- Hotel Montgomery, San Jose, CA - Sat, March 11, 2006
Currently best known as the sometimes agitated father figure in That 70s Show, and previously for some much more harder-edged characters such as the drug czar in Robocop, Kurtwood Smith has been gracing screens both big and small for over 20 years. If there is one thing to say about Kurtwood and his characterizations, that would be memorable. He has the looks, and the stylings of a person you dont soon get out of your mind. There are many actors who have graced the screens who can be tough guys, but Kurtwood seems to capture edginess in his own unique way.
What many fans may not know as readily, is that Kurtwood started out in theater in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area, during and after attending Santa Clara University. He has performed in Shakespeare troupes for a number of years in addition to his screen appearances.
We met up with Kurtwood Smith right after his press meetings at 16th Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, CA. He was on hand to help promote his latest film Hard Scrambled, an edgy (would it be anything less?) film about losers who try to cheat each other for ownership of a down and out diner on the wrong side of town, when the real owner has a mishap. As we begin with our chat, we start off with Kurtwoods beginnings in northern California.
K2K: I didnt realize that you were from this area [San Jose]. Where did you originally do theater?
KS: Well, I wasnt born here, but I came here to go to college. I went to San Jose State. I got my B.A. at San Jose State. Actually, I took my first acting class there, but then I left to go to College of San Mateo. Then I came back and did my last two years at [San Jose] State, but also worked on shows at Santa Clara University. I was in theater... I started in Santa Clara, and then went to Los Gatos. First it was California Shakespeare Festival, and then later it was California Repertory Theater. We were out there in the 1970s.
K2K Are you a purist? Do you prefer doing theater or film? Celluloid vs film?
KS: (laughs) Ive done... for the last 25 years, Ive mostly done film and TV. I really miss the rehearsal process of theater. Theres something to be said for film and television as well. And they are different. Situation comedies, four-camera set-ups are quite different from doing... you know, theres a little bit of a blend because in those kinds of sit-coms you have an audience. To say which I prefer, either one. It depends. It depends on the question. For one thing, it depends on what youre doing. Its nice to make money. You dont make much money in theater. And its nice to work with audiences, so its great to work in theater. But its also, one of those things... You get more time to build your performances in theater. But on film, you have that possibility that once you do a performance, you have it and its done and you dont have to go out there and repeat it. So they all have theyre...
K2K: Certain actors whom Ive met like to talk about the purity of going back to theater. Other actors like to do motion pictures.
KS: You see what I mean? I understand what youre saying...
K2K: To each his own though.
KS: Exactly. I wouldnt call theater more pure than film or television acting-wise. To them I think it is because thats where they started, so they see it that way. Performance-wise, I dont think that a performance in any of those instances is any more pure than the other. When youre dealing with film, theres much more of a feeling of getting your performance to a more perfect moment than you can in theater.
K2K: What would your ultimate film or performance be, if you could choose something that would define you to work on in your craft?
KS: (groans) I dont know.
K2K: More of a thriller, comedy, or...
KS: Yeah, I know what youre asking. I dont have an answer for that. It has more to do with looking for something thats good and works for me. Ill know it when I see it. I wouldnt want to start off by saying, I want to do a thriller and... I want to play a police detective... and I want him to be a little bit younger than I am... but I want him to be a vegetarian too, because I think that vegetarians are overlooked, especially in police procedural dramas. So I dont have something like that. But, if I saw that, I might say, Hey, I like this part. This is great. Especially the vegetarian aspect. Im being silly, but I dont really have one of those things.
K2K: So right now youre out pursuing whatever comes your way?
KS: No, mainly Im poking around the house and refinishing the house and stuff like that.
K2K: And gardening?
KS: No. Im watching the gardeners though. We have a lot of stuff to do around there. Ive been really doing that. And reading some scripts.
K2K: Any personal favorite film of yours that got you into the industry because of something you saw when you were younger?
KS: Oh, so many movies from the 1970s.
K2K: Its not going to be Citizen Kane or something like that?
KS: No, not Citizen Kane. No, no, no. You know what movie I remember that influenced me the most, that impressed me the most, I should say... Its a movie called Red River with John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Brennan. Great old film. That was the first, sort of, adult movie that registered with me and I thought, Thats great. But then, all those terrific... As an artist, I would look at all those great movies from the 1970s. The Coppola movies, Scorsese films, those Jack Nicholson movies. Last Detail and all those great films. The Woodward / Bernstein movie, All The Presidents Men. They all had great performances. They were good films that were about something.
K2K: Since you mentioned 1970s movies. Are you familiar with rock star Rob Zombie? He did the films House Of 1,000 Corpses and Devils Rejects. Of course, his genre is horror, but his purpose was to bring back some of that 1970s feel and look to films, which is missing today. Those films were much more raw. He was going for that look and feel in characterization. Is that also what you miss in films today?
KS: No, you know what it is, in terms of the movies that Im mentioning... Those were all relatively big movies. But they were big movies... For instance, if you look at movies that were just nominated for the Oscars, they were all good movies. What was great about them? They were all movies that were about something, that had something to say. They were all independent movies that studios somehow ended up slapping their name on them in the end. But they were all independent films. In the 70s, big studios, big production companies were doing big movies that were about something. Now the big movies are about nothing. Theyre about sheer entertainment. They dont have anything to say. There are movies, and youll see that the Academy chose those movies to honor, but as far as the big movies that are out there, thats whats missing.
K2K: Do you think that independent films are now kicking Hollywood in the ass to get back into gear?
KS: Well, I dont know. It could very well be that Hollywood just doesnt give a damn. Their bottom line is money. You can look at some of those films that are highly touted movies that still arent doing huge business at the box office. So Hollywood is likely to say, See? Were Gulf Western. This is what we do. We make money. We dont make art. If you want to make art, go over there.
K2K: Any words of advice for upcoming actors?
KS: Oh... find something else to do. No. Patience and persistence. Thats all.
And with that, Kurtwood had a previous engagement, as did we. A quick anecdote to add is that later the next day, at the Cinequest Awards ceremony, we all stayed to watch the final film showing, which was Water. Just before the film started, Kurtwood had to go outside for a moment. As he walked past, I inquired if he was leaving and not watching the film. He responded jokingly, Nah! I hate movies. and walked past. Of course he returned shortly thereafter. When meeting Kurtwood, it is advisable to pay attention to his words and manner, as you may never know when that side comment is coming your way. Deadpan is the key.
- Written by Philip Anderson / Photo © 2006 W. Keith Denison
- Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.