January 11, 2018

STRANGER: Kurt Fuller
LOCATION: Marco’s Trattoria, 8200 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood, California
THEME: Dinner with a character actor

Kurt Fuller is happy being known as a character actor, and being “that guy.”

“When you’re ‘that guy,’ it’s not that people say, ‘Oh I loved you in…’ No, it’s, ‘How do I know you?’ And so you end up talking about your resume for 20 minutes,” Kurt says as we start a dinner interview on a Thursday night in West Hollywood. But even on the days when he’s in a hurry or might not be in the best mood, he’s gracious with people who approach him. “It’s part of my job. My career is over when no one wants to take a picture with me.”

“That guy” is someone whose face and 6 foot 3 build people recognize from dozens of well-known movies and television shows (Ghostbusters II, Wayne’s World, Psych, Supernatural), but whose name escapes them. Being that guy means getting approached by strangers roughly 10 times a day, often by people who know they know Kurt, but can’t figure out why they recognize him.

For more than two hours — “my god, it felt much longer,” he’ll quip at the end — the wry, charismatic, charming and eloquent man sitting across from me at an Italian restaurant shares stories about his lengthy acting career. We touch on a wide range of topics, from how he got started in acting to the future of the industry, and from Hollywood’s sexual harassment scandals to what he’d be doing if he had to pick a backup plan and quit the industry. And he even helps with trying to come up with a headline for the interview based on puns about his last name.

“Kurt-eous?” he suggests, then shrugs. “Meh.”

We’re dining at Marco’s Trattoria, a restaurant Kurt’s been wanting to try for a while. “This is a nice place, this is a good place to talk,” he says. And he’s right. Music plays at a very subtle level in the background, and the ambient noise level is soft. The building itself is decorated in a simple manner. Exposed brick walls, large pictures of landscapes on the wall, dark chairs and white tablecloths.

As we peruse the menu, we decide on splitting a bottle of merlot, and he asks the waiter what options they have. Just one. “We’ll take it! That was easy,” he says, then leans in close and in a whisper jokes, “If we send it back we have no other choice, it’s a very clever trick.”

Browsing the standard fare like lasagna and spaghetti, Kurt says, “I’m trying to eat better. I was just on location in Montreal, and when you’re on location, you eat terribly. Montreal is a heavy meat town, you can’t get a light meal there.” He was in the city for almost five months filming a 10-part series for EPIX based on Joël Dicker’s novel The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. “It’s a mystery, it was a bestseller, and I play an important role,” he says cryptically.

Kurt, 64, grabs his phone and zips through his pictures to show me one of him in his makeup for the show. He’s almost unrecognizable. “That’s five hours of makeup from 2 until 7 in the morning,” he says of the picture, which shows him aged by studio magic to look 80 years old. But he welcomes the chance to physically disappear into the role, because it’s a way for him to overcome the problem of being pigeonholed into certain roles when you’re known as “that guy.”

That guy has played memorable roles in almost countless movies, from the New York City mayor’s plotting aide in Ghostbusters II to television director Russell Finlay in Wayne’s World, and in television shows from the offbeat coroner Woody Strode in Psych to the recurring role of Judge Peter Dunaway in The Good Wife. His is a face many viewers instantly recognize.

I tell Kurt that his Wikipedia page says that he is “frequently cast as a weaselly executive, a smarmy authority figure, a law enforcement officer or overprotective father.”

“Can I just say something? That was written about 25, 30 years ago,” he responds. “I mean, they’re welcome to write whatever they want,” he says with a hint of amused frustration. That kind of pigeonholing is exactly what he tries to get away from, even though he acknowledges it can come with the territory of being a character actor. “It’s hard to break out once you become known as something. People think they know you and what you can and can’t do.”

Kurt says that although he is established enough that he doesn’t audition much these days, he will still read for parts which some people think he can’t do. “So I read for them – I don’t get many of them because preconceived notions are very strong,” he says. But there are exceptions, like the role he disappears into for the upcoming The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.

This March, he’ll also be seen as the principal in Paramount Network’s television series version of Heathers, based on the dark comedy movie of the same name about a mean high school clique and a place where a student commits suicide every week. “It’s very funny, and as long as I can do things that skew younger I can keep working,” Kurt says.

Shows like that, and from other similar outlets like Netflix, are where he sees the best opportunities for acting jobs. “I used to do a lot of studio movies, but not anymore. The roles are not there. They don’t make nearly as many movies as they used to, and they’re action mostly.”

But for the roles that do still interest him and are available, he’s happy to be known as a character actor. I ask him to explain what that means. “Generally character actors and actresses tell the story, because the leading man or woman is the strong center and getting by on likability because they’re not usually written that deeply, the interesting stuff is swirling around them,” he says. “So character actors play the people that tell the story — and whenever I look at a role, I don’t think who’s this guy? I think what is this guy doing for the story? What’s his function?”

