IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: William Atherton Talks 'The Citizen,' 'The Sugerland Express,' 'Real Genius,' 'Ghostbusters,' 'Die Hard,' and the TV series 'Life'

Monday, 05 November 2012 00:47 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: William Atherton Talks 'The Citizen,' 'The Sugerland Express,' 'Real Genius,' 'Ghostbusters,' 'Die Hard,' and the TV series 'Life'

William Atherton is one of those veteran actors that you may not recognize by name, but you have been enjoying his brilliant work for the better part of the last thirty years!

Atherton first gained attention for his starring role opposite Oscar-winner Goldie Hawn in Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut The Sugerland Express. However, it was his roles as the antagonists in a string of classic ‘80s movies including playing Prof. Jerry Hathaway in Real Genius, bureaucrat Walter Peck in Ghostbusters, and ambitious reporter Richard Thornburg in Die Hard, that cemented the actor’s distinguished position in cinema history. Since then he has appeared in such popular films as Die Hard 2, The Pelican Brief, and Bio-Dome, as well as having guest starred in groundbreaking television series like Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Life with recent Emmy-winner Damian Lewis (Homeland). 

The seasoned character actor can now be seen in the new independent film The Citizen, which recently played at the Hollywood Film Festival and is currently making the rounds on the film festival tour. The movie marks Sam Kadi’s directorial debut and revolves around an Arab immigrant named Ibrahim (Khaled Nabawy) who wins the American green card lottery, arriving in New York City on September 10, 2001. Suspected of being involved in the terrible acts of September 11th, Ibrahim is put on trial and forced to fight for his freedom. Actor Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) portrays Ibrahim’s lawyer, while Atherton plays Winston, the opposing council. 

IAR’s Managing Editor Jami Philbrick recently had the great pleasure of speaking with actor William Atherton about his work on The Citizen, as well a look back at The Sugerland ExpressReal Genius, Ghostbusters, Die Hard, and the TV series Life. The talented actor discussed his new film, how he got involved with the project, its important themes, the movie’s star Khaled Nabawy, Cary Elwes unusual performance, working with a first time director, his memories of working with Steven Spielberg on his first feature film, the TV series Life, acting opposite Damian Lewis, the legacy of Real Genius, Ghostbusters, and Die Hard, the “Die Hard joke,” and if he would ever return to either the Ghostbusters or Die Hard franchises.

Here is what he had to say:

IAR: To begin with, can you talk about your new film The Citizen, and how you got involved with the project?

William Atherton: They asked me. They just asked me and I read it and I said yes. That really just seems to be it. It's as simple as that.

How did you feel about the script when you first read it? Did you have an immediate connection to the material?

Atherton: The thing that got me about it was that it's an American film about Arabs and I’ve just never seen that before. It had a new angle on the 9/11 hysteria. The two and a half scenes that I do were really difficult because I felt I wanted to do it because it was difficult. I didn't want to play a puppet. I didn't want to play just a cold washed bureaucrat. I remember the tenor of the time and the hysteria about it. Everybody was so scared and nobody knew what to do and nobody knew who was a friend or foe. I lived in New York for twenty years. I lived near the World Trade Center. That was my neighborhood. So there was this whole dilemma, how do we treat this? How do we see anything after this? So I just wanted to take it very kind of almost algebraically, A, B, C, D. If you want to stay here, if this man wants to stay here does he understand why we would have questions about him? Does he understand he has to answer those questions with a bit of depth? I thought that was smart. I thought the writing was really smart and I really had to be up to that. So that's why I did it. 

You're known for playing authority figures in movies, so did playing an attorney come second nature to you?

Atherton: The thing of it is that I'm the only ethnicity left that’s safe to mock. So I've been all over the place with this stuff. I've done comedies with it, and I’ve done Broadway. So you know I've done all of it in that way, but this was different. This just kind of raised the bar in terms of what it meant and so it really wasn't just playing … well, let me see if I have that suit in the closet kind of thing. It just seemed different. 

Can you tell me about working with first time feature director Sam Kadi and do you like working new directors? 

Atherton: First of all I like working with new directors. I do a lot of first time films, which have done well and I really like that. Sam has a unique energy, he understood that world, and he understood those people. We shot it all in Michigan and Michigan has I think the biggest Arab community in the country. So there was a whole kind of infrastructure and relationships that he had to people on the set, to friends, to the cast, and the people in the cast they were giving form to a world they knew. That was what was fun about it, they knew this world, and they knew those people. So there was an authenticity about the whole thing. 

When you said that you liked working with new directors, it dawned on me that you actually worked with Steven Spielberg when he was a first time director on The Sugerland Express. What was that experience like?

Atherton: Well, he was a first time feature director. He directed other stuff before. But that was a studio picture so the infrastructure with that is enormous. When you do Indies often times they're there a shoestring and a prayer. So working with Steve that first time is still one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. That's entirely unique. That was great. 

Have you ever worked with Cary Elwes before, and if not, what was that experience like for you on this film?

Atherton: Cary Elwes? No, but I had met him, I think a couple of times. I do know his brother Cassian because he had produced a film called Frank and Jesse that I did with Rob Lowe and Bill Paxton a number of years ago. So I knew Cassian, his brother as a producer and then when Cassian went on to become the Indie agent for William Morris. But I hadn’t met Cary and I had a great time with him. 

He was doing a very interesting characterization with his role, almost Brando-type, what did you think about that?

