Jose here. James Ransone had me at Haneke. As we sat down to talk about Sinister 2 I explained my hierarchy of scariest things, clowns come first, followed by children, ghosts, and snakes... He responded “I don’t get scared by that stuff, I get scared by Michael Haneke movies...Amour scares me”. It was one of many responses that caught me completely off guard, because unlike most interviewees at junkets for studio movies, Mr. Ransone seemed completely unscripted, he was just saying what he thought, which made for a truly refreshing conversation.
It’s this very same irreverent quality that makes Ransone so compelling to watch onscreen. Whether he’s in a miniseries like Generation Kill or an indie hit like Tangerine, which he made with frequent collaborator Sean Baker, Ransone’s characters always seem to be coming up with their dialogue on the spot (no offense to the truly great screenwriters he’s worked with). The actor’s presence is so natural that he makes for a hybrid of Brando and John Cazale, who both seemed to effortlessly conjure the essence of their characters.
Mostly seen in supporting parts, this weekend Ransone gets promoted to leading man in Sinister 2, in which he plays Ex-Deputy So & So, the self-deprecating, do gooder who sets off to protect a mother (Shannyn Sossamon) and her two kids who are being terrorized by demonic beings. I talked to the eloquent Ransone about his opening weekend expectations, his own experiences with the "supernatural", and what he thinks is missing in modern American cinema.
JOSE: This room’s setting made me rearrange the order of my questions, because it looks like a shrink’s office and I read that you read Lacan and Zizek…
JAMES RANSONE: Yeah...I mean listen, I’m not gonna pretend that I just sit around and read a lot of philosophy and masturbate to myself intellectually, because that’s really fucking dangerous, but they’re really influential on my thinking. Basically I’m always trying to figure out why society works the way it does, and a lot of these guys helped make sense and shape some of the things that never made sense to me before. Foucault too, big time.
JOSE: I’m asking because I’m curious about who you found first, Lacan or Zizek, which can be like an egg and chicken kind of thing nowadays.
JAMES RANSONE: Zizek, then Lacan and then Foucault, but I’m also into a lot of older Western European philosophers, I really like Kant. Actually what I first started with was Marx’s Capital...OK, this is what happened (crosses his arms) when the BP oil spill happened, I had a really hard time trying to reconcile what was going on, from a corporate, economic perspective. It really had a profound effect on me and it made me start reading a lot of history and political history and economic philosophy, and that led me to Marx’s Capital which was annotated by David Harvey at SUNY Purchase, and once I started to read that the whole thing just opened up. I started reading all of these other people which were influenced by that…
OK, let’s talk about your movies then…
I know, from one devil to the next.
Congratulations on surviving the first Sinister.
I don’t wanna put pressure on you but Sinister 2 is opening on almost three thousand theaters, Tangerine opened in four. Have you been stressing out about the first weekend?
Yeah, I’m totally stressing out. I’m terrified! What if people hate me? What if it’s a disaster? What if I suck and I have no idea that I suck? It’s fucking scary.
They’ll be coming to see the demons and ghosts, so you shouldn’t put so much pressure on yourself.
You’re absolutely right, they don’t give a hit about me. I could be a talking sock and they’d be fine.
You’re always playing dicks and characters that people tend to dislike…
I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. Maybe I’ve played dicks in a lot of the stuff that you’ve seen, but I talked to someone who’s seen the majority of my work, and yes I play a lot of dicks, but that’s not true about everything else. That’s OK though, I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’ve played dicks and now I’m playing a nice, sweet guy. I’m just trying to do as many things as I can possibly do. I never think “nice guy, dick”, I just think “have I done this before?” and if the answer is no then I do it.
So you don’t feel the need to like the characters you’re playing?
No, that’s ridiculous.
In terms of supernatural stuff, which elements do you think make for the best scary movies?
I grew up Catholic, so I have all that indoctrination, I’ve been conditioned through that bullshit story too, so me personally, just because it’s part of my upbringing, I gravitate to the symbolism of Christian mythology. So to me the scariest movie that had an effect on me as a child was The Exorcist for sure, that scared the shit out of me, it fucked me up.
