In Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the diabolical Senator Roark is classic Powers Boothe, illustrated with splotchy ink and crimson blood. The 6-foot-2 actor already towers over most costars, but as Roark, he turns a bar into a throne room, holding court from behind a poker table. Codirectors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller feed him comic-book threats and he spits ’em out with the grand tone of a 15th-century monarch. With well-placed snarls and that deep register, Boothe turns Roark into a living, breathing death knell.
The real-life Boothe couldn’t be gentler. Though known for vigorous heroes (Southern Comfort, Red Dawn), ruthless big bads (Deadwood, Sudden Death, Tombstone), and empowered government pawns from all across the moral spectrum (Frailty, 24, MacGruber), the actor is all brains over brawn. Over the phone, Boothe’s Texas Ranger intonation is naturally intimidating — if a line of questioning goes sour, he could flare up, breach the earpiece, and sock you in the jaw — but he quells it with modesty. He’s humble to be in the business after 40 years. We spoke to the veteran actor about countering typecasting, the quintessential David Milch moment, and how he took Jean-Claude Van Damme’s hockey movie very seriously.
It’s been 10 years since the last Sin City. What’s changed in your life since then?
That’s astonishing, isn’t it? When I met Robert and he said it was eight years since we shot the last one, I just couldn’t believe that time had passed. Personally, I’ve matured. I understand the process of this kind of film better than I did originally. Working with Robert and the process of what he does down there in Texas, I could just get into the pure joy of it, this new definition of noir, this amazing adult cartoon. I don’t want it to sound like a PR thing, but it’s fantastic.
Here’s one thing I noticed: Your character Roark had a mustache in Sin City. You did not have a mustache in Sin City 2.
I’d like to tell you there’s some wonderful, esoteric motivation, but the truth was, I was doing Deadwood for HBO at the time, and I came in to shoot Sin City, and I wasn’t allowed to shave it. I contractually couldn’t have shaved the mustache without Deadwood’s permission. Robert didn’t want the mustache, but what could I say? I like to think that Roark was younger and more debonair then.
You have noir cred. You played Philip Marlowe on HBO for a few years. Do you find yourself recalling or channeling Chandler when you step into the world of Sin City?
I suppose I did, even on a subconscious level. I love those films. I’m a huge TCM fan. I love the noir period, everything [Robert] Mitchum and all those guys did. One thing that’s thematically consistent in Sin City is that all the performances seem to be of the same genre, like we’re singing the same song. I think I pulled from that, having done Marlowe.
Is there an identifiable rhythm to noir?
There’s a real rhythm to it. Men are men and women are women. You plant your feet and tell the truth or not. Let’s put it this way: There’s not a lot of nuance, but it’s a state of mind.
Frank Miller is in deep with these characters. He’s been with them since the beginning. Is he very particular when it comes to the direction?
When he gets the credit for codirector, it’s not a token. He is. For me, it was like having Dalí or Picasso, whomever painted a picture, there to explain what the abstract meant. He’s very protective of these stories for a reason. They’re of his soul. You know, it doesn’t matter where you’re at, Frank is always the coolest guy in the room. There are a lot of things he gave me character-wise that were extremely helpful. We discuss things. I did this one scene in the film with Jessica [Alba]. It was a dream sequence. [Roark is] meant to come in and be a nightmare for her. Spooky. He had intended it to be intense and big. I said, “Frank, why don’t we try one where we go the other way? He comes in and it’s very decadent-sexy.” Frank says, “Yeah … OK … yeah … ” And then it turned into a mixture of both. You feel like you’re helping him paint the picture or write the poem.
You’re a towering actor with a gravelly voice. It’s not a stretch for you to play intimidating. Is that what filmmakers want you for? Has it been a hurdle when you wanted to play warmer, gentler characters?
When I first came to Hollywood, I played about as many guys who save the day and get the girl as I played heavies. It’s just that heavies are more interesting and last in people’s minds. The challenge is, how do you keep it [from being] a big fat cliché? Before I accept a job, I always talk to folks about it. “Why does he kill these 22 people?” If they say, “What difference does it make?” I know we have nothing more to talk about. A character has to be three-dimensional. Even Hitler thought he was right. Roark, as bad as he is as an individual, his son was going to be the president in this crazy world of Sin City — which, by the way, Robert says no one ever dies in — and his whole thing with Jessica’s character, carrying it through to when he asks her to scream, it’s something behind it. If you have something motivational, real, your character becomes complete and you can tell the story of the movie.
Did you have that conversation with Sudden Death director Peter Hyams?
Initially, that one was tough, but Peter and I got along and we added more layers. The character became kind of fun.
What made it tough?
In some respects it was a straight-up action movie. I think you and I would both agree there’s a little more depth to Sin City. But in those movies, even for the guys in the hero-action parts, it’s difficult to get a three-dimensional human being who will do those things. Particularly in this era. This is nothing against those movies — I’ve been in them. I was in The Avengers. But these are truly cartoons. To get those people into some three-dimensional mode when they’re coming from comic books is a task in itself.
You played Jim Jones in the TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. Does he rank among your warmest characters? He’s very charming until the whole group-suicide thing.
