An interview with Brad Renfro on the occassion of his passing

Actor Brad Renfro died Wednesday at 25. A cause of death hasn't been released yet, but Renfro had a notorious past thanks to his interest in drugs.

His filmography isn't the most accomplished; his last roles were almost inconsequential parts (in movies like "The Jacket" and on television shows like "Law and Order: Criminal Intent") or decent-sized roles in direct-to-video projects (like the movie "10th & Wolf"). This end to his career belied the talent he displayed in movies like "The Client" and especially "Apt Pupil". Renfro had a talent that recalled actors like a young Al Pacino, a mid-career Jack Nicholson and a latter-day Dennis Hopper.

He also reflected the intensity of another tragic young actor, River Phoenix. The comparisons between the two will surely appear as critics and writers take stock of Renfro's brief career and unfulfilled promise, but Phoenix and Renfro shared more than simply an unhealthy love of unhealthy toxins. They were actors who were able to grasp all sorts of emotional, physical and psychological motivations and cast them on a screen that made you forget how young they really were. Watch Phoenix transform from an angsty pre-teen to a worldly middle-aged man in "My Own Private Idaho" with very little actual aging. Similarly, Renfro mutates from a wide-eyed, inquisitive school kid to a shifty, calculating manipulator of people in "Apt Pupil," all over the course of one summer. In both cases you forget that these actors are really just kids -- Phoenix was 20, 21 years old at the time of "Idaho," and Renfro was 16 in "Apt Pupil" -- and not an aged adult or a steely war criminal.

Renfro was in Pittsburgh in 2004 during the shooting of "10th & Wolf," a movie that might well be his last picture. He was part of a stellar cast -- Hopper, Val Kilmer, James Marsden, Giovanni Ribisi and Piper Perabo among them. It's a gangster/revenge movie, co-written and directed by Bobby Moresco, who was fresh off of co-writing "Crash" with Paul Haggis, and at the time they were shooting the movie it was fairly obvious that the plot (something about a couple of brothers in too deep with the mob trying to right some wrong) was rather retread and if it ever got released it wouldn't do much at the box office. The marquee talent infused in the movie wasn't going to be enough to elevate it above its cinematic station. This is before Moresco won the Academy Award with Haggis for writing "Crash," but that win didn't help the movie, either. "10th & Wolf" ultimately went direct-to-video, was seen by a handful of people, and summarily forgotten.

By all accounts, though, "10th & Wolf" was the movie that was going to re-energize Renfro's flagging career. People involved with the movie were sure of it, and so was Renfro. When I interviewed him for a feature I was putting together for Whirl Magazine, he was enthusiastic not only about the role (he thought it would get him some kind of Oscar attention) but also about what the role meant for his future.

The feature that ran in Whirl, "Action! Scenes from the Set of 10th & Wolf", used only a fraction of my interview with Renfro. In light of his passing, I thought I might publish the complete transcript here. When I first met him, I was a little intimidated. He didn't seem all that pleased about doing an interview, and he was running a little late. But any trepidation I had fell away quickly as Renfro revealed himself to be gracious, humble and, frankly, cool. Of all the people I met and interviewed while on the set of "10th & Wolf," Renfro seemed the most honest, the most real. Perhaps this was a result of his excellent acting ability; maybe he was just putting on. I like to think, though, that when he acknowledged me on the set a few days later, saying hello and chatting a bit, he did so because he was a decent guy and not the stereotypical Hollywood phony. I think that decency is reflected in the interview below as much as his positivity for what his future held. Brad Renfro on the set of "10th & Wolf"

How did you get involved with this film?

They called me. And I read the script and I waited… Giovanni and I are with the same agency, so I waited until he said yeah—of course, it’s safer that way when you have a brilliant actor coming in.

What about the script attracted you to it?

First and foremost, as you may or may not know, my previous body work, there’s a lot of not-so-innocent characters. This was a great opportunity to be the innocent one. He’s the only one in the script that doesn’t cut someone’s throat in some way, you know—he doesn’t double cross anyone. That’s really what attracted me to it, aside from great script and brilliant cast. As soon as they locked, I said yeah; Vonni locked and I said yeah. Basically, I was attracted to Vincent because he’s the innocent one, and I really wanted to show my range. That is the one thing about me that I’m kind of proud of myself, I try to show a lot of range as an actor.