Atherton: I thought so too. But Cary’s a Brit; he can get away with that stuff. It thought he did it very well, I thought it was great. 

Khaled Nabawy gives an excellent performance in the film, were you impressed with his work while you were filming with him? 

Atherton: Oh, enormously. I just came back from Abu Dhabi. We both just came back from Abu Dhabi, the film festival there and he’s an enormous star in the Arab world. I mean he’s their George Clooney! I mean he’s an enormous star! So before the screening we had a private audience with the princess of Abu Dhabi, who is the sister of the Sheikh, which was just extraordinary. Then after the screening, because Khaled is Egyptian the Egyptian ambassador threw a gala at the Embassy. So we all went over to the Embassy and stayed until three in the morning talking about politics and art and everything. It was just an extraordinary time and it’s an extraordinary picture. 

If you don’t mind, I have to ask you about one of my all-time favorite television shows, which you were on and it was called Life. You played a pivotal role in the mythology of that series; did you know it was going to be such an important part when you signed on to the show?

Atherton: Yeah, well I knew that the character itself was important. I didn’t know how they were going to write it. But I knew it would be important for that show. I had a great time doing that. I hadn’t done a lot of television, but I had a great time doing that, a great time with Damian

Obviously Damian Lewis has been getting a lot of acclaim for his role on Homeland but he gave an incredible performance on Life as well. Most of your scenes were opposite Damian, so what was it like for you working with him as an actor?

Atherton: It was great. He’s a pro. He’s been on the stage for years and he’s a Brit so he’s lived all over the world. His wife is a wonderful actress, and she was on the show a couple of times. His wife (Helen McCroy) played Tony Blair’s wife in The Queen. The writing (on Life) was fabulous, it was just terrific, and we had great stuff to go toe to toe with. I had a great time with it and I loved the writing with it. It’s some of the best writing that’s ever been on TV I thought.     

I completely agree! It’s strange how some shows catch on at just the right time and some really good shows sometimes don’t. Why do you think that is?

Atherton: Well there was a regime change too at the network and when that happens, things happen. The timing and everything and then you know, the networks change hands, things happen. I remember years ago there was a movie I did called Real Genius, which has been a sleeper hit for years. Half way through shooting there was a regime change at Tri-Star and we just kind of knew that it did not all go well. 

I’m glad you brought up Real Genius, that is one of my all-time favorite comedies and it’s just a brilliant film.

Atherton: It is a brilliant film. Everything about it is fabulous. 

It’s really become a cult classic, hasn’t it?

Atherton: Yes, it is very culty.

Then of course you were also in Ghostbusters and Die Hard, which are also two of my favorite films. If you think about it, all three of these movies have really withstood the test of time. There has been talk of doing a remake of Real Genius for years, Dan Aykroyd seems determined to make Ghostbusters 3, and Bruce Willis is currently shooting a fifth Die Hard film (A Good Day To Die Hard). So as you look back at these three movies, did you have any concept of the legacy that these films would have while you were making them?

Atherton: Well, Ghostbusters was a very unique piece and nobody had ever done anything like that before. All of us thought that. I knew Gilda Radner because we had worked together. So I had known those guys and I had met them. At the time … I mean they created Saturday Night Live so they were enormous. This movie was so them, you kind of knew that it was going to happen. Real Genius, I’m surprised it’s lasted as long as it has because when it came out they didn’t publicize it very much. It got terrific reviews, but that’s what happens. So, the fact that it’s been around is great. It is a surprise that it has lasted as long as it has. Die Hard was a big movie, but in those days they’d shoot a big movie, and you didn’t know how long it was going to last. It was kind of a nuclear reaction picture and there were lots of them being shot at the time. But when I saw it, it kind of went beyond being a great action picture. It’s a great movie. The first Die Hard is a great movie. It’s a gem stone brilliant picture. It’s just it.

It’s an incredibly brilliant film and it really created a whole new type of genre, didn’t it?

Atherton: Yeah, it went around. “Okay, let’s do Die Hard on a plane!” Then they did Under Siege, which was Die Hard on a boat. Then they wanted to do Die Hard in space or something like that. Somebody told me the other day that some one actually went to a studio and tried to pitch a movie and said, “I have a great idea, it’s Die Hard in a building!”

I’ve heard that one too but the story I heard was that a screenwriter met with a studio executive who was going to pitch him ideas to write. The executive pitched, “Die Hard in a Building.” The screenwriter said, “I think that’s already been done.” The executive answered, “Yes … but only in the first movie!”

Atherton: (Laughs) I’ve never heard that before. That’s great! I’m going to remember that … only in the first movie! That’s terrific. That’s good. 

Finally, while we are on the subject of Die Hard and Ghostbusters, has there ever been any talk of bringing you back into either of those franchises?

Atherton: Well, everybody is curious about Ghostbusters 3. I just don’t know? I mean we all did the game, which was like number three in the world for the last two years or something. So a lot of people thought of that as really the third one. I don’t really know? That’s kind of all over the place. I think Ghostbusters as an idea could have so many different tangents that it’d be hard to pick which one. But Die Hard I would not particularly want to return to. I mean the fun part of it was working with Bonnie (Bedelia). That’s the fun part. That was a singular character that had a singular purpose there so I never thought about it after the second one really. I thought that was kind of it and with each Die Hard, Bruce has a younger wife!

The Citizen is currently playing in various film festivals around the world. 

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