When Dermot Mulroney last visited the Sundance Film Festival 13 years ago, he was co-starring in an Alan Rudolph film titled Trixie, opposite Emily Watson and Nick Nolte. “I think it was a little less commercial then,” says Mulroney, who returns to Park City, Utah, next week with a trio of films. One other thing that’s also changed since 2000: the “Park City at Midnight” showcase, which specializes in some truly bizarre, outside-the-box filmmaking. (Think last year’s Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.) When night falls at Sundance, the cool-crazies come out, and Mulroney arrives this year with a potential doozy. The Rambler, a surreal Western based on a short that writer/director Calvin Lee Reeder screened at Sundance in 2008, seems almost perfectly engineered for a manic midnight crowd. Judging from Mulroney’s description, it might just be like a Cormac McCarthy story directed by Terry Gilliam. “It’s going to be nuts,” says the actor. “This movie will spin some heads, many of which might already be spinning at a midnight show.”
Mulroney, who also appears in the Nicole Kidman thriller Stoker and the festival-closing biopic about Steve Jobs starring Ashton Kutcher, checked in with EW to try and explain The Rambler and discuss his recent appearance on Saturday Night Live.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Looking at the lineup up films for the festival, you might be a frontrunner for Mr. Sundance 2013. You have three films screening, yes?
DERMOT MULRONEY: I do. I have a small role in Stoker. I appear as the Rambler in The Rambler, and also a role in jOBS, which closes the festival. I can’t wait to see The Rambler with an audience. It’s a very unique film, let’s say.
To me, the poster evokes imagery from a Cormac McCarthy story, but I’m guessing there’s a lot more to it.
There’s a lot more to it for sure, but that’s a very astute observation. In fact, there are elements of that where there’s inexplicable murder and phenomenon. Really, it’s a story of a man who’s trying to find his place in the world. The viewer will be the one to judge whether he finds it or not… but there’s some forces greater than explanation.
The plot summary is a little vague: After being released from prison, the Rambler stumbles upon a strange mystery as he attempts to reconnect with a long-lost brother.
Yeah, even that’s not really such a big part of it. It’s really… it’s really hard to explain – and not on purpose either. It’s a very phantasmagoric impressionistic film. It’s shot beautifully and this really great young hot-shot director put together images and thoughts and really spiritual and some might say psychic elements that turn into this really psychedelic mind-blowing Western style film. There’s no real sign posts in the story. He’s a rambler; he runs into some freaky people; and effed-up sh-t happens. I mean, I’m answering these questions in an oblique way because it’s an oblique film. It stumps me. It’s beyond me.
Does the Rambler have a real name?
In the script, he was called the Rambler, and I don’t think anybody really says his name. In fact, there are a time or two when the name is mentioned but it’s obscured by other sounds, so you never get his given name. But you kind of know who he is because he has strong elements of stuff that you know, whether it’s just the hat and the glasses, or the music. Throughout the movie, the Rambler’s trying to come up with a tune, so in a way he’s kind of like one of those Ramblin’ Jack Elliott type of folk singers as well. Ever since I’ve done The Rambler, all I see is the Rambler. Everywhere you look. You’ve seen him; you know this guy. He’s at the bus stop or in the diner. Anyone who’s got a guitar case that’s walking, so in Los Angeles there’s a lot of them. Once you see this movie, you’ll start looking around. And then you’ll start wondering what these guys are thinking. And in the case of the Rambler, the guy is out of his everloving mind. It’s the most bizarre film I’ve ever been in. Maybe the most bizarre film I’ve ever seen.
When you saw the script, did you have an immediate appreciation for what The Rambler was, or did you have to look at it sideways for a bit before you truly understood what Calvin was going for?
No, as soon as I saw it. Well, I didn’t quite know how to perform it but I knew that I wanted to be in it. I had more of a vague, magnetic pull to it then a complete understanding at that time. But as little as there is to explain about the character because he’s kind of a cipher, it all became clear to me working with Calvin because he had such a nuanced understanding of precisely what he wanted. It was this mind spasm of this writer-director that hooked me, so I wanted in.
Are you especially fond of Westerns? Going all the way back to Young Guns, you’ve appeared in more than your fair share.
Of course, I’m a fan of Westerns. In fact, just as you asked that question I flashed to the famous peyote scene from Young Guns to a certain scene in The Rambler, and they’re actually pretty close. Young Guns had a very strong psychedelic element that people still remember, so I’ve been doing f–ked up Westerns right from the start, as you pointed out. This one just a little more so.
You also play Apple bigwig Mike Markkula in jOBS? What are you expecting when that screens at Sundance?
I never have known what to expect with this movie. I didn’t have time to think about it. At the last minute, I replaced an actor that had fell out for some reason. [On super-short notice] I’m stepping on to the set where they’re shooting at [Steve Jobs'] house, in his original garage. I hadn’t read Steve Jobs book, so I learned about that movie as we went along. My research was happening on camera, in all honesty. Josh Stern the director and Ashton obviously are so knowledgable that I was even learning from just the oral history from these guys. My main resource was Ashton, who just has a memory-bank mind and had all the details down and was impressively prepared. But what I also learned as we made it was that some of the scenes had epic proportions, whether it’s betrayal or these huge misunderstands. It was much weightier film than I first read when I thought it was just a corporate drama. It’s much more than that. It’s really like a Greek tragedy.
I have to ask about your recent cameo on Saturday Night Live, which had some fun with peoples’ confusion between you and Dylan McDermott?
I didn’t have to think twice when they called. These nice young writers wrote a fantastic sketch and Bill Hader and Jamie Foxx and the other actors made it work. There’s a lot of bad versions of that skit that could have happened. But my only concern would be whether that skit makes it even more confusing. But I don’t think that it has. I don’t go around contemplating it and I highly doubt that Dylan does either until something like that happens. He and I both have lived in tandem for several dozen years. I don’t know how else to put it: it’s been there all along. It’s long in our rearview mirror.
The Rambler, which also features Lindsay Pulsipher and Natasha Lyonne, premieres at Sundance on Monday, Jan. 21.