I’ve seen you in a few things. Not everything. But I’ve always been struck by how you can get yourself in a role and, you see your name in the credits, and you know it’s always going to be something different.

Thank you! Yeah, my little motto is, “If I don’t believe it, you won’t.” And within those realms, I try to branch out as far as possible.

Right. The one movie I associate you most with as an actor is "Apt Pupil." When I saw that, I was amazed at how you run the whole spectrum in one movie. And it’s great how you do it. That’s just the fan in me talking.

No thank you. I’m a fan of you. You’ve asked some pretty smart questions.

So you’re role is Vincent in the film. Can you talk a little about the character, what the film’s about…?

Exactly. It’s based on a non-fiction character, a kind of Mafia guy from Philadelphia named Skinny Joey, being portrayed by Giovanni Ribisi. And basically the backstory is we’re all three cousins. Well, actually, James Marsden and I are brothers and Giovanni is our cousin; James portraying Tommy. Tommy and Vincent’s father was killed when they were much younger, and when we come into the film Giovanni’s father was killed. And there’s these kind of local mobsters portrayed by a guy named Tony Luke and Dennis Hopper. And basically, Joey goes and avenges his father’s death and we go along with him and end up getting caught. And we get a choice—through the Mafia, we get a high priced lawyer—go into the military or serve three years in the pen. So of course, Joey and Vincent are like, “Give me the time, baby! I’ll do that standing on my head!” And Tommy goes to the military. So at the beginning of the movie, he’s pressed pretty hard by this FBI agent to go in and infiltrate and turn state’s evidence. That’s pretty much what’s going on. And there’s a whole big crazy rise to power with Joey; he starts getting all the routes and getting involved with the real Italian Mafia and he gets too big for his britches and that’s where I’ll leave you.

What does the title refer to?

10th and Wolf is a diner, it’s a corner, a street corner. And you know, I dig it ‘cause it’s safe. It doesn’t give a whole lot away, it’s not…

It is a really good title because, you think about it and you think, “OK, it’s probably a street, but it could be this or that.”

What is it? Wolfman? Is it werewolves or what?

(Laughs) Right.

It’s basically some guys running drugs. My character, he’s… don’t get me wrong, he’s not totally innocent, he just doesn’t know any better.

What’s the atmosphere been like on the set?

Amazing. I’ve made 25 movies the last 12 years. And by far, this is the first time I get driven to the set in a Lincoln. The first day of shooting, I come out of the hotel and I go to get into the 15 passenger van and this guy goes, “Brad I’m over here. This is your car Mr. Renfro.” And I go, “Oh, wait.” I’m thinking to myself, “Shit! Wow!” But I’m like, “Yeah, I knew that. I was just getting something out of the 15 passenger van.” No really, I haven’t met one asshole. I haven’t met one rude person. Everyone in the cast is amazing, and they’re so giving with each other. Bobby Moresco is a bad ass. He’s the type of director who hires the right person for the job so he doesn’t have to… and when he does come with a note, it’s right on. It’s always right on. He’s given me a lot of freedom to play with the role as an actor.

You always hear a lot of horror stories from actors in interviews and things like that that say, “Oh, the director wanted it this way.” But I guess he’s pretty freeing with you?

Right, yeah. Not only that. I speak for the rest of the actors—I can’t really call myself good, that would just be tacky—but we all seem to take direction really well.

What’s it been like to work with Dennis Hopper?

Dennis was only hear for about three days, but it was amazing. He’s just a living legend. And he did really well with the role. But he’s Hopper, you know? He’s a bad ass—a true bad ass.

In the three days he was here, did he give you any advice or pointers or anything to help you out along the way?

Most definitely in life. Lay off… don’t do drugs, basically. Got you Dennis. Learned that one the hard way.

You mentioned how this role is a sort-of diversion for you in the type of character you’re playing, but is it also something different for you working on a small film, or a smaller film like this?

This is actually one of the largest independents ever done. Considering I shot a film, Bully, for a million six, this is a big independent. For me.

Does it make it any different? Is the vibe any different?

