By Arran McDermott
Max Casella will be best known to Burton fans for playing the role of Paul Marco in Ed Wood. He has also done a variety of other interesting work on stage and screen. Here he talks to the Collective about working with Burton and his career in general.
Tim Burton Collective: How did you get started in acting?
Max Casella: I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I worked in theatres around the Boston area, at the Huntington theatre. I did some television dramas for the local Public Broadcasting Service. So then when I got out of high school I moved to New York and started studying and pursuing it more seriously, but I started as a kid in Boston, mostly theatre.
TBC: Which actors did you look up to when you were starting out?
MC: The actors I looked up to would be Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro.
TBC: Newsies was your first movie. What was that experience like?
MC: It was a really huge, huge production and it was very exciting. We rehearsed for 3 months doing the dancing and then we started to shoot. We were working at the Universal backlot with a bunch of guys around my age. We just had a great time that whole summer. It was very exciting. I did a lot of work on it, research on it, and I really loved the character and the clothes and I just loved playing in that time period.
Max Casella as Racetrack in Newsies
TBC: My wife is a big Doogie Howser, M.D. fan so I’ll get in trouble if I don’t ask you about that show. I believe you’d done some guest work on TV before that?
MC: Yeah, very little. I believe I did one or two.
TBC: What was it like making the transition to playing a regular character on TV each week?
MC: It was very exciting. I loved doing the stuff they wrote for my character. I really just dug into it and enjoyed it and threw myself into it one hundred percent. I worked very, very hard. I just did not leave anything at home. I brought everything everyday to that character and the writers rewarded me by writing more and more storylines for me. Like anybody else you get a challenge in life and you meet the challenge. You just do the job and it was very fun and very rewarding.
Neil Patrick Harris and Max Casella in Doogie Howser, M.D.
TBC: It was less than a year after Doogie Howser ended that you appeared in Ed Wood. How did you get that role?
MC: That was the first of only two times the director hired me right then and there. They had already started shooting and I had the audition for Ed Wood. I auditioned for two roles – the role of Paul Marco and I also read for Conrad Brooks. I went down and read for the casting director and that went well and they said Tim is shooting somewhere in LA at the time. “Go down to the set and he wants to meet with you”.
So I went down to the set, met Johnny Depp and that was really cool. I remember Johnny walking up with his tank top and all his tattoos on his arm and I was like, “wow, Johnny Depp”. And I met with Tim and he said, “Hey, how you doing?” and we went in his trailer and I think I read for him another couple of times. It was a small role so there wasn’t a lot to read so I just did it real fast. He basically was like, “Yeah, ok, you’ll do fine, and go see wardrobe”.
This was really exciting – I was a big Johnny Depp and Tim Burton fan. This was like the first movie, besides Newsies. Newsies was kind of like a misstep. (It) was a bomb at the box office and it was kind of a good try, but Disney, I think, exploited the material to do some kind of big Hollywood musical. It was a miss and this (Ed Wood) I knew was gonna be something great.
Max Casella in Ed Wood
TBC: Were you familiar with the work of Ed Wood beforehand or did you have to do research?
MC: No, I totally had to do research. I’d only heard of Plan 9 from Outer Space as being the so-called worst movie ever made, but they gave me a stack of research – a biography on Ed Wood that the movie itself was based on and a bunch of the movies. So like I do with any role I went home and devoured every single thing I could on the subject matter. My favourite thing to do as an actor is to research the hell out of a role and I just loved it. I ate it up. It was just the best thing I’d ever done, up to that point certainly and even now, you know I’ve done a couple of good things since then, I still hold it in such high regard.
TBC: Did you get to meet Paul Marco?
MC: Yes I did, who is now passed on rest his soul, but he was kind of a character and not a very nice guy. He tried to kick me out of my own dressing room.
TBC: He was founder and president of his own fan club.
MC: Yes, exactly. That’s the kind of person we were dealing with. Because on our dressing rooms, the trailers, it didn’t have our actor names, it had our character names. So mine said Paul Marco on it. It had all my stuff in there and he did a cameo. One day he was on the set and he walked into my trailer and then found all my stuff in there and he chucked it out the door. But yeah, a nice guy gave me a lot of Paul Marco memorabilia I still kept to this day, but definitely a character.
TBC: What is Tim Burton like as a director?
MC: Fantastic. I’m such a huge film buff. To work with a guy like that and to see how beautiful the sets were, one of the coolest things I remember about Tim is that he would, I guess he did have a plan, but sometimes he wouldn’t know exactly what he wanted to shoot. He would basically clear the set, tell everybody to leave and he would just stand there with his cinematographer, Stefan Czapsky and with a lens viewfinder just sort of walk around the room. In fact, I noticed he’d do that a lot. He’d walk around the room with his viewfinder and it was really quiet – everyone had to get out or shut up. Then he would ask for an apple box and stand on the box. He’d look down and he’d go, “Put the camera right here”. I remember him distinctly a few times making up shots on the spot, where he wanted to put his camera and the sets and everything, it was just movie magic, you know.
You’re researching Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space and then you see it all built there, you know. Then you’re reenacting Paul Marco, doing a Paul Marco scene from Plan 9 and recreating some of those scenes from the movie. It was amazing. And I got to meet people like Bill Murray and Sarah Jessica Parker and Johnny and Martin Landau. It was really special.
