There is a certain relish to the way Scott Glenn describes a knife. His voice – a sort of Midwestern drawl that has a touch of Pittsburgh flint and a lot of Ketchum, Idaho, where he's called home for decades, in it – stays slow and steady as he talks about some of the various weapons he's been using in his martial-arts training lately. You can tell from the gleam in his eye, however, that the actor is getting a serious kick out detailing his recent discoveries in self-defense cutlery.
"There's this one called a karambit," the 76-year-old says, leaning forward and putting down a cup of green tea. "It's got a ring for your finger on the bottom, and the blade kind of curves out like that, kinda like a tooth. It began life as a gardening tool – women in the Philippines and Indonesia would use it to cut rice or mushrooms, and the ring kept it from slipping out of their hands when it got muddy. Then they discovered it doubled nicely as an an anti-rape tool." He taps his fingers on the table, letting the sentence hang in the air for a second. "Knives and swords cut, slash and stab. A karambit, however, well – that rips and tears."
The reason Glenn is sitting here, in the bar of the downtown New York hotel he and his wife use as a base of operations when he's on long shoots on the Eastern seaboard, is that he's doing publicity for The Defenders, Netflix's Marvel team-up extravaganza that unites the stars of its four superhero shows. Daredevil fans will be happy to know he's reprising role as Stick, the blind, tough-love father figure to that show's sightless vigilante; everyone else will be pleased to find out that the legendary character actor treats a deadly, geriatric comic-book killer with the same signature, no-bullshit manner that treats singer-obsessed soldiers, ex-con bull riders, corrupt cops, crazy Green Berets, F.B.I. agents, astronauts and apeshit prophets in the Australian outback. Most of the characters he's played during his 40-plus years onscreen radiate a sense that they could, if need be, kick your ass in a country second. This one literally kicks ass almost from the second you meet him.
Stick is one half of a late-act, small-screen one-two punch for Glenn, who, earlier this year, said goodbye to his character Kevin Sr. on HBO's The Leftovers – or "Senior," as the actor refers to him – with a near-solo episode in which he wanders down under in search of an Aboriginal holy man. It features, without a doubt, a monologue of sorts that offers the most compelling five minutes of TV you'll ever see involving faith, fatherhood, Niagara Falls, tape recorders, mystical chickens and a masterclass in acting. Many performers would have turned this showstopper into a delicate playing-the-scales showcase or a self-conscious awards-circuit reel. Glenn just rips and tears.
Over the course of an hour, several days before The Defenders hits Netflix in all its eight-episode glory, the actor talks about the tiny part he plays in the Marvel TV universe – what he can say about it, at least. ("Those Marvel guys really like their secrecy," he says, in the understatement of the decade.) But he also graciously dug into some of the highlights of four-decades-and-still-going career, from getting a big break from Robert Altman with a supporting part in Nashville to how he ended up on Kurtz's compound in Apocalypse Now, channeling the elite fraternity of NASA's space-race pioneers in The Right Stuff to introducing a female Fed to the world's most famous screen serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs.
How was Stick pitched to you?
My agent and manager called me up – usually when they're both on the line, that means a job or an offer: "Marvel is doing this thing called Daredevil …" I mean, I'm not a Comic-Con kinda guy, I knew nothing about any of this. I asked: What's the part? "It's Daredevil's mentor." I got so pissed off: "Oh, it's just some fucking old guy sitting behind a desk. His mentor. I don't wanna do it. Screw it." So I go for an "angry run" on this peak near my house – pissed off that I'd been offered a job! When I came back, my wife said, "Why did you run out of the house?" "They want me to play this old man!" "Well, they just sent over a cast breakdown…" And then I read it and went, Wait, he's a blind assassin? Holy shit, this is great!
How did you train for this? You've studied martial arts for a long time, but now you have to do them "blind" …
I'd been studying martial arts since I was six, but never played "blind" before, so I had to figure that out. Traditionally, what actors do is: If you play blind, you stare at someone's mouth. That's the trick. Problem is, that doesn't work when you're doing stunts in which five guys are attacking you with swords. So my solution to that was something I learned when I was in the Marine Corps called "peripheral walking."
I'll give you an example: Right now I'm looking at you. That woman over there…she just took a sip a water. The person to the left of us way over there…he took a sip of tea. You, you're just fuzzy. You just concentrate on what's happening on the side. The more you do it, the better you get at it. You just need too relax at it. Which explains most of the roles I've had: Relaxing under great pressure while tense.
When they brought me on for The Defenders, the first part of my schedule was three light days – the first day I was on set, they literally had me say one word. That was it for the first five weeks. I called up Jeph Loeb and said, What the fuck? Do I have to be here? He just said, Yeah, you do have to be here … we're doing table reads and we're paying you. Show up. So I thought, well, I'll learn a new martial art while I'm waiting.
Were there any you still didn't know?
A few. I wanted to learn how to work with short blades because…[pause] God, I probably shouldn't tell you because Marvel might sue me or kill me. Let me put it this way: I knew I was going to be doing a lot of stunts and I wouldn't be able to use both my hands.
I found a guy in New York who could give me private lessons for that kind of stuff. Then five weeks pass by, and all of sudden, they started calling me in for 16 hour days. And after the first day, my wife was like, "You'd better stop training for a bit." I asked her why, and … we were sparring with these rubber blades. They won't cut you, but they will tear your flesh if they catch. And she pointed toward all this blood on my side of the bed from where my arm had been. "Maybe just take it easy now, Scott?" [Laughs]
Would you say you're the type of actor who learns stuff from the outside in? If you're going to play, say, a bull rider in Texas, it makes sense that you'd learn as much as you could to make it seem real. But then there are actors…
Yeah, I see what you're saying. My background as an actor is improvisational street theater here in New York, along with doing a lot of work with [Method-acting teacher] Lee Strasberg – so I've worked in that sort of "inside out" way as well. But if I'm doing a role like, say, the one you're talking about from Urban Cowboy, what's more important to me than critics thinking I'm good or studio heads thinking I'm good is whether real ex-cons who came out of Huntsville [where the Texas State Penitentiary is located] and real bull riders down there thinking I'm good. I want them to believe I'm one of 'em.
What do you remember about working with Robert Altman on Nashville?
I never net an actor who did not love Bob. He almost demanded freedom from you. I remember doing a scene in Nashville in a hospital room, and I said, "What do you want from me in this scene?" He said, "What do you mean?""Well, I could give you pathos, or I could be funny and clumsy, I could play around…there are a million ways I could go with this.""You're the actor, not me!" [Laughs] "You know what I want to see, Scott? I want to take a look at the dailies and go, ‘Yeah, that's real.'" You know, that's it?!? And with Bob … yeah, that was it.
What I learned from him was to just try and live the life of the character and forget about where the camera is, what the people behind the scenes are doing, all that. When we did that state fair scene at the end, the big climax of Nashville, there were 11 cameras and we were all radio-miked. And somebody asked him, "Where am I? Am I over here in the shot or over there? How are you following me?" Bob said, "Well, what makes you think I'm following you at all?" That set was where I learned my job was not to get a key light or, as my manager says, to not try to have a conversation with Oscar. Have a real honest-to-God life onscreen. Do that, and Bob would find you.
That was why actors loved him, right?
It's why actors loved him and producers hated him. I once asked him, why are you so great with actors? And his reply was, "Because you guys are doing the only job on set that I couldn't do better. I can handle a camera, I can cook, I can do everything – but I have no fucking clue how you guys do what you do."
