Last week we heard from Kevin Spacey on his starring role in George Hickelooper’s Casino Jack, which chronicles the rise and fall of Washington, D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In addition to Abramoff, who was released from prison earlier this month, two other figures play a prominent role in the events that unfolded: Mike Scanlon, Abramoff’s right hand man, and Adam Kidan, a shady character who is brought in to oversee the management of a newly acquired casino cruise line, a partnership that factored heavily into the indictments that followed. Barry Pepper and Jon Lovitz, who play Scanlon and Kidan, respectively, sat down to chat with Spinoff Online about their differing approaches to the character and the experience of working with Hickenlooper, who passed away in October, on his final film.
Neither actor met with his subject, but for Lovitz it was an intentional decision. Kidan is still in jail, and he spoke with Hickenlooper about the film. Lovitz put his faith in the director, as well as in the words from writer Norman Snider, and leaned on his considerable talents as a performer to color the rest of his role.
“I think it's easier to play a fictitious character because you can make anything up,” he admitted. “When you're playing somebody that's really well-known and everybody knows what he's like, it's harder because you've really got to study the guy and imitate him, and then you've got to play what's written. Mostly it was just what's in the script. George Hickenlooper, he made a great movie. We all loved him. He really collaborated, but he made the movie.”
The film’s political slant was initially a turn-off for Lovitz, owing largely to the fact that he – like most Americans – follows primarily the major ebbs and flows affecting our society. It clicked for him when somebody compared K Street machinations with the day-to-day business of Hollywood. “Then I started watching it and I said, 'Oh, you mean so he says this but he's just saying it because he wants this and he's saying that because he means this and he's lying about that because he wants this, so he told this guy to say that but they're really trying to get this which is really about this... you know.'”
“So I went, ‘Oh, now I get it. It's lying and bullshitting!’ Then I understood it totally.”
Pepper, on the other hand, didn’t have the option of meeting with Mike Scanlon. “He was actively cooperating – I believe he still is – with the investigation, so he had kind of removed himself from the scene and that wasn't available to me,” the actor said. “What I did have the opportunity to do was speak with his colleagues and friends and co-workers. Some of them had... quite interesting things to say.”
“Interesting” is putting it mildly. Scanlon wronged no small number of people during his and Abramoff’s time at the top. It’s a credit to the man’s charisma that he was able to overcome an abrasive personality and hang on to friends in high places. Pepper found that, for all of the people that despise Scanlon, there are equally many who will jump to speak of him glowingly.
“It really helped me layer the character,” he said of the research. “Of course you [also] read as many of the books as you can get your hands on, and there's this huge paper trail of e-mails that was all evidence. What revealed itself was, in both cases – Kevin's and mine – these two very schismatic personalities. Mike, for the entire time he was making millions as a PR rep and lobbyist, he was holding down a $10 an hour lifeguard job on the beach. The entire time.”
“So he had this very dual sort of life happening, possibly as a front, I don't know,” Pepper continued. “He was this ultimate surfer dude and in Washington he had this very… country club-type personality, very smooth and slick and oily. People said that you instinctively knew not to trust him when you met him, but they said he could talk the chicken off the bone. He was such a smooth operator.”
Pepper was also just impressed at the most basic level with the idea of telling this particular story. The key figures are larger-than-life in many ways, but it’s all true. And while it’s easy to watch Casino Jack and think that some of the more outlandish circumstances are really just victims of dramatic license, Pepper was ultimately taken in by just how much of what’s written in the script really happened. “You can't proceed without a First Amendment lawyer,” he said. “The script has to be vetted for inaccuracies and liabilities or else you can't get production insurance. That's what's most remarkable about a story like this. Yes, it's told with a certain amount of humor and it's entertaining, but when you read these books and you speak to these people you realize that's the way these guys roll. It's really incredible.”
One of the few examples of license being taken for the sake of the story, and this happens late in the film so a spoiler warning applies, comes after the scandal has broken and official inquiries begin. Scanlon, who has turned state’s evidence and will testify against his former colleague, meets Abramoff for one last game of racquetball before he heads off to prison. It’s a funny exchange given the circumstances, as each man comes clean and reveals his plan to turn on the other. Scanlon just got there first, so it’s no hard feelings for Jack.
It turns out that this reconciliation never actually happened, or at least not in any way revealed through pre-production interviews. Abramoff revealed that he didn’t hold anything against Scanlon for his actions, that they “would probably still be friends today,” an admission which, as Pepper put it, “sort of created the backbone of the relationship for [himself and Spacey].”
“Even though they couldn't get to the FBI fast enough to rat each other out,” Pepper explained. “I said to George and Kevin that I thought we really needed a scene in the final analysis of this film that allows them to sort of show that, heal that relationship, because that's obviously how they felt. You can imagine how terrified they were: when you are these absolute heroes to everyone in town and then the scandal breaks and nobody knows you. Everybody all the way up to the top of the flagpole insulated themselves and inoculated themselves from these guys immediately. So they were terrified and they really did everything they could to save themselves.”
Casino Jack is currently playing in limited release.