So Kurt figures out what his character wants, and how he can his use acting skills honed over the years to get that across on screen. For example, if Kurt’s character loves the main character, he tries to figure out what that means. “Think about love, is it romantic or brotherly or human? I’m checking in with him, his eyes, his face to see how he’s taking the information I’m giving him. And if he’s taking it badly, I want to move him to a better place because I love him. So what does love mean to you? What does that do to your body?” Kurt says. “And the camera gets every little tiny part of that, and the result is an honest, well-thought out and hopefully intuitive performance.”

He adds, “It’s only taken me 25, 30 years to figure out how I’ve been overacting my whole life,” he says. Now he can spot it, comparing overacting to someone telling a story in an incredibly loud bar, as he waves his hands theatrically in the air and talks in an over-animated way.

Kurt’s dry humor is clear from the moment you meet him. He’s great at effortless adlibs. And he appears relaxed as soon as we meet. Which is probably how I get so comfortable around him that my hidden clumsiness comes out when the waiter deposits some bread. I want to dip the bread in vinegar and olive oil and grab for the bottles, but they end up sending streams of liquid his way.

“You’re making me nervous with those hands!” he yells in mock fright. He’s tempted to check whether I’ve ruined his gray sweater. “Nah, I don’t want to look.”

Instead, at my urging, he launches into a condensed biography.

Kurt was born in San Francisco on September 16, 1953. “Our family motto was, ‘We’re the Fullers, we rise to the middle,” he says with a smile. If that’s the kind of line his parents would speak, it’s easy to see from where he got his dry, sometimes self-deprecating and always winning humor.

He went to the University of California Berkeley to study acting. Why that university? “It was very easy,” he says, “I was madly in love with my high school sweetheart. She was a year behind me and wanted to go to Berkeley. Nowadays I couldn’t in there with a million dollars, but back then there had been riots because of Vietnam and parents were scared of it. So I got in.” And the girl? “She dumped me and went to Stanford, for which I have never forgiven her.”

Another wry smile. So why acting? “I met another girl, and at the time she was in an acting class. I thought, well, I’ll take this class,” Kurt explains. “And I just got hooked on it, it worked for me, I became obsessed with it and never looked back.”

Our waiter returns with our starter, we’re both having the pasta fagioli.

I pull out my otherwise abandoned iPhone to take pictures of the soup, and earn my first eye-roll of the night from Kurt, something that will become a running gag for each snap.

After clicking away, I sample the soup and am happy to taste that the meal’s off to a good start. The soup of white beans, rosemary and pasta soup is served in a large square bowl, almost too much for an appetizer. But the hearty soup is so delicious it’s impossible to not finish it off.

“Mmm, this is good,” Kurt agrees. In-between spoonfuls, he goes on to tell me that after graduating Berkeley in 1976, he chose Los Angeles over the other main acting city of New York because he figured it was better to be poor in the sunny city of Angels than the seasonal Big Apple. Worst case scenario he could eat oranges and the weather would be better. Packing everything he owned into a 1967 Dodge Durango (including his mattress), he drove south with no grand master plan and no contacts in show business. In the early days he’d work during the day and act at night, fitting in auditions. He was a bank teller, then sold shoes, then real estate.

He shakes his head and laughs as he remembers some of his early flunked auditions. “I used to sweat so much from nerves. I mean, I fainted in one audition. I started talking, I started to get light headed — these are the kind of things that can make you decide not be an actor.”

By the way, he didn’t get that part.

But then, in 1986, Kurt took on the main role of Frank in Kvetch, a play by Steven Berkhoff. “It was a huuuuuuuge hit,” he says, drawing out the “u” so much President Donald Trump would be proud. Kurt says it made his career. “Six months later I was no longer selling real estate.”

Celebrities like Jack Nicholson, Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson came to see it. But the most fateful celebrity in attendance was actor/director/writer Harold Ramis. He and Dan Aykroyd had written the role of Jack Hardemeyer, a manipulative aide to the mayor in the then still-unmade Ghostbusters II. Harold suggested Kurt try out for the part. He got it, and exploded into visibility.

“A play is not going to really get your career going, it’s seen by a total of 4,000 people,” he says. “Ghostbusters II was seen by millions of people and was a big hit, and that’s what got my career going. You just need somebody to say that first yes, but everyone is afraid to.”

After Ghostbusters II, Kurt says “I played funny assholes for years,” and he made a living in big hits including Wayne’s World and the first Scary Movie. But then typecasting fears set in. “If you play the bad guy too many times, and the show is a mystery and it doesn’t want you to know who the bad guy is, but the bad guy shows up, then the mystery’s over,” he says. “So I saw that I was starting to lose work, because I’d be told they wanted someone who doesn’t play the bad guy.”

