the late sixties, William Atherton has starred in motion pictures, on Broadway
and television. He first achieved international prominence as the lead in
Steven Spielberg’s first feature The Sugarland
Express, and followed that with starring roles in
John Schlesinger’s classic The Day of the
Locust, Robert Wise’s TheHindenburg
and Richard Brooks’ Looking
for Mr. Goodbar. Atherton is known around the world for his memorable
roles as the antagonistic anchorman in the action blockbusters Die
Hard and Die Hard 2, as
the relentless government bureaucrat in the iconic Ghostbusters
the conniving professor in the cult classic Real
Genius. Among his more than 30 feature films are
co-starring roles in John Landis’ Oscar,
Bill Duke’s Hoodlum,
Richard Pearce’s No Mercy,
Alan J. Pakula’s The Pelican Brief,
Costa Gavras’ Mad City
and Ed Zwick’s The Last Samurai.
television, Atherton has starred in numerous mini-series including Centennial
Some of his many TV films include leading roles in TNT’s production of Joan
Didion’s Broken Trust and
his portrayal of Darryl F. Zanuck in HBO’s Golden Globe-winner Introducing
Dorothy Dandridge. Atherton was also a
recurring series lead opposite Damian Lewis on NBC-TV’s Life
and, as Principal Reynolds, resolved some of
the vexing questions in the final season of Lost.
honored for his work on the stage, Atherton has created roles on and off-Broadway
for many of America’s leading playwrights. These include the title role in Joe
Papp’s original production of David Rabe’s The
Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, the role of Ronnie in
John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves and
Bing Ringling in Guare's Rich and Famous. Atherton
also starred in the Broadway premiere of Arthur Miller’s TheAmerican
Clock and in the Tony-winning revival of Herman
Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.
His repertoire of more than 20 well-known productions also includes the
acclaimed New York premieres of Franz Kafka’s The
Castle and Kressman Taylor’s Address
Unknown. For his work on the stage, he has received
the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Circle Critics Award, the Theatre World Award
and nominations for an Obie and Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award.
Recent feature films include the thriller The
Kane Files as well as Tim
and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, which premiered in
2012. Atherton appears on an upcoming season of Childrens Hospital this summer.
This interview focuses on Atherton's
work since 2005. We began our talk with The
Girl Next Door (2007), based
on the Jack Ketchum novel of the same name... it follows the unspeakable
torture and abuses committed on a teenage girl in the care of her aunt... and
the boys who witness and fail to report the crime. Then we discussed Headspace (2005), the story of the
mysterious metamorphosis of 25-year-old Alex Borden, a handsome, charming and
intelligent young man with the world by the tail. Alex becomes alarmed when his
intellect mysteriously begins to grow, and so do the horrors that invade his body,
his nightmares and his waking hours.
said Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door
is "a film that has legs." Could you elaborate on this?
Atherton: From what I know, it has legs in that it's
still around and people still talk about it. It was a very difficult subject
and I thought they did it very well. I bookend it, which is great. As an actor,
I don't participate in anything in it like that (of a graphic nature). I don't mean that necessarily in a negative
way. My position in it was kind of like the conscience of the film. It gave the
film a spiritual edge. I mean, it's recounting a childhood but at the same
time, the weight of that childhood is enormous and so bookending it like that,
even though the scenes are very short, gave it a lot of substance and it was
mine for each moment and meant something important in terms of the whole film.
thought your role as Adult David was absolutely heartbreaking, as he is a man
who has contemplated the loss of his young love for over 50 years. I watched
those bookend scenes several times and they are profoundly moving. I especially
like the scene where you rescue a homeless man (Mark Margolis).
Girl Next Door is based on a true story (of monstrous child abuse). It happened in New Jersey in the 1950s.
Andrew van den Houten, the producer, got onto it and he was the one who really
marshalled it along. I had done Headspace
So van den Houten had you in mind for the role of
Adult David after working with you on Headspace.
I guess he's a big fan of yours.
WA: Yeah. And then we crafted those scenes together and figured out what to
use, what not to use, how much of the voiceover to use, to try and keep it as
spare and as evocative as we could to save time.
that was it. It was a very quick shoot. This friend of mine would tell me that
it was very difficult to shoot the kids since they couldn't see certain things
because they were under 18. The girl who was being abused (Blythe Auffarth) was 21 by that time. But the younger kids couldn't
see what was being done to her. It was a real ballet in terms of how to orchestrate
that. I wasn't present at the shooting of the more intense scenes.
