A Chat With William Sanderson
Blade Runner`s JF Sebastian
Interview Conducted & Transcribed by Aaron Brinkley
Edited by Gerry Kissell
Aaron Brinkley: Mr. Sanderson, I'd like to express how much of a pleasure it is that you agreed to this interview with BladeZone.
William Sanderson: Thank you for that. It's a pleasure.
Aaron: I want to go back a few years. You grew up in and around Memphis in the 1950's. What was that like?
William: Well it was very exciting because that's where (Elvis) Presley was. Where he started. And the music was a fabulous inspiration, being able to see Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and it just went on and on. And I also saw the African-American entertainers from Stax Records like Sam & Dave. I don't think I saw Otis Redding, but I heard him all the time. So we had that great music and acting was the closest I could get to it.
Aaron: Not a singer, huh?
William: No. I just played one, but not a very good one.
Aaron: You served for a while in the military?
William: Yes. The Army.
Aaron: Then you went to school to study law?
William: That's right. Four years of college, three years of law school.
Aaron: After all that hard work, what made you want to be an actor?
William: Well, I think subconsciously I wanted to do it all along. I probably was a coward. I was very shy. But also I had gone to a great school in high school. And my friends are lawyers and doctors, one of whom is one of Al Gore's lawyers. He was one of my closest friends in childhood. I got the G.I. Bill and at one point, I thought I would be a lawyer. But I never practiced. I never took the Bar. I went to New York and did theater. But I always loved movies and had a friend that did theater in high school and I would go see him, but way too scared to get on the stage.
Aaron: Who had the greatest impact on your career when you were first studying acting?
William: The first teacher was in Memphis. The next teacher was in New York. Probably William Hickey in New York, who happens to have been nominated for an Academy Award for a movie called "Prizzi's Honor". But in the movies, it was Presley, and James Dean, Brando, and I liked Charles Bronson. I did get to work with him later. And Lee Marvin. But to answer your question, it was probably the teacher, William Hickey. I also liked my speech teacher in New York, a woman named Marion Rich.
Aaron: Was your goal to stay working on stage, or had you decided to try film?
William: That's a great question because Marion Rich told us, "You have to ask yourself, Can I be happy doing regional theater or do I want to do something else?." and I told myself that, so I knew eventually I'd come to California. I loved theater and I just did a play in December, but it's very tough to make a living at it. And I still think it's the greatest training. But it definitely didn't take me long to know I wanted to be in the movies and television. Probably out of vanity.
Aaron: Your big break came in playing Loretta Lynne's . . . Was it brother or uncle? . . . in Coal Miner's Daughter.
William: Uncle. Thank you for remembering. Yes, it became a hit and Universal never expected it to be. And subsequently, I lucked into doing six projects with one of my favorite actors, Tommy Lee Jones. It was quite a break.
Aaron: Who is William Sanderson at home? We know your film personas. You are not one of those actors who is always in the public light after the cameras stop rolling. What are your hobbies?
William: Well, the only consistent hobby I've had is studying Spanish and French because of some delusion of grandeur to work around the world. (laughs) I love sports but usually I'm looking for the next job.
Aaron: Do you watch much television or movies?
William: Since I'm in the Academy, I try to see all the movies, or it wouldn't be fair. And we're getting ready to vote in the television academy as well. But my obsession is to make films. It's the process, even though I go through a lot of anxiety over it, I'm sometimes pleased with the results.
Aaron: Would you eventually like to produce or direct?
William: Well, I produced a play in New York called "Hello Out There", and it led to my first paying job in the theater, but it was a nightmare. And then my wife, Sharon, produced one out here, an original play called "Scotch Rocks" and that was the most fascinating experience. I never saw anybody work as hard as my wife. She kept every actor there. I understudied all the parts, because in Hollywood, you know, people want to get big jobs and move on. But all the actors stayed and I think they respected her. I have gained a new respect for producers. You've got to be strong, and Sharon is.
