INTERVIEW: Patrick Fischler On Happy!, Twin Peaks & More
Gabriel Ricard talks with the talented character actor about his prolific and varied career.
Patrick Fischler is a memorable actor. This isn’t just because he has a distinguishing, strikingly handsome face, ensuring he will always be one of those “Man, that guy looks familiar” actors or actresses. You can look to a long career in film and television, filled with one standout performance after another, as proof that Fischler is one of the most reliable names working today.
His appearances run a singular gamut, covering TV shows like Lost, Mad Men, and the new season of Twin Peaks. You can also find noteworthy performances in such films as Mulholland Drive, Dinner for Schmucks, and Hail, Caesar! He can show up in just about anything, and lend something intense, distinctive, and memorable to whatever might be going on. His penchant for characters who are intense, focused, and occasionally all-too-aware of their position in the world allows him to move seamlessly from one genre/filmmaker aesthetic/show to another.
For me, he will always be the actor in what might be the most disturbing scene in David Lynch’s canon. That’s just one example. In doing some research for this interview, I discovered his career and range are even more varied than I had previously thought. It was a fascinating honor to speak to Fischler on his lengthy resume, including his work on the upcoming SYFY series Happy!
Everything about Happy!, the new SYFY series I know you’re involved with, that I’ve read sounds pretty interesting. What can you tell us about it?
I’m in the main cast. There’s five of us. I’m a big part of what the journey is. It’s Chris Meloni, and Patton Oswalt is voicing the horse/unicorn imaginary friend. Then there’s a couple of others. I play Smoothie, who’s a doctor by trade. He sort of ends up working for the mob, torturing people for information. He…loves what he does (laughs). That’s all I can say.
You certainly seem to have a knack for playing very disciplined men.
Speaking of guest spots, the list of TV shows you’ve worked on is very, very long, and just as impressive. We’ll cover a few specific ones a little later on, but I was wondering if there was one in particular you seem to be associated with the most often. Would that be Lost? Mad Men?
I would say Mad Men, for sure, is the thing I’m associated with the most. What happens a lot now is that people will come up and I say “I love what you do” in a general way. But when I am associated with something specific, it’s Mad Men. Recently, depending on where I am, Once Upon a Time is so huge with a certain demographic. Like if I take my daughter to an amusement park, it’s a little hard to walk around, without people wanting photographs. But it’s really nice, and really flattering, when people recognize me like that. Those are the two main things, but it goes across a spectrum. Like Mulholland Drive is huge, huge thing I get recognized for.
Oh, definitely. I actually have a Mulholland Drive question for you. When I told people I was interviewing you, that movie was right at the top of the list for things people wanted to ask you about. You have the distinction of being a really big part of what a lot of people seem to feel is the scariest David Lynch scene ever.
I know! It’s very odd for me that that’s what it became. It wasn’t on anyone’s minds. I mean, I don’t know what was on David’s mind, but it was certainly not on mine. As years go on, and I get sent different things, and people want to talk to me about different stuff, they all talk about how scary that scene is. I remember shooting it, but it wasn’t our idea to do it that way. A lot of is the way David added sound, and the way he shot it.
Just the buildup, and the fact that you know something’s coming, but you don’t know what. Then it happens, and even in your wildest expectations, what happens isn’t what you were expecting. Your reaction is so minimalist, and it’s not big or showy. The way you react to it is part of what sells that scene for so many people, I think.
It was just a joy. David is such a master, and I really adore him as a director and a man. I think we as a society are really lucky to have him making films and television.
The new Twin Peaks is really going over well with people. You’re one of the standouts for a lot of people, I’ve noticed. How did you get involved with it? Did David Lynch just offer you a role? Was it based on your past work with him?
Yeah. It was a phone call from my agent saying “David Lynch wants you to be in Twin Peaks.” And I’m a HUGE fan of the original, so I was immediately like “Yeah, I’ll do it! What do you want me to do?” And all I got were the pages I was in, so I had no idea how I was going to factor into things, or even what was going to be happening in it. I just had to go along for the ride, and watch it like everyone else. I remember going to the premiere, and not knowing if I was going to be in the first episode, or the second episode, or the tenth episode. We weren’t told any of that. He just shot a big movie, and then edited it all together. I thought it was absolutely brilliant, and once again, not for everybody.
In my opinion, all of the greatest art in the world, film, television, music, all of it is best when it’s not for everybody. When something is made for everybody, I feel like it’s not as interesting. A lot of the work I’m the most excited about, proud about, is stuff that isn’t made for everybody. That’s what I felt about Twin Peaks. It was just a complete pleasure to see him (Lynch) again, to be in the same room as him, and to just be part of something so special.
Did you see the last episode?
Oh god, yeah! I mean, I loved it. I just loved it.
