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Exclusive BULLET IN THE FACE Max Williams Interview IFC

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I spoke with the incredibly talented Max Williams about his leading role as Gunter Vogler in Bullet in the Face. It’s difficult to put in words the brilliant job that Max does portraying Gunter.  The amount of charisma that is displayed is amazing.  He plays a sociopath with such elegance and beauty that it is almost scary.  Having just seen him play Gunter, I’ll admit that it was a little bit intimidating to be speaking with him.  I really didn’t know what to expect and I’m very happy to report that he was one of the nicest people that I have ever come in contact with.  What an absolute pleasure it was to speak with him and to get to know him a bit more.  I know I sound like a broken record but I don’t care, I truly love this series and everyone involved with it.  I was fortunate enough to get a chance to interview Kate Kelton, Neil Napier, and Max Williams about their starring roles in Bullet in the Face.  Be sure to read all of their interviews and watch their show on IFC.  Alan Spencer created something very special with Bullet in the Face.  It’s more than just a television series it’s a work of art.  It has a hint of the cinematic beauty of The Spirit combined with the over-the-top action sequences of the Crank series.  It’s a hard thing to describe but the good thing is that the wait is almost over.  It is almost your turn to experience Bullet in the Face for yourself.  IFC is airing all six episodes back-to-back over two days, August 16-17.  Do NOT miss this special event.  It is seriously such a fun journey that you will want to send Alan and the cast thank you notes.  I’m talking about handwritten thank you notes because the level of entertainment that they managed to achieve in this series certainly warrants them.  I love, love, love this series with Eddie Izzard, Max Williams, Kate Kelton, Neil Napier, Eric Roberts, Jessica Steen, and Christopher Heyerdahl.

Lena:   I have to say that it’s such a joy watching you bring Gunter to life.

Max Williams:  Thank you.  As an artist, when you get a part like that where you get to play in an environment that Alan created with what he wrote and the people that he brought on board from co-stars to everyone, I literally woke up every day and I was really living my dream.  Gunter is the type of guy that I have sort of played before onstage in a role I think a year and a half before.  I got quite a bit of acclaim in L.A. for the role I did in theater but it was a very similar character, right down to the hair color.   I had bleached my hair for that role onstage and that’s one of the pictures that IFC, I believe, had saw where beyond anything that they saw on tape that they could clearly envision the direction that Alan wanted to go with the character, as far as the look.  Every day I had a blast, Alan and I found a rhythm and he means so much to me as an artist, but also as a friend.  The freedoms that he allowed me but also the things that I learned, I went to set every day and I was just an open book, for lack of a better expression.  All I had to do was go and play around in this playground that any artist would dream of playing around in.  Gunter is a role that I will cherish forever.

Lena:  Bleaching your hair is fun, isn’t it?

Max Williams:  Ah fun, no [laughing].  It’s a pain in the ass but all things are relative and I’m sitting in a barber chair having my hair done.  It’s not like I’m getting my fingernails pulled; this isn’t torture we are talking about.  It’s certainly a different look but I was used to that look on myself because I had done it for the stage role so it wasn’t this shocking transformation for me.  The shocking transformation for me was the other role with the prosthetics and the black hair, Gunter at the beginning in the first episode.  That was a very bizarre experience for me because prosthetics changed, at least for me I can only speak for myself, my energy.   I found that the Gunter where I got my own face back worked really well for the character because obviously it’s the antithesis of what I’m telling you is that I’m much more comfortable in my face than I am in prosthetics.  Gunter was the antithesis of that in the show, he loved his face in the very beginning and he spends the whole time trying to get it back.  What I played up a little bit when I got Max Williams’ face on with the blonde hair after the operation is that he really went crazy with using this face that he hated.  In other words, he had this face that he couldn’t stand so he was just going to abuse it.  The bleaching of the hair wasn’t a big deal, it was having that wig on and the cheek and nose implants and what it does to your vibe.  Neil Napier (Hagerman) was just a joy to work with he has become a very good friend of mine in real life as well.  We just had this magnificent friendship on set and I really feel that with his character as well is that Hagerman offers Gunter the other side of the coin.  Hagerman’s a churchgoer and all this different stuff.  One of the things that I find the most attractive about Gunter is that in a world where so many people are dishonest, in the world that we live in not Bruteville from the series – in Bruteville you are talking evil vs. evil, in the real world right on down the line there are so many people that are dishonest.  One of the things that I find most refreshing about Gunter is that he is who he is, he says what he says, and he does what he does and doesn’t make apologies for it.  I’m not condoning being a sociopath, that’s not what I’m saying.  I think one of the biggest things that we deal with as a society and as a species is guilt.  Everybody feels guilty about everything and takes these actions and end up feeling guilty about them.  Gunter doesn’t feel guilty; he does not suffer guilt.  That was unbelievably refreshing for me to play.

