What makes Canadian-born actor Elias Koteas so fascinating, is that he doesn’t like to play it safe. In his latest film the vampiric Let Me In, he plays the policeman who discovers the true nature of the mysterious 12-year-old killer Abby (Chloë Moretz) and pays for it. In the process, he shows a humanity that's needed to charge this dark and chilly film.
This 51-year-old handles gritty roles full of dark and light mixtures from the auto/erotic-obsessed Vaughan in David Cronenberg's Crash to the stalwart Captain James Staros in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line.
Though Koteas first got known by playing Casey Jones in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies he moved onto a number of genre films such as as the horror thriller Skinwalkers (2006), David Fincher's Zodiac, Shooter (both released in 2007), the Denzel Washington starrer Fallen (as the demon-possessed serial killer Edgar Reese) and as the priest-turned-detective Thomas Daggett in The Prophecy -- which also starred Christopher Walken, Viggo Mortensen, Eric Stoltz and Virginia Madsen (with whom he appeared in The Haunting in Connecticut).
But he's done lighter fare as well, appearing in John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful and in Disney's golfer bio-pic The Greatest Game Ever Played. He's also done a ton of television series guesting on CSI: NY, The Sopranos and House, in which he plays a man who shoots Dr. Gregory House.
Born in Montreal, Quebec, to his Greek mechanic father and milliner mother,. Koteas is tri-lingual. He left Canada in '81 for New York City's American Academy of Dramatic Arts and later, the Actors' Studio where he studied under Ellen Burstyn and Peter Masterson. While at the AADA, Koteas was in the school's production of The Devils adapted by John Whiting from thecontroversial Aldous Huxley novel, marking a provocative start to his career.
Q: You’ve done such amazing extreme characters that push the envelope or live in an envelope-pushing place, whether it's in a film like Crash or Prisoner. How do you so lose yourself in these characters that sometimes the viewer doesn’t even realize it’s you?
EK: I can’t believe you saw Prisoner. I don’t know what to say other than thank you.
Q: What makes you fascinating as an actor is that you don’t like to play it safe. What's your process of inhabiting these arch characters?
EK: There’s no rhyme or reason; for better or for worse, these jobs, they find me. I like to think that. Sometimes you develop a relationship with them, and sometimes the character pitches a tent outside your front door and doesn’t leave unless you invite him in. It sounds hokey, but I don’t know what to say about it, you know what I mean? You try to give as much of yourself as you can to each role.
Q: Look at the policeman you play in Let Me In. You have to make it appear that an extreme situation is slowly revealed to him, and that he's being blown away. Literally. What did you do to make that work for you?
EK: When I first read [a script] there are odd things that happen. You never really know what it is that’s going to set you off or set you on the track to where you need to go with this thing. For some reason Abraham Lincoln came into my life. I read voraciously about Lincoln; what that has anything to do with the movie I don’t know.
Other than that it allowed me to somehow think about the higher nature in man and somehow the compasionate qualities in people and to see both sides of something and to bear witness. It’s odd to try to make that connection, but my life at the time was going through a lot of changes. Then how do I make it personal? How do I make the part relevant without being obvious?
Somehow he felt like a ghost to me, like somebody who was in a room observing, bearing witness. Then at the same time you spend a lot of time alone. Your life somehow dictates that, and if you’re open and sensitive, one feeds the other. And the atmosphere and arena that director Matt Reeves created sort of allowed you to be open, vulnerable and to explore different ways about playing this guy.
I didn’t really know how; I didn’t have any preconceptions other than I felt it needed to have a sort of compassionate tone. Then with a hope and a prayer, you dive off, and hope for the best. It’s always a crap shoot; you never really know what’s going to happen on that day.
Q: Your role in Let Me In is an important one, if secondary, to the two kids.
EK: I feel so blessed that I’m able to do this. Then you work with these two children, and after all these years of my so-called experience, having been on stage and gone through it, To this day, I still feel like, if I got another job it would feel like I have no experience at all. It’s starting over, and I’m beside myself, hoping that I asked the right questions in order to get the ball rolling.
So the toughest part is getting up in the morning and actually showing up. That’s the scariest part of the film for me. But then you show up and you work with these two children who are so unaffected, so incredibly phenomenal. They’re so pure that it’s just humbling to be in their presence. You have a lot of kids at that age who aren’t able to reflect back what they see, but here are these kids just so soulful.
There’s almost something divine about it that as an actor I look at that and go to myself, "Oh my god! As an actor that what I pray for: to be as affecting and as moving as these kids are capable of being." So in their presence, I don’t know anything about acting.
Q: You're also in a segment of Eric Mendelsson's 3 Backyards which screened at The Hamptons Film Festival last week -- a really wonderful film with three separate stories that are interwoven in one way or another. No one story dominates and nor does any one overwhelm the others, so it’s more about the film as a whole.
EK: It was a great two weeks of guerilla film-making with people who are really passionate about what they do. Ultimately, it’s a crapshoot whether it comes together in a meaningful, affecting way, but the journey of making [a film like that] that and being entrusted in that [performance] was what I remember. There was a lot of kindness on that set.