The ending was great. It was all great. I have such a special place in my heart for Twin Peaks. Even if I don’t know what’s going on, I just sort of let it wash over me. Like people will come up to me, and they’ll ask me what my scene in Mulholland Drive meant. And I always say “What do you think it meant?” And they’ll tell me, and I’ll say “That’s it.” Because in my opinion, you should decide for yourself. Don’t try to figure out what he wanted you to feel. Just decide for yourself, and that’s it. You’ll be good.
What was it like working with Jennifer Jason Leigh on Twin Peaks?
She and I really got so little to do together, since she just walks in and shoots me. But she’s lovely, and I did get to hang out with her a little bit. She had the same kind of relationship to the show, where she didn’t know exactly what her part was. I think a lot of us only saw our parts. I remember talking to her about that. She and I both laughed at the fact that we didn’t even know how we fit into this world!
She seems like someone who would be very intense, in terms of working with them.
Oh yeah, but in a great way. Not in a bad way.
No, no, of course not.
Totally intense, but just lovely. We were shooting it during Hateful Eight time. When that had come out, and she had just been nominated for the Oscar.
She had to be my favorite performance in that movie.
Oh yeah. Definitely.
Over the course of pretty much a single year, you appeared in two of the biggest TV shows of the past quarter century, Lost and Mad Men. I knew you had been working for many years at that point as an actor, but it seems like those TV shows really pushed you to the next level, in terms of recognition and depth of roles offered to you. Is that at all accurate? What was it like moving between two of the most popular TV shows in recent history?
It was incredible. I did Mad Men first. What was amazing about that year was, as a side note, the five Emmy nominees for Best Writing in a Television Series Drama were Lost and Mad Men. That was it. I think it was three for Lost, and two for Mad Men. So I went to this ceremony where they present these certificates to the writers, and I remember laughing because I had just been on both shows. I got up and presented to one of the writers from Mad Men. It was pretty incredible. That was a really great year. And both shows, before I got cast on them, I had been a really huge fan of. To be a part of both of those worlds was pretty spectacular.
Like I said, I did Mad Men first. Then a couple of months after that, right after the episode aired, I got Lost. I had to go to Hawaii, and my wife was pregnant, and they were amazing. They shot me out at the end. They changed stuff around to get me home. For a show like that, you can’t understand how spectacular it was that they would do that for me.
I really feel a part of television history. Both shows are just so well-acted, well-written, and well-directed. Everything about them is just so great. I’m a huge fan of television. I do a lot of TV shows, and I’m not really a fan of some of them, so I’ll just go and do my job, and that’s fine. But when you get to be part of something you’re a fan of, that’s pretty great.
Absolutely. But you also have quite a few movie credits, so I wanted to ask: Was the movie Speed really your first film credit?
Speed was my first movie credit. I had graduated from NYU, and moved back out to Los Angeles. I was like 23, and I had just gotten an agent. I had one line on some Susan Day TV show. My second job was Speed. I had no idea what it was. I knew who Keanu Reeves was, but no one really knew who Sandra Bullock was. Jan de Bont had never directed at that point. It wasn’t like I was getting something I knew was going to be huge. It was just an incredible experience. The stuff I’m in is the first 20 minutes on the elevator. I would go to FOX, where they were building these stages for the elevator. I was 23, and I just couldn’t believe any of it. The whole thing was so thrilling to a young actor.
And then, on top of that, the movie was not only pretty great, but it did really well. My friends and I went to opening night at Mann’s Chinese Theater, and we were like “Woah. This is awesome.”
Just blown away, huh?
Yeah, totally! And it holds up!
It does hold up really well. I actually watched it not too long ago. Dennis Hopper gives this really great maniacal performance. And he wasn’t even on drugs at that point! That’s the thing that always kind of scares me.
He was a really great actor.
And you’re still doing great movies. Last year, you popped up in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply. Talk about working with some legends. Did you audition for both of those films? Were you just offered parts?
I was offered Rules Don’t Apply, and I auditioned for Hail, Caesar! That was pretty exciting for me. I have a small list of directors I want to work with, and those guys were on it. I didn’t even have a lot to do, but to just be in the room with those guys is pretty thrilling. So I did the audition, and I got to meet them, and it was pretty great.
I do remember you in Hail, Caesar really well. You don’t tend to get a ton of screen time with movie parts, but you always make the most of what you get. You always make a really strong impression. It’s the same thing with Rules Don’t Apply for me, which is saying a lot, considering how many big names Warren Beatty got for that.
At this point, my thinking is that if it’s someone I really want to work with, and there aren’t going to be a lot of chances to do that, I’ll do it. Every job I get offered, and I’ll be totally frank, but my two considerations are “How much does it pay” or “Who’s involved?” and it’s gotta be one of the two. So if I have nothing to really do, but it’s paying a lot of money, I’ve got a kid to put through school, you know? Or if it’s something where I’m not getting paid a lot of money, but I get to sit with someone like Warren Beatty for a day, then yeah, I’ll do it (laughs). That’s sort of been my thinking as I’ve gotten older.