Lena:  Can you talk about what you used for inspiration for Gunter?

Max Williams:  I work a lot with animals and Gunter was an owl who had swallowed a snake.  He was a combination of the two, so it was a battle between an owl and a snake.  He had the tail and the lower half of the snake and yet he had the wings, the eyes, and sight of an owl.  He had the essence of a lion.  I also played with the essence of a lion.  All of my inspirations for characters always start with animals.  I worked with that and I molded him around that, his movements and the things that he did with his eyes around those three animals in sort of a combination.  He had the aura of a lion and just imagine an owl that has eaten a snake and they’ve morphed into one.  It’s like a snake’s body with an owl’s head and wings.  If this isn’t making any sense, I apologize.  This is how I work [laughing].   There was also some inspiration from a 1940s film where Richard Widmark played a sociopath.  It was a startling role. There were some aspects of Jimmy Cagney – cocky, gun-toting, let’s kill them all kind of guy.  The other thing that I really made sure of, especially in the third episode, that was my favorite episode because with the speech at the end in the hospital when I say that the world is a wicked place and deserves to be punished for its hypocrisies and then I shift, when I’m at the school talking to him as I tell him that this is my evil and he’s not like this and I actually apologized to the kid.  That was so important for me and for Alan and I’m so thankful because it made Gunter human.  I could not have him be just this maniacal sociopath because he’s not a human being then.  He had to be a human being and that episode solidifies him as a human.  I’m also very thankful because the moment came off beautifully and it was wonderful to work with her in this moment at the end because it was this maniacal shoot that day, but the moment that Kate and I have at the end where I tell her that I love her and she’s looking at me and I’m looking at her.  That is another very human moment for Gunter.  I really, really needed him to be a fully rounded human being.   I’m not going to lie to you, I love Jack Nicholson and there are some aspects of him in there.  I wanted to stay away from The Joker, even though I love Nicholson, I wanted to make Gunter my own and not have him be a caricature or a parody of anyone else.

Lena:  How about the accent?

Max Williams:  That was so much fun.  I love working with accents.  One of the things that inspired me the most about Gunter is that you are taking a character whose a sociopath and whose German and all of the twentieth century, and rightfully so, baggage that that it lends itself to in the mind’s eye, Nazism and stuff, all those horrors that were committed and I saw this guy that Alan had written and I had to make him likeable and that to me is art, not on my end but Alan’s end.  He made the choice of taking this German cat and wanting to make him a sociopath and yet make him likable.  I have an accent CD guy named David Allen Stern.  I listen to all of his CDs for all of my accents.   Everywhere I went I was listening to this CD.  I made the choice to go harsh with it.  I didn’t want it to be a caricature accent.  I wanted it to be on the Eastern Bloc kind of thing, almost towards Russia.  When you work on it enough it’s like a switch clicks.  There was a wonderful woman that I worked with, and Kate worked with her as well, that would go over it with me and fine-tune it for me.   She commented that the accent had really become my own and that meant a lot to me.  Everything starts from there, he’s German and he has a German mentality.  If I didn’t have the accent down as comfortably as I wanted it then everything for the character for me would have been false.  It just became this beautiful dance and I could drop into it whenever I wanted.  I would wake up every morning and go through my script and phonetically write everything out.  It really helped me to be consistent with the dialog and the accent.

Lena:  I’m curious about your work with animals.

