Titus Welliver may be known to Lost fans as the ominous “Man in Black,” and to others for tough-faced parts in Supernatural, Grimm, Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy, and Ben Affleck-directed movies Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now Argo, but in Gus Van Sant’s new film Promised Land, he plays a regular guy store owner, a refreshing change for Welliver.
The movie, starring and co-written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, has shone a spotlight on the continued debate surrounding hydraulic fracking – an environmentally controversial method of extracting natural gas from the ground that has prompted energy companies to buy drilling rights in rural towns such as the one at the heart of the movie. Damon plays Steve, a company guy who arrives in the small farming town with his co-worker Sue (Frances McDormand) to get landowners to sign off drilling rights to their land. Welliver plays Rob, the owner of an aptly-named local store called Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas, who strikes up a flirtation with Sue, and is less overtly direct about his own stance on fracking.
Welliver, though, is very clear. He’s anti-fracking, but also sees the movie as a Frank Capra-esque look at the human relationships involved, more than politics. As well, in the midst of promoting the movie, the gravel-voiced actor has been dealing with the devastating loss of his wife, producer Elizabeth W. Alexander, who died from complications due to breast cancer in October. Now a single father to their 6-year-old daughter, and two sons from a previous relationship, Welliver spoke to EW frankly and emotionally about Alexander, her firm belief in him being involved in Promised Land even while she was sick, about the controversy over fracking, and working with both Damon and Affleck, hopefully for years to come.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I am so sorry to hear about the death of your wife. She sounds like an amazing woman.
TITUS WELLIVER: She passed away a few months ago of breast cancer. I had just gotten cast in Promised Land, when she was really sick. I told her, “I won’t do this movie. I’ll go to Switzerland,” where she was being treated. She told me, “No, it’s important you do this film.” The entire time I was shooting the film, she was in Switzerland. I got incredible support from Matt and John and Gus. She was starting to show some enormous progress. She came back and was doing well, and then she wasn’t. She was 52-years-old and the love of my life. The movie has a particular weight for me. It’s a tribute when I saw the film. It’s a tribute to her. What a gift in a way she gave me. It was such an incredible experience to work with Matt and Gus.
How has it been for you, promoting the film but also dealing with such a profound loss, and being a single dad to your daughter?
I look at my daughter, who’s going to be 7 at the end of this month. She hasn’t missed a day of school. I see a child private about her mourning process. She hasn’t had a cathartic cry. She definitely understands sadness. My daughter lived with my wife being ill since she was 2.
Did you go to the premiere of the movie?
Going to the premiere of Promised Land, and sitting through that film, was difficult. My wife was right on every level about the film. For her not to be able to see the finished product, it hit hard. Both Matt and John, they were surprised when I showed up. I had been kind of hunkered down. I emerged with this wild beard and long hair. I had been focused on taking care of my daughter. That was my first outing. They created this blanket of warmth around me, but in a very subtle way. I haven’t seen Matt or John since the night of the screening. I’ve been getting circuitous information through friends. I’ve been in a news blackout.
What’s your take on fracking, with heated debate about it from both sides, and the movie prompting even more debate?
I’m anti fracking, but I see the movie as a Capra-esque film. It’s kind of like It’s A Wonderful Life, about people in real life situations. You get to take this journey with Matt’s character, and see him do an about face. His acting is so nuanced and lovely. Even when he’s pushing the agenda of the fracking thing, he’s so full of truth. So when he comes to the place of saying, “I can’t do this anymore,” you want to stand up in your chair like Rocky. The issue of fracking is a stick in the hornet’s nest. Even though it’s a film about people and personal growth, it’s dealing with something that’s a big battle in this country. I have a friend who really came at me very very hard. She said, “My husband can’t believe you’re doing this movie.” I said, “Knowing my political leanings, are you surprised?” I have a home in upstate Connecticut, and Mark Ruffalo is a good friend of mine and has been putting a lot of energy to make sure this doesn’t happen. I feel like there’s a lot of negative evidence, and not enough positive evidence to sway me to say this is a safe and viable position. I am in complete agreement that our dependency on foreign oil has made us very weak. There have to be more viable, safer ways of fueling our necessity to travel and transport our fuel.
Compare the fracking controversy surrounding Promised Land to Argo, in which you play CIA’s Jon Bates. That movie is also very political, but based on the true story of a mission to get six U.S. Embassy employees out of Iran.