TBC: You’ve done voiceover work for animated shows and video games. What’s the appeal of voice acting?
MC: Voice acting is fun. It’s mostly easy, easy money. It’s something I can do and not have to really prepare a lot and I’m blessed with a voice that works for that kind of thing. It’s a great way to make money when maybe I don’t have any acting jobs at the moment and I need to pay my mortgage, you know. But it’s nothing I take seriously and it’s nothing I hold in very high regard, really. Even though, I like the stuff I was doing like the Jak and Daxter games. I thought I did a great job on those.
TBC: You appeared in almost thirty episodes of The Sopranos. That must have been very gratifying to be involved in a show that was so critically acclaimed.
MC: Very gratifying. Over seven years I worked on that show. And I did not expect to be around for as long as I was and it was great. They just kept bringing me back. I was very grateful to do that. It certainly supported my family doing that for a long time. The people there I got to work with, great actors like Edie (Falco) and James Gandolfini and Michael Imperioli. I was very lucky. I’ve done some really great stuff in my career and that was certainly one of them.
TBC: Do you have a favourite episode or behind the scenes moment from your time on the show?
MC: I guess my favourite episode ever is probably “Pine Barrens” – when they’re in the woods trying to find the Russian guy. My other favourite episode is the one episode they gave for my character to sort of come to the fore a little bit, which was when Artie Bucco (is) pissed off at Benny for ripping off his credit card numbers and we have a big fight and I eventually stick his hand in a pot of boiling tomato sauce. That was a particular favourite of mine actually. Unfortunately I didn’t have more to do like that but it was such a huge cast and everybody was vying to be given the attention of the writers. That was my one and only shot, so that for me was very special.
Nothing I can say behind the scenes except that it was such a close knit family there. It was like a family reunion. You’d go there and see all the people, you know. They became like your uncles.
Max as Benny in The Sopranos
TBC: You’ve also appeared on stage in several productions, including The Lion King.
MC: Yeah, I was in the original cast of The Lion King. I got a Drama Desk nomination and a couple of other theatre world awards. And it’s coming up on 10 years anniversary of that show opening. And then I did a revival of the Music Man after that and I’ve done some great off-Broadway plays with John Turturro. I did a play called Soul of Naples. We actually ended up going to Naples, Italy and doing it in a theatre there, Teatro Mercadante.
My work with John Turturro was very rewarding, to work with an actor like that. Very giving actor and I learned so much sharing the stage with him. There was an opportunity – I had such a great role and a big role. I grew a lot as an actor working with John. At the moment John is adapting it for the screen. I’ve been involved with him in that process as well. I worked with him again in The Bronx is Burning, actually, for ESPN. (It was) about the New York Yankees in the seventies, 1977 season.
TBC: So between film, theatre and TV do you have a favourite or does it all depend on the role?
MC: It all depends on the role. It’s all about the writing and what you get to do. I love the process of making films and once it’s done you have something that lasts forever. It’s really about what the role is.
TBC: Turning to your more recent work, you just filmed Leatherheads with George Clooney. How was that experience?
MC: George is a great guy to work for – very fun and funny, very supportive. Everything I did, he gave me the impression that he got a big kick out of it and was very excited. You could tell he was very excited about what he was doing and we’d do a take and he’d jog up to me and he’d laugh, “That was great, that was great. Let’s try one like this. We got that one, that’s in the can, let’s try it this way” and you just felt like he was loving what you were doing. As an actor, we’re all so insecure all the time, you know, and that was great. “I loved that. Do that again, or try something different”. It was just a great experience.
TBC: Were you on location for the whole shoot?
MC: Yeah, we were in the Carolinas. In South Carolina. And after that I did this Leonardo DiCaprio film called Revolutionary Road with Sam Mendes and that’s actually coming out in December (2008). The Clooney movie is coming out I think in April.
TBC: You’ve also produced an independent film called Scaring the Fish.
MC: Yeah, I made a film called Scaring the Fish, which has just only now been finished and is going to be doing the festival circuit soon. It stars myself and Anthony Rapp, who is in Rent and that was a great experience. It’s a three character play adapted into a film. We shot the whole thing in one location and the story takes place all in real time. We shot it on the back of a lake up in Bear Mountain, New York and I’m very excited about getting that out in the festivals like Tribeca and Toronto and stuff like that.
TBC: Are there any filmmakers you’d particularly like to work with in the future?
MC: Yeah, a lot. Take your pick. All of them! Terry Gilliam is particularly a guy I’d love to work with. Like Tim Burton, I love his kind of movies. I love those kind of fantastical things. Martin Scorsese naturally, too, he’s great but in a different way because his stuff is very gritty and realistic. I’m naturally drawn towards the fantastic, you know, like Terry Gilliam or Tim. So actually Terry Gilliam is someone I would love, love to work for.
TBC: I think that’s all the questions I have. Thanks a lot for your time and I’m sure our website visitors will really enjoy reading this interview.
MC: Your website looks great by the way.
TBC: Thanks a lot!
Thanks again to Max Casella for taking the time to talk to us. Hopefully we’ll have more exclusive interviews to bring you in the near future.