In director George Gallo’s “Middle Men,” Luke Wilson plays Jack Harris, a businessman and fix-it guy who helps a pair of coked-up idiots turn an invention designed to put pornography on the Internet into a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I’ve always kind of envied actors that got to play a real person or got to do research,” Wilson said. “I’ve always had these roles and it was pretty much just right there on the page. I thought now was the perfect time [for me] to do that, and it was helped by me not being computer savvy at all.”
Wilson’s character is based on producer Chris Mallick’s experiences, which allowed the actor to spend more time with his real-life counterpart both before and during filming.
“Chris was there every day, every shot on location,” Wilson said. “I’d just spend a ton of time with him, go eat lunch with him, go to dinner with him. He’s a cool guy in that he wouldn’t give straight on advice, but you could ask him any questions you wanted to. [That] helped relax me because it was kind of a different role for me as an actor. Not that I didn’t think I could do it, but you just get told enough that, ‘Wow, this is a really different role for you,’ that you start to think, ‘Well, it is. Should I be doing ‘Legally Blonde 3’?” It was great to have the chance to be able to see that this guy is a real guy and he’s just a businessman that actually did get in over his head.”
The film also re-teams Wilson with “Bottle Rocket” co-star James Caan, whom Wilson had not worked with since his film debut nearly 15 years ago and was happy to share stories from their first experience together. “[Caan] was the first big star that we had worked with and we always used to kid around that we were high-fiving ourselves like, ‘This is incredible, James Caan!’ and then you’d look at him on the set and he’s like, ‘What am I doing here? I was working with Coppola, I was working with Michael Mann and now I’m with these guys,'” Wilson joked. “Really, that’s how he was the first two days and we were like, ‘Ah, this poor guy …'”
“He thought we looked weird, he thought we sounded weird,” Wilson continued. “There would be takes where I’d say something and he wouldn’t even do the line. He’d just look at the director and be like, ‘Should we do it again?’ After a couple days, I don’t know what happened — maybe he just admitted defeat — he just was really nice to us and a really good guy. … Fifteen years later to get the chance to work with him again was really, really cool.”
Because the characters of Wayne and Buck, played by Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht, are composites rather than actual people, the actors were given freedom to explore and invent their drug-addled geniuses.
“[Buck] was a computer programmer and a NASA scientist, and I’ve been influenced by some computer programmers in my family and I modeled his dress on what these guys wear — the Teva sandals with the socks and the nurses shoes — not really being subconscious in a way,” Macht explained. “When they got some success and made some money, he was insecure with how he came across and he put on these layers to make him feel good by looking like the people that he’s surrounded himself with along the way. He’s always just trying to find himself.”
One of Ribisi’s most memorable scenes, and one that made it into the trailer, involves him holding a crossbow in the middle of an otherwise mundane office scene. With just 30 minutes until the scene had to be shot, Ribisi ran up to Mallick and told him he had to have a crossbow for the scene. “That really speaks to the whole process of the entire movie where a lot of it was extemporaneous,” Ribisi said. “A movie is really predicated on the people that are making the ultimate decisions and their likes and dislikes. Knowing that we were in safe hands, we were open to, and wanting to, do everything we could to be completely balls out.”
The chemistry between Ribisi and Macht in the film is often one of polar opposites united only by their manic natures and unexpected genius, which leads to many on-screen fights between the two. While the fights were planned out, director George Gallo’s willingness to let his actors bring more to their roles led to some creative, ultimately physical, risks.
“There was one day where it felt like Giovanni was like, ‘I’m going method today,’ and he asked this bouncer who was easily 6-foot-5, 280 [pounds] to throw him down onto a concrete floor as hard as he could,” Macht said.
“And that hurt,” Ribisi half-joked.
“He got through the scene!” Macht said. “I thought we were gonna get out of it immediately and have paramedics, but [he] just kept on going.”
“It hurt, man,” Ribisi reminded his co-star.
Kevin Pollak, who plays an FBI agent, said the film’s premise is “remarkable in its absurdity,” and that’s exactly what drew him to it. Unlike Wilson, he didn’t do any research or spend time with an FBI agent for his role.
“I’ve never done any research for any movie I’ve ever done,” Pollak said. “If I’m an FBI guy, it’s never about how to be an FBI guy, it’s always about a guy who is with the FBI. Unless I star in the movie, ‘I Was an FBI Guy,’ and I don’t see that happening to be honest with you.”
Pollak’s time as a character actor has allowed him to inhabit many types of roles, and has prevented him from getting stuck playing the same part over and over.
“However people discover you is how they know you,” he said. “If you saw me first as a stand-up then that’s what you think of. The weird thing about ‘The Usual Suspects’ is that it regenerates a new audience because it’s one of these weird rites of passage in college, where by the time you’re a sophomore, if you can’t speak ‘Suspects’ you’re a loser. Like, to this day. I thought [that] would fade but it’s now 15 years later and that’s still the case.”
While none of the actors commented on the marketing of “Middle Men” via trailers on XXX websites, Wilson did speak to the power of advertising and his role as pitch man for AT&T.
“I’ve been making movies for 15 years and then people are like, ‘Hey, you’re the AT&T guy,'” Wilson laughed. “Suddenly the ads were on all the time and I’d have friends who were like, ‘If I wanted to watch the football game with you I’d have had you over to my house.’ These ads are on all the time. It shows the power of the medium.”
Wilson hopes audiences will show sympathy toward his character, but it’s not something he thought about while working on a film. “It’s not like he kills anybody or anything like that,” he said. “He is a regular guy. … He’s really just trying to help a friend and then he gets into this other business and it takes off like the oil business. Overnight he’s making money hand over fist, and then he gets pulled into this world of Internet porn and kind of loses his moral compass.”
“But, finds it again…” Wilson added with a smile.
“Middle Men” opens on Friday.
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