I just feel like I remember reading about Beatty working on a Howard Hughes movie like a decade ago, and thinking that he was just never gonna get it done, but he did.
Yeah, he’s pretty persistent.
I read a book called Hollywood Hellraisers, and there’s a whole thing in there about him.
Oh yeah? What’s it about?
It’s this follow-up to a book called Hellraisers, which was about people like Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole. And this one was about guys from Hollywood from that same era, so like Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, and Warren Beatty. And with Beatty, you just had this guy who broke through the Hollywood studio system of that time through sheer force of will. So it doesn’t surprise me that you would say he’s so persistent.
Just from an actor’s standpoint, I have to imagine that would be really exciting to be around.
For sure. There aren’t a lot of legends anymore. I did a small part in Something’s Gotta Give years ago, so I got to be in the room with Jack Nicholson, and Diane Keaton, who I just think is one of our greatest actors. I think she’s absolutely brilliant. It’s fun to meet these people.
When I did research for this interview, I remembered you from Something’s Gotta Give. You’re just really, really prolific. You appear in so many things, particularly on television, that I would imagine some of your performances kind of fly under the radar. Without making you toot your own horn too much, is there anything you’ve done recently that you personally were really proud of? I would imagine certain performances get more attention from audiences than others.
That’s a really good question. You got me on something no one’s asked before (note: before the interview, I joked with Patrick that I didn’t think I’d be able to give him a question no one had ever asked him before). You know, not really. For the most part, the things people notice are the things I’m the most proud of. Even with something recurring where I thought I was really good, like Suits or Shameless, people really love and notice me in those. Most of the stuff I do gets scene.
I did Black Dahlia years ago. This is kind of different from what you’re asking me, but I do wish my performance and that movie had been better. I remember shooting that, and I was really excited because I was a huge fan of (Brian) De Palma, and I was a fan of the book. I thought it was going to be incredible. Ultimately, I don’t think it came together, and I don’t think I was as good in it as I could have been.
I don’t think I’ve seen that since it came out. I have to admit though, I’m not a really big De Palma fan.
Oh, 70s De Palma is great.
Oh yeah, definitely. Blow Out is good. I just rewatched Carrie recently, and that’s still great. Early De Palma was good. Everything right up to about The Untouchables.
Yep! That was it!
As someone who has been working in television since 1990, I would have to imagine the landscape is quite a bit different between then and now. In terms of variety and quality, would you say television is better, worse, or about the same than when you started out?
Oh god, better. Not even a question! Better, better, better! Back when I started, I felt like movies were better, and now I feel like TV is better. There are still incredible movies, and I think it’s important that we never stop going to the movies, even though people do. But oh god, I love television, and there are so many options now, so it’s really exciting.
Over the course of my research, I came across a YouTube channel called PatrickFischlerCares. Is that yours? I have to admit, the piano shirt video made me laugh pretty hard.
Yeah, that’s some guy, right? This guy contacted me on Twitter years ago, and said he was a big fan, and that he wanted to do this tribute to me. People told him he looked like me. He’s jumping on a trampoline in one. I have to admit I don’t really understand it. He’s a very nice guy, but I hardly know him.
Okay, yeah, because I thought it could be you, but I wasn’t entirely sure. I didn’t spend a lot of time with it. I didn’t think it was creepy or anything, but it was definitely a little odd.
Oh yeah, no, not creepy at all. He’s not even remotely creepy. I just didn’t really understand it.
You and your wife, actress Lauren Bowles, collaborated together on a short film a couple of years ago called The Test. I have to admit that I haven’t seen it, although it sounds really interesting. Are you guys planning on a follow-up anytime soon?
No, we did The Test so many years ago. We’re always so busy. I made a film that she’s in that I produced, co-wrote, and star in that’s called Her Last Will. I think it’s on Amazon now, but Lifetime bought it. Basically, some production company gave us like five dollars, and we were able to make the movie. It’s my kind of tribute to old-school Hitchcock thrillers. You want to open a bottle of wine and watch it. It’s fun, it’s silly. I think it’s got some great plot twists, but it’s not to be taken seriously. She had a small part in that. We’re just so busy, so it’s hard, but we’re always developing stuff. We’re always trying to do our own thing, which is so important at this point.
Beyond Happy!, what else are you working on?
We just wrapped on Happy!, so I’m going back to New York to do publicity. Happy! is my life right now, and I’m a Happy! devotee. I love this show so much, and I really want everyone to watch it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s probably going to be the most insane show that’s ever been on television, which is saying a lot. So I’m just lost in that, and I hope it gets picked up for a second season. Right now, beyond that, I’m just taking the rest of the year off, so I can spend some time with my daughter.
That sounds pretty good. I’m really looking forward to Happy!
Yeah, give it a shot! It’s not gonna be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it is your cup of tea, you’re really going to love it.