors now, or have I been putting myself in danger because of this assumption? • Why does coconut water have to be in that weird carton in order for it to taste good? • Photo shoots. Actually, don’t talk about that.

Amber Heard’s Age of Dissent: ‘The Rum Diary’ Star Bares All

Amber Heard meets me on a sunny morning at Gemma, the copper-toned Italian brasserie next to Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel where she’s currently staying as she shoots Syrup, an indie drama set in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate advertising. The 25-year-old actor is tall and slender, her blonde hair slicked back and still wet from the shower, and, if she’s to be believed, there’s not a pinch of makeup on her face. “Can you tell that I just woke up?” she asks. Aside from the two soy lattes she guzzles in under an hour, I cannot. Heard is dressed in head-to-toe vintage—a black lace top exposing her sun-kissed shoulders, an eggshell-white, high-waisted skirt, and gold slip-ons—a style that not only suits her pinup physique, but also that of Maureen, the Bunny she plays on NBC’s new ’60s-era drama The Playboy Club.

To the average moviegoer, Heard might look familiar, if not quite recognizable. (Isn’t she the girl whose face decomposed at the beginning of Zombieland, right before treating Jesse Eisenberg’s brain like an amuse-bouche?) Her pinup good looks have served her well in roles that usually call for a slight twist on the all-American dream girl. I’ll admit that before this assignment, I’d considered Heard to be just another perfectly symmetrical actor clawing her way up the Hollywood employment ladder, mostly in thankless roles in genre movies—as Seth Rogen’s girlfriend in the hardcore stoner-art romp Pineapple Express, or as Nicolas Cage’s Daisy Dukes–wearing passenger in the equally hardcore action wig-out Drive Angry 3D. Somehow, these parts have led her to The Rum Diary, an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s long-lost novel about a journalist—played by Johnny Depp—in 1960s Puerto Rico, and Heard’s first film aimed at high-minded adults hungry for cinematic brain food.

Asked if The Rum Diary feels like her first film for grown-ups, Heard soaks her response in sarcasm: “Well, The Informers is certainly a kids’ movie,” she says, referring to one of her earlier projects, an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ coke-tome of the same name brought to excruciating life in 2009. But unlike that roundly panned film, The Rum Diary works. As Chenault, the striking and provocative object of Depp’s affections, Heard manages to breathe strength and vulnerability into a character that feels both out-of-reach and somehow obtainable. It’s a role she could play in her sleep. “Chenault is free-spirited and rebellious,” she says. “I can relate to that.” To get the part, Heard fought tooth-and-nail—a process that included four auditions and a handwritten letter to director Bruce Robinson—eventually beating out some of Hollywood’s alpha actresses. “I heard names of people who were going in, so I think part of me was resigned to not getting it,” Heard says, obliquely referring to Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley, whose auditions for the role were widely reported.

Heard talks about her Rum Diary experience like she still can’t wrap her head around it. She punctuates the story of her first audition for Depp with bursts of incredulous laughter. Was she intimidated meeting one of the world’s great silver-screen icons? “I guess I must have been,” she says. “I just don’t know if I thought about it that way. Luckily, we’re built so we don’t really remember that kind of pain.” Laughter. “I can just assume it was there.” More laughter. Regarding a steamy shower scene with Depp, Heard plays it cool, sort of. “I grew up watching his movies, so it was a little surreal, but I very much become my characters while I’m working. I’m not Amber Heard making out with Johnny Depp in the shower. I mean, that’s awesome, but I am Chenault, and he’s Paul Kemp, and we’re embroiled in a love story in Puerto Rico, and it’s easy to get lost in that. Love scenes are weird, but if they’re right for your character, I let go of the weirdness and jump into them.” image

She worked closely with Depp to develop the character of Chenault, who was based on Thompson’s first wife, Sandy Conklin (who later changed her name to Sondi Wright). “I’m playing somebody who still exists, who had a major role in the life of one of Johnny’s dear friends, and who is in more than one way important to him,” she says. “So there was a lot of pressure.” She need not worry. From her very first scene, in which she emerges from the sea like a siren, beckoning Depp’s character to plunge in and join her, Heard’s luminosity fills the frame. Despite the newfound respect that will surely accompany her Rum Diary role, Heard doesn’t see it as a career turning point. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “It feels great, but none of my films feel like they’re going to be my big break. I do the job, work really hard on the project, and go home and do the next one. They’re kind of all stepping stones built on one another.”

Last December, however, Heard’s on-screen work took a backseat to her private life, when, at The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s 25th anniversary celebration, news began circulating about her long-term relationship with photographer Tasya van Ree. Suddenly, her personal life, which Heard says she fiercely guards, was exposed, a choice with which she wrestled. For Heard, talking openly about her relationship with a woman wasn’t an attempt to grab media coverage, but instead, she says, an ethical and social responsibility. “I talked about my relationship because there’s a difference between being a private person and being part of the problem,” she says. “I knew that I had a responsibility to young people, who right now are without many role models, to kind of step out of my comfort zone and acknowledge that I have a girlfriend without being ambiguous about it.” Echoing what she’d said at the time, Heard adds, “At the end of the day, if you’re hiding something, then you are inadvertently saying it’s wrong, and I don’t feel like it’s wrong. Millions of people aren’t born wrong.”

Since that day, Heard has been disturbed by the way her sexuality has been reported. A headline on the Huffington Post, one of the first links that comes up on an Amber Heard Google search, reads, “Amber Heard Gay: Actress Comes Out as a Lesbian.” But, according to Heard, she never came out. “I’ve always been out,” she says. “Way before that event, there were pictures of me walking to press events holding my girlfriend’s hand. Those have been on the internet for years.”

Heard’s spirit of activism—her official website is as devoted to gay rights as it is to her magazine covers—is a by-product of coming of age in Austin, Texas, amidst a wave of what she calls religious hypocrisy. Heard, a proud atheist, left home at 17 for Hollywood after dropping out of high school. “I felt very alienated,” she says of that time in her life. “I was not a religious person, and I didn’t think the things around me were righteous, even though that’s what they claimed to be. I felt compelled to go against the grain, so I took my GED, took my SAT, and I got the hell out of there.” It’s partly what drew her to her character in The Playboy Club. “You don’t know where she’s come from, and in many ways I relate to that, that alienated person against the masses. I don’t know how my character is going to grow, but I have a feeling I want to be there for her when she does.”

More and more, Heard is becoming known as an actor willing to take risks. She’s neither shied away from nudity nor from Nic Cage movies, but she also speaks her mind. “My PR people should be on a steady supply of prescription medication,” she says with a subtle Texas twang, buried beneath years of Hollywood refinement. “It’s lonely to stand up for what’s right,” she says. “I am alone in Hollywood in many ways, and that’s scary. It’s better for my career if I stay quiet, but I’ve just never been that person. I didn’t get into this business so I could shut up.”

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AMBER LIKES, Gemma

Photography by Kate Orne. Styling by Christopher Campbell.