I was present at a roundtable interview at the Bryant Park Hotel on April 28th with Treat Williams to discuss his role as Charlie Winship in The Congressman. Treat Williams’ gives a complex portrayal of an individual who is going through a turning point in his life and must ask himself the hard questions about who he is and what he stands for. See Review.
I was at the Q and A last night and I loved your discussion of a number of elements. You discussed how you envisioned the Grand Banks in the 16th and 17th centuries and the bays filled with fishing boats.
I love doing research on movies. It’s one of my favorite things. I feel like I’m educating myself. If someone would say who are you Treat? I’d say, “I’m jack of all trades, master of none.” What I do is find out what other people do and then pretend I can do it really well and then get good enough at it so that it looks like I know how to do it. That’s what actors do. So I loved the research on the island. I wanted to know about its history. One thing that I would have added to the film is this mystical quality of the Native Americans who had peopled it. They’re still there; their spirit is still there. I was 86 ed on that. They had more important issues. But I love the idea of these places that we have actually been the invaders of. This was historically peopled by those who came across the ice bridge. Later on what happened was that in search for food the Spanish and the English would come over to the Grand Banks. You could drop a hook without bait on it and pull up these gigantic cod fish.
During the fishing season when the ships would come from Spain, England, and France, they would all pile up in that little tiny bay. Geographically, there is the island and this little tiny island that blocks in the bay so that you can get like two hundred ships squeezed into it like sardines. Then imagine that they would all set up their drying racks on the beach on the slope that is now the main street where I arrive in the film. Fishermen would set up the drying racks and then go and fish the hell out of the place, never over fishing, because you couldn’t (this was pre-technology and pre-trawlers which destroy the eco system the cod lives on starving the fish). They would dry the cod on the racks, and once the holds were filled with the cod they would go back to Europe. What is interesting is that they ate lobster. They loved lobster and ate tons of it. But lobster can’t keep. It’s a different kind of meat that turns to jelly in two days and goes bad. It’s got to be swimming but they didn’t have (tanks), so they would just gorge themselves on lobster and then say goodbye to the lobsters because they couldn’t dry them. They would leave and take the cod with them which was a delicacy, I guess, and very important for protein in that period. I thought it was fascinating. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that time.
I don’t think that people know what you researched.
They don’t realize how often people were coming over here before we really took over and this became a country. They were coming over like crazy to fish. They were beautiful fishing grounds. One of the things the film touches on occurs when Rae Blanchard (played by Elizabeth Marvel, the Congressman’s growing love interest), tells me in a speech in the woods, “Do you know what it takes to put a few shrimp on your plate?” I mean that’s true. Japan comes over here and we’re guilty of it too. The trawlers, when they drag the ocean floor they pick up everything in their path and kill other species which are thrown away. And, of course, there’s a big problem now with the dying off of the coral which has to do with global warming, which of course, doesn’t exist. (we laugh).
It’s important for us to realize the damage we’ve done. I love that part of the movie. There’s a deep part of Charlie that cares about our impact on the environment. We don’t see it in him at the beginning. After a while, we see it develop as he gets back in touch with the land and wants to go home and be an islander. That, I love. It is a fairy tale, but it’s a nice fairy tale.
Actually, I’m living a fairy tale. I live in Vermont on a farm. When I was on Fox News, the interviewer on the show kept saying, “You’re Hollywood.” I told him, “I’m not Hollywood. I live in Vermont, I live on a farm and I’m on a tractor most of the time.” He said, “Yeah, but you’re Hollywood.” I said, “No, I’m not.” I finally thought I’m not going to go into it with this guy because he’s looking for an angle. Then he asked, “Why is everyone in Hollywood a Communist?”
(we laugh) What? (Others chime in) He didn’t watch Trumbo, I guess.
I said, “Listen. I live in a state where my senator is almost a “Communist and I like him very much.” (we and Treat Williams laugh again) I don’t know; it was silly. The point is you can find a place in your life that is like a fairy tale, even with the stress of doing what we do which is be in the movies which is hard work. There are also people who are professional celebrities which blows my mind. They tape themselves and become famous. It’s kind of strange. But I’m not envious of that. I don’t aspire to be famous. I want to be a good actor even if I’m not that well known. It is possible to be happy. I’m going on my 65th year and I’ve never been so content living in a little house in the country.
And being close to the land and being a farmer for the fun of it.
Well, I’m not a farmer. I farm my giant garden. I think farmers have it rough.
Well, there are those who are leaving Wall Street and going into farming, organic farming.
Yeah. The farm to table kids who hate Wall Street. They are so smart. They are taking their business acumen and applying it. They’re taking what they know and able to make and selling. And they’re making cheeses, beers, breads. And it’s extraordinary what people are coming up with and we reap the benefits. There’s a farmer’s market every other day in town. It’s wonderful. And with the artisan cheeses, God I love them. I have to be careful. And the beers are great.
As a storyteller, you bring a lot of emotions to the character. What is it that moves you about the story.
Well, Robert (writer Robert J. Mrazek), is the story teller. I’m the conduit for the story teller. I was very moved by the Capraesque (filmmaker Frank Capra’s films are filled with “little guy values” like hope, decency and integrity, i.e. It’s A Wonderful Life, My Smith Goes to Washington), quality of a guy who has worked very hard and has done his very best for people. I’m trying to put this in a way that is not in a political light. He has sacrificed a lot of his time to sit in a trailer to listen to his constituents’ complaints some of which are mundane, selfish, narcissistic, and uninteresting, and yet he does it because that’s part of the job. He practically never goes home. And I was very moved by the fact that at this point in his life, a guy that he loved almost like a son throws him under the bus (his aide Jared, Ryan Merriman). He wants to give up. He’s said, “The hell with it.” He’s lost faith in people. He’s lost faith in himself and he’s lost faith in life. I think he has a deep seated sense of decency and honor.
I just appreciate how good Ryan is in that scene where he says, “Listen. I did a terrible thing and I’ll never be able to apologize enough, but don’t let me be the reason you gave up on this. You’ve done good work and you should stand up for yourself.” And then Charlie goes and gives that exquisite speech that Robert (writer and former Congressman Robert J. Mrazek), wrote. I’m always moved when thinking about that speech. It speaks to a whole breed of people right now following a certain presidential candidate who are all about American flags and bumper stickers and loud music. On the other hand there are people whose patriotism and love of country is deep and profound and very quiet. My Dad’s was. He served in WWII. He never talked about who he was voting for. He’s no “rah, rah guy.” But he did what everybody else had to do.
I think Charlie’s that kind of guy. He fought in a war, served his country and I think he’s deeply hurt by this attack on somebody who had fought in Viet Nam. (In the film Charlie is vilified with news spin that he is not a loyal American to force him out) Also, though it’s not mentioned in the movie…it’s like what Hemingway once said, “The best thing in a short story is what you leave out,” I also think that he has been suffering from a type of PTSD ever since he left Viet Nam. That’s why he becomes a workaholic. It keeps the monsters at bay. So I think this turning point is really beautiful for him. At the turning point, he’s able to put to rest all the demons. Somehow he’s tamed them and can go to the island and say, “I’m hanging up my armor.” It’s a great line. And hopefully, Charlie has another good twenty years of peace, which is what he deserves. That’s the deepest part of the character for me.
What was your process in acting this role?
I’ve just gone through the same thing myself. I was making bad action films in Asia. Not that I don’t love Asia. I do. That was the best part of it, seeing other countries. But I was doing these B movies and wondering to myself, “What am I doing?” And I had an epiphany. And oddly enough, we lost everything in the crash. I was building a very big house in Park City, Utah. And all my money had been poured into it, and I couldn’t keep up the payments. I lost the house. This big TV star lost his house. And we drove back to Vermont with the trailer behind the car like Beverly Hillbillies except we hadn’t discovered oil. We went back and I started over and we started to recover.
During the course of that, after going back to my beautiful home in Vermont, I was invited to do more theatrical things because there wasn’t much out there at the time. I began to return to my roots in theater and was renewed by my love of my farm, my little house, my family. In a way this event in our lives was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s funny about the most difficult times when you’re at your worst. It’s like the old saying, “One door closes and another is going to open.” You sure don’t know that when the door closes on you, though. (we laugh)
So that’s where I was and I’ve had this wonderful time. I’m happy acting. I haven’t starred in a movie for twenty-five years. I’ve played nice parts, interesting roles. I’ve played psychopaths. I just played Ted Kennedy, but I haven’t had a film where my character was the central character. Not that it bothered me. I was very happy guesting on Chicago Fire and White Collar, doing Law and Order SVU and guesting on Hawaii 5-O and on CSI with Ted Danson who I went to school with. It was all fun; it was all great. And I’ll go back to doing that again if necessary. But I just started working again like a working actor and that was a great joy to me. What I really like to do is act.
Someone asked me, “Are you out of the mix by being in Vermont?” I don’t know how to be in the mix. He said, “Well, you get out there. You go to parties and stuff.” I said, “Well, I don’t know how to do that.” I thought it was about doing good work. You know, “If you build it they will come.” Basically, in a long winded way to answer your question, I think my life is very comparable to Charlie’s, though nobody threw me under the bus. (Treat smiles) The bankers threw me under the bus…the corruption and over mortgaging of things? I got caught up in it, too. I probably never should have taken a mortgage that big on a house. But I learned my lesson. “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” And it has, and we’re in a very good place.
(continued in Part II)