Interview with Michael Moriarty
I have long been a big fan of Larry Cohen's films and also the B & Cult Movies made by him, William Lustig, James Glickenhaus, Frank Henenlotter and more in New York in the 70s & 80s. When I first saw Q The Winged Serpent, I was absolutely taken a-back, enthralled and amazed both by the film but also by one of the central performances. Namely, Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn. I was so blown away by it, I immediately wrote this article here.
Recently, Jim Wallace (my co-host on The After Movie Diner Podcast) and I reviewed The Stuff. Another Larry Cohen film in which, at the center of it, there is an incredible and captivating Michael Moriarty performance.
It was therefor my pleasure to interview the man himself recently via e-mail. Below is the transcript of our conversation.
- Hello Michael, Thanks so much for agreeing to answer a few questions on working with Larry Cohen, Q & The Stuff.
Michael Moriarty: Glad to oblige.
- Our readers will love it as they are big fans of your work in those films particularly.
What first got you interested in acting?
MM: My father’s poor opinion of my musical talents. He owned, I believe, one of the biggest and best record collections in all of Detroit, Michigan. Both classical and jazz. I was exposed to the best of music long before I even knew anything about the theater or film. From infancy to the day my father left home during my parents divorce, I heard the greatest soloists from Arthur Rubenstein to Art Tatum, and the greatest ensembles in the world, from the Boston and the Philadelphia orchestras to the Oscar Peterson Trio and the Miles Davis Quintet.
Music has always been my first love.
However, when I did my first public reading of a play as Macduff’s son in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and learned that my father, by comparison to his knowledge of music, knew very little about the theater and film?!
Acting became my choice.
I couldn’t be bullied out of it by my father.
- Because of your musical talent was that something you added to the character of Jimmy Quinn in Q: The Winged Serpent or was it already in the script?
MM: Yes, Larry had heard my recording of “Evil Dream” and wanted to use it as part of his sound track. I gave him permission and I winged a bit of it in the bar scene where my character meets David Carradine for the first time.
- Are there any other roles where your musical talent has come in handy?
MM: My whole acting technique is based upon a singer’s approach more than that of an actor. Yes, I’ve read all the classic books on acting techniques, particularly those of Constantin Stanislavski However, in the end, for both my acting and my work as a teacher of acting, It is more of a singer’s technique based upon breath awareness.
- Before you worked on Q: The Winged Serpent did you have any interest in B movies/genre films/stories?
MM: No. My own agent at the time begged me not to do a B movie horror film!
I liked the role!! I knew I could hit a home run with Jimmy Quinn in Q.
- Was Q: The Winged Serpent the first time you came in contact with Larry Cohen?
- You've collaborated with Cohen on 4 separate occasions, what makes him a unique director?
MM: His stand-up comedian’s sense of humor. As Mary Poppins says, “It helps the medicine go down”!
- Larry Cohen has made his career primarily as a writer but his films, especially your great performances in Q and The Stuff, can have a naturalistic, improvised vibe in some scenes. Is that yours and the other actors input or Larry's?
MM: Mostly Larry’s but he’ll use new ideas if he likes them. He likes to “wing” it a lot! It’s one of the keys to his success with low budgets.
He really is a performer himself. Not only stand-up comedy but impressions! A divine Ed Wynn!!!! Almost better than Ed Wynn himself! When I’d get tired from the long hours, Larry would pull out his Ed Wynn impression and I was good for at least another hour.
Ah, the regenerative powers of smiles and laughter!
- Is he precious about the words or are they just a guideline once he gets on set?
MM: No, to answer your question, Larry is not "precious" or a perfectionist about anything. He just knows when something is entertaining and when it is not!
- Your characters and performances in Q and The Stuff are very different but also equally fascinating and captivating, how did you approach the formation of each character?
MM: For Q and Jimmy Quinn, I immediately thought, The Bowery Boys! A mixture of Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey. It just felt right and Larry loved it!
We both went with my idea of Jimmy and we both went with it all the way! Nothing was too big or over the top for us.
"Huntz Gorcey" is faced with The World of Larry Cohen!!
- In Q how was it working with David Carradine and Richard Roundtree?
MM: I had one of the best film-making times of my life. Not only because of the laughs we were sharing but the lovely chemistry I felt working with Richard Roundtree and David Carradine!!
David was, I thought, perfect for his role. Don’t think any other actor could have been any better than David was in that role.
- In The Stuff you got to work with Garrett Morris and Paul Sorvino, how was that experience?
MM: It was never quite the high I’d experienced with my first Larry Cohen film but some moments in shooting it were heaven. If I remember correctly, Larry made up my favorite line of the film right there on the set: “Know why they call me ‘Mo’?! Cause every time they give me money… I always want ‘Mo’!”
Larry came up with that line because I came in with a Southern accent. That’s when a line like that fit my idea to a “t”!
He later said he preferred my New York accent as Jimmy Quinn but I felt those two characters, Rutherford and Quinn, weren’t at all alike.
Plus I’m not a leading man. I’m a character actor.
Always have been.
I’m still surprised I did as well as I did as a leading man in the television series Law and Order.
- In The Stuff it felt like you and Garrett Morris both had great timing, performance and were able to improvise as your characters, was he fun to play off because of his comedy background?
All went very smoothly between myself and both Garrett Morris and Paul Sorvino. All three of us had our improvisational moments and, of course, Garrett was a most enjoyable lesson in comic timing.
- Are you surprised that after all these years films like Q, The Stuff and The It's Alive Trilogy are so fondly remembered?
MM: Of course! And I enjoy being part of a “Film Cult”. Nice and distinctive addition to a pretty good acting career.
- Did you think they'd be the films that the fans would embrace?
MM: With Q I didn’t care really! I just knew I could knock it, as they say, “outta the park!”
- How was it coming back to a Larry Cohen production with your Masters of Horror appearance in Pick Me Up?
MM: In retrospect, I think that experience put me closer to the “Horror” in “Horror Film” than I ever wanted to be.
- Can you elaborate on that? was it a budget thing?
MM: No. Money had nothing to do with it. It was my role. That character was a most revolting human being.
- Were you excited to work with Larry again for Pick Me Up? did he ask for you to do the role specifically?
MM: Yes, I enjoyed it as a trip down memory lane. The role, however, aside from my routine buying cigarettes, was hardly a favorite of mine.
- Had you guys stayed in touch?
MM: Not really.
- One of my readers in our Facebook group wanted to know about Hitler meets Christ, where the idea came from and what compelled you to write it.
MM: I thought that philosophically a “two-hander”, just two actors in two roles, Christ and The Devil, might be an interesting and nicely entertaining but low-budget debate to record. I wrote it, performed it all by myself as both roles in a public reading in New York, which Elie Wiesel attended, and he said, quite admiringly, that I would, in the end, be more well-known as a writer than as an actor.
I found the funding here in Canada and we filmed it!
It went nowhere but I’m still proud of the script.
- Thanks so much Michael for your answers and your time