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.
That was in SoHo and the Lower East Side, right?
Who were your contemporaries there?
Well, I knew [performance artist-actress-singer] Ann Magnuson and I knew Willem Dafoe and I knew Spalding Gray. But we were all sort of fringe. If anybody had ever said at that time that any of us would be nationally known, it would have seemed crazy.
And now you have two major movies under your belt, not to mention the printed collections of your monologues and a soundtrack recording of Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll. Do you think that as you saturate the market, people understand your work better? Or do they still have a hard time classifying you? For instance, when you go into record stores -- assuming that you do -- you'll see that the soundtrack album is filed strangely. Occasionally it's with other spoken-word records, Olivier monologues and War of the Worlds reissues. In a lot of places, it's under comedy. Sometimes it's even with regular rock records.
That's good, I like that. The rock section.
You could put a sticker on it: "File Under Rock." Do you think it's wrong to categorize what you do as comedy?
There's something in the performance ethic of comedy. Like Richard Pryor, for instance. His first live film was very influential -- the sheer energy of what he was doing, how totally involved he was. Lenny Bruce I feel the same way about. I've been around a long time, but I've been around a long time in front of live audiences, and those live audiences have shaped and given me a sense of what works and doesn't work on-stage. In the old days all a performer did was spend quite some time in front of live audiences. Doing that, you get a point of view, and I think that's necessary to keep your work from ringing hollow.
When you started, did you make a conscious decision about how you wanted your characters to be received, how much you wanted audiences to be fascinated by their story telling, or manipulated by their irony, or frightened by their rage?
At first it was pretty naked, pretty in-your-face. Well, not the very first piece, Men Inside. That was just a bunch of guys, just snapshots. But Funhouse was very enraged. I was in a very crazy time in my life. I was incredibly broke, we had rats in the apartment, and I was just freaking. Also, I was not in a good place with my personal history of drugs and all that stuff, and my heroes were a very punk style of music, very aggressive. I liked James Chance and the Contortions, other bands that were like, I dare you to like this. I was mainly speaking to my own crowd downtowm.
Have you mellowed? Are you more interested now in giving the characters pathos? Or do you still want to make audiences uneasy?
I always had a rule for myself that the performance itself should be an event, a phenomenon. Even if you don't like it. Even if you don't laugh. Even if you don't get it, you don't forget it. But I have sort of mellowed out, given the characters more dimension, which is actually something I was not interested in originally. The idea of each character being a little playlet didn't appeal to me.
You felt it would slow it down?
Yeah, that's right. I wanted it to be one gesture after the next gesture, to keep it on its feet. But as each gestural piece sends out a little message, I get tired of those messages. I did a piece about a guy torturing someone for the CIA ["The Specialist," from Funhouse] and took the audience through the whole description of how you put the electrodes here and there. It was good. It was funny. It pissed people off. But I'm not going to move from that to a piece about a guy cleaning a steer in a slaughterhouse. How many pieces of the same type can you do without getting bored? For my own fun I decide to go deeper, to flirt around with the characters a little more.
What unites all the characters is a certain theatricality. When you play a businessman on the phone intimidating one of his co-workers or a British rock star on a talk show whining about his drug problem, that's one thing -- you're lampooning their egotism and puffery. But you use homeless people often in your pieces. There are good reasons, I'm sure -- there's a free flow of words and an outcast status that gives you tremendous freedom. But does that ever trouble you? Do you ever think that you're exploiting the theatricality of the homeless?
That is a concern of mine. It's not fair to suddenly say this is just an amusement. That's why I don't do the show on Broadway. That's why I'm not doing the homeless man as a comedy character on David Letterman. When Whoopi was doing Comic Relief, the organizers called me and wanted me to participate. I said, "What am I gonna do?" and they said, "Do that guy." I'm not gonna do that guy. Great. You're doing a show about the homeless and I'm gonna come out doing the piece about the guy who complains about pollution, mumbling, "Shit fuck piss shit rah rah rah." That's not the way we should be perceiving them. In the context of my show, in the way that I think the show touches on guilt and responsibility, I think I have found a place for those characters that is respectable. They act as a chorus. They point the way. And I'm fully aware that I'm performing mainly for a white middle-class audience, and I'm fully aware of the feelings they're gonna have.
Have you ever had to reconsider the way you've performed a piece?
Oh absolutely. I actually did the show once for an audience that was about 50 percent homeless. I was performing a benefit for Bailey House, which is an AIDS hospice in New York. And I had to think, "Oh, shit I'm doing this stuff for the people who are this way. They know." And afterwards they weren't exactly coming up and slapping me on the back. It was kind of like, "Well, I enjoyed your show. There were a lot of true things." The homeless aren't thinking about the show in the same way we're thinking. The middle class indulges itself in a lot of thought. And our endless self-analyzation and discussion about guilt and homeless and this and that becomes almost a decadent exercise. It's almost more fun to talk about it than to do anything about it. And political action becomes benefits and T-shirts, and it's not really well thought through. I don't want homeless people to become an entertainment. I live in New York. I live around people who are in very sad shape. And when I let them -- when I let down my shield -- they pierce me emotionally. I really am upset by it. The thing though is that I don't know what to do. That problem stays in the forefront of my mind, and I worry about it.
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll is being released as a book, a soundtrack, and a film, and there will certainly be a video later. Do you ever feel as if too much exposure risks diluting your work?
I have a friend who runs a record store and he likes to point to all the record bins and all the records and say, "This is not music. Music is when people come together, and somebody plays, and the sound waves go through the air, and other people hear it, and something happens that is unique to that time. This is just recordings of music." I really feel the same way about this piece. Theater is a part of human culture. In every culture there's some guy, whether he's shaking a coconut or wearing a mask. We do it in different ways, and when we can't do it the official way, through what we call The Theater, which is an overpriced boring exercise anyway, we use other methods. You go to your child's school play. Even that will give you a release.
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So you think the books and soundtracks are alternate routes for the same impulse?
No. The work is the piece in the theater. The people who saw that and were there, those were the people who experienced it. If someone comes to me and says, "We want to make a book of this," or, "We want to make a record," the first thing I do is think about my own experience of records and books. Like Lenny Bruce, for instance. I've listened to and read everything he's performed, but I never saw him live. He was dead before I could. I'm happy that stuff exists. I know that's not the original experience, but I'm glad it's there. When Oliver Stone filmed Talk Radio, it wasn't the play and it couldn't be anything like it. This piece is closer, but it's still not the same.
You've said that this will be the final show that's simply a collection of character monologues, and that you're now going to concentrate on more conventional films and plays. Do you see this as an abandonment? A progression?
In a way it's all very precious to talk about these theories, but the funny thing is that what I do evolves on its own. Friends of mine I knew in high school come and see my shows when I'm in Boston. And they come backstage and say, "Oh that show was great, Eric. You haven't changed at all in, like, twenty years. You're doing the same shit you did in the back of the car." So this must be something that I need to do. There must be something essential there.