Vinnie Varone is an actor and stuntman. His television appearances include Dollhouse, The Mentalist and Monk. He has worked alongside Micheal Madsen in the films Hired Gun and Outrage.
Jason: Mr. Varone do you consider yourself an actor who also happens to perform stunts, or a stuntman by nature who also can act?
Vinnie: Twenty years ago I was a stuntman who liked to act a little bit, but as time goes by and I learn more about the business of acting, I love acting a lot more. So I’m an ACTOR who can take a punch or do a fall. Now I’d say I’m a retired stunt man who is now an actor who will do a stunt.
J: How did you break into the industry?
V: I wanted to be a stuntman, consciously since I was 11 years old. I had an uncle who was in the business in LA and I would look to him for guidance and how to break into the business. I was living in Georgia and he said when I was 16 to call the Georgia Film Bureau and see what’s being filmed in the area. So I decided to go there and hang out and try to meet people and there was an Italian movie company shooting a movie called “The Sheriff and the Satellite Kid“. This was in ’78. Hardly anybody spoke English on the set and I see this guy standing there and he kinda looked like he spoke English so we got to talking and I told him I wanted to be a stuntman. He was about to open a school, I lied and said I was 18 instead of 16 and he offered me a role as an extra playing a cop in the background of one shot. That was just the greatest, it was so cool. They said they weren’t gonna pay me but I could put on a uniform and walk around and be in a movie. And I was like, I’m a movie star. So through him I started doing stunt-work with Southeastern Stunt Workers Assoc. And I worked with a company called Spectacular Effects which led to jobs on ‘Dukes of Hazard’. I was cleaning the General Lee and making connections that way. So that was probably the beginning of a long career, with a break in between.
J: When did you know you had what it takes to perform stunts on camera?
V: Well, I started going to that South Eastern Stunt Workers at 16, 17, 18 years old. I was learning to take a punch, skydive, take cars and do 180’s 360’s, it was incredible…to my friends, I walked as a celeb because I washed the General Lee and did celeb things and worked with these guys. So I knew at that age, some would be more some would be less. It was what I wanted to do, it was in my heart. I’d be at a friend’s house and would love to make people go OHHHH. That’s what really, really got me off!! It was the moment I’d do something and people would ask if I was ok. I thought I have something here.
J: I’ve read that your acting coach is Kirk Baltz who is recognized by many as the Police officer Nash in Reservoir Dogs. It’s been rumored Baltz had Michael Madsen lock him in a trunk in order to prepare for his role. As your coach does he have you exploring the character you portray in such ways?
V: I’m a big fan of Reservoir Dogs, which made me a big fan of Michael Madsen, I got to work with him on two projects. I couldn’t hold back, he was in the northern GA mountains trying to stay in shape and his assistant was looking for something half decent for him to eat. I had two pounds of turkey jerky, because I was trying to eat well. I thought this was my IN. I’m gonna give this turkey jerky to Madsen, Mr. Blond. So I go to Madsen and told him I’d love to share my Jerky. MM: “Oh that’s great, I’d appreciate it. This mean a lot.” VV: “It’s my pleasure, but I’d love to do a little scene on a video cam with you.” MM: “Will it get you laid?” VV: “Probably.” MM: “Let’s do it.” VV: “Hey there little doggy, you gonna bark or bite?” He jumps up, grabs me and gives me a hug and said “that’s awesome”. Which made me a bigger fan. We worked together again a year later on a different picture. I played a cop and also doubled doing stunt work, which gave us the opportunity to interact quite a bit. His first day on the set I see him, he sees me about twenty feet away and he yells, “Hey Turkey Jerky”.
So then, I’m looking to take some classes and someone mentions Kirk Baltz is an acting coach. I‘m thinking I’m about to call officer Marvin Nash! I give him a call and told him I had worked with Madsen, who had told me that he was a great coach and that I would love to work with him. He says great. Not sure if everyone gets along, but we clicked right away; working with him was like going to therapy. If he wasn’t in acting or acting coaching, he’d be a great therapist. He was tapping into emotions that were deep, like prepping for a role. He’d look into it in a totally different way…like using experiences from your past or childhood…it was awesome. I had known about him riding in the trunk and touching a nerve with Michael, when he threw in the line about having a child on ‘Reservoir Dogs’, knowing Michael just had a kid. It was powerful and I thought this guy was great. He invited me to a workshop with five other guys, macho looking guys with egos. By the end of the fourth day, everyone of us were crying and hugging because we had tapped into all these emotions. He used those tools to get you to go to that place where you can’t fake it. He’s given me the tools to tap into that. We’ve also become great friends..I always wanted to say..”YOU GOT MY FUCKIN EAR”. Never have though, I can see its a sour spot because that’s all he’s remembered for.