I was doing a play... Address Unknown with the English actor Jim Dale, directed by Frank
Dunlop from the Young Vic. We were doing that at the Promenade Theatre in New
York and Address Unknown was a very
big issue in the thirties. It came to be because this woman who was in
advertising in San Francisco (Kressman Taylor) had some friends in advertising in
Germany and went there in the 1930s and came back to San Francisco. So she
wrote this book which is a very small, slight book.
The play is just these letters sent back
and forth between these two men, who were partners in an art gallery. The one who stayed in Germany became a real
Nazi. He was responsible for the death of the sister of the guy who was in San
Francisco, who was Jewish. What Kressman Taylor did was, she made up this story
along those lines and she had it in the letters back and forth and you see how
the two men change. The theatrical evening was reading these letters essentially
and performing them as dialogue. So the revenge that the guy in San Francisco
ultimately had was that he started writing letters with stuff like "a
Picasso Red 3" in the text. It sounded like a code and the Nazis in
Germany arrested the Nazi gallery owner and shot him. (laughs) That's Address Unknown.
What this has to do with the Headspace movie is that I met Andrew van
den Houten a couple of months beforehand through a friend of a friend of mine
in New York. A very young kid, very talented and he asked me to do this movie
when I was doing the play. I shot on my days off for about a month in New York
on the dark days in the theatre. That movie did very well for Andrew and it got
him started. I'm the doctor who finds the guy who finds the kid (whose intellect begins to grow). Dee
Wallace and I have a couple of scenes at the beginning of the film. Andrew
marshalled a very good cast. Sean Young, Olivia Hussey and Udo Kier are in it.
It's a very interesting movie and it did very well. Andrew was ambitious in
terms of the technical thing. He did some nice stuff (with monster makeup and special effects).
2010, you appeared in Re-Animator: The
the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood. Critics said you and George Wendt knocked
it out of the park in your respective roles as Dr. Carl Hill and Dean Halsey.
We did a stage reading for it here in L.A. and we did a couple of nights of it
for director Stuart Gordon. And then they did a permanent production of it. I
didn't do the permanent production. I just helped them out in the stage reading
but it was a lot of fun. There weren't any special effects in the stage reading
– just the music and playing the scenes. Kind of like a description of what
might happen, but there were no special effects in what I was involved with.
Bedtime, a star-studded episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, you
play a disreputable public official who abuses his position to prey on women
who come to him for assistance.
Yeah, and all the women got the Emmys! (laughs)
thought you walked away with the show, but why is a classy guy like you so damn
good at playing these sleazy characters?
The reason is because the characters that I play are far more interestingly
written than the nice guys. Nice guys kind of take care of themselves, but
there's not much conflict usually, particularly in television. You come and
play a character and you can have all kinds of dimension which is very hard to
keep up week to week. And so they bring you in for color and the writing was
terrific and that's really how that all happens. The writing is often
interesting for the villain. You can kind of play around with it. And it makes
was a real Seventies reunion episode of Law
and Order: SVU. I suppose this was deliberate, right?
Yes, the Seventies! Shit, the Sixties. Some
of those gals – Ann-Margret... I mean, wow!
Atherton in Headspace
Getting Back to Zero, you play a
professional gambler who goes by the name of Box Car Joe. Your performance was
described by a crew member as "stellar." Can you tell us about your
role in this film set in the world of underground casinos?
It was the moving casino thing. This is a
picture I did about three years ago; it was about the underground world of
gambling and how they move from one place to another and the stakes can get
very high and it's entirely unregulated. There's an enormous industry in
underground gambling. So that was kind of the scenario of the picture and you
have people who are really addicted to gambling who get into that world and
become part of the fabric of that world. Box Car Joe is one of those people who
is addicted to gambling. He's arrogant, rich. They kind of run on the
electricity of the moment in order to keep from essentially collapsing into a
black hole. That's why they keep the gambling going, because there really is
nothing else. So the gambling becomes a whole force unto itself and brings them
along. Getting Back to Zero came onto
Netflix about two months ago.
The whole world for indies has changed in
the last four or five years. It's become a lot more difficult for different
films. Tonight I'm going to a movie I did a year and a half ago called The Citizen which was about one of the
guys – it's a fictional picture, but it's about one of the guys who got caught
in 9/11. Simply because he was Middle Eastern, he got into trouble in New York.
It's with me and Cary Elwes and we went to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in the
fall and tonight it's a screening for the Hollywood Film Festival with a
Q&A afterwards. It's a lovely picture and it stars Khaled Nabawy, who is
the George Clooney of the Middle East. He's enormous over there in the Arab
world. The film festival in Abu Dhabi was incredible. We had a great time and
the movie was very well received.
me about your role as Winston.