There’s the part that wants to entertain and the part that wants to educate, and sometimes it gets murky in the middle. With Argo, a lot of people didn’t know that story, and it’s a compelling great adventure, but I remember when that happened. One of my classmates in boarding school was shot out of a cannon in Iran and sent to the United States for fear he would be killed. Just to see how people viewed him, being Iranian. It was on our TV every single night. With big business and politicians trying to get hydro fracking pushed through, they’re going to take the position that Hollywood is a crazy, leftist leaning borderline Marxist world. That we live in this kind of glazed over state “we don’t really understand.”
Did you, Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon and John Krasinski discuss potential pushback to Promised Land from fracking companies while actually filming?
There were some comments passed, “This going to piss some people off, this is going to light a fire.” With Argo, you felt that history was there, there was the accuracy, it was after the fact. Whereas this, with Promised Land, felt like, “We’re making a movie about human relationships and the human condition, that people have great capacity for change.” Even people who seem ultimately intractable. It only takes a small bit of information for people to stop and change course. This felt like making a movie in your basement, because of the warmth and the absolute generosity of people doing it. With Gus Van Sant, he inspires someone to do well without saying anything. In a kind of Marxist way, everyone is trying to help each other out and do well on the film. When I read the script, I thought, “It’s such a good tight script.” There was not a voice in my head saying, “Keep focused on what you’re doing. This is REALLY a film about hydro fracking.” You knew the weight was there.
You play a kind of regular Joe in Promised Land, a shift from all these gritty tough guy roles both in TV and movies you’ve taken on for years. In Supernatural, seasons back, you were great as “War,” one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Then of course as the “Man in Black” on Lost.
It was such a nice departure for me, with Promised Land, that he was a guy that was just a guy. He’s bright. I embrace all those characters. I’ve played my share on knock-around guys. It was nice to be an open, regular guy who wasn’t putting anyone in handcuffs or threatening to break anyone’s arms or turning into black smoke. Originally there was a romantic involvement, with Fran. I like that they pulled away from it. Fran and I had such a nice chemistry. When Rob says to her, “I’m not going to be able to make the vote.” His agenda is to facilitate. There’s a passivity in the end result. That was interesting to me. He doesn’t really take a hard position of this is good and this is bad, with fracking. What’s clear is he’s intelligent, and knows the pros and cons. He’s just kind of being a go-to guy and takes the position ultimately at the end, the same position that Matt takes, that “I can’t support this” because it’s a short term gain.
What kind of work have you been doing following your wife’s death, and Promised Land? It must have been hard to get back to work.
I went back and shot a movie called Poker Night. I was terrified. I didn’t know how I would fit. It’s not like I was on the edge of insanity. For the first time in my career, since my daughter was born, I had a nanny come with me. We shot in Canada. Across from me was Ron Eldard, Giancarlo Esposito, and Ron Perlman, and I realized, I’ll be fine. It turned out to be a very good re-entry into the work world. When we were doing it, the Newton school tragedy happened. I got in the car with the driver going to work, and he started telling me about it. I’m not an ostrich, but I told him, “I don’t want to hear that and have those images in my head.” I’m the kind of person, because I have three children, if something comes on the television that relates to that, a child being harmed, I turn it off. I don’t want those images in my head. I pray for the enormity of that loss that one can never recover from.
You’ve now worked with both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and on all three feature films Affleck has directed. Plan to continue to streak?
I would hope so. I jokingly said to him, “I’m your rabbit foot, and the only way your films are so successful is that you continuously use me.” I feel really blessed that I’ve been able to be a part of that and watch his growth. I would put forth the challenge to look at Gone Baby Gone as more than just by a first-time director. Ben is an inordinately bright guy and such an observer. Every director he’s worked with who is worth a damn he’s absorbed. He has an enormous encyclopedic knowledge of film. I would be less than truthful if I said I didn’t want to be in every movie he directs. I think Ben’s not even in his stride yet. Out of all the directors I’ve worked with, he is honestly the best director I’ve worked with. He’s a good friend. He’s a real actor’s director. If I did a film with him every two years, I would be a very happy actor. Likewise, I look forward to working with Matt and John again. I had very little stuff to do with Matt in Promised Land. I look forward to having more screen time with him. He’s like Ben. He has a great great big brain, and incredible generosity of spirit, just huge. Sometimes that’s few and far between.
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MOVIE REVIEW Promised Land (2013)