We get more toys. We got the bells and whistles. There’s a scene where Joey shoots one of the guys who’s helping us run routes and blood just *poosh* goes all over Vincent’s face. And we literally had an itty-bitty blast cap, like a squib, shoot blood at me. Not only did he have an entrance and an exit wound, but the squibs … like all the bells and whistles. Don’t get me wrong, I love limitations. Limitations sometimes sprout genius. But it’s nice to have the motor home.

What do you think of Pittsburgh?

I’ve been in Los Angeles for two years. I was born and raised in Knoxville, Tenn., and I just moved out two years ago. I’ve been missing the East Coast so bad, maybe that’s what it is. I love Pittsburgh. Everything’s right there. Scenically beautiful, but all the perks of the city. Beautiful ballpark. And not only have I not met one butthole on the set, but even the locals, everyone’s great, but not in a starstruck sort of way. In a very interested, smart, artistic sort of way. We’ve got a lot of good movies to follow, that we’re following here. What, they shot "Silence of the Lambs" here. Gosh, what else?

"Wonder Boys" was shot here.

Right, "Wonder Boys."

"Bob Roberts," "Dogma."

"Dogma." There you go. Those are some bigwigs there. We’ve got to step up to the plate.

As far as the “locals” go, do a lot of people recognize you when you’re not filming and just out and about?

No. I kind of enjoy the fact that I can go out an enjoy a meal and not really get bothered. Maybe it’s because of diversity or what have you. Plus, the biggest movie I did was "The Client," as far as gross goes. "The Client" and "Sleepers." And I was a baby. I do alright.

You mentioned the ballpark. You went to a Pirate game?

Went to a Pirate game. Went for that double header the other day. And I got to go up to… The financier of the film [Jeffrey Tott], he’s got a bunch and bunch of land and I got to go up there and relax for a day. This guy’s yard is so pretty, they wanted to shoot "Gettysburg" in his back yard. Great, great guy. I got to go up there and relax. I’m number three on the call sheet; it’s an ensemble piece. But it’s great, I’ve got some time every once in a while.

Is this one of the best casts you’ve ever worked with?

Yeah. Yeah, I can say that. It’s funny because, like in "Sleepers," everyone just sort of relied on the other big wigs. But I just wasn’t hugely impressed. But here, everyone came to play some ball. Everyone is giving 110%, and I’m really proud of what we’re doing down here. I never know, and I won’t look at dailies…

Is that because of your acting process or…?

No no no. It’s not healthy to watch uncut footage as an actor because there is so much they can do in post that… But apparently, they’re saying I’m doing a good job and I feel god when I go home at night about the work we’re doing.

Well, from what I’ve seen of your work, I can’t imagine it being bad. But that’s just me.

You better stop. I’m a very humble kid. You’re going to give me a big head. Hey where’s that latte?!

Do you see yourself doing bigger things after this, or do you think you’ll stick to smaller films?

What that’s about is, when I was a teenager, there weren’t any studio films with good roles. You know, "Free Willy 3" and shit. Now, there’s a lot of studios making great movies. And I want to try to embark on that. At the same juncture, growing up in Knoxville was great and it kept me humble. My stuff does stink, you know? I’m very grateful. I don’t mean to push religion on anyone, but me and the god of my understanding are kicking butt right now. I’ve been playing in a band in Los Angeles for a year and a half; Frodad. And I did a cameo in a movie called "The Jacket" with Adrien Brody and Keira Knightley, and they bought one of my songs. I spent nine grand of my own money on the record—they bought the tune for ten. So I’m out of the whole. I’m just really happy. We’re getting radio play in the UK and this movie’s going amazing. I might be going straight from this to the next… I can’t really speak to it yet. I’d look like a real jackass if it didn’t happen; I haven’t signed anything yet. I couldn’t be happier with the way things are going nowadays.

That’s great. And do you think playing in the band will be something you do more of as time goes on?

I’ve been playing since I was six years old. I play guitar, banjo, mandolin, drums, bass, cello. My bowing’s pretty shitty, but I can sure thump one like a bass.

(AT THIS POINT GETS UP TO GRAB A DRINK)

Want something?

Oh, no thanks.

You sure? We got sodas, water…

Uh, I’ll have a water, sure.

