A Conversation With Actor Oliver Muirhead

Oliver Muirhead

Oliver Muirhead has a sense of familiarity about him. He’s a person you feel comfortable with when you see him on-screen. It’s almost as if you’ve known him for years and the truth of the matter is, you probably have.

Whether you’ve seen him in the dozens of movies and television shows he’s appeared in or perhaps best remember him as the face of Polaroid film or Tombstone pizza, whenever you see him it’s like seeing a good friend.

Oliver’s resume includes roles as a priest (“LOST”), a waiter (“Kenan and Kel”), and a British Colonel (“Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”).  He’s even appeared in the Academy Award winning film, “The Social Network”.

In one of his current roles he plays Bernard, the father of a young Anna (Felicity Jones) in the movie Like Crazy. A film which, among many other accolades, won two Sundance Film Festival awards and received plenty of its own Oscar buzz .

In my interview with Oliver we’ll discuss his role in “Like Crazy” along with some of his other interesting projects including his stint as a writer and his obsessive hobby as a baker.

gJg: Whenever I would see you on-screen, I’d often say to myself, “I know this man from somewhere.” But I couldn’t figure it out. Then one day it just dawned on me: “I KNOW – he’s the guy who wanted pepperoni and cheese on his Tombstone pizza!

OM: That’s correct. <Laughs>… Among many other advertisements.

gJg: What other commercials were you in?

OM: Well, for a long time I was the face of Polaroid One film. Of course, now film is pretty much obsolete but it was a very nice gig to have.

gJg: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your role in “Like Crazy”.

OM: It’s a sweet movie and was great fun to do.

gJg: The thing I personally liked most about it (aside from the wonderful performances of course) was the ending.

OM: I think it ends on a very realistic note.

gJg: It’s very much true to life.

OM: My wife actually went to a screening shortly before the movie came out. The audience there was mostly older and their reaction to it was interesting. About 40% of the audience thought the relationship was going to fail and 60% felt it was going to succeed.

What’s really nice is that younger people seem to have resonated with it.

gJg: I think it’s because they can relate to it.

OM: I was asked to describe the movie while standing on the red carpet. It was one of those situations where they wanted an immediate sound bite and the one thing that immediately came to mind was this:

“Love destroyed by modern life.” That pretty much sums it up.

gJg: How did the role of Bernard come about for you?

OM: It was an audition process but one in which the audition itself was improvised.

gJg: I’ve actually read quite a bit about the use of improvisation being used during the filming of this movie.

OM: All of the scenes that I was in were improvised. Obviously, there were some scenes that we needed to use “official” dialogue to be realistic, like the scene with the immigration official and the marriage scene for example. But I’ve actually had a lot of experience with improvisation.

Oliver Muirhead and Alex Kingston

gJg: It came across as very realistic.

OM: It did. In fact Alex (Kingston) and I had a relationship within about three minutes. I’m not sure if it was because we were both mature English actors or the fact that we both grew up about three miles from each other. She grew up in Worcester Park and I grew up in Raynes Park.

gJg: Small world.

OM: Yeah, basically. We both felt a great connection with the roles and were able to establish who our characters were and what they did very quickly. We knew what class we were, we knew what she did, what I did, what music we had listened to. We just “got” it. We completely agreed and after that, it was simple.

gJg: Were there any interesting stories that you remember while filming the movie?

OM: Actually, yes. There’s this one scene where we’re supposed to be playing this board game and we all had sworn that we had played the game before. Of course, none of us had ever played it. We were just lying through our teeth. <laughs>

But Drake (Doremus, Director) said, “Oh good because that’s a game I grew up playing.” So he explained to us how to play the game and it’s one of those games where you have to invent a definition for a word or a phrase. There were quite a few different categories. Some were silly laws and some were silly words.

One of mine was a silly law category that said: “In the State of Tennessee, it is illegal…”

And so I wrote: “For more than forty virgins to be on a tramp steamer”… Which was not at all that funny.

Alex; however, found it so funny that she laughed hysterically for nearly two minutes which, of course made all of us weep with laughter as well. There was nothing Drake could do. He just had to run the film. <laughs>

So we had a lot of fun. The kids were great. I thought they were very well cast. Felicity (Jones) is very pretty and very sweet. It’s nice to have an on-screen daughter who’s as wonderful as my own daughter off-screen.

gJg: Are you more interested in those types of serious roles as opposed to ones in movies like Austin Powers? Which types of roles do you personally like to do more?

OM: I love acting so it doesn’t really bother me what I’m doing. I really enjoyed doing “Like Crazy” though because I could play a character that I knew so well. I’m not playing a spy for example. I’m not playing somebody who’s a long way away from who I am. Not to say that I’m a business man because that’s what Bernard was but I based it on someone I knew really well.

I also had the support of Alex so I didn’t have to worry. It wasn’t about the lines that we had to learn and then try to fit our characters into.

“Like Crazy” was sort of a Cinderella story. It was made for very little money. It went to Sundance. It won Sundance. Then got a lot of Oscar buzz.

Oliver Muirhead as Monsignor

gJg: Let’s talk a little bit about the diversity from some of your other roles. In “LOST” for example, you played a Cardinal. What was that experience like?

OM: It was a lovely experience. I got to play an Australian Cardinal and wound up flying over to Hawaii to film with two actors that I know and like very, very much.

gJg: That worked out well for you!

OM: When you go on location like that you’re pretty much on your own. It can be fun but after the first couple of days sometimes you find that there can be absolutely nothing to do. But these guys both happened to be in my scene and we just had a wonderful time.

gJg: Did you know about the premise of the show?

OM: Yes, everyone was aware of “LOST”. I actually have a lot of friends who did the show. There was this slightly surreal atmosphere with all of the weird back stories going on and no one knew exactly what was going on. I think that mystery really put an interesting quality into how people performed.

In most movies and TV shows you know the beginning, the middle and the end. There is no mystery. But in this case, you weren’t really quite sure what the ultimate outcome was going to be.

Children’s shows

gJg: You’ve had quite a bit of success with children’s shows as well.

OM: Yes. I was fortunate to actually be in a bunch of those types of movies and TV shows when my daughter was growing up. I was very lucky that I did a lot of material that she could watch. I was a mean sculptor in i-Carly and I was also in Kenan & Kel.

This next story might sound as though I’m making it up but I assure you it’s true:

Oliver on Kenan and Kel

It was my daughter’s birthday and we were getting ready to go out for the day when I was offered a job.

Now, that was very nice but unfortunately it also means that we were going to have to cancel the day. Except for the fact that it was for a part on Kenan and Kel, which was her absolute favorite show at the time.

So she came to the taping and they made a great fuss of her. It was marvelous.

On Writing

gJg: I was reading where you’ve written quite a few books too.

OM: Yes. I written under another name, George Mole, in what used to be called “humor”.

gJg: Tell me a bit more about it.

There was a revival of classic British humor books back in the early 80’s. Mostly books of drawings and written text. Myself and my illustrator Steven Appleby, who has become a very well-known cartoonist, worked on several books together.

We also wrote for Punch magazine which at the time was a bit like climbing Mount Everest. It was about as good as it gets. I like to think that writing for Punch was a bit like writing for the New Yorker. It sort of meant that you’ve “arrived” and it was very gratifying.

gJg: Do you still write?

From time to time I still write but I think the Internet has changed the whole dynamic. We’ll have to see where it goes but it was fun.


gJg: What else do you like to do when you’re not acting or writing?

OM: I love baking bread. It’s became an obsessive hobby. Unlike my golf game, which I could tell you about and hear you’re snoring in the background. But if we’re sitting down together and I had just baked a loaf of bread you’re more inclined to say something like, “Ooh, can I have some?” <laughs>

People are much more prepared to hear me discuss the technique of baking bread. It’s a magical process. Taking a plant product and basically just adding water to it.

And thanks to a bunch of really smart people you can make brilliant bread at home. At least comparable to what’s marketed in stores. You can rival the best bread out there with just your home oven. It’s not rocket science.

What’s fascinating is that people are willing to talk about bread in a way that they wouldn’t talk about wine. Most people are intimidated by wine but they’ll talk to you freely about bread and tell you exactly what they like about it.

A friend of mine, who had just come back from Ireland once asked me if I could make him some Irish soda bread. I said, “Sure.”

I made it and afterwards he told me that it wasn’t quite right. So I asked him what wasn’t right about it and after he had told me a week or so later I made it for him again and this time he said, “THAT’S IT! That’s exactly it!”  <laughs>

I also know a French baker who has been working in the bakery since he was 14. He would make croissant and it tasted as if he had flown them in from Paris. It wasn’t something like, “Oh these are very good and here we are in America” but rather, “This.. is a French croissant.” He had manipulated the flour in such a way that it was absolutely perfect. I’ve been able to get very close to that and I can make it here in America.

So, it’s a fun hobby. It’s not very expensive and the best part of all, even your mistakes are pretty delicious. <laughs>

gJg: Is there anything else you like to do in your spare time?

OM: I love gardening. In fact, if there was a Gardening Olympics the English team would win. I have a lovely garden here in California where everything grows like a weed and even the weeds look nice. <laughs>

Current projects

gJg: Can you tell me a little bit about your role in “The Sum of 9: The Chosen Ones”?

OM: I get to play a mean headmaster. It’s in the horror genre which is a genre I haven’t done in quite a long time but was excited to do again. The thing I love about horror is that the fans are so unbelievably loyal.

gJg: They really are.

OM: It’s also one of the genres where you can get away with a lot of stuff. You’re allowed to do things because its “horror” that you wouldn’t get away with if it was a drama or a comedy. You have great deal of freedom. I’m looking forward to doing it.

gJg: What other projects do you have coming up?

OM: I’ve just finished playing the lead role in a movie called “Window of Opportunity” which is based on a play about corporate malfeasance. I play Roger Sizemore, the CEO, who strangles someone during a weekend of drinking and debauchery.

It’s a very dramatic movie shot in a very short period of time with a wonderful cast and crew including Phil Proctor who plays Carl Everett, my CFO financial guy.

gJg: Is there a time-table for its release?

OM: Right now it’s in post production so there’s no real-time frame for its release. John Densmore, the drummer from The Doors, is a producer of the film.  I think he’ll also be involved in the music for it as well.

gJg: You’ve really had quite a successful run of projects recently!

OM: The last few years have been great fun. Sometimes you might only do comedies or guest starring roles for a while but this has been a nice run with a little bit of everything. It’s been wonderful.

Article first published as A Conversation With Actor Oliver Muirhead on Technorati.

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