He was, actually. Fortunately, there were a lot of documentaries on him and news interviews and people who knew him personally that I could talk to. As a young man, all of his intentions were proper. He has his own ghosts. As time went by, he became this guru-esque pseudo politician. That gives you a lot of ground. I had just come from New York. I approached him like I was playing King Lear. I made no judgments on him — I don’t make judgments on any character I play. The whole thing was astonishing. A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a cameraman who was down there when it first happened. There was a lot of illness in Mr. Jones. He died his hair; the dye bled down his cheek when he sweated. He threw concerts like Elvis. He understood politics. He had everyone convinced that he controlled four to five thousand votes in the city of San Francisco. The truth was, he controlled maybe 1,500. But that got him pictures with Jackie Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, all sides of the spectrum of politics. He knew what he was doing.
Sin City shoots entirely in studio, against green screen. It’s a far cry from your early work like Southern Comfort and The Emerald Forest, which dropped you into taxing, on-location shoots. Why were you Hollywood’s “extreme locales” guy?
It was something I loved to do — maybe a little more when I was younger than now. It makes telling the story and creating the role a lot easier if you’re up to your ass in the swamp. You don’t have to act it. I did a lot of those things early on. “You need someone to go to the jungle? Call Powers.” I did Southern Comfort, then Red Dawn in the snow, Emerald Forest in the jungle. It was quite a ride, with some marvelous directors. How fortunate I felt.
People actually called you for movies that involved harsh conditions? Did that help you stay in the conversation in Hollywood?
I don’t think it was that, exactly. I’m so grateful to Walter Hill, John Milius, and John Boorman being three of the most iconic directors in our business. I fought for those parts. I wanted to be in The Emerald Forest. I chased that one for six months before it all came about. I wanted to work with John Boorman!
When you moved from Texas to New York, you performed in a number of Shakespeare plays. Were you combining those sides of your life working with David Milch on Deadwood?
The first 10 years I was a professional actor, I did Shakespeare. From the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to American Shakespeare Theatre in Connecticut to Philly to Joe Papp. It wasn’t that I was going to be a Shakespearean, it was just one job leads to another. When I started doing film … a lot of film is “Yo, dude, give me the gun!” That’s the writing. But I wanted to do Shakespeare or things that were Shakespearean on film, in a way that the audience could grasp. When Deadwood came along, it was totally like Shakespeare. The long speeches were like soliloquies. If one phrase of a monologue was out of whack, the entire one-page speech didn’t work.
If talking to Frank Miller was like talking to a painter, what was talking to David Milch like? How does he explain a scene?
I come prepared when I come to work. Not just knowing the lines, but I think I know something about what I do. But we’d rehearse these scenes, Milch would come watch us rehearse the scenes, and then he would come tell us what the scenes were really about. I’ll give you one idea: There was this sequence where there were two young con persons who came to town. They put a con on me and on Ian [McShane]’s character. They were there for a few episodes. I found them out and we beat this young girl. I was going to kill them, but there had to be a lesson involved. Because in my business, I was the law. And he was the law. In mine, business took over emotion. I had my main whore, Joanie, and the whole point of the scene was to say to her, it’s business and you got involved emotionally with this girl. It was nine pages long and it had all this dialogue. I was hitting the girl on the head, slapping the boy, philosophy flying around, then I shot them. The last line was “The next breath you take, [the smell of sulfur is liable to be strong in your nose].” And Milch says, “I always thought when we were in a room where murder was committed, there was a point where everyone dropped acid and everything slowed down. You didn’t know what the next move was going to be. You only knew death was lurking.” It might sound silly, but it was like, oh my God. It took the scene to a new reality for us all. It turned out brilliant. One of my biggest regrets in life is that that show was canceled.
In a way, working with Robert is kind of the same. Robert writes it, shoots it, designs it, directs it, does the music — we throw the term auteur around. There aren’t many of them, but Robert fits there.
His process is so quick. I’m surprised it jives with your process.
The thing with Robert is, he knows things about you and your work that he doesn’t discuss openly. He studied me and the other actors. He takes that time — particularly this time because I had so much more to do — to allow the creation to happen without talking about it. Someone was telling me that down at Comic-Con, they were discussing Sin City and Robert started quoting lines that I had done from Extreme Prejudice. He and I have never discussed Extreme Prejudice. Quentin [Tarantino] can quote lines from movies I don’t remember saying. These guys so love movies. It’s encouraging to be around. It’s like, we don’t do this just for money! We do it because we get off on it.
I assume that, at this point, when you appear in a movie like The Avengers or MacGruber, it’s because they want Powers Boothe. I don’t imagine you auditioning anymore.
No, I don’t much at all. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been making movies for 35 years. I’ve auditioned five or six times. I’m not very good at it. I say to some of my friends, I think we get points for lasting.
Do you still chase movies like you did early in your career?
This is going to sound like a plant for Sin City, but it’s the truth. I was doing Nashville, the series, and I got a call saying Robert wanted to meet with me about doing Sin City 2. I was trying to be calm and cool. We met here and we had a great discussion. I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to do the movie that I called my agent and told him Robert wanted me to do the film. But she says, “When does it shoot exactly? We’ll have to get permission from Nashville.” And I said, “I’m doing this movie. Whatever it takes, I’m doing this movie.” People work this stuff out, and Nashville was very accommodating, but I couldn’t imagine allowing the opportunity go by. Not because of money, but creatively. I had to do this movie.
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work can be seen on Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and Time Out.