I meet actor Michael Rispoli in Burbank, California, at Robano’s, an insider-y atmospheric Italian eatery. It looks and smells like a joint on New York’s Mulberry Street—not like somewhere in L.A.’s suburban sprawl. In fact, it’s run by a few “knockaround guys,” originally from back east. They’re street characters so colorful and authentic, that the studios nearby would be challenged to cast actors as convincing as them.
The New York-born Rispoli has drawn upon these types of guys—mobsters and the grizzled cops who chase them—in movies like Kick-Ass and Rounders, and shows like The Sopranos and the upcoming Starz drama, Magic City. But if you take a deeper look into Rispoli’s filmography, you’ll find a diverse gallery of wiry eccentrics. None more so than in his latest role opposite Johnny Depp in the Hunter S. Thompson Adaptation The Rum Diary. Rispoli plays Bob Sala, a colleague/friend/drinking buddy to Depp’s Paul Kemp. “The movie takes place when Hunter S. Thompson is finding his voice as a writer,” said Rispoli. “Going on this journey is one of the things that’s special about this film.” The voice of the waiter momentarily breaks our conversation as he asks what we’d like to drink. Rispoli orders two glasses of rum for us, which seems appropriate, to say the least.
When you were on your way up as an actor, who had a positive influence on your career?
I’ve been lucky to come in contact with people during my career who have a generosity of spirit. At the beginning, my acting teachers were a positive influence on me. John Malkovich gave me my first job out of school. He was directing an off-Broadway play called Balm in Gilead and needed understudies. Jacqueline Brookes, who was one of my teachers at Circle in the Square, recommended me for an audition. Even if I didn’t get hired, I wanted to do a great audition just for her for believing in me. Whether you’re worthy of that belief or not, you want to show that person that they made the right decision. I got a call the day after I auditioned saying that Malkovich wanted me to be an understudy. The great thing was that I eventually did Rounders with him a few years later.
You have a long list of credits behind you. What was the first film role where people took notice of you?
I got my first movie role in Household Saints in 1992. But the first film that people took notice of me was While You Were Sleeping starring Sandra Bullock. I played a goofball Italian guy—a character that was quite lovable. That movie came out in 1995 and I still get recognized from it today.
You played a lot of cops and mobsters earlier in your career. Were you ever worried about being typecast?
You have to be typecast in order to work at the beginning of your career. Sure, I played cops and crooks mostly. But in my head, I knew there were many roles that I could play. After While You Were Sleeping, they wanted to see me as an Italian goofball. After The Juror, they wanted to see me for mobster roles. It’s the way of the business. So when a lead part in an independent film comes along like Two Family House that went on to win Sundance, I sunk my teeth into it.
You’ve appeared onscreen opposite some of the most talented leading men and women—Sandra Bullock, Nicolas Cage, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, among others. Has being a character actor been rewarding to you personally?
I love being a character actor. Take a look at all of the actors opposite Henry Fonda in the movie 12 Angry Men. All of them were tremendous character actors like Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, and E.G. Marshall. They came from the stage and the studio system. Back then, some even came out of vaudeville. It’s so hard to find a cast like that and they all are so important to the film. That has inspired me to be the best character actor I can be.
How did the part of Sala come to your attention?
Denise Chamian was the casting director on The Weather Man starring Nicolas Cage. She didn’t cast me as a cop or a crook in that film. Denise saw me as something different, which is what you really hope for. A few years later, she was casting The Rum Diary and wanted to bring me in for the role of Sala. I read the book and the script and I auditioned on tape in New York. A week later, they called and said the director Bruce Robinson really liked me and wanted to meet me in person. I had a great dinner with Bruce in Los Angeles. A few weeks went by as they went through the rest of the casting process. Then they called, asking me to fly out to LA to meet Johnny Depp.
Bruce, Johnny, and I sat down in an office suite and started talking. We eventually spoke about silent film and I told him a cool story about Buster Keaton, which loosened things up. Afterwards, I went back to my hotel and Bruce said he was going to pick me up for dinner. I got into his car and he asked me what I thought of Johnny. “He’s terrific,” I responded. “It was great to meet him, but more importantly what did he think of me?” Bruce said, “Well, I should be getting a call by the time we get to the restaurant.” The waiter poured me wine and as I tipped my glass and started to say, “Bruce, whatever happens—” he cut me off and said, “You got the part.” “Get the fuck out of here! Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. He said, “I wanted to make sure you had something to toast with before I told you.” Bruce was my champion on this film and I will never forget it. Anything he asked me to do on that set, I did it.
What was it like working with Depp?
I think Johnny is one of the great talents of our time. He is so versatile and a tremendous force as an actor. I got to know him and I learned about his other talents as a painter and musician as well. I’m not intimidated or starstuck by people. I do recognize achievement, and Johnny deserves all of the accolades that he gets because he has achieved so much on his talent and his drive. It was also great to see him work every day. Everyone on Johnny’s team was a gentleman and a gentlewoman. They helped everybody on the set and did it with a smile.
There was a lot of time between Depp’s performance as Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and this film. How did this movie come about?
Johnny was very good friends with Hunter S. Thompson. He was doing research for Fear and Loathing at Hunter’s house and pulled out a manuscript for the book The Rum Dairy. Hunter wrote it in the early ‘60s and it was never published. Johnny told me that they sat on the floor and started reading it. He thought it was fantastic and it needed to get published. From that point on, Johnny was determined to get this made. It was eventually published, but Hunter of course died before the film was made.
Tell me about your character Sala.
Bruce had to adapt the book into a screenplay and in doing so he combined some of the characters. Sala is in the book and he’s a part of all of the hijinks that go on. Bruce combined him with another character. Sala is a photographer at the fledgling newspaper that Paul Kemp gets a job at in Puerto Rico. It’s a tumultuous time labor-wise there and a turning point in Puerto Rican history. Kemp moves in with my character and we just drink a lot of rum and I complain a lot. We go on a lot of high adventures. But, in the end, Kemp finds his voice as a writer. This story is the origin of Hunter S. Thompson blowing apart the American dream with his pen.
Rum was like another character in the movie. Any hijinks off-screen involving the rum?
Absolutely. Puerto Rico is a gorgeous paradise of an island. The people were wonderful and embraced the movie with great excitement. The nights were sultry and balmy with a beautiful breeze and you had a glass of rum in your hand most of the time. We had a lot of fun filming and a lot when we weren’t filming. The rum was always right near by. I am not telling people to become alcoholics, but have a little rum before you see this movie. Afterward, you’ll want to have two more glasses.
How was it to work with Amber Heard?
First of all, she’s a beauty inside and out. And her talent matches her beauty. She went toe-to-toe with Johnny Depp throughout this film and it’s very impressive. There are going to be many more fantastic things from her in the future.
Tell me about the new drama series Magic City that you’re a part of.
The show’s creator Mitch Glazer is truly one of the good guys in Hollywood. He’s a terrific writer, and when I read the script, I loved it from page one onward. It centers around a luxurious hotel in 1959 Miami Beach. The world of glitz and glamour that Mitch has created truly seduces you—long-legged bathing beauties, big fin cars, and a Jewish mob element, which my character is a part of. It’s a world that you wish you were in and I think people are going to love it.
If you met Hunter S. Thompson, what would you like to say to him?
I would tell him that he has a great friend in Johnny Depp.