But producers … I remember on the set of Nashville, we were setting up a shot and this producer – not one of our movie's guys, but someone who'd worked with him in the past – came on the set. Bob turned around when he heard the man's voice and said, "Ah, talking behind my back, I see. I heard you were talking behind my back in L.A. as well!" The guy kinda chuckled, and then Bob just goes, "You see me laughing? What are you doing my set? Can you act? Can you light a scene? Can you fucking help the caterers serve food? No?" He turned to these two Hells Angels who worked for him – Eddie and Angel – and said, "Put this guy in his limo, take him to the airport. He's leaving." [Laughs] It's like, No wonder you have a hard time getting jobs from the studios. Holy shit! He was just a one-of-a-kind character.
You've said in the past that being in Apocalypse Now was one of the most important jobs you ever took – which is funny, because at least in the theatrical version, your character does not speak a word, correct?
That's not the reason it was important to me, though. Ok, so … when I arrived in the Philippines, I was supposed to have this very small part in the Do Lung Bridge scene. It was the weekend, and everybody was going back to Manila. I decided to stay there with the props folks, and a few others – there were about 20 of us, including a pregnant woman, who stayed on the set. And while we're there, the worst typhoon to hit the area since 1932 came in and just turned this isthmus we were living on into an island. Myself and a P.A. were the only ones who had any military experience; I was the only one who ever delivered a child before. So we filled up this generator with coconut moonshine so we could get a couple of hours of electricity out of it, and made sure everyone was ok.
Francis flew back a little later, and all of our sets were destroyed. In order to get insurance for something like that, you have to have an insurance person witness you trying to film and seeing that it'd be impossible to go on. So Francis, this insurance adjuster and Vittorio Storaro, our cinematographer, they got on this boat that's in the rover, which was now basically a whitewater rapid. There's a rope tied to the back of the boat to keep it from flying off, but the water is moving so fast that it pulls it – and the rope goes completely tight. It's starting to rip the whole back of the boat off.
So I see this, and very quickly, I take out my knife – I had a knife with me …
Of course you did.
…And I ran over there and just cut it. Boat's ok, everyone on board is ok. Francis, meanwhile, is convinced I saved his life. So the next day, he comes up to me and says, "I'm a really good writer. I know the small part you're doing, but tell me another part of the movie you want to be in, and I'll write you a whole other role.You saved my life, you did all this stuff, I owe you."
What did you say?
I told him I wanted to be in the end, at Kurtz's compound. And he threw his hands up and said, "That's the only part of the movie I can't put you in. There's nothing to give you there. I mean, there's Colby, the guy who goes up the river before and ends up becoming one of Kurtz's foot soldiers, but … you'll be like a glorified extra. And we're not doing that for three months. Pick something else." And I just said, No. That's what I want. You asked me. I'm telling you. Finally, he just went, all right, fine.
The reason I did that is, I didn't know that much about working in front of a camera. And I just knew that instinctively that, down the line, this would pay off. I felt like I was serving an apprenticeship – and I knew I'd learn way more about acting by being around Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper every day than being around anybody else doing anything else. So that's what I did. And it was the smartest fucking thing I could have done.
How close did you become with Alan Shepard when you making The Right Stuff?
Never even met him. Purposefully so.
Let's say I was going to play you in a movie, and you know I'm exploding your physical image into something that's the size of a four-story building, and that millions of people will see it, you're going to act differently. You'll edit yourself: I never did this, I was never like that. You'll try to make yourself appear better than you are – it's a natural instinct. And I saw that happening with folks; I saw it with Dennis (Quaid) and Gordon Cooper. So when someone asked me, do you want to meet Alan Shepard, I just said: No. What I want is to see every home movie you have of him…just all the footage you've got of him. The hardest part was really just making myself right-handed. I'm left-handed, so I had to work on that to get it down.
The best review I've ever got, still to this day, was Alan saw the movie down In Texas somewhere, and he wrote [director] Phil Kaufman a letter that said, "Tell Scott Glenn that I just saw The Right Stuff and he did a fantastic job! He got me almost perfectly. There's only thing he missed, and that is he's nowhere near as good-looking as I am." [Laughs] Yeah! The icy commander…you didn't disappoint me!
