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I’m a pretty determined guy


Edward Burns has a distinctive voice and easygoing manner, both immediately evident when he calls me from New York City. The 32-year-old actor-writer-director already has an impressive resume: he made his prize-winning first feature, The Brothers McMullen in 1995, followed by She’s the One, No Looking Back, and the upcoming Sidewalks of New York. Ironically, as immersed as he is in films now, Burns didn’t go to the movies as a kid. He was “a jock and a basketball freak,” and it wasn’t until he was an English major at SUNY-Albany, that he found he could become a film studies minor. He remembers being told, “All you had to do was watch old movies and write a bullshit paper at the end, and it was a guaranteed easy A. I knew that was the class for me.” But it was more than that. Once he started watching the old films and read a book on writing screenplays, he knew he had found what he was going to do with the rest of his life.


Right now, he’s talking about his latest acting project, 15 Minutes, in which he plays an arson investigator teamed with Robert DeNiro’s homicide cop, to look into a series of murders and fires in New York. He says that the subject matter of the film took him back to the his past life, when he worked at The 7 O’Clock News in Manhattan.



Cynthia Fuchs:

How close is this film to the news business as you knew it years ago?



Edward Burns:

The film is exaggerated, but there are people in that business who are that sketchy. I don’t think it’s specific to tv, because anytime you have big money on the line, you’ll have people who are willing to do unscrupulous things to beat out the competitor. It’s more the human condition than it is tabloid journalism itself.



CF:

How have things changed for you since the last time we spoke, which was around the time that The Brothers McMullen opened?



EB:

My options certainly have changed. After McMullen, I really wasn’t interested in taking acting jobs, and wanted to stay focused on making films. But when I tried to get my third film [No Looking Back, in 1998] made, I was having a really tough time raising money. And people I was working with said, “If you’re going to continue to cast yourself in your films, why not take the occasional acting job, in a big Hollywood film, and your name will have more value, and the next time you try to raise money for a small, character-driven film like you do, it’ll be that much easier.” That seemed to make good sense. But when I did Saving Private Ryan, the great thing that happened was, I learned so much watching Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. As well, I was just showing up on the set and not having to worry about all the things you do when you’re also directing, and that kind of freed me up to try different things as an actor. Then when I took 15 Minutes, I got lucky again, and got to work with Robert DeNiro. So after15 Minutes, going back to make an independent film [Sidewalks of New York], I was able to apply a lot of the things I learned in the two big films, to my film. Now I’m at a place where I have some more options because I acted in these films, but my goal was to get more freedom as a filmmaker, and I’ve done that.



CF:

Does this freedom translate primarily to larger budgets?



EB:

Without a doubt, it gives you a bit more money, but there’s also a direct connection between how much money they give you and how much control they give you. As you get more power within the business, both those levels go up.



CF:

How would you describe the atmosphere on your own movie sets?



EB:

I love making movies more than anything, but at the same time, I believe, it’s only a movie. So there’s no screaming and yelling, we try to have a good time, and I try to make it as collaborative as I can. It stems from the top—if you’re having a good time, chances are, everyone’s having a good time.



CF:

You’ve been selective about your roles, choosing movies that have politics and points to make.



EB:

Yeah, I’m real picky as an actor. In three years, I’ve done two movies. I want to work with people I can learn from and respect. And those people are trying to do a higher level of work.



CF:

How is 15 Minutes both a regular cop-buddy movie and that “higher level of work,” for you?



EB:

It’s the action-thriller cop movie and satisfies on those levels—you’ve got the suspenseful scenes, the buddy relationship, and you cheer when the bad guy gets killed. But at the same time, it has something to say about our judicial system and about the media. There haven’t been many successful action films recently, and I think they’re trying to redefine that genre. Maybe this film is starting to do that, in that it delivers the action, has something to say, and wants you to leave the theater asking some questions.



CF:

And what are those questions?



EB:

I think there are two parts to the 15 minutes of fame thing that John’s looking at. One, why does everyone want to be famous and how far will be willing to go to be famous? And two, why are we as an audience so thirsty for this kind of television, or, are the media supplying this and we have no choice but to watch it: who’s to blame, if anyone’s to blame?



CF:

You know something about the flip-side of fame. It seems that those pursuing it so ardently aren’t thinking about that.



EB:

When fame is a byproduct of what you do for a living, whether you’re a politician or an athlete or an actor, that’s one thing. But then you have the people who go on Jerry Springer [to get famous], and that’s a different kind of thing. They may not have a problem with the bad side of fame, since they’re willing to embarrass themselves to get famous in the first place.



CF:

You cast yourself in your films because you know you’ll bring something specific to a role, and you have some sense of what that something is. What is it that you think you bring, to your films or someone else’s?



EB:

I don’t really have any training as an actor, so my approach has always been to be honest, to gut-check as a writer and an actor: “Is this an authentic moment?” As an actor, I try not to over-intellectualize what I do, but to go for honesty. I’m not going to be able to do a Rain Man, and I’m not interested in stretching like that. But like Spencer Tracy, who had an authenticity, that’s what I aspire to.



CF:

On that tip, I hear you were doing your own stunts on 15 Minutes.



EB:

Unfortunately, I was very involved in the stunts. John didn’t want to use a stunt double; he wanted to sell a certain reality. I would never do it again. [Laughs.] I’m not one of those actors who thinks it’s cool to do his own stunts. I would so much rather have been sitting on the sidelines watching the stunt guy burn his arm off. But we have great technical and special effects guys working on it and no one got hurt and hopefully the film will be a big enough success, so on the next one I can say, “No, my stunt guy’s doing that.”



CF:

Now that you’ve worked on two sizable projects as an actor, do you ever want to direct something on that scale?



EB:

Not as big as Private Ryan, but I have written a script called On the Job, which is my sort-of epic. I’m not ready to make it yet. But when the time comes, it would be nice to be able to play with a big budget.



CF:

And before that time comes, you’ve gotten involved in the network tv series, The Fighting Fitzgeralds. How did that happen?



EB:

My brother [Brian] and I had been talking for a while about doing something on tv, because we have so many ideas, and they can’t all be movies. Plus, I had done brother relationships in McMullen, and father-son relationships in She’s the One, but I love that subject matter. And a television show seemed to be a way to continue to explore those relationships, and have some fun along the way. And we got very lucky with Brian Dennehy. He’s an Irish Catholic guy from Long Island, and he went to the same high school as my brother and I went to, and it kind of clicked. Some people are saying it’s like Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners or Carroll O’Connor in All in the Family. Dennehy’s one of those actors who takes something you’ve written and makes it easily ten times better. It’s custom-made for him, and he just hits it out of the park.



CF:

What are the significant differences for you, between filmmaking and making the series?



EB:

Now, we’re really just taking a look at the scripts and make sure they stay true to our original vision. But we were very involved in the pilot episode [which aired 6 March 2001], casting, rewriting, and shooting it. And the big difference between that and independent filmmaking is control and interference. In independent filmmaking, you’re independent of outside influences; in television, it’s a team effort. That’s the polite way to put it. But really, my brother and I like to keep busy, and we got lucky, with Brian Dennehy, Connie Britton (who was in Brothers McMullen), and Chris Moynihan.



CF:

What’s your sense of your career so far?



EB:

There’s no question that I’ve been lucky. There isn’t a day that I don’t see someone working at a job that I used to have and think, “Oh man, that so easily could have been me. Why did I get so lucky that it all came together?” I’m just thankful that it did. And, I’m a pretty determined guy.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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