He’s one of the most iconic faces of the Eighties, thanks to his Golden Globe-winning role as detective Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice. But in Jim Mickle’s southern fried thriller "Cold In July", Johnson plays a very different kind of investigator. Part-time PI, part-time pig farmer, Jim Bob must rank as one of Johnson’s most unique creations – which is saying something, given his recent work as a Mexican-hunting vigilante in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete and a plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Created by Cold In July author Joe R. Lansdale as a character to run through several of his novels, here Johnson’s Jim Bob becomes embroiled in a twisted plot, involving an innocent family man (played by Michael C. Hall) and a vengeful grief-stricken father (Sam Shepard) – resulting in a violent but darkly humorous saga. Below, Johnson discusses what drew him to the role, why he feels there is a thirst for Eighties films right now, and discusses his own time as a legend of the era.
Q: How did you get involved with Jim Mickle’s Cold In July?
A: I was making two other movies at the same time – including The Other Woman in New York. Anyway, I got sent the script and I was taken by the different rhythms and tempos that were in it. So I agreed to meet the director, and when you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you get an instinct and an intuition about whether someone has film sense or whether they don’t. I was taken right away by the fact Jim had really unique and specific storytelling skills and film knowledge. I asked him who he had in mind for the other parts, and he told me Michael C. Hall was attached as Richard Dane and that he wanted to get Sam Shepard. I said, ‘OK, go get Sam Shepard and if you’re successful with that, I’ll consider it seriously.’
Q: Were you aware of Jim’s previous films?
A: I sought them out afterwards. I watched a bit of Stakeland and I watched all of We Are What We Are. That was after I’d met with him. I was fairly convinced, by that point, based on what I saw and what he told me, that he was a gifted and talented filmmaker, and we had a good chance to make something exceptional, and I think we have.
Q: Were you aware of how influenced he was by your work?
A: No. Unbeknownst to me…I didn’t know about it until I read about it, but some of his inspiration for the tone and the texture of the film came from a film I made called The Hot Spot, with Dennis Hopper and Jennifer Connelly. Dennis Hopper directed it, and Jennifer and Virginia Madsen co-starred with me in it.
Q: You mentioned Sam Shepard earlier. Were you and Sam friends?
A: I know him personally and I know him artistically, but this was the first time I’d gotten a chance to work with him. And I’ve always wanted to work with him, so it turned out quite nicely...we have a lot of the same sort of life experience and sense of reference. I’m in a place in my life where it’s pretty easy for me to tell it like it is.
Q: Does that become easier as you get older?
A: It does if you make room for it. I’ve noticed that people tend to take one of two directions. Either they get very wise or they get very bitter.
Q: And would you put Sam in the very wise category?
A: Well, I’d put him in the wise category for the most part! No, he’s a revered playwright...
Q: Did you two, and Michael C. Hall, hang out a lot off camera?
A: Oh, yeah. U-huh. Sam and I more than Michael and I. And probably Michael and Sam more than the three of us. Just by proximity. When I’m down with work I get the hell out of there!
Q: Is that your way of getting the character out of your system?
A: Yeah. M-hmm. I treat it as anybody else would: you go and do a thing, and then you leave it there and you pick it up tomorrow.
Q: How did you feel when you read the script?
A: If I know where it’s going, I generally say, ‘No, thank you!’ But on this, my character doesn’t even come into until about halfway through, and I liked the energy of the character and I liked the energy of the story. It was unique in that it’s not really noir. For want of a better description, it’s noir-ish. It’s got a sense of humour which, so often, noir does not have.
Q: Did you know the work of Joe Lansdale?
A: Not really. I was probably tangentially aware of him, and stuff like that. I knew he had a big cult following.
Q: Do you see Cold In July as comparable to the Coens’ Blood Simple?
A: I think so. When you re-look at Blood Simple, that was a good movie. But this is a far better crafted movie. Blood Simple was unique for its time. It was the first one that had this modern noir with offbeat, different themes.
Q: Why do you think there is such a thirst for Eighties product now?
A: You know what I find interesting about it? The Eighties were the last definitive era before e-mail and social media started to explode. One could argue that it didn’t really start to happen until the mid-Nineties, but cell-phones were ubiquitous in the Nineties. Not so in the Eighties. You need two people to carry the box back then! I think that’s a very interesting point of reference. I’ve written a piece that we’re going to do in the fall called Score, and it’s set in the Eighties, and I set it then specifically because the subject is the rise of big-time college football in America. That’s when it started becoming big business. They started recruiting players from the inner cities; players that no way could get into college. It’s a comedy. I take a shot at everybody! And the interesting thing is, it was pre-PC – pre-politically correct – and pre- cell-phones and social networking. AIDS was just becoming part of the lexicon, and it was one of those frightening things, but sex was still all over the place. So it was a very, interesting time, and fun to write about because a lot of times these days when you write a contemporary story, as writers, you get to a point where you go, ‘Why doesn’t he just pick up his cell-phone?’ or ‘Why doesn’t he just Google it?’
Q: You were very much central to Eighties pop culture with Miami Vice, right?
A: Certainly a part of it! It was exciting. It was a fun ride. Listen – I can’t complain. It took very good care of me and my family, and so on, and availed me of opportunities that otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten. But it was also challenging.
Q: Do you mean the rigours of shooting episodic television?