It's amazing how the film walks this balance between celebrating these guys and still totally puncturing the mythology around them.
Phil understood that the movie had to be made in San Francisco and shot at Edwards Air Force Base…they were on his ass to move the production down to Los Angeles and film the whole thing on backlots. And I think he knew that if were all this weird little family shooting up there, free from the eyes of the powers that be, he had a better chance of making something a bit deeper. We all knew we doing something special; we could tell that it was something significant and that it was good. I mean, it flopped when out came out, and now it's considered one of the great American movies. [Pause] It's just rough for me to think about it now because of Sam [Shepard, who played Chuck Yeager]. I was really good friends with him. It'll be a while before I can watch it again.
You got involved with The Silence of the Lambs through Jonathan Demme, right?
Yeah. Another script that I read and threw it against the wall. Once again, my wife came in and rescued me. "What's wrong?" "Oh, they sent me some stupid fucking horror movie." "Well, who sent it?" "Jonathan did. He wants me to come to New York and talk to him about it." "Scott, we've known him for 20 years! Let me see that script." She disappeared for an hour or so, then came back and said, "You need to read this again. This is unbelievable." Thank god she said that.
So I had dinner with Jonathan in New York, and afterward, we went to see these Haitian drummers play. During the intermission, Jonathan turned to me and said, "You have too play this part. You're the only person I know who can do it." At the time, I was three weeks out from shooting something else…sorry, but I'm committed to another feature. "If they sue you, I'll pay the legal fees. That's how bad I want you for this."
I called my agent up and said, "Look, I really want to do this, but I have to do this other thing." Maybe 15 minutes later, she calls me back: Apparently this other film was supposed to put my money in escrow, and they never did. The producers assumed I wasn't going to get another offer, so y'know, why should they lose the interest on my fee? So I went and did Silence. It was maybe the 50th time I've had someone yell at me, "You'll never work in this town again!" Yeah, ok. Right. Got it.
Why do you think the film became such a huge cultural phenomenon? Yes, it's well-written and well-acted and well-directed…
…And it's also incredibly talky, and even kind of slow in parts. Yet it was the second highest-grossing movie of the year when it came out, and was a huge hit in places like Japan and Germany and France and Japan. Y'know, usually the movies that do well internationally are things like Conan the Barbarian – lots of muscular folks grunting and you know what the story is already. I've thought about this quite a bit: Why did this particular movie resonate with so many different people? The one answer that I've been able to come up with is that there are tons of films about the rites of passage from boyhood to manhood – yet very, very few about the rites of passage from girlhood to womanhood. Jodie Foster's character starts the movie, for all practical purposes, as a girl; she ends that movie as a woman. Strip away everything else from the film, and that's really what's at its core.
Did you and Jonathan have discussions about the relationship between your character, Jack Crawford, and Clarice Starling?
Well, after I had read Ted Tally's script, I remember thinking, this is the strangest relationship in the movie, even stranger than her and Lecter. You can't quite figure it out: Is this like a surrogate father-daughter thing? Are they lovers? What the hell is going on? I remember Jodie and I were doing a table reading early on, trying it one way or another, and Jonathan said, "God, don't play the relationship. That's just a writer being a writer." [Laughs]
Later on, there's a scene where she's leaving Washington and I'm walking her out to the car. She had a hard time getting in, so I just took her arm to sort of help her getting in to the car. And Jonathan yelled, "No, Cut!" He comes running, like really running, up to us and goes, "Scott, I do not want you to touch her!" Jodie said, "Well, he's just helping me in, and…" Then he says, "Remember way back when we did that reading, and I told you two that you couldn't play that relationship? Well it exists on the screen … I see it in every frame of the footage I watch of the two of you. And I just know instinctively that if you touch here in this scene, it's going to blow it all. You should only touch her once, at the end, when you shake her hand…that handshake will be so loaded, but it only works if you don't do that." I mean, watch that scene and you see what he means. That was the kind of artist he was.