Max Williams:  The person that meant the most to me is a gentleman named Michael Chekhov.  Michael was Stanislavski’s most brilliant student.  Michael was all about the imagination.  He’s not about what I call the yank – pull stuff from your past – like if you think about a loved one dying if you need to cry in a scene.  Michael believes that humans are an exceedingly imaginative species and that you create the whole scenario, so when you have to cry for a scene that it’s in this imaginary backstory that you have created for your character.  To me you can use your imagination and it’s safer, it’s healthier.  Acting, yes it’s therapy and the greatest joy that I get in life but I also love creating backstories for characters and coming up with scenarios that way.  Animals are something that I discovered working with the Chekhov stuff.  It’s a way to get into your body, it’s a way to find the psychological gesture which is you find some area of your body that leads, it can be internal, it can be external, it can be the smallest thing that allows you to find physically where your character is coming from.   For me I tweaked that a bit, I find physically where my character is coming through animals.   I don’t think about the animals they come to me.  I do quite a bit of meditation and I know that they are going to come to me at some point and lead up to a role.  For Gunter the owl is extremely keen with his eyes, he can see everything.  With the snake you can probably figure out that aspect that comes into Gunter.  He also had the heart of a lion.  This is a guy who had no fear.  Whenever I have a character like that in my trailer I would keep a card, a picture, of an owl and each day before I went on set I would look at it and focus in on the mindset because owls are ultimate hunters.  There is really nothing that can escape the owl’s grasp at night when it wants to kill.  It kills what it wants and that’s Gunter.

Lena:  That’s an interesting concept.

Max Williams:  It’s my tweak on things, not to say that it’s unique or not unique, it’s just the way that I work.

Lena:  Kate (Kelton) made a good point about your hockey background coming in handy for this role.

Max Williams:  That’s a former life for me.  I’m four years sober now and when I played hockey I was a very angry, I just had a tremendous amount of anger issues.  When I look back on those days it’s almost like I’m looking at a different life.  This is a much more healthy way for me to explore anger because I get to do it and have fun with it.  In hockey it would sort of consume me at times and that wasn’t a particularly healthy place to be.  I would certainly say that there was an extent of Gunter, or a portion of Gunter, that came from those days but also I’ve been away from that life long enough that I can look back on it and say okay, a little bit of Gunter came out from those moments of intensity but now I can have fun with it in a healthy way.

Lena:  I loved the happy dance in the hospital that Gunter did.

Max Williams:  [Laughing] That was so much fun.  It was exhausting but it was so much fun.  I’m glad you liked it; I really appreciate that.  I was a little worried about it because it’s a little kooky and you’re standing there in red socks and you are doing take after take.  Jessica Steen, who I adored working with as well, and Neil were standing there staring at me and watching me do this dance over and over again and you reach a point where you are thinking how could this still be funny.  I’m doing the “Wooly Bully” thing and “Wooly Bully” was just an inspiration that came up in the moment and I decided to go with it.  It was inspired from Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  The script required me to dance a jig and whistle a tune, I forget exactly what it said, but it wasn’t specific and I got into it and started thinking of Spicoli.  Alan and Erik Canuel both were so generous with the freedom that they allowed me so they let me go with it.  I’m so thankful that you enjoyed it because I was a little self-conscious at the end of that take thinking, what the hell did I do [laughing]?

Lena:  It worked and your laugh as the character…

Max Williams:  That’s definitely me, not the evil laugh, but I’m a fun-loving guy.  I have a tendency to get serious at moments but I do really enjoy to laugh and Gunter’s laugh, everything that Gunter does is extreme and so I just took it to this extreme of my laugh combined with this extreme level of mania.  It was all levels of mania with Gunter.

Lena:  Well I loved it.

Max Williams:  Thank you.   I’m guessing from the article that you did on Kate that you really enjoyed the series.

Lena:  I did.  I’ll be honest with you, I’m not familiar with any of your previous work but after seeing you in this I have to look up and watch everything that you have ever done.  It’s crazy how I’ve missed you all of these years.

