I’ve made so many mistakes. But it is my feeling that you learn from failures, so I welcome them as often as I can.
My favorite mistake occurred when I was 17. I was running for the elevator at my high school when the door shut on my arm. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the hospital. I had fainted, fallen on my face, and knocked out my two front teeth, so I spent a week in the hospital getting tests on my heart and brain. Everything appeared normal.
While I was in the hospital, the only teacher who visited me was my Latin teacher, who was named Mr. Rogers, of all names. I always thought he didn’t like me, but he came and sat by my hospital bed. He told me, “You know, you don’t have to come back to school so soon.” But I was captain of the basketball team and we were midseason. I didn’t know what he was talking about and wanted to get back as fast as I could.
Then about 10 years later when I was just starting out as an actor, I wasn’t working. One movie I remember wanting really badly and not getting was White Men Can’t Jump, which I auditioned for by playing basketball. I felt like I blew it by walking away from academia and that I should still be doing that instead of going on all these auditions and not getting them.
I couldn’t process what was happening and at one point just fell to my knees and realized that I was overworking myself. I needed to take a step back and breathe a little. Part of being an actor is letting things come about organically as opposed to forcing them.
The incident with Mr. Rogers has always remained an odd moment in my life where I went “Aha!” and just stopped trying to work myself so hard. There’s a great Latin motto, Festina lente, which means “Make haste slowly.” That was the motto he was trying to impart to me. By the time I learned that, Mr. Rogers had died from AIDS and I didn’t have a chance to say, “Hey, I finally get it.” That lesson became the kernel of my directorial debut, House of D, which is about getting advice before you can process it. You want to return once it ripens and thank the person who gave it to you, but by then it’s too late.
When I say I understand Mr. Rogers’s advice, it doesn’t always mean I heed it. One way I think I’ve incorporated those words in my work is the sense of relaxation I have. Every day I try to do breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga. These things sound awfully cliché, but they help me slow down and try to point to a truth.
If you’ve experienced moments of letting go, mistakes happen, but in this business there’s a fine line between trying hard and letting go. My favorite parts of work as an actor and a director are those unplanned mistakes that do happen, because it’s like catching lightning in a bottle. It’s the best part of what we do.
Interview By Marlow Stern
Gets into an elevator mishap, receives sage advice from his Latin teacher.
Becomes frustrated as a struggling actor and remembers his teacher’s advice.
Begins starring in the breakout sci-fi TV series The X-Files.
Wins a Golden Globe (his second) for the role of Hank Moody on Californication.
Portrays a wise man in the indie comedy Goats, in theaters Aug. 10.