Barry Pepper in both Casino Jack and True Grit
Barry Pepper in both Casino Jack and True Grit © 2010 ATO Pictures / © 2010 Paramount Pictures / Composite © 2010 FilmReviewOnline

Barry Pepper is a very eclectic and busy actor, with two movies opening in December, Casino Jack and True Grit.

In Casino Jack he portrays Michael Scanlon, who along with his partner Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), were the top lobbyists in Washington DC until they enlisted their friend, Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz), who had mob-connections, to help them with one of their illegal schemes, which turned into one of the biggest scandals in Washington history.

In True Grit, the actor plays Lucky Ned Pepper, the leader of a gang of train robbers whose encounter with US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) left him badly disfigured.

What was it about Casino Jack that interested you?

Casino Jack - Barry Pepper
Casino Jack – Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) © 2010 ATO Pictures

When I read the script, I was instantly hooked. But I have to be honest – when I first heard about it, I thought that it would be pretty dry. I mean, lobbyists in Washington? Then I read it and realized that what they did was so ludicrous, it was perfect for the screen.

I’ve played some smooth operators, but Mike Scanlon is a different kind of individual. This is a real guy who had a real life, a real fiancée and co-workers. I didn’t have the luxury of meeting him, but I was able to speak to co-workers and friends.

The information they gave me was so valuable in getting to the heart of the character. They were so giving and generous with their personal histories and stories. Remember, many of them were also indicted. They had to testify before Congress and they could have gone to prison, as Jack did.

Did Mike not want to meet with you?

No, I think Mike disappeared into the ether after this scandal broke. He and Jack couldn’t get to the FBI fast enough to sell each other down the river, and I think because Mike did get to the FBI before Jack he disappeared while everything was happening to Jack. It was probably better for me not to have spoken to him. I think I got a more honest representation of views.

What was it like working so closely with Kevin Spacey?

Casion Jack - Barry Pepper and Kevin Spacey
Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) and Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) © 2010 ATO Pictures

Working with Kevin was like opening a Christmas gift every day. He’s so present. His eyes are on fire and you can’t help but be invigorated by him. It was so much fun to collaborate with him. Plus, he has about 1,000 impersonations and stories that kept the cast and crew entertained. And then, when it was time to work, he stepped into the truth of his character and I found myself lit up by him.

What’s interesting about Kevin is he was just given an honorary knighthood by Prince Charles and the Queen for his work at the Old Vic Theatre for the last six years, where he brought the Old Vic back to life. But that’s a part of his life that he doesn’t really talk about, it’s kind of private and beautiful. And I think that’s really charming about him.

What did you learn from doing this role?

That it’s a privilege to utilize the great form of democracy, which is to speak out and to get involved and hold your elected officials feet to the fire, and insist that they carry out what they promised in their campaign.

Until fund raising and lobbying practices are reformed [nothing will change]. After this scandal broke, I think John McCain was at the head of the investigation and they had a lobbying reform act that they passed, but it was just a toothless measure, it didn’t do anything. In fact it’s probably twice as bad as it was during Jack and Mike’s period.

Were you a fan of the original movie of True Grit?

True Grit - Hailee Steinfeld and Barry Pepper
True Grit – Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) © 2010 Paramount Pictures, Photo by Lorey Sebastian

No, I’d never seen it. I must have had my head so deep in the sand, for lack of a better analogy. All I knew was that the Coen Brothers were making True Grit and they were going to make a pure adaptation of the book. So I thought it had nothing to do with the original film, so I thought, ‘Well, there’s no point in my watching the film if they’re going to adapt the book.’

I did watch the original John Wayne movie once I got the role, and I found out I had these huge boots to fill, as Robert Duvall had played Lucky Ned Pepper before me.

How would you describe Lucky Ned?

He’s the chief of a gang of scallywags and no-good train robbers and bandits. He’s crossed paths with Rooster Cogburn in the past, and was shot in the face, so he’s very intriguing looking. But he managed to escape, so that’s how he got his moniker.

Make up designer Christien Tinsley molded a prosthetic piece that just amazingly blended in with a Custer-like goatee and mustache. When I’d step out of the trailer in the morning, people didn’t recognize me. It also informed the sound and delivery of Ned’s dialogue.

Did you find the dialogue in this movie was different that other film you’ve done?

Yes, it was more like doing American Shakespeare. There was a musicality and a rhythm to the dialogue, it’s so specific that you’re working very much with what’s on the page, it’s not endless rewrites throughout the production. It’s such a specific script and it’s about trying to hit certain notes, and the scene blossoms and completely changes and becomes darkly humorous or bizarre, but it’s a very structured piece in that respect.

The language is so authentic to that period.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.