Aaron: A lot of fans don't know that you're a member of the Motion Picture Academy.
William: I consider it probably one of the biggest honors to be in the Academy. There are only like 1300 actors in it, and as far as I know, you're a member for life. To this day, I'm wondering how lucky I was. And I was able to put another name in, another actor, who got into the Academy. They have to have two or three people, and Danny Devito and I recommended this other actor who had great credits. It's just a great, great honor to be in the Motion Picture Academy.
Aaron: Have you ever been nominated?
William: I've won awards in voice-overs and stuff like that, but not for an Academy Award.
Aaron: Any early favorites this year? Maybe Ridley Scott as "Best Director" for Gladiator?
William: Well, not a bad idea. Not a bad idea at all. It's a little early, but . . . That's a tough question. I'd have to wait and see. If they send me some cash or some bribes . . . (both men laugh) No, I'm kidding. That's one of the things they've tightened up is not taking little presents and stuff. The people on the board of the Academy have a lot of integrity. And the late Roddy McDowell, I loved doing an independent horror film with him. I sometimes think he was on the board and knew who I was. You have to have a certain number of credits from major films. But then, I've known people who aren't in the Academy who have some pretty good credits, so sometimes it's just luck.
Aaron: Does someone in the Academy have to nominate you?
William: Well, the board has to approve it, but yeah, members of the Academy do. One of them was Gailard Sartain, who's in the new movie "The Replacements". He also did "Mississippi Burning", a lot of movies. And another actor who has passed away recommended me. We made some westerns together.
Aaron: As many times as we at BladeZone have seen Blade Runner , we could never even imagine anyone else as JF Sebastian. Was there anyone else up for that role?
William: Nobody ever asked me that. Back then I didn't even think about it. Now I certainly do. I don't know of anybody else. Back then I was working one project after another. I just know it was a pleasure from the time I went in to the time I met Ridley and talked to him one on one. Ah . . . I do know another actor who was up for the role, who's doing very well. His name is Joe Pantoliano. He did "The Fugitive" and a lot of movies. (Joe Pantoliano also played Cypher in "The Matrix".) Only because, I don't want to sound like I'm gloating, I just got lucky. Joe came to me at an interview once and said, "You got my role in Blade Runner!" He is a wonderful actor. You may not know his name, but you look him up on the IMDB (Internet Movie DataBase). He's directing his first film, that he wrote, with some great actors. He's a friend, I like him. Know him from New York many years ago.
Aaron: Did you have to audition for the part of Sebastian?
William: I don't recall really auditioning. I'm sure I read it with Ridley. I don't recall. I had just done "Scared Straight", which is a documentary which won the Academy Award and then they made a movie of the week for CBS. And I was thrilled because it was a quite different part playing a convict, a hardened convict and then a more innocent character (Sebastian). I was so thrilled they didn't put me through hoops. They didn't promise you a job you didn't get. Ridley is a bit of a visionary, you know. I don't think he needs too much time (to decide). He doesn't use a lot of people more than once. I'd like to work with him again, that's for sure.
Aaron: Once you secured the part, how did you prepare to play him?
William: Well, it came up very quickly. I didn't have much time. I tried to get pictures and news accounts of people with premature aging. And they had a kid who went to Disneyland and it was so touching. They showed him on the news and he walked like his feet were tender. A little boy, but he looked much, much older. I used his image. I used Einstein's image or tried to. Not enough research. Not enough. You play chess?
William: So the next one I get, I'll ask you to help me. (Aaron laughs) I'm not such a good chess player. One of the joys about acting is researching. An Academy Award winning actor called me, thought he had a new movie to direct. We both loved the book, but it fell through and I'd spent weeks and weeks studying and learning. Still had fun but it's disappointing. It's a joy when you know you're going to get a role ahead of time and be able to research it. On the television series, Newhart, I had played that character (type) in low-budget films. I had worked on him in theater and studied this tramp-like figure so I stuck him in an audition. You could say you're only as good as the time you put in on something.