Let's talk about your role on The Leftovers – you've said in interviews that you thought Damon Lindelof was bugging your house, because he was giving you lines that seemed to echo your own ideas to an astonishing degree. Which is a little frightening, to be honest.
[Laughs] What I meant was he wrote for my voice in a way that I don't think any other writer has done quite as well. We had a long Skype conversation about him wanting me to play this character, and I asked him, "So what's this show about?" And he said, "Ultimately, I want the audience to ask themselves a couple of questions. I don't plan on answering any of them, but i want them to be at the forefront of their mind by the time we get to the final episode." So I countered with, "Well, what's the main question?" He replied "What does it mean when we say the word ‘family?'" Not blood lines or gene pools, but the idea of family.
He also said that in times of great trauma, which this show certainly ended up tapping in to, there's usually a prophet. There's usually three kinds: false prophets, the guys who want money, power and sex; crazy people, like the Guilty Remnant; and real prophets, like Moses, Muhammad and your character. He hears voices, reject the voices, fight the voices then give in to the voices. How many voices am I hearing, I asked. You cast them, he said…but know that they are never, ever lying to you. And then he said I think one day, maybe, your character may go on some sort of walkabout. He just blurted that last one out.
And there's "Crazy Whitefella Thinking," your stand-out Season Three episode, in a nutshell.
That episode is the best part I've ever had and the best work I've ever done. Period. Damon told me he's written the longest monologue he's ever written, and I may want to think about doing it in bits and pieces. Sight unseen, I told myself: You're going to do this in one take. Take the challenge. Then I asked him, how long is it? Seven pages. Oh, shit. [Laughs]
He never said it outright, but I knew that, regardless of how long that speech was, I had to walk the tightrope between: Is he a prophet, a madman or both? What I had used as sort of a through line for Senior throughout the show was that, once the voices left me, all I had left was an addiction.
An addiction to what?
To having a purpose. "Do I wanna see God? Ok, I'll take this acid. Well, that was bullshit. But wait, there's this holy chicken? Then I'll go see the chicken! Now I'll go to Australia!" [Laughs] That kind of thing. Unlike everyone else on that show – and some for cast got pissed off at me for saying this – Kevin Sr. doesn't whine. Grief is not his primary motivator. I just sort of knew from the beginning, this character is special. And I play it right and somehow don;t fuck it up, this man will just pop off the screen.
You're still getting good roles in your mid-Seventies …
I've been lucky, yeah. Stick and Senior. Good stuff.
…But there are a lot of actors who would look back on a 40-year-plus career and go, well, I'm proud of what I did, I left a good body of work behind, now I'm going to go fishing. So what's driving you to keep working?
Yeah, I mean…you're not the first person to ask me this. I really don't know. [Long pause] So that long scene we were just talking about from The Leftovers, the one I did with David Gulpilil? I remember when we finished doing the first take, [director] Mimi Leder said, "So Scott, when you start talking about your son, then you cry and start playing with the tape recorder, and then…" I was like, "Huh?" "You don't remember any of that, do you?" [He shrugs] It wasn't like I was in a trance – I heard her say "Cut," and I was present when she was talking to me – but I don't remember what I did.
So we did two more takes, all seven pages of this thing. After the third take, she goes, "You really don't remember doing any of this, do you? How do you feel about that?" I said, "I'm fucking ecstatic!" She sort of stops for a second, then goes, "Well, I can't direct you if you're not there. How would you feel about dialing it back and having a little bit of your consciousness in the scene there, so I can get what I want?"
What was your answer?
"Absolutely fucking not." Artists wait their entire life to have one of those moments. So that's the best answer I can think of as to why I'm still working. I'm still chasing after those moments. I can't help it.