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Tom Skerritt has acted in some of the most iconic films and television shows, from science fiction classics like the original Alien in 1979 to projects like M*A*S*H, Top Gun, and A River Runs Through It. The Seattle actor's newest film, which showed at this year's Seattle International Film Festival and is out this Friday, is different from all the rest.
In East of the Mountains, directed by local filmmaker S.J. Chiro and based on the novel of the same name by Bainbridge Island author David Guterson, Skerritt is the lead. He plays Ben Givens, a retired Seattle surgeon who struggles to cope with the loss of his wife and a terminal cancer diagnosis that he's kept to himself. Despite concern from his daughter Renee (Mira Sorvino), Ben sets out on a hunting trip with only his adorable pup Rex by his side. All he takes with him is a rifle, which he brings intending to use to take his own life.
A painful yet reflective film, East of the Mountains also serves as a late calling card for the beloved actor. It makes the most of actually shooting in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest where the film is set. It is understated, much like Skerritt himself who spoke to me about his career, his latest performance, and the future he sees for film production in the region.
We lightly edited this interview for length and clarity.
HUTCHINSON: What was it like to play something so close to home?
SKERRITT: I’m really proud to do this in the first place, to do David’s work because I loved the book. I ran into David about six years ago and he said, ‘Someday I’d love to make East of the Mountains and I’d love you to play this role.’ I reread it when he said he got funding to do it. I have always been one who really thought we should have a film industry here, but we had to approach it in a much more professional way than we have in the past.
I think we're there now where we've all kind of collected the talent we have. This is one of those things that I'm up here to make a film for far less than I would elsewhere, just to make the point that the new world of media is really who we are. I think in terms of ‘let's bring Hollywood here,’ Hollywood has been here and they want to go to British Columbia for a number of reasons. Things have changed so dramatically since then that we have an opportunity to really build a viable film industry here.
I read a review that called it one of the best performances of your career. How do you reflect back on all the iconic roles you’ve gotten to play?
I just appreciate that I’ve been able to make a living doing this with having been trained by the best filmmakers of the '70s. Guys like Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, and Ridley Scott were wonderful mentors to have. They enthused my whole approach to film in a different way than an actor trying to survive. To be able to get that gift, knowing where I came from, man that’s enough.
Speaking of working with those directors, you hold a place in science fiction history being one of the first people killed by the titular Alien on screen. What was that experience like?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s funny how these things come along. It was just a script that was sent to me and nobody was attached, there was no director. It was a two million dollar budget. So I was like, ‘I don’t know, let me think about this.’ It was a solid script, but with two million dollars it was an Ed Wood movie. Two million dollars for that script, it just didn’t work.
Then I was able to look at this film, it was just called The Duellists by some graphic artist that was doing his first movie, a guy named Ridley Scott. I was like ‘no doubt.’ Then they kicked the budget up to what it should be. I knew before we even started the shoot, we got something that is going to surprise everybody. It’s going to shock people.
You had mentioned Hal Ashby and I wanted to ask about Harold and Maude, as you have a fantastic scene where you pull them over with a big mustache on your bike. How did you come to be in that role?
These guys, Altman and Ashby, were guys I was learning from. Altman I had been with for a long time and Ashby was new to me. He [Ashby] said ‘I got this film Harold and Maude, wanna go shoot it?’ Then he called one day and he said, ‘Oh, the guy riding the motorcycle broke his leg.’ I said, ‘Great, I’ll come on up and play that role.’ Hal Ashby was just great, a lot of fun, he was just a pleasure to be with. It was always a rhythm, a music. When he edited, I learned about the rhythms of editing because that’s where it all comes down to is how you put the film together.
That’s how that came about. It was just simply a friend saying to another friend, ‘Hey, I need a favor, would you come up and do this for me?’ I loved to be around these guys, still to this day when they’re gone. I knew what it was, I know what I got.
A more unexpected appearance you have is when Tim & Eric were doing a sketch called the 'Tom Skerritt Jingle' which hilariously pans over to you just sitting there listening to it. Where did that come from?
I’m just a third to that party, man. The minute they called and said they wanted to do this, I didn’t ask questions. I could sense the silliness on the phone. I said, ‘Heck yeah man, let’s do it. That’d be a lot of fun. I don’t know what you’re going to do, but we’ll figure it out when we do it.’ That’s how I love to work.
Pivoting back to East of the Mountains, your character has a scene amidst all the pain he is in where two strangers show him a small kindness by offering him weed. Was that real?
If it was the real thing man, I would’ve been sitting out there just having a good time. [laughs] No it wasn’t real weed.
I had to ask.
I’ve had that situation where you bring outside influences into it and it really downgrades your material. You’re not paying attention to what you have to do, the responsibilities you have. That was just something we lit up. I don’t know, maybe it was real weed but it was sure weak.
The deeper underlying core of the film is that your character, Ben, is in real pain that he keeps bottled up as he tries to reckon with his past and his future. How did you get in the right mindset to play this complex character?
How did I personally get into that? No problem.
I’m a complex person so I can identify with that. I know doctors and heart surgeons specifically. They’re very emotionally contained. You got to contain your behavior. How can you contain your behavior when you’ve been a surgeon for forty years? The discipline of being a heart surgeon is a big deal, so you have a contained emotional self. You have a wife who dies, you’ve got a daughter who has her own problems, and now I’m told I have cancer at eighty years old? What do you do with that?
That’s how you play it. What am I going to do? I got to take the dog and do what I did when I was a kid on the east side of the mountains. Hunt for birds, feed the dog, anything. This is something that really is unbalanced but totally balanced in the discipline of this man’s emotion. He has to get somewhere to save himself and his dog. That’s really what it comes down to. He is perhaps thinking about doing away with himself, because what are you going to do at that age? You’re going to have all those things stuck in your body and you know you’re going to die that way? And your woman who you love is gone.
What do you do with that? You do what you can do, do what you did when you were a kid because you never lose that. We never lose being a child and you bring that back. You see the vastness of the distant mountains and the sun going down. You take it all in and if the camera happens to be running, that’s what it picks up. That’s the marvel of just being alive and that’s where he takes it. That’s what is really important is that you take it to the end, you don’t do the end yourself. That’s what a doctor would do, that’s what I will do at some point.
You can see East of the Mountains in theaters and on VOD starting Friday, September 24.