Aaron: What was Sebastian's relationship with Tyrell? Obviously it was more than just employer/employee.
William: Well, I think he was very intimidated by him. But certainly where Ridley helped me with his direction was telling me about his children. With the revulsion that Sebastian feels when he sees the eyes being squeezed, Ridley had children and he said he tried not to let them watch horror films too much. But he saw them one time standing outside the doorway peering in at the television and kind of intrigued and frightened at the same time. Sebastian was a paranoid person, insecure. But supposedly he was somewhat innocent. It's the one film I get asked the most about. More importantly, it's the one that got me the most work.
Aaron: How would you describe Sebastian's relationship with the Replicants?
William: I think he was kind of fascinated and I played it as if he loved them. I mean, when he says to Pris and Roy, "There's some of me in you.". Like Ridley, I don't sit and watch it. It's hard to watch something you've done many years ago. Can I tell you what I've never told an interviewer, one of the most interesting comments?
William: It's not meant to sound boastful or anything. I was in a bar owned by Carrol O'Conner and the late Patrick O'Neill. An actor ran up to me and said "You were great in that movie, 'Blade Runner'." He said, "You are going to do so well out here, IF they know who you are. IF they know who it was." And I don't know what that meant. I guess because I wore makeup (as Sebastian). Another movie which I didn't talk a lot in was "The Client" and they don't even know it was me. Blue contact lenses, flat-top. But it wasn't as good a role. But it made a lot more money. It was with Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, and (author) John Grisham. They're hard to get, hit films.
Aaron: Did you see many changes in the script as you went on through the shoot?
William: Not too much. No. Not with my part. I think Rutger liked to tweak things and he's a great actor and contributed so much, but probably more so in the end of the film. I generally revere and respect the writers and don't do a lot of improvising. Sometimes, I learned from Ridley, merely transposing lines works. But if you want to do the film and read the script, then do it, but if you want to rewrite something, don't do the film. But I'm not a director or a writer and everybody works differently.
Aaron: How was is working with Rutger Hauer?
William: Not a problem at all and he's a nice fellow. I've seen him in a restaurant and I'm very sad that I haven't worked with him again. I think he's a great actor.
Aaron: It would be great to see you and Rutger acting together again.
William: Oh, I'd love it. But I have great respect for him. He speaks five languages.
Aaron: How about Kevin Thompson and John Edward Allen, who played Sebastian's creations, The Bear and The Kaiser?
William: Oh, they were very sweet. They came from their dressing room and . . . I think now I would have tried to get to know them better. I have more confidence. But I kind of stayed in my dressing room and when you go to the set, there's a freshness there. But I didn't have a lot of contact with them, I just know that they were never a problem. They were fun, you'd see them in makeup but rarely did I see them out of makeup.
William: I think she's a tribute to the profession. She's a real lady. I treasure these . . . I have a couple of drawings she made for me, she may have even forgotten, of her character and mine. And it was not long after we did the movie, and I pick up LIFE magazine and there she is. She was gracious beyond her age. She was groomed for greatness. No, he kind of loved her, Sebastian. And it wasn't hard to be intimidated. (both laugh) Because she's so beautiful, but she's beautiful inside.
Aaron: Do you have contact much with anyone from Blade Runner today?
William: No. I used to run into Brion, bless his heart, a lot because of the interviews. Another terrific actor. Let's see. Sometimes James Hong. We had worked not long after (Blade Runner) on a thing by the man that wrote "Roots", Alex Haley. Eddie Olmos met me on that film (Blade Runner) and put me in a western which people still mention. And a reviewer said some nice things (about it) in the L.A. Times. Eddie is a little bit of a hero to me because he's turned down money and roles that didn't depict Latinos the way they should be. I never turn down anything hardly. (laughs) He's a really, really good person.