It’s a small film [which won an award at Sundance where it debuted] and got a little bit of [exposure] in New York [at the New Directors/New Films] in the spring. I’m very proud of it. I’ll be curious to see what your thoughts are [about it]. I haven’t seen the [completed] picture but I’ve heard that it’s kind of like an everyman [story], and if I can tap into that, that’s the toughest part, in relation to what you just said, where you could just be almost everyman in a situation.
Now It’s just doing the festival thing and I think this spring it might play some more dates in New York.
Q: Sometimes, you have this slightly deranged streak, and yet at the same time, a sympathetic quality. With Vaughan in Crash, he has to be somehow sympathetic to show how he draws them in to his little cult -- that was one reason that it got you so much attention for that role.
EK: That part to me was a metaphor for love and for making the connection. And it doesn’t make sense, but I saw it from a young boy’s perspective with wonderment. Everything that he did was with a sense of wonderment; I haven’t thought about it in 16 years, but that’s what I recall from it. If you leave yourself open to just making discoveries without any sort of preconception then anything can happen.
Q: You’ve done such a range of films. One of the through lines seems to be that you often understand characters who are either pushed to an edge or stand at an edge. Do you feel that’s true?
EK: You know what, I don’t know, man. It’s really in the eye of the beholder. I’m living my life the best way I know how -- try to be curious about things and open, and work through my own neurosis and fears and hopes. And somehow, for some reason that’s beyond me, they translate that way on screen. So where that comes from I don’t really know. I don’t know what it is. I wish I had a better answer.
Q: In capturing the duality of darkness and light, you're in some ways a successor to what Robert De Niro is able to do.
EK: You flatter me putting me in that company. He’s certainly somebody that I admired during my studies and during my career. In response to that I just feel like I haven’t even started yet, so I feel with your thoughtful words and kind words that maybe in my life I’m opening up that ways that would invite different experiences, different roles.
I don’t even know how to explain it; all I know is that I’ve barely begun. It feels that way. I feel like a late bloomer even though I’ve done 70 movies. I just feel like I’m just getting started. It feels that way. So if you can compare me to an actor like that then you flatter me. I should be so lucky.
Q: Reflecting on your career, which roles were linchpins for you?
EK: You want me to think about the roles that I’ve played and how they’ve had some kind of effect on me?
Q: Your relationship with Atom Egoyan -- being in Exotica as well as other of his films The Adjuster and Ararat, -- has been very important. You had to have extreme talent to be able to play that character in that very tough film. Was that a critical role for you, and maybe a chance to make something of a statement?
EK: A lot of these roles that I feel like I’ve had some sort of impact, or that have had an effect on me, have always been with directors who have the time to somehow get to know me. Any good director’s going to be curious about who it is that’s coming aboard. Because of lack of time a lot of directors hope that you just have the character in your pocket and you just show up and do it. and controversial production. Egoyan is very intuitive and he was very inclusive about getting to know you and hanging out.
That breeds an environment that allows you to be open and to sort of explore and to trust. David Cronenberg just left me alone. I kind of somehow knew the role for some reason, and it was just all about finding your light. The whole experience with Crash was I felt like I was in a state of grace. I felt that we were making discoveries as the camera was rolling, and that was very exhilarating.
The Thin Red Line was an experience where, again, the director would get to know you and push you in a way that it’s a tough act to follow. Most directors don’t know -- they don’t really know what questions to ask and how to inspire you. I feel like I’m at my best when there’s a relationship with a director, and you feel safe and that you can fall on your face and make mistakes. I could go on.
Q: Your ability to give yourself to each of those situations allows you to go from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Shutter Island. You’ve worked with directors like David Fincher and Martin Scorsese who are known for a degree of meticulousness. What do you think they find in you that works with this meticulousness?
EK: With David Fincher first of all, it’s just a blessing that he would see me as the color that he would invite along to help him tell the story. That’s just the luck of the draw. You know people, you’ve done enough work, and you know the right people who would get in touch with you and put you in his line of sight.
And so there you are, and you’re scared and nervous and this and that. I consider him like a big pillow. Like if you’re going to be nervous on that day, scared out of your wits, you know you’re going to be there, and you’re going to work through the scene until it happens.
That to me was like a comfort know that you’re not going to move on; you’re going to do it 20, 30, 40 takes, whatever it takes, to make it happen. And he’s such a brilliant filmmaker and storyteller; you could just let it go and just try to do your part and you’ll be taken care of.
With Marty Scorsese, oddly enough I felt like I was home, and I don’t really know how else to describe it. The whole experience of making that film was like going to church almost. It was a very quiet set and then suddenly there you are with all this makeup and everything stops, everything’s in slow motion. There’s Mr. Scorsese and there’s the set and the cinematographer. It’s a little surreal.