Kurt started to turn down the kind of bad guy or smarmy character roles that he was becoming known for. I ask whether he started to lose interest in acting altogether. He nods, saying it happened soon after appearing in Woody Allen’s 2011 movie Midnight In Paris. Kurt says he started to get more television roles after that movie, but it was all network series scripts for unfunny shows with lame jokes. “I just started to hate it.”

He’s always had a Plan B: Sell his house, take early retirement and move his wife and two daughters to Oregon or Washington. But he stuck with Plan A, acting, perhaps because of the family motto about rising to the middle — never giving up no matter the odds. “I was never the best actor, never the best looking, never the best student, but I fell in love with acting. I fell in love with acting to the point where I look back upon the days where I was just selling real estate and doing really interesting, wild plays for nothing as my happiest performing experience.”

Then along came the television series Psych.

The detective comedy-drama ran from 2006 to 2014 and Kurt played the role of the somewhat unhinged coroner Woody Strode. “Psych is the best job I’ve ever had,” he says as the waiter clears away our soup dishes. “It was enjoyed by literally dozens of rabid fans” known as Psychos, he adds. A reunion movie took place last year, and Kurt says more are planned. He loves that the show gave him the chance to improvise and get away from the typecasting of past roles.

“Psych was the pure joy of acting, everyone was having a great time. And I got excited about acting again,” he says with a warm smile “We’re all still great friends, I text them all and we talk all the time. And I’m so glad the movie did well because I can work with them again.”

Reinvigorated by acting, Kurt is still out there looking for interesting parts that test his skills. “I hate rejection, I hate giving really good auditions and not getting it, it still upsets me,” he says. In his earlier years he used to think about acting all the time. But as he gets older he realizes it doesn’t require that much thought. Instead, what it requires is undivided attention.

“While you’re on the set there is nothing else,” Kurt adds. “You’re completely focused and you have to listen like your life depends on it. You have to read the other people constantly, the closer you can get to that the better you are. Anything that keeps you from thinking about yourself.”

Kurt says the one time he completely nailed that approach and truly forgot he was acting was starring alongside Jamie Foxx in the Ray Charles biopic movie Ray. Foxx was so good that Kurt forgot there were cameras, crew and other actors around. “I was talking to Ray Charles, not Jamie Foxx,” he says. “It was one of the most transcendental experiences I’ve had on a set.”

And on that note, Kurt flips me the bird. That’s because I’m reaching for the iPhone again to take pictures of our main courses.

Kurt’s eating the spaghetti with meatballs, served in tomato sauce. Another large portion.

My plate is the lasagna bolognese with meat sauce, ricotta and mozzarella. As the name suggests, it’s a large slab of meat lasagna slathered in bolognese sauce. It’s a very heavy dish but the freshness of the tomatoes and the tenderness of the meat, blended in with a perfect mix of cheeses, makes it as hard to resist as the soup starter. Today will not be a day for light dining.

While we eat, Kurt reminds me that we’re yet to talk about the #MeToo movement, particularly given the Harvey Weinstein scandal, increasing stories about Woody Allen’s alleged bad behavior, and a general sense that Hollywood has some serious housekeeping to do. “Ask me something controversial,” he says. “I have plenty of very careful things to say.”

Kurt had a role in Allen’s Midnight In Paris, years before last year’s explosion of coverage of the awful behavior of many people in the industry — although there had long been questions about Allen’s actions because of his decision to marry his adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. In 2014, Allen’s other adopted daughter Dylan first went public with claims her father sexually abused her when was seven. The writer-director has denied the allegations.

But at the time of Midnight In Paris, the claims weren’t center stage. And rumors of Allen’s behavior were just that. “I knew some of both sides of the story and I assume everyone is lying and acting in their own self-interest. He’s fudging, she’s fudging, he seemed a little wild, she seemed a little not solid,” Kurt says — a position he took based on personal experience. He tells me about his wife Jessica Hendra, whose father is the English satirist Tony Hendra. He’s a bestselling author and “a horrible man, who sexually abused my wife from the ages of 6 to 13,” Kurt stays.

I’m taken aback. Kurt fills the silent air, telling me that Hendra would go on talk shows to discuss his incredibly popular memoir Father Joe, and that as part of the routine he’d share stories of how troubled his daughter was growing up and he didn’t know why. Jessica eventually gave the man an ultimatum to admit the truth or she would. He didn’t confess. And so she went to the New York Times with the story, and after that published a book about the allegations. “He told her, ‘We will never speak again on this earth,’ and they haven’t, which is fine with us,” Kurt says.

