The actor: Ray Wise, who has appeared as a doctor, lawyer, politician, or psychotic renegade on pretty much every major TV drama of the past 30 years: Dallas, The A-Team, L.A. Law, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Walker Texas Ranger, Dawson’s Creek, The West Wing, and 24 are just some of the shows on his long résumé. Wise’s most enduring role was on David Lynch’s landmark series Twin Peaks, where he played murderous father Leland Palmer. Wise’s fearless performance as a seemingly all-American but actually terrifyingly unhinged dad stood out on a show loaded with great actors, and it’s helped make him an in-demand character actor on TV and in movies ever since. His latest role as the devil on CW’s Reaper—the first season is now available on DVD—similarly exhibits his talent for making evil characters likeable, and likeable characters more complicated than they seem.
Reaper (2007-08)—“The Devil”
Ray Wise: I came in rather late in the casting process. I believe they had all the other roles cast. They were having trouble finding the devil. They had seen almost 100 actors for the role. I got the script and I liked it—it was clever and witty and very, very funny, and a nice, fresh take on an old story. I went in and did a scene for the producers, the kitchen scene from the pilot where I’m cooking a chicken-fried steak. At the end of it, they all had a smile on their face, and they realized they had found their devil.
The A.V. Club: How does it feel to hear that you’re the right guy to play the personification of evil?
RW: When you first hear that, it’s sort of overwhelming. “I’m playing the iconic baddie of all time!” But then you approach it like any other character. They pretty much laid out this character out for me in the writing, how they wanted him to have a sense of humor, that kind of twinkle in his eye, and a little bit of charm. I wasn’t the standard scary devil, and that really appealed to me. I’m a big fan of all the great movie devils, from Walter Huston to Ray Walston to Al Pacino to Jack Nicholson. I admired a lot of their devils, and I wanted mine to be somewhat different. It’s kind of a combination between a used-car salesman and a game-show host.
AVC: Reaper was on the bubble for the while. When you’re doing a TV show that might not be renewed, do you try not to get too attached to the project?
RW: That’s what you have to do. I actually approach it like it’s not going to happen, so when it does, it’s a real bonus. We’re doing 13 new episodes, and I believe we start airing those in January or March. If those 13 do well, we’ll hopefully do more.
Swamp Thing (1982)—“Dr. Alec Holland”
RW: [Laughs.] My memories are of 95-degree temperatures and 98 percent humidity, and these big mosquitoes, and black flies and alligators. My fondest memories are of Adrienne Barbeau and her cavorting around the swamp. [Laughs.] We had a great time down there in Charleston, South Carolina, Wes Craven and the whole bunch of us. We were like kids, playing these great comic-book characters.
AVC: You’ve been in a lot of horror films. Are you a fan of the genre?
RW: Yes. Always have been, ever since I was a little boy. I got turned onto it from a very early age. Some of my fondest and most impressionable movie memories are from those early sci-fi and horror films. I’ve always been a Dracula/vampire aficionado, being half-Romanian myself. Dracula has always been close to my heart—in fact, I have a first edition of Bram Stoker’s book. I read it over and over again as a young kid. I was a fan of the Lugosi film, and I’ve been a fan really of all the Dracula films made ever since. Christopher Lee’s is a particular favorite of mine, and I like Coppola’s film with Gary Oldman. But I’ve never felt like the definitive Dracula film has been made. I’d like to take a shot at that some time in the near future.
AVC: How would you play Dracula?
RW: I would play him very much as written by Bram Stoker. When I read the character description, I think of me. The aquiline nose, the high forehead, and now my hair is turning gray in the temples. When we first see Dracula in the novel, his hair is completely white, and as the story progresses, he gets younger and younger-looking. I would like to approach it that way; the challenge would be to try and look younger and younger. I think I look young enough, anyway.
Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders II (1980)—“Dr. Simmons”
AVC: Another doctor.
RW: [Laughs.] I don’t do much doctoring in it. I’m the boyfriend of this gal who becomes a cheerleader, and it’s, like, the biggest deal of her life, and it’s messing with our relationship. Not that me being a doctor is any easier, but she’s just consumed with being a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. That’s our conflict, and that’s about as much as I can remember about it. What the hell is the actress’ name? It’s Julie something. [Julie Hill. —ed.]
AVC: So she wasn’t an actual Dallas Cowboys cheerleader?
RW: No, she was an actress. All the other characters were real Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, though. We shot it in Dallas, and we had a great time. And they were all lovely.
AVC: When you’re working on a movie called Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders II, is it hard to take the job seriously?
RW: You would think it would be hard, but every job, once you get there and start doing it, you approach it the same way. And it does become a serious thing, because it’s not easy to do, even something silly. You still have to be professional and perform.
AVC: Was there ever a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders III?
RW: Maybe there was, but I wasn’t anywhere near it. [Laughs.]