You’re plucked out of your own life, and then suddenly you’re thrown into this situation and you’re asked, “Okay, what are you going to do?” I don’t really know how to articulate the adrenaline that is shooting through you at this moment, but somehow you have to remember your whole life has prepared you for this one specific moment, that you are here, you are where you have to be. And Marty Scorsese was just so open to trying a lot of different things, any fear that you have is your own, and he’s there to help you along.
Q: You’ve done two films with David Fincher, so obviously you have some understanding of him. Have you seen his latest?
EK: Social Network? No, I’m going to. It looks pretty interesting.
Q: He’s becoming heralded on a level he didn’t get with Zodiac or even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. What’s the secret of working with him?
EK: I wish I knew. He is an incredibly bright guy, very visual. He knows what he wants. It’s all about rhythm in the scene...He’s very thoughtful and open, but like any creative person, it doesn’t have to be the most comfortable, and sometimes it’s very frustrating.
It’s a lot of different things, so some days it can be very difficult, and some days he might not even know what he wants. But that’s all part of the process, so you’ve got to be willing to go through it.
At the end of the day what’s up on that screen is what’s important. I’m so happy for him because I remember when Zodiac came out, it [was the] beginning of the year [but despite] glowing reviews somehow at the end of the year it was like, “Zodiac what?” There wasn’t any sort of acknowledgment, and I thought to myself, What’s at work here? But then it goes beyond that. The guy is able to make his films, and he’s able to tell a story, and the fact that he’s as prolific as he is these past few years is awesome. He’s got a lot to say and he’s just getting started, and I look forward to seeing anything that he does. It’s poetry.
Q: You’ve been in films, sometimes in a critical role or as a supporting figure who understands isolation and alienation, and you deal with directors who show the dark side of humanity, like Michael Winterbottom with The Killer Inside Me, or with James Gray, showing that crazy side in Two Lovers. What is it that you get about these characters? Are you slightly crazy?
EK: I don’t really know…It’s all instinctual…it’s really my makeup I guess, and in some way I’m able to find a voice within my own struggles with why I’m here and what my purpose is and what my conflicts are within myself and family and relationships; whatever it is.
I have an idea of what my own personal demons are, and somehow the more aware I am of those maybe perhaps the work will get even more honest -- and perhaps get close to what those children were doing -- at the tender age of 75. Maybe then I’ll be able to figure it out.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?
EK: I don’t know. It was like overnight almost. I was watching Rich Man, Poor Man with my mom, and I was deeply affected by that series for some reason. Nick Nolte’s character blew my mind. There was something about his character that somehow, I don’t know, as a 10-year-old, as a 15-year-old, whatever I was at the time, what I saw in it -- the idea of affecting people. Like I sat and watched after his character was killed; I was crying, I was weeping, I was inconsolable. Somehow there was something about that that wanted me to do that and affect people that way, make them see their own mind.
At the time I didn’t know that; at the time I was more like, Let’s pretend. Let’s make you forget about your life. Let’s entertain you for a while. Let’s tell a good story. You want to be affecting, you want to be doing scenes where when somebody’s watching it they’re not just saying, “Oh wow, what a wonderful scene,” and then go off and have a sandwich. In some way you want to open the door to the view in their own hearts, their own life. To touch someone and make them see themselves perhaps.
Q: But you were able to get outside of yourself.
EK: A lot of times I don’t watch anything that I’m in because I’m going to nitpick it to death or I don’t see it behind the eyes or I could have made that choice or they could have done this. So I don’t even bother. And the fact that I’m able to watch – I saw Let Me In three times in one week, and each time I saw it everybody got better and I got worse. It’s tough, man. I mean Ritchie Coster as the teacher, he was lovely. He had a limited amount of time.
Q: Whom would you like to work with again?
EK: Atom Egoyan, obviously, and David Cronenberg, I would be back there. I’d like to say Terrence Malick because of the arena that he creates and the poetry of his films, but for better or for worse I’m always Captain Staros to him, and I don’t know if he’ll ever see me in any other aspect. And that’s not an indictment; it’s just the way it sometimes is.
Q: You can proudly say you’ve been in both a werewolf and a vampire movie. You’ve covered two of the great iconic…
EK: I grew up watching these guys, man. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, later Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing -- they were my idols as a kid. The outward monster, but then inside there’s this conflict, this battle with one’s good and bad side. Somebody outside looking in, trying to belong, being a freak.
Maybe that has something to do with the kid that was sitting in front of a TV late at night. Maybe I should have been supervised, maybe I shouldn’t have been allowed to watch TV, like endlessly watching horror films. I’m sure that had some sort of weird affect on how I look at the world and how I look at myself in this world.
Q: You've been in ghost stories, played a priest, been in a vampire movie, been in a werewolf film. But I haven’t seen you as a space captain. You’d be the perfect captain of some ship in space dealing with the dark and light sides of encountering aliens.
EK: I don’t mean to be glib but do I have to wear like tight, spandex uniforms? As long as I don’t have to do that then I’ll be okay. I’m taking the question seriously. Hey, you know what, if it’s a good story out there in space. Can you image being out there light years away from earth? Can you imagine what it was like being in that capsule going around and round the moon? You’re just by yourself.