Tom Waits

The singer adds two more movies to his repertoire

BY DAVID SHEFF | October 6, 1988 ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE

Tom Waits, you’ve made eleven albums, and now you’ve had roles in almost as many movies (‘Candy Mountain,’ ‘Paradise Alley,’ ‘Rumble Fish,’ ‘The Outsiders’, ‘The Cotton Club’, ‘Down by Law, ‘Ironweed’). Next spring, you’ll have a part in ‘Cold Feet,’ directed by Robert Dornhill and written by Tom McGuane, and on September 30th your concert movie, ‘Big Time’, will be released. What’s it like making the transition from being a musician to being an actor?
It’s like going from bootlegging to watch repair. Rumble Fish was like a fractured teenage opium dream. Francis [Ford Coppola] had all the actors out in the morning on a vacant lot doing tai chi. Then was Outsiders. I had one line: ”What is it you boys want?” I still have it down if they need me to go back and re-create the scene for any reason. For Cotton Club, I was in a tuxedo for, like, two and a half months.

In music, you write, perform and produce your own artistic vision. In movies, you are acting in someone else’s. Is that frustrating?
Yeah. You have to put your makeup on in the car and stay sober.

Does acting come naturally?
It’s a lot of work to try and be natural, like trying to catch a bullet in your teeth.

Did you ever dream of becoming an actor?
I dreamed about being a cat burglar or a spy or a Hell’s Angel or an inventor or a magician. Never an actor.

Was it intimidating to work with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep during the filming of ‘Ironweed’?
Yeah. Nicholson is really a diamond cutter. He’s a bank president and a bronc rider. He has a million stories; all of them are true. He’s a very generous actor, and he’s responsive, like a good musician.

How did you get the role of Rudy in that movie?
I have a red nose, and I had a toothbrush in one pocket, a sandwich in the other. I don’t know why I got it, but I’m glad I did.

Your latest film, ‘Big Time,’ is not a typical concert movie. What were you trying to do in it?                                                                                                                                                                     What we tried to avoid is having a concert film that felt like a stuffed bird. I tried to film it like a Mexican cockfight instead of air-conditioned concert footage. Some of it felt like it was shot through a safari rifle. You forget about the camera, which is what I was trying to do.

But when you see yourself in concert, it rarely looks like the way you feel when you’re up there. It’s shocking sometimes to see yourself up there. I thought I was much taller. I thought I looked like Robert Wagner.

Are you pleased with the results?
If we’d had more money, we could have done the Rangoon gladiator sequences. And the shot of the audience holding their matches up and all that. We could have gotten the underwater-ballet sequences, but it really would have been another film, I think. The band looks pretty good. Ralph [Carney, saxophonist] kind of looks a little Chinese; Greg [Cohen, bassist] looks like a border patrol; Michael [Blair, drummer] like he was on amyl nitrate; [guitarist Marc] Ribot looks rather demonic at times; Willie [Schwarz, accordionist] looks like he thought he was the only person onstage. Now that it’s completed, I would have not had my underwear coming out in the back of my pants like it did, but there’s always something you want to change after it’s over.

If you weren’t able to make a living as an artist, what would you do?
Try out for the Yankees. Go down the Amazon. Medicine, maybe. An evangelist I would hope that whatever I was doing, I could find something in it that I could dance to.

From The Archives Issue 536: October 6, 1988