I don’t blame you, I’m currently listening to the audiobook and it has made me want to piss myself more than I’d like.
Is the audiobook any good?
Yeah, William Peter Blatty himself narrates it, and he does all the different voices.
I’m a totally rational, skeptical, science minded person, and I lived in a haunted apartment. To have an experience like that, I don’t even like using the term “haunted” because who knows what was actually going on. How can I define an experience that is so far out of the ordinary? To say “haunted” is a big leap. But anyway I lived in an apartment where I had thematically recurring nightmares, that would happen at the same time every night, and how I woke up to things grabbing me in a waking state. I would leave town and my neighbors would call to ask why I was banging on the floor, things like that. So I did what a smart person does, which they never do in horror movies, which is I fucking moved. I was like “I’m outta here!”, what else would I do, call a shaman and have him blow some smoke in a corner? I don’t believe that they know what it is either.
You mentioned Haneke before and in Sinister 2 we see how some of the characters use art to encourage violence, which made me wonder if you find it necessary that your films touch on grander social issues?
Yeah, I mean, I guess it’s your hope. To demand that everything should be that is just as shitty as to demand that everything is just entertaining. By adhering to any dogmatism, that ends up limiting my experiences. To say I wanna turn my brain off for an hour and be scared, there’s nothing wrong with that. I wanna say though that we’re in a weird place in American cinema where there’s not a lot of social meaning or commentary that happens in your multiplex fare on the weekends. That’s a bummer for me because movies are an incredibly powerful medium and they should be provoking a conversation about things that might be happening in society. One of my favorite movies of all time is They Live which is a horror movie about aliens brainwashing people, but that was John Carpenter’s total dig at Reaganomics, people were subliminally being brainwashed to consume through Reaganomics. So Carpenter made a really entertaining film that underneath is very pissed off at this asshole in the White House. He balanced both of those things and that’s how it should be.
You’ve collaborated many times with David Simon, Sean Baker and Spike Lee and they are all filmmakers who seem to be fascinated with location and with helping audiences become familiar in many ways with the settings of their films.
They’re cultural cartographers basically.
Right, I’ve been to Los Angeles and I’d never heard of Donut Time until I watched Tangerine…
That’s the best part about working with all of them, from my experience with Spike, to David, to Sean, it’s all fairly similar because they decide that they’re going to make a project about something, I’m hired last. So they tell you they’ll be going into this universe they’ve researched thoroughly and it’s a universe that I hadn’t thought about before, or an experience that I hadn’t considered, or maybe considered in a passive state. Working with them they download all this information on to me, and then my own experiences get altered dramatically.
So when I go do Generation Kill in Africa, I’m around all these marines, and being around them they influence my life, not my career, my life. I’m thinking about veterans of Iraq, I’m thinking what it feels like for a 19 year old kid to go kill someone in a foreign country, the same way that I’m thinking about the erosion of unions of blue collars in waterfront industrial areas, the same way I’m thinking about how someone ends up a transexual sex worker. What are the causes and conditions that lead to all of these things? They aren’t things I would instinctually go looking for, but now they have shaped my perspective of what it means to be a human being. Movie star shit is inherently meaningless to me because I don’t have a relationship with that, but I have a relationship with all of these people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and I’m thinking about what it means to be them. It’s fucking crazy that that’s my job and that I’ve been lucky enough to meet people who wanna pay me to do this.
I wanna start a campaign to have Tangerine become a new Christmas classic.
So in 2015 you’ve done your Christmas movie and a Halloween flick. Should we expect a rom-com and a blockbuster to have a James Ransone movie for every season?
I don’t think that’s happening (laughs). Look at me (points at his face) no one’s gonna hire me for a romantic comedy. There’s no way! If any teenage girl were to look at me as a heartthrob I think their parents would think there’s something wrong with them. They’d send them to therapy first thing in the morning.
Sinister 2 opens in theaters today. Tangerine is now in theaters and On Demand.