Max Williams:  That’s very kind of you.  This was a really big break for me.  I’m really hoping that it leads to other things.  We work in an industry where nothing is guaranteed.  When people say things like what you just said to me it really touches me very deeply because you never know where and when your next job is going to come, or if it’s going to come.  I’m really making sure right now to just appreciate the moment.  I haven’t done a tremendous amount before and this is going to be a big platform for me to show what I can do in a scenario that honestly was perfect for me.  It was sort of the perfect storm.

Lena:  You definitely shined in it and your two co-stars (Kate Kelton & Neil Napier) that I spoke with were in awe of what a wonderful job you did.

Max Williams:  Like I said, it’s reciprocated to them.  This is the truth when I say this, this particular production every single person had their niche and brought it.  They owned their characters.  Neil, in the first table read, shifted into the voice that he uses for Hagerman.  He was playing off how big I was.  He made a choice to make him more neutral, which I thought was brilliant.  Kate brought this anger she’s got this level of danger underneath.  She was really able to play that up and you wrote it in your article that she’s amazing with a gun.  The girl is Johnny Target.  She is just amazing with a gun.  Jessica Steen is amazing.  As Eva she’s cold and the thing about her and Gunter is that Gunter is looking at her and she’s blackmailing him and we are both kind of looking at each other and in another dimension we would probably be hooking up.  She’s got that anger and I’ve got that anger and when I say that I’m talking about the characters, not in real life.  All the things that the actors all brought that was all created by Alan, Alan and Erik did a great job of playing off of each other and Alan was there every second of every day on set.  He knew his vision and he was so clear with it.  He allowed us to play but he also knew when he wasn’t getting what he wanted to go back and get what he wanted.  It was really something special and I will never take for granted one moment of that journey on set.  I can honestly say that I never looked past any day.  I was like I’m getting to live my dream on this set with this amazing group of talented people.

Lena:  If the show got picked up for another season, where would you like to see your partnership with Hagerman go?

Max Williams:  That’s a great question because Neil and I have talked about that.  I really feel that these two deep down obviously besides the face that they have serious differences in the way they live their lives, I really think that they can learn about the world from each other.  Hagerman has these moments, especially in the church episode, where he’s looking at me and you can see it in his eyes, he’s pondering Gunter’s logic.  He doesn’t necessarily agree with it but he’s thinking about it.  There are moments when I’m thinking about his logic.  I really think that they can become, and I don’t want to use the phrase the wrong way, like a weird, strange new version of Starsky and Hutch.  Where they are great detectives and do a great job solving crimes.  Keep in mind this is all off of the top of my head, it’s not anything that I know of for sure at all.  I can see Eva giving Gunter recognition and thinking that she has to keep his face away from him because he’s a pretty good cop.  I really see the Hagerman and Gunter relationship being one of unique partnership in solving crimes that you’ve never seen before on TV or film.

Lena:  When Gunter is on the phone with Eddie Izzard’s character, Tannhauser, discussing how much Gunter loves to kill people something is revealed about Tannhauser being a strong influence on Gunter’s life.  Did Alan give you a backstory about those events or did you make up one to help you really connect with your character?

Max Williams:  It wasn’t necessarily a backstory that he gave us, it was certainly one that I created and I’m believing Eddie created a unique one of his own.  It’s not something that Eddie and I talked about.  We didn’t sit down and say this is our history or something like that.  It was more reading off of what he was bringing.  When I say that line to him on the phone, “You made me what I am today, insane.”  If you think about Eddie Izzard and I didn’t have to think long about this because I have so much respect for him, if you think about his level of intelligence on the table as far as comedy goes, improv, and all that stuff, but one of my most telling moments with Eddie was when I first met him I was sitting down with him having lunch and I told him that one of the performances that I respected the most was his one in The Cat’s Meow.   It’s sort of a true story based on the whole William Randolph Hearst shooting on his yacht with Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin.  Eddie played Chaplin but it’s not a comedy and it’s not about acting, so he didn’t play Chaplin.  This is a true story about an affair between Chaplin and Marion Davis, who in that film was played by Kirsten Dunst.  William Randolph Hearst supposedly found out about it and obviously Marion was his main squeeze and there was a murder that occurred on this boat and it was covered up.  It’s an excellent film and I recommend that you watch it sometime.  This is post Dress to Kill and I had scene Eddie and all his stuff in that and I remember seeing The Cat’s Meow and seeing him do a dramatic role.  This guy is a great actor, bottom line.  That’s what I saw on set and when I shared that with him when we were having lunch I could tell how much that meant to him.  I wasn’t bringing up Dress to Kill or some of the stuff that he normally does.  I didn’t bring it up to win him over I brought it up because I was honest.  It’s some of the best work that I have seen him do.  I wanted to share that with him and he brings that to Tannhauser.  He walks the line now between bringing what he brought in Chaplin, or a version of that as far as the sincerity and reality, and he walks it with his Eddie Izzard brilliance.