Aaron: Both the BFI (British Film Institute) and the AFI (American Film Institute) have Blade Runner listed in the top 100 most influential films of the century. How did you feel about Blade Runner while you were working on it? Did you feel it was going to be something important or was it just another movie at the time?
William: I felt there was something special about it because my agent from New York wanted to come on the set. People I didn't know were acting like they were my friend to get on the set, one of whom got next to the DP (Director of Photography) and started asking questions. And people wanting to visit because of the fascinating set. So I did think it was something special and also the agents came, my agents came on the set! And when they do that, there's usually an expectation that it's important. And you listen to people on the crew that sometimes say things and set you up for failure. (both laugh) No, they said nice things. But lots of times when you're younger and newer they'll say "Oh, you're going to be a star after this.". So they had high hopes for it. But a lesson, like Ridley may have said, "Stick to your goal, your vision, and time may prove you right.", you know. And I think Ridley is somewhat vindicated by his vision.
Aaron: Yeah, I would say so.
William: With the riots in L.A., subsequently, and certainly a "city on overload" is what he told me. I believe he told me it was L.A. with a New York skyline. You have all these different nationalities here and gridlock on the roads. It's difficult to deal with the traffic in L.A. and there's a great deal of tension at times, like around Staples Center right now. (both laugh) (Staples Center was the site of the 2000 Democratic National Convention which was marked by numerous protests and clashes between demonstrators and police.)
Aaron: Is your wife Sharon a Blade Runner fan?
William: She never raves about anything, you know. We got married after that movie. She certainly has helped me. And Gerry Kissell and BladeZone have helped us immensely. We've been invited to a new convention in Hollywood. And the one in Tacoma (the Millennium Expo) was the first one we did, so I have to thank you all for keeping it alive. This one's in town so I don't miss work and I might run into some actors that I haven't seen from the movie. Joanna Cassidy, who is a lovely lady, and she's supposed to be there among others.
Aaron: Is it a Blade Runner convention or just a general science fiction one?
William: This one is called Cult Movies. So I might be able to see some friends. One of the things, I went to one, this guy came up to me. He's bringing posters in there, he's interrupting, he's not supposed to solicit actors. Charlton Heston was there, line ten times as long as mine. This young man told me he had a film. And he actually ended up giving us a job and flying us to Arizona. But you know what I'm saying, I'd rather be in Florence, Italy with Ridley Scott making "Gladiator" or something. There's a strike right now. You can't do voice-overs for cartoons, commercials, so I have to find every means to survive. I'm working right now, but it won't get me out of debt. (both laugh) No, I'm doing fine. I've made a very good living and I'm grateful. But the business breeds insecurity. You're only as good as your next film.
Aaron: How was your relationship with director Ridley Scott on the set?
William: As far as I know it was fine, but he hasn't given me another job! (both laugh) I don't know if he's hired anybody from that movie on another job.
Aaron: Many of the actor's who worked on Blade Runner have said that there was a lot of pressure involved in working with Ridley Scott. Did you feel that as well?
William: Not one instant. But he had some trouble with the crew. Ridley, he's a tough taskmaster, you know. He was under great pressure and people didn't know what he was trying to do with his art direction background or his artistry. And he's used to his English crew, so I heard that tension and I'd simply be embarrassed.
Aaron: BladeZone has a close relationship with another Blade Runner cast member, Morgan Paull. Were you and Morgan acquainted at all during the filming of Blade Runner?
William: Not on the film, but subsequently. He was a very nice person to meet. I was trying to collect some money on a film and he was involved with the Screen Actors Guild and he just mentioned that he had worked with me and that I was not a problem. Some producers told a lie to the Screen Actors Guild. That's the cost of doing business, you know what I mean? And if you rattle the cage too much, they won't hire you again. Then he became an agent at one time and represented a great character actor named Jack Elam who made hundreds of westerns. My relationship with Morgan was that he was a great gentleman.
Aaron: What are some of your best memories of working on Blade Runner?
