Best known for playing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shape-shifty nemesis in the 1991 sequel “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” actor Robert Patrick has built his career on his passion for his craft and his hard-edged look. In his newest film, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” which recently screened at the Austin Film Festival, Patrick, 53, stars as Jimbo Caldwell, a military veteran living in the south who can’t understand why his fellow vet brothers Skip and Carroll (Billy Bob Thornton and Kevin Bacon) have become anti-war advocates. The film is the second Patrick has starred in directed by Thornton (the first was the 2000 drama “All the Pretty Horses”). During an interview with me, Patrick, who also currently stars on the TV shows “True Blood” and “Last Resort,” talked about the factors he takes under consideration when deciding on making a film and how the Vietnam War affected him growing up in the southern U.S. as a child.
Tell us about your character Jimbo and what drew you to the role.
What drew me to the role was Billy Bob Thornton. I worked with Billy Bob before in a film called “All the Pretty Horses.” He was the director. I played Matt Damon’s father. This was a piece that Billy Bob wrote. This was also an opportunity to appear on camera with Billy Bob. I have a great admiration for him as an artist and a fellow actor. I was very enthusiastic about the possibility to actually work with him. He called me up and asked if I read the script and what I thought. I went over to his house and we hung out and I agreed to do it. Another reason was because it was an opportunity to work with one of my heroes, Bobby (Robert) Duvall. Bobby plays my father.
How has Billy Bob changed as a director since you worked with him back in 2000?
I think he is the same director that he was back then. I don’t really think there was a change in him. He’s very willing to let the actors do whatever they want. He’s a director very similar to Clint Eastwood. He allows you to show up and expects you to know what to do. He doesn’t really come in demanding this and that. It’s a very comfortable set, which allows you to be very confident and free to try things. That’s what every actor wants – to feel comfortable.
You mentioned Clint Eastwood, who you’ve worked with. You’ve worked with other amazing directors like James Cameron. Is it all about the directors and the crew when you chose your next project or does the material factor in as well?
There are so many factors that come in to play. The director, the script, the role itself, the actors you’re working with – all those things are important. Hopefully you can base your choices solely on the creative team assembled. If you have that luxury to have that sort of ability to make a decision based on the creative package you’re very, very lucky. But your creative integrity is only as strong as your financial integrity. Like a lot of actors out there, a lot of decisions are made based on where you’re at financially and on what’s good for you and your family. You kind of pick and choose your parts while at the same time thinking about what makes sense to you as a business person.
Not many actors are open enough to admit money does play a factor into decisions. Most of the time, people want to believe it’s more romantic than that.
Well, I mean, look at my career. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some incredibly talented people and have been involved with some incredible movies, but I’ve also done some real pieces of shit. But I’ve been paid very well to do them. I mean, I have to do what I have to do. I got two kids and a wife. That’s the actor’s life.
Are you at a point in your career where you can say no to things?
We’ll I wish I could say yes, but I’m actually at the point of my career where I’m looking at both sides – financially and creatively. I do turn down a lot of things. I would say in the last three or four years, yes I have. I’ve only done really great projects. I feel really confident that we’re making decisions on the creative part of it more.
I know you grew up in Georgia where “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” was filmed. What does it take to make a good film set in the South? So many times, directors don’t get it right.
Well, it helps to be from the South. I was born in Marietta, Georgia and lived there for 12 years. Billy Bob was born in Arkansas and lived there for most of his life before he came out [to California]. I’ve had the good fortune of living in different parts of the U.S. before getting to Hollywood. I’ve lived in Boston and Dayton, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan. The southern heritage and the southern people are very unique. Regions of our country are now diluted because we are all connected by things like social media and media in general. We’re losing a lot of the traditions that different cultures across our country had. The southern culture has a really proud heritage and is very defiant. I will say that southern people are very polite and a lot like the English, which is something in our movie that comes into play. As different as the English are, they are very much like the people in the south. That’s what is so interesting about “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” – the mash up of two real strong and distinct cultures.
Another thing that is prevalent in the film is the Vietnam War and how polarizing it was during that time. As a kid growing up during the 60s in Georgia, do you remember the war having an effect on your life?
Absolutely. I’m glad you brought that aspect of the film up. I was born in 1958. I’ll be 54 this year. I remember Vietnam very clearly. I remember Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. I was there with my grandfather. He was a career soldier. He actually died of stomach cancer at Ft. Bragg during the Vietnam War in 1963. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandfather and Ft. Bragg. Vietnam is such an interesting part of America’s history. The effects of the 60s are still being felt by our society today. I have such a great empathy and try to have a real understanding of what it’s like to serve your country and then be abandoned by your country. Most of the Vietnam vets that I’ve met, that’s the way they feel. They feel they went out there and never lost a battle and won the war and then were deserted by the people back home that were burning their draft cards and smoking dope and protest and all that kind of shit. These kids were serving and putting their life on the line against the spread of communism. That’s what Billy Bob writes about because he remembers that as well. I remember the hippies. That’s the kind of shit that was going on in the country. That was the mood. In the film, Kevin Bacon plays that pot-smoking hippie. My character can’t understand why Kevin’s character has abandoned his military career and isn’t prouder of what he did serving the country. I can’t understand why Billy Bob’s character is so fucked up and not proud of his country. My character served, but he never saw action. He doesn’t understand why his brothers are the biggest anti-war people in the household.
Do you think that’s kind of where we are today with the war in the Middle East? I mean, even with all the social media and news coverage, no one really knows what is going on over there. Unless we have someone in the military, a lot of people feel very disconnected to these ongoing wars. Do you think we’re going through our own shift like the U.S. did in the 60s?
Well, I can tell you this: as a proud supporter of the military I’m very aware that we’ve been in the war for over 10 years and am very aware that Americans hate it. I’m very proud to be an American and am very proud of my country. I believe if we weren’t here, the world would be a much different place. I don’t like people who bash our country. We’re not a country of warmongers. Before WWII, we had one of the smallest armies on the planet. But we were provoked and we got out there and developed our military. Now, we try to help oppressed people and try to help them get out of a world of tyranny. Are people really not aware that we’ve got brothers and sisters in harm’s way? I don’t understand why more people aren’t aware of what’s going on.
I think it’s called reality TV, unfortunately.
Well, we’ve got people right now sweating their balls off, so you and I can watch fucking reality TV. They are protecting the freedoms we have in America. We were attacked on 9/11 in New York. We just had an ambassador killed in Libya. We are at war with terrorists. Right now with this election we’ve got a president that appears to want to lower our defense spending and I don’t know why. I want to have the biggest stick on the block. I want to have the biggest bat! I know war is not a fun thing to watch, but I can tell you as someone who has walked the halls at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda and met these kids who have had their arms and legs blown off, they made a real commitment and put their life on the line. We as a country have to support them a lot more. It can’t just be lip service. It has to be real service. You can’t ask people to serve and then just abandon them. I think those are some of the issues Billy Bob’s movie brings up – the effects war has on people and families.
Final question since my time is up: There are rumblings about a fifth “Terminator” movie. Are you interested in the series after 21 years?
I’ll say this: If they asked me to do something in the fifth installment and I think it’s worthy of the performance I’ve already done, I would consider it.