James Ransone, Star of “Sinister 2” and “Tangerine”

Plus: “The Wire,” Fugazi, and Iggy Pop

Aug 21, 2015 Web Exclusive
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Over the last 15 years, James Ransone has built his career on cult roles. Television fans are most likely to recognize him from his David Simon collaborations: on the second season of The Wire he played Ziggy Sobotka, the wayward son of the head of the dockworkers’ union. He later starred in Generation Kill as Corporal Josh Ray Person, the motormouthed driver of the lead Humvee. (He also had a recurring role as a New Orleans chef on Treme.) On the film front, he’s appeared in movies by Larry Clark (Ken Park), John Waters (A Dirty Shame), Spike Lee (Red Hook Summer, Inside Man, and Oldboy), and Michael Almereyda (Cymbeline).

Ransone took on his first lead role in a studio feature with Sinister 2, which opens this weekend. (He reprises the part he played in the creepy 2012 horror flick.) This summer he also appeared in one of Under the Radar’s favorite films of 2015 thus far: the critical darling comedy Tangerine, about a pair of transgender prostitutes chasing one’s boyfriend-slash-pimp (Ransone) across Los Angeles on Christmas Eve.

We chatted with the actor about music, his career, p class="MsoNormal">Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You started off in film school. What led you to decide to become an actor? 

James Ransone: Actually, it’s a little weirder than that. When I was a kid I was doing a lot of theater stuff; I didn’t have stage parents or anything. I went to this art school for high school where, basically, I didn’t like doing theater, so I switched to fine arts. And then I went to film school, which was kind of an obvious extension of both performance and the visual medium.

Do you still have interest in working on the other side of the camera?

Yeah ... A lot of actors think they can just go ahead and jump in and make a film because they’ve been around film sets a lot. The big thing they often don’t understand is that it requires a lot of patience. You’ve got to be very patient throughout the whole process, and that doesn’t come naturally to me. So, yeah, I’d like to make a movie at some point, but I don’t know that I’m necessarily ready for it right now.

Your Grantland profile mentioned that Fugazi was an inspiration on how you’ve guided your acting career. Can you explain what it was you learned from that band, and how you followed their lead?

Fugazi was an early influence. The methodology with which they approached the whole thing was, “It doesn’t matter the size of the show we play: tickets are always going to be five dollars.” It’s a blue collar work ethic that you can apply to creative means, and by applying that work ethic you keep your ego in check. It will never get out of check if you set up some parameters around your work ethic and how it relates itself to visibility or, of course, financial growth.

You have no reservations about taking on risky roles or working with new directors. Going all the way back to your first big part in Ken Park [which included a notorious autoerotic asphyxiation scene] – I can see a lot of other actors reading that script and being scared shitless.

Oh, yeah, of course. I think I touched on this with Grantland but it wasn’t really expanded upon, but I come from a real fine art background. Lately I’ve been working with the artist Paul McCarthy … He took his cues from the Viennese Actionist movement. It was this sort of postwar response to how art had sort of become too commodified. It became a commodity, and not something that could be experienced. But I came from this fine art background, so doing something like Ken Park, it just felt more like, “Oh, this pushes a big boundary in a performative aspect.”

Is that boundary-pushing one of the main things you’re looking for when you're evaluating a script, or considering a role?

No, not really. I think, for me, it’s cumulative. I think, “Okay, have I done this before?” If the answer is “yes,” then can I change it enough so that it feels new? Or, if the answer is “no,” is it a scary place to be in? If the answer is “yes,” then I absolutely should do it, because the risk of failure is probably the most interesting part of creating anything.  

Tangerine was fantastic. It was your second film with Sean Baker, so obviously you knew the talent he brought to the table. What was your reaction when you were told it was going to be shot on cell phones?

Yeah. Again, this sort of goes back to Fugazi as an early influence and the blue collar work ethic thing. I made Starlet with Sean, so I know what type of movies Sean is trying to make. I won an award for Starlet, and that’s the only award I’ve ever won for acting. So when he called me and said, “We’re going to make this movie, but our budget is much lower and we’re going to shoot it on phones,” I didn’t think, like, I was in a place in my career where I shouldn’t be shooting movies on phones. I just thought, “Well, here we are. We’re going to try something new.”

I had enough trust in him from our history that I knew he was going to make something good. So, why would I let my ego get the better of me and say, “Don’t do that, because that’s shot on a phone”? That voice that says I’m too good for something is also the same voice that says I’m a piece of shit, you know? The more that I ignore that voice altogether, the broader my experience in life becomes.

You had to have been the most seasoned actor on set for that one.

Well, that’s actually not true of the Armenian cast. They’re really famous in Armenia. The woman who play’s Karren’s mother-in-law [Alla Tumanian] is basically the Meryl Streep of Armenia. She was the most seasoned actor of the whole group. I might have been the most seasoned American actor, but that was it.  

The two leads in Tangerine—Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez—hadn’t acted in a film before that. Was there any wisdom you passed on to them? Or were they already beyond your advice?

No, no. Again, I think to say that I had any wisdom to impart would make me an asshole. I think there were some technical things that I would see them do that you just learn by doing it, and maybe I would help them out with finding the light or making sure that their face was reading in the camera. Small things like that. But shaping their performances—that’s Sean’s job, as both the director and the editor. I just tried to be there for them as much as I could if they needed me for anything. But, for me to say that I’ve been in a lot of movies so I know what’s best, that’s not true. Steven Seagal’s been in a ton of movies but I’m not going to listen to him give me advice about acting.

The movie gives a fantastic sense of Los Angeles from a street level. Did filming take you to any interesting corners or places that you might not have seen otherwise?

No, but it sort of put me in a vulnerable position to be in. It just felt weird because I live pretty close to that Donut Time [we shot in.] I could walk there. It’s probably less than a mile from my house. So, I knew about it, and I thought, “Oh, man, that’s where we’re filming?” And, the nights that we filmed my scenes, one of those nights was the Golden Globes. That year I had a couple of friends who were on Orange is the New Black and they were nominated for awards. And so they were at this completely glitzy Hollywood even getting served $500-a-plate dinners, wearing $1000 gowns, and I was down the street getting filmed on an iPhone. [Laughs] I thought, oh my god, what did I do wrong?

You go from this DIY, almost guerilla-style production with Tangerine—and then a few months later, you’re on a big studio production for Sinister 2.  Is it easy to pivot between those two worlds of filmmaking?

It doesn’t register or bother me at all. I just think that if I’m lucky enough that anyone wants to hire me and then hire me continuously, then I owe it to them to go work on it. I try not to compartmentalize it. And, let’s be totally honest, too: Tangerine isn’t going to put my future kids through college. I have to make a living, and for me to be able to do things like Tangerine I have to do other things that are more commercial fare. Not that I judge either one of them as being better or worse—those at just the breaks, in terms of how I need to work.

I don’t say “yes” to everything, but I generally try to be as open-minded as possible. If I’m not working for two weeks and somebody wants me to come work on this thing with them—like, a short, and they’ve only got $5000—and I’ve got the weekend free, I’m like, “Alright, maybe we can do that.” It goes back to what I was saying before: that’s all ego shit, and it’s what I’m trying to get away from.

You were in the first Sinister. When were you told they were going to do a sequel, and they wanted to focus on your character?

I think maybe six or seven months after its release. [Sinister director/screenwriter] Scott [Derrickson] called me and was like, “Look, we’re going to write the sequel for you.” I thought, “Oh, man, that’s so flattering.” But my second thought was like, how am I going to stretch out an hour and a half of this comedic relief character? It seemed like a daunting process. I didn’t know whether I’d be able to carry this thing or not.

You mentioned earlier that you were now living in Los Angeles. Did you move?

Yeah, I’m in L.A. now.

As a long-time New Yorker, what have you felt to be the biggest differences between the two cities?

I’ve got to be honest, man. There’s room to be poor in L.A., and poor people will always make the most interesting art because it hasn’t been infected by the desires of end-game capitalism—to smash all of the idiosyncrasies out of something so that it’s more universally marketable. In New York, the change that I’ve seen is that culture is being erased and eroded at such a rapid rate. There are so many places that used to be owned by one person that are now, like, a Walgreens. And not that there’s not that in L.A., but there are pockets of weirdness and it’s so spread out, there are idiosyncrasies. There are places that are just not like anywhere else.

On top of that, there are deserts, mountains, and oceans within an hour of you if you drive outside of the city. If the shallowness of Hollywood ever gets to you, it’s your fault. There’s some wild that awaits you, and it’s really close to you.  

You were in bands while you were in New York.

Yeah, I was in a lot of bands.

What kind of music did you play?

The only band I was in that did pretty well was this proto-metal band called Early Man, which kinda sounded like early Metallica. They were on Matador. I opened up some shows playing for Cat Power a couple of times—Chan’s an old friend of mine—and I was playing this ridiculously maudlin, self-reflective, sad college white kid bullshit that was really bad. I was in some sort of shoegazer-y, My Bloody Valentine-ripoff bands that never really went anywhere. I grew up around that stuff, around the punk and hardcore scenes in Baltimore and D.C.

Do you still make music?

No, all that stuff’s in the back of my closet. Right now my big obsession—well, not obsession, but how I spend my time recreationally—is surfing.

Iggy Pop is one of your heroes. How has Iggy rubbed off on your approach to acting?  

It’s so highbrow and it’s so lowbrow at the same time. To me, Iggy Pop and South Park are [similar]—they’re wrestling with these incredibly complicated ideas, but at the same time it’s like the most juvenile fart joke of all time. And I love that you can hold these two opposing truths and they have no problem reconciling one another. So it’s like, yeah, I can take this seriously, but at the same time be ridiculous, because fuck it, it should be fun.

There’s some cool stuff coming up in your release schedule. The big one, of course, is Ti West’s upcoming western, In a Valley of Violence. He’s working with the most ridiculously cool cast he’s ever had at his exposal. [Ransone, Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Karen Gillan, and Taissa Farmiga.] Can you confirm with me that the movie is going to be as badass as I’m hoping for?

Yeah, I think so. It’s really funny. It’s really violent. It’s really idiosyncratic. I’m playing the most despicable character that I’ve ever played in my career in that one, so yeah, it’s good.

When you shot your season of The Wire, it hadn’t really caught on yet. But, as you were shooting – did you have a sense that you were working on something that would be considered game-changing?

No, not at all. I’m still really good friends with Chris Bauer, who played my dad [on The Wire.] We would travel back and forth—he’d drive me back to New York sometimes. We just sort of felt like we were doing good work, but that was sort of the extent of it. Even at that time, so few people watched it. I remember David [Simon] coming to set and saying, “Well, HBO isn’t sure whether they’re going to give us a third season.” So I think we were like, we’re handing in good work—but none of us saw it as a game changer. But, I think you kind of have to be an asshole to think that when you’re working on anything. [Laughs]

Because you’re a music guy: what are a couple of your go-to records? What albums never get old?

Oh, man. Fun House is an all-time favorite. I like this record by Unwound from the late ‘90s called Repetition—they were this Olympian punk band that were really interesting. Blood on the Tracks is my favorite Dylan record. Nebraska is a good one for me, but that’s a big bummer.

I want to make sure I don’t say anything too douche-y, either. [Laughs] What else have I been listening to a lot? Oh! Thin Lizzy is a huge one. The entire CCR catalog, and lately a lot of Blue Oyster Cult.

***

Sinister 2 is now in theaters. For more information, check out its website.

Head here for more information on Tangerine



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