J: What’s the difference, if any, of being on a film shot vs a television series set?
V: On a film set, usually a crew – Speilberg, Tarantino like to work with familiar people because things click easier. Most film crews haven’t worked with each other before, so it can be kinda shaky, especially in the beginning. They go to unknown locations, set up and no matter how much you plan, things don’t go perfectly. On the TV set you have crews that work together months or years on their set location so there is a sense of familiarity as the result of working together daily. Things click a lot better on the TV set. The thrill of films is the challenge of being somewhere new and not knowing what obstacles you will run into.
J: What’s scarier, being lit on fire and jumping off a building, or acting in a scene with James Woods?
V: People would automatically assume working with James Woods is gonna be scarier. That’s not controlled, don’t know whats gonna happen. In a stunt, everything is perfectly controlled. I went to see a friend that was working as an electrician on a set and the 2nd unit AD, Paul Dominick, saw me and asked if I was an actor based on my look. He wanted me for the part as a limo driver. He got my info and said to come back tomorrow to work in a scene driving a car for James Woods. I show up the next day and these producers see me and pull me out of the front seat. They decided that they liked my look better than the guy playing the part of the thug, who rides in the backseat with James Woods. The director gave me my motivation for the scene and told me to be stoic. As the lighting and sound guys are prepping, you can hear a buzz on the walkie talkies that Mr. Woods is headed to set. So he gets in the backseat and I’m thinking, whats this gonna be like? I’ve heard stories from friends about other actors who can have you fired for looking them in the eye. So I have this stoic look…looking straight ahead…and after 50 years in the business, James Woods was as excited to shoot the scene as I was! He looks at me and grabs my knee and says “This is gonna be great! Aren’t you excited?” So I’m sitting there going, is he fucking with me? I continue to stay in character and look straight ahead. He recognizes what I’m doing and gives me a friendly punch in the arm, he says “I get it, yer staying in character.” We start the scene and I basically have to ignore him. He delivers his line and I give him this look like you are so not funny. After they cut, he says “I love that look”. The director agreed so they decided to shoot from multiple angles. The next day I got a callback from Paul Dominick saying they loved my performance and asked if i could return for the next week and a half. In short James Woods is a class act who made me feel totally comfortable, so it wasn’t crazy at all working with him.
J: Is there anyone whose career you admire? Or have looked to for guidance?
V: A few people for guidance, Kirk Baltz is great. Worked with Second Story Theater in LA, Wendy Phillips and Scott Pollen. They have a theater and I admire everybody who goes in there. Theater isn’t as glorious as the big screen, and these people are such good actors/actresses. If I shine it’s because they’re so good at what they do. You look at some of these people performing and think My GOD, why haven’t I seen you on the TV or in movies? They’re highly trained and have that IT quality. Later at night they’re working at the local mini mart, those people who do it for the love not the glory or fame, but just because they love it, are who I admire.
J: Has there ever been a moment when you walked on set and thought “what have I gotten myself into”?
V: I played a boxing referee on Monk. They had about 400 extras, a couple days of work shooting in the L.A. coliseum. So in the midst of the boxing ring, in front of all these people, the director isn’t giving me any specific direction. In the scene, a sniper is supposed to be shooting a fighter but my head keeps getting in the way while breaking up the fight. I had a history with boxing so I knew how to emulate a referee. I begin to move like one around the ring and all I hear is my name being called as it’s completely quiet. The director is in the nosebleeds on a bullhorn and all anyone hears is him yell, “Stop moving around so much!”, but all I heard by the time it reached my brain was “Vinnie get off my set”. At the end of the day someone gave me a pat on the shoulder and said “Man, you handled that really well”. That was probably the only time I thought “What the hell am I doing?”
J: Is it more important to work with a competent director on a bad script, or an inexperienced director with a great script?
V: Work is the most important, whichever is great, but an inexperienced director has eagerness and passion. I’ve worked on a few student and low budget films. Everyone is excited about what’s going on and they feel so passionate about their projects. A director with experience knows he has respect, and if he has a bad script he can turn it into something good with the help of good actors. At some point, the inexperienced director doing the student film will eventually become competent and experienced and be in the position where they have a bad script, but hopefully they will still have that early passion and use it to overcome an unspectacular script.
J: In closing, Is there anything you’d like to tell us about upcoming projects or appearances?
V: Yes, check out Outragemovie.com. I did some stunt and voice-over work on that film as well as on Spike TV for the television show “1000 Ways to Die“. I steal a safe and it crushes me, but that’s about it really for the near future.