There you go. It don’t cost you nothin’. (HANDS THE WATER) Here you go pal.

Thanks a lot.

Yeah, no problem. But yeah man, I’m stoked. I’m really stoked.

How much longer will you be in Pittsburgh?

The end of October.

Well, I think that’s all I have. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about? Anything at all?

No, I think that about covers it. (BEAT) For all the ladies out there, I’m single.

(Laughs)

(Laughs) I wanted to make you laugh.

Well, I guess that’s all I got.

Great, man. And if you have anything else, give her a call and rap it to me over the phone. I’ll be more than happy, man.

Great. Well it’s great talking to you.

The pleasure was mine, bro. And that’s a great interview, when it feels like you’re just rappin’ with somebody.

Yeah.

And I have to commend you for that, dude, because a lot of people are like, “So, uh, what’s your favorite color.”

Now you’re going to give me a big head.

There you go. It’s one of the smartest interviews I’ve ever given, thanks to you.

Oh, thanks. Well, this is one of the best interviews I’ve done, thanks to you, so…

Thank you.

Well, I hope everything goes well for you with the rest of this movie and the next project and the band…

Thanks, brother. Yeah, we’re called Frodad. Yeah, I’m stoked. Taking it one day at a time, of course. Oh, I got something. I moved out to LA and I’m renting a little duplex out there and I got my driver’s liscence. I bought a 1968 Dodge Monaco 500, you know, with the big 440 Magnum.

Awesome.

Yeah, and the thing about Los Angeles is no one has any road respect. But you have a 440 and they’re trying to cut you off, you don’t even have to move. You just go *car noise* They’ll let you go.

Well the one time I was in LA, that f’n freeway, man. My friend’s car is this little Honda and we’re trying to get through…

Impossible.

Yeah.

(Laughs) Dude, I love Pittsburgh. I have to be in LA for work. And, you know, California’s beautiful and all that blah blah blah *makes jerk off motion* stuff. But I’m really happy to be here.

Yeah, and the city’s really happy to have you here.

Yeah, everybody’s been great. Unfortunately, I don’t have that gift of holding things back (laughs) whether it’s for the press or not. I would probably tell you the truth if it weren’t going so well. But it’s been great.

Yeah, you know, I think people in Pittsburgh, even if you do have that, they can see right through that.

Most definitely. And you know what? I’m not that guy.

I think people here respect that a lot; that you’re straightforward and honest.

I’m a dude, man. I’m just a guy. You know, I’ve got more respect for literally… everyone has there place in life. There are so many kids out in LA who want to be an actor for the wrong reasons—they want to get famous and they want the money. I’m far from rich, bro, but I’m making something from acting. And for me, it’s no better or worse than… I’m the type of dude, if I go to a restaurant—and I get recognized in LA, they know who I am. A lot of times, I’ll see a family of six, and it’s obvious—the littler girl is just *makes pouting noises*--they’ve obviously been standing there for some time, and I’ll walk in and they’ll say, “Oh right this way Mr. Renfro.” And I’ll say, “Actually, they were here first.” I don’t want any perks—I get perks enough getting respect as an artist. And that’s what I want to keep. I think they’re making bigger, more studio-esque films with roles for me. I love independents, and I’ll still do an independent stab. But after this one, I hope it puts me at a level where I can do some bigger stuff. You know, maybe people can see what I’m about as an actor. Right now, only the really cool smart people are my fans.

(Laughs) But it would be really cool if more people could see what you can do.

No, I agree. I’m going to strive for that, for the people who’ve been there all along. “I told ya!”

(Laughs) Yeah, then they call you a bandwagon jumper or something.

Exactly. Bring the bandwagon on. We know the truth.

Well thanks so much. It was a pleasure talking to you.

I hope you get all your stuff done and everything and it goes well.

I hope everything goes well with you with the rest of the shoot.

I’m sure it will. I’m sure it will. I came to play. I came to knock one out of the park. Like, the Academy Awards means absolutely nothing to me, but it would make my grandmother really, really happy. And it would shut a lot of these people up, talking smack in the past. Pow. That’s what I’m going for; I’m going for the trophy.

You know, sooner or later it’s going to happen.

Ah, thank you, man.

Thank you.