He's a prosecuting attorney trying to
deport Ibrahim (Nabawy). It gets
pretty intense. I'm in a courtroom and so what I'm trying to convey is that at
the time, people were suspicious of people and you couldn't really take
anything for granted. Everybody had to toe the line in a way. That's just the
way the world changed. It was not necessarily a personal thing against this man
so much as it was saying: "This is the scenario now. You have to account
for yourself in ways that you wouldn't have had to before, but that is the way
of the world now. So it may seem to you
to be unfair and perhaps in the long run it is unfair, but that's the reality
of the moment and we all have to address it."
would you say The Citizen is one of
your better recent films?
Yeah, I think so. The
Citizen won Best
Ensemble Acting at the Boston Film Festival. They're in the middle of doing a
distribution deal for it now in the U.S. The
Citizen is a great picture. It also stars that lovely young actress Agnes
Bruckner who is playing Anna Nichole Smith for HBO. The Citizen will go into general release in the summer. I don't
always stump for everything that I'm in but I do stump for this one because I
think it's a terrific picture.
are you working on next?
I have an offer for a movie but I'm not
sure if the deal is going to work out. I've been involved in that process for
two movies in the past two months. On one of them I said, "No, we'll see
what happens with the other movie." I also just came back from Palm
Springs where I did a big musical benefit for Jewish Family Service of the
Desert. I used to do music in New York years ago. So it was a big musical
extravaganza for a couple of thousand people and was filled with artists like
James Barbour, Michelle Lee, Kate Ballard, and other great people. It was a big
musical evening for the Jewish Home Services Charity in Palm Springs, held at
The McCallum Theater, a big musical venue out in the desert. It was called Michael Childers Presents One Night Only.
I sang Isn't It Romantic?, which was
used in The Day of the Locust.
How did you feel about taking on the role of Honoré
in Gigi – the recent stage revival at
the Reprise Theater in Los Angeles?
I loved it.I had a fabulous
time. Millicent Martin and I did the enormously popular song Yes, I Remember It Well. We were a huge
success. Gigi sold out. Millicent was
great. The whole production was great. It was the most successful show they've
had (at the Reprise Theater). That was when I was asked to perform at the first big do
in Palm Springs. So Millicent and I also performed Yes, I Remember It Well at the McCallum Theatre's annual charity
event. And then they brought me back this year.
So you're edging back into musicals all these years
after singing What'll I Do? in The Great Gatsby (1974 version).
I'm still around
and I'm still doing it and I can still do it and I've had the most eclectic
career I can imagine. You have to go through the easiest door. All of a sudden
there was a door that opened to musical comedy. I can do a dance routine but
I'm not a "dance dancer" the way Christopher Walken is an acrobatic
dancer – even now. I'm a hoofer. I can do a routine, a soft shoe shuffle and
stuff like that.
Jinn sounds like a very intriguing picture.
I shot Jinn
about two or three years ago and I did some more on it last summer. It's really
a film-in-progress. The director of Jinn
is a very talented guy.
It's really a Middle-Eastern Exorcist.
A jinn is one of the spectres of Arab folk tales, a ghost essentially and part
of Middle Eastern lore and it's a very interesting kind of sci-fi slash horror
picture. So we'll see what happens. They're still in the midst of editing Jinn and putting that together so we
should see Jinn in a month or two. My
role as Father Westhoff is kind of like the Max von Sydow character in The Exorcist.
an episode of The Unknown series, you
again worked with Martha Coolidge, the director of Real Genius, in which you played the douchebag professor Jerry
directed Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (a 1999 TV-movie in which Atherton played 20th
Century Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck).
I understand Yesterday
is a horror story. What can you tell me about it and about your role as Jim
It's an episode
of a series on the Web called The Unknown...
a series about a guy who has a website and he collects stories of the Beyond
and puts them on his website. So he's uploading the Yesterday episode. I play the priest who has somebody come and
confess to him. The person he sees at the end is already dead. And Martha shot
it very well. Yesterday is very
classy. And it's been quite successful as a webisode on Crackle.com.
Can you give me your honest opinion of Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, in
which you play a gangster by the name of Earle Swinter?
opinion is that it made money and did well and that's all you'll get out of me.
(laughs). I think it made money overseas. It's very hard to say what does make
money and what doesn't make money. But it did better than people thought, which
is always important. I think Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are very talented
and they're going to find their niche.