Twin Peaks (1990-91)—“Leland Palmer”
AVC: Any lingering regrets over not playing Sheriff Truman, the role you were originally up for?
RW: Not at all. I’m so glad I played Leland, I can’t even tell you. Reading the pilot episode and seeing what Leland went through, I thought, “This could be pretty one-dimensional.” It was a father grieving for his murdered daughter. But boy, was I wrong. I had no idea the gamut Leland would run during the course of that show. They just wrote a beautiful character, and I’m fortunate to have played it.
AVC: Is it true that your audition with David Lynch consisted of talking about your first car?
RW: Yeah. My first car was a 1960 Alfa Romeo, and David’s was a ‘63 or ‘64 Volkswagen Bug. I talked a lot about my Romeo, and then we talked about Ken McMillan, an actor he used in Dune. Ken was a very close friend of mine. And that was the extent of it. Then I got a call two days later saying that David wanted me to play Leland Palmer, and I had to look in the script to see who this Leland Palmer guy was, because I had focused everything on Sheriff Truman. It was like, “He cries here, he cries here, and he cries here. Well, I think I can handle that, but my goodness!” I met with David and Richard Beymer, the guy who played Benjamin Horne, and the three of us went before ABC and got approval. Then we went out to the Pacific Northwest to shoot the pilot, and the rest is history.
AVC: On the Twin Peaks DVD, you talk about how desperately you did not want Leland to be Laura Palmer’s killer. Why was that?
RW: The thought of a man being the murderer of his own daughter was anathema to me. At the time, I had a 2-year-old daughter of my own, and that possibility really turned me off. I was praying that I wouldn’t be the one. As we got closer to the reveal—the actors knew nothing—I could see it was coming more my way. Then I finally got the call before we had to do the reveal show to meet with David and [co-creator] Mark [Frost], and Sheryl Lee [who played Laura Palmer] was in on the meeting, and so was Beymer. We sat cross-legged on the floor in this dark room that had a lava lamp in the corner, and David leaned over and touched me on the knee and said… [Imitates Lynch.] “Ray, it was you, it was always you.” And that was it. I said something like, Oh shit!” I didn’t want to leave town, and I didn’t want to be the murderer. But he promised me it would be a beautiful episode, and I would be more than satisfied and redeemed in my character, and it turned out to be that way. It was a great episode.
Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job (2008)—“Grill Vogel”
RW: Grill Vogel? [Laughs.] The Tim & Eric Awesome Show? Can you spell that for me?
AVC: Do you honestly not know what I’m talking about?
RW: You know, I don’t. Is that something I did?
AVC: Yeah! I saw the clip online, and it was you.
RW: What was I doing?
AVC: You played a motivational speaker in a training video about how to hug appropriately in the workplace.
RW: Oh, yes! I remember that now. Was that my name, Grill Vogel? [Laughs] Wow. I do remember that. I did that one afternoon back in Los Angeles. That’s one of those things that you do and then you forget all about it, and then you come back to me and call me “Grill Vogel,” and I don’t know what you’re talking about. [Laughs.] My manager called me up and said, “You have to do this show, because everybody digs it. And they got a lot of other people to do it, and they’d like you to do it.” I wasn’t familiar with them, but I enjoyed working with them, and I thought they were pretty clever guys.
AVC: You should see it. You’re good in it.
RW: Good! I’m glad it turned out well. [Laughs.]
Good Night, And Good Luck (2005)—“Don Hollenbeck”
RW: I got a call one day to put myself on tape for George Clooney, this little Hollenbeck scene. He saw the tape, along with his partner, and they liked it very much, and decided to cast me in it. George was familiar with my work and my career, and once he saw me do the character, he felt I was the perfect guy for it. And it turned out to be that way. It was something I really identified with. I think George saw aspects of Hollenbeck in Leland Palmer. They were both tragic men whose lives came to a tragic end.
AVC: Do you feel any extra burden as an actor when you’re playing a real-life person?
RW: You do. We were preparing to shoot that movie, and George had a read-through with some of the people who worked with Don Hollenbeck. He had Joe and Shirley Wershba, who were reporters for CBS at the time, and also characters in the story. Don Hollenbeck was one of their best friends—they named their first child Don. They filled in all the holes for me. They told me what the guy was really like, his relationship with his wife and child, and his working relationship with the people at CBS. So I had a pretty good knowledge of the guy going in. And then George provided us all with Xeroxed copies of The New York Times of the day. Every day, we’d get a new New York Times from that time in history, back in the early ‘50s. Of course, it was all loaded with the Joseph McCarthy trials. So we were pretty hip to the atmosphere and ambiance to CBS News at the time.
Love Of Life (1970-76)—“Jamie Rawlins”
AVC: This was your first big role, right?