William: Well, let's see, I had a new convertible. The agent I started out with in New York came out and I thought "Wow, she cares." Oh, and they built an entire soundstage for my character. You're on one of the most famous lots in the world and they say "Do you want to see your apartment?". And it was absolutely gorgeous. All of it didn't get in the film, but that happens all the time. But I'm grateful to you and to people for remembering it. It's nice to be in a cult film.
Aaron: Ridley Scott recently stated his opinion on the replicant vs. human status of Rick Deckard, the main character in Blade Runner. Ridley stated that Deckard was definitely a replicant in his final vision of the film. The Chicago Tribune last week published that Harrison Ford was not happy with Ridley for his opinion on this.
William: Well, they've got an ongoing misunderstanding. I'm not known for my intellectual range and tricks have been played on me. Sometimes they motivate and make you better. But I don't even know anything about that. Harrison later said some nice things about me and I've got a photo he signed. He is definitely a hero, I think he's handled his success marvelously. Harrison's very self-confident, very self-confident. I love that! Because when you're down the pecking order, you can't even express a lot of ideas, just do your job, man, do your job. Harrison speaks for me, but so does Ridley. I'd work with either one of them in a minute.
Aaron: You've played many, many different characters. What are some of your favorites?
William: Oh, gosh. . . X-Files, that character got me some work . "Coal Miner's Daughter", because I loved the movie. I didn't do much, I worked three weeks on the movie. I'm doing one now, that's just low-budget. He's the town crazy and I'm having some fun. "Lonesome Dove", that guy, Lippy, he didn't get killed. I worked with such . . . a lot of times it's the people you work with, film artists, like Ridley Scott or Sissy Spacek. The part in "The Client" was great in the book, but they took away the dialogue in the film, but I kept the money. (both laugh) And being on the TV series, playing that guy was fun, because he was a bit of a tramp. Larry of Larry, Darryl and Darryl was fun.
Aaron: Would you like to do a regular television series again?
William: I don't want to be a smart-ass, but do you know anybody offering? (both laugh) Yeah! Yeah, I'd love to. There's a great deal of wear-and-tear in traveling. It's just stressful. One play that Tommy Lee Jones directed me in, I couldn't have done the play had I not done the series because we did it in Texas, and I was able to afford flying back and forth. We had actors coming from the east coast, the middle of the country, and Tommy himself was shooting "The Package" with Gene Hackman in Chicago. If you don't have money, you can't do that.
Aaron: What movies and/or television shows will we see you on in the coming months?
William: Well, the best role I've ever had in my life is an independant film is called "Stanley's Gig". They have a webpage, you can read about it. Faye Dunaway plays my girlfriend. We know that they have some offers. It's in the festivals now. It won at a festival in Florida, the Audiance Award. The one I'm working on, it's very low-budget. It's called "Monkey Love". I did a western, which at this point, I think is called "Stage Ghosts" with a director named Steven Furst. We have one on video now called "Nice Guys Sleep Alone" and that'll go to cable. I just did one called "Resurrection Boulevard" for Showtime.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Bill also appears in the new Blade Runner documentary produced by BBC 4.
Aaron: With much of your career still ahead of you and so much great work behind you . . .
William: Well, I'm almost the same age as Brion James, so I hope your right.
Aaron: Well, I think you'll be around for a while.
William: Well, thank you. We've had a lot of actors pass away. But I hope I stay healthy.
Aaron: Has there ever been a moment that you wished you had just continued in law, and not acting?
William: Oh, yeah. When I was arrested. (both laugh) (Mr. Sanderson later explained that he had been a bit of a troublemaker in his teenage years which resulted in a few misdemeanor charges.) And the serious answer is when you see injustices and you can't do anything about it. But do I seriously regret not taking the Bar and studying hard and gathering facts? Law is really hard. I'm kinda lazy. But I'll just keep plodding along and see if we can get another hit and you'll still talk to me in ten years or so.
Aaron: Mister Sanderson, we at BladeZone want to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to chat with us.
William: Well, thank you.