Talk Rodeo

What Eric Bogosian does isn't hard to explain. In fact it's almost too easy. For almost a decade, the 37-year-old New Yorker -- a Woburn, Massachusetts native who arrived in New York by way of Oberlin College -- has captivated audiences and turned critics' heads by taking to the stage and introducing his characters. With hardly any scenery and a stark black-pants, white-shirt costume, Bogosian transforms himself into a doped-out homeless visionary, an abusive husband, an unscrupulous insurance salesman, all within the course of the same show. During acclaimed stage runs of a series of multicharacter monologues, first 1982's Men Inside, then Funhouse and Drinking In America, the dark, intense performer found time to cross over into the mainstream, starring in a 1988 Oliver Stone-directed version of the Bogosian play Talk Radio.

Now Bogosian is due to hot wire the silver screen again, this time with Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, a one-man concert movie that opens locally on Friday. Directed by John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), the film is a celluloid record of Bogosian's most recent stage play, a nine-monologue collection in which Bogosian's metamorphoses include a supercilious British rock star, a sexually insatiable Southern bar hound, and a paranoid avant-garde artist. Since talking is his livelihood, Bogosian has become the most interviewable and user-friendly of performance artists; articulate and egomaniacal, he speaks freely about all aspects of his work. During a Miami press-tour stop, he met with New Times to talk about his influences, his show, his projects, and his fears. But mostly just to talk.

People are most familiar with you from the film Talk Radio, and you've also appeared on TV in Robert Altman's version of Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. But most of your work in the past ten years has been these character collections. You began your training as a stage actor, worked in drama in college. How did that form develop?

Well, I had been making what you would call experimental-theater pieces around the late Seventies. What I was mainly working on was the same thing that my artist friends were working on, which was taking very familiar visual images and then finding some sort of depth in them, some way to turn them around. And I got to this point where my large pieces were very ambitious. When I say large, I mean only sixteen actors in a piece, but they were very unwieldy, hard to get going and expensive to produce. By 1980 I had been performing a character named Ricky Paul, a fake nightclub comedian who was very obnoxious, offensive to whatever audience he encountered. I found playing bad guys to be really a lot of fun, but to play one bad guy meant the audience was always mistaking me for the guy. They always thought that I was Ricky Paul, and it wasn't clear that I was saying, "Look at this guy," that I was holding him up for observation. So it occurred to me that if I took a number of different characters and put them all up next to each other, then it would be obvious that I wanted audiences to look at them. In a lot of ways I was thinking of my solo pieces as a gallery of characters. I began in 1980, at the same time Whoopi Goldberg was doing her stuff in San Francisco, but she didn't show up in New York until about 1984 or so.

Were you influenced by comedians who were doing similar things? I'm thinking of someone like the late Andy Kaufman.

Andy Kaufman did have an influence on me. Mentioning him today, though, is sort of strange. I don't know if people even know who he is. The nature of solo performing is such that it is a sort of a torch that's passed from one generation to the next, but only the people right now are familiar to anybody. If I say that Robert Klein has an influence on me, people will say "Who's Robert Klein? How? What?" But his early work was very energetic, and his first album was about the streets of New York. You see things, they have an effect on you, and they become part of your influence. When Andy Kaufman made his quick change from one character to the next it was just amazing. His first appearance on Saturday Night Live, he came out and did impersonations. He was very meek and wimpy and no one had seen him before.

[Speaking in a pinched, nasal voice] "I am now going to do my Aunt Edna: `Come in da house right now!' And now my Uncle Harry: `Get me the newspaper.' And now I'd like to do Elvis Presley." And he turns around and when he turns back he is Elvis. The is-ness of it was the shocking part. He started with this weakness, and then elevated to this stage where he wasn't just pretending to be these characters. He had found a soul in them. It was exciting to watch.

Did you know him? Ever meet him?
No, no. I had really veered off into a very small scene and did not follow the show-business route that perhaps in another life I would have followed. I didn't know anybody in the comedy scene, didn't know anybody in the theater scene, didn't know anybody in show business. I was totally off in my own thing.

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