For television fans, he may be best known as Jack Bristow in Alias, or currently as Dr. Martin Stein on The Flash. Film fans probably remember him best either as naval architect Thomas Andrews in Titanic or as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor in Argo. For those of us who have been lifelong fans of musical theater, he’ll always be Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd, John Wilkes Booth in Assassins, or, perhaps most of all, Jesus himself in Godspell. For someone who’s not exactly a household name, Victor Garber casts an awfully long shadow. He plays the vice president in Jalmari Helander’s new thriller Big Game, which also stars Felicity Huffman, James Broadbent, and Samuel L. Jackson. He joined us recently to talk about the film, about acting in general, and about a couple of his most notable stage performances as well.
Paste Magazine: Hello, Victor!
Victor Garber: Hi, Michael! What part of the world are you calling from?
Paste: I’m in Atlanta. Where are you?
Garber: I’m in New York. We just had this huge downpour, and it looked like the end of the world. But now it’s clearing up again. It was crazy.
Paste: I’m an old musical theater geek from way back, and you were so good in everything from Godspell to Assassins to everything else, and then your work in film and television too. You’re really one of my favorites, and it’s great to talk to you.
Garber: Thank you. That’s really nice to hear, especially after the last interview, where the guy had no idea who I was and hadn’t seen the movie. He was asking me about it. [laughs] So you are a nice leap, thank you.
Paste: I enjoyed Big Game, and enjoyed your part. How did you come to the film? What attracted you to it?
Garber: I read the script, and I thought it was an interesting part, not least because it could be filmed in a short period of time. But the main reason was Felicity Huffman and Jim Broadbent. I just thought the idea of being in the room with them was worth it, and it turned out to be really a very pleasant experience. We had a lot of laughs. And Jalmari was very collaborative and trusting of the actors, and really relied on us to make it work. It was a good experience all around.
Paste: Jim has such a great performance in this film; I want to know how you kept from cracking up the whole time, with him waving that sandwich around.
Garber: We laughed all through through it. And we made fun of each other the whole way. He was very concerned about his accent, and Felicity and I would say, “Oh, Jim. That’s not good. You’ve got to work on that.” And we’d just laugh. It was really fun, I have to say. When I texted Felicity I said, “What I really miss is having dinner with you.”
Paste: I’ve never met her, but I’ve a few times run into her husband Bill Macy.
Garber: They really are a delightful couple. And so, so talented, both of them.
Paste: One of the reasons I think you were such a great casting choice here is that there’s a certain “Victor-ness” you bring to a role. You have a certain gravitas. And since being the vice president is probably a very difficult role to research, I assume you drew on some of your experience playing other roles of virtuous authority?
Garber: Yeah, I mean I think one always brings a sense of their own truth to any role, of how they would be in that situation. Also, this guy had a very peculiar twist; it was important not to tip that off, so that when it happened it would be a surprise. So really, it was just trying to be as real in the moment as I could, as well as keeping in mind where I was headed. But I do think we all bring a bit of ourselves, and I think that’s when it’s most effective. We all come with a certain physicality, a certain way of talking. And obviously we modify it, but at the core it’s still us coming out. And that’s why I think people cast me in those roles. But I’ve been lucky to have a varied, disparate set of characters in my career. Which I really love. And now, obviously, playing a superhero is kind of crazy and fun.
Paste: Yeah, we could spend a lot of time just talking about that. I think The Flash is one of the best of the current crop of superhero offerings out there right now.
Garber: I think it’s a really good show. I’m really glad you like it.
Paste: I don’t want to give away too much about Big Game. But really, your performance not only doesn’t give away the twist, it really sets the viewer up for the twist. If it was someone like, say, a Bill Macy playing that part, it wouldn’t be quite as big a twist as when Victor Garber plays it.
Garber: Thank you. Casting is an art, and I think it was a good idea. I think it was a good fit.
Paste: Speaking of good fit, I have got to ask you about John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. I always joke that that show must have started with Stephen Sondheim taking a bet that he could make John Wilkes Booth a sympathetic character.
Paste: But somehow he and you pulled it off. The marriage of his music and words and your performance is just astounding. Tell me about getting into the skin of the character, and did it stay with you? I mean, it’s a part that haunts me, and I didn’t even perform it; I’ve just listened to it a few hundred times.
Garber: It was such an honor to play that role in that production. It was my second experience creating a role with Stephen. And I feel, honestly, that I’ve been blessed by those experiences. I take them very seriously, and I treasure them deeply. Stephen has such insight into people, and he sees the good even in bad people. The reality is that John Wilkes Booth thought he was doing the right thing, and that’s a very hard thing to accept, considering what he did. But people do horrible things believing that they are right. And Stephen has the ability to write lyrics that are so deep, and so complicated, and so interesting, that it really makes these people three-dimensional. There’s no one better, frankly. And I think that with “The Ballad of Booth,” that whole sequence is one of the most perfectly written pieces of musical theater ever. I kind of surrendered to what he wrote, and that’s how I developed the character.
Paste: Let’s talk briefly about Godspell. That film is simultaneously such a radical and such an authentic presentation of the story. I’d love for you to take us back to the process of creating that film, with the rest of the cast, and the director, and everyone.
Garber: Fortunately, I had had the experience to do it in the theater before, with an exemplary cast. It was the Toronto company of Godspell, and it was Martin Short and Gilda Radner and Eugene Levy and Paul Shaffer and Andrea Martin and me. That’s where I learned to play the role, so when I got to the first day of rehearsal for the movie, it was in my DNA. The cast bonded very quickly. They were wonderful people, all of them. And the director, David Greene, was this sort of crazy Don Quixote-esque figure. And we had New York as our playground. And it was my first movie. And I’m very proud of it, although of course now I can’t go back and watch it, because there’s so many things I don’t like about what I did. But I think it has a beautiful message, and it was very heartfelt. There was nothing cynical about it; it was a very special thing. I think that’s what makes people respond to it. Even now, people still talk to me about that movie, and God knows it was a long time ago!
Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater , a New York Times Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative Producer for the Sarasota Film Festival; Movies Editor of Paste; host of the podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter.