I learned a lot from doing the film Tristan & Isolde. It was a big mistake. I was an overzealous young actor and wanted to make great movies. I read the script and wasn’t sure about it, but my acting teacher said it was a role that a young Brando or Olivier would do. I thought, “OK…I guess.”
I signed on to the project nine months in advance, and spent every day sword fighting in the backyard of my girlfriend at the time, Marla Sokoloff. I had martial-arts trainers and we’d make sword-fighting videos back there, and then I’d go over to Griffith Park and ride these Andalusian movie horses through the hills.
When I got out to Ireland to shoot, they said they had a new version of the script and all the Braveheart-style battle scenes were changed to stealthy murders. All the training I did was useless.
Midway through the shoot I was doing a scene and all of a sudden it felt like someone hit me on the side of my knee with a baseball bat. We just taped it up, but when they took the bandages off at the end of the day, my knee was three times its normal size.
At that point we were shooting in Prague, so they took me to this hospital there that looked like a subway station. I didn’t trust it. The doctor looked at it and said, “We need to operate immediately! It’s your ACL.” I was like, “Whoa, I need a second opinion.” We had three weeks left of filming and they drained my knee every other day, which was hell. Every morning, I’d go to this physical-therapy place and this woman would massage my leg, and I don’t know why, but she’d be playing the soundtrack to Twin Peaks over and over. We had to shut down production. I flew back to the States and got an arthroscopic operation—it was my patella, not the ACL like the Prague doctor said—and did physical therapy every day for two months. Six months after the main shooting had finished, a physical therapist ended up stitching up my knee, and I finally got through the action scenes.
The movie was produced by Ridley Scott, and he always said, “Kevin Reynolds is a visual director, the script is good, and he’ll deliver the movie.” But I think our personalities just didn’t jibe. [Kevin] had the idea that my character would be more jovial, and I thought he was tragic. He was like, “James, I need you to smile in this scene.” And I said, “No. My character has no reason to be happy.” He said, “James, you can’t keep playing James Dean,” and I replied, “Kevin, you can’t keep making Robin Hood.” That kind of summed up our troubles. Plus, Ridley was off shooting Kingdom of Heaven, so he didn’t help much.
The lesson was that I will never do a movie again that I don’t have a special feeling for. I know now that you feel it somewhere in your gut when you believe in a movie, and that’s why you should do it. Don’t do a movie you wouldn’t see or don’t believe in, because movies can be hell to make.
Stars as a slacker in the cult TV series Freaks and Geeks.
Earns rave reviews and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of James Dean.
Busts his knee while filming the medieval drama Tristan & Isolde.
Goes for the gory in 127 Hours and earns an Oscar nomination.
Releases pet project The Broken Tower, about the life of poet Hart Crane.
Interview by Marlow Stern.