By Kayley Thomas
Back in the Spring, Norman and I chatted about the Boondock Saints films for an article published over at Pulp Tone, with insights into the cult phenomenon from both Norman and Sean Patrick Flanery as well as their fans. Alas, not everything Norman had to say could make it into the article, so I asked him at the time if I could post the rest of our conversation on my blog. Having abandoned said blog for a while as I wrestled with my MA thesis, I've still been holding onto this interview and desperately wanting to share it. With the graaaand opening of Hopeful Monster, it was simply meant to be!
Talking to Norman was such a delight; he's this completely, effortlessly engaging guy. Interviewing Sean before I talked to Norman had served as an interesting transition - Sean all charming and boisterous, Norman more laidback and soft-spoken. He's got this coffee-and-cigarettes kind of voice that had me instantly at ease...and okay, a little weak in the knees. Besides being an incredibly talented actor, film maker, and artist, I found Norman at once inviting and opinionated in his remarks, with an obvious affection for his fans, appreciation for his opportunities, and a love and respect for his craft.
Read on for Norman's thoughts on pesky movie critics, his love for Boondock fans, masculinity and violence, his ideas for a sequel, a Reedus original art installation that scared Heidi Klum, directing, and the curious lack of romance in the Saints films - and in his other movies too!
So what first attracted you to The Boondock Saints?
Norman: Well, that was one of my first movies. I was living in LA at the time, they flew me to New York to meet with Bob Weinstein and so forth. I really liked the script, and I liked Troy, and I liked his gung-ho approach to everything, and it seemed like a winning combination. I’d only done like maybe two films before that. I was ready to do it, and I’m happy I got to be a part of it.
Was there anything about the character of Murphy in particular that interested in you? Did you have an option between auditioning for Connor over Murphy?
Norman: Well, Sean’s a little bit older than me and he’s more the personality of Connor and I’m more the personality of Murphy. (Ed. note: There you have it! Connor's older!) It was never, which one do you wanna play? It was, you’re this guy, you’re that guy. Troy kept telling me, “I’m fighting for you.” There were a lot of actors that wanted those parts. Sean had done a lot more stuff than me at that point. I was kind of a newbie. I knew Troy was fighting for me, so I was just crossing my fingers and hoping it came together. Stephen Dorff, Bon Jovi, Ewan McGregor…There were a whole bunch of people up for parts. There were a bunch of names going back forth, and Troy was meeting with a bunch of people. I don’t know how far all of those people got, but I know it was a hot script in Hollywood at that point. A lot of people wanted to do it. It’s fun! I mean, you bundle up in peacoats and shoot guns and say these crazy lines and swing from the ceiling – it’s a blast!
What was it like to come back to this character and this set after so long?
Norman: At first it was kind of like, “Is this really happening?” I wanted to get the accent a little bit better, a little thicker, since we’d been in Ireland for a while after the first one. I went straight to the gym; I was doing that for a couple of months because, you know, I drink beer and stuff, so I needed to go to the gym. But it was really more of a “Wow, is this really happening?” kind of thing. You start seeing some familiar faces, Billy [Connelly] and everybody else, and you’re kind of like, “Wow, is it happening?” Because every week you would hear, “Okay, we’re going! Okay, we’re going!” And you’re like, “Oh…?” Once you’re in the van going to set, we’re dressed up and coming from wardrobe and makeup to the set, and Sean and I looked at each other like, “Fuck, it’s on.” You know what I mean? It was a little déjà vu at first. You’re shooting people and you’re like, “Oh yeah, I remember this!”
Something that I really loved about the new film is the way that it speaks to the fanbase. There are a lot of references to the first film, and though I think anyone coming for the first time to All Saints Day can appreciate it, certainly there’s a reward for knowing the first one - inside jokes and such. I’ve seen a lot of critics actually react negatively to that, as if there’s some sort of hesitancy in the industry to catering to your fanbase, and I'm curious: how would you respond to that?
Norman: Oh, geez, we’ve had so many. I’ve had people just run up and tackle me in the street. They have my face tattooed all over their body. I’ve had so much crazy stuff. I’ve had people come in from Japan and find my address and camp outside my door…There are these insane Boondock fans. Like I’ve said, though, I’ve never had anyone come up to me and be like, “You suck!” so… At the screenings and so forth, there were standing ovations and people were just really into it, and that at the end of the day was the point.
So what do you think made the first Boondock movie such a cult hit? Certainly it's not a formula you can craft or something that you can predict happening, but what do you think the appeal is behind this story that, even 10 years later, there are people still watching it and talking about it?
Norman: I think it has to do with people knowing that it’s like the people’s movie. They pass it around; they sort of own the movie. It’s one of those movies where you’re like, “Oh, you’ve heard about it?” or “Oh, you haven’t heard about it? Check this out.” You sort of belong to a club. I think that has to do with it. I think the characters. They’re not larger than life. They’re two sort of goofy guys who have an idea and they barely make it out by the skin of their teeth. And they’re trying to do the right thing. I think that’s an appeal. I know Sean went off on an eye for an eye because he always does that.
He did, and then some.
Norman: Of course he did! There’s that as well. There’s a whole bunch of stuff. I think mainly because people feel like it’s their movie, and it is. It belongs to the fans.
Another aspect of the films that has always interested me is that they’re both very masculine. Certainly women enjoy them - I do - and the addition of Julie Benz worked well, but it’s definitely a story about a certain community and generation of men. How do you connect with that? What do you think the movie has to say about masculinity and bonds between men?
Norman: It does have a guy element to it. We just didn’t get wrapped up in a love story. There’s no love interest in either of the movies. I think that’s the main reason people think it’s such a masculine thing. Julie came in, and she had bigger balls than Sean and I both. I don’t think Troy’s intention was ever to do a totally masculine movie. He’s a guy, he hangs out with guys all the time, he’s very much a guy’s guy from Boston. You get a bunch of guys together, and Troy just wanted to make what he thought looked cool, what he thought was cool, the story he thought was cool. He’s a guy and he made a guy’s movie. There’s absolutely no love interest. We never look at a girl, we never watch a girl walk across the street, we never talk about a girl; we’re Mama’s boys throughout the whole thing. I think that’s Troy!
That was something I actually wanted to ask you about. It’s incredibly rare not to pencil in even the most forced love interest in almost any movie really. You rarely ever seen the complete absence of a love story. I know there’s been speculation: are the characters asexual, do they just not have time for this, are they too caught up in their vision…
Norman: Yeah, sometimes somebody will send me a link to some fanfiction stuff, and I’m like, “woah!” I’ve seen some stuff, and I’m just like, “wow.” But you know, it’s kind of funny. I crack up about it. It doesn’t really bother me.
I think Troy just wanted to do something different; he just wanted to try something that hadn’t been done before. It’s funny, even doing this White Slave in Harlem thing (Ed. note: film Norman's directing; discussed later in interview). They’re like, “there’s a formula! You got to introduce it like this! The storyline’s got to have three arcs and it’s got to drop off and have redemption!” and you’re just like, “God, does it really?” It’s just such a formula. I think Hollywood in general, the people who make movies, they try to stick with what they’ve seen work before. If there’s one talking baby movie made, there’s six talking baby movies made. It’s kind of annoying, to tell you the truth. People don’t take too many chances, or if they take a chance, it’s got to still fit the same sort of format.
All Saints Day brings up the issue of nature versus nurture. Peter Fonda’s character suggests that the brothers' urge to kill is passed through the blood, and in the first film we see it as a sort of holy revelation. I was wondering where you would pin that drive? Where do you see this inclination to seek vengeance coming from? Is it in the blood? Is it design? How does the sequel add to the sort of myth of the MacManus brothers?
Norman: Well, the brothers are definitely good at it even though they don’t know what they’re doing most of the time. They definitely have that instinct to hunt. They seem to hit their marks when they pull the trigger, and they know where to look, how to go after somebody; they have sort of shark mentalities which I think is probably in the blood. It’s almost like a sport, in a way. Troy had to give all of these different reasons why – there are so many questions after the first one. How did Il Duce become like that? Why did he abandon the brothers? Troy really took all of the fanmail and tried to incorporate it into a movie that answered all of their questions. The amount of mail we get about Boondock Saints, the amount of questions we get about Boondock Saints, it’s overwhelming at times. It’s been like that for ten years. I can’t even imagine the amount of letters Troy’s gotten about this. He must be like, “I gotta give ‘em everything!” Troy’s one of those people that wants to please everybody. He wants to do it his way, but he still wants everyone happy. I think that came into the story a lot.
As far as the new film, and everything Troy brought to it, is there anything in particular you were really on board with?
Norman: He’s great at listening to us. The second one I thought was a little light on the Saints, to be honest. Because there were so many new characters, it had to be. There are a lot of new characters he had to bring in. I hope if we do a third it goes back to – you know, the first one was a little more darker. I hope with the third one we go back to a dark element and less slapstick stuff. I think it was interesting to bring to this second one. These scenes like – There was the one with Rocco and the iceskating rink and talking about what man does and how man built this and it’s amazing, and it sort of went from a negative to a positive with us getting together and throwing things out in the air. We wrote that on the fly. We actually wrote that the day we shot it, the three of us. We all sat in a room and were like, “Let’s say this, and say this” and we riffed and came up with our own lines. We did it an hour before we shot. It was good. So there is that.
Ideally, what would you want to see in a third film? This darker vibe? If Troy sat down with you and said, "all right, what do you want to pitch me," what would you say?
Norman: I’d go real dark, real heavy. I don’t think we could do a fourth, to be honest. I would do ten of these if I had a chance, but I think it has to come to a conclusion. Troy leaves them open, so I think if we did a third one, either the boys win or the boys go out in a hail of bullets. I think it has to be epic. It has to go over the top with the whole fundamental idea of the brothers and their point of view and what they’re doing. I would just make it really, really hardcore.
I'd love to see that. Go out Butch and Sundance if you have to. As far as the brothers’ moral code…Not that you’re out there being a vigilante, but did that aspect of the film ever strike a chord with you?
Norman: I sort of have the same views that Sean does on it. It’s more about people sticking up for people. I like that aspect of it. The brothers are two guys who you know have your back all of them time. They have each other’s backs, they have their friends’ backs. That sort of attitude is infectious. I think as a general rule, if people had each other’s backs more it would be infectious and I think it would spread more. I see it all of the time. It does happen. And I see it again when it doesn’t happen. That’s part of the moral code. I’ve always been like that. I’ve always had my friends’ backs. I don’t suffer fools lightly. If somebody screws me over, there’s not really a second chance. I think that’s at work. I don’t about murdering anybody though…
I don’t think the film would work without the camaraderie and the loyalty – that’s definitely a key element. Certainly Connor and Murphy are very intense as a pair – they’re in sync, very devoted to each other – what do you think each character brings to the table that’s slightly different but makes them work together as a unit?
Norman: They’re very likeminded. Connor is the one that plots things out, and Murph is sort of the hothead that’s like, “let’s just jump off the roof.” There’s an opposites attract thing, but they also have the same goal. They finish each other’s sentences, they’re always showing love for each other…I think that’s it, really.
Now you and Sean seem pretty close too, off-set. Is this thanks to filming the movies?
Norman: Yeah, we actually met on the first one. He lived in LA, I lived in New York. We met at the screen test that Troy put together on his own dime. We’re friends. I like him a lot. He’s a great guy. I try to see him as much as I can see him. Whenever I’m on the West Coast, I’ll give him a call. I love hanging out with Sean. He’s great. Have you seen some of the YouTube videos we shot behind the scenes? Sean’s hysterical, by the way. He’s one of the funniest guys. You’ll be in a room with him and Billy, and you just can’t stop laughing. It’s retarded. He’s a lot of fun. I’m just totally boring.
Norman: Yeah, it’s based on the book I Was a White Slave in Harlem. The writers came to me a while back through a mutual friend to possibly play that part [of 1960s drag queen prostitute Margo Howard-Howard]. This was before they had a director on it. They saw some of my short films and then they approached me in a different way, so I think they were trying to get me to do both. But I don’t think I could handle both. I want to do a good job and I don’t want to make it a one-man show.
So what got you interested in taking on a story like Margo Howard-Howard's?
Norman: I was looking for something to direct. There are three short films that I sell on my website on mybigbaldhead.com, and people have really responded to them. Anyway, they saw those, and it was the subject matter and a certain style of them and so forth that they approached me about directing. I thought this story was amazing, and I think Margo’s life was amazing. There’s a crazy intro in the book that sort of explains that if you’re not happy with your situation, you sort of embellish and start telling your own story, and maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not true, but it sort of becomes the truth. I found that sort of interesting.
It’s fascinating. Definitely seeing someone else approach what already is kind of a fictionalized narrative, and then putting your spin on it yet too will be kind of layer upon layer, which should be interesting.
Well, I hope it comes together. As if you need more to do, are there any projects you haven't had a chance to embark on yet that you'd like to explore?
Norman: I miss doing sculptures, to be honest. I've been thinking a lot about getting back into sculpture. I have a friend of mine who I'm actually starting a band with, and we've just started getting it going and practicing and so forth, so we're doing that next. He lives out in Brooklyn, so we're going to get a space out there - he's also a sculptor - and start doing sculpting and just make this little factory of art and music. I'm playing bass, a friend of mine's playing guitar and singing, and we're looking at a drummer, a friend of ours. We've been talking about it forever and just finally getting it going. I'm learning songs as we go along. There's one film I've been talking about doing that I might go to Antarctica and be on a ship for a month, and he may come with me. We might actually record a couple of songs on this ship in Antarctica! Otherwise, you know, we'll play in Brooklyn. I'm pretty much a newbie at it. I sang in a band in high school; I don't know what I was trying to prove back then. The bass is a new thing for me, so I'm kind of getting it down and learning different stuff. It's a blast. My son can play like twelve instruments and speak nine languages, and I can barely speak English and I can't play bass! So I'm working on it.
Acting-wise, I'd like to do some more emotional, adult, man/woman films, you know, about relationships and so forth. I've had two of them I did in particular with French actresses, and French actresses always school me. They're like, "Relax. Stop humping my leg, take your time…" You kind of walk away like, damn, I have so much to learn as a man. I'd like to explore that by possibly doing more stuff like that in film. I think if I were looking for a script to act in, it'd be something like that. You know I've killed somebody in every movie I've ever been in? Yeah. I've killed a lot of people. My mom keeps saying, "Why can't you do just like a romantic comedy with Jennifer Love Hewitt or something?" and I'm like, they just don't put me in those movies, Mom! I think I'd like to explore some adult, man/woman…relationship stuff. Before I'm too old to care!
I think at that point I mumbled something about how I didn't think he had anything to worry about just yet. Though I do love a Norman with a gun and a little side of crazy, I'm more than happy to watch him hump some French chicks too. Just spare us the J-Love.
Since we last spoke, I know Norman's had a lot of cool things happening for him. Meskada saw a well-attended screening at Tribeca, and the long-awaited The Beatniks hit DVD thanks, in part, to insistent fans and social networking. The power of fandom compels you! A recent tweet from Norman also mentioned that he'll be appearing in the upcoming AMC TV series The Walking Dead, adapted from the comic of the same name, amongst other projects. He sounded really excited about it, and I am too!
Be sure to check out Norman's official web site as well as his film production site, Bigbaldhead, where you can order his three short films on one DVD: compelling, creative storytelling and visuals; raw and beautiful, ugly and unfortgettable. How's that for a film review, Norman? ;)