Recently, Miller and Hohn sat down with the Independent to discuss their experiences as highly accomplished local actors who are working more anonymously in Hollywood. Over the course of 45 minutes, they discussed the experience of working with famous directors and actors, landing--and losing--potentially breakthrough roles, their reluctance to stake their careers on achieving prominence in Hollywood, and the fading opportunities in the once-fertile moviemaking territory of Wilmington.
The Independent: Mark, how did you get cast in Cold Mountain? What were they looking for?
Mark Miller: When I came in they asked how my writing was and I said "Well, I'm working on a screenplay currently," and they said "No, riding." I said, "I can get on a horse and I can get off a horse but I can not gallop." It was an interesting interview because they didn't talk about my acting or my abilities. They did ask me if I could do a Southern accent.
After they determined I could not ride, they sort of squinted and looked at one another and said "Sheffield," which is what I ended up playing, because Sheffield doesn't ride. I think they were looking for somebody who looked hungry and also had enough experience to work with--I don't know how to put this without sounding like I'm full of ego--but someone who could hold their own with people like Philip Seymour Hoffman because I would be working with him in close quarters on a daily basis. I think they were feeling out my personality, to see if they could stand being around me in a foreign country.
Greg, how you get started in Big Fish?
Greg Hohn: They were doing national auditions for small parts and I was reading for a part that was actually a very nice part. It was kind of funny because the character was described as being slightly drunk and I had visions in my head of legions of men traipsing in and being drunk and I thought to myself, "Well, what is drunk? The character seems really nice so I think I'll be preternaturally nice." [A year later] I got a call to go to Montgomery [Alabama] for a callback. It was very exciting because they then called my agent and said they wanted me for the part. So I told all my friends and my family about this really great part.
Miller: You fool! (laughter)
Hohn: It was a serious part and I would have done a very good job with it. Then in February I got a call from the AD [assistant director] and he said, "Well, your day is February 21." And I said, "My day? There must be some mistake. I couldn't shoot this thing in a single day." He said, "Well, you're Second Townsperson, right?" And I just ... well, "crestfallen" might be a good word for it.
So I called my agent and said, "What happened?" And he said, "Hey, it's just a part." And, I said, "I know but I've been doing this for a really long time and this was my first big part." It's just a typical Hollywood story. So they got Loudon Wainwright [for the role], which is weird because he's old enough to be my dad. I wound up doing a very, very small part and spent about a week on it down in Montgomery in winter, which is a big holiday getaway. (laughter)
So even if it's a small part, if you're on the set for a week, or three weeks, you get paid every day you're there and it must be a pretty significant paycheck.
Miller: You can make good money, especially if your agent negotiates up from scale. Most of the other actors [playing small roles in Cold Mountain] didn't work for scale--they had lawyers.
Hohn: What? Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't work for scale? (laughter)
Miller: You scramble around to get this part, you miraculously get to show them that you're really good. You get the part and then they take it away. I really don't want to know all about [other performers' salaries] because it would only piss me off even more.
Hohn: I blew three guys to get my part. Oh, wait ... is this being taped? (laughter)
Miller: Just as an aside, if you walk into [an audition] thinking that you can figure out what it is that they want from you, you're dead.
On the sets of your films, do you meet other people like yourselves playing small roles, accomplished performers from regional theater scenes?
Hohn: There was a guy on this shoot who I ended up being around a lot. He was an insurance agent and all he cared about was making money. He looked the part and that was what they needed. But it really varies widely--obviously, the more intricate the part, the better actor you're going to run into. That's my experience. A lot of people, if given a chance, could do very well in a film or a television program. It's just a matter of opportunity and luck.
Miller: I did a movie--Super Mario Brothers--with a dentist who had never acted before really. He made the fake teeth for all the wizard men and ended up with a part as big as mine. They gave him a part that had no lines but he got four or five weeks work out of it, which could have gone to an actor. I mean, he's a dentist, he didn't need that money.
Is there any kind of espirit de corps between the headliners and the people playing small parts?
Miller: It depends on who the actor is and whether they're an asshole. On Cold Mountain, we were all just guys. It was very friendly ... And, we were all thrown into fucking Romania which, I think, had something to do with it. But I've been on shoots where it wasn't like that. I did Mississippi Burning and I didn't chum around with Gene Hackman.
Hohn: In Big Fish I'm barely more than an extra so I kind of got herded around. It's interesting because film acting is very much a sideline for me and other acting things and other teaching things take up most of my time.
Looking at it in terms of "What's my baggage regarding all this," I feel if I had a bigger part I'd feel better about myself. But you know, I'm a player--not a playa--and I'm here and I'm working, so I don't have any problems sitting down next to [a headliner]. But I don't go, "Can I practice my line with you, sir?"
Do you get more calls for southern films? Are you pigeonholed as a southern character actor?
Miller: At the beginning of my career they used to call me in for a lot of stuff but after a while I sort of became a niche actor. Every once in a while they'll take a chance on you and try to break you out of type. But although I've done things besides southern characters, I've certainly done a lot of inbred shit-kicking motherfuckers. (laughter) It's just part of my trusted quality.
Obviously, meatier roles are preferable, but would you say that landing the occasional small role in a Hollywood film is gratifying to you professionally?
Miller: Of course I'd rather audition for the larger role and get it, but I can't audition for what they're not auditioning for. So I end up going to audition in the hopes of getting upgraded. But when I'm called, I go and deal with it in a professional way and that is a satisfying experience. And I do it well. You give [Hollywood films] your best shot and then you have a life that is separate from it--especially now that film has more or less left North Carolina for points beyond, mostly Canada.
So the work's really dried up and you're getting fewer opportunities?
Miller: Yes, fewer auditions.
Hohn: I haven't auditioned for a film in a year. The last one I did was Big Fish. For me, it's an interesting thing because I lived in LA for a while and I realized that I didn't like living there. I wanted to have more self-determination and not always be waiting for a role in some crappy sitcom or a bad action flick. Here, I run a theater company and I do projects I like to do.
Regarding the disappointment with Big Fish, it was actually kind of a gut check because I feel--and I could be wrong--but I would have done well in this role and I might have been in demand and it could have changed my life. But do I want to change my life? I don't think I do. I wouldn't want to move back to LA. By that same token, every artist wants to have greater exposure. But at what cost?
I remember when I was living in LA, I was doing a play with some folks and the actors I was working with said, "You were making a living as an actor in North Carolina and you're here? Why are you here?" And I said, "Wow, that's a mighty good question."
Do you have any opening night rituals for your films? Do you take all your friends?
Miller: I think I always have friends who say, "Let's all go see it when it opens" but it never happens--I certainly don't organize it. I'm sort of--like a lot of actors--a little squeamish about seeing myself onscreen. It's sort of an out of body experience.