A: That is gruelling. And then when it’s that popular, that hot, and it was the first of its kind…we were on the covers of all the magazines. All the magazines. Time and Newsweek and Rolling Stone – it was just a factory. We would shoot all week and then on the weekends, we would have photo-shoots and these interviews. It was like feeding the machine, feeding the beast, and then the inevitable happens where it stops becoming stories that are flattering and starts becoming stories that are nonsense.
Q: Did you follow the career of Michael Mann after Miami Vice?
A: Yeah. He made Thief and he made Manhunter after. He made that in the second year of Miami Vice. He’s a brilliant, intellectual director. He’s got an incredible visual sense and he’s articulate in the medium.
Q: How did you get into Jim Bob’s mind-set – given he’s a PI and a pig-farmer?
A: Well, he’s an amalgamation of a lot of people I’ve known. He’s part real and part imagined. And Joe Lansdale said something to me early on that gave me a clue as to the essence of Jim Bob. He never met a problem he couldn’t solve and he wouldn’t know a problem if he met one. I said, ‘That’s classic!’ I took that and I started to build the character.
Q: So he’s confident with his abilities?
A: I think he’s childlike. He’s curious. Whereas a lot of people would be deterred or daunted or give up, I think he’s one of those people that just doesn’t. There’s an answer and he’s going to find it.
Q: There’s a lot of mythology around Texas. Is it a place you knew well?
A: Yes. I’ve worked in Texas over the years and I know it pretty well. Texas is so big. This takes place in East Texas and East Texas is completely different than central Texas, and that is completely different from Austin and the Hill country and that is completely is different, both culturally and accent-wise and behaviour-wise, from south Texas. Some people still consider that the Old West. They pack guns openly down there. It’s crazy.
Q: What was the atmosphere like when you shot?
A: Well, we didn’t shoot it in East Texas! We shot it in upstate New York! That was funny. Sam Shepard kept saying – we’d come up to a location and he’d say, ‘This don’t fucking look like Texas!’
Q: You grew up in Missouri – were the two states similar?
A: To some degree. But Texas is it’s own...in fact, they wanted to secede from the United States! I’m not kidding you! There is a huge secession movement. It’s a monster economy, as you can imagine. The state of Texas...I heard that it’s the ninth largest economy in the world. It has tonnes of natural resources, and a lot of American businesses...they just made it very user-friendly for them to be there.
Q: Have you ever fallen out of love with acting ever?
A: Well, Sam said it best: ‘Moviemaking is a conspiracy against acting!’ And in some ways it is. But I enjoy the process. I don’t bother with that.
Q: Recently, you worked with Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained. How was that?
A: Tarantino – he is a cut apart from everybody else. He’s a film historian, a true historian. His life is about film. His family is film. And his references and conversation and all of his friends are all about film. I had just finished making Machete and Robert Rodriguez did a party after the premiere. And Quentin was there. He started talking to me, and rattling off my credits – including films that I didn’t remember that I’d made. He started describing this movie and I said, ‘I didn’t make that’ and he went, ‘Oh yeah – you made that’, and started to name the director and who else was in the film, and who the DP was. I was astounded! I thought he was a little daft in the brain! And it turned out that I was!
Q: Even if you’d forgotten those early films, at least you had the experience of making them…
A: True. I get the joy of being the instrument of the process, and that’s joyful. But once the moment has passed, it’s onto the next moment. He’s unique in this way, Tarantino. He’s intellectual about film, and knows every shot and angle, and can tell you what lens they used in such-and-such movie and such-and-such shot, but he also has a very profound awareness of the creative process, without becoming conscious of it. That’s unique in a lot of artists. There are a lot of artists who are very good technicians, very good craftsman, but when they become conscious – or take ownership in the creativity – then it shuts off the process.
Q: Working with these guys, does it feel like it’s a good time for you now?
A: Hey, man, anytime you look at it, it’s nice to be in the conversation when you’re an artist.
Q: You’ve even seen your song ‘Heartbeat’ used in Grand Theft Auto V, right?
A: Yeah, I’ve heard about that! I know – isn’t that bizarre? I’ve got my folks looking into it because I had no idea that was happening!
Q: What are you doing next?
A: I’m going to make another movie with Robert Rodriguez, and I’m going to direct a movie in Dubai early next year. It’s an adventure. It’s not something I was looking to do. I was asked to it and I read the script and there’s an incredible story there that involves the independence of Arabia and the British. All great stories are love stories, and this is a great love story about the people of its country and these liberators. It’s a melange of international personalities: British, American, Arabic and so on.
Q: Have you directed before?
A: Mm-hmm. On Miami Vice. And I produced a show called The Marshall, and I directed one of those episodes. They didn’t invite me back because as the executive producer and the director, I took liberties that you’re not allowed to take in television! Although it was an excellent episode, they didn’t invite me back for more! Well, I didn’t invite myself back!
Q: Jim Mickle’s now making a TV series based around Joe R. Lansdale’s series of books, Hap and Leonard. Are you involved?
A: I keep hearing rumblings. IFC bought the whole series of books and Jim Bob comes in around number four. He shows up in most of Joe’s books. I’m hopeful that I’ll be available and I can reprise the character, as he’s fun to play.
COLD IN JULY is available on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand now!
Buy the UK DVD from Amazon.co.uk
Buy the UK BD from Amazon.co.uk