Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Interview with Naked Lunch star at TIFF's David Cronenberg retrospective, Evolution

This weekend, the TIFF Bell Lightbox launches a massive celebration of hometown director David Cronenberg running into 2014. The director of A History of Violence, Videodrome, Scanners and many others will personally introduce some of his films; co-creators will discuss making films with him; and Dead Ringers star Jeremy Irons will sit down with Cronenberg for a 90-minute conversation on Nov.1. Meanwhile, the Evolution multimedia exhibition will showcase costumes, handwritten notes, posters, props, and even sets from all of Cronenberg's films over the past five decades. Allan had the pleasure of chatting with the star of 1991's masterful adaptation of Naked Lunch, George Mugwump:
AT: How did you get cast in Naked Lunch?
Mugwump: I had just graduated from Ryerson and was playing Stanley Kowalski in a Nunavut production of A Streetcar Named Desire when my agent rang me and told me to try out for a role in the next David Cronenberg film. Now, I had seen and liked Dead Ringers, so I was expecting a horror film, not Naked Lunch. Anyway, I auditioned and voila!

AT: Did you know the novel?
Mugwump: Well, I knew of it, but didn't read it until I was literally on set. I thought, How the hell will he adapt this? I was impressed with the final product, but to be honest I was never much into [Naked Lunch writer William] Burroughs. I'm more of a Grisham fan.

AT: What was it like to be directed by David Cronenberg?
Mugwump: Wonderful. He makes his actors feel relaxed. He never freaks out or goes on an ego trip. Actually, he didn't say much apart from “turn left here” or “slower.” I mean, he's an actor's director.

AT: So you were an unknown actor and your first big role out of school is on a Cronenberg picture. How did that role change your career?
Mugwump: [gazes contemplatively] I remember walking the red carpet in Berlin and thinking, This is unreal. I'd always dreamed of this, and now it's happening. To me. It was out-of-body experience. I mean, right after the screening, I was signing autographs, posing for photos, and producers were throwing scripts at me.

AT: Starring roles?
Mugwump: Some of them. But 99% of them were Naked Lunch-ish cookie-cutter roles. You know, here I am, a Shakespearean-trained actor, and they want more of the same William Burroughs-ish hallucinatory stuff. People have no imagination.

AT: Instead, you did that Star Wars-inspired remake of Fiddler On The Roof set in outer space. Why?
Mugwump: To avoid typecasting. I didn't want to be Mr. Naked Lunch Mugwump forever. I'm an artist.

AT: That adaptation of Fiddler is a cult film here, but it did good business in Angola.
Mugwump: And Venezuela. It opened doors for me in those countries.

AT: You became a heartthrob.
Mugwump: Yeah, the soundtrack took off and my manager at the time put me on tour as a singer. Remember my Grammy appearance?

AT: How was singing different from acting?
Mugwump: More girls. [laughs]

AT: You found your first wife on that tour. She was 16--
Mugwump suddenly switches off the voice recorder. “Don't,” he says, suddenly anxious. AT asks if he wants to set the record straight about this episode of his life, which resulted in the highest divorce settlement in southwestern Africa, but Mugwump glares at AT. AT agrees to move on.

AT: Did you ever try to perform in another Cronenberg picture?
Mugwump: I auditioned for the role that Viggo [Mortensen] got in Eastern Promises. I've done a lot of Chekhov and I'm an aficionado of gangster films, so I thought...

AT: What did you think of Mortensen's performance?
Mugwump: [pauses] Okay, it was pretty good, but I would have nailed that naked-in-the-sauna-knife-fight!

AT: Rumour is Cronenberg considered you for that role, but there were concerns about insuring you due to certain substance problems like cocai--
Again, Mugwump grabs my voice recorder, but this time threatens to devour my left hand unless I change the subject. I nod in agreement and slowly retrieve my hand.

AT: So...what are you doing nowadays?
Mugwump: Dinner theatre of Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd in Sorel, Quebec. I also just shot a beer commercial which is slated to run during Superbowl 2014.

AT: How do you unwind?
Mugwump: Yoga. And I meditate every day. Keeps me grounded.

AT: So, you're clean?
Mugwump: (long pause) Pardon?

AT: (clears throat) What do you owe David Cronenberg?
Mugwump: My first big break. I was a 23-year-old kid, knew nothing, knew nobody, and suddenly I was thrust into the spotlight, as they say. Without that role in Naked Lunch, who knows where I'd be?

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