“So that was our background when Woody Allen came along. And it was 50/50” doing the movie, he says. “It was true that he married his adopted daughter, but they’ve been married for 20 years, I don’t think she’s being held hostage, so I decided to go with it. Today it would be much harder.”

Talking more generally about various famous names accused of atrocious behavior in recent months, Kurt says, “You wonder how can such motherfuckers be such a great artist? And you realize you can create art without living artistically. You can create things that elevate the spirit but at the same time you are smashing spirits in your own life.”

Applying that view to Midnight In Paris, he adds, “So now if I got a Woody Allen movie I would probably say no. I would feel regret because I’d miss the artistry, but the artistry is not as important as the damage to society and the inhumanity.”

With the hindsight of #MeToo being 20/20 for past behavior, Kurt acknowledges that over the years some of his jokes or attempts at being flirtatious might have unintentionally missed the mark. “I’m sure in my life I’m guilty of thinking I was being funny when I was being a pig,” he adds, but he’s hopeful the situation will end the “man’s club” of Hollywood. “The times of pushing yourself on people, keeping other people’s secrets, those times are over.”

Kurt adds, “I think the change that’s happening is what’s happening to the world, and I think it’s a good thing, is that you’re going to see a lot of women in charge, there’s so many more women running for office in America, and many right now are the most viable candidate.”

A momentary silence breaks when our waiter delivers dessert.

And Kurt doesn’t even have to say a word, I can read the joking frustration on his face as the camera returns for some more photos. I snap what a think is a pretty decent picture of the chocolate molten lava cake he convinced me to get. “I know you can finish that,” he says with support.

But the incredibly rich cake is what finally defeats me, and I’m unable to finish it.

My photo of the pistachio ice cream that Kurt is having doesn’t turn out so well, blurry because I tried to take it quickly in-between him flipping the bird at the last dish and my need to photograph it. “Every time! Thank god it’s not a five-course meal.”

The camera goes away, and Kurt surveys the restaurant and (thanks to me) our vinegar and olive oil stained table. “I think we did well here,” he says with another smile.

I tell him two hours have flown by.

“It feels like four!” he jests back.

As dinner comes to a close, I ask him if he’s proud of career. He corrects me instantly. “I’m not proud. I’m not in love with most of my work because I always think it could be better. And If you look at my professional life I really haven’t done much, some TV shows and movies,” he says. He’s being modest, IMBD alone lists almost 200 acting credits — many in well-known productions.

“But in my personal life I’ve got a wife and two kids who love me and who are going to go on and do better things than I did,” Kurt adds. The Fullers as a unit are rising together.

When Kurt’s youngest daughter, who’s 16, goes to college, he is preparing to take a six-month trip to Europe with his wife while he can still climb stairs and swim in lakes. “Okay, maybe not swim in lakes, they’re pretty cold over there,” he says. “It is a good plan and it will be done.”

Kurt tells me that what he cares about most is his family and a couple of friends. “I don’t care about anything else. I’m not as ambitious. I really do it for the love of it,” he shares. “Acting is like golf, you never really master it, and if you think you do you’re fooling yourself.”

As an example of how his acting style has evolved, he shares the story of how he was almost cast in Groundhog Day, which was written and directed by Harold Ramis. The role of the happy-go-lucky insurance salesman played by fellow character actor (and previous Dining With Strangers interviewee) Stephen Tobolowsky was originally written for Kurt. He went in to read for it a few times, but after the third reading Kurt declined to go in for yet another reading, exasperated at the process. “I said I’ve read it, it was written for me.”

Stephen went in to audition and got the part. “And it worked better for Ned Ryerson,” Kurt says. “Stephen is innately goofier than I am, I would have been meaner and not as jolly. This was back when I would always come across as a little bitter, sharp and sarcastic” in his various roles, he adds.

When he had children, things changed, and he credits them with taking him from “living in the dark to living in the light,” which helps explain his captivating, friendly personality. And that’s something he’s putting to good use in an increasingly diverse range of roles in his 60s. Psych, Heathers, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair and more prove that there are still roles that won’t play to prior typecasts.

Demand remains for talented character actors like him, Stephen and others featured on this site including Fred Melamed, Jim Piddock and Michael Hitchcock. “I’ve worked with all those guys, and the only reason we’re working is because we’re really good, because you don’t get any favors. You don’t last a long time unless you know what you’re doing,” Kurt says.

And so he will keep on working. “Acting, the career, is a door, and there’s a million people outside that door. Somehow, someway, not just by talent, but by luck, like a pinball you open that door and you go through, and there’s a room with a couple hundred people, and that’s all you’ve got to worry about,” says Kurt. “I got into that room and I have no complaints.”

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