RW: Yeah. I was fresh out of college. I went to New York and was there for a couple of weeks, and I walked into this audition at CBS and got the role of Jamie Rawlins on this soap opera called Love Of Life. He started out as a semi-hippie college radical, and in seven years’ time he was a lawyer in the district attorney’s office. So figure that one out. In the interim, he was a cub reporter for a newspaper, and a garage mechanic, and his best friend died of a rare blood disease, and he was getting a couple of gals pregnant on the show. A whole slew of things happened to him.
AVC: Did you do a new show every day?
RW: Yes, a new half-hour show every day. I think I did around 950 half-hour shows. I was making good money at the time, and living in New York City. I was living the high life. I did that show during the day, and I was able to do plays at night, which is what working on a soap allows you to do.
AVC: Did you have to change your style of acting once you moved on to primetime television and movies?
RW: When I first started out on the soap, I was more theatrical, like a stage actor, a little bigger than life. As I did more and more Love Of Life, I became more natural. I learned the value of underplaying. It was a great training ground for me. There was a big difference in my style of acting from where I started with that show and where I ended, and where I ended was a good jumping-off point for doing nighttime television and movies.
24 (2006)—“Vice President Hal Gardner”
AVC: Did you have any idea how long you’d be on 24?
RW: Heck no. I thought, “If I’m lucky, two or three episodes.” They didn’t tell me very much. They told me I was going to be the vice president, that’s it. I had no idea what I was, who I was, or what I was doing while I was doing it.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of guest spots on TV shows in your career. How do you prepare for a role you don’t know anything about?
RW: I just try to make him a human being, a guy who is in many ways satisfied with himself and learned to live with himself. Whether he’s bad or good is somebody else’s judgment. I made him a vice president, and a man who takes his job seriously. And with every scene, I tried to make it as understandable and real as possible. You just have to be a quick study, and have an extreme sense of confidence in yourself and your ability to do it quickly. A lot of shows where I’m playing a senator or a congressman or a doctor or a high-priced attorney, I do a number on myself. “I am a powerful attorney, or a doctor.” It’s a little convincing job I do on myself first to know I can walk out on the set and know that I can be this guy.
Knots Landing (1988)—“The Dealer”
AVC: What exactly were you dealing on Knots Landing?
RW: I was the cocaine dealer in town. I provided the denizens of Knots Landing with their favorite recreational drug. I was this mysterious guy who was lurking around corners and sitting at dark tables in nightclubs, and bugging Julie Harris.
AVC: Were you arrested?
RW: Something like that. Or shot. I don’t remember exactly what happened to me.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 and Command & Conquer: Yuri’s Revenge (2001)—“President Michael Dugan”
RW: Somebody just called up and said they’d like me to do this videogame, and then they told me how much they were going to pay me, and I thought, “That’s kind of a good idea.” Plus we did it in Las Vegas and they put me up at the Bellagio, and that was easy to take. So everything about it was too good to turn down. My president was very Kennedy-esque, so I enjoyed doing it.
AVC: Do you get recognized from Command & Conquer?
RW: Yes! When I go down to Comic-Con in San Diego, people remember me for some of the strangest things. They go on and on about it, and I reminisce about it, and it’s great fun. It’s interesting to see what people remember me for.
Robocop (1987)—“Leon Nash”
AVC: What was it like working with Paul Verhoeven?
RW: That was a trip. That was great fun. Paul’s a madman, and he’s a lot of fun. I just remember that me and other bad guys, we just had a ball blowing up those streets. There was a whole section of Dallas that was going to be torn down, all these old storefronts, and we took over for two or three nights and just blew the hell out of that place. The special-effects guy had a ball, and we did, too, with our big 50-caliber guns. We were like kids, playing cops and robbers. And then we went to Pittsburgh, to the steel plant there, to do the other part of the story, and we just had a ball making that film. And Paul was the ringleader. He loved the bad guys.
AVC: You play a really vicious character in Robocop. What goes through your mind when you see yourself blowing some guy’s brains out onscreen?
RW: It looks a lot worse than it did when I was doing it. It’s all so technical, really, when we’re shotgun-blasting apart Peter Weller. It’s kind of gruesome when you’re doing it, but it looks worse onscreen. It’s not so bad, really. A little bit of gratuitous violence in a well-thought-out story is fine.
Bob Roberts (1992)—“Chet McGregor”
AVC: Once again you worked with an actor-turned-director, Tim Robbins. Do directors who are also actors work differently than directors who are just directors?
RW: I think they do. They’re able to come up with ways of approaching you and using familiar language. They understand the problems of the actor, and what an actor has to accomplish in every scene.
AVC: Are you interested in directing?
RW: Yeah, I’m interested in it, but it’s a real headache. [Laughs.] Directing can be a real pain in the ass, because you not only have to worry about yourself, but all these other people coming to you with their problems. I like just worrying about myself.