By Kris Kitto - 12/15/10 12:06 AM EST
“Casino Jack” is set to open in Washington theaters Dec. 24.
What did you do to prepare for the role?
I knew about Abramoff, but I didn’t know a lot. I was living in London when this whole thing broke.
I got on the phone with George, and he flew to London. We got to talking about where the script was and our mutual interest in politics, and so I immediately thought this would be a good project to work on.
George said we might be able to meet Abramoff, and so I thought I’d wait to start my research until we’d see him so that I wasn’t influenced by what others said about him.
The first part was being able to have a chance to meet with him in the Cumberland, Md., prison for a little over six hours.
I was trying not so much to talk to him about what happened then and what happened next, but more about what his emotional experience was and where he was during certain periods of time.
And then after that meeting, I started Googling and reading old news clips, and then being inundated with how it was perceived. And that was fascinating and revealing.
Then I started meeting with people who knew Jack — people who worked at his lobbying firm, people who knew him in college, professional D.C. types.
Did you have any hesitation in playing Jack Abramoff?
No, none at all. There’s some kind of, I don’t know, sweet irony to me, that in the span of four years, I would be able to play Ron Klain in [the movie] “Recount,” who ran the 2000 recount for Al Gore — he was really this bastion of good, democratic values — and then to play the man who was called the most corrupt lobbyist in the history of Washington, D.C. I thought there was something great to be operating in both of those worlds.
Did you follow the scandal as it unfolded?
Only really peripherally. In England, you don’t get the 24-hour news cycle about an American, Beltway story of somebody who isn’t a famous politician.
I’ve always been a bit of a political junkie, so yeah, it was like, “Oh wow, look at that.” Not to the point I was reading every article out there. It was difficult to find anything of Abramoff himself, because he never sat down for an interview himself. There was a YouTube clip of him introducing Tom DeLay.
You seemed to portray Jack Abramoff with flashes of concern for others and for the consequences of his actions. In the movie he often worries about his karma. Where did you pick up on that?
When you look at sort of the way he was set up in terms of how he was presented, he was presented as the greediest person who ever walked on the face of the earth. Was he like another Bernie Madoff? Madoff lived a high-on-the-hog life. And then you look at Abramoff … you go, “Why wasn’t he paying his mortgage and ferreting his family off to Swiss chalets?” And then you find out that he, in fact, gave money away to people, many times to people he didn’t even know. He would read a story about someone who needed medical help, and he would send them a check.
It wasn’t black and white, and that to me is an interesting thing, because as an actor, you’re sort of like a detective trying to decode the clues. What was he like? What was motivating him? In his mind, did he think this was happening all over town?
In doing this movie, what did you learn about the way Washington works?
I suppose, maybe like most Americans, I wasn’t really aware of the enormous power and influence and money that is thrown around, that is given to candidates who are running for office. If they vote a certain way, if they support a certain bill, if they introduce a bill on behalf of special interests.
You said you’re a political junkie. How’d you get interested in politics? And what’s your interest level in Washington and the way it works?
From the time I was in high school. I stuffed envelopes for Jimmy Carter when he ran, I worked for Ted Kennedy when he ran, John Anderson, a congressman for Chicago, when he ran. I did a lot of work for President Clinton in his two campaigns.
I believe in public service and a lot of the good that can be done. But I think the shame of this movie is that it dampens people’s interest and belief in public service. It’s so much about money, it’s a shame.
Have you come to Capitol Hill yourself to do any celebrity advocacy?
I’m a theater rat, so I’ve spent a good portion of the beginning of my career doing plays at the Kennedy Center. I’ve spent a lot of time in D.C. as an actor, so I’ve always loved this town. But I’ve never come and testified for any particular cause, no.
In the movie Abramoff does a lot of impressions: Bill Clinton, Sylvester Stallone, Ronald Reagan, among others. How good were you at these impressions before doing them for the movie?
I started out doing standup comedy, and the things I did were impressions. So I’ve been doing impressions for all my life. But I never did a Ronald Reagan, and I certainly never did a Dolph Lundgren — I don’t recall that coming up. George kept saying, “I don’t want to make it a boring movie.” So Abramoff had those qualities that provided levity and showed a side of him that no one knew existed.
Are there any other Washington personalities, past or present, that you’d be interested in playing?
There are certainly people that I admire and certain people that I think had amazing lives and who were part of the political system who learned how to work in it. I think [former Democratic New York Sen.] Pat Moynihan is one of the most extraordinary and striking figures. He’s the kind of figure that would interest me.
What’s next for you?
I’m continuing my role as artistic director running The Old Vic Theatre. We’re doing the Bridge Project, which Sam Mendes and I formed. He’s directing me as Richard III. We’re doing that all over the world.
I’ve got a film called “Margin Call” with Jeremy Irons and Simon Baker, Demi Moore. It was a really interesting movie to do. It’s a fictionalized account of a kind of firm that was caught in the middle of the financial crisis. I play a guy who’d been handling about 200 guys on the trading floor and who had to follow the instructions of the bosses.
I did a comedy for Warner Brothers called “Horrible Bosses,” in which I play Jason Bateman’s horrible boss.
To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Kris Kitto at (202)628-8539 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.