Did you have a blast working with Robert Loggia?
Oh yeah. I love
Bob. He's always terrific. Tim and Eric's
Billion Dollar Movie is not for us. It's a kid's picture. It's not the kind
of thing we'd be interested in. Their audience is the hip kids on the internet.
Their audience is like the one for Childrens
Hospital or Workaholics (Atherton recently guest starred in an
episode of each series). Those are very hot internet cable comedies. That
is their milieu and that's Tim and Eric's audience.
So the new generation knows who you are basically
because of your guest appearances in these productions.
Yes, I'm happy
How do you feel about present-day Hollywood? You
have an international reputation from Ghostbusters,
the first two Die Hard films, and the
incomparable excellence of your performances. How do you fit in to this new
Hollywood of Marvel Comics summer blockbusters, Internet movies...
Well, I don't
know about that. Ghostbusters was one
of the first summer blockbusters, where it was really designed for that kind of
thing. That's almost 30 years ago now. Pictures I began with like The Sugarland Express and all that –
they belong to a different era. But no, I think it's about the same now.
Everybody is trying to figure out the best way to do it. Everybody is trying to
figure out the best way to get good product out there. It's always been a
business and the summer blockbuster thing has been going for a long time. Look
at the Die Hards. They were
positioned to be summer blockbusters. And that's 20 years ago. And Real Genius the same way. So nothing has
changed very much. What's changed is that things come and go more quickly.
Perhaps that's how I see it now. The attention span is less now than it used to
be, but not because of Hollywood. It's the culture's attention span that's
What can you tell me about your participation in the
Sci-Fi Channel Creature Feature Ghouls.
WA:Ghouls was very ambitious for
Sci-Fi because they wanted to see how much they could do technically with the
CGI stuff for television. It was all shot in Romania, so Erin Gray and I went
over there for a month and that was fascinating because you were shooting in
Romania which was a hot location for a number of years until it got too
expensive. It was very cheap to be in Romania back then. They had finished
shooting a big Civil War picture there – Cold
Mountain with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. We were in Romania a couple of
years later. There were a lot of pictures being shot in and around Bucharest.
We worked in the big studios in Bucharest. A lot of American production
companies were buying or leasing space in them. The crews were very good and
very cheap. It was just cheaper to bring a lot of people over there from the
States to shoot the picture. That changed after SAG's Rule 1 became official.
And that is, if you're an American actor and you're in SAG, if you shoot a
picture in Romania for international distribution, you have to have a SAG
contract. If you go to Romania to shoot something for Romanian television, they
don't care. But if you shoot something in Romania for international
distribution, it has to be a SAG contract. So SAG's Rule 1 slammed into the Romanians.
But the fun part of it was that you could go there and visit beautiful little
towns... Sibiu and university towns like Brașov – these little Baroque gems in the middle of the Carpathians and
you were shooting in some really lovely places. So that's what we did for a
Ghouls is what it is. It was a
horror picture for the Sci-Fi Channel. I think they were trying to shoot as
many things as they could for all the distribution that they could get. So I
was there with Erin Grey (Buck Rogers in
the 25th Century) and that's really all I can say about it. I was not part
of the overall viewing of it or the overall putting it together as much as I
was with Andrew's stuff like Headspace
and The Girl Next Door.
you were called upon to play another bastard in Jersey Shore Shark Attack, a Syfy Channel production.
WA: That was just a hoot. I did
that because Paul Sorvino was in it. Paul and I have known each other for many
years. It just seemed kind of fun and stupid and I guess it was fun and stupid
and so that's why we spent four or five days down in El Segundo and we just had
a very good time and it's one of those things you do just for the hell of it,
because it's silly and stupid and we had a good time doing it and that was
didn't feel that you had to bring a different element to your portrayal of
another villain – a ruthless developer intent on demolishing a seedy boardwalk
frequented by Italian-Americans?
WA: No, you try to reel it up as much as you can because the more you
ground it, the funnier it can be. You can't riff on a riff. (laughs) Somebody's
got to be the straight man so you try to do it that way and hopefully it'll all
What was it like to be crushed by a ferris wheel?
WA: Again, I watched that from afar. Paul and I just looked up and yelled
"Oh my God" and that was that (laughs).
What role do you play in Childrens Hospital, Adult Swim's hit comedy series?
WA: I play an official who is kind of like the Inspector-General. Shooting
that episode was a lot of fun. I worked with Henry Winkler. Henry and I have
known each other for a thousand years, all the way back to New York and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel in