Phil Donlon spoke to Solzy at the Movies ahead of High & Outside: A Baseball Noir‘s limited run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
Congrats on the upcoming limited release of High & Outside: A Baseball Noir.
Phil Donlon: Thank you.
While the baseball aspect is what drew me to cover the film in the first place, this film is more than just the sport alone. I see it as a film about a film about family, too.
Phil Donlon: I completely agree. I think that’s one of the things we sort of learned when we wrote film out. Baseball’s just a backdrop. Less of a baseball film and it’s more of a sins of the father or something. Definitely a family, character-driven, a lot of family stuff in there—you’re right.
You play a person obsessed with baseball while trying to live up to the expectations of your character’s legendary father. What drew you to the role and how do you decide which roles to pursue?
Phil Donlon: An interesting story about being drawn to the role—it was sort of written for me. I had done a Sam Shepard play here in LA with Geoff years ago—Fool for Love, actually. Evald Johnson came and saw the play. After the show, just a little bit of an after party, he was standing there with me and Geoff’s wife at the time mentioned—sort of off the cuff—you should play father and son because you have the same eyes. I’d say maybe eight months or a year later, Evald called me and said I have this idea for you and Geoff to play father and son. It was sort of put together, which is really kind of an actor’s dream.
What drew me to it once it was written was I think that to play—I was always fascinated by characters like Jake LaMotta or Tony Soprano and the actors’ ability to make these guys so charming where you’re sort of rooting for these individuals that you wouldn’t even associate with in life. I think there was a lot of that in Phil Harding and I was really interested to explore the duality that the character has—the ability to be insanely charming and a complete narcissistic asshole.
What did you do to prepare for the role?
Phil Donlon: I was pretty fortunate. The director’s father, Kim Johnson, was and is still a very respected guy in Major League Baseball. He played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, and the Montreal Expos. He managed the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1990s. There were a lot of these big league players like Roger Clemens, for example. I got to hang out with these guys. That’s pretty much what I did. I got to hang out and asked a lot of questions. I listened, listened, listened, and watched. From that, I was able to bring a lot that wasn’t written on the page.
Also, the physical aspect. I had to play in an actual game which is the opening of the film. The director was very specific that—he felt a lot of baseball films that actors don’t bat right or throw the ball directly. He wanted all of that to where if a big guy watched it and said, “Okay, that looks like a guy that played.” There was also the physical aspect in there as well. I had to train. It was all about a year in the making.
This film features the final work from Geoffrey Lewis. What’s the most special think that you’re going to remember about him?
Phil Donlon: A lot. A really dear friend of mine off camera. No one’s ever asked me that before. Throughout all the questions, no one’s ever asked me that. I think what I’ll remember most about him is the lightness he had as an actor. He was doing a role that was heavy but you wouldn’t have noticed. He was always just very, very light. On set when the cameras were rolling, he almost made it seem effortless. He kind of taught me that doing nothing is more than enough in front of the camera. That was a big lesson that I learned from him.
Also, the bravery of continuing to act right up until the end. I think a lot of actors—they get obsessed with how they look or how they don’t look—not being who they once were. Geoff had happily accepted the current state of his body and what lacked with it—being old and had a couple of strokes. He really was interested in playing around. He always referred to his body as “the body I’m in—I’m still trying to figure it out.” I know the film was really hard for his wife to watch when it came out. He really sort of like I think felt the need to let it all hang out. That’s kind of cool thing to be vulnerable. I thought that was probably the biggest thing about him.
How fun was it to work with Ernie Hudson?
Phil Donlon: Fantastic. He’s so great. Ernie’s such a great wonderful actor. I had never worked with him as an actor before. We certainly have two different styles. I found that out pretty quickly as far as how we get to where we’re going as actors. Ernie’s great. Ernie’s a consonant actor’s actor for as big of a star that he is and he has been. He doesn’t care if he gets paid a dollar or if he’s getting paid a billion dollars–he’s there to work. He doesn’t care if it’s a big set or small set. He treats everything the same and that is to do his best work. I can’t imagine the opening of the film without Ernie. They had looked at some other actors. I can’t imagine it anymore without him.
Thanks for your time and congrats again on the film.
Phil Donlon: Absolutely. Thanks so much for all of your support—especially the accolades for Geoff. It’s really appreciated.