Wednesday, February 5, 2014

INTERVIEW: Actor Robert Rusler looks back at SHAG (1989)

Actor Robert Rusler talks with TV STORE ONLINE about SHAG, the 1989 dance coming-of-age cult film...

TV STORE ONLINE:  Robert, did you have to audition for the role of "Buzz" in SHAG (1989)?

RUSLER:  Well, I went in to audition through my agent.  I went in to a hotel in Beverly Hills where the auditions were being held.  I walked in and literally kicked the door in.   I auditioned for [Director] Zelda Barron and [Producer] Stephen Wooley.     I went like I was a Adonis and I tapped on my genitalia and I announced to them that I was "Pee-Pee Man" and that I was there to save their day.

But, before I had gone in... While I was out waiting in the lobby for my turn to go in, an actor friend of mine, Gary Hershberger, who I had done a film with before had just came out of his audition and he said, "Boy, it's like someone died in there.  It's like their waiting for someone to come in there and wow them..."

So I went in as "Pee-Pee Man"...Director Zelda Barron said, "Well, it is nice to meet you Pee-Pee Man.  Have you read the script?"   I said, "Yes, I have".   Then she said, "OK, let's give it a go. Let's see how you read".

So I read for them, and in the midst of thinking I had done really well, Zelda said, "What happened?   You came in here as Pee-Pee man, but I'm not seeing him when you read.  He's gone away".    

She called me out on my charm...laughing  She asked me to go home and read the script again and study the character.   So I went home, and the next day I came back in and Zelda and Steven sort of laughed at me because of how this time I had come into the room sort of meek acting, when the day before, I had came in acting so cocky.   So I read for them again, and I gave "Buzz" some depth and emotion in the reading and they cast me on the spot.

TV STORE ONLINE:   What did you take from that second time reading the script?

RUSLER:  I just got a hold on the overall story.  Then I figured out what I could contribute to the character in the story.  I wanted to figure out what I could bring to the character, and instead of someone telling me who that character was, I tried to show them who the character was.   I think that's 9/10 of the acting process.

TV STORE ONLINE:    Who did you decide that "Buzz" was after that second script reading?

RUSLER:  He was a local guy.  He was young and curious.  He was cool.  He was looking for, very simply, sex.   But what was underlying in that...He was looking for hope, love and some fulfillment.  But I think,  it needed to be kept simple.  He was on vacation with his buddy in Myrtle Beach in the summer of '63 and he was looking to get laid.   But there was obviously much more under the surface of Buzz. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  Did you learn to dance for the film?

RUSLER:  Yes, I did.  We had a great choreographer on SHAG named Kenny Ortega.  He was so great.  He had just finished up on DIRTY DANCING (1987).   It took me about a week to get the basic steps down and then from there it was just a matter of keeping polished, because Scott Coffey really had the bulk of dancing in the film.    It's a cool dance though.  It's very sexy.

TV STORE ONLINE:   What was Zelda Barron like as your director?

RUSLER:   Zelda was amazing.  She was super cool and creative.  She called me her "treasure". I was just so honored and grateful to have had the opportunity to work for her.  She had had a big career before she even started directing films.   She had worked with Warren Beatty and as a Script Supervisor, she had worked with Monty Python.

She was really awesome.  Her son is a great director, and her daughter is a very accomplished artist.  She had a very wonderful perspective and approach to the script for SHAG.  She knew that we were making this little teen dance movie, but she was also really interested in giving all of those characters some really wonderful depth.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Many of your scenes in the film are spent one-on-one with actress Phoebe Cates in SHAG and there is a magical chemistry between the two of you in the film...

  Phoebe was a blast.   First of all, I adored her because I had been a fan from all of the films that I had seen her in previously.   I thought she was the cats meow.  When I got the chance to work with her I was really pleased because I thought that I was going to be working with the Phoebe Cates from FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), but when I went and met that fake Phoebe, she was quite different.  I don't know why I thought I was going to be meeting the character she had played in that film, but I did.   When I actually met her and started to work with her,  I found her just so funny and smart.  I really loved worked with her.    

We had a great relationship and all of these years later I look back at my time working with her as a priceless experience.   Her fiance, actor Kevin Kline was there with us during the rehearsal process in South Carolina as well.  He was about to shoot A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988) as I recall.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Your character in references Paul Newman  in THE HUSTLER (1961) a few times in SHAG...I was wondering if you studied Newman in that film prior to playing Buzz?

RUSLER:  Of course.   Buzz was very impressed with THE HUSTLER.   He was impressed with him because Newman's character is such a complex guy and he's in an equally complex situation too.   Newman's character learns that life is an inside job, and what is going on in the inside is much more important than what is happening around him on the outside.  I think, Buzz learned all of that from the Newman character.   He learned to just be true to himself.   That's how Buzz approached life after seeing THE HUSTLER.

TV STORE ONLINE:   SHAG has developed a cult movie following over the years...What do you think it is about the film that affords people the desire to watch it over and over again?

RUSLER:   I think because of it's authenticity.  It was made by some great filmmakers. The production was of the highest quality.  I mean Peter McDonald, the Director Of Photography had been a camera operator on David Lean's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962).    SHAG captures the essence of the era.  It captures the feel of the south of the early 1960's.   What was going on in that time...The assassination of John F. Kennedy and what was going on in the world, and the changes in people because of that...The common denominator in that all, is that the people all still need to connect with each other.    In SHAG, the lives of these kids are connecting and it's just before everything is going to change for them in their lives.  They're coming out of high school as close friends, and from there, they'll all go off to college or to the military. They'll never again be as close as they were when they were younger, and I think that time of innocence is such a magical thing. It allows for the audience to live vicariously through those characters.   It also shows us that we need to stop living for the future, and just live in the moment.  If we stop to enjoy the moment that we're in now and we smell the roses, we'll all realize just how special it really is.