Lena:  Eddie was so good.

Max Williams:  He was something very special to work with.  Eric Roberts was as well.  He offered so much advice about the career.  I can tell this is a guy that has lived and he was very complimentary about me, and the work that I was doing.  He was so available on-camera and off.  I mean for stuff that he didn’t have to be there he was there for every single one of my takes where it was coverage on me.  I remember specifically a moment that I did with him which was at the desk where I get let in to his office.  I remember when action was called and I remember the look in his eyes when I looked across the desk at him and I remember just being like this guy is armed.  There is just something about him and something that happens with Eric Roberts when action is called.  You can immediately tell why he’s worked successfully for as long as he has.  He is 100% professional.  To get to see people like that work like I said, I cherished every moment.

Lena:  What scene was the most challenging for you and the most fun to film?

Max Williams: I want to specify that the whole thing was a blast but it felt like the maniacal energy that was in the sequence at the post office with the head being tossed around that day was just so free and easy.  It was a room packed with people and everybody was in a great mood.  It was just one of those things where the energy that day was really, really palpable happy.  The biggest challenge was when I first got up there and they had me running around to get costume stuff and we had fight choreography.  Kate and I were doing a lot of fight choreography stuff.  I had to take care of some passport stuff.  It was all stuff that didn’t have to do with the character.  I have a very close friend who is very dear to me, my ex-wife.  We just have a very special bond and she called me out of the blue the night before the very first table read in front of all of the producers and when the whole cast was getting together for the first time.  I knew that I had to remove myself from the equation, i.e. any doubts on their part, as far as I’m your guy and you are never going to have to think about this again.  I’m your Gunter and whatever problems you may have with this production it isn’t going to be with me.  I hadn’t had enough time as I would have liked with the material and I was a little stressed, not too stressed because I meditate and I’m sober and I’ve figured out my life, I wasn’t going crazy because I don’t get like that anymore but I was just a little off.  When she called me I told her that I was a little stressed and she said a line to me that I will never forget and I’ve thanked her at least a half a dozen times for it.  She very calmly said, “Max, you were built for this.”  It got rid of all of the anxiety.  I went in the next day and I knocked it out of the park at the table read.  From that moment on I never questioned one moment.  I would say that was my most challenging moment and she really helped me trough it.  It was what I needed to hear at that moment.

Lena:  How much do you stay in character when you do a film (or show), especially for something like this?

Max Williams:  Alan gave me a great piece of advice and I’ve stuck with it.  Alan said, “Max, let this guy live on film.  Let him live in this world.  If people ask you in interviews to do the accent and stuff like that I would stay away from it.”  I think it was really good advice.  Staying in character and again working with the Chekhov stuff, that’s not something that I do.  Some of it stays with you like as far as the mania goes but the taste of the shoot and what you are existing in at that moment but no, I’m the type of guy that I do my work and prepare for the day and when cut is called and the day is over I go back into Max mode.  I did not approach anyone in society with Gunter [laughing].  That wouldn’t have been the healthiest thing for someone else to experience, a sociopathic German at the CVS [laughing].   Certainly mentally he stays with you.  In the end, it was just a tremendous amount of fun.  It’s the role of a lifetime for me.  I love Gunter; I love him.

Lena:  Speaking of your character, what do you think Gunter does for a hobby?  What does he do to relax?

Max Williams:  I can see him collecting random pieces of litter that don’t mean anything to anyone else and going home and making them into some sort of smorgasbord of a piece of art on the wall.  I also see him, he obviously enjoys women, as enjoying the mental manipulation of women be it through books or energy.  I think it’s one of those things that attracts him to Martine so much.  I can see him putting together a collage of chaos out of those things that don’t matter to anyone else.  Gunter finds joy in what other people see as horror.  Say if there is a napkin, or a fast food bag that someone threw out their window as they were driving along, or someone decided to blow their nose in a napkin before they tossed it.  He would find that horrifically beautiful and put it on his collage.  It may sound crazy but you are dealing with me, so just roll with it.

Lena:  I would be afraid to see what TV shows he DVRs.

Max Williams:  Me too.  Who knows, maybe he loves Little House on the Prairie or The Partridge Family.  Maybe he finds horror in that.

Lena:  What a great character to play.

Max Williams:  I was offered a beautiful gift.  I at least made the attempt to make the most of it.  I’m very proud of the series and the work that everyone did.  Alan created art and that’s what I want to be involved in.  Alan is a special man for believing in me and giving me this opportunity.  I know that I don’t have a lot of credits and he really believed in me.  That just means the world to me.  He’s a very special man in my life.

Lena:  What was your audition like?

Max Williams:  I saw the breakdown of this guy and it immediately made me think of the role of Cody Powers that I did onstage.  I also saw series lead, which as an actor makes you have a Scooby-Doo moment.  The casting director, Ivy Isenberg, was a big champion of mine for this role along with Alan and I went in and she said, “Look you got this guy, you know this guy.”  I had to go away on a trip and when I got back Ivy said that she had shown my tape to Alan and that he really like it.  From Alan on, did I think the role was mine?  Yes, however this is Hollywood and you always have to prepare yourself for things that you have no control over, i.e. a bigger name comes along, or someone who’s prettier or taller, you just never know what they are looking for.  I found out in early September that I had gotten the role.

Lena:  I just couldn’t imagine anyone else playing Gunter.  They made a smart decision.

Max Williams:  Well I can’t either and I’m glad that they gave it to me.  The amount of joy that I had playing it, it can’t even be measured on charts.

Lena:  What else do you have coming up?

Max Williams:  I just got done shooting a short film in Montreal that I believe is going to Cannes.  It’s called Elizabeth.  I play a husband, a much more sensitive guy, a much more vulnerable guy.  As an actor, you really like to get offered roles that let you stretch your legs so you can show what you can do.  I can certainly do crazy [laughing] and don’t get me wrong I love doing it and I will gladly do it again.  I’ve got several writing projects because I’m a writer as well.  I’ve got several writing projects that are first and foremost that I’m really excited about.  There is a project coming up in Texas that I’m very intrigued to be a part of called Look For Me I Will Find You.   It’s based on a series of books and I believe that it’s going to shoot sometime this fall.  I’m back onstage in September.  I have several short films that I’m shooting with friends.  I really try to stay busy.  I don’t know what opportunities Gunter is going to lead to for me, hopefully some good ones in the industry, but you can never rely on other people.  You have to go out and make it happen on your own.

Lena:  And you still manage to find the time to workout.

Max Williams:  I swim every day.  I weigh quite a bit less than I did when I played hockey because I carried a lot more muscle playing hockey.  Now it is all about being long and the marital arts aspect of things.  Swimming every morning is a really beautiful way for me to spiritually get into the day.  For me that’s my drug, for lack of a better term.  As a former addict rather, that’s my new drug.

Lena:  You have that very cut Bruce Lee body.

Max Williams:  Thank you.  You could not have offered me a better compliment because he is my ideal.  I just watched a documentary on him the other day.  I loved his mentality on working out, his mentality on the relationship between spirit and body.  He was just a very special man.   That’s a great compliment.  I appreciate that, thank you.  I’m working to get to be more like Bruce.

Watch Bullet in the Face on IFC, all six episodes are airing back-to-back over two days, August 16-17 beginning each night at 10/9c.

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