I recently sat down with Tom Skerritt to talk about Paramount Pictures newly converted to 3D edition of Top Gun. Tom Skerritt, who played the no-nonsense 'Viper' in the film, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, appearing in over 150 film and television series, and who shows no signs of slowing down.
Having appeared in films as varied as Ridley Scott's timeless classic Alien to Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It and Herbert Ross' tear-jerker, Steel Magnolias, Tom remains one of Hollywood's most recognizable character actors.
Top Gun 3D is available on Blu-ray now.
HTF: So we’re talking about Top Gun which Paramount is going to release on 3D Blu-Ray on February 19th, following a limited IMAX theatrical run in 3D. Did you have any idea that when you were making Top Gun back in the mid-80’s that it would be as culturally impactful as it was, or that 27 years later, it would be converted to 3D and shown in theaters again?
Tom Skerritt: Well, I didn’t know about the 3D thing but I think I had a pretty good sense of the nature of that film. I’d worked with Ridley Scott already so knew his brother Tony, and when this came up, it was one film I really wanted to do. I could sense that that was going to be the success it came to be. That it became a generational hit - the subsequent generations of young viewers coming along who would watch it multiple times and still do all these years later - I didn’t expect.
HTF: Can you put your finger on what you think it is that tapped into the cultural zeitgeist for that film?
Tom Skerritt: You know, I think a lot of it really has to do with the music. Solid music and a solid script, and performances that are all collectively interesting, worked beautifully together. I think our film had really touched something so when people were leaving the theatre feeling I think it really was a dynamite experience. And Tony [Scott] really knew how to get the juice out of the aircraft, the statement of the aircraft and the rest of it was in balance with that. So, I think a lot of it had to do with just the rhythm of it.
HTF: So, people will obviously recognize you for having played Viper in the film. Is that a role that you would have liked to step back into, had a sequel ever come about?
Tom Skerritt: Of course. I have quite a positive feeling about that experience. So, I would love to have been able to do it especially with Tony but I have not heard anything more. I haven’t heard anything other than rumours about it for years.
HTF: You were quoted as saying “that there are many prominent people in the business who choose certain types of pictures and play a derivation of a certain character so that they are immediately identifiable and may become commercially successful as a result of it”. Do you think that phenomenon has worsened over the last 10, 15 years?
Tom Skerritt: I’ve been quoted as saying that? (laughs)
Tom Skerritt: Well, you know, I think there is always a tendency for any of us to get categorized. I always try to avoid that but on the other hand, this categorization is easy for moving things along which makes it easier. You get categorized by the people who hire us, the creative people. With that one particular thing and most good actors, most of us who make a living in the business, will try to do it all. So we would like to be able to do it all [different types of roles] but it just doesn’t work that way. Does that make sense?
HTF: It does. And so, when I look at the roles that you have taken on over the years, you’ve been everything from a loveable, likeable, grizzly bear kind of character to a terse, rugged, mean-spirited character like the character you played in the film Divided by Hate, which you also directed. What in particular do you look for in a character before you’ll agree to become that character?
Tom Skerritt: Oh, God! “What to do with it? What do I do with this guy?” And then it begins to emerge. A lot of really what I look for is the script and overall, “Is this a film I would like?” and reading a script and knowing the filmmaker. So, you often try to put that together to see if that is a film you would pay 10 bucks to go to see - and then consider the role. I kind of go out on the flipside from what most actors do. I mean, I love material, I love script storytelling, and if the project has that about it, then I’d like to be part of that story.
HTF: And you have shown a dedication to the craft of filmmaking. You’re the co-founder of the Film School in Seattle. How critical is it, especially now, to nurture young talent? And how do you feel the state of film and filmmaking today?
Tom Skerritt: Nurturing new talent in terms of writing?
HTF: Writing and directing.
Tom Skerritt: Oh, absolutely essential. None of us who stand in front of the camera can do what we do without good material and the better the material, the more we’re urged to do better. That’s the old saying of you’re only as good as the people you spend your time with. So, if you have good material and you are working with good people, you’re all going to want to be doing your best. And you push to do your best. So, I go for material every time.
HTF: So when I think of filmmaking and I think of storytelling, there’s a certain architecture that works. It’s not necessarily a blueprint, it’s not necessarily repeatable but there is a secret source and usually that’s what drives characters and character-driven pieces. So, what advice do you give to new writers coming in about how to protect that which is the most important in telling stories?
Tom Skerritt: You know, the first thing that we do, myself and the four other teachers, is emphasize self-worth. Writers have to, for the most part, really feel confident about what they’re writing, what they have to write about, and you have to really feel good about yourself. So we really emphasize self-worth, understanding that each one of us are uniquely living a life that no one else will ever live, and that it has value. I just start asking, “How do you feel about yourself and your life?”
HTF: That’s interesting.
Tom Skerritt: I think it is. The rest of it tends to roll out from there.
HTF: So, do you get to see films as often as you’d like, and out of last year’s crop, were there any writers or directors that stood out to you?
Tom Skerritt: Oh yes. I mean a number of writers and directors and actors stand out but and talk about any one particular person as being a favorite is not the way I think. Every writer, every director has a certain style and I love good storytelling, so I’m driven to see some that are going to leave me with a good feeling and give me something to take home. So, other than the set of directors we talked about, I’ve worked with many great ones and each one of them was different. Everyone was different, the way they work and if you’re open to that, you learn a lot. So I love just watching good actors do their work and think, “Wow, god!
HTF: So, are you set at home for 3D to be able to watch yourself in 3D on Top Gun?
Tom Skerritt: Well, I probably have to go to the big theatre.
HTF: Well, That’s the best way to see it. And then, my last question for you is to bring it back to one of my favorite films, Alien. I have always loved the character of Captain Dallas and the way you played it. It was always a strange sort of leadership dynamic from that character. He seemed tired and hands-off but was sort of noble in a very odd way. Is that what drew you to that character, and how much of you putting yourself and how you saw what you could do with that character ended up on screen versus what was in the script?
Tom Skerritt: I think we all know we have something to give to our profession and here’s a guy who has probably felt the same way, that he had more to give than being a captain of a freight ship, but he would do the job he has to do and that’s all he’s doing. Given more opportunity to be a better captain of the ship, he would fulfill that obligation. That was probably pretty much the secret to that one.
HTF: Wonderful. Well, thank you very much again for speaking with us today and I’m looking forward to seeing you in 3D in a couple of weeks.
